Discovering Sacred Texts: Buddhism

Find out how different Buddhist traditions practices their faith through the concept of the Three Jewels: the Buddha; Buddhist teachings (Dharma); and Sangha, the religious communities that practice Dharma.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Some rights reserved.  ©  British Library Board / British Library

Lama Jampa Thaye: A Buddhist is traditionally defined as somebody who takes refuge in, or relies upon, the Three Jewels: the Buddha, as teacher; the Dharma, as the path to practice; and the Shanga, the community, as the companions with whom they practice Dharma.

Jana Igunma: There are three main traditions, Mahayana, in East Asia mainly, parts of Southeast Asia as well, Vatrayana is more practiced in Central Asia, and Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Lama Jampa Thaye: A geographic dispersal, with lack of communication between different centres of Buddhism, even in India, let alone when it spreads outside, definitely geography and accident in a way, played its role in ensuring that one tradition emphasised particular scriptures, another tradition emphasised their particular favourite scriptures. In this kind of happenstance way the tradition grew.

Dr Betty Kunjara: The Buddha was born in a royal family, but at the age of 29 he lived happily, but he found that there’s a samsara, which means that birth, getting old, ill, and dying. So he left the palace and went out to learn how to find the truth of life, and then he practiced by himself as well by Vipassana meditation, training the mind, and at the age of 35, at Bodhgaya under the Bo tree he attained enlightenment, and he knew the truth of life, the way of life, and he was wondering whether, who he can teach, because this is a higher state of knowledge. The went to teach his disciples who used to be with him before, and the first sermon he taught was on the four noble truths, which is the foundation of the Buddha, and how you can get rid of suffering, you have to do a noble ethical? Path. So when we know the life of the Buddha, we know how to be happy and live the life to the full, with the consciousness and without suffering.

Venerable Phramaha Bhatsakorn Piyobhaso: Our texts are called Tipitaka. The Tipitaka means the three baskets, three collections of the Buddha’s teachings, and there are Vinaya Pitaka, the collection of monastic codes, and rules, rites and rituals, and Sutra Piṭaka, the collection of discourses given by the Buddha himself, or by his closest disciples, and the last one, Abhidharma Pitaka, the collection of higher teachings, Abhidharma means the higher teachings. In the Theravada tradition, the Buddha’s teachings were recorded in the Pali language, so for us the Tipitaka is the main source, in order to examine, to investigate, and to make a comparison if the teaching is right or wrong. It always goes back to the source. It is very large, I think about over 20,000 pages.

Lama Jampa Thaye: Other schools wrote their scriptures in Sanskrit. The Tibetans translated these from about the 8th century onwards and it took several centuries actually. There are scriptures which we feel are authentically Buddhist teachings which are not included in the Pali cannon but which we include, in short the Mahayana teachings and the Tantric teachings. So we consider them legitimately part of the Tipitaka. Dharma is a Sanskrit word and has, actually, many meanings, but in this particular context we mean the body of teachings that stems from the Buddha’s activity two and a half thousand years ago. So it’s not just literary scriptures but it’s also this presentation, this transmission of teachings as direct personal advice from one master to their disciples. All that is the dharma.

Venerable Phramaha Bhatsakorn Piyobhaso: So basically monks have two tasks: learning and teaching. Learning about the teaching, and then spread the teaching. To be a good monk you need to know all of the monk’s precepts. So there are 277 precepts and are called patimokkha – monastic codes. In fact as a Buddhist monk we have more than that, and there are approximately 3,000 precepts for monks. A minor one for example, as a Buddhist monk, if you have a wound on your face you are not allowed to use a mirror. If you need to take a nap during the daytime, you need to close the door, you can’t simply leave the door open and take a nap during the daytime. But these precepts are not included in the 277 precepts – we call them minor rules.

Venerable Ru Hai: So, the precepts are our foundation and the basis of being a human. Similarly, a country cannot be without laws. A household cannot be without rules. Precepts are standard for Buddhist practitioners. As a female Buddhist, after we renounce to become a monastic, we transcend gender forms. So both males and females have to undertake the same responsibilities; there is no difference.

Venerable Phramaha Bhatsakorn Piyobhaso: For the laypeople their main job is to support the monk’s work, for example to support the monks with food and accommodation, robe. We show appreciation to the sangha, sangha means the members of monastics, for what they have done, from the beginning in ancient times until today. We have a chance to learn about Buddhism because of the sangha, because the sangha members hand the Buddhist teachings from generation to generation until our time.

Melodie Doumy: We’re looking at a horizontal scroll, written in Chinese, that would have been read from right to left, so you have columns of text so they would have also been read then from top to bottom. It’s about five metres long, and so it’s made of several sheets of paper originally glued together. It starts with a beautifully illustrated frontispiece. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha basically explains that there is no such thing as a permanent not-changing self. This is a very special copy of the Diamond Sutra because it’s the world’s earliest reliably dated printed book. By using printing then monks or Buddhist believers found a method that allowed them to reproduce the text with extreme accuracy, but also on a very large scale.

Hamish Todd: The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential sutras particularly in East Asia and it’s regarded as being one of the key texts containing the teachings of the Buddha. One of the key doctrines of the Lotus Sutra is that all sentient beings, all living beings, can attain Buddhahood in their current existence.

Venerable Ru Hai: To me, Buddhism and Dharma is not just a faith. It is a philosophy of life that has changed my life and way of thinking. It has also changed the way I deal with things. It is a great wisdom of life.

Explore further

Related videos

Discovering Sacred Texts: Hinduism

Discovering Sacred Texts: Hinduism

Discover the diversity and richness of Hinduism, from the ancient oral tradition of the Vedic texts, the colourful stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the ways in which gods and goddesses are worshipped today. - video

Discovering Sacred Texts: Christianity

Discovering Sacred Texts: Christianity

Explore the diverse ways in which five Christian denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, and Pentecostal – worship in Britain today, and the texts that inspire them. - video

Discovering Sacred Texts: Islam

Discovering Sacred Texts: Islam

Our film on Islam explores four of the five pillars of Islam – the Muslim profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), charity (zakat), and fasting during Ramadan (sawm) – and how Muslims in Britain follow them today. - video

Discovering Sacred Texts: Judaism

Discovering Sacred Texts: Judaism

We explore what it means to be Jewish today through some of Judaism’s most important sacred texts including the Torah, the Talmud, and the Haggadah. - video

Related articles

An image of the Buddha from a Japanese Lotus Sutra

The Buddha and Buddhist sacred texts

Professor Peter Harvey recounts the life and teachings of the Buddha, as well as considering the role that the Buddha plays in the different branches of Buddhism and how his teachings have been collected.

images of Amitābha Buddha printed on paper

Buddhist meditation and chant

There are many kinds of Buddhist meditations; here Dr Sarah Shaw describes the ‘middle way’ of the Buddha and explores key aspects of Buddhist meditation and chant, such as the use of Buddha-images and visualisation.

An image of the Buddha on a red background

The development of the Buddhist 'canon'

The Buddhist ‘canon’ is vast, complex and difficult to define. Here Professor Tim Barrett outlines some of the key works for the different branches of Buddhism.

Detail from the Lotus Sutra

Illuminated Buddhist Manuscripts

British Library curators Melodie Doumy, Jana Igunma, San San May and Burkhard Quessel explore some of the illuminated and illustrated Buddhist manuscripts in the Library's collection.

Related themes



The Buddha lived over 2,500 years ago, yet his life and teachings continue to inform the lives of millions of Buddhists worldwide. Learn about the Buddha’s teachings, the different Buddhist traditions, and Buddhist meditation.


Illuminated texts

The British Library’s collection comprises some of the most beautiful, handwritten and illuminated sacred texts from many of the world’s religions.

Detail from the Lotus Sutra

Sacred texts

All faiths have a rich history of texts, be they the word of God as revealed to prophets, oral stories retold by one generation to another over centuries, or written down in books. Explore the origins and developments of the world’s major faiths.


Living Texts

Whether retold from one generation to the next, or written down from one language into another, some sacred texts have evolved while others have remained the same throughout time, enriching and informing the lives of those that read them.