An Overview of the Buddhist Scriptures

from Richard H. Robinson and Willard L Johnson,
The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction, Fourth Edition


To render Sanskrit and Pali terms in this overview, the following code has been used:

  • A double vowel (aa, ii, uu) stands for the corresponding single vowel with a macron over it.
  • A consonant followed by a period (such as t., d., n.) stands for the corresponding consonant with a retroflex dot under it.

A. The Pali Canon: The Tipit.aka ("Three Baskets")

I. Vinaya-pit.aka ("Basket of Discipline")

1. Sutta-vibhanga ("Analysis of the Text")--the rules of the Paat.imokkha codes with explanations and commentary.

a. Mahaavibhanga ("Great Analysis")--the 227 rules for monks.
b. Bhikkhun.ii-vibhanga ("Nuns' Analysis")--the 310 rules for nuns.

2. Khandhaka ("Groupings")

a. Mahaavagga ("Great Chapter")--rules for ordination, Observance Day, rainy-season retreat, clothing, food, medicine, and procedures of the Sangha.
b. Cullavagga ("Lesser Chapter")--judicial procedures, miscellaneous rules, ordination and instruction of nuns, history of the First and Second Councils.

3. Parivaara ("Appendix")--summaries and classifications of the rules. This is a late supplement.

II. Sutta-pit.aka ("Basket of Discourses")

1. Diigha-nikaaya ("Collection of Long Discourses")--34 suttas.
2. Majjhima-nikaaya ("Collection of Medium Discourses")--152 suttas.
3. Sam.yutta-nikaaya ("Collection of Connected Discourses")--56 groups of suttas.
4. Anguttara-nikaaya ("Collection of Item-more Discourses")--more than 2,300 suttas grouped by the number of factors in their topics.
5. Khuddaka-nikaaya ("Collection of Little Texts")

a. Khuddaka-paat.ha ("Little Readings")--a breviary.
b. Dhammapada ("Verses on Dharma")--423 verses in 26 chapters.
c. Udaana ("Utterances")--80 exalted pronouncements of the Buddha, with circumstantial tales.
d. Itivuttaka ("Thus-saids")--112 short suttas.
e. Sutta-nipaata ("Collection of Suttas")--short suttas, mostly in verse of high poetic quality.
f. Vimaana-vatthu ("Tales of Heavenly Mansions")--gods tell the deeds that earned them celestial rebirths.
g. Peta-vatthu ("Tales of Ghosts")--how various persons attained that unfortunate rebirth.
h. Thera-gaathaa ("Verses of the Elders")--stanzas attributed to 264 early monks.
i. Therii-gaathaa ("Verses of the Eldresses")--stanzas attributed to 73 early nuns.
j. Jaataka ("Lives")--tales ostensibly reporting the former lives of S'aakyamuni. The verses in each tale are supposed to have been uttered by the Buddha, and so are considered canonical; but the 547 tales themselves are extracanonical.
k. Niddesa ("Exposition")--verbal notes to part of the Sutta-nipaata. The Niddesa is second or third century C.E.
l. Pat.isambhidaa-magga ("The Way of Discrimination")--scholastic treatment of doctrinal topics.
m. Apadaana ("Stories")--lives and former lives of the saints.
n. ("Lineage of the Buddhas")--lives of 24 previous Buddhas, of S'aakyamuni, and of Maitreya, presented as being told by S'aakyamuni.
o. Cariya-pi.taka ("Basket of Conduct")--verse retellings of jaatakas illustrating the Bodhisattva's practice of the perfections.

III. Abhidhamma-pi.taka ("Basket of Scholasticism")

1. Dhamma-sangini ("Enumeration of Dharmas")
2. Vibhanga ("Analysis")--more on sets of dharmas.
3. Dhaatu-kathaa ("Discussion of Elements")
4. Puggala-pa˝˝atti ("Designation of Persons")--classifies types of individuals according to their spiritual traits and stages.
5. Kathaa-vatthu ("Subjects of Discussion")--arguments about theses in dispute among the Hiinayaana and early Mahaayaana schools.
6. Yamaka ("The Pairs")--arranged in pairs of questions; deals with distinctions among basic sets of categories.
7. Patthaana ("Conditional Relations")--24 kinds of causal relation and their almost infinite permutations.

B. The Chinese Canon: The Ta-ts'ang-ching ("Great Scripture-Store")

The first printed edition, produced in Szechuan in 972-983 C.E., consisted of 1,076 texts in 480 cases. The standard modern edition is the Taisho/ Shinshuu Daizo/kyo/ (Ta-ts'ang-ching newly edited in the Taisho/ reign-period). It was published in Tokyo, 1924-1929, and consists of 55 Western-style volumes containing 2,184 texts. A supplement consists of 45 volumes. The following analysis is of the Taisho/ edition.

I. AAgama Section, vol. 1-2, 151 texts. Contains the Long, Medium, Mixed (= Connected) and Item-more AAgamas (Nikaayas), plus some individual texts corresponding to parts of the Paali Khuddaka.
II. Story Section, vol. 3-4, 68 texts. Jaatakas, lives of various Buddhas, fables, and parables.
III. Praj˝aa-paaramitaa Section, vol. 5-8, 42 texts.
IV. Saddharma-pun.d.ariika Section, vol. 9, 16 texts. Three complete versions of the Lotus Suutra, plus some doctrinally cognate Suutras.
V. Avatam.saka Section, vol. 9-10, 31 texts.
VI. Ratnakuut.a Section, vol. 11-12, 64 texts. A set of 49 Mahaayaana Suutras, some in more than one translation.
VII. Mahaaparinirvaan.a Section, vol. 12, 23 texts. The Mahaayaana account of S'aakyamuni's last days and words.
VIII. Great Assembly Section, vol. 13, 28 texts. A collection beginning with the Great Assembly Suutra, which is itself a suite of Mahaayaana Suutras.
IX. Suutra-collection Section, vol. 14-17, 423 texts. A miscellany of Suutras, mostly Mahaayaana.
X. Tantra Section, vol. 18-21, 572 texts. Vajrayaana Suutras, Tantras, ritual manuals, and spells.
XI. Vinaya Section, vol. 22-24, 86 texts. Vinayas of the Mahiis'aasakas, Mahaasaanghikas, Dharmaguptakas, Sarvaastivaadins, and Muula-sarvaastivaadins. Also some texts on the Bodhisattva discipline.
XII. Commentaries on Suutras, vol. 24-26, 31 texts on AAgamas and on Mahaayaana Suutras, by Indian authors.
XIII. Abhidharma Section, vol. 26-29, 28 texts. Scholastic treatises of the Sarvaastivaadins, Dharmaguptakas, and Sautraantikas.
XIV. Maadhyamika Section, vol. 30, 15 texts.
XV. Yogaacaara Section, vol. 30-31, 49 texts.
XVI. Collection of Treatises, vol. 32, 65 texts. Works on logic, anthologies from the Suutras, and sundry treatises.
XVII. Commentaries on the Suutras, vol. 33-39, by Chinese authors.
XVIII. Commentaries on the Vinaya, vol. 40, by Chinese authors.
XIX. Commentaries on the S'aastras, vol. 40-44, by Chinese authors.
XX. Chinese Sectarian Writings, vol. 44-48.
XXI. History and Biography, vol. 49-52, 95 texts.
XXII. Encyclopedias and Dictionaries, vol. 53-54, 16 texts.
XXIII. Non-Buddhist Doctrines, vol. 54, 8 texts. Saam.khya, Vais'es.ika, Manichean, and Nestorian Christian writings.
XXIV. Catalogs, vol. 55, 40 texts. Successive catalogs of the Canon beginning with that of Seng-yu published in 515 C.E.

C. The Tibetan Canon

I. Bka'-'gyur (Kanjur) ("Translation of Buddha-word"). The number of volumes and order of sections differ slightly from edition to edition. The following is according to the Snar-thang (Narthang) version.

1 . Vinaya, 13 vols.
2. Praj˝aa-paaramitaa, 21 vols.
3. Avatam.saka, 6 vols.
4. Ratnakuut.a, 6 vols. A set of 49 Mahaayaana Suutras.
5. Suutra, 30 vols., 270 texts, three-quarters Mahaayaana Suutras and one-quarter Hiinayaana ones.
6. Tantra, 22 vols., over 300 texts.

II. Bstan-'gyur (Tenjur) ("Translation of Teachings"). In the Peking edition, this consists of 224 volumes and 3,626 texts, divided into:

1. Stotras (hymns of praise), 1 vol., 64 texts.
2. Commentaries on mantras, 86 vols., 3,055 texts.
3. Commentaries on Suutras, 137 vols., 567 texts.

a. Praj˝aa-paaramitaa commentaries, 16 vols.
b. Maadhyamika treatises, 17 vols.
c. Yogaacaara treatises, 29 vols.
d. Abhidharma, 8 vols.
e. Miscellaneous, 4 vols.
f. Vinaya Commentaries, 16 vols.
g. Tales and dramas, 4 vols.
h. Technical treatises: logic (21 vols.), grammar (1 vol.), lexicography and poetics (1 vol.), medicine (5 vols.), chemistry and sundry (1 vol.), supplement (old and recent translations, indices; 14 vols.).