Where is the Buddhist Bible?

Or: There IS a Buddhist Bible. An invitation to read:

When was the last time you read a book? How many pages did you gobble up during a weekend? 400? 200? 800? What if someone tells you that, after reading the equivalent of 12 such novels you would be acquainted with 90% of what the Buddha ever taught in his 45 years of teaching. Impossible?

A common perception of the Pali Canon and the Buddhist Scriptures in general is that they resemble a vast ocean which you do not even dare to enter, let alone cross… However, it seems questionable to prefer relying on secondary information on the Buddha’s teaching (like this blog) without having at least some sort of reference to the most authentic information – besides one’s own experience, that is šŸ˜‰

It is a fact that the Pali Canon embodies the most authentic and reliable version of the original teachings of the Buddha. Codified in 300 B.C only one or two hundred years after the Buddhas parinibbana, written down in 80 B.C. in a dialect (pali) which, if not spoken by the Buddha himself, comes as close to it as American English to British.

It is a fact that within the Pali Canon the Sutta Pitaka (discourses) and core Vinaya (monastic) texts are the most ancient parts. Not the commentaries, not the Abhidhamma.

It is a fact that within the Sutta Pitaka, the 4 great collections make up the bulk of all teachings which were delivered by the Buddha and his most advanced students. These texts make up 70% of the entire Canon or 100% in essence.

It is astonishing to know, that hardly any Buddhist read those texts – not even once – in his life (hardly anyone partially), although we are talking about 12 Books. 7000 pages. Not more. A black hole of theoretical knowledge on the Dhamma, which gets filled with hundreds of modern books on Buddhism each month in the West and Christian missionary arguments in the East.

Consider reading the Buddhist Bible instead:

How many books do people read in a year? How many magazines? Newspapers? Internet blogs and news? How many “Buddhist books” line up in their bookshelves?

Buddhism is a pragmatic philosophy. The Buddha says:

Though few of the sacred texts he chant
in Dhamma does his practice run,
clear of delusion, lust and hate,
wisdom perfected, with heart well-freed. Dhp. 20

It is funny though, that people, because even though they might practice giving, virtues and meditation will still continue to read books. And magazines. And newspapers. This beautiful Dhammapada verse states, that it does not matter how much we know, theoretically, if only we put into practice what we did learn. This, of course, implies that we know, what it is, that is helpful in our practice.

The following quotation, also found in the Pali Canon, is less often cited:

I do not say that the attainment of insight is all at once. Rather, the attainment of insight is after gradual training, gradual action, gradual practice. And how is there the attainment of insight after gradual training, gradual action, gradual practice? There is the case where, when faith has arisen, one visits a teacher. Having visited, one grows close. Having grown close, one lends ear. Having lent ear, one hears the Dhamma. Having heard the Dhamma, one remembers it. Remembering, one penetrates the meaning of the teachings. Penetrating the meaning, one comes to an agreement through pondering the teachings. There being an agreement through pondering the teachings, desire arises. When desire has arisen, one is willing. When one is willing, one contemplates. Having contemplated, one makes an exertion. Having made an exertion, one realizes with the body the ultimate truth and, having penetrated it with discernment, sees it. MN 70 (pali)

In ancient times, in the first few centuries after the Buddhas Enlightenment, many monk, nuns AND lay people were known as “Petaki” as “carriers of the pitaka” or “pacanekayiko, knower of the 5 collections”. The Anguttara Nikaya shows us plenty of examples where lay devotees are described as having memorized parts of the Buddha’s sermons and getting up early in the morning they would chant them regularly. Trying to put them into practice, obviously.

If you do not know where to start, this is a very good anthology, which can help dipping into the ocean:-)

In the Buddha’s Words
An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (512pp) $15.16Ā $12.89

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  1. belatedbee

    That’s still a heck lot to read!!!! How many pages…. 8000?!!?

    Great list though, thank you. I’m adding the books to my list now.

  2. just me

    I’ve wanted to dig into the Canon, but have been put off by two things. One, the way it is written is repetitive to the point of extreme tedium. Are we to believe the Buddha actually spoke that way? Two, The Buddha’s words were written down a few hundred years after he died. There has to have been some corruption and/or distortion of his words, having been transmitted across a few generations verbally, using only memory.

    I know this is an old post, and don’t expect a response, but if one happens to be forthcoming, that would be great too. Seems like this blog has begun to slow into decline. I hope not.

  3. mahasena wijayasiri

    Repetitive, like nursery skipping songs so that monks, together, could chant, and commit to memory. There were no tape recorders then but people with exceptional memory, like Ananda, remembered a discourse and formulated them into gathas to facilitate repetition so others could commit them to memory. Its as if the lyrics of Bob Dylan or the Beatles were committed to memory by the Spy from 39 Steps. Try to memorize a sutta like the Mahamangala, learn a chanting style like that of the Sinhalese and learn the Pali Sanskrit Alphabet for purity of sound. You might, just might, enjoy it. The discourses were meant to be chanted and learnt by heart, heart in the truest sense.Wish you well, friend in the Dhamma.

  4. improvateur

    I sympathize with your difficulty with the ‘style’ of the Canon. Much of the repetition undoubtedly exists as an aid to memorization and is a result of the several hundred years that it was only preserved only through the chanting of groups of monks.

    If you do wish to pursue it further, you may wish to see Canonical Texts page of my new website, Buddhist Wisdom of the Thai Forest Tradition at thaiforestwisdom.org I’ve tried to put some links there of websites that make it more accessible.

    Be well, friend.

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