The First Buddhist Scriptures

After the Buddha’s death, one of the issues was the problem of authority. When he was alive, if you had a dispute, you could go to him and he would sort the dispute out for you. In his absence, where do you turn? Where do you go to settle any kind of dispute?

The Sutta Pitaka: The Doctrine

Shortly after the Buddha died, the community banded together and called what is called the First Buddhist Council, to recall and codify his teaching, so the Dharma itself could be used to resolve disputes.

At this gathering, a disciple by the name of Ananda, who was the Buddha’s trusted sidekick and the person who knew him best, recited the Buddhist doctrine. This became what is known as the Sutta Pitaka, the collection of Buddhist doctrine.

Another monk by the name of Upali recited the Buddhists rules and regulations. These became the Vinaya Pitaka or the collection of discipline. Eventually, not right at the beginning, another collection was added to this group of texts, called the Abhidhamma, that included a body of sophisticated reflection on the categories of the Dharma.

These three together constitute the three baskets of Buddhist teaching. It is common to call these three baskets the canon of Buddhist scripture. They are, as you can imagine, quite extensive.

The Buddhist tradition became a scriptural tradition. We will see that in Tibet, China and Japan, as you confront a new situation, the most important thing to do is to generate a new scripture, or to generate a new commentary or explanation of older scripture.

Scriptures Drawn From an Oral Tradition

What are the contents of the Buddhist scriptures? Traditional discourses of the Buddha began with a formula that is clearly drawn from the oral tradition. They always start out “Thus, have I heard, at one time the Buddha was dwelling in such place, etc.”. They reflect, specially in the early suttas, this influence from the oral tradition.

The old discourses of the Buddha often have a very simple and down to earth style that a lot of people find quite attractive. They present a very pragmatic approach to religious truth. They are concerned about experience, not in spending out all sorts of doctrinal distinctions.

The discourse on the turning of the wheel of the Dharma, for example. It starts out simply by commenting on the Middle Path:

“These two extremes are not to be practiced. What are these two? There is devotion to the indulgence of the senses, which is low and common. And there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful and not worthy. Avoiding these two extremes, the Buddha has realized the Middle Path. It gives vision, it gives knowledge. It leads to calm, insight and to awakening, to Nirvana.”

He goes on from there to give the outline of the Four Noble Truths.

One of the simplest of the early sermons, and in my view one of the most intriguing is called the “Fire Sermon”. The Buddha starts out and says this: “Everything is burning. What is it that is burning? The eye is burning. Visible forms are burning. Visual consciousness is burning.” And he goes like that through all the senses. “Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, the fire of hate, and the fire of delusion.”

This sermon repeats the same formula again and again, applying it to different aspects of experience. Part of that is an artifact of the oral nature of preaching. These early sermons grow out of oral settings and have the same kind of repetitive qualities that you hear in a good preaching.

This article is part of the series about The Early Sangha

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