The Buddha lived and taught in an oral culture, his teachings determined by the spiritual needs of those he was addressing. The Pali Canon, originating in the first one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, is one of the earliest written records of his teachings and is the only complete early version that has survived more or less intact. It therefore represents the closest we can come to the historical Buddha’s actual words.
Although the Pali Canon has been handed down mainly by the Theravadin school of Buddhism (though other versions exist in other Asian traditions), its texts represent teachings from the time before the Buddhist community divided into different schools, and are thus a source of the common heritage of the entire Buddhist tradition. They cover a wide range of topics, addressing both monastic and lay concerns, and clarify many fundamental Buddhist doctrines including compassion, ethical conduct, the path of spiritual development and transformation, and liberation of the mind.
For Everyday Zen, these texts are foundational, and we return to them again and again, but always with the flexible Zen spirit of Suzuki roshi’s “beginner’s mind.”