An Introduction to the Pali Canon

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni lived and taught in Northern India around 2500 years ago. The Buddha did not write down any of his teachings nor were his talks recorded in writing by any of his disciples. The Buddha’s teachings were given orally and memorised by his disciples. These memorised versions were passed down orally over the centuries following the Buddha’s death. They were possibly first written down around the first century BCE.

The oral teachings of the Buddha were approved by monastic councils of the Buddha’s followers, the first of which was held shortly after his death. This council was called by one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Mahakassapa, and heard a recital of the Buddha’s teachings from Ananda, the Buddha’s faithful attendant of twenty-five years. Whenever you hear the words „Thus have I heard” at the start of one of the Buddha’s teachings it is said that it is the voice of Ananda that you are hearing.

These regular meetings of the monastic councils developed a canon of the Buddha’s teachings. However, over the centuries Buddhism split into different schools or traditions each with its own particular emphases and teachings. So there developed several different canons which were eventually written down. But when Buddhism declined and was eventually completely destroyed in India by the muslim invaders in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the original complete canonical collections belonging to the different schools and traditions were destroyed.

Except for one. This is the canonical collection written in the language we know as Pali and which belongs to the ancient Theravada school of Buddhism. The Pali language is probably closely related to the language or dialect that the Buddha himself spoke. This complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings had been transmitted to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE and so was not destroyed by the muslim invasions. (There is a collection of very similar teachings found in a Chinese translation of a now lost Sanskrit version of the Canon. This version, known as the Agamas, is very close in content and organisation to the version preserved in Pali.)

The Pali canon is a complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings and is almost certainly the oldest collection of Buddhist literature available today. It’s the closest we’re going to get to the actual words of the historical Buddha speaking 2500 years ago. Moreover, it’s a collection of the Buddha’s teachings that forms the backbone of faith and practice of 100 million Buddhists practicing today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, South-East Asia, Europe and America.

The Pali canon is divided into three compilations or baskets known as Pitakas. There’s the Vinaya Pitaka, a collection of materials related to the development of the rules governing the life of the monastic followers of the Buddha (Sangha); the Abhidhamma Pitaka, an attempt at a systematic reorganisation of the Buddha’s teachings by some of his later followers; and the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of the actual teachings given by the Buddha, organised into sub-collections known as Nikayas (in the Theravadin school) or as Agamas (in the Chinese version).

The five Nikayas of the Pali Canon are:

  1. Middle Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya)
  2. Long Discourses (Digha Nikaya)
  3. Connected Discourses (Samyutta Nikaya)
  4. Numerical Discourses (Anguttara Nikaya)
  5. Minor Discourses (Khuddaka Nikaya) – this collection includes the Dhammapada, Udana, Sutta Nipata, Verses of the Elders (Theragatha and Therigatha) and other texts.

All of these teachings have been translated into English, at least once. The English translation of these teachings amounts to 5,500 pages.

It is worth noting that the Tibetan Buddhist canon (Kangyur) contains only a few of the Buddha’s actual teachings found in the Pali Nikayas and in the Chinese Agamas. Most of the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas were not translated into Tibetan.

A very good introduction to the teachings of the Buddha from the Sutta Pitaka can be found in the book “In the Buddha’s Words”, a compilation edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi (published by Wisdom Publications). In a present day acknowledgement of the importance of the Pali Canon, in the foreword to „In the Buddha’s Words” the Dalai Lama says that the Pali canon „provides the basis for all subsequent Buddhist literature…the study of which is especially valuable for clarifying understanding of many fundamental Buddhist doctrines.”

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
December 2009