Pali Canon

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See also Pāli Canon according to Wikipedia.
For criticism see Criticism of Pali Canon

The Pali Canon (English) or Tipiṭaka (Pali) is the standard collection of scriptures of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pali language.[1] Most scholars recognize the Canon as the oldest source for the Buddha's teachings.[2] It includes teachings of the Buddha and various followers. The latter are included in accordance with the principle, stated in the Canon itself,[3] that whatever is well said is the word of the Buddha.

The story of the Pali Canon

The traditional story of the Canon is bound up with that of the six ecumenical councils recognized by the Theravada. The first two of these are described in the Canon itself.[4]

The Canon tells of the First Council held shortly after the Buddha's death, at which 500 monks, led by the Buddha's leading disciples Kassapa, Upali and Ananda, collected together and chanted his teachings.

It also tells of the Second Council a century later, held to resolve a dispute about the rules of monastic discipline. Tradition says it also rehearsed the Canon.

According to tradition, the Third Council was held at what is now Patna under the Emperor Asoka to deal with heretical doctrines.

Tradition also tells of the Fourth Council, held in Ceylon in the last century BC to write down the scriptures from oral tradition so as to ensure they were not forgotten.

The Fifth Council took place in Mandalay from April to September[5] 1871. It approved a set of 729 marble slabs on which the entire Canon had been inscribed. Mandalay tourist guides call them the world's largest book.

The Sixth Buddhist Council was held by all five Theravada countries[6] in Rangoon from 1954 to 1956. It approved a printed edition of the Canon in 40 volumes. Recently, the Sixth Council's edition has become available free of charge to everyone with internet access (see below).

The contents of the Pali Canon

Ancient style of scripture used for the Pali Canon

The texts were recited at the 6th Council in the following order.[7]

  1. Vinaya Pitaka
  2. Digha Nikaya
  3. Majjhima Nikaya
  4. Samyutta Nikaya
  5. Anguttara Nikaya
  6. Dhammasangani
  7. Vibhanga
  8. Dhatukatha
  9. Puggalapannatti
  10. Kathavatthu
  11. Yamaka
  12. Patthana
  13. Khuddakapatha
  14. Dhammapada
  15. Udana
  16. Itivuttaka
  17. Suttanipata
  18. Vimanavatthu
  19. Petavatthu
  20. Theragatha
  21. Therigatha
  22. Therapadana
  23. Theri Apadana
  24. Buddhavamsa
  25. Cariyapitaka
  26. Maha Niddesa
  27. Cula Niddesa
  28. Jataka
  29. Patisambhidamagga
  30. Netti
  31. Petakopadesa
  32. Milindapanha

The Pali Canon and Theravada Buddhism

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,[8] and accounts of events after the Buddha's death. In fact the Canon itself says that whatever is well said is the Word of the Buddha.[9]

The traditional Theravadin (Mahaviharin) interpretation is given in a series of commentaries covering nearly the whole Canon, compiled by Buddhaghosa (fourth or fifth century AD) 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.[10]

An official view is given by a spokesman for the Buddha Sasana Council of Burma:[11] 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.[12]

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 for an example). A Burmese monk named Vicittasara even learnt the entire Canon by heart for the Sixth Council.[13] Recitation is in Pali as the ritual language.[14]

The Pali Canon and Mahayana Buddhism

The other two main Buddhist canons in use at the present day are the Tibetan Kangyur and the Chinese Buddhist Canon. The former includes versions of the Vinaya Pitaka and the Dhammapada and of parts of some other books. The latter 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.

Some Mahayana traditions have roots in the Pali Canon. For example, the bodhisattva ideal is found there, particularly in the Buddhavamsa and Cariyapitaka. The most widely practised form of Mahayana is Pure Land. The description of this land in Mahayana scriptures is based on the description of a palace in the Pali Canon, and it has been suggested that both were originally intended as visualization practices.[15] 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.[16]

The Pali Canon outside Buddhism

The Dhammapada appears in the Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics series, and the latter also includes an anthology under the title Sayings of the Buddha.


  1. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, 2nd edn, Routledge, London, 2006, page 3
  2. 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), page 9; also quoted in "The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation" Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies Vol XLIX (2005)/[1], page 37; Mousa, World Religions Demystified, McGraw-Hill, 2014, page 35
  3. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2012, page 1120/Gradual Sayings, Pali Text Society, volume IV, page 112
  4. Book of the Discipline, Pali Text Society, volume V, chapters XI and XII respectively.
  5. Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight, University of Chicago Press, 2013, page 23; Philippe Cornu, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du bouddhisme, Seuil, Paris, 2001, page 304, sv Kuthodaw
  6. Heinz Bechert, Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, Alfred Metzner, Frankfurt/Berlin, volume 1, 1966, page 105
  7. Compiled on the basis of 3 contemporaneous English-language accounts published in Burma:
    • The Chattha Sangayana Souvenir Album, Union Buddha Sasana Council Press, Yegu, Rangoon [1956], pages 153, 167, 188, 202, 209, 212, 225
    • Buddhism in Myanmar/Light of the Dhamma, volume III, number 3
    • The Nation (Rangoon), May 21, 1956: page 1, columns 3 & 4; page 4, column 3
    All 3 are full of mistakes, but correct each other sufficiently to establish the important details. These were also given on the internet by Professor U Ko Lay, but the link is now dead.
  8. Gombrich, page 20
  9. Gradual Sayings, Pali Text Society, volume IV, page 112
  10. Gombrich, pages 153-4
  11. Morgan, Path of the Buddha, Ronald Press, New York, 1956, pages v, 71
  12. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 28 (part 2), page 302
  13. Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1975, page 266
  14. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edn, volume 9, Elsevier, Amsterdam/Oxford, 2006
  15. Gethin in JPTS, XXIX
  16. Skilling, Mahasutras, volume I, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, pages 84n, 553ff, 617ff.


See also

External links

Selections (in English)

  • The Lion's Roar: an Anthology of the Buddha's Teachings Selected from the Pāḷi Canon, David Maurice, Rider, London, 1962; American printing Citadel, New York, 1967: online at [3]; this seems to be the only anthology including selections from all three pitakas
  • The Word of the Buddha: an Outline of the Teachings of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon, ed & tr Nyanatiloka, 1935: [4]
  • Wings to Awakening: an Anthology from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2011: [5]
  • Some Sayings of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon, ed & tr F.L. Woodward, Oxford World Classics, 1924; reprinted Buddhist Society, London, 1974; online at [6]

Complete text online (in Pali)

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. [15], [16],[17], [18]
  • Analysis of the Pali Canon, Russell Webb, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka; [19]; another "inside" view, but from the modernist wing of the Theravada; includes extensive bibliography
  • History of Pali Literature, B. C. Law, volume I; [20]; 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: [21]

Selections (in English)

  • The Life of Gotama the Buddha, Compiled Exclusively from the Pali Canon, ed & tr E. H. Brewster, Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1926
  • 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: [22]
  • In the Buddha's Words: an Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Bodhi, Wisdom Pubns, 2005: [23]
  • Buddhist Meditation: an Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon, ed & tr Sarah Shaw, Routledge, 2006: [24]
  • The Buddha's Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: an Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, ed & rev Bodhi; Wisdom Publications [2016?]

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