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Our text archive has over 17 million words!
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Kalyanavaca, London, UK
Sheila Groonell, Aryaloka, USA
Mary, FBA Team
Colum, London, UK
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
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... however, suggest that the term refers to the way in which earth and other excavated material was passed from hand to hand in baskets down a line of workmen. In the same way the monks handed down the sacred traditions, first in oral and then in literary form, from generation to generation.
The `three basketfuls' or `three collections' are, firstly, the Vinaya Pitaka or `Collection of Monastic Discipline'. In its present form this consists mainly of the rules governing the Monastic Order, including the circumstances in which these are promulgated, interspersed with a great deal of biographical, historical, and doctrinal matter. The original nucleus of this pitaka seems to have been a short life of the Buddha.
Secondly, the Sutra Pitaka or `Collection of Discourses, Dialogues, and Sayings of the Buddha' on various moral and spiritual topics. This is the most important collection. Thirdly, the Abhidharma Pitaka or `Collection of Higher Doctrine'. This is a systematic arrangement and scholastic analysis of material found in the Sutra Pitaka.
Traditionally the entire contents of the Tripitaka are regarded as Buddha-vachana or `Word of the Buddha'. The Buddha himself, of course, wrote nothing. Like Socrates and Christ, he taught orally. Those who remembered what he had said told his sayings to their disciples; they told theirs and in this way the teaching was transmitted to posterity. Only after five hundred years, approximately, of oral transmission was the teaching committed to writing. Much, no doubt, had been added. Much, perhaps, had been lost.
At present there are extant in the Buddhist world three major editions of the Tripitaka: firstly, the Chinese San Tsang or `Three Treasuries' (i.e. Tri-pitaka) in 55 volumes; secondly, the Tibetan Kanjur (`Buddha-vachana') in 100 or 108 volumes. Both these editions consist mainly of translations from the Sanskrit, many of the original texts having since been lost. Thirdly, the Pali Tipitaka in 45 volumes (Royal Thai edition). This is the only version of the canon to have survived complete in the language in which it was originally compiled.
The three editions of the Tripitaka possess a great deal of material in common. The biggest difference is that while the Chinese and Tibetan editions include the Mahayana sutras the Pali edition omits them.
Even when allowance is made for overlapping, the Buddhist scriptures are far more voluminous than those of any other religion. The Bible consists of 64 books; but the Chinese San Tsang, for example, contains 1,662 independent works, several of them almost as long as the entire Bible. Though much of this vast literature has been translated into English and other European languages, an even greater part of it remains untranslated. Thanks to the labours of the Pali Text Society, the Pali Tipitaka has been translated almost in its entirety. A number of the most important Mahayana sutras are also available. Kern has translated the Saddharma-Pundarika, Izumi the Vimalakirti-Nirdesha, Suzuki the Lankavatara, Lamotte the Sandhinirmochana (in French), Luk the Surangama. Above all, in the greatest individual achievement in this field in modern times, Conze has translated the whole Prajnaparamita or `Perfection of Wisdom' group of sutras, consisting of more than thirty independent works.<$FSince this book was first published, many more translations of Mahayana texts have become available. Among the more important are included Schiffer and Tamura's revision of Soothill and Kato's translation of the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, Thurman's translation of the Vimalakirtinirdesa, Emmerick's translation of the Suvarnaprabhasasottamasutra, Thomas Cleary's translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, and Bays' translation of the Lalitavistara. An extensive bibliography of translations is included in Andrew Skilton's A Concise History of Buddhism, published by Windhorse.> A great deal of basic material is thus available for study. Unfortunately, the majority of English Buddhists and students of Buddhism fail to take advantage of the fact. Very few study regularly and systematically even a tithe of what has been translated. Consequently their knowledge of Buddhism remains vague and superficial. Some, indeed, appear to read anything rather than the scriptures. Classics of Christian mysticism, books about Pak Subuh, even the romances of Lobsang Rampa, are eagerly devoured, while essential texts like the Diamond Sutra and the Sutta-Nipata remain unread. This is not to say that there is anything wrong in reading the classics of Christian mysticism and deriving inspiration from them. But if one considers oneself a Buddhist and claims to be seriously following the path of the Buddha, it is strange that one should not make every effort to acquaint oneself with the basic literature of the subject. No doubt the Buddhist scriptures, even in the best translation, are often unattractive in form and obscure and difficult in content. But if we want to participate in the spiritual riches of Buddhism the effort to understand them must be made. After all, if we want to take up engineering, or medicine, or even pig-breeding, we have to put in a certain amount of intellectual hard work: we have to study. Buddhism demands no less. Ask yourselves, therefore, those of you who consider yourselves Buddhists, when it was that you last read a translation of one of the Buddhist sacred books. The answer might surprise you.
Some, of course, try to rationalize the situation and justify themselves. Western advocates of Zen, for instance, are fond of citing the example of Hui-Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch, whom Far Eastern Buddhist art sometimes depicts in the act of tearing up the Diamond Sutra. They forget that if he did in fact do any such thing (there is no mention of the incident in the Platform Scripture) it was only after realizing the import of the Sutra and that, in any case, he probably knew the entire text by heart. In Zen monasteries scriptures like the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Kwannon Sutra are not only studied but learned by heart and liturgically recited as an aid to the spiritual life. It is interesting to observe that those who neglect, and then depreciate, the primary sources, can be fanatical in their devotion to quite secondary ones. The word of the Buddha resounds unheeded, but Suzuki and a host of lesser lights are hearkened to with eager attention.
Whether our interest is in Buddhism in general or in one or another of its special forms, we cannot bypass the scriptures. In them are contained the original records of the transcendental experiences of the Buddha and his Enlightened disciples. Without a preliminary intellectual understanding of these records we have no means of knowing what it is that we, as Buddhists, including followers of Zen, are trying to attain and what is the method of its attainment. The only thing that can absolve us from study of the scriptures is regular personal contact with an Enlightened teacher, who is the living embodiment of the scriptures. Such a teacher is difficult to come by even in the East. In the absence of personal contact of this kind the scriptures are indispensable.
So much for what is meant by the scriptures. Now we come to the transmission, or special transmission.
What is meant by this? According to the dictionary the literal meaning of the word transmit is `to send across', also to pass on or hand down. Here we have the idea of Buddhism itself as something transmitted, something handed down. On the biological plane, life is transmitted from parents to children. On the spiritual plane, there is a transmission of Buddhism, or the Dharma. This transmission takes place between master and disciple. Hence the importance of this relationship. It is, in fact, the axis upon which the whole world of Buddhism turns. There are a number of different types of transmission of Buddhism, or rather, the transmission can take place on different levels. Four principal transmissions are enumerated: (1) Transmission of Ordination. Broadly speaking ordination is of three kinds: as a lay brother or lay sister (upasaka, upasika), as a monk or nun (bhikshu, bhikshuni), and as a bodhisattva. These three categories of ordained persons make up the Sangha or Spiritual Community in the socio-ecclesiastical sense of the term. Each ordination involves the adoption of a certain spiritual attitude and the observance of a certain rule. The lay brother or lay sister, who can be ordained by any monk, nun, or bodhisattva, goes for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and undertakes to observe the Ten Precepts, that is to say, to abstain from harming living beings, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false, harsh, frivolous, and backbiting speech, as well as from greed, hatred, and wrong views. A monk must be ordained by a chapter of not less than five other monks including an elder (sthavira) or monk of at least ten years' standing in the Order. Nuns require a double ordination, once by a chapter of monks and once by a chapter of nuns. Both monks and nuns renounce the household life, devote all their energies to the realization of nirvana, and observe a basic rule of 150 clauses. The four most important clauses relate to abstention from sexual intercourse, from theft, from murder and incitement to suicide, and from making false claims to spiritual attainments. A bodhisattva is ordained ideally by a Buddha, but in practice by any senior bodhisattva. In special circumstances self-ordination is permitted. He (or she) develops the Will to Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings and observes a rule consisting (according to the Indo-Tibetan tradition) of eighteen major and forty-six minor provisions, all strongly altruistic in emphasis.
The three kinds of ordination are not mutually exclusive. A lay brother or lay sister, or monk ...