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.
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.
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.
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.
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.