Friday, August 29, 2008

Notes from the OCBS Pali Summer School '08

Evaŋ me sutaŋ:

Pali Summer School, 2008

I've been mentioning 'Pali' with quite some eagerness to various friends and neighbours, particularly on buses, and even to a couple of diners at a restaurant. Usually, the initial response has been a blank face or slight confusion - some hear 'Bali' - but when I've gone on to explain that this is a language related to Sanskrit and approximately that spoken by the Buddha, then interest has been aroused. It's not that surprising as two were language teachers, though perhaps the more general interest shown is just due to it being Oxford!

My enthusiasm has been due to the Pali Summer School, an annual course run by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies to enable beginners to obtain a reasonable grasp of the Pali language in less than 2 weeks! This year's course, which ended yesterday, was taught mainly by Professor Richard Gombrich with the able assistance of Geoff Bamford and Tomoyuki Kono. It took place at one of the campuses of Brookes University, which provided affordable arrangements, especially for accommodation.

There were 11 of us as students, with varying backgrounds (7 different nationalities, originating from Belgium, Israel, Norway, Taiwan, Thailand, UK and US), so for the majority English was not their first language (so I'm very impressed by the way they handled this course!) I think we all got a great deal out of it. It's fun to work as a small group and we were encouraged to help each other, which was a useful technique to establish how sure you were about your understanding. The 2 hour lunch breaks allowed us to wander into town and have leisurely lunches; a good gap was needed because the material to absorb is quite considerable and condensed. Furthermore, we had homework every evening!

One of the first things I learnt about Pali even before the course is that it doesn't have it's own script, so it is transliterated - into e.g. Devanagiri, but fortunately this course used the Roman alphabet. Having said that, it doesn't use the 'A' to 'Z' ordering familiar in modern European languages, but rather the sounds are produced in sequence according to the how they are formed in the mouth, starting at the back of the throat with 'k','kh' (aspirated), and working forward through to the lips. (And now I can see how it has influenced the Thai alphabet, with the ordering there bearing some resemblance, though it's certainly not the same.) Memorising the order was actually our first exercise, intended to be learnt before we started so that we had facility in using Pali dictionaries. The dictionary recommended for the course is by Rhys Davids and Stede and published by the Pali Text Society, available from the PTS Web site or Wisdom Books if a courier delivery is not suitable for you). There is also an online edition of the PTS dictionary provided Digital Dictionaries of South Asia, an excellent implementation developed by the University of Chicago, but I generally refrained from using it!

I was very surprised at the start of the course by the requirement of learning how to pronounce the language correctly. Given that Pali is the language of texts to be analysed and scrutinised by scholars, I naturally thought of it as study most befitting for libraries, where silence is the order of the day! However, Prof. Gombrich was very firm in his conviction that correct pronunciation leads to correct spelling, which is essential for establishing the correct meaning. To help encourage this, we had daily chanting and he led us very vigorously, making each and every syllable distinctly long or short! And after a while it made sense to me. Pali has 41 letters, a number of which have diacritical marks, which at first glance sounds a bit of a chore, but once you know the sounds and the phonology rules, it does enable you to pronounce words correctly, work out why some words are spelt the way they are, and also to hear them correctly (useful when making notes!).

I found Prof. Gombrich not only immensely knowledgeable, but also very well organised, presenting a set of materials consisting of what we really needed to know in an order to have a good go at translating a variety of passages from the suttas. There's as much skill in knowing what to leave out or only touch on as in knowing what to include! He is very clear in delivery and provides very helpful (and patient) explanations. When translating, he seemed to pick out straightforward meanings that were well informed by his knowledge of Indian society and culture at the time. And he's very humorous too. :-) I think just the mere fact that we were there attempting to learn Pali was a source of happiness for him as he strongly believes that there is a severe paucity in this area.

At the conclusion of the course and several times we were encouraged to keep it going - appamadena sampadetha (strive on with diligence)! (previously expressed more colloquially as, "Use it or lose it!")

Although at first glance, learning Pali is a daunting prospect - e.g. it has many inflexions, owing especially to having 8 cases - it's not so complex, because it's essentially a spoken language for the general public. It's not as elaborate as Sanskrit. Having said that, I felt it helped to have studied foreign languages at school, particularly Latin.

Before the course I knew a few Pali words from traditional chants, but not much more than that. I belong to a Dhamma study group which goes through texts, making use of various translations. However, we often delve into the Pali as translations can vary markedly in meaning, but lacking any serious study of the language, it has been very laborious and sometimes inconclusive. After the course I feel I can at the very least find words in a dictionary, but more than that I feel I have been given tools that will enable me to gradually work through texts sentence by sentence, working out the structures - the logical subject, the grammatical subject, the main verb and so on. It could be useful for the M.St., but I shall need plenty of practice before publishing anything with confidence...!