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?