The Pāli Canon descends from an august tradition. Within three months after the Buddha's maha-parinibbāna, a council was convened. It consisted of 500 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 Tipiṭaka. Photo shows the white slabs with the entire Tipitaka carved into stone, Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma).
The Tipiṭaka is a vast record, containing in modern script more than 24 million characters in over forty printed volumes. The Tipiṭaka (which means, literally, "three baskets") is arranged in three divisions: Vinaya Piṭaka, Sutta Piṭaka, and Abhidhamma Piṭaka.
- Vinaya Piṭaka contains the rules of conduct for the monastic order.
- Sutta Piṭaka is a collection of discourses on various subjects by the Buddha.
- Abhidhamma Piṭaka is a compendium of profound teachings elucidating the functioning and interrelationships of mind, mental factors, matter and phenomena transcending all of these.
The Pāli literature also includes the Aṭṭhakathā (commentaries), Tikā (subcommentaries), and further subcommentaries such as the Anu-Tikā, Madhu-Tikā, etc. The commentarial literature is very extensive, exceeding the Tipiṭaka in length (an outline of the Tipitaka is available here.)
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 Tipiṭaka. 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 Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana, 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 Tipiṭaka 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 Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana made a through review of the Tipiṭaka, its Aṭṭhakathā, Tikā, Anu-Tikā 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 Buddha'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.
Vipassana Research Institute's Chaṭṭa Saṅgāyana
The country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). maintained a tradition of preserving the words of the Buddha in their original form. And, equally importantly, the gem of the Buddha's teaching, the practice of Vipassana, was preserved there for over two millennia by a small number of devoted meditator bhikkhus and lay people.
Unfortunately, the Pāli texts and the practice of Vipassana were lost in India. Realizing the importance of the Pāli Canon as an invaluable part of the ancient heritage of India, the Government of India after the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana took the decision to publish the entire Pāli literature in Devanagiri script. This work was undertaken at the Nalanda Institute. After some time, supplementing earlier work of Nalanda Mahavihara, at the Nalanda Institute, VRI undertook the monumental task of publishing the entire Pāli Canon and allied commentarial literature. VRI has taken the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana version in Burmese script as the authentic, authoritative version. Pāli scholars from India and other countries, including many learned bhikkhus and research scholars in Burma, assisted in this work, which led to publication of an authentic version of the Tipiṭaka and allied literature in Devanagiri script in printed book form.
Now the entire Pāli Tipiṭaka in eleven scripts produced by VRI has been digitally encoded and is available online at www.tipitaka.org. This form greatly facilitates study and research into the words of the Buddha, with computer search programs able to locate any word or phrase in any part of the Tipiṭaka in a matter of seconds. Custom software automatically converts the Devanagiri script Pali into one of six other scripts, as the reader prefers. This is of great value to people everywhere interested in the original words of the Buddha. Version 3 contains 217 volumes of Pali Tipiṭaka, its Aṭṭhakathā, Tikā, Anu-tikā, and other Pāli texts. The text is in Pāli and can be viewed in the following seven scripts: Devanagari, Roman, Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, Cambodian, Mongolian.
The PaliTipiṭaka Project opens up a vast panorama to India's rich cultural heritage. The Tipiṭaka, sometimes referred to as "three treasuries," is indeed a repository of inestimable value. Its publication enables 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 above information was edited and condensed from VRI's website.