It’s so great to be a Buddhist student these days. We have accurate texts, well organized, and comprehensively linked to excellent translations in modern languages. The canons of Pali, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Chinese material have all been translated into English. The traditional commentaries are also available in translation, and in addition, there is an excellent layer of modern commentary, which gives the historical and doctrinal context of any passage you care to look up. This material is all found in easily accessible forms, widely available in print, online, and various ebook and mobile apps.
As a result, one find that Buddhist generally have a good awareness of their own scriptures. They understand the historical context that they arose in, are widely read in the Suttas, and familiar with the forms that the ideas of the Suttas developed in over time. This puts their practice into context, and helps to distinguish between those aspects of Buddhism that are truly useful and those that are unnecessary.
And then I woke up. IT WAS ALL A DREAM!
The reality is a little different. Actually, the world I was describing is not so far away from what is available for Bible studies. But for Buddhists, well…
The Pali texts are available in several crappy websites, and a couple of fairly good ones. The tipitakastudies.net site is well designed, but only has canonical materials. The VRI Tipitaka site has a wide range of materials, but has a weird indexing system so you can’t link to any individual texts. Neither of these sites is connected to any translation. The translated material is available on Access to Insight and various other places. It is of vastly variable quality. Several sites offer translations that appear to be of dubious legality as regards copyringht. Understandable, as the owners of the good copyright translations – mainly Wisdom and Pali Text Society – have not made their material available on the web. The PTS, god bless ‘em, continue to operate as if the internet was nothing more than a place to advertise their books.
But the Pali situation is positively excellent compared to the other languages. There is an excellent edition, CBETA, of the Chinese canon, but no translations of any major early collections of Vinaya or Suttas into English – although the Madhyama Agama is underway. The Tibetan situation is worse. Sanskrit texts are mostly available at GRETIL, but there are few translations.
With some friends we set up suttacentral.net a few years ago, which links text and translation of Pali and other languages for the four Agamas/Nikayas. This is something, but far from perfect.
So what is the problem? There are many, but let me point out a few subtle details that betray the real issue.
Take the http://studies.worldtipitaka.org/ site. It’s an excellent text, although it uses the less authentic Burmese spellings. But it’s well presented and uses innovative features, like a print on demand capability. The back end is extremely well constructed: each word is marked up and there is a very thourough indexing and organizational system.
Yet look at the title: World Tipitaka. It is no such thing. True, the editors referred to various printed editions from Theravadin countries in forming the text. But the readings are Burmese. And it takes no account of the world outside Pali. Also note that it is available in Roman script only. This limits its use as compared to the VRI site, which enables several scripts. To implement such a capability is no difficult matter. The reason for the Roman-only text is ideology. The creators think that Pali pronunciation in Thailand (their home country) is corrupt, and making people read Pali in Roman script will make them get the text right. The reality, of course, is that Pali can be read right or wrong in any script, and the the real effect will be to isolate the text even further from the uneducated. It is an artifact of Buddhist modernism, where the essentialist (notice how I avoid using the word ‘fundamentalist’?) search for true, original Buddhism, creates an artificial construct divorced from the realia of people’s lives. This ideological agenda is giving people the Tipitaka that the creators want, rather than that which the people want. And the background of this whole thing is steeped in Thai royalist politics.
None of this is to deprecate the excellent scholarly work that the group has done, or to diminish the usefulness of the site. I use it all the time, and we link to it from suttacentral.net. It is simply to understand that this text does not come in a vacuum. It arises from a particular set of ideologically-determined circumstance, and the manner in which the Tipitaka takes shape is determined by those circumstances.
The VRI Tipitaka gives another example. This one comes from the Goenka movement, and so there is a bulit-in need to authorize the late commentarial theories on which the Goenka technique, like all modern Burmese meditation techniques, is based. It does this in a none to subtle way. We all know that the Pali literature is divided into the canon, which is the Tipitaka of Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma, and the later commentarial material.
But this is not the world according to VRI. Their material is structrured like this:
Tipitaka (roman [or other script])
Tipitaka (mula) – Atthakatha [commentary]- Tika [subcommentary] – Anya [other]
So everything, including the medieval grammars and so on, is a subset of the Tipitaka. Tipitaka no longer means ‘canon’, but ‘all Pali texts’.
This tendency continues in the lower levels of organization, too. Under ‘tika’ for example, we have ‘Vinayapitaka’, ‘Suttapitaka’, ‘Abhidhammapitaka’. That is, the subcommentarial literature is now ‘pitaka’. Perhaps one could say that what is meant is ‘subcommentary to the pitaka’. Fair enough, except that we have already established that everything is categorized under Tipitaka. While one could argue the merits of one system of categorizing over another, the overall tendency of the categories as established by the VRI is to treat all the literature as subsets of the canon, rather than being a separate strata of literature.
What does this do? It means that we treat the entire corpus of Pali literature as being essentially canonical. This is no accident, as it is the way that Buddhist texts are normally used in Burmese, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhism.
Once more, I need to emphasize that my intent here isn’t to criticize the good work of the VRI team, who have made many previously obscure Pali texts widely available. I use their site often, it has been a reliable and useful resource.
But we can see that there is a definite ideological purpose behind their work, and that purpose affects the form of the product. In some ways that is good – they have made their text freely available, in accordance with the Goenka tradition of dana. In other ways, it influences the manner in which texts are read, biasing them towards one particular (anti-historical) perspective.
These examples are meant to illustrate a wider point, which is that large scale projects to publish the Buddhist texts are often, even inevitably, driven by concerns other than disinterested scholarship. This is true in the present, and without doubt it was true in the past as well.
The groups that have, up to the present, brought forth the major works of Buddhist literature have done a very incomplete job, and part of the reason for that is their ideological needs. They are not interested in making connections between Buddhist texts in different languages, but in isolating and canonizing their chosen texts. They have a very limited concern with making the texts available to a wide range of people who will actually learn from them. For example, Access to Insight, which is essentially a project of one Buddhist enthusiast, probably serves far more people who are interested in reading and practicing the Suttas as compared with all the high level prestige projects sponsored by kings and conducted by national universities.
How are we to proceed? IOne thing is promising: the disruptive power of open source. Something like Wikipitaka – yes, it’s a thing – is a start, but as you can see it is far from complete. Get the texts out of the hands of institutions and ideologues, and out of copyright shackles – who can copyright the Buddha’s words, anyway? Get them available in open, flexible forms, and let the magic of open source develop multiple platforms and applications.