Blogs:Robert Walker/Origins of the Pali Canon

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Originally from Wikipedia with some additions by myself, just a useful section with links to some of the scholarshipo on the matter and brief summaries of what they say.

I haven't checked this completely yet, that the cites are summarized accurately. I have checked the sections I wrote myself - the views of:

  • Prayudh Payutto
  • Sujato
  • Carol Anderson
  • Lance Cousins

Also checked

  • J.W. de Jong

Also did look at

  • A. Wynne
  • Richard Gombrich
  • Peter Harvey

but those should be rechecked plus of course to see if there are any errors in my own summaries :).

See also

I do a more detailed summary of the paper by Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali here Origins of the Buddhist Sutras - were they the Teachings of the Buddha


According to a late part of the Pali Canon, the Buddha taught the three pitakas.[1] It is traditionally believed by Theravadins that most of the Pali Canon originated from the Buddha and his immediate disciples. According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha's passing to collect and preserve his teachings. It was recited orally from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE, when it was written down. The tradition holds that only a few later additions were made. The pitakas were first written down in Sri Lanka in the Alu Viharaya Temple.

Much of the material in the Canon is not specifically Theravādin, but is instead the collection of teachings that this school preserved from the early, non-sectarian body of teachings. According to Peter Harvey, it contains material which is at odds with later Theravādin orthodoxy. He states that "the Theravādins, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period."[2] A variety of factors suggest that the early Sri Lankan Buddhists regarded canonical literature as such and transmitted it conservatively.[3]

Attribution according to scholars

The views of scholars concerning the attribution of the Pali Canon can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Attribution to the Buddha himself
  2. Attribution to the period of pre-sectarian Buddhism
  3. Agnosticism

Scholars have both supported and opposed the various existing views.

Views concerning attribution to the Buddha himself

Several scholars who specialize in the field of early Buddhism have said that some, or most of the earlier core sutras of the Pali Canon (and its main teachings) can be attributed to Gautama Buddha. There is a spectrum of views here, from those who attribute only the older textual layers to the Buddha to those who think that most of the early sutras were memorized and preserved word for word like the Vedas and the oldest layers may have predated the Buddha.

Richard Gombrich says that the main preachings of the Buddha (as in the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka) are coherent and cogent, and must be the work of a single genius: the Buddha himself, not a committee of followers after his death.[lower-alpha 1][5]. However, rather than studying Buddhism, Jainism, and Vedism in isolation, Gombrich advocates a comparative method to shed light on both Buddhist thought and Buddhist early history.

J.W. de Jong has said there is not enough evidence to resconstruct doctrines of early Buddhism in their exact wording, however it would be hypercritical to assert that we can say nothing about the teachings of earliest Buddhism, and that "the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas." He also says that "they remain our best guide to the teachings, if not of the Buddha himself, then at least of Buddhism in its early period." [6] A. Wynne has said that the Pali Canon includes texts which go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words.[lower-alpha 2] Hajime Nakamura writes that while nothing can be definitively attributed to Gautama as a historical figure, some sayings or phrases must derive from him.[8]

Peter Harvey[9] affirms the authenticity of much of the Pali Canon.[lower-alpha 3] A.K. Warder has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the shared teaching of the early schools was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers.[lower-alpha 4]

Prayudh Payutto argues that the Pali Canon represents the teachings of the Buddha essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications. He argues that it also incorporates teachings that precede the Buddha, and that the later teachings were memorized by the Buddha's followers while he was still alive. His thesis is based on study of the processes of the first great council, and the methods for memorization used by the monks, which started during the Buddha's lifetime. It's also based on the capability of a few monks, to this day, to memorize the entire canon.[12]

Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali argue that it is likely that much of the Pali Canon dates back to the time period of the Buddha. They base this on many lines of evidence including the technology described in the canon (apart from the obviously later texts), which matches the technology of his day which was in rapid development, that it doesn't include back written prophecies of the great Buddhist ruler King Ashoka (which Mahayana texts often do) suggesting that it predates his time, that in its descriptions of the political geography it presents India at the time of Buddha, which changed soon after his death, that it has no mention of places in South India, which would have been well known to Indians not long after Buddha's death and various other lines of evidence dating the material back to his time.[13]

Views concerning attribution to the period of pre-sectarian Buddhism

Most scholars do agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature that a relatively early community maintained and transmitted.[lower-alpha 5] Much of the Pali Canon is found also in the scriptures of other early schools of Buddhism, parts of whose versions are preserved, mainly in Chinese. Many scholars have argued that this shared material can be attributed to the period of Pre-sectarian Buddhism. This is the period before the early schools separated in about the fourth or third century BCE.

Views concerning agnosticism

Some scholars see the Pali Canon as expanding and changing from an unknown nucleus.[15] Arguments given for an agnostic attitude include that the evidence for the Buddha's teachings dates from (long) after his death.

Some scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism say that little or nothing goes back to the Buddha. Ronald Davidson[16] has little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historical Buddha.[14] Geoffrey Samuel [17] says the Pali Canon largely derives from the work of Buddhaghosa and his colleagues in the 5th century AD.[18] Gregory Schopen argues[19] that it is not until the 5th to 6th centuries CE that we can know anything definite about the contents of the Canon. This position was criticized by A. Wynne.[7]

Carol Anderson in her book"Pain and its Ending"[20] argues that only the earliest of the textual layers in the canon date back to the time of the Buddha, and that nearly all of it including most of the central teachings, are a later development. This position was is criticized by Lance Cousins who says that she misunderstood some of the scholars she quoted.[21]

The earliest books of the Pali Canon

Different positions have been taken on what are the earliest books of the Canon. The majority of Western scholars consider the earliest identifiable stratum to be mainly prose works,[22] the Vinaya (excluding the Parivāra)[23] and the first four nikāyas of the Sutta Pitaka,[24][25] and perhaps also some short verse works[26] such as the Suttanipata.[23] However, some scholars, particularly in Japan, maintain that the Suttanipāta is the earliest of all Buddhist scriptures, followed by the Itivuttaka and Udāna.[27] However, some of the developments in teachings may only reflect changes in teaching that the Buddha himself adopted, during the 45 years that the Buddha was teaching.[lower-alpha 6]

Most of the above scholars would probably agree that their early books include some later additions.[28] On the other hand, some scholars have claimed[29][30][31][32] that central aspects of late works are or may be much earlier.

According to the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa, the Pali Canon was written down in the reign of King Vattagāmini (Vaṭṭagāmiṇi) (1st century BCE) in Sri Lanka, at the Fourth Buddhist council. Most scholars hold that little if anything was added to the Canon after this,[33][34][35] though Schopen questions this.


  1. "I am saying that there was a person called the Buddha, that the preachings probably go back to him individually... that we can learn more about what he meant, and that he was saying some very precise things."[4]
  2. "If some of the material is so old, it might be possible to establish what texts go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, texts which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words", [7]
  3. "While parts of the Pali Canon clearly originated after the time of the Buddha, much must derive from his teaching."[10]
  4. "there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers." [11]
  5. Ronald Davidson states, "most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed) that a relatively early community (disputed) maintained and transmitted."[14]
  6. "as the Buddha taught for 45 years, some signs of development in teachings may only reflect changes during this period."[10]


  1. Book of the Discipline, volume VI, page 123[full citation needed]
  2. Harvey 1995, p. 9.
  3. Wynne 2007, p. 4.
  4. Gombrich (b).
  5. Gombrich 2006, p. 20f.
  6. De Jong 1993, p. 25.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Wynne 2003.
  8. Nakamura 1999, p. 57.
  9. Peter Harvey
  10. 10.0 10.1 Harvey 1990, p. 3.
  11. Warder 1999, p. inside flap.
  12. Payutto, P. A. "The Pali Canon What a Buddhist Must Know" (PDF). 
  13. Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali. "The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts" (PDF). Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Davidson 2003, p. 147.
  15. Buswell 2004, p. 10.
  16. Ronald Davidson, academic profile
  17. about Geoffrey Samuel
  18. Samuel 2012, p. 48.
  19. Schopen 1997, p. 24.
  20. Anderson, Carol. "Pain and its Ending". 
  21. Cousins, Lance. "Critical review of Carol Anderson's book" (PDF). 
  22. Warder 1963, p. viii.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Cousins 1984, p. 56.
  24. Bechert 1984, p. 78.
  25. Gethin 1992, p. 42f.
  26. Gethin 1992.
  27. Nakamura 1999, p. 27.
  28. Ñāṇamoli 1982, p. xxix.
  29. Cousins & 1982/3.
  30. Harvey, page 83
  31. Gethin 1992, p. 48.
  32. The Guide, Pali Text Society, page xxvii[full citation needed]
  33. Ñāṇamoli 1982, p. xxxixf.
  34. Gethin 1992, p. 8.
  35. Harvey, page 3


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  • Cousins, L. S. (1982), Pali oral literature. In Denwood and Piatigorski, eds.: Buddhist Studies, ancient and modern, London: Curzon Press, p. 1-11 
  • Davidson, Ronald M. (2003), Indian Esoteric Buddhism, New York: Indian Esoteric BuddhismColumbia University Press, ISBN 0231126182 
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Further reading

  • Hinüber, Oskar von (2000). A Handbook of Pāli Literature. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016738-7.
  • B. C. Law, History of Pali Literature, volume I, Trubner, London 1931
  • Russell Webb (ed.), Analysis of the Pali Canon, The Wheel Publication No 217, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 3rd ed. 2008. ISBN 955-24-0048.
  • Ko Lay, U. (2003), Guide to Tipiṭaka, Selangor, Malaysia: Burma Piṭaka Association. Editorial Committee 

External links

English translations

Pali Canon online

  • SuttaCentral (Mahāsaṅgīti (World Tipiṭaka) edition (A corrected version of the VRI 6th Council Pali text. Also includes translations in multiple languages.)
  • Vipassana Research Institute (Based on 6th Council - Burmese version) (this site also offers a downloadable program which installs the entire Pali Tipitaka on your desktop for offline viewing)
  • Tipitaka (Sri Lankan version)
  • Tipiṭakapāḷi (Sri Lankan version) image files of Buddha Jayanti edition
  • Thai Tripitaka (Thai version)

Pali dictionary