Over two thousand years ago, Gautama Buddha reached a spiritual enlightenment, or bodhi, and began teaching others of his time the fundamentals by which to do the same. Originally, his teachings were passed on orally, as was traditional of the times, and in this manner spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and parts of Asia.
Over time, the teachings were written down, but as over four hundred years had passed since Gautama Buddha’s death, it is unclear how strong the connection is between the written Pali Canon and his original teachings. Regardless, the Pali Canon is still often called the Word of Buddha, but this is obviously not in the literal sense as the Canon also contains works from more modern disciples.
The traditional Pali Canon belongs to the Southern Buddhist, orTheravada, tradition of Buddhism. Other branches of Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana Buddhists, feel the Pali Canon is somewhat equivocal to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, but not all feel that way. Some give the Pali Canon equal status with other, more recent interpretations and commentaries.
The traditional Pali Canon is divided into three parts called pikatas. Roughly translated, this means basket, and as there are three sections, the Canon is often referred to as thetipitaka, or three baskets. The term basket is thought to indicate a collection or carrier, as these categories are collections of various commentaries and subcommentaries.
The Vinaya Pitaka is the first section of the Pali Canon and is heavily concentrated on the code of ethics to be followed by monks and nuns of the Buddhist faith. The rules contained within this section are often preceded by stories of each rule’s origin and the meaning of Buddha’s declaration on a particular issue. According to the stories contained in the Vinaya Pitaka, the rules were developed as necessary by Buddha in regards to the needs and behaviors of his followers.
The term Sutta Pitaka translates as a basket of threads, and contains accounts of Buddha’s teachings. This aspect of the Pali Canon is considered authentic by all factions of Buddhism, although other branches might call the section by a different name. The Sutta Pitaka is arranged in five subdivisions, or nikayas, and the first four are easily understood prose adaptations of stories with a standard formula. The fifth section is a compilation of miscellaneous prose or verse works.
The third, and final, category is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, or higher dhamma. This section contains the basic elements of the Sutta Pitaka reworked into a systemic description of the nature of the mind and matter. There are seven books in this collection focusing only on the underlying principals drawn from the previous pitaka.