Karma & Rebirth in early Buddhism

Dear friends,

We have finally prepared the detailed reading list for next year’s course in Karma & Rebirth in Early Buddhism.

As with the Early Buddhism Course in 2013, this will be presented each month in parallel at the BSWA by myself and Ajahn Brahmali, and in Sydney by myself alone (unless anyone can persuade Ajahn Brahmali to come to Sydney! That would be very good kamma!)

You can download the reading and other course details from here:

Course outline, BSWA, Perth

Course outline, Buddhist Library, Sydney

And you can register for the course here:

Registration, BSWA, Perth

Registration, Buddhist Library, Sydney

Use Discourse!

For this year, we are facilitating a discussion and exchange around the course using the new forum platform, Discourse. This is something that we have been developing in the background for SuttaCentral. The integration with SuttaCentral is not complete, but it’s ready enough to be used for this course. Ultimately we’d like this forum to be a place where all kinds of material related to the suttas can be gathered and made accessible.

If you’re interested in the course, register at discourse.suttacentral.net, and you can join the online community, discuss issues, ask questions, and so on. This is especially useful for anyone interested in following the course online, but we hope it will be fun for everyone.

To get started, have a look at the course outline for the first workshop: myth-busting. If anyone has any myths they want busted, please let us know!

http://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/workshop-1-myth-busting/68

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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!

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.

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?

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.

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.