Buddhism: Sacred Books and Symbols | 5


Sacred Books

The Buddha famously told his chief disciple, Ānanda,

that after his death, the Dharma he was leaving behind would continue to be the present teacher, the “guiding light,” to all future Buddhists,

a scene that establishes the paramount importance of sacred texts in Buddhism.

Tradition holds that during the first rainy-season retreat after the Buddha’s death, in 483 BCE., 500 of Buddha’s disciples gathered at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) –

- to agree the contents of the Dhamma and Vinaya and orally collected all of the Buddha’s teachings into 3 sets, or “three baskets” (Tripitaka; Pali, Tipiṭaka):

Ānanda recited the Suttas, usually beginning with: ‘Thus have I heard’.
The monk Upāli recited the Vinaya, the rules for the monks.

By about the end of the 1st century C.E., these oral texts were written down.
These 3 collections form the basis of the Buddhist canon.

The 1st collection of the Pali Tipiṭaka is the Sutta Pitaka, some 30 volumes of the Buddha’s discourses as well as various instructional and ritual texts.

The Vinaya Pitaka, or collection of monastic rules, includes the list of 227 rules for the monks (311 for nuns), called the Pāṭimokkha, and detailed accounts as to how and why they were developed.

The Vinaya also contains narratives of the Buddha’s life, rules for rituals, ordination instructions, and an extensive index of topics covered.

The 3rd group of texts is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, or collection of scholastic doctrines:

These are highly abstract, philosophical texts dealing with all manner of issues, particularly the minutiae that make up human experience.

The last of these texts, the Paṭṭhāna Abhidhamma, stretches for some 6,000 pages.

In addition to the fundamental texts of the Tipiṭaka,

each text also is accompanied by an extensive commentary, and often several sub-commentaries, that clarifies the grammatical and linguistic ambiguities of the text

and also extends the analysis, serving as a kind of reader’s (or listener’s) guide through the book’s sometimes confusing philosophical and ritual points.

With the rise of the Mahayana, new books were added to this basic canonical core, most of them composed in Sanskrit;

the tradition holds, however, that these were not new sacred texts but were the higher teachings of the Buddha himself that were set aside for a later revealing.

Perhaps the best known of these is the Lotus Sutra, composed probably around the turn of the first millennium, and also the Prajña-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts.

Additional texts continued to be added as the Mahayana schools developed in India.

As Buddhism branched out, these texts, and the earlier Tipiṭaka, were translated by Buddhist monks from both Tibet and China:

These translations sometimes led to further expansion of the canon, particularly in Tibet, where the rise of the Vajrayana (Tantric) schools led to more new texts;

likewise, as Ch’an (Zen in Japan) developed, new sacred texts were written and preserved.

Sacred Symbols

Early Buddhism employed a variety of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha’s teachings:

the Wheel of the Dharma, symbolic of his preaching (“turning”) his first sermon and also, with its 8 spokes, of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path;

the Bodhi tree, which symbolizes not only the place of his Enlightenment (under the tree) but the Enlightenment experience itself;

the throne, symbolizing his status as “ruler” of the religious realm and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final Nirvāna;

the Deer, symbolizing the place of his first sermon, the Deer Park at Sarnath, and also the protective qualities of the dharma;

the Footprint, symbolizing both his former physical presence on earth and his temporal absence;

and the Lotus, symbolic of the individual’s journey up through the “mud” of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the dharma, into pure Enlightenment.

Later Buddhism added countless other symbols:

Among them, in the Mahayana, for instance, the Sword becomes a common symbol of cutting off the temporal illusions by the means of the Buddha’s teachings;

in Tibet the Vajra (Dorje) (diamond or thunderbolt) is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the Enlightened Mind.