Tibetan Buddhist Canon

Tibetan Buddhist CanonThe Tibetan Buddhist canon is a loosely defined list of sacred texts recognized by various sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

In addition to earlier foundational Buddhist texts from early Buddhist schools, mostly the Sarvastivada, and mahayana texts, the Tibetan canon includes Tantric texts.

The Tibetan Canon underwent a final compilation in 14th Century by Bu-ston (1290-1364). The Tibetans did not have a formally arranged Mahayana canon and so devised their own scheme which divided texts into two broad categories:

  1. Kanjur (Bka’ ‘gyur) or “Translated Words”, consists of works supposed to have been said by the Buddha himself. All texts presumably have a sanskrit original, although in many cases the Tibetan text was translated from Chinese or other languags.
  2. Tanjur (Bstan ‘gyur) or “Translated Treatises” is the section to which were assigned commentaries, treatises and abhidharma works (both Mahayana and non-Mahayana). The Tanjur contains 3626 texts in 224 Volumes.

The Bka’ ‘gyur is divided into sections on Vinaya, Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, other sutras (75% Mahayana, 25% Early Wisdom Schools aka Hinayana), and tantras. When exactly the term Bka’ ‘gyur was first used is not known. Collections of canonical Buddhist texts existed already in the time of Khri srong ide rtsan, the sixth king of Tubo.

The exact number of texts in the Bka’ ‘gyur is not fixed, each editor takes responsibility for removing texts he considers spurious, and adding new translations. Currently there are about 12 available Bka’ ‘gyur. These include the Derge, Lhasa, Narthang, Cone, Peking, Ugra, Phudrak, and Stog Palace versions, each named after the physical location of its printing. In addition some canonical texts have been found in Tabo and Dunhuang which provide earlier exemplars to texts found in the Bka’ ‘gyur. All extant Bka’ ‘gyurs appear to stem from the Old Narthang Bka’ ‘gyur. The stemma of the Bka’ ‘gyur have been well researched in particular by Helmut Eimer.


Exoteric tradition

In the Tibetan tradition, some collections of teachings and practices are held in greater secrecy than others. The sutra tradition is comprised of works said to be derived from the public teachings of the Buddha, and is taught widely and publicly. The esoteric tradition of tantra (below) is generally only shared in more intimate settings with those students who the teacher feels have the capacity to utilize it well.

Important Indian scholars

Two Supremes

Two Indian Buddhist scholars are widely considered to be of paramount importance by Tibetan Buddhists. As such, they are referred to as the Two Supremes.

  • Asanga founder of the Yogachara school
  • Nagarjuna founder of the Madhyamika school

Six Scholarly Ornaments

These scholars’s works are of secondary importance to the Tibetan Buddhist canon. As the ranking of their importance is not as universally recognized, there are occasionally substitutions made in this list.

  • Aryadeva foremost disciple of Nagarjuna, continued the philosophical school of Madhyamika
  • Dharmakirti famed logician, author of the Seven Treatises; student of Dignana’s student Ishvarasena; said to have debated famed Hindu scholar Shankara
  • Dignana famed logician
  • Gunaprabha foremost student of Vasubandhu, known for his work the Vinayasutra
  • Sakyaprabha prominent expositor of the Vinaya
  • Vasubandhu author of the Abhidharmakosha

Seventeen Great Panditas

References are sometimes made to the Seventeen Great Panditas. This formulation groups the eight listed above with the following nine scholars.

  • Atisha holder of the “mind training” (Tib. lojong) teachings
  • Bhavaviveka early expositor of the Svatantrika Madhyamikha
  • Buddhapalita early expositor of the Prasangika Madhyamikha
  • Chandrakirti considered the greatest exponent of Prasangika Madhyamika
  • Haribhadra commentator on Asanga’s Ornament of Clear Realization
  • Kamalashila 8th-century author of important texts on meditation
  • Shantarakshita abbot of Nalanda, founder of the Yogachara-Madhyamika who helped Padmasambhava establish Buddhism in Tibet
  • Shantideva (8th century Indian) author of the Bodhisattvacaryavatra
  • Vimuktisena commentator on Asanga’s Ornament of Clear Realization

Five traditional topics of study

All four schools of Tibetan Buddhism generally follow a similar curriculum, using the same Indian root texts and commentaries. The further Tibetan commentaries they use differ by school, although since the 19th century appearance of the widely renowned scholars Jamgon Kongtrul and Ju Mipham, Kagyupas and Nyingmapas use many of the same Tibetan commentaries as well. Different schools, however, place emphasis and concentrate attention on different areas.

The exoteric study of Buddhism is generally organized into “Five Topics,” listed as follows with the primary Indian source texts for each:

  1. Abhidharma (Higher Knowledge)
    • Compendium of Higher Knowledge (Abhidharma Samuccaya) by Asanga
    • Treasury of Higher Knowledge (Abhidharma Kosha) by Vasubandhu
  2. Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom)
    • Ornament of Clear Realization (Abhisamaya Alankara) by Maitreya as related to Asanga
    • The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara) by Shantideva
  3. Madhyamika (Middle Way)
    • Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika) by Nagarjuna
    • Four Hundred Verses on the Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas (Catuhsataka) by Aryadeva
    • Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara) by Chandrakirti
    • Ornament of the Middle Way (Madhyamakalamkara) by Shantarakshita
    • The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara) by Shantideva
  4. Pramana (Logic, Means of Knowing)
    • Treatise on Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika) by Dharmakirti
    • Pramanasamuccaya by Dignaga
  5. Vinaya (Vowed Morality)
    • The Root of the Vinaya (Dülwa Do Tsawa) by the Pandita Yonten

Five treatises of Maitreya

Also of great importance are the “Five Treatises of Maitreya.” These texts are said to have been related to Asanga by the Buddha Maitreya, and comprise the heart of the Yogachara (or Cittamatra, Mind-Only) school of philosophy in which all Tibetan Buddhists are well-versed. They are as follows:

  • Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalankara, Tib. mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan)
  • Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutralankara, Tib. theg pa chen po’i mdo sde’i rgyan)
  • Sublime Continuum of the Mahayana (Mahayanottaratantrashastra, Ratnagotravibhaga, Tib. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan)
  • Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being (Dharmadharmatavibhanga, Tib. chos dang chos nyid rnam par ‘byed pa)
  • Distinguishing the Middle and the Extremes (Madhyantavibhanga, Tib. dbus dang mtha’ rnam par ‘byed pa)

A commentary on the Ornament for Clear Realization called Clarifying the Meaning by the Indian scholar Haribhadra is often used, as is one by Vimuktisena.

Esoteric tradition

Organisation of Tantric texts

Tibetan Buddhism typically divides the Tantras into four hierarchical categories, namely,

  • Kriyayoga
  • Charyayoga
  • Yogatantra
  • Anuttarayogatantra
    • further divided into “mother”, “father” and “non-dual” tantras.

An alternate division is used by the Nyingma school:

  • Three Outer Tantras:
    • Kriyayoga
    • Charyayoga
    • Yogatantra
  • Three Inner Tantras, which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra:
    • Mahayoga
    • Anuyoga
    • Atiyoga (Tib. Dzogchen)
      • The practice of Atiyoga is further divided into three classes: Mental SemDe, Spatial LongDe, and Esoteric Instructional MenNgagDe.

See also

  • Chinese Buddhist canon
  • List of sutras
  • Tripitaka
buddha monk

buddha monk