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The Tipitaka (Pāli canon) was first committed to writing sometime in the 1st century BC.
The non-canonical or extra-canonical Pāli literature can be regarded as falling into three historical periods. The first ("classical") period stretches from about the 3rd century BC to about the 5th century AD. The second ("commentarial") period extends from the 5th century to the 11th century, and the third ("modern") period begins with the 12th century.
The literature of the first period consists of some classical works of which only a few now survive. To this period belongs:
- Nettipakarana (the book of guidance)
- Petakopadesa (Instruction on the Tipitaka)
- Milindapañha (The questions of Milinda)
The Nettipakarana and Petakopadesa are introductions to the teachings of Buddhism. These books present methods of interpretation, means exposition of that which leads to the knowledge of the good law. Petakopadesa is the 'Instruction on the Tipitaka'. The source material derives directly from the Sutta pitaka. Milindapañhã, written in the style of suttas, contains a dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Menander (in Pāli, Milinda) and the Thera Nãgasena, which throws a flood of light on certain important points of Buddhism.
These three books appear in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Burmese Tipitaka, while the first two appear in the Sinhalese printed edition.
- Matthews (1995, p. 123) describes the three periods in the following manner:
- ... Ñāṇamoli and others argue that the classical age ended about the 4th century AD. It included the canonical period, which saw the establishment of the Tipiṭaka over a period of three or four centuries, and the setting down of the Milindapañha just before the beginning of the Christian era. Between the 1st and 5th centuries, however, a pronounced decline in religious interpretation persisted until Buddhaghosa, c. 400. With Buddhaghosa, the great age of commentaries commenced, inspiring a host of profound exegetical work. It was also the beginning of post-classical development in the Theravāda. If one takes Ñāṇamoli's chronology one step further, the commentarial period is, in turn, slowly sapped of its initiative until it finally expires with the Coḷa invasions of Lanka in about 1000. Only when a Buddhist polity is restored there by Parākramabāhu I (1153-1168) does the 'modern' era in Theravāda history begin....
- Matthews, Bruce (1995). "Post-Classical Developments in the Concepts of Karma and Rebirth in Theravāda Buddhism," in Ronald W. Neufeldt (ed.), Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments. Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications. (Originally published by the State University of New York, 1986). ISBN 81-7030-430-X.
- Bullitt, John (2002). Beyond the Tipitaka: A Field Guide to Post-canonical Pali Literature. Retrieved 2008-07-11 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullitt/fieldguide.html.