Buddhist literature

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Perfection of Wisdom literature (Prajñāpāramitā). This Buddhist literature was composed over a long period, the nucleus of the material appearing from 100 BCE to 100 CE, with additions for perhaps two cents. later. There followed a period of summary and restatement in the form of short sūtras such as the Diamond and Heart Sūtras, c.300–500 CE, followed by a period of Tantric influence, 600–1200 CE. The oldest text is Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines).

The Prajñāpāramitā literature was innovative in two principal ways: (i) it advocated the bodhisattva ideal as the highest form of the religious life; and (ii) the ‘wisdom’ it teaches is that of the emptiness (śūnyatā) and non-production of phenomena (dharmas), rather than their substantial, albeit impermanent, mode of being.

Other important developments in the Perfection of Wisdom literature are the concept of ‘skilful means’ (upāya-kauśalya) and the practice of dedicating one's religious merit to others so that they are assisted in realizing śūnyatā in their own case. The major exponent of the Perfection of Wisdom school was Nāgārjuna.

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Buddhist literature: During his lifetime the Buddha taught not in Vedic Sanskrit, which had become unintelligible to the people, but in his own NE Indian dialect; he also encouraged his monks to propagate his teachings in the vernacular. After his death, the Buddhist canon was formulated and transmitted by oral tradition, and it was written down in several versions in the 2d and 1st cent. BC Its main divisions, called pitakas [baskets], are the Vinaya or monastic rules, the Sutra (Pali Sutta) or discourses of the Buddha, and the Abhidharma (Pali Abhidhamma) or scholastic metaphysics. Also included are the Jataka, stories about the previous births of the Buddha, many of which are non-Buddhist in origin. The only complete Indian version of the canon now extant is that of the Sri Lankan Theravada school, in the Pali language, written 29–17 BC (see Pali). North Indian Buddhist texts were written in a type of Sanskrit influenced by the vernaculars. Mahayana Buddhism produced its own class of sutras, and all schools of Buddhism generated a considerable body of commentary and philosophy. The entire corpus of Buddhist writings was translated into Chinese over a period of a thousand years, beginning in the 1st cent. AD This was a collaborative effort of foreign and Chinese monks. Its most recent edition, the Taisho Daizokyo (1922–33), is in 45 volumes of some 1,000 pages of Chinese characters each. Translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan was begun in the 7th cent. The final redaction of the canon was by the Buddhist historian Bu-ston (1290–1364) and is in two sections, the Kanjur (translation of the Buddha's word) and the Tanjur (translation of treatises), consisting altogether of about 320 volumes of Tibetan script. The Tibetan translation is extremely literal, following the Sanskrit almost word for word and based on standardized Sanskrit-Tibetan equivalences for Buddhist terms; thus it is particularly useful for scholars.

See M. Cummings, Lives of the Buddha in the Art and Literature of Asia (1982).