The Twelve Scriptural Categories

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Six Ways to Classify Buddha’s Scriptural Teachings

The Sakya master Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen grub) has said that there are six specific ways of classifying Buddha’s scriptural teachings:

  • From the temporal point of view – the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma (chos-kyi ’khor-lo rim-pa gsum, three rounds of transmission of the Dharma)
  • From the point of view of subject matter – scriptures of interpretable (drang-don, Skt. neyārtha) and definitive meanings (nges-don, Skt. nītārtha)
  • From the textual point of view – the twelve scriptural categories (gsung-rab yan-lag bcu-gnyis)
  • From the point of view of what the teachings are opponents for – The Three Baskets (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripiṭaka)
  • From the disciple’s point of view – the baskets of Hinayana and Mahayana teachings
  • From the point of view of the circumstances of the teachings – the enlightening words spoken from Buddha’s own lips (zhal-nas gsung-pa’i bka’), permitted words (rjes-su gnang-ba’i gsung), and enlightening words spoken through Buddha’s inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs-pa’i bka’).

[See: The Three Divisions of a Buddha’s Words]

The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

Concerning the first of these, Buton was not the only scholar who asserted that the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma are a temporal classification scheme. Many others, such as the Jonang master Taranatha (Ta-ra-na-tha), have agreed that this is so. However, some scholars do not accept this. The reason for their disagreement is as follows.

The well-known convention of “the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma” derives from the The Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended (dGongs-pa nges-par ’grel-ba’i mdo, Skt. Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra). In the seventh chapter of this work, the bodhisattva Paramartha Samudgata asked Buddha what he had in mind when, on certain occasions, he had said that phenomena have truly established existence and, on others, that they do not, for literally these two statements appear to be contradictory. Explaining what he intended by this, Buddha replied that phenomena can be divided into those that have truly established existence and those that do not. Thus he was establishing the Chittamatra tenets.

In this way, three turnings of the wheel of Dharma came to be known in Buddhist scriptures. The first taught truly established existence; the second non-truly established existence; and the third that the existence of some phenomena is truly established, while others are not. For this reason, the Gelug master Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) said clearly in his Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po), “The classification of three turnings of the wheel of Dharma was not made in reference to specific events in Buddha’s life or gatherings of his disciples. It was made from the point of view of the subject matter of his teachings.”

What Tsongkhapa was objecting to is that if the three turnings were purely a temporal classification, then everything that Buddha taught would have to be included in these three. But this is not reasonable, for not everything that Buddha taught during the first third of his teaching can be included in the first turning. This is why he has said that this threefold classification deriving from The Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended is made according to the mode of explaining selflessness (the lack of an impossible “soul”). Thus it seems that when Buton asserted that, according to this sutra, the three turnings are a temporal classification, what was meant in the sutra was that the first turning came first, then the second, and afterwards the third.

Texts Included in Each of the Three Turnings According to Tsongkhapa

The Wheel of Dharma Sutra (Chos-kyi ’khor-lo’i mdo, Skt. Dharmacakra Sūtra), in which Buddha taught his five original disciples the Four Noble Truths three times, is the actual first turning of the wheel of Dharma. Related subject matter is found in such works as:

  • The Sutra of the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Hallowed Dharmas (Dam-pa’i chos dran-pa nyer-bzhag-gi mdo, Skt. Saddharma Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra)
  • Hundreds of Karmic Deeds (Las brgya-tham-pa, Skt. Karmaśataka Sūtra)
  • Hundreds of Illustrative Accounts (rTogs-pa brjod-pa brgya-pa, Skt. Avadānaśataka Sūtras)
  • The Rules of Discipline Scriptural Texts (Dul-ba’i lung, Skt. Vinayāgama).

Although none of these related texts are actually the first turning, they are placed in that category.

The actual second turning of the wheel of the Dharma is with The Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa’i mdo, Skt. Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra; Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). Because they deal with related subject matter, the following works are placed in this category:

  • The Descent to Lanka Sutra (Lang-kar gshegs-pa’i mdo, Skt. Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra)
  • The King of Absorbed Concentrations Sutra (Ting-nge-’dzin rgyal-po’i mdo, Samādhirāja Sūtra)
  • The Sutra of the Ten (Arya Bodhisattva) Levels of Mind (mDo-sde sa-bcu-pa, Skt. Daśabhūmika Sūtra)
  • The Sutra of the Womb Containing a Thusly Gone One (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-po’i mdo, Skt. Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra; The Buddha-Nature Sutra)
  • The Sutra Requested by the Arya Shrimala (Skt. Āryaśrīmālā Paripṛcchā Sūtra)
  • A Filigree for the Lamp of Deep Awareness Sutra (Ye-shes snang-ba’i rgyan-gyi mdo, Skt. Jñānāloka Alaṃkāra Sūtra)
  • The Sutra of the Great Final Release from All Sorrows (Yongs-su mya-ngan-las ’das-pa’i mdo, Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra)
  • The Sutra Indicating the Great Compassion of the Thusly Gone Ones (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-rje chen-po bstan-pa’i mdo, Skt. Tathāgata Mahākaruṇā Nirdeśa Sūtra).

The seventh chapter, Questions by Paramartha Samudgata (Don-dam yang-dag ’phags-kyis zhus-pa, Skt. Paramārtha Samudgata Paripṛcchā) of The Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended is the actual third turning of the wheel of Dharma and the other chapters of this sutra are in the category of the third turning.

As it would be too lengthy to discuss in full the other ways Buton mentioned of classifying Buddha’s scriptural teachings, this will not be done here. It will suffice to explain merely the twelve scriptural categories, which are condensed into The Three Baskets.

The Twelve Scriptural Categories

In The Supreme Essence: A Commentary on the Difficult Points of “The Noble 8,000 Verse Sutra on Far-Reaching Discrimination” (Phags-pa shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa brgyad-stong-pa’i dka’-’grel snying-po mchog, Skt. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Pañjikā Sārottamā), Ratnakarashanti (Shantipa) has said, “Expositions on themes of practice, melodic verses, revelatory accounts, metered verses, special verses, ethical narratives, illustrative accounts, ancient narratives, past life accounts, epic presentations, fabulous accounts, and decisive explications are the twelve scriptural categories.” What each of these twelve are and how they fit into The Three Baskets is as follows:

  1. Expositions on themes of practice (mdo, Skt. sūtra) – what Buddha has to say in a brief and condensed format
  2. Melodic verses (dbyangs-kyis bsnyad-pa, Skt. geya) – verses that Buddha uttered during the course of and at the conclusion of his sutras
  3. Revelatory accounts (lung-bstan-pa, Skt. vyākaraṇa) – Buddha’s revelations of what has happened in the past or prophesies of what will occur in the future, such as The Sutra of the White Lotus of the True Dharma (Dam-pa’i chos padma dkar-po’i mdo, Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra; The Lotus Sutra). Another way of explaining melodic verses and revelatory accounts is that the former are scriptures of interpretable meaning and the latter of definitive meaning.
  4. Metered verses (tshigs-su bcad-pa, Skt. gāthā) – two-to-six-lined verses composed by Buddha
  5. Special verses (ched-du brjod-pa, Skt. udāna) – praises that Buddha uttered with joy for the sake of the long life of his teachings, and not for the sake of specific individuals
  6. Ethical narratives (gleng-bzhi, Skt. nidāna) – rules, codified by Buddha for those who are ordained, concerning which actions constitute a breach of their vows
  7. Illustrative accounts (rtogs-par brjod-pa, Skt. avadāna) – teachings of Buddha given with examples for ease of comprehension by the listener
  8. Ancient narratives (de-lta-bu byung-ba, Skt. itivṛttaka) – stories Buddha told from ancient times
  9. Past life accounts (skyes-pa’i rabs, Skt. jātaka) – accounts of the difficult ascetic practices that Buddha performed in his previous lives while engaging in the conduct of the bodhisattvas. An example is The Sutra about the Arya Bodhisattva Arthasiddhi (Phags-pa rgyal-bu don-grub-kyi mdo, Skt. Āryajinaputra Arthasiddhi Sūtra).
  10. Epic presentations (shin-tu rgyas-pa, Skt. vaipulya) – presentations of the vast and profound aspects of such topics as the six far-reaching attitudes (six perfections) and ten arya bodhisattva levels of mind (ten bhumis) of The Basket of the Mahayana or Bodhisattva Sutras.
  11. Fabulous accounts (rmad-du byung-ba, Skt. adbhutadharma) – descriptions of such marvelous, wondrous things as the wisdom, extra-physical powers and saintly deeds of the Buddhas, pratyekabuddhas (self-realizers), and shravakas (listeners)
  12. Decisive explications (gtan-la phab-pa, Skt. upadeśa) – the precise meaning of the works in The Basket of Sutras by specifying the individual and general definitions of things.

What is known as “the nine scriptural categories” (gsung-rab yan-lag dgu) derives from the ethical narratives, illustrative accounts, ancient narratives, and past life accounts of the above twelve being grouped together as one classification.

The Three Baskets

These twelve scriptural categories are condensed into The Three Baskets. The word basket in Sanskrit is “pitaka,” which means literally a “mass” or a “collection.” The reason the term is used here is because many topics are collected in them. Another way of explaining it is that “pitaka” was the name of a large container used as a unit of dry measure in the country of Magadha in ancient India. Just as in a bushel container many pecks of grain can be fit, so likewise all twelve scriptural categories can be contained in The Three Baskets. This is why they are called “baskets.”

  • The first of these three is The Basket of Sutras (mDo-sde’i sde-snod, Skt. Sūtra Piṭaka; The Basket of Themes of Practice). In it are contained the scriptures dealing mainly with the subject of the training in higher absorbed concentration.
  • The second, The Basket of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i sde-snod, Skt. Abhidharma Piṭaka; The Basket of Abhidharma), contains those scriptures concerned primarily with the training in higher discriminating awareness (higher wisdom).
  • The third is The Basket of Rules of Discipline (Dul-ba’i sde-snod, Skt. Vinaya Piṭaka; The Basket of Vinaya) and includes those scriptures treating mainly the topic of the training in higher ethical discipline.

Examples of texts included in The Basket of Sutras are:

  • The 100,000 Verse Sutra on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-phrag brgya-pa’i mdo, Skt. Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra)
  • The 25,000 Verse Sutra on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-phrag nyi-shu lnga-pa’i mdo, Skt. Pañcaviṃśati Sāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra)
  • The 8,000 Verse Sutra on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa brgyad-stong-pa’i mdo, Skt. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra).

Examples of the texts included in The Basket of Special Topics of Knowledge are The Seven Treatises on Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i bstan-bcos bdun):

  • An Aggregate Network of Phenomena (Skt. Dharmaskandha)
  • The Expression of Discriminating Awareness Treatise (Skt. Prajñāptiśāstra)
  • A Corpus of Sources (of Cognition) (Skt. Dhātukāya)
  • A Corpus of Types of Consciousness (Skt. Vijñānakāya)
  • Proceeding toward Deep Awareness (Skt. Jñānaprasthāna)
  • Topics in Verse (Skt. Prakaraṇapāda)
  • A Concert of Synonyms (Skt. Saṃgītiparyāya).

Of these, only two portions of The Expression of Discriminating Awareness Treatise have been translated into Tibetan.

Examples of the texts included in The Basket of Rules of Discipline are The Four Sections of “The Rules of Discipline Scriptural Texts (Vinayagama)” (Dul-ba lung sde-bzhi):

  • The Foundation for “The Rules of Discipline Scriptural Texts” (Dul-ba lung gzhi, Skt. Vinaya Vastu)
  • Differentiations within the Rules of Discipline (Dul-ba rnam-’byed, Skt. Vinaya Vibhaṅga)
  • Foundation for the Minor Aspects of the Rules of Discipline (Dul-ba phran-tshegs-kyi gzhi, Skt. Vinaya Kṣudraka Vastu)
  • The Latter Classic on the Rules of Discipline (Dul-ba gzhung dam-pa, Skt. Vinayottara Grantha).

The Distinctive Features of Each of The Three Baskets

In his Commentary on (Maitreya’s) “Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras” (mDo-sde rgyan-gyi bshad-pa, Skt. Sūtrālaṃkāra Bhāṣya), Vasubandhu explains that each of these three baskets possesses four distinctive features:

The Basket of Sutras discusses:

  • The detailed circumstances of Buddha’s teachings, such as who delivered them, where and to whom
  • The relative and ultimate characteristics of things
  • Such topics as the aggregates and the cognitive sources and stimulators
  • Interpretable and definitive meanings.

The Basket of Special Topics of Knowledge:

  • Brings the practitioner closer to nirvana
  • Discusses a single topic, such as the aggregate of form, from many different points of view
  • Allows one to defeat an opponent in debate
  • Makes the meaning of The Basket of Sutras more understandable.

The Basket of Rules of Discipline discusses:

  • Transgressions of vows
  • Their four causes
  • Methods for preventing them
  • Methods for their purification, such as loss of privileges and so forth.

Classification of the Twelve Scriptural Categories among The Three Baskets

  • The first five of the twelve scriptural categories constitute The Basket of Hinayana or Shravaka Sutras.
  • The next four, the ethical narratives and so forth, form The Basket of Rules of Discipline.
  • The epic presentations and fabulous accounts comprise The Basket of the Mahayana or Bodhisattva Sutras.
  • The decisive explications make up The Basket of Special Topics of Knowledge, which is both Mahayana and Hinayana.

According to An Index to the Derge Tengyur (sDe-dge’i bsTan-’gyur-gyi dkar-chag) by the scholar Zhuchen Tsultrim Rinchen (Zhu-chen Tshul-khrims rin-chen), The Basket of Rules of Discipline can be divided into Hinayana and Mahayana portions. The ethical narratives, illustrative accounts, and ancient narratives constitute the former, and the past life accounts the latter.

The above manner in which the twelve scriptural categories are grouped among The Three Baskets and classified as Hinayana or Mahayana is in accordance with Buton’s explanation of Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharma Samuccaya) as clarified by Zhuchen Tsultrim Rinchen.

However, Asanga himself has said in An All-Inclusive Text for the Actual Foundation (Sa’i dngos-gzhi, Skt. Vastusaṃgraha) of his Levels of Mind for Integrated Behavior (rNal-’byor spyod-pa’i sa, Yogācāryabhūmi) that of the twelve scriptural categories, the epic presentations are sutras belonging to the Mahayana class, while everything else is Hinayana shravaka. As I have not seen this passage cited or explained anywhere, it is difficult to say definitively what is meant by it. However, it may mean that all categories other than the epic presentations either are shared in common with the shravakas or have portions that can be included in The Basket of Shravaka Sutras, whereas the epic presentations themselves belong wholly to the Mahayana alone.