Lecture No. 3, 15th January 2000

     Author: Venerable Dhammasami , Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.

    TIPITAKA - The Buddhist Bible

     The Buddhists have their scriptures called Tipitaka (in Pali, and Tripitaka in Sanskrit), meaning the Three Baskets. Basket seemed to be in common use which people used in collecting or carrying things in India at least, in Northern part of India where the Buddha taught during the fifth century BC. The Pali word "Pitaka" simply means that.

     The Buddha taught to different people in different places. His teachings were scattered everywhere. His immediate disciples had to collect all of them and combined them into many volumes. That happened three months after the demise of the Buddha. Five hundreds of most learned senior disciples brought together all what they have learnt, heard or recorded. They rehearsed the whole teachings. The all agreed on the authenticity and accuracy of those collections made.

     The collected teachings then were classified into three according to their nature, The Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), The Discourses (Sutta Pitaka) and the Psychology (Abhidhamma Pitaka). This is how we came to have The Three Baskets (Tipitaka).

      Question:    Who Gave the name Tipitaka? How big they are?

     Answer: Not the Buddha, of course. The Buddha called His teachings as Dhamma-vinaya, meaning the teaching and the discipline. The term was also used by the Buddha to denote other religious teaching. The senior disciples who gathered the teachings gave the name Tipitaka, dividing all the words of the Master into three portions. They even classified the Tipitaka again into five portions or five collections (Nikaya). The Tipitaka runs into many volumes; the exact number depends on which edition you refer to. The Burmese edition has 40 volumes. That is all in Pali language. Like the Bible, the holy scripture of the Christians, though in one volume, consists of many books by different authors. The Tipitaka contain not only the words of the Buddha, but also a few discourses by His senior disciples, male and female. They were all approved by the Buddha. But, we can safely say, that the Tipitaka contain mainly the words of the Buddha.

      Question:    What is the Nikaya and what does it mean?

     Answer: Nikaya means a collection of the words of the Buddha. But instead of three, they (the words of the Buddha) are divided into five categories. This is another way of analysing the nature of the teachings. The five are 1. The Gradual Sayings (Anguttara-nikaya) (a collection of discourses arranged according to the numerical order) 2. The Long Discourses (Digha-nikaya) (a collection of the longest discourses) 3. The Middle Sayings (Majhima-nikaya) (a collection of discourses that are middle in length) 4. The Kindred Sayings (Samyutta-nikaya) ( a collection of discourses under similar topics) and 5. The Minor collection (Khuddaka-nikaya) which is the collection of the rest, predominated by the short discourses.

      Question:    Do you mean that the Tipitaka and the Five Nikayas are the same?

     Answer: Yes. They are. Sutta Pitaka becomes divided into five when you talk about Nikaya. But the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma Pitaka are included in the last Nikaya, the Khuddaka-nikaya. You can either refer to the words of the Buddha as the Tipitaka or the Nikaya. Both are correct. In some traditions, like for instance, Chinese, the Nikaya is called Agama, meaning the scripture handed down through oral traditions.

      Question:    Were the Tipitaka preserved through an oral tradition?

     Answer: Yes. Not until the first century BC that the Tipitaka were formally committed to writing. That took place in Sri Lanka after the country had experienced a civil war and a famine. The monks got together and wrote all the collections written down on palm leaves because of fear tat they might lose them in future should the political situation became extremely unstable again.

      Question:    Can you explain a bit more about Tipitaka?

     Answer: Sure. Tipitaka is a collective name for all the Buddhist scriptures. Unlike the Bible and the Koran, the Tipitaka is not recorded in one volume, because it is impossible to do. But you have the whole thing in one CD now.

     The Vinaya

     Among the Tipitaka (Three Baskets), the Vinaya is the books of disciplines for monks and nuns. They can be analysed into two, the individual rules and the community rules. The individual rules (Bhanaka) are the rules that each member of the monastic community, both monk and nun, has to follow as a code of conduct to enable him or her live a simple life conducive to spiritual attainment. The community rules (Khandhaka) are the rules that instill a sense of community into the mind of the members of the Order to bring harmony and happiness to them all. Both serve as checks-and-balances to each other.

     All the procedures, initiation, suspension, warning, punishment, division of responsibility, use of common property and so on are clearly mentioned. It is a democratically run community.

     All members of the community must observe celibacy, refrain from taking what is not given, refrain from killing and boasting any false claim of spiritual achievement. If one breaks of these four rules, he or she is automatically suspended as a member. This kind of rule is what you will find in the Vinaya.

     The Sutta

     The Sutta Pitaka consists of tens of thousands of discourses mainly by the Buddha. They are meditation instruction, ethical code of conduct, the Buddha's answers to any questions out to Him by individuals and His advice to people for worldly and spiritual progress. The Sutta Pitaka is varied in nature and content. It records not only the answer or the lesson that the Buddha has given but also the circumstances and some historical background of the person the Buddha met. It is very interesting. One discourse (Sutta) may or may not be related to the next one. But the senior disciples tried their best to groups the discourses under chapters and contents for the convenience of the many.

     This section of the Tipitaka has most discourses. The Anguttra-nikaya alone has 7791 discourses. Some of the texts are composed almost all in verses. The First and the Last Sermon are in the Sutta Pitaka.

     The Abhidhamma

     The Abhidhamma Pitaka talks about psychology in the context of Buddhist ethical philosophy. Mainly, it analyses mind, emotions and thoughts and matter. If we understand clearly and completely how they work, the conditions that cause them to arise and cease, we then achieve Nibbana. Nibbana is the highest goal of the Buddhist psychological study.

     The legend has it that this particular Pitaka was preached in the Tavatimsa, one of the many heavenly abodes where the mother of the Buddha was reborn. He was reported to have done that in order to return gratitude to His mother.

     The Abhidhamma consists of no narrative stories like in the Vinaya or Sutta Pitaka. It employs technical analysis method, without using much conventional terms. The point is to prove that there is mind but no soul as such; there are emotions and thoughts that come into being when there are conditions for them to do so but no self/ creator behind the way we feel or act or think.

     Abhidhamma can be regarded as systemisation of the doctrines contained in the Sutta Pitaka. There are seven books that run more than ten volumes. A very striking and deeply impressive feature of the Abhidhamma is the analysis of the entire realm of consciousness. It is the first time in the history of human thought that this was taken thoroughly and realistically, without admixture of any superstition, metaphysics and mythology. However, Abhidhamma analysis gives not only a catalogue of things but also their qualities and relations.


      A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, translated by Narada Thera, revised by Bhikhu Bodhi, BPS Kandy, Sri Lanka.
      Abhidhamma in Daily Life by Nina Von Govan.
      Abhidhamma Studies - Researches in Buddhist Psychology by Nyanaponika Thera., BPS Kandy, Sri Lanka.
      An Introduction to Theravada Abhidhamma by Prof. G. D. Sumanapala, Buddhist Research Society, Singapore.
      The Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism - an introduction to the Abhidhamma by Dr. W.F Jayasuriya., Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
      Guide Through the Abhidhamma by Nyanatiloka., BPS Kandy, Sri Lanka.
      Abhidhamma Papers by the Samatha Trust., England.
      The Tree of Enlightenment by Peter D. Santina, Taiwan, 1997.
      Buddhist Analysis of Matter by Prof. Y. Karunadasa., Buddhist Research Society, Singapore.

    Related articles for further reading selected by the Course Organiser:

  1. Tipitakadhara Sayadaws of Myanmar, Nibbana.com Website,
  2. The Tipitaka, Nibbana.com Website.

(Next Week: "The First Sermon of the Buddha")

15th January 2000