Pali Canon

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Pali Canon




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Standard edition of the Thai Pali Canon
Standard edition of the Thai Pali Canon

The Pali Canon is the standard scripture collection of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It was not printed until the nineteenth century, but is now available in electronic form. However, it is not yet completely translated into English. The Canon was written down from oral tradition in the last century, at the occasion of the Fourth Buddhist Council in the first century B.C.E. Most scholars give it some sort of pre-eminence among sources for early Buddhism. It is composed in the Pali language, and 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.

  1. Vinaya Pitaka, dealing with rules for monks and nuns
  2. Sutta Pitaka, discourses, most ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics etc.

The Canon in the Buddhist 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, which are included in the Pali Canon.


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 interpretation is given in a series of commentaries covering nearly the whole Canon, compiled by Buddhaghosa (fourth or fifth century) and his followers, mainly on the basis of earlier materials now lost, subcommentaries on most of these and sometimes even further layers. It 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. 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. Recitation is in Pali as the ritual language.


The Pali Canon as such was unknown in the Mahayana traditions, but versions of substantial parts of similar texts from other early Buddhist schools were transmitted in Chinese and/or Tibetan. Mahayana tends to regard this material as authentic, but its own scriptures as giving deeper teachings. There are exceptions to this. For example, Tibetan versions of parts of the Pali Canon are classified in the tantra sections of some editions of the Kangyur.


According to the scriptures a council was held shortly after the Buddha's death 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. There are wide differences of opinion among scholars on to what extent the teachings may be traced to the historical Buddha himself.

Dr Richard Gombrich, Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, former Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford and former President of the Pali Text Society, thinks that the content, as opposed to the form, of large parts of the Canon goes back to the Buddha himself. At the other extreme, Dr Gregory Schopen, Professor of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Buddhist Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that it is not until the fifth to sixth centuries C.E. that we can know anything definite about the contents of the Canon. Other scholars hold various positions in this range.

Likewise, various positions have been taken on what are the earliest books of the Canon. One school of thought gives this position to prose works: the Vinaya and the first four nikayas of the Sutta. Included in this school are the following: Gombrich; A. K. Warder, Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit in the University of Toronto; Gethin On the other side, some scholars consider some of the poetic books the earliest: the Suttanipata, followed by the Itivuttaka and the Udana. These include the following: the late Professor Nakamura Hajime (surname first in accordance with Japanese practice); and Ui Hakuju. L. S. Cousins, former lecturer in the Department of Comparative Religion at Manchester University and former President of the Pali Text Society, holds a compromise position, adding the Suttanipata to the prose list.

Most of the above scholars would probably agree that their early books include some later additions. Contrariwise, 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 (Vaṭṭagamiṇi) (last 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 manusripts 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, electronic transcript by budsir: Buddhist scriptures information retrieval, CD-ROM and online, both requiring payment; more accurate than the PTS edition, but with fewer variant readings
  • Sixth Council edition, Rangoon, 1954–6, 40 volumes, electronic transcript by Vipassana Research Institute available online in searchable database free of charge, or on CD-ROM (p&p only) from the Institute; a rival transcript, produced by the Dhamma Society Fund under the patronage of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, is expected online soon; more accurate than the Thai edition, but with fewer variant readings
  • 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, Lancaster; for details of these and other translations of individual books see the separate articles.


including material from at least two pitakas. For more specialized selections see appropriate articles. For broader selections see Buddhist texts and Pali literature.

  • Some Sayings of the Buddha, ed & tr F. L. Woodward, Oxford World Classics, 1924
  • The Life of Gotama the Buddha, ed E. H. Brewster, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1926
  • Buddhist Scriptures, ed & tr E. J. Thomas, Wisdom of the East Series, John Murray, London, 1931
  • The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha, ed & tr J. G. Jennings, pub Geoffrey Cumberlege, London, 1947
  • The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha, ed Ananda K. Coomaraswamy & I. B. Horner, Cassell, London, 1948
  • The Lion's Roar, ed & tr David Maurice, Rider, London, 1962
  • The Life of the Buddha, ed & tr Nanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1972

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.

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 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.

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.

  • 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 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.

Khuddaka Nikaya

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 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 prose teachings of 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 monks, arranged roughly by increasing number of verses.
  • Therigatha (therī-) 73 poems ascribed to 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. 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 the 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

Some or all of the following works are included in some editions of the Canon published in Burma, Ceylon and 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.

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.

Ancient style of scripture used for the Pali Canon
Ancient style of scripture used for the Pali Canon

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 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.

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