The sutta literature forms the backbone of the dhamma, or teachings of the buddha, according to the Theravada tradition and is the second section of the tripartite collection of Pali canonical texts known as the Tipiṭaka (along with the discipline for the monks called the Vinaya and the psychological-philosophy called the abhidhamma). The sutta collection primarily consists of narratives about or discourses by the buddha, but it also includes stories about or ostensibly by other important figures from early Buddhism, such as the wise monk Sāriputta. The Pali Sutta Piṭaka is divided into five main collections called nikāyas, but it should be noted that there is a lot of repetition across the different nikāyas. The five Nikāyas are the Dīgha Nikāya (a collection of longer narratives and discourses), Majjhima Nikāya (a collection of middle-length narratives and discourses), Saṃyutta Nikāya (shorter texts arranged thematically), Aṅguttara Nikāya (shorter texts arranged by the number of items mentioned within them), and Khuddaka Nikāya (miscellaneous, often shorter, texts). Other early Buddhist schools had the same divisions, generally called āgamas, in their versions of this piṭaka, and some examples survive in Sanskrit and Prākrit manuscripts that have been found in Central Asia as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The only complete Sutta Piṭaka currently known, however, is in Pali, and the texts that became part of this collection were committed to writing in the 1st century BCE in Sri Lanka. The suttas were originally transmitted orally, and a vestige of that orality is the fact that they usually commence with the phrase “evaṃ me sutaṃ,” meaning “thus have I heard.” The etymology of the Pali term sutta is unclear; it was later Sanskritized as sutra, but as this refers to a concise, technical piece of prose very different from the suttas. In fact, it is more likely that the word is derived from the Vedic sūkta, which means “that which is well-spoken.” The texts as we have them today were redacted at the Mahāvihāra Monastery in Sri Lanka and took their current form, at the latest, when their great commentaries were written in the 5th century. It is unclear exactly how similar the extant versions are to the very earliest Buddhist texts, but they likely share a lot of elements. There are many metrical verses interspersed throughout the majority prose passages, and it has become clear that there are different strata in the suttas, with shorter metrical texts such as the Sutta-nipāta and the Dhammapada being among the oldest.
The suttas form the middle piṭaka, or section (literally, “basket”) of the Pali canon and constitute the bulk of the texts with which the Buddhist faithful are familiar. In fact, they are often referred to, especially in the early period, as the dhamma or “the teachings,” and as such are opposed to the Vinaya texts, which focus on rules for monks and nuns. Thankfully, a brief summary of almost every sutta can be found in White Lotus 1993. Considering their importance for the study of Buddhism in general, and of Theravada in particular, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more studies that focus directly on the Pali suttas as a genre; even the encyclopedia article Hartmann 2004 discusses the Āgamas along with the nikāyas. Of course, a good proportion of studies about mainstream Buddhism use suttas as their main source, but studies of the historical development, cultural uses, and literary features of the suttas themselves tend to be part of larger works on Pali literature. Law 2000 and Winternitz 1933 are both early works that cover much of Pali literature, but they are still very useful guides to the suttas themselves. Both Norman 1983 and Hinüber 1996 (cited under Bibliographies) build on the work of these scholars with updated information and are probably the best places to start most inquiries. Lamotte 1988 remains the best available sourcebook for early Buddhism, and Lamotte’s section on the suttas is highly informative but often dense. A more undergraduate-friendly introduction can be found in the first two chapters of Mizuno 1982, while Gethin 1998 is an introductory textbook on Buddhism that has several good pages on the suttas.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Chapter 2, “The Word of the Buddha: Scriptures and Schools,” contains a good introduction to the development of the sutta literature for undergraduates. Gethin’s deep appreciation for this literature is reflected by the fact that he has been president of the Pali Text Society since 2003.
Hartmann, Jens-Uwe. “Āgama/Nikāya.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert Buswell, 10–12. New York: Macmillan, 2004.
Outlines the basic development and evolution of the Theravadin suttas, as well as a discussion of the sutras of other Hinayana sects.
Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism from the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1988.
An English translation of Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien: des Origines à l’Ére Śaka, first published in 1958. This comprehensive study of early Buddhism includes a section on the formation and arrangement of the suttas and compares them to the Āgama collections (see pp. 152–164).
Law, Bimala Churn. A History of Pāli Literature. Varanasi, India: Indica, 2000.
Part 1 of this comprehensive work outlines the themes of the canonical texts, including an analysis of the circumstances of their creation and a detailed explanation of every part of the canon, including summaries of most sutta texts. A very helpful introduction to the topic for beginning students. First published in 1933.
Mizuno, Kogen. Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission. Tokyo: Kosei, 1982.
Excellent introduction for the nonspecialist to the formation and transmission of Buddhist suttas from the earliest period in India through to China. Although there is a strong focus here on Chinese versions, the first two chapters discuss the Pali sutta tradition in some detail.
Norman, Kenneth Roy. Pāli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of all the Hīnayāna Schools of Buddhism. History of Indian Literature 7. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1983.
Authored by the doyen of Middle Indo-Aryan philologists, this work builds upon and updates the others in this section. Chapter 3 on the Sutta Piṭaka covers the history of all the nikāyas, including a brief but learned assessment of their contents.
White Lotus. Guide to the Tipiṭaka: An Introduction to the Buddhist Canon. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus, 1993.
Provides very handy summaries of most of the suttas. Based upon the Burmese Tipiṭaka as redacted at the Sixth Buddhist Council in 1956 held at Rangoon. Note that three texts are included here that are not regarded as canonical in other traditions: Nettipakarana, Peṭakopadesa, and Milindapañha.
Winternitz, Maurice. A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 2. Translated by S. Ketkar. Calcutta, India: University of Calcutta, 1933.
English translation of Geschichte der Indischen Litteratur, first published in 1909 and, though somewhat dated, still a very valuable guide to the development of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature. Pages 1–173 contain an overview of Buddhist canonical literature with a lot of discussion of the suttas.
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