What Did the Buddha Teach?


The Buddha taught for forty-five years. Judging from the huge number of discourses found in the Pāli texts, there cannot have been many days when he was not teaching something. Even when he was not giving discourses, he taught by living a noble life totally free from any immoral thoughts, words, and deeds. This is the most effective way to teach the Dhamma, because it is not just a refined philosophy, but a practical way of life. The Buddha was supremely happy and always willing to share his deep wisdom with others. Even while lying on his deathbed, when Subhadda wanted to question him, the Buddha told Venerable Ānanda not to keep him away.

The Pāli Canon
(Note that there only one “n” in Canon. A cannon is a gun for firing big shells. A Canon is a collection of important religious texts).

The authentic teachings of the Buddha are preserved in the Pāli Canon. The Buddha’s teachings were first handed down through the generations from teacher to pupil, with different groups of monks learning different portions of the canon by heart. After several hundred years, when it was feared that some lesser-known teachings would be lost, the entire Pāli Canon was committed to writing on palm-leaf manuscripts. This first happened in Sri Lanka about five hundred years after the Buddha’s parinibbāna.

The canon is now organised into three Pitakas (lit. baskets): the Vinaya Pitaka, the Suttanta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Suttanta are the discourses of the Buddha and his leading disciples to monks, wanderers, lay people, and celestial beings. The Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules and regulations for monks, nuns, and novices. The Abhidhamma is a Buddhist psychology, which analyses the five groups of material phenomena, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness that make up a living being. Wholesome and unwholesome states are enumerated and classified. The Abhidhamma collates teachings found in the Suttanta Pitaka. Some teachings in the Suttanta Pitaka also follow the Abhidhamma method.

The Suttanta Pitaka is divided into five Nikāyas or collections: the Long Discourses (Dighanikāya), the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhimanikāya), the Kindred Sayings (Samyuttanikāya), the Gradual Sayings (Anguttaranikāya), and the Short Discourses (Khuddakanikāya).

The three books of the Long Discourses contain thirty-four discourses. Three key discourses in this collection are the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta on the practice of insight meditation, the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, which describes the last few months of the Buddha’s life and his final instructions to the monks, and the Singāla Sutta, a discourse on a lay person’s code of conduct.

The three books of the Middle Length Sayings contain one hundred and fifty-two discourses. Some are as long, or even longer than the long discourses. This collection contains many discourses on fundamental Buddhist doctrines such as kamma and rebirth.

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