The Pali Canon

Words of the Historical Buddha

Young Monk Reading, Burma
A young monk studies by a window in the Myoe Daung Monastery in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar). © Necip Yanma / Getty Images

More than two millennia ago some of the oldest scriptures of Buddhism were gathered into a mighty collection. The collection was called (in Sanskrit) "Tripitaka," or (in Pali) "Tipitaka," which means "three baskets," because it is organized into three major sections.

Read More: About the Tripitaka

This particular collection of scriptures also is called the "Pali Canon" because it is preserved in a language called Pali, which is a variation of Sanskrit.

Note that there are actually three primary canons of Buddhist scripture, called after the languages in which they were preserved -- the Pali Canon, the Chinese Canon, and the Tibetan Canon, and many of the same texts are preserved in more than one canon.

The Pali Canon or Pali Tipitaka is the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, and much of it is believed to be the recorded words of the historical Buddha. The collection is so vast that, it is said, it would fill thousands of pages and several volumes if translated into English and published. The sutta (sutra) section alone, I'm told, contains more than 10,000 separate texts.

The Tipitaka was not, however, written during the life of the Buddha, in the late 5th century BCE, but in the 1st century BCE. The texts were kept alive through the years, according to legend, by being memorized and chanted by generations of monks.

Much about early Buddhist history is not well understood, but here is the story generally accepted by Buddhists about how the Pali Tipitaka originated:

The First Buddhist Council

About three months after the death of the historical Buddha, ca. 480 BCE, 500 of his disciples gathered in Rajagaha, in what is now northeast India. This gathering came to be called the First Buddhist Council. The purpose of the Council was to review the Buddha's teachings and take steps to preserve them.

The Council was convened by Mahakasyapa, an outstanding student of the Buddha who became leader of the sangha after the Buddha's death. Mahakasyapa had heard a monk remark that the death of the Buddha meant monks could abandon the rules of discipline and do as they liked. So, the Council's first order of business was to review the rules of discipline for monks and nuns.

A venerable monk named Upali was acknowledged to have the most complete knowledge of the Buddha's rules of monastic conduct. Upali presented all of the Buddha's rules of monastic discipline to the assembly, and his understanding was questioned and discussed by the 500 monks. The assembled monks eventually agreed that Upali's recitation of the rules was correct, and the rules as Upali remembered them were adopted by the Council.

Then Mahakasyapa called on Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha who had been the Buddha's closest companion. Ananda was famous for his prodigious memory. Ananda recited all of the Buddha's sermons from memory, a feat that surely took several weeks. (Ananda began all of his recitations with the words "Thus I have heard," and so nearly all Buddhist sutras begin with those words.) The Council agreed that Ananda's recitation was accurate, and the collection of sutras Ananda recited was adopted by the Council.

Two of Three Baskets

It was from the presentations of Upali and Ananda at the First Buddhist Council that the first two sections, or "baskets," came into being:

The Vinaya-pitaka, "Basket of Discipline." This section is attributed to the recitation of Upali. It is a collection of texts concerning the rules of discipline and conduct for monks and nuns. The Vinaya-pitaka not only lists rules but also explains the circumstances that caused the Buddha to make many of the rules. These stories show us much about how the original sangha lived.

The Sutta-pitaka,"Basket of Sutras." This section is attributed to the recitation of Ananda. It contains thousands of sermons and discourses -- sutras (Sanskrit) or suttas (Pali) -- attributed to the Buddha and a few of his disciples. This "basket" is further subdivided into five nikayas, or "collections." Some of the nikayas are further divided into vaggas, or "divisions."

Although Ananda is said to have recited all of the Buddha's sermons, some parts of the Khuddaka Nikaya -- "collection of little texts" -- were not incorporated into the canon until the Third Buddhist Council.

The Third Buddhist Council

According to some accounts, the Third Buddhist Council was convened about 250 BCE to clarify Buddhist doctrine and stop the spread of heresies. (Note that other accounts preserved in some schools record an entirely different Third Buddhist Council.) It was at this council that the entire Pali Canon version of the Tripitaka was recited and adopted in final form, including the third basket. Which is ...

The Abhidhamma-pitaka, "Basket of Special Teachings." This section, also called the Abhidharma-pitaka in Sanskrit, contains commentaries and analyses of the sutras. The Abhidhamma-pitaka explores the psychological and spiritual phenomena described in the suttas and provides a theoretical foundation for understanding them.

Where did the Abhidhamma-pitaka come from? According to legend, the Buddha spent the first few days after his enlightenment formulating the contents of the third basket. Seven years later he preached the teachings of the third section to devas (gods). The only human who heard these teachings was his disciple Sariputra, who passed the teachings on to other monks. These teachings were preserved by chanting and memory, as were the sutras and the rules of discipline.

Historians, of course, think the Abhidhamma was written by one or more anonymous authors sometime later.

Again, note that the Pali "pitakas" are not the only versions. There were other chanting traditions preserving the sutras, the Vinaya and the Abhidharma in Sanskrit. What we have of these today were mostly preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations and can be found in the Tibetan Canon and Chinese Canon of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Pali Canon appears to be the most complete version of these early texts, although it's a matter of contention how much the current Pali Canon actually dates to the time of the historical Buddha.

The Tipitaka: Written, at Last

The various histories of Buddhism record two Fourth Buddhist Councils, and at one of these, convened in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE, the Tripitaka was written out on palm leaves. After centuries of being memorized and chanted, the Pali Canon finally existed as written text.

And Then Came Historians

Today, it may be safe to say that no two historians agree on how much, if any, of the story of how the Tipitaka originated is true. However, the truth of the teachings has been confirmed and re-confirmed by the many generations of Buddhists who have studied and practiced them.

Buddhism is not a "revealed" religion. Our Guide to Agnosticism / Atheism, Austin Cline, defines revealed religion this way:

"Revealed Religions are those which find their symbolic center in some set of revelations handed down by a god or gods. These revelations are normally contained in the religion's holy scriptures which, in turn, have been transmitted to the rest of us by specially revered prophets of the god or gods."

The historical Buddha was a man who challenged his followers to discover the truth for themselves. The sacred writings of Buddhism provide valuable guidance to seekers of truth, but merely believing in what the scriptures say is not the point of Buddhism. As long as the teachings in the Pali Canon are useful, in a way it's not so important how it came to be written.