11. The Buddhist Scriptures

QUESTION: Nearly all religions have some kind of holy writings or Bible. What is the Buddhist holy book?

ANSWER: The sacred book of Buddhism is called the Tipitaka. It is written in an ancient Indian language called Pali which is very close to the language that the Buddha himself spoke. The Tipitaka is a very large book. The English translation of it takes up nearly 40 volumes.

QUESTION: What does the name Tipitaka mean?

ANSWER: It is made up of two Pali words, ti means ‘three’ and pitaka means ‘basket’. The first part of the name refers to the fact that the Buddhist scriptures consist of three sections. The first section, called the Sutta Pitaka, contains all the Buddha’s discourses as well as some by his enlightened disciples. The type of material in the Sutta Pitaka is very diverse which allows it to communicate the truths that the Buddha taught to different types of people. Many of the Buddha’s discourses are in the form of sermons while others are in the form of dialogues. Other parts like the Dhammapada present the Buddha’s teachings through the medium of poetry. The Jatakas, to take another example, consist of delightful stories in which the main characters are often animals. The second section of the Tipitaka is the Vinaya Pitaka. This contains the rules and procedures for monks and nuns, advice on monastic administration and procedure and the early history of the monastic order. The last section is called the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This is a complex and sophisticated attempt to analyze and classify all the constituents that make up the individual. Although the Abhidhamma is somewhat later than the first two sections of the Tipitaka, it contains nothing that contradicts them.

Now for the word ‘pitaka‘. In ancient India construction workers used to move building materials from one place to another by means of a relay of baskets. They would put the baskets on their heads, walk some distance to the next worker, pass it to them, and he would repeat the process. Writing was known in the Buddha’s time but as a medium it was considered less reliable than the human memory. A book could rot in the monsoon damp or be eaten by white ants but a person’s memory could last as long as they lived. Consequently, monks and nuns committed all the Buddha’s teachings to memory and passed them on to each other just as construction workers passed earth and bricks to each other in baskets. This is why the three sections of the Buddhist scriptures are called baskets. After being preserved in this manner for several hundred years the Tipitaka was finally written down in about 100 BC in Sri Lanka although it might have been written down in India before that.

QUESTION: If the scriptures were preserved in memory for so long they must be very unreliable. Much of the Buddha’s teachings could have been lost or changed.

ANSWER: The preservation of the scriptures was a joint effort by the community of monks and nuns. They would meet together at regular intervals and chant parts or all of the Tipitaka. This made it virtually impossible for anything to be added or changed. Think of it like this. If a group of a hundred people know a song by heart and while they are all singing it one gets a verse wrong or tries to insert a new verse, what will happen? The sheer number of those who know the song correctly will prevent the odd one from making any changes. It is also important to remember that in those days there were no televisions, newspapers or advertising to distract and clutter the mind which, together with the fact that monks and nuns meditated, meant that they had extremely good memories. Even today, long after books have come into use, there are still monks who can recite the whole Tipitaka by heart. The monk Mengong Sayadaw of Burma is able to do this and he is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s best memory.

QUESTION: You mentioned Pali. What is that?

ANSWER: Pali is the name of the language that the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written in. No one is sure what language the Buddha spoke, but it is traditionally believed to have been Pali. If he did not speak this language, he probably spoke something very close to it. In fact, because he traveled and taught very widely, it is likely that the Buddha spoke several of the languages that were currant in northern India at that time.

QUESTION: How important are the scriptures to Buddhists?

ANSWER: Buddhists do not consider the Tipitaka to be a divine, infallible revelation from a god, every word of which they must believe. Rather, it is a record of the teaching of a great man that offers explanations, advice, guidance and encouragement, and which should read thoughtfully and respectfully. Our aim should be to understand what the Tipitaka teaches, not just believe it, and thus what the Buddha says should always be checked against our experience. You might say that the informed Buddhist’s attitude towards the scriptures is similar to a scientist’s attitude towards research papers in a scientific journal. One scientist conducts an experiment and then publishes his or her findings and conclusions in a journal. Other scientists will read the paper and treat it with respect but they will not consider it valid and authoritative until they have conducted the same experiment and got the same results.

QUESTION: Before you mentioned the Dhammapada. What is that?

ANSWER: The Dhammapada is one of the smallest works in the first sections of the Tipitaka. The name could be translated as ‘The Way of Truth’ or ‘Verses of Truth’. It consists of 423 verses, some pithy, some profound, some containing appealing similes, others of considerable beauty, all spoken by the Buddha. Consequently the Dhammapada is the most popular piece of Buddha literature. It has been translated into most major languages and is recognized as one of the masterpieces of world religious literature.

QUESTION: Someone told me that you should never put a copy of the scriptures on the floor or under your arm, but that it should be placed in a high place. Is this true?

ANSWER: Until recently in Buddhist countries as in medieval Europe, books were rare and valuable objects. Therefore, the scriptures were always treated with great respect and the customs you have just mentioned are examples of this. However, while customs and traditional practices are alright, most people today would agree that the best way to respect the Buddhist scriptures would be to practice the teachings they contain.

QUESTION: I find it difficult to read the Buddhist scriptures. They seem long, repetitious and boring.

ANSWER: When we open a religious scripture we expect to read words of exaltations, joy or praise that will uplift and inspire us. Consequently, someone reading the Buddhist scriptures is likely to be a bit disappointed. While some of the Buddha’s discourses contain considerable charm and beauty, most resemble philosophical thesis with definitions of terms, carefully reasoned arguments, detailed advice on conduct or meditation, and precisely stated truths. They are meant to appeal more to the intellect than to the emotions. When we stop comparing the Buddhist scriptures with those of other religions we will see that they have their own kind of beauty – the beauty of clarity, of depth and of wisdom.

QUESTION: I read that the Buddhist scriptures were originally written on the leaves of palm trees. Why was this done?

ANSWER: At the time the scriptures were written, paper had not been invented in India or Sri Lanka. Ordinary documents like letters, contracts, accounts and deeds were written either on animal skins, thin metal sheets or palm leaves. Buddhists didn’t like to use animal skins and writing the scriptures on metal sheets would have been both expensive and cumbersome and so palm leaves were used. After the leaves were specially prepared, they were bound together with string and put between two wooden covers making them convenient and durable, just like a modern book. When Buddhism came to China the scriptures were written on silk or paper. About 500 years later the need to produce many copies of the scriptures led to the invention of printing. The world’s oldest printed book is a Chinese translation of one of the Buddha’s discourses published in 828 CE.