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.

My books at Santipada

The final versions of all six of my books* are finished and available through Santipada.org.

These books have been a labour of love for me, and are the fruits of countless hours of perspiration and inspiration. I’ve done everything I can to ensure that they are as well written, researched, and presented as possible, and I make them available as widely as I can. You can read them on the web, download them, get an ebook, and even, for the traditionalists among you, order a paperback version. Here’s the blurb for each of these books.

I don’t have any way of publicizing these apart from this blog, so I’d really appreciate it if you’d spread these around on whatever network or social media you use. On the Santipada site I encourage donations to Buddhist Global Relief, and the (minimal) proceeds from book sales go to Santi FM.**

White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes

Enchant­ing, power­ful, hor­rific, beau­ti­ful, wise, deadly, com­pas­sion­ate, seduct­ive. Women in Buddhist story and image are all these things and more. She takes the signs of the ancient god­dess – the lotus, the sac­red grove, the ser­pent, the sac­ri­fice – and uses them in aston­ish­ing new ways. Her story is one of suf­fer­ing and great tri­als, and through it all an unquench­able long­ing to be free. This beau­ti­fully illus­trated work is as layered and sub­vers­ive as myth­o­logy itself. Based dir­ectly on authen­tic Buddhist texts, and informed with insights from psy­cho­logy and com­par­at­ive myth­o­logy, it takes a fresh look at how Buddhist women have been depic­ted by men and how they have depic­ted themselves.

Dreams of Bhadda

Bhaddā was a true ori­ginal. An ascetic, a philo­sopher, and a mur­derer, who became one of the best-loved of all the bhikkhunis. Here is a vivid re-imagining of her story: a Buddhist nun like you’ve never seen before.

 

 

A History of Mindfulness

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is the most influ­en­tial scrip­ture in Buddhist med­it­a­tion. It is the found­a­tion text for the mod­ern schools of ‘vipas­sanā’ or ‘insight’ med­it­a­tion. The well-known Pali dis­course is, how­ever, only one of many early Buddhist texts that deal with mind­ful­ness. This is the first full-scale study to encom­pass all extant ver­sions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, tak­ing into account the dynamic evol­u­tion of the Buddhist scrip­tures and the broader Indian med­it­at­ive cul­ture. A new vis­ion emerges from this ground­break­ing study: mind­ful­ness is not a sys­tem of ‘dry insight’ but is the ‘way to con­ver­gence’ lead­ing the mind to deep states of peace.

Sects & Sectarianism

Why are there so many schools of Buddhism? Are the dif­fer­ences just cul­tural, or do they have fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent vis­ions of Dhamma? This work assesses the claims of the tra­di­tions, and takes into account to find­ings of mod­ern schol­ar­ship. It pays spe­cial atten­tion to the ori­gins of the mon­astic orders. If we are to under­stand the dif­fer­ences, and some­times ten­sions, between the schools of Buddhism today, we must exam­ine more closely the forces that spurred their formation.

A Swift Pair of Messengers

Serenity and insight are the two great wings of Buddhist med­it­a­tion. They each have a spe­cial role to play in the path to Awaken­ing. While some mod­ern approaches seek to mar­gin­al­ize serenity in favor of ‘dry’ insight, the Buddha’s own dis­courses place serenity right at the cen­ter of the path. This book col­lects vir­tu­ally all the sig­ni­fic­ant pas­sages on this topic that are found in the early dis­courses, care­fully elu­cid­ated for the mod­ern reader.

Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies

Although his­tor­ic­ally mar­gin­al­ized, Buddhist nuns are tak­ing their place in mod­ern Buddhism. Like the monks, Buddhist nuns live by an ancient sys­tem of mon­astic law, the Vinaya. This work invest­ig­ates vari­ous areas of uncer­tainty and con­tro­versy in how the Vinaya is to be under­stood and applied today.

 

 


In addition to these books, I have updated and improved two old websites on bhikkhuni ordination: Sikkhamana and Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. These consist mainly of translations and comparative tables for those interested in a serious study of issues relating to bhikkhuni ordination.

 

 


* Not counting the illustrated book Beginnings, which was previously available at Budaedu, but appears to have run out.

** For those who might be curious about my policy re selling books, basically I would prefer for everything to be given away free. Most people who read them will get them via a free distribution publisher or from a free download. You can also buy them through the print on demand publisher Lulu.com. In this case the price just covers the printing and postage, as Lulu does not require that the author takes any royalties. However, Lulu also makes available distribution through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, etc. And to enable this one must accept a certain minimum of author royalties. I don’t want this for myself, so it is a donation for Santi.

Buddhism & LaTeX

That’s ‘LaTeX’ the typesetting system, by the way, not the kinky shiny stuff. Sorry to disappoint.

One of the reasons for my prolonged absence from this blog the last couple of months is that I’ve been re-setting all my books using LaTeX. The only way I can get stuff like that done is by ignoring other stuff.

In this post I’d like to explain why Buddhists should use LaTeX. The basic reasons are simple. It’s free and open source (FOSS); and it’s the best.

Here’s the long version.

The Suttas often mention how beautiful it was to listen to the Buddha speak. He was supposed to have had a sweet voice like a cuckoo, clear, well-articulated, neither too loud nor too soft. It was not just the content of his speech, but the manner of it that was persuasive.

Just as spoken words can have qualities that are either attractive or repulsive, so too do written words. And just as the manner of presentation of spoken words substantially effects how they are received, so too with the written word. The craft of setting beautiful written text is called typography.

There is a long history of evolution of writing, which has gradually accumulated a ‘canon’ of rules that embody the best practices of presenting the written word. These style guides are not merely arbitrary, they arise from long cultural experience of what makes a text easy to read or not.

Similar principles have been followed in typography both East and West. See, for example, this inscription from King Ashoka, one of the earliest examples of Indian writing.

Without knowing anything about it, it is easily recognisable as writing. The lines are regular, with similar sized characters, and spaced so that the characters are clearly distinct, but not so far apart that they lose a sense of organic connection.

But as an early example, it is somewhat rough around the edges. The lines aren’t straight, and the characters not perfectly formed.

Here is a later, much more sophisticated piece of Buddhist typography, from 18th century Burma.

Here the typographic art has been raised to perfection. There is an unmistakable sense of care and precision about the piece; the harmony between the form and the content; the shapes of the letters, the integration of the decoration; the use of space; and so on.

This is what happens when care is taken to produce good typography. It’s not the expensive materials and decorations that matter, it’s the attention to detail.

And that is solely what typography is: attention to detail. Each little facet of the page is, in and of itself, trivial; but taken as a whole a well laid out page creates a harmonious form, which immediately, without fuss or pretension, informs the reader that they are reading something that is worth taking time over.

If you don’t get what good typography is, you won’t get the point of LaTeX. Typography leads a reader gracefully into the text, and invites them to care for the text’s meaning. Software is only a tool, which is there to help you accomplish this. So you have to know what you want. Learn what makes good typography first, then you’ll know what LaTeX is for.

In modern Buddhism, much of the typographical tradition is lost. This is, of course, a widespread outcome of the democratisation of text, so that anyone can now lay out text with a word processor. And it is exacerbated in Buddhism, where many of the books are produced by volunteers with no specialist training or interest in typesetting. And so virtually all the free distribution books in Buddhism (and many of the commercial ones) have bad typography. Mine included! (There are exceptions: the recent hard cover editions of Ajahn Chah’s teachings were produced in LaTeX, and they look lovely.)

To my mind, this is simply disrespecting the Dhamma. Do we think so little of the Dhamma that we are content to bash out any old crud as long as it fits on the page?

One of the basic issues underlying this is the use of word processors. Word processors are intended to do what their name says – process words. They are intended as tools for writing, and they can also be used for simple typesetting. If you want to do an invitation for your daughter’s 10th birthday, fine, use Word or LibreOffice. But if you want to make a book, use something designed for the job.

For a long time I used OpenOffice—later renamed LibreOffice—to lay out my books. Bit by bit, I tamed it and bent it to my will. And it did a pretty good job, once I learned how to do stuff like justify all text by hand using character styles.

What are you talking about? I hear you say. You just hit ‘justify’ and there the text is, all neatly lined up.

Ahh, no, it’s not quite like that. Word processors typically justify text by using a very simple algorithm. They see if the number of characters in a line fits the line (which of course rarely happens). If it doesn’t, they move the last word on to the next line and stretch out the remaining words to fit. The result is loose, sloppy text, with arbitrary gaps. Once you notice this, you can’t mistake it. It looks like crap.

This is how most Buddhist free distribution books are produced, using either (pirated) copies of Word, or LibreOffice, or sometimes a graphics program (since most of the volunteers who work on the books are graphic designers, not typesetters).

A proper typesetting system does much more. It evaluates what is the optimum way of distributing characters over an entire paragraph. Stretching here, compressing there, until the minimum ‘badness’ is achieved. And yes, ‘badness’ is a thing: it is the measure LaTeX uses to quantify how far from the ideal a justified line is.

Traditionally, all this stuff was done by professionals who hand set a page, using years of experience and study of their craft to produce beautiful, optimally laid-out pages. Look at an old book, and you’ll see a well-laid out page.

When computers started to be used for typesetting, the standards fell rapidly. So much so that one of the founding geniuses of computer science, Donald Knuth, took it upon himself to write the perfect typesetting program. It took six years, and he came up with TeX. This has has some modifications over the years, but is essentially perfected and stable.

Others took up the project and created LaTeX, which is essentially a programming language that uses a set of macros to make using TeX easier. Normally you don’t have to worry about TeX, just use LaTeX.

LaTeX is the standard for pretty much every scientific journal—it is particularly good at laying out equations—and is used widely in academia and elsewhere. There is, I have to admit, a geeky thrill in using LaTeX programs that written by NASA.

There is a good reason why such high-level institutions use LaTeX. It’s the best.

And there’s a good reason why most publishers use Abode’s desktop publishing software. LaTeX is, to put it mildly, unintuitive. That doesn’t mean it’s hard. I just means you have a learning curve before you can get it to do what you want.

Desktop publishing software can produce a good book, but it is not without its problems. The main FOSS program is Scribus, and while this is excellent for newsletters, magazines and the like, it lacks some basics for books, such as footnote support. Adobe software is good, but it’s expensive. And despite the premium price, in several areas it still produces output that is inferior to LaTeX. Of course the final result depends how you use the tool, but it is still true to say that LaTeX can produce output that is at least as good as Adobe.

A couple of months ago, I reached a crisis point with LibreOffice. There was so much formatting cruft in the file, it just wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to. Seriously, open up a years-old and oft-edited file one day and see what’s inside. It’s disgusting! (For a .odt file, rename the extension .zip, extract it, and open the .xml file with a text editor.)

Fortunately, I’m living with a serious geek, Ven Nandiya (he used to design physics engines for gaming). He learned LaTeX at Uni, and walked me through the basics.

Soon enough we were producing reasonably functional LaTeX documents, and I set out on redoing all my old books. I’ve done most of them, and am working on finishing touches now.

For those who want to try it out…

Okay, so hopefully some of you are interested to help create some high quality Buddhist books with LaTeX. But you have no particular computer expertise, and you don’t live with a geek god. LaTeX is very well documented, but most of the documentation is intended for serious users, and taking the first steps can be difficult. So here’s a few tips to get started.

First is obvious—do some googling and read the basics.

Second, install TexLive. This might already be present on your system. Essentially, TexLive is a distribution of software packages, documentation, and the like, that lets you produce LaTeX documents. It will be a large download, but it means that pretty much everything that you want is right there on your computer.

Third, play with creating some simple LaTeX documents. Here’s how. These instructions work for Linux, I’ve no idea if they apply on other systems.

You don’t need any special tools. I tried using LyX, which is supposed to make using LaTeX easier. But I found it frustrating and never got anywhere. I suspect it’s just that LaTeX is simply not suited to a WYSIWYG approach. There are various LaTeX editors available, but I find just using Gedit, a simple text editor (with code highlighting) and a terminal works fine.

The basic process is this. You edit the LaTeX file in a text editor. Then you use the terminal to process the file. That produces a pdf of the final product. Not so hard, right? Here’s the details.

Create a file on your desktop. Name it test.tex. Open the file with a text editor (notepad or the like) and paste in the following. Or better still, write it by hand so you get used to LaTeX.

\documentclass{book}

\usepackage{lipsum}

\begin{document}

\tableofcontents

\chapter{This is a chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\section{This is a section}

\lipsum

\chapter{This is another chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\end{document}

Save the document on your Desktop. Open a terminal. Write cd Desktop and press enter (capitals sensitive!). This opens the terminal in the Desktop directory. Write pdflatex test.tex and press enter.

Several files will automagically appear on your Desktop. Most of these are just logs and can be ignored. One of them will be a pdf file. But hold on: LaTeX counts page numbers on the first run through and creates a Table of Contents on the second run. So retype pdflatex test.tex in the terminal and press enter once more. (Hint: to cycle through previous commands in the terminal, use the up and down arrows on your keyboard.) Now open the pdf file. And Bingo! Your very own, LaTeX-produced pdf file.

Notice how many of the aspects of a book have been done automatically. Page numbers are there, a Table of Contents is there, and clearly formatted. The text is a reasonable size, well laid out, with plenty of white space.

So what’s going on here? Let’s have a look at what this code means.

\documentclass{book} % Commands in LaTeX start with a backslash. Every LaTeX document begins by specifying a document class (book, report, article, and so on). This tells LaTeX to use a set of defaults that are suitable. ‘Book’ is, obviously, the basic class for producing books, but the ‘memoir’ class is much more powerful and flexible and probably a better choice for serious booking. However, I only found this out after achieving most of what I wanted using the ‘book’ class, so I stuck with it.

\usepackage{lipsum} % ‘Package’ is the LaTeX (and more broadly Linux) word for a piece of software. You can specify any number of packages to use in a LaTeX document. These provide extra functionality and control. Think of them like plugins for your browser or apps for your phone. This one tells LaTeX to use dummy Lipsum text when the command \lipsum appears in the document. Tip: Packages and other LaTeX stuff (like document classes) come with excellent documentation, which you already have in your TexLive installation. To get the relevant documentation, just type in your terminal texdoc nameofpackage. No really, it’s that simple. Try texdoc lipsum and see for yourself. A nicely formatted pdf pops up explaining what the package is and how to use it.

\begin{document} % Should be obvious. Everything before this point is called the ‘preamble’, something like the <head> in an html page.

\tableofcontents % Inserts an automagically produced and formatted table of contents at this point.

\chapter{This is a chapter} %Inserts a numbered chapter heading.

\lipsum %Inserts dummy text.

\lipsum

\section{This is a section} % Inserts a numbered section heading.

\lipsum

\chapter{This is another chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\end{document} %What it says. Note that everything on a line that follows a % on a line in LaTeX does not appear in the document. This is used for making comments in the file.

That’s a good start, but there’s much more to be done. What if we want to change something from the defaults? This is where things start to get tricky.

The defaults on LaTeX are brilliantly thought through (in the main), but they are obviously not suitable for everything. We will usually need to do things like change the page size, the margins of text on the page, and so on. And the default fonts are fine, but kinda stodgy (academia, you know), so we’ll want to liven things up a little.

So let’s just look at making a couple of basic modifications to the text we’ve produced so far.

You may have noticed that the pdf you produced has headers at the top of each page (except, intelligently, not the chapter title page). This is good, but the headers also appear on blank pages that have been inserted before the chapter title pages. This is because LaTeX by default follows the traditional practice of starting new chapters on a right hand page. You can change this behaviour in a number of ways. It is, of course, possible to keep the blank pages and eliminate the headers from them. But the simplest solution is to insert an ‘option’ in the specification of your document class that will eliminate the blank pages altogether.

Your original command was:

\documentclass{book}

Notice the two parts of this. The ‘command’, which is written with a backslash, and the ‘argument’, which is enclosed in curly brackets. Some commands also allow ‘options, which are inserted with square brackets between the command and the argument. In this case, we insert the option openany to instruct LaTeX to start a new chapter on any page.

\documentclass[openany]{book}

Run LaTeX again, and the annoying blank pages are gone.

For Buddhist texts, it is usually necessary to display unusual diacritical marks in Pali and Sanskrit, etc. Until recently, this was a hassle in LaTeX, as it was developed in the pre-Unicode days. As such it was limited to the fonts specially developed for LaTeX by its inventor, and using other fonts required special hacks.

There are a couple of recent extensions to LaTeX that can use any font installed on your computer very easily. One is XeTeX, but I had problems getting it to do microtypography. The other is LuaTeX, which is supposed to be unstable, but I have used it for lots of things with no problems. So, try this.

To your preamble (that’s the stuff between \documentclass and \begin{document}) add the following lines:

\usepackage{fontspec}
\setmainfont{Gentium Basic}

That tells LaTeX to use the package fontspec, allowing it to specify fonts, and chooses Gentium Basic as your main font. (You do have Gentium Basic on your computer, right? Don’t use plain old Gentium, as it doesn’t have proper bold face.) Then add some Pali or Sanskrit text after the \chapter, such as:

Upayo, bhikkhave, avimutto, anupayo vimutto. Rūpupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, rūpārammaṇaṃ rūpappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya. Vedanupayaṃ vā…pe… saññupayaṃ vā…pe… saṅkhārupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, saṅkhārārammaṇaṃ saṅkhārappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya.

Now run LaTeX. But rather than using the previous command pdflatex, which tells LaTeX to make a pdf file, we use lualatex, which tells LaTeX to use LuaTex to create a pdf file. Don’t worry, it just works (assuming, of course you have TexLive installed). Enter: lualatex test.tex.

And there you have it. Gentium Basic used throughout. And nicely formatted Pali text.

But wait! Oops, the Pali text doesn’t justify properly. One of the words hangs over the line. OMG LATEX IS SUCH CRAP!!! Okay, now’s the time to breathe. Calm down. It’s only software.

What’s happening is that, whereas word processors and the like use a simple system to do line breaks, LaTeX is much more finicky. Normally this means that it handles things like justification and hyphenation really well. But in unusual cases—like an unknown language—it doesn’t know what to do. So rather than bodging up a quick fix, it leaves the problem so that you’ll notice it and can fix it up properly.

The simplest solution is to add \-, which tells LaTeX to hyphenate at that point. So saṅkhārappatiṭṭhaṃ becomes saṅ\-khārappatiṭṭhaṃ. Run lualatex again. The problem is gone, and the text justifies nicely. *Sigh of relief*

That’s enough to get started.

O, and one other thing. Most of the time you won’t be writing directly as LaTeX, but will be adapting something from somewhere else. Remember, LaTeX is for typesetting, word processors are for writing. So you want to take your .odt or .docx or .html file and turn it into LaTeX. Heh, heh! Good luck with that.

The problem is that word processors end up with a complex mishmash of style and structure information, and there’s simply no way to anticipate how that should be changed into LaTeX. Not least because much of the information—like page format, colors, and so on—need to be changed anyway, and the program can’t guess what information you want to keep. Html files should work better, as they are a structured format not dissimilar to LaTeX.

There are various ways of converting word processing files to LaTeX. Here’s some. But after experimenting we found the best way was to use Abiword, a light weight word processor that natively exports to LaTeX. It captures most of what needs to be kept—footnotes, text formatting like italics, chapters—with a minimal amount of cruft (unlike LibreOffice’s LaTeX export…).

Open your .odt or .doc file with Abiword and export to LaTeX. Open up the .tex file, clean any cruft (I said it produces minimal cruft, not none at all…), and you should have the start of a basic LaTeX file.

One thing Abiword doesn’t do very well is export non-standard characters. It recognizes a few of the common characters with diacriticals in Pali/Sanskrit, but in most cases it just omits them. Indeed, it doesn’t just problematize obscure characters, but even some common punctuation. This is because Abiword exports to vanilla LaTeX, which is not Unicode. But we’re using LuaLaTeX so we want the Unicode characters, not the code.

When Abiword gives you the Unicode for the missing character it’s easy enough to insert the relevant character using the methods described here. However in the cases where the code is simply missing, not only is the resulting file inaccurate, but there’s no simple way to search for the missing characters.

Whether this is a hassle or not depends on what you are doing. If you’re quoting lengthy Pali passages, as for example a chanting book, then never mind, you can just paste the text again from source. But if you have Pali/Sanskrit terms or quotes embedded in your text (like me), then it’s a nightmare to find and replace them.

Luckily enough, Ven Nandiya came to the rescue. He’s hacked Abiword to export the Unicode codes of all non-standard Unicode characters. Awesome! So now the LaTeX file still doesn’t have the proper characters, but it does have the unique Unicode code for each character. In addition, each code is preceded by xx, so you can find them easily in your document.

Which is great, except you don’t have it. Ven Nandiya doesn’t want to submit his hack to Abiword for inclusion, as he says it’s real quick & dirty. But if you want it, let me know.


One of the best aspects of LaTeX is that it has an enthusiastic and very helpful online community. That’s the beauty of free and open source—it’s all about helping each other. That’s the real reason why the Buddhist community—made up largely of enthusiastic volunteers who just want to help doing something good—should feel a sense of kinship with LaTeX and other FOSS projects.

We shouldn’t spend lots of money on programs designed for massive corporations. Nor should we pirate software, which is unfortunately endemic in Buddhism.

Lurking at the core of these bad practices is the subtle lack of confidence that secretly thinks that free and voluntary stuff is not as good.

But Buddhism itself puts the lie to that. Everything is, or was until very recently, Free and Open Source.

And just as Buddhism has produced and maintained some of the world’s most amazing things without the need for commercialisation, so too the FOSS community show that the same spirit of community co-operation is not just alive, but produces the best results.

Don’t believe me? Which encyclopaedia have you used the most recently—Wikipedia, or Britannica? Why? Because Wikipedia is better, obviously. But that’s too subjective. What about something really hard and technical and objective, like, say, supercomputers. No room for Mickey Mouse thinking there. Well, the designers of the world’s fastest computers would appear to be fans of FOSS: almost all of them use a derivative of the Linux FOSS operating system.

This is not a trivial thing, it is an amazing one. The voluntary work of people coming together to help out is still, despite all our corporatization, one of the major forces in human culture. It’s on the cutting edge of technology, just as it has been for 2500 years of Buddhism.

Die zwei Eilboten – German translation of A Swift Pair of Messengers

A volunteer circle in Germany has just completed the translation of my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers. Thanks so much to Manfred and the team at Dhamma-dana for making this possible.

You can find the German translation at the Dhamma-dana.de website here. They have also translated one of my essays, on rebirth and the intermediate state.

Here’s some more information about the work of Dhamma-dana.de.

The Dhamma Dana Project of the Buddhist Society of Munich eV (BGM), was founded to make selected Dhamma literature in German translation available for serious practitioners. Additionally, the material that has been provided by the BGM-sutta-study group, helps in deepening the exploration into the original teachings of Buddha. All Dhamma Dana Publications are freely avaiblable by sending a request to the BGM (bgm.m@web.de) or as free downloads at http://www.dhamma-dana.de

Need for study:
To be a Buddhist means to be a students or follower of the Buddha. It makes sense that the student should know what was said by the teacher himself. To settle for second-hand knowledge is rarely enough in the long term. Especially lay people often do not know what the Buddha taught especially for them and how they can verify the usefulness of their practise. The Dhamma Dana Project hopes to facillitate a thorough knowledge of the Dhamma-Vinaya so that more people can appreciate the richness and value of the Buddhas teaching.

Necessity of Dana (giving without expecting):
The Dhamma of the Buddha is a gift for us and the society in which we move. In a world dominated by money and military power, we struggle to find meaning in life. This gift of the Dhamma is so much more than words, teachings and meditation instruction.
Dhamma can only be a gift. Its nature is to be shared and recycled – to circulate in a cycle of generosity, rather than in a cycle of desire.
The Dhamma of Giving is the antidote to this cycle in its manifestations of market value, dividend, profit optimization and all other expressions of greed in a consumer society.

Thanks to this understanding the Dhamma Dana Project has run over 10 years by now and has distributed a couple thousand books and booklets and has had who knows how many downloads. To increase the understanding of dana was one of the major objects of this project and we are more than happy that it worked out so well.