Early life | Four signs | Bodhi tree | Enlightenment | Noble Truths | Life & Death | Asoka | Books | Buildings | Festivals | Practices | Rites | Glossary

Emperor Asoka (Ashoka)- 270-232 BCE

Asoka was a famous Indian King who inherited an empire in northern India. He became a Buddhist after fighting several wars, because he was so horrified by the suffering caused by the fighting. He encouraged the spread of Buddhism throughout India. He showed by example many of the basic Buddhist teachings. He forbade the taking of human and animal life. He showed concern for the welfare of his people by establishing hospitals, hostels, new wells and many plantations. He had edicts of Buddhist statecraft inscribed on rocks and pillars throughout his country where important things had happened to Buddha. More importantly he made Buddhism much more attractive to ordinary people.

During his reign Asoka gathered together the foremost Buddhist monks and teachers from all around Southern Asia to compile texts of Buddhist thought and teaching. One of these monks was his own son. It was because of Asoka that During his reign Asoka gathered together the foremost Buddhist monks and teachers from all around Southern Asia to compile texts of Buddhist thought and teaching. One of these monks was his own son. It was because of Asoka that Buddhism began to spread very quickly. By the time he died, Buddhism had spread as far as Thailand.

Important (Holy) Books

At first, none of the Buddha's teaching was written down. But soon after his death people began to think it would be a good idea to make sure there was a clear record of what he had taught. A meeting of 500 monks was held to obtain one true version. Ananda (Buddha's cousin) and another senior monk recalled the collected teachings to the others and every word was checked and agreed upon. This oral tradition lasted for 500 years.

Around 200 years later Buddhism split into two distinct beliefs - Theravada and Mahayana. A basic distinction is that

(a) The Theravada Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha was only a man and by becoming a monk and following his example and teachings one can achieve enlightenment.

In around 10 BCE the Tripitaka (3 scriptures) were first written, in Sri Lanka. From this point on the scriptures and other teachings were written in many languages.

This basic collection of writings, or canon, is called the Pali canon, after the language in which it is written. The Pali canon is more popularly called the Tripitaka, meaning 'three baskets' because it is in three parts:

Vinaya - pitaka, the basket of training rules, which gives the monks and nuns guidance on discipline for monastic life;

Sutta - pitaka, the basket of teachings, which contains the Buddha's teachings.

Abhidhamma - pitaka, the basket of higher teaching, for intellectual, academic listing of the Sutta pitaka

(b) The Mahayana Buddhists believe in order to achieve enlightenment it is not necessary to become a monk but depends on good deeds performed during one's lifetime.

In addition to the Pali canon, there are many other important Buddhist writings in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and other Asian languages. Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists accept the Tripitaka as their sacred writings, however the Mahayanas also recognise many more texts as authoritative. The main difference between Sutras (Skt.) or Suta (Pali) are the language only. The most important of these sutras are the Diamond Sutras and the Lotus Sutras. These sutras introduce a vital concept to the Mahayan tradition i.e. bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be), which is not commonly accepted by Theravadans. Many aim to give practical guidance to worship, others are more intellectual in nature. Whole schools of thought gather around these sutras, and then write their own teaching books (shastras), to give a thorough insight and interpretation of the sacred writings.

Early life | Four signs | Bodhi tree | Enlightenment | Noble Truths | Life & Death | Asoka | Books | Buildings | Festivals | Practices | Rites | Glossary