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Why is it that Buddhism never compiled a reasonably concise set of canonical texts like the Bible? Buddhism itself has universal beliefs such as the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the notion of going for refuge. To me then it doesn't seem unreasonable that there could have been a Buddhist Bible that complied these central beliefs in the same way as the Christian Bible.

Even though the Christian world is diverse they still manage with one Bible (though I do appreciate there are different version such as the Orthodox Bible) and this Bible forms the basis of new forms of Christianity or new emphasis on Christian belief. However Buddhism seems to have an enormous array of texts over a number of different canons (Pali, Chinese, Tibetan) and commentaries and para canonical texts. Why the difference?

Is there something in the history or culture of these two religions that caused them to treat their texts differently. Am I wrong and the differences aren't really there if you look at it correctly? Is it a theological matter? I appreciate you could ask the same question about Islam and Hinduism (I think) but I want to keep the question as on-topic and tractable as possible.

  • There is "The Three Cardinal Discourses", that is like a shortened version of the entire Pali Canon. There is always "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula that anyone can download for free off the internet, as well as countless other similar dhamma texts that teach the Buddha's teaching concisely. – Lowbrow Oct 5 '14 at 15:11
  • @user535875 thank you for that. Appreciated. But i'm not really asking for a reference to a Buddhist Bible as such. I'm more asking why Buddhism itself has so many texts as compared to Christianity and why Buddhism as a religion never to my knowledge produced a concise document that was widely accepted and transmitted as part of the spread of the religion. Your reference do look interesting though – Crab Bucket Oct 5 '14 at 15:14
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    "Why isn't there a Buddhist Bible?": Why does the Tripitaka fails to correspond with the bible? – Thiago Oct 5 '14 at 18:27
  • @ThiagoSilva this is a very valid point. From my own naive perspective the Bible seems to me to be something that has validity across all strands of Christianity. Does the Tripitaka have a similar status (genuine question - i don't know). – Crab Bucket Oct 5 '14 at 20:07
  • @CrabBucket popular saying is that current Tripitakas are acknowledged by all ramifications of buddhism -- someone else here may know this in more details. But, though many translations are said to be quite consistent, some editions have significant variations, both in text and in books (I've read that while Nikayas are pretty consistent overall across editions, the Abhidarma is drastically different). It is also hard to generalize the importance of variations in suttas: while many are of smaller importance, some are not. – Thiago Oct 5 '14 at 20:24
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Why is it that Buddhism never compiled a reasonably concise set of canonical texts like the Bible?

One could equally ask, "why didn't Christianity compile a lengthy and diverse set of canonical texts like the Tripiṭaka?"

The thing is, Buddhism does have a canonical set of texts that are widely viewed by all major Buddhist traditions as canonical (as far as being the teachings given by the Buddha during his life time), organized into books and sections somewhat like the Christian bible. And while the exact makeup of the set differs from tradition to tradition, the core texts (mainly the first four nikayas of the sutta pitaka in Pali - the agamas in Chinese), are agreed upon as canonical. This is not dissimilar to the situation that exists between Judaism and Christianity.

So, there only remains the question, why is the Buddhist canon not "reasonably concise"?

The first reason for the difference in length is a great amount of repetition, brought about both by 1) the fact that Buddhism was orally transmitted for so long and repetition helped with memorization, and 2) the state of having a good number of the same teachings given multiple times in slightly different contexts and faithfully recorded in duplicate, triplicate, etc.

The second reason is the discrepancy in time span. Jesus taught for around three years before getting himself killed; the Buddha lived to the ripe old age of 80, teaching for 45 years from the time of his enlightenment. One scholar (Rhys-Davids, IIRC) estimated that, all repetition removed, the Tipitaka is approximately eleven times the size of the Christian bible. Given that the Buddha taught fifteen times as long as Jesus, this seems like a fairly reasonable difference.

EDIT: removed the third reason.

  • Perhaps it's better to point out that Bible (well, the New Testament) was not written by Jesus, not even his disciples: it's written by people hundreds of years after his supposed existence, its contents are actually less teachings and more moral stories, which might explain its relatively short length – Raestloz Oct 6 '14 at 3:47
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    @Raestloz: You are mistaken (or at least grossly oversimplifying). The NT wasn't written "hundreds of years" after Jesus existence: although there is some dispute, most modern scholarship dates most of the NT to within 100 years of Jesus death, and the rest to within 150 years or so. Large portions were written by those who new Jesus personally, or was written under the direction of those who did (the major exception being the parts written by Paul). – Kramii Reinstate Monica Oct 7 '14 at 13:18
  • @Kramii last time I read about New Testament, it was said to be about 200-400 years after Jesus's supposed existence, perhaps I was wrong, but even if we agree on 100-150, then we should expect that those who knew Jesus personally lived to about 100-130 years, while Moses himself was supposed to be only 120 years old, and life expectancy for Jesus' generation was about 70-80 years: raptureready.com/rr-last-generation.html. By the time someone writes down Bible, it'd at least be third if not fourth hand account – Raestloz Oct 8 '14 at 2:02
  • Note that I'm not dismissing New Testament here, I'm just saying that since it's not directly from the teacher himself, its contents lean more on being moral stories: long enough to tell the gist, but short enough to stay interesting, which may contribute to its length – Raestloz Oct 8 '14 at 2:05
  • Now I'm curious what the removed third reason was...! – InvalidBrainException Mar 30 '15 at 0:16
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I think it is mistaken to think that Christianity just has the Bible as it's authority and everything else is dispensable. That idea only showed up at the time of the protestant reformation, and before that, the writings of the Church fathers (which are quite voluminous) and books on theology were regarded as an absolutely essential part of Christian doctrine. Even for Catholic and Orthodox Christians of today the suggestion that the Bible is the only supreme source of doctrine is rejected. They believe that the Sacred Tradition passed down through the ages is equally authoritative as the Bible itself.

Buddhism has such a large variety of texts largely because in the early days after the Buddha's passing into Parinibbana, converting the oral teaching into memorized texts was the only way that the teaching could be adequately preserved. These texts were transmitted to different places and so were commented on and interpreted differently by different people, leading to commentarial literature and many other works being written. Much of this also happened with Christianity as well, although the Bible isn't as big as the Tipitika. It was only within the past 500 years or so that some Christians began to focus on the Bible to the exclusion of these many writings, and even they rely very much on their own writings.

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    Christian tradition has always considered a set of books as being more authoritative. The canon has varied, but certain books have remained constant. – yters Oct 6 '14 at 3:33
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    @yters To this day the Roman Catholic church teaches that you must not put your interpretation of the Bible ahead of the Church's; that the Bible should be read as informed by the Holy Spirit and in accordance with the teaching of the Magisterium. Alternatively the Quakers clearly consider the Holy Spirit to be at least as authoritative as the scriptures. – ChrisW Nov 21 '14 at 11:23
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If you separate a bible, you have actually many books therein. Also, there are, as you pointed, many "bibles", that is, not only different translations, but bibles formed by different sets of books -- some books are accepted here, some are rejected there. If you take the tipitaka, it is also formed by many books. Correspondingly, there are different versions and editions of it.

So, christianity, just like buddhism, produced many "books" (Matthew, Mark, Acts, Romans, Revelation etc, on one hand and, say, Majjhima Nikaya, Dhammapada, Khandhavagga, etc on the other). Christianity, just like buddhism, had groups selecting and discarding texts through time, establishing a certain canon for them.

An early example of this the buddhism councils.

On the christian side, this reminds me of some books I've read from a catholic father about the First Council of Nicea and how (overly simplifying), part of it, was about determining a christian canon -- that is, selecting the books that were being used by churchs, that show some consistency among themselves, etc, and apparently burning ones that were not (something to do with new sects popping up with corrupted texts to take advantage of the trends). But wikipedia presents material that disagrees so, this may not correspond to fact. However different, processes of determining what books form a certain canon still took place through time.

This just illustrates the point that there is a historical process, whatever it is, in both traditions, involving people who compiled what is part of the canon (call it a bible, or a tipitaka) -- and, in face of apocryphal material, what is not. Also, some groups may decide to preserve early material, rise the criteria for acceptance, and see late material with different eyes, while other groups may decide that some late material stands in equal footing, or is a legitimate continuation of (and fundamental contribution to) the early ones.

For example, Paul of Tarsus came in after, but his writings were welcomed in the canon (I wonder if any early group rejected his work?). Similarly, Nagasena came many years after the Buddha's parinirvana. So did Huineng.

Finally, both traditions had many authors publishing books on top of the core texts.

So, it seems to me the difference is the physical limits that a physical book imposes on the number of pages. While the bible can be formatted as a single physical book, I think it would be a challenge to have a unitary physical Tripitaka.

But, again, this is the electronic age of Kindles and such...

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    Just for the remarks at the end concerning Paul of Tarsus: There was sharp, and I'd say even harsh, disagreements between Paul and Petrus in the question of eating meat and of circumcision and the general relations between Jews and non-jews - in that Paul won that disputes his believes and precepts became more authoritative and canonic, but it was not at all in the beginning. There are more such points traded which were in dispute in the first christian "sanghas": and they had not one but 12 authorities for the interpretation of the teaching of Jesus - and existed widely as potential outlaws – Gottfried Helms Oct 6 '14 at 9:18
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Why is it that Buddhism never compiled a reasonably concise set of canonical texts like the Bible. Buddhism itself has universal beliefs such as the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the notion of going for refuge. To me then it doesn't seem unreasonable that there could have been a Buddhist Bible that complied these central beliefs in the same way as the Christian Bible.

Printed/published books like that (i.e. a reasonably concise set of canonical texts) certainly exist. For example there was one (titled "The life and sayings of the Buddha" or something like that) in my hotel room in Singapore, next to (i.e. as well as) a Christian bible (and, if I recall correctly, a Hindu bible and a Muslim bible).

Admittedly it's a set of canonical texts, not a canonical set of texts.

Even though the Christian world is diverse they still manage with one Bible

Yes, actually I don't think they do manage with just one Bible. In the Catholic Church, for example, the equivalent of "the dharma" is IMO "the magisterium" which includes teachings by the Pope and Bishops.

However Buddhism seems to have an enormous array of texts over a number of different canons (Pali, Chinese, Tibetan) and commentaries and para cononical texts. Why the difference?

Perhaps you are ignoring different Christian sects: for example, don't you think that the Lutheran "canon" would include the writings of Luther? And that Luther's writings are not "canonical" for other sects?

To pick another example, because the Quakers believe in continuing revelation IMO their canon is still being developed.

Moving on to Buddhism, I'd like to quote the following which might describe why the Buddhist canon isn't edited unnecessarily.

Reform of Vinaya

Finally, there is a consideration based upon the nature of the training and the end which it has in view. From the Buddha-time down to the present it has been found that a careful application of the Vinaya's principles by a bhikkhu in his life promotes his practice and understanding of Dhamma: "Vinaya leads to restraint; restraint to the absence of remorse; absence of remorse leads to joy; joy to delight; delight to tranquility; tranquility leads to happiness; happiness to collectedness; collectedness to knowledge and vision of the truly existent; knowledge and vision of the truly existent to revulsion;[9] revulsion to dispassion; dispassion to freedom; freedom to knowledge-and-vision of freedom; and knowledge-of-vision to freedom leads to Nibbana free from (clinging to) substrata (for rebirth)" (Vinaya, Parivara, 169). When Vinaya has been so formulated as to guide a bhikkhu to the goal of Nibbana, who shall entertain thoughts altering it? It is we who have to change by our practice of Dhamma-Vinaya, to come up to its level and not to expect it to change for us. In this connection, there is a little fable:

At one time there was a great and flourishing tree standing as it had stood for many, many hundreds of years. It was so beautiful that men and women bringing their children would come from scores of miles about to gaze in wonder at its perfect and majestic shape. Under its mighty spread of branches multitudes could sit down enjoying its cool shade. Even animals would come and delight themselves according to their several habits, some upon the grass beneath and some sporting amid the profusion of leaves, flowers, and fruits. And such flowers of such fragrance — no one knew where else their like might be found. And such fruits as this tree bore and in such abundance! No wonder that they are called best, highest, foremost and supreme among all fruits produced by other trees. So the seasons and the years rolled by and still the mighty tree stood hardly changed, for where one branch died off, another grew to replace it. The delight of many beings, visible and invisible, was in the health and long life of this ancient tree. Then, in accordance with the change inherent in things, fashions changed and trees in their natural vigor were no longer praised but trimmed and artificially-shaped trees were thought more beautiful. Agitation began among some men for the tree to be shaped up according to modern taste. Eventually, due to debased ideas of people by that time, loppers and clippers tried their hands upon the millennial giant. Branch after branch fell loaded with flowers and bearing fruits. "Never mind," they said, "it will look much better when we have finished." Before long, the tree was pruned into the form of a perfect cube and this was regarded by almost everyone with satisfaction. Only a few ignorant people regretted the sawn-off limbs and bare branches with a few clusters of leaves left here and there. These ill-educated persons were heard regretting the lack of any shade. How stupid of them!

It is needless to say that the venerable tree flowered and bore fruit no more and due to shock, died shortly afterwards, leaving only its great, but dead framework which then became an object for the speculative theses of numerous men of books.

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Consider how the Bible arose. Four historical persons played key roles in bringing the Christian Bible to you. They were Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who thundered against any who did not accept exclusively the four gospels as divinely inspired; the 1st century ascetic Saint Jerome who translated Hebrew and Greek texts into the Latin Vulgate Bible; Johannes Gutenberg who in the 1450s printed the first Bibles in Latin; and Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury and chief overseer of the production of the King James Bible in English. In each man's case there was a power struggle in progress: Irenaeus was in doctrinal conflict expressed in "Against Heresies" with gnostic christians such as Valentinians whose scriptures were largely suppressed; Jerome was involved in the violent struggle in 366 between rival pope-elects Damasus and Ursinus as secretary to Damasus; Gutenberg printed his Bibles while the erudite Pope Nicholas V, smarting from the invasion of Constantinople (1453) urged the Portuguese to retaliate against "Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ"; and Bancroft was commanded by King James I of England to purge the Bible text of catholic and puritan influences.

Each of these christians mentioned believed they were handling the actual words revealed supernaturally to men by a supreme God who promises salvation conditionally through a particular congregational organization, whose doctrines its clergy must find justified in its Bible. Buddhism however, like other religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent, is a dharmic teaching that owes nothing to any organization-hungry supreme being. The source of Buddhist doctrine is an earthly man Gautama Sidhartha, not a god but one who by purely human effort reached an Enlightenment that buddhists have gratefully received and shared ever since.

The question about collecting a concise set of texts about the universal beliefs in Buddhism is a good and reasonable idea. I think it has been done already! For example the Dhammapada offers a collection of Buddha's sayings in a popular form, and among the suttas I find the great Mahaparinibbana Sutta (it means the Buddha's departure at death to Nirvana) and the Maha-sihanada Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar) both readable and rich in doctrine. Others can point to writings ancient and modern that they recommend; my references are within the conservative Therevada school.

However there is little impetus to produce a literal "Buddhist Bible" (although it has been done). The word "Bible" would contribute no more than the idea that the work is (like the Christian Bible) a collection of texts, and it would be seen as confronting the existing Bible. That is the approach of the Islamic Qur'an which Mohammad claimed is divinely revealed as an update and corrective to the Bible, and not the intention of Buddhism.

References: Dhammapada: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.intro.budd.html Maha-parinibbana sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html Maha-sihanada sutta http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.012.ntbb.html

  • An anonymous (not logged in) user suggested an edit to this post (which I rejected): which was that there is a Buddhist Bible, and that it is called the writing of Nichrien Daishoni. Vol (1) and (2) – ChrisW Feb 25 '16 at 16:11
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One possible reason why christianism has been more reluctant to add new texts into their canon is that it is a profetic religion, that is, a religion based on revelation assumed to come directly from a superior or ultimate entity (their God). Buddhism would be a "mystical religion" based on humans accessing the ultimate truth directly. Christians (or Jews or Muslims) would need to be sure that a text was inspired directly by God in order to add it to their canon.

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Just a guess. May be there were books clandestinely made and slowly destroyed by dominant Hindu patronage. The heavy hand of Emperor Asoka promulgated it on stone rather than on less permanent palmyra leaves as solidly standing popular effective stone reference sites.Invasions may also have destroyed any books along with the main Buddhist institutions.

protected by Andrei Volkov Oct 6 '14 at 15:52

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