Introduction to the selections
from Theravāda Buddhism


The passages marked ‘Th.’ in this book represent the textual tradition of the Theravāda school of Buddhism. The canonical literature of the Theravāda school is preserved in the Pāli language, which in its present form cannot be entirely identified with any known ancient spoken language of India, although it has many linguistic characteristics common to the ancient Indo-Aryan group of languages, both literary and spoken, and has the principal linguistic characteristics of Middle Indian Prākrits. It was exclusively adopted by the Buddhists of the Theravāda school to preserve what they determined to be the word of the Buddha, and came to be known as ‘Pāli’, probably because it was the language of their most authoritative texts, as the word li means ‘text’ or ‘scripture’. For Theravāda Buddhists, the Pāli Canon is considered the authoritative foundation for Buddhist doctrines as well as for the disciplinary rules and regulations adopted in the homeless mode of life of the community of monks and nuns who claim a Theravāda identity.

2  The content of the Pāli Canon

The Pāli Canon consists of three large collections or piakas, literally ‘baskets’, and so is also known as the Tipiaka (‘Three baskets’; in Skt, Tripiaka), a term also used by other early schools for their collection of texts. The contents of the Pāli Canon are:

  • Vinaya-piaka: the collection on monastic discipline, primarily promulgated by the Buddha himself, with rules of individual discipline, and monastic regulations to ensure the sincerity of commitment to the goals of the community of monks and nuns, as well as to ensure harmonious community living so as to facilitate the achievement of these very goals of the holy It also contains a small amount of narrative material and teachings.
  • Sutta-piaka: the collection of ‘discourses’, which gives the teachings of the Buddha and some of his leading disciples, delivered on a variety of occasions. It is organized into five nikāyas, or collections: the Dīghanikāya, or ‘Long Collection’ of 34 discourses (3 ); the Majjhima- nikāyaor ‘Middle Length Collection’ of 152 discourses (3 vols.); the Sayutta-nikāyaor ‘Connected Collection’ of 7,762 discourses, grouped in fifty-six sections (sayutta) according to subject matter (5 vols.); the Aguttara-nikāyaor ‘Numerical Collection’ of 9,550 discourses, grouped according to the number of items occurring in lists (from one to eleven) which the discourses deal with (5 vols.); the Khuddaka-nikāya, or ‘Small Collection’ of 15 miscellaneous texts in 20 volumes, many in verse form, which contain both some of the earliest and some   of the latest material in the Canon. The 15 texts are: (a) the Khuddaka-haa short collection of ‘Little Readings’ for recitation; (b) the Dhammapadaor ‘Verses on Dhamma’a popular collection of 423 pithy verses of a largely ethical nature. Its popularity is reflected in the many times it has been translated into Western languages; (c) the Udānaeighty short suttas based on inspired ‘Paeans of Joy’; (d) the Itivuttaka, or ‘As it Was Said’: 112 short suttas(e) the Sutta- nipātathe ‘Group of Discourses’, a collection of 71 verse suttas, including some possibly very early material such as the Aṭṭhaka-vagga; (f) the Vimānavatthu‘Stories of the Mansions’, on heavenly rebirths; (g) the Petavatthu‘Stories of the Departed’, on ghostly rebirths; (h) the Theragāthā‘Elders’ Verses’, telling how a number of early monks attained arahantship; (i) the Therīgāthā, the same as (h), for nuns; (j) the Jātakaa collection of 547 ‘Birth Stories’ of previous lives of the Buddha, with the aim of illustrating points of morality and the heroic qualities of the developing bodhisatta – the full stories are told in the commentary, based on verses, which are canonical, and together they comprise 6 volumes – while this is a relatively late portion of the Canon, probably incorporating many Indian folk tales, it is extremely popular and is often used in sermons; (k) the Niddesaan ‘Exposition’ on part of (e); (l) the Paisambhidā maggaan abhidhamma-style analysis of certain points of doctrine (2 vols.); (m) the Apadāna‘Stories of Actions and Their Results’ on past and present lives of monks and nuns in (h) and i), with some brief material on the Buddha and solitary-buddhas); (n) Buddha-vasa‘Chronicle of the Buddhas’, on 24 previous Buddhas; (o) the Cariyā-piaka‘Basket of Conduct’, on the conduct of Gotama in previous lives, building up the ‘perfections’ of a bodhisatta as he worked towards Buddhahood. The tradition in Burma/Myanmar also includes in the Khuddaka-nikāya: (p) the Sutta-sagaha, ‘Compendium of Discourses’; (q and r) the Peakopadesa‘Piṭaka Disclosure’, and Nettippakaraa‘The Guide’, both attributed to Kaccāna Thera and aimed at commentary writers, (s) the Milindapañha‘Milinda’s Questions’: discussions between King Milinda and Nāgasena Thera.
  • Abhidhamma-piaka: the collection of ‘Further teachings’, is a scholastic literature which primarily extracts and systematizes the key teachings of the suttas in terms of a detailed analysis of human experience into a set of dhammas or impersonal basic processes, mental or It consists of seven books out of which the Dhammasagai, Vibhaga, Dhātukathā and Yamaka are devoted to the analysis and classification of dhammasthe Puggalapaññatti to the categorization of character types according to ethical and spiritual qualities, and the last and most voluminous book, the Paṭṭhāna, to showing how the analysed and classified dhammas condition each other’s arisingThe fifth book (Kathāvatthu), which deals with a refutation of non-Thervāda Buddhist views, is probably the latest addition to the Abhidhamma-piaka. Unlike the Sutta-piaka, all the texts included in this Piaka assume a highly technical language and style.

The Sutta-piaka primarily consists of material also found in the collections of other early Buddhist schools, though its fifth nikāya contains some abhidhamma-like material (l) that is particular to the Theravāda school. The core of the Vinaya-piaka is shared with other vinaya collections. Most of the Th. passages in this book come from the Sutta-piaka. Apart from the canonical scriptures there is a vast body of commentarial and sub-commentarial Theravāda literature as well as other post- canonical doctrinal texts that developed in the Theravāda tradition. All the L. and Th. passages are translated from texts in the Pāli language.

3  The development of the Pāli and other early Canons

The Vinaya-piaka of the Theravāda canon gives an account of the first Buddhist council that gained official recognition in the history of Buddhism, in which the teachings of the Buddha (Dhamma) and the disciplinary rules and regulations laid down by him (vinaya) were agreed upon at an assembly of five hundred senior disciples of the Buddha, and communally recited. This council, held about three months after the passing away of the Buddha, may be considered as the most significant event in the scriptural history of Buddhism. The fact that such a council was held is accepted by all existing schools of Buddhism. However, the teachings of the Buddha could have been agreed upon, and to a considerable degree systematised, even before this officially recognized council. Such an observation is supported by the internal evidence in the Buddhist scriptural tradition that shows the early existence of some of the sections of the Sutta-nipāta of the Pāli Canon, and the reference in the Sagīti Sutta (Dīghanikāya III.210–11) to an attempt by the disciples of the Buddha to come together to agree upon an orderly classification of the Dhamma taught by the Buddha following a numerical method.

Originally, the agreed-on texts were in oral form, passed on by carefully organised communal chanting, as writing was little used in ancient India. The Pāli Canon was one of the earliest to be written down, this being in Sri Lanka in around 20 BCE, after which little, if any, new material was added to it. There also survive sections of six non-Theravāda early canons preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations, fragments of a Sanskrit canon still existing in Nepal, and odd texts in various languages of India and Central Asia found in Tibet, Central Asia, and Japan. The Pāli Canon which survives to the present day, as probably the most authoritative and complete ancient scripture of the Buddhist tradition, is a body of Buddhist literature that developed as a consequence of the agreements reached at the first council. Although bodies of canonical scripture were also preserved by other early Buddhist traditions, these now exist only in a few surviving texts in any Indian language, or more fully, but again incompletely, in Chinese or Tibetan translations.

Among the early Buddhist schools, an influential non-Theravāda one was the Sarvāstivāda, and recent studies have shown that their Sanskritised sūtra/sutta collection is closely comparable with the Sutta-piaka of the Pāli Canon. The original Sanskrit version of this canon was lost many centuries ago, and what remains of it today are only a few fragmentary manuscripts discovered recently through archaeological excavations. However, this alternative version, along with sections of other early collections, has been preserved in the Tibetan and especially Chinese languages from at least about the third or fourth centuries C.E., making it possible for modern researchers to engage in a serious comparative study of the different versions. The close similarity in the ideological content of the suttas preserved in the five nikāyas of the Pāli Canon and the sūtras of the four āgamas (Chinese translations of parallels to the first four nikāyas) and other minor canonical texts of the Chinese and Tibetan Canons, shows that this sutta/sūtra literature belongs to an early period when Buddhism was undivided on sectarian lines. Many of the minor differences within and between canons can be seen to be due to the way in which oral traditions always produce several different permutations of essentially the same story or teachings. The abhidhammas (Skt abhidharma) of the different Buddhist canonical traditions do not have the same degree of closeness and similarity in respect of doctrinal content. Therefore, it is reasonable to maintain that most of the Th. selections made to represent the teachings of the Buddha have a high probability of being attributable to the historical Buddha himself.

Most of the teachings of the Pāli suttas are the common property of all Buddhist schools, being simply the teachings which the Theravādins preserved from the early common stock. While parts of the Pāli Canon clearly originated after the time of the Buddha, much must derive from his teachings. There is an overall harmony to the Canon, suggesting ‘authorship’ of its system of thought by one mind. As the Buddha taught for forty-five years, some signs of development in teachings may only reflect changes during this period.

4  Later Pāli texts

Of course, some later texts have been very influential on Theravāda Buddhists, and so a few passages from these have also been included to give a representative impression of the tradition. The most important of these are the Milindapañha (‘Milinda’s Questions’), included in the Pāli Canon by the Burmese tradition (item (s) above), and the Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’). The first purports to record conversations between a Buddhist monk and a king of Greek heritage in North-west India, Menander (c. 155–130 BCE), in which the monk answers the king’s questions on key Buddhist concepts. The second is by Buddhaghosa, a fifth century CE commentator, and is a manual of meditation and doctrine that has had a shaping influence on how Theravādins came to interpret earlier texts. The jātaka stories on past lives of the Buddha as a bodhisatta have verses which are canonical, but the full stories, much cited in sermons, are fleshed out in the commentaries.

Popular stories also come from the commentary to the Dhammapada. Its stories describe situations in which the Buddha taught and interacted with his disciples and struggling meditators. Although they are dated late for Theravāda texts – at around the sixth century BCE – they tell stories which would probably have been recounted for a long time. The Dhammapada verses that are associated with them are very early and we do not know at what stage their stories become linked with them. The tales are important, and have longstanding popularity amongst the laity, as they communicate a very human sympathy and engagement as meditators struggle, often over several lifetimes, with various problems and tendencies that bring unhappiness, but which in the end are overcome (see the story of the goldsmith’s son in the introduction to *L.33). The perspective of many lifetimes and the way the Buddha guides them on their individual meditative journeys demonstrate the way meditation practices were seen as carefully geared to specific individuals. The teacher and the meditator work together to find results, even after many apparent failures.

5  The selected passages and their sources

The Th. selections, drawn primarily from the Pāli Canon, represent not only the teachings of the Buddha meant for monastics who have renounced the world but also for the ordinary layperson who wishes to lead a happy, contented and harmonious life guided by ethical and religious ideals based on reason and empathetic awareness. They cover diverse aspects directly relevant to successful day- to-day living, such as a rational basis for moral action, principles for a sound social and political culture, sound counsel pertaining to friendship and family life in the context of the life of laypeople, as well as instructions on meditation and wisdom relating to the cultivation of greater awareness and more skilful mental states, leading on to the attainment of what the Buddha’s teachings regard as the highest goal and greatest good. Broadly speaking, Theravāda teachings concern: good and bad karma (intentional action) and the results these lead to in this and later rebirths; the practice-aspects of ethical discipline, meditation and wisdom; the four Truths of the Noble Ones (see*L.27), usually called ‘Noble Truths’, on the painful, unsatisfactory aspects of life, what causes these, the transcending of these and their causes, and the noble eightfold path to this goal, nirvana.

The references indicated at the end of each Th. (and L.) passage are to editions of the texts by the UK-based the Pali Text Society (PTS; founded 1881) (, which is the version most often referred to by Buddhist Studies scholars around the world.[1]Note that the Pali Text Society has two editions of volume I of the Saṃyutta-nikāya; in this book, references to this are given to the pagination in the older edition, followed by the pagination … Continue reading The English translations of the selected Th. passages have benefited from many other existing translations of the canonical suttas, but are not direct borrowings from them. An attempt has been made to provide original translations considered by the main author of this section to be the most appropriate. The book’s editor, Peter Harvey, has also added some passages selected and translated by himself, to enhance the range of topics covered.

6  Key Theravāda ideas

One group of key Theravāda teachings come under the headings of rebirth and karma, as with other forms of Buddhism. Our short human life is seen as simply the most recent in a series of countless lives, without discernible beginning. In the past, we have sometimes been human, but sometimes been various kinds of long-lived yet mortal divine beings; together, these form the more pleasant, good rebirths. Sometimes, though, we have been in less pleasant, bad rebirths: as various kind of animals (including birds, fishes, or insects); as hungry ghosts, dominated by attachment and greed; or as hell-beings experiencing nightmarish existences for prolonged periods. Human rebirth is seen to bring more freedom of choice and the possibility of pursuing moral and spiritual development.

The specifics of our wandering from life to life are not seen as either random or determined by a God, but by the nature of our intentional action, or karma. Actions arising from greed, hatred or delusion are seen to sow seeds in the mind that naturally mature in unpleasant experiences in one of the lower rebirths (but beings in these have unexpended fruits of good actions, which will in time help them back to a good rebirth). Actions arising from generosity, kindness and wisdom are seen to sow seeds maturing in the more pleasant experiences of the human and divine realms.

The Buddha accepted many kinds of heavenly rebirths, populated by gods (devas). The beings of the first six heavens (listed near the end of *L.27), like humans and beings of sub-human rebirths, belong to the realm of ‘sensual desire’ (kāma), where perception is coloured by sensual pleasures or their lack – these heavens are attained by practising generosity and ethical discipline. Then there are various heavens of the realm of elemental or pure ‘form’ (rūpa), in which things are perceived more clearly – these realms are reached by having attained meditative absorptions (jhāna). The beings of these levels are sometimes as a group referred to as brahmās, and the highest five of these heavens are the ‘pure abodes’, in which the only inhabitants are non-returner disciples, who are almost arahants (awakened beings) and the arahants that they then become (though most arahants live at the human level). Beyond all these heavens are the four worlds of the ‘formless’ (arūpa) realm, beyond perception of anything related to the five senses, and attained by deep meditative states of the same name as the heavens: the infinity of space, the infinity of consciousness, nothingness, and neither- perception-nor-non-perception.

Yet all such lives sooner or later end in death, and further rebirths, according to the nature of one’s actions. Sometimes the next rebirth is as good as or better than the last, sometimes worse. Hence one should not just aim for good future rebirths, but to transcend the cycle of lives – ‘wandering on’ (sasāra) in repeated birth and death – by the attainment of nirvana (Pāli nibbāna, Skt nirvāa). This brings in the next main heading of teachings: the four ‘Truths of the Noble Ones’[2]A more common, though somewhat misleading translation is ‘Noble Truths’. (see *L.27). These are four aspects of existence that the wise and spiritually ennobled are attuned to. The first is the physically and mentally painful aspects of life: its stresses, frustrations and limitations. The second is the craving, grasping and clinging that greatly add to the stresses of life, and drive one on to further rebirths, and their limitations. The third is nirvana, as that aspect of reality that lies beyond all such stresses as it is experienced through the cessation of such craving. The fourth is the path to this end of craving: the noble eightfold path, a way of happiness. The practice of this path is a gradual one that encompasses the cultivation of ethical discipline, meditation and wisdom, guided by the Buddha’s teachings.

Most Theravāda Buddhists remain laypeople, but a significant minority become monks or nuns, with opportunities for a more sustained practice of the path, as well as being key preservers and teachers of the tradition.

People aim initially at a happier, more harmonious life, and good rebirths, but have as their highest goal nirvana: liberation from the round of rebirths. The stages to this consist of being a true disciple (sāvaka, literally ‘hearer’) of the noble ones or noble one (the Buddha) who attains the spiritual breakthroughs of becoming a stream-enterer (who has only seven more rebirths at most), a once-returner (whose future rebirths include only one more as a human or lower god), a non- returner (who has no more rebirths at lower than the level of the elemental form heavens), and then finally an arahant (who has no further rebirths). These four, with those firmly on the immediate path to each of these states, are the eight ‘noble persons’.[3]On which, see passage *Th.201.

However, other noble persons are also recognised: a perfectly awakened Buddha (Pāli sammā– sambuddha) and a solitary-buddha (Pāli, pacceka-buddha, see *LI.3, above). The first is, like Gotama Buddha, one who, when knowledge of the Dhamma had been lost to human society, rediscovers it and teaches it to others and establishes a community of disciples (Majjhima-nikāya III.8). The path to this is hugely long, over many many lives of building up spiritual perfections and inspired by meetings with past perfectly awakened Buddhas.

The solitary-buddha is one who, unlike an arahant, attains liberation without being taught by a perfectly awakened Buddha, also after a long path, but who teaches others only to small extent. Solitary-buddhas are described as ‘without longing, who individually have come to right awakening’ and as ‘great seers who have attained final nirvana’ (Majjhima-nikāya III.68–71). A person becomes a solitary-buddha by insight into impermanence and the folly of attachment, this arising from seeing such things as withered leaf falling, a mango tree ruined by greedy people, birds fighting over a piece of meat, and bulls fighting over a cow (Jātaka III.239, III.377, V.248).

Arahants are sometimes known as disciple-buddhas (Pāli sāvaka-buddha). They practise the teachings of a perfectly awakened Buddha so as to destroy their attachment, hatred and delusion and fully realize nirvana. They awaken to the same truths known by a perfectly awakened Buddha (see *L.27), and usually teach others, but lack additional knowledges that a perfectly awakened Buddha has, such as an unlimited ability to remember past lives (Visuddhimagga 411). A perfectly awakened Buddha is himself described as an arahant, but is more than this alone.

A Theravāda verse commonly chanted as a blessing, from the Mahā-jayamagala Gāthā, is: ‘By the power obtained by all Buddhas and of solitary-buddhas, and by the glory of arahants, I secure a protection in all ways.’ In his Visuddhimagga (I.33, p.13), the Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa makes clear that the goal of being a perfectly awakened Buddha is a higher one than being an arahant: ‘the virtue of the perfections established for the sake of the liberation of all beings is superior’. Mahāyāna traditions hold up perfectly awakened Buddhahood as the goal that all should seek, by compassionately taking the hugely-long path to this, as a bodhisatta (Pāli, Skt bodhisattva), so as to have the qualities of a great teacher. The Theravāda, though, sees perfect Buddhahood as a goal only for the heroic few. As the path to it is a very demanding one, it is not seen as appropriate (or even    not compassionate) to expect most people to take it. The Theravāda sees it as best for people to aim for arahantship, and benefit from the teachings that the historical Buddha rediscovered and spent 45 years teachingNevertheless, a few Theravādins do see themselves as on the long bodhisatta path, with the focus of their practice being on compassionate help for others.

P.D. Premasiri Peter Harvey


1 Note that the Pali Text Society has two editions of volume I of the Sayutta-nikāya; in this book, references to this are given to the pagination in the older edition, followed by the pagination in the newer one, shown in <> brackets.
2 A more common, though somewhat misleading translation is ‘Noble Truths’.
3 On which, see passage *Th.201.

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