The tyranny of footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


7 thoughts on “The tyranny of footnotes

  1. So many questions end-to-end. 🙂 There are services that aim to be the answer to many of them. I know of as one example. But I am sure that if I were to try to add it to SuttraCentral myself in order to add the scholarly experience I think you’re trying to get, I would find deficiencies quickly. But, it may be a starting place. Hyperlinks on what would be otherwise footnoted phrases which would lead to choice-driven (via menus?) commentaries seems like a great way to navigate the texts.

    • Thanks for the suggestion!

      For a straight commenting system to replace our forum, I have looked at Discourse, which seems to be the more open, modern development from something like Disqus (which seems to have some privacy issues).

      In terms of a more general commenting system, something like Co-ment seems to be the closest I can find to what I was thinking. It’s built on Django/Python, the same as the new (unreleased) edition of SuttaCentral.

      But we’re only starting to look.

    • Ah I see…. Co-ment looks a lot like the comments on documents in Google Drive. That looks like a pretty good system, but I tend to look at the Post-it style as being a little unsuited to visually represent scholarly references. There is an API for Drive, so it would be possible to use that Google API as a back end if someone wanted to write the UI into SuttaCentral.

      The API reference is here:

      Note the ‘comments’ and ‘replies’ commands

    • Interesting, thanks. I’d rather not get too close to Google, but if their code is reusable there might be something there.

      I agree with the “post-it” style being unsuitable, but as co-ment is open source we can modify it any way we want. For now, we are just starting to think about possible approaches.

  2. The web substitutes links and tool-tips for notes. Both are simpler than in-page links, though any good html editor should make in-page pretty easy. As web authors however we are usually reluctant to direct our short-attention-span readers to another site because then we have lost them as “our” reader. That still leaves tool-tips.

    The notes in the original PTS translations retain their relevance and usefulness to the beginning Pāli reader and I suspect the scholar as well. If I am working on a text I always like to see their notes – that generation of scholars, with no computers, were often very insightful.

    In the long run how you approach your task is also delimited by your own hermeneutic and the kind of hermeneutics you anticipate in your audience. It seems to me that you anticipate a rather uncritical audience in this post, and yet one with access to multiple existing translations.

    The modern world requires new solutions. For most of Buddhist history most Buddhists were illiterate. Only monks read texts and then in Canonical languages. Footnotes weren’t relevant to illiterates, but surely the teacher supplied them as he taught. For the literate, no doubt they were educated in such a way as to be able to provide their own. Nowadays with highly educated laypeople reading suttas without an ācārya, who mostly don’t speak Canonical languages, and thus have no access to the commentaries and no insight into the difficulties of translating Canonical texts, the footnote has come into it’s own.

    A question much on my mind at present is this. How many translations of the Pāli Canon do we need? Who is served by putting resources into producing yet another round of sutta translations? We already have 1 or 2 PTS translations, the Wisdom editions, Access to Insight and Piya Tan’s translations, as well as a whole raft of piece meal work like mine.

    As we know from history the text of the sutta itself is not always the best way to communicate the message of the sutta or the Buddha. Suttas were really only available to those who knew Canonical languages for many centuries, but this did not stop the spread of the Buddhadharma. I get very little from reading a text like Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, but Alex Studholme’s study of the text is very informative and probably a better approach to it for most people. A vernacular account of a text is often more effective than a recitation of a translation.

    We are always going to read the texts in a modern voice, but then so has every generation of Buddhists. Not doing so requires a very sophisticated approach of identifying one’s own assumptions and setting them aside and a detailed know of the history – most people simply lack the intellectual sophistication, and the history is still largely unclear. Indeed, in the last 15-20 years we’ve discovered that everything we thought we knew about India in the Buddha’s day, and even when the Buddha’s day was, was probably wrong. Equally if we do not read with a modern view then how are the texts going to stay out of the museum and stay in our lives as touchstones?

    I think it’s good to be asking these questions, and wrestling with there issues. But there are no timeless or universal answers. I’m studying a passage from MN 63 and three of it’s 5 or 6 published English translations alongside it’s two Chinese counterparts (T 1.26-221 and T 1.94) from the 4th century. It’s clear that translators all go though this process. Make the same kinds of decisions in whatever time and place, and still produce imperfect renderings that only reach a particular audience, or leave words and whole passages obscure in a few centuries time. It’s not like one can escape from the dilemmas you outline, or even minimise them. One simply chooses a method, outlines the conscious assumptions, and follows it for better or worse. It may be that the 3 hapax legomena in my Pāli passage were actually introduced by the person who translated the text into Pāli – while wrestling with the same problems.

  3. I think separating data (sutras) from metadata(footnotes) is good principle.

    Each of them is different in nature, and it can be handled differently.

    I like the idea of a web 2.0 approach, with the social features of following specific people or selecting/hiding other people. The metadata could grow in its own way, while the data keeps its state and content.

    • Thanks, yes, this is exactly what I am getting at.

      It is a funny thing, but the commentary over time tends to read itself back into the text, in sometimes pernicious ways.

      One example is that in the Digha, there is a mention of a progressive decline in morality, one element of which is “miccha-dhamma”: “wrong practices”, or “wrong ideas”, or “wrong principles”, or “wrong teachings”? There is nothing in the context to help us. This is exactly where a commentary comes in handy. But the commentary, out of nowhere, says “men with men, women with women”.

      So, ignoring the fact that nowhere in the description of sexual misconduct is homosexuality an issue, and ignoring the fact that such a slur is directly counter to the basic principle of Buddhist ethics (non-harming), suddenly we have a scripture that demonizes gays and lesbians. Amazingly, even today there are people who will stubbornly insist that this commentary is correct!

      This is not just an interpretation of doctrine, it turns the texts, and Buddhism itself, into yet another assault on people of different sexualities. It is deeply harmful, and yet some Buddhists can’t seem to escape the letter.

      In any case, back to the metadata idea. The key will be how to keep things useful. It will be easy to bog down a text in lots of information, so how do we keep things as fresh and vital as possible, while still offering a helping hand?

      I recently met a man who had bought a copy of Waldschmidt’s classic reconstruction of the Mahaparinirvana sutra, just so he could check the Sanskrit rendering of a particular passage on the jhanas. I could have told him, “The jhana formula is always consistent across traditions”, but that takes away the thrill of discovery. If everything is predigested, it becomes too tame. The Suttas should be something exciting, like the discovery of an ancient city (to borrow a metaphor!) On the other hand, if it is too alien, too unknown, it will put off the less adventurous.

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