The Pāli

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Pali is the name given to the lan­guage of the texts of Ther­avada Bud­dhism, although the com­men­tar­ial tra­di­tion of the Ther­avadins states that the lan­guage of the canon is Ma­gadhi, the lan­guage spo­ken by Go­tama Bud­dha. The term Pali orig­i­nally re­ferred to a canon­i­cal text or pas­sage rather than to a lan­guage and its cur­rent use is based on a mis­un­der­stand­ing which oc­curred sev­eral cen­turies ago. The lan­guage of the Ther­avadin canon is a ver­sion of a di­alect of Mid­dle Indo-Aryan, not Ma­gadhi, cre­ated by the ho­mogeni­sa­tion of the di­alects in which the teach­ings of the Bud­dha were orally recorded and trans­mit­ted. This be­came nec­es­sary as Bud­dhism was trans­mit­ted far be­yond the area of its ori­gin and as the Bud­dhist monas­tic or­der cod­i­fied his teach­ings.

The tra­di­tion recorded in the an­cient Sin­halese chron­i­cles states that the Ther­avadin canon was writ­ten down in the first cen­tury B.C.E. The lan­guage of the canon con­tin­ued to be in­flu­enced by com­men­ta­tors and gram­mar­i­ans and by the na­tive lan­guages of the coun­tries in which Ther­avada Bud­dhism be­came estab­lished over many cen­turies. The oral trans­mis­sion of the Pali canon con­tin­ued for sev­eral cen­turies af­ter the death of the Bud­dha, even af­ter the texts were first pre­served in writ­ing. No sin­gle script was ever de­vel­oped for the lan­guage of the canon; scribes used the scripts of their na­tive lan­guages to tran­scribe the texts. Although monas­ter­ies in South In­dia are known to have been im­por­tant cen­tres of Bud­dhist learn­ing in the early part of this mil­len­nium, no manuscripts from any­where in In­dia ex­cept Nepal have sur­vived. Al­most all the manuscripts avail­able to schol­ars since the PTS (Pali Text So­ci­ety) be­gan can be dated to the 18th or 19th cen­turies C.E. and the tex­tual tra­di­tions of the dif­fer­ent Bud­dhist coun­tries rep­re­sented by these manuscripts show much ev­i­dence of in­ter­weav­ing. The pat­tern of recita­tion and val­i­da­tion of texts by coun­cils of monks has con­tin­ued into the 20th cen­tury.

The main di­vi­sion of the Pali canon as it ex­ists to­day is three­fold, although the Pali com­men­tar­ial tra­di­tion refers to sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways of clas­si­fi­ca­tion. The three di­vi­sions are known as pi.takas and the canon it­self as the Tip­i­taka; the sig­nif­i­cance of the term pitaka, lit­er­ally "bas­ket", is not clear. The text of the canon is di­vided, ac­cord­ing to this sys­tem, into Vi­naya (monas­tic rules), Sut­tas (dis­courses) and Ab­hid­hamma (anal­y­sis of the teach­ing). The PTS edi­tion of the Tip­i­taka con­tains fifty-six books (in­clud­ing in­dexes), and it can­not there­fore be con­sid­ered to be a ho­moge­nous en­tity, com­pa­ra­ble to the Chris­tian Bi­ble or Mus­lim Ko­ran. Although Bud­dhists re­fer to the Tip­i­taka as Bud­dhava­cana, "the word of the Bud­dha", there are texts within the canon ei­ther at­trib­uted to spe­cific monks or re­lated to an event post-dat­ing the time of the Bud­dha or that can be shown to have been com­posed af­ter that time. The first four nikayas (col­lec­tions) of the Sutta-pitaka con­tain ser­mons in which the ba­sic doc­trines of the Bud­dha's teach­ing are ex­pounded ei­ther briefly or in de­tail.

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