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Tipitaka, the Pali Canon of Buddhism

Buddhist Dharma, or Dhamma

It is a good thing that no drop of blood has to be shed in the name of Buddha, on his word.

Buddhism is not a mere philosophy; it is not merely "love of wisdom"; it is very much more comprehensive. Philosophy deals mainly with knowledge and is not concerned with practice for attaining elevated states of mind; whereas Buddhism emphasises practice and realisation.

Buddhism is not "a system of standardised faith and worship" either. It does not demand blind faith. A Buddhist is not invited to sacrifice his freedom of thought by becoming a follower of Buddha. The starting point of Buddhism is self-help meditation, followed by some reasoning or understanding, or, in other words, Samma-ditthi. A discerning Buddhist seeks to live up to Buddha's basic teachings, and what are they? They foster self-development in certain ways. The core is meditation, then other self-help practices and skills for your own good. Great teachings to steer by in life, come in addition. But you don't have to believe a thing to begin with, and do not have to call you a Buddhist, even. What matters to grasp is this: Fair Buddism is for you; not the other way round; and that attitude is rooted in old teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism is a system devised to get rid of ills of life and foster intense and even jubilant gladness of heart. It is neither sceptical nor dogmatic.

Buddha's teachings, also called the Dharma, show the way to such ends. This Dharma is not something apart from oneself, for Buddha exhorts in the Parinibbana Sutta: "Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a Refuge. Abide with the Dharma as an island, with the Dharma as a Refuge. Seek no external refuge."

Buddhist Canon

Buddhist canon depends on old Buddhist records, which were formed for oral transmission. Within five hundred years or so the oldest ones that have come down to us had been put down in writing, and those that have survived, are found mainly on Ceylon (today: Sri Lanka).

The Pali language is a Middle Indo-Aryan language of north Indian origin, related to Old Indo-Aryan Vedic and Sanskrit dialects. Buddha appears to have taught by conversation, by use of matrikas (schemes of presentation formulated by him), and his teachings were handed down through oral instruction for generations. His sayings spread through India to Ceylon in the 200s BC, where they were written down in Pali in the 1st century BC. Hence, it took some five centuries before the first extant texts were written down after the time of Buddha, and the huge canon that grew up around him for centuries after his demise, is accounted for as a result of joint efforts of many. Many things in this canon - legends and anecdotes, similes and metaphors, phrases and idioms - have been taken almost verbatim from a common Indian stock.

The earliest records of Buddhism are inscriptional, as seen in the famous edicts of emperor Asoka (c. 269-232 BC), after he converted to Buddhism. The inscriptions were written in a variety of Indo-Aryan languages close to early Sanskrit, but later than it.

Pali, the vehicle of the earliest Buddhist texts that have survived, is said to be a western Indian dialect on a substratum of several central and eastern ones. Pali is not a living language any more, but its texts form the doctrinal foundation of Thereveda Buddhism. This dialect came to be used by the Theravada school of Buddhism, one of many schools in early Buddhism. Consequently, the Pali dialect is incorrectly identified with Buddha's own speech. Buddha came from northern India in what is now Nepal.

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Tipitaka Texts

"In the Tipitaka one finds milk for the babe and meat for the strong," says Narada Thera. Here is how these canonical text collections came about: Buddha left no written records of His Teachings; disciples preserved them by committing to memory and transmitting them orally from generation to generation. During the reign of the Sinhala King Vattagamani Abhaya, about 83 B.C., the Tipitaka was committed to writing on palm leaves (ola) in Ceylon.

This voluminous Tipitaka, which contains the essence of Buddha's Teaching, is estimated to be about eleven times the size of the Bible. The Tipitaka consists of the Basket of Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), the Basket of Discourses (Sutta Pitaka), and the Basket of Ultimate Doctrine (Abhidhamma Pitaka).

The texts of the Pali canon of Theraveda Buddhism form a vast body of literature that is called Tipitaka ("The Three Baskets"; Sanskrit: Tripitaka). Tipitaka contains what is considered the most authentic texts of what Buddha stood for, despite many additions and modifications.

  1. Vinayapitaka deals with rules of conduct for the congregations (sangha); some of which may help spiritual communities of today also.
  2. Suttapitaka brings Buddha's sermons and dialogues; they are the dominant teachings of Theraveda Buddhism.
  3. Abhidhammapitaka deals with expositions of theories.

The texts of the three baskets (Tipitaka) are distinguished from the commentaries on many of them.

1. Regulations for monks and nuns, Vinayapitaka

The Vinayapitaka, where large sections have fallen into disuse, is divided into five major parts grouped into three divisions. The five parts (books, Vibhanga) are:

  1. Parajika Pali - Major Offenses
  2. Pacittiya Pali - Minor Offenses (Khandaka):
  3. Mahavagga Pali - Greater Section
  4. Cullavagga Pali - Shorter Section
  5. Parivara Pali - Epitome of the Vinaya

The three divisions are: Sutta-vibhanga ("Division of Rules"); Khandhakas ("Sections"); and Parivara ("Accessory"):

1.1     The Sutta-vibhanga is a commentary on the Patimokkha-sutta ("Obligatory Rules"), which forms the nucleus of the Vinayapitaka. It is one of the oldest parts of the Pali canon and utilizes an archaic language. It consists of two parts, (1.1.1) the Bhikkhu-patimokkha ("Rules for Monks") and the (1.1.2) Bhikkhuni-patimokkha ("Rules for Nuns").

The commentary on the Patimokkha is divided into the Maha-vibhanga of 227 rules for monks and the Bhikkhuni-vibhanga of additional rules and regulations for nuns.

1.2    The Khandhaka section of the Vinaya consists of two parts, the (1.2.1) Mahavagga ("Great Grouping") and the (1.2.2) Cullavagga ("Small Grouping"). These two sections lack logical sequence. They contain rules for ordination; descriptions of rainy-season retreats, instructiond of nuns; and so forth. The Cullavagga supplements the details of the Mahavagga to make an authoritative compilation of Buddha's sayings of discipline.

1.3    The Parivara contains summaries and classifications of the disciplinary rules. It is a later supplement.

2. Buddha Discourses and Sermons, Sutta

2.1     The Sutta Pitaka ("Basket of Discourse, Sutra") is the largest of the "three baskets" (Tipitaka). It consists of five collections (nikayas) that contain prose discourses attributed to Buddha, as spoken on various occasions. There are also a few discourses delivered by some of his better known disciples such as Sariputta, Ananda, and Moggallana in it. There may be seemingly contradictory statements. Most of the sermons were intended mainly for the benefit of Bhikkhus [ascetic monks]. There are several other discourses which deal with both the material and moral progress of His lay followers.

Interspersed are stanzas to illustrate or sum up particular points. Many of the discourses seem drawn out and repetitive, but they were actually made to serve oral transmission and - yes - propaganda. Also, they are hints on how to meditate, with illustrations by excellent similies.

All the sayings of these discourses hardly represent the exact words of Buddha, although some phrases may have been accurately remembered. They can reveal glimpses of the personality and soaring spirit of Buddha.

The grouping of the discourses into collections (nikayas) has no topical basis. The third and fourth nikayas (Samyutta and Anguttara) seem to reflect a later development, they serve to rearrange the topics dealt with in the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas

The five nikayas or collections are:

  1. Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses).
  2. Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Middle-Length Discourses).
  3. Samyutta Nikaya (Collection of Kindred Sayings).
  4. Anguttara Nikaya (Collection of Discourses arranged in accordance with numbers).
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya (Smaller Collection).

2.1.1 The Digha Nikaya ("Collection of Long Discourses") contains 34 suttas, some of considerable length, presenting a vivid picture of the different aspects of life and thought at Buddha's time. Divided into three books, it contrasts superstitious beliefs, various doctrinal and philosophical speculations, and ascetic practices with Buddhist ethical ideas, which are elucidated with the help of similes and examples taken from the everyday life of the people. One of the most interesting suttantas ("discourses") is the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which gives an account of the last days of Buddha and stresses the importance of striving for emancipation.

2.1.2 The Majjhima Nikaya ("Collection of the Middle Length Sayings") contains 152 suttas in its present version, while the Chinese one, preserving the lost Sarvastivada collection, has 222, some of which are also found in other nikayas (collections) of the Pali canon. Like the Digha, the suttas in the Majjhima present Buddhist ideas and ideals, illustrating them by profound similes of beauty.

2.1.3 The Samyutta Nikaya ("Collection of Kindred Discourses") has altogether 2,941 suttas, classed in 59 divisions (called samyutta) grouped in five parts (vaggas). The first vagga (part) has suttas that contain stanzas. The suttas begin with a description of the particular occasion when the stanzas were spoken; the stanzas themselves represent a kind of questioning and answering. The second vagga deals with the important principle of dependent origination - the chain of cause and effect affecting all things. The third vagga presents the anatman (no-self) doctrine, which is the rejection of an abiding principle that could be termed a self or a pure ego. The fourth vagga is very similar to the previous one, but here it is not the philosophical principle underlying the analysis that is stressed but the transitoriness of the elements constituting reality. The fifth vagga is devoted to a discussion of the basic principles of Buddhist philosophy, religion, and culture.

2.1.4 The Anguttara Nikaya ("Collection of the Gradual Sayings") contains as many as 2,308 small suttas arranged according to the number of topics discussed, ranging from one to eleven. There are three areas in which training is needed: in conduct, concentration, and insight - and [at least] eight worldly concerns: gain, loss, fame, blame, rebuke, praise, pleasure, and pain. Here, too, similes enliven the presentation.

2.1.5 The Khuddaka Nikaya ("Collection of Small Texts") is subdivided into fifteen books:

  1. Khuddaka-patha ("Small Reading", or Shorter Texts). This is the smallest book in the entire Tipitaka. Compiled for use by primary trainees, its contents are used on various occasions. Two suttas have been borrowed from the Suttanipata (see below), and their recitation is regarded as very auspicious.
  2. Dhammapada (Way of Truth), also called "Verses on the Dhamma" - This work contains 423 verses in 26 chapters. Presenting maxims of Buddhist ethics, it not only occupies an eminent place in the religious life of the peoples in Buddhist countries but is also of universal appeal, as it recommends a life of peace and nonviolence and declares that enmity can never be overcome by enmity, only by kindness.
  3. Udana (Paeans of Joy), or "Utterances". This contains 80 utterances attributed to Buddha or his chief disciples, when they had achieved the bliss of their emancipation or spoke in appreciation of a sublime state.
  4. Iti Vuttaka ("Thus said" Discourses), or "Thus Said" - This contains 112 short pieces dealing with ethical principles, such as generosity, good and evil, greed, passion, and malice.
  5. Sutta Nipata (Collected Discourses), or "Collection of suttas" - This is one of the oldest Buddhist texts in existence today. It is partly in verse, partly in a mixed style of prose and verse. The verse part is of high poetic quality.
  6. Vimana Vatthu (Stories of Celestial Mansions), or "Tales of Heavenly Mansions" - This book describes the different abodes of deities, male and female, who are born in the heavens as a result of their former meritorious deeds.
  7. Peta Vatthu (Stories of Petas), or "Tales of Ghosts" - This work gives an account of the various purgatories and the woes of the beings reborn there as a result of their wicked deeds.
  8. Theragatha (Psalms of the Brethren), or "Hymns of the Elders" - This collection contains songs attributed to 264 personal disciples of Buddha. The songs are said to have been composed when their authors experienced the bliss of emancipation.
  9. Therigatha (Psalms of the Sisters), or "Hymns of the Senior Nuns" - These are the songs attributed to about 100 female disciples of Buddha. They provide rich material for the study of the position of women at the time of Buddha. Their merit consists in their revealing the deep impression Buddha's teaching made upon their life. A personal tone is unmistakable.
  10. Jataka (Birth Stories), or "Lives [of Buddha]" - Only the verses are considered to be canonical, while the 547 tales of Buddha's previous lives are considered a later addition. The prose stories contain legends, fables, humorous anecdotes, and short sayings, as well as lengthy romances.
  11. Niddesa (Expositions), or "Exposition" - This work, consisting of two parts, Mahaniddesa and Cullaniddesa, actually belongs to the group of commentaries. The last two chapters comment on the Suttanipata.
  12. Patisambhida Magga (Analytical Knowledge), or "The Way of Analysis" - This is a kind of encyclopaedia of the philosophical ideas in the Sutta Pitaka. It is primarily meant for reference and intensive study.
  13. Apadana (Lives of Arahats), or "Stories" - This is a collection of stories of the previous lives of Buddha, the pratyeka buddhas (who attain enlightenment by themselves and are unconcerned about the enlightenment of others), and the arhats of the early Buddhist sangha, whose Theragatha and Therigatha songs are incorporated and embellished with rich biographical detail. The concluding sentence of each apadana in the collection is intended to show that even the smallest meritorious act has the potentiality of giving vast positive results even after a long time. All the stories are in verse.
  14. Buddhavamsa (The History of Buddha), or "Lineage of Buddha" - This work relates the lives of 24 previous buddhas, of Gotama (the historical Buddha), and of Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya; the future buddha). According to the text, the stories are told by the historical Buddha himself.
  15. Cariya Pitaka (Modes of Conduct), or "Basket of Conduct" - This collection retells 35 Jatakas (stories of Buddha's previous lives) in verse form, illustrating the bodhisattva's practice of the 10 perfections (paramitas) necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood.

In addition to the above come: Nettippakarana (Burmese Tipitaka only); Petakopadesa (Burmese Tipitaka only): and Milindapanha (Questions of Milinda) (Burmese Tipitaka only)

3. Abhidhamma Pitaka of Scholasticism

The Abhidhamma Pitaka ("Basket of Scholasticism") is the third of the three "baskets". It comprises seven works that are based on the contents of Buddha's discourses and deal with selected and specific topics that form the basis for the later philosophical interpretations. The Pali version is a strictly Theravada collection and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other schools.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains the profound philosophy of Buddha's teaching in contrast to the illuminating and simpler discourses in the Sutta Pitaka. Narada Thera says, "In the Sutta Pitaka is found the conventional teaching (vohara desana) while in the Abhidhamma Pitaka is found the ultimate teaching (paramattha-desana)."

In Abhidhamma, consciousness is defined. Thoughts are analyzed and classified from an ethical standpoint mainly. Mental states are enumerated. Mind and matter are discussed, an ethical system is evolved, with the aim of realizing Nibbana.

The seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka in the Pali canon are:

3.1     Dhammasangani ("Summary of Dhamma" or "Classification of Dhammas), an enumeration of the entities constituting reality.

3.2     Vibhanga ("Division", or "The book of Divisions), a definition of these entities from various points of view.

3.3     Kathavatthu ("Points of Controversy", or "Points of Controversy), a later work discussing the controversial doctrinal points among the various ancient schools.

3.4     Puggalapannatti ("Designation of Person", or "Descriptions of Individuals), an interesting psychological typology in which people are classified according to their intellectual acumen and spiritual attainments.

3.5     Dhatukatha ("Discussion of Elements", or "Discussion with reference to elements), a classification of the elements of reality according to various levels of organization.

3.6     Yamaka ("Pairs", or "The Book of Pairs), dealing with basic sets of categories arranged in pairs of questions.

3.7     Patthana ("Activations", or "The Book of Relations), a voluminous work discussing 24 kinds of causal relations.

Early Noncanonical Texts in Pali

The noncanonical literature of Theravada Buddhism consists to a large extent of commentaries on the Tipitaka texts but also includes independent works.

Nagasena, Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosa, and Dhammapala attempted to harmonize apparently conflicting teachings and to grasp the inner meanings:

Nagasena was the learned monk who debated with the well-informed Greco-Bactrian ruler Menander, as described in the literary prose work Milinda-panha ("Questions of King Menander"), which Nagasena is supposed to have compiled about 150 BC, and certainly before 400 AD, since Buddhaghosa from the 400s quotes the work as an authority. In it, the king has conversations with the monk. The work is one of the few postcanonical works of the Theravada school that was not produced in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka).

Buddhaghosa, who flourished in the early 400s, was a prolific writer who settled on Ceylon. The first work that he wrote was the Visuddhimagga ("Way to Purity"), a revered compendium of Theravada teaching. He also wrote commentaries on the Vinaya, the first four nikayas, and the seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Other works are traditionally attributed to Buddhaghosa too, although modern scholarship indicates that he was not the author. These works include commentaries on the Suttanipata and the Khuddaka-patha, as well as the extremely important commentaries on the Dhammapada and the Jatakas. The commentary on the Jatakas has as its introduction what is perhaps the most famous "biography" of Buddha, and concludes with 547 stories. Some of them are great for kids in the West too, through the values they show. They serve enculturation well. In all Theravada countries these narratives and romances have exerted a tremendous influence on fine arts and law too.

Buddhadatta, a contemporary of Buddhaghosa, was from Tamil Nadu in southern India. Like Buddhaghosa he went to Sri Lanka to study at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. He wrote his works in a monastery. His Abhidhammavatara ("The Coming of the Abhidhamma"), is a summary of the older commentaries on the Abhidhamma Pitaka. He reduced Buddhaghosa's five metaphysical ultimates - ie, form, feeling, sensations, motivations, and perception - to four, namely, mind, mental events, forms, and nirvana.

Dhammapala was slightly later than Buddhadatta and Buddhaghosa, and in the same tradition. In his commentary on Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga, he quotes a verse from the Hindu scripture Bhagavadgita. His work reveals something of the intellectual activity at the time.

The Dipavamsa ("History of the Island"), seems to be a poor redaction in Pali of an older Old Sinhalese version of how Sri Lanka was occupied and built.

During and after the "revival" and spread of the Theravada in the centuries after AD 1000, more Theravada literature was made: commentaries and independent works written in Pali in Sri Lanka and the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia (for example, the highly respected commentary on the Mangala Sutta written in northern Thailand in the 16th century). The 14th-century cosmology called the Traiphumikatha (Three Worlds According to King Ruang), is the oldest known full-length text written in Thai.


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