Overview of Tipitaka Scriptures
Narada Maha Thera
"This doctrine is profound, hard to see, difficult to understand,
calm, sublime, not within the sphere of logic, subtle, to be
understood by the wise." Majjhima Nikaya
The Buddha has passed away, but the sublime Teaching, which He
expounded during His long and successful ministry and which He
unreservedly bequeathed to humanity, still exists in its pristine
Although the Master has left no written records of His Teachings,
His disciples preserved them, by committing to memory and
transmitting them orally from generation to generation.
Three months after the Death of the Buddha, in the eighth year of
King Ajatasattu's reign, 500 pre-eminent Arahants concerned with
preserving the purity of the Doctrine held a Convocation at
Rajagaha to rehearse it. The Venerable Ananda Thera, the Buddha's
beloved attendant who had the special privilege and honour of
hearing the discourses from the Buddha Himself, and the Venerable
Upali Thera were chosen to answer questions about the Dhamma
(Doctrine) and the Vinaya (Discipline) respectively.
This First Council compiled and arranged in its present form the
Pali Tipitaka, which represents the entire body of the Buddha's
Two other Councils of Arahants were held 100 and 236 years later
respectively, again to rehearse the Word of the Buddha because
attempts were being made to pollute the pure Teaching.
About 83 B.C., during the reign of the pious Simhala King Vatta
Gamani Abhaya, a Council of Arahants was held, and the Tipitaka
was, for the first time in the history of Buddhism, committed to
writing at Aluvihara in Ceylon.
Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of those noble and foresighted
Arahants, there is no room either now or in the future for higher
critics or progressive scholars to adulterate the pure Teaching.
The voluminous Tipitaka, which contains the essence of the
Buddha's Teaching, is estimated to be about eleven times the size
of the Bible.
The word Tipitaka means three Baskets. They are the Basket of
Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), the Basket of Discourses (Sutta
Pitaka) and the Basket of Ultimate Doctrine (Abhidhamma Pitaka).
The Vinaya Pitaka, which is regarded as the sheet anchor of the
Holy Order, deals mainly with the rules and regulations of the
Order of Bhikkhus (monks) and Bhikkhunis (nuns). For nearly twenty
years after the Enlightenment of the Buddha, no definite rules
were laid down for control and discipline of the Sangha (Order).
Subsequently as occasion arose, the Buddha promulgated rules for
the future discipline of the Sangha. Reasons for the promulgated
of rules, their various implications and specific ceremonies of
the Sangha are fully described in the Vinaya Pitaka. The history
of the gradual development of Sasana from its very inception, a
brief account of the life and ministry of the Buddha additional,
and details of the three Councils are some other relevant contents
of the Vinaya Pitaka. Indirectly it reveals useful information
about ancient history, Indian customs, ancient arts and sciences.
One who reads the Vinaya Pitaka cannot but be impressed by the
democratic constitution of the Sangha, their holding of
possessions in common, the exceptionally high moral standard of
the Bhikkhus, and the unsurpassed administrative abilities of the
Buddha, who anticipated even the present Parliamentary system.
Lord Zetland writes; "And it may come as a surprise to many to
learn that in the Assemblies of the Buddhists in India two
thousand years and more ago are to be found the rudiments of our
own Parliamentary practice of the present day."
The Vinaya Pitaka consists of the following five books:
1. Parajika Pali (Major Offences)
2. Pacittiya Pali (Minor Offences)
3. Mahavagga Pali (Greater Section)
4. Cullavagga Pali (Lesser Section)
5. Parivara Pali (Epitome of the Vinaya)
The Sutta Pitaka consists chiefly of instructive discourses
delivered by the Buddha to both the Sangha and the laity on
various occasions. A few discourses, expounded by disciples such
as the Venerable Sariputta, Moggallana, and Ananda, are
incorporated and are accorded as much veneration as the Word of
the Buddha Himself, since they were approved by Him. Most of the
sermons were intended mainly for the benefit of Bhikkhus, and they
deal with the Holy Life and with the exposition of the Doctrine.
There are several other discourses which deal with both the
material and the moral progress of His lay-followers. The
Sigalovada Sutta, for instance, deals mainly with the duties of a
layman. There are also a few interesting talks given to children.
This Pitaka may be compared to a book of prescriptions, since the
discourses were expounded on diverse occasions to suit the
temperaments of various persons. There may be seemingly
contradictory statements, but they should not be misconstrued as
they were uttered by the Buddha to suit a particular purpose; for
instance, to the self same question He would maintain silence,
when the inquirer was merely foolishly inquisitive, or give a
detailed reply when He knew the inquirer to be an earnest seeker
after the Truth.
The Sutta Pitaka consists of the following five Nikayas
1. Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses)
2. Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Middle-length
3. Samyutta Nikaya (Collection of Kindred Sayings)
4. Anguttara Nikaya (Collection of Gradual Sayings)
5. Khuddaka Nikaya (Smaller Collection)
This fifth is subdivided into fifteen books:
1. Khuddaka Patha (Shorter Texts)
2. Dhammapada (The Way of Truth)
3. Udana (Paeans of Joy)
4. Itivuttaka ("Thus said" Discourses)
5. Sutta Nipata (Collected Discourses)
6. Vimana Vatthu (Stories of Celestial Mansions)
7. Peta Vatthu (Stories of Peta)
8. Theragatha (Psalms of the Brethren)
9. Therigatha (Psalms of the Sisters)
10. Jataka (Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta)
11. Niddesa (Expositions)
12. Patisambhida (Book on Analytical Knowledge)
13. Apadana (Lives of Arahants)
14. Buddhavamsa (History of the Buddha)
15. Cariya Pitaka (Modes of Conduct)
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is the most important and most interesting
of the three containing as it does the profound philosophy of the
Buddha's teaching in contrast to the simpler discourses in the
Sutta Pitaka. Abhidhamma, the Higher Doctrine of the Buddha,
expounds the quintessence of His profound teachings.
According to some scholars Abhidhamma is not a teaching of the
Buddha, but is a later elaboration of scholastic monks. Tradition,
however, attributes the nucleus of the Abhidhamma to the Buddha
Himself. The Matika of Matrices of the Abhidhamma, such as Kusala
Dhamma (Wholesome States), Akusala Dhamma (Unwholesome States),
and Abyakata Dhamma (Indeterminate States) etc., which have been
elaborated in the six books (Kathavatthu being excluded), were
expounded by the Buddha. To the Venerable Sariputta is assigned
the honour of having explained all these topics in detail.
Whoever the great author or authors may have been, it has to be
admitted that the Abhidhamma must be the product of an
intellectual genius comparable only to the Buddha. This is evident
from the intricate and subtle Patthana Pakarana which describes in
detail the various causal relations.
To the wise truth-seekers, Abhidhamma is an indispensable guide
and an intellectual treat. Here is found food for thought to
original thinkers and to earnest students who wish to develop
wisdom and lead an ideal Buddhist life. Abhidhamma is not a
subject of fleeting interest designed for the superficial reader.
Modern Psychology, limited as it is, comes within the scope of (
Abhidhamma inasmuch as it deals with mind, thoughts,
thought-processes, and mental properties; but it does not admit of
a psyche or a soul. It teaches a psychology without a psyche.
If one were to read the Abhidhamma as a modern text-book on
psychology, one would be disappointed. No attempt has here been
made to solve all the problems that confront a modern
Consciousness (Citta) is defined. Thoughts are analysed and
classified chiefly from an ethical standpoint. All mental
properties (Cetasika) are enumerated. The composition of each type
of consciousness is set forth in detail. How thoughts arise is
minutely described. Bhavanga and Javana thought-moments, which are
explained only in the Abhidhamma, and which have no parallel in
modern psychology, are of special interest to research students in
psychology. Irrelevant problems that interest students and
scholars, but have no relation to one's Deliverance, are
deliberately set aside.
Matter is summarily discussed, but it has not been described for
physicists. Fundamental units of matter, material properties,
source of matter, relationship of mind and matter are explained.
Abhidhamma does not attempt to give a systematised knowledge of
mind and matter. It investigates these two composite factors of
the so-called being, to help the understanding of things as they
truly are. A philosophy has been developed on those lines. Based
on that philosophy, an ethical system has been evolved to realize
the ultimate Goal, Nibbana. As Mrs. Rhys Davids rightly says:
"Abhidhamma deals with (i) what we find (a) within us (b) around
us and of (ii) what we aspire to find.
While the Sutta Pitaka contains the conventional teaching (vohara
desana), the Abhidhamma Pitaka contains the ultimate teaching
It is generally admitted by most exponents of the Dhamma that a
knowledge of the Abhidhamma is essential to comprehend fully the
Teachings of the Buddha, as it presents the key that opens the
door of reality.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is composed of the following seven works:
1. Dhammasangani (Classification of Dhamma)
2. Vibhanga (Divisions)
3. Dhatukatha (Discourse on Elements)
4. Puggala Pannatti (The Book on Individuals)
5. Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy)
6. Yamaka (The Book of Pairs)
7. Patthana (The Book of Causal Relations)