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Pali Canon

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The Pali Canon[1] is the scripture collection of Theravada Buddhism and, in the view of most scholars, the most important source for early Buddhism. It was written down from oral tradition in the last century BC.

The English name comes from Pali, its language. The commonest name in the tradition is Tipitaka (tipiṭaka), meaning "thee baskets", after the commonest arrangement of the Canon:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka, on monastic discipline
  2. Sutta or Suttanta Pitaka, discourses
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, higher or special teaching, more formal and analytical than the discourses

The Sutta Pitaka is in turn divided into five nikayas (nikāya). The first four of these are in a fairly uniform style, mainly prose. The fifth, the Khuddaka Nikaya, is a miscellaneous collection of books in prose and/or verse.

Authorship and date

The Canon is traditionally described as "The Word of the Buddha" (Buddhavacana). This is not intended literally, the Canon in fact including teachings by followers and accounts of events after the Buddha's death. Being actually said by the historical Buddha is not a necessary requirement for counting as Buddhavacana. Nevertheless, most of the Canon is presented by itself, and accepted by traditional Theravadins, as his actual words, though modern Theravadins do not always take this view.

Among scholars, three approaches have been identified. One group of scholars argue that substantial parts of the Canon show such coherence that they must in substance be the work of a single mind, that of the Buddha himself (around the 5th century BC). A second group, on the contrary, argue that the lack of hard evidence before the writing down of the Canon, or even later, makes it impossible to reach any definite conclusions. The third group avoid such generalizations, focusing on detailed studies of particular points.[2]


A standard list of books in the Canon appears in a number of classic commentaries (5th century?). One of those commentaries, however, gives some alternative listings of contents of the Khuddaka Nikaya. A subcommentary on this, probably written in the 10th century, explains the apparent differences in lists by saying that books not mentioned were in fact counted as parts of other books, and a later subcommentary, wriiten about 1800, uses the same method to include in the Canon at least two books not known to have been ever before mentioned as such.[3] The inscriptions of the Canon approved by the Fifth Council, and the printed edition approved by the Sixth Council, include three such books. These councils are generally recognized by all Theravada countries, all of them took part in the Sixth Council, and a transcript of the Sixth Council edition, including these books, has been sponsored by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. Nevertheless, the Thai national edition (1925-8) omits them, and the Sinhalese national printed edition includes only two of them.

There is disagreement on whether it is still possible for material to be added to the Canon.


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 about the 9th century found in Nepal, the oldest known manuscripts date from the 15th century, and there are few from before the 18th. Thus the manuscripts available are the result of multiple copying, with the inevitable errors accumulated. This is compounded by transcription between alphabets, as Pali has none of its own, each country generally using its own. Manuscripts tend to follow different national recensions, though with some interaction. The Sixth Council was dominated by Burmese monks, and its edition of the Canon tends to follow Burmese readings, though by no means always. Similarly, the Sinhalese and Thai printed editions tend to follow their own national traditions, though not entirely so. Modern scholars try to compare these three editions, which is made easier by the existence of electronic transcripts.


In theory, the Canon is the highest authority for the teaching. In practice, its great bulk means few are familiar with it as a whole. Therefore there is a tendency to specialize. The Vinaya Pitaka mentions vinaya and sutta specialists. The Milindapanha mentions specialists in each of the five nikayas. The commentaries mention abhidhamma specialists. In modern times, those wishing to be ordained as monks in Sri Lanka have had to memorize the Dhammapada. In Myanmar one can earn the title Teacher of Religion (Dhammācariya) by passing an examination where the set texts are the first volume of each pitaka.

Like Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, and unlike Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada emphasizes the original scriptural language. Study and recitation are usually in Pali. The Canon was composed, or evolved, for the most part orally, and is adapted to that medium, and so to memorization. There are rare cases of monks who know the whole Canon by heart, and many know substantial parts. Even lay people usually know a few short passages.


Versions of the Vinaya and most of the Sutta exist in Chinese. These are inherited from other schools of ancient Indian Buddhism and differ somewhat from the Pali versions. Similarly, there is a version of the Vinaya in Tibetan.


  1. This is the name usually used by Pali scholars, subject to variations such as Pali canon, Pāli Canon etc. Google search suggests Tipitaka may be a commoner name among non-specialists. The Title pages of the Sixth Council, Sinhalese and Thai editions have Piṭaka, Tripiṭaka and Tepiṭaka respectively
  2. This classification of approaches was delineated by Lambert Schmithausen in the Preface to Ruegg & Schmithausen, Early Buddhism and Madhyamaka, Brill, Leiden,1990, pp 1f, where he includes himself in the third group. A leading exponent of the first is Richard F. Gombrich, who summarizes his position in his book Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, London, 1st edition, 1988/2nd edition, 2006, pp 20f. The leading scholar in the second group is Gregory Schopen, who gives his arguments in Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XVI, pp 104–6, reprinted in his book Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1997, pp 80f.
  3. JPTS, volume XXVIII, pages 61f