It is made up of two words, ti means ‘three’ and pitaka means ‘baskets’. The first part of the name refers to the fact that the Buddhist scriptures consist of three sections. The first section, called the Sutta Pitaka, contains all the Buddha’s discourses as well as some by his enlightened disciples. The type of material in the Sutta Pitaka is very diverse which allows it to communicate the truths that the Buddha taught to all different types of people. Many of the Buddha’s discourses are in the form of sermons while others are in the form of dialogues. Other parts like the Dhammapada present the Buddha’s teachings through the medium of poetry. The Jatakas, to take another example, consist of delightful stories in which the main characters are often animals. The second section of the Tipitaka is called the Vinaya Pitaka. This contains the rules for monks and nuns, advice on monastic administration and procedure and the early history of the monastic order. The last section is called the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This is a complex and sophisticated attempt to analyse and classify all the constituents that make up the individual. Although the Abhidhamma is somewhat later than the first two sections of the Tipitaka it contains nothing that contradicts them.
Now for the word pitaka. In ancient India construction workers used to move building materials from one place to another by means of a relay of baskets. They would put the baskets on their heads, walk some distance to the next worker, pass it to him, and he would repeat the process. Writing was known in the Buddha’s time but as a medium it was considered less reliable than human memory. A book could rot in the monsoon damp or be eaten by white ants but a person’s memory could last as long as they lived. Consequently, monks and nuns committed all the Buddha’s teachings to memory and passed it on to each other just as construction workers passed earth and bricks to each other in baskets. This is why the three sections of the Buddhist scriptures are called baskets. After being preserved in this manner for several hundred years the Tipitaka was finally written down in about 100 B.C. in Sri Lanka.