First written Buddhist Canon?

Thanks everyone for your contributions! My 2 cents:

According to the Pali commentary to MN 140, certain texts were written down during the life of the Buddha. There is no evidence to support this, but it is certainly not impossible. The texts written down (likkhati) include an extensive description of practice (cūḷasīlamajjhimasīlamahāsīlādīni ekadesena likhitvā chadvārasaṃvaraṃ satisampajaññaṃ catupaccayasantosaṃ navavidhaṃ senāsanaṃ, nīvaraṇappahānaṃ parikammaṃ jhānābhiññā aṭṭhatiṃsa kammaṭṭhānāni yāva āsavakkhayā ekadesena likhi, soḷasavidhaṃ ānāpānassatikammaṭṭhānaṃ vitthāreneva likhitvā). They were said to be inscribed on gold plates (suvaṇṇapaṭṭa), so barring the accidents of history, they could even survive.

Most likely this is just a story, which would make the first written texts the Ashokan pillars. These, however, contain the edicts of Ashoka, not Buddhist texts. However, they do refer by name to a number of texts, and in addition refer to a number of terms and phrases found in the EBTs. These texts are written in Brahmi script, which is the ultimate ancestor of most of the scripts used today in India, as well as south and south-east Asia.

The language of the edicts is Magadhi:

This is, more or less, the same language as used in the Jain texts. Certain details of Magadhi are apparent in Pali, which is usually taken as a sign that Magadhi, or something very like it, was the earliest language of the Buddhist texts.

However, a little caution is due here. The differences between these dialects are very small, and in almost all cases do not create any difficulties for understanding. In many ways they are more like regional accents than distinct languages. From the earliest times, we know that there were mendicants from different regions who were memorizing the texts, and undoubtedly there would have been some variation in pronunciation. More controversially, I think it is likely that the Buddha himself used different dialects. In any case, there is no need to assume that there ever was a single original language/dialect.

As detailed by Sarath, the first recorded written full canon was the Pali canon at Matale. This would presumably have been written in an early version of the Sinhala script, which was derived from Brahmi have been written in Brahmi. The Sinhalese script was not in use until much later.

Presumably there were texts being written down in this period in India, but we don’t have any concrete historical references. In the Mahayana sutras, however, which were composed from this time, there is frequent reference to writing, so it must have become standard practice for Buddhist scriptures.

The earliest extant manuscripts, as mentioned by Coemgenu, are the Gandhari manuscripts from Afghanistan. These cover a wide range of the different kinds of Buddhist texts that existed at the time, including EBTs. They are written in the Gandhari language:

And use the Kharosthi script:

There is a small but dedicated team of scholars working on this field, whose website is here:

https://gandhari.org/

In addition to these texts, there is a large number of other texts preserved from ancient times in manuscript form. Some of these have been published, and we have collected as many on SC as we can. Other manuscripts still await editing and publication: it is a slow, difficult job.

As mentioned by Coemgenu, the Tripitaka Koreana is the oldest complete canon. This is the basis for most modern editions of the Chinese canon, including the Taisho canon, which was digitized by CBETA and forms the basis for the Chinese texts on SC. Despite being created in Korea, the texts are Chinese. It contains a huge number of texts, including the ancient Agama and Vinaya texts.

And finally, to confirm that apart from occasional suttas, the oldest physical manuscript of the complete Pali canon would be quite recent. I am not aware that any “oldest” manuscript has been identified, but it would not be more than a few centuries old at most.

Unfortunately, yes. And in my experience, the winner of the the argument is the one best versed in wikipedia “law”, not in Dhamma. I don’t think it has improved much in the past, what, nearly a decade now. Still, it is better as a basic resource than pretty much any other freely available site.

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