What’s in a name?

It’s so great to be a Buddhist student these days. We have accurate texts, well organized, and comprehensively linked to excellent translations in modern languages. The canons of Pali, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Chinese material have all been translated into English. The traditional commentaries are also available in translation, and in addition, there is an excellent layer of modern commentary, which gives the historical and doctrinal context of any passage you care to look up. This material is all found in easily accessible forms, widely available in print, online, and various ebook and mobile apps.

As a result, one find that Buddhist generally have a good awareness of their own scriptures. They understand the historical context that they arose in, are widely read in the Suttas, and familiar with the forms that the ideas of the Suttas developed in over time. This puts their practice into context, and helps to distinguish between those aspects of Buddhism that are truly useful and those that are unnecessary.

And then I woke up. IT WAS ALL A DREAM!

The reality is a little different. Actually, the world I was describing is not so far away from what is available for Bible studies. But for Buddhists, well…

The Pali texts are available in several crappy websites, and a couple of fairly good ones. The tipitakastudies.net site is well designed, but only has canonical materials. The VRI Tipitaka site has a wide range of materials, but has a weird indexing system so you can’t link to any individual texts. Neither of these sites is connected to any translation. The translated material is available on Access to Insight and various other places. It is of vastly variable quality. Several sites offer translations that appear to be of dubious legality as regards copyringht. Understandable, as the owners of the good copyright translations – mainly Wisdom and Pali Text Society – have not made their material available on the web. The PTS, god bless ’em, continue to operate as if the internet was nothing more than a place to advertise their books.

But the Pali situation is positively excellent compared to the other languages. There is an excellent edition, CBETA, of the Chinese canon, but no translations of any major early collections of Vinaya or Suttas into English – although the Madhyama Agama is underway. The Tibetan situation is worse. Sanskrit texts are mostly available at GRETIL, but there are few translations.

With some friends we set up suttacentral.net a few years ago, which links text and translation of Pali and other languages for the four Agamas/Nikayas. This is something, but far from perfect.

So what is the problem? There are many, but let me point out a few subtle details that betray the real issue.

Take the http://studies.worldtipitaka.org/ site. It’s an excellent text, although it uses the less authentic Burmese spellings. But it’s well presented and uses innovative features, like a print on demand capability. The back end is extremely well constructed: each word is marked up and there is a very thourough indexing and organizational system.

Yet look at the title: World Tipitaka. It is no such thing. True, the editors referred to various printed editions from Theravadin countries in forming the text. But the readings are Burmese. And it takes no account of the world outside Pali. Also note that it is available in Roman script only. This limits its use as compared to the VRI site, which enables several scripts. To implement such a capability is no difficult matter. The reason for the Roman-only text is ideology. The creators think that Pali pronunciation in Thailand (their home country) is corrupt, and making people read Pali in Roman script will make them get the text right. The reality, of course, is that Pali can be read right or wrong in any script, and the the real effect will be to isolate the text even further from the uneducated. It is an artifact of Buddhist modernism, where the essentialist (notice how I avoid using the word ‘fundamentalist’?) search for true, original Buddhism, creates an artificial construct divorced from the realia of people’s lives. This ideological agenda is giving people the Tipitaka that the creators want, rather than that which the people want. And the background of this whole thing is steeped in Thai royalist politics.

None of this is to deprecate the excellent scholarly work that the group has done, or to diminish the usefulness of the site. I use it all the time, and we link to it from suttacentral.net. It is simply to understand that this text does not come in a vacuum. It arises from a particular set of ideologically-determined circumstance, and the manner in which the Tipitaka takes shape is determined by those circumstances.

The VRI Tipitaka gives another example. This one comes from the Goenka movement, and so there is a bulit-in need to authorize the late commentarial theories on which the Goenka technique, like all modern Burmese meditation techniques, is based. It does this in a none to subtle way. We all know that the Pali literature is divided into the canon, which is the Tipitaka of Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma, and the later commentarial material.

But this is not the world according to VRI. Their material is structrured like this:

Tipitaka (roman [or other script])
Tipitaka (mula) – Atthakatha [commentary]- Tika [subcommentary] – Anya [other]

So everything, including the medieval grammars and so on, is a subset of the Tipitaka. Tipitaka no longer means ‘canon’, but ‘all Pali texts’.

This tendency continues in the lower levels of organization, too. Under ‘tika’ for example, we have ‘Vinayapitaka’, ‘Suttapitaka’, ‘Abhidhammapitaka’. That is, the subcommentarial literature is now ‘pitaka’. Perhaps one could say that what is meant is ‘subcommentary to the pitaka’. Fair enough, except that we have already established that everything is categorized under Tipitaka. While one could argue the merits of one system of categorizing over another, the overall tendency of the categories as established by the VRI is to treat all the literature as subsets of the canon, rather than being a separate strata of literature.

What does this do? It means that we treat the entire corpus of Pali literature as being essentially canonical. This is no accident, as it is the way that Buddhist texts are normally used in Burmese, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhism.

Once more, I need to emphasize that my intent here isn’t to criticize the good work of the VRI team, who have made many previously obscure Pali texts widely available. I use their site often, it has been a reliable and useful resource.

But we can see that there is a definite ideological purpose behind their work, and that purpose affects the form of the product. In some ways that is good – they have made their text freely available, in accordance with the Goenka tradition of dana. In other ways, it influences the manner in which texts are read, biasing them towards one particular (anti-historical) perspective.

These examples are meant to illustrate a wider point, which is that large scale projects to publish the Buddhist texts are often, even inevitably, driven by concerns other than disinterested scholarship. This is true in the present, and without doubt it was true in the past as well.

The groups that have, up to the present, brought forth the major works of Buddhist literature have done a very incomplete job, and part of the reason for that is their ideological needs. They are not interested in making connections between Buddhist texts in different languages, but in isolating and canonizing their chosen texts. They have a very limited concern with making the texts available to a wide range of people who will actually learn from them. For example, Access to Insight, which is essentially a project of one Buddhist enthusiast, probably serves far more people who are interested in reading and practicing the Suttas as compared with all the high level prestige projects sponsored by kings and conducted by national universities.

How are we to proceed? IOne thing is promising: the disruptive power of open source. Something like Wikipitaka – yes, it’s a thing – is a start, but as you can see it is far from complete. Get the texts out of the hands of institutions and ideologues, and out of copyright shackles – who can copyright the Buddha’s words, anyway? Get them available in open, flexible forms, and let the magic of open source develop multiple platforms and applications.

22 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. It’s a shame that there aren’t more and better translations out there. When the best Pali canon translations on the net are the idiosyncratic neologistic creations of Ajahn Ampersand, we aren’t in a good place. I hope things get better as time goes on.

    • I suppose that it’s about a certain American monk (who I won’t name) who puts some “&” between the coumpound words for his translations of Pali.

    • Ahh, Ven Thanissaro, I presume. I like ampersands, too! They have their uses in Pali translations, especially in rendering dvanda compunds. These technically mean “x and y”, but idiomatically there is often a closer link between the two terms, in the Pali style of grouping quasi-synonyms together. ‘Thinamiddha‘ (“sloth & torpor”) is a good example. In other cases like ‘uddhaccakukkucca‘ (“restlessness and remorse”) two similarly closely used terms have quite different meanings. So one might decide to use the ampersand for closely connected words that share a similar meaning, or for closely connected words even if they don’t share a similar meaning.

      Leaving aside different tastes in translation, it’s interesting to see how the publishing approach used by Vens Bodhi and Thanissaro plays out. Ven Bodhi uses a more conventional publisher, creating high quality books, pricey but not extravagant. These have achieved a fairly high sales and good market, but remain mostly inaccessible on the web, at least in official release. Ven Thanissaro has mostly stuck closer to the dana approach, producing work for free distribution via print and web. This means his printed works are less widely available in bookshops and the like; but anyone can find his work online.

      The striking thing is, the traditional dana framework of ven Thanissaro looks far more future-proof. The desperate struggles of the content providers in books, films, music, and so on are entirely circumvented by a simple dana approach. If you really want to maximize long-term impact, make everything available for free, and let people do with it want they want.

    • Hi everyone, another source of great English translation of the Pali Canon is the one by Piya Tan. This can be found at http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/

      His version of translation gives a comprehensive analysis (both scholar and Buddhist practitioner point of views) of the Sutta too, which I found to be very useful, as compared to the current versions online and in the bookstores that usually give only translations, but no analysis.

      I love reading the Sutta too and I think that comparing the different versions of the Agamas would be interesting and useful for Sutta analysis too. However, I would like to point out that we should not be too carried away by the comparative analysis work of the various Agamas. The focus must still be on the practice as the truth is within us. The benefits can only be reaped when one really apply the teachings in daily life, to be a better human, instead of just learning and analyzing the Buddhist concepts. After all, in Buddha’s time, there is no such thing as “Buddhism” or “Buddhist Studies”, only spiritual practice and mediation. In short, Sutta study should always be accompanied by mediation and spiritual/character cultivation.


    • Thanks, tom.

      Yes, and a second for the Piya Tan love! he is a true treasure, one of the most intelligent, sincere, and important Buddhist teachers around. Pity his work is not better known.

      And I agree with the caution around the Agama study: it is not a solution to everything; but neither should it be ignored.

    • It’s more than just a nice bit of software, though. It loads the Pali canon onto your computer, and even links the Pali texts to their translations on accesstoinsight.org (if you want to you can download that, too, through its setup, and have as much of the works as they have, to read offline). Having the texts in Pali all at one’s fingertips is quite a boon (much praise to Noah Yuttadhammo for the work he puts into it). It makes it easy (and for some of us, fun) to poke under the hood of the suttas.

  2. “And then I woke up. IT WAS ALL A DREAM!” actually got me to spit soda through my nose.

    Well played, sir.

    I agree that the situation is deplorable, and even worse for those of us who are not conversant in the original languages but dependent upon translations. I’m shocked every time I realize how little of the Taishō has actually been translated in the BDK/Numata edition, for example….

  3. Dear Bhante,

    An interesting article. I remember reading the Access to Insight page on their naming convention for the Suttas (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tech/file.html). It’s a great document and as someone who works in this area professionally, not in the Dhamma but in the corporate IT area, I was really impressed with what Mr Bullitt has done. I even used it as an example for a naming convention document!

    I always thought a digital markup language such as XML would be good for the Suttas. It would allow for semi-structured content management and all that geeky stuff.

    The other one was the new Apple iBook format, for iPad. I’m going to play around with building a few of the Suttas as iBook files (HTML5 + ePub) and distribute them for free, would be good on a iPad.

    BTW is there going to be a fourth volume in Bikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Suttas for Wisdom Publications? Ajahn Jotidhammo mentioned this might be coming out soon. I was wondering if it was the Anguttara or Khuddaka Nikaya



  4. According to Wisdom Publication’s website:

    “Wisdom Publications has received Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, which is currently being reviewed by our editor. Any available information or updates on this project will be announced in the Wisdom Reader e-Newsletter.”

    • For a one-stop link to all the resources on the texts in the Tibetan canon, I recommend Paul Hackett’s database on the American Institute of Buddhist Studies website:

      For each text, it gives exhaustive catalog data of the various Tibetan editions, text descriptions, Chinese and Sanskrit equivalents and catalog data, links to the various keyed-in versions of the texts on other sites in multiple languages, lists of all available critical editions, translations, and relevant scholarship, links to scanned pages of the texts at the TBRC site, and more.

      You can search for texts by title in Tibetan, Chinese, or Sanskrit, and in romanized or script form. For classical treatises, you can also search by author.

      The Aṅguttara, by the way, is at the proofer. After that, Ven. Bodhi will be preparing his indexes. Wisdom will be announcing a pre-publication offer shortly.

    • Thanks so much for this good news.

      I just got an android phone yesterday, and had my first experience searching for apps. There were page after page of bible apps, and for the Suttas, I could find one Tipitaka in Thai, and not much else. Yuttadhammo has a Pali dictionary, and there are a few general Buddhist apps – quote of the day and such – but that’s about it. Does anyone know of good iphone or android apps for Buddhist study?

    • I’ve just installed and tried the Thai Tipitaka app – it seems to work fine, although I am very slow reading in Thai characters! I also found and installed a CBETA app for the chinese Tipitaka. Unlike the Thai one, this uses intenet lookup – the Thai one downloads the text locally. The CBETA app, MyFodian, is very elementary and seems to offer just simple reading functionality. But as I’m a noob to all this, maybe there’s more I haven’t discovered.

      While useful in their own ways, these apps (so far as I’ve discovered), don’t make full use of what I would expect from a study app: automatic pop-up dictionary, cross-referencing, links between text and translation, multi-language support…

    • There is an Access to Insight app for the iPhone which is very good but a little out of date. Also lots of books through iBooks

    • Thanks, Ben. I’ve checked out the Android AtI app. It wasn’t very findable: it didn’t come up for searches in the android app market for sutta, sutra, tipitaka, or tripitaka. It’s okay, and I app-reciate having it (get it?).

      But it just gives you a local copy of the website. It doesn’t do anything but give you the texts to read. So it keeps the strengths (clean, simple, friendly, accessible) and weaknesses (incomplete, sectarian) of the website.

      For a text-only app, it doesn’t handle text very well: the title doesn’t fit on the screen, and text reflow doesn’t work when resizing the page with the touch screen. This is not to criticize the people who have done the good work to bring it to us, it is just to acknowledge how far behind Buddhism is.

      I also downloaded a Bible app, and checked out a few more. They have multiple translations, including ancient Greek, and up to 600 modern languages(!). In the free app I used, all of these, so far as I tested, worked out of the box – ancient Greek, Russian, Achi, Vietnamese, even Hawai’i pidgin (so very very cool: ‘Some a Jesus guys wen get togedda… Simon Peter wen tell da guys, “Eh, I like go fish!” An dey tell um, “yeah, We like go too!” So da guys wen go down to da beach….’.)… In the Access to Insight app, even the few Pali diacritical marks didn’t always show up properly: have we come so far in technology and still are unable to put a dot under a ‘t’? The Bible app lets me make notes, connect with facebook and twitter, adjust reading settings, gives pop-up explanations, bookmarks, and more. It offers a ‘plans’ function that lets you select or design a reading plan – what a great thing that would be for the Suttas! And it has a ‘live’ function, letting you create or join real-time Bible study sessions. Other Bible apps have other services, like videos for various Bible passages, text-to-speech, and so on.

      I also downloaded a Quran app, which seemed pretty cool, but it crashed when I asked for translations.

      Thus the situation in Buddhism, so far as I can tell: a Thai edition of text and translation of the Pali canon; a very basic edition of the Chinese canon (which is unreadable to most modern Chinese); and a partial translation of the Pali canon into English from Access to Insight.

      So yes, there are many books on Buddhism available. But that is just the point I am making. There are countless books offering everyone’s ideas on what Buddhism is, but these are, with vanishingly few exceptions, based on the impoverished understanding that Buddhists have of their own religious scriptures. Christians argue over Bible interpretation. Muslims argue over Quran interpretation. Why? Because they care. Most Buddhists have never read any Suttas, and don’t even know what they are, beyond a vague idea that they are the Buddha’s teachings. When the general knowledge base is so poor, is it any wonder that most Buddhist books attempt little more than to restate simple teachings of mindfulness and ‘life-wisdom’?

  5. Dear Bhante,
    I am almost back from the dead and I think I would like to undertake a new life as a sutta translator. I am not sure to what extent or in which direction I would go.I may not be able to ordain as a nun but I could be almost as happy spending time near or in collaboration with monastic communities/Unis on translation work. (As you know I have dabbled in 11 languages and fluent in 8 – Akkadian was pretty tedious – save the Epic of Gilgamesh- but I dont think I could ever tire of the Suttas.)
    Seriously, given what you have said above, what would you do with a young (ish!) team that wanted to embrace a neutral translation path – how would you build the next generation of translations from a text and a linguisitic perspective? Which texts would you start with? What would the team look like? How would it be resourced? (in a way that honours and close to guarantees neutrality- and perhaps invites a diversity of comparative commentary) Place me there. It is my wish to further study Chinese, Pali/Sanskrit more seriously and engage in this, in a structured yet innovative way.
    A deep bow to you for your continuous inspiration. _/\_

    • Hi Lisa,

      Wonderful to have you back! The underworld must have been pretty stressful I imagine…

      What we really need is the entire Buddhist textual corpus translated into Akkadian cuneiform. Now that would be a great app!

      However, for more short term projects, there are some good projects underway.

      As a first point of contact, Dharma Drum in Taiwan has done some excellent, such as contributing to the CBETA project. They have a strong skills base, a genuine academic quality, and a sincere interest in advancing scholarship between the diverse traditions.

      There is also the Numata Foundation: they have a long term goal to translate the entire Chinese canon to English. Several books have been published, and others are underway, including a translation of the Madhyama Agama. This will be the first major work of Early Buddhism translated into English (apart from the Pali). Their print editions are good, although not widely available. They do have some material for free online (http://www.bdkamerica.org/default.aspx?MPID=81), although it’s just pdf files so fairly limited in application.

      There are other projects around the place, several of which have been mentioned on this blog previously. Give me a call and we can talk about it.

      To briefly address the questions you raise. If we are to aim for a deep level, integrative, and powerful basis, we need to do things from the beginning with regard to the IT side of things. The text should be in a database or with a powerful markup. This should be done in consultation with the works that have been done already. In talks with the people at CBETA, I know they have done something like this, marking up each phrase in the Chinese; the World Tipitaka group have marked up each word.

      If handled well, this would potentially allow for a phrase-by-phrase linkage between text, translation, and explanation, in Buddhist texts of all traditions. We talked about this when building Suttacentral, but given our resources the best we could do was to link text and translation of whole Suttas.

      Once the deep level structure is there, the data can be applied in countless ways. A simple example. What if i want to trace the use of a particular technical term, say ‘jhana’, in different Buddhist traditions. I should be able to search the term, and come up with all mentions in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit. These should be coded to reflect such things as the date and sectarian affiliation of the texts. To do that we need a list of terms and translations, itself a major task. Something of the sort is available in the Pali-Sanskrit-Chinese-English supplement for the Dr Eye Chinese reading software, now bundled with CBETA.

      I think open source is the way to go, and to manage the project I would investigate how various open source projects have been organized. The critical thing is to have a quality, flexible, and powerful underlying structure, so that existing content can be used and new content dynamically added. A year or two ago, the people at Dharma Drum asked to use the data from suttacentral.net, which is the most accurate set of concordances for the 4 Nikayas/Agamas. We could help them out, because it’s based on MySQL, and thus open source and flexible. What the details of application for a wider project would be, I do not know.

      This is a dream I’ve had for many years, although I have only been able to make a few small steps. But I know that there must be thousands of people willing to help out…

  6. PS- This winter, Thay is teaching and studying the 44-verses of the Paramartha Gathas of Asaga. He has taken the Sanskrit and Chinese to create a Vietnamese version. A new English translation will be created from the Vietnamese.

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