To seek for Arahatship in the practice of the ecstasy alone is considered a deadly heresy. So these practices are both pleasant in themselves, and useful as one of the means to the end proposed. But they are not the end, and the end can be reached without them. The most ancient form these exercises took is recorded in the often recurring paragraphs translated in Rhys Davids' Dialogues of the Buddha (i. 84-92). More modern, and much more elaborate, forms are given in the Yogāvacaras Manual of Indian Mysticism as practised by Buddhists, edited by Rhys Davids from a unique MS. for the Pāli Text Society in 1896. In the Introduction to this last work the various phases of the question are discussed at length.
Buddhist Texts. The Canonical Books. - It is necessary to remember that the Buddha, like other Indian teachers of his period, taught by conversation only. A highly-educated man (according to the education current at the time), speaking constantly to men of similar education, he followed the literary habit of his day by embodying his doctrines in set phrases (sūtras), on which he enlarged, on different occasions, in different ways. Writing was then widely known. But the lack of suitable writing materials made any lengthy books impossible. Such sūtras were therefore the recognized form of preserving and communicating opinion. They were catchwords, as it were, memoria technica, which could easily be remembered, and would recall the fuller expositions that had been based upon them. Shortly after the Buddha's time the Brahmins had their sūtras in Sanskrit, already a dead language. He purposely put his into the ordinary conversational idiom of the day, that is to say, into Pāli. When the Buddha died these sayings were collected together by his disciples into what they call the Four Nikāyas, or "collections." These cannot have reached their final form till about fifty or sixty years afterwards.
Other sayings and verses, most of them ascribed, not to the Buddha, but to the disciples themselves, were put into a supplementary Nikāya. We know of slight additions made to this Nikāya as late as the time of Asoka, 3rd century B.C. And the developed doctrine, found in certain portions of it, shows that these are later than the four old Nikāyas. For a generation or two the books so put together were handed down by memory, though probably written memoranda were also used. And they were doubtless accompanied from the first, as they were being taught, by a running commentary. About one hundred years after the Buddha's death there was a schism in the community. Each of the two schools kept an arrangement of the canon - still in Pāli, or some allied dialect. Sanskrit was not used for any Buddhist works till long afterwards, and never used at all, so far as is known, for the canonical books. Each of these two schools broke up in the following centuries, into others. Several of them had their different arrangements of the canonical books, differing also in minor details.
These books remained the only authorities for about five centuries, but they all, except only our extant Pāli Nikāyas, have been lost in India. These then are our authorities for the earliest period of Buddhism. Now what are these books?
We talk necessarily of Pāli books. They are not books in the modern sense. They are memorial sentences or verses intended to be learnt by heart. And the whole style and method of arrangement is entirely subordinated to this primary necessity. Each sūtra (Pāli, sutta) is very short; usually occupying only a page, or perhaps two, and containing a single proposition. When several of these, almost always those that contain propositions of a similar kind, are collected together in the framework of one dialogue, it is called a sullanta. The usual length of such a suttanta is about a dozen pages; only a few of them are longer, and a collection of such suttantas might be called a book. But it is as yet neither narrative nor essay. It is at most a string of passages, drawn up in similar form to assist the memory, and intended, not to be read, but to be learnt by heart. The first of the four Nikāyas is a collection of the longest of these suttantas, and it is called accordingly the Dīgha Nikāya, that is "the Collection of Long Ones" (sci. Suttantas). The next is the Majjhima Nikāya, the "Collection of the suttantas of Medium Length" - medium, that is, as being shorter than the suttantas in the Dīgha, and longer than the ordinary suttas preserved in the two following collections.
Between them these first two collections contain 186 dialogues, in which the Buddha, or in a few cases one of his leading disciples, is represented as engaged in conversation on some one of the religious, or philosophic, or ethical points in that system which we now call Buddhism. In depth of philosophic insight, in the method of Socratic questioning often adopted, in the earnest and elevated tone of the whole, in the evidence they afford of the most cultured thought of the day, these dialogues constantly remind the reader of the dialogues of Plato. But not in style. They have indeed a style of their own; always dignified, and occasionally rising into eloquence. But for the reasons already given, it is entirely different from the style of Western writings which are always intended to be read. Historical scholars will, however, revere this collection of dialogues as one of the most priceless of the treasures of antiquity still preserved to us. It is to it, above all, that we shall always have to go for our knowledge of the most ancient Buddhism. Of the 186, 175 had by 1907 been edited for the Pāli Text Society, and the remainder were either in the press or in preparation.
A disadvantage of the arrangement in dialogues, more especially as they follow one another according to length and not according to subject, is that it is not easy to find the statement of doctrine on any particular point which is interesting one at the moment. It is very likely just this consideration which led to the compilation of the two following Nikāyas. In the first of these, called the Anguttara Nikāya, all those points of Buddhist doctrine capable of expression in classes are set out in order. This practically includes most of the psychology and ethics of Buddhism. For it is a distinguishing mark of the dialogues themselves that the results arrived at are arranged in carefully systematized groups. We are familiar enough in the West with similar classifications, summed up in such expressions as the Seven Deadly Sins, the Ten Commandments, the Thirty-nine Articles, the Four Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Sacraments and a host of others. These numbered lists (it is true) are going out of fashion. The aid which they afford to memory is no longer required in an age in which books of reference abound. It was precisely as a help to memory that they were found so useful in the early Buddhist times, when the books were all learnt by heart, and had never as yet been written.