Āgama (Buddhism)

Agama (Sanskrit आगम; also Pali āgama) refers to a set of scriptures preserved in the Chinese Mahayana tradition. These scriptures are parallel to the first four Nikayas of the Pali Canon.


In Buddhism, the term 'agama' is used to refer to a class of sutras of the early Buddhist schools, which were preserved in the Chinese Mahayana tradition. These sutras correspond to the first four Nikayas of the Sutta-Pitaka of the Pali Canon, which are also occasionally called agamas. In this sense, 'agama' is a synonym for one of the meanings of nikaya. Many of the agama sutras belong to the Sarvastivadin canon. Sometimes the word agama is used to refer not to a specific scripture, but to a class of scripture. In this case, its meaning can also encompass the Sutta-pitaka, the oldest and most historically accurate representation of the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Four collections of agamas appear in the East Asian Mahayana Canon: the Cháng Ahánjīng (長阿含經), the Zhōng Ahánjīng (中阿含經), the Zá Ahánjīng (雜阿含經), and the Ekottara Agama or Zēngyī Ahánjīng (增一阿含經). These correspond to the Digha Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya, the Samyutta Nikaya, and the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali Canon, respectively.

The agamas were translated from their original languages to Chinese. This version is currently available in the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

According to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004):

"According to tradition, the Buddha's discourses were already collected by the time of the first council, held shortly after the Buddha's death ... Scholars, however, see the texts as continually growing in number and size from an unknown nucleus, thereby undergoing various changes in language and content ..."

The agamas are commonly compared to the Suttapitaka. Their existence and similarity is sometimes used by scholars to validate the teachings composed in them as a historically authentic representation of the Canon of Early Buddhism. Sometimes also the differences between them are used to cast an alternative meaning on the accepted meaning of a sutta in either of the two recensions.

The Agamas contain the following scriptures in Chinese translation:

  1. Madhyama Agama (corresponding to Majjhima Nikaya) and Samyukta Agama (corresponding to Samyutta Nikaya), probably of the Sarvastivāda.
  2. Dirgha Agama (corresponding to Digha Nikaya), probably of the Dharmaguptaka.
  3. Ekottara Agama (corresponding to Anguttara Nikaya) possibly of the , although this is contested.

In addition, there is a substantial quantity of Agama-style texts outside of the main collections. These are found in various sources:

  1. Partial Agama collections and independent suttas within the Chinese canon.
  2. Small groups of suttas or independent suttas within the Tibetan canon.
  3. Suttas reconstructed from ancient manuscripts in Sanskrit, Gandhari, or other ancient Indic languages.
  4. Passages and quotes from Agama suttas preserved within Mahayana Sutras, Abhidharma texts, later commentaries, and so on.
  5. Isolated phrases preserved in inscriptions. For example, the Ashoka pillar at Lumbini declares iha budhe jāte, a quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

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