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You are here : Home > Books > Theravada > Theravada Buddhism: General
Sayings of the Buddha
New Translations from the Pali Nikayas


Extract :
From the Introduction -

THE present volume, entitled Sayings of the Buddha, contains an anthology of ancient Buddhist texts translated from an ancient Indian language known today as Pali. These texts are referred to in Pali as suttas or 'well spoken utterances'. They have been selected from the Pali Nikayas, ancient collections of the Buddha's sayings. The Pali Nik„yas thus represent examples of Buddhist scriptures, and it might be tempting simply to characterize them as the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible or the Qur'an. And yet unlike, for example, Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism has a similarly strictly defined, closed 'canon' of scriptures universally accepted as uniquely authoritative by all those we would wish to call (or who would wish to be called) 'Hindu' or 'Buddhist'. Certainly Hinduism has the Vedas, but as a body of literature these have never been defined as strictly as the Bible or Qur'an. Moreover, for different groups of Hindus other collections of scriptures assume a greater significance than the Vedas.

As for Buddhism, we are faced with the existence of at least three canonical collections of Buddhist scriptures containing 'the word of the Buddha' (buddha-vacana): the Pali canon of 'Three Baskets' (Tipitaka); the Chinese 'Three Baskets' (San zeIng) or 'Great Treasury of Sutras' (DdzaIngjing); the Tibetan Kanjur or 'Translated word of the Buddha' (bKa' 'gyur). Each of these canons is authoritative for different traditions of Buddhism: the Pali canon for the Therav„da Buddhists of South and South-East Asia (the Buddhists of presentday Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos); the Chinese San zdng for East Asian Buddhists of China, Korea, and Japan; the Tibetan Kanjur for the Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia. While there is some overlap insofar as one canon might contain versions of certain scriptures contained in another canon, these versions are not straightforward translations into different languages, and it is not possible to identify a universally accepted common core. Moreover, while the Pali canon can be regarded as more or less fixed and closed by the fifth century CE, the Chinese and Tibetan canons have never been formally closed and there is no definitive final list of the works they contain. Certainly the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan Buddhist canons are all considerably greater in extent than the Christian Bible. The Pali canon comprises twenty-eight works, and printed editions usually fill in the region of forty-five volumes. The older catalogues of the Chinese canon list some 1,500 works, while the modern TaishŲ edition (1924-32) fills fifty-five volumes, each containing i,ooo pages of Chinese characters, with 2,184 separate works. Editions of the Tibetan canon comprise some 700-800 works in just over 100 volumes. In the case of the Chinese Buddhist canon especially, what we have is not so much a strictly defined canon of scriptures as a library containing all the Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts made over the centuries, as well as a variety of indigenous Chinese treatises relating to Buddhism.

What this means in sum is that the defining text or texts of Buddhism are not identifiable in the same way as they are for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: it is not entirely clear just what is the Buddhist equivalent to the Bible. The texts translated in the present volume are taken from the Pali canon of Buddhist scriptures. Does that mean they are Buddhist 'classics' only for the Theravada Buddhist tradition? Strictly the answer has to be 'yes', but in important and significant ways the texts translated here are classics of Buddhism as a whole. These texts, or versions of texts very like them written in different ancient Indian dialects and which survive today either only in Chinese translation or in fragments recovered from the sands and caves of Central Asia and modern-day Afghanistan, represent extracts from a body of literature that was authoritative for ancient Indian Buddhism more generally and is part of the common heritage of Buddhism today. To understand more clearly just how this is so, we must turn to the story of Buddhism's beginnings in ancient India.
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