What does viewing the Pali Canon as "scripture" mean?

I understand that the way I frame these questions is informed by a Christian upbringing and exposure to Christian discussions of scripture. So please feel free to let me know if my questions carry unhelpful beliefs or assumptions.

In the Theravada school, is the Pali Canon generally viewed as literally true? And is it viewed as always right? (In Biblical studies, the word used for this approach to scripture is “inerrant”.)

How about the EBT approach? Is the Pali Canon generally taken literally? Is it seen as inerrant?

I’m open to hearing personal opinions/approaches, but I’m primarily curious about the approaches of major traditions to these questions.
EDIT: Based on @stephen 's answer and the direct message I just exchanged with him, I’d like to remove my request about being more interested in the approaches at a tradition level and fully welcome your personal thoughts and beliefs on this question. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thank you for your contributions to exploring this question!


Hi Jim,

Thank you for your important question, I think a very valuable one to be asked, and possibly not considered enough.
As you know, the Theravada school does not have a top down authority, like The Vatican. So you may hear as many answers to the ‘inerrancy’ (?) of the Canon as there are readers and students of it.

I think this is actually an important point, as Theravadin Buddhism places great value upon personal direct understanding, as well as saddha (often translated as ‘faith’ but I think the word has broader and richer connotations.) I haven’t encountered much of ‘believe this or you’re in trouble’ like I did with the Catholic Church.

There is a broad spectrum of opinions on how literally true the Canon should be taken, everything from it being a collection of verbatim transcripts down to a charming story. And this is further complicated by the nature of the Pāli language itself, something that receives much discussion.

I have personally found Bhante Sujato’s lectures on Jayatilleke’s “Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge” very helpful in this regard, helping me to understand what different kinds of understanding looks like.
I see the concept of ‘saddha’, for instance, as something that can span everything from a willingness to entertain the idea, to unshakeable confidence. And there are still reasoned conclusions and direct knowledge.

So, in short, what seems most important is what about and why one thinks the Pāli Canon is true or not, and the reasons informing those decisions. For instance, we can’t really make ourselves believe something as true, as much as we might want to. There need to be certain conditions for ‘saddha’ (and beyond) to arise.

I hope this was not too much of a personal statement, and that you continue to enjoy grappling with the question.


Hi Jim. The Canon contains two types of teachings:

(i) mundane; and
(ii) supramundane.

The supramundane teachings (lokuttara dhamma) are ultimate truth (paramatha dhamma) to be verified. That is, they are literally true, which is why they are called ‘Ariya’ (‘Noble’; ‘Without Enemy’; ‘Irrefutable’). For example, the sutta AN 3.61 says:

But the Dhamma that I’ve taught is irrefutable, uncorrupted, beyond reproach, and not scorned by sensible ascetics and brahmins. What is the Dhamma that I’ve taught?

‘These are the six elements’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …

‘These are the six fields of contact’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …

‘These are the eighteen mental preoccupations’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …

‘These are the four noble truths’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught that is irrefutable, uncorrupted, beyond reproach, and is not scorned by sensible ascetics and brahmins.


The refuge in this supramundane Dhamma, found in the Suttas, is this:

‘svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṁ veditabbo viññūhīti.

‘The teaching is well explained by the Buddha—visible in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves. (Sujato)

‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One, directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise. (Bodhi)


Imo, knowing the above refuge is similar to knowing the Our Father in Christianity.

As for the ‘mundane’ teachings, its seems these are often subject to debate and often require some type of faith.

The Suttas do accommodate the possibly of fake teachings introduced into/as the Buddha’s Teachings. For example, DN 16 (SuttaCentral) has a topic called ‘The Four Great References’. Or the sutta SN 16.13 (SuttaCentral) is about the topic of Counterfeit Dhamma.


I think what is meant by scripture in Theravada is an open question. In recent history, Theravada scripture as a practical canon has mostly meant Abhidhamma and a few regularly chanted suttas. I once heard that the only book that Ajahn Mun carried was the Abhidhammattha Sangaha. I read that some early Western travellers to Laos reported seeing temples with only the Abhidhamma present as canonical texts.

If you have seen Burmese representations of paticca samuppada as a wheel (I have only seen a Burmese diaspora one), it’s actually the Atthasalini version, for example. This text is literally projected onto public spaces via Abhidhamma commentary. The commentary is already the start point for understanding. If you look at the Pali examination system of Buddhist countries, the focus is commentarial Pali.

The study of the Abhidhamma has such a prestige and emotion of faith attached to it that in some circles questioning it very directly…is not the “done thing”. The discussion often proceeds via the commentaries and subcommentaries rather than in ways that might rub directly against points which are axiomatic for the tradition.

While there may be no Buddhist Vatican, in Theravada countries, state Buddhism plays a role in presenting “official” Buddhisms & Buddhist institutions in Theravada countries can and do set curricula, insist on orthdoxy & make attempts to weed out heresies via institutional alienation. We saw this recently with SL anicca/an-iccha (but the issues pursued can depend on the mood/politics at the time). This was a big issue in the Sri Lankan Buddhist diaspora. But there have been roughly equivalent issues in Thailand and I’m sure Burma too.

The other circles are the more modern sutta based ones. These also differ in terms of their “practical canon”, as within the sutta based movement, some groups have a more restricted range of “early” texts
that are actively used in teaching. You would have to look at the precise teacher to get a feeling for the vibe. I wonder if you had heard of the commentarial concept of texts which are neyyattha and nitattha (texts where the meaning has to be drawn out and those of fixed meaning). I had read that a text which is neyyattha should be taught as such, and a text which is nitattha should be taught as such. The commentaries themselves give symbolic meaning to some sutta texts.

Scriptural inerrancy in the Christian tradition which I have some exposure to, which is Presbyterianism (i.e. the evangelical-influenced sort) largely arose as a fundamentalist reaction against evolution. The church response to new scientific concepts in the late 19th and early 20th century was to clamp down doctrinally on concepts including creationism.

The Buddhist groups I have participated in have generally been more confident/less anxious about their scripture as many Buddhists came out of the 20th century feeling that science was on their side. Or rather, the idea of evolution was not an existential challenge to Buddhists. But Buddhist institutions themselves can still acquire other points of insistence, if not necessarily around perceived science/religion conflict, around the particular interpretative commitments of that school.

I believe that the Pali Canon is well expounded (svakkhata) in terms of the unambiguous dhamma content, which is “good in the beginning, middle and end”. While this might not be contextually the same thing as being inerrant, if someone wanted to use this term, you could say “doctrinally error free”. I would expect this degree of faith and understanding from people who are teaching the canon at an institutional level.


Thank you Ayya, for your fascinating perspective on this subject.
It has reminded me how much my location (New York) influences and conditions how I think about the Canon, and Buddhism in general.
It’s so interesting to hear about the importance (if not primacy) of the Abhidhamma and commentarial texts in the Theravada ‘heartland’.

Could you say a little about what constitutes the ‘unambiguous dhamma content’ of the Canon?

Thank you


Thank you, Ayya! That was very helpful. And opened a range of considerations I hadn’t been aware of. :pray:


What I personally believe is very close to the 1981 version of the 1967 statement of basic points unifying the Theravada and Mahayana made by the World Buddhist Sangha Council (even if I mightn’t have chosen those exact words), which acknowledges the bodhipakkhiya dhammas, for example, as aspects of “core dhamma” alongside several other doctrinal sets like the four noble truths and tilakkhana, and general statements of belief.

Emphasis on “general” though, as many of these themes have significant interpretation history. But the point being that at least for one global Buddhist sangha meeting, these points have been considered significant enough to warrant a statement that they comprise core Buddhism.

Within my own teaching tradition, we could probably achieve a consensus that is much more specific and nuanced than this.


My favorite explanation of “scripture” is Charles Hallisey’s —


Bhante, thanks so much for sharing that interview- fantastic! Prof. Hallisey is always so inspiring.

I love his mention of being ‘called into question’, the ‘voice of another’ (paroto ghoso) and the ‘study of me’, related to the study of scripture.

May I ask what this is from? Was it at Harvard Divinity School?


You’re welcome, Stephen!

I extracted those key 11 mins from his hour-and-a-half-long conversation with Daniel Aitken over at Wisdom (which is just a short walk down Elm Street from Harvard DS!)


It is viewed as inerrant as long as one haven’t proved it wrong. :smiley:

Momentum for dialogue between Buddhism and science comes from the top. When Tenzin Gyatso – now serving as the 14th Dalai Lama – was a child in rural Tibet, he saw the moon through a telescope and marveled at its craters and mountains. His tutor told him that, according to Buddhist texts, the moon emitted its own light. But Gyatso had his doubts. He discovered what Galileo saw 400 years earlier, and he became convinced that dogma should bend to observation.

As the Dalai Lama, Gyatso has engaged in dialog with scientists ever since. “If science proved some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change,” he has said.
Buddhists are trained to be skeptics, and to only accept a proposition after examining evidence. The following words are attributed to the Buddha: “Just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.”

Another relevant reading:

Truth, in this case, is found as a result of impersonal, objective observation, and it can be duplicated by anyone with proper training under the same circumstances. There is little room in this view of things for affirming meaning as it is communicated through symbolic forms or for the understanding that, for some purposes, the value of symbolic meaning can override empirical facts or even that sometimes factual information is irrelevant to symbolic meaning. By the literalist standard, the only reason to sculpt a figure with multiple arms is to portray someone born with a tragic abnormality.
The Matter of Truth

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I think it is good to consider that the Buddha did not study texts but sat examining directly the workings of his own body and mind here and now.

The texts are reporting this, the results, the causes of suffering, the asava’s, the anusaya, the kilesa’s, the tanha’s, the enlightment factors, the powers etc. The texts report his journey to complete enlightment.

The goal of the texts is to direct attention from texts to ones own mind and life. To see for oneself.
They are not meant to battle. But it is a human tendency to do that and use the Canon as a battleground and sutta’s as weapons for making points.

It is really not that easy to abandon this battle, this fight, this struggle and attend in a open, sincere, honest way to the workings ones body and mind and really practice Dhamma.


It’s taken as “literally true” on its essential points - in terms of stages of jhana and insight, etc. And some of the characters in it have external evidence so we can situate it in a particular time and place.

However, some things it mentions we know not to be scientifically correct today - it shows a premodern conception of certain things - a flat earth, lunar eclipses being caused by demons, etc. So we can’t take it as inerrant on all points of fact. But we can take it as essentially true as a meditation manual. Its descriptions of mindfulness of breathing, metta, etc are the foundation for what’s practised today and beneficial to millions of people.

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A few things can happen when approaching ancient texts. Inspiration, skepticism, understanding, etc… For me, early on, it was always an issue of how to handle occurrences of coming upon something that I could not verify or just simply didn’t understand. And this went for both a macro and micro - specific words and phrases were ambiguous and there were all manner of shifting inconsistencies in terms of trying to nail down a central theme throughout the Canon. Initially, there were moments of frustration and confusion - I remember reading a sutta about passion being a problem and I was like, “Wait, how could that be an issue??” It was a real learning curve to develop a strategy to suspend judgment in such cases; to not get discouraged.

But as time goes on and things become clearer - not only through persistent effort to understand, but also through efforts in virtue, restraint, and adjusting your life around what is being understood - the texts start to come together in a way that was impossible on day one of reading them. With that, it is easier to become more aware of that line between what is confidently understood and what requires further work, and the fact that this line has moved from where it used to be and that it can move further still. Because no matter how we choose to view the Canon, the impression is going to shift. For better and, occasionally, for worse. One day the texts will fill us with inspiration, the next with dread. Point being, if we are making effort, we cannot hold the texts to a single standard. We don’t always get to decide how much of it we trust, how much we understand, and how those themes are going to make us feel when we are actively trying to clarify the meanings. Something we read 10 years ago, that may have seemed so bizarre that we found it almost impossible to relate to, can become one of the clearest aspects of our understanding. It will develop whether we want it to or not if there is effort.

So, I think the key is to not hold too tightly to any specific impression or historical context that would make it difficult to cope with those changes in understanding. You don’t want to find yourself engaged in an internal conflict resulting from a decision you made when you weren’t making effort; when your value and appreciation for the Dhamma was undeveloped; when you had less understanding. You want those early intentions you had to adjust as things change.

Sorry for beating around the bush. I think the OP is a question of dealing with that line I alluded to earlier in this post, between what is clearly understood and what needs work. So, if you have faith that it is literal in the beginning, learn to accept that you won’t be able to confirm it - that will be gradual. If that faith is lacking, and it doesn’t seem possible to be taken literally, be ready for that to change.



Greetings Ayya- do you have any info on that controversy? First time I have heard of it.

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Mmmmmm…sort of. Inerrancy is a Complex term in Christianity that has multiple meanings depending on whom you ask and has been present in Christianity from the get go. It has gone through periods of being in vogue (and then not) based on the spiritual needs of the believers. For some inerrancy goes up to total biblical literalism. Others think that only the autographs were inerrant. Still others, like the Catholics, posit that inerrancy means nothing in the bible is in “error”, in that nothing in it is contradictory to faith and morals.

In literally every religion I am aware of that has a corpus of sacred texts, “scripture” is cyclical; it is compiled, redacted, edited, and interpreted based on the present needs of the current community as they inevitably lose the context and worldview of the original authors. This leads to further redaction and editing which leads to development of supplementary canons: the christian epistles, hebrew talmud, brahmanic vedanta, mahayana sutras and then the Theravada Abhidhamma. These ressourcement texts hold their sway until there is an eventual movement ad fontes to the original texts. I think you see this now in “western” Theravada where favor skews heavily towards the Suttas over the Abhidhamma.

Rinse, wash, repeat

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I tend to refer to “scripture” in discussion with Hindu friends. It’s a general term.

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