Tipiṭaka Commentaries – Helpful or Misleading?

December 6, 2017; rewritten February 2, 2023; revised April 29, 2023

1. I recently found the following essay on Tipiṭaka commentaries: “Beyond the Tipiṭaka: A Field Guide to Post-canonical Pāli Literature.” It describes the importance of such commentaries in clarifying critical concepts in the Tipiṭaka. I will present evidence to the contrary. Such commentaries have introduced contradictory explanations.

  • Over the years, on internet discussion boards, I have also seen heated discussions on critical concepts of Buddha Dhamma, like anicca, anatta, and anidassana viññāna. For example, see “Anidassana, Appaṭigha Rupa Due to Anidassana Viññāṇa.”
  • I often wonder about the immense amount of time people waste discussing the meaning of crucial Pāli words in Tipiṭaka suttā. They go back and forth between different interpretations without reaching any conclusions. I hardly see any issue resolved fully in such discussions. The same topic is discussed year after year without much progress.
  • One key factor contributing to this confusion is those commentaries; they are inconsistent with Buddha’s original teachings in the Tipiṭaka. The other key factor is the incorrect translation of crucial Pāli words. Both these issues are discussed below.

2. I hope this post will help you think about a new approach to finding the “correct teachings of the Buddha.” By discarding sources of incorrect interpretations once and for all, one could save a lot of time and focus on making progress.

  • When I seriously started studying different versions of Buddhism several years ago, this was the strategy that I used to eliminate”corrupt” or “contaminated”  versions. I eliminated Mahāyāna, Vajrayaṃa (Tibetan), and Zen versions first. After I came across dēsanas of Waharaka Thēro, I could eliminate Visuddhimagga and other relatively recent commentaries. These steps are discussed in detail below.
  • Then I was left out with just the Tipiṭaka and its three ancient, original commentaries composed during the time of the Buddha; see below. A consistent picture that is crystal clear has emerged for me.
  • I hope others can follow the same procedure. If everything can be understood within that framework, what is the need for more sources? As the principle of philosophy, “Occam’s razor” (or Ockham’s razor), says, the simplest explanation without any inconsistencies is the best.

3. My crucial assertion is that the Tipiṭaka and the three original commentaries of Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana are sufficient to clarify the original teachings of the Buddha.

  • This was made possible by my Noble teacher Waharaka Thēro, who was able to discern the true meanings of key Pāli words with the help of those three original commentaries; see “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro.”
  • On this website, I present this self-consistent picture that came out of the efforts of Waharaka Thēro.
  • Note that I am not asking anyone to take what I present on this website as the correct version. It is up to each person to look at the evidence and decide. As far as I can see, everything at this site is consistent with the Tipiṭaka and self-consistent. I encourage all to point out inconsistencies because my goal is 100% consistency.
  • Self-consistency, i.e., making sure that there are no contradictions, is the scientific procedure used by modern scientists to evaluate the validity of a scientific theory. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
4. There is no need to consult any commentary besides the three original ones mentioned above. I have explained at length why the other critical commentaries used today provide inaccurate and inconsistent explanations; see “Historical Background.”
The above-mentioned essay (in #1) is a good example of some misconceptions about the importance and validity of Tipiṭaka commentaries. When I say “commentaries” from now on below, they do not include the original three commentaries included with the Tipiṭaka.
  • In the following, the statements within quotation marks and highlighted in red are from the above essay and are accompanied by my comments pointing out the flaws in those statements.
5. “The Tipiṭaka (Pāli canon) assumed its final form at the Third Buddhist Council (ca. 250 BCE) and was first committed to writing sometime in the 1st c. BCE. Shortly thereafter, Buddhist scholar-monks in Sri Lanka and southern India began to amass a body of secondary literature: commentaries on the Tipiṭaka itself..”.
  • Not true. The original three commentaries mentioned in #3 above (PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) were compiled during the time of the Buddha, and those still are in the Tipiṭaka itself:
  • Those three original commentaries are in Pāli, but many others were written in the Sinhala language, and all of those have been lost, as discussed below.
6. “Most of these texts were written in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka, but because Pāli — not Sinhala — was the lingua franca of Theravada, few Buddhist scholars outside Sri Lanka could study them. It wasn’t until the 5th c. CE, when the Indian monk Buddhaghosa began the laborious task of collating the ancient Sinhala commentaries and translating them into Pāli, these books first became accessible to non-Sinhala speakers around the Buddhist world”.
  • This statement refers to those early Sinhala commentaries that have since been lost.
  • It is correct that Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and other commentaries, such as Vimuttimagga, were written in Pāli by Indian scholars.
  • It is also important to note that incorrect translations of those Pāli words led to more problems when those were translated to English; see #7 below.
7. “These commentaries (Atthakatha) offer meticulously detailed explanations and analyses — phrase-by-phrase and word-by-word — of the corresponding passages in the Tipiṭaka.”
  • First,  Atthakatha (a Sinhala word meaning “true accounts”) was the ancient commentaries on Tipiṭaka written in Sinhala. They ALL have been lost; see “Preservation of the Dhamma.”
  • So, it is misleading to refer to those Atthakatha as the commentaries in question. In contrast, the commentaries in circulation today are NOT those of ancient Atthakatha but more recent ones like Visuddhimagga.
  • Buddhaghosa’s mission was to translate the material in Sinhala  Atthakatha to Pāli so that those bhikkhus in India could read them. Unfortunately, he incorporated many Vedic concepts; see Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.
  • Further problems were introduced when Visuddhimagga was translated into English in recent times. Today, the original Pāli version of Visuddhimagga, and its recent English translation, are available on Amazon; see Refs. 1 and 2 below.

8. “Almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books.”

9. “First, the chronicles and commentaries provide a vital thread of temporal continuity that links us, via the persons and historical events of the intervening centuries, to the Tipiṭaka’s world of ancient India. A Tipiṭaka without this accompanying historical thread would forever be an isolated anachronism to us, its message lost in clouds of myth and fable, its pages left to gather dust in museum display cases alongside ancient Egyptian mummies..”.

  • There are no myths or fables in the Tipiṭaka. I would challenge anyone to show any evidence from the Tipiṭaka. This is an irresponsible and egregious statement.

10. “Second, almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books.”.

  • Nothing in these commentaries provides any significant information about the time of the Buddha. They may provide information about the time at which they were written. For example, Visuddhimagga was written about 800 years after the Buddha.

11. “One might reasonably wonder: how can a collection of texts written a thousand years after the Buddha’s death possibly represent his teachings reliably? How can we be sure they aren’t simply derivative works colored by various irrelevant cultural accretions? First of all, although many of these texts were indeed first written in Pāli a thousand years after the Buddha, most Sinhala versions upon which they were based were written much earlier, having been passed down via an ancient and reliable oral tradition..”.

12. “But what of the credentials of the commentators themselves: can their words be trusted? In addition to living a monastic life immersed in Dhamma, the compilers of the commentaries possessed unimpeachable literary credentials: intimate acquaintance with the Tipiṭaka, mastery of the Pāli and Sinhala languages, and expert skill in the art of careful scholarship. We have no reason to doubt either their abilities or the sincerity of their intentions”.

  • This is also a critical issue. As I discussed in those posts mentioned above, Buddhaghosa was a Vedic Brahmin who distorted Anāpānasati to “breath meditation” and incorporated kasina meditations into Visuddhimagga; no such kasina meditations are to be found anywhere in the Tipiṭaka.
  • Like so many late commentators, Buddhaghosa was just another philosopher like Nagarjuna. By the way, Nagarjuna was also a commentator, and his work led to the rising of the Mahāyāna version of Buddhism.
  • I have discussed the drawbacks of Mahāyāna; see, for example, “Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings” and “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis.”
  • The same kind of arguments can be applied to Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna) and Chinese Zen Buddhism; all these are offshoots of the original teachings in the Tipiṭaka; see “Historical Background.” It is well worth the time to read this section before coming to conclusions.

13. “And what of their first-hand understanding of Dhamma: if the commentators were scholars first and foremost, would they have had the sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on meditation? This is more problematic”.

  • This is the only statement that I agree with. They were just “scholars” and philosophers who had not progressed in practice.
  • This is true today as well. Many “scholars” have written books on Buddha Dhamma without making significant progress in following the Noble Path. Many are not even nominally Buddhists; some are “secular Buddhists” who do not believe in rebirth or Nibbāna; see, “Buddhism without Rebirth and Nibbāna?“.
  • I am not trying to put them down. They serve a meritorious purpose in teaching how to live a moral life. However, those books/journal papers/websites cannot be used to clarify more profound teachings in the Tipiṭaka.

14. A key point missing in the current discussion is that it is impossible to comprehend the critical concepts like anicca and anatta without at least attaining the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna. However, these days, people tend to gauge their qualifications by checking only whether a given person is an “academic scholar.”

  • Like only a practicing physician can genuinely understand and diagnose a patient, not one who has just studied medical textbooks.
  • Only an Ariya (a Noble person) — who has practiced the actual teachings and at least attained the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna — can comprehend deep concepts like anicca, anatta, viññāna, and saññā. One cannot fully understand such deep concepts by just studying or reading about them. For example, see “What is Sañña (Perception)?“.

15. The most referred to commentaries (these days) are Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and Upatissa’s Vimuttimagga (to a much less extent). The original Pāli text for the latter was long believed to have been lost. For centuries, discussions about the text relied on a 5th-century Chinese edition.

  • As we have established, those later commentaries — including Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga — were written in Pāli.

16. Therefore, those late commentaries lead to confusion in two ways:

  • One is the erroneous interpretations by the commentators themselves, as discussed above.
  • The other is incorrect translations — initially done by early European scholars — in mistranslating key Pāli terms; see, for example, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.” This has made the situation even worse.

These are two critical points to consider by those tempted to refer to those late commentaries. I cannot emphasize the importance of those two points enough.

17. Then, some people quote from Chinese Āgama. Even though those original Chinese documents COULD BE authentic, my point is that they were also derived from the Tipiṭaka and thus serve no purpose as additional resources.

  • They could be valuable for those proficient in Chinese but cannot read Pāli, Sinhala, or English.

18. Finally, to re-emphasize my main point: The Tipiṭaka and the three original commentaries (PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) included there are sufficient to clarify the Buddha’s original teachings. See “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”

  • Using just the Tipiṭaka, I have also pointed out some current misinterpretations in Theravada Buddhism, mainly due to the influence of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga; see “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and posts referred there.
  • There still could be some minor inconsistencies on the website, and I appreciate those readers who have pointed out some of them, which has led to improvements. But I have high confidence in the correctness of key concepts.
  • Please do not hesitate to comment on any inconsistency with the Tipiṭaka or within the website. However, for the reasons I have detailed above, please do not quote from other sources. This website aims to have a consistent explanation of Buddha’s teachings in English in one place.

I have recently started a new section highlighting some apparent contractions in many English translations of the Tipiṭaka:Elephants in the Room.”


1. Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification – Pāli Edition), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa (Theravada Tipiṭaka Press, 2010).

2. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa and translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (BPS Edition, 1999). The Introduction (by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli) provides historical background.

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