Tripitaka: Buddhist Scripture

Origins of the Three Baskets

The Tripitaka, or Three Baskets, is also known as the Pali Canon, after the language it was originally written in (Pali). Specifics vary depending upon source, particularly in regards to date, but here are the basics:

  • Original source: Oral traditions passed down from generation to generation from the time of the Buddha
  • Written down: Wow. You’d think this would be a straightforward answer, but I’ve seen everything from 150 years after Buddha’s nirvana to nearly 600 years after. Suffice it to say there was a gap in which the teachings were transmitted orally. In any case, they are supposed to have been written down at the First Buddhist Council of 500 monks.
  • Important to: All Buddhists, but especially Theravada, or Hinayana, Buddhists, who acknowledge only the Pali Canon as valid scripture. (Mahayana Buddhists use the sutras, which are similar in content.)

What's In the Tripitaka?

The Tripitaka has a lot to say. Although it was originally written down on long leaves sewn together and organised into baskets, its English translation takes up forty rather large volumes. A full set can cost up to $2,000.

The “Three Baskets” are basically three baskets of Buddha’s wisdom, divided up by type, as follows:

  • Vinaya Pitaka: This “discipline basket” is used to guide Buddhist monks and nuns. There are 227 rules for monks and, because women are perpetually lucky, more for nuns. It also guides interaction between monks and laypersons.
  • Sutta Pitaka: This “teaching basket” provides guidance via events from the life of Buddha, as well as meditation techniques.
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka: This “higher doctrine” basket explains some of Buddha’s teachings and sutras. It also includes the popular Dhammapada / Dharmapada and the Jataka tales, which provide many interesting stories from what is believed to be the many lives of Buddha. In them, he is portrayed as a human and an animal, a king and an outcast. They are popular children’s stories in India and are frequently included in language-learning materials.

Although some early sects had no Abhidhamma Pitaka, it is generally considered canonical. One reason for the early split into subsects, however, centred around degree of acceptance or rejection of what became the Mahayana Buddhist sutras and various other recorded teachings. Some Buddhist subsects may have had as many as seven pitakas in their version of the teachings.

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