A Wealth of Scripture
Buddhist scriptures are a vast and wide terrain. If you wished to read them
all in the original language they were written in you would need to be a prodigious
linguist. You would need to know Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese just to
start with. Fortunately, the Buddha's teachings have all been translated into
modern languages and are therefore accessible to us all. The starting point,
however, for any initial foray into this wealth of Buddhist scripture is the
Pali Canon, the first scriptures to be committed to writing after the Buddha's
The Three Baskets
The Pali Canon consists of three divisions, the Tipitaka (or Tripitaka in Sanskrit) which literally means the 'three baskets'. Each of these baskets has different concerns. First, there is the Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of Discipline, which includes the rules of monastic discipline given by the Buddha during his lifetime. The second division is the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of the Buddha's discourses. This has particular significance as it contains the essential teachings of the Buddha, accounts of his own enlightenment experience, and instructions on morality and meditation. The third division is the Abhidhamma Pitaka or Higher Teachings which offers an intricate analysis of the nature of mental and physical existence.
The fact that the Pali Canon every came to exist in such a highly developed form is something of a miracle. After the Buddha's parinibbana - his death and final entry into nibbana - the Buddha's followers met at what was called the First Council, and a consensus was formed on what the Buddha's teachings actually were. There were then committed to memory and passed down orally from generation to generation. An amazing feat! It was not until the first century BCE that the Buddha's teachings were finally written down. The language used was Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. The scriptures were written on palm leaves and stored in three baskets, hence the name Tipitaka.
The True Word
The Pali Canon is the closest we can get to the authentic word of the Buddha. They are the nearest in time to when he lived and though they can have a formulaic quality, this doesn't detract from the sense that these are the true teachings of the Buddha. Furthermore, there is a consistency throughout the different discourses that convinces us of their authenticity.