On the radiant mind

The following is a comment I wrote some time ago in the discussion thread on this article. I’ve extracted it and reposted here, with a couple of minor changes.


To understand the famous passage on the “radiant mind” we will have to go into some details and background, so hold on. Here’s the Pali:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.

The sutta appears in the middle of a long list of other short suttas, all of which deal with some aspect of mental development, eg. metta and so on. These texts are obviously artificial in a sense: they have been divided up from longer, more coherent discourses to fit the “Ones” format. Thus these two “suttas” are really one sutta; and the same goes for the two previous suttas (not quoted here), which are just abstracts from the present text.

The overall context of this part of the Suttas is samadhi: in fact, probably the reason these texts have been artificially “processed” to fit in this section is because the idea of “one” fits well with samadhi as “one-pointedness of mind”. This doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that we should expect texts here to deal mainly with samadhi.

A literal translation is:

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is defiled by transient defilements. An unlearned ordinary person does not understand that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “An unlearned ordinary person does not have mental development.”

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is freed from transient defilements. A learned noble disciple person understands that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “A learned noble disciple has mental development.”

The syntax of the sutta is somewhat obscure, in Pali as in English: while there are no grammatical difficulties, it is not entirely clear what the sense of the text is. This is already a red flag: as a rule, one should never rely for crucial explanations on a text that appears only once, and which is unclear. Surely in a crucial matter the Buddha would have stated it many times and made it clear what he was talking about. As a rule, when faced with an obscure passage, we look to more clear examples to help us understand.

To start with, then, let’s look at other Sutta passages that use the same word “pabhassara”. Here I will ignore the fact that this word is merely a synonym for many other terms such as abha, pariyodata, obhasa, and so on, that are frequently used in the context of samadhi. A quick search of the uses of pabhassara reveals this:

  • Majjhima 93 Assalayana: the “radiance” of a fire
  • Samyutta 6.5: The “radiance” of Brahma
  • Samyutta 46.31–32: The “radiance” of gold, compared to the “radiance” of the mind when it has right samadhi (i.e. jhana).
  • Samyutta 51.22: the Buddha’s body in samadhi is lighter and “more radiant”, like hot metal.
  • Anguttara 3.101: Similar to SN 46.31 above, except here the word pabhassara is only directly used in the simile when referring to gold; the text goes on to speak of samadhi, but doesn’t use pabhassara. However,
  • Anguttara 3.102: Here pabhassara is used of samadhi, in the same stock phrase as above, as well as in the “gold” simile.
  • Anguttara 5.23: “Gold” and “samadhi” as above.
  • Sutta Nipata 46: “Radiant” gold jewellery.

So pabhassara is used in an ordinary language sense of the “radiance” of a fire or gold; in a “religious” sense of the light of Brahma; and in a Dhamma sense of the radiance of the mind in samadhi. The sense of the simile of gold, which is the most common context, is that just as gold has impurities and the smith will gradually work them out, resulting in pure, radiant gold, so too the meditator eliminates the defilements (upakkilesa = nivarana = 5 hindrances) and thereby leads the mind to samadhi. This all hangs together very straightforwardly. Nowhere is there any suggestion that it has anything to do with Nibbana.

These passages, especially the recurring comparison of gold with samadhi, are clear and well-defined. They are proper teachings, not just cut-up slivers with no parallels, as in the more famous pabhassara citta passage. This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them.

Returning to our passage, the “radiant” mind is said to be either defiled or freed from defilements. While the overall context is cittabhavana, i.e. samadhi, and is obviously meant to be the same as the more common gold/samadhi passage, there is a crucial difference. That is, in the gold/samadhi passages, the gold (and the mind) is said to be “not radiant” when it is defiled; and “radiant” when the defilements are removed. But the texts under discussion say exactly the opposite.

There is a clear contradiction here, and as always, one can approach contradictions in various ways. Perhaps the two can be harmonized: the radiance of the mind is potentially there, even if not apparent. Fine, but that is not really how the Buddha talked about things. We should always prefer a simpler, more grounded explanation, not one that necessitates revising the whole of the Buddha’s teachings based on one dubious passage. Given that the text has obviously suffered editorial changes, I suspect that the problems arose due to these.

The beginning of the Sutta has the Buddha (presumably, although it doesn’t actually say so), saying, “This mind is radiant…” The particle “idam”, “this”, functions to limit and specific: This mind, not “the mind” (as in Thanissaro’s translation). As well as the gold/samadhi passages, we might compare to the Upakkilesa Sutta, where the Buddha speaks of how he meditated, then light arose, but because of “defilements” (upakkilesa, the same word as our sutta), the light vanished. The word for light is different (obhasa), but is from the same root with the same basic meaning.

This is the normal way the Buddha talked about the mind. It is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. Our passage, which is unique, without parallels in any early Suttas, syntactically awkward, clearly the subject of editing, can be read as suggesting a different take on things, that the mind is somehow “radiant” even when covered by defilements. Or it can be read in line with the other, more clear suttas.

In either case, there is no suggestion here that the “radiant mind” be connected with Nibbana. Quite the opposite: the whole point of the sutta is that it can be defiled, so it cannot be Nibbana.

Chinese Agama texts are now on SuttaCentral

At last, after a very long time, you can read the Chinese Agama texts on SuttaCentral. In the past we linked to the texts on the CBETA site, but now you can stay within SuttaCentral, and especially, use our amazing Chinese>English lookup tool, which is available in the sidebar.

Given the vast number of texts involved there are bound to be some errors, so please help out by letting me know if you spot any.

If you have some knowledge of the suttas, and would like to start plunging into the Agama world, I suggest you begin with the Samyuktagama. This, like the Pali Samyutta, has mostly simple doctrinal suttas, which use mostly familiar phrases and expressions.

Start with the first suttas in the collection. You can see that we have translations for the first 34 suttas; these are by Ven Analayo, so they are very accurate. You can read the Chinese texts using the lookup tool alongside the translation. You’d be surprised how quickly things start to make sense! Once you’ve read these 34 suttas you’ll be well on your way to exploring independently.

With the inclusion of these texts, SuttaCentral now has almost all the extant early Buddhist texts. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that the vast majority of the Buddha’s words in their earliest form have been gathered in one place, in one coherent form.

However, we still have some missing pieces:

  • A few Chinese texts are still missing. These are mostly later texts which include small segments that have been identified as parallels with the early texts. In most cases, it wouldn’t be worth it to add these vast texts for the sake of a few parallels, so for the foreseeable future they will remain as external links.
  • Some Sanskrit texts are missing; these are texts that are either not yet published, or not available in digital form. If and when Sanskrit texts become available, we will add them.
  • Tibetan early Buddhist texts. We are looking to add these in the next year.

Given the vast corpus of literature, and the uncertain boundaries of what an early text actually is, it will never be possible to clearly say that a collection of early Buddhist texts is complete. But we are getting pretty close.

In addition to the Chinese texts, we have in recent weeks added sutta translations in Indonesian and Spanish. We hope to greatly expand our coverage of translations in the coming year.

That we could get so far is due to the very hard work and countless hours that have been given by so many workers, many of them volunteers, who have made their work available for others to use. In this way the Buddha’s words continue to be a living force, adapting to new environments.

In particular, the Chinese texts we have added were all typed, formatted, and curated by the amazing CBETA project, mainly based at Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. We have incredible gratitude for the wonderful folk at CBETA, who have created an incredibly careful, detailed digital edition of the vast corpus of Chinese Buddhist texts, and have made it available freely for all.

I hope that in the future people will take the texts on SuttaCentral and do new and amazing things with them, and that they make us out of date as soon as possible!

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.

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.

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.

Get the stuff out of the way, let the Dhamma shine

The New SuttaCentral

In recent weeks I’ve been working hard on the revamped SuttaCentral. Not quite ready for prime time yet, but it won’t be long. SuttaCentral has for several years been the only place on the web you can get reliable and comprehensive data on Sutta correspondences: how to find out whether there are any other versions of a Sutta, and where and what they are. It’s rapidly becoming much more than that, and in future posts I’ll talk about some of the great innovations we’ve put together.

One of the biggest changes is the inclusion of texts on our site itself. In the past we merely linked to texts hosted elsewhere. That means we have full control over the presentation and markup, and can integrate the texts in ways never before possible.

The Upāyikā

Suddenly, all sorts of new things are coming together. One exciting development is the appearance of brand new translations by Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā (ex Giuliana Martini) of the important Tibetan work, the Abhidharmakośopāyikānāmaṭīkā, which she refers to more succinctly as the Upāyikā. This is one of the few Tibetan texts that contains substantial translations of Suttas from the early Āgamas. Previously the only substantial work on this text has been in Japanese. Now Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā has undertaken a series of translations with detailed notes and commentary, and has graciously allowed SuttaCentral to host the text. In keeping with our focus on making accessible the actual texts, we will just present the translated Āgama Sutta portions, and will link to the full essays.

The Upāyikā contains the full text of the many (hundreds?) of passages referred to in Vasubandhu’s famous Abhidharmakośa. It has long been known among scholars of early Buddhism, but we have been ignorant of the detailed contents. Now, thanks to the patient, detailed, careful work of Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, we can all read these precious teachings.

Cut by numbers

But when I was reading her essay, I have a little hiccup moment. Nothing to do with the translation or the essay: I stumbled over the reference system for the texts.

Each translation is given a number, such as Up 9001. When I saw this, I did a double take. What, there’s over 9000 quotations in this book? I knew it was extensive, but that’s a bit much! I was confused, and didn’t know how to interpret the numbers. I looked through the essay and notes, but couldn’t find any explanation. So I emailed Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, and got the answer. It was explained deep within a nearly page-long footnote:

“… the quotation number as established in Honjō 1984 and successive supplementations in his publications (for example, “Up 9001″, which stands for quotation number 1 in chapter IX of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and Upāyikā)…”

Problem solved, no big deal. But somehow this little detail sparked a connection with many other details that I have encountered in my recent work on SuttaCentral. It made it clear for me all the countless ways we, as Buddhist scholars, obscure the work we should be illuminating.

At the time of reading the translations, I was inspired, excited. This is an amazing thing! That such teachings could have survived over thousands of years; transmitted in India in countless generations, then brought to remote, forbidding Tibet and rendered in the local tongue by Śamathadeva, an expert scholar, to be preserved, copied and passed down to us. And now, translated into English so we can all see, once more, the heart of the Dhamma beating in the Suttas.

And then a little reference number changed my emotions from excitement to confusion, from inspiration to doubt, without me even noticing. Suddenly, instead of focussing on the teaching, I was focussing on understanding the reference number. Sure, only a little thing. I got over it. The point is, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

What went wrong? Basically, the reference system ignores conventions. Chapter 9, section 1 should be referenced as “9.1”, not “9001”. This referencing method is simple, informative (because it clearly differentiates between chapter and section), and is used in millions of documents. It is so basic that it’s the default method for numbering “chapter/section” in every software for structured documents, like word processors or LaTeX.

Unconventions

So what’s the difference? Who cares? Once you know the method, you can find what you want, so big deal.

The big deal is that we shouldn’t have to relearn the method. There is already a method, time-honoured and worn smooth by custom and usage. It works fine. And when we use it, it vanishes. If I had seen “Up 9.1” I would not have even noticed it. It is there when I need it, and simply disappears when I don’t.

Think about the road signs, the warning notices, the nutrition information on food. All this structured data is presented in consistent, clear formats so that you can immediately recognise it and use it when you need it without having to think about it. If you have to think, “Is that a speed limit or a no-parking sign?”, it’s failed already.

So why use this unconventional method? Because it was established by the pioneer scholar in this text, Honjō Yoshifumi. This is standard in scholarly circles: keep consistency with previous work. Which is of course a good thing on the whole, but it does result in the perpetuation of outdated data (like the absurd practice of referring to Pali texts by reference to the volume and page of the century-old, often poorly edited editions of the Pali Text Society). Why did Honjō use this method? I have no idea. Maybe they do things differently in Japan.

People matter

Do we really need to keep this consistency? It will only ever be noticed by that subset of sentient beings who are a) human, b) scholars of early Buddhism, and c) fluent in Japanese and English. Not, I suspect, a double-digit audience. On the other hand, there are many people who would be interested to read these in Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā’s excellent, lucid translation. How many? Thousands, at least, probably much more. So why not think about those thousands instead of the tiny handful of professionals?

This is why the Buddha said he did not transgress the conventions of the world: by using conventions properly, they fade into the background so we can focus on what matters.

I know, I know! Why get worked up about something so small? Because, as I suggested earlier, this is just one of a million similar details. The more I work on this material, the more I realise just how abrasive the Buddhist scholarly method is. It’s death by a thousand papercuts. Arcane terminology; massive footnotes; obscure references; dead languages; paywalled journals; pedantic explanations of the obvious and unstated assumption of the unobvious; and the pervasive sense of a dialogue between scholars, not a dialogue with people actually interested in Dhamma.

All this, and much more, is just grit in the gears. Every Pali term is a cypher creating confusion in every single person who reads it (apart from Pali scholars). Every reference number is a meaningless string of symbols unless you are familiar with the field. As long as you place this stuff in the foreground, you are having a conversation between experts. Which, of course, needs to happen. It’s just that it shouldn’t be the only conversation. An outsider who listens to this conversation feels confused and excluded, and, unless they are unusually persistent, they will just give up.

Smooth like butter

We should get the stuff out of the way. Someone who wants to read the Buddha’s words should not have to learn referencing systems, Pali, and abbreviations. They should just get to what they want seamlessly and intuitively.

I was invited for a meal with a very kind and warm Vietnamese family the other day. The kids were playing with iPads. One was very young, I don’t know, maybe 4. I watched how they interacted with the screen, with each other. How intuitive it is! They just pick it up, doing complex tasks without even trying. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring that kind of experience to something profoundly meaningful, like, say, the words of the greatest spiritual teacher ever?

These things don’t happen by accident. They come because the engineers at Google, Apple, Facebook, the gaming companies, or wherever, do their work, and then get out of the way. They know it’s not about the code, it’s about the experience. So they sweat every tiny detail until the code disappears.

People use these things because they have a positive emotional response: they like it. And when you get that kind of engagement, you don’t have to make someone do it. If anything, you have to make them stop.

We should give at least as much time and care and attention to presenting the Buddha’s words as a coder gives to a game. A reader should just read. That’s hard enough, and it’s simply unreasonable to expect more.

Who reads?

A survey of Americans showed that 19% read the Bible daily. Daily. And this was seen by Christians as a worrisome sign of declining religiosity. They asked, “Why don’t all of us read the Bible every day?”

How many Buddhists read the Suttas every day? 1%? Frankly, I doubt if 1% of Buddhists have read any Suttas ever. Why is that? Because the Bible is inherently better, more compelling as scripture? I don’t think so. I think it’s because we haven’t tried. Because we get lazy and complacent and used to speaking to our little circle. Because we don’t have the vision to imagine things could be different.

There’s no great secret here, nothing mysterious. Just paying the same kind of careful attention to every detail in presenting the texts as the scholars have in preparing them.

A little faith

Dhamma is inherently compelling. We just need to get out of the way. The Buddha didn’t say, “MN39.4, note 17”. He said, “I teach for one who feels!” As his students, we should be letting people hear his words, not ours. SuttaCentral, even the new edition, is very far from realising this ideal. But one step at a time.

So, let’s get to work. You tell me: what can we do to make the experience of reading the Suttas better? What’s your papercut? What’s that moment when you tried, but stumbled over something you didn’t immediately understand, and then you gave up?

Looking back over this essay, I can see how I am not yet practising what I preach. My sentences are full of Pali or Sanskrit names and terms, and assumed ideas. I’m leaving them there as evidence for the prosecution. I’m guilty as charged. But, your honour, I really want to change! I promise I’ll be better next time. But I’m a hopeless addict. I just can’t let go of my Pali, not by myself anyway. I need your support.

The exalted extract of the Vinaya

As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.

I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.

Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.

The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.

Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.

It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.

This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.

Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.

This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!

The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.

The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.

All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.

On authenticity

In the past few weeks, I’ve started a project with Bhante Brahmali, which we call “The Authenticity Project”. We have heard skeptical voices that doubt the authenticity of the early Buddhist texts, while among traditional Buddhists the question is rarely even raised. Yet we have not found any source that collects and analyzes the many and varied reasons for regarding them as authentic. So we decided to do it ourselves. The project is developing, and will possibly end up on Wikipedia, and perhaps as a journal article in some form. I’ll share it with you when it is in better shape; at the moment it’s very rough.

The problem is exemplified by the Wikipedia page on the Pali canon. I noticed that the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the texts were all experts in the field, while the ones who doubted were scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan tantra. Yet if you are not familiar with the field, it just seems as if scholars do not agree. So I changed the page to acknowledge the backgrounds of the relevant scholars.

I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. Clearly authenticity matters, as people in all different traditions and religions get very excited by it. But it is not so obvious why this is so: for many people, if it works, it’s good enough. The Buddha in the Sandaka Sutta even warned against over reliance on the authenticity of the texts, saying that, since the teachings may be ‘well heard or badly heard’, one’s spiritual life should not depend on this.

It’s also interesting to hear what different people regard as persuasive. When speaking to various people, almost always they will come up with some different perspective on why the texts should be seen as authentic, or not. We’re interested to gather as many such perspectives as possible, and present them with appropriate analysis and documentation. So, what do you think?