The Verses of the Senior Monks: an approachable translation of the Theragatha

This article is to introduce a new SuttaCentral English translation of the Theragāthā, the classic Pali collection of verses by early Buddhist monks. The work consists of 1289 verses, collected according to the monk with whom they were traditionally associated. These poems speak from the personal experience of monks living in or near the time of the Buddha. More than any other text we find here a range of voices expressing the fears, inspirations, struggles, and triumphs of the spiritual search.

Read the Theragatha on SuttaCentral

I have chosen to release the text under Creative Commons Zero, which effectively dedicates the translation to the public domain. You are encouraged to do whatever you want with the text. Take it, change it, adapt it, print it, republish it in whatever way you wish. If you find any mistakes, or have any suggestions for the translation, I’d appreciate it if you were to let me know.

It is customary when making a new translation to acknowledge one’s debt to former translators, and to explain the need for a new one—and this case is no different. The Theragāthā has been fully translated into English twice before, both times published by the Pali Text Society. The first translation was by Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids in 1913, and the second by K.R. Norman in 1969. The efforts of the former translators is utterly indispensable, and their work makes each succeeding attempt that much easier. Nevertheless, the limitations of these earlier translations are well known. The Rhys Davids translation employs highly archaic language and poetic styles, as well as being based on a dated sensibility regarding both Pali and Buddhism. Norman’s translation, while exemplary in terms of Indological linguistics, employs what Norman himself described as “a starkness and austerity of words which borders on the ungrammatical”.

Moreover, neither of the former translations is freely available. To my knowledge, this is the first translation of the Theragāthā to be fully available on the internet.

Both of the earlier translations were based on the Pali Text Society’s edition by Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Pischel of 1883. The current translation, by contrast, is based on the Mahāsaṅgīti edition of the Pali canon, as published on SuttaCentral. It numbers 1289 verses as opposed to the 1279 of the PTS editions. The extra verses arise, not from a difference in substance, but from the inclusion of repetitions that were absent from the PTS editions. The first set of extra verses is at verse 1020 and the second at verse 1161. Up to verse 1020, therefore, the numbering is the same in the SuttaCentral and PTS editions.

What is an approachable translation?

My aim was to make a translation that is first and foremost readable, so that this astonishing work of ancient spiritual insight might enjoy the wider audience it so richly deserves.

I’ve been thinking about the standard trope that introduces the prose suttas: a person “approaches” the Buddha to ask a question or hear a teaching. It’s so standard that we usually just pass it by. But it is no small thing to “approach” a spiritual teacher. It takes time, effort, curiosity, and courage; many of those people would have been more than a little nervous.

How, then, would the Buddha respond when approached? Would he have been archaic and obscure? Would he use words in odd, alienating ways? Would you need to have another monk by your side, whispering notes into your ear every second sentence—“He said this; but what he really meant was…”?

I think not. I think that the Buddha would have spoken clearly, kindly, and with no more complication than was necessary. I think that he would have respected the effort that people made to “approach” his teachings, and he would have tried the best he could, given the limitations of language and comprehension, to explain the Dhamma so that people could understand it.

Of course, the Theragāthā is not, with a few small exceptions, attributed to the Buddha; but the basic idea is the same. Most of the verses in the Theragāthā are, like the bulk of the early texts, straightforward and didactic. Though formally cast as verse, their concern is not primarily with poetic style, but with meaning. They employed their literary forms solely in order to create an understanding in the listener, an understanding that leads to the letting go of suffering.

An approachable translation expresses the meaning of the text in simple, friendly, idiomatic English. It should not just be technically correct, it should sound like something someone might actually say.

Which means that it should strive to dispense entirely with the abomination of Buddhist Hybrid English, that obscure dialect of formalisms, technicalities, and Indic idioms that has dominated Buddhist translations, into which English has been coerced by translators who were writing for Indologists, linguists, and Buddhist philosophers. Buddhist Hybrid English is a Death by a Thousand Papercuts; with each obscurity the reader is distanced, taken out of the text, pushed into a mode of acting on the text, rather than being drawn into it.

That is not how those who listened to the Buddha would have experienced it. They were not being annoyed by the grit of dubious diction, nor were they being constantly nagged to check the footnotes. They were drawn inwards and upwards, fully experiencing the transformative power of the Dhamma as it came to life in the words of the Awakened. We cannot hope to recapture this experience fully; but at least we can try to not make things worse than they need to be.

At each step of the way I asked myself, “Would an ordinary person, with little or no understanding of Buddhism, be able to read this and understand what it is actually saying?” To this end, I have favored the simpler word over the more complex; the direct phrasing rather than the oblique; the active voice rather than the passive; the informal rather than the formal; and the explicit rather than the implicit. With this, my first substantive attempt at translating Pali, I feel I am a long way from achieving my goal; but perhaps a few small steps have been made.

This translation

The process of creating the translation was this. In assembling the texts for SuttaCentral, I have been keen to create a complete online set of translations for early Buddhist texts. I find it astonishing that the early Buddhist texts are not all freely available on the internet, and I would like to change that. In 2013 I was approached by Jessica Walton (then Ayya Nibbida), a student of mine, who wanted a project to help learn Pali. I suggested that she work on the Thera/Theri-gāthā, in the hope that we could create a freely available translation.

Of course, this is a terrible job for a student—these are some of the most difficult texts in the Pali canon. But I hoped that it would prove useful, and so it has. I suggested that Jessica use Norman’s translation side by side with the Pali and work on creating a more readable rendering. She did this, mostly working on her own.

When she was happy with that, she passed the project over to me, and when I got the chance I took it up. I then went over the text in detail, modifying virtually every one of Jessica’s lines, while still keeping many of her turns of phrase. Without her work, this translation would not have been completed.

I also referred heavily to Norman’s translation, which enabled me to make sense of the many obscurities of vocabulary and syntax found in the text. Only rarely have I departed from Norman’s linguistic interpretations, and I have adopted his renderings on occasions when I felt I couldn’t do better.

There are, however, many occasions when Norman’s work is limited by his purely linguistic approach. There is no better example of this than Thag 411. The Pali begins uṭṭhehi nisīda, on which Norman notes:

The collocation of “stand up” and “sit down” is strange and clearly one or other of the words is used metaphorically.

He then renders the verse thus:

Stand up, Kātiyāna, pay attention; do not be full of sleep, be awake. May the kinsman of the indolent, king death, not conquer lazy you, as though with a snare.

But to any meditator there is nothing strange about this at all; it just means to get up and meditate. I render the verse:

Get up, Kātiyāna, and sit!
Don’t sleep too much, be wakeful.
Don’t be lazy, and let the kinsman of the heedless,
The king of death, catch you in his trap.

In addition to Norman’s translation, I have consulted translations by Bhikkhu Thanissaro and Bhikkhu Bodhi for a few verses. I have, however, not consulted the Rhys Davids translation at all.

I should also acknowledge as influences in this translation my fellow monks, who I was living with while making this, especially Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Brahmali. Both of these monks have influenced the translation greatly. It is from Ajahn Brahm that I have learned the virtue of plain English; of the kindness of speaking such that people actually understand. For years he has advocated the idea that translations should be based on the meaning of sentences, rather than the literal rendering of words. And with Ajahn Brahmali, who has been working on Vinaya translations at the same time, I have had many illuminating discussions about the meaning of various words and phrases. He said one thing that stuck in my mind: a translation should mean something. Even if you’re not sure what the text means, we can be sure that it had some meaning, so to translate it based purely on lexically correspondences is to not really translate it at all. Say what you think the text means, and if you’re wrong, fine, fix it up later.

About the Theragāthā

I’d like to give a very brief and non-technical introduction to the text. If you are interested in a more detailed technical analysis, you can read Norman’s long introduction, which specially focusses on the metrical styles of the text.

Each of the verses of the Theragāthā is collected under the name of a certain monk. (There is a parallel collection of nuns’ verses, the Therīgāthā, which I hope to translate in the future.) In many cases the verses were composed by, or at least were supposed to be composed by, these monks. Generally speaking I see no reason why the bulk of the verses should not be authentic. However, not all the verses can be ascribed to the monks in question. Sometimes the verses are in a dialogue form; or they may be teaching verses addressed to a monk; or they may be verses about a monk; in some cases they have been added by later redactors. In many cases, the verses are in a vague third person, which leaves it ambiguous whether it was meant to be by the monk or about him. Sometimes, also, verses are repeated, both within the Theragāthā and in other Buddhist texts, so a speaker of a verse is not always its composer. It is best, then, to consider the collection as “Verses associated with the senior monks”.

I have used the term “senior monk” rather than “elder” to render thera for a couple of reasons. First, it will make it easier to distinguish the collection from the Therīgāthā. More importantly, not all the monks here are really “elders” in the sense of being wizened old men. Usually in Sangha usage a thera is simply one who has completed 10 years as a monk, so a monk of thirty years of age, while hardly an “elder”, may be a thera.

As well as being collected according to the name of the associated monk, the texts are organized by number (the aṅguttara principle). That is, the first sets of verses are those where a monk is associated with only one verse; then two, three, and so on. There is, in addition, an occasional connection of subject matter or literary style from one verse to the other; and, rarely, a thin narrative context (eg. Thag 16.1).

The numbering of the collections needs a little attention. The texts may be referenced by three means, all of which are available on SuttaCentral; either by simple verse count, or by chapter and verse, or by the page number of the PTS Pali edition.

The primary system used in SuttaCentral is the chapter and verse, as this collects all the verses associated with a given monk in one place. This chapter and verse system is not used in the PTS editions, but it is used in the Mahāsaṅgīti text on which the translation is based. However this system can be a little confusing—or at least, I was confused by it! From the ones to the fourteens there is no problem. However, there is no set of fifteen verses, so we skip from the fourteens to the sixteens. Here the numbering of the sections goes out of alignment with the number of verses: the fifteenth section (Thag 15.1) consists of a set of sixteen verses. The sixteenth section (Thag 16.1 etc.) then consists of sets of twenty or more verses, and so on.

In terms of dating, the Theragāthā belongs firmly to the corpus of early Buddhist texts. Most of the monks are said to have lived in the time of the Buddha, and there seems no good reason to doubt this. In a minority of cases, due to the content of the text, the vocabulary or metre, or the statements in the commentary, the verses appear to date from as late as the time of king Ashoka. Norman suggests a period of composition of almost 300 years; however, if we adopt, as it seems we should, the “median chronology” that places the death of the Buddha not long before 400 BCE, then the period of composition would be closer to 200 years.

As with all Pali texts, the Theragāthā is passed down in the tradition alongside a commentary, in this case written by Dhammapāla approximately 1,000 years after the text itself. As well as providing the normal kinds of linguistic and doctrinal analysis, the Theragāthā commentary gives background stories for the lives of the monks, many of whom we know little about apart from the Theragāthā itself. In some cases, the stories provide context to make sense of the verses, and there seems little doubt that these verses, as is the normal way in Pali, were passed down from the earliest times with some form of narrative context and explanation. Like the Jātakas, the Dhammapada, or the Udāna, the verses formed the emotional and doctrinal kernel of the story. However, in the form that we have it today, the commentary clearly speaks to a set of concerns and ideas that date long after the Theragāthā itself. While the commentary is invaluable in understanding what the meaning of these texts was for the Theravadin tradition, it is probably in only rare cases that it provides genuine historical information about the monks. I have consulted the commentary only in cases where the meaning of the verse was unclear to me.

What is striking to me is just how clear-cut the demarcation of Pali texts really is. The Theragāthā sits firmly on the far side of a dividing line in Pali literature that stems from the time of Ashoka or thereabouts. It is concerned with seclusion, meditation, mindfulness, and above all, liberation. Later texts were concerned with glorifying the Buddha, and especially with encouraging acts of merit for attaining heaven or enlightenment in future lives. Such concerns are notable for their absence from the Theragāthā; when they are present, such as Sela’s verses extolling the Buddha, they remain grounded in human experience, rather than the elaborate fantasies of later days. There is a single exception to this, Thag 1.96 Khaṇḍasumana, which says how after offering a flower he rejoiced in heaven for 800 million years, and then attained nibbana with the leftovers. But this just feels so out of place. Among the countless verses that speak of retreating to solitude, of devotion to jhana, of renouncing everything in the world, such sentiments seem as if from a different world of thought; a different religion even.

The classical Theragāthā verse, as I mention above, is a song of liberation, rejoicing in a simple life lived with nature. Here’s a typical example, from Thag 1.22, the verse of Cittaka:

Crested peacocks with beautiful blue necks
Cry out in Karaṃvī.
Aroused by a cool breeze,
They awaken the sleeper to practice jhāna.

But the verses embrace a wide range of subjects; straightforward doctrinal statements, lamentations of the decline of the Sangha, eulogy of great monks, or simple narrative.

While the texts are mostly direct and clear-hearted, some of the most interesting verses are those that speak from the mind’s contradictions, the longings that accompany a full-blooded commitment to the spiritual life. Nowhere has this very human ambiguity been expressed better than in the extended set of verses by Tālapuṭa (Thag 19.1). Employing an unusually sophisticated poetic style—only exceeded in this regard by Vaṅgīsa, in whose verses we can discern the beginnings of the decadent poetics of later generations—and addressing his recalcitrant mind in an unusual second person, he berates it for its inconstancy:

Oh, when will the winter clouds rain freshly
As I wear my robe in the forest,
Walking the path trodden by the sages?
When will it be? …

For many years you begged me,
“Enough of living in a house for you!”
Why do you not urge me on, mind,
Now I’ve gone forth as an ascetic?

Of all the texts in the Pali canon, it is in the verses of these senior monks and nuns that we come closest to the personal experience of living in the time of the Buddha, struggling with, and eventually overcoming, the causes of suffering that are so captivating. I hope that this new translation can help bring these experiences to life for a new audience.

Site upgrade for SuttaCentral

We just launched the new edition of SuttaCentral:

http://suttacentral.net/

This is the first major redesign since we relaunched last year. We’re very proud of the new features. It’s been designed to be mobile-friendly from ground up, to be at once more powerful, and also more minimal.

The main changes:

  • The top menu now displays all of the entries for the relevant category at once, so you can get anywhere from anywhere.
  • Each text page (i.e. the actual suttas) has a sidebar. The various tools, navigation and so on is in the sidebar, and the page itself is completely clean.
  • Pali to Spanish lookup, to complement our Pali to English. We can add any number of languages to this, all we need is a Pali to Whatever dictionary in some kind of structured format. If you’ve gt anything like that, let us know.
  • Home page redesign, with a “Quote of the Day” and new introduction.
  • Many minor corrections, such as sorting out the numbering of several Khuddaka texts (including the Dhammapada), and a multitude of typos and the like.
  • Fully responsive design. The previous design was okay on mobiles, but the new site should adapt well for any screen. We’ve included a whole range of tweaks to optimize the experience on mobiles.

There will, of course, be some bugs, so please let us know if you find any: http://suttacentral.userecho.com/

Enjoy!

SuttaCentral Upgrade, 2014

2014 saw the introduction of the most significant expansion of content and coverage since the site’s inception in 2005. Our initial data was provided by Rod Bucknell’s correspondence tables for the four main nikāyas/āgamas, so our coverage of other material has been limited or non-existent. With the new version we finally include the entire spectrum of Early Buddhist Texts, including the books of the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Vinayas, and the Abhidhamma. In doing so we rely entirely on the hard work and dedication of those who entered the digital texts, edited and made them available. While most of our text comes from third parties, in some cases we are creating our own digital editions, and even some fresh translations, and we offer them freely to whoever wishes to use them, in the spirit of the Dhamma.

While the correspondences, translations, and other details are far from complete, this is a major step forward, and is the outcome of countless hours hard work and dedication from our small team. Here are the main details of the changes.

Pali canon

SuttaCentral now includes the entire text of the Pali canon. We use the Mahāsaṅgīti edition, which is extremely consistent and well edited, and provides some 26,500 variant readings and cross references from a dozen editions. The entire canon totals around 2.8 million words. It includes the late books of the Khuddaka, such as the Milindapañha. The whole canon is presented in the consistent semantic structure used throughout SuttaCentral.

Chinese and Sanskrit texts

We have added the vast bulk of the early Vinaya material in Chinese and Sanskrit. The Chinese material is taken from the CBETA digital edition, while the Sanskrit comes from a number of sources, primarily GRETIL and the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon. In all cases the texts have been provided with a detailed semantic markup, with headings and so on to facilitate reading and comparison. We currently host around 500,000 words of Sanskrit, and over 2 million words in Chinese.

We also introduce a Chinese lookup tool, which parallels the Pali lookup that has been available on SuttaCentral for some time. This tool is based on Charles Muller’s excellent Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. It provides brief definitions, and entries are linked to the full definition on the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism website. These lookup tools make reading these ancient texts just that little bit easier.

Vinaya

By far the biggest single area of expansion is in the Vinaya. While the Vinaya, since it pertains to monastic conduct, is perhaps of less general interest than the Suttas, it includes countless details of everyday life that shed light on many of the obscurities in the Suttas. Moreover, since we have a massive set of parallel Vinayas, it is a fertile, not to say demanding, field for comparative studies. And of course, the basic role of the Vinaya remains as it ever was: to be a guide for the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns.

SuttaCentral’s Vinaya coverage now includes:

  • Correspondences for Vinaya rules, totally some 14,000 individual instances of rules across 45 texts.
  • Correspondences for Khandhakas and some other sections of the Vinaya.
  • Most Vinaya texts in Chinese and Sanskrit.
  • Full English translation of the Pali Vinaya by I.B. Horner, with additions by Ven. Brahmali.

Many of these resources appear for the first time on the web. We believe this is the release of a truly digital edition of the entire translation of the Pali Vinaya. The translated text is available on the website, while the entire book, including Horner’s lengthy introductions and very extensive notes, are available on the Downloads page. It is also the first time the Vinaya correspondence data has been available in digital form, and we have a wider, and hopefully more accurate, set of correspondences than in any other source known to us.

Method for the Vinaya correspondences

Here I outline in brief the method I used for compiling the Vinaya correspondences. I hope to publish a more detailed description and bibliography at some point.

My primary source work was Nishimoto’s 1928 paper on comparative pātimokkha rules. While I can’t speak Japanese, I was able to make sense of his tables, which were kindly supplied by Shayne Clarke. I checked this against Pachows’s book, which was apparently compiled without knowledge of Nishimoto’s earlier work. A variety of more specialized studies were also consulted.

Most of these works assume that the Vinaya rules of one school are the same in the Vibhaṅga and the Pātimokkha, except in the case of multiple separate texts such as with the Sarvāstivāda. However, as I proceeded I discovered that in several cases, especially in the Chinese Vinayas, the Vibhaṅga and the Pātimokka had minor differences in numbering. So I decided to treat each individual text as a separate entity, even though in some cases, notable the Pali, the numbering of rules is identical.

Due to this and other minor differences, each of the sources I consulted gave slightly different numberings for the rules. Almost all of these variations occur in the sekhiya rules, while the remainder of Vinaya rules are almost entirely straightforward. In fact I spent probably more time trying to straighten out the sekhiya rules than the rest of the Vinaya combined, and I frequently despaired of the task. Only the thought that my predecessors had thought it worthwhile and had come so far kept me going. Even so, I am far from confident that they have been properly sorted out. Given the multiple uncertainties involved it is unlikely that we will ever be able to complete this task. So please treat the sekhiya correspondences with care!

In cases where my sources differed, I consulted the original Chinese and Sanskrit texts, using the texts as published on SuttaCentral. There is obviously a degree of subjectivity involved in making these decisions, and on the whole I probably tended to ascribe correspondences a little more liberally than Nishimoto or Pachow. This was mainly because I used a wider variety of sources, especially from the Sanskrit, and sometimes similarities emerge that are not obvious just from the Chinese texts. Nevertheless, as I said above, almost all such marginal cases pertain to the sekhiyas.

Given the vast numbers of parallel rules in different texts, I had to find a way of assigning each instance of each rule with a unique ID. These IDs are not only used to name each rule, they also form the URLs that identify the web page for that rule. These IDs use abbreviations that are subject to a number of constraints: they must be unique on SuttaCentral, case-insensitive, and use no special characters. While the method might seems a little arcane at first, once you have remembered a few abbreviations it is really quite simple. Pi Tv Bu Pm Pj 1 is “Pali Theravāda Bhikkhu Pātimokkha Pārājika 1″; Zh Sv Bi Vb Ss 3 is “Chinese Sarvāstivāda Bhikkhunī Vibhaṅga Saṅghādisesa 3”, and so on.

Note that throughout we try to use Pali names for titles, rule names and so on. This is simply to preserve consistency, not out of any belief that Pali was the original language of these texts. On the contrary, each text or school would have used a slightly different dialect. Sometimes we find variations even within the same text. Moreover, in many texts it is difficult to ascertain what the traditional title of a rule was, or even if there was one, as such information is usually merely inferred from the summaries or uddānas. In cases where the is no Pali title, we supply a Sanskrit title when possible. These don’t represent any particular Sanskrit texts, but are selected simply on the basis of what seems most clear. Very rarely I supply a title in Pali form for a rule that doesn’t exist in Pali; this is where rules are paired with a nearly identical one that is in the Pali. Where there is neither Pali nor Sanskrit, I have supplied an English title. In all cases these titles, as with headings for Buddhist texts generally, should be regarded merely as aids for the reader supplied by editors, ancient or modern, rather than as intrinsic to the text.

In addition to the pātimokkha correspondences, we also offer much less detailed correspondences of the Khandhakas. These are based on the details provided by Frauwallner in his classic study. I was tempted to include his more detailed breakdown, which showed parallels in various sections within each Khandhaka, however in the end I kept the correspondences at the level of the chapter or Khandhaka only. This is one the whole much simpler than dealing with the pātimokkha correspondences, although there are, as always, unexpected complexities and problematic exceptions.

In this case the major exception is the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, which doesn’t really have a Khandhaka section at all. Frauwallner treated it as a Khandhaka, albeit one that had been drastically reshaped by later editors, but Clarke has more recently shown that this is not the case. The exact relation between this and other Vinayas remains uncertain, although it seems likely to me that Frauwallner was correct to treat it as a later reorganization of material that previously resembled the Khandhakas more closely. However, despite the great differences in form, the subject matter discussed in various sections of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya shares much in common with the corresponding chapters in the Khandhakas. Since the main purpose of providing correspondences on SuttaCentral is to help the reader find similar passages for comparison, I have therefore retained as much as possible of Frauwallner’s correspondences for the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. Due to the way these passages are scattered through the text, however, it was not possible to show everything.

Abhidhamma

The full version of the Pali canon now includes the text of all six Pali Abhidhamma works, and we plan to add the original text of the related early texts in Chinese and Sanskrit. In addition, we have created digital editions of the English translations of two Abhidhamma books, the Points of Controversy (Kathāvatthu) and the Book of Analysis (Vibhaṅga). These need final editing before including, but we hope to have them ready soon. We also plan to digitize the English translation of the Puggalapaññatti. We don’t plan to offer translations of the remaining Pali Abhidhamma works—Dhammasaṅgaṇī, Yamaka, Dhātukathā, and Paṭṭhāna—as they are so severely formulaic that it is scarcely any advantage to read them in translation; and one for this reason of them, the Yamaka, has never been translated. Moreover, it is in the Vibhaṅga, Puggalapaññatti, and Kathāvatthu that we find many parallels with both suttas and Chinese/Sanskrit Abhidhamma texts.

Future

SuttaCentral is in ongoing development, and we continue to maintain and improve the core data on which we rely. With such a big release there will of course be many bugs, and many improvements to be made.

For the next phase of development on SuttaCentral, we plan to emphasize the following.

  • Translations: We are currently working on adapting new translations in several languages. We are also working on ways to improve the discoverability of translations.
  • Typography: We are working with Rosetta Type to develop a suite of fonts for Devanagari, Sinhala, Burmese, and Thai, as well as international Roman.
  • Chinese: We aim to include the full text of the Chinese āgamas.
  • Android/iPhone apps: We have already made an alpha app for Android, and plan to develop fully blown apps for both Android and iPhone/iPad.
  • Search: The search on SuttaCentral is already pretty good, but we have plans to make a richer and more integrated experience.

With the emergence of the first major translations of early Buddhist texts from Chinese (MA and SA), and Tibetan (Upāyika), we are entering a golden age of early Buddhist studies. In addition to its purely linguistic and historical interest, this has already inspired, and continues to inspire, new movements and developments within Buddhist cultures. The early Buddhist texts are always challenging and radical: that is their purpose. They inspire those two great Buddhist emotions: saṁvega, an sense of awe, and pasāda, serene confidence. Through these texts, our only genuine historical link with the Buddha, we can question our assumptions and deepen our insight into the Dhamma.

Aside

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

I’m proud to announce that the short book that Ven Brahmali and myself have finished, called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts, is out now and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

The book is essentially a collection of short articles that gather much of what we know about the historical background of Early Buddhism into one place. We believe that the debate on the authenticity of the texts in academic circles has been badly skewed by an unscientific emphasis on extreme scepticism, and it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Anyway, enjoy!

Loving-kindness meditation: a field study

A couple of years ago Beatrice Alba and I discussed the fact that there were many academic studies of mindfulness meditation, but few of metta. Although simply complaining about the situation is usually a pleasant enough experience, for some reason we decided to actually do something about it. Go figure!

So for two metta retreats we handed out forms and got people to fill them in, according to a scheme that Beatrice worked out. She wrote an analysis of the findings, and it’s now been published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism. Congrats to Beatrice for putting in the work and helping put our knowledge of metta meditation on a more scientific footing.

Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, so those of you without institutional affiliation will have to pay the ludicrous sum of $37 to download the pdf file. Or, if you don’t feel like enriching the pockets of a multinational corporation that clears some $150 million in profit every year from the ideas and work of others, you could contact me.

The gist of the study: metta meditation is good. You knew that! But now it’s peer-reviewed, so it must be true.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selected translations are available on SuttaCentral

So, the time has come. Or at least, a time.

We have just uploaded a wide range of English sutta translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi to SuttaCentral. Not all of them, yet, but all that we are legally permitted to use. They include a substantial selection from each of the three Nikayas that he has translated: the Middle length Discourses, the Connected Discourses, and the Numerical Discourses.

You can read about crossing the flood, or the kinds of persons who have expectations, or how the Buddha got scared in his meditation!

The whole range of translations can be accessed through the relevant nikaya pages here, here, and here, with BB’s translations the first listed in the right hand column.

We give great thanks to Bhikkhu Bodhi, for having created these extraordinary translations, which are the gold standard for accuracy and readability. He has been quietly championing SuttaCentral for some time, and has a great wish to see the Suttas become more widely available. We also thank Wisdom Publications, for working on these texts with Ven Bodhi for so many years, and for kindly releasing these selections under a Creative Commons licence.

If you like the translations, buy the books! (And it wouldn’t hurt to let Wisdom know that you found these teachings via SuttaCentral…)

Seeking an editor

Dear friends,

For the past few years I’ve been involved with the group AABCAP, who have run a wonderful course on Buddhism and Psychotherapy. We’ve planned to make a book based on the course, and have interest from a publisher. However, we need an editor. We don’t have any funds available, so I’m afraid it is strictly a volunteer job. If there’s anyone with the skills and time, and of course interest, to help out with this, we’d love to hear from you.

The tyranny of footnotes

It has become our policy on SuttaCentral to present our texts without notes or introductory essays or the like. This more or less just happened, and it was agreed by all of us some time ago. Originally it was as much a pragmatic decision as anything else: footnotes and stuff are complicated; they are handled differently by every writer; and there is no dedicated HTML markup, so we would have to adapt multiple systems, each with their own idiosyncrasies, methods of abbreviation, cross-references, and so on. However, the more I think about it the more I think this is a crucial issue in principle, not just in practice.

Footnotes are great. We all know that. There’s stacks of knotty and obscure passages in the texts, and a well-placed note is extremely handy. An introductory essay is also terrific, giving all kinds of context and easing us into the deep waters.

But, like anything, these have their negative sides as well.

In some cases it is simply a matter of quality. Sometimes the translator feels free in giving vent to their voice, so one feels like the sutta is being read to you by a cozy, chatty friend who interjects and comments on the story whenever they feel like it. (I’m looking at you, Maurice…) In other cases the editorial voice is more disciplined; Bhikkhu Bodhi is the master of knowing exactly when a note is needed.

In any case, however, we end up reading the ancient text through a modern voice. This is a direct continuation of the old system of text and commentary. Often enough the footnotes provide information taken directly from the commentaries, and in many cases they are our primary source of information about the commentaries in English (which have not been translated yet.)

The problem is obvious: we become primed to read the text in a certain way. After several decades of modern study, the biases and problems of the commentaries are well know, yet they still exert their influences. And, of course, modern commentators bring their own set of assumptions and biases.

It seems to me that the essential problem is not that people comment on texts. This happens all the time. When people walk out of a movie, they discuss it. That’s how we learn and integrate things.

The problem is that one voice becomes privileged, and future generations will all read the text through that same voice. Regardless of how wise and skilled that voice is, it isn’t the Buddha’s voice. And while a translator can be expected to have a good understanding of their text, there is no particular reason why their voice should be intrinsically more important than any other knowledgeable commentator, except when it comes to questions affecting the translation itself.

So, for SuttaCentral, we don’t have notes, we just have the basic text. As such, we are a more direct continuation of the traditional canons, rather than something like Access to Insight, which serves as introduction to a particular, late 20th century, perspective on “Theravada”.

Do we lose something? Sure. Will many people like to have notes? Sure.

But what about the long term? Notes date in a way that the texts don’t. Are people in 50 years, or 100 years, going to want to read the notes of a translator in the 1990’s? Not so much, I would guess. The whole purpose of notes is to contextualize the ancient teachings for an audience in a different context; and that context is changing really, really fast.

So for SuttaCentral we keep just the original texts and translations. Much better, obviously, for people who have some idea of what they want. Those getting to know the Suttas would mostly feel more comfortable with something like Access to Insight or Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations, knowing that as they read them the Suttas are being constantly framed within a particular context.

One thing about footnotes, is they are a 20th century thing. Buddhist texts before that time didn’t have footnotes. And the whole idea is such a “book” thing. The very term “footnote” speaks of something at the “foot” of the page; the fact that there is no dedicated HTML mechanism for them shows how incidental they are to the web; and in many cases, the notes published on the web simply transfer notes that were originally in books.

Is there another way? A way of commenting, discussing, enriching the texts that is more “web-native”? Something user-generated, so that multiple voices can be heard in conversation? With a “kamma” system of promoting useful comments (and, you know, the other thing)? And “following”, so you can follow a commentator that you like, and avoid those you don’t? That can be personalized, kept private if you wish, or public if you like? That can structure multiple different kinds of information; say, text-critical data for scholars, psychological insights for meditators, social info for historians, and so on? A system that by default is switched off, so that the text stands on its own, but may be switched on when you need a friend? That encourages conversations and mutual learning, among practitioners of whatever level of experience and committment? And at the same time, evolves a repository of reliable information and guidance, selected from the best of the comments?

SuttaCentral: designing the Dhamma

When the time came to look again at SuttaCentral (this was late last year), one of my interests was to bring a refined and careful aesthetic sensibility to the Dhamma. In the past couple of years I’ve developed an interest in typography, due to publishing my own books. I knew that it is now possible to create quality typography on the web: and if anything should be typeset beautifully, it’s the suttas. As I’ve written previously, there is a long tradition of design and typography in writing the suttas, which springs from the very earliest Indian manuscripts. How, then, do we present the Suttas in the best possible way?

There are many issues to consider here, and I’ll try to cover a few of them.

Websites are dead

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s not really. No-one uses “websites” any more. They google, or they tweet or they Facebook. Maybe they read blogs, or check out some articles in a newspaper, or watch videos on YouTube. In none of these cases is someone actually using a “website”, in the basic sense of a structured group of HTML pages. The website is irrelevant. What matters is the content, what is on your screen at this moment, not what the theoretical “website” consists of.

This is the downfall of almost all sites that present the suttas. They are about the site; and often enough, they commit the cardinal, deadliest of deadly sins: using the website as a glorified ad for the organization. As soon as you think like that, you’ve failed. The content is no longer there for its own sake, but as a trick to drive the reader to something else: a product, or raising funds, or just plain old PR.

How do you escape from this? My favorite un-website is gov.uk. Seriously, it’s awesome. It won a major design award last year, and there’s nothing to it. There’s no smiling faces of happy people, no sloganeering, no clever flash, or any of the other meaningless crap that bogs down most websites. It is based on the basic premise that no-one wants to be in a government office, so let them do their business and get out as quickly as possible. It’s the same principle as Google: not, “How do we keep people?”, but “How do we get people where they want to be?”.

I wanted to bring this attitude to the suttas. No-one wants to trawl around a site trying to find a sutta hidden away in a list of links for other, lesser, things. No-one wants to download huge images or be told about the great work our organization is doing or see an ad for a meditation technique, and so on. Our task should be to bring the suttas to the surface in the fastest, best possible way, so that readers can get where they are going, and not have to deal with a website.

So we developed a navigation structure that is extremely shallow: 2 or 3 clicks and you’re at any sutta. The menu is available from any page, and the search is instant (and is getting more awesome every week: just wait until our new search is launched). It is the fastest and most powerful way of navigating the suttas that we can think of. If you’ve got a better way, let us know!

Buddhist Typography

I approached this from two angles. First, what are the fundamental Buddhist design principles? And second, how do we express them using the best practices of web typography?

Consider Buddhist design, the classic shapes of Buddhist art: the Buddha image, the mandala, the stupa. They all share an aesthetic sensibility. They are strongly and simply symmetrical. They are oriented towards the center and the top. This is no accident: the centering is an expression of psychological and spiritual oneness, and the upwards orientation is an expression of the aspirational nature of the path. They use the basic shapes: circle, square, triangle, to create a sense of order amid the complex and chaotic details of samsara.

I also looked at traditional manuscript design. Buddhist manuscripts are always symmetrical, using the universal principles of good typography: evenness, spacing, clarity. Due to the nature of the materials, they are usually horizontally oriented, unlike the vertical structure of a webpage or a book. But many of the design elements are close to those of Western typography. As just one example, the number of characters per line varies from manuscript to manuscript, but on average it approaches the Western ideal of around 80 characters/line.

What is equally important, especially from a Buddhist point of view, is not just what is on the manuscript, but what is not on it. With the exception of highly ceremonial designs, most Buddhist manuscripts are plain and workmanlike. The important thing is the words, and there’s pretty much nothing else on the page. This is contrary to most web presentations of the texts, which love to clutter the page with multiple reference numbers that interrupt the flow of reading.

These ideas are all reflected in the design for Suttacentral. The page is clear and uncluttered. All the reference material and other stuff is hidden away: you can call it out when you want it. But our default presentation is for people who want to read the text. The design is centered and symmetrical. The headings appear in small-caps in the center of the text, drawing the eye inwards and upwards. The small-caps also evoke a sense of seriousness and formality. Notice, also, that these textual elements are grayed out: this is because they are not part of the text itself, but have been added by redactors. So we create a visual reminder of the editorial layers of the text.

Western Typography

In the basic layout I was guided by the application of Bringhurst’s classic principles to web design. The page is a grid design, with a regular vertical movement and constant proportions. The basic set of proportions is selected from the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta. Notice how the Buddha structures his teachings in terms of interlocking numerical sets: 2 extremes, 3 turns, 4 noble truths, 8-fold path, 12 aspects. This is no accident: it provides a sense of order and interrelationship, a sense of the wholeness of the Dhamma. This same sense of proportion is what guides visual artists in creating harmony and beauty.

The most basic element in a page of text is the line height. This is the first and major impression that a page presents: a series of lines. So I took this as the basic unit in the text grid. Since the most basic number in the Dhammacakka is 2, the line height is assigned to two. And as this is a vertical height, the horizontal movement should express the second most basic number, three. So all the elements on the page are organized according to this 2:3 vertical:horizontal ratio, which is then expanded according to the proportions of the Dhammacakka: 4, 8, 12. Of course, a web page is dynamic, and is interpreted by browsers, so we can’t get the precision that we can on a printed page; but anyway, that’s where the basic proportions come from.

You don’t see these things. They are invisible guidelines. But so many people have commented, “Wow, SuttaCentral looks so great!”, it shows how strongly we respond to proportion and order.

One of the ideals of typography is that it recedes. When you read a text, the important thing is the words you are looking at. Anything that distracts the eye is an impediment to readings. And that means pretty much anything at all. A study of reading, for example, showed that use of bold text actually slows down readers: the eye is distracted. This is why the traditional ideal is to aim for a uniform “greyness” of text. Any excessive gaps or unevenness is avoided. The sense of beauty that emerges from a well-designed page is no accident; it is the cumulative effect of countless tiny decisions in the use of space, proportion, and color.

Typography is not just the overall proportions, but the meticulous attention to tiny details. We have managed to implement most of the elements of quality typography, some of which are commonly ignored in even expensive print editions: hanging quotes, proper (and letterspaced) small-caps, correct use of punctuation (including dashes and quotes), verses centered on the longest line, and so on.

One element we have not achieved is proper justification. Our text really should be justified, as this reinforces the symmetry and balance, and for this reason Buddhist manuscripts always use justified text. It is a complex topic, but the essence is that well-justified text is currently impossible to achieve on the web. I have been looking into possible solutions, but so far nothing that is workable.

Fonts

It is now possible to display pretty much any language well on the web, due to the widespread adoption of Unicode, together with the acceptance of @font-face for delivering fonts. The problem is no longer just getting the glyphs you need, but getting a font that actually works well.

There are plenty of free fonts available, but few of them have the glyphs we need. Moreover, rendering fonts on the screen is still a complex and dicey matter. I’m lucky, I use Ubuntu on a good screen, so pretty much any font looks okay. But on low-res screens, and a variety of inferior operating systems, it’s almost impossible to find a font that actually works well across all devices. In addition, I wanted the flexibility of the full range of typographic possibilities, including true small-caps, which are very rare in a free font. To add to the complexity, as the design evolved it became clear that we needed both a serif and sans-serif, in order to clearly structure the information on the page. These both need to both have proper typographical features, be available in small-caps, render well on all screens, and include the various exotic language glyphs.

Ultimately, I simply couldn’t find a free font that met all these criteria. The closest is my beloved Gentium; but this is designed for compact print, and is cramped on a screen. Eventually I came across the wonderful Skolar, which you are reading this blog in right now. The basic version is available online on WordPress, but the full font, which includes masses of specialized and advanced features, is only available commercially. Despite my love of open source, in this case this was the best option.

Skolar is an astonishingly good font, which has been widely adopted in the design community, but which has so far largely passed by its intended market, scholarly publications. It is designed from the ground up to be used with a wide variety of international glyphs, rather than most fonts, where the diacritical marks are bolted on after the fact. It has the classic attributes of a great screen font, with strong lines, low contrast, and moderately large x-height. In addition, it benefits from detailed hand-hinting by the creator, which is the single most important factor in ensuring good appearance on inferior screens.

I have been able to work directly with the font designer, David Březina, to adapt and extend Skolar for SuttaCentral. The initial version includes support for the Pali and Sanskrit diacriticals. David kindly created the Dhamma-wheel you see in the SuttaCentral masthead. This is the Unicode character for the Dhamma wheel, not an image. I chose this as a homage to the Unicode project in enabling communication and learning across all peoples. The next version of Skolar, which will be live on our site soon, has support for Vietnamese characters, which were developed by David specially for SuttaCentral. I’m delighted that we can make this little contribution towards quality typography for everyone.

The companion sans is Source Sans Pro. This was created by Adobe and released as their first open-source font. Originally designed as a UI font, it has outstanding readability at small sizes, which makes it ideal for its use on SuttaCentral. It covers all the glyphs we need and comes in a wide range of weights and styles. In addition, it harmonizes well with Skolar. (I peeked at the innards of a pdf that David Březina sent me, and he uses it as companion for Skolar, too!). I’ve adapted it slightly for use on SC.

Conclusion

I could go on for quite some time, but will have to call it quits for now. Hopefully I have conveyed some sense of the care and consideration that has gone into crafting SuttaCentral. As always, design is in service of a higher purpose: to convey the Dhamma.

The Suttas speak of how the Buddha would speak in a voice that is clear, pleasant to listen to, articulate, and distinct. These principles are fundamental to communication. The design of a Sutta should be attended to with the same care that the Buddha used when speaking.

Unfortunately, most sutta websites so far seem to have used the design principle of throwing a bunch of text at the screen and, I don’t know, praying that it will work out okay. This is neither good scholarship nor good communication.

The presentation of a text conveys, unconsciously but unmistakably, what the designer thinks of the text. If a speaker mumbles, grunts, and slurs, it is a sign that they don’t care about what they are saying, or about the person listening. And if a web designer doesn’t bother to pay attention to the manner in which a text is presented, they throw out millenia of experience with the written word, which universally attests that the manner of presentation deeply influences how the matter is received.

The new SuttaCentral is live

I have some wonderful news today: our new SuttaCentral is finally live!

You can see it here at: http://suttacentral.net/

We have been working very hard on this for some time now, and are very happy with the results so far. I will be writing on various aspects of this project in the coming weeks, so for now let me just introduce a few of our main features.

  • A complete new design from top to bottom. The whole site, in fact has been rewritten from the ground up.
  • Much faster more powerful navigation.
  • Instant search!
  • Many added new references and improved structure
  • Many texts are now hosted on site, including the main Suttas of the Pali, the Vietnamese translations, and some English and Korean translations.
  • Brand new translations from the Saṁykuta Āgama (both the main and shorter version), and the Upāyika. Together with the older translations of the Ekottara and Dīrgha Āgamas, SuttaCentral now has the most comprehensive collection of Āgama translations available anywhere.
  • We also have newly available online versions of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s classic translations from the Dīgha Nikāya
  • The Pali and Chinese texts have a very cool instant word lookup function. (We only have one Chinese text online for now, more coming soon.)
  • A very powerful, intuitive pretty URL structure: you can go anywhere on the site directly from the address bar if you know the abbreviated uid for the text.
  • A Feedback forum: tell us what we can do to make it better! (BTW, while feedback anywhere is good, generally it will be better to leave specific suggestions for the site on that forum rather than here.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that some time ago I complained about how there was no ready good source of Early Buddhist Texts online. Today, we begin to change that.

There are many areas where we want to expand and improve the site, but I hope that it is already something of help for anyone who wants to learn what the Buddha taught.

I have been absent from this blog for some time, as I have wanted to commit myself fully to getting SuttaCentral ready. Now that it is up, I hope to spend some more time back here.