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The Pali Canon: The First Buddhist Scriptures

Origins of the Earliest Buddhists Texts


More than two millennia ago the oldest scriptures of Buddhism were gathered into a mighty collection. The collection was called (in Sanskrit) "Tripitaka," or (in Pali) "Tipitaka," which means "three baskets," because it is organized into three major sections. It also is called the "Pali Canon" because it is preserved in a language called Pali, which is a variation of Sanskrit.

The Tripitaka is the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, and the sutras preserved in the Tripitaka are acknowledged by (I believe) all schools of Buddhism to be those of the historical Buddha. The collection is so vast that, it is said, it would fill thousands of pages and several volumes if translated into English and published. The sutra section alone, I'm told, contains more than 10,000 separate texts.

The Tripitaka was not, however, written during the life of the Buddha, in the late 5th century BCE, but in the 1st century BCE. The texts were kept alive through the years, according to legend, by being memorized and chanted by generations of monks. This is a matter that must be accepted on faith, as there is little historical corroboration of the origins of the texts.

Here is the story generally accepted by Buddhists about how the Tripitaka originated:

The First Buddhist Council

About three months after the death of the historical Buddha, ca. 480 BCE, 500 of his disciples gathered in Rajagaha, in what is now northeast India. This gathering came to be called the First Buddhist Council. The purpose of the Council was to review the Buddha's teachings and take steps to preserve them.

The Council was convened by Mahakasyapa, an outstanding student of the Buddha who became leader of the sangha after the Buddha's death. Mahakasyapa had heard a monk remark that the death of the Buddha meant monks could abandon the rules of discipline and do as they liked. So, the Council's first order of business was to review the rules of discipline for monks and nuns.

A venerable monk named Upali was acknowledged to have the most complete knowledge of the Buddha's rules of monastic conduct. Upali presented all of the Buddha's rules of monastic discipline to the assembly, and his understanding was questioned and discussed by the 500 monks. The assembled monks eventually agreed that Upali's recitation of the rules was correct, and the rules as Upali remembered them were adopted by the Council.

Then Mahakasyapa called on Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha who had been the Buddha's closest companion. Ananda was famous for his prodigious memory. Ananda recited all of the Buddha's sermons from memory, a feat that surely took several days. (Ananda began all of his recitations with the words "Thus I have heard," and so all Buddhist sutras begin with those words.) The Council agreed that Ananda's recitation was accurate, and the collection of sutras Ananda recited was adopted by the Council.

Two of Three Baskets

It was from the presentations of Upali and Ananda at the First Buddhist Council that the first two sections, or "baskets," came into being:

The Vinaya-pitaka, "Basket of Discipline." This section is attributed to the recitation of Upali. It is a collection of texts concerning the rules of discipline and conduct for monks and nuns. The Vinaya-pitaka not only lists rules but also explains the circumstances that caused the Buddha to make many of the rules. These stories show us much about how the original sangha lived.

The Sutra-pitaka,"Basket of Sutras." This section is attributed to the recitation of Ananda. It contains thousands of sermons and discourses -- sutras (Sanskrit) or suttas (Pali) -- attributed to the Buddha and a few of his disciples. This "basket" is further subdivided into five nikayas, or "collections," although the names of the collections are not terribly helpful for understanding what's in them -- the "long collection," the "middle-length collection," the "grouped collection," etc. Some of the nikayas are further divided into vaggas, or "divisions."

Although Ananda is said to have recited all of the Buddha's sermons, some parts of the Khuddaka Nikaya -- "collection of little texts" -- were not incorporated into the canon until the Third Buddhist Council.

The Third Buddhist Council

According to some accounts, the Third Buddhist Council was convened about 250 BCE to clarify Buddhist doctrine and stop the spread of heresies. (Other accounts preserved in some schools record an entirely different Third Buddhist Council.) It was at this council that the entire Pali Canon version of the Tripitaka was recited and adopted in final form, including the third basket. Which is ...

The Abhidharma-pitaka, "Basket of Special Teachings." This section, also called the Abhidhamma-pitaka, contains commentaries and analyses of the sutras. The Abhidharma-pitaka explores the psychological and spiritual phenomena described in the sutras and provides a theoretical foundation for understanding them.

Where did the Abhidharma-pitaka come from? According to legend, the Buddha spent the first few days after his enlightenment formulating the contents of the third basket. Seven years later he preached the teachings of the third section to devas (gods). The only human who heard these teachings was his disciple Shariputra, who passed the teachings on to other monks. These teachings were preserved by chanting and memory, as were the sutras and the rules of discipline.

Note that the Pali Canon Abdhidharma is not the only version. There is an entirely different Abhidharma that was originally written in Sanskrit, and there are fragments of even more versions in other languages. Also, there are hints in the historical record that there were other pitakas beyond the three in the Pali Canon that have been lost.

Please continue to the next part to find out how the Tripitaka came to be written.

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