Definition of Buddhist Term: Tripitaka (Tipitaka)

The Earliest Collection of Buddhist Scripture

Pali Scirptures
A monk of Burma (Myanmar) reads Pali scriptures. © Design Pics / Stuart Corlett / Getty Images

In Buddhism, the word  Tripitaka (Sanskrit for "three baskets"; "Tipitaka" in Pali) is the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures. It contains the texts with the strongest claim to being the words of the historical Buddha.

The texts of the Tripitaka are organized into three major sections--the Vinaya-pitaka, containing the rules of communal life for monks and nuns; the Sutra-pitaka, a collection of sermons of the Buddha and senior disciples; and the Abhidharma-pitaka, which contains interpretations and analyses of Buddhist concepts.

In Pali, these are the Vinaya-pitaka, the Sutta-pitaka, and the Abhidhamma.

Origins of the Tripitaka

Buddhist chronicles say that after the death of the Buddha (ca. 4th century BCE) his senior disciples met at the First Buddhist Council to discuss the future of the sangha--the community of monks and nuns -- and the dharma, in this case, the Buddha's teachings. A monk named Upali recited the Buddha's rules for monks and nuns from memory, and the Buddha's cousin and attendant, Ananda, recited the Buddha's sermons. The assembly accepted these recitations as the accurate teachings of the Buddha, and they became known as the Sutra-pitaka and the Vinaya.

The Abhidharma is the third pitaka, or "basket," and is said to have been added during the Third Buddhist Council, ca. 250 BCE. Although the Abhidharma is traditionally attributed to the historical Buddha, it probably was composed at least a century after his death by an unknown author.

Variations of the Tripitaka

At first, these texts were preserved by being memorized and chanted, and as Buddhism spread through Asia there came to be chanting lineages in several languages. However, we have only two reasonably complete versions of the Tripitaka today.

What came to be called the Pali Canon is the Pali Tipitaka, preserved in the Pali language.

This canon was committed to writing in the 1st century BCE, in Sri Lanka. Today, the Pali Canon is the scriptural canon for Theravada Buddhism.

There were probably several Sanskrit chanting lineages, which survive today only in fragments. The Sanskrit Tripitaka we have today was pieced together mostly from early Chinese translations, and for this reason, it is called the Chinese Tripitaka.

The Sanskrit/ Chinese version of the Sutra-pitaka also is called the Agamas. There are two Sanskrit versions of the Vinaya, called the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (followed in Tibetan Buddhism) and the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya (followed in other schools of Mahayana Buddhism). These were named after the early schools of Buddhism in which they were preserved.

The Chinese/Sanskrit version of the Abhidharma that we have today is called the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, after the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism that preserved it.

For more about the scriptures of Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, see The Chinese Mahayana Canon and The Tibetan Canon.

Are These Scriptures True to the Original Version?

The honest answer is, we don't know. Comparing the Pali and Chinese Tripitakas reveals many discrepancies. Some corresponding texts at least closely resemble each other, but some are considerably different.

The Pali Canon contains a number of sutras found nowhere else. And we have no way of knowing how much the Pali Canon of today matches the version originally written more than two thousand years ago, which has been lost to time. Buddhist scholars spend a good deal of time debating the origins of the various texts. 

It should be remembered that Buddhism is not a "revealed" religion--meaning it's scriptures are not assumed to be the revealed wisdom of a God. Buddhists are not sworn to accept every word as literal truth. Instead, we rely on our own insight, and the insight of our teachers, to interpret these early texts.