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Buddhist Scriptures - The Pali Canon


I look at what part of the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures - the Pali Canon - are appealing and relevant to me.

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The value to me of scriptures, is that they can validate my own experience, for it is my own experience which has to be primary. But it needs supporting, otherwise if I just rely on experience alone I can spin off all over the place. I support and validate my experience by, among other things: my intellect or reasoning; my behavior (if I treat myself and others better as a result of my experience, then that is a validation); and scriptures or writings that seem to make sense. Taking scriptures as primary to experience is, I think, a false position, leading to religion and dogma, where you believe because you are told to or because it is written, rather than from your own insight.

The scriptures that I have found most useful in validating my experiences are part of the Buddhist Scriptures - the Pali Canon Suttas, or Suttapitaka ('basket of suttas'), to be precise.

Supposedly, three months after the Buddha's death, many of his foremost disciples met and agreed on what the Buddha had actually said. These came to be known as the 'sutras' or 'suttas', and are a collection of talks given by the Buddha and some of his close disciples. They are called the Pali Canon Suttas, or Suttapitaka, (they were written in the Pali language, a derivative of Sanskrit) and they are the Buddhist scriptures which, as I say, I find most meaningful and helpful.

In succeeding years and centuries there were other councils, and this body of work was added to and amended a little. It was passed on by word of mouth, and finally written down in Sri Lanka by the fourth council in 10 BCE, about 500 years after the Buddha's death. Reciting and memorising are in fact a very accurate way of passing on exact information, even over centuries. So if the original council did in fact meet soon after the Buddha's death, and was composed of people who had spent a lot of time with the Buddha, and understood his message, then I think it likely that the Pali Canon Suttas contain a fair approximation to what the Buddha probably said; which, in spite of the three conditionals, is as good as you can get after 2500 years.

Apart from the Suttas, the Pali Canon contains two other divisions (traditionally called 'baskets'; in fact the Pali Canon is known as the 'Tipitaka', the three baskets, as they were first written down on palm leaves and placed in three baskets) - the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma. The Vinaya is the collection of rules governing the monastic way of life that the Buddha set up, which does not interest me that much. The Abhidhamma is an attempt to systematise the Buddha's teaching, and although scholars differ, it is generally held to have been composed some 200 years after the Buddha, and so what I write below about the Commentaries applies to it as well.

What are often loosely called 'The Commentaries' are basically the writings of anyone who was not alive at the time of the Buddha. I personally do not find the commentaries helpful; there is no doubt some are inspired writings, but most seem to me to be the work of scholars, organisers and annotators - not meditators writing from their own experience. Much that is written in the Commentaries directly contradicts the Pali Canon Suttas (for instance, the descriptions of jhana), and much muddies the waters considerably. Some Commentary is enlightening of course, but I find I have to wade through so much that is irrelevant to get to anything interesting that it is not worth it. And since the Pali Canon Suttas themselves are long (the whole Pali Canon is about 11 times the length of the Bible), they alone contain more than enough to keep me happy.

There are very many translations and digests of the Pali Canon Suttas. Many are good; the best in my opinion are the translations of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who is both a fine Pali scholar and to my mind has grasped the heart of the meditation the Buddha taught, a rare combination. His book Wings To Awakening is the best distillation of the Pali Canon Suttas I have found. The printed book can be obtained free from the BCBS.


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