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What is the Pali Canon (Tipitaka) in Buddhism?
Vinaya Pitaka, 1856, Myanmar, courtesy of Palazzo Madama, Turin

The Pali Canon, (Pali, Tipitaka; Skt, Tripitaka) is the collection of scriptures that are considered the authoritative and foundational texts of the oldest form of Buddhism, Theravada. Revered by all subsequent branches of Buddhism, it is one of the earliest and most comprehensive collections of Buddhist teachings attributed to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. It also contains sections on rules for monastics and Buddhist philosophy.

The Buddha didn’t write his teachings down, nor did his disciples. It’s said that shortly after his death, five hundred of his disciples gathered for what was known as the First Council. Those particularly gifted at memorization recited what they remembered of his teachings, and the others in attendance committed them to memory. This continued as an oral tradition for hundreds of years.

It is believed that the Buddha’s teachings were finally written down in Sri Lanka at the end of the first century BCE, some five hundred years after his death. The original body of teachings apparently transcribed in Sri Lanka no longer exists. The extant record we know today as the Pali Canon began about 800 CE.

It’s said that the Buddha wanted his teachings presented in vernacular language, rather than the more formal Sanskrit of the educated classes. The language of the original texts was a hybrid of several ancient dialects that came to be called Pali, a word that actually means “text.” Although it’s not a language the Buddha spoke, it’s closely related.

The Pali Canon is traditionally divided into three “baskets” or “pitakas,” which contain different categories of teachings:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka: This basket contains rules and guidelines for monastic discipline and conduct. It provides instructions for the conduct of monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis), as well as details about the organization and functioning of the monastic community.
  2. Sutta Pitaka: This basket consists of a wide range of discourses attributed to the Buddha. These discourses cover a diverse array of topics, including ethics, philosophy, meditation, and practical advice for leading a wholesome life.
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka: This basket contains more analytical and philosophical teachings, delving into the nature of reality, the mind, and various doctrinal classifications. It is considered a more advanced and technical part of the Canon.

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