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The Pali Tipitaka

Several years ago, concurrently with its ongoing research into Vipassana, the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) assumed a monumental undertaking: the publication of an authentic version of the Pali literature in Devanagari script. To understand the significance of this project, it is necessary to briefly describe the sources of Vipassana Meditation.

The Sources of Vipassana

The sources of Vipassana meditation are the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, contained principally in the vast Pali literature.

From the time he became enlightened until his maha-parinibbana at the age of eighty, the Buddha wandered from place to place. Year after year, out of overflowing love and compassion, he taught the Dhamma in the villages and towns of the kingdoms and democratic republics of northern India. Speaking to groups or individuals, renunciates or householders, he delivered tens of thousands of discourses.

In all his addresses, the Buddha's theme was the same: sila (morality); samadhi (control over the mind); and panna (wisdom, insight, purification of the mind by wisdom). He taught a practical method to help mankind escape from the bonds of suffering: the Eight-fold Noble Path, the quintessence of which is Vipassana.

Sources from the Pali literature offer a graphic account of the societal conditions during the Buddha's time. They describe how people from a wide spectrum of society were benefited by his ennobling doctrine: rich and poor, powerful and weak, learned and ignorant, saints and sinners, privileged and downtrodden, without any distinction of caste or hierarchy. The Buddha boldly declared all human beings equal, caste distinctions ignoble; debates and controversies on dogmas and philosophies, sterile; sectarian distinctions baneful.

He declared: Dhamma is universal. Dhamma is the law of nature. He taught that every person must discover for himself what is conducive to his own good and welfare, and the good and welfare of others. He gave to humanity its first charter of freedom. To people steeped in ignorance, superstition, and blind beliefs; chained in rites and rituals; and fettered by the bonds of philosophical dogmas, he gave the possibility of a way out.

This universal teaching brought profound relief to the suffering humanity. The door to freedom opened. A fresh wind blew which gradually swept the whole world. A new era in human history dawned; India was regarded as the World Teacher. Today, in our own time, the Ganges of Truth is once again flowing out from India to a thirsty world.

The Pali Canon

The priceless teachings of the Buddha are preserved in the Pali canon, an extensive, detailed, systematic and analytical record. The Pali canon descends from an august tradition. Within three months after the Buddha's maha-parinibbana, a counsel was convened. It consisted of five hundred learned disciples who had attained the highest state of sainthood, arahant-phala. To prevent the Buddha's words from being distorted by ignorant and unscrupulous people, they formed the First Council to preserve the teaching in its pristine purity. Their express purpose was to collect and arrange the Buddha's voluminous teachings, which they organized into what is now commonly known as the Tipitaka.

The Tipitaka (which means, literally, "three baskets") is arranged in three divisions: Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules of conduct for the monastic order. Sutta Pitaka is a collection of discourses on various subjects by the Buddha. Abhidhamma Pitaka is a compendium of profound teachings elucidating the functioning and interrelationships of mind, mental factors, matter and phenomena transcending all of these. The Tipitaka is a vast record, containing in modern script more than 24 million characters in over forty printed volumes. The Pali literature also includes the Atthakathas (commentaries), Tikas (subcommentaries), and further subcommentaries such as the Anu-Tikas, Madhu-Tikas, etc. The commentarial literature is very extensive, exceeding the Tipitaka in length.

Preservation of the Words of the Buddha through the Ages

Between the centuries following the first Council and the present day, continuous and consistent efforts have been made to preserve the Buddha's teaching. Periodic councils of learned monks have been convened to systematically review the Tipitaka. The first councils conducted oral reviews. The entire collection was committed to writing for the first time during the Fourth Council, held in Sri Lanka three decades before the Christian Era.

The most recent review, the Sixth Council, or Chatta Sangayana, was held in 1954 in Rangoon, Burma. Twenty five hundred learned bhikkhus and scholars from Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India and other countries participated. By this time the Tipitaka and allied literature had been published in several scripts (including Burmese, Sinhalese, Roman, Thai, and Cambodian). The Pali Text Society of London, the Buddhist Publication Society of Sri Lanka and many scholars of high repute and dedication in the West and in the East had produced publications containing Buddha's teaching, making a profound contribution to the worldwide awakening to the existence of this rich treasure.

The Chattha Sangayana made a through review of the Tipitaka, its Atthakathas, Tikas, Anu-Tikas and other commentarial literature. A remarkable uniformity and consistency was found in all versions. The Council performed an impressive task, finishing its work on the full moon day of May 1956 (the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha) with the completion of an authentic version of the Master's teaching.

From this brief historical outline, it is evident that a consistent effort, spanning more than twenty-four centuries, has been made to preserve the original words of the Buddha, a continuity of effort unparalleled in human history.

The Pali Tipitaka Project opens up a vast panorama to India's rich cultural heritage. The Tipitaka, sometimes referred to as "three treasuries," is indeed a repository of inestimable value. Its publication will assist in enabling scholars, scientists, and social reformers to undertake studies and research in various fields of human welfare and thereby contribute greatly to the spread of Dhamma throughout the world.

The Making of the Chattha Sangayana CD-ROM (CSCD)


Vipassana Research Institute