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Beyond the Tipitaka

A Field Guide
Post-canonical Pali Literature


John Bullitt

Copyright © 2002 John Bullitt

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A quick glance through the pages of the Pali Text Society's publications catalog should be enough to convince anyone that there is much more to classical Pali literature than the Tipitaka alone. Intermingled with the familiar Nikayas, Vinaya texts, and Abhidhamma are scores of titles with long, scarcely-pronounceable Pali names. Although many western students of Buddhism may be unacquainted with these works (indeed, most have never been translated into English), these books have for centuries played a crucial role in the development of Buddhist thought and practice across Asia and, ultimately, the West. In fact, in some countries they are as deeply treasured as the suttas themselves. But what are these ancient books, and what relevance do they have to the western student of Buddhism in the 21st century? Although complete answers to these questions lie well beyond the range of my abilities, I hope that this short document will provide enough of a road map to help orient the interested student as he or she sets out to explore this vast corpus of Buddhist literature.

This article is in two parts. The Introduction provides historical background to the texts and offers some thoughts on why these texts are so valuable to the Theravada tradition. The Field Guide is essentially an annotated table of contents, in which I borrow heavily from a variety of sources to describe each text.


The origins of the post-canonical texts

The Tipitaka (Pali Canon) assumed its final form at the Third Buddhist Council (ca. 250 BCE) and was first committed to writing sometime in the 1st c. BCE. Shortly thereafter Buddhist scholar-monks in Sri Lanka and southern India began to amass a body of secondary literature: commentaries on the Tipitaka itself, historical chronicles, textbooks, Pali grammars, articles by learned scholars of the past, and so on. Most of these texts were written in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka, but because Pali — not Sinhala — was the lingua franca of Theravada, few Buddhist scholars outside Sri Lanka could study them. It wasn't until the 5th c. CE, when the Indian monk Buddhaghosa began the laborious task of collating the ancient Sinhala commentaries and translating them into Pali, that these books first became accessible to non-Sinhala speakers around the Buddhist world. These commentaries (Atthakatha) offer meticulously detailed explanations and analyses — phrase-by-phrase and word-by-word — of the corresponding passages in the Tipitaka.

After Buddhaghosa the catalog of post-canonical Pali literature continued to grow with the addition of commentaries by both Buddhadatta (5th c.) and Dhammapala (6th c.), and sub-commentaries (Tika) by Dhammapala on several of Buddhaghosa's Atthakathas. During this time, and in the centuries that followed, other writers prepared Pali translations of additional early Sinhala texts. These ranged from poetic hymns in celebration of the Buddha, to chronicles tracing the first millennium of Buddhist history, to detailed Abhidhamma textbooks. Most of the major post-canonical works, including the sub-commentaries, were completed by the 12th c.

Why these texts matter

Post-canonical Pali literature supplements the Tipitaka in several important ways. First, the chronicles and commentaries provide a vital thread of temporal continuity that links us, via the persons and historical events of the intervening centuries, to the Tipitaka's world of ancient India. A Tipitaka without this accompanying historical thread would forever be an isolated anachronism to us, its message lost in clouds of myth and fable, its pages left to gather dust in museum display cases alongside ancient Egyptian mummies. These texts remind us that the Dhamma is not an artifact but a practice, and that we belong to a long line of seekers who have endeavored, through patient practice, to keep these teachings alive.

Second, almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books. Though the archaeological evidence from that era is scant and the Tipitaka itself contains only a handful of passages describing events that followed the Buddha's death1, the commentaries and chronicles contain a wealth of historical information with which we are able to partially reconstruct the early history of Buddhism. The texts illuminate a host of important historical events and trends: how the Tipitaka came to be preserved orally; when it was first written down, and why; how the Tipitaka came close to extinction; how the Buddha's teachings spread across south Asia; how and when the various schools and factions within Buddhism arose; and so on. But these are not just idle concerns for the amusement of academicians. Any practitioner, of any century, stands to benefit from understanding how the early Buddhists lived, how they put the Buddha's teachings into practice, what challenges they faced; we stand to learn from those who have gone before. And there are other lessons to be learned from history. For example, knowing that it was the actions of just a few individuals that averted the extinction of the Tipitaka2 reminds us that it is ultimately up to individuals like ourselves to safeguard the teachings today. Without the post-canonical texts important lessons like these — if not the Tipitaka itself — might have been lost forever in the mists of time.

Third, these texts — particularly the commentaries — help us make sense of the suttas and give us clues about their context that we might otherwise miss. For example, the famous Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) is popularly cited today as evidence that all one needs to achieve Awakening is a week or two of unrelenting mindfulness practice. But the commentary (Papañcasudani) suggests another viewpoint. It explains that the Buddha's audience for this particular discourse (the villagers of Kammasadammam) were already well established in their practice of mindfulness and virtue. They were not coming to meditation practice "cold" but were, in fact, unusually well prepared to receive this deep teaching — a point not apparent from the text of the sutta itself. The commentary thus reminds us that there are some important fundamentals to be developed before one undertakes intensive meditation practice.

Finally, the commentaries often contain magnificent stories to illustrate and amplify upon points of Dhamma that are made in the suttas. For example, Dhp 114 takes on a much richer meaning in light of the commentary's background story — the famous parable of Kisagotami and the mustard seed.3 Commentarial stories like this one (and there are many more) offer valuable Dhamma teachings in their own right.

The authority of the texts

One might reasonably wonder: how can a collection of texts written a thousand years after the Buddha's death possibly represent his teachings reliably? How can we be sure they aren't simply derivative works, colored by a host of irrelevant cultural accretions? First of all, although many of these texts were indeed first written in Pali a thousand years after the Buddha, most Sinhala versions upon which they were based were written much earlier, having themselves been passed down via an ancient and reliable oral tradition. But (one might object) mustn't those early texts themselves be suspect, since they are based only on hearsay? Perhaps, but by this argument we should reject the entire oral tradition — and hence the entire Tipitaka itself, which similarly emerged from an oral tradition long after the Buddha's death. Surely that is taking things too far.

But what of the credentials of the commentators themselves: can their words be trusted? In addition to living a monastic life immersed in Dhamma, the compilers of the commentaries possessed unimpeachable literary credentials: intimate acquaintance with the Tipitaka, mastery of the Pali and Sinhala languages, and expert skill in the art of careful scholarship. We have no reason to doubt either their abilities or the sincerity of their intentions.

And what of their first-hand understanding of Dhamma: if the commentators were scholars first and foremost, would they have had sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on the subject of meditation? This is more problematic. Perhaps commentators like Buddhaghosa had enough time (and accumulated merit) both for mastering meditation and for their impressive scholarly pursuits; we will never know. But it is noteworthy that the most significant discrepancies between the Canon and its commentaries concern meditation — in particular, the relationship between concentration meditation and insight.4 The question of the authority of the post-canonical texts thus remains a point of controversy within Theravada Buddhism.

It is important to remember that the ultimate function of the post-canonical texts is — like that of the Tipitaka itself — to assist the student in the quest for nibbana, the highest goal of Buddhist practice. Concerns about authorship and authority recede when the texts are subjected to the same healthy skeptical attitude and empirical approach that should be familiar to every student of the suttas. If a commentary sheds light on a murky corner of a sutta or helps us understand a subtle point of Vinaya or of Abhidhamma, or if the chronicles remind us that we hold the future history of Dhamma in our hands, then to that extent they help us clear the path ahead. And if they can do even that much, then — no matter who wrote them and from whence they came — these texts will have demonstrated an authority beyond reproach.5

A Field Guide

In the following guide, I have arranged the most popular post-canonical titles thematically and by date (Common Era). Authors' names are followed by the date of authorship (if known). The authors of these texts were all monks, but for the sake of concision, I have dropped the honorific "Ven." from their names. Each non-commentarial title is followed by a brief description. Many of these descriptions were lifted verbatim from other sources (see Sources, below). Page numbers from these sources are given in the braces {}. Most of these titles have been published in romanized Pali by the Pali Text Society (PTS); the few for which English translations are available are noted with a dagger (†), followed by the translator, date of translation, and publisher.

For the purposes of this guide, the post-canonical texts may be grouped into the following categories:

Commentaries and Sub-commentaries

Source Text Commentary
VINAYA PITAKA Samantapasadika (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Vajirabuddhi-tika (Vajirabuddhi; 11-12th c.)
Saratthadipani (Sariputta; 12th c.)
Vimativinodani (Mahakassapa of Cola; 12th c.)
    Patimokkha Kankhavitarani (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Vinayatthamañjusa (Buddhanaga; 12th c.)

    Digha Nikaya Sumangalavilasini (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Dighanikaya-tika (Dhammapala; 6th c.)
    Majjhima Nikaya Papañcasudani (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Majjhimanikaya-tika (Dhammapala; 6th c.)
    Samyutta Nikaya Saratthappakasini (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Samyuttanikaya-tika (Dhammapala; 6th c.)
    Anguttara Nikaya Manorathapurani (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) Saratthamañjusa-tika (Sariputta; 12th c.)
    Khuddaka Nikaya
        Khuddakapatha Paramatthajotika (I) (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) -
        Dhammapada Dhammapada-atthakatha (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) †(E.W. Burlingame, 1921, PTS) -
        Udana Paramatthadipani (I)/Udana-atthakatha
(Dhammapala; 6th c.)
        Itivuttaka Paramatthadipani (II)/Itivuttaka-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
        Suttanipata Paramatthajotika (II)/Suttanipata-atthakatha (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) -
        Vimanavatthu Paramatthadipani (III)/Vimanavatthu-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
        Petavatthu Paramatthadipani (IV)/Petavatthu-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
        Theragatha Paramatthadipani (V)/Theragatha-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
        Therigatha Paramatthadipani (VI)/Therigatha-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
        Jataka Jatakatthavannana/Jataka-atthakatha (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) †(various, 1895, PTS) -
        Niddesa Sadhammapajotika (Upasena; 5th c.) -
        Patisambhidamagga Sadhammappakasini (Mahanama; 6th c.) -
        Apadana Visuddhajanavilasini (unknown) -
        Buddhavamsa Madhuratthavilasini (Buddhadatta; 5th c.) †(I.B. Horner, 1978, PTS) -
        Cariyapitaka Paramatthadipani (VII)/Cariyapitaka-atthakatha (Dhammapala; 6th c.) -
No commentaries exist for these books, which appear only the Burmese edition of the Tipitaka. See Nettipakarana, Petakopadesa, and Milindapañha, below.

    Dhammasangani Atthasalini (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) †(Pe Maung Tin, 1920, PTS) Linatthapada-vannana (Ananda Vanaratanatissa; 7-8th c.)
    Vibhanga Sammohavinodani (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.) †(U Narada, 1962, PTS) -
Pañcappakaranatthakatha (Buddhaghosa; 5th c.). This commentary covers all five books. English translations exist for the portions concerning the Katthavatthu †(B.C. Law, 1940, PTS), Dhatukatha †(U Narada, 1962, PTS), and Patthana †(U Narada, 1969, PTS) -

Quasi-canonical Texts

Chronicles and Historical Accounts

The Life of the Buddha

Abhidhamma Manuals



1. For example, DN 16, MN 108, and Vinaya Cullavagga XI and XII.

2. In the early decades of the 1st c. BCE in Sri Lanka — then the hub of Theravada Buddhist scholarship and monastic training — several forces combined that would threaten the continuity of the ancient oral tradition by which the Pali Tipitaka had been passed down from one generation of monks to the next. A rebellion against the king and invasions from south India forced many monks to flee the island. At the same time a famine of unprecedented proportions descended on the island for a dozen years. The commentaries recount heroic stories of monks who, fearing that the treasure of the Tipitaka might forever be lost, retreated to the relative safety of the south coast, where they survived only on roots and leaves, reciting the texts amongst themselves day and night. The continuity of the Tipitaka hung by a thread: at one point only one monk was able to recite the Niddesa. {PLL p. 76}

3. The commentary tells how Kisagotami, distraught by the death of her son, wandered in vain from door to door with his corpse in her arms, in search of a cure for his ailment. Finally she met the Buddha, who promised a cure if she would simply bring back a few mustard seeds from any household that had never been touched by death. Unable to find any such household, she soon came to her senses, understood the inevitability of death, and was at last able to let go of both the corpse and her grief. (The full story of Kisagotami's life is retold in Great Disciples of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997).)

4. See BR p.145.

5. See "'When you know for yourselves...': The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas," by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.


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