Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma

Revised October 28, 2017; November 11, 2017; January 9, 2019; re-written January 26, 2020

Tipiṭaka – The Pāli Canon

1. Buddha’s teachings were handed down verbally from one generation to the next over three to four hundred years. That material is in the Pāli Canon, Tipiṭaka.

  • Tipiṭaka was composed into a form that is suitable for easy verbal transmission, in many cases in SUMMARY form. See, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • That is the reason that it survived almost entirely in content over this long period.
  • It was written down at the turn of the first century, 2000 years ago, in Matale, Sri Lanka. See, “Welcome to Aluvihāra Rock Cave Temple” for information about the location where the Tipiṭaka writing took place.
  • 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.
  • All other documents in Chinese, Tibetan, etc. date later and derived from the Pāli Tipiṭaka.
Initial Oral Transmission

2. The discourses of the Buddha were said to have been delivered in Māgadhi language. The written form was called Pāli. But Pāli does not have its own script, so it was written down with Sinhala script.

  • That provides a clear way of sorting out the Mahāyāna literature, which was written in Sanskrit, and never written in Pāli. All the Sanskrit suttā were written by Mahāyānic philosophers in Sanskrit.
  • Around the turn of the first millennium, translations of the Tipiṭaka to Chinese and subsequently to Tibetan also took place. The original manuscripts in Pāli can be expected to contain most of the original discourses delivered by the Buddha.

3. Today, it is hard to fathom (especially for Westerners) that such a level of accuracy could have been maintained in a verbally-transmitted material.

  • However, we need to understand the background traditions and also the determination of the monks over thousands of years that helped preserve most of the original teachings.
  • Even today, there are people who have memorized large sections of the Tipiṭaka, especially in Myanmar (formerly Burma). In Myanmar, there are special examinations to test memorizations. See, “TIpitakaDHARA SAYADAWS OF MYANMAR ( BURMA ) IN FIVE DECADES“.  Also see, “Memorizing the Tipiṭaka“.
  • During the period of oral transmission, there were groups of bhikkhus who memorized (overlapping) sections of the Tipiṭaka. Then during a Sangāyanā (Buddhist Council), they all got together and compared each other versions to make sure they were all compatible.
It Took Three Councils to Finalize the Tipiṭaka

4. 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.

  • 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” + “pitaka” 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.
  • It was this completed Tipiṭaka that was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council, in Matale, Sri Lanka.
The authenticity of the Tipiṭaka

5. Another important point is hidden in the history of the Tipiṭaka. Even up to the 20th century, the whole Tipiṭaka was written on specially prepared ōla (palm) leaves. They deteriorate over 100 years or so and needed to be re-written. Even though that was a very labor-intensive process (there are about 60 large volumes in the modern printed version of the Tipiṭaka), it served another important purpose.

  • Sinhala language (both spoken and written) changed over the past 2000 years. The need to re-write it every 100 or so years made sure that the changes in Sinhala script were taken into account. Of course, the Pāli language has not changed.
  • The following video gives an idea about how those leaves were prepared and what tools were used to write with:

Most Suttā Are Condensed Versions of the Discourses

6. A critical point here is that a sutta is a CONDENSED version of discourse in many cases. 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 important suttā. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to transmit all those thousands of suttā.

  •  The Buddha delivered most of his discourses in the Māghadhi (māghadhi = “maga” + “adhi” or Noble path) language. Tipiṭaka was written in Pāli with Sinhala script. Pāli is a version of Māghadhi suitable for writing down oral discourses in summary form suitable for transmission.
  • Each Pāli word is packed with a lot of information, and thus commentaries (called “Attha Kathā”) were written to expound the meaning of important Pāli words and to explain the key phrases in the suttā.
Importance of the Commentaries

7. Thus the Tipiṭaka was meant to be used with the commentaries. Pāli suttā are not supposed to be translated word-by-word.  see, “Sutta – Introduction.

  • Most of those Sinhala commentaries were burned down 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 Tipiṭaka (in the Khuddhaka Nikāya) and thus survived. The current revival of pure Dhamma by the Theros in Sri Lanka is partially due to their perusal of these three documents (Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana).

8. With the loss of most of the commentaries and the non-prominence of the surviving three commentaries mentioned above, people started translating the Tipiṭaka word by word. The problem was compounded by the increasing usage of the Sanskrit language beginning around the first century CE.

  • For example, “anicca” was translated first to Sanskrit as “anitya” and then the same Sanskrit word “anitya” was ADOPTED as the Sinhala translation for anicca. Similarly, “anatta” was translated to Sanskrit as “anāthma” and again was adopted as the Sinhala word for “anatta”. This itself has been responsible for preventing millions of people attaining Nibbāna for all these years; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • Another good example is the translation of Paṭicca samuppāda to Sanskrit as Pratītyasamutpāda; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha” +” Sama+uppäda“.   I think it is NOT POSSIBLE to translate some key Pāli words to Sanskrit or English or any other language without losing the true meaning.  This is the reason that I am going to just keep the original words in some cases and just explain what it is; also see, “Anantara and Samanantara Paccayā” or words like taṇhā and Nibbāna.
Direct Translation of the Tipiṭaka Is Dangerous

9. The Buddha had foreseen this and warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipiṭaka to ANY LANGUAGE, and particularly to Sanskrit. There were two Brahmins by the names of Yameḷa and Kekuṭa who were experts on the Vedic Texts; they became bhikkhus and asked the Buddha whether they should translate the Pāli suttā to Sanskrit.

  • That is when the Buddha admonished them that Sanskrit was a language with musical overtones developed by the high-minded Brahmins and thus it was not possible to convey the true meanings of Maghadhi (Pāli) words in Sanskrit; see Chulavagga 5.33.
  • In the Sutta Central English translation, the Pāli word for Sanskrit (chandasa) is translated incorrectly as, “metrical”; see, “15. Minor matters (Khuddaka)” which is the translation of “1. Khuddakavatthu “. The relevant Pāli text is located close to the end, and starts as, “Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma…”.

10. One grave problem we have today is the many people try to translate a given sutta word by word to another language. Thus the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta that we mentioned above is translated to a few pages.

Buddhaghosa’s Commentaries

11. Finally, just before the Sinhala commentaries were burned down, Buddhaghosa translated and edited those commentaries back to Pāli in his Visuddhimagga and other books.

Timeline and Organization of the Tipiṭaka
First Buddhist Council

12. That first Buddhist council was held three months after the Parinibbāna at Rājagaha the capital of Māgadha.

  • Shortly after the Buddha passed away, Ven. Mahakassapa, the de facto head of the Saṅgha, selected five hundred monks, all Arahants (those who have attained Nibbāna), to meet and compile an authoritative version of the teachings.

13. The Cullavagga, one of the books of the Pāli Vinaya Piṭaka, gives an account of how the authorized texts were compiled at the First Buddhist Council:

  • On the basis of Venerable Upali’s recitation of Vinaya, the Vinaya Piṭaka, the compilation on disciplinary matters was compiled.
  • Venerable Ananda then recited “the Dhamma” or the Sutta Piṭaka, i.e., the discourses, and on the basis of this recitation the Sutta Piṭaka, the Compilation of Discourses, was compiled (Venerable Ananda was supposed to have an amazing memory and had memorized all the Suttas preached by the Buddha).
  • The Abhidhamma was rehearsed by all the Arahants present at the Council. Although parts of the Abhidhamma were recited at these earlier Buddhist Councils, it was not until the Third Council that it became fixed into its present form as the third and final Piṭaka of the Canon.
Finalization of Tipiṭaka at the Third Council

14. The proceedings of the Third Council compiled by the Moggaliputta-Tissa Thero in the Kathavatthu, which became part of the Tipiṭaka (Three Baskets). It was during the Third Council that the final version of the Tipiṭaka (as available today) was compiled. It finalized the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, and added several books on the Khuddhaka Nikāya, in addition to the Kathavatthu.

The composition of the Tipiṭaka is as follows:

1. The Vinaya Piṭaka is composed of five books: Major Offenses (Prajika Pāli), Minor Offenses (Pacittiya Pāli), Greater Section (Mahavagga Pāli), Smaller Section (Culavagga Pāli), and Epitome of the Vinaya (Parivara Pāli).

2. The Sutta Piṭaka consists of five nikayas: Digha Nikāya (Collection of Long Discourses), Majjhima Nikāya (Collection of Middle-Length Courses), Samutta Nikāya (Collection of Kindred Sayings), Anguttara Nikāya (Collection of Discourses arranged in accordance with a number), and Khuddaka Nikāya (Smaller Collection).

3. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka consists of the following categories: Dhamma Saṅghani (Classification of Dharmas), Vibhanga (The Book of Divisions), Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy) which was actually compiled by venerable Moggaliputta Tissa at the Third Buddhist Council, Puggala Pannatthi (Description of Individuals), Dhatukatha (Discussion with Reference to Elements), Yamaka (The Book of the Pairs), and Patthana (The Book of Relations).

  • That collection is the Tipiṭaka (Three Baskets) or the Pāli Canon.
Writing Down the Tipiṭaka at the Fourth Council

15. It is this enlarged Canon completed at the Third Council that was committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE (29 BCE) at the Aluvihara Monastery at the Fourth Buddhist Council. The material in Pāli was written down in Sinhala language (Pāli does not have its own script).

  • This huge collection was written down on palm leaves with styluses, a pointed steel dagger-like instrument, which scratched the letters into the soft leaves. Ink made from berries was rubbed over the whole page and then gently removed so that only the indentations retained the color. It is said that Tipiṭaka was also written down on gold leaves as well.

16. It is to be noted that Theravada Buddhism was brought to Burma and Thailand from Sri Lanka in the first century CE. Over the next two centuries, it diffused into adjoining countries of Laos, and Cambodia, and survives in its purity in those countries as well to the present day. (In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s massacred most of the monks, and the Buddha Dhamma is virtually extinct).

  • While the Saṅgha (with the aid of most of the kings) in Sri Lanka took pride and honor in keeping the teachings intact, Buddhism went through many changes in India, as well as in China, Japan, and Tibet, and then finally disappeared altogether from India around 1200 CE.

Next, “Historical Timeline of David Conze“, ……….

Print Friendly, PDF & Email