T E A C H I N G S  T I - P I T A K A

 R  E  S  O  U   R  C  E  S 


Introduction - History

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.

INTRO | HISTORY | 1st COUNCIL | 2nd COUNCIL | 3rd COUNCIL | PALI  LANGUAGE | CONCLUSION | TEXT DIVISIONS

THE
PALI
CANON



Introduction:
Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha wandered the Ganges plains of Northern India. For over 45 years he taught a means of spiritual liberation to all who sought guidance. The power of his teaching was such that a great many of his discourses have survived to this day. Collectively they are known as the Canon and are often referred to as the Tipitaka or 'three baskets'.
The three baskets, or groups, are:
Vinaya Pitaka, Which is concerned with the rules of discipline governing the order of monks and nuns.
Sutta Pitaka, A vast collection divided into five major sections called 'nikaya'. These mainly deal with aspects of doctrine, the Buddha's teaching.
Abhidhamma-pitaka - Comprised of seven works which are a systematic exposition of the whole of the works found in the Sutta-pitaka. A philosophical, psychological treatment of the teaching.

I have included a more detailed summary of the above groups as an appendix. In this essay, for easier reading, scriptural quotations have been simplified by merely referring to the 'Text'.

As Buddhism evolved over the centuries many quite distinct schools arose, each having a version of the scriptures. For Theravadin Buddhists the standard reference point is the Pali version and I will confine my discussion to this. One of the main teachings of the Buddha was on impermanence and scriptural records are no less exempt from change than any other thing. Working as much as possible from the Tipitaka and from the research of others I will offer some reflection on the possible evolution of the Buddha's teaching as we currently encounter them.
My investigation fell under two headings: the general historical development, and, also historical, but much more specific, the relation of the Pali language to the teachings. My aim is not to provide any scholarly proof but more an exploration of these two topics in the hope of stimulating further interest. Brevity in a such a broad topic as this can not hope to avoid some distortion but ideally all reference to Dhamma is "ehipassiko" - encouraging of (further) investigation.


History and Doctrine:
A common area of doubt is the 500 or so years between the death of the Buddha and the writing down of the scriptures. I will first reflect how the situation may have been during the Buddha's life, and second, consider the three great councils which endeavoured to stabilise the teaching at various periods after the Buddha's death.

The Text was preserved in oral form until about 80 BC and then recorded in writing at Aluvihara, Sri Lanka. Some portions may have been written earlier, as writing was not unknown before this time, but suffered from a lack of  'permanent' writing materials. The oldest reference to writing is in a tract called the 'Silas', dated approximately 450 BC. In this Text we see writing praised as a "distinguished art" and there is reference to a monk "scratching a writing". Literature would have been limited to official notices and small, private communications. So the teaching of the Buddha was an oral one and over the years as it developed and expanded it became necessary not only to listen but to learn.

In the Text we see that: "here a monk has mastered the Teaching, thus heard he teaches others in detail, he makes others recite in detail, he makes them repeat in detail". One question that arises is the feat of memory involved in preserving such an extensive body of teaching orally for so long. This seems extraordinary but was apparently quite usual in ancient India. Here are some modern statistics regarding memory: In 1949 oral examinations on the texts were offered in Burma. During the first 30 years, 67 monks separately recited the five volumes of the Vinaya; 265 monks the 16 volumes of the Suttas and well over 300 had perfect recall of an entire nikaya. One consideration regarding memory is that an illiterate community, such as largely existed at the time of the Buddha, would have greatly strengthened other means of recording and transmitting information. (Sitting here with a mega Mb computer I don't need to remember anything!) A parallel to this suggestion is found in the highly developed sense of hearing which blind people develop.

During his 45 years of teaching the Buddha must have standardised certain methods of offering the teaching. Those monks and nuns close to him would have had little trouble remembering such forms, especially allowing that many of them were enlightened and the subject matter would have been completely understood. The repetition in the Suttas would indicate the Buddha used the principle all teachers use: "tell them what you are going to say, then say it, then tell them what you have said." The second source of repetition is the oral tradition itself, seen observed in oral literature all over the world. Each discourse that the Buddha gave would also have been the subject of later discussion by those present and to decide what form the discourse should later be taught in, the Sangha would have chosen how to condense what had been said, which superfluous matters to remove if any, and how to crystallise those aspects of the teaching repeatedly found - the four noble truths, restraint of the faculties, mindfulness, and so on. They would have been trying to couch the whole of the discourse into a set pattern conducive to memorisation, introducing as much repetition and reiteration as possible.

This would seem to suggest an organised structure of systematisation, but the teachings were not offered as a mechanistic, impersonal explanation. They were directed to a person, in a real situation, as advice on how to live. The whole purpose of the Buddha's teaching was not to establish a metaphysical position or evolve some complex philosophy, but to lead individuals to see something about themselves. For example, in the Text he energetically refutes the accusation by Sunakkhata (a recently disrobed monk) that "the recluse Gotama teaches Dhamma on a system of his own devising, beaten out by reason, based on empirical knowledge." However, even during the life of the Buddha, Sutta organisation must have been in an embryonic form and we see in the Text reference to "dhammadhara, vinayadhara, matikadhara", (those who learn the teaching, the discipline and the summaries).

The Suttas never refer to themselves as nikayas, although we find reference to nine divisions of text; "Suttas, mixed prose and verse, expositions, verses, solemn utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels and catechisms". This system was probably more a reflection of the tradition of the times and 'adopted' rather than 'invented' by the Buddha's disciples. It is quite probable that the senior disciples, and not the Buddha, were most concerned and instrumental in preserving various discourses. However, not long before his death, the Buddha exhorts Cunda: "those of you to whom I have taught the truths that I have realised, must come together and recite the teaching together - without quarrelling; comparing meaning with meaning and sentence with sentence, in order that this pure doctrine may exist and continue for a long time". One must assume that by this time quite specific things to 'recite and compare' had been formulated.

As time passed the Sangha would have dispersed and each group of monks would have had its stock of favourite Suttas, both by way of subject and style. Most communities would have had within their ranks those who could recite one version or another of standard topics. Each group would have had an area of interest: for example, the monks at Kosambi would relate to the discourses given there, those having problems with anger would have had special interest in Suttas on this topic, nuns would have had a special interest in teachings about nuns, and so forth. So with probably no major planning or discussion, collections of discourses came to be grouped quite naturally.

INTRO | HISTORY | 1st COUNCIL | 2nd COUNCIL | 3rd COUNCIL | PALI  LANGUAGE | CONCLUSION | TEXT DIVISIONS