The more you read about Buddhism, the more lists you encounter: the Three Poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance); the Three Antidotes (generosity, compassion, wisdom); The Five (or is it Six? or Ten?) Perfections (generosity, zeal, ethics, wisdom, equanimity, and so forth); the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (breath, senses, emotions, consciousness). You get the idea. It all began after Siddhartha’s enlightenment. No, actually, it began with the ancient Indian fascination with numbers and lists, but that’s another story.
In any case, Siddhartha, now the Buddha, put his realization into lists that he presented to his five ascetic companions in the Deer Park:
The Four Noble Truths:
1) Everyone suffers.
2) The root of suffering is craving or desire.
3) To end suffering, end craving and desire.
4) The way to end desire is to follow a list of precepts that the Buddha called the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path:
1) Right view;
2) Right intention;
3) Right speech;
4) Right action;
5) Right livelihood;
6) Right effort;
7) Right mindfulness;
8) Right concentration.
Very nice, but what does it all mean? We might have never known, if it weren’t for the king of the gods Indra. Or perhaps it was Brahma the Creator. Or perhaps it was Sakka, another name for Indra. The legends differ on which one it was, but they pretty much agree that this is what happened:
Siddhartha doubted most people would understand his four profound realizations. Even if they understood, they wouldn’t have the discipline to follow his eightfold path. He decided to retire to the forest and take up a hermit’s life, meditating and instructing only those who sought him out. Indra or Brahma or Sakka, depending on the legendary source, appeared to ask the Buddha to have compassion for suffering humanity and begged him to offer his teachings to everyone. The god argued that those who did understand his teachings and put them into practice would be able to instruct others how to follow the Buddha’s path to freedom from suffering. His teachings would spread, helping millions of beings.
So the Buddha spent the last forty years of his life wandering through the kingdoms along the Ganges instructing anyone who wished to hear. The monks who followed him memorized what he taught and passed it down orally from the time of his death (either around 480 or 360 BCE) until the first century BCE. At that point, the monks transcribed the entire oral tradition onto palm leaves. (Yes, palm leaves. A little bit on how they are made here. The south and southeast Asian climate isn’t friendly to such artifacts, so none of those first century manuscripts survive, but some interesting examples of Thai manuscripts can be found at the Southeast Asian Digital Library.)
All three main schools of Buddhism, Theravada (Tradition of the Elders), Mahayana (Great Wheel), and Vajrayana (Diamond Wheel) – for definitions of each, click here – recognize the Pali Canon, as the transcribed oral tradition is known, as authoritative. Written the Pali language, a sort of common, ancient form of Sanskrit and various Indian dialects, it has three main parts: the Sutta Pitaka, or teachings; Vinaya Pitaka, the rules for monks; and the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a group of dense, complex commentaries on the nature of mind and matter.
The resources below contain the Buddha’s actual words or the words of his disciples.
To paraphrase the teacher Eknath Easwaran, if the New Testament had been lost and only the Sermon on the Mount survived, it would provide all that is necessary for following the teaching of Jesus. In the same way, if the far more vast body of Buddhist scripture were lost and only the Dhammapada had survived, it would have all that is needed to follow the Buddha’s path. Easwaran’s very warm translation of The Dhammapada provides an inviting gateway into the Buddha’s teachings.
Though not “teachings” in the strict sense, there is a powerful collection of verses written by women elders who were among the Buddha’s earliest followers. They are beautifully rendered in The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Terigatha, by Susan Murcott. It’s worth noting that the Buddha believed that a woman could attain enlightenment, in contrast to the prevailing belief of his time that only a male Brahmin could achieve liberation from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth.
If you want a broad overview of Buddhist writings, start where Jack Kerouac started with A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard. It’s a non-sectarian compilation of texts from Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan sources. It’s missing the Satipatthana Sutta, which established the four foundations of mindfulness , but that you can get in the Middle Length Discourses:
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikku Nanamoli and Bhikku Bodhi. The Satipatthana Sutta, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, are found on page 145.
For the longer, more detailed version, the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta is found in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Webb, or one of the many other Wisdom Publications collections drawn from the Pali Canon.
Access to Insight The editor of this fantastic site retired in 2013, but it’s still accessible and offers translations of most of the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pittaka, all searchable so you can find quotes you may have heard. Try searching for Kalamas to find the famous sutta instructing the people of Kalamas to trust their own experience to know whether a teaching is useful or not, as well as commentaries on it.
The Pali Canon Online This site isn’t nearly so useful. It has translations of the rules for monks and nuns, but for the suttas it refers you to the editions published by Wisdom Publications (see links to two of them below). The site does, however, have scanned copies of the Abhidhamma in English translation from the early 1900s.
The Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon Buddhism disappeared from India in the early centuries of the Common Era. Original early Buddhist Sanskrit texts, which had in some cases been translated into Tibetan or Chinese, had been lost. A library of them was found in Nepal in the early 1800s; this site has scanned copies and many translations.
Internet Sacred Text Archive: Buddhism Go for the Buddhism, stay for everything from African Religions to Zoroastrianism. Really, it’s fun to poke around here.
Dictionary of Pali Proper Names Abridged on-line version of the hefty printed volumes of the same name. Very useful.