Chapter 6: The Sacred Literature of Buddhism

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 6: The Sacred Literature of Buddhism

The first thing to be said about Buddhist sacred literature is that it is very extensive. In Japan over four thousand books are reckoned as canonical. Contrast this with the sixty-six books of the Protestant versions of the Bible. A complete edition of the Buddhist scriptures was published in Japan some twenty years ago, and it ran to fifty substantial sized volumes. This, to be sure, included some scholarly notes also, but it indicates something as to the quantitative aspects of Buddhist scriptures. If one wishes a copy of the entire Christian Bible it can be bought in a single volume, well printed and bound, for as little as fifty cents. The price of the above mentioned set of Buddhist sacred writings, in terms of pre-inflation money, was two hundred and fifty dollars. This is not a wholly fair comparison, the writer well understands, for the quality of printing and binding of the compared Bibles varies greatly, and besides, the cheapness of the Bible is due to a heavy subsidy to the Bible Societies, enabling them to sell the Bible at a very low price. Yet it does tell something about the Buddhist scriptures. They are vast, and as yet no one has felt moved to subsidize their publication, at least as a whole, to the point of making them available to everyman.

Of course, Buddhism is a world religion. It is found all over eastern Asia. Originating in India in the sixth century B.C. as an heretical reform movement in Hinduism, it, unlike the mother faith, spread widely over Asia and even, to some extent, into Europe, though no permanent result of its teaching can be surely detected. It eventually almost entirely disappeared from India proper, but not until it had made itself at home in Tibet, China, Japan, and all southeastern Asia and Ceylon. In the course of time it developed two major divisions, one known as the Mahayana or the Great Vehicle and the other as Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle, roughly comparable to the two major divisions in Christianity, or Protestant and Catholic. In general the Mahayana spread northward and is often called northern Buddhism, while the Hinayana spread south and southeastward. The latter represents the more nearly original type of Buddhist thought and practice. Each developed special scriptures of its own although there is much that is held by them in common. In this respect again they somewhat resemble Protestantism and Roman Catholicism which have each a different canon, although the great part of the Bible is held by both.

The Hinayana canon or, as it is called, the Pali or Theravada canon has come down to us through the Pali language, a vernacular derived from the Sanskrit and closely akin to the native language of Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, which was Magadhi. The Mahayana scriptures have been preserved chiefly in the Sanskrit, although some Mahayana books, while possibly originally in Sanskrit, are known to us only through Tibetan or Chinese translations. The Pali canon is a very definite one as we shall presently see. The Mahayana scriptures form no hard and fast canon. Sects of the Mahayana, of which there are a considerable number, differ as to the scriptures they accept and particularly emphasize.

The history of the sacred literature of the Buddhists is really a part of the history of the sacred literature of India, for it was all produced either on Indian soil, or by Indians who carried the new faith to other lands. But Buddhism having been for so long a religion, reaching far beyond India, and having almost entirely disappeared from India itself, Buddhist scriptures may very fittingly be treated separately.

It will be necessary, however, to go back to the beginnings of the new heretical movement in Hinduism and see how it arose and what therefore these new scriptures have to say on the great central themes of Hindu scripture.

Buddhism arose in the sixth century B.C. It will be recalled that in treating of the Upanishads mention was made of the fact that the older priestly religion of the Vedas and Brahmanas had lost its appeal to many who were not of the Brahmin or priestly caste. There was in the years from perhaps the seventh century B.C. the beginning of reflection by non-Brahmins and in particular by men and women of the Kshatriya or warrior-ruler caste concerning the great questions of God, the world, and man’s origin and final destiny, and Gautama himself was, according to tradition, of that class, and was not out of character in seeking the way out of the round of rebirth, which by his time had become a matter of common belief. People of that period believed in Karma, the law of the deed, the law of retribution which inexorably operated to keep one on the wheel of rebirth. How should one escape the evil and misery and suffering inherent in life, as the wheel of birth endlessly turned?

The whole story of Buddha’s life, told over and over again in Buddhist scriptures, is concerned chiefly with this problem. There is much that is legendary in the numerous tellings of his life story, but the basic facts seem to be clear. Prince Buddha, despite the happy circumstances in which his life was set, became oppressed with the evil of the world and its suffering, and early became obsessed with a passion to be freed from this round of birth. Everything possible was done to keep his mind off the subject and to make him happy. But after he had seen, despite every effort to keep him from doing so, the ugly facts of sickness, poverty, old age and death, he finally renounced his princely home and comfort, even a new-born son and his much loved wife, Yasodhara, and went out into the world to become, first, a wandering mendicant seeking by austerity and ascetic practices to find release. When this proved of no avail he abandoned it and sought by meditation the way of knowledge to find peace. Ultimately this brought him to the state of enlightenment, and he became the Enlightened One or the Buddha. What that meant precisely, we shall see a little later.

Having found it for himself he now sought to help others find the same release he had himself found. Soon he was surrounded by disciples who craved release also, and through his teaching found it. They followed him about from place to place seeking to help others. In the rainy season when they could not travel, they lived together in a sacred grove, and so evolved the Sangha or monastic order which has been the chief institutional feature of southern Buddhism. Eventually a woman’s order was founded -- Bhikkhunis they were called -- though not without serious misgivings on the part of Gautama, who seems to have had a deep-seated distrust of women. For forty-five years Buddha went up and down a relatively limited section of north central India, teaching and preaching, then died of food poisoning from a meal prepared by one of his humble followers.

During this long ministry (contrast it with the three years or less of Jesus’ ministry) he taught much and said many things many times, and in slightly differing form. Most of his utterances were heard by some one or more of his disciples, who, especially in later years, cherished what he said, and probably remembered a substantial part of it rather correctly. Remember that as yet men were dependent upon oral recall. That writing may have existed, is quite probable. That men trusted, at least in the case of the sacred scriptures, more to oral transmission than to writing is certain. So it may well be supposed that the disciples of Buddha, hearing over and over again his discourses, would be able to remember them fairly well. At all events there is no evidence that at Gautama’s death in c. 485 B.C. there was a single written record of anything he ever said or did. Yet a great part of the extensive body of sacred Buddhist literature purports to be the record of what he did and said.

Long before Gautama died he had become a tradition. There are traces of near deification, even before his death, or at least a dependence upon him which ordinarily is reserved for deity. Very quickly after his death the process of apotheosis was accelerated and, in the end, he who discovered the very definitely non-theistic way of salvation, declaring that even if the gods exist they are powerless to help man achieve salvation, became himself essentially a god. He who declared that man could only save himself by his own effort came either directly or indirectly to be regarded as a helper in the process of achieving salvation. Soon his relics were being venerated, stupas being erected around some very insignificant part of his body or something that had belonged to him. One of the greatest pagodas in the Buddhist world enshrines a tooth of the Buddha, another a hair from his head.

Obviously as he assumed more and more this character of divinity (though never so acknowledged even by his followers) , his words became of greater and greater significance. There was a definite effort to recall what he said, and many different disciples must have contributed to the growing store of remembered words. Naturally there was not always agreement as to just what he had said. Variant versions of his sayings thus arose, and as these were transmitted orally they must have been added to, or some things may have dropped out. Thus went forward the definite, but for a time wholly informal, process of gathering his sayings and doings which were gradually brought into collections. Tradition has it that this had already been accomplished by the time of his death and that immediately following the death of Gautama, a Council was held attended by five-hundred Arhants, as those were called who had attained to enlightenment. At this First Council, as it is called, Ananda, close follower of Buddha, was requested to recite what are now regarded as the first two parts of the canon, the Suttas and the Vinaya, so that it might be known exactly what they were. The historicity of this Council, or at least of the fact that so much of the canon was already in existence at that time is generally doubted. This seems to scholars hardly to have been possible -- certainly not in the form in which we now have it.

About a hundred years after the death of Gautama a second Council was called by the elder Yasa at Vesali. A relaxation of discipline in the Order had developed, which threatened the stability of the brotherhood. The very fact of heresy points at a generally accepted norm from which heresy is a variant, though this need not have been the canon as it now exists. While this particular controversy related only to the Vinaya, or book of discipline, it would not be unnatural that other parts might also be considered. Certainly there is a tradition that the defeated heretical monks held a rival council of ten thousand members, known as the Great Council, and drew up a different recension of the scriptures which among other things, according to the Dipavamsa,1 "broke up the sense and doctrine in the five Nikayas," and "rejecting some portions of the Sutta and the profound Vinaya, they made another counterfeit Sutta and Vinaya."

Not all scholars are agreed as to the historicity of this Second Council, though most of them think there is some historic basis for the tradition. Differences certainly had begun to develop within the Order, and it is from this event that the traditional eighteen schismatic schools are thought to have taken their rise.2

But in the reign of the Buddhist emperor, Asoka, in 247 B.C., a third Council was held, convoked by the elder Tissa Mogalliputta, attended by a thousand monks, in the city of Pataliputra. It was called with the purpose of compiling an authoritative set of texts setting forth the true religion. The result of their labor, which continued, according to tradition, for nine months, was the Theravada or "doctrine of the elders," which is held by the Buddhists of Ceylon to be the Pali Canon which is in use there today. They believe that it was brought to Ceylon by one, Mahinda, son of the Emperor Asoka, who, with his sister, introduced Buddhism into Ceylon. Here it was transmitted orally until, during the reign of Vattagamani, 29-17 B.C. it was put in writing. This may not mean that there had been no part of the canon in written form before that time, but there is no certain evidence that earlier written copies existed. It may be significant that Fa-hsien, the Chinese pilgrim, who travelled in north India during the years 399-414 AD., found no manuscript of the Vinaya, but only oral tradition. In Pataliputra, reputed site of the Third Council, he came upon a written copy of it.3 If the late writing of this great mass of material is true, we have here another testimony to the remarkable ability of the Indian to transmit an extensive literature solely through memory. At the same time this would make it easier to explain the vast accretions of matter which could not possibly have come directly from the lips of Buddha himself.

We turn now to an examination of the content of this Theravada, or Pali Canon. Later we shall have occasion to mention at least some of the major Mahayana variants. It falls into three very distinct parts which are designated as Pitakas or "baskets." Thus the whole scripture is called the Tripitaka or the "three baskets." These are:

1. Vinaya-pitaka; 2. Sutta-pitaka; and 3. Abhidhamma-pitaka, or the basket of discipline for the Sangha or Order; the basket of the sayings of the Buddha; and "the basket of higher subtleties as given by Winternitz, or variously as given by others, "the basket of philosophy," or the "basket of apologetic," or defense of the doctrine. The first two may very well contain much that comes from the Buddha himself, though perhaps modified and misinterpreted, but the third, which was not even traditionally supposed to be in existence at the time of the so-called First Council, must certainly have been quite late in taking form.

The Vinaya-pitaka is wholly concerned with the monastic life and, as such, is of little interest to the general reader. Unless he is desirous of knowing what goes on inside a monastery or convent, he is not likely to read far in this part of Buddhist scripture. The heart of it is the discipline practiced by the monks and nuns. Twice every month at the new and full moon the Upasatha ceremony took place. This consisted of the reciting of the Patimokkha or set of rules, two hundred and twenty-seven in number, by which the monks were supposed to live. At the conclusion of each of the eight chapters the reciter would ask whether any monk had been guilty of the particular sin therein mentioned. If so, he must make confession of his guilt. For each infraction there was a corresponding penalty, for four, expulsion from the order was indicated. These were incontinence, theft, killing or persuading one to suicide, and false boasting of divine powers. The Patimokkha itself is not a part of the canon, but the whole first section of the Vinaya-pitaka, known as the Sutta-Vibhanga, is little more than a commentary upon it. Each separate sutta, or, in this case, each single article of the Patimokkha is explained word by word and the occasion which gave rise to its promulgation by the Buddha is told. There are eight kinds of greater or lesser sins described in the eight chapters, each with its corresponding penalty. Following the rules for monks is a corresponding section which gives rules for the nuns, or Bhikkhunis.

The second part consists of the Mahavagga and Cullavagga or greater and lesser sections, which form a supplement to part I. The Mahavagga itself in ten sections treats of the rules for admission to the order, for the Upasatha ceremony described above, for life during the rainy seasons, and for the celebration at its conclusion; rules for articles of dress and furniture; medicines and food; the annual distribution of robes; materials for robes; regulations for sleeping and for sick monks; legal procedure inside the order; and, finally, procedure in case of schism.

The Cullavagga deals with discipline in case of minor infractions of order, rules for bathing, dress, dwellings, furniture, duties of different classes of monks, teachers, novices, and exclusion from the Upasatha ceremony. In the tenth section are given the corresponding lesser rules for the nuns, and then follow two sections giving the history of the first and second Councils, to which reference was made above.

The third section, the Parivara, is probably a late addition and is of little interest or importance.

A rule book is never a very interesting or inspiring document except for those involved in the game. But happily there is a lighter side to the Vinaya-pitaka which, if it can be found, is not without popular interest. Since, as indicated, in explaining the rules, stories are sometimes told indicating their origin, some quite interesting legends and stories are recounted, which are found nowhere else in Buddhist literature.

One which, whether it ever actually happened or not, throws light upon the character of Buddha as he was remembered by his followers, is, in abridged form, as follows:

Once a certain monk had a serious disturbance of the bowels and lay fallen in his own excrement. The blessed one, or Buddha, and Ananda, found him.

"Have you no one to wait on you," said Buddha.

"No, Lord."

"Why do not the Bhikkhus wait upon you?"

"Because I am of no service to them," he replied.

Then Buddha sent Ananda to bring water and with his help he washed the monk of his filth and carried him to his own bed.

Later Buddha spoke to the assembled monks and asked them:

"Is there a sick monk among you?"

"There is, Lord."

"Is there any one to wait upon him?"

"No, Lord."

"Why do not the monks wait on him?"

"Because he is of no service to the monks, Lord." Then the Buddha said to them:

"You, O Monks, have no father or mother to wait upon you. If you do not wait on each other who is there who will wait upon you? Whosoever, Monks, would wait upon me, let him wait upon the sick." Is there not a ring here of that saying of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me"?4

Another story, told in connection with the rules on clothing, is that of a famous physician, Jivaka, who treated Buddha in his illnesses and was a good friend of the Order. It throws interesting light on the practice of medicine in that ancient time as well as deep psychological understanding on the part of the doctor. A certain merchant became very ill. None of the other physicians had been able to help him. Jivaka, who was court physician, was given permission to treat him. After arranging the fee, one hundred thousand florins each for himself and the king, he asks whether the patient thinks he can lie quietly first on one side then the other and finally on his back, seven months in each position. He thinks he can. Whereupon Jivaka ties him down on the bed -- probably no anaesthetics -- cuts open his scalp, removes two worms, and sews him up once more. But the patient was unable to lie on each side and on his back for seven months. The best he could do was seven days. In three weeks he was well. Jivaka then tells him that if he hadn’t agreed to remain quiet for the seven months he wouldn’t have been able to hold out for even seven days.5 Another, not without humor, a very welcome diversion in this otherwise dry rule book, is that of a boy Upali whose parents are concerned with what the boy shall do when he grows up. If he writes, his fingers will get sore, arithmetic may cause pains in his chest (why, one wonders) ; painting would hurt his eyes; so in the end they decide he shall become a monk, since this is the easiest and most comfortable way to make a living!6

But if the Vinaya-pitaka holds little general-reader interest, it is fundamental to an understanding of Buddhism, for the very genius of Buddhism, in its original form, was to take man out of the common life of the world and set him apart on the way to enlightenment, which was the end of all his seeking, for this meant escape from the wheel of birth. There were lay followers of course, and their way of life and the way of life of the total community was deeply affected by the teachings of the Buddha and the ministry of the monks, but in the end enlightenment, which was the final goal, was not to be won as long as man was caught up in the ordinary round of daily work of the world. So the rules for the maintenance of discipline among the monks were of very great importance. To the historian of religion they are a priceless source for an understanding of the development of Buddhism. Also they are of interest to any student of monasticism, East or West, for there is much that is common to the monastic way of life, whether in Christianity or among the Aztecs of Mexico, or the Buddhists and Taoists of the Far East.

It is in the Sutta-pitaka that the greater part of Buddha’s teachings is found. These correspond, in Christianity, with the Gospels. While the Vinaya and Abhidhamma both purport, in the main, to come from the Buddha, it is here, if anywhere, we must look to find what he said and to some extent what he did. The Sutta-pitaka -- sutta means sayings -- is made up of five major divisions called Nikayas. In outline form it is thus:

I. Sutta-pitaka

1. Digha Nikaya or Long Discourses.

2. Majjhima Nikaya or Shorter Discourses.

3. Samyutta Nikaya or Connected Sayings.

4. Anguttara Nikaya or Gradual Sayings.

5. Khuddaka Nikaya or Division of Small Books.

In so brief a chapter on the Buddhist scriptures, only the sketchiest kind of treatment of these various divisions can be given -- just enough to suggest their general character. For the Digha Nikaya runs to three volumes and a total of over nine hundred and fifty pages, including some added notes.7 It consists of thirty-four discourses, roughly grouped in three vaggas or sections. The Majjhima contains one hundred and fifty-two discourses grouped in fifteen sections. It fills two volumes, with about seven hundred pages in translation.8 Here at once appears a great contrast to the Gospels, which in the newest translation occupy two hundred and fifty pages in a fairly large-print edition. But a more notable difference is in the length of the reported sayings. In the Gospels they are brief, many quite epigrammatic. Of sustained discourse there is almost nothing, at least in the Synoptic Gospels, and in John the longest scarcely goes beyond a page or two in length. It is true that in the division of small books we shall find much of this kind of reported sayings of Buddha too, but here are pages and pages of the most subtle and profound discussions of very difficult subjects. It is true that Buddha refuses to speculate on the idea of God, or many another theme, which seems to him of secondary importance or interest. How shall man achieve Nirvana -- or salvation? Anything that seems to distract attention from that, he will not discuss. One may wonder as he reads even the titles of some of these discourses just how important they are to the main drive. Here are only a few of them, to indicate about what he did think it worth while to talk -- and at length. Many of them are in dialogue form.

The very first one, "the net of Brahma," gives a list of sixty-two forms of speculations concerning the world and the self as held by other teachers. The second on the "fruits of being an ascetic," presents the advantages of being a Buddhist monk. Another is on the subject of caste, which Buddha repudiated. Still another is on a favorite topic, the nature of a true Brahmin. One is against animal sacrifice, one against self-mortification; one is on the Chain of Causation and the theories of the soul. This latter is of interest because of the peculiar belief of Buddhists concerning the soul. There exist today two beliefs, that of soul and no-soul, both based upon purported sayings of the Buddha. In discourse 20, a god, Sakka, visits Buddha and, asking him a series of ten questions, learns from the Buddha that everything that comes into being is destined to destruction. Discourse 30 discloses the thirty-two marks of a universal king or Buddha. Discourse 31 sets forth the duties of a layman. A few of these long discourses are attributed not to Buddha but to some of his disciples, for example, number 10 is a discourse on training given by Ananda to a pupil not long after the death of Buddha.

Of all the long discourses, Winternitz holds that the Paranibbana-Sutta, number 16, is in every respect the most important. It is really not a speech or dialogue but a well connected account of the later period of the Buddha’s life, his sayings and discourses, and finally his death. He regards it as one of the oldest parts of the whole Tripitaka and the nearest thing to a biographical treatment of the Buddha -- and it is only the beginning of one -- to be found in the whole Tripitaka. Even here there is a strange intermixture of the early and the later, as exhibited elsewhere in the Digha, for, in parts, Buddha is described in wholly human terms, while in the latter part reference is made to the authority of the suttas, miracles of the Buddha, the building of stupas, and of Buddha relics, all clear evidences of the long growth of the Buddha tradition.

The Majjhima deals with much the same matters as indicated above, only more briefly. But even some of these shorter ones run to as many as fourteen pages. Some of the topics dealt with here are life in a lonely forest; the things a monk may wish for; on how to meditate so as to get rid of evil doubts; on the danger of gain and honor; on the duties of an ascetic; on the classification of feelings; on falsehood; on qualities that make a person virtuous; on caste; on the theories of the soul; on the good and evil qualities of a monk; on meditation on emptiness; on the six senses; on the middle path. There are here also, as in the longer discourses, accounts of Buddha’s former existences, one is of his one-time existence as Jotipala, another as a king, Makhadeva. Here also are a few discourses, attributed not to Buddha, but to some of his disciples. One of these, number 50, is the account of how Mara, the tempter, gets into the stomach of Mogallana who gets rid of him and reminds him that he himself was once a Mara and this Mara his nephew. Another is a dialogue on defilement between Mogallana and Sariputta, two of the most famous of Buddha’s disciples. There is more of the legendary and mythological in the Majjhima, some quite interesting stories occurring as, for example, that of the conversion of a terrible bandit who thus attained Arhantship, i.e., who attained to Nirvana in this present existence (number 86) . This is partly in verse. There is an intermixture here also of the early and the late as in the Digha. One example of the style of these discourses and also illustrative of the outlook of Buddhists -- not to say the Buddha -- upon the body and the vanity of caring for it, may be seen in the rather melancholy meditations in a charnel field.

Just as a competent butcher or his apprentice when he has kille4 a cow, might sit at the cross-roads with the carcase and cut up into joints (sic) , even so does the Almsman reflect on this self-same body. . . from the point of view of its elements, as containing within it the four elements.

Again just as if the Almsman were actually looking on a festering corpse after one or two or three days exposure in a charnel-ground, even so does he sum up his self-same body as having these properties and this nature and this future before it... again just as if he were looking upon a corpse exposed in the charnel-ground showing as a chain of bones either still with flesh and blood and sinews to bind them together, or with . . . the flesh and blood gone . . . or the sinews gone, and only the bones left scattered around, here a leg, there an arm, . . . even so does he sum up this self-same body . . . and as he dwells thus unflagging and ardent, and purged of self, all worldly thoughts that idly come and go are abandoned, and with their abandonment his heart within grows stablished fast and planted fast, settled and concentrated -- in this way an Almsman develops mindfulness of body.9

The third section, the Samyutta Nikaya, or Connected Sayings contains, all told, twenty-eight hundred and eighty-nine suttas, or sayings grouped roughly together, either because they treat of some similar topic, or were spoken by or refer to some particular individual or refer to some classes of divinities or demons. It is this grouping, however done, that gives it its name Samyutta Nikaya. There are fifty-six different groups divided into five Vaggas or sections. While there was some poetry found in the longer and shorter discourses, here poetry plays a prominent role as it does in most of the remaining subdivisions of the "Sayings basket." Particularly is this true in the first Vagga which is called the Sagathavagga or section with the song verses.

To mention the content of only a few of the groups: one contains sayings of various deities on a great variety of subjects; two of the most interesting tell stories of how Mara the tempter seeks to get either some monk or some nun to abandon the way of Buddha, and so to lose salvation -- but never successfully. One of the stories is as follows, much abbreviated save in the verses: a nun, Kisa-Gotami, or Gotami, the slender, went one day into the dark forest to spend the day. Mara approaching her said:

"How now? Dost sit alone with tearful face

As mother stricken with the loss of child?

Thou who hast plunged into the woods alone

Is it a man that thou hast come to seek?"

Who is this who thus speaks to me, thought Gotami. Then it occurs to her, it is Mara the evil one, come to tempt me -- so she addresses him thus:

"Past are the days when I was she whose child

Was lost! Men to that past belong, for me!

I do not grieve, I am not shedding tears.

And as for thee, good sir, I fear thee not.

Lost on all sides is love of worldly joys.

The gloom of ignorance is rent in twain.

Defeating all the myrmidons of death,

Here do I bide (to rest) safe and immune."

Then Mara, knowing that Gotami had recognized him, vanished,

unhappy and dejected.10

One section the Nidana, in ninety-two sayings, deals with the famous chain of causation, so important in Buddhist thought; another deals with methods of contemplation; still another with the strength and weakness of women and what forms they may take in the birth cycle; and the last group, LVI, deals with the all-important Noble Truths. Here once more is repeated the famous sermon at Benares, perhaps the most basic statement of primitive Buddhist thought.11

An interesting riddle, of which not a few are found scattered

through these sayings, illustrates the monkish outlook on the

common life:

"Hast thou no little hut? Hast thou no rest?

Hast thou no line stretched out? Art free from ties?"

"Nay, never hut is mine or any nest

Nor line stretched out. Yea, I am free from ties."

"What do I mean who speak to thee of ‘hut’

And ‘nest’ and ‘line stretched out,’ and ‘ties’?"

"Mother thou meanest when thou sayest ‘hut’

And wife thou meanest where thou speakest of ‘nest’

And children when thou sayest ‘line stretched out’

And men’s desires when thou dost speak of ‘ties.’ "

"O well is thee for whom no hut doth wait!

O well is thee who hast no nest at night!

Thou hast no line stretched out -- O well is thee!

And happy thou from whom all ties art free!"12

The fourth of the Nikayas is the Anguttara, which is translated Gradual Sayings.13 It contains a total of twenty three hundred and eight Sayings. The peculiarity of this book is its arrangement. Its eleven sections each treat of things of which there are as many as the number of the section. Thus in the Book of Ones:

"Monks, I know of no other single thing by which a man’s heart is so enslaved as by a woman." Other "ones" are "any other single thing so intractable as the uncultivated mind," or "so tractable as the cultivated mind." And, of course, "there is one person whose birth is for the welfare of many folk, who is born out of compassion for the world, for the profit welfare and happiness of the devas and mankind, the Buddha, the fully enlightened one."

In the Book of Twos one finds that there are two faults, "What two?" "That which has its results in this very life, and that which has its results in some future life."14

There are two fools, "What two?" "He who sees not his fault as such, and he who does not pardon as he should the fault confessed by another."15

There are two wise ones. "What two?" "He who sees his faults as such, and he who pardons as he should."

"One can never repay two persons." "What two?" "Father and mother, of course."

There are two companies, "the shallow, who are empty-headed busy-bodies of harsh speech, loose in talk, lacking concentration, unsteady, not composed, of flighty mind, with senses uncontrolled"; and the deep who are just the opposite.

Other twos are the discordant and the harmonious; the distinguished and the ignoble; the crooked and the straight; the righteous and the unrighteous. There are two pleasures, home and home-leaving (and the latter has precedence) ; carnal and non-carnal, or bodily and mental -- the total list is a long one.

In the Book of the Threes, a fool is known by three characteristics, immorality in thought, speech and deed; and a wise man by morality in thought, speech and deed. Three persons are found existing in the world, the tricky-tongued, the fair-spoken and the honey-tongued. Other threes are: the blind, the one-eyed, and the two-eyed; the topsy-turvy brained, the scatter-brained, and the comprehensive brained. There are three kinds of pride, pride of youth, of health, of life; three attainments, faith, virtue, insight.

Each book becomes more complicated, as one would naturally expect, and perhaps it will be enough to cite further examples only from the Book of Fours:

There are four bases of sympathy, charity, kind speech, doing a good turn, and treating all alike.

Charity, kind words and doing a good turn

And treating all alike as each deserves

These bonds of sympathy are in the world

Just like the linch-pin of a moving car.

Now if these bonds were lacking, mother who bore

And father who begat would not receive

The honor and respect (which are their due)

But since the wise rightly regard these bonds

They win to greatness and are worthy praise.16

There are four kinds of rain clouds:

The thunderer-not-rainer, rainer-not-thunderer, the

neither thunderer nor rainer, both thunderer and rainer.

There are four kinds of mice (though just what importance this has for religious faith is not apparent) :

One that digs a hole but doesn’t live in it.

One that lives in a hole it has not dug.

One that neither digs a hole nor lives in a hole.

One that both digs a hole and lives in a hole.

There are four kinds of replies (as any teacher can well testify, for he knows them all) :

He who replies to the point not diffusely.

He who replies diffusely not to the point.

He who does both.

He who does neither.17

Obviously the purpose here is memory -- to make it easy to remember. It is an old teaching device.

One of the chief drawbacks to reading Buddhist sacred literature that has not been edited for the modern reader, is its repetitiousness which we saw to be a characteristic of Hindu literature also, particularly of the Brahmanas. Professor Oldenberg, speaking especially of the longer discourses, has this to say:

The periods of these addresses, in their motionless and rigid uniformity, on which no lights and shadows fall, are an accurate picture of the world as it represented itself to the eye of that monastic fraternity, the grim world of origination and decease, which goes on like clockwork in an ever uniform course, and behind which rests the still deep of the Nirvana. In the words of this ministry, there is heard no sound of working within, . . . no impassioned entreating of men to come to the faith, no bitterness for the unbelieving who remain afar off. In these addresses, one word, one sentence, lies beside another in stony stillness, whether it expresses the most trivial thing or the most important. As worlds of gods and men are, for the Buddhist, consciousness, ruled by everlasting necessity, so also are the worlds of ideas and of verities: for these, too, there is one, and only one necessary form of knowledge and expression, and the thinker does not make this form but he adopts what is ready to hand . . . and thus those endless repetitions accumulate which Buddha’s disciples were never tired of listening to anew, and always honouring afresh as the necessary garb of holy thought.18

Winternitz thinks that the repetitiousness "had the double purpose of impressing the speeches more deeply on the memory and of making them rhetorically more effective. As texts written down and intended for reading, they would probably have been quite as tedious to the Indians as they are to the Westerners. In the recitation the repetitions played a considerable part as parts of a purely musical construction and proved no more tiring to the ears of a Buddhist audience than the repetitions of the motifs in the musical compositions of Bach or Wagner."19

But along with the tiresome repetition we find the text now and then lightened up with bits of lively dialogue and a great use of figures of speech and similes, and parables. In this, Buddha was like Jesus. He knew and his disciples knew how to teach by the use of illustrations and stories. This will appear even more strikingly as we turn to the consideration of the fifth section of the Sutta-pitaka, the Khuddaka Nikaya or Division of Small Books.

This section of the canon is quite different in many ways from the four Nikayas already discussed. First of all, it is a sort of miscellany, gathering together the most varied kinds of material. Again, it is almost certainly later in its present form than the other Nikayas, though it contains very ancient sayings. It is not found in the canon of the schools which were translated into the Chinese language.20 It contains much more in the nature of poetry, songs, proverbs, parables, and fables than the other divisions. The term Division of Small Books is really a misnomer, for some of the fifteen books which make up this section are quite lengthy. Not all the books of the division have as yet been translated into English. Because of limitations of space and the comparative unimportance of a number of them, attention can be given to only a few of the most important collections of the Khuddaka Nikaya.

The first Khuddaka-patha or "the reading of small passages," is used chiefly today by Ceylonese Buddhists in a ceremony for the warding off of evil spirits. The Vimana-vatthu or "stories of celestial mansions," contains some eighty-five poems recounting how various beings who have tasted birth in heaven attained this state. The Peta-vatthu is the story of ghosts or spirits who have been condemned to this state by their various misdeeds. It is largely modelled on the Vimana-vatthu. Another, the Nidessa, is a commentary on part of the more important book the Sutta-nipata. Still another, Patisambhida-Magga, "the way of analysis" deals with such concepts as knowledge, heresy, meditation, etc. It is in dialogue form like the Abhidhamma.

The Apadana recites in verse the story of the present and former lives of certain monks and nuns. The Buddhavamsa, or ‘history of the Buddhas" purports to give the story of Gautama’s own decision to become a Buddha and a history of twenty-four previous Buddhas who had foretold his coming, and something of his own story. The last of the less important books is the Cariyapitaka, which contains thirty-five stories from the Jataka told in verse and arranged topically to illustrate the ten perfections.

Perhaps best known to the Western world, and most frequently translated is the famous Dhammapada21 It is really a Buddhist anthology. If one could read no more than one book, this would give one the best impression of Buddhism, at least in its ethical aspect. It would not be the whole of Buddhism, by any means, of course, but it would give the high lights of that faith.

It consists of four hundred and twenty-three sayings, or verses purporting to come from the Buddha, arranged in a rather loosely conceived topical fashion. In its general make-up, it resembles the Biblical book of Proverbs more closely than anything else. Olden-berg has written concerning it:

For the elucidation of Buddhism nothing better could happen than that, at the very outset of Buddhist studies, there should be presented to the student by an auspicious hand the Dhammapada, that most beautiful and richest collection of proverbs, to which anyone who is determined to know Buddhism must over and over again return. This proverbial wisdom gives a true picture of Buddhist thought and feeling, but expressed in terms of emotion and poetry which lend to the themes of transcience and to the formulae of the psychologist a tragic poignancy that is often lacking in the set dialogues.22

One can only sample a work such as this. Thus it begins:


All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of him who draws the carriage.


All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.23

In the three short, pungent statements which follow is set forth

a gospel familiar to those acquainted with the Sermon on the



"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--hatred in those who harbor such thoughts will never cease.


"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--hatred in those who do not harbor such thoughts will cease.


For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love; this is an old rule.24

Note that Buddha says it is an old rule. But how difficult of acceptance, as the recurring wars, growing out of persistent hate in our present age, so thoroughly prove. When will mankind learn? Or were Buddha and Jesus wrong? Similar statements appear again and again.


Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good, let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth!


Speak the truth, do not yield to anger; give, if thou art asked, from the little thou hast; by those steps thou wilt go near the gods.


The wise who control their body, who control their tongue, the wise who control their mind, are indeed well controlled.25

Good psychologist that Buddha was, he over and over again emphasized the importance of thought.


It is good to tame the mind, which is difficult to hold in and flighty, rushing wherever it listeth; a tamed mind brings happiness.


Let the wise man guard his thoughts, for they are difficult to perceive, very artful, and they rush wherever they list; thoughts well guarded bring happiness.


Those who bridle their mind which travels far, moves about alone, is without a body, and hides in the chamber (of the heart) , will be free from the bonds of Mara (the tempter) .26

Self-conquest, is the greatest conquest of all:


If one man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, and if another conquer himself, he is the greatest conqueror.


And he who lives a hundred years, ignorant and unrestrained, a life of one day is better, if a man is wise and reflecting.27

Concerning the evil and the good he has much to say:


If a man commits a sin, let him not do it again; let him not delight in sin; pain is the outcome of evil.


If a man does what is good, let him do it again; let him delight in it; happiness is the outcome of good.


Let no man think lightly of evil, saying in his heart, it will not come near unto me. Even by the falling of waterdrops a water-pot is filled; the fool becomes full of evil, even if he gathers it little by little.


He who has no wound on his hand, may touch poison with his hand; poison does not affect one who has no wound; nor is there evil for one who does not commit evil.


Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, not if we enter into the clefts of the mountains, is there known a spot in the whole world where a man might be freed from an evil deed.28

By oneself the evil is done, by oneself one suffers; by oneself evil is left undone, by oneself one is purified. Purity and impurity belong to oneself, no one can purify another.29

The characteristic outlook of Buddhism on detachment and desirelessness appears again and again:


Let no man ever look for what is pleasant, or what is unpleasant. Not to see what is pleasant is pain, and it is pain to see what is unpleasant.


Let, therefore, no man love anything; loss of the beloved is evil. Those who love nothing, and hate nothing, have no fetters.


From pleasure comes grief, from pleasure comes fear; he who is free from pleasure knows neither grief nor fear.


From affection comes grief, from affection comes fear; he who is free from affection knows neither grief nor fear.30

The five universal commandments of Buddhism appear in these sayings:


He who destroys life, who speaks untruth, who takes in this world what is not given him, who takes another man’s wife;


And the man who gives himself to drinking intoxicating liquors, he, even in this world, digs up his own root.31

He recurs in the following utterances to a familiar theme: What constitutes a real Brahmin? For him birth has no place in its determination, for:


A man does not become a Brahmana by his plaited hair, by his family, or by both; in whom there is truth and righteousness, he is blessed, he is a Brahmana.


What is the use of plaited hair, O fool! what of the raiment of goat-skins? Within thee there is ravening, but the outside thou makest clean.


He who is free from anger, dutiful, virtuous, without weakness, and subdued, who has received his last body, him I call indeed a Brahmana.32

Well over half of the verses in the Dhammapada are found in other books of the canon, and were probably culled from these books with a definite purpose, by the compiler. The sources of the rest, it is difficult to determine. All purport to come from Buddha himself, but Winternitz insists that some of the sayings are not really Buddhist at all. They were drawn from old Indian sources from which they also found their way into other non-Buddhist, Hindu and Jain writings. It does not seem at all impossible that Buddha himself might have drawn from this common ancient source without being conscious of it, and so the sayings, while not originally his, may actually have come through him. At all events it is a most valuable compendium of Buddhist ethical teaching -- not unlike the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus.

The Dhammapada is unique among the "small books" in being only a collection of sayings, without the addition of narratives and commentary which are found in the others. The Udana or "pithy sayings" is a collection consisting of eight sections of ten sayings each. Each saying is preceded by a narrative out of which the saying more or less appropriately grows. A stereotyped phrase usually introduces the "pithy saying": "Now when the Lord had gained knowledge of this matter he uttered the following pithy saying." The sayings are of many kinds, dealing with typical Buddhist concepts, the bliss of Nirvana, detachment, meditation, etc. Some of the sayings do not seem to grow at all naturally out of the narrative, but seem forced. It is in one of the narratives that the famous parable of the elephant is found. Told in abbreviated form and without the repetitiousness of the original it is as follows:

Some Brahmins and ascetics fell to quarreling over doctrinal matters, whether or not the world is eternal, whether body and soul are separate. Informed by the monks of this quarrel Buddha told them the parable: A king had a company of blind men brought together. Then he commanded that an elephant be shown them. So one was brought. One blind man felt his head, another the trunk, another the tusk, another a leg, still another the tail.

Then asked the king, "How does an elephant look?" Those who had touched the head said, "Like a pot," those who had touched the ear said, "Like a winnowing basket," those who had touched the tusk said: "Like a plowshare"; those who had touched the trunk said: "Like the pole of a plough"; those who had touched the tail said: "Like a broom." A tumult arose. An elephant is like this, he is like that, until at last they fell to fighting, to the great amusement of the king.

Even so, said the Buddha, is the case of the ascetics and the Brahmins, each of whom sees only a part of the truth, and who claims "This is true, not that; or that is true, not this."

This is a familiar parable used often by Hindus and Jains also. This does not mean that Buddha may not himself have used it, but the likelihood is that it was adopted by later Buddhist teachers, as they did so much other material, for their own purposes, particularly in the Jatakas, as will shortly appear.

The Iti-Vuttaka, or "Thus spake Buddha, saying," (since every paragraph begins with the formula, "This was said by the Lord,") is a collection of one hundred and twelve prose and poetry sayings attributed to the Buddha, most of them rather brief. Usually the prose is not, as in other collections, in the nature of a narrative or an introduction. In almost half the sayings the poetry simply repeats in metrical form what the prose has already stated. Sometimes the prose statement has a corresponding poetic form, with additional verses going beyond the prose idea. Sometimes prose and poetry alternate in full expression of an idea. Two brief examples will suffice to reveal the nature of this work.

1. This verily was said by the Blessed One, said by the Sanctified One, so I have heard.

"One of the Laws, O monks, ye do forsake. I am your surety, in that I have entered the path from which there is no return." "Which one of the Laws?" "Ye forsake, O monks, the law against Desire (lobha-) . I am your surety in that I have entered the path from which there is no return."

To this effect spake the Blessed One, and hereupon said the following:

"Through their proper knowledge

Creatures of Discernment forsake that Desire

Through which lustful creatures

Go to misfortune.

When they have forsaken it

They never return to this world."

Exactly to that effect was it spoken by the Blessed One, so I have heard.33

17. This verily was said by the Blessed One, said by the Sanctified One, so I have heard.

"For a novitiate-monk who hath not yet attained supreme Security, but who is striving for it, and who liveth with the idea that what is external is a qualification, I see no other single qualification, O monks, so exceeding helpful as the quality of having goodness as a friend. A (novitiate) monk, then, O monks, who hath goodness as his friend, renounceth that which is evil, and obtaineth that which is good."

To this effect spake the Blessed One, and hereupon said the following:

"The monk that bath goodness as friend,

Who is obedient and respectful,

Doing the behest of his friends,

Mindful and thoughtful,

May attain in due course

The destruction of all the Fetters."

Exactly to that effect was it spoken by the Blessed One, so I have heard.34

The Sutta-Nipata or "collection of suttas" is chiefly made up of poetry, much of it quite ancient, in five sections. The last was probably at one time an independent collection. It is quite a long poem divided into sixteen parts. Commentaries, on two of the five parts, form the Nidessa, one of the divisions of small books. Not a few of the sayings throughout can be found in modified form in other parts of the canon. Perhaps, next to the Dhammapada, the sayings from this book are found more frequently quoted than from any other of the canonical books. Its poetry is of higher rank than that of most other collections.

The sayings deal with many subjects of interest to Buddhists. The true Brahmin is described in sixty-three verses in one section, each verse ending with the refrain "Him do I call a true Brahmin." One of the poems contrasts the joy of the Buddha who is homeless, but free, with the comfort and prosperity of a rich owner of herds, to the advantage, of course, of the former.

Typical of the book is the following poem on true friendship:

1. He who transgresses and despises modesty, who says, "I am a friend," but does not undertake any work that can be done, know (about) him: "he is not my (friend) ."

2. Whosoever uses pleasing words to friends without effect, him the wise know as one that (only) talks, but does not do anything.

3. He is not a friend who always eagerly suspects a breach and looks out for faults; but he with whom he dwells as a son at the breast (of his mother) , he is indeed a friend that cannot be severed (from him) by others.

4. He who hopes for fruit, cultivates the energy that produces joy and the pleasure that brings praise, (while) carrying the human yoke.

5. Having tasted the sweetness of seclusion and tranquillity one becomes free from fear and free from sin, drinking in the sweetness of the Dhamma.35

Or this poem of advice against luke-warmness and slothfulness:

1. Rise, sit up, what is the use of your sleeping; to those who are sick, pierced by the arrow (of pain) , and suffering, what sleep is there?

2. Rise, sit up, learn steadfastly for the sake of peace, let not the king of death, knowing you to be indolent (pamatta) , befool you and lead you into his power.

3. Conquer this desire which gods and men stand wishing for and are dependent upon, let not the (right) moment pass by you; for those who have let the (right) moment pass, will grieve when they have been consigned to hell.

4. Indolence (pamada) is defilement, continued indolence is defilement; by earnestness (appamada) and knowledge let one pull out his arrow.36

One more illustration must suffice, a warning against sinful pleasures -- a constant note in Buddhist teaching:

1. If he who desires sensual pleasure is successful, he certainly becomes glad-minded, having obtained what a mortal wishes for.

2. But if those sensual pleasures fail the person who desires and wishes (for them) , he will suffer, pierced by the arrow (of pain) .

3. He who avoids sensual pleasures as (he would avoid treading upon) the head of a snake with his foot, such a one, being thoughtful (sato) , will conquer this desire.

4. He who covets extensively (such) pleasures (as these) , fields, goods, or gold, cows and horses, servants, women, relations,

5. Sins will overpower him, dangers will crush him, and pain will follow him as water (pours into) a broken ship.

6. Therefore let one always be thoughtful, and avoid pleasures; having abandoned them, let him cross the stream, after bailing out the ship, and go to the other shore.37

Not only didactic material but some narrative is included among the sayings, sometimes in ballad form. One deals with happenings just after the birth of the Buddha, another with his renunciation of home and his princely birthright, and his experiences as a mendicant. Still another recounts the attempts of Mara to turn him back to his worldly life, and the abandonment of his search for enlightenment. The first and third of these have been thought to beparallels to gospel stories of Simeon in St. Luke 2:25 ff. and the temptation stories in the life of Jesus.

From the standpoint of sheer literary beauty and charm nothing in the canon equals the collection of poems known in translation as the Psalms of the Brethren and Psalms of the Sisters.38 Of the former there are two hundred and sixty-four and of the latter seventy-three. These purport to be, and probably are, poems written by early Buddhist monks and nuns expressive of some deep personal experience or insight which came to them either as motivation to entrance into the order or some new attainment of spiritual excellence, including that final achievement of all, enlightenment, or Arhantship, which meant that at the close of their present mortal life span there would be no recurrence of birth. They were free from the wheel. This collection like the Vinaya-pitaka is definitely monastic in character and outlook. Here, however, it is not the rules and regulations, but the spirit found within those dedicated to the life apart from the world, the inner experiences which came to them, often seen in contrast to the life of the everyday world to which they once belonged. One catches here, as no rule book can possibly portray it, the inner heart of the "religious." Take for example the poem in which a monk sees in his wife and child approaching, a veritable snare of the tempter, Mara:

In golden gear bedecked, a troop of maids

Attending in her train, bearing the babe

Upon her hip, my wife drew near to me.

I marked her coming, mother of my child,

In brave array, like snare of Mara laid.

Thereat arose in me the deeper thought:

Attention to the fact and to the cause.

The misery of it all was manifest;

Distaste, indifference, the mind possessed;

And so my heart was set at liberty.

O see the seemly order of the Norm!

The Threefold Wisdom have I made my own,

And all the Buddha bids me do is done.39

These poems, were, many of them, quite early, no doubt. The collection was put in writing, says Mrs. Davids, about 30 B.C. As time passed legends grew up about the putative authors of the verses. In the sixth century A.D. Dhammapala wrote down the previously unwritten introduction to the poems, usually relating some story about the former lives of the author, the birth in the Buddha age, the family or class from which he came, and quite frequently the experience or experiences which led the person to leave the world for the cloister. Then follows the poem. How much of all this represents fact, and how much legend is not for our purposes of any importance. These introductions are fascinating reading, often more interesting than the poems themselves. Sometimes the poem is little more than a poetic rendering of the story already told in prose.

One of the most poignant of all the stories is that of Kisa-Gotami, Gotami the lean. Born in the Buddha era of poor parents, she was married, but badly treated until she bore a son, when she was treated with honor. When the child was old enough to run about it died. Fearful that she would again be mistreated, as having no son, she carried the dead child about upon her hip from house to house, crying, "Give me medicine for my baby." But the people, looking at her with contempt, said, "Medicine! Of what use?" One wise person, seeing that she was crazed with grief for her child, sent her to the Buddha to ask medicine. So she went to the Master and made her plea. He replied, seeing in her real promise, "My child, go, enter the town and at any house where yet no man hath died, thence bring me a little mustard seed."

So she went to a house asking for a little mustard seed, if in that house none had died. But death had entered there. She went to another. Death had preceded her; and to another, and another, but nowhere could she find a house death had not entered. By night her tortured mind felt relief, and she thought, this is the way everywhere.

"The Exalted one foresaw this out of his pity for my good." Thus comforted, she took her child to the charnel field, saying:

"No village law is this, no city law

No law for this clan or for that alone,

For the whole world -- ay, and the gods in heaven --

This is the law: All is impermanent."

Then she returned to the Master. He said: "Have you brought me the mustard, Gotami?" She replied, "Wrought is the work, lord, of the little mustard. Give me thou confirmation." Whereupon the Master spoke a verse (not given here) and she was received into the order. Later she attained Arhantship and wrote her poem, ending thus:

"Lo! I have gone

Upon the Ariyan, on the Eightfold Path

That goeth to the state ambrosial.

Nibbana have I realized, and gazed

Into the mirror of the holy Norm.

I, even I, am healed of my hurt,

Low is my burden laid, my task is done,

My heart is wholly set at liberty."40

Typical of the motives that led women to enter the order is that expressed by Ubbiri in Ps. 33. Well born, according to Dhammapala’s commentary, she gave birth to a lovely daughter. But soon the child died. Daily the mother went weeping to the cemetery. Once there she was accosted by the Master who revealed himself and asked her: "Why do you weep?" "I weep because of my daughter."

But replied the Buddha, "Burnt in this cemetery are some eighty-

four thousand of thy daughters. For which of them dost thou

weep?" Pointing to this grave and that he said,

"O Ubbiri, who wailest in the wood,

Crying, ‘O Jiva! O my daughter dear!’

Come to thyself! Lo, in this burying-ground

Are burnt full many a thousand daughters dear,

And all of them were named like unto her.

Now which of all those Jivas dost thou mourn?"41

Pondering this, and being won by his teaching she fulfilled the requirements and attained Arhantship. Then she spoke the second half of the Psalm:

"O woman, well set free! how free am I,

How thoroughly free from kitchen drudgery!

Me stained and squalid ‘mong my cooking-pots

My brutal husband ranked as even less

Than the sunshades he sits and weaves alway.

"Purged now of all my former lust and hate,

I dwell, musing at ease beneath the shade

Of spreading boughs -- O, but ‘tis well with me!"42

Another, Mutta, daughter of a poor Brahmin, was given in marriage to a hunchbacked Brahmin; but she told him that she could not continue in the life of the household and asked his consent to her leaving the world. He consented. She practiced self-control, and at last won Arhantship. Exulting, she cried:

"O free, indeed! O gloriously free

Am I in freedom from three crooked things: --

From quern, from mortar, from my crookback’d lord!

Ay, but I’m free from rebirth and from death,

And all that dragged me back is hurled away."43

These men and women came from many different backgrounds. The Sangha was a great leveller. Though the Indian world was now divided into rigid castes, Buddha would have none of it in his order, and continually rebuked the pretension to superiority on the grounds of birth rather than excellence of character. We have seen examples of such sayings in different sections of the canon. Among the Brethren the greater number were of Brahmin families, one hundred and thirteen, with sixty from the warrior ruler caste, the rest presumably from the other lower castes. We know that fifty were merchants and ten were laborers and seven were land tenants. The women came from royal families of great wealth, and from families of the poor -- as Kisa-Gotami. At least one was daughter of a slave. Several had been prostitutes or were daughters of "fallen women." It was a motley company. But they all had something in common -- they were seeking or had found the goal of all seeking, Arhantship, which meant the deeply coveted end of rebirth.

The arrangement of the poems in each collection is by length -- first those of one stanza, then of two, etc., until in the Psalms of the Sisters the latter poems run to forty verses or more. Our quotations, naturally, are taken chiefly from the shorter ones, though some of the longer are beautiful and deeply revealing, not alone of the monastic life, but often also of the common life of the people of the day, from which the sisters have escaped. Some of them relate experiences of temptation that came to them after adopting the cloistered life. One records the temptation which came one day to one of the sisters, Subha, in a sacred grove:

Now one day a certain libertine of Rajagaha, in the prime of youth, was standing in the Jivaka Mango-grove, and saw her going to siesta; and feeling enamored, he barred her way, soliciting her to sensuous pleasures. She declared to him the bane of sensuous pleasures and her own choice of renunciation, teaching him the Norm. Even then he was not cured, but persisted. The Then, not stopping short at her own words, and seeing his passion for the beauty of her eyes, extracted one of them, and handed it to him saying: "Come, then! here is the offending eye of her!" Thereat the man was horrified and appalled and, his lust all gone, asked her forgiveness. The Then went to the Master’s presence, and there, at sight of Him, her eye became as it was before. Thereat she stood vibrating with unceasing joy at the Buddha. The Master, knowing the state of her mind, taught her, and showed her exercise for reaching the highest. Repressing her joy, she developed insight, and attained Arhantship, together with thorough grasp of the Norm in form and meaning. Thereafter, abiding in the bliss and fruition of Nibbana, she, reflecting on what she had won, uttered her dialogue with the libertine in these verses:44

There follows then a lengthy poem too long to quote simply describing in beautiful poetic language what has here been narrated. The eye episode is couched thus:

What is this eye but a little ball lodged in the

fork of a hollow tree,

Bubble of film anointed with tear brine, exuding

shine drops,

Compact wrought in the shape of an eye of manifold


Forthwith the maiden so lovely tore out her eye and

gave to him.

Quite the longest of the collection is the story of Sumedha, daughter of a king, whose parents desired her to marry a prince. But she had already had contact with the Bhikkhunis and had resolved to leave the world. When her parents came to give her away, she refused, crying: "Or let me leave the world or let me die." Then she burst into a tirade of denunciation of the body which was so typical of the Buddhist monastic outlook that it is given here in part:

"What is it worth -- this body foul, unclean,

Emitting odours, source of fears, a bag

Of skin with carrion filled, oozing impure

The while? What is it worth to me who know --

Repulsive carcass, plastered o’er with flesh

And blood, the haunt of worms, dinner of birds --

To whom shall such a thing as this be given?

Borne in a little while to charnel-field,

There is this body thrown, when mind hath sped,

Like useless log, from which e’en kinsfolk turn.

Throwing the thing that they have bathed to be

The food of alien things, whereat recoil

The very parents, let alone their kin.

They have a fondness for this soulless frame,

That’s knit of bones and sinews, body foul,

Filled full of exudations manifold.

Were one the body to dissect, and turn

The inside outermost, the smell would prove

Too much for e’en one’s mother to endure,

The factors of my being, organs, elements,

All are a transient compound, rooted deep

In birth, are ill, and first and last the thing

I would not. Whom, then, could I choose to wed?"45

Though in the order some measure of peace and calm was found, by no means all ever claimed to have attained Arhantship. Long was it sought -- and in vain for most. But when found, what joy, what peace! Sama, who, according to the introduction, was once born as a fairy, was born in the Buddha age in a clansman’s family, and became a friend of a famous teacher, Samavati. Grieved at the death of Samavati, she entered the order, but for long could not obtain self-mastery.

At last it came and she sang her song:

"Full five-and-twenty years since I came forth!

But in my troubled heart in no way yet

Could I discern the calm of victory.

The peace of mind, the governance of thoughts

Long sought, I found not; and with anguish thrilled

I dwelt in memory on the Conqueror’s word.

To free my path from all that breedeth ill

I strove with passionate ardour, and I won!

Craving is dead, and the Lord’s will is done.

Today is now the seventh day since first

Was withered up within that ancient Thirst."46

It is a temptation to multiply examples of these poems. The reader who wishes to read more will have to seek out sources in which they may be found, Unfortunately, in the anthologies only the verses are usually given, which robs the reader of half the joy of reading the poems, for they take on greater meaning as the background out of which they arose is known. Available sources are listed at the end of the section.

Quite the most readable and entertaining, and therefore, perhaps, the most popular of the Buddhist scriptures are the Jataka Tales, for this is the great Buddhist story-book, and who does not like stories? For Western readers, it requires a deal of editing, the elimination of the repetitious element, and some clarification of proper names and of some peculiarly oriental customs and ideas, but when this is done it is among the great story books of the world. It deserves to be better known in the West than it is.

Buddha was himself a master story-teller, as most great teachers are. His disciples, recognizing this, undertook to use this method for the propagation of their faith. Buddha had given utterance to many wise observations, on all sorts of subjects, practical, moral, spiritual, or if he did not say all that is reported of him, and in the form in which they are now given, they were in his spirit, and the problem was how to get a hearing for them. What better way than to put them into a story? That is essentially what the Jataka Tales do. There is a central core in each story, purportedly, directly from the lips of the master. Indeed, that is all that is really canonical. But, for all practical purposes, all the story material and commentary which have since been added by nameless teachers and commentators have become a very influential body of sacred material widely used in the training of Buddhist children as well as of older folk. Many of the stories are familiar to all India, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or any other faith, but here they have been adapted to Buddhist purposes.

Each Jataka or tale contains four elements. First there is the time setting, something like the "Once upon a time" with which so many of our own stories begin. A favorite and oft-repeated beginning is, "When Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as -- " Then the story is told, leading in the end to the moral which is usually in verse, this is the original canonical feature. Finally comes the identification of the character through which the verse teaching is given, the Buddha, of course. The story itself is usually that of something that occurred in some one of the unnumbered births of the Buddha before he was born as Gautama, the historic Buddha. Sometimes the story is short, sometimes it is quite long. Sometimes it is very simple; sometimes it is highly complicated. Sometimes it is very picturesque and interesting. Sometimes it is inordinately dull, for there are good stories and stories not so good, here as in most collections. All told, there are over five hundred Jatakas. Cowell in his six-volume translation gives five hundred and fifty. Thomas says there are five hundred and forty-seven. That many of the Jatakas are quite ancient is evidenced by the fact that archaeological remains, dating well back into the third century, picture some of the tales -- even some of the prose portions, though this is generally regarded as later than the gathas or verses.

Since the idea of rebirth was generally accepted by Buddhists as well as by all other people in India, and since birth was not limited to the human level, it was possible to have Buddha born to fit any ancient tale of India, whether of beast or people -- and this was actually done. India had a vast folklore. There are at least three great collections which, overlapping and duplicating each other greatly, furnish a vast reservoir of story from which the Buddhists were able to draw for the Jatakas. In Hinduism these have played an important role in the teaching of the virtues and vices, and in inculcating the accepted moral ideals in the children of successive generations. But in Hinduism they never became scripture. It is recommended that the reader look into these ancient Hindu story-books, the Panchatantra, the Book of Good Counsels -- or Hitopadesa and the Ocean of Story. Here he will find many a story familiar to himself. For not a few of them probably go back to an ancient Aryan or Indo-European source which underlies Western as well as Indian and Persian culture. Only in Buddhism did they actually attain to the status of scripture, but in all lands they have been an important factor in the moral instruction of the young.

Many of the stories are nothing but old beast fables adapted to Buddhist purposes simply by having the Buddha in a former birth take the form of one of the beasts of the fable. Such a story is that of the wolf that fasted. (It is told in western style rather than in literal translation.)

On one occasion while making a tour of inspection in a monastery Buddha discovered ragged beggar garments which some of the monks had discarded after but a short period of the practice of poverty, for more comfortable and respectable clothing.

"Ah," said the Master, "the practice undertaken by the brethren has not long endured, like the wolf’s sabbath fast." Then he told the following story.

A wolf once lived on the banks of the sacred river Ganges. A flood came while he slept one day and left him on a rock without food, or any means of securing it. As the water continued rising the wolf said to himself, "Here I am caught with nothing to eat and nothing to do. I might as well keep a sabbath fast." So he solemnly resolved to perform his religious duties.

But the king of the gods, perceiving the weakness of his resolve, said to himself, "I’ll test his resolution," so, taking the form of a mountain goat, he came and stood near so the wolf could see him.

"Ah," thought the wolf, "I’ll keep this fast another day," and forthwith leaped to catch the goat. But the goat was too quick for him and jumped about so that the wolf was unable to come near him. Seeing that it was impossible to catch the goat, he came at length to a halt, then lay down again as before saying to himself, "Well, after all, I have not broken the fast." But the king of the gods, quickly changing his form again, floated above him in the air, rebuked him for his insincerity in failing to keep his resolution, and returned to the abode of the gods.47

Another beast fable is found in the story Penny Wise -- Pound Foolish which, freely told, runs as follows:

A king of a great country was informed of an uprising in a distant section of his kingdom. Although it was in the midst of the rainy season, an army was mobilized and made ready to hasten and put down the revolt.

The future Buddha came and stood in the presence of the king. Just at that time the people had cooked some peas for the horses and had poured them into a trough. A hungry monkey, watching from a nearby tree, hurried down, filled his fist with peas and climbed back up and, sitting on a limb, began to eat. As he was eating one pea fell from his hand to the ground. Letting go all the others, down he scrambled from the tree to hunt the lost pea but, unable to find it, he climbed back up again and sat disconsolately on his limb, looking like one who had lost a fortune.

The king saw what the monkey did. Turning to the future Buddha he said, "What do you make of that?" The Buddha replied, "O King, that is what fools are always doing. They spend a pound to win a penny.

Thereupon the king gave up his expedition, fearing to lose his own kingdom. Meanwhile those making the trouble, hearing that the king was coming, fled quickly out of the country.48

With what do the stories deal? An analysis of the first two volumes of Cowell’s translation reveals in part the following: ten tales against greediness; nine deal with friendship; five are on the wickedness of women; four on unthankfulness; three against the use of sacrifice; three on the folly of ignorance; three on the follies of passion; three against self-will; two on the use of riches; two on doing harm to others; two against the use of trickery. Other single Jatakas deal with immodesty, head-strongness, corruption of manners, cheating, envy, on accepting the advice of others, etc. etc.

Illustrating the folly of ignorance was the story of the monkeys, left to water new plants, who pulled the plants up to see how much water to give them. On envy, an ox who is dissatisfied with his food envies a pig; on greediness a greedy bird eating on a road is crushed by a vehicle, and they did not have cars in those days either.

The arrangement of the Jatakas within the twenty-two sections of which it is made up is the familiar one according to the number of verses or gathas in the story. For example section one has one hundred and fifty stories with but one verse, section two one hundred stories of two verses -- the number of stories in each succeeding decreasing as the number of gathas increases, until later sections contain not more than two stories.

In the collection there is found included a great variety of literary forms, prose narratives, fables, fairy tales, much poetry of various sorts, a good deal of ballad form, reported sayings on many subjects, and fragments of epics. Some of the longer stories are really novels of a sort, or long romances, with little or nothing Buddhistic about them except that the Bodhisatta is the hero. There are many pious legends not only of Buddhist origin but many from the great general body of Indian ascetic lore. Winternitz, indeed, says, "We can scarcely be mistaken in saying that far more than one half of all the Jatakas, if we omit the commentary, is not of Buddhist origin."49 He explains it by the fact that the monks were recruited from all classes of people and that they were acquainted with a wide range of story material, folklore, legend, etc., which they sought when converted to Buddhism to make use of for Buddhist purposes. This constitutes a work of great value, therefore, not only to an understanding of Buddhism, but to the study of the history of Indian literature.

Because of space limitation more extended examples of the Jatakas cannot be given here. Below are suggested easily available sources in which further reading can be done.50

The remaining Pitaka or basket, the Abhidhamma-pitaka, adds little that is new to the canon, and contains little of general reader interest. The term itself means "higher religion" or "the higher subtleties of religion."51 The chief difference between it and the Sutta-pitaka is not one of the substance, but method of treatment. Even in the Digha and Majjhinuz the Western reader is impressed by the dry, the long drawn-out repetitious discussions. Here it is even drier, more repetitious, more scholastic. The peculiarity of the Abhidhamma in general is the question-answer or catechetical method of treating its subject matter. Much attention is given to detailed definitions, and there is endless classification, often to the point of weariness.

It is divided into seven sections of which only the barest suggestions of general content may be here given. Mrs. Rhys Davids translates section one as A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics.52

It is a sort of text for the use of monks who already have an intimate knowledge of the Dhamma, rather than being an exposition of Ethics itself.53

Book II merely continues the first book; Book III is a "discourse on the elements" in fourteen brief chapters. The fourth book, called a description of individuals, is closer in form and content to the Suttas than any other sections of the Abhidhamma, though, in general, most of the life has been squeezed out of it. An example will suffice:

What sort of a person is shameless? What then is shamelessness? That which is the not being ashamed where one should be ashamed, the not being ashamed of acquiring sinful and immoral qualities, that is said to be shamelessness. A person who is possessed of this shamelessness is said to be a shameless person.54

The fifth book, which purports to have been written by Tissa Mogalliputa, president of the Third Council, in connection with the meeting of that Council is called the Kathavatthu, or Subjects of Discourse, and is the most important portion of the whole for the history of Buddhism. If, indeed, parts of it were actually written at the time of said Council, other parts certainly were not, for they bear on their face evidence of later composition. In general it consists of the statement of the greatest varieties of false views which, in question and answer form, are duly refuted. Mrs. Davids translates it under the title Points of Controversy.55

Is there an intermediate state of existence (VIII, 2)? Are death and decay a result of Karma (VII, 7)? Is virtue automatic (X, 7, 8)? How do Buddhas differ mutually (XX, 1, 5)? Was everything about the Buddha fragrant (XVIII, 4) , even the excreta, as certain sectarians out of affection for the Buddha, affirm? Did the Buddha feel pity? Is spiritual emancipation a gradual process of liberation (III, 4)? etc. Material for supporting or refuting ideas advanced is taken from the Sutta-pitaka and the Vinaya-pitaka, evidence of the relatively later appearances of at least this portion of the 3rd pitaka. The sixth book is a very obscure one, "The Book of Double Questions," and the seventh, "The Book of Causal Relationships," deals with the twenty-four kinds of relationships which are supposed to exist between the body and mind, or the corporeal and psychical.

Generally regarded as the latest of the three pitakas it is impossible to say just how early it appeared. If credence is given to the claim that the Katthavattu or fifth book was actually written in connection with the Third Council, then the scholastic development of Buddhism must go well back into early Buddhist times, because this book makes reference to at least two other parts of the pitaka. That a great deal of it is quite late is generally believed by Buddhist scholars. It is not universally accepted by all Buddhist sects as canonical. Those who do so hold it, esteem it highly. But for Western general readers it will hold less of interest than any other portion of the canon.

This brings us to the end of the discussion of the Pali canon. But this is only one of several, if it is, indeed, the one most sharply drawn of all. There is a vast literature which is acknowledged as sacred by other sects of Buddhism.

The Pali canon represents best southern Buddhism or Hinayana. But there is another school, the Mahayana, found chiefly in Tibet, China, and Japan which cherishes other works as basic to their form of faith. We can here mention, and that but briefly, only a few of such works.

For those not familiar with the distinction between the two great schools of Buddhism, a very brief characterization of the difference in outlook will be helpful to an appreciation of the literature of the Mahayana to which we now turn. Hinayana may be said to be fairly close to the original teaching of Buddha, as represented in the Pali canon which we have just surveyed. In general it is a system whereby the individual, by his own unaided efforts and following the middle path taught by the Buddha in his first Sermon at Benares and expressed variously in other discourses, attains to Nirvana or the end of the rebirth cycle in which man finds himself. This involves leading the common life and becoming a monk:

There is little or no chance of becoming an Arhant, that is one who has attained enlightenment, and at the end of his present life will enter Nirvana, without first becoming a monk. A layman benefits from Buddhist teaching, of course, and in another life he may hope to become a monk, if not in this, and so attain birthlessness; but the scheme narrows greatly the opportunity to attain salvation. This is one of the reasons given for calling this teaching the Hinayana, or the little vehicle, since only a few find their way to Nirvana thereby.

The Mahayana, on the other hand, particularly in the great popular sects, opens the doors of salvation to everyman, and without the long exacting discipline required by the Hinayana, because in Mahayana, man is not left without helpers. The ideal shifts from that of attaining Nirvana to that of achieving Buddhahood. Any man may aspire to this, and become a Bodhisattva, i.e., one who is on the way to becoming a Buddha. Millions of Bodhisattvas there are, many of whom are cosmic helpers who lend their aid to the humble men and women who call upon them for help, who do good works, or who worship the Buddhas.

This seems a far cry from non-theistic primitive Buddhism, but there is a natural line of development from Buddha’s original teaching and the regard had for him by his followers, to the extravagant multiplication of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which are found in fully developed Mahayana. A chief influence was the old polytheistic medium of Hinduism in which Buddhism arose, against which it reacted so vigorously, but to which it was gradually reassimilated with the passing of the centuries, until it practically disappeared from India, probably because there was no longer anything very distinctive about it. Clearly, the Bodhisattvas and the unnumbered Buddhas, and the dependence for salvation upon Buddhas or Bodhisattvas --toward whom the characteristic Bhakti or love, or service or faith is directed in the popular sects -- all find their roots in the contemporary Hinduism of the years when Mahayana was developing. This phase of Buddhism found its continuing life not in India itself but in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Indeed, it is only because many of their scriptures were translated into the Tibetan or the Chinese that they were preserved, for the Sanskrit originals or even copies are no longer extant. Most of the Mahayana texts were written either in Sanskrit or Mixed Sanskrit.

There was probably at one time a Sanskrit canon. Some remnants seem to point in that direction, but there is today no specific Mahayana canon. Different sects usually make primary use of some particular book or books. The Tripitaka is known in China, though it is substantially different from that of the Pali. There are some books still extant which represent a stage in the development toward the Mahayana which are yet of Hinayana, though not a part of the Pali canon, for this was but the canon of a particular Hinayana sect. There were other sectarian canons which, while substantially like the Pali or Theravadin canon, nevertheless admitted other books and excluded some of the Pali canonical books.

Most interesting of such books and of no slight importance was the Mahavastu, because it is the source of many wonder stories in connection with the life of Buddha, not found elsewhere. It differs from the canonical Pali books chiefly in a greater extravagance in this respect -- a tendency very marked in the Mahayana. It was a part of the Vinaya-pitaka according to one of the Buddhist sects (the Lakottaravadins -- subsect of the Mahasanghikas, one of the early schismatic groups) . The peculiarity of this sect was their doctrine of the Buddhas, already plural, which exalted them above the world. The Mahavastu, which is essentially a biography of Buddha, is written definitely in this strain, which is Mahayanist in tendency.

It begins Buddha’s life story with some of his existences in the time of other former Buddhas. He is then born into the Tusita heaven of the gods and there determines to be reborn as a human to Queen Maya. Then follows the story of his miraculous conception and birth, his life as prince, his renunciation, the conflicts with Mara the tempter, and his enlightenment. The tale is replete with miracles and wonder stories. The latter part of the book tells the story of the early conversions and the founding of the order.

It is not a very systematic treatment. Repetition of stories is frequent. There are a great many Jataka tales included, sometimes duplicated, a number of them not found in the Pali canon; and there is an intermixture of prose and poetry. But it is important in that it preserves some very ancient material concerning the Buddha, though dating in its present form from the fourth century A.D. or later.56

An outright Mahayana biography of the Buddha is the Lalita-Vistara, though based, thinks Winternitz, on a Hinayana original of the Saravastivada school, but expanded and modified in accord with the Mahayana spirit.57 The very title reveals an outlook foreign to Hinayana. Lalita means "sport." The whole earthly life of the Buddha is thus told as the "sport" of a highly exalted divine being.

In the prologue, in contrast to the setting so frequently given for the utterance of some of the Suttas in the Pali canon, where the Buddha is represented as surrounded by a few disciples, he is here surrounded by twelve thousand monks and some thirty-two thousand Bodhisattvas. While sitting in meditation, a powerful ray of light bursts from his head, penetrates the heavens and arouses the gods, who immediately burst into songs of praise in his honor. Isvara and others appear and beseech him for the blessing and salvation of the yvorld to reveal the Lalita-Vistara which they praise in most extravagant terms. Buddha consents, by remaining silent -- and the real story begins. Here again the utmost extravagance is employed in detailing the scene. He decides after much consultation to be born to the wonderful Queen Maya, who is the most beautiful and most pure and virtuous of all women. In her is the strength of ten thousand elephants. The conception takes place with the aid of the gods, and he enters her womb in the shape of an elephant. A jewelled palace is created in her womb for his dwelling, whence he radiates beauty and light for miles around. The sick are healed when she lays hands upon them, and the Buddha, yet unborn, preaches piously from her womb.

The birth in the Lumbini gardens is accompanied by many marvelous miracles and signs, and he is born, not as a mortal of ordinary sort, but as a mighty spirit, omniscient and exalted. This is the Mahayana touch. This story is fittingly enough followed by a dialogue between Ananda, a disciple, and the Buddha, in which the belief in the miraculous birth is taught as necessary. Oddly enough the rest of the Buddha story is very much like that related in the Pali canon, and in some parts seems to be even older than the corresponding sections of the Pali. There are some episodes not found in the Hinayana story. In one, when the Buddha as a boy is taken to the temple, all the images of the gods fall down at his feet. In another his first day at school is described. It makes interesting reading. He is accompanied, not by a mother, who is half in tears at the thought that her little boy is growing up and a separation between them is imminent, but by ten thousand boys, and all the gods, and eight thousand divine maidens strewing his path with flowers. It really impressed the teacher. Indeed, he fell to the ground before the glow of the Bodhisattva. Of course the Buddha was omniscient and had no need to learn anything. When the teacher undertook to teach him the alphabet, the young Bodhisattva uttered a wise saying beginning with each letter. When the same material found in the Pali narrative is included, it is distinguished chiefly by exaggeration and accentuation of the wonder element. The book closes with a glorification of the book itself, and the advantages to be gained by honoring and propagating it.

The delightfully written book by F. Herold, The Buddha,58 follows essentially the text of the Lalita-Vistara.

When it was finally put in its present form, it is impossible to say. It contains some very old material and other that is late. Substantial parts of it were certainly in existence in the second century of the Christian era.59

The Buddha-Carita of Asvaghosa is the great Buddhist epic, "an actual epic created by a real poet, who, filled with intense love and reverence for the exalted figure of the Buddha, and deeply imbued with the truth of the Buddha doctrine, was able to present the life and doctrine of the Master in noble and artistic, but not artificial language."60 It was written in Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and the Tibetan. The available English translation was made from the Chinese.61 It was upon this work that Edwin Arnold based his famous Light of Asia.62 Two of the Mahayana-Sutras which have great popular appeal in China and Japan are the Saddharma-Pundarika, or Lotus Gospel and the Sukhavati-Vyuha.

The Lotus Gospel is perhaps the most important of all the Mahayana Sutras. It is the favorite scripture of a number of Mahayana sects, and is the best introduction to the Mahayana for the general reader. There is not much in it that sounds like the Buddhism of the Pali canon.

There is little of the historic Buddha, Gautama, in it. Here he is the god above all gods, eternally existent. He calls himself "the father of the world, the self-existent, the physician and protector of all creatures."63 His entrance into Nirvana, i.e., his ceasing to exist, is not real, but pretended because he knows how perverse and deluded men are. It is only out of pity for them that he pretends to have entered Nirvana. He returns thence again and again to preach. And when he does preach it is not simply to a small group of followers, but to untold numbers of monks and nuns as well as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gods. When he goes abroad he is accompanied by a retinue of incalculable numbers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and gods, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River. Numbers mean nothing in this book, for example, the religion of one Buddha has lasted hundreds of thousands of myriads of tens of millions of ages of the world, as many as these are specks of dust in four continents, a very long time. The book praises itself extravagantly again and again. It is "like a tank for the thirsty, like a fire for those who suffer from cold, like a garment for the naked. . . like a mother for her children. . . like a torch for dispelling of darkness."

The rewards of those who hear it are great. A woman who hears it has lived as a female for the last time! One of the notable passages is the parable of the prodigal son, so-called. Its difference from that of the gospel of Luke is more noteworthy than its similarity. The prodigal is the only son of a rich man who wanders for fifty years through strange lands becoming steadily poorer as his father’s wealth increases. At last, a beggar, he returns home where his father, yearning for his return, awaits. But the son does not recognize the father in the rich and powerful figure he has become, and in fear runs away. The father sends his servants to bring the son into the house, but he falls into a faint from fear -- and his father commands that he be released. He goes away to the poor district of the town. The father has him hired to perform humble tasks about the house, sometimes talks with him, and finally, after twenty years, and only at the hour of death, does he reveal himself as the man’s father, and make him his heir. Of course Buddha is the rich man, and the world of human beings is represented in the son. These the Buddha draws to himself and makes his heirs.64

One entire chapter, 24, glorifies the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or the Lord of Mercy, as a savior. Whosoever calls upon him is saved, fetters are loosened; he rescues the shipwrecked; protects from highwaymen; gives progeny to women who pray to him. This, as indeed the attitude toward the Buddha throughout the Sutra, is that of Bhakti-loving faith or devotion, much as is found in the Gita, for Krishna, and in the Bhakti cult generally. This is Buddhism as Bhakti. The book is relatively late, having been written after the rise of the Mahayana. It was translated into the Chinese in 223 AD.

It is in the other remaining Sutra, the Sukhavati-Vyuha,65 that the most popular of the Savior Buddhas appears, honored and worshipped in all the "Pure land," or "Paradise" sects of Buddhism. He is Amitabha, known as Omito-fu in China and Amida in Japan. He was once a monk who entered upon the way of a Bodhisattva. When he had, after long discipline and many lives, arrived at the point of actually taking the last step into Buddhahood -- there are ten stages one must pass through --he made a vow that he would not enter upon that final blissful state until he was assured that all who called upon his name would be saved. Salvation is to his paradise, called, usually, the Western Paradise, or the Pure Land, and the Sutra describes this in the most extravagant terms. This is not the sensationless peace of utter quietude, but here there is a beauty and richness, symbolized by jewel trees, singing waters, brilliant color, wonderful lotus blossoms, no day and night, no distinction between gods and men, it is an ideal existence figured forth in material fashion. Amitabha is continually praised. Here is perfect beauty, happiness, calm, wisdom and sinlessness. To this Pure Land come those who in loving trust pray reverently to be reborn into Amitabha’s heaven. In some sects, so powerful is the name -- now grown magical -- thought to be, that he who only once pronounces it is reborn in the Western Paradise. This seems strangely different from the stern, ethically conditioned price which the original Buddha held up before men as a prerequisite to salvation. This Sutra was translated into the Chinese before the end of the second century A.D. Just when it originated is not certainly known. It appears in a longer and a shorter form.

Probably more Buddhists of China and Japan cherish these latter two Sutras than any other. They are the most popular scriptures of the most popular forms of Buddhism in those countries today. One writer has compared the Lotus Gospel to the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism, and the gospel of St. John in Christianity. They do breathe something of the same spirit.66

But not all of Mahayana Buddhism is of this popular type. Some sects are deeply mystical, others profoundly philosophical, and these too have their special Sutras. Space does not permit any adequate characterization of such books as the Lankavatara, the Surangama or a dozen other Sutras, yet they record some of the profoundest and most fully developed insights to be found in any scriptures. In the aggregate there are more than one hundred such Sutras. Such a work as the so-called Diamond Sutra, is almost a household classic in China and Japan, despite the fact that it is a more or less repetitious exposition of the abstruse philosophical doctrine of the Void.67 One who has followed through this brief sketch of Buddhist sacred literature will surely have been impressed by its extent, the varied nature of its content, the high ethical character of much of it, and the extreme development that has occurred in it to carry it from the sublime and relatively austere self-salvation system that is represented in the Pali canon, to the extravagant, popular devotional faith, dependent upon the aid of the Buddha, that appears in its later Mahayana popular forms.

Buddhism is by no means a dead religion. Westerners will perforce have more contacts with it as our world gets smaller and smaller, and it is altogether likely that it will exercise no small influence upon our Western ways of thought and life in the years that lie ahead.


The Sacred Literature of Buddhism

Sources for Further Reading

Publications of the Pali Text Society -- A number of particular volumes are indicated in footnotes throughout the chapter.

Sacred Books of the Buddhist, translated and edited by Max Muller, Mrs. Rhys Davids and other scholars, and issued by various publishers. Vol. 12 appeared in 1949.

Sacred Books of the East, Volumes 10, 11, 13, 17, 20, 21, 35, 36, 49.

Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Volume 10.

Wisdom of the East Series

W. D. C. Wagiswara and Kenneth J. Saunders, The Buddha’s Way of Virtue, London, 1927.

Kenneth J. Saunders, Lotuses of the Mahayana, London, 1924. Henry C. Warren, Buddhism in Translation, Harvard Oriental Series, Volume 3.

Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha, Open Court, Chicago, 1921.

F. L. Woodward, Some Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 1925.


In the Anthologies:

Bible of the World, pp. 181-376.

Bible of Mankind, pp. 143-179.

Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of China and India, pp. 321-356.

The Tree of Life, pp. 115-156.

The World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 133-206.

Tongues of Fire, pp. 167-243.

Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 133-151.

Harvard Classics, Vol. 45, pp. 587-798.



1. Vs. 32-38

2. So Edward J. Thomas, op. cit., p. 170.

3. A record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, translated by James Legge, Oxford, 1886. Chapter 36, p. 98

4. Mahavagga VIII, 26, Sacred Books of the East. Vol. 17, pp. 240 ff.

5. Mahavagga VIII, 1, 17-20, Sacred Books of the East, Vol 17, pp. 181-184.

6. Mahavagga I, 49, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 13, pp. 201-202.

7. Dialogues of the Buddha, three vols., translated by T. W. and C. A. F. Davids. Published as Vols. 2-4, in Max Muller, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, London, 1899, 1910, 1921.

8. Further Dialogues of the Buddha, two vols., translated by Lord Chalmers. Published as Vols.5 and 6. Sacred Books of the Buddhists, edited by Max Muller, Oxford University Press, London, 1926-1927.

9. Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Lord Chalmers, CXIX, pp. 205-207, passim.

10. The traslation of the poems is that of Mrs. Rhys David, Kindred Sayings, Vol. 1, pp. 162-163.

11. Vol. 5, pp. 356-362.

12. Kindred Sayings, translated by Mrs. Rhys Davis, I, p.13

13. The Book of Gradual Sayings, translated by F. L. Woodward, 5 vols., Pali Text Society, Oxford University Press, London, 1932-1936.

14. Op. cit., p. 42.

15. Id.. p. 54.

16. P. 36.

17. P. 38

18. Coomaraswaamy, Buddha and Gospel of Buddha, quoting Professor Oldenberg, p. 273.

19. Vol. II, p. 68.

20. Edward J. Thomas, Life of Buddha as Legend and History, p. 272.

21. There are several English translations besides that of Max Muller quoted here. Two of these easily available are:

The Buddha’s Way of Virtue, translated by W. D. C. Wagiswara and Kenneth J. Saunders, Wisdom of the East Series, John Murray, London, 1912. Hymns of the Faith, translated by Albert J. Edmunds, Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1902.

22. Coomaraswamy, Buddha and the Gospel of Buddha, p.279.

23. Max Muller, Lectures on the Science of Religion; with a paper on Buddhist Nihilism, and a translation of the Dhammapada or "Path of Virtue," p. 193. Also published in Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 10, Pt. 1. Oxford, 1881. Page referrences here are to the former.

24. Max Muller, op. cit., p. 194.

25. Id., pp. 256, 258.

26. Id., p. 203.

27. Max Muller, op. cit., pp. 223,225

28. Ibid., pp. 227, 228, 229.

29. Max Muller, op. cit., pp. 238, 239.

30. Ibid., p. 253

31. Ibid., p. 261.

32. Max Muller, op. cit., pp. 295, 296.

33. Iti-Vuttaka, translated by Justin Harley Moore, p. 21.

34. Ibid., pp. 30-31.

35. Sacred Books of the East, Sutta-Nipata, translated by V. Fausboll (part II) , pp. 42-43.

36. Ibid., p.55.

37. Sacred Books of the East, Sutta-Nipata -- translation by Fausboll, Parts II, IV. Atthakavagga I. Kamasutta, p. 146.

38. Translated by Mrs. C.A.F. Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol. 1, Psalms of the Sisters, Oxford University Press, London, 1909; Vol. 2, Psalms of the Brethren, 1913.

39. Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol. 2, p. 184.

40. Mrs. Rhys Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol. 1, pp. 109-110. Edwin Arnold tells the story in verse in the fifth book of Light of Asia, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1880, pp. 124-128.

41. Mrs. Rhys Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol. 1, p. 39.

42. Ibid., p. 25.

43. Ibid., p. 15.

44. Mrs. Rhys Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol. 1, pp. 148-149.

45. Mrs. Rhys Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Vol, 1 pp. 168-169.

46. Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 34-35.

47. Jataka Tales, Vol. 2, pp. 307-308.

48. Jataka Tales, Vol. 2, pp. 51-52.

49. II, p. 125.

50. E. B. Cowell, Editor, The Jataka. 6 Volumes, Cambridge, 1885-1913. H. T. Francis and Ed. J. Thomas, Editors, The Jataka Tales, Cambridge, 1916. Davids, T. W. Rhys, Editor, Buddhist Birth Stories, George H. Routledge and Sons, London, 1925. Mrs. C. A. F. Davids, Stories of the Buddha, Frederick A. Stokes, N. Y., 1929. Twenty Jataka Tales, retold by Noor Jnayat, David McKay, Philadelphia, 1939. Margaret Aspinwall, Jataka ‘Tales Out of Old India, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, N. Y., 1927.

51. Winternitz II, p. 167.

52. London, 1900.

53. So Winternitz II, 167.

54. Designation of Human Types, translated by B.C. Law, Pali Text Society, London, 1923, p. 30.

55. Pali Text Society, Humphrey Milford, London, 1915.

56. So Winternitz, II, p. 247.

57. II, p. 252.

58. Albert and Charles Boni, New York, 1927.

59. So Winternitz, II, p. 225

60. Winternitz, II, p. 260.

61. Samuel Beal, The Buddha-Carita.

62. H.H. Gowen, A History of Indian Literature, D. Appleton, N.Y., 1931, p. 328.

63. Gatha 21, Section 15.

64. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 21, Chapter IV, pp. 98 if. Translated by H. Kern, Oxford, 1894. A much more readable translation is that of W. E. Soothill, The Lotus of the Wonderful Law, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1930. It eliminates much of the repetitious material and includes numerous excerpts from the verse version.

65. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 49, translated by F. Max Muller, Oxford, 1894.

66. Kenneth J. Saunders, The Gospel for Asia, Macmillan, N.Y., 1928.

67. A brief characterization of a number of the more important Mahayana Sutras is given by Sir Charles Eliot, in his Hinduism and Buddhism, 2 vols., Edward Arnold Co., London, 1921, Ch. 20. A complete listing of the Mahayana books is to be found in Bunyiu Nanjio’s catalogue of the Translations in the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka. See also Winternitz, History of Indian Literature, Vol. 2, pp. 312 ff.