The Place of the Chinese Āgamas in Buddhist Literature

The Chinese Buddhist canon is unique in that it contains a record of the scriptures and philosophical texts that were circulating in Central Asia and India during the peak of Buddhist literary creativity between 0 CE and the arrival of Islam. Most of the major works were translated several times over a period of about 500 years or so, meaning that we can note their historical development by comparing these “snapshots” preserved in Chinese. It’s also thanks to Chinese historical records that we can date many of these texts.

The Chinese Āgamas are an important piece of the historical puzzle of Indian Buddhist history. Most of the original Sanskrit or Middle Indic canons that the Chinese Āgamas preserved were lost when Buddhism was disbanded in India. The only complete early Buddhist canon that still exists is preserved in Pali by Theravada Buddhists in countries outside of India. To my knowledge, we otherwise only have fragments of original language Āgama texts discovered by archeologists and quotations in secondary works like Abhidharma and Mahāyāna texts.

Like the Theravada Buddhists, the Indian schools of early Buddhism maintained a canon of five divisions:

  • Dīrgha (Long)
  • Madhyama (Middle)
  • Saṃyukta (Thematic)
  • Ekôttara (Incremental)
  • Kṣudraka (Minor)

These are Sanskrit equivalents of the five Pali Nikāyas: Dīgha, Majjhima, Saṃyutta, Aṅguttara, and Khuddaka. Each Āgama or Nikāya is a collection of individual texts that relate a teaching by the Buddha or a chief disciple.

These collections had their genesis from the initial sermon that the Buddha gave to his first five disciples. Throughout his teaching career, the practice of memorizing teachings and events and preserving them as an oral tradition built up a living canon that continued on after his death. It was several centuries later that these oral traditions were set down in writing. I say oral traditions because the Chinese Āgamas suggest that, by the time they arrived in China (circa 4-5th c. CE), each major branch of early Buddhism had an alternate version of the original oral tradition.

Scholars have begun to compare them to the Pali and to fragments of Indian works that exist. What they have found is that while the basic teachings and historical events are shared between each canon, they are seldom identical and vary a great deal in presentation and wording. Indeed, there are even differences in understanding the meaning of basic words because of Sanskrit rather than Pali derivations.

What has been striking to me is how certain parallel texts are very close in wording when we compare the Chinese to the Pali, while others are very different. There is also only a partial overlap: That is, that the Nikāyas have texts that are absent from the Chinese Āgamas and vice versa. It’s clear that the early Buddhist canon was not a word-for-word preservation like the Christian Bible, but rather a fuzzy body of literature handed down through multiple lines of transmission.

Efforts to translate and publish the Chinese Āgamas to English began during this decade, most notably with publications by the BDK translation project and also Dharma Drum Buddhist College. I had explored the Āgamas in the early 2000s during a period of study and translated a few of them in 2004. I am taking this effort back up because of the need for a careful rendering these difficult texts to English. It will give scholars and practitioners alike a way to get a better understanding of early Buddhism as a whole.


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