Introducing the Pāli Tipitaka

Introducing the Pāli Tipitaka

The Pāli Language was derived from a Prakrit (folks’ dialect) of Magādha in ancient India. Its grammar is similar to those of Sanskrit and Latin. Pāli was chosen as the language to rehearse and record the Buddhist teachings at the First Rehearsal (Sangāyana) in 543 BCE. Pāli is unique among languages in that it is not used for any other purpose except to record Buddhist doctrines. Thus the meanings of its words were not ‘corrupted’ by common usage or ‘evolution’ over time.

The Three Major Divisions of Pāli Tipitaka


The Vinayapitaka is a collection of monastic rules, their origin, issues regarding the administration of the monastic order, training rules outside the Patimokkha, and rules concerning the use of requisites. It also records the history of the Sangha’s formation, and the events leading to the first and second rehearsals of the Pāli Canon. This Pitaka is divided into five books – the Mahāvibhanga, Cullavibhanga, Mahāvagga, Cullavagga and Parivāra Pāli.

Novice monks are taught the Dhamma and Vinaya for many years before being allowed to undergo their “Higher Ordination” as full-fledged bhikkhus.


The Suttapitaka is a large collection of discourses, sermons and sayings of the Buddha, and some of His foremost disciples, delivered on various occasions to individuals and groups. It is divided into five major collections (Nikāya) – the Dīghanikāya, Majjhimanikāya, Samyuttanikāya, Anguttaranikāya, and Khuddakanikāya – which in turn are further divided into many books and sections. These discourses touch on mundane topics to the supramundane, as they were delivered to beginners as well as to adept Arahant disciples. Informative narrations and prose can be found in many longer texts, while shorter ones, such as the Dhammapada, Udāna, Theragātha and Therigātha, contain some of the most poetic literature in verse.


The Abhidhammapitaka contains seven treatises – the Dhammasanganī, Vibhanga, Dhātukathā, Puggalapaññatti, Kathāvatthu, Yamaka, and Patthāna. These treatises deal with Dhamma subjects in purely academic terms, without referring to any individuals or providing narrations of events as found in the Suttapitaka. Important doctrinal points, such as consciousness, the mind, wholesome and unwholesome qualities, meditative absorption, the nature of elements, stages of purification and enlightenment, are all detailed in this massive collection.

Bhikkhus and novice monks often recite passages from the Abhidhamma in communal chantings.

Commentarial Tradition

Over the centuries, learned scholar-monks have composed commentaries to aid the learning of the Tipitaka. These are called Atthakathā in Pāli Language. Although they are not regarded as canonical, the Atthakathās are nevertheless indispensable in better understanding certain parts of the Canon. The most famous commentators were two 4th to 5th Century CE monks – the Elders Buddhaghosa and Dhammapala – both of whom authored the greater part of Pāli commentaries.

Additions to the Canon

The present structure of the Pāli Canon is largely the compilation of the Third Rehearsal of Dhamma-vinaya during Mauryan Emperor Asoka’s reign in the 3rd Century BCE. The Abhidhammapitaka was formally recited and incorporated into the Canon (thus making it “Ti-pitaka” – 3 divisions) during this rehearsal.

In the 1871CE Fifth Rehearsal in Mandalay, three ancient and highly venerated Pāli works – the Nettippakarana, Petakopadesa and Milindapañhā – were added to the Canon and placed under the Khuddakanikāya division of the Suttapitaka. These last three additions appeared in printed form as part of the Pāli Canon after the Sixth International Rehearsal in 1956.

The entire Pāli Tipitaka is nowadays commonly produced in a 40 to 45 volume (book) collection. For example, the Thai Pāli Tipitaka usually contains 45 printed volumes, symbolically representing the 45 years of Buddha’s mission.

Pāli Tipitaka

The Pāli Tipitaka comprises 31 books of various sizes.  Certain treatises of the Tipitaka are so large that they are spread over several volumes.  Together with their equally voluminous commentaries, the Tipitaka offers a thorough exposition of Buddhist teachings covering all aspects of practice from the mundane to the supramundane.  Below is a list of the 31 books in their original Pāli names and brief descriptions of their contents, as well as their respective commentarial texts.

Note: Three later additions to the Pāli Canon (the Nettippakarana, Petakopadesa and Milindapañhā classified under the Khuddakanikāya) are not listed below.  Their inclusion will result in the Canon having 34 books (and the Suttapitaka having 18 books).

Pāli Tipitaka
Canonical Books
General description & Major contents Commentaries
1. Vinayapitaka
Collection of monastic rules, their origin, and historical events relating to the Sangha’s formation.  Divided into 5 collections.
The entire collection in the Vinayapitaka shares a single commentary.
1.1 Mahāvibhanga Major rules for bhikkhus (monks). Samantapāsādikā
1.2 Cullavibhanga Major rules for bhikkhunis (nuns). Samantapāsādikā
1.3 Mahāvagga
Rules of admission to the Bhikkhu Sangha; concerning the monks’ way of life, and the administration of the monastic order.
1.4 Cullavagga
Training rules regarding the use of requisites; origin of the Bhikkhunī Sangha; historical records of the first and second rehearsals.
1.5 Parivāra Catechism on the knowledge of Discipline. Samantapāsādikā
2. Suttapitaka
Collection of discourses, sermons and sayings of the Buddha and some of His foremost disciples.  Divided into 5 major collections and many subdivisions according to subjects and the length of the discourses.
The first 4 Nikāyas have their own commentaries.  The Khuddakanikāya has 8 commentarial texts.
2.1 Dīghanikāya Collection of 34 long discourses, divided into 3 sections. Sumangalavilāsinī
2.2 Majjhimanikāya Collection of 152 medium-length discourses divided into 3 sections. Papañcasūdanī
2.3 Samyuttanikāya
Collection of more than two thousand discourses specially arranged in 5 major divisions and further subdivided into 56 groupings (Samyutta) according to their subject matters.
2.4 Anguttaranikāya
Collection of more than nine thousand discourses divided into 11 major numerical divisions (from Number One to Number Eleven).
2.5 Khuddakanikāya
Collection of discourses and sayings other than those classified under the earlier 4 Nikāyas.  There are 15 books under this Nikāya.
(Note : 18 books if the three later additions were included.)
The 15 books in the Khuddaka-nikāya share 8 commentarial
texts between them.
2.5.1 Khuddakapātha
Collection of short discourses and text commonly used in chanting and blessings.
2.5.2 Dhammapada Collection of 423 concise and inspiring verses of Dhamma in 26 chapters. Dhammapadātthakathā
2.5.3 Udāna
Collection of 80 discourses containing the Buddha’s solemn utterances – the “Paeans of Joy”.
2.5.4 Itivuttaka Collection of 112 discourses, all beginning with “Iti vuccati… Paramatthadīpanī
2.5.5 Suttanipāta
Special “collected discourses” of 71 sermons composed entirely or mostly in verses.
2.5.6 Vimānavatthu
Stories of celestial splendour” – 85 narrations by celestial beings on the effects of their past lives’ good deeds.
2.5.7 Petavatthu
Stories of deprived beings” – 51 remorseful narrations by spirits on the effects of their past lives’ evil deeds.
2.5.8 Theragātha
Collection of verses uttered by 264 Arahant bhikkhus on their lofty spiritual attainments.
2.5.9 Therīgātha Collection of verses uttered by 73 Arahant bhikkhunis as above. Paramatthadīpanī
2.5.10 Jātaka
Collection of 547 tales about the past lives of the Buddha before His final birth.
2.5.11 Niddesa
Exposition” – collection of the Elder Sariputta’s explanation of the Dhamma based on the Buddha’s preaching in the Suttanipāta.
2.5.12 Patisambidāmagga
Way of Analysis” – collection of Elder Sariputta’s detailed explanation of topics such as insight, mindfulness, views, spiritual faculties and deliverance.
2.5.13 Apadāna
Collection of nearly 600 accounts concerning the past lives of Buddhas, Pacceka-Buddhas, Arahant bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.
2.5.14 Buddhavamsa
Collection of stories concerning the previous 24 Buddhas, and concluding with the story of Buddha Gotama.
2.5.15 Cariyāpitaka
Collection of 35 stories of Buddha’s past lives (as told in the Jātaka), with special emphasis on His mode of conduct in fulfilling the ten compulsory perfections of Buddhahood.
3. Abhidhammapitaka
Collection of academic and philosophical terms of the teachings. Divided into seven treatises.
The first 2 treatises have their own commentaries. The latter 5 share a common one.
3.1 Dhammasanganī Collection of teachings – 164 matrices and summaries of all phenomena. Atthasālinī
3.2 Vibhanga
Collection of 18 sections dealing with 18 important subjects in the Teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Factors of Enlightenment, and Dependent Origination.
3.3 Dhātukathā Discussions on Elements – the five aggregates, twelve sense-fields, etc. Pañcapakaranātthakathā
3.4 Puggalapaññatti On Individuals – designation of individuals according to their virtues. Pañcapakaranātthakathā
3.5 Kathāvatthu
Collection of 219 subjects in question and answer format, refuting false views held by heretics.  This treatise was compiled by Moggalliputta-Tissa Thera, and added to the Canon in the Third Rehearsal, held in the 3rd Century BCE.
3.6 Yamaka Collection of questions and answers to important topics in 10 pairings. Pañcapakaranātthakathā
3.7 Patthāna
Large collection of explanations to the conditionality, interdependence, and causality of phenomena.