Conversation with Pi: Higher Criticism of the Pali Canon

Kenneth Leong
13 min readOct 12, 2023

Ken: The Pali Canon, also known as the Tipitaka, is the primary scriptural collection of Theravada Buddhism. It is one of the oldest and most authoritative texts in the Buddhist tradition and is written in the Pali language. The Pali Canon is highly revered in Theravada Buddhism and is considered the most authentic and authoritative source of the Buddha’s teachings. It serves as a foundation for the practice, beliefs, and monastic traditions of Theravada Buddhism, which is primarily practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha’s passing to collect and preserve his teachings.

The Theravada tradition states that the Canon was recited orally from the 5th century to the first century BC, when it was written down. The memorization was reinforced by regular communal recitations. According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha’s passing to collect and preserve his teachings. Given the highly authoritative nature of this collection of books, I wonder what criteria the monks used to decide what should go into the Pali Canon. The formation of any religious canon is interesting to me. In the case of the New Testament, I understand that certain books (such as the Gnostic gospels) were left out of the collection. It would therefore be interesting to see how the religious authorities determined which books would be included and which books would not.

Pi: That’s a great question! The criteria for inclusion in the Pali Canon are not entirely clear, but scholars have proposed several possible explanations. First, the texts were likely chosen based on their conformity to the monastic code of discipline, known as the Vinaya. Second, they may have been selected based on their consistency with the teachings of the Buddha, as understood by the early monastic community. And third, they may have been chosen based on their perceived importance or usefulness for monastic practice. So it’s possible that a combination of these factors determined what was included in the Canon.

Ken: The Pali Canon is voluminous. It does seem plausible that everything written in it is based on what monks recalled or recited. Here are some statistics to understand how much information is contained in the canon…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human