In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of the Buddhist Canon

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sources and Bibliographies
  • The Process of Canonization
  • Monastic Councils
  • The Canon in China and East Asia
  • The Canon in Tibet
  • The Canon in Central Asia

Buddhism History of the Buddhist Canon
Daniel Veidlinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0036


There are a number of canonical collections in Buddhism rather than a single fixed corpus of texts that all Buddhists regard as “the canon.” The term Tripiṭaka (Sanskrit)/Tipiṭaka (Pāli) refers to the Three Baskets or groups of texts that ideally constitute a canon, which are the Vinaya, Sutta (Pāli)/Sūtra (Sanskrit), and Abhidhamma (Pāli)/Abhidharma (Sanskrit). These are, respectively, the monastic code, the discourses of the Buddha or his disciples, and the psychologically oriented approaches to ontology. Canonical texts are in theory traceable to the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) or his immediate disciples. Mahayana Buddhist groups were able to add later texts to their canons by allowing for a variety of inspired (pratibhāna) utterances to be viewed as authoritative if they taught the true dharma. The earliest extant complete canon is the Pāli Tipiṭaka of the Theravada school, which tradition holds was compiled during a series of councils held by learned monks after the death of the Buddha. This canon was originally transmitted orally and probably written down in the mid-1st century bce in Sri Lanka, achieving its current state by the time Buddhaghosa wrote his commentaries in the 5th-century. There were a number of other early Buddhist groups that maintained canons in various dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan and Sanskrit. The Vinaya texts diverged among the various groups, and the Abhidharma texts, when they were included at all, were quite different as well. Some of these texts are preserved in the Chinese or Tibetan canonical collections, and others have been found in fragmentary manuscript form in caches from the Gandhāran region. Sanskrit and Prakrit texts were brought from India to China starting in the 2nd century and to Tibet in the 7th century, and both regions engendered comprehensive translation projects. In 374 ce the Chinese scholar-monk Daoan compiled the first comprehensive catalog of the several hundred Buddhist texts that had been brought to China. The catalog that set the standard on which Tang-era manuscript editions of the canon were made was the Kaiyuan Shijiao Lu compiled by Zhisheng in 730 ce, listing 1,076 works, including Āgamas (that are similar to the Pāli Nikāyas), Vinaya texts, Abhidharma texts, and Mahayana Sutras. Texts continued to be brought from India and translated even after this period, but the canon was effectively closed once it began to be printed in the 10th century. In Tibet, scholars were faced with a similarly bewildering plethora of texts and perhaps under the inspiration of the Chinese approach, monks at the Narthang (sNar Thaṅ) Monastery organized the texts into two divisions: the Kanjur (Bka’ ’gyur), regarded as the word of the Buddha, and the Tanjur (Bstan ’gyur) that includes commentaries, associated treatises, and ancillary literature. These were printed on woodblocks and therefore essentially fixed in the 14th century.

General Overviews

There are few book-length works specifically dedicated to the historical development of canonical texts among the various Buddhist groups, although Mizuno 1982, which focuses heavily on the Chinese canon, comes close to satisfying this end and is the best place for the beginner to commence research on this topic. The emergence of the canons is touched on to a greater or lesser extent in a number of works that deal with the history of Buddhism, many of which have been in print for several decades but are still relevant. The Pāli Tipiṭaka is usually given the most scholarly attention in Western-language studies because it is considered the oldest and it conforms most closely to the Western notion of a canon, in that it is a closed set of texts that forms a unitary representation of the authoritative message of a religion, in this case Theravada Buddhism. It is advisable to begin research into this labyrinthine topic with the synoptic encyclopedia articles Harrison 2004 and Lancaster 1987 as well as the summary article Lancaster 1979. Bechert and Gombrich 1991 provides a good overview of the development of the earliest texts into the various canons in Chapter 2, and it also contains beautiful photographs of manuscripts. Lamotte 1988 is a tour de force of historical research that should be read by every student of Buddhism. It provides a solid understanding of the main events, schools, texts, and philosophies of early Buddhism. Lamotte is one of the few scholars to have mastery of the languages of the main canonical collections—Pāli, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Collins 1990 is an important article that highlights the fact that the Pāli canon was the product of a particular sociopolitical environment and did not exist in the form we now have it prior to the advent of Theravada, but rather co-evolved with the school that holds it as authoritative. Patton 1994, in the introduction to a collection of essays about the Vedas, clearly lays out many of the issues that are also returned to again and again in scholarship about the Buddhist canon.

  • Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich, eds. The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

    An excellent and scholarly collection of introductory articles with rich color illustrations by some of the most prominent scholars of all aspects of Buddhism. In particular, the first few pages of chapter 2 provide a summary of scholarship about the evolution of the canonical texts in many regions.

  • Collins, Steven. “On the Very Idea of the Pāli Canon.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 15 (1990): 89–126.

    A seminal and widely cited essay on the symbolic power of the canon that explores the difference between open and closed canons, and examines how texts are added or removed. Also available in Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. 1. edited by Paul Williams, 72–95. (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 72–95.

  • Harrison, Paul. “Canon.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell, 111–115. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    A good starting point that places the dizzying array of canons into perspective.

  • 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.

    English translation of Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien: Des Origines à l’Ére Saka, first published in 1958. This comprehensive study of early Buddhism includes an informative section on the formation of the canon (pp. 140–215).

  • Lancaster, Lewis. “Buddhist Literature: Its Canons, Scribes, and Editors.” In The Critical Study of Sacred Texts. Edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, 215–229. Berkeley Buddhist Studies 2. Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1979.

    Places a copious amount of information regarding the history of the canons into perspective.

  • Lancaster, Lewis. “Buddhist Literature: Canonization.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 2. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 504–509. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    Remarkably detailed information for such a short article on the compilation and publication of the main canons.

  • Mizuno, Kogen. Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission. Tokyo: Kosei, 1982.

    Excellent introduction for the nonspecialist to the process of formation and transmission of Buddhist texts: from the earliest period in India through their transmission to China. Touches on the process of canonization, the complexities of oral transmission, and the various translation projects. Lacks footnotes and a sufficiently critical view of traditional historiography.

  • Patton, Laurie, ed. Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    The introduction to this collection of essays by prominent scholars of Hinduism provides a very helpful entrée into the theoretical issues surrounding the idea of a canon and the degree to which having a canon forces a particular worldview onto those for whom it is authoritative.

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