Skip to main content

Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization


The canonical literature of Buddhism has a number of characteristics that make it unique among the religious scriptures of the world. First, the literature is not contained within a single canon: various regional, linguistic, and sectarian divisions have brought about the compilation of a number of separate canons. The scriptural collections that can be identified by language (e.g., Chinese, Tibetan, and Pali) vary from one another in significant ways, with few texts that found across all traditions. In addition to the multiplicity of canons, the various versions are marked by their sizes. Each canon contains a large number of texts, some of which are of great length. The Chinese canon alone covers nearly 100,000 pages in its printed form, whereas Buddhist sacred texts might be more adequately described as libraries, for these collections bear little resemblance to the single volumes that make up the canons of the religions of western Asia.

The function of these canons within the different traditions indicates that they were not just used for reading and study. The process of preservation of hundreds of texts required sizable resources that could only be secured by large groups of cooperating believers or by the governments. For many Buddhists, the canons were seen a source of merit making through donations for the process of printing, copying, and housing the texts. In most areas a few texts were then selected for use in ritual. The chanting of these chosen works was another way to acquire merit and was also a spiritual practice performed as part of the central activities of the public halls of monasteries. Monastics studied the content of the texts and taught both lay and ordained followers by using passages from the books as a structural element of the discourses.


While it is possible to witness the widespread uses of the Buddhist canons, the more difficult matter is the way in which such a massive amount of information was assembled and codified. The sophistication of the content indicates that the canons were produced as part of an intensive training and study environment. The complexity of the content has led scholars to conclude that only a small percentage of Buddhists ever read and assimilated the whole of the intellectual and religious issues within the canons. These texts are often seen as "elite" documents that cannot be used to adequately describe the "popular" practices and beliefs of the majority of Buddhists. However, it is impossible to describe the practices of beliefs of Buddhists without taking into account the importance they placed on the canonic collections as objects of veneration. Over the centuries the communities have copied and preserved the texts as an integral part of their heritage and have put forward enormous efforts in the construction, writing, printing, and digitizing of their canonsindications of the canons' importance in a variety of popular as well as elite arenas.

In order to study the history of the Buddhist canons and to interpret the actions of those who contributed to that story, it is necessary to have a picture of the ways in which the appearance and preservation of the canons occurred in the different cultural spheres of Asia. For example, Buddhism in India was diversified by its expansion into regions far separated from one another. Because there was never any proscription against the use of local languages for transmitting the discourses of the Buddha, the identification of the list of texts to be included in a canon remained unfixed. In the beginning the texts were preserved orally and were recited for the followers by monks called bhanakas. These recitations were probably of two types. The first was the recitation of the dharma the remembered words of the Buddhaidentified by the preamble, "Thus have I heard." The hearer referred to in this case was the disciple Ananda. Tradition holds that he was asked to give the first recitation of the remembered teachings at an assembly known as the First Council of arhats immediately following the parinirvāa, or death of the Buddha. In addition to these types of teachings, later to be codified as the sūtra literature, there was a second division that related to the rules of conduct (Vinaya) for those who lived by monastic rule.

Eventually the canon was expanded to include a third category called abhidharma, a special exegetic literature that organized the teachings found in the sūtras into numerical categories. These lists were originally referred to as matrka (mother). It may be that the list of the topics taught by the Buddha was one way of guarding against the later introduction of items that did not belong to the earlier versions of the texts. Given this tripartite division, the Buddhists referred to the canon as a whole as the Tripiaka (Three baskets).

While the division of the texts into three types is the most common way of referring to the Buddhist canon structure, there were alternate groupings, such as the twelve textual genres: sūtra, geya, vyakarana, gatha, udana, nidana, itivrttaka, jātaka, vaipulya, Adbutadharma, avadana, and upadesa. In some cases these groupings were used as part of the titles of texts. It is no longer possible, however, to have a complete definition for how each of these types was differentiated from others.

As Buddhism grew, it developed a number of sectarian groups, recognized in the histories as the "Eighteen Schools." These schools contended with one another for support and argued over which texts were canonical. Because most of these groups have disappeared as distinct communities, leaving behind no full description of lists of accepted texts, it is also not possible to have a full inventory of the variety of Buddhist canons in India.

Writing It Down

It was some centuries before the canon was preserved in written form. In the Theravāda tradition of South and Southeast Asia, it is alleged that the canon was kept in its oral form until 29 bce, when the Fourth Council was held in Sri Lanka under the aegis of King Vattagamani. At the councilsimilar to the story of the First Councila single monk was called to recite the entire teaching of the Buddha; in this case it was a monk called Mahendra, who had been sent to Sri Lanka by King Aśoka (r. c. 270230 bce). King Vattagamani had five hundred scribes and reciters set to commit the canon to written form. (Whereas this is the traditional view, it should be noted that it was not until the fifth century ce that the final list of texts for the Theravāda canon could be agreed upon, and even then the material to be included in the Khuddaka Nikaya remained unsettled.)

The Pali language canon of the Theravāda tradition has been preserved and maintained in areas such as Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia. These areas faithfully preserved the Indic form and did not attempt to put the texts into vernacular translations. Instead, the Pali was rendered in local script for the representation of the sounds. A similar pattern was followed in Korea and Japan, where the Chinese-character version was accepted as the standard; translations into Korean and Japanese language formats have only taken place in modern times. The maintenance of the Pali and Chinese as international canonic languages is tied to the history of literacy in Asia, where Indian and Chinese sources were often the first examples of written texts.

The Pali canon has been preserved in several forms. In Burma the so-called Fifth Council was held in 1871 under the patronage of King Mindon Min. During that council, the canon was reedited by comparison of text variants and at the end of the process was engraved on 729 stones that have been placed in a monastery near Mandalay. A Sixth Council was opened in Rangoon in 1954, and the canon was chanted by an assembly of twenty-five hundred monks. After two years the council was concluded, and a printed version of the Pali canon, approved by the gathering, appeared in Burmese script.

While Theravāda Buddhists have held that Pali is the official canonical language, they have been willing to transcribe the canon into various local scripts, reproducing the Pali sounds without translating. In Cambodia the royal court ordered that the Khmer edition of the canon be published; work on it began in 1929 and was completed in 1969. In this case the Cambodians broke with the older tradition and not only put the Pali into Khmer script but added a vernacular translation that paralleled it. In Europe a major effort, mounted under the direction of the Pali Text Society, sought to preserve and translate the Pali canon. The preparation of a modern critical edition began in 1882; by the early twenty-first century eighty-nine volumes had been edited and printed in roman transliteration. While this version had no official support from the sangha (Sanskrit, sagha ; the Buddhist religious community)as did the Burmese and the Khmer editionsit is a major contribution to the study of the Pali canon.

The Thai Buddhists have also been active in the work of editing and preserving the canon. In the eighteenth century King Rāma I (17371809 ce) convened a council of several hundred monks to restore the canon that was destroyed when the Burmese pillaged the capital at Ayutthaya. The Thai Buddhists then prepared a palm-leaf edition and presented it to King Rāma in 1788. His grandson, Rāma III (17881851 ce), had several additional copies of the leaves made. Much later their descendant King Chulalongkorn Rāma V (18681910) set in motion the project of having the canon printed in Thai script, an activity completed in 1893.

MahĀyĀna Texts

The emergence of the Mahāyāna tradition around the beginning of the common era brought about a burst of creative literary energy within Buddhism. Based on the premise that "whatever is well-spoken is the word of the Buddha" (A. iv 164; Sn 450, 454), Mahāyāna communities began to produce new works they called sūtra, to which they affixed the preamble, "Thus have I heard," indicating that these texts, like their counterparts in the Eighteen Schools, were originally spoken by the Buddha. The Mahāyāna texts severely attacked the other schools and called them the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hīnayāna), thereby claiming that they understood only a portion of the higher teaching.

The Mahāyāna, along with the other schools, added to the canon commentaries on the sūtras called śastra, vyakhya, and tika. Such commentaries kept the canon open and made it possible for the incorporation of later teachings over the centuries.

In modern times the extant Sanskrit manuscripts are few in number compared to other Buddhist canonical collections. Some palm-leaf manuscripts still survive in India, several from the ninth-century Pala dynasty. The Nepalese manuscripts exist in greater number than those in India; through the centuries an active scribal tradition continued to ensure the preservation of materials. The Nepalese copies date mostly from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and show all the marks of many scribes, including a large number of errors that have accumulated. Some Sanskrit documents are kept in Tibet, and the Potala Palace in Lhasa still houses thousands of palm leaves in its archives.


As Buddhism began to spread outside of the Indian cultural sphere, canonical texts were carried along in both written form and in the memories of the missionary monks. Because there was no restriction regarding the language to be used for the texts, many were eventually translated. The most important development in this regard took place in China, where the task of translating was indeed a formidable one. The Sanskrit and other Indic texts presented the Chinese with a complex grammatical configuration of nouns in three numbers and three genders, verbs in three persons and numbers, and the designations for such inflections as present, imperfect, imperative, and optative. This was difficult for the Chinese, who had to render these texts into their own language using characters rather than a syllabary, with a written language that lacked inflections for case, number, tense, mood, or voice, and where the relationship between charactersby position, stress, or particlesestablished the nature of syntax. Notwithstanding these problems, for over a thousand years the Chinese continued translating the canon, in the process preserving hundreds of texts that have disappeared in other areas. Ironically some of these Chinese versions of the texts (a number of which were translated as early as the second century ce) may be closer in content to the ur-text than the extant Sanskrit manuscripts of India and Nepal, which date from a late period in Buddhist history. The translated canons played a major role in the promulgation of Buddhism. From Sanskrit came the Chinese as well as a major portion of the Tibetan canon, and from the Chinese came the Manchu and Tangut canons. The Tibetan would in turn be used as the source for the Mongolian canon.

The preservation of the Chinese canon followed a different course than that of India or Southeast Asia. Whereas the Buddhist canon was one of the first collections to use the new technology of printing in China in the tenth century, the rest of the Buddhist world maintained the palm or birch-bark manuscript formats until modern printed versions were completed and published. (At first the Chinese also made manuscripts using manufactured surfaces of silk or paper with strips pasted together to form long scrolls.)

Canonic lists were established by the fourth century in China, largely through the compilation of catalogs of the holdings of various monastic libraries. In one sense the Chinese canonic list was started as a library shelf list. Biographies of eminent Chinese monks, travelogues, histories, and apologetic literature were also included in these. As the canonnow literally a librarycontinued to grow, the problem of recopying the whole collection became severe and expensive. Unlike the Pali canon (which, although large, was still of a size that could be copied with support from devoted laity), the Chinese canon, with its more than five thousand scrolls, was too massive to be copied without great effort.

The Fang Shan stones

One of the early attempts to preserve the growing number of translations in Chinese was the project of having the texts inscribed on stone. The largest assemblage of these engraved stones is in the caves of the Fang Shan district, which houses over fifteen thousand milled stone slabs, incised on both sides with the Buddhist texts.

The Fang Shan stones were produced in two distinct fashions over a six-century period. The first stones, from the Sui (581618 ce) and Tang (618907 ce) dynasties, were prepared as donations from lay groups. There was some attempt to fashion a sequential group of texts in the order found in ancient library catalogs. However, the donors often chose to reproduce multiple copies of popular texts rather than follow a set order. Initially begun by a local monk named Jing-wanjust before the founding of the Tang dynastythe project continued until the last days of the Jin dynasty (11151234).

Because many of the Fang Shan stones carry inscriptions regarding the donors and the dates, it has been possible to reconstruct the process by which the carvings were accomplished. Hundreds of believers from that region formed associations to raise money for the carving of single or multiple blocks each year. On Buddha's birthday celebration the laity gathered at the site and carried the stones up the mountainside, placing them in caves for safekeeping. The first type of stones, some weighing hundreds of pounds, are dated 631 to 863 ce, the largest extant collection of manuscripts from the Tang dynasty. The rituals and the support given to the Fang Shan stones is a striking example of how important the Buddhist canon was for ordinary groups of people.

The nature of the stones at Fang Shan changed when the Khitan people established their reign over the area. In 1042 ce the court of the Liao dynasty (9161125) took over the stone engraving process, and until 1110 it was a royal project. Few stones from laypeople were permitted in the caves. As the Liao dynasty lost power to the growing might of the Jurchen, people who called their dynasty Jin picked up the project that had come to a halt because of the political upheavals. For fifty years (11321182 ce) new stones were produced as part of the Jin dynasty's support of Buddhism. Because the project was under the control of officials, all stones were of standard size, and the sequence of the canonic list was followed in making new stones. Not much is mentioned about these stones in the histories outside of that particular region. In 1957 the Chinese Buddhist Association undertook the task of removing all stones from the caves to make rubbings of them and publish a full catalog. In the process they found that the Jin stones had been buried underneath the pagoda in a nearby monastery rather than in the caves cut from the stone cliff on the mountain.

The importance of the Fang Shan stones to the study of Chinese Buddhist canon is twofold: as the source for a study of the ancient manuscripts and as an example of the practices followed by the community of believers in those centuries. In many cases these stones are the oldest dated textual witness for Chinese manuscript study of the canon. Although the Fang Shan stones contain a large number of texts, it is not a complete set of the Chinese Buddhist canon. The canon was not produced in its entirety until the Song dynasty (9601279 ce) undertook the revolutionary project of using the new technology of printing. In the year 972 a commission was given by the court to carve the entire canon onto wooden printing blocks in the city of Cheng du (in Sichuan), the wood carving center for China. This work went forward until 983, during which time 130,000 blocks were carved, containing the material of more than 5,000 rolls of manuscripts, each one 15 pages in length.

Distributing the Canon

When the printed edition of the Chinese canon was made available, it became the standard for official manuscript copying centers. This ensured a more fixed canon because identical xylographic copies could be made and distributed throughout China. The making of manuscripts continued, but now they had a printed version for reference. It would be some centuries before the Chinese began to think of printing as a way of making hundreds of copies for wide distribution rather than as a special copy that stood as a standard for the older method of manual reproduction.

One set of the prints made from the Northern Song blocks was sent to Korea. The court saw the printed technology as a sign of national development and recognized it as a powerful tool for merit-making. The king initiated a project for the Buddhist canon that transferred the tracings of the outlines of the Chinese volumes onto wooden blocks. The stated purpose of this project was to secure help and good fortune for the nation. This first Koryŏ dynasty (Korean dynasty, 9181392 ce) xylograph collection, constructed during the period 1010 to 1030 ce, remained in use and continued to expand as new texts arrived from China until the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The occupying troops saw the wooden plates as a potential powerful talisman for the Koreans and burned the Hungwang Monastery where the plates were stored. During this difficult period, the court was exiled to the island of Kanghwa, and although his kingdom faced the rule of Mongols, King Kojong (r. 12131259) ordered that a second set of blocks be made. He saw the act of preparing wooden blocks for the Buddhist canon as a defensive measure against the invaders.

The work of creating the second set of Koryŏ printing blocks took place from 1236 to 1251 ce under the direction of Sugi, an ordained monk and scholar. Fortunately Sugi did not content himself with merely reproducing a facsimile of the first set of blocks. He wrote an account of the process, titled Koryo-kuk sinjo taejang kyogjon pyollok, and had it included in the set of plates. His descriptions indicate that he used a number of sources to check the readings of the Northern Song edition and made many editorial changes. At the conclusion of the second set, more than eighty-one thousand blocks had been carved with the new Sugi edition.

The new Sugi edition relied heavily on another national project of the Khitan people of the Liao dynasty. The Khitan canon has long been a mystery because so little of it has been preserved for study. But when twelve rolls from this version were discovered in Shanxi province and removed to Beijing in the 1980s, scholars had material with which to judge the readings and the approach used by the Khitan redactors. These two versions of the blocks provide proof that the scholars of China and Korea were not merely scribal copiers; they felt free to make corrections and to pick alternate readings when the text witness appeared to be in error.

A second canon was produced outside Chinese borders by the Jurchen people, who were for a time in a confederation with the Khitan. When the Jurchen defeated the Liao dynasty of the Khitans, they followed the practice of having a xylograph set made for the Buddhist canon. Fortunately a sizable portion of rubbings from this set were found in Shaanxi province and were published in a facsimile edition in Beijing. It appears this version was made in the same way as the first Koryŏ by transferring traced characters to the new blocks.

Preserving the Canon

Preserving the largest Buddhist canon was not left to the royal courts alone. As with the Fang Shan rock-cut canon, private resources were also used with printing. Local monasteries began producing sets of blocks that could be used to make large numbers of prints for distribution, and new xylograph copies are still being discovered. From the remaining prints scholars now have a better idea of the enormity of the task undertaken to preserve and disseminate the canon. The private editions are usually identified by the location of the blocks. In some cases, the blocks received royal support from the Ming court (13681644) and the Qing dynasty (16441911).

  1. Chong ning edition (eleventh to twelfth centuries): Dong-chan Monastery in Fu-zhou.
  2. Pi-lu edition (twelfth century): Kai-yuan Monastery in Fu-zhou.
  3. Sixi edition (11261132 ce): Yuan-jue chueh Monastery in Hu-zhou. This is the so-called Song edition.
  4. Zi-fu edition (12371252 ce): from Hu-zhou; thought to be a copy of the Sixi edition.
  5. Ji-sha edition (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries): prepared in Ping-jiang chiang-fu in Jiangsu. A copy of the major portions of this edition was discovered in Shanxi province in 1929 and was published in facsimile in 1932 in Shanghai using the Yong-lo edition to supply the missing portions.
  6. Pu-ning edition (thirteenth century): Puning Monastery in Hang-zhou. This is the so-called Yuan edition. There are a handful of volumes from a fourteenth-century Yuan version discovered in Yunnan in 1979.
  7. Hong-wu edition (13681398 ce): the first version of the canon done in Southern Ming in Nanjing. The blocks were destroyed in 1408.
  8. Yong-lo edition (completed 1419 ce):): the second version prepared in Nanjing, usually referred to as the Southern Ming edition.
  9. Yong-lo edition (fifteenth century; supplement in 1584 ce): prepared in Beijing and called the Northern Ming edition.
  10. Wu-lin edition (fifteenth century): portions recoved in 1982 of this Hang-zhou edition.
  11. Wan-li edition (sixteenth century): recovered in 1983. This is a recarving of number 8 above.
  12. Jia-xing/Jing-shan edition (sixteenth to eighteenth century): notable for its format of sewn volumes rather than folded ones.
  13. Qing edition (17331738 ce): a court project, often referred to as the Dragon edition.
  14. Pin-jia edition (19091914 ce): a movable type edition done in Shanghai. Based on the Shukusatsu edition of Japan, this version is sometimes called the Hardoon canon because of the support of the Hardoon family.

Whereas a large part of the Chinese Buddhist canon was translated, it in turn was also rendered into other language forms. For example, among the Tangut people and the Hsihsia Kingdom, the ruler Yuan Hao started the process of moving the Chinese over to the Tangut script in the eleventh century. By the twelfth century the Chinese technology of printing blocks was used to make reproductions of the Tangut version.

When the Mongols took control of the central government of China, they turned attention away from the Chinese canon and supported efforts to make the scripture available to non-Chinese. Because of their support of the Tibetan form of Buddhism, they paid attention to the preservation and dissemination of the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit and Chinese texts rather than relying solely on the Chinese canon.

The Tibetan Canon

The Tibetans had several problems to overcome in the construction of a canon in their own language. When Buddhism was introduced, no written form of the language could be easily used for the work of translation. In the seventh century King Sron bstan sgam po (d. 649 ce) set in motion the creation of a Tibetan alphabet. Tradition says that the work of translation began by the eighth century with help of such Indian masters as Śāntarakita (c. 725790) and Padmasambhava. Studies show, however, that it was not until the thirteenth century that the translations were collected together and classified into a set that could be called a canon. The monastery at Snar than undertook this task and made the first catalog, dividing the texts into the Bka' ʻgyur (Kanjur ), which included all of the sūtras (the words attributed to the Buddha), and the Bstan 'gyur (Tanjur ), or commentaries. The Yuan court undertook to make a printing block set for the Tibetan translations. In 1410 in Beijing the Bka' ʻgyur was put on blocks shaped in the long, narrow format used by the Tibetans, which copied the style of the palm-leaf manuscripts of India. A second set of blocks, added as a supplement to the earlier ones, was produced in the seventeenth century. In the latter part of the same century another carving was done, followed in 1724 by a set of Bstan ʻgyur blocks.

The set of rubbings taken from the blocks made during the reign of the Kangxi emperor and from the 1724 set are known collectively as the "Beijing edition." In the eighteenth century blocks were carved in areas occupied by Tibetan-speaking peoples. Sets were made at Snar than, Co ne, and Sde dge. Of these the Sde dge (Derge) is the favorite among scholars because of its careful editing. The last major editing task, commissioned by the thirteenth Dalai Lama, resulted in the production of the "Lhasa edition" of the Bka' 'gyur in 1931. This later edition is a comparison of the Sde dge and Snar than editions.

The translation of the Tibetan into Mongolian was started in the Yuan dynasty by imperial command. Lidgam Khan (16041634) supported this project, resulting in the translation of the Bstan ʻgyur in 113 volumes. These volumes containing the Mongolian language version were written in gold and silver ink. The Kangxi emperor decided to have the translation revised and edited and engraved on printing blocks. The first rubbings of the Mongolian blocks were made in 1720, and because red ink was used, the 108 volumes of the printed set became known as the "Imperial Red edition." The complex story of how the ruling court of China used the Buddhist canon for political and religious purposes is further indication that the canon had many functions in societies.

The Canon in Japanese

Japanese versions of the Chinese canon have come to play an important role in Buddhist scholarship. By the early twenty-first century most scholars used printed editions from Japan made from movable metal type. Prior to the modern versions, however, woodblock editions were also made in Japan, which reportedly received a copy of the rubbings from the North Song edition in the eleventh century. However, the Japanese did not immediately produce their own woodblocks. It was not until the monk Tenkai made the first set of blocks in the seventeenth century that the Japanese obtained their own local print edition.

In 1681 Tetsugen produced a second set of blocks based on the Ming editions. In the nineteenth century the "Tokyo canon" was printed (18001885), and punctuation was introduced. The second Koryŏ edition was the basis for this Tokyo version. A "Kyoto canon" appeared between 1902 and 1905 based on the Koryŏ prints as well as some of the Ming readings from the Tetsugen edition. A critically edited version of the Chinese Buddhist canon printed from 1922 to 1933 is known as the "Taisho canon." This edition is used by most scholars when making footnote references to the Chinese canon. The basic text of the Taisho canon is from the Tokyo canon, which in turn copied the Koryŏ edition.

The Canon in the Computer Age

In addition to these "received" versions of the canons, there are still occasionally some important archaeological finds, especially in regions of Central Asia. The discoveries of documents in cave 17 at Dunhuang, the cache of birch-bark manuscripts found in the stupa at Gilgit, and the texts written on wood in the ruins of the Tarim Basin have all contributed to knowledge of the way in which the Buddhist canon spread throughout Asia.

The translation of the canons is an ongoing process. The twentieth century saw an increase in the efforts to have vernacular versions available in printed form. Continued interest in the Buddhist scripture is indicated by the 1969 Cambodian translation of the Pali canon, the two modern Korean translations of the Chinese into the hangul script in both North Korea and South Korea, and the translation of much of the Chinese into a form of classical Japanese. Active translation projects have involved the English language. The Pali Text Society completed a major portion of the Pali canon into English, along with critical editions and aids, such as dictionaries and studies, and with funding from the Yehan Numata Foundation, a translation bureau has been established for the purpose of translating the Chinese canon into English (plans call for the translation and publication of 139 texts in the first phase of the project).

Buddhist communities that wish to move the canon from printed form to computerized versions have taken advantage of the digital age. In the late 1980s Mahidol University began the process of digitizing the Thai edition completed in the nineteenth centurythe first full canon to appear in the new technology. Other groups followed the strategy, producing full digital versions of the Burmese "Sixth Council" edition, the Singhalese edition, and the Pali Text Society edition. The work of digitizing the Chinese Buddhist canon was more difficult, however; it required software development for the input of the ancient characters. The first complete digital version, the Koryŏ canon, is based on the printing blocks at Haein Monastery, followed by the input of the Japanese "Taisho" edition, the first internet-accessible form of the Chinese canon. In the early twenty-first century work began on the Tibetan canon as well with the intention of creating a database that contains many of the extant Sanskrit texts. The acceptance of the computer as a method for dissemination has been universal among the major Buddhist communities, and the willingness to expend funds for the creation of these databases indicates the esteem and value that the canon still possesses.

The Future of the Canon

From this survey of the history of the Buddhist canon it should be clear that, long before such activities were prevalent in the West, the Buddhists were editing, translating, and printing their scriptures. Because the canons remained open for such a long period (in a sense, the Chinese canon is still open), the size and nature of the collections of texts were unique among the religions of the world. No one group has ever controlled the development of the canons or exercised dominion over the decision about the inventory of texts to be included. In China especially the canon was lengthened because of a willingness to accept a great variety of texts into it. Scholars of popular religions point out that the texts most often used in East Asia are mainly written and compiled in China. These texts purport to be translations from Sanskrit, when in fact they originate from East Asia. Because the texts are supposedly from India, they have been described in ancient Chinese catalogs as "spurious" or in modern times as "apocryphal."

In some cases the East Asian texts have been readily assimilated into the canonic lists, but in others they have been rejected. It is understandable that the Chinese religious heritage would find an avenue of expression in new texts. The canonic listing was important for such works because the preservation of texts required the copy centers and the distribution network of the monasteries and government agencies. Whereas the East Asian texts deserve closer study, it is also the case that the canonic texts from Indic sources were continually cited by commentators and teachers over the centuries. These citations have yet to be fully documented, but they are important for the study of the canon because they will provide an insight into what texts were read by the scholar-monks in their writings and oral teachings.

As the Chinese Buddhist monastics achieved a degree of assurance about their understanding of the teachings, by the Tang dynasty they were less fixed on the translations from India. A shift occurred, and monastics moved away from reliance on the older canonic textsalthough they did not fully reject them. Among the Chan schools, new literature appeared as the teachings of great masters, whose insights were taken to be the equal of any Indian exegete. Much of this literature used the translated canon as the authority for the masters, who did not claim to be dependent on the texts; rather, they acquired their understanding from meditation. The use of the older canon indicated that what the masters had experienced was in no way distant from the insights of the Buddha himself.

Later in the Chan movement the growing influence and popularity of certain great teachers, such as Mazu, helped create a situation in which the texts central to the school came from the records of these Chinese masters. They no longer felt the need to claim Indian origin for the teachings; it was now seen as coming directly from the Chinese culture and the Buddhist community. Instead of the "apocryphal" text of the past, the Chinese volumes were prized beyond all others and were seen as originating within the Chinese environment.

One can see that the use of the canon was multifaceted. At a time when the Chan school was distancing itself from the Chinese Buddhist canon, the large monasteries in China continued to make hundreds of thousands of printing blocks. The canon could thus be revered as an object and used for merit-making, whereas in other cases it served as a source of authority for the teachings of the Chinese masters.


Buddhist texts offer the scholarly world excellent examples of material that can be used to study the ways a text can change and be reformatted over time. A major problem for the editor or translator of a Buddhist text is that of making decisions based on a multiplicity of versions, sometimes in several languages and dating from different periods. The usual object of the editor is to achieve a reading that is as close as possible to the ur-text. However, this search is nearly impossible because the texts have been in a fluid state for centuries, and the received versions may have come from a stemma that includes multiple contending versions. Indeed some of the sūtras are compilations of set formulas that can be put together in any number of arrangements, altering from one time or place to another. Thus the collating of various codices from a number of stemmas does not lead to an autograph from which all witnesses have emerged.

If one could reconstruct the edition in such a fashion as to remove all the conflations, additions, and expansions of the doctrine, the resulting text would lose much of its value. Buddhist texts exhibit the changing modes of the tradition. Just as literary criticism focuses on the reader as much as it does on the author's intent, so too does Buddhist canonic literature represent the changes made by readers who left behind small traces of their contributions to the modern text.

The modern interest in canon is based primarily on European and North American literature. The Buddhist canon offers another pattern for exploration. It is a canon that has shifted and changed over time, a canon that has included contemporary workeven when it masquerades as the work of another time and place, a canon with texts that expand and contract and translations that preserve one or another version as well as the possibility of adding new texts in the future. Thus the potential has existed and often been realized for the addition of whole new sets of texts in the canon of Buddhismsuch as the later Tantric tradition, the Mahāyāna writings, a variety of commentarial approaches, versions of texts appearing in new translations, and finally, an acceptance of East Asian texts as equal if not superior to the Indian ones.

Because the Buddhist canons represent the written part of a religion that teaches the constant availability of the insights of enlightenment and holds that the teaching of its founder, Śākyamuni, need not be the only expression of the highest teaching, it is not surprising to find canons of large size. The Buddhist canons provide a valid source for the study of the religion. The hundreds of texts represent all levels of the ideas and concepts. Even though maintained by the "elite" monastic community, the canons are filled with expressions of "popular" practices over the centuries. The Chinese canon's inclusion of works created in East Asia is an example of the complexity of the sources and the history of the world's largest scriptural collection.

See Also

Councils, article on Buddhist Councils.


Buswell, Robert. Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Honolulu, 1990.

Collins, Steven. "On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon." Journal of the Pali Text Society 15 (1990): 89126.

Davidson, Ronald. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York, 2002.

Goodrich, L. Carrington. "Earliest Printed Editions of the Tripiaka." Visva Bharati Quarterly 19 (Winter 19531954): 215220.

Jong, J. W. D. "Notes a propose des colophons du Kanjur." Zentralasiatische Studien 6 (1972): 505559.

Kychanov, Evgeniy I. "From the History of the Tangut Translation of the Buddhist Canon." In Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Körös, edited by Louis Ligeti, vol. 1, pp. 377387. Bibliotheca Orientalis Hungarica, vol. 28. Budapest, 1984.

Lancaster, Lewis R. "Editing of Buddhist Texts." In Buddhist Thought and Asian Civilization, edited by Leslie Kawamura and Leslie Scott, pp. 145151. Emeryville, Calif., 1977.

Lancaster, Lewis R. "Buddhist Literature: Its Canons, Scribes, and Editors." In The Critical Study of Sacred Texts, edited by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, pp. 215229. Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series, vol. 2. Berkeley, Calif., 1978.

Mitra, Rajendralala. The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal. Calcutta, 1971.

Poceski, Mario. "Attitudes toward Canonicity and Religious Authority in Tang Chan." In American Academy of Religion Abstracts. Atlanta, 2002.

Ray, A. K., ed. Sacred Texts of Buddhism: A Catalogue of Works Held in the Australian National University Library. Canberra, 1981.

Simonsson, Nils. Indo-Tibetische Studien: Die Methoden der tibetischen Uversetzer, untersucht im Hinblick auf die Bedeutung ihrer Ubersetzung fur die Sanskritpilologie, vol. 1. Uppsala, 1957.

Lewis R. Lancaster (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 15, 2018).

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.