Pāli Canon

Standard edition of the Thai Pali Canon

The Pāli Canon (Pali: Tipitaka) is the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pāli language.[1] It is the first known and most complete extant early Buddhist canon.[2][3]

It was composed in North India and was preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately 454 years after the death of Gautama Buddha.[lower-alpha 1] It was composed by members of Sangha of each ancient major Buddhist sub-tradition. It is written in Pali, Sanskrit, and regional Asian languages.[5] It survives in various versions. The surviving Sri Lankan version is the most complete.[6]

The Pāli Canon falls into three general categories, called pitaka (from Pali piṭaka, meaning "basket", referring to the receptacles in which the palm-leaf manuscripts were kept).[7] Because of this, the canon is traditionally known as the Tipiṭaka (Sanskrit: Tripiṭaka; "three baskets"). The three pitakas are as follows:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka ("Discipline Basket"), dealing with rules or discipline of the sangha;[7][6]
  2. Sutta Pitaka (Sutra/Sayings Basket), discourses and sermons of Buddha, some religious poetry and is the largest basket;[7]
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, treatises that elaborate Buddhist doctrines, particularly about mind, also called the "systematic philosophy" basket, likely composed starting about and after 300 BCE.[7][8]

The Vinaya Pitaka and the Sutta Pitaka are remarkably similar to the works of other early Buddhist schools. The Abhidhamma Pitaka, however, is a strictly Theravada collection and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools.[9]

The Canon in the tradition

In pre-modern times the Pali Canon was not published in book form, but written on thin slices of wood (Palm-leaf manuscript or Bamboo). The leaves are kept on top of each other by thin sticks and the scripture is covered in cloth and kept in a box.

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.[10]

The traditional Theravādin (Mahavihārin) interpretation of the Pali Canon is given in a series of commentaries covering nearly the whole Canon, compiled by Buddhaghosa (fl. 4th–5th century CE) and later monks, mainly on the basis of earlier materials now lost. Subcommentaries have been written afterward, commenting further on the Canon and its commentaries. The traditional Theravādin interpretation is summarized in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga.[11]

An official view is given by a spokesman for the Buddha Sasana Council of Burma:[12] the Canon contains everything needed to show the path to nirvāna; 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.[13]

Although the Canon has existed in written form for two millennia, its earlier 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 learned the entire Canon by heart for the Sixth Council (again according to the usual Theravada numbering).[14][15]

The relation of the scriptures to Buddhism as it actually exists among ordinary monks and lay people is, as with other major religious traditions, problematic: 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.[16] Rupert Gethin suggests that the whole of Buddhist history may be regarded as a working out of the implications of the early scriptures.[17]


According to a late part of the Pali Canon, the Buddha taught the three pitakas.[18] It is traditionally believed by Theravadins that most of the Pali Canon originated from the Buddha and his immediate disciples. According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha's passing to collect and preserve his teachings. The Theravada tradition states that it was recited orally from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE, when it was written down.[19] The memorization was enforced by regular communal recitations. The tradition holds that only a few later additions were made. The Theravādin pitakas were first written down in Sri Lanka in the Alu Viharaya Temple.

Much of the material in the Canon is not specifically Theravādin, but is instead the collection of teachings that this school preserved from the early, non-sectarian body of teachings. According to Peter Harvey, it contains material which is at odds with later Theravādin orthodoxy. He states that "the Theravādins, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period."[20] A variety of factors suggest that the early Sri Lankan Buddhists regarded canonical literature as such and transmitted it conservatively.[21]

Attribution according to scholars

The views of scholars concerning the attribution of the Pali Canon can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Attribution to the Buddha himself
  2. Attribution to the period of pre-sectarian Buddhism
  3. Agnosticism

Scholars have both supported and opposed the various existing views.

Views concerning attribution to the Buddha himself

Several scholars who specialize in the field of early Buddhism have said that much of the contents of the Pali Canon (and its main teachings) can be attributed to Gautama Buddha. Richard Gombrich says that the main preachings of the Buddha (as in the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka) are coherent and cogent, and must be the work of a single genius: the Buddha himself, not a committee of followers after his death.[lower-alpha 2][23] Peter Harvey[24] also affirms the authenticity of "much" of the Pali Canon.[lower-alpha 3] 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.[lower-alpha 4] J.W. de Jong has said it would be "hypocritical" to assert that we can say nothing about the teachings of earliest Buddhism, arguing that "the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas."[26] 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.[lower-alpha 5] Hajime Nakamura writes that while nothing can be definitively attributed to Gautama as a historical figure, some sayings or phrases must derive from him.[27]

Views concerning attribution to the period of pre-sectarian Buddhism

Most scholars do agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature that a relatively early community maintained and transmitted.[lower-alpha 6] Much of the Pali Canon is found also in the scriptures of other early schools of Buddhism, parts of whose versions are preserved, mainly in Chinese. Many scholars have argued that this shared material can be attributed to the period of Pre-sectarian Buddhism. This is the period before the early schools separated in about the fourth or third century BCE.

Views concerning agnosticism

Some scholars see the Pali Canon as expanding and changing from an unknown nucleus.[29] Arguments given for an agnostic attitude include that the evidence for the Buddha's teachings dates from (long) after his death.

Some scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism say that little or nothing goes back to the Buddha. Ronald Davidson[30] has little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historical Buddha.[28] Geoffrey Samuel [31] says the Pali Canon largely derives from the work of Buddhaghosa and his colleagues in the 5th century AD.[32] Gregory Schopen argues[33] that it is not until the 5th to 6th centuries CE that we can know anything definite about the contents of the Canon. This position was criticized by A. Wynne.[4]

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,[34] the Vinaya (excluding the Parivāra)[35] and the first four nikāyas of the Sutta Pitaka,[36][37] and perhaps also some short verse works[38] such as the Suttanipata.[35] However, some scholars, particularly in Japan, maintain that the Suttanipāta is the earliest of all Buddhist scriptures, followed by the Itivuttaka and Udāna.[39] 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.[lower-alpha 7]

Most of the above scholars would probably agree that their early books include some later additions.[40] On the other hand, some scholars have claimed[41][42][43][44] that central aspects of late works are or may be much earlier.

One of the edicts of Ashoka, the 'Calcutta-Bairat edict', lists several works from the canon which he considers advantageous. According to Alexander Wynne:

The general consensus seems to be that what Asoka calls Munigatha correspond to the Munisutta (Sn 207-21), Moneyasute is probably the second half of the Nalakasutta (Sn 699-723), and Upatisapasine may correspond to the Sariputtasutta (Sn 955-975). The identification of most of the other titles is less certain, but Schmithausen, following Oldenberg before him, identifies what Asoka calls the Laghulovada with part of a prose text in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta (M no.61).[45]

This seems to be evidence which indicates that some of these texts were already fixed by the time of the reign of Ashoka (304–232 BCE), which means that some of the texts carried by the Buddhist missionaries at this time might also have been fixed.[45]

According to the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa, the Pali Canon was written down in the reign of King Vattagāmini (Vaṭṭagāmiṇi) (1st century BCE) in Sri Lanka, at the Fourth Buddhist council. Most scholars hold that little if anything was added to the Canon after this,[46][47][48] though Schopen questions this.



Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist text Mahaniddesa, showing three different types of Burmese script, (top) medium square, (centre) round and (bottom) outline round in red lacquer from the inside of one of the gilded covers

The climate of Theravāda 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,[49] and there is not very much from before the eighteenth.[50]

Printed editions and digitized editions

The first complete printed edition of the Canon was published in Burma in 1900, in 38 volumes.[51] The following editions of the Pali text of the Canon are readily available in the West:

No one edition has all the best readings, and scholars must compare different editions.[64]


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. In 1994, the then President of the Pali Text Society stated that most of these translations were unsatisfactory.[66] Another former President said in 2003 that most of the translations were done very badly.[22] The style of many translations from the Canon has been criticized[67] as "Buddhist Hybrid English", a term invented by Paul Griffiths for translations from Sanskrit. He describes it as "deplorable", "comprehensible only to the initiate, written by and for Buddhologists".[68]

Selections: see List of Pali Canon anthologies.

A translation by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi of the Majjhima Nikaya was published by Wisdom Publications in 1995.

Translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi of the Samyutta Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya were published by Wisdom Publications in 2003 and 2012, respectively.

Contents of the Canon

As noted above, the Canon consists of three pitakas.

Details are given below. For more complete information, see standard references on Pali literature.[69][70]

Vinaya Pitaka

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 behavioral problems or disputes among his followers. This pitaka can be divided into three parts:

Sutta Pitaka

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:

Abhidhamma Pitaka

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 scholastic explanation of Buddhist doctrines particularly about mind, and sometimes referred to as the "systematic philosophy" basket.[7][8] There are seven books in the Abhidhamma Pitaka:

The traditional position is that abhidhamma refers to 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:[73][74] Cousins says that where the suttas think in terms of sequences or processes the abhidhamma thinks in terms of specific events or occasions.[75]

Use of Brahmanical devices

The Pali Canon uses many Brahmanical terminology and concepts. For example, in Samyutta Nikaya 111, Majjhima Nikaya 92 and Vinaya i 246 of the Pali Canon, the Buddha praises the Agnihotra as the foremost sacrifice and the Gayatri mantra as the foremost meter:

aggihuttamukhā yaññā sāvittī chandaso mukham.

Sacrifices have the agnihotra as foremost; of meter the foremost is the Sāvitrī.[76]

Comparison with other Buddhist canons

The other two main Buddhist canons in use in the present day are the Chinese Buddhist Canon and the Tibetan Kangyur.

The standard modern edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon is the Taishō Revised Tripiṭaka, with a hundred major divisions, totaling over 80,000 pages. This includes Vinayas for the Dharmaguptaka, Sarvāstivāda, Mahīśāsaka, and Mahāsaṃghika schools. It also includes the four major Āgamas, which are analogous to the Nikayas of the Pali Canon. Namely, they are the Saṃyukta Āgama, Madhyama Āgama, Dīrgha Āgama, and Ekottara Āgama. Also included are the Dhammapada, the Udāna, the Itivuttaka, and Milindapanha. There are also additional texts, including early histories, that are preserved from the early Buddhist schools but not found in Pali. The canon contains voluminous works of Abhidharma, especially from the Sarvāstivāda school. The Indian works preserved in the Chinese Canon were translated from Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, Classical Sanskrit, or from regional Prakrits. The Chinese generally referred to these simply as "Sanskrit" (Ch. 梵語, Fànyǔ). The first woodblock printing of the whole Chinese Buddhist Canon was done by imperial order in China in CE 868.[77]

The Tibetan Kangyur comprises about a hundred volumes and includes versions of the Vinaya Pitaka, the Dhammapada (under the title Udanavarga) and parts of some other books. Due to the later compilation, it contains comparatively fewer early Buddhist texts than the Pali and Chinese canons.

The Chinese and Tibetan canons are not translations of the Pali and differ from it to varying extents, but contain some recognizably similar early works. However, the Abhidharma books are fundamentally different works from the Pali Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Chinese and Tibetan canons also consist of Mahāyāna sūtras and Vajrayāna tantras, which have few parallels in the Pali Canon.[lower-alpha 8]

See also


  1. If the language of the Pāli canon is north Indian in origin, and without substantial Sinhalese additions, it is likely that the canon was composed somewhere in north India before its introduction to Sri Lanka.[4]
  2. "I am saying that there was a person called the Buddha, that the preachings probably go back to him individually... that we can learn more about what he meant, and that he was saying some very precise things."[22]
  3. "While parts of the Pali Canon clearly originated after the time of the Buddha, much must derive from his teaching."[2]
  4. "there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers." [25]
  5. "If some of the material is so old, it might be possible to establish what texts go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, texts which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words", [4]
  6. Ronald Davidson states, "most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed) that a relatively early community (disputed) maintained and transmitted."[28]
  7. "as the Buddha taught for 45 years, some signs of development in teachings may only reflect changes during this period."[2]
  8. Most notably, a version of the Atanatiya Sutta (from the Digha Nikaya) is included in the tantra (Mikkyo, rgyud) divisions of the Taisho and of the Cone, Derge, Lhasa, Lithang, Narthang and Peking (Qianlong) editions of the Kangyur.[78]


  1. Gombrich 2006, p. 3.
  2. 1 2 3 Harvey 1990, p. 3.
  3. Maguire 2001, p. 69–.
  4. 1 2 3 Wynne 2003.
  5. Gombrich 2006, p. 4, Quote: Pali literature is quite extensive, but very little of it is what we would call secular. So far as we know, it has all been composed by the members of the Sangha..
  6. 1 2 Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. p. 924. ISBN 978-1-4008-4805-8.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Gombrich 2006, p. 4.
  8. 1 2 Damien Keown (2004). A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-19-157917-2.
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica 2008.
  10. Gombrich 2006, p. 20.
  11. Gombrich 2006, p. 153-4.
  12. Morgan 1956, p. 71.
  13. McDaniel 2006, p. 302.
  14. Mendelson 1975, p. 266.
  15. Brown 2006.
  16. Manné 1990, p. 103f.
  17. Gethin 1998, p. 43.
  18. Book of the Discipline, volume VI, page 123
  19. Norman 2005, p. 75-76.
  20. Harvey 1995, p. 9.
  21. Wynne 2007, p. 4.
  22. 1 2 Gombrich (b).
  23. Gombrich 2006, p. 20f.
  24. Peter Harvey
  25. Warder 1999, p. inside flap.
  26. De Jong 1993, p. 25.
  27. Nakamura 1999, p. 57.
  28. 1 2 Davidson 2003, p. 147.
  29. Buswell 2004, p. 10.
  30. Ronald Davidson, academic profile Archived November 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  31. about Geoffrey Samuel
  32. Samuel 2012, p. 48.
  33. Schopen 1997, p. 24.
  34. Warder 1963, p. viii.
  35. 1 2 Cousins 1984, p. 56.
  36. Bechert 1984, p. 78.
  37. Gethin 1992, p. 42f.
  38. Gethin 1992.
  39. Nakamura 1999, p. 27.
  40. Ñāṇamoli 1982, p. xxix.
  41. Cousins 1982/3.
  42. Harvey, page 83
  43. Gethin 1992, p. 48.
  44. The Guide, Pali Text Society, page xxvii
  45. 1 2 Wynne 2004.
  46. Ñāṇamoli 1982, p. xxxixf.
  47. Gethin 1992, p. 8.
  48. Harvey, page 3
  49. von Hinüber 2000, pp. 4–5.
  50. 1 2 "Pali Text Society Home Page". Palitext.com. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  51. Grönbold 1984, p. 12 (as noted there and elsewhere, the 1893 Siamese edition was incomplete).
  52. Allon 1997, pp. 109–29.
  53. Warder 1963, pp. 382.
  54. "BUDSIR for Thai Translation". Budsir.org. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  55. "BUDSIR for Thai Translation". Budsir.mahidol.ac.th. Retrieved 2012-10-15.
  56. Hamm 1973.
  57. "The Pali Tipitaka". Tipitaka.org. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  58. "Vipassana Research Institute". Vri.dhamma.org. 2009-02-08. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  59. "Society worldtipitaka". Dhammasociety.org. 2007-08-29. Archived from the original on 2007-03-17. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  60. Tipiṭaka Studies
  61. Sri Lanka Tripitaka Project
  62. "Sri Lankan Pāḷi Texts". Retrieved 2013-01-15.
  63. "Pali Canon Online Database". BodhgayaNews. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  64. Cone 2001.
  65. "《中国贝叶经全集》新闻发布会暨出版座谈会_华人佛教_凤凰网". Fo.ifeng.com. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
  66. Norman 1996, pp. 80.
  67. Journal of the Pali Text Society, Volume XXIX, page 102
  68. Griffiths 1981, pp. 17-32.
  69. Norman 1983.
  70. von Hinüber 2000, pp. 24-26.
  71. 1 2 Harvey & 1990 appendix.
  72. 1 2 Manné 1990, pp. 29-88.
  73. 1 2 Harvey 1990, p. 83.
  74. Gethin 1998, p. 44.
  75. Cousins 1982, p. 7.
  76. Shults, Brett (May 2014). "On the Buddha's Use of Some Brahmanical Motifs in Pali Texts". Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 119.
  77. Bechert 1984, p. 204.
  78. Skilling 1997, p. 84n, 553ff, 617ff..


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Further reading

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