Are the Buddha's words the source of the Pali Canon? What evidence is there of the Pali Canon's origin? What do scholars say?

  • 1
    Is this question different than e.g. Finding Authentic Suttas?
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2015 at 18:16
  • 1
    The question of "What do scholars say" might be partially answered by this answer, which says, "There is no external evidence for the Buddhist texts before Asoka".
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2015 at 18:19
  • The texts themselves are external evidence ...What's external evidence?
    – Lowbrow
    May 31, 2016 at 6:59
  • I thinks that "external evidence" is a term that historians use. For example, imagine there were a piece of paper which says, "This paper was written in 10,000 BC" or "The author of this paper lived for 700 years." Those statements are in (i.e. they are internal to) the paper in question. Asking for any "external evidence" for those statement means asking for evidence outside or apart from that paper. E.g. is there any archaeological evidence that supports those statement? Or any written history from other independent sources (e.g. mentions by neighboring cultures)?
    – ChrisW
    May 31, 2016 at 10:58
  • Yes, the texts can have "external evidence" I think because of unintentional patterns in the words especially when compared to the Agamas. Scholars who attempt to measure the authenticity can tell things just from the grammar, frequency of certain words and the Pali Canon's relativity to other documents as well as relativity to itself.
    – Lowbrow
    May 31, 2016 at 20:13

5 Answers 5


I encourage you to read the following: Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts.

In this work, their project is to investigate the question of authencity systematically. In that, the approach is quiet academic and might be to your liking.

Page 7, they state a feature of the early Buddhist texts:

The Buddha’s presence as a living figure in the EBTs is overwhelming and unmistakable. It stands in stark contrast with all other Buddhist literature, where the Buddha has faded to legend.

Page 8, they assert that, although they accord with the meaning of Buddha Dharma... > We are not denying the obvious fact that the texts bear all the marks > of redaction and editing, and that they have been optimised for the > oral tradition.
Page 151, they state what we owe to the early Buddhist texts: > We know when the Buddha lived, where he lived, who he associated with, > how he lived, and what he taught. We know these things with greater > certainty than for almost any other historical figure from a > comparable period. And we know this because of the EBTs. All other > historical and archaeological information about the period depends on > the EBTs to make sense.

Their overall conclusion is that although the Pali canon "bears the marks of redaction and editing", the meaning accord with the intent of the Buddha. Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali expose various argument (sorted out by chapters, that all constitute different angles: geographical, historical, and so forth) in order to highlight the proximity between what is written in the Pali canon and what the Buddha [presumably] said.


You can find a scholar to support almost any view, but the consensus seems to be that the Pali Canon - the only complete version of the early Canon that has survived to the present day - originated shortly after the passing on (parinibbana) of the Buddha (circa 400 BCE); continued to be collected, edited, and revised at least until the middle of the third century BCE, when it achieved its final Pali form more or less; was written down in the first century BCE; and continued to be copied over the intervening centuries, perhaps with fairly minor changes and, of course, errors of transcription, till it was codified during the Fifth Buddhist Council in 1871 and again in 1954.

No definitive critical edition of the Pali Canon has been produced in accordance with Western scholarly criteria, though I believe one is in the early stages of development.

Many scholars consider the first four nikayas - the Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyyuta Nikaya, and Anguttara Nikaya - to be the most ancient and essential parts of the Canon, along with the Vinaya perhaps, but nothing in the Pali Canon should be considered to be the literal Buddhavacana ("Word of the Buddha") and all of the suttas of the Pali Canon represent an indiscriminate mixture of early and late textual traditions.

Some people think that the parables of the Buddha are the most authentic, much as some Biblical scholars think that the parables of Yeshua (Jesus) are the most authentic.

The shortest interval between the Buddha's death and the earliest date for the codification of the Canon is about 150 years, which would correspond to the year 180 in terms of the development of the Christian scriptural tradition for comparison. This is the age of the early Church fathers and well after the period of the canonical gospels of the New Testament. Thus, the Pali Canon incorporates the Buddha's original teachings subject to at least five (or eight) "generations" (but only two lifetimes) of interpretation, codification, and exegesis, arising out of an historical process that was clearly contentious from the very beginning.

While Pali linguists can distinguish later from earlier texts to some extent, no one can accurately identify the "original teachings" of the Buddha based on any kind of objective heuristic, and those who pretend to do so are usually pursuing a sectarian agenda. Moreover, the simplistic equation of lateness with wrongness is a grossly naive hermeneutic, comparable to the discredited notion of "authorial intent."

Per contra, the view of those who maintain that the Pali Canon is actually recent, based on the paucity of early mss., is also untenable, since many Pali texts were translated into fairly early Chinese, Tibetan, and even Sanskrit versions that correspond quite well with the Pali texts. Although each of the early schools had its own canon, they all seemed to share and accept a common collection of suttas that were very similar to each other and to the Pali suttas that we have today in the Pali Canon.

Another relevant point is that the Pali language is not the language actually spoken by the Buddha, but is a hybrid artificial language developed by the early monastics to preserve the teachings of the Buddha and communicate with each other, which clearly indicates that the Canon originated as a result of cultural and geographical differentiation. Scholars generally consider Pali to be closely related to the language of the Buddha, however. Pali linguists have identified earlier and later meanings of certain Pali words that can be used to "date" the texts that contain them, and to a limited extent elucidate their meaning.

The Canon also travelled from north-east India to Sri Lanka through successive phases - first, a westward expansion, then moving south and finally into Sri Lanka, during which it presumably picked up cultural influences from western India, south-western India, and Sri Lanka itself. It was also preserved by monastics, so we may assume that it was influenced by this fact as well.

Finally, every point in this summary will be disputed by someone!

  • I'm surprised to read your remark, that "Pali .. is a .. artificial language .. developed by the early monastics...". I always understood, that Pali was an (artificial) language, but with a more similar function like the Kisuaheli in East africa, which is also somehow "artificial" but spoken by many people and used for commercial, governmental and general purposes. And thus I thought Pali was more generally used than only by monasteries (and possibly their environment). Could you kindly provide some more insight? Apr 13, 2016 at 6:28
  • My understanding is what I have written.The vernacular languages from which Pali was developed were presumably used for broader than monastic purposes. It's an interesting question, but I havent encountered any discussion to that effect. Of course, I havent read everything so its always possible to find new information. If you do, let me know.
    – user4970
    Apr 13, 2016 at 14:30
  • Hmm, I see in the (english) wikipedia, that I might have gotten that idea by reading something from Rhys Davids or Wilhelm Geiger. It is stated that there's no consent yet, what characteristic that Pali-language had, so I assume it is indeed still open... If I should find something more, I'll add it here in a new comment. Apr 13, 2016 at 14:57
  • The following video gives a very good summary of the orthodox Theravadin view of the origin and preservation of the Pali Canon, some of it I suspect from outside the PC itself. Note: I am not stating that I agree with this presentation, only offering it as a point of interest. youtube.com/watch?v=e9HSraZiBiY
    – user4970
    May 30, 2016 at 14:32
  • 1
    Thank you, Alexander. The actual question of Pali being a language is at minute 34 to 37 in the movie. May 30, 2016 at 14:50

The scholar Hans Wolfgang Schumann in his (german) monography "Der historische Buddha - Leben und Lehre des Gotama" (1995) ("the historical Buddha - life and teaching of Gotama, 2005") gave a paragraph on the characteristics of "Pali" as a language. I'll try to translate it correctly to english from the german version (pg 296):

"The language which the Rajagaha-council used and in which it canonized the Word-Of-the-Buddha, has been "Pali", a higher form of the Maghadi, which avoided local terms ("mundartliche Formen") and which had enriched its vocabulary with terms of related languages in India. "Pali" has been a conversational language, which was only spoken by educated people, but understood by the common people. The north-indian rulers used it as language for governmental and jurisdictive purposes - thus it was also well known to the Raja's son Siddhattha Gotama from his early youth. Also Upali and Ananda were likely able to speak it fluently.(...)"

A more involved consideration, which references many authors, can be found in this Was ist Pali topic on Aloys Payer's web site (unfortunately there is no english version of it and I cannot do the translation, but Google Translate can translate it adequately).


Are the Buddha's words the source of the Pali Canon? What evidence is there of the Pali Canon's origin? What do scholars say?

My answers to the questions are based on known facts. Thus I define the Pali canon as follows:

Sets of the Pāli Canon in English Translation and in Pāli (Tipiṭaka).

My answers to the three questions are as follows.

  1. Are the Buddha's words the source of the Pali Canon?


The question is for the 'Pali canon'. The Pali Text Society publishes a Pāli Canon.

Buddha (the Buddha) is an English word with multiple meanings [Oxford Dictionaries]. It is obviously not in the Pali canon.

PTS Pāli Canon has over 9000 references to the term "bhagavā". Of the 9000 references, only 60 occur in the Abhidhamma Pitaka.

The term bhagavā is defined by the following expression:

‘itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā’ti.

The words attributed to Bhagava in the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas appear to be the major source for the Pāli Canon.

  1. What evidence is there of the Pali Canon's origin?

According to the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa, the Pali Canon was written down in the reign of King Vattagāmini (Vaṭṭagāmiṇi) (1st century BCE) in Sri Lanka, at the Fourth Buddhist council. Most scholars hold that little if anything was added to the Canon after this [Wikipedia}.

  1. What do scholars say?

Scholars generally agree to the origin of the Pali canon as mentioned above.

  • 'Buddha' is a Pāli word; often when referring the the Buddha the texts use the compound 'Sammāsambuddha'
    – Adamokkha
    May 30, 2016 at 15:25
  • Buddha as a Pali name, form of address occurs twice in the Sutta Pitaka. Buddha as an English word is defined in almost all English dictionaries Jun 1, 2016 at 0:58
  • You said it was "obviously not in the Pali canon." But now you say it occurs twice and for some reason you are not counting 'Sammāsambuddha' which occurs many times.
    – Adamokkha
    Jun 1, 2016 at 2:40
  • I am sorry about "obviously in the pali canon". I was referring to the English word Buddha in that sentence. Jun 2, 2016 at 2:57
  • "you are not counting 'Sammāsambuddha' which occurs many times": The word 'Sammāsambuddha' does not occur in the Pali canon. However the word ''sammāsambuddho' occurs over 400 times in the canon. It is used as a name of Bhagava in the Buddhanussati text: Itipi So Bhagava Araham Sammasambuddho...Here Araham is highest purity and Sammasambuddho is the knowledge of Cattari Ariysaccani. Jun 2, 2016 at 3:57

In my opinion, all we can know for certain are words spoken or written down by 'a Buddha' (i.e., an awakened enlightened mind) rather than by 'the Buddha' (i.e. Gotama). The only way we can know this is via personal realisation.

"Knowing thus and seeing thus, would you say, 'The Contemplative says this. We speak thus in line with the Contemplative's words'?"

"No, lord."

"Is it the case that you speak simply in line with what you have known, seen & understood for yourselves?"

"Yes, lord."

"Good, monks. You have been guided by me in this Dhamma which is to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the observant for themselves."

Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta

For example, at www.accesstoinsight.org, there are four translations of the Four Noble Truths, each one is different and not one of them accords to any meditative experience or realisation. Therefore, not one of them can be regarded as the words of a Buddha.

in brief, the five bundles of grasping-fuel are painful - Peter Harvey

in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects - Ñanamoli Thera

in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering - Piyadassi Thera

In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful - Thanissaro Bhikkhu

However, the confusing translations above of 'saṃkhittena pañchupādāna'k'khandhā dukkhā' does not mean a Buddha did not speak the words 'saṃkhittena pañc'upādāna'k'khandhā dukkhā', which should simply state: "In summary, attaching to the five aggregates is suffering" or "the five attachments to the five aggregates is suffering" (which emphasizes 'attachment' as suffering or the problem rather than the neutral aggregates).

  • 1
    Sorry, the second half of the answer isn't clear to me. Is it the translations which you don't regard as the words of the Buddha? What do you think of the Pali, saṃkhittena pañc'upādāna'k'khandhā dukkhā?
    – ChrisW
    May 30, 2016 at 20:08
  • Thanks for clarifying. Incidentally I think that this this dictionary entry translates it more-or-less as they do (i.e. as a pair of nouns or a compound noun), while explaining it more-or-less as you do (the explanation uses 'attaching' as a verb).
    – ChrisW
    Jul 22, 2016 at 21:12

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