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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 purity.

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 Teaching.

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 (Collections):

1. Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses)
2. Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Middle-length Discourses)
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 psychologist.

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

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