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).
 Vinaya 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)
 Sutta Pitaka
    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)
 Abhidhamma Pitaka
    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
 (paramattha desana).
 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)

 Taken from "The Buddha and His Teachings"
 By Ven. Narada Maha Thera
 Published by Cultural Conservation Trust