The Theravada school has preserved the original teachings of the Buddha as the three components of the Pali Canon: the Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit) Pitaka. These components, or Tripitaka (“three baskets”), comprise the authoritative body embraced by what we can lovingly call the Elders.

The Vinaya texts relate to rules of the monastic order and were crucial for preserving Buddhist philosophy by allowing the community to cohere and persevere. The Sutta texts contain the discourses of the Buddha. The Abhidharma texts elucidate the finer points of phenomena from the perspective of the Buddha’s teachings. Today, only three Vinaya traditions remain: Theravada (the present-day Theravada), Dharmaguptaka (East Asian Buddhists), and Mulasarvastivada (Tibetan Buddhists).

The Sutta Pitaka, or the “Discourses Basket,” contain the sayings of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. This Basket is composed of: Digha Nikaya (“Long Discourses”), Majjhima Nikaya (“Middle-Length Discourses”), Anguttara Nikaya (“Numerical Discourses”), Samyutta Nikaya (“Connected Discourses”), and Khuddaka Nikaya (“Minor Discourses”).

The Abhidharma, or “higher” or “further” Dharma, consists of a more philosophically complicated and nuanced set of teachings than the sutras. They represent, to the Original Wisdom schools, the true teachings of the Buddha without concessions to a particular audience. The teachings in this basket, according to legend, have come down to us through the remediation of the disciple Sariputra, and are therefore probably of later origin than the sutras.1 The Theravadins and Sarvastivadins have (or had, in the case of the Sarvastivadins) differing Abhidharma canons. While the sutras can be thought of as situational and relative to particular times/places, the Abhidharma is technical and philosophically exact and does not concede to time/place/audience.

Additionally, the Jataka tales are stories of the Buddha’s former lives. Jataka translates to “birth.” These stories describe the actions, words, and experiences of the Buddha’s prior incarnations. The influence of Astika philosophy is unmistakable in these stories, given that the stories presuppose the wheel of rebirth. Theravada adherents treasure the colorful, instructive, and inspiring Jataka tales.

The Pali Canon is vast and profound. Providing an exhaustive account of its teachings is incredibly difficult. What follows is a brief list of some especially famous teachings. The selections below are all taken from the Sutta Pitaka.

Mahasakuludayi Sutta, Mahjjima Nikaya:  The Buddha describes the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment.

Most stories of the Pali Canon contain the Buddha’s teaching to his devoted disciples.  This story finds the Buddha addressing a group of wanderers.  He tells the wanders, particularly Sakuludayin, how to achieve liberation from suffering. These teachings comprise the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment:

  • Noble Eightfold Path
  • Seven Factors of Enlightenment
  • Five Mental Faculties
  • Five Components of Spiritual Power
  • Four Right Efforts
  • Four Bases of Mindfulness

Culamalunkya Sutta, Mahjjima Nikaya:  The Buddha offers the parable of the arrow.

A devoted monk named Malkunkyaputta is struggling with the Buddha’s lack of assertions about whether the self exists and what happens to it (if it exists) after death.  The monk even promises to abandon the contemplative life if the Buddha fails to address these questions.  The Buddha retorts by offering the parable of the poisoned arrow.  In the parable, he says a man who has been shot by an arrow would be wasting time if he were determined to find out unnecessary questions about the arrow and who shot it before letting the arrow be removed from him.  The man could ask about the clan of the man who shot the arrow, the social status of the man who shot the arrow, the kind of wood from which the arrow was crafted, the types of feathers used to adorn it, and so on.  But answers to these questions would not ease suffering.  The removal of the arrow and the treatment of the wound would ease suffering.

Mahacattarisaka Sutta, Mahjjima Nikaya:  The Buddha teaches his disciples the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha explains the Noble Eightfold Path, with its interconnected facets, to his devoted disciples.  He explains Perfect View, Perfect Resolve, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Concentration, and Perfect Mindfulness.

Culasunnata/Mahasunnata Sutta, Mahjjima Nikaya:  Ananda gets two lessons in voidness.

The Buddha instructs his dear disciple Ananda on two occasions on the nature of voidness.  In the first lesson, he cautions Ananda against finding meaning from group membership and tells him instead to seek the true nature of things:  voidness.  He further cautions Ananda against clinging to the senses.  In the second lesson, he reiterates his original lesson.   He explains that the voidness of which he first spoke is the same voidness that enlightened beings experienced in the past and would continue experiencing in the future.  The term denoting “voidness” here is Suññatā–the Pali equivalent of Shunyata.

Mahaniddana Sutta:  The Buddha explains Dependent Origination.

Ananda is the fortunate recipient of the Buddha’s explanation of Dependent Origination.  The twelve links of becoming comprise the mechanics of the Second Noble Truth, in which mistaken clinging to the Five Aggregates perpetuates suffering, and thus the cycle of rebirth.

Mahaparinibbana Sutta:  The Buddha on his death bed.

The Buddha continued teaching even as he faced imminent death.  The story refers to the “great final Nirvana” of the Buddha.  Final refers to his death, in which he releases himself from the cycle of rebirth.  His first Nirvana was the realization of the nature of suffering and the way out of it.  Mahayana teachings would eventually question the actual death of the Buddha and recast his passing in a different light.

The Chinese Tripitaka is another canon that preserves the original teachings of the Buddha and is utilized in eastern China, Korea, and Japan.  Further, the Kanjur (bKa ‘gyur) (Buddha’s discourses)/Tenjur (bsTan ‘gyur) (treatises) of the Tibetan and Mongolian regions constitute an additional canon.  Significant amounts of the Pali Canon overlaps with the Chinese Tripitaka and there is considerable overlap between the Chinese Tripitaka and the Kanjur/Tenjur. The Buddha discourse sections of the Chinese and Tibetan Tripitakas come from the Agamas, which are Sanskrit version of the Buddha’s discourses. They are similar to, though not identical, to the Pali Nikayas.2

The Chinese Tripitaka does not come from a single school, like the Pali Canon, which comes from the Theravada school.  The Digha is a recension from the Dharmaguptaka school.  The Majjhima is a recension of the Sarvastivada school.  The Samyutta is probably a recension of the Kasyapiya school.  The Ekottara is probably a recension of the Dharmaguptaka school.  Lastly, the Vinaya is a recension of the Mahasanghika school.3  

Pali Canon (Sutta Piṭaka): Majjhima Nikāya, Digha Nikāya, Samyutta Nikāya, Anguttara Nikāya, Khuddaka Nikāya

1Gethin, 1998, 204.
Gethin, 1998, 40.
3Warder, 2000, 6-7.