After the Buddha died and entered into Nirvana, his followers formed a consensus about the Buddha's teachings. These teachings were memorized by his followers and then passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth until around the first century C.E. when they started to be written down. While the scriptures have been translated into modern languages to provide access to a broader segment of society, the original languages include Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese, among others. The scriptures have a significant influence on the religious and spiritual development of Buddhists throughout the world, and are also known to have a dramatic influence on the spiritual development of those who do not consider themselves Buddhist but are moved by, and even change their lives, according to the teachings of the Buddha found in the canon of Buddhist scripture. There are various canons of Buddhist scriptures, and each school of Buddhism identifies with a distinctive canon-although schools of Buddhism tend to have some scriptures in common with other schools. There are a vast number of Buddhist scriptures that deserve to be the focus of such an encyclopedic entry, but only a few will be touched upon here.
The three leading types of schools of Buddhism are Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, each having their own scriptures. Nikaya uses only Theravada scriptures. Mahayana uses Theravada scriptures plus many additional sutras. Vajrayana uses Mahayana scriptures plus many tantric texts. The various schools and their specific scriptures teach of Buddhist practices and their aims, such as to be free of suffering (dukkha), to be awake to the realization of anatta (egolessness), and to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana. While some schools and their scriptures focus on cleansing the self of moral defilements of the "worldly self," other schools and their scriptures appeal to Bodhisattvas for a favorable rebirth, and/or encourage good and pure actions and know the value of abstaining from bad and impure actions.
THE THERAVADA SCHOOL OF NIKAYA BUDDHISM AND ITS SCRIPTURES
The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders," is the only surviving school of Nikaya Buddhism, and is practiced natively in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia. The doctrine and practice of the Theravada school is completely based on the Pali Canon, which is considered to be the scripture closest to the authentic teachings of the Buddha. The Pali Canon was written on palm leaves in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.
The Pali Canon consists of three categories of writings: the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. These writings form the foundation of the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism. The Vinaya Pitaka, or the Book of Discipline, outlines the rules of conduct for monks and nuns, rules that were offered by the Buddha throughout his lifetime. The stories behind the rules are also supplied in the scriptures, providing believers with an understanding of how the Buddha resolved to bring harmony to a very diverse community of spiritual leaders. The Sutta Pitaka is a collection in five subdivisions that provide the Buddha's discourses and include all of the central teachings of Theravada Buddhism. The collection includes the essential teachings of the Buddha, details of his enlightenment, how to live morally, and how to meditate. The Abhidhamma Pitaka, or Higher Teachings, reframes the doctrines presented in the Sutta Pitaka to bring a framework of understanding to analyses of the nature of mental and physical existence.
THE MAHAYANA SCHOOL AND ITS SCRIPTURES
The Mahayana school of Buddhism focuses on universal compassion and the ideal of selflessness as exhibited by the Bodhisattva.
Native Mahayana Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, which are the sole scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana schools also recognize sutras (written in Sanskrit) that are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood. Buddhahood is achieved by following the path of the Bodhisattva over eons of time. However, given the large amount of time that this enlightenment is explained to take, many schools of Mahayana Buddhism allow for the concept of working toward enlightenment in a Pure Land or an environment that is highly conducive to the enlightenment process.
In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, the Mahayana scriptures consist of sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra. The Lotus Sutra, originally written in Sanskrit between 100 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., is considered one of the most influential Mahayana scriptures, and has as a key message the idea of upaya or skill-in-means. In the sutra, upaya is witnessed as the Buddha adapts his teachings to a specific audience of saints, monks, nuns, and Bodhisattvas.
The Heart Sutra, which is believed to have been written around the first century B.C.E., is only a page in length but is considered to be extremely influential, particularly in its teaching of sunyata or emptiness, referring here to an absence of the sense of self or essence of emptiness within all conditioned phenomena. The Diamond Sutra represents a dialogue between the Buddha and the disciple Subhuti during which the Buddha teaches that both the self and the world around us are ultimately illusory.
THE VAJRAYANA SCHOOL AND ITS SCRIPTURES
Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, and areas of India, China, and Japan. The Vajrayana school of Buddhism is framed on Theravada and Mahayana teachings, but also include the Buddhist tantras, which provide spiritual techniques aimed at refining Buddhist practice and supporting one's path toward enlightenment.
INFLUENCE ON SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT
There is a vast array of Buddhist scriptures (beyond what is described herein) that represent a wide diversity of teachings. As with any major religion or philosophy that is captured and sustained by the words within its leading texts, Buddhist scriptures provide adherents and those interested in learning more about the life and practice of the Buddha with the sustenance and guidance to promote religious and spiritual development. As the scriptures are shared with followers around the world, the beauty of the Buddha's life and his teachings will continue to have a positive impact on the lives of Buddhists and those who are touched by the beauty of his teachings.