This past summer I stood in the
reference library at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies staring at the Pali
Canon. It occupies an entire bookshelf, standing 2.5 by 8 feet tall, comprised
of 140 volumes on six and one half shelves.
I’d tell you how many
pages there were, but I can’t read the Pali script. Suffice to say there are
tens of thousands (I estimate 30,000). This version is published by the
Vipassana Research Institute in Burma and is in the original Pali. These gold leaf-embossed maroon
volumes with their Sanskrit-looking characters (Pali and Sanskrit are closely
These volumes represent
the teachings of the Buddha. Known as the Pitakas (“baskets”) they
consist of the Vinaya (monastic code of discipline), the Suttas (the popular
discourses), and the Abhidhamma (“a compendium of profound teachings
elucidating the functioning and interrelationships of mind, mental factors,
matter, and the phenomena transcending these.”
The Pitaka was the written
down version of the oral tradition that persisted at the time of the Buddha and
in the years after his death. Recitation of the canon persisted even after it
was written down and continues to do this day. Contemporary Burmese master Mahathera
Vicittasarabhivamsa can recite the Tipitaka from memory.
Over the centuries,
the Pali Canon has been preserved in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia
and the versions that emerged in these different countries are meaningfully the
same, attesting to the validity of their contents.
“The Sangha clearly
demonstrates that in Dhamma there is no place for blind faith, emotional
devotion, or the logician’s hair splitting intellectual acrobatics. The Dhamma
is immensely practical.”
Six Dhamma Councils
(Dhamma-Sangitas) “Dhamma Recitations” have taken place over the centuries. “The basic teaching of
the Buddha were first recited by an elder monk and then canted after him in
chorus by the whole assembly. The recitation was considered to be authentic
when it was unanimously approved by all of the monks in attendance.” (from
the Preface of the Pali Canon) The recitations were committed to words at the
Fourth Council some 500 years after the Buddha’s death.
The first council, 500 monks worked for seven months. 100 years later
the second council was convened and settled disagreements regarding the
monastic rules. The third council was convened in326 BCE by King Ashoka with 1000 monks
working for 9 months. The fourth council took place in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE with 500 monks writing
it down for the first time.
Jumping ahead, the Fifth Council took place in
Mandalay in 1871. 2400 monks labored for five months inscribing the Tiipitaka
onto marble slabs. The sixth council took place in Rangoon in 1954 with 2500 monks
from all the Theravada countries.
The Pali Canon is a rich and fascinating repository of the Buddha’s teachings. From time to time, I will present passages from the Canon.