A Brief History of Buddhist Canons

Dr. John Canti (84000 Editorial Chair) and Prof. Peter Skilling (Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation Founder) talk to 84000 about buddhist canons and their history.

In Part One, Dr. Canti discusses what is meant by “buddhist canons,” how they were formed, and how they dispersed over time.

In Part Two, Dr. Canti and Prof. Skilling elaborate on the composition of the canons that exist in different languages and explain the value of having the canons translated.

Click here to view the biographies of Dr. Canti and Prof. Skilling.

Peter Skilling is a Fellow of the Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini, Nepal) and a Special Lecturer at Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok, Thailand). He is founder of the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation (Bangkok), a project dedicated to the preservation, study and publication of the Buddhist literature of Southeast Asia. He is a founding member of the International Centre for Buddhist Studies (Bangkok). Peter Skilling has lived in Thailand for over thirty years, and has traveled extensively in Asia.

His interests include the early history of religion in Southeast Asia as known through inscriptions and archaeological remains; the history of Indian Buddhism and the development of Mahayana sutras; and the Pali and vernacular literature of pre-modern Siam, including jataka and sermon genres. He has also written about the history of the Buddhist order of nuns in India and Siam and the development of the Tibetan canonical collections (Kanjur). His publications include Mahasutras, a critical edition and study of ten Sarvastivadin texts preserved in Tibetan translation in the Kanjur compared with their Pali counterparts (Vols. I and II, Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1994, 1997; Vol. III, translations, forthcoming).

Skilling is reported to be overly fond of durian. He lives in Nandapuri on the outskirts of Bangkok with a turtle rescued from the streets after a flood some years ago.


John Canti is a Buddhist practitioner, translator, and physician. While studying medicine at Cambridge University in England he first had contact with Buddhist teachers, and started to practice under their guidance. In 1972, he met Dudjom Rinpoche, who became one of his three principal teachers. The others were Kangyur Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, both of whom he met soon afterwards. Qualifying meanwhile as a doctor, he held hospital appointments in London and Cambridge, starting surgical training. But in the late seventies, disillusioned with medicine in an academic setting, he moved to eastern Nepal to establish tuberculosis programs in two remote hill districts virtually without health services.

Beginning in 1980, he undertook two consecutive three-year retreats in the Dordogne, France, practising under the guidance of Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Pema Wangyal Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khenpo. Afterwards, he helped found with some of his fellow retreatants the Padmakara Translation Group, of which he is now president. He also had the honour of serving Dudjom Rinpoche as physician during his final years, and has subsequently coordinated the medical care of other lamas and practitioners. He currently lives in semi-retreat in the Dordogne, translating texts and providing medical care and counselling for three-year retreatants in the area. His published translations include (all collaborations): The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Journey to Enlightenment, The Hundred Verse of Advice, and The Heart of Compassion. He is presently working on a translation of Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary to Maitreya-Asanga’s Uttaratantra-shastra.


Conversations with John Canti and Peter Skilling:
On Buddhist Canons

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What do buddhist canons refer to?

This word “canon” is not quite… there’s no real traditional word which is the equivalent of “canon.” I suppose the equivalent is—in Sanskrit we say—“Buddhavacana,” meaning the speech of the Buddha, the words of the Buddha. “Canon” really is an idea coming from some Western traditions, where it most often refers to a closed set of scriptures, which are revealed by the divinity to mankind, and are considered sacred and to be the ultimate authority of that particular tradition. In a way, in Buddhism, the idea is similar in that we would give a special importance to these particular texts.

So which texts are we referring to?

We usually divide them into those scriptures which are said to be the words of the Buddha himself, or to have been taught by his disciples as a result of his requests or under his inspiration, in his presence. Those are all counted as the “Buddha word”. In the Tibetan collection, that’s referred to as the Kangyur.

We also tend to include, within the idea of “canon”, the shastras, the treatises that were written to systematize, explain, clarify and expand on the buddhist teaching given by the great scholars and accomplished masters. In this case we usually give a cut-off point of those who existed in India.

And then, in various different cultures where, of course, there were also great scholars and accomplished masters and people who followed the teachings, and wrote in their own languages—in Tibetan, Chinese, and Thai, and Burmese, and Mongolian, or whatever. Those are, of course, considered scriptures too, but not held in quite the same category as the canon itself.

But “canon” is really a Western idea. For the Tibetan teachings, we talk of the Kangyur and Tengyur. For the Chinese, these days they are collected in a big catalog known as the Taisho but most people refer to it as the Tripitaka, the three baskets. We have a similar concept also in Tibetan. And then, of course, there’s the famous Pali Canon, which is also divided more or less into the three Pitaka, three baskets, three collections.

How do buddhist canons compare with other scriptural canons?

One of the differences between Western canons, like the Bible or the Quran or the Torah, is that, to start with, buddhist teachings, that are considered canonical, are huge, much, much more numerous.

The second difference is that they’re not considered necessarily closed. In other words, in the case of the Tibetan collections, some scriptures which had not been included before, which were later found, and which were considered authentic, were still being included in the collections right up to the 15th, 16th centuries., Not very many, but some were still added. So it’s not seen as a closed collection.

I believe the same is true of the Chinese collection—some of the scriptures which have been found in recent times even. The archeological finds on the Silk Road have also been included in the Taisho catalogue as authentic buddhist scriptures. So it’s this kind of more open-ended view of what the canon is, rather than being defined ‘once and for all’ in time.

How were buddhist canons formed?

This is a very interesting question and the answer is, in some ways, we don’t know. But the classic story is that for some centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, the teachings were transmitted in a purely oral system. This wasn’t just people saying, “Okay, we remember the Buddha said, talked about this or that topic at particular times.” They actually had a very precise system of memorizing these words, reciting them together so that they could be sure that nothing was lost. And some of the great Arhats had a kind of siddhi, or extraordinary ability, to remember very, very precisely exactly what the words are. So almost as if they’d recorded it.

And then at a later stage—many generations later, in fact—it was decided for reasons that I would like to know more about, but I simply don’t know, and I don’t know whether anybody really knows, it was decided to write them down. So that is the sort of well-known history of the Pali Canon, more or less, and the scriptures in Sanskrit, which were also written down probably later, must have had a similar story behind them.

And then the different canons, the different collections were formed, because some generations and even centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, you get formation of different groups of buddhists, practitioners and scholars, who had slightly different emphasis on different topics, different parts of the teaching. They viewed it in a different way and they became separate geographically from each other. Sometimes they became separate for doctrinal reasons. They had sometimes arguments or disagreements about what was most important, and certainly different methods of practice. And they would favor different parts of the teaching and perhaps give them more importance than other parts. So that combination of geographical and doctrinal differences gradually led to the appearance of different sets of scriptures in different parts of… especially of India.

How did these buddhist texts spread outside of India?

I’m not qualified to talk much about the Pali teachings because I don’t know enough about them. But in terms of what we sometimes call the “Northern teachings,” the teachings that were mainly written down in Sanskrit or related languages… Of course you have to remember that India wasn’t a unified country in those times. It was not as if there was one border…like present day India. Buddhism spread for all sorts of reasons to all kinds of neighbouring countries, including way up to the Northwest, into what’s now Pakistan, Afghanistan and even parts of Iran; and also all along what we now call the Silk Road and the trade routes in Central Asia.

But the most notable spread, really, was, perhaps, initially to China, as a result of the visits of great Chinese travelers to India to seek the teachings. They invited to China some Indian scholars specifically to translate the texts. Here we are talking about, perhaps beginning in the 1st century BC, carrying on through to the 5th or 6th centuries AD. Over a long period, texts were being translated into Chinese. Sometimes the same text was translated more than once by different groups of translators.

Of course, in each of those countries, the original texts would have been preserved. But the Buddha always emphasized the importance of translation into local languages in order that people could really understand and practice the teachings. So it wasn’t like the teachings were kept in the classical language, which was the origin. They were translated and used. And the work of translation was taken very seriously.

The Tibetan….it spread into Tibet, which perhaps might not have seemed incredibly important at that time, we now see as very, very important, happened at a later stage starting in the 7th, some people say the 6th, but certainly in the 7th, 8th, 9th centuries. There was a very concentrated period of activity, especially in the reign of King Trisong Detsen, who invited Shantarakshita, Guru Padmasambhava and many Indian panditas to Tibet. And they started establishing really very quickly, a very active translation school and all kinds of tools and methods. All of this was done under state sponsorship, under the direction of the king, ministers and some appointed officials, and was very, very organized. And although the work of translation did carry on for several centuries, a lot of the main body, especially the sutras, was completed…certainly by the 9th century. There were some revisions after that, but an extraordinary amount was achieved.

So this later spread of Buddhism to Tibet tended to include scriptures translated from the Sanskrit, which had not all been around, or at least not all been used very much at the time of the Chinese translations. So we get a slightly different pattern of the scriptures that were translated in each case.

And then of course there was also spread of the teachings and translation into other countries of South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia, Mongolia and further North as well, of which we have quite a lot of archeological evidence, but not that much in terms of translations into other languages.

But there are buddhist teachings in a huge range of Asian languages that have been found in some very important languages. Some are really only just being explored, like the Karosti and other languages, Sogdian, many other languages, dialects and scripts. And of course, the activity of monks, people teaching, the establishment of monasteries, the building of stupas, and communities of practitioners in different places, took different patterns according to the local cultures.

The great significance, really, of the spread to Tibet was that it happened just not really very long before the disappearance of most of the buddhist teachings and libraries and monasteries in India itself. And because so many of them had been, so many of the texts, at least, had been preserved in Tibet, we still have them today. Otherwise we wouldn’t.

Continue viewing Part 2 …

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How big are the buddhist canons?

They’re all big compared to the holy books of other religions like Christianity or Islam. But it’s difficult to compare them because they are measured differently, even within their own cultures and traditions.

The Thais like to measure the Pali Canon in 45 volumes. Of course those volumes are not identical in size.

“Chinese canon” is a very difficult term, because the Chinese Tripitaka was produced since the Tang period and they all have different sizes. The one used today was mainly produced in Japan in the Taisho era. The Taisho Tripitaka has well over a hundred volumes.

The Tibetan canon is usually made into traditional Tibetan volumes of 100 to 108.

So they’re all big, diverse; but it’s difficult to compare them without making the equation of imaginary Western pages or something like that.

Why do these canons contain different texts?

They were produced at different times, with different imperatives of the monastic cultures that were reflected on what they needed at the time, and produced what we can call a “canon” if you like.

So the Pali Canon is an early collection, done even perhaps in an oral period. At that time the tantras and other such texts were not available—maybe not pronounced, maybe not compiled. The others, as collections, are much, much later. More diverse bodies of literature had evolved at that time.

And then within Tibet itself, and in China, too, I believe, there would be debates as to what to include as the authentic word of the Buddha. Because all of them define themselves as containing authentic words of the Buddha or disciples—there are different definitions of authenticity, but that is still the basic rule.

For the Tibetans, for example, they would only include texts that they believed had an Indian original it was translated from, therefore it was authentic.

Chinese also have a similar principle. We have old Chinese catalogs which discussed these questions. Sometimes a later cataloger would reject works that were accepted earlier on and say, “This is not an Indian compilation.” So the main idea was that it should be an authentic work of the Buddha, and it should go back to India if it was in translation.

But the decisions were made at different times, different places, so none of them were fixed really. Even the Pali Canon has some flexibility in it. Particularly the Tibetan and the Chinese evolved over centuries with debates, rejections of texts, taking in new texts and so on. So they are all evolving, changing.

Again, that’s one of the reasons the word “canon” is a little difficult, because the canon itself is an evolving idea.

Are all the texts in the Tibetan and Chinese canons translated from Sanskrit?

Almost all. They must mostly have had Sanskrit originals. But some of them were translated from other languages. In fact, some of the Tibetan translations were made from Chinese, because the scholars knew that there had been an original text in Sanskrit which then no longer existed, and so they had to translate it from Chinese.

Other texts were translated from other languages of the area, from Kotanese, Sogdian, and some other languages. In fact at one point, one of the reasons that are given for the revisions that happened later on in the translation period that divides the early from the later translation period is the problem that there were such a plethora of texts—some of them translated from different source languages—that it was really quite difficult for people to know what was really authentic and valid and what wasn’t. And they were translated. Because they were from different sources, they varied quite a lot. The Tibetan that resulted varied quite a lot, and they needed to be made more uniform. But by and large, yes, they were to a very large extent translated from Sanskrit originals.

What happened that led to the loss of the Sanskrit texts?

Well, the wider picture we don’t really know. Some people say, you know, there were a lot of social changes going on in India at that time. But the most obvious answer to that question is the arrival of the invaders – Muslim invaders from the Northwest, who began to spread through Northwest and later Northeast India. The reason they hadn’t been able to invade before was due to the strength of the various kingdoms and republics that existed in Northern India at that time. So you could say that they wouldn’t have been there if there hadn’t been a considerable weakening of the defenses that had enabled the buddhist cultures to flourish in those areas.

But the immediate cause of the disappearance of buddhist culture was probably the arrival of the invading armies. They were extremely destructive. It had actually been happening for several decades, but there was one particularly bad year, which was 1193, I believe, when a particularly strong and violent army swept through the area and destroyed, not for the first time, but destroyed pretty much definitively the universities at Nalanda and Vikramshila and probably others, too. There were some accounts of the destruction of the great libraries and the burning of the books. So this was a very big change.

But I doubt if even an invading army would’ve been able to wipe out Buddhism as a culture, if they hadn’t been many other causes at work. And I think we have to assume, as well, that there must have been movements within India that by which the various different Hindu indigenous Indian beliefs began to encroach in people’s minds, in the way people practiced and in their cultures… the quite extraordinary spread of the practice of Buddhism—its study by monks in monasteries and the influence that it had on the ordinary life of people and over large areas of India. So it’s quite a complex story.

To what extent have the Chinese and Tibetan translations preserved what was lost in the Sanskrit collection?

Well we don’t know the answer to that question. So much of the Sanskrit is simply no longer found. It’s said that probably somewhere between 10%, 15%, maybe as much as 20% of the texts of the Kangyur have Sanskrit texts surviving. But the rest don’t. So that’s a large proportion of 80-85%. Those texts, very interesting to know what might have happened to them, but for the moment they simply haven’t turned up. A lot of texts were found in among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, which had been relatively stable politically for a very long time. It was never invaded and didn’t change very much. More recently, Sanskrit texts have been found along the Silk Road and in areas much further north; the archeological finds where the conditions for preservation were much better than they were in low-lying India, with its humidity, insects and so on.

We can only guess. But between the two, spanning quite a large period… first of all the Chinese translations which, you know, the translators took great pains to find most of the texts that were really being used at that time and which existed and take them back to China and translate them; and then later on, the same happened for the Tibetans. So covering a very large span of time, almost a thousand years, it’s unlikely that there were many texts that completely disappeared, but that’s sheer conjecture.

We have what we have, and some texts I believe have turned up in Sanskrit, not very many but a few in some fragments of scriptures which don’t seem to exist either in Chinese or Tibetan. So there may be a few. Of course, the other consideration is the different versions of texts which tended to evolve over time and geographically in different areas. So we don’t necessarily have records in the Chinese and Tibetan of all the versions of all the texts as they evolved.

What is the value of being able to read different buddhist canons?

There are many ways to interpret the value. So for some people it might be a matter of inspiration, reading the life of the Buddha in different versions. Could it be a matter of inspiration for people, a matter of revealing the life of the Buddha, say in relation to places like Bodhgaya here. Another sense is it can deepen a person’s understanding of practices, as for example, meditation, meditation on the breath, Anapana. We can compare various versions in Pali, in Tibetan, in Sanskrit, in Chinese translation. Here in fact, we see that they’re very close to each other and we could perhaps come to the conclusion that this is one of the core practices of mediation, of Buddhism. So we can see both the kind of synchronic and diachronic relation of text which gives a deepening idea of the teachings or practices.

So I think there are multiple benefits to that. I don’t think there are – I can’t really think of any drawbacks. I think it’s beneficial to expand one’s knowledge. It might increase tolerance, too, amongst buddhist groups if they see that, “Oh, we all have these core, we have some core traditions.” Because sometimes people, because they don’t know the language and don’t read the shared texts, sometimes they have an idea that… people who are from the Pali tradition might think, “Oh this Tibetan is something completely different – there’s only tantras which we don’t have.” Or the Tibetans might think similarly that the Pali tradition is different. And so and and so forth. It has many benefits in many ways I would think.

Who were the first people to translate buddhist texts into English?

Sporadic translations of buddhist texts from any of these collections began in the 19th century. I don’t think in the 18th, but I might be wrong. That was when the study of Indian texts, the Sanskrit and others, began in Europe, but I’m not sure if there are any real translations.

The first description of the Tibetan canon was by a great Hungarian scholar – Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, published in the 1820s and 30s. He did translate a few things.

As for the Pali, I think the first translations from Pali, excluding French (which might have come earlier or in the mid 19th century on),… the idea of translating the entire Pali collection began in the late 19th century with the Foundation of the Pali Text Society in England. They have more or less translated the whole collection. But that’s done by separate translators, sort of at different times over a long period. But they did have the idea of a single project.

For the Chinese it was much later. Maybe BDK Tripitaka, which was in progress.

For the Tibetan, the idea of a systematic translation has recently begun with the 84000 project.

How will this English translation benefit buddhists and non-buddhists?

Well I think the benefit for buddhists should be fairly obvious. They can read texts for inspiration, they can learn actually about Buddhism. By the very fact that so many of these texts have not been translated, even when Sanskrit exists, or even when Chinese translations exist but they’ve not been translated into English… so people who know only English, or European languages, if they are buddhists then they don’t have access to their full canon or traditional texts. So it will help a great deal in being aware of the practice, philosophy, history, narratives. There are so many wonderful things in these canons or in the Tibetan canon. So people will be able to be aware of their own tradition.

For non-buddhists, more or less the same thing. That if we talk about buddhist… how can we talk about buddhist philosophy in comparison with Western philosophy when most of the texts are not translated? So it will increase knowledge for the benefit of both buddhists and non-buddhists and others.

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