Is Compiled Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Tipiṭaka, a three-part work, contains the basic teachings of the Buddha in accordance with the Theravāda school of Buddhism.

Summary of Event

The Tipiṭaka (literally “three baskets”; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913) is the Pāli name for the threefold division of the Pāli Canon. The “baskets” (piṭakas) consist of the Vinaya (monastic rules), the Suttas (discourses), and the Abhidhamma (the higher teachings). These texts were written in Pāli, an “ecclesiastical language” based on middle Indo-Aryan dialects. The Pāli Canon is the religious text for the Theravāda (Hīnayāna) sect of Buddhism.

According to Buddhist tradition, the formation of the Tipiṭika originated in the First Buddhist Council held at Rājagṛha after the parinibbāna (final nirvana) of Śākyamuni Buddha (544 b.c.e. is the traditional date; historians have dated this event to as late as 480 b.c.e.). At this time, there was a recitation of the monastic rules (Vinaya) and the discourses (Suttas) of the Buddha. Ānanda is said to have recited the suttas, and Upāli recited the monastic rules. The other monks at the council approved these texts and recited them in turn. At the end of the council, the Vinaya was entrusted to Upāli, and the first four divisions (nikāyas) of the Sutta-piṭaka were assigned to Ānanda, Sāriputta, Mahākassapa, and Anuruddha respectively. This is probably the origin of the reciters (bhāṇakas), who shared the recitation of these texts.

It is unclear whether the texts recited at this time correspond exactly to the texts in their present form. According to the final sections of the Vinaya, which describe the first two councils, Upāli was asked to recite the twofold Vinaya. This is generally agreed to refer to the Pātimokkha rules for monks and nuns. Buddhaghosa, a prominent Buddhist thinker and commentator of the fifth century c.e., named sections of the present Vinaya as being recited at the First Buddhist Council but also claimed that the text at the First Buddhist Council was not the same as in his time. Clearly the accounts of the first two councils could not have formed part of the Vinaya of the First Buddhist Council. It is also uncertain whether the Abhidhamma formed any part of the canon at this council.

The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vesālī a hundred years after the parinibbāna of Śākyamuni Buddha. The council arose because monks in Vesālī had relaxed monastic regulations. In addition to dealing with these violations, the council read through the Vinaya and Suttas. At the end of this council, it is said that a group split off and held its own great council (mahāsāṅgīti). They later were called the Mahāsāṅghikas. Thus began a process that would eventually result in the division into the eighteen schools of the Hīnayāna. From this time onward, the various schools or sects kept their own versions of the Vinaya and Suttas.

The Third Buddhist Council was held, reportedly under the patronage of King Aśoka, in Pataliputra c. 250 b.c.e. The Sarvāstivādin and Vibhajjavādin sects broke off at this point. Some experts argue that the Abhidhamma-piṭaka was recited at this council. It is believed that the basis of the modern Tipiṭaka was essentially in place at this council.

The Vinaya-piṭaka consists of the regulations for monks and nuns of the Buddhist order. This piṭaka is divided into three sections: the Suttavibhaṅga, the Khandaka, and the Parivāra. The Suttavibhaṅga is divided into the Mahāvibhaṅga, 227 rules for monks, and the Bhikkunīvibhaṅga, 311 rules for nuns. These rules are embedded in stories that relate the circumstances in the life of the Buddha that led to their promulgation or that deal with related themes, along with a commentary. In the other Hīnayāna schools, these rules (without the stories of their origin) exist as a separate text, known as the Pātimokkha (Sanskrit: Prātimoksa). Prātimoksa rules have come down to modern times from the Mūlasarvāstivādins, Mahāsāṅghikas, Sarvāstivādins, and the Dharmaguptakas.

The Khandaka is divided into the Mahāvagga and the Cullavaga. These rules are also conveyed through a story that details their origin. Descriptions of the first two councils have been added to the text. Sections of the Skandaka (Sanskrit for Khandaka) from the Mūlasarvāstivādins, Sarvāstivādins, and Mahāsāṅghikas have been found.

The Parivāra is an appendix. Many believe that the work or parts of it originated later than the texts above, perhaps in the first century b.c.e. It consists of nineteen chapters. Some of the chapters take the form of catechisms on the rules of the Vinaya, and other chapters comment on these rules.

The Sutta-piṭaka consists of the discourses of the Buddha. The Pāli canon divides this piṭaka into five divisions (nikāyas). The first division is the Dīgha-nikāya, the Long Discourses of the Buddha. There are 34 suttas found in this division. Next there is the Majjhima-nikāya, the Middle Length Discourses. There are 152 suttas in this nikāya. The third division is the Saṃyutta-nikāya, the Connected Discourses. It receives its name from the fact that the suttas are joined by subject. There are 56 groups (saṃyuttas) and 2,889 suttas. The fourth division is the Aṅguttara-nikāya, “the by-one-limb-more collection.” This collection is divided into 11 sections, nipātas; the suttas in each nipāta refer to subjects connected with the number of the section; for example, the third nipāta discusses subjects that are grouped in three. This nikāya contains well in excess of 2,000 suttas. The fifth division, the Khuddaka-nikāya, is a large miscellaneous collection of texts associated with the Buddha. By far the most well-known text from this nikāya is the Dhammapada, a collection of the sayings of the Buddha. This is perhaps the most translated text in Buddhism. The nikāya also has a large collection of Jātakas, more than 500 birth stories of the past lives of the Buddha.

Parts of Sanskrit versions of the first four nikāyas are preserved. Complete or almost complete Chinese translations of these Sanskrit texts exist. These collections do not always group the suttas in the same nikāya as the Tipiṭaka does. Furthermore, the Sanskrit versions do not divide the suttas into nikāyas, but āgamas. Also some of the texts of the Khuddaka-nikāya, such as the Dharmapada and Jātakas, have been translated into Sanskrit. For the most part, the surviving Sanskrit texts belong to the Sarvāstivādin school.

The Abhidhamma-piṭaka seems to have been compiled later than the other two piṭakas. The term abhidhamma, when used in the other two piṭakas, seems to have meant “regarding the dhamma” (teaching). After the piṭaka was compiled, the prefix abhi took on the meaning “higher or special,” that is, “the higher dhamma.” Buddhaghosa argued along these lines.

[The Abhidhamma] excels and is distinguished by several qualities from the other Dhamma. . . . In the Suttantas (Sutta-piṭaka) knowledge is partially classified, not fully. . . . But in the Abhidhamma there is a detailed classification of knowledge after the table of contents has been thus laid down.

The Abhidhamma-piṭaka consists of the following seven works: Dhammasaṅgani, Vibhaṅga, Dhātukathā, Puggala-paññatti, Kathāvatthu, Yamaka, and Paṭṭhāna. As Buddhaghosa noted, these works offer a fuller classification of what is found in the other piṭakas. For example, the Dhammasaṅgani gives a classification of mental states. These texts are also regarded as more philosophical; for example, the Yamaka is a work on logic. A Sanskrit Abhidharma for the Sarvāstivādin school has been found, but it does not contain the same works as the Pāli version, except for the Dhātukāya.


The Tipiṭaka is the Theravādin record of the discourses and the monastic rules laid down by the Buddha. The Thervādins are the only Hīnayāna school of the original eighteen that has survived until the present day. From India and Sri Lanka, the Theravāda school spread into Myanmar and Thailand in the first century c.e. and from there into Cambodia and Laos. Eventually Burmese and Thai versions of the Tipiṭaka were established.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akira, H. A History of Indian Buddhism from Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. A detailed analysis of the early history of Buddhism. Bibliographical essay. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frauwallner, E. The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature. Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1956. An examination of the origins of the Vinaya. Frauwallner also gives accounts of the vinaya of the other Buddhist sects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norman, K. R. Pāli Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983. This is an extremely knowledgeable survey of Pāli literature. Norman gives a brief summary of each text in the Pāli Canon, with references to editions and literature. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skilton, A. A Concise History of Buddhism. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2000. A good introduction to the development of early Buddhism, including the Tipiṭaka and the councils. Although the chapters are concise, the bibliography gives detailed and up-to-date references on each subject. Bibliography and index.
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