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Pali Canon

By Devik Balami at
pali scripture

The Pali Canon is the standard collection of Buddhists Pali scriptures, according to the Theravada Buddhists traditions. It is recorded that this scripture is the first known and most-complete extant early Buddhist canon. It was first composed in North India and was preserved orally. It was only after the fourth Buddhist Council, Sri Lanka, the teaching of Buddha was preserved in written form. Gradually the teachings of the Buddha was also translated into other languages like- Sanskrit, and regional Asian languages.

Historical development of Pali Canon

In the early history, the teachings of the Buddha was spread orally. Therefore, all the monks were enforced to memorize the teachings by heart and then deliver to their disciples. The memorization usually took place through communal recitations. But later a council was formed around the first century BCE. This formation changed the way of Buddhist monks. They began to write down the teachings in the Pali language. This job was done in the Alu Viharaya in the first century BCE. It then compiled as the Canon but most works are not specifically Theravadin. The canon also includes the teachings that the Theravadin orally preserved from the early period.

Contents of the Pali Canon

The Pali Canon includes three general categories taught by the Buddha, also known as Pitaka. Thus it is also known as the Tipitaka which includes- Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Vinaya Pitaka deals with the rules or discipline of the Sangha; Sutta Pitaka deals with the discourses and sermons of the Buddha; Abhidhamma Pitaka includes elaborated Buddhist doctrines also called systematic philosophy.

Vinaya Pitaka

As it is already mentioned, this category deals with the rules of the Sangha. These rules are mentioned through stories with clear explanations and analysis. The stories are based on the Buddha encountering various behavioral problems or disputes. Along with the stories, the rules were developed and shared in the Buddhist community. Vinaya Pitaka is further divided into three parts:

Suttavibhanga- includes basic code of rules for monks and nuns,

Khandhaka- includes other advanced rules explained in 22 chapters, and

Parivara- includes analysis of various points of view.

Sutta Pitaka

The second one is the Sutta Pitaka literally meaning basket of threads which consists of primary accounts of the Buddha's teachings. The Sutta Pitaka is further divided into five sub-divisions:

Digha Nikaya- includes 34 long discourses with the high proportion of debates and devotional materials.

Majjhima Nikaya- includes 152 medium-length discourses with high proportions of sermons and consultations.

Samyutta Nikaya- includes thousands of short discourses categorized into fifty groups by subjects, person etc. in fifty.

Anguttara Nikaya- includes thousands of short discourses arranged numerically from ones to elevens. It contains elementary teaching for ordinary people.

Khuddaka Nikaya- includes a miscellaneous collection of works in prose or verse.

Abhidhamma Pitaka

The third one is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, literally meaning beyond the dhamma, is the collection of the texts which provides the scholastic explanation of Buddhist doctrines. This explanation is particularly about the mind, therefore it is sometimes referred to systematic philosophy. The Abhidhamma Pitaka is also further divided into seven divisions:

Dhammasangani- includes enumeration, definition, and classification of dhammas.

Vibhanga- includes analysis of 18 topics along with dhammasangani.

Dhatukatha- deals with interrelations between ideas from the previous two Canon- Vinaya Pitaka, and Sutta Pitaka.

Puggalapannatti- includes the explanations of the different types of the person which is numerically arranged from one to ten.

Kathavatthu- includes over 200 debates on points of doctrine.

Yamaka- includes 10 topics on the converse questions

Patthana- includes the analysis of 24 types of conditions.

Therefore the early two Canons are the works of the early Buddhist schools and often termed as early Buddhist texts. However, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is a strictly Theravada collection and has less common recognized by other Buddhist schools.