The commentaries

Listening to Thannissaro bhikkhu on audio dharma (clinging/craving) series, he’s giving differences in the teachings of the canon vs the commentaries. But I thought the commentaries were the abhidhamma (third basket) with in the canon itself. Or is he referring to different commentaries?

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Commentaries are different. They comment on the canonical works Here’s some starting info:


Thanks… I was under the impression they were to be avoided if they are in contradiction to what the Buddha taught. That’s not my opinion that was just an impression bc of what he said about major differences I won’t go into here. Plz be patient I’m a newbie to the Pali traditions about a year

You might want to check out this thread on the concepts of abhidhamma, canonical commentary, and commentary.

(Because it has charts).


The word “commentary” is used in a few different ways, but normally as Stu says we mean the comprehensive set of commentaries compiled and edited by Buddhaghosa about 8 centuries after the Buddha, based on earlier commentaries (now lost). There are also later “subcommentaries”.

In a sense the Abhidhamma includes a kind of commentary on certain Sutta passages, but we don’t usually call it “commentary”, basically just to avoid confusion.

The commentaries are the records of the discussions and opinions of the monks in the tradition of the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, whose heirs we today call Theravada. So they are the opinions of respected elders, no more, no less.

Much of the information in the commentaries, especially as regards word meanings and the like, is quite reliable and is incorporated in the Dictionaries, and hence in translations.

As for doctrinal explanations, consult the commentary only where the text is unclear. Much of the commentaries is unproblematic, but unless you are familiar with the commentarial system and the kinds of perspectives it brings, it’s hard to know what is reliable.

Where the commentary is least reliable is in narratives, which are often purely fanciful.

Generally speaking, the commentaries are mostly useful for scholars, who will (ideally!) incorporate what is useful in their notes, essays, translations, etc.


Basically, commentaries (atthakathas) are post canonical books which comment or explain the Pali canonical texts:

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It really depends on what you mean by reliable. Are they an accurate historical record of events? Probably not. Are they a reliable way to illuminate the meaning of the Dhamma? I believe so. My experience reading the stories of the commentaries is that they rarely if ever contradict doctrine in the root texts. And they don’t depend on new doctrinal concepts found elsewhere in the commentaries.

However there are some new ideas. For example the notion of making vows to one day achieve a specific “foremost” position in a future Buddha’s dispensation. That’s not part of the root texts (to my knowledge) but comes up frequently in giving biographical information.

But when it comes to human examples of mental defilements and the results of karma, they really excel. As long as one has a reasonable foundation in the root texts they are quite useful. The fact that they have been an important part of the lives of Buddhists for centuries doesn’t mean we need to take them on unquestioningly. But it does mean that we should be careful to dismiss them easily.

I just point this out because there are many people who reject novel doctrinal concepts in the commentaries but embrace the value of the narrative portions of the commentaries for spiritual development.


Well, from BB’s introduction to Snp 2.15 Sammāparibbājanīya:

According to the commentary, this sutta was spoken at the Great Gathering (mahāsamaya) in response to questions posed by a mind-created buddha. The Great Gathering occurred when five hundred of the Buddha’s relatives who had gone forth as monks attained arahantship. Half were paternal relatives, half maternal relatives. They came in immediate sequence on a full-moon night to report their attainment. As the Buddha sat in their midst, surrounded by the five hundred newly enlightened arahants, countless deities from ten thousand world systems came to visit the assembly, hoping to hear a discourse.

The Buddha realized that the mode of teaching that would be most beneficial to the deities would be one given in response to questions. However, he also saw that no one present was able to ask the right questions. He therefore used his psychic power to mentally create a duplicate of himself. The duplicate asked the questions and he himself responded.

And there we are in agreement. Having said which, we do know that some of the commentarial stories have a basis in actual events in ancient India, so not everything is as far-out as this.


Hmm. Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of “fanciful”. That all seems fairly vanilla canonical type stuff. Buddha’s psychic powers, heavenly being visiting. I don’t think we see him doing that exact thing of teaching using a mind made body, but it certainly seems like it would be within his repertoire.

Now, Vishakhā having the strength of ten elephants? I can see how someone would consider that fanciful. However I, personally, very much like to believe it is true.

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Like the account of sitting on monastery carpet while unwashed leading to rebirth as a stinking yakkha, or the promise that those who make bhikkhunis cook for them will be reborn as servants and menials, or the account of brahmins who are given monastery accommodation but then just play around.

One of the main things I have learned from the commentaries is that some problems are eternal.


I mean, none of these things happened, they were just made up.


they can be true story bhante we may never know the truth unless we time travel to the past using our jhana prowess

Would any one here recommend a new practitioner to study them. I so far feel only comfortable studying the suttas and the Thai forest Masters. I feel I have a fairly good grasp on the basics of the suttas but don’t want to confuse myself

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Personally, I find the suttas to be of immense value. I also think that literature available from monastics or venerable sources is also of great importance, I have read many of Ven. Thanissaro’s books for example. Buddhagosa, Abhidhamma, and things along those lines never really piqued my interest. I mainly found them boring, especially the Abhidhamma … once and done.

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I would recommend reading selected ones at first, then to progress. Such material as contained, for example, in the Khuddakapātha commentary (tr. Ñāṇamoli: Minor Readings and Illustrator of Ultimate Meaning) is world literature and densely packed with insightful material one would miss when just reading the foundational suttas.

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Maybe that stands for the ṭīkās (i.e. so-called sub-commentaries) but, in my opinion, is highly improbable regarding the commentaries. I see no reason to doubt (let alone refute) the traditional account that the commentaries were composed at the first through the third council (with some information within them also stemming from learned monks of later generations). It is simply impossible to prove this traditional account to be wrong.

I would contest that it is highly improbable that they just contain material of later generations since we find already evidence of quite large numbers of students some of the great disciples had during the Buddha’s time. That they never asked any questions which were very much cherished and transmitted I don’t think is a likely premise. Once the Buddha compared Ven. Sāriputta to the main bow of his dispensation. So, the main bow with all his manifold students has just left behind a few suttas here and there. Again, improbable to my mind. Assuming that he taught, for example, the Paṭisambhidāmagga, Niddesa and numerous other secondary explanations appears the most cogent scenario. As K. R. Norman, one of the most distinguished Pāli scholars of our time, put it (he is not alone in this assumption):

[…] some parts of the commentaries are very old, perhaps even going back to the time of the Buddha, because they afford parallels with texts which are regarded as canonical by other sects, and must therefore pre-date the schisms between the sects. As has already been noted, some canonical texts include commentarial passages, while the existence of the Old Commentary in the Vinaya-piṭaka and the canonical status of the Niddesa prove that some sort of exegesis was felt to be needed at a very early stage of Buddhism.

Some parts of the Abhidhammapiṭaka elaborate upon explicit sutta material, but it also offers many unique contributions within the framework of the Buddha’s teaching overall, such as the specification of consciousness types and its components. I don’t agree with all points the Ven. Sayadaw Aggadhammagavesaka makes in this video, but I would say it is overall worth watching it, making many good points, dealing with the question if sutta material alone is sufficient and what role the Abhidhamma and commentaries play (especially interesting from ca. 1:00:00 onwards):