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Sacred Texts

AsiaLater Additions To The Buddhist Canon, Regional Transmission, Bibliography

According to Buddhist tradition, questions regarding doctrinal authenticity first arose during the lifetime of the historical Buddha (c. fifth century B.C.E.). When asked how his followers should distinguish the true "word of the Buddha" (buddha-vacana) from false teachings, he is reported to have said, "whatever is well spoken is the word of the Buddha." Later commentators understood this to mean that if a doctrine or practice accords with the Buddhist goals of liberation from cyclic existence (samsara) and the alleviation of suffering (dukkha), and if it is concordant with the core doctrines of Buddhism, then it can be adopted and practiced by Buddhists, regardless of who originally taught it.

A more restrictive approach to questions of textual authority was presented in the Great Instruction Discourse (Mahapadesa-sutta, attributed to the Buddha but probably written after his death), in which he advises his followers to compare contested teachings with the corpus of discourses known to have been spoken by the Buddha. If a teaching or text accords with the oral instructions (Pali, sutta; Sanskrit, sutra) and the rules for monastic conduct (vinaya), then it can be accepted as authoritative. It should be noted, however, that the text assumes that only well-educated senior monks—not ordinary Buddhists who lack a thorough knowledge of the Buddha's teachings—will be able to make such determinations.

Shortly after the Buddha's death, a group of five hundred of his most advanced disciples convened to definitively settle the limits of Buddhist teaching. All were arhats, men who had eliminated mental afflictions and who would attain nirvana at the end of their lives. It was assumed that such people would not be hampered by faulty memories or sectarian biases. Ananda—who had been the Buddha's personal attendant and had been present at all of his discourses—was responsible for reciting the oral discourses, while Upali recounted the Buddha's instructions on monastic discipline. After the recitation was concluded, the canon was declared closed, and the assembled arhats agreed that no new teachings would be recognized as the "word of the Buddha."

Contemporary Western scholars have questioned the historicity of the "first council," but the story is accepted as fact by the Theravada school, the dominant Buddhist tradition in Southeast Asia, which views it as an indication of the validity of its canon. This is written in an Indic language called Pali and is believed to have been definitively codified by the five hundred arhats. It is organized into three sections, called "baskets" (pitaka): Vinaya pitaka, which was concerned with rules for Buddhist monks and nuns; Sutta pitaka, the Buddha's discourses on doctrine and practice; and Abhidhamma pitaka, containing scholastic treatises summarizing and explicating Buddhist doctrine.

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