The Tipitaka is divided into three parts: the Vinaya-pitaka or code of ethics, the Sutra-pitaka or basket of Buddha teaching, and the Abhidhamma-pitaka or ‘basket of scholasticism’.
The Tripitaka is the Canon of the Buddhists, both Theravada and Mahayana. It is possible to speak of several Canons such as the Sthaviravada, Sarvastivada and Mahayana, as well as in term of languages like Pali, Chinese and Tibetan. The word is used basically to refer to the literature, the authorship of which is directly or indirectly ascribed to the Buddha himself.
It is generally believed that whatever was the teaching of the Buddha, conceived under Dhamma and Vinaya, it was rehearsed soon after his death by a fairly representative body of disciples. The later systematised threefold division, into Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma is based on this collection. Sharing a common body of Dhamma and Vinaya, the early Buddhist disciples appear to have remained united for about a century.
The Three Baskets
Ananda, who being the Buddha’s personal attendant, first recited the ‘doctrine’ (dharma). The doctrine became known as the Sutra Pitaka, the collection of sutras. The discipline was similarly recited by Upali, a specialist in that subject, and codified as the Vinaya Pitaka.
On the third pitaka (Abhidhamma) which should make up the Tipitaka (‘Three Pitakas‘) there is disagreement. The Sthaviravada and Mahasamghika versions do not mention its recitation, and since the agreement of these two schools should establish the oldest available textual tradition it appears that originally there were only two Pitakas. However, even the Mahasamghika account mentions the Abhidhamma as among the texts handed down after the rehearsal. The Mahisasaka version makes no mention of a third Pitaka. The Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka Vinayas on the other hand have Ananda reciting the Abhidhamma as well as the Sutra. Whether a Matrka or Abhidhamma was actually recited at the First Rehearsal or not, all the early schools were equipped with a third, Abhidhamma Pitaka.
According to the consensus of the schools the Sutra Pitaka was arranged in five agamas, ‘traditions’ (or nikayas, ‘collections’). The order also is generally agreed to be as follows:
(1) Digha Nikaya. (‘Long Tradition’, about 30 of the longest sutras);
(2) Majjhima Nikaya (‘Intermediate Tradition’, about 150 sutras of intermediate length; the short sutras, the number of which ran into thousands, and were classified in two Ways as)
(3) Samyutta Nikaya (‘Connected Tradition’, sutras classified by topic, for example the sutras on conditioned origination);
(4) Anguttara Nikaya (‘One Up Tradition’, sutras on enumerated items classified according to the numbers of the items in sections of ones, twos, threes . . . up to elevens) ;
(5) Khuddaka Nikaya (outside the first four Nikayas, there remained a number of texts regarded by all the schools as of inferior importance, either because they were compositions of followers of the Buddha and not the words of the Master himself, or because they were of doubtful authenticity, these were collected in this ‘Minor Tradition’).
It has been suggested that some schools did not have a Minor Tradition at all, though they still had some of the minor texts, incorporated in their Vinaya, hence the ‘Four Nikayas’ are sometimes spoken of as representing the Sutras.