Buddhist Texts

Thai Buddhist Texts

The texts used by Thai teachers on a daily basis, as well as those used for ecclesiastical examinations, include Pali and Thai language texts from both canonical and non-canonical sources. The curricula used in Thai monasteries, as well as the collections of manuscripts, printed books, murals, textiles, banners, and electronically recorded material, found in monastic libraries are not standardized. Each monastery holds a different collection and teaches Buddhism in different ways.

The following is a list of Pali canonical and Thai vernacular Buddhist texts found in Thailand. This is not exhaustive of course and the TDM highly encourages readers to suggest texts to add to the list (contact: justin.mcdaniel@ucr.edu ), which does not employ diacritics to facilitate reading for the non-expert. The list is followed by a commentary on how texts are used and organized in Thai monasteries and a list of resources for those interested in manuscript research. In the “Life and Education” section of this website ( http://tdm.ucr.edu/monastery/life_education.html ) there is more information on ecclesiastical examinations, homiletics, pedagogical methods, and curricula.

Pali Canon (Tipitaka)


Vinaya-pitaka (Collection of Dealing with Monastic Rules)

Suttavibhanga (commentary on the Patimokkha included in canon)







Suttanta-pitaka (Collection of Discourses with Narrative Settings)


Majjimanikaya (transmitter admits that it includes later accretions, especially Bakkulasuttanta)



















Abhidhamma-pitaka (Collection of “Things Related to the Teaching”)

















Major Pali Commentaries (Atthakatha, Tika, Atthayojana, Anutika, Pakarana, Vannana, etc.)


Vinaya-pitaka Commentaries

















Sutta-pitaka Commentaries




















Abhidhamma-pitaka Commentaries








Upasakajanalankara (one of the few handbooks specifically for lay people)

Mangalatthadipani (composed in Northern Thailand in 1524)

Sankhyapakasaka-tika (composed in N. Thailand)

Vessantaradipani (composed in N. Thailand)

Pathamasambodhi (possibly composed in N. Thailand)

Jinamahanidana (composed in Thailand)













Curriculum (Major Pali and Vernacular texts used in Lao and Thai Monastic Education from the 16 th century to the present-- usually in bi-lingual “nissaya” format).


Paritta (Chet Tamnan)







Mahachat Chapap Luang

Dibbamanta Sutta



Bra Malaya Sutta






Nama Nissaya


Roi Baet Anisamsa


Anthologies of canonical and non-canonical, Pali and vernacular suttas (ethical narratives and polemical pieces) including:




Various Tamra Ya (Medical Texts)

Various Vohara/Desana (Sermons)

Various Namasadda (Glossaries)

Various Xalong (Celebratory Blessings)

Various Vinaya Handbooks

Various Relic Histories

Various Image Histories

Horasat (astrology manuals)


Some of the following is drawn from the forthcoming book by Justin McDaniel, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008). The primary content of the monastic education and religious activity for Laos and Northern Thailand consisted of ritual (both protective and daily monastic liturgies), grammatica, and ethical and romantic narratives. The composers of pedagogical manuscripts such as nissayas, vohaaras, and naamasaddas commented on a wide range of source texts, but the collections are dominated by vernacular and Pali narratives from canonical and non-canonical Jaatakas and Dhammapada-atthakathaa anthologies, vernacular stories like the Madhuraasajambū , ritual texts such as the Sattaparitta ( Sutmon ) and the Kammavaacaa-uppasampadaa , and grammatical texts. In some collections historical and cosmological texts were numerous. Strangely, the Maṅgalasuttadīpanī , a commentarial text, composed in Chiang Mai in the early sixteenth century, so important to modern Thai elite monastic education, was not as popular in the earlier manuscript tradition. However, it was one of the only texts composed in Thailand texts that spread to Burma. The same can be said of many other texts which became popular or unpopular over time.

The choice of texts can tell us a great deal about the needs and values of the communities that composed or used them. The choices reflect those aspects of Buddhism that were deemed more important and most necessary to teach, especially in the vernacular. Desanaa (Thai/Lao: thet ) employ similar methods today. Desanaa, nissaya, vohaara, and other genres are structured around lists of vernacular synonyms for Pali terms or glosses and illustrative explanations of the source text in question. Nissayas, vohaaras, naamasaddas, and desanaas also leave many Pali terms untranslated and simply explain their semantic import in a particular text or lesson.

The choice of source texts provides insight into which texts were considered particularly efficacious for pedagogical purposes. Indeed, by the time these pedagogical texts were composed, the Northern Thai and the Lao had centuries of familiarity with and belief in Buddhism. These texts may be seen as articulations of a highly local understanding in an attempt to make sense of a world in which Buddhism constituted the overarching, dominant system of ideology and practice. These texts are negotiations between the classical and the vernacular, the translocal and the local. They incorporate local elements into a non-native literary structure. Further research along these lines might lead us far in determining the different modes of interaction between these shifting epistemes. By looking closely at nissaya , vohaara, and naamasadda manuscripts we can see the evolution of Pali and vernacular local Buddhist literature as processual and dynamic reflecting strong ties to the past and engagement with the present.

The narrative source texts are entertaining stories. They may not systematically explain Buddhist ethics or doctrine or provide an accurate history of the Buddha's life, but they draw on funny, frightening, and memorable stories of magic, family crisis, wealth, and love. The use of narratives as teaching tools has been well documented. Canonical and extra-canonical jaatakas are still the most popular religious texts in the region and performances of the Vessantara Jaataka ( Thet Mahachat ) at festivals ( Bun Phra Wet ) or upon request, and television and cartoon adaptations of these tales are very popular. Therefore, monks have to be taught these stories and explain them in Lao or Thai. It is well known that monks in the region are judged on their ability to relate a good story and intellectuals in the region have not felt obliged to accurately follow the versions handed down in the Pali canon and commentaries. Instead the story changes with each retelling. Narratives, especially in the vernacular, and were a major part of the regional religious textual and performance tradition in the region.

Ritual texts are often used at ceremonies such as house blessings, ordinations, the beginning and end of the rains retreats, etc. Therefore, their content provides the perfect subject for sermons ( desanaa ) by a teacher for the benefit of his followers on these occasions. Two examples of this class are the Sutmon Nissaya and the Kammavaacaa Nissaya Naamasadda . The latter explains the meaning of the Pali chanted at one of the most common of Buddhist rituals – the ordination. The ordination ceremony is a time of great celebration and interaction between monks and lay people. The Kammavaacaa Nissaya Naamasadda is still employed by monks as a guide to giving a sermon on the importance of ordination. The Sutmon Nissaya is based on one of the best known collections of ritual prayers in South and Southeast Asia. It became the platform on which many sermons were based. The Sutmon Nissaya is a collection of protective texts chanted for protective purposes at a number of Buddhist ceremonies. Therefore, it provides a logical subject for a sermon following the ceremony.

Besides narratives and ritual texts, many pedagogical manuscripts that I have read are drawn from the Abhidhamma , seemingly for the purpose of teaching Pali grammar (which was one of the main activities of any large monastic school). The Atthakathaamaatikaa Nissaya is a partial gloss of the maatikaa of the Dhammasaṅganī (traditionally the first volume of the Abhidhamma ). Even though the maatikaa is not a grammatical text, the author of the nissaya used these texts as a matrix on which to build grammatical lessons. A Naama Nissaya from Chiang Mai is a grammatical text loosely based on Kaccaayana's grammar composed in India. Its purpose is not to provide a clear Pali grammar lesson in Northern Thai. Its importance is not in how closely it follows and faithfully reproduces Kaccaayana, but in how it does not.

Based on my examination of manuscript inventories and manuscript collections, it is clear that the choice of sources to gloss and comment on in the vernacular was not standardized across the region or even from one monastery to the next. While narratives, ritual texts, and grammatical texts tend to be the most prevalent, there are occasionally nissayas , vohaaras, and naamasaddas on Pali verse extracts from the Abhidhamma, the Visuddhimagga, and the Vinaya . Moreover, two manuscripts with the same title copied around the same time period are often completely different in content. Two vohaaras or nissayas written at the same monastery on the same source text in the same year can have major differences depending on the skill of the scribe or the aspect of the source text the author wants to emphasize. These authors rarely translated complete Pali texts. The sections of Pali source texts that are translated are manipulated for pedagogical purposes. When the source text can be identified, it is usually not a complete text but a summary of that source text that lifts out Pali words or phrases and then translates them while leaving many words untranslated. Furthermore, narratives are occasionally left incomplete, passages seemingly vital to the plot are missing, and certain characters are emphasized, while others go unmentioned. Manuscripts of the Atthakathaamaatikaa Nissaya , the Atthasaalinī Nissaya , the Kammavaacaa Nissaya Naamasadda , the Dhammpada Vohaara , and the Dibbamon Nissaya are all incomplete translations of Pali source texts and parts of their commentaries and sub-commentaries, if available. The Sutmon Nissaya is a commentary on selected passages of the Thai Sattaparitta ( Chet Tamnan ) which is itself a collection of paritta texts. There are apparently no extant Pali source texts for the Lokabhaasaa Nissaya , and the Sakuna Nissaya , to cite just a few examples. The tradition is diverse. Not only did the composers expand and manipulate their source texts, but individual nissayas were rarely copied from other nissayas on the same source text. These manuscripts were largely individual creations. Still, despite the diversity, certain features that define the genre are discernable if a number of manuscripts are compared.

Resources for the study of Thai (and other Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts include:

There are individual manuscript libraries in various monasteries, museums, and universities. There are also large Thai manuscript collections at museums, libraries, and universities in Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Ubon Ratchathani, Bangkok, Luang Phrabang, London, Paris, Washington DC, the National University of Singapore, the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and the University of California at Berkeley. There is no comprehensive catalogue for these scattered manuscript holdings. The National Library of Laos is attempting to combine catalogues of Lao manuscripts from around the world in order to make a master list, but the project is still in its nascent stages. Excluding the catalogues of inscriptions and reference works that are useful for studying local manuscripts, a partial list of catalogues for the major manuscripts in Laos and Thailand include: Finot, Louis. "Recherches sur la litterature laotienne," Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient17:5 (1917): 5-224. Coedès, “Documents sur l'histoire politique et religieuse du Laos occidental,” Bulletin de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient 25.1-2 (1925) and Inventaire des manuscrits bibliothèque royal de Copenhagen: Catalogue des manuscripts en pali, laotien et siamois provenant de la Thaïlande (Manuscripts collected between 1911 and 1935 by the Royal Library of Copenhagen, published in 1966 as part of the Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts, Xylographs, etc. in Danish Collections (Vol. 2, Part 2)). Together with Henri Parmentier, Coedès also compiled several “Listes générales des inscriptions et des monuments,” which make reference to loose connections between inscriptions and manuscripts. See also LaFont, “Inventaire des manuscrits des pagodes du Laos.” Bulletin de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient 52.2 (1965): 429-546 ; Raicheunangseu boran lan na ekasan maikrofilm khong sathapan wichai mahawithyalai chinag mai 2521-2533 [1978-1990] (Chiang Mai: Social Research Institute, 1990); Banchi maikrofilm khwang lunag phrabang lae ho phaphitaphan khwang luang phrabang lae hongsamut haeng xat lao (printed at the National Library of Laos in 1999 and updated periodically [the German Foreign Office, Chiang Mai University, and Chulalongkorn University also have copies of these catalogues]). Catalogues for the Center for the Promotion of Art and Culture (CPAC) are produced and updated periodically for each seven Northern Thai provinces. They are available at the CPAC and have not been published or distributed. For a relatively complete list of catalogues (in the “abbreviations and references” section) in which Central and Northern Thai manuscripts appear see the first two volumes of the Materials for the Study of the Tripiṭaka (Vol. I: Paali Literature Transmitted in Central Siam (Bangkok: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2002); Vol. II: Paali and Vernacular Literature Transmitted in Central and Northern Siam (Bangkok: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2004) compiled, translated, and edited by Peter Skilling and Santi Pakdeekham. Skilling and Santi reproduce with commentary and an introduction a list of Pali texts that Prince Damrong believed were composed in Thailand. This list was included in the introduction to Prince Damrong's edition of the Saṅgītyavaṃsa phongsawadan ruang sanggayana Phra Dhammawinai Somdet Phra Wanaratana Wat Phra Chetuphon nai Ratchakan thi 1 thang phasa Magadha (Bangkok: Hang hun suan camkatsivaphon, 2421 [1923]). Antoine Cabaton's Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits sanscrits et paalis, 2e fascicule-manuscrits paalis (Paris: BnF, 1908), is p articularly useful, especially for nissaya manuscripts. He produced several other smaller catalogues including: Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits indiens, indo-chinois et malayo-poly-nesians (Paris: E. Leroux, 1912), “Fonds indochinois de la Bibliothèque nationale,” Un supplement manuscrit donne les notices des manuscrits Indochinois (Paris: E. Leroux, 1912), “Manuscrits laotiens,” Un supplement manuscrit donne les notices des manuscrits Indochinois (Paris: E. Leroux, 1912), and “Manuscrits siamois,” Un supplement manuscrit donne les notices des manuscrits Indochinois (Paris: E. Leroux, 1912). In January, 2003, Monique Cohen at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Division orientale) has been working to update this catalogue and was extremely helpful to me in my research in Paris. Klaus Wenk's Laotische Handschriften (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1975) lists some interesting manuscripts held in Berlin. Other useful catalogues include: Au Chieng, Catalogue du fonds Khmer (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1953); Au Chieng. Catalogue descriptif des manuscrits du fonds pali de la Bibliothèque nationale (Paris: BnF, 1956 [updated]); Balee Buddharaksa, Pali Literature in Lan Na: Catalogie of 89 Manuscripts with Summaries [in Thai] (Chiang Mai: SRI, 2543 [2000]); L. Barnett and D. Barnett, A Supplementary Catalogue of Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit Books in the Library of the British Museum acquired during the years 1906-1928 (London: The British Museum, 1988); Heinz Bechert, Abkürzungsveorzeichnis zur buddhistischen Literatur in Indien und Südostasien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990); Bechert, Daw Khin Khin Su, and Saw Tin Tin Myint, Burmese Manuscripts (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1979); Cecil Bendall , Catalogue of Sanskrit, Pali, and prakrit Books in the Library of the British Museum acquired during the years 1876-1892 (London: The British Museum, 1893); Annie Berthier, Manuscrits, xylographes, estampages: les collections orientales du départment des Manuscrits (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 2000); (Phra Maha) Athison Thirasilo, Prawat Kamphi Pali (Bangkok: Mahamakut Monastic University Press, 2541 [1998]); Henri Chambert-Loir, “Les manuscrits malais a Balé, Singapour et Paris,” Archipel 20 (1980); Leon Feer, “Manuscrits du Laos,” Indochinois 508 (Paris: BnF, 1879); Jacqueline Filliozat has produced a number of useful catalogues: “Catalogue of the Pali Manuscript Collection in Burmese and Siamese Characters kept in the Library of Vijayasundararamaya Asgiriya,” Journal of the Pali Text Society XXI (1995), “Survey of the Burmese and Siamese Paali Manuscript collections in the Wellcome Institute,” Journal of the Pali Text Society XIX (1993). She also provides a useful guide: Filliozat, Jacqueline. “Documents Useful for the Identification of Paali Manuscripts of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.” Journal of the Pali Text Society XVI (1992): 13-55; Haas Ernst, Catalogue of Sanskrit and Pali Books in the British Museum (London: Trbner & Co., 1876); François Lagirarde, “Les manuscrits en Thai du Nord de la Siam Society,” Journal of the Siam Society 84.1 (1996); J. Liyanratne, “Paali manuscripts from Sri Lanka in the Cambridge University Library,” Journal of the Pali Text Society XVIII (1992); Otani University Library, Catalogue of Palm Leaf Manuscripts Kept in the Otani University Library (Kyoto: Otani University, 1995); Sommai Premchit, Lan Na Literature: Catalogue of Palm Leaf texts in Wat Libraries in Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai: SRI, 1986 [updated from Sommai Premchit with Puangkham Thuikaeo's catalogue of 1975 in Thai]); The Siam Society in Bangkok produces several short catalogues of their manuscript holdings ( Banchi Ekasan Boran ) which can be read at the library; Francis Xavier Tessier, “Catalogue des manuscrits siamois de la bibliothèque Impériale,” [compiled in 1858 with comments from Mgr. Pallegoix and Hermann Zotenberg] Indochinois 512 (Paris: BnF, 1912); Petrus Voorhoeve, “Additions et corrections au catalogue de Cabaton [an insetion placed in the Cabaton catalogue in 1952 in the BnF). Several texts by Supaphan na Bangchang useful for the study of Thai manuscript traditions are listed in the bibliography. For research in Thailand, permission of the National Research Council of Thailand is often necessary to consult these Thai collections. Finally, the 63 volume Saranukhrom Wathanatham Thai [Encyclopedia of Thai Culture] published by Thai Phanich Bank beginning in 1999 are useful for some background on individual manuscripts and texts.