What are the Early Buddhist Texts?

Buddhist Statue - Nalanda. Photo credit: Alexander E. Caddy, 1895.

Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha and his followers wandered the Ganges plain, teaching a way of living meant to bring freedom from suffering. The radical core of what the Buddha taught circles around the insight that human suffering and unease have their roots in the workings of our minds.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, and for several centuries afterwards, the early Buddhists preserved these teachings through group memorization in a powerfully committed oral tradition. Today, we inherit the benefits of the devotion of the early Buddhists in written records of the words that they remembered for us: the words of the early Buddhist texts.

As the Buddha’s followers spread geographically in the centuries following his death, the teachings survived through the efforts of many different early Buddhist schools. Around the turn of the first millennium, people began recording these oral traditions in written form.

In Sri Lanka, the scholar monastics of the Mahavihara (Great Dwelling) school passed down a complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings written in the Pali language. Over the centuries, the Mahavihara school evolved into contemporary Theravada Buddhism, which is prominent in southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. Through the Theravada tradition, the complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings from the Mahavihara survives intact to this day as the Pali Canon.  

Gandhara birchbark scroll fragments (c. 1st century) from British Library Collection. (Click on image to enlarge.)

In northwestern regions of India, several early Buddhist schools left written records of their versions of the Buddha’s teachings. Many of these teachings traveled to China along the Silk Road and were carefully recorded through a rigorous process of translation into Chinese. None of these early schools survive today, but some of them have left a significant written record of what they understood the Buddha to have taught.

Today, for the first time in history, the teachings passed along by the earliest schools of Buddhism are being translated and studied in comparison with one another. Scholars widely agree that, despite separations over time and distance, the written records that we have today show that the earliest schools all taught the same fundamental practices and perspectives. This feat is made even more noteworthy when we understand that the schools differed in significant ways in terms of the doctrines that each developed after the earliest teachings were established. Although the schools interpreted what the Buddha taught differently, they were careful to remain true in their preservation of the content of those teachings.

Thanks to the efforts of many people, today we have an unprecedented opportunity to come and see for ourselves what the Buddha taught. With the help of teachers who have deeply investigated the early discourses, we can apply the teachings found there in our own lives. We can check them out to see how well they hold up.

For readings from the early discourses, please visit the Passages from the Early Discourses page.