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Pali Canon

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The Pali Canon (English) or Tipiṭaka (Pali) is the scripture collection of Theravada Buddhism. The other forms of Buddhism at the present day group themselves under the heading of Mahayana,[1] which tends to regard the Tipiṭaka as a sort of "Old Testament".[2]. Most scholars recognize the Canon as the oldest source for the Buddha's teachings.[3]

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 (see below)

Authorship and date

  • The Canon is traditionally regarded as "The Word of the Buddha" (Buddhavacana),[4] compiled by a council shortly after his death,[5] which the tradition dates around 544 BC.[6]
  • Professor von Hinüber calls the Canon "anonymous".[7]
  • According to Professor Norman, the earliest material in the Canon may be pre-Buddhist.[8]
  • According to Professor Holder ([4]), the Canon reached its present form by about 250 BC; Professor Gombrich says only that it was much like it by then.[9]
  • Some scholars claim that little or nothing has been added since the Canon was written down from oral tradition in the last century BC.[10]
  • The late Professor Nakamura says the Canon cannot have been composed earlier than the 2nd century AD.[11]
  • Professor Samuel says the Canon largely derives from the work of Buddhaghosa and his colleagues in the 5th century AD.[12]
  • In addition to the above (apparently) straightforward positions on the Canon as a whole, many scholars have presented more complicated accounts, or statements about parts of the Canon.


The climate of Theravada countries is not conducive to the survival of manuscripts. Apart from brief quotations in inscriptions, the oldest known manuscript is a two-page fragment from the 8th or 9th century found in Nepal, and there are few from before the 18th century. 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 same applies to the printed editions of the Canon: these have been published in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, but not yet in Laos. The Burmese edition is nominally the "official" edition for the whole of the Theravada, having been approved by the sixth ecumenical council of the Theravada, representing all five Theravada countries. The Council, however, was dominated by Burmese monks, and the other countries tend to pay only lip-service to it, though the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand did sponsor a transcript of its edition in 2005. Modern scholars try to compare these editions, which is made easier by the existence of electronic transcripts, except for the Khmer edition, of which few copies survived the Khmers Rouges.

Outline of contents

Arrangement varies, but the following, in three pitakas, seems commonest.

  • Vinayapiṭaka, on monastic discipline
    • Suttavibhaṅga: commentary on Pātimokkha, a basic code of rules for monks and nuns, not itself in the Canon except in so far as embedded here; the commentary includes stories of the occasions for the Buddha's laying down of the rules; subdivided into Pārājika and Pācittiya, or into Mahāvibhaṅga and Bhikkhunīvibhaṅga, in different editions
    • Khandhaka: futher rules, mainly organizational, arranged topically, with stories and explanations; at the end, this book gives accounts of the first two councils; subdivided into Mahāvagga and Cūḷa- or Cullavagga
    • Parivāra: further analysis
  • Sutta- or Suttantapiṭaka, discourses: divided into five nikayas (nikāya). The first four of these are in a fairly uniform style, mainly prose
    • Dīghanikāya: 34 long discourses
    • Majjhimanikāya: 152 medium discourses
    • Saṃyuttanikāya: thousands of short discourses arranged topically in 56 groups (saṃyuttas)
    • Aṅguttaranikāya: thousands of short discourses arranged numerically, from 1s to 11s
    • Khuddakanikāya: a miscellaneous collection of books in prose and/or verse; contents vary between editions, as can be seen from the links below; some include all the following, others omit some
      • Khuddakapāṭha: 9 short texts in prose or verse
      • Dhammapada: popular book of 423 verses in 26 chapters, topically
      • Udāna: "inspired utterances", mostly verse, with introductory narratives
      • Itivuttaka: prose pieces followed by verse paraphrases or supplements
      • Suttanipāta: basically poetry, but sometimes with prose frames
      • Vimānavatthu: verse descriptions of heavenly "mansions" and the karma leading to them
      • Petavatthu: an obverse, sufferings of ghosts and the karma leading to them
      • Theragāthā: verses ascribed to senior monks
      • Therīgāthā: similar for nuns
      • Jātaka: 547 poems understood as referring to previous lives of the Buddha
      • Niddesa: commentary on parts of Suttanipāta, traditionally ascribed to the Buddha's disciple Sāriputta; subdivided into Mahā- and Cūḷa- or Cullaniddesa
      • Paṭisambhidāmagga: 30 treatises on various topics, also ascribed to him
      • Apadāna: about 600 poems, mostly in the names of monks or nuns telling how meritorious deeds in past lives led to good karmic results and eventual nirvana
      • Buddhavaṃsa: verse book mainly on previous Buddhas and "our" Buddha's meritorious acts towards them in his past lives
      • Cariyāpiṭaka: more Jātaka-type verse
      • Netti(ppakaraṇa): treatise on methods of interpretation, in the name of the Buddha's disciple Kaccāna
      • Peṭakopadesa: similar and overlapping
      • Milindapañha: dialogue between King Menander of Bactria (c. 150 BC) and a monk called Nāgasena
  • Abhidhammapiṭaka, higher or special teaching, more formal and analytical than the discourses
    • Dhammasaṅgaṇi: enumeration and classifcation of mental and physical phenomena
    • Vibhaṅga: analysis of various topics using, among other things, ideas and material from the previous book
    • Dhātukathā: analysis of interrelations among various ideas, mostly from the previous two books
    • Pugalapaññatti: classifications of persons
    • Kathāvatthu: debates on doctrinal points
    • Yamaka: converse pairs of questions, with answers
    • Paṭṭhāna: analysis of 24 types of causal conditionality


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.

External links

Selections (in English)

  • The Word of the Buddha: an Outline of the Teachings of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon, ed & tr Nyanatiloka, 1935: [6]; from all five nikayas
  • Wings to Awakening: an Anthology from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2011: [7]; from all five nikayas

Complete text online (in Pali)

Sites aspiring to complete translation

  • TipitakaWiki; based on the (Sinhalese) Buddha Jayanti edition
  • WiPitaka, sponsored by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies; based on the 6th Council edition
  • Wikipitaka

Books about the Canon

  • Guide to Tipitaka, Ko Lay; written from a traditional point of view; originally published in Burma, which has never signed any international copyright treaties, so in the public domain in the rest of the world; reprinted in India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand; available at many internet sites, e.g. [18], [19],[20], [21]
  • Analysis of the Pali Canon, Russell Webb, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka; [22]; another "inside" view, but from the modernist wing of the Theravada; includes extensive bibliography
  • History of Pali Literature, B. C. Law, volume I; [23]; a more academic point of view, but old

Further reading

  • Matthew Meghaprasara, New Guide to the Tipitaka: a Complete Reference to the Pâli Buddhist Canon, Delhi, Sangha of Books, 2013: [24]

Selections (in English)

  • Some Sayings of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon, ed & tr F.L. Woodward, Oxford World Classics, 1924; reprinted Buddhist society, London, 1974; from the first two pitakas
  • The Life of Gotama the Buddha, Compiled Exclusively from the Pali Canon, ed & tr E. H. Brewster, Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1926; from the first two pitakas
  • The Lion's Roar: an Anthology of the Buddha's Teachings Selected from the Pāḷi Canon, ed & tr David Maurice, Rider, London, 1962; American printing Citadel, New York, 1967; from all three pitakas
  • The Life of the Buddha As It Appears in the Pali Canon, the Oldest Authentic Record, ed & tr Nanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1972: [25]; from the first two pitakas
  • In the Buddha's Words: an Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Bodhi, Wisdom Pubns, 2005: [26]; from the first four nikayas
  • Buddhist Meditation: an Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Sarah Shaw, Routledge, 2006: [27]; from the last two pitakas


  1. Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996, page 11
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002 printing, volume 11, page 791
  3. Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1997, pages 23f; reprinted from Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, volume 10, 1985; also, quoted in [1], page 37; Mousa, World Religions Demystified, McGraw-Hill, 2014, page 35
  4. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006, page 20
  5. Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, London, 2nd edition, 2006, page 128
  6. [2] says 544; [3] says 543; Hinüber, Handbook of Pali Literature, de Gruyter, Berlin, 1996, page 4, says the 2500th anniversary was celebrated in 1956, implying a date of 545 (remembering there is no year 0 between 1 BC and 1 AD)
  7. Handbook of Pali Literature, de Gruyter, Berlin, 1996, page 24
  8. Collected Papers, volume II, Pali Text Society, page 193; reprinted from Indologica Taurinensia, volume VII, page 330
  9. Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, London, 2nd edition, 2006, page 129
  10. Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2013, page 3; Norman in Buddhist Heritage, ed Skorupski, 1989, page 40/Collected Papers, Pali Text Society, volume IV, page 107
  11. Indian Buddhism, Kansai University of Foreign Studies, Hirakata, Japan, 1980, reprinted Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987, 1989, page 48
  12. Introducing Tibetan Buddhism, Routledge, 2012, page 48