Buddhism is vast! In the West, we live in an anti-intellectual, consumer society where gratification is increasingly immediate. Consequently, studying Buddhism is a problem for many. Where to begin? Many fall into the error of eschewing Wisdom, which is both the foundation and the goal of the Eightfold Path, and focusing on things that are more familiar or seem easier to them, especially “meditation” [sic!]. For many, the practice of Yoga is a comforting surrogate for the difficulties of the True Path. Yoga is familiar. It caters to our societal obsession with the body. Others pursue ethics and rote practices, and fall into attachment to rules and so become religious sectarian bigots and fundamentalist conformists. IMHO all of these groups are missing the point.
For the few who might like to understand Buddhism as a Way of Wisdom, which is how the Buddha Himself presented the foundation of the Eightfold Path, and which became codified in the Prajnaparamita literature, I offer the following curricula of study. It is certainly equivalent to a B.A. + M.A. program (4 + 2 years). It is of course not the only valid course of study, and is certainly not complete (nothing could be) but it is the way that I have found useful so I offer it here for those who may benefit from it.
Academic courses can be limited, limiting, and even debilitating, but often they are a good beginning, if only as a basis on which to build. Despite his rather pedantic presentation, Buddhism Course by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel is a great 24-video survey course that covers the gamut.
Buddhism Course of Malcolm David Eckel
1. What Is Buddhism?
2. India at the Time of the Buddha
3. The Doctrine of Reincarnation
4. The Story of the Buddha
5. All Is Suffering
6. The Path to Nirvana
7. The Buddhist Monastic Community
8. Buddhist Art and Architecture
9. Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia
10. Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal
11. Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
13. Buddhist Philosophy
14. Buddhist Tantra
15. The Theory and Practice of the Mandala
16. The First Diffusion of the Dharma in Tibet
17. The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
18. The Dalai Lama
19. The Origins of Chinese Buddhism
20. The Classical Period of Chinese Buddhism
21. The Origins of Japanese Buddhism
22. Honen, Shinran and Nichiren
24. Buddhism in America
Richard Gere refers to 13 episodes of this program in the introduction (module 1). However, I have only been able to find eight episodes on YouTube so far.
Course I. The Pali Canon
Recommended time: 2 years
Almost all of the Pali Canon is now available in good English translations. The much neglected and underestimated Pali Canon is arguably the universal historical foundation of the Buddhadharma. It was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka on palm leaves in the first century BCE, though few actual texts survive from that period. Nevertheless, it carries the stamp of oral transmission all over it and no serious scholar doubts its antiquity. While it would be naive to suggest that the words of the Pali Canon preserve the actual historical utterance of Gotama, who died about 300 to 400 years before it was committed to writing, it is increasingly obvious that it is the crucible from which all subsequent interpretations of the dharma emerged, including both “Hinayana” so-called and Mahayana.
The Pali Canon is vast, numbering about 40 volumes in English translation, but the most important books of the Canon are listed below (the Abhidhamma was added later and is sectarian in nature). These books may be read in the English translations published by the Pali Text Society, Pariyatti, and Wisdom Books. I strongly recommend that you read these in their entirety, not selections, following the approximate chronology (see below). In general, it is best to read the most recent translation one can find. There are also free online translations, although I encourage you to acquire the physical books as you will find yourself returning to them again and again. I also strongly recommend more than a single reading. The entire Pali Canon is also available online, in Pali. The Pali suttas are highly diffuse and repetitive, but if one wants to understand them deeply and not merely learn them by rote (as most religionists do), at least several readings are required.
List of Suttas of the Pali Canon
The Pali suttas represent the original presectarian teachings attributed to the Buddha. The first four nikayas are called the Great Four.
Sutta Vibhanga (Vinaya)
Digha Nikaya (34 suttas)
Majjhima Nikaya (152 suttas)
Samyutta NIkaya (2,889 suttas)
Anguttara Nikaya (2,308 suttas)
Khuddakapatha (5 suttas)
Udana (80 suttas)
Itivuttaka (112 suttas)
Suttanipata (71 suttas)
Total Suttas: 5,652
Chronology of the Pali Canon
The following is B.C. Law’s revision of T.W. Rhys-Davids’s chronology (History of the Pali Canon, 1933).
(1) The simple statements of Buddhist doctrines now found, in identical words, in paragraphs or verses recurring in all the books.
(2) Episodes found, in identical works, in two or more of the existing books.
(3) The Silas, the Parayana group of sixteen poems without the prologue, the atthaka group of four or sixteen poems, the sikkhapadas.
(4) The Digha, Vol. l, the Majjhima, the Samyutta, the Anguttara, and earlier Patimokkha code of 152 rules.
(5) The Digha, Vols. II & III, the Thera-Theri-Gatha, the collection of 500 Jatakas, the Suttavibhanga, the Partisambhidamagga, the Puggala-pannatti and the Vibhanga.
(6) The Mahavagga and the Cullavagga, the Patimokkha code completing 227 rules, the Vimanavatthu and Petavatthu, the Dhammapada and the Kathavatthu.
(7) The Cullaniddesa, the Mahaniddesa, the Udana, the Itivuttaka, the Suttanipata, the Dhatukatha, the Yamaka and the Patthana.
(8) The Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka and the Apadana.
(9) The Parivarapatha.
(10) The Khuddakapatha.
Course II. Mahayana Sutras
Recommended time: 2 years
“Some scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā series, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, which were probably composed in the 1st century BCE in the south of India. Some early Mahāyāna sūtras were translated by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. His first translations to Chinese were made in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE. … Some of these were probably composed in the north of India in the 1st century CE. Thus scholars generally think that the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north. However, the assumption that the presence of an evolving body of Mahāyāna scriptures implies the contemporaneous existence of distinct religious movement called Mahāyāna, which may be wrong.” (Wikipedia)
According to Yoshira Tamura (Introduction to the Lotus Sutra (2014), p. 14) there are over six thousand Mahayana sutras. Mahayana sutras survive in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, or other translations.
Shambhala has come out with a set of five texts traditionally ascribed to Maitreya.
The main ekayana sutras include the Lankavatara Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Lotus Sutra, and Shurangama Sutra, as well as the Śrīmālādevī Simhanada Sūtra, the Sraddhotpanna Sutra, and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.
The following list is based on the Nine Dharma Jewels (navagrantha), the scriptures revered as the foundation and essence of traditional Nepalese Buddhism. Reading this group of scriptures in their entirety is considered to be especially meritorious.
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
- Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra
- Daśabhūmika Sūtra
- Samādhirāja Sūtra
- Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
- Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
- Tathāgataguhya Sūtra
- Lalitavistara Sūtra
- Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
- Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra
- Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha Sūtra
- Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra
- Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Drumakinnararājaparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra
- Bhadrapāla Sūtra
- Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra
- Kāśyapaparivarta Sūtra
- Lokānuvartana Sūtra
- An early sūtra connected to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra
Another ancient collection of 49 Mahayana texts is the Maharatnakuta Sutra.
Course III. The Nalanda Tradition
Recommended time: 1 year.
Nalanda University was founded in the fifth century CE in Bihar, India, and rapidly became the centre of Buddhist learning for seven centuries, before it was destroyed by Islamist invaders in the 12th century. Its library was so vast it burned for three months. Nalanda was a universalist school including scholars of all schools and sects, and it became the template of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has identified 17 scholars that together constitute the Nalanda Tradition, to which I have added a recommended work in English, in most cases a translation of a major work by the author available from Amazon).
- Nagarjuna (Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way)
- Aryadeva (Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way)
- Buddhapalita (Meditation on Emptiness)
- Bhavaviveka (Practising Wisdom)
- Chandrakirti (Ocean of Nectar)
- Shantideva (The Way of the Bodhisattva)
- Shantarakshita (Adornment of the Middle Way)
- Kamalashila (Buddhist Meditation)
- Asanga (Abhidharmasamuccaya)
- Vasubandhu (A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience)
- Dignaga (Interpretation of Signs)
- Dharmakirti (Pramanavarttika)
- Arya Vimuktisena
- Haribhadra (Reconciling Yogas)
- Atisha (Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment [the root text of Lamrim])
You will find translations of the major work(s) of most if not all of these scholars in English translation, beginning with the Mulamadhyamakakarita of Nagarjuna, who is widely regarded as the greatest Buddhist philosopher of all time (if you only read one of these books, read Nagarjuna). The Dalai Lama has also recommended that all Tibetan Buddhists regard Padmasambhava, the great Tantric guru who converted the Tibetan people to the dharma and also taught at Nalanda, as their central object of devotion, so for English speakers I would add The Teachings of Padmasambhava, by Herbert Guenther. This is the only authentic recension of the earliest writings attributed to Padmasambhava available in English so far as I know. Commit to reading at least one work by each of the foregoing scholars.
Course IV. Buddhist Scholars
Recommended time: 6 months
As discussed by Peter Masefield, there is a surprising dearth of deep, cutting-edge studies of Buddhism by Western scholars, but there are a few. The following are some stars in the Buddhist firmanent:
- Herbert Guenther (anything and everything he wrote!)
- Peter Masefield, Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon
- Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began
- Ibid, What the Buddha Thought
- David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuties
- Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Buddha
- Hirakawa Akira, A History of Indian Buddhism from Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana
- Gendun Chopel, The Madman’s Middle Way, trans. Donald S. Lopez Jr.
- Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism
There are others who deserve to be included here, especially His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has written a number of general books of great interest. The YouTube videos of Robert Thurman are also very engaging. Avoid works that are excessively popular on the one hand or excessively academic on the other. Ward’s Indian Buddhism and Pande’s Studies in the Origins of Buddhism are very important academic works.
Course V. Western Philosophy (Supplemental)
Recommended time: 6 months
The Western world is just beginning to discover the truth of Buddhism after the the long dark age of the West. I would recommend Kant (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics), Hegel, Husserl (phenomenology), Heidegger, Gadamer (philosophical hermeneutics), Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead (process philosophy), C.G. Jung (depth psychology), and Mircea Eliade. There are also many fine books on modern science, especially relativity, quantum physics, string theory, “digital physics,” technology, and cybernetics that are valuable correctives to the wholesale degeneration of contemporary society into doctrinaire scientism on the one hand and mindless consumerism on the other that is threatening to push us into complete barbarism (for this see anything by Noam Chomsky). The concurrence of these disciplines with the Buddhist world-view is an astonishing phenomenon that heralds the dawn of a new age.
The foregoing is my personal program of study. Then, if you choose to specialize, you can do so with a clear conscience, and if you choose to enter further into the vast labyrinth of Mahayana sutras or Vajrayana tantras or termas, you will have a good foundation for the attainment of Right View and even the Perfection of Wisdom.
1. If you would like to try and decipher the original Pali texts, you will need two additional tools: a good Pali-English dictionary and a good grammar. Archive.org has an Introductory Pali Grammar PDF that you can download. A fully searchable database of the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary is also available. Tamilcube also has a Pali-English dictionary online. See also Buddhadatta’s Pali-English Dictionary. Theravada.org has an Experimental Pali-English Translator too. Fortunately, typing the Pali alphabet is not required.
2. Will Tuladhar-Douglas, “The Navagrantha: An Historical Precis,” April 15, 2003, http://www.lrcnepal.org/images/presentation/pdf/cbhnm3/william.pdf.
3. A complete bibliography of Guenther’s books and articles is available at http://www.books-by-isbn.com/authors/herbert/v/guenther/.
Additional Online Resources
Early Tibet: Sam Van Schaik’s very informative blog on early Tibetan studies
Karen Liljenberg’s translations of early Dzogchen texts are another window into primary dharma
What the Buddha Taught, by Robert Gombrich, online. This is an exceptionally valuable study of original Buddhism.