Early Buddhist Texts
Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) or Early Buddhist Literature refers to the parallel texts shared by the Early Buddhist schools, including the first four Pali Nikayas, some Vinaya material like the Patimokkhas of the different Buddhist schools as well as the Chinese Āgama literature. Besides the large collections in Pali and Chinese, there are also fragmentary collections of EBT materials in Sanskrit, Khotanese, Tibetan and Gāndhārī. The modern study of early pre-sectarian Buddhism often relies on comparative scholarship using these various early Buddhist sources.
Some scholars such as Richard Gombrich and A.K. Warder hold that these EBTs contain material that could possibly be traced to the historical Buddha himself or at least to the early years of Pre-sectarian Buddhism.
A large portion of Early Buddhist literature is part of the "sutta" or "sutra" genre, these are usually placed in different collections (Pitakas or Agamas). The suttas generally contain doctrinal content while other early Buddhist texts deal with monastic discipline or vinaya.
An important feature of the Early Buddhist texts are characteristics which reflect their origin as orally transmitted literature. Early Buddhist texts are believed to have been transmitted by lineages of bhāṇaka, monks who specialized in memorization and recitation of particular collections of texts, until they were eventually recorded in writing after the 1st Century BCE.
The various works of Buddhist Abhidharma is considered by scholars to be (mostly) later material (3rd century BCE onwards). In spite of the relative lateness of the Abhidharma works, according to scholars like Erich Frauwallner, there are kernels of early pre-sectarian material in the earliest Abhidharma texts, mainly the Theravada Vibhanga, the Dharmaskandha of the Sarvastivada, and the Śāriputrābhidharma of the Dharmaguptaka school. According to Frauwallner's comparative study, these texts were possibly developed and "constructed from the same material", mainly early Buddhist doctrinal lists (matrkah) which forms the "ancient core" of early Abhidharma.
The Pali Canon of the Theravada school contains the most complete fully extant collection of EBTs in an Indic language which has survived until today.Significant portions of the content were from third century BCE. According to the Theravada tradition, after having been passed down orally, it was first written down in the first century BCE in Sri Lanka.
The Early Buddhist material in the Pali canon mainly consists of the first four Pali Nikāyas, the Patimokkha and other Vinaya material as well as some parts of the Khuddaka Nikāya (mainly Sutta Nipata, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Therigatha, Theragatha, and the Udana).
These texts have all been widely translated into Western languages.
The EBTs preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon include the Āgamas, collections of sutras which parallel the Pali Nikāyas in content as well as structure. There are also some differences between the discourses and collections as modern comparative studies has shown, such as omissions of material, additions and shifts in the location of phrases. These various Agamas possibly come down to us from the Sarvastivada (the Samyukta and Madhyama Agamas), Dharmaguptaka and Kasyayipa schools. The Mahasamghika Vinaya pitaka also survives in Chinese translation. Some of the Agamas have been translated into English by the Āgama Research Group [ARG] at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts.
While the other Chinese Agamas are mostly doctrinally consistent with the Pali Nikayas, the Ekottara Agama has been seen by various scholars such as Johannes Bronkhorst and Etienne Lamotte as being influenced by later Mahayana concepts. According to Lamotte, these 'interpolations' are easily discernible.
The Gandhāran Buddhist texts contain several EBTs, such as a parallel to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, possibly belonging to the Dharmaguptaka school. A few publications have translated some of these texts. These are the oldest EBT manuscripts extant, dating from about the 1st century CE.
Other fragmentary sources
There are various EBTs collected in the Tibetan Kangyur. Peter Skilling has published English translations of these texts in his two volume "Mahasutras" (Pāli Text Society, 1994). Another important source of early Buddhist material in the Tibetan canon are numerous quotations by Śamathadeva in his Abhidharmakośopāyikā-ṭīkā (Derge no. 4094 / Peking no. 5595), a commentary to the Abhidharmakosha. Some of this material is available in English translation by Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā.
Likewise, numerous sutra quotations by authors of Sautrantika treatises are also a source of EBT fragments. The Sautrantika school was known for focusing on using examples from and references to EBT sutras. These works include Kumaralata’s Drstantapankti, the Abhidharmamrtara-sasastra attributed to Ghosaka, the Abhidharmavatara-sastra attributed to Skandhila and the Tattvasiddhi of Harivarman.
Mahayana treatises also sometimes quote EBTs. According to Etienne Lamotte, the Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa cites "about a hundred sūtras of the Lesser Vehicle; the majority are borrowed from the Āgama collections."
- Index of Buddhism-related articles
- Vinaya Pitaka
- List of sutras
- List of suttas
- Sutta Pitaka
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