Revised October 28, 2017; January 9, 2019; January 26, 2020; re-written June 25, 2021; revised November 19, 2022
Tipiṭaka – The Pāli Canon
1. After the passing away of the Buddha, his teachings were handed down verbally from one generation to the next over three to four hundred years. Preservation in the written form took place 2000 years ago.
- Tipiṭaka was composed into a form suitable for easy verbal transmission, in many cases in SUMMARY form. See, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.” That is why it survived almost entirely in content over this long period.
- It was written down in Matale, Sri Lanka, at the turn of the first century, 2000 years ago. See “Welcome to Aluvihāra Rock Cave Temple” for information about 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 are derived from the Pāli Tipiṭaka.
Initial Oral Transmission
2. The discourses of the Buddha were said to have been delivered in the Māgadhi language. The written form was called Pāli. But Pāli does not have its script, so it was written down with Sinhala script.
- That provides a straightforward way of sorting out the Mahāyāna literature, written in Sanskrit and never written in Pāli. Mahāyānic philosophers wrote all the Sanskrit suttā in Sanskrit.
- Around the turn of the first millennium, translations of the Tipiṭaka to Chinese and 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 accuracy would be possible in verbally transmitted material.
- However, we need to understand the background traditions and the monks’ determination over thousands of years that helped preserve most of the original teachings.
- 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 “TIpitakadhara Sayadaws of Myanmar ( Burma ) in Five Decades.” Also, see “Memorizing the Tipiṭaka.”
- During oral transmission, groups of bhikkhus 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; see #15 below.
- This completed Tipiṭaka was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council in Matale, Sri Lanka. This was the last Council attended ONLY by Arahants. Thus, we can be assured of its authenticity. Since Pāli does not have its script, it was written in the Sinhala language.
The authenticity of the Tipiṭaka
5. Another critical 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 typically deteriorate over 100 years or so and need to be rewritten. Even though that was a very labor-intensive process (about 60 large volumes in the modern printed version of the Tipiṭaka), it served another essential 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 they took account of the changes in the Sinhala script. Of course, the Pāli language has not changed.
- The following video gives an idea about the preparation process and the tools used to write:
- European Civil Servants saved existing Pali manuscripts of the Tipiṭaka in the 1800s. See “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.” The original documents on Palm leaves are still kept at the British Museum:
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 is summarized in a few pages. The same is true for all the deeper suttās. 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 a 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 on the meaning of critical Pāli words and to explain the key phrases in the suttā.
Importance of the Commentaries
7. Pāli suttā are not supposed to be translated word-by-word. see, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.” The Tipiṭaka was meant to be used with the commentaries. Commentaries compiled by Arahants at the time of the Buddha are still there with the Tipiṭaka: Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana. Venerable Mahinda started compiling Sinhala Commentaries 200 years later.
- Sadly those Sinhala commentaries were burned during the Anuradhapura era; see “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline.”
- Fortunately, three original commentaries prepared by the foremost disciples of the Buddha (Ven. Sariputta, Ven. Kaccayaṃa, etc.) during the Buddha’s time were included in the Tipiṭaka (in the Khuddhaka Nikāya) and thus survived. The current revival of pure Dhamma by Waharaka Thero in Sri Lanka was partially due to his 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, a practice that continues to date: “Elephant in the Room” – Direct Translation of the Tipiṭaka.” 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 has prevented millions of people from attaining Nibbāna 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” and the Wikipedia article, “Pratītyasamutpāda.”
- It is NOT POSSIBLE to translate some critical Pāli words to Sanskrit, English, or any other language without losing their true meaning. In many cases, I prefer to keep the original words (e.g., anicca, anatta, taṇhā) and explain their meanings.
Buddha Prohibited Translation of the Tipiṭaka to Sanskrit
9. The Buddha foresaw this and warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipiṭaka 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.
- The Buddha admonished them that Sanskrit was a language with musical overtones developed by the high-minded Brahmins. Thus, it was impossible to convey the true meanings of Maghadhi (Pāli) words in Sanskrit; see Chulavagga 5.33. He admonished them not to translate his teachings to Sanskrit.
- In the Sutta Central English translation, the Pāli word for Sanskrit (chandasa) is mistranslated as “metrical”; see “15. Minor matters (Khuddaka).” The relevant Pāli text starts as, “Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma…”.
10. One grave problem today is that many people try to translate a given sutta word by word to other languages. Thus the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta that we mentioned above is translated into a few pages.
- For a comprehensive translation of that sutta: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.”
- That is why most of the existing translations are inadequate at best and erroneous in most cases; see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
11. Finally, just before the burning of the Sinhala commentaries, Buddhaghosa translated and edited those commentaries back to Pāli in his Visuddhimagga and other books.
- Even though he had made many errors (like including kasina meditation and substituting the ānāpanasati bhāvanā with “breath meditation”), he had used the words anicca and anatta in the Pāli version of the Visuddhimagga; see, “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background” and “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”
- Thus the incorrect translations of the words “anicca” (as “impermanence”) and “anatta” (as “no-self”) may have happened more recently; see “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
- Now, let us systematically review the timeline of the Tipiṭaka.
Timeline – 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, 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:
- Based on Venerable Upāli’s recitation of Vinaya, the Vinaya Piṭaka, disciplinary matters were compiled.
- Venerable Ananda then recited “the Dhamma” or the Sutta Piṭaka, i.e., the discourses, and based on 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 they recited parts of the Abhidhamma at these earlier Buddhist Councils, it was not until the Third Council that it became finalized to its present form as the third and final Piṭaka of the Canon.
Finalization of Tipiṭaka at the Third Council
14. The Moggaliputta-Tissa Thero compiled the proceedings of the Third Council in the Kathavatthu, which became part of the Tipiṭaka (Three Baskets). During the Third Council, Arahants compiled the final version of the Tipiṭaka (as available today). It finalized the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and added several books on the Khuddhaka Nikāya and 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 nikāyas: 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 by 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), Puggala Pannatthi (Description of Individuals), Dhatukatha (Discussion regarding Elements), Yamaka (The Book of the Pairs), and Patthana (The Book of Relations). Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa COMPILED Kathavatthu at the Third Buddhist Council,
- That collection is the Tipiṭaka (Three Baskets) or the Pāli Canon that exists today.
Abhidhamma Piṭaka Finalized at the Third Council
15. The work on the Abhidhamma Piṭaka started during the time of the Buddha by Ven. Sariputta was not finalized until the Third Council. The Buddha only taught the basic framework to Ven. Sariputta. It was completed over roughly 250 years by the lineage of bhikkhus, starting with Ven. Sariputta. Of course, Ven. Sariputta was one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha: While Ven. Moggallana excelled in supernatural powers, Ven. Sariputta excelled in Dhamma. He was only second to the Buddha in Dhamma knowledge.
- The minute details on the structure of a citta vithi (a series of citta) of 17 thought moments, with each citta lasting sub-billionth of a second, can be seen only by a Buddha. The Buddha described only the underlying principles to Ven. Sariputta. Then Ven. Sariputta and his group of bhikkhus (and their subsequent lineage) completed the monumental task of categorizing the Abhidhamma, starting with the fundamental entities.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi describes the origins of Abhidhamma in his book, “Comprehensive_Manual_of_Abhidhamma,” (2000); see pp. 9-11.
- As I mentioned, compiling Abhidhamma Piṭaka (after the Buddha described it in summary form to Ven. Sariputta) was not a trivial task. That is why it took 250 years to finalize that work. Anyone with even a little knowledge of Abhidhamma would realize that it must be the work of a Buddha. See the “Abhidhamma” section at puredhamma.net.
- The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is fully consistent with the Sutta Piṭaka. I would be happy to discuss any perceived inconsistencies.
- However, it is not necessary to learn Abhidhamma to attain magga phala. It is an additional tool for those who like to get into details. It is truly a joyful experience to “see” how phenomena can be explained at a deeper level.
Writing Down the Tipiṭaka at the Fourth Council
16. This enlarged Canon, completed at the Third Council, 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 the Sinhala language (Pāli does not have its script).
- Bhikkhus wrote 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 gently removed so that only the indentations retained the color. It is said that Tipiṭaka was also written down on gold leaves as well. These could be entombed inside stupās; see the Wikipedia article “Stupa“
Translation of the Tipiṭaka to Other Languages
17. 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 survived in its purity in those countries as well to the present day. (In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s massacred most monks, and the Buddha Dhamma is virtually extinct).
- However, the Chinese/Tibetan versions of the Tipiṭaka seem to have come from India. The Tibetan version seems to have undergone many revisions/additions and, in some cases, is far removed from the original teachings.
- While the Saṅgha (with the aid of most of the kings) in Sri Lanka took pride and honor in keeping the teachings intact, Buddhism underwent many changes in India, China, Japan, and Tibet. It then finally disappeared altogether from India around 1200 CE.