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You are here : Home > Reading Room > Texts of the Pali Canon
Texts of the Pali Canon
Texts of the Pali Canon

The three principal "canons" of Buddhist scriptures survive today corresponding to the three main traditions of living Buddhism : the Pali or Theravada canon of the southern tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia; the Chinese Tripitaka of the eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan; and the Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur of the northern tradition of Tibet and Mongolia.

The use of the term "Pali" as the name of the language of the Theravada canon of Buddhist scriptures derives from the expression pali-bhasa, "the language of the Buddhist texts". This language is an ancient Indian language closely related to Sanskrit, mainly due to the fact that Buddhist scriptures were subject to varying degress of "sanskritization" as Sanskrit became less an exclusively brahmanical language and more the accepted language of Indian culture - the language in which to communicate learning and literature.

Theravada Buddhist tradition traces the Pali canon back to a recension of Buddhist scriptures brought from northern India to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by Mahinda, the son of the emperor Asoka. These did not come in book form but were memorized by Mahinda and his company and, according to tradition, were written down for the first time in the first century BCE. However the historical value of this tradition is doubtful, with most scholars sceptical of the suggestion that the Pali Canon existed exactly as we have it today already in the third century BCE. However we do know that what the commentators had before them in the fifth century CE in Sri Lanka corresponded fairly exactly to what we have now, significant portions of which must go back to the third century BCE. It is unclear how many other recensions of the canon of Buddhist scriptures existed in other languages, what is known however is that the Pali canon is the only one to have survived apparently complete in an Indian language.

The more archaic material of the Pali Canon takes the form of the four primary Nikayas or "collections" of the Buddha's discourses, along with the Vinaya or Buddhist monastic code. It is accurate to state that it is these texts which constitute the essential common heritage of Buddhist thought and they therefore represent the most convenient starting point in the quest for an understanding of Buddhism. Their contents are generally accepted to have come from the lips of the Buddha and therefore represent the teachings of the historical Buddha. These two original canonical collections of the Buddha's word came to be augmented in the following centuries by the literature Abhidhamma, a system of philosophical psychology rooted in the twin Buddhist insights of selflessness and dependent origination.

The three different collections are therefore known as the Pali Tipitaka or the "three baskets" -the Sutta-Pitaka, the Vinaya-Pitaka and the Abhidhamma-Pitaka.


The Sutta-Pitaka is the main source for the doctrine of the Buddha and it is spoken of as being divided into five collections (Nikayas) of texts. The five Nikayas arrange the Buddha's discourses in the first place according to length -

Collection of long discourses (Digha Nikaya) comprises some thirty sutras (or suttas) arranged in three volumes.

Collection of middle-length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya) comprises some 150 Pali sutras.

Grouped collection of short sutras (Samyutta Nikaya) grouped principally according to subject matter and dominated by the subjects of dependent arising, the aggregates, the sense-spheres and the path.

Numbered collection of short sutras (Anguttara-Nikaya) consisting of short sutras built around a numbered list and grouped according to number rather than topic.

Collection of minor texts (Khuddaka Nikaya) which contains various miscellaneous texts, many in verse form and which contain some of the earliest and some of the latest material in the whole of the Canon.

The Digha-Nikaya contains 34 long independent suttas which deal with various aspects of the doctrine. The Brahmajala- Sutta, the Sammannaphala Sutta and the Maha-parinibbana Sutta contain several of the most important early Buddhist writings. As well as containing detailed accounts of the spiritual training of monks, descriptions of ascetic practice and important doctrinal expositions, the Suttas of the Digha-Nikaya are a valuable source for life in ancient India in general. Several of its Suttas also provide information on the biography of the Buddha - legendary and historical - that is not found elsewhere in the canon.

In the Majjhima-Nikaya there are some 150 suttas of medium length loosely grouped together according to subject matter and title. Like the Digha-Nikaya, the Majjhima-Nikaya shows little cohesion in content. Its Suttas deal with almost all aspects of Buddhist doctrine, ranging from monastic life, asceticism, morality and meditation to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Variations in depicting the Buddha indicate differences with regard to the suttas' time of composition.

Two of the most important and well known Suttas found in the Majjhima-Nikaya include the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness) and the Anapanasati Sutta (Mindfulness of Breathing).

The first of these two is one of the fullest and most important suttas by the Buddha dealing with meditation, with particular emphasis on the development of insight. The Buddha begins by declaring the four foundations of mindfulness to be the direct path for the realization of Nibbana, then gives detailed instructions on the four foundations of mindfulness : the contemplation of the body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects. The second is an exposition of sixteen steps in mindfulness of breathing and of the relation of this meditation to the four foundations of mindfulness and the seven factors of enlightenment.

The Samyutta-Nikaya includes almost 3,000 shorter suttas that are arranged according to their contents. It is subdivided into 56 collections (samyuttas) arranged into five vaggas (groups), each of which looks at particular aspects of the doctrine. This arrangement without doubt suggests editorial intervention stemming from a conscious selection of the material. Like the Majjhima-Nikaya the suttas of the Samyutta-Nikaya deal with a broad spectrum of topics, with the majority of texts displaying a shift towards a more scholastic way of exposition.

The Anguttara-Nikaya consists of over 2,000 individual, short suttas. Unlike the Samyutta-Nikaya's subject-orientated approach, the Anguttara-Nikaya lists its suttas according to numerical criteria, arranged serially in ascending order. It is subdivided into eleven sections (nipatas) organized in about 160 vaggas. Typically, each nipata contains suttas that deal with subjects in a similar fashion and are connected to the number of the section.

The Khuddaka-Nikaya is the longest collection all the Nikayas and comprises fifteen books of varying subjects, contents and character, most of which were written in verse. It includes both some of the earliest and some of the latest material found in the Pali Canon, as well as some of the most well known such as :

The Dhammapada or "Verses on Dhamma" a popular collection of 423 pithy verses of a largely ethical nature. Its popularity is reflected in the numerous times it has been translated into Western languages.

The Udana or "Inspired Utterances of the Buddha" which contains eighty short discourses.

The Sutta Nipata or "Group of Discourses", a collection of 71 verse suttas including some very early material such as the Atthakavagga.

Vinaya Pitaka

The Vinaya - Pitaka contains the rules of conduct that were drawn up by the Buddha in response to misbehaviour by his monastic disciples. The prime objective therefore of the Vinaya was to guarantee the smooth running of the Buddhist order. For this purpose it laid out various sets of sanctions to be meted out in response to violations of accepted parameters of behaviour, and lays down guidelines for the functioning of the order. The majority of rules address ethical concerns intended to maintain the community's moral standard and more often than not rest on ancient Indian conventions of morality, complemented by rules that serve the requirements of the Buddhist order.

As it is known today, the Vinaya Pitaka is divided into three major categories. Firstly there is the Sutta-vibhanga which consists of the 227/311 Patimokkha rules for monks and nuns. It has always maintained an elevated position in Buddhism and has undergone little change. Governing social behaviour and cultural conventions as well as spiritual concerns, the Sutta-vibhanga gives an insight into many aspects of life in ancient India.

The second category of the Vinaya, the Khandhaka, introduces a wider circle of Vinaya rules which complement the Vinaya precepts, and most of them concern the collected acts of the order and address discord in the communal life. The third and final section of the Vinaya is the Parivara, a collection of auxiliary works that grew up around the Vinaya in the centuries following the Buddha's demise.

Abhidhamma Pitaka

The Abhidhamma-Pitaka is later than the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas. It is a comprehensive, systematic treatment of the Buddha's teachings that came to prominence in the Buddhist community during the first three centuries after the Master's death. The development of Abhidhamma spanned the broad spectrum of the early Buddhist schools, though the particular tracks that it followed in the course of its evolution differed substantially from one school to another. As each system of Abhidhamma assumed its individual contours, often in opposition to it's rivals, the respective school responsible for it added a compilation of Abhidhamma treatises to its collection of authorized texts. In this way the two original canonical collections of the Buddha's word - the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas - came to be augmented by a third collection, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, thus giving us the familiar Tipitaka, or "Three Baskets of the Doctrine".

The seven treatises of the Pali Abhidhamma Pitaka are the Dhammasangani, the Vibhanga, the Dhatukatha, the Puggalapannatti, the Kathavatthu, the Yamaka and the Patthana. From these seven the two works which best exemplify the mature version of the canonical Abhidhamma system are the Dhammasangani and the Patthana. The first of these emphasizes the analytical approach with its most notable achievement being the reduction of the complex panorama of experience to distinct mental and material phenomena. The Patthana then offers a synthetic approach to the factors enumerated in the first book, delineating the conditional relations that hold between the diverse mental and material phenomena disclosed by analysis.

In conclusion we can see that the works included in the three pitakas came into existence early enough to attain canonical status, in other words by the time the canon was closed they had gained sufficient influence and standing to be considered.

Abandoning the dark way,
Let the wise man cultivate the bright path.
Having gone from home to homelessness,
let him yearn for that delight in detachment,
So difficult to enjoy.
Giving up sensual pleasures, with no attachment
the wise man should cleanse himself of defilements of the mind.

- Dhammapada, Verses 87-88.

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