The Verses of the Senior Monks: an approachable translation of the Theragatha

This article is to introduce a new SuttaCentral English translation of the Theragāthā, the classic Pali collection of verses by early Buddhist monks. The work consists of 1289 verses, collected according to the monk with whom they were traditionally associated. These poems speak from the personal experience of monks living in or near the time of the Buddha. More than any other text we find here a range of voices expressing the fears, inspirations, struggles, and triumphs of the spiritual search.

Read the Theragatha on SuttaCentral

I have chosen to release the text under Creative Commons Zero, which effectively dedicates the translation to the public domain. You are encouraged to do whatever you want with the text. Take it, change it, adapt it, print it, republish it in whatever way you wish. If you find any mistakes, or have any suggestions for the translation, I’d appreciate it if you were to let me know.

It is customary when making a new translation to acknowledge one’s debt to former translators, and to explain the need for a new one—and this case is no different. The Theragāthā has been fully translated into English twice before, both times published by the Pali Text Society. The first translation was by Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids in 1913, and the second by K.R. Norman in 1969. The efforts of the former translators is utterly indispensable, and their work makes each succeeding attempt that much easier. Nevertheless, the limitations of these earlier translations are well known. The Rhys Davids translation employs highly archaic language and poetic styles, as well as being based on a dated sensibility regarding both Pali and Buddhism. Norman’s translation, while exemplary in terms of Indological linguistics, employs what Norman himself described as “a starkness and austerity of words which borders on the ungrammatical”.

Moreover, neither of the former translations is freely available. To my knowledge, this is the first translation of the Theragāthā to be fully available on the internet.

Both of the earlier translations were based on the Pali Text Society’s edition by Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Pischel of 1883. The current translation, by contrast, is based on the Mahāsaṅgīti edition of the Pali canon, as published on SuttaCentral. It numbers 1289 verses as opposed to the 1279 of the PTS editions. The extra verses arise, not from a difference in substance, but from the inclusion of repetitions that were absent from the PTS editions. The first set of extra verses is at verse 1020 and the second at verse 1161. Up to verse 1020, therefore, the numbering is the same in the SuttaCentral and PTS editions.

What is an approachable translation?

My aim was to make a translation that is first and foremost readable, so that this astonishing work of ancient spiritual insight might enjoy the wider audience it so richly deserves.

I’ve been thinking about the standard trope that introduces the prose suttas: a person “approaches” the Buddha to ask a question or hear a teaching. It’s so standard that we usually just pass it by. But it is no small thing to “approach” a spiritual teacher. It takes time, effort, curiosity, and courage; many of those people would have been more than a little nervous.

How, then, would the Buddha respond when approached? Would he have been archaic and obscure? Would he use words in odd, alienating ways? Would you need to have another monk by your side, whispering notes into your ear every second sentence—“He said this; but what he really meant was…”?

I think not. I think that the Buddha would have spoken clearly, kindly, and with no more complication than was necessary. I think that he would have respected the effort that people made to “approach” his teachings, and he would have tried the best he could, given the limitations of language and comprehension, to explain the Dhamma so that people could understand it.

Of course, the Theragāthā is not, with a few small exceptions, attributed to the Buddha; but the basic idea is the same. Most of the verses in the Theragāthā are, like the bulk of the early texts, straightforward and didactic. Though formally cast as verse, their concern is not primarily with poetic style, but with meaning. They employed their literary forms solely in order to create an understanding in the listener, an understanding that leads to the letting go of suffering.

An approachable translation expresses the meaning of the text in simple, friendly, idiomatic English. It should not just be technically correct, it should sound like something someone might actually say.

Which means that it should strive to dispense entirely with the abomination of Buddhist Hybrid English, that obscure dialect of formalisms, technicalities, and Indic idioms that has dominated Buddhist translations, into which English has been coerced by translators who were writing for Indologists, linguists, and Buddhist philosophers. Buddhist Hybrid English is a Death by a Thousand Papercuts; with each obscurity the reader is distanced, taken out of the text, pushed into a mode of acting on the text, rather than being drawn into it.

That is not how those who listened to the Buddha would have experienced it. They were not being annoyed by the grit of dubious diction, nor were they being constantly nagged to check the footnotes. They were drawn inwards and upwards, fully experiencing the transformative power of the Dhamma as it came to life in the words of the Awakened. We cannot hope to recapture this experience fully; but at least we can try to not make things worse than they need to be.

At each step of the way I asked myself, “Would an ordinary person, with little or no understanding of Buddhism, be able to read this and understand what it is actually saying?” To this end, I have favored the simpler word over the more complex; the direct phrasing rather than the oblique; the active voice rather than the passive; the informal rather than the formal; and the explicit rather than the implicit. With this, my first substantive attempt at translating Pali, I feel I am a long way from achieving my goal; but perhaps a few small steps have been made.

This translation

The process of creating the translation was this. In assembling the texts for SuttaCentral, I have been keen to create a complete online set of translations for early Buddhist texts. I find it astonishing that the early Buddhist texts are not all freely available on the internet, and I would like to change that. In 2013 I was approached by Jessica Walton (then Ayya Nibbida), a student of mine, who wanted a project to help learn Pali. I suggested that she work on the Thera/Theri-gāthā, in the hope that we could create a freely available translation.

Of course, this is a terrible job for a student—these are some of the most difficult texts in the Pali canon. But I hoped that it would prove useful, and so it has. I suggested that Jessica use Norman’s translation side by side with the Pali and work on creating a more readable rendering. She did this, mostly working on her own.

When she was happy with that, she passed the project over to me, and when I got the chance I took it up. I then went over the text in detail, modifying virtually every one of Jessica’s lines, while still keeping many of her turns of phrase. Without her work, this translation would not have been completed.

I also referred heavily to Norman’s translation, which enabled me to make sense of the many obscurities of vocabulary and syntax found in the text. Only rarely have I departed from Norman’s linguistic interpretations, and I have adopted his renderings on occasions when I felt I couldn’t do better.

There are, however, many occasions when Norman’s work is limited by his purely linguistic approach. There is no better example of this than Thag 411. The Pali begins uṭṭhehi nisīda, on which Norman notes:

The collocation of “stand up” and “sit down” is strange and clearly one or other of the words is used metaphorically.

He then renders the verse thus:

Stand up, Kātiyāna, pay attention; do not be full of sleep, be awake. May the kinsman of the indolent, king death, not conquer lazy you, as though with a snare.

But to any meditator there is nothing strange about this at all; it just means to get up and meditate. I render the verse:

Get up, Kātiyāna, and sit!
Don’t sleep too much, be wakeful.
Don’t be lazy, and let the kinsman of the heedless,
The king of death, catch you in his trap.

In addition to Norman’s translation, I have consulted translations by Bhikkhu Thanissaro and Bhikkhu Bodhi for a few verses. I have, however, not consulted the Rhys Davids translation at all.

I should also acknowledge as influences in this translation my fellow monks, who I was living with while making this, especially Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Brahmali. Both of these monks have influenced the translation greatly. It is from Ajahn Brahm that I have learned the virtue of plain English; of the kindness of speaking such that people actually understand. For years he has advocated the idea that translations should be based on the meaning of sentences, rather than the literal rendering of words. And with Ajahn Brahmali, who has been working on Vinaya translations at the same time, I have had many illuminating discussions about the meaning of various words and phrases. He said one thing that stuck in my mind: a translation should mean something. Even if you’re not sure what the text means, we can be sure that it had some meaning, so to translate it based purely on lexically correspondences is to not really translate it at all. Say what you think the text means, and if you’re wrong, fine, fix it up later.

About the Theragāthā

I’d like to give a very brief and non-technical introduction to the text. If you are interested in a more detailed technical analysis, you can read Norman’s long introduction, which specially focusses on the metrical styles of the text.

Each of the verses of the Theragāthā is collected under the name of a certain monk. (There is a parallel collection of nuns’ verses, the Therīgāthā, which I hope to translate in the future.) In many cases the verses were composed by, or at least were supposed to be composed by, these monks. Generally speaking I see no reason why the bulk of the verses should not be authentic. However, not all the verses can be ascribed to the monks in question. Sometimes the verses are in a dialogue form; or they may be teaching verses addressed to a monk; or they may be verses about a monk; in some cases they have been added by later redactors. In many cases, the verses are in a vague third person, which leaves it ambiguous whether it was meant to be by the monk or about him. Sometimes, also, verses are repeated, both within the Theragāthā and in other Buddhist texts, so a speaker of a verse is not always its composer. It is best, then, to consider the collection as “Verses associated with the senior monks”.

I have used the term “senior monk” rather than “elder” to render thera for a couple of reasons. First, it will make it easier to distinguish the collection from the Therīgāthā. More importantly, not all the monks here are really “elders” in the sense of being wizened old men. Usually in Sangha usage a thera is simply one who has completed 10 years as a monk, so a monk of thirty years of age, while hardly an “elder”, may be a thera.

As well as being collected according to the name of the associated monk, the texts are organized by number (the aṅguttara principle). That is, the first sets of verses are those where a monk is associated with only one verse; then two, three, and so on. There is, in addition, an occasional connection of subject matter or literary style from one verse to the other; and, rarely, a thin narrative context (eg. Thag 16.1).

The numbering of the collections needs a little attention. The texts may be referenced by three means, all of which are available on SuttaCentral; either by simple verse count, or by chapter and verse, or by the page number of the PTS Pali edition.

The primary system used in SuttaCentral is the chapter and verse, as this collects all the verses associated with a given monk in one place. This chapter and verse system is not used in the PTS editions, but it is used in the Mahāsaṅgīti text on which the translation is based. However this system can be a little confusing—or at least, I was confused by it! From the ones to the fourteens there is no problem. However, there is no set of fifteen verses, so we skip from the fourteens to the sixteens. Here the numbering of the sections goes out of alignment with the number of verses: the fifteenth section (Thag 15.1) consists of a set of sixteen verses. The sixteenth section (Thag 16.1 etc.) then consists of sets of twenty or more verses, and so on.

In terms of dating, the Theragāthā belongs firmly to the corpus of early Buddhist texts. Most of the monks are said to have lived in the time of the Buddha, and there seems no good reason to doubt this. In a minority of cases, due to the content of the text, the vocabulary or metre, or the statements in the commentary, the verses appear to date from as late as the time of king Ashoka. Norman suggests a period of composition of almost 300 years; however, if we adopt, as it seems we should, the “median chronology” that places the death of the Buddha not long before 400 BCE, then the period of composition would be closer to 200 years.

As with all Pali texts, the Theragāthā is passed down in the tradition alongside a commentary, in this case written by Dhammapāla approximately 1,000 years after the text itself. As well as providing the normal kinds of linguistic and doctrinal analysis, the Theragāthā commentary gives background stories for the lives of the monks, many of whom we know little about apart from the Theragāthā itself. In some cases, the stories provide context to make sense of the verses, and there seems little doubt that these verses, as is the normal way in Pali, were passed down from the earliest times with some form of narrative context and explanation. Like the Jātakas, the Dhammapada, or the Udāna, the verses formed the emotional and doctrinal kernel of the story. However, in the form that we have it today, the commentary clearly speaks to a set of concerns and ideas that date long after the Theragāthā itself. While the commentary is invaluable in understanding what the meaning of these texts was for the Theravadin tradition, it is probably in only rare cases that it provides genuine historical information about the monks. I have consulted the commentary only in cases where the meaning of the verse was unclear to me.

What is striking to me is just how clear-cut the demarcation of Pali texts really is. The Theragāthā sits firmly on the far side of a dividing line in Pali literature that stems from the time of Ashoka or thereabouts. It is concerned with seclusion, meditation, mindfulness, and above all, liberation. Later texts were concerned with glorifying the Buddha, and especially with encouraging acts of merit for attaining heaven or enlightenment in future lives. Such concerns are notable for their absence from the Theragāthā; when they are present, such as Sela’s verses extolling the Buddha, they remain grounded in human experience, rather than the elaborate fantasies of later days. There is a single exception to this, Thag 1.96 Khaṇḍasumana, which says how after offering a flower he rejoiced in heaven for 800 million years, and then attained nibbana with the leftovers. But this just feels so out of place. Among the countless verses that speak of retreating to solitude, of devotion to jhana, of renouncing everything in the world, such sentiments seem as if from a different world of thought; a different religion even.

The classical Theragāthā verse, as I mention above, is a song of liberation, rejoicing in a simple life lived with nature. Here’s a typical example, from Thag 1.22, the verse of Cittaka:

Crested peacocks with beautiful blue necks
Cry out in Karaṃvī.
Aroused by a cool breeze,
They awaken the sleeper to practice jhāna.

But the verses embrace a wide range of subjects; straightforward doctrinal statements, lamentations of the decline of the Sangha, eulogy of great monks, or simple narrative.

While the texts are mostly direct and clear-hearted, some of the most interesting verses are those that speak from the mind’s contradictions, the longings that accompany a full-blooded commitment to the spiritual life. Nowhere has this very human ambiguity been expressed better than in the extended set of verses by Tālapuṭa (Thag 19.1). Employing an unusually sophisticated poetic style—only exceeded in this regard by Vaṅgīsa, in whose verses we can discern the beginnings of the decadent poetics of later generations—and addressing his recalcitrant mind in an unusual second person, he berates it for its inconstancy:

Oh, when will the winter clouds rain freshly
As I wear my robe in the forest,
Walking the path trodden by the sages?
When will it be? …

For many years you begged me,
“Enough of living in a house for you!”
Why do you not urge me on, mind,
Now I’ve gone forth as an ascetic?

Of all the texts in the Pali canon, it is in the verses of these senior monks and nuns that we come closest to the personal experience of living in the time of the Buddha, struggling with, and eventually overcoming, the causes of suffering that are so captivating. I hope that this new translation can help bring these experiences to life for a new audience.