Pāli Canon Is Self-Contained but Requires Detailed Explanation

Pāli Canon is the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. That collection has all the necessary teachings of the Buddha. However, the key concepts need to be explained in detail by a Noble Person (an Ariya.)

November 19, 2020; revised August 23, 2022; February 25, 2023

Initial Oral Transmission

1. After the passing away of the Buddha, his teachings were handed down ORALLY from one generation to the next over about five hundred years. It had been prepared for easy oral transmission. That becomes clear when one listens to the recital of a given sutta. As a child, I had memorized several suttas without much difficulty.

  • Even today, some people have memorized large sections of the Tipiṭaka, especially in Myanmar (formerly Burma). In Myanmar, there are special examinations to test memorization. See, Tpitakadhara Sayadaws of Myanmar ( Burma) in Five Decades.“  Also, see “Memorizing the Tipiṭaka. “
  • That is why the Pāli Canon survived entirely in content over that long period of oral transmission. There were groups of bhikkhus who memorized overlapping sections and passed them down.
  • A major reason for the assembly of the First Buddhist Council within three months of the Buddha’s Parinibbāna — around 480 BCE — was to organize the vast material that had been accumulated.
  • Within the next two hundred years, two more Councils were held to recite and verify the teachings and to finalize the Tipiṭaka in three broad categories (“ti” + “Piṭaka” or “three baskets”). The second was held about a century after the first one.
  • The third was held in 250 BC at Pataliputra under the patronage of King Asoka. The “three baskets” were completed at this Council with the finalization of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.
  • That material was written down in that exact form when it became possible to preserve written material for a long time; see #2 below.
Texts of the Tipiṭaka

2. That completed Tipiṭaka was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council in Matale, Sri Lanka. See “Welcome to Aluvihāra Rock Cave Temple” for information about where the Tipiṭaka writing occurred. By then, techniques had become available to preserve written material for a long time.

  • That is why the Pāli Canon (Tipiṭaka) can be trusted to have the Buddha’s original teachings. Details at “Sutta – Introduction.“
  • The other earliest written Buddhist documents are from Gandhāra in modern northwestern Pakistan; see “The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra” by Richard Salomon (2018.) However, those do not provide a complete version of the Tipiṭaka; see p. 83 of the book.
  • Around the turn of the first millennium, translations of the Tipiṭaka to Chinese and subsequently to Tibetan also took place. The original manuscripts in the Pāli Tipiṭaka can be expected to contain most of the original discourses delivered by the Buddha.
The Authenticity of the Tipiṭaka

3. After the initial writing, the whole Tipiṭaka was periodically re-written on specially prepared ōla (palm) leaves over the next 2000 years. The leaves deteriorated over time and needed to be rewritten every 100+ years. Even though that was a very labor-intensive process (there are 57 large volumes in the modern printed version of the Pāli Canon), it served another CRITICAL purpose.

  • Sinhala language (both spoken and written) changed over the past 2000 years. The need to re-write it every 100 or so years ensured that the Sinhala script changes were taken into account—that assured authenticity.
  • The following video gives an idea about how those leaves were prepared and what tools were used to write:

4. The fourth Buddhist Council was the last Council attended exclusively by Arahants. The writing of the Pāli Canon took place during that Council. That provides credence to the authenticity of the Tipiṭaka. Of course, no one can dispute that each Piṭaka is inter-consistent and consistent with the other two Piṭakas.

  • The discourses of the Buddha were said to have been delivered in Māgadhi (“maga” + “adhi” or Noble path) language. The written form was called the Pāli. But Pāli does not have a script, so it was written down with Sinhala script.
  • That also provides a straightforward way of sorting out the Mahāyāna literature. They are all in Sanskrit and never in Pāli. Mahāyānic philosophers wrote all the Sanskrit suttā (more correctly sutrā) in Sanskrit.
  • Furthermore, the Tipiṭaka was NEVER translated into Sanskrit. The Buddha prohibited that. See “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
“Double-Meanings” of Many Keywords

5. The Sutta Piṭaka contains the bulk of the original discourses delivered by the Buddha. It had been specially put into a format suitable for easy oral transmission.

  • The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma would go through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting the suttā would not be present. Thus the suttā were composed in a way that only the “conventional” meaning is apparent. That was necessary to preserve the suttā, especially before writing became commonplace.
  • It is important to remember that  Ven. Ananda had memorized all the suttās, which he then recited at the First Buddhist Council, just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
  • Ven. Ananda was Buddha’s personal assistant over the last few decades of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha likely condensed each sutta and Ven. Ananda memorized each of them. The Buddha synthesized each sutta in a “double meaning” way for them to survive the “dark periods.” That point will become clear as we discuss it further.
  • Then, at the first Buddhist Council, all the suttā were recited and sorted into various categories (Nikāyās). We still have that same Sutta Piṭaka.
  • The Vinaya Piṭaka also remains in the same original form. Only the Abhidhamma Piṭaka was finalized at the Third Buddhist Council. Then all three finalized Piṭakas were written down at the Fourth Council. See “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
Need for Detailed Explanations

6. The critical point here is that a sutta is often a CONDENSED version of discourse. For example, the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta was delivered to the five ascetics overnight. Imagine how many written pages would be if written verbatim! Yet, it was summarized in a few pages. The same is true for all the critical suttā. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to transmit all those thousands of suttā.

  • Each Pāli keyword (like ānāpāna, anicca, and anatta) is packed with a lot of information. Commentaries (called “Attha Kathā”) were written to expound on the meaning of important Pāli words and also to explain the key verses (like “yē dhammā hetuppabbavā..”)
Importance of the Commentaries

7. Thus, deep suttas were meant to be used with the commentaries. Pāli suttā are not supposed to be translated word-by-word. 

  • Most Sinhala commentaries were burned in the Anuradhapura era; see “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline.“
  • Fortunately, three original commentaries written by the main disciples of the Buddha (Ven. Sariputta, Ven. Kaccayaṃa, etc.) during the time of the Buddha had been included in the Pāli Canon (in the Khuddhaka Nikāya) and thus survived. The current revival of pure Dhamma by Waharaka Thero and a few other Theros in Sri Lanka is partially due to their perusal of these three documents (PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana).
  • Once the deeper meanings stay hidden for a long time, only a few with the Patisambhidā Ñāna can understand AND explain even those three commentaries. Certain jāti Sotapannas are born with that the Patisambhidā Ñāna from time to time. Waharaka Thero was one of them. From the time of Buddhaghosa, the deeper meanings had been hidden until Waharaka Thero unearthed them in recent years.
Tipiṭaka Transmitted With Mundane Meanings During “Dark Periods”

8.  Therefore, there are “dark periods” when bhikkhus with the Patisambhidā Ñāna are not born for long periods. During such times, people use conventional interpretations. And that served the purpose of keeping the suttā intact, especially before written texts became common. Even though people understood only the mundane versions, the text was faithfully transmitted.

  • A perfect example is the Ānāpānasati Sutta (some of which are also part of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta).  As we discussed in “What is Ānāpāna?”, the conventional meaning of the word ānāpāna is to tie up “āna” with breath inhaling and “āpāna” with breath exhaling. That was consistent with the breath meditation that has been there in the world at any time. Many yogis practiced it at the time of the Buddha. He learned those methods from such yogis before attaining Buddhahood.
  • Other examples are the translation of the keywords of anicca and anatta as impermanence and “no-self.” Even though those two meanings are embedded in the correct meanings, the deeper meanings are broader. No English word has the same meaning as anicca (or anatta.) Even the word “dukkha” DOES NOT refer to just the suffering one feels. Instead, Dukkha Sacca (Noble Truth on Suffering) is about the CAUSES of FUTURE suffering.
  • The true meanings of those words will EMERGE as we systematically go through the upcoming posts.
Explanation of Dhamma – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Patiniddēsa

9. A profound dhamma concept may appear in the Pāli Canon (especially in the Sutta and Abhidhamma) as just an “uddēsa” or “utterance.”

  • Niddēsa” is a “brief explanation.” Finally, “patiniddēsa” means explaining in detail with examples to clarify complex or “knotty”  points by a bhikkhu (or a knowledgeable layperson) during a discourse (or in a text today.) One of the three commentaries mentioned above, Nettippakarana, provides all three types of explanations: “Uddesavāra,” “Niddesavāra,” and “Paṭiniddesavāra.” Also, see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
  • For example, in the suttas on Anulōma Paṭicca Samuppāda, it is stated in the uddēsa version: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, saṅ­khā­ra ­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ, .. ending in “.. Evametassa kevalassa duk­khak­khan­dhassa samudayo hotī” ti OR “the whole mass of suffering.” The STOPPING of the “the whole mass of suffering” is also stated in the uddēsa version in Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda as, “avijjā nirodhā saṅ­khā­ra­ nirodho, saṅ­khā­ra ­nirodhā viññāṇa nirodho,..” ending with “end of the whole mass of suffering.”
  • However, both saṅkhāra and viññāṇa arise in an Arahant. That seems to be a contradiction when it is stated that saṅ­khā­ra ­nirodhā (cessation of saṅ­khā­ra) and viññāṇa nirodhā (cessation of viññāṇa.)
  • In the commentary Patisambhidamagga Pakarana, it is clarified in the short form (niddēsa) to say that types of saṅkhāra removed by an Arahant are abhisaṅkhāra and that only kamma viññāṇa do not arise in an Arahant.
  • Then, that needs to be explained in detail  (patiniddēsa) as in the post, “Anulōma Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Sōtapanna Stage.”
It Is an Offense to Misinterpret Buddha Dhamma

10. It is an offense to misinterpret suttā or other material in the Pāli Canon. That is in several suttā in the “Bālavagga of Aṅguttara Nikāya 2.”

  • For example, AN 2.23 is a short sutta that says: “Bhikkhus, these two misrepresent the Buddha. What two? (i) One who explains what was not spoken by the Buddha as spoken by him. (ii) One who explains what the Buddha spoke as not spoken by him. These two misrepresent the Buddha. These are two who slander the Tathāgatā.”

11. The following are the key points from the above discussion that I wish to emphasize:

  • Many suttā are designed to convey “conventional” meanings while keeping the “deep meanings” embedded in them.
  • Those “deep meanings” bring out the uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma.
  • Word-to-word translation of the suttā does not convey the message of the Buddha. Examples are critical Pāli words like ānāpāna, anicca, and anatta.
  • The surviving three original commentaries in the Pāli Canon (Tipiṭaka) can verify the deep meanings of the keywords/phrases. Once a Noble Person clarifies them with Patisambhidā Ñāna, any other Noble Person can explain those meanings to others.
  • Posts on the three Piṭaka: “Tipiṭaka – A Systematic Approach.”

All posts in this section at “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.”

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