The Paracanonical Pali Texts

In the centuries immediately following the Buddha's death and the First Buddhist Council, arahants and scholar-monks began recording their own commentaries to the teachings of the Tipitaka. At first these commentaries, explanations, amplifications, meditation notes, and historical recollections were passed down orally within the monastic sangha but, like the Tipitaka itself, many began to be recorded in writing around the turn of the Common Era. Most of these early texts — primarily written in Sinhala — remained for centuries tucked away in forest monasteries and temples in Sri Lanka, accessible only to a few Sinhala scholars. It wasn't until these scattered fragments were translated into Pali and collated into coherent texts (most notably by the great Indian scholar Buddhaghosa (5th c)) that they became available to the wider Theravadan world.

Since then, these texts — variously labeled "non-canonical," "extra-canonical, or "post-canonical" — have come to be regarded as essential supplements to the teachings of the Pali canon itself. So treasured, for example, is the Milindapañha that it has even been subsumed in the Burmese edition of the Tipitaka; and in some parts of the Theravadan world Buddhaghosa's monumental Visuddhimagga is regarded as a more definitive guide to Buddhist meditation practice than even the Tipitaka itself. Taken together, the Tipitaka and much of this non-canonical Pali literature (in particular the Commentaries) constitute the complete body of classical Theravada texts.

For a more detailed overview, see "Beyond the Tipitaka: A Field Guide to Post-canonical Pali Literature."

Access to Insight offers only a handful of translations of non-canonical Pali texts.

Excerpts from the Paracanonical Pali Texts

  • Atthakatha — The Commentaries
  • The quasi-canonical texts:
    Nettippakarana — The Guide (description only)
    Petakopadesa — Pitaka Disclosure (description only)
    Milindapañha — The Questions of King Milinda [ Kelly (excerpts) | Olendzki (excerpt) ]
    Although the Thai and Sinhala editions of the Tipitaka regard these books as non-canonical, they are included in the Burmese edition.
  • Other texts:
    Visuddhimagga — The Path of Purification: The Classic Manual of Buddhist Doctrine and Meditation (Third revised online edition), translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (2011; 853pp./2.7MB) [PDF icon]
    "The Visuddhimagga is the 'great treatise' of Theravada Buddhism, an encyclopedic manual of Buddhist doctrine and meditation written in the fifth century by the great Buddhist commentator, Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa. The author's intention in composing this book is to organize the various teachings of the Buddha, found throughout the Pali Canon, into a clear and comprehensive path leading to the final Buddhist goal, Nibbana, the state of complete purification. In the course of his treatise Buddhaghosa gives full and detailed instructions on the forty subjects of meditation aimed at concentration, an elaborate account of the Buddhist Abhidhamma philosophy, and detailed descriptions of the stages of insight culminating in final liberation" [summary from the back cover of the BPS edition]. [Not available in HTML]