The Tripitaka (or Tipitaka) is the Sanskrit (or Pali) canon of religious discourse most highly regarded in Theravada Buddhism. The literal translation is the "three baskets", so named because the original writings were kept in baskets.
The three elements of the canon are the Vinaya Pitaka, which are the disciplinary rules by which monks are expected to live their lives; the Sutta Pitaka, which are the discourses of the Lord Buddha and other leading scholars of Buddhist belief; and the Abhidharma Pitaka, which are a series of philosophical discourses on the nature of the universe and of Buddhist belief.
The Tripitaka was assembled shortly after the death of Gautama Buddha through a sangha, or council of monks. It was preserved in oral tradition for some four centuries before being committed to palm-leaf manuscript in the first century c.e.
Owing to linguistic and cultural differences, the Tripitaka varies from country to country where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. In each case the writings are extensive and occupy many volumes. The Sutta Pitaka, for example, contains more than 10,000 sutras of the Buddha.
These include details of the life of the Buddha and his road to nirvana, or enlightenment; Mahayana and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism also have their own Tripitaka canons. The Vinaya Pitaka consists of rules and junctures for both monks and nuns, although in some societies the role of nuns is not ofﬁ cially accepted.
Various offenses against the sangha are enumerated together with their degree of severity and, hence, the sanctions that they attract. Monks are expected both to know and to abide by the 227 rules of the Great Division (Mahavibhanga), which greatly expand on the five basic precepts that all followers of Buddhism are expected to follow.
An additional section of the Vinaya Pitaka is the Khandhaka, which contains a variety of different sections that are not presented in an intuitively logical order. This section contains precepts for the monkhood that vary from country to country. Members of the sangha spend much of their time studying and attempting to master the many meanings and lessons inherent in the Tripitaka.
Lay Buddhists may also do the same, either directly from the original canon or, more commonly, through the mediation of well-read monks who are able to translate the lessons into language and concepts easier for most people to understand.