Tipitaka, The Pali Canon


The Tipitaka (Pali ti, "three," + pitaka, "baskets"), or Pali Canon, is the collection of primary Pali language texts which form the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism. Together with the ancient commentaries, they constitute the complete body of classical Theravada texts.

The Pali Canon is a vast body of literature: in English translation the texts add up to several thousand printed pages. Most -- but not all -- of the Canon has already been published in English over the years. Although only a small fraction of these texts are available here at Access to Insight, this collection can nonetheless be a very good place to start.

The three divisions of the Tipitaka are:

  • Vinaya Pitaka
    The collection of texts concerning the rules of conduct governing the daily affairs within the Sangha -- the community of bhikkhus (ordained monks) and bhikkhunis (ordained nuns). Far more than merely a list of rules, the Vinaya Pitaka also includes the stories behind the origin of each rule, providing a detailed account of the Buddha's solution to the question of how to maintain communal harmony within a large and diverse spiritual community.

  • Sutta Pitaka
    The collection of discourses, attributed to the Buddha and a few of his closest disciples, containing all the central teachings of Theravada Buddhism. (Over six hundred sutta translations are available here.)

  • Abhidhamma Pitaka
    The collection of texts in which the underlying doctrinal principles presented in the Sutta Pitaka are reworked and reorganized into a systematic framework that can be applied to an investigation into the nature of mind and matter.

A Map Showing the
Major Divisions of the Tipitaka


                          Tipitaka
                             |
                             |
     +-----------------------+--------------------------+
     |                       |                          |
Vinaya Pitaka           Abhidhamma Pitaka          Sutta Pitaka
     |                       |                          |
  Suttavibhanga           Dhammasangani                 |
  Mahavagga               Vibhanga                      |        
  Cullavagga              Dhatukatha                    |
  Parivara                Puggalapa˝˝atti               |
                          Kathavatthu                   |
                          Yamaka                        |
                          Patthana                      |
                                                        |
     +-------------+--------------+---------------+-----+-----+
     |             |              |               |           |
Digha Nikaya       |      Samyutta Nikaya         |           |
           Majjhima Nikaya               Anguttara Nikaya     |
                                                              |
                                                      Khuddaka Nikaya
                                                              |
                                 +----------------------------+                             
                                 |                             
     +---------+----+----+-------+----+------+--+-----+------+
     |         |    |    |       |    |      |  |     |      |
Khuddakapatha  |    |    |       |    |      |  |     |      |
        Dhammapada  |    |       |    |      |  |     |      |
                  Udana  |       |    |      |  |     |      |
                     Itivuttaka  |    |      |  |     |      |
                         Sutta Nipata |      |  |     |      |
                                Vimanavatthu |  |     |      |
                                    Petavatthu  |     |      |
                                         Theragatha   |      |
                                               Therigatha    |
                                                        Jataka
                                                        Niddesa
                                                        Patisambhidamagga
                                                        Apadana
                                                        Buddhavamsa
                                                        Cariyapitaka
                                                        Nettippakarana
                                                        Petakopadesa
                                                        Milindapa˝ha

For further reading:

  • A Guide to Learning the Pali Language offers some suggestions for people interested in learning the Pali language.

  • Handbook of Pali Literature, by Somapala Jayawardhana (Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons, Ltd., 1994). A guide, in dictionary form, through the Pali Canon, with detailed descriptions of the major landmarks in the Canon.

  • An Analysis of the Pali Canon, Russell Webb, ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975). An indispensable "roadmap" and outline of the Pali Canon. Contains an excellent index listing suttas by name.

  • Guide to Tipitaka, U Ko Lay, ed. (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1990). Another excellent outline of the Tipitaka, containing summaries of many important suttas.

  • Buddhist Dictionary, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980). A classic handbook of important terms and concepts of Theravada Buddhism.