Pali Literature

Pali literature is concerned mainly with Theravada Buddhism, of which Pali is the traditional language. The earliest and most important Pali literature constitutes the Pāli Canon, the scriptures of Theravada school.


Sri Lanka became the headquarters of Theravada for centuries, and most Pali literature in this period was written there, though some was also produced in outposts in south India. After a gap following the completion of the canon in which little or no Pali literature was produced, it restarted with the Dipavamsa, a verse chronicle of Buddhism in India and Ceylon, followed by a similar, but longer, work, the Mahavamsa. An important text is Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, which came to be regarded as the standard summary of the traditional interpretation of the scriptures, in the 4th or 5th century. Buddhaghosa also compiled commentaries on much of the Canon, work continued by his successors, who also produced subcommentaries on many commentaries, and sometimes even sub-subcommentaries. There were also handbooks summarizing some aspects of the teachings, and other literature, all or nearly all concerned with Buddhism, at least ostensibly. From the early 13th century the writing of Pali literature in Sri Lanka went into a steep decline, though it never ceased entirely. Instead, Buddhist literature was written in Sinhalese.

From the 15th century onwards, Pali literature has been dominated by Burma, though some has also been written in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, as well as Ceylon. This Burmese literature has in turn been dominated by writings directly or indirectly concerned with the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the part of the Canon variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics etc.

Burmese Pali manuscript

Burmese Pali manuscript

Categories of Pali Literature

Theravada Canon

Main article: Pali Canon

The earliest and most important Pali literature constitutes the Pāli Canon, the scriptures of Theravada school. These are mainly of Indian origin, and were written down during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately four hundred and fifty four years after the death of the Buddha.

The Pāli Canon (Tripitaka) is divided into three pitakas (from Pali piṭaka, meaning “basket”). The three pitakas are:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka (“Discipline Basket”), dealing with monastic rules
  2. Sutta Pitaka (“Sutra/Sayings Basket”), discourses, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka,(“About Dhamma Basket”) Various later philosophical and psychological works.

Paracanonical Texts

These texts are present in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Burmese Tipitaka but not in the Thai or Sri Lankan.

  1. Nettipakarana and Petakopadesa – “The Book of Guidance” and “Instruction on the Pitaka”. These are handbooks on the interpretation of the Theravada canon.
  2. Milindapañha – The Questions of King Milinda. A dialogue between a monk and an Indo-Greek king.
  3. Suttasamgaha – A selection of texts from the Tripitaka.

Commentarial literature

  1. Atthakatha – Commentarial works by Buddhagosa, Dhammapala, Mahanama, Buddhadatta & others
  2. Tika – Sub-commentarial works

Historical chronicles

Main article: Vamsa

  1. Dipavamsa – “The Island Chronicle” (4th century)
  2. Mahavamsa – Mahanama; “The Great Chronicle” (6th century)
  3. Culavamsa – “The Lesser Chronicle”
  4. Vamsatthappakasini – Commentary of the Mahavamsa (6th century)
  5. Mahabodhivamsa – Upatissa, Account of the bodhi tree of Anuradhapura(11th century)
  6. Thupavamsa – Vacissara, A chronicle of the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura (12th century)
  7. Dathavamsa – Dhammakitti, A poem on the sacred Relic of the tooth of the Buddha
  8. Samantakutavannana – Vedehathera, A poem in 796 stanzas on the Buddha’s life and his visits to Sri Lanka.
  9. Hatthavanagalla-viharavamsa – Life story of the Buddhist king Sirisanghabodhi (r. 247-249) of Anuradhapura (13th century)
  10. Saddhamma-sangaha – Dhammakitti Mahasami, Literary and ecclesiastical history of Buddhism (14th century)
  11. Cha-kesadhatuvamsa – A history of the six stupas that enshrine the hair relics of the Buddha. (14th century)
  12. Gandhavamsa – Catalog of ancient Buddhist commentators (19th century)
  13. Sāsanavaṃsa – Paññasamin, A Burmese history of Buddhism (19th century)


  1. Jinalankara – Buddharakkhita, 278 verse poem on the life of the Buddha (12th century)
  2. Anagata-vamsa – Mahakassapa of Cola, Story of Maitreya, the next Buddha (12th century)
  3. Jinacarita – Medhankara, 472 verse poem on the life of the Buddha (13th century)
  4. Pajjamadhu – Buddhapiya Dipankara (13th century), poem on the beauty of the Buddha
  5. Jinakalamali – Ratanapañña, Account of the life of the Buddha (16th century)
  6. Braḥ Māleyyadevattheravatthuṃ – SE Asian narrative of the travels of the monk Māleyyadev
  7. Buddhaghosuppatti – Mahāmaṅgala, Story of Buddhagosa (Burma, 15th century)
  8. Jinavamsadipani – Moratuve Medhananda Thera, An epic poem on the life of the Buddha & his teachings in 2000 verses (1917)
  9. Mahakassapacarita – Widurapola Piyatissa, 1500 verse poem on the life of Mahakasyapa (1934)

Abhidhamma manuals and treatises

  1. Abhidhammavatara – Buddhadatta, “The earliest effort at systematizing, in the form of a manual, the doctrines dealt with in the Abhidhamma” (5th century)
  2. Ruparupa-vibhaga – Buddhadatta – A “short manual on Abhidhamma” (5th century)
  3. Saccasankhepa – Culla-Dhammapala, “Elements of Truth”, A “short treatise on Abhidhamma” (7th century)
  4. Abhidhammattha-sangaha – Acariya Anuruddha, A summary of the Abhidhamma, widely used as an introductory text. Modern English translation available by Bhikkhu Bodhi (A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, 1993)
  5. Namarupa-pariccheda – Acariya Anuruddha, A verse introduction to the Abhidhamma
  6. Paramattha-vinicchaya – Acariya Anuruddha
  7. Khemappakarana – Khema, A “short manual on the Abhidhamma”
  8. Mohavicchedani – Mahakassapa of Cola, A guide to the matikas (topics) of the seven books of the Abhidhamma (12th century)
  9. Nāmacāradīpikā – Chappata, (15th century)


  1. Vimuttimagga – A short practice manual by Upatissa (1st century)
  2. Visuddhimagga – Buddhaghosa, A very influential meditation manual (5th century)
  3. Vinayavinicchaya – Buddhadatta, A verse summary of the first four books of the Vinaya (5th century)
  4. Uttaravinicchaya – Buddhadatta, A verse summary of the Parivara, the final book of the Vinaya (5th century)
  5. Paramatthamañjusa – Dhammapala, Commentary on the Visuddhimagga (6th century)
  6. Khuddasikkha and Mulasikkha – Short summaries on monastic discipline.
  7. Saddanīti – Aggavaṃsa of Arimaddana, An influential Pali grammar text; Burma, AD 1154
  8. Upasaka-janalankara – Sihala Acariya Ananda Mahathera, A manual on the Buddha’s teachings for laymen (13th century)
  9. Sarasangaha – Siddhattha, A “manual of Dhamma” in prose and verse (13th century)
  10. Sandesakatha and Sima-vivada-vinichaya-katha (Burma, 19th century)
  11. Pañcagatidipana – A poem that describes the five forms of rebirth
  12. Saddhammopayana – 629 short verses in praise of the Dhamma
  13. Telakaṭāhagāthā – “The Oil-Cauldron Verses.”, Collection of Sri Lankan poems from a monk thrown into boiling oil
  14. Cakkavaladipani – Sirimangala, A text on Buddhist cosmology (1520)
  15. Dasabodhisattuppattikatha – Birth Stories of the Ten Bodhisattas
  16. Bhesajjamanjusa – Medical text, Sri Lanka (13th century)
  17. Yogāvacara’s manual – Sri Lankan meditation manual
  18. The progress of insight – Mahasi Sayadaw, originally in Burmese, translated to Pali (1950)
  19. Dhammasattha – A Southeast Asian genre of Buddhist law

See also

  • Anupitaka
  • Index of Buddhism-related articles
  • List of sutras
  • List of suttas

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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