Special Topics

How Were Buddhist Sutras Formed?

Buddhist sutras contain the Dharma as taught by the Buddha. Have you ever wondered how they were formed? Which sutra is the earliest? Before the introduction of paper, what were the sutras written on?

Some 2,500 years ago during the Buddha's lifetime, the Buddha's teaching was passed on orally; there were actually no written records of it. 90 days after the Buddha's parinirvana, his disciples assembled at the Saptaparni Cave under the Vulture Peak near the current Rajgir (Sanskrit: Rājagṛha), for the sake of preserving what the Buddha had taught. Led by Mahakasyapa, 500 arahant disciples gathered together for the meeting, with Ananda reciting all of the sutras by memory. This is referred to as the First Buddhist Council-- also known as the Rajgir Council--or the council of 500 Arahants.

Launched by the elder monk Yasa, the Second Buddhist Council, also known as the council of 700 Arahants, took place at Vaishali approximately 100 years after Buddha’s death. As shown in the Samantapāsādikā, the Ten Recitations Vinaya (Sarvâstivāda Vinaya), the Four-Part Vinaya (Dharmaguptaka Vinaya), and the Five-Part Vinaya (Mahīśāsaka Vinaya), 700 monks gathered to discuss the monastic code governing the Sangha, due to ten infringements of the Vinaya by a small group of monks. This assembly led to the split of the Sangha into the Sthavira and Mahāsāṃghika schools.
The first time that sutras were recorded in written form was at the Third Buddhist Council during the time of King Ashoka, about 150 years after the Buddha’s passing. It took place at Pataliputra (or Kasmira, according to some records). 1000 arahants were chosen to participate in the council, and they collectively recited and recorded the sutras. The recording took nine months to complete.

The First Council collected and catalogued Buddha's words and actions into nine parts: sutra (proses), geya (songs), gāthā(stanzas), Nidāna (cause and condition), Avadana (metaphors), jātaka (Buddha's past life stories), Itivrttaka (activities of Buddha or his disciples in past lives), Adbhuta-dharma (miracles), and Upadesa (discussions of the doctrine). During the Second Council, the four Agamas were formed: Saṃyukta Agama, Madhyama Agama, Dirgha Agama, and Ekottara Agama. During the Third Council, the four Agamas were put into written form, which became the earliest written records of the Buddha's teaching that survive to this day.

Just as ancient Indians used processed palm leaves as writing materials before paper-making was introduced to India, so too Buddhists used palm leaves for the Buddhist canon. Hence, the name "palm leaf sutras" arose, with a history of more than 2500 years.
What is the first sutra to be translated into Chinese? It is believed to be the Sutra of Forty-Two Sections, which was commissioned by Emperor Ming of the Later Han Dynasty, who sent a delegate to the Western Regions and invited Kāśyapa Mātaṅga and Zhu Falan (Dharmaratna) to China to translate the Buddha’s teachings. They selected 42 paragraphs of the Buddha's words and translated them into Chinese. Completed in 67 CE, it became the first Buddhist scripture translated into Chinese.

Extended Reading:
Receive and Uphold the Buddha's Teaching by Reading Sutras
Characteristics of Buddhist Sutras: Their Fundamental Structure
Methods of Reading the Sutras
Sutras Mahayana

Resource: Issue 327 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Lee fan (李東陽)
Translation: Shu-jen Yeh (葉姝蓁) 
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown