Pali Sutta Pitaka
The Tipitaka is the name given to the Teachings of the Buddha recorded in the Pali language. It has been preserved for over 2500 years, originally as an oral tradition, then written down several centuries later. It is vast collection of texts, generally recognised by all schools of Buddhism as ancient and authentic. Tipitaka means ‘three baskets’. The Pali Canon, as it is called in English, refers to the three collections of texts:
- Vinaya Pitaka (basket of Discipline) – training rules for monks, nuns and the organisation of the Sanghas.
- Sutta Pitaka (basket of Discourses) – the collection of teachings for meditation and contemplation.
- Abhidhamma Pitaka (basket of Higher Doctrine) – systematic summaries of the teachings in the Suttas.
The Collection of Discourses (Sutta Pitaka) are a profound set of teachings given by the Buddha and his main disciples. Known simply as the ‘Pali’, they explain the nature of conditioned reality (Dukkha), its arising and ceasing (Samudaya and Nirodha), and the path of practice that experiences these truths (Magga). The Teachings, or Dhamma, contained in the Sutta Pitaka are deep and profound, and are a great source of inspiration. Consisting of more than ten thousand Suttas of prose and poetic verses, the main books are collected into Five Nikayas. A list of the most important texts is on the resources page.
Sahassapālisuttantā is a collection of 1000 Pali text passages selected from the four Nikayas, and the main poetry books of the fifth Nikaya. It was researched, compiled, formatted, and in some places, reconstructed by Anthony whilst he was still a Buddhist monk in 2005. This collection contains many important sutta passages dealing with the central teaching of the Buddha – Dependent Origination. These passages are intended for use as a convenient reference whilst reading and studying the Buddha’s Teaching. The passages are arranged in Canonical order, and follow the numbering system of the English translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi. This is to facilitate ease of use. The name and chapter of each Sutta passage appears on top of the passage. The Nikaya, Samyutta, Vagga, or Sutta numbers, and the paragraph number appear indexed at the end of each passage.
These Pali Sutta text passages and their translations will form part of a reference book – Being and Cessation – that Anthony is currently working on. The arrangement of the text passages with translation, and a small linking commentary, will disclose the Buddha’s Teaching in the ‘right meaning and phrasing’ without relying on the interpretations of the traditional commentaries. This will allow the Pali Suttas to speak for themselves, as they should.
Three primary sources were consulted: the Pali Text Society’s printed roman-script editions (often a transliteration of Singalese-script sources); the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya printed Thai-script edition; and a CD-ROM of the Burmese Buddhasasana Samiti Sixth Buddhist Council edition in Roman-and-Burmese-script. A study of these Pali passages, with a translation side-by-side, will be very valuable experience for those intending to realise the end of Suffering – Nibbana.
Pali Sutta Studies
The Pali Suttas are truly World Heritage – the Buddha’s gift to humanity. Studying the Pali Suttas in translation with the original texts is a very worthwhile endeavour. During the last 2600 years, the Pali Suttas have made a deep and lasting impression wherever they have been embraced. They represent a complete spiritual training, and a world-view that is verifiable through one’s own experience. The Pali Suttas need to be approached with the right attitude. Their study is to affect change. They are the tool for overcoming the Suffering (Dukkha) inherent in the conditioned matrix of existence and, as such, are the domain of one who is deeply concerned with the existential problem of Being and its Cessation. Meditation with right view is their purpose. That is, they challenge us to become subjectively and personally engaged with contemplating the mind-and-body. These texts point to internal Truths to be observed for oneself, not to objective facts of scientific curiosity.
A few initial remarks about reading and studying the Pali Suttas:
- The new translations in English of the Nikayas are very accurate and readable. Start by reading the translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Become familiar with the structure, vocabulary, and technical terms of the Suttas. The meaning of the passage is the most important point, so begin with a language you understand.
- The Pali Suttas have a special design feature. They are repetitive and meant to be recited. Read them out-loud to yourself. This will keep you focused and less distracted. It also aids in memorisation, and later contemplation. Do not skip the repetitions. They work on the mind.
- Choose a sutta passage that interests you, and that you want to understand deeper. Set yourself up with the translation passage, its Pali Text passage (from Sahassapalisuttanta), a Pali-English dictionary, and a reference grammar. Doing your own investigation is rewarding.
- Start to systematically work through the passage by reading it using the English sentence and grammatical structure, and replacing the key technical terms with their Pali equivalent.
- Examine the passage by increasingly relying on the meaning of the Pali technical terms, and not getting mislead by the meaning of the English word. Look up the meaning in the dictionary and understand the grammatical form to better understand the terms.
Pali is a unique language and only used in one discipline – the Buddha’s Teaching. The technical terms precise. The meaning of important terms should be defined and understood from within the context of the Suttas themselves. Pali language itself is not a difficult language to learn. Only reading is necessary. Only the most important pithy passages need be studied in original Pali. There is no need to learn listening, speaking or writing Pali. A basic reference grammar book to understand the structure of the language is necessary but do not get lost in grammar. The aim is always to gain deeper understanding from the passages, not nerding-out in the grammatical tangents of academic study.
The body of Pali texts in the Nikayas is remarkably coherent. There are no contradictions or discrepancies between the teachings in different suttas. Avoid bringing additional meaning into Sutta passages from the traditional Pali commentaries and the Abhidhamma texts. It is unnecessary and it complicates things. The Buddha was perfectly capable of teaching the Dhamma. Pali is sometimes described as a colloquial Sanskrit. The two languages share a lot in common – vocabulary and grammatical structure. Be wary of importing definitions from Sanskrit texts into the Pali Suttas. The Suttas stand on their own. All the pali terms can be defined from within the Suttas themselves.
In the beginning it is normal to investigate a single Sutta. For example, the Satipatthana Sutta or the Anapanasati Sutta are popular. Whilst each sutta is complete in itself, the full meaning or way of practice may not be fully apparent. A understanding of other Suttas from the collection can assist in giving a detailed meaning. Each technical-term in a sutta is pregnant with meaning. A single sutta can rarely give all the intended consequences of an important technical term like ‘feeling’ (vedana), for example. It may take 20 or 30 suttas involving that technical-term to bring its full implications to light. But by making a thorough examination of a technical term in many suttas, the meaning becomes clearer. In this way, a single sutta explodes with meaning, each Sutta informing the others.
The Pali Suttas are a closed ecosystem – a thought world. Different Suttas working together to point at the same Truth in different ways. By understanding the whole, we understand the parts. And by understanding the parts, we understand the whole. The Pali Suttas have a basic structure. The Buddha generally discloses a problem and how to overcome it. He teaches Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha. Time and time again. From different angles the Buddha and his disciples disclose their radical insights and the path to freedom.
Towards the Suttas
When approaching the study of the Dhamma it is essential to recognise the difference between the ‘Buddha’s Teaching’ and the ‘Religion of Buddhism’. The Pali Suttas are the Buddha’s Teaching. The vast collection of commentaries, meditation treatises, manuals, books, and cultural traditions that have evolved over the last 100 generations constitute ‘Buddhism’. Buddhism is the necessary ‘skin of the orange’ that protects the precious ‘flesh of the orange’, the Pali Suttas. If we really want to develop the way of the Buddha we must go to the source first.
This is not meant as any disrespect to any of the Enlightened masters from the great Buddhist traditions. Their teachings, of course, point to the Path of the Buddha in their own way. They are valuable and beneficial in many ways. This short note is simply meant to orientate serious meditators to the important texts. Once a solid understanding of the Teaching in the Suttas has been acquired, further investigation of other commentarial teachings, books or talks may proceed in an informed manner. In this way valuable time is not be wasted.
The Pali Sutta texts contain the actual teachings of a Fully Enlightened Buddha. They are very different in quality when compared to other books on ‘Buddhism’. Whilst it is possible for other teachers and writers to relate ‘what’ the Buddha teaches, only the Pali texts can convey the method of ‘how’ or ‘the way’ the Buddha instructs his disciples – the mode of instruction. The difference is substantial. The particular style or pedagogy of the message, the syntax and structure , and phrasing has been preserved ‘with the right meaning and phrasing’ for millennia for a reason. The way the Buddha teaches ‘leads on’. The Suttas ‘pull-the-mind’ into a space of wisdom in a miraculous way. Once the way of the Buddha is experienced through the Suttas, a whole new level of understanding is comprehended.
The Buddha warned of a future when people would refuse to listen to his discourses (Suttas).
Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 20.7 reads: “… in the future, those Suttas uttered by the Tathagata, deep, profound in meaning, transcending the world, concerning voidness-of-self: to these when uttered they will not listen, will not give a ready ear, will not want to understand, to recite, to master them. But those discourses made by poets, mere poetry, a conglomeration of words and phrases, foreign (outside the Buddha’s Teachings), the utterances of disciples: to these when uttered they will listen, will give a ready ear, will want to understand, to recite, to master them. Thus it is, monks, that the Suttas uttered by the Tathagata, deep profound in meaning, transcending the world, concerning voidness-of-self, will disappear. Therefore, monks, train yourselves, thus: To these very Suttas will we listen, give a ready ear, understand, recite and master them.”
If you desire any further orientation towards the Pali Sutta you are encouraged to contact Anthony. He is very happy to direct your study of these profound texts. He is also happy you made it here!