The Pāli Canon

  • The Pāli Canon is the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pāli language.
  • It is the first known and most complete extant early Buddhist canon.
  • It was composed in North India and was preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately 454 years after the death of Gautama Buddha.
  • It was composed by members of Sangha of each ancient major Buddhist sub-tradition.
  • It is written in Pali, Sanskrit, and regional Asian languages.
  • It survives in various versions.
  • The surviving Sri Lankan version is the most complete.
  • The Pāli Canon falls into three general categories, called pitaka (from Pali piṭaka, meaning “basket”, referring to the receptacles in which the palm-leaf manuscripts were kept).

Because of this, the canon is traditionally known as the Tipiṭaka (Sanskrit: IAST: Tripiṭaka; “three baskets”).

The three pitakas are as follows:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka (“Discipline Basket”), dealing with rules or discipline of the sangha;
  2. Sutta Pitaka (Sutra/Sayings Basket), discourses and sermons of Buddha, some religious poetry and is the largest basket;
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, treatises that elaborate Buddhist doctrines, particularly about mind, also called the “systematic philosophy” basket, likely composed starting about and after 300 BCE.

The Vinaya Pitaka and the Sutta Pitaka are remarkably similar to the works of other early Buddhist schools.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka, however, is a strictly Theravada collection and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools.

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