The Buddha lived and taught his noble discovery, the way to freedom and happiness, approximately 2500 before this day. His discourses, also called suttas, were preserved through a well-established oral tradition by the monks and nuns who would memorize then by heart for the following three centuries.
Although, through the waves of history, wars and famines, this precious legacy was almost lost to the world on many occasions.
Old palm-leaf Tipitaka, Buddhist Scriptures, North Thailand
Aluvihare Rock Temple as in 1896
Urged by the necessity to preserved this incomparable teaching, some monastics who had committed the discourses to memory got together and wrote it down on palm leaf manuscripts. This great body of discourses is now known as the ‘Pāḷi Canon’. Pāḷi means the ‘language of the texts’ but also, historical evidence tends to acknowledge the language of the early discourses as the closest language that the Buddha himself spoke. Therefore making reading the suttas the closest connection to the Buddha himself a person can probably have in this day and age.
According to Theravadin tradition, one such place was the Aluvihara caves in Mātale, in the mountainous regions of Sri Lanka. Altough, evidence of other preservation attempts have also been discovered, notably in China with the Chinese Āgamas.
The Canon has come to be known as the ‘Tipitaka’, the three baskets. These were the ‘wooden baskets’ where teachings falling under three distinct group would be categorized. The first basket for the monastic discipline (Vinaya), the second for the Discourses (Suttanta) and the las one for the Systematique Treatises (Abhidhamma). Although, only proof of the two first divisions are found in the early buddhist texts themselves.
The discourses were also categorized in five distinct collections (Nikāya). The Long Discourses, the Middle Length discourses, the Collected Discourses, the Numbered discourses and finally, the Shorter Discourses.
Old Tipitaka in palm-leaf manuscript, North Thailand
In order, Dīgha Nikāya (DN), Majjhima Nikāya (MN), Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN), Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN) and Khuddaka Nikāya (KN).
Navigating the Suttas
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera instructing a class at Vidyodaya Pirivena Maligakanda, Colombo, Ceylon around 1900.
Often, the words used to translate the meaning into English of these millenia-old teachings must be changed to be most adapted to the audience it is spoken to, not unlike what the Buddha himself did. Often, some time and field experience is necessary for a freshly translated discourse to test its ability to stand together in its meaning and convey the teaching it contains.
Discourses are added here often before they have stood that test and are later re-adjusted into an increasingly more stable and polished form. For this reason also, apologies are conveyed to the readers about mistakes that could all too easily slip under the translator’s awareness and the small group of people providing their help for this purpose.
Monk writing on a palm leaf.
Here, one will find an ongoing translation project which has started in 2018. Translations are uploaded as they are written down. The translation of the Buddha’s words is a somewhat difficult and delicate undertaking that often, only time, practice and study can help clarify and elucidate its meaning or perhaps, shed a different light on alternate perspectives. Therefore, these translations remain subject to some change over time.
Those who are interested can have a peek at the new translation board to read the latest translated discourses as they emerge. It is also possible to navigate through the canon using the left bar menu or directly searching for a particular sutta in the search box for quick results.
Readers should note that this interface was mainly designed for study and research while using a computer. The use of this website is possible on a smartphone but the experience will be much better on a larger screen.
The DN is divided into three books or sections and so is the MN. Sutta numbers for these remain linear through all three book (ie. MN 1 – MN 151).
The SN is divided into 56 ‘Saṃyuttas’ or chapters, each with a particular theme, which are themselves divided into five books. Thus the discourses in this collection are organized, first by book number in roman character, then in chapter number, then discourse number (ie. SN V 56.7 = SN Book 5, Chapter 56, Discourse #7).
Similarly, the AN is divided into eleven books, which come first, in roman character, designating the number of elements in each sutta which the Buddha brings forth to explain a particular topic, then follows the discourse number (ie. AN X 12 = AN Book of tens, Discourse #12).