First written Buddhist Canon?

Thanks everyone for your contributions! My 2 cents:

According to the Pali commentary to MN 140, certain texts were written down during the life of the Buddha. There is no evidence to support this, but it is certainly not impossible. The texts written down (likkhati) include an extensive description of practice (cūḷasīlamajjhimasīlamahāsīlādīni ekadesena likhitvā chadvārasaṃvaraṃ satisampajaññaṃ catupaccayasantosaṃ navavidhaṃ senāsanaṃ, nīvaraṇappahānaṃ parikammaṃ jhānābhiññā aṭṭhatiṃsa kammaṭṭhānāni yāva āsavakkhayā ekadesena likhi, soḷasavidhaṃ ānāpānassatikammaṭṭhānaṃ vitthāreneva likhitvā). They were said to be inscribed on gold plates (suvaṇṇapaṭṭa), so barring the accidents of history, they could even survive.

Most likely this is just a story, which would make the first written texts the Ashokan pillars. These, however, contain the edicts of Ashoka, not Buddhist texts. However, they do refer by name to a number of texts, and in addition refer to a number of terms and phrases found in the EBTs. These texts are written in Brahmi script, which is the ultimate ancestor of most of the scripts used today in India, as well as south and south-east Asia.

The language of the edicts is Magadhi:

This is, more or less, the same language as used in the Jain texts. Certain details of Magadhi are apparent in Pali, which is usually taken as a sign that Magadhi, or something very like it, was the earliest language of the Buddhist texts.

However, a little caution is due here. The differences between these dialects are very small, and in almost all cases do not create any difficulties for understanding. In many ways they are more like regional accents than distinct languages. From the earliest times, we know that there were mendicants from different regions who were memorizing the texts, and undoubtedly there would have been some variation in pronunciation. More controversially, I think it is likely that the Buddha himself used different dialects. In any case, there is no need to assume that there ever was a single original language/dialect.

As detailed by Sarath, the first recorded written full canon was the Pali canon at Matale. This would presumably have been written in an early version of the Sinhala script, which was derived from Brahmi have been written in Brahmi. The Sinhalese script was not in use until much later.

Presumably there were texts being written down in this period in India, but we don’t have any concrete historical references. In the Mahayana sutras, however, which were composed from this time, there is frequent reference to writing, so it must have become standard practice for Buddhist scriptures.

The earliest extant manuscripts, as mentioned by Coemgenu, are the Gandhari manuscripts from Afghanistan. These cover a wide range of the different kinds of Buddhist texts that existed at the time, including EBTs. They are written in the Gandhari language:

And use the Kharosthi script:

There is a small but dedicated team of scholars working on this field, whose website is here:

In addition to these texts, there is a large number of other texts preserved from ancient times in manuscript form. Some of these have been published, and we have collected as many on SC as we can. Other manuscripts still await editing and publication: it is a slow, difficult job.

As mentioned by Coemgenu, the Tripitaka Koreana is the oldest complete canon. This is the basis for most modern editions of the Chinese canon, including the Taisho canon, which was digitized by CBETA and forms the basis for the Chinese texts on SC. Despite being created in Korea, the texts are Chinese. It contains a huge number of texts, including the ancient Agama and Vinaya texts.

And finally, to confirm that apart from occasional suttas, the oldest physical manuscript of the complete Pali canon would be quite recent. I am not aware that any “oldest” manuscript has been identified, but it would not be more than a few centuries old at most.

Unfortunately, yes. And in my experience, the winner of the the argument is the one best versed in wikipedia “law”, not in Dhamma. I don’t think it has improved much in the past, what, nearly a decade now. Still, it is better as a basic resource than pretty much any other freely available site.


I posted today some Wat Umong photos on another post, but here’s an example of Brahmi text:


Thanks Michael, that’s interesting!

Just in case anyone’s unclear, these signs in a Thai Wat are not “original” objects. They are 20th century artifacts, produced as one example of Ajahan Buddhadasa’s efforts to get Thais to understand and appreciate their heritage from India. He had a number of Ashokan objects copied, including pillars.


Bhante what is stone inscription (Sellipi) in Sri Lanka?


Its interesting how much Brahmi looks like runes! Obviously there is no connection, but it is interesting nonetheless.

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It’s Brahmi. I can’t identify all the characters with confidence, but most of them are clear enough. If the text below doesn’t show, download and install Noto Brahmi from here:

𑀕𑀢𑀘𑀢𑀼 𑀤𑀰

If this is somewhere in the region of correct, and if it is Pali or something like it, then 𑀘𑀢𑀼 𑀤𑀰 probably means “fourteen”, and the previous characters look like a suffix from a trunctated word.

Did I mention that I don’t know what I’m doing? But I have fun doing it!

The connection is probably that they were both carved in stone, which would strongly favor simple shapes.


Regarding Brahmi script, the Majjhima Nikaya is available in Brahmi/Pali. An Amazon search will come up with it. I got a copy to see if I could get familiar with it.

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Thanks, I didn’t know this. If anyone’s interested, here’s the page:

And this is what it looks like:

And just FYI, allows you to see terms in Brahmi. We’d like to have a Brahmi script converter for SC, too, but have never got around to writing it.


Love the idea! Is it something easy to do? I mean, can someone as not techsavvy as me be of any help towards that goal? Or is it something we could pay anyone to do at a reasonable cost? :sweat_smile:


Sure. We just need to find a developer familiar with ancient Indic scripts. :wink:


A good thing is that standardized brahmi script is reasonably simple. Nothing compared to the super complex Sinhala!

#Vowels and vowel diacritics


Source: Brāhmī alphabet

Now I have no idea of where to look for this someone.
Do you have any idea of where we should start the search?

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Are letters always spelled as in the tables, or does the spelling differ based on context? If it differs, are there definite rules for that, or is it as random as English pronunciation? :wink:

If it would boil down to simple substitution I could write some simple python script for that.

Hi Tuvok, thanks for that! :slight_smile:

As this is an abugida scrypt, the diacritics are added to the consonants following the example or how those would combine with the first consonsant ‘k’, as seen in the vowels depicting figures .

You could get a sense of the combination rules by checking the guts of the font available at this link:

In this link you have an example of how the taking of five precepts would be spelled in brahmi:

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I was joking, for the record! But if you’re serious, as you say the limited nature of the script would probably make it not too hard. Probably any programmer could do it with a bit of effort. Maybe an Indian or Sinhalese might have a little edge in being familiar with the idea of an abugida. They’d have to start by looking at the code that we use transform pali, and figuring out how to extend it to Brahmi. If there is someone who could do it, we could take the chance to extend to other scripts, too, maybe Cyrillic for example.

How to find someone? Ask here and at other Buddhist forums? Facebook? You could try the online freelancing sites like Upwork. We’d be happy to offer advice and tech support, but apart from that we don’t have extra resources at the moment.


The fist thripitaka book written in sir lanka in mathula viharaya at kurnagala (not in mathale alu viharaya) it is written by “ hela Sinhala language “ at time of king parkarmabahu time…


I am 6 years late to this discussion, but the topic is still a hot one. I am now immersed in the question of the script which the Pali Canon was first written in. I do not think it was Brahmi. Evidence of writing is so weak in India that despite the Brahmi script on the some of the southern Asokan pillars, it was probably merely a borrowed idea from the numerous inscripted pillars throughout the Achaemenid empire. In the north (Pakistan etc) the pillars are in Greek and Aramaic in the Karosthi script. And it is likely that many of the Greek immigrants and Greek bhikkhus could read and write fluently. There, the pillars made sense. There were many Greek (Yavana) monks in the area because of both the Persians settling them even before Alexander arrived in 330 BC. After Alexander, Greek settlements were abundant. These monks would have likely transcribed suttas and vinaya almost immediately upon hearing them recited, since they were literate and entirely familiar with book compilations.
Sri Lankan records such as the Mahavamsa, record Sri Lankan monks travelling to the Yavana area in the north of India to study with Greek buddhist scholars. They apparently had a reputation for Abhidhamma, as would be natural to literate monks.
The teacher of Bhikkhu Nagasena, of the the Questions of king Milinda,(the Greek king Menander,) was Dhammarakshita, a Greek abhidhamma master. He lived during the time of Asoka.

The Mahavamsa records the arrival of “30,000 Yavana bhikkhus” to the fourth council in Sri Lanka. This seems a wildly exaggerated number, but the event is certainly a large one. And now here is my theory. I think the Greek monks brought a fully transcribed copy of the Pali Canon to Sri Lanka. It was either in Greek script or Karosthi. The Greeks taught reading and writing to both Indian and Sri Lankan bhikkhus and left them to copy or write in any script available. Sinhalese script did not exist at the time, it evolved out of Brahmi apparently. The earliest written pali outside of the Asokan pillars are the birch bark scrolls from as early as 10 B.C. to 30 AD. They are in Karosthi script. They are very close in time to the so called writing of the Pali Canon at the Aluvihara in Sri Lanka. In fact they may be from that very time ( 30 BC).
One thing which is fairly certain: Greek monks were in the robes before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka. It seems that “western monks” are not a recent phenomena in Buddhism, but second after the Indian monks of the Buddha’s home area.
Now, Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali are really the knowledgeable historians of early Buddhism so I leave these “theories” for their scrutiny and in fact would welcome any and all critiques of my conjectures. I doubt that the case can ever be proven, but I think it is plausible, unless I have overlooked some strong evidence to the contrary.


Hi Ven,

How’s life in Canada? Not too cold I hope.

So there are a couple of points here.

You’re quite right about the connections with ancient Greeks. In fact Chandragupta had a Greek wife, so there is a non-zero chance that Mahinda and Sabbamitta were part Greek.

Okay, but let’s not overstate it. There is one (1) story in the Pali commentaries of a monk travelling there to ask a question on Abhidhamma of Dhammarakkhita (who IMHO is the founder of the Dharmaguptakas). We know there was a lot of Abhidhamma activity in the Kashmir/Gandhara area, but there was also a lot in Sri Lanka and elsewhere too.

As to whether Indian writing was influenced by Greek or some other Western form of writing, it seems reasonable, but my understanding is that there is no consensus on this.

Incidentally, you can find a mention of Brahmi and Kharosthi (and Puṣkarasāri) in the Mahavastu:

yā vā imā loke saṁjñā brāhmī puṣkarasārā kharostī yāvanī
Those worldly conventions brāhmī, puṣkarasārā, kharostī, Greek …

The Lalitavistarasutra has what seems to be a later list. Greek is missing.

lipiṁ śikṣāpayasi | brāhmīkharoṣṭīpuṣkarasāriṁ aṅgalipiṁ vaṅgalipiṁ magadhalipiṁ
(Should I) learn the scripts: Brahmī, Kharoṣṭī, Puṣkarasāri, Anga script, Bangla script, Magadhan script (and a lot of others!)

I’ve not seen a study of this passage, but it does strike me that the form is interesting. The first three are just listed, then all the others have -lipi appended. Maybe the first list is the old one (agreeing with the Mahavastu more or less) and the others are regional variations?

This is missing a key ingredient: paper. You need something to write on, and existing methods were expensive and time consuming. You don’t just need monks who know how to write, you need the craftsmanship, resources, and technical infrastructure to create the materials for massive, large scale writing. It’s not like writing a letter or a bill of lading. Heck, it’s still hard to amass the resources to print the whole Tipitaka: I know, trust me!

? Citation required. I’m not aware of any Pali written in Kharosthi? The Wikipedia article on Kharosthi mentions some coins in Pali, but there is no citation, and I suspect it’s just being used as a generic name for early Prakrit.

Early Buddhist writing in Kharosthi is indeed close in time to the writing down of the canon in Sri Lanka, and this is one of the reasons the Mahavamsa’s account is generally accepted. But it is 3,500km distant.

Don’t forget that both the Mahavastu and Lalitavistara are products of mainstream Indian Buddhism around this time. So around the turn of the millennium we have:

  • physical manuscripts from Gandhara in Kharosthi
  • historical record of writing the canon in Pali in Sri Lanka in Brahmi
  • references in at least two mid-Indian texts to writing, which includes both Brahmi and Kharosthi
  • (probably other details! Mahayana sutras start from the same period and they frequently mention writing)

It seems to me more plausible that writing was generally adopted in the greater Indic sphere at this time.

Anyway, as to the role of Kharosthi and/or Greek in Sri Lanka, so far as I know there is none. There are 1000+ old inscriptions in Sinhala/Pali and they’re all in Brahmi. In fact, Sinhalese Brahmi is among the oldest in existence, and local scholars argue it is attested earlier than Ashoka.

Regardless of the exact age and origin of the inscriptions, they certainly predate by some centuries the writing down of the Pali canon. There seems no reason to assume the texts were written in Sri Lanka in anything else.

Worth noting that all these scripts—Greek, Kharosthi, Brahmi—are phonetic, and given that we know the state of linguistic science was very advanced, it would have been no great task for any scholar to learn them and transpose between them. So if scholars arrived in Sri Lanka schooled in other scripts, they could easily adopt the local style.


Dear Ajahn Sujato,
Thank you very much for your detailed reply. There are very few people in the academic world who might have a reasonable opinion on this topic, which makes your opinions on this topic very valuable. And in the monastic world there are also strong nationalistic tendencies that favor their slant on history, like the crazy idea that Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka! By the way, my true interest in all of this is to highlight the earliest “western” monks…the Greeks. It is of course known and rather obvious, but has slipped off the public radar. Western monks, such as you and I, are not so exotic after all. That early participation of advanced western/ European/ middle eastern people in the Sasana needs to be restored to its proper place. Indian nationalism is also rewriting history at the moment, rejecting influences from outside of India. Lately Modi has them removing the fact that Mahatma Ghandi’s assassin was a Hindu extremist, from high school textbooks.
I value your critique and suggestions, some of which I also had considered earlier. The case is still uncertain due to lack of concrete specific accounts and extant written versions from the time of the council, but the Birch Bark documents are as close as we can get. Some of those happen to be at the University of Washington, which is within driving distance of me. I will be taking a close up look at them at the next opportunity. Thanks again for the prompt reply to this rather esoteric topic.
Aj Sona


Ha ha, you’ve heard that one too! So sad to see so many people consumed by such nonsense.

This is a deeply concerning movement, and TBH I think we are globally underestimating the harm Modi and his Hindutva extremists are causing.

You should see if you can visit Richard Salomon while you’re there, I’m sure he’d love to chat about all this.


Thanks for the recommendation. I just googled Richard Salomon and he looks like a treasure trove of information on this topic. By the way, I did recheck the Birch bark texts: here is what the description is from the University of Washington:“The fragmentary birch bark scrolls, which were found inside one of a set of inscribed clay pots, are written in the Gandhari Prakrit language and in Kharosthi script. Dating from around the beginning of the Christian era, the scrolls are probably the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever discovered.”