From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
(Redirected from Sūtra)
Jump to: navigation, search

A sutra (Sanskrit; Pali sutta), in Buddhism, refers to a discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples. All of the sutras (suttas), even those not actually spoken by the Buddha, considered to be Buddhavacana, the word of the Buddha.


The Theravada school is based on the Theravadan Pali Canon and its commentaries. In this school, the Pali Canon is considered to be the original "words of the Buddha".

The Pāli Canon is traditionally divided into three "baskets" referred to as the three pitakas (Pali: tipiṭaka):[1]

  1. Vinaya Pitaka, the disciplinary codes for monastics and lay people
  2. Sutta Pitaka, discourses of the Buddha
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, defines and categorizes many of the topics in the suttas

The Sutta Pitaka consists of a collection of suttas written in the Pali language.

Divisions of the Sutta Pitaka

Long discourses

These range in length up to 95 pages. The Pali Digha Nikaya contains 34 texts, including the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and the Brahmajāla Sutta. The Dīrghāgama of the Dharmagupta also survives, in Chinese translation, and contains 30 sutras.

Medium-length discourses

These are the rest of the sutras of any length, and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya has 152 suttas. The Madhyamāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing 222 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

Connected discourses

This grouping consists of many short texts connected by theme, setting, or interlocutor. The Pali Samyutta Nikaya contains more than 2,800 sutras. The Samyuktāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing only 1,300 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

Numbered discourses

Sutras with the same number of doctrinal items, comprise over 2,300 suttas in the Pali Anguttara Nikaya. The Chinese canon contains an Ekottarāgama that some scholars think belongs to the Mahāsanghika school.

Miscellaneous texts

Not all schools had this category, but the Pali Khuddaka Nikaya has several well-known and loved texts, including:

  • The Dhammapada: a collection of sayings and aphorisms.
  • The Udana : a collection of inspired sayings in verse usually with a prose introduction that sets a context of sorts for the saying.
  • The Sutta Nipata: parts of the Sutta Nipata, such as the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga, are thought by some scholars[citation needed] to represent the earliest strata of the written canon. Many of the features of later texts, such as numbered lists of teachings, or complex doctrinal categories, are not present.
  • Theragāthā and Therīgāthā two collections of biographical verse related to the disciples of the Buddha.
  • Jataka: poems related to the so-called 'birth stories,' which recount former lives of the Buddha. These remain popular in many forms of Buddhism.

Many of these texts are available in translation as well as in the original language. The Dhammapada, for instance, has a Pali version, three Chinese versions, a Tibetan version, and a Khotanese version.

Classification based on style

Editor's note: this section needs attention. Needs to be vetted Review-icon.png

The Buddha's discourses were perhaps originally organised according to the style in which they were delivered. There were originally nine, but later twelve, of these. The Sanskrit forms are:

  • Sūtra: prose discourses, especially short declarative discourses.
  • Geya: mixed prose and verse discourse. Identified with the Sagāthāvagga of the Saṁyutta Nikāya
  • Vyākarana: explanation, analysis. Discourses in question and answer format.
  • Gāthā: verse
  • Udāna: inspired speech
  • Ityukta: beginning with 'thus has the Bhagavan said'
  • Jātaka: story of previous life
  • Abhutadharma: concerning wonders and miraculous events
  • Vaipulya either 'extended discourses' or 'those giving joy' (cf Mahayana Texts)
  • Nidāna: in which the teachings are set within their circumstances of origin
  • Avadāna: tales of exploits
  • Upadesha: defined and considered instructions

The first nine are listed in all surviving agamas, with the other three added in some later sources. In Theravada, at least, they are regarded as a classification of the whole of the scriptures, not just suttas. The scheme is also found in Mahayana texts. However, some time later a new organizational scheme was imposed on the canon, which is now the most familiar. The scheme organises the suttas into:


The texts of the Mahayana school include:

  • Hinayana (Basic Vehicle) texts
    • These texts are roughly equivalent to the texts of the Theravadan Pali Canon (including the Pali suttas); though the Mahayana school relies on the Sanskrit versions of these texts
  • Mahayana (Great Vehicle) texts
    • These are the Mahayana sutras and their commentaries.
    • The Mahayana sutras are based on the texts of the Hinayana (Basic Vehicle), but they were first recorded several hundred years after the Hinayana texts were recorded.
    • The Mahayana sutras accept the validity of the Hinayana texts, but they assert that the Hinayana texts present a limited point of view, and that the Mahayana sutras present the higher point of view for beings of superior capacity.
    • The Mahayana sutras emphasize training in bodhicitta (limitless wisdom and compassion)
    • Note that the Mahayana sutras are generally not considered as authentic teachings of the Buddha within the Theravada tradition

The Mahayana sutras were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. The Chinese translations were then translated into Korean and Vietnamese. The Korean translations were then translated into Japanese. At a later period, the texts were also translated from Sanskrit directly into the Tibetan language.


  1. Gombrich 2006, p. 4.


  • Encyclopaedia Britannica: ultimate reference suite (2008), Buddhism, Encyclopaedia Britannica 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1992), The Buddha's Path to Awakening, Leiden: E. J. Brill 
  • Gombrich (b), Richard, "Interview by Kathleen Gregory", 
  • Gombrich, Richard F (2006), Theravada Buddhism (2nd ed.), London: Routledge 

External links

This article uses material from Buddhist texts on Wikipedia (view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikipedia logo