BEAR Research Briefs are concise and accessible introductions to Buddhism and East Asian Religions (BEAR) topics. These essays seek to answer questions from FROGBEAR research clusters by drawing from their field visit experiences.



Where do Buddhist scriptures come from?

Cluster 2.2: “‘Secondary’ Producers, ‘Primary’ Roles”
Author: George Keyworth, University of Saskatchewan


Beginning in the first century of the Common Era, Buddhist texts began to be translated into Chinese. Although Buddhism is a religion that was founded in ancient India, today the largest collection of Buddhist literature is available in Chinese. Our research cluster engages with this history of transmission, production, and reproduction of Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism can be traced to India and the followers of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 5th–4th century BCE), known to his disciples as Śākyamuni Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha were transmitted orally, then written down in a variety of South Asian languages (e.g., Pāli and Sanskrit) and translated into Central and East Asian (Chinese, not modern Mandarin Chinese) languages. The oldest extant catalog to a collection of all the scriptures translated into Chinese was produced by the monk Sengyou (445–518). Sengyou’s catalog demonstrates that Chinese Buddhists conceived of a canon—or collection with three types of scriptures (sūtras, vinaya, and commentaries)—as a fruitful way to organize translated Buddhist scriptures. A key to understanding why the Chinese cataloged and organized all the translated scriptures can be found in the Chinese term for sūtra or scripture. Jing is the ancient Chinese word for a Classic text, as in the Thirteen Classics which almost certainly predate Confucius (551–479 BCE).

An authoritative catalog of all the scriptures was completed in 730 by Zhisheng (d.u.) during the mid-Tang (618–907) dynasty, which lists 1076 separate texts in 5048 scrolls or rolls. Zhisheng’s catalog inventories how many pages were one required to hand copy each text. When the Buddhist canon, now called all the scriptures from a monastic library (da zangjing 大藏經), was first printed between 971–983 in southwestern China under the Song dynasty (960–1279), Zhisheng’s catalog was strictly followed. Nearly all of the 24 or 25 printed editions of the Buddhism canon in Chinese (rather than in Tibetan or Mongolian) in China from 983–1913 follow Zhisheng’s catalog. By contrast, the Pāli Buddhist canon was not cataloged or printed until the late nineteenth century. Likely following the example of Tang Buddhists during the ninth century, there are three extant early catalogs of Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist canons were printed after the early fifteenth century. Under British colonization of South Asia (ca. 1757–1947), many Sanskrit manuscripts were published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; earlier manuscripts and manuscript fragments in Sanskrit have been found at Gilgit (present day northern Pakistan), Haḍḍa (near Jalalabad, Afghanistan), and in Xinjiang.

Printed editions of the Tibetan canon are separated into two parts: the kangyur in 108 volumes, which consists of translated texts, and the tengyur with commentaries to a wide array of translated materials, including treatises written by Indians and Tibetans. Catalogs to printed editions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese reveal how restrictive the contents are. Buddhist teachings were taken from China to northern Vietnam as early as the second century, Korea by the fourth century, and Japan during the mid-sixth century. Until the early twentieth century East Asian Buddhists did not translate texts written in Chinese. Instead they read and recited texts in Chinese with their vernacular languages. Most reliable editions of Buddhist literature in Chinese that predate extant printed materials and incorporate a rich variety of commentarial literature written by East Asians—including the teachings of the East Asian traditions such as Chan (Seon or Zen), Pure Land, and esoteric or tantric Buddhism—can only be found in Japan, Korea, and in northern China. The single hoard of Buddhist manuscripts found in China in cave no. 17 from the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang at the turn of the twentieth century, which was almost certainly closed circa 1006, is perhaps the single most valuable archaeological discovery in East Asia. But the chronological restriction to the beginning of the eleventh century means that literally thousands of texts written by East Asians were not yet available.

East Asian Buddhists wrote scriptures on at least three media: manuscripts on paper; stone; and woodblock printing or xylography on paper. A complete copy of the manuscript Buddhist canon that Zhisheng’s catalog classified was brought to Japan by 735 and copied during the late eighth century. These manuscripts survive today in the Shōgozō repository of Tōdaiji temple in Nara. Copied during the twelfth century from ninth century manuscripts, we also have eight manuscript Buddhist canons in Japan. The oldest one was copied for the Matsuno’o shrine-temple complex in Kyoto. In 2017, our research cluster explored colophons of several exemplary texts and examined notable objects of material culture which showed the considerable role played by individuals from lesser-known Shingon- and Tendai-affiliated temples and shrine libraries in transmitting and preserving a large body of religious literature.

Koreans first printed their own canon between 1011–1087, but the woodblocks were destroyed by a Mongol invasion during the 1230s. The Second Goryeo Canon (1237–1249) is extant, consists of 1517 titles, and is the basis for the modern East Asian Buddhist canons. Sometimes using gold or silver ink on indigo paper or simply black ink on ordinary paper, Koreans also printed Chinese and Korean commentarial texts from the Tang, Song and Goryeo (918–1392) dynasties with exquisite illustrations. In 2018, our cluster visited the National Museum of Korea to examine rare woodblock printed materials and consider the central role Koreans played in transmitting lengthy commentaries together with images.

The Fangshan Stone Canon from Yunju monastery near Beijing, China, where more than 14,000 steles (22.5 million characters) with rock-cut scriptures were first carved during the 7th century, and scriptures were renovated or added until the early Qing dynasty (1644–1912), especially during the Khitan Liao (907/916–1125) and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, is the best example of how East Asian Buddhists preserved Buddhist scriptures in stone. In 2019, we traveled to Hangzhou, China to look at to the tradition of inscribing dhāraṇīs (spells) on pillars and inspect sites with dhāraṇī pillars.

The extent to which the Khitans who ruled north China were fervent supporters of Buddhism is evident from the North Pagoda in the city of Chaoyang (modern Liaoning province). Inside the lower relic crypt of this magnificent pagoda, which was renovated during 1043–1044, is a four-tiered pillar carved with nine dhāraṇī (spell) texts. And inside a silver-plated, copper pagoda-shaped container kept in the upper relic crypt with embossed dhāraṇī texts in both Chinese and Siddham Sanskrit scripts are several of the same texts carved on the pillar in the lower crypt. These scriptures with sacred syllables either written in Sanskrit letters or Chinese transcription on stone and imprinted on thin sheets of metal demonstrate how East Asian Buddhists preserved their religious texts for as close to eternity as possible.

As researchers of Buddhist scriptures and their histories of production, we contribute to these processes of preservation and education by training a new generation of scholars during site-specific fieldwork; recording and sharing images of sites, manuscripts, and other objects for public access through UBC Open Collections; and creating new knowledge about the culture of transmission.