There are many different types of scripture and texts in the Buddhist world. These can be broken up into two categories:
- Canonical Texts: Scripture in this category is widely accepted to be the actual sayings of the historical Buddha. They are called either “Sutras” (Sanskrit) or Suttas (Pali). The most widely known, and used among all branches of Buddhism, is the Dhammapada.
- Non-Canonical Texts: These are texts that are not the sayings of the Buddha, but observations on canonical texts, disclosures on the Dharma / Dhammapada, historical information, quotes, definitions, and other writings. For example, books written by the Dalai Lama or your favorite Buddhism teacher would be considered “Non-Canonical”.
Each branch of Buddhism has their own scriptures which include and expand beyond the original teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha. They are:
- The Tripitaka (or Tipitaka) [Also Known as the Pali Canon]: This is one of the earliest compilations of Buddhist teachings written (originally) on long, narrow leaves. The name “Tripitaka” means “three baskets” and consists of up to 50 volumes. There actually were “three baskets” that Buddhist monks transcribed the Buddha’s teachings on leaves and put them in these baskets to categorize them nearly 200 years after his death. All branches of Buddhism have the Tripitaka as part of their core scriptures, and the Dhammapada is part of it. One of the largest online websites to find the Tripitaka is Access to Insight: http://www.accesstoinsight.org (to view a diagram, click here: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/s_theracanon.htm)
- Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), dealing with rules for monks and nuns
- Sutta Pitaka (Sutra/Sayings Basket), discourses, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples
- Abhidhamma Pitaka, variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, etc.
- Mahayana Sutras: The Mahayana branch of Buddhism includes the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but also includes others. Most sutras were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE when Mayahana Buddhism was developed. There are over 2,000 Mahayana sutras. The most important, and frequently read, are the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra. You can find Mahayana Sutras on Buddhanet: http://www.buddhanet.net/ebooks_ms.htm
- Vajrayana (Tibetan) Texts: In addition to the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras (Vajrayana is a mixture of what is known as the “three vehicles”), Vajrayana Buddhists also study Indian “Tantric” texts and techniques (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantra_techniques_(Vajrayana)).
- Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol): Although not all of the Vajrayana (Tibetan) scripture, it is perhaps the most well known. This book explains the stages of death, specifically from the Tibetan Buddhism viewpoint. This includes the experiences of a person as they are dying, the moment of death, and for 49 days afterwards. Also included are practices that are to be taken after the person has died. It was originally written by Yeshe Tsogyak, the primary student of Padmasambhava, in the 8th century. Interestingly enough, the title “book of the dead” is not an accurate title, and was named this due to a Western misunderstanding. You can find more information here: http://www.buddhanet.net/deathtib.htm
You can know if a Buddhist teaching is ‘true’ by ensuring it is in accordance with the Three Dharma Seals. If a teaching was not by the Buddha, but is in accordance with all Three Dharma Seals, it can be considered a Buddhist teaching.
- All Conditions Phenomena Are Impermanent
- All Phenomena Are Without an Independent Self
- Nirvana is Perfect Tranquility
To learn more about the Three Dharma Seals, please read this article: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/three-dharma-seals/