The Thirteen Core Indian Buddhist Texts: A Reader's Guide

There are thirteen classics of Indian Mahayana philosophy, still used in Tibetan centers of education throughout Asia and beyond.  They cover the subjects of vinaya, abhidharma, Yogacara, Madhyamika, and the path of the Bodhisattva.  They are some of the most frequently quoted texts found in works written from centuries ago to today.  Below is a reader's guide to these works.

Khenpo Shenga, who penned influential commentaries on all 13 texts.

1. Pratimokṣha Sūtra

The first text is the Sutra for Individual Liberation or Sutra of the Discipline or Pratimokṣha Sūtra from the Buddha, containing all the precept for monastics.  We have a commentary of the Bhiksuni Pratimoksha Sutra, Choosing Simplicity.

2. The Vinayasutra by Gunaprabha

The second text is the Vinayasutra by Gunaprabha (7th century) who was a student of Vasubandhu. According to Ringu Tulku's The Ri-me Philosopy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, "Vasubandhu had many great students, and four of them were considered to be better than himself; Gunaprabha was the one who was better in the Vinaya. Gunaprabha put the four sections of the Vinaya into the proper order, and condensed the seventeen topics of the Vinaya into a shorter format; this is called the Vinaya Root Discourse. He wrote another text called the Discourse of One Hundred Actions, which gives practical instructions on activities related to the Vinaya."

3. The Compendium of Abhidharma or the Abhidharmasamuccaya by Asanga

This work on abhidharma does exist in a full, if somewhat dated English translation by Walpola Rahula.  There is an excellent commentary on it by Traleg Rinpoche, published by KTD, Asangha's Abhidharmasamuccaya.

4. The Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu

Vasubhandu's Abhidharmakosha is the Hinayana treatise on abhidharma and is translated in Jewels from the Treasury which also includes the commentary by the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje.

5. The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way or Mulamadhyamakakarika

Nagarjuna most famous work, The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way or Mulamadhyamaka-karika is the first work on Madhyamyaka. The Root Stanzas holds an honored place in all branches of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as in the Buddhist traditions found in China, Japan, and Korea, because of the way it develops the seminal view of emptiness (shunyata), which is crucial to understanding Mahayana Buddhism and central to its practice.

The latest translation of the text, by the esteemed team of the Padmakara Translation Group, translated this for the occasion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's visit to Dordogne, France. This version includes the Tibetan text.

In a concise presentation of this, its translator said, "It is important to see that in his explanations, or rather presentations, of the Middle Way, Nāgārjuna is formulating neither a religious doctrine nor a philosophical theory. He is not giving us yet another description of the world. He simply points to phenomena—the things of our experience that appear so vividly and function so effectively—and shows by force of reasoned argument that they cannot possibly exist in the way that they appear to exist, and that, in truth, they can be said neither to exist nor not to exist. Existence and nonexistence, however, form a perfect dichotomy. And since phenomena are said to lie in neither of these two ontological extremes, we are forced to the conclusion that their nature is ineffable. It cannot be spoken of or even conceived of. And yet it cannot be nothing—for how can anyone possibly deny the vivid experience of the phenomenal world? And thus we come to the nub of the question: How is the true nature of phenomena to be understood? How are we to lay hold of, or rather enter into, the kind of wisdom that, by revealing the emptiness of phenomena, is alone able to uproot our clinging to their apparent reality and thereby dissipate the tyrannical power that they have over us?"

6. The Introduction to the Middle Way or Madhyamakavatara

Chandrakirti's Introduction to the Middle Way or Madhyamakavatara.  This book includes a verse translation of the Madhyamakavatara by the renowned seventh-century Indian master Chandrakirti, an extremely influential text of Mahayana Buddhism, followed by an exhaustive logical explanation of its meaning by the modern Tibetan master Jamgön Mipham, composed approximately twelve centuries later. Chandrakirti's work is an introduction to the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna, which are themselves a systematization of the Prajnaparamita, or "Perfection of Wisdom" literature, the sutras on the crucial but elusive concept of emptiness.

7. The Four Hundred Stanzas or Chatuḥshataka Shastra

Aryadeva's Four Hundred Stanzas or Chatuḥshataka shastra.  Aryadeva's Four Hundred Stanzas was written to explain how, according to Nagarjuna, the practice of the stages of yogic deeds enables those with Mahayana motivation to attain Buddhahood. Both Nagarjuna and Aryadeva urge those who want to understand reality to induce direct experience of ultimate truth through philosophic inquiry and reasoning.

Aryadeva's text is more than a commentary on Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way because it also explains the extensive paths associated with conventional truths. The Four Hundred Stanzas is one of the fundamental works of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, and Gyeltsap Je's commentary is arguably the most complete and important of the Tibetan commentaries on it.

Mahayana practitioners must eliminate not only obstructions to liberation but also obstructions to the perfect knowledge of all phenomena. This requires a powerful understanding of selflessness, coupled with a vast accumulation of merit, or positive energy, resulting from the kind of love, compassion, and altruistic intention cultivated by bodhisattvas. The first half of the text focuses on the development of merit by showing how to correct distorted ideas about conventional reality and how to overcome disturbing emotions. The second half explains the nature of ultimate reality that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence. Gyel-tsap's commentary on Aryadeva's text takes the form of a lively dialogue that uses the words of Aryadeva to answer hypothetical and actual assertions questions and objections. Geshe Sonam Rinchen has provided additional commentary to the sections on conventional reality, elucidating their relevance for contemporary life.

8. The Way of the Bodhisattva or Bodhicharyavatara

Shantideva's Way of the Bodhisattva or Bodhicharyavatara. The Bodhicharyavatara, or Way of the Bodhisattva, composed by the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva, has occupied an important place in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition throughout its history. It is a guide to cultivating the mind of enlightenment through generating the qualities of love, compassion, generosity, and patience.

We have a lot of resources on this site for this text - you can start with our resource guide. In particular, we strongly recommend watching the immersive workshop from May of 2016 with esteemed translator Wulstan Fletcher.

In addition, we have the famous commentary on this text, The Nectar of Manjusri's Speech. In this commentary, Kunzang Pelden has compiled the pith instructions of his teacher Patrul Rinpoche, the celebrated author of The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

The Five Maitreya Texts

And then there are the five Maitreya texts that he imparted to Asanga.  For an explanation of these texts see two of the foremost translators of them explain them in this pair of interviews with Karl Brunnnholzl and Thomas Doctor.

9. The Ornament of Clear Realzation or Abhisamayalankara

The Abhisamayalamkara summarizes all the topics in the vast body of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. Resembling a zip-file, it comes to life only through its Indian and Tibetan commentaries. Together, these texts not only discuss the "hidden meaning" of the Prajnaparamita Sutras—the paths and bhumis of sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas—but also serve as contemplative manuals for the explicit topic of these sutras—emptiness—and how it is to be understood on the progressive levels of realization of bodhisattvas. Thus these texts describe what happens in the mind of a bodhisattva who meditates on emptiness, making it a living experience from the beginner's stage up through buddhahood.

Gone Beyond contains the first in-depth study of the Abhisamayalamkara (the text studied most extensively in higher Tibetan Buddhist education) and its commentaries in the Kagyu School. This study (in two volumes) includes translations of Maitreya's famous text and its commentary by the Fifth Shamarpa Goncho Yenla (the first translation ever of a complete commentary on the Abhisamayalamkara into English), which are supplemented by extensive excerpts from the commentaries by the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Karmapas and others. Thus it closes a long-standing gap in the modern scholarship on the Prajnaparamita Sutras and the literature on paths and bhumis in mahayana Buddhism.

For a scolarly review of this work, see this article on the main Buddhist scholarly site.

Groundless Paths takes the same material and looks at in the context of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. This study consists mainly of translations of Maitreya's famous text and two commentaries on it by Patrul Rinpoche. These are supplemented by three short texts on the paths and bhumis by the same author, as well as extensive excerpts from commentaries by six other Nyingma masters, including Mipham Rinpoche. Thus this book helps close a long-standing gap in the modern scholarship on the prajñaparamita sutras and the literature on paths and bhumis in mahayana Buddhism.

10. Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sūtras or Mahayanasutralankara

The Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sūtras or Mahayanasutralankara
The Ornament provides a comprehensive description of the bodhisattva’s view, meditation, and enlightened activities. Bodhisattvas are beings who, out of vast love for all sentient beings, have dedicated themselves to the task of becoming fully awakened buddhas, capable of helping all beings in innumerable and vast ways to become enlightened themselves. To fully awaken requires practicing great generosity, patience, energy, discipline, concentration, and wisdom, and Maitreya’s text explains what these enlightened qualities are and how to develop them.

This volume includes commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham, whose discussions illuminate the subtleties of the root text and provide valuable insight into how to practice the way of the bodhisattva. Drawing on the Indian masters Vasubandhu and, in particular, Sthiramati, Mipham explains the Ornament with eloquence and brilliant clarity. This commentary is among his most treasured works.

11. Middle beyond Extremes or the Madhyāntavibhāga

Middle Beyond Extremes contains a translation of the Buddhist masterpiece Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes. This famed text, often referred to by its Sanskrit title, Madhyāntavibhāga, is part of a collection known as the Five Maitreya Teachings. Maitreya, the Buddha’s regent, is held to have entrusted these profound and vast instructions to the master Asaṅga in the heavenly realm of Tuṣita.

12. Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature Dharmadharmatavibhanga

We have three works that explore this text.
Outlining the difference between appearance and reality, this work shows that the path to awakening involves leaving behind the inaccurate and limiting beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us and opening ourselves to the limitless potential of our true nature. By divesting the mind of confusion, the treatise explains, we see things as they actually are. This insight allows for the natural unfolding of compassion and wisdom. This volume includes commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham, whose discussions illuminate the subtleties of the root text and provide valuable insight into the nature of reality and the process of awakening.

Mining Wisdom from Delusion
The introduction of the book discusses these two topics (fundamental change and nonconceptual wisdom) at length and shows how they are treated in a number of other Buddhist scriptures. The three translated commentaries, by Vasubandhu, the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, and Gö Lotsāwa, as well as excerpts from all other available commentaries on Maitreya’s text, put it in the larger context of the Indian Yogācāra School and further clarify its main themes. They also show how this text is not a mere scholarly document, but an essential foundation for practicing both the sūtrayāna and the vajrayāna and thus making what it describes a living experience. The book also discusses the remaining four of the five works of Maitreya, their transmission from India to Tibet, and various views about them in the Tibetan tradition.

13. Treatise on the Sublime Continuum or the Uttaratantra Shastra

The Treatise on the Sublime Continuum or the Uttaratantra Shastra presents the Buddha's definitive teachings on how we should understand this ground of enlightenment and clarifies the nature and qualities of buddhahood. A major focus is “Buddha nature” (tathāgatagarbha), the innate potential in all living beings to become a fully awakened buddha.

We have two books on this work.

The first is When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra.  This book discusses a wide range of topics connected with the notion of buddha nature as presented in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and includes an overview of the sūtra sources of the tathāgatagarbha teachings and the different ways of explaining the meaning of this term. It includes new translations of the Maitreya treatise Mahāyānottaratantra (Ratnagotravibhāga), the primary Indian text on the subject, its Indian commentaries, and two (hitherto untranslated) commentaries from the Tibetan Kagyü tradition. Most important, the translator’s introduction investigates in detail the meditative tradition of using the Mahāyānottaratantra as a basis for Mahāmudrā instructions and the Shentong approach. This is supplemented by translations of a number of short Tibetan meditation manuals from the Kadampa, Kagyü, and Jonang schools that use the Mahāyānottaratantra as a work to contemplate and realize one’s own buddha nature.


The second title, Buddha Nature, includes commentaries by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso.