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Buddhism: Theravada: Primary Texts

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

The oldest and, for the Theravada tradition, still the most authoritative texts documenting Buddhist thought and belief were written in a dialect of Prakrit that came to be known as Pali. This Pali Canon comprises some fifty-five printed volumes in the original language, and falls into three major departments, known as pitaka ("baskets"). The first of these, the Vinaya Pitaka, contains the code governing monastic life, including rules for behavior, training, meditation, and devotion. The third "basket," the Abhidhamma, contains a systematic exposition of Buddhist doctrine in the form of a series of treatises, and postdates the Buddha by centuries.
The second department of the Canon and by far the most frequently read, the Sutta Pitaka, contains the suttas or "discourses," brief texts that purport to transcribe the authoritative words of the Buddha himself or his greatest disciples as they were first heard by the monks of the Sangha, or to reproduce conversations between the Buddha and the great brahmins and religious recluses of his day. We have no way of knowing for certain whether any sutta reproduces the Buddha's very words, as these texts were transmitted by oral tradition for several centuries before they were written down, and bear transparent traces of this process in their rigorously formulaic language and complex structures of verbal repetition, both of which serve as aids to memory in recitation. The exigencies of textual transmission, to which Western scriptures have equally been subject, have likely also affected the shape and meaning of these texts through many centuries. Nonetheless, the suttas paint a vivid and indelible picture - not only of an exceptional human being, his companions, and a moment in distant history, but above all of a fully realized path for human existence, one that looks upon life with eyes undimmed by illusion, responds humbly and candidly to what it sees, brings an astonishing fund of insight to bear on our most persistent problems and conflicts, and teaches others to do the same with language that is lively, concrete, and accessible.
On this page, you can discover the best available resources in English for studying the early Buddhist canon and Pali, its language. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within each gallery box are generally arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. Areas below select galleries highlight a few recent or especially notable works from the gallery immediately above.

The Standard English Translation of the Sutta Pitaka

Burmese Pali manuscript

Above: A Burmese-Pali palm-leaf manuscript of the Mahaniddesa, a Buddhist text, showing three different types of Burmese script: at top, medium square; in the center, round; and at bottom, outline round in red lacquer from inside one of the manuscript's gilded covers.

Individual Discourses and Anthologies from the Pali Canon

The Therīgāthā, composed more than two millennia ago, is an anthology of poems in the Pali language by and about the first Buddhist women. These women were therīs, the senior ones, among ordained Buddhist women, and they bore that epithet because of their religious achievements. The poems they left behind are arguably among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world and they are unmatched for their quality of personal expression and the extraordinary insight they offer into the lives of women in the ancient Indian past―and indeed, into the lives of women as such. This new version of the Therīgāthā, based on a careful reassessment of the major editions of the work and printed in the Roman script common for modern editions of Pali texts, offers the most powerful and the most readable translation ever achieved in English.

Holder Early Discourses cover artEarly Buddhist Discourses, edited & translated by John J. Holder. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Twenty discourses from the Pali Canon--including those most essential to the study and teaching of early Buddhism--are provided in fresh translations, accompanied by introductions that highlight the main themes and set the ideas presented in the context of wider philosophical and religious issues. Taken together, these fascinating works give an account of Buddhist teachings directly from the earliest primary sources. In his general introduction, Holder discusses the structure and language of the Pali Canon--its importance within the Buddhist tradition and the historical context in which it developed--and gives an overview of the basic doctrines of early Buddhism.

Vajira and Story Last Days cover artLast Days of the Buddha: The Mahaparinibbana Sutta, edited & translated by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2002.

On the stirring final journey of the Buddha, covering three months, he instructs his disciples on the elements needed to keep the Dhamma strong and stresses the importance of putting his teaching into practice.This translation of the Maha Parinibbana Sutta was originally done by Sister Vajira, a nun from Germany, in 1964, and was revised and refined by Francis Story. Notes were added at the time of revision (1988) by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera. Finally, this 2nd revised edition (1998) has been updated with stylistic changes that make the translation more modern.This is a small classic. This lucid translation of the story of the Buddha's final days and final instructions to his disciples should be in everyone's library.

Nyanaponika Heart of Buddhist Meditation cover artThe Heart of Buddhist Meditation: Satipatthana, A Handbook of Mental Training, edited & translated by Nyanaponika Thera. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1973.

This is a classic text on the essence of Buddhist meditation. It is an excellent, in-depth description of mindfulness practice and its benefits. It includes a concise explanation of clear comprehension, which is the kind of mindfulness you use in the course of your daily life. It also presents an easily understandable explanation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This new edition also includes an introduction from noted author and teacher Sylvia Boorstein. Although the Buddha lived over 2500 years ago, his teachings on meditation are among the most effective methods for healing the pain of grief, finding inner peace, and overcoming the sense of dislocation caused by living in the 21st century. Mindfulness is a method not only for committed Buddhists. It is for everyone interested in mastering the mind.

Abhidhamma: The Higher Teaching

The renowned Sri Lankan scholar Y. Karunadasa examines the Abhidhamma perspective on the nature of phenomenal existence. He begins with a discussion of dhamma theory, which provides the ontological foundation for Abhidhamma philosophy. He then explains the category of "the conceptual" as the Abhidhamma's answer to the objects of common-sense realism. Among the other topics discussed are the theory of double truth, the analysis of mind, the theory of cognition, the analysis of matter, the nature of time and space, the theory of momentary being, and conditional relations. Not limiting himself to abstract analysis, Karunadasa draws out the Abhidhamma's underlying premises and purposes. The Abhidhamma provides a detailed description of reality in order to identify all sources of suffering and thereby point to a complete cure for the problem of suffering.

Anuruddha Comprehensive cover artA Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha-sangaha by Acariya Anuruddha, edited & translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2003.

This modern translation of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Manual of Abhidhamma) offers an introduction to Buddhism's fundamental philosophical psychology. Originally written in the 11th or 12th century, the Sangaha has served as the key to wisdom held in the Abhidhamma. Concisely surveyed are Abhidhamma's central themes, including states of consciousness and mental factors, the functions and processes of the mind, the material world, dependent arising, and the methods and stages of meditation. This presents an exact translation of the Sangaha alongside the original Pali text. A detailed, explanatory guide with more than 40 charts and tables lead readers through the complexities of Adhidhamma.

Nyanaponika Abhidhamma Studies cover artAbhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time, 5th ed., by Nyanaponika Thera, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998.

The Abhidhamma, the third great division of early Buddhist teaching, expounds a revolutionary system of philosophical psychology rooted in the twin Buddhist insights of selflessness and dependent origination. In keeping with the liberative thrust of early Buddhism, this system organizes the entire spectrum of human consciousness around the two poles of Buddhist doctrine - bondage and liberation, Samsara and Nirvana - the starting point and the final goal. It thereby maps out, with remarkable rigour and precision, the inner landscape of the mind to be crossed through the practical work of Buddhist meditation. In this book of groundbreaking essays, Venerable Nyanaponika Thera, one of our age's foremost exponents of Theravada Buddhism, attempts to penetrate the formidable surface of the Abhidhamma and make its principles intelligible to the thoughtful reader of today. Basing his interpretation on the detailed list of mental factors that the Abhidhamma uses as a guide to psychological analysis, he launches into bold explorations in the multiple dimensions of conditionality, the nature of consciousness, the temporality of experience, and the psychological springs of spiritual transformation. Innovative and rich in insights, this book demonstrates the continuing relevance of Buddhist thought to our most astute contemporary efforts to understand the nature of the mind.

Frauwallner Studies cover artStudies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems by Erich Frauwallner. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

This volume offers an English translation of Frauwallner’s Abhidharmastudien. It analyzes the literary traditions, doctrinal tendencies, and structural methods of the Buddhist Abhidharma canon in order to expose the beginnings of systematic philosophical thought in Buddhism. Frauwallner’s insights illuminate the path of meditation toward liberation, the development of Buddhist psychology, and the evolution of the Buddhist view of causality and the problem of time. He provides a clear explanation of the gradual development of Buddhist thought from its early doctrinal beginning to some of the most complex and remarkable philosophical edifices in history.

The Dhammapada: A Beloved Collection of the Buddha's Utterances

Thai Buddhist manuscript

Above: A Thai Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript, pictured with a metal stylus used to separate pages or mark one's place. The cover boards are finely painted in gold on black lacquer with scrolling foliage. The fore-edge of the palm leaves is gilded with a center band of vermillion bordered with a delicately patterned motif. This manuscript was transcribed during the first half of the 19th century.

The Jataka: Tales of the Buddha's Past Lives

Jataka stories (stories about the previous births of the Buddha) are very popular in Theravada Buddhist countries, where they are found in both canonical texts and later compositions and collections, and are commonly used in sermons, children's books, plays, poetry, temple illustrations, rituals and festivals. Whilst at first glance many of the stories look like common fables or folktales, Buddhist tradition tells us that the stories illustrate the gradual path to perfection exemplified by the Buddha in his previous births, when he was a bodhisatta (buddha-to-be). Jataka stories have had a long and colourful history, closely intertwined with the development of doctrines about the Buddha, the path to buddhahood, and how Buddhists should behave now that the Buddha is no more. This book explores the shifting role of the stories in Buddhist doctrine, practice, and creative expression, finally placing this integral Buddhist genre back in the center of scholarly understandings of the religion.

Collins Readings Vessantara cover artReadings of the Vessantara Jataka, edited by Steven Collins. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

The Vessantara Jataka tells the story of Prince Vessantara, who attained the Perfection of Generosity by giving away his fortune, his children, and his wife. Vessantara was the penultimate rebirth of the future Gotama Buddha, and his extreme charity has been represented and reinterpreted in texts, sermons, rituals, and art throughout South and Southeast Asia and beyond. This anthology features well-respected anthropologists, textual scholars in religious and Buddhist studies, and art historians, who engage in sophisticated readings of the text and its ethics of giving, understanding of attachment and nonattachment, depiction of the trickster, and unique performative qualities. They reveal the story to be as brilliantly layered as a Homeric epic or Shakespearean play, with aspects of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and utopian fantasy intertwined to problematize and scrutinize Theravada Buddhism's cherished virtues.

Aryasura Once Buddha Monkey cover artOnce the Buddha Was a Monkey: The Jatakamala by Arya Sura, translated by Peter Khoroche. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Here is one of the most entertaining masterpieces of Sanskrit literature rendered in an English translation that fully captures the original's artistry and charm. Written most probably in the fourth century CE, the Jatakamala is generally considered the masterpiece of Buddhist literature in Sanskrit. In elegant, courtly style, Arya Sura retells thirty-four traditional stories about the Buddha in his previous incarnations, human and animal. Whether as a king, a brahmin, a monkey, or a hare, the Great One is shown in assiduous pursuit of virtue and compassion. Though primarily intended as exemplary tales illustrating the Buddhist virtues, these stories also provide a vivid picture of life at a high point in ancient Indian culture—city life in ordinary households or at the royal court, and country life against a backdrop of mountain, desert, and jungle. Fresh study of the Sanskrit manuscripts, now scattered in libraries all over the world, has enabled Peter Khoroche to make this new translation faithful to the original in both style and content. His explanatory notes will assist student and general reader alike in appreciating this classic from a rich ancient civilization.

Cowell Jataka Former Births cover artThe Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, edited & translated by E.B. Cowell inter alios. London, England: Luzac for the Pali Text Society, 1957.

In India, recollection of previous lives is a common feature in the histories of the saints and heroes of sacred tradition. Jataka stories, or birth-legends, were widely known in the third century B.C. Each story in the Pali Jataka, narrated by the Buddha, opens with a preface relating the particular circumstances in the Buddha's life, revealing some events in the long series of his previous existences as a bodhisattva. At the end of each tale, the Buddha identifies the different characters in the story in terms of their present identities, often individuals among his closest disciples. These stories magnify the glory of the Buddha and illustrate Buddhist doctrines and precepts by appropriate examples.

Other Important Primary Texts in the Theravada Tradition

This is the inaugural volume in a landmark translation series devoted to making the wealth of classical Indian Buddhism accessible to modern readers. The stories here, among the first texts to be inscribed by Buddhists, highlight the moral economy of karma, illustrating how gestures of faith, especially offerings, can bring the reward of future happiness and ultimate liberation. Originally contained in the Divyavadana, an enormous compendium of Sanskrit Buddhist narratives from the early Common Era, the stories in this collection express the moral and ethical impulses of Indian Buddhist thought and are a testament to the historical and social power of narrative. Long believed by followers to be the actual words of the Buddha himself, these divine stories are without a doubt some of the most influential stories in the history of Buddhism.

This selection of religious biographies from the early centuries C.E. offers a delightful introduction to a literary genre that has played an essential part in Buddhist self-understanding for over two thousand years. The Heavenly Exploits are Buddhist biographies drawn from the vast Sanskrit compendium of the Divyavadana. The worldly face of religious literature, these lively morality tales have inspired audiences across Asia for more than two millennia. This volume contains four of the thirty-eight Buddhist biographical stories in the Dívyávadana. Where religion meets the world, these tales present something for everyone.


Pali Literature: Scholarly Approaches

This selection of essays demonstrates that, in the study of Buddhism, a concern with philological accuracy can be combined with wider philosophical and sociological issues. The essays are divided into three parts: Pali Literature, The Theory and Practice of Not-Self, and Buddhism and Society. The last part builds on but goes beyond the work of Dumont and Max Weber in considering “world-renunciation” as a phenomenon of society and culture.

Blackstone Women in Footsteps cover artWomen in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the Therigatha by Kathryn R. Blackstone. New York: Routledge, 2013.

A detailed exploration of the quest for liberation on the part of the early bhikkunis (Buddhist nuns), this book treats the Therigatha, the only text in the Buddhist tradition of known female authorship. This work is Important to anyone investigating women's own perspectives on their religious beliefs and practices. Blackstone's book also provides a clear statement about how renunciants understand nibbana.

Webb and Nyanatusita cover artAn Analysis of the Pali Canon & A Reference Table of Pali Literature, edited by Russell Webb & Bhikkhu Nyanatusita. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2011.

The first part of this work offers a comprehensive overview of the contents of the works that make up the Tipitaka, the Theravada Canon, as well as an index of the suttas and sections of the Tipitaka and an extensive bibliography of the translations of canonical works and secondary literature. The second part of the book is an extensive list of all the works composed in the Indic language known as Pali. It lists all the works of the Tipitaka, the commentaries and subcommentaries, historical chronicles, works on medicine, cosmology, grammar, law, etc. It also gives data on the authors, time of composition, country of origin and includes references to secondary literature that provide more information on the works listed.

Chau Madhyama cover artThe Chinese Madhyama Agama and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya: A Comparative Study by Bhikshu Thich Minh Chau. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

This work presents an English translation of one important section in the Chinese version of the Sarvastivadin Canon - the Madhyama Agama - almost in its entirety. The Agama is dealt with very extensively, starting with the composition of the whole work as well as its division into vargas, or fascicles, corresponding to specific days for the recital of sutras. It also explains some differences in modern Buddhist practice on the basis of divergences between the Sarvastivadin and Theravadin textual canons.

Pali Language: Grammars & Dictionaries

Young Sri Lankan novices studying

Above: A pair of novice Theravada monks read in their schoolroom in Kandy, Sri Lanka.