Buddhist Scripture

A language has way more than two parts, but let us focus on two:

  • writing system
  • spoken sounds

English has a few different accents (eg. British, American, Australian) but only one writing system. Chinese (today) has two main writing systems - traditional and simplified chinese - but has a ton of dialects that read the same characters in different ways, and even add characters/have different styles of writing.

Japanese began as a spoken language, and then Chinese characters were borrowed and adapted to represent sounds as well as meaning, which eventually resulted in three sets of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji.

So at some point I was listening to 王菲’s 致青春. And then from the links on the side of the youtube page I found out that she sang the 大悲咒 at one of her concerts! Then I clicked around and found a recording of a CO playing accompaniment for a group of monks chanting the 大悲咒. I found multiple versions of the sutra before finding the one that they were reciting as a comment on the youtube page. Then I realized that the Chinese characters actually have no meaning - they merely provide a sound similar to the original sutra.

(Information mainly from Wikipedia. I hope they’re right for now.)

So what language are the original sutras written in?

First, we want to know how Buddhism developed.

  • Siddhartha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism, born in Lumbini, Nepal
  • Discovered the Middle Way through asceticism and meditation
  • Attained enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India
  • At the Deer Park near Varanasi in Northern India Buddha delivered his first sermon
  • Buddha reportedly told his followers that after his death, the Dharma (doctrine, teaching) would be their leader
  • Early arhants took great pains to formulate and transmit his teachings accurately, but no ungarnished collection of his sayings has survived

1st Buddhist Council

  • Objective was to record all of Buddha’s teachings into the sutra and to codify monastic rules (vinaya)
  • This became the basis of the Tripitaka, which is preserved only in Pali.

Asoka’s edicts

  • Were the first tangible evidence of Buddhism
  • Written in the Magadhi language in the Brahmi script

Expanded to Sri Lanka

  • Theravada prevailed
  • Pali canon was written down in Sri Lanka in toto ( = as a whole ) for the first time

Mahayana Expansion

  • Spread in the east from India to South-East Asia

Emergence of Vajrayana

  • First emerged in eastern India
  • Extension of Mahayana Buddhism in that it does not offer new philosophical perspectives, but rather introduces additional techniques

TL;DR: The earliest written version of Buddhist teachings were in Pali, and were written in Sri Lanka.


Buddha forbade translation of his discourses into elitist religious languages such as Sanskrit, though eventually these translations were made. Pali became a scholarly and elitist language eventually, which is opposite to what Buddha had explicitly commanded.

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