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Pali Canon

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The Pali Canon or Tipiṭaka is the scripture collection of Theravada Buddhism. The former is the usual name in general English usage;[1] it comes from Pali, its language, which is similar to Sanskrit. The latter name is the most often used in specialist religion reference sources.[2] "Ti" means "three", and "piṭaka" is usually translated "basket", though this is not unquestioned.[3] (See below for the three piṭakas.) The two names are widely treated as equivalent, but some (non-specialist) sources distinguish between them.[4] Another name used by some scholars is "Theravāda/vādin canon".

The other forms of Buddhism at the present day group themselves under the heading of Mahayana, which tends to regard the Tipiṭaka as a sort of "Old Testament".[5] Most scholars recognize the Canon as the oldest source for the Buddha's teachings,[6] in a rough sense.


The earliest surviving detailed lists of the books included in the Canon, i.e. the canon in another sense, appear in three commentaries probably compiled in the 5th century AD. Professor Collins argues[7] that the definition of a closed canon and the production of authoritative commentaries were parts of a "strategy of self-definition and self-legitimation" by the Mahāvihāra ("Great Monastery") in Anurādhapura, then the capital of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Scholars are not agreed when this canon was closed; Collins merely dates it sometime in the first half of the first millennium.

In fact this canon was never universally accepted;[8] rather, its influence varied with place and time. For example, a significant proportion of Burmese monastic literature of the 17th to 19th centuries, if not earlier, was characterized by debate on what was and what was not canonical. No system of criteria for canonicity was properly worked out or agreed in this period, but the following have been noted:

  • status of the person(s) whose teachings are reported, with the Buddha himself obviously the most authoritative
  • council approval
  • consonance with the teachings

The inscriptions of the Canon approved by the Fifth Council (Mandalay, 1871), and the printed edition of it approved by the Sixth Council (Rangoon, 1954-1956), include three "additional" books, listed at the end of the Khuddakanikāya below. (These are not new works, but ancient ones, if not quite as ancient as the others.) Although the Sixth Council was held by all five Theravada countries, in practice it was Burmese dominated and, while the Burmese government does not (or did not as of 1968) allow any other editions to be printed,[9] the other countries tend to pay only lip service to the council,[10] and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand have their own editions. The Buddha Jayanti edition, which is the standard one in Sri Lanka,[11] includes the first two of those books but not the third. A number of editions published in Thailand[12] and the Khmer edition ([6]) omit all three of those books, though in 2005 an organization sponsored by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand published a transcript of the council edition including them. There continue to be regional and local variations in what is considered canonical:[13] thus, e.g., Professor Bond[14] describes the Netti as

Regarded as quasi-canonical by some Theravādins and canonical by other Theravādins, especially in Burma

The order of books also varies, with the following seemingly commonest.

  • Vinayapiṭaka, on monastic discipline
    • Suttavibhaṅga: commentary on Pātimokkha, a basic code of rules for monks (227 rules) and nuns (311, but many apply to monks too and are not commented on again), not itself apparently in any printed edition of the Canon except in so far as embedded here, though some secondary sources do list it separately, including the above-mentioned commentaries; the Suttavibhaṅga includes stories of the occasions for the Buddha's laying down of the rules as well as explanations and "judicial precedents", rulings, mostly by the Buddha, on cases arising
    • Khandhaka: arranged topically in 22 chapters; mainly organizational rules, with stories and explanations; the last 2 chapters give accounts of the first two councils
    • Parivāra: further analysis in 19 chapters, most of which have no narrative frame; some verses at the end of some editions seem to identify the author as Dīpa or Dīpanāma
  • Sutta- or Suttanta-piṭaka, discourses; divided into five nikayas (nikāya), which in the first four instances below, happens to be a collection of scripture of a size that can be printed, in modern times, as one large book. The first four of the nikayas are in a fairly uniform style, mainly prose dialogues, sermons, etc., mostly featuring the Buddha
    • Dīghanikāya: 34 long discourses
    • Majjhimanikāya: 152 medium discourses
    • Saṃyuttanikāya: thousands of short discourses arranged topically in 56 groups (saṃyuttas)
    • Aṅguttaranikāya: thousands of short discourses arranged by numbers of items listed in them, from 1s to 11s
    • Khuddakanikāya: a miscellaneous collection of books in prose and/or verse
      • Khuddakapāṭha: 9 short texts in prose and/or verse
      • Dhammapada: popular book of 423 verses in 26 chapters, topically
      • Udāna: 80 "inspired utterances", mostly verse, with introductory narratives, featuring the Buddha
      • Itivuttaka: 112 prose pieces followed by verse paraphrases or supplements; the frame formulae ascribe them to the Buddha
      • Suttanipāta: basically poetry, but sometimes with prose frames that feature the Buddha
      • Vimānavatthu: 85 poems; typically, a monk, most often the Buddha's disciple Moggallāna, addresses a deity giving descriptions of their heavenly "mansion" and asking about the karma leading to them, and the deity answers
      • Petavatthu: 51 poems; similar, typically describing sufferings of ghosts and the karma leading to them
      • Theragāthā: 264 poems ascribed in colophons to various monks
      • Therīgāthā: 73 poems similarly ascribed to various nuns
      • Jātaka: 547 poems; the poetry is often more or less unintelligible through lack of context; the Niddesa says that the Buddha taught them in relation to past births (jāti) of himself as well as others;[15] according to the late Professor Warder, the most popular book of the Canon
      • Niddesa: commentary on parts of Suttanipāta; traditionally divided into two parts, Mahā- and Culla- or Cūḷa-niddesa
      • Paṭisambhidāmagga: 30 treatises on various topics
      • Apadāna: about[16] 600 poems, mostly in the names of monks or nuns telling how meritorious deeds in past lives led to good karmic results and eventual nirvana
      • Buddhavaṃsa: verse book mainly on previous Buddhas and "our" Buddha's meritorious acts towards them in his past lives, told in the first person with an introductory narrative
      • Cariyāpiṭaka: 35 poems about previous lives of the Buddha, told in the first person
      • Netti(ppakaraṇa): treatise on methods of interpretation, in the name of the Buddha's disciple Kaccāna
      • Peṭakopadesa: similar and overlapping
      • Milindapañha: dialogue between King Menander of Bactria (c. 150 BC) and a monk called Nāgasena
  • Abhidhammapiṭaka, higher or special teaching, more formal and analytical than the discourses; according to the Parivāra,[17] taught by the Buddha himself
    • Dhammasaṅgaṇi: enumeration and classification of mental and physical phenomena
    • Vibhaṅga: 18 chapters analysing different topics using, among other things, ideas and material from the previous book
    • Dhātukathā: analysis of interrelations among various ideas, mostly from the previous two books
    • Puggalapaññatti: classifications of persons
    • Kathāvatthu: over 200[18] debates on doctrinal points; does not identify the disputants
    • Yamaka: often converse pairs of questions, with answers, in 10 chapters on different topics
    • Paṭṭhāna: analysis of 24 types of causal conditionality


According to tradition, the Canon is "The Word of the Buddha" (Buddhavacana), and was compiled by the First Council immediately after the Buddha's death, which it dates around 544 BC (scholars nowadays usually say he died around 400 BC[19], and disagree on whether the council ever took place). Neither statement is intended literally, the Canon in fact including teachings by followers and accounts of events after the First Council (tradition says these latter, and some other material, were added by later councils). Being actually said by the historical Buddha is not a necessary requirement for counting as Buddhavacana. Tradition holds that the Canon has been accurately transmitted from the Buddha's time to the present day.

Modern scholars are not prepared to accept this postition, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that the Canon is not unique. We have most of another early canon, that of the Sarvastivada, in Chinese translation, together with greater and lesser amounts of various canons in various languages, along with information from secondary sources about the contents of some. These canons are more or less different from the Pali and each other. Scholars reject as implausible Theravada claims that other schools, deliberately or not, added, subtracted and altered while Theravada preserved the exact original teachings.

On the basis particularly of such comparisons, scholars generally divide the Canon, with some disagreement on detail, into earlier and later halves,[20] assuming similar material likely to be earlier than distinctive.

  • earlier: the main body of the Vinaya, the first four nikayas, and some of the more or less poetic books of the Khuddakanikaya (there is some disagreement on which ones); versions of these books seem to have been in existence in all schools, and the surviving versions are more or less similar
  • later: the Parivara, other books of the Khuddakanikaya, and the Abhidhamma; these books seem to be either absent altogether in other schools or else quite different from their versions

This division is only rough and ready: "early" texts may include later additions, while "late" texts may include early elements. (The statement that the Canon is the earliest source is subject to similar qualifications; indeed, Professor Norman criticizes such statements, asking in particular what they actually mean.[21])

However, there remains much disagreement on absolute, as against relative, dates, and on further stratification. Professor Gombrich, for example, holds that most of the content of the first four nikayas goes back to the Buddha himself, though not usually in exact words. He himself admits that very few scholars go so far ([7]). He also holds that the Canon was much like its present form after the Third Council about 250 BC, with perhaps some Khuddakanikaya books as the only substantial later additions.[22] Perhaps at the other extreme within the mainstream point of view is the late Professor Nakamura, who held that only parts of the Suttanipata go back to the Buddha's lifetime, the first four nikayas were compiled some time after c. 230 BC, and some of the Canon was at least as late as the 2nd century AD.[23]

A few scholars are outside this mainstream view. Professor Schopen rejects the argument that similar material is likely to be earlier than distinctive, arguing to the contrary that it is likely to result from later harmonization; he criticizes the practice of preferring texts, which he says are of uncertain, perhaps very late, date, to inscriptions, which he says are usually datable fairly accurately and often quite early.[24] And Professor Samuel holds that a wide range of teachings were in circulation in early Buddhism, and that it was only some centuries after the Buddha's time that some schools started rejecting some; so that the Canon was created by subtraction rather than addition, largely by the 5th century commentators.[25]


Like Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and unlike Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada emphasizes the scriptural language. Study and recitation are usually in Pali. Traditionally it has been regarded as the "root language", the "language of reality", the language of gods, ghosts, talking animals and wolf-children.

Scholars classify it as a form of Middle Indo-Aryan, within the family of Indo-European languages. Like other literary languages, it is not a pure vernacular dialect, though it is thought to be based mainly on one such, not independently attested, with some admixture of others, including Sanskrit. It is considered to be closely related to, but not identical with, the dialect(s) spoken by the Buddha himself.

It cannot, however, be assumed that the Canon was originally composed in Pali rather than transposed from some other dialect(s). Much could depend on definitions: how much does a dialect have to change before it counts as a different dialect?


According to a tradition generally regarded favourably by scholars, the Canon was written down from oral tradition in the last century BC in Ceylon (Sri Lanka),[26] at what came to be recognized as the Fourth Council. The tradition is not unquestioned among scholars, with some suggesting the process was less straightforward.[27] It is, however, unquestioned that the Buddha's teaching was originally transmitted orally.

The climate of Theravada countries is not conducive to the survival of manuscripts. Apart from brief quotations in inscriptions, the oldest known manuscript is a two-page fragment from the 8th or 9th century found in Nepal, other manuscripts begin in the late 15th century, and probably most are from the 18th and 19th. Thus the manuscripts available are the result of multiple copying, with the inevitable errors accumulated. This is compounded by transcription between scripts, as Pali has none of its own, each country generally using its own. This problem is exacerbated by more than one occasion on which some texts were lost in one country and had to be reimported from another. Parts of the Canon were often copied separately, not just in such cases, so the interrelationships between textual traditions are not always the same throughout the Canon. Despite this, manuscripts tend to follow different national traditions, though with some interaction. The tradition itself has been aware of these problems, and at various times groups have gathered to re-edit texts after comparing a variety of manuscripts.

The East Asian anticipation of Western printing did not spread to Southeast Asia, so Pali texts were not printed before the era of Western penetration. Attempts to print the whole Canon started in the late 19th century, and at least one edition seems to have been completed by 1910. The great bulk of the Canon has made it impractical to carry out thorough studies of printed editions, but such sample studies as have been carried out tend to suggest that those published in Theravada countries tend to follow their own national manuscript traditions to a greater or lesser extent. Such editions have been published in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Indian editions are based on Burmese ones. In the West, the Pali Text Society's edition follows scholarly methods of text criticism, though without a consistent approach; on the whole, it tends to prefer the Sinhalese tradition. Most of it was produced around a century ago, using the very limited source material available then. All editions have their faults, and modern scholars try to compare them.

There are now electronic versions of increasing numbers of editions (the first was completed in 1988). At first, these were transcribed by hand, but more recently photographic reproductions of a number of editions have appeared online. Likewise, increasing numbers of manuscripts can also be viewed online.

The Canon seems not to have survived absolutely complete: the main Burmese, Sinhalese and Thai editions include notes saying that a sutta in the Aṅguttaranikāya is mentioned in the commentary but not found in the manuscripts;[28] a mediaeval list of jātakas includes 550, not 547 as in the surviving text and commentary; and the Cariyāpiṭaka, which gives verse stories illustrating "perfections", omits some of them.


Translations of the Canon as a whole have been published in Chinese,[29] Japanese, Khmer, Sinhalese and Thai. Bengali,[30] Burmese and English translations are in progress, and there are translations of parts of the Canon in many languages. There are dozens of English translations of the Dhammapada. A number of anthologies have appeared, though these do not usually attempt to be representative, rather focusing on the earlier texts.


In theory, the Canon is the highest authority for the teaching. In practice, its great bulk (editions without extra material, such as translations, seem to vary from 38 to 45 volumes) means few are familiar with it as a whole. Therefore there is a tendency to specialize. The Vinaya Pitaka mentions vinaya and sutta specialists. The Milindapanha mentions specialists in each of the five nikayas. The commentaries mention abhidhamma specialists. In modern times, those wishing to be ordained as monks in Sri Lanka have had to memorize the Dhammapada. In Myanmar one can earn the title Teacher of Religion (Dhammācariya) by passing an examination where the set texts are the first volume of each pitaka;[31] similarly, an incomplete Lao edition of the Canon published in 1957 comprises the first volume of each pitaka, though these volumes are shorter than the Burmese ones. In practice, at a local level, the important texts may comprise some canonical and some non-canonical texts, varying with place. Before modern times at least, many monasteries did not have a complete set. Professor Collins suggests that the importance of the Canon lies in the idea of it, not in its actual contents.[32]

The Canon was composed, or evolved, for the most part orally, and is adapted to that medium, and so to memorization, with a lot of repetition, for example. There are rare cases of monks who know the whole Canon by heart,[33] and many know substantial parts. Even lay people usually know a few short passages.


Many commentaries have been written on books of the Canon, including subcommentaries, i.e. commentaries on commentaries, and further layers. The vast majority of this literature is connected with the names of just four authors.[34] Buddhaghosa was a North Indian monk working in Ceylon in the 4th or, more likely, the 5th century. The authenticity of some of the works traditionally ascribed to him has been questioned or rejected by recent scholarship, though they may be of his "school". The works ascribed to him are largely based on earlier commentaries in Old Sinhalese, now lost apart from a few quotations in mediaeval Sinhalese literature. Dhammapāla was a monk of South India, for whom various dates have been suggested from the 5th century to the 10th. Most scholars, though with some major exceptions, now believe two different commentators have been conflated. Sāriputta worked in Ceylon in the 12th century; in addition to his own works there are many by his pupils. Ñāṇakitti worked in Thailand around 1500.

Commentaries comprise three main types of material: linguistic analysis, explanation of the teachings, and stories, particularly giving background context for the teachings, but also sometimes just illustrative. Ñāṇakitti focuses on the first of these, which may explain why his works have had much less currency and influence than the other writers mentioned here.

Collected editions of the primary commentaries (by Buddhaghosa, Dhammapāla and others) published in Theravada countries, like those of the Canon itself, vary somewhat in contents. A Thai edition catalogued by Dr Skilling[35] comprises exactly one commentary on each book in the standard Thai editions of the Canon (as above). The Burmese edition scanned at [8] and the Sinhalese edition issued by the trustees of the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest also include a commentary on the Netti, and a few other works (not all the same ones). When it comes to the Burmese collected edition of subcommentaries at [9] (including some by Sāriputta and others attributed to Dhammapāla), this practice of uniqueness no longer applies, with for example three subcommentaries on the Vinaya included.


Versions of the Vinaya, the first four nikayas and some books of the Khuddakanikaya exist in Chinese. These are inherited from other schools of ancient Indian Buddhism and differ somewhat from the Pali versions. Similarly, there is a version of the Vinaya in Tibetan. There are also numerous bits and pieces of alternative versions in various languages. All of these can sometimes shed light on the readings and interpretations of the Canon, though few Pali scholars can make direct use of texts surviving only in non-Indic languages.

Literary assessments

Little study has gone into this. Some of the poetry has been spoken of favourably. The Milindapañha, included in some editions, was described by Rhys Davids as the greatest work of classical Indian prose,[36] but Winternitz said such claims were true only of the earlier portions.[37]


There is no generally accepted system of referencing passages in the Canon. Western scholars generally refer to the Pali Text Society editions, using volume/page/line for most of the Canon.


For more details click on the Bibliography and Addendum tabs at top of this page.

  1. foreword to Pali Text Society edition of Geiger, Pali Grammar. There are various typographical variants: Pali/Pāli/Pāḷi Canon/canon
  2. Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 1998 edition, 25.17A (page 502) and 25.18F1 (page 522)
  3. Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XV, page 92
  4. e.g. Compendium of the World's Languages, 3rd edition, volume II, ed George L. Campbell & Gareth King, Routledge, London / New York, 2013, page 1307 in the article on Pali, says the main body of the canon is the Tipitaka, while, in the opposite direction, Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Tipiṭaka, uses that name to refer to all early Buddhist canons, not just the Theravada one
  5. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2002 printing, volume 11, page 791 (article Tipitaka)
  6. Mousa, World Religions Demystified, McGraw-Hill, 2014, page 35; Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1997, pages 23f / reprinted from Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, volume 10 (1985), page 9 / also quoted in "The historical authenticity of early Buddhist literature: a critical evaluation", Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol XLIX (2005)/[1], page 37
  7. Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XV (1990), pages 89-126, particularly page 101
  8. Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism, volume I, 2015, page 11; for the rest of this paragraph, see Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, volume 44 (2013), pages 118-121
  9. Pratidanam (Kuiper Festschrift), Mouton, The Hague/Paris, 1968, page 497
  10. Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, 1975, page 277
  11. Journal of Burma Studies, volume 19, number 1, June 2015, page 102, note 52
  12. Parallel volume-by-volume table of contents of a number of editions; see [2] for the code letters used there.
  13. Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, 2017, page 5
  14. Karl H. Potter, ed, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, volume VII, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1996, page 381
  15. The passage is translated in Suttanipāta, tr. Bodhi, pages 1301f
  16. varying between editions
  17. Book of the Discipline, volume VI, page 123
  18. The exact number varies depending on how the material is divided.
  19. Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford World Classics, 2008, page xv
  20. Predicting the Future, ed Howe & Wain, Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 152
  21. "The value of the Pāli tradition", Jagajjyoti: Buddha Jayanti Annual: 1984, 1-9 / Collected Papers, volume III, Pali Text Society, 23-44
  22. Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 1st edition, 1988, pages 127f, 132f / 2nd edition, 2006, pages 128f, 133
  23. Indian Buddhism, Kansai University of Foreign Studies, Hirakata, Japan, 1980 (reprinted Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi), particularly pages 32, 45f, 48f
  24. "Archaeology and Protestant presuppositions in the study of Indian Buddhism", History of Religions, 31 (1991), 1-23 / Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai'i Press, 1997, 1-22
  25. Introducing Tibetan Buddhism, Routledge, 2012, pages 47f
  26. Gethin, Buddhist Path to Awakening, Brill, Leiden / New York / Köln, 1992, page 8
  27. [3]; Berkwitz, South Asian Buddhism, 2010
  28. Catukkanipāta, Valāhakavagga, number 6
  29. according to Wikipedia, which cites a source, [4], which is in Chinese and cannot currently be checked by Citizendium
  30. download
  31. Friedgard Lottermoser, "Buddhist monastic education in Myanmar", in Buddhism in Global Perspective, ed Kalpakam Sankarnarayan, Ichijo Ogawa & Ravindra Panth, Volume 1, Somaiya Publications, Mumbai/Delhi, 2003, pages 248f; the full text of the Pali Univerity and Dhammācariya Act, Act No. XLVII of 1950, can be found (in English) in Heinz Bechert, Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern Theravāda-Buddhismus, Band III (Band XVII/3 der Schriften des Instituts für Asienkunde in Hamburg), Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1973, pages 488-94; E. Michael Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1975, page 367
  32. >Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XV, page 104
  33. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 1st edition, 1988 / 2nd edition, 2006, page 153; more specifically, a Burmese monk named Vicittasāra: Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, 1975, page 266; some editions of the Guinness Book of Records mention his recitation from memory of 16000 pages of Buddhist canonical texts
  34. Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XXVI, page 134
  35. Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XXVII, pages 55-58
  36. Questions of King Milinda, volume I (Sacred Books of the East, volume XXXV), page xlviii: [5]
  37. Geschichte der indischen Litteratur, Vol. 2, Die buddhistische Litteratur und die heiligen Texte der Jainas. Leipzig: C.F. Amelang, p. 141 / History of Indian Literature, volume II, University of Calcutta, 1933, page 176