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The Pali Canon: How We Know What the Buddha Taught

The Pali Canon: How We Know What the Buddha Taught

When we talk about Buddhism, we are talking about the teachings of the Buddha, but the Buddha himself did not write anything down.

So, you might wonder: how do we know what the Buddha taught?

Theravāda Buddhism relies on the Pali Canon when it comes to the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. The word “Pali” means ‘line’ or ‘text’

In ancient Buddhist commentaries it was often used in the sense of ‘the line or tenor of the original texts’.

Nowadays the word ‘Pali’ denotes the language of the original texts.

The Pali Canon is the collection of Buddhist teachings as it was recited during the first council meeting of 500 Arahants (enlightened disciples of the Buddha) immediately after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, i.e. the final complete liberation after the death of his body, around 500 BC.

The teachings or discourses in the Pali Canon are called sutta, which means ‘thread’ or ‘yarn’ and may indicate the interconnection between subjects and explanations.

The suttas were learned by heart during the first centuries and passed on orally from generation to generation.

During two subsequent council meetings, it was checked whether the various monks were still reciting the same version and differences were corrected.

After the fourth council meeting in Sri Lanka around 30 BC the texts were written down for the first time. The Pali Canon together with the para-canonic texts (such as commentaries, chronicles, etc.) form the complete classical Theravādic literature and contain thousands of pages.

Another name of the Pali Canon is Tipiṭaka (Pali: ti, ‘three’, + pitaka, ‘baskets’) because there are three groups of texts, namely the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma.

Vinaya Pitaka: Basket of Moral Precepts

The Vinaya Piṭaka contains the texts on rules or precepts for the Sangha, the order of Buddhist monks and nuns, and gives a detailed explanation and the reason for the creation of each of these rules.

The Vinaya thus constitutes the moral code of the Buddha and thus the basis for sīla-bhāvanā, the practice of moral conduct.

Sutta Pitaka: Discourses of The Boeddha

In the Sutta Piṭaka one finds the teachings about Dhamma given by the Buddha and some of his prominent disciples.

All subjects central to Theravāda Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination, are covered extensively and from different angles in the sutta’s.

The difficult thing about the sutta’s is that they are always given to an individual or group and the Buddha always attuned his teaching to his listeners. That is why a lot of extra information, from the Commentaries for example, is needed to interpret the sutta’s correctly.

Abhidhamma Pitaka: Teachings on Ultimate Reality

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka (Pali: Abhi, ‘high’ or ‘highest’, dhamma, ‘doctrine’ or ‘truth’), contains the texts that deal with the Buddhist doctrine from an unpersonal perspective. These teachings can be seen as the teachings on the ultimate reality.

In the seven books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka all phenomena in the world are first analyzed in the the smallest possible phenomena, followed by the synthesis of these phenomena, describing the conditional relationships between them.

Unlike the sutta, the Abhidhamma is not attuned to specific students, but is the abstract form of the Dhamma in the ultimate sense, i.e. separate from an ‘I’ or a person.
The difficult thing about the Abhidhamma is to relate this abstract teaching to one’s own experience in order for it to serve as a useful blueprint.

Studying the Sutta and Abhidhamma

It is good to think about the intention with which you start reading the sutta or abhidhamma. If you are not careful you might start placing more and more emphasis on theory instead of practice.

Ahba, our teacher, gives as an example a pond with fish. Suppose the water is cloudy and muddy. Then you can’t see the fish, but the fish can’t see you either. If you just move your hand back and forth in the water long enough you have a very small chance that you will catch a fish at some point.

It’s the same with reading the sutta’s. You have to study for a long time in order to get some insights out of it here and there.

When the pond is clear you can see the fish very well, but they can also see you. You can try to catch the fish in a very targeted way, but chances are they are too fast for you every time.

It is the same with studying the Abhidhamma. Every time you think you can grasp it, understand it, it slips through your fingers again.

Ahba doesn’t say that reading the Sutta or Abhidhamma isn’t good, to the contrary. It can serve as inspiration and it is also very useful to acquire a certain basic knowledge to help with meditation.

But the emphasis should be on meditation, on practicing oneself. When studying texts it is also important to have people around you with more overview, both on a theoretical basis and on an experiential level, to test the knowledge gained.

Was Nothing Lost in the Oral Tradition?

You may now wonder if things were not lost or altered during the oral transfers prior to writing.

Of course this is difficult to answer, but there are some reasons that may reassure the heart.

For example, it is noticeable that during the first council meeting after the death of the Buddha, the texts were put in a form that is very suitable for recitation. Repetitions, standard formulations and enumerations are frequently used throughout the various texts.

In antiquity there were monasteries that only focus on a Nikaya, that is to say, focus on a specific group of sutta’s.

When the monks from the various monasteries came together it was therefore quite possible to check whether categories and enumerations still matched each other.

Furthermore, an enormous internal consistency is noticeable in the doctrine itself. There are no contradictions to be found, no strange texts that do not match with the rest.

This internal consistency makes an equal initial origin very likely.

After being written down, copies were kept at various locations in Southeast Asia, so that mutual control was always possible afterwards.

The last council meeting to check and establish the current version took place in Burma in 1956. A nice detail is that Ahba was present during that council and emphasized the importance of concentration.

For those who practice samatha meditation on buddho, in addition to the above, it can also be given as reassurance that Ahba himself emphasizes the authority of the Pali Canon over and over again when it comes to the Dhamma.

In contrast to works of modern Buddhist writers, of which Ahba says that you should always ask yourself whether their teaching is true or not, he is crystal clear about the Pali Canon, what it says there is good to study.

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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the way

Buddha, Dhp 276