What is the Pali Canon in Buddhism?

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The Pali Canon refers to the collected scriptures of Theravada Buddhism (pure land Buddhism), the oldest school of Buddhism founded in India that later spread to Sri Lanka and the countries of continental Southeast Asia.

Followers of this school of Buddhism claim that most of these scriptures are the original teachings of Siddhartha/Gautama Buddha and his close disciples. Soon after the Buddha passed on, the First Council was constituted to compile and preserve his teachings for posterity through oral means. Many of the “Buddhist monks” who heard the Buddha were spiritually evolved and endowed with prodigious memories. Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant in the last quarter of his life, could recall everything he had ever heard. Thus the discourses of the Buddha were passed on through the centuries.

The Fourth Council met in 29 BCE, some four centuries after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. The art of writing had become well developed by this time; in Sri Lanka, the Council decided to commit the entire body of the Buddha’s discourses to writing. Subsequent councils met in 1871 and 1954 in Myanmar to closely examine the Canon and eliminate distortions and alterations. The Fifth Council also commissioned the inscription of the scriptures upon 729 marble panels.

The three broad categories of the Pali Canon give it the popular name of Tipitaka -– “three baskets” in Pali language:

  • Vinaya Pitaka: The “basket of discipline” comprises the rules to be followed by monks and nuns of the Sangha.
  • Sutta Pitaka: The “basket of threads” contains the discourses of the Buddha and his disciples.
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka: The “higher dhamma” contains ethical, psychological and metaphysical aspects of teachings of the Buddha.
 
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