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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Twelve Scriptural Categories

The Twelve Scriptural Categories

by L.T. Doboom Tulku
translated by Alexander Berzin, 1974

Annotated and slightly revised (March 2007) excerpt from
L.T. Doboom Tulku (Alexander Berzin, transl.). "Introduction" in
Frye, Stanley (transl.). Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1974.

Order the original text directly from Paljor Publications.

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, there are 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, there are scriptures of interpretable (drang-don, Skt. neyartha) and definitive meanings (nges-don, Skt. nitartha),
  • From the textual point of view, there are the twelve scriptural categories (gsung-rab yan-lag bcu-gnyis),
  • From the point of view of what the teachings are opponents for, there are The Three Baskets (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripitaka),
  • From the disciple’s point of view, there are the baskets of Hinayana and Mahayana teachings,
  • From the point of view of the circumstances of the teachings, there are 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 Buddha's Enlightening 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. Samdhinirmocana Sutra). 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 Buddhas 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 Sutra), 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 Smrtyupashthana Sutra),
  • Hundreds of Karmic Deeds (Las brgya-tham-pa, Skt. Karmashataka Sutra),
  • Hundreds of Illustrative Accounts (rTogs-pa brjod-pa brgya-pa, Skt. Avadanashataka Sutras),
  • The Rules of Discipline Scriptural Texts (' Dul-ba’i lung, Skt. Vinayagama).

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 of Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa’i mdo, Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutra; 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. Lankavatara Sutra),
  • The King of Absorbed Concentrations Sutra (Ting-nge-‘dzin rgyal-po’i mdo, Samadhiraja Sutra),
  • The Sutra of the Ten (Arya Bodhisattva) Levels of Mind (mDo-sde sa-bcu-pa, Skt. Dashabhumika Sutra),
  • The Sutra of the Womb Containing a Thusly Gone One (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-po’i mdo, Tathagathagarbha Sutra; The Buddha-Nature Sutra),
  • The Sutra Requested by the Arya Shrimala (Skt. Aryashrimala Pariprccha Sutra),
  • A Filigree for the Lamp of Deep Awareness Sutra (Ye-shes snang-ba’i rgyan-gyi mdo, Skt. Jnanaloka Alamkara Sutra),
  • The Sutra of the Great Final Release from All Sorrows (Yongs-su mya-ngan-las ‘ das-pa’i mdo, Mahaparinirvana Sutra),
  • 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. Tathagata Mahakaruna Nirdesha Sutra).

The seventh chapter, Questions by Paramartha Samudgata (Don-dam yang-dag ‘phags-kyis zhus-pa, Skt. Paramartha Samudgata Pariprccha) 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 Eight Thousand 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. Aryashtasahasrika  Prajnaparamita Panjika Sarottama), 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. sutra) present what Buddha has to say in a brief and condensed format.

2. Melodic verses (dbyangs-kyis bsnyad-pa, Skt. geya) are verses that Buddha uttered during the course of and at the conclusion of his sutras.

3. Revelatory accounts (lung-bstan-pa, Skt. vyakarana) are Buddha’s revelations of what has happened in the past or prophesies of what will occur in the future, such as the The Sutra of the White Lotus of the True Dharma (Dam-pa’i chos padma dkar-po’i mdo, Skt. Saddharma Pundarika Sutra; 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. gatha) are two-to-six-lined verses composed by Buddha.

5. Special verses (ched-du brjod-pa, Skt. udana) are 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. nidana) are 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. avadana) are teachings of Buddha given with examples for ease of comprehension by the listener.

8. Ancient narratives (de-lta-bu byung-ba, Skt. itivrttika) are stories Buddha told from ancient times.

9. Past life accounts (skyes-pa’i rabs, Skt. jataka) are 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. Aryajinaputra Arthasiddhi Sutra).

10. Epic presentations (shin-tu rgyas-pa, Skt. vaipulya) are 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) are 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. upadesha) indicate precisely the 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. Sutra Pitaka; 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 Pitaka; 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 Pitaka; 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 Hundred Thousand Verse Sutra on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-phrag brgya-pa’i mdo, Skt. Shatasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra),
  • The Twenty-five Thousand Verse Sutra on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-phrag nyi-shu lnga-pa’i mdo, Skt. Pancavimshati Sahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra),
  • The Eight Thousand Verse Sutra on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa brgyad-stong-pa’i mdo, Skt. Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra).

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. Prajnaptishastra),
  • A Corpus of Sources (of Cognition) (Skt. Dhatukaya),
  • A Corpus of Types of Consciousness (Skt. Vijnanakaya),
  • Proceeding toward Deep Awareness (Skt. Jnanaprasthana),
  • Topics in Verse (Skt. Prakaranapada),
  • A Concert of Synonyms (Skt. Samgitiparyaya).

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 Vibhanga),
  • Foundation for the Minor Aspects of the Rules of Discipline (' Dul-ba phran-tshegs-kyi gzhi, Skt. Vinaya Kshudraka 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. Sutralamkara Bhashya), 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 following schematic diagram will help clarify this classification:

Scriptural Category Audience Basket

(1) expositions on themes of practice
(2) melodic verses
(3) revelatory accounts
(4) metered verses
(5) special verses

 

Hinayana shravaka

Basket of Sutras

(10) epic presentations
(11) fabulous account

Mahayana bodhisattva

(6) ethical narratives
(7) illustrative accounts
(8) ancient narratives

Hinayana shravaka

Basket of Rules of Discipline

(9) past life accounts

Hinayana shravaka

Basket of Topics of Special Knowledge
(12) decisive explications Hinayana & Mahayana

 

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. Vastusamgraha) of his Levels of Mind for Integrated Behavior (rNal-‘byor spyod-pa’i sa, Yogacaryabhumi) 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.