Buddhist textual traditions

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The Buddhist textual traditions refer to sets of texts that provides the theoretical underpinnings for the living traditions of Buddhism. This encyclopedia follows the conventions of the 14th Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, and identifies two major textual traditions of Buddhism:

The 14th Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron employ these conventions in the following texts:

In Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, Thubten Chodron states:

This book...focuses on the teachings—the shared tenets and the unique tenets of what we are calling the “Pāli tradition” and the “Sanskrit tradition.” These are terms of convenience and should not be taken to imply that either tradition is homogenous. Both traditions trace their teachings and practices back to the Buddha himself. The Pāli tradition is descendant from the suttas and commentaries in Prakrit, in the old Sinhala language, and in Pāli. It relies on the Pāli canon and is currently found principally in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and parts of Vietnam and Bangladesh. The Sanskrit tradition descends from sūtras and commentaries in Prakrit, Sanskrit, and Central Asian languages and relies on the Chinese and Tibetan canons. It is currently practiced principally in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, the Himalayan region, Vietnam, and parts of Russia. Both traditions are found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India, and in Western and African countries.
While stemming from the same Teacher, the Buddha, the Pāli tradition and the Sanskrit tradition each has its own distinctive features, unique contributions, and different points of emphasis. In addition, neither tradition is monolithic. The Buddhism of East Asia and Tibetan Buddhism, for example, are quite different in expression. But because they both stem from a similar body of Sanskrit texts and share many similar beliefs, they are included in the expression “the Sanskrit tradition.”[1]

This encyclopedia also makes the following distinction between a textual tradition and a living tradition.

  • A textual tradition refers to a set of texts. It provides the theoretical underpinnings for the living traditions.
  • A living tradition is a tradition (set of beliefs and practices) based upon one or more textual traditions. It is common for living traditions to draw on multiple textual traditions, or to have different interpretations of the underlying texts.

With respect to living traditions of Buddhism, this encyclopedia identifies three major living traditions: Tibetan Buddhism, East Asian Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism.