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The Pali Canon is the standard scripture collection of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pali language. The Canon was written down from oral tradition at the occasion of the Fourth Buddhist Council (in the usual Theravada numbering), 1st century BCE, in Sri Lanka on ola (palm) leaves. Passed down in writing and to other Theravadin countries, this originally largely North Indian Canon is the most complete surviving early Buddhist canon and one of the first to be written down.
The Canon was not printed until the nineteenth century, and is now also available in electronic form.
The Pali Canon falls into three general categories, called pitaka (piṭaka, basket) in Pali. Because of this, the canon is traditionally known as the Tipitaka (Tipiṭaka; three baskets).The three pitakas are as follows.
- Vinaya Pitaka, dealing with rules for monks and nuns
- Sutta Pitaka, discourses, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples
- Abhidhamma Pitaka, variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics etc.
The Canon in the tradition
Dr Rupert Gethin says that the whole of Buddhist history may be regarded as a working out of the implications of the early scriptures. The Canon is traditionally described by the Theravada as the Word of the Buddha (Buddhavacana), though this is obviously not intended in a literal sense, since it includes teachings by disciples.
The traditional Theravadin ( Mahaviharin) interpretation is given in a series of commentaries covering nearly the whole Canon, compiled by Buddhaghosa (fourth or fifth century CE) and later monks, mainly on the basis of earlier materials now lost. Subcommentaries have been written, commenting further on the Canon and its commentaries. The traditional Theravadin interpretation is summarized in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga.
An official view is given by a spokesman for the Buddha Sasana Council of Burma: the Canon contains everything needed to show the path to nirvana; the commentaries and subcommentaries sometimes include much speculative matter, but are faithful to its teachings and often give very illuminating illustrations. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, "official" Buddhism has in large part adopted the interpretations of Western scholars.
Although the Canon has existed in written form for two millennia, its oral nature has not been forgotten in actual Buddhist practice within the tradition: memorization and recitation remain common. Among frequently recited texts are the Paritta. Even lay people usually know at least a few short texts by heart and recite them regularly; this is considered a form of meditation, at least if one understands the meaning. Monks are of course expected to know quite a bit more (see Dhammapada below for an example). A Burmese monk named Vicittasara even learnt the entire Canon by heart for the Sixth Council (again according to the usual Theravada numbering). Recitation is in Pali as the ritual language.
The relation of the scriptures to Buddhism as it actually exists among ordinary monks and lay people is, as with other major religious traditions, problematical: the evidence suggests that only parts of the Canon ever enjoyed wide currency, and that non-canonical works were sometimes very much more widely used; the details varied from place to place.
According to the scriptures a council was held shortly after the Buddha's passing to collect and preserve his teachings. It is traditionally believed by Theravadins that most of the Pali Canon was recited orally from this time, with only a few later additions. Most scholars hold that much of the Pali Canon, being shared with other schools, goes back to the period before the early schools separated in about the fourth or third century BCE.
Attribution to the Buddha
Concerning the attribution of the Pali Canon to the Buddha, three views are current amongst scholars:
- parts of the Pali Canon can (probably) be attributed to the Buddha.
- parts of the Pali Canon can be attributed to the period before the various Buddhist sects came into being ( pre-sectarian Buddhism).
- not until the fifth to sixth centuries CE can we know anything definite about the contents of the Pali Canon.
Various scholars have voiced that some of the contents of the Pali Canon can (probably) be attributed to Gautama Buddha. Dr Richard Gombrich thinks that the teachings (of the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas) probably go back to the Buddha individually. Peter Harvey thinks much of the Pali Canon must derive from the Buddha himself.
J.W. de Jong has stated that parts of the Pali Canon could very well have been proclaimed by the Buddha, and subsequently transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas. A.K. Warder has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the shared teaching of the early schools was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers. A. Wynne has said that the Pali Canon includes texts which go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words. Peter Harvey states that there is an overall harmony to the Canon, suggesting 'authorship' of its system of thought by one mind.
Dr Gregory Schopen, argues that it is not until the fifth to sixth centuries CE that we can know anything definite about the contents of the Canon. This position did not attract much support, and was criticized by A. Wynne.
The Earliest books of the Pali Canon
Different positions have been taken on what are the earliest books of the Canon. The majority of Western scholars consider the earliest identifiable stratum to be mainly prose works, the Vinaya (excluding the Parivara) and the first four nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka, and perhaps also some short verse works such as the Suttanipata.However, some scholars, paricularly in Japan, maintain that the Suttanipata is the earliest of all Buddhist scriptures, followed by the Itivuttaka and Udana.. However, some of the developments in teachings may only reflect changes in teaching that the Buddha himself adopted, during the 45 years that the Buddha was teaching.
Most of the above scholars would probably agree that their early books include some later additions. On the other hand, some scholars have claimed that central aspects of late works are or may be much earlier.
According to the Sinhalese chronicles, the Pali Canon was written down in the reign of King Vattagamini (Vaṭṭagāmiṇi) (1st century B.C.E.) in Sri Lanka, at the Fourth Buddhist council. Most scholars hold that little if anything was added to the Canon after this, though Schopen questions this.
Texts and translations
The climate of Theravada countries is not conducive to the survival of manuscripts. Apart from brief quotations in inscriptions and a two-page fragment from the eighth or ninth century found in Nepal, the oldest manuscripts known are from late in the fifteenth century, and there is not very much from before the eighteenth.
The first complete printed edition of the Canon was published in Burma in 1900, in 38 volumes. The following editions of the Pali text of the Canon are readily available in the West.
- Pali Text Society edition, 1877–1927 (a few volumes subsequently replaced by new editions), 57 volumes including indexes, individual volumes also available separately ( website)
- Thai edition, 1925–8, 45 volumes; more accurate than the PTS edition, but with fewer variant readings; electronic transcript by budsir: Buddhist scriptures information retrieval, CD-ROM and online, both requiring payment
- Sixth Council edition, Rangoon, 1954–6, 40 volumes; more accurate than the Thai edition, but with fewer variant readings; electronic transcript by Vipassana Research Institute available online in searchable database free of charge, or on CD-ROM (p&p only) from the Institute; another transcript of this edition, produced by the Dhamma Society Fund under the patronage of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, is expected online soon
- Sinhalese (Buddha Jayanti) edition, 1957–?1993, 58 volumes including parallel Sinhalese translations, transcript in Pali Canon Online Database, searchable, free of charge (not yet fully proofread)
No one edition has all the best readings, and scholars must compare different editions.
Translation: Pali Canon in English Translation, 1895- , in progress, 43 volumes so far, Pali Text Society, Bristol; for details of these and other translations of individual books see the separate articles.
Contents of the Canon
As noted above, the Canon consists of three pitakas.
- Vinaya Pitaka (vinayapiṭaka)
- Sutta Pitaka or Suttanta Pitaka
- Abhidhamma Pitaka
Details are given below. For fuller information, see standard references on Pali literature.
The first category, the Vinaya Pitaka, is mostly concerned with the rules of the sangha, both monks and nuns. The rules are preceded by stories telling how the Buddha came to lay them down, and followed by explanations and analysis. According to the stories, the rules were devised on an ad hoc basis as the Buddha encountered various behavioural problems or disputes among his followers. This pitaka can be divided into three parts.
- Suttavibhanga (-vibhaṅga) Commentary on the Patimokkha, a basic code of rules for monks and nuns that is not as such included in the Canon. The monks' rules are dealt with first, followed by those of the nuns' rules not already covered.
- Khandhaka Other rules grouped by topic in 22 chapters.
- Parivara (parivāra) Analysis of the rules from various points of view.
The second category is the Sutta Pitaka (literally "basket of threads", or of "the well spoken"; Sanskrit: Sutra Pitaka, following the former meaning) which consists primarily of accounts of the Buddha's teachings. The Sutta Pitaka has five subdivisions or nikayas.
- Digha Nikaya (dīghanikāya) 34 long discourses. Joy Manné argues that this book was particularly intended to make converts, with its high proportion of debates and devotional material.
- Majjhima Nikaya 152 medium-length discourses. Manné argues that this book was particularly intended to give a solid grounding in the teaching to converts, with a high proportion of sermons and consultations.
- Samyutta Nikaya (saṃyutta-) Thousands of short discourses in fifty-odd groups by subject, person etc. Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his translation, says this nikaya has the most detailed explanations of doctrine.
- Anguttara Nikaya (aṅguttara-) Thousands of short discourses arranged numerically from ones to elevens. It contains more elementary teaching for ordinary people than the preceding three.
- Khuddaka Nikaya A miscellaneous collection of works in prose or verse. See below.
The contents of this nikaya vary somewhat between different editions of the Canon. The "standard" list, given in most western sources, contains the following.
- Khuddakapatha (-pāṭha) Nine short texts in prose or verse. This seems to have been intended as an introductory handbook for novices. Most of its contents are found elsewhere in the Canon.
- Dhammapada 423 verses ascribed by tradition to the Buddha in 26 chapters by topic. About half the Pali verses are found elsewhere in the canon. In the Sinhalese tradition, monks have been required to know this book by heart before they can be ordained. In the Burmese examination system, this is one of the texts to be studied in the first stage of the syllabus.
- Udana (udāna) 80 short passages, mostly verse, ascribed to the Buddha, with introductory stories.
- Itivuttaka 112 short prose teachings ascribed to the Buddha followed by verse paraphrases or complements. These are arranged numerically, from ones to fours.
- Suttanipata(-nipāta) Poems, some in prose frameworks. In five parts, of which the first four contain 54 poems. The fifth part is a single poem in 16 sections, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which last includes a little prose.
- Vimanavatthu (vimāna-) 85 poems telling of celestial mansions resulting from good karma.
- Petavatthu 51 poems telling of the suffering of ghosts resulting from bad karma. It gives prominence to the idea that gifts to monks can benefit one's deceased relatives' ghosts.
- Theragatha(-gāthā) 264 poems ascribed to early monks, arranged roughly by increasing number of verses.
- Therigatha (therī-) 73 poems ascribed to early nuns, arranged by increasing number of verses.
- Jataka (jātaka) 547 poems said to relate to the Buddha's previous lives, arranged roughly by increasing number of verses. Professor Oskar von Hinüber says only the last 50 were intended to be intelligible on their own without the Commentary. As a result of the arrangement, these make up the greater part of the book.
- Niddesa Commentary on parts of Suttanipata: the last two parts and one other sutta. Traditionally ascribed to the Buddha's disciple Sariputta.
- Patisambhidamagga (paṭisambhidā-) 30 treatises on various topics. Traditionally ascribed to Sariputta. Gethin says this book presents the awakening experience as having many different dimensions and aspects, related to the whole of the teaching, and yet as a simple, coherent whole.
- Apadana (apadāna) About 600 poems, most telling how their authors performed a meritorious act in a distant past life, resulting in favourable rebirths and eventual nirvana. There are 589 in the Pali Text Society's edition, 603 in the Sixth Council edition and 592 in a number of others.
- Buddhavamsa (-vaṃsa) Short verse book, mainly telling of the previous 24 Buddhas and the current Buddha's meritorious acts towards them in his previous lives.
- Cariyapitaka (cariyā-) 35 poems telling of Gotama Buddha's practice of 7 of the perfections in his previous lives.
However, some editions contain in addition some works that have been described by western scholars as paracanonical or semicanonical.
Paracanonical or semicanonical works
The following works are included in the Sixth Council edition of the Canon, including the new transcript from Thailand.
- Nettipakarana (nettipakaraṇa, nettippakaraṇa or just netti) This book presents methods of interpretation. The colophon ascribes it to the Buddha's disciple Kaccana.
- Petakopadesa (peṭakopadesa) Presents the same methods as the preceding book. They have a large amount of overlap. The text of this book is very corrupt. The colophon ascribes it to the Buddha's disciple Kaccana.
- Milindapanha (-pañha or -pañhā) A dialogue between King Menander of Bactria (second century B.C.E.) and the monk Nagasena. Rhys Davids describes this as the greatest work of classical Indian prose literature.
The first two of these, but not the third, are included in the Sinhalese (printed) edition. All are omitted from the Thai edition. Inclusion in printed editions is not the same as canonicity (cf. Apocrypha). Professor George Bond of Northwestern University says of the first of these books that some Theravadins regard it as quasi-canonical, others as canonical, especially in Burma. About 1800, the head of the Burmese sangha regarded at least the first two of these books as canonical. On the other hand, at least one recent Burmese teacher has not.
The third category, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (literally "beyond the dhamma", "higher dhamma" or "special dhamma", Sanskrit: Abhidharma Pitaka), is a collection of texts which give a systematic philosophical description of the nature of mind, matter and time. There are seven books in the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
- Dhammasangani (-saṅgaṇi or -saṅgaṇī) Enumeration, definition and classification of dhammas
- Vibhanga (vibhaṅga) Analysis of 18 topics by various methods, including those of the Dhammasangani
- Dhatukatha (dhātukathā) Deals with interrelations between ideas from the previous two books
- Puggalapannatti (-paññatti) Explanations of types of person, arranged numerically in lists from ones to tens
- Kathavatthu (kathā-) Over 200 debates on points of doctrine
- Yamaka Applies to 10 topics a procedure involving converse questions (e.g. Is X Y? Is Y X?)
- Patthana (paṭṭhāna) Analysis of 24 types of condition
The traditional position is that the Abhidhamma is the absolute teaching, while the suttas are adapted to the hearer. Most scholars describe the abhidhamma as an attempt to systematize the teachings of the suttas: Harvey, Gethin. Cousins says that where the suttas think in terms of sequences or processes the abhidhamma thinks in terms of specific events or occasions.
Comparison with other Buddhist canons
The other two main canons in use at the present day are the Tibetan Kangyur and the Chinese Buddhist Canon. The former is in about a hundred volumes and includes versions of the Vinaya Pitaka and the Dhammapada (the latter confusingly called Udanavarga) and of parts of some other books. The standard modern edition of the latter is the Taisho published in Japan, which is in a hundred much larger volumes. It includes both canonical and non-canonical (including Chinese and Japanese) literature and its arrangement does not clearly distinguish the two. It includes versions of the Vinaya Pitaka, the first four nikayas, the Dhammapada, the Itivuttaka and the Milindapanha and of parts of some other books. These Chinese and Tibetan versions are not usually translations of the Pali and differ from it to varying extents, but are recognizably the "same" works. On the other hand, the Chinese abhidharma books are different works from the Pali Abhidhamma Pitaka, though they follow a common methodology.
Looking at things from the other side, the bulk of the Chinese and Tibetan canons consists of Mahayana sutras and tantras, which, apart from a few tantras, have no equivalent in the Pali Canon.