According to tradition, the Buddha’s discourses were already collected by the time of the first council, held shortly after the Buddha’s death in order to establish and confirm the discourses as “authentic” words of the Buddha (buddhavacana).
For at least the first century, and probably for two or three centuries, after the Buddha’s death, the texts were passed down solely by word of mouth, and the preservation and intact transmission of steadily growing collections necessitated the introduction of ordering principles.
The preserved collections reveal traces of an earlier structure that classified the texts into three, four, nine, or even twelve sections (anga), but this organizing structure was superseded by the Tripitaka scheme of arranging texts into the three tri) baskets (pitaka) of discipline (VINAYA), discourses (sutras), and systematized teachings (ABHIDHARMA).
Some schools do not accept a Ksudraka section as part of the Sutrapitaka; others classify it as a separate pitaka. The sequence of the five (or four) sections varies, but if included, the Ksudraka always comes last.
The names refer to the ordering principle of each section: the Digha (long) contains the longest discourses; the Madhyama (middle) contains those of medium-length; and the Samyukta (connected) contains shorter sutras connected by their themes.
The Ekottarika (Growing by one) or Anguttara (Increasing number of items) comprise discourses arranged in ascending order according to numbered sets of terms, from sutras treating one term up to those dealing with groups of ten or more.
The contents of the Ksudraka (small texts) vary significantly from version to version:
Some of them, such as the DHAMMAPADA, rank among the best known Buddhist texts.
These were translated from the collections of different schools:
In the early twentieth century, numerous fragments of Sanskrit sutra manuscripts were found in Central Asia, enabling scholars to recover at least a small part of the Sutrapitaka of the (Mula)Sarvastivadins.
Most notable among them is a manuscript of the Dighagama of the (MulaSarvastivadins. Unlike colophons of vinaya texts, those of single sutras or sutra collections never mention schools, and this often renders a definite school ascription difficult.
To give one example: The Digha Nikaya of the Theravada school contains thirty-four texts, while the Dighagama in Chinese translation contains only thirty. In the incompletely preserved Dirghagama of the (MulaSarvastivadins, however, forty-seven texts are so far attested.
Only twenty of them have a corresponding text in the Chinese Digha Agama, and only twenty-four correspond to texts in the Pali version. For eight of them, a parallel text is found in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali; at least four have no parallel at all.
The agreement between the different versions of a sutra varies significantly. Versions may be close in some passages and loose in others.
Often a considerable part of a sutra consists of formulaic passages, and the wording of these formulas is version specific. Further differences may be found in the sequence of passages, in the names of places and persons, and also in doctrine.
There are many examples of text duplicates in two sections of the same Sutta Pitaka. For example, the Satipatthana-sutta (Foundation of Mindfulness) of the Pali canon is contained in both the Dgha- and the Maj- jhimanikaya.
This may be an indication of a separate transmission for each Agama/Nikaya in earlier times, another indication being terms like Digha Banaka (reciter of the Dgha section) to refer to the respective specialist during the phase of oral transmission in the Pali tradition.
However, very little is known about the use or ritual and educational functions of the collections during early times. Because of their status as scriptural authority, quotations from the sutras are numerous in the COMMENTARIAL LITERATURE of the various schools.
Certain sutras also continued to be transmitted individually or in fixed selections designed for specific religious purposes, and it appears that such texts played a much more important role in the life of Buddhists than the complete collections.