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The Buddhist Canon

Shortcuts: Organization, Popular Texts, Schools of Chinese Buddhism

Organization of the Canon

There exists an agreed-upon group of ancient Indian scriptures of Buddhism, called by the Sanskrit term Tripitaka ("Three Baskets"), called Sān Zàng 三藏 or "Three Storehouses" in Chinese. Several hundred times the size of the Christian Bible, the Tripitaka is divided into three parts (plus an appendix):

  1. Part one is made up of the Sutras (Chinese: jīng () "scripture"), devoted to Buddhist teachings of dharma, attributed tothe Buddha.
  2. Part two contains the Vinaya (Chinese: lǜ "law"), or rules of conduct both for the priesthood and for Buddhist laity.
  3. Part three contains further clarifications of the dharma, called Śāstras (Chinese: lún () "discussion"). These are written by a number of people through the centuries.
  4. A fourth part, a sort of appendix, contains materials originally written in Chinese and usually designated zá () "Miscellaneous."

The Chinese version of the Buddhist canon is not limited to translations from Sanskrit and Pali, the north Indian languages in which Buddhist texts were originally written, but also includes works originally written in Chinese after the transmission of Buddhism to China, so it is larger than the original collection of Sanskrit and Pali texts, and is referred to as the Dà Zàng Jīng 大藏经 (大藏經) or "Great Treasury Scriptures."

The challenges faced by translators of religious material from Indian languages to Chinese were many, and the result was the creation of a literature that could be understood only with a good deal of special training. Although materials originally composed in Chinese were easier to understand than translations most of the time, even these often used vocabulary or treated subjects that demanded a knowledge of the Indian heritage to understand. The Chinese Buddhist canon is therefore immense, but largely unknown to most Chinese, including most Chinese Buddhists, and many of the most "popular" scriptures are in fact used only as liturgical texts chanted as a religious exercise to gain spiritual merit. In modern times, despite the establishment of nearly universal literacy in modern Chinese, Chinese have shown little interest in modernizing these translations and trying to render them more readily understood.

Readers of this page may be interested in another page on this web site, The Life of the Buddha As Seen from China. An appendix to that selection includes a consideration of language issues in the translation of Buddhist scriptures.

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Nine Popular Texts Used by Chinese Buddhists

The list of major Buddhist writings given here includes only a few brief works (all found in the canon) that actually circulate widely among Chinese Buddhists. Most of them were originally composed in Sanskrit and the Chinese translations are by no means colloquial today; many of the texts are popular to chant as a merit-gaining religious exercise, but are not necessarily understood without further instruction.

Usage Note. In Chinese, the Sanskrit term "sūtra" is rendered jīng (). In English sūtra is best translated "scripture" in other contexts, but in the case of Buddhist works it is conventional to retain the original Sanskrit term in English translations.

Dàbēi Chàn 大悲忏 (大悲懺) "Great Compassion Penance"
A text where the ever popular bodhisattva Guānyīn appears as the special agent of the buddha Amitabha's compassion.
Dìzàng Púsà Běnyuàn Jīng 地藏菩萨本愿经 (地藏菩薩本願經) ("Fundamental Vows of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva")
Translated from Sanskrit by Siksananda (Shíchā-nántuó 实叉难陀, 實叉難陀), a Buddhist from western Xīnjiāng 新疆, some time in the late 600s.
This scripture briefly describes the courts of hell to which the sinful are consigned at death, and the means by which they are liberated from such misery by the compassionate intervention of the Ksitigarbha or Dìzàng Bodhisattva. The text is strongly associated with funerals, not surprisingly, but Dìzàng's merit is represented as clearly founded in filial piety, and this text is also considered one of the oldest and most emphatic groundings of Chinese Buddhism in filial piety, an overriding Chinese moral issue, and one which has historically tended to have Buddhists, with their celibate clergy, on the defensive.
A small selection from this scripture is available on this website under the title "Saving the Damned: Two Tales of the Bodhisattva Dìzàng"(link).
Ēmítuó Jīng 阿弥陀经 (阿彌陀經) "Sutra of Amitabha" ("Lesser Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutra")
Translated from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva (Jiūmóluóshī 鸠摩罗什, 鳩摩羅什), a Jìn () dynasty (period 8) missionary to China famed for his translations
This work is associated with the Buddha Amitabha (often known in English by his Japanese name Amida), associated with the Pure Land sect, which teaches that by sincerely calling upon the Amitabha Budda one can be reborn into the Pure Land (jìngtǔ 净土, 淨土) that he governs. This work is commonly used in private meditation and is recited in services for the dead.
Jīngāng Jīng 金刚经 (金剛經) "Diamond Sutra" (Vajraccedika-prajña-paramita Sutra)
Translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva
The text, in the form of a dialog between the Sakyamuni Buddha and a disciple, stresses that all appearances are mere illusions projected by one's own (illusory) mind. In the course of the discussion, the Buddha predicts that another buddha will follow him years later to repeat the message, a passage that is interpreted as referring to Amitabha or Maitreya, but also is sometimes cited by "heretical" sects to identify their leaders as Sakyamuni's promised successor.
Liánhuā Jīng 莲花经 (蓮花經) "Lotus Sutra" (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra).
Translated from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva.
The Lotus Sutra is especially associated with the Tiāntái 天台 sect, although it is widely used by all sects. It asserts the transcendent character of the Buddha and purports to contain his direct teachings, including the assertion that there are many paths to enlightenment, and the possibility of help from bodhisattvas. Often separately used is chapter 24, called Pǔmén Pǐn 普门品 (普門品) "All-Sided One." The Pǔmén Pǐn describes the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who in China is the popular goddess Guānyīn 观音 (觀音).
Liùzǔ Tán Jīng 六祖坛经 (六祖壇經) "Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch"
Composed in Chinese by Fǎhǎi 法海, a priest of the Táng dynasty.
This work recounts the succession of a Huìnéng 慧能, a humble sweeper boy who become the sixth patriarch of Chán () school, and it presents his teachings. Because it was composed directly in Chinese, this work is readily accessible to modern readers with a knowledge of literary Chinese.
The first, autobiographical section of this scripture is available on this website (link).
Wúliàng Shòu Jīng 无量寿经 (無量壽經) "Sutra of Unlimited Longevity" ("Greater Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra")
Translated from Sanskrit by Kalayasas (Jiāngliáng-yéshè 畺良耶舍).
The full title is actually Guān Wúliàngshòu Fó Jīng 观无量寿佛经 (觀無量壽佛經), or "Sutra of Visualizing the Buddha of Unlimited Longevity." Like the Ēmítuó Jīng, this work describes the Pure Land of Amitabha.
Xīn Jīng 心经 (心經) "Heart Sutra" (Mahaprajñaparamita-hridaya Sutra)
Translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by Xuánzàng 玄奘 (A.D. 596-664), a Chinese monk who made a journey to India (629-645) and returned with scriptures, which he translated into Chinese.
This tiny work teaches that form and emptiness are identical. The text is widely chanted, but is especially associated with the Chán () school. Its popularity is probably largely due to its shortness, which makes it easy to copy, chant, paint on pottery, or even tattoo.
Yào Shī Jīng 药师经 (藥師經) "Sutra of the Master of Medicine"
Translated from Sanskrit by Xuánzàng.
This short work contains twelve promises of salvation for both the living and those in purgatory.

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Four Important Schools of Buddhism in China

There are four major schools (zōng ) of Chinese Buddhism that you need to know about in the context of something like a world civ course. However, the differences often have only marginal significance in actual practice, since Buddhist schools freely borrow from each other, and it is unusual for any monastic community to follow the practices or use of scriptures of only one tradition. In particular, a great many monasteries have the word Chán in their formal names, but they readily accommodate practices and practitioners of other Buddhist traditions.

  1. Tiāntái Zōng 天台宗 (“Celestial Terrace School”). The name is derived from its headquarters in the Tiāntái mountains in Zhèjiāng 浙江 province. The sect was founded in the 500s. The primary scripture is the Lotus Sutra (Liánhuá Jīng 莲花经, Sad-dharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra). It asserts the transcendent character of the Buddha and purports to contain his direct teachings, including the assertion that there are many paths to enlightenment, and the possibility of help from bodhisattvas. Often separately used is chapter 24, called Pǔmén Pǐn 普门品 (普門品) "All-Sided One." The Pǔmén Pǐn describes the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who in China is the popular goddess Guānyīn 观音.
  2. Huáyán Zōng 华严宗 (“Flower Garland School”). The name comes from its primary scripture, the Huáyán Jīng 华严经 (Avataṃsaka-sūtra), known only from its Chinese translation. Tradition holds that it was spoken by the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment and contains the core of all his teaching in the form of eight distinct sermons.
  3. Chán Zōng 禅宗 (“Meditation School”). The name is the first syllable of the Chinese transliteration of Sanskrit dhyāna, “meditation.” The school claims Indian origins and a series of Indian patriarchs culminating in Bodhidharma (Pútí-Dámó 菩提达摩), the first of a series of Chinese patriarchs. In principle, Chán rejects the notion of enlightenment through mastery of scriptures in favor of direct transmission of Buddhist teachings from a master. (Part of “The Tale of Huìnéng,” i.e., the “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch” Liùzǔ Tán Jīng 六祖坛经 is available on this web site (link). Northern and Southern schools are distinguished, respectively gradualist and subbitist in their understanding of enlightenment. One of the most widespread schools of Buddhism in east Asia, Chán is known in America by its Japanese name, Zen.
  4. Jìngtǔ Zōng 净土宗 (“Pure Land School”). The name derives from the notion of a realm free of all sin and all suffering, overseen by the buddha Amithāba (Ēmító fó 阿弥陀佛) into which one may be reborn based upon sincerely calling upon Amithaba’s mercy. (The mantra/formula is Námó Ēmító Fó 南无阿弥陀佛, “I take refuge in the Amithaba Buddha.”) An important Pure Land scripture is the “Sutra of Amitabha” (Ēmítuó Jīng 阿弥陀经 , Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutra"). There is no Indian school from which this is derived, and it may be a misnomer to speak of a “school ” as such in China, since Pure Land practices pervade most schools of Chinese Buddhism.

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