Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Rare Opportunity: On ‘Buddhism and Pali’

There's a new book that I'd like to introduce:

Buddhism and Pali (front cover)
Cover for 'Buddhism and Pali' (from

A little over 10 years ago I had the good fortune to study under Professor Richard Gombrich at the OCBS Pali Summer School of 2008.  I subsequently used the knowledge gained to read and translate from the Pali some passages in the Theravada Buddhist canon as part of my Master’s thesis.   So, I was pleased to see the publication of Prof. Gombrich’s latest book, Buddhism and Pali.

In this post I offer some thoughts about the material - they're more ad hoc responses to some ideas put forth than a book review because I’m not qualified to assess the finer points of linguistics.


The title of this post is quoted from page 8 of Gombrich’s ‘Buddhism and Pali’, where the author indicates why, despite being somewhat sceptical about its appeal to members of the public, he decided to go ahead and write this small volume: he sees its potential to raise awareness about the far-reaching significance of Pali.  I think he went ahead because he is a believer!  That is, he truly believes in the importance of the Buddha as a historical figure, in the value of his teachings, particularly for the depth of the philosophy, and in the necessity of knowing Pali as the means to properly access that knowledge and interpret it accurately.

I remember maybe 20 years ago hearing about the Jesus Seminar and its efforts to determine the historicity of Jesus and what could be reliably attributed to him.  It seems that in recent years this kind of approach has been attempted in respect of the Buddha Gotama, leading to similar results, where some academics deny that the canonical texts can be attributed to the Buddha himself and hence cast all kinds of doubt on the material.  As someone who is interested in Buddhist texts primarily as a practitioner, I’ve always felt that these kinds of scholarly views are rooted in a kind of hindrance, specifically sceptical doubt (Pali: vicikicchā - for the definition, I'm linking through to an online edition of the Pali Text Society's Pali-English dictionary).

So I naturally welcomed this new book, which constructs an argument, mainly linguistic, but backed up by cultural, historical and other observations, that shows how Pali could in fact be the language the Buddha actually used in his teachings across a vast swathe of what we now refer to as India.  As a scholar specialising in Indo-Aryan languages over his long career, Gombrich is sensitive to various issues that need to be addressed, especially concerning matters such as the integrity of texts and their preservation.

The book itself comprises four chapters and I’ll briefly introduce them and pick up on points I found interesting.

1. Pali in History

In the first chapter, Gombrich sets the scene, indicating the current use of Pali in the canon of the Theravada School of Buddhism, how it was essentially a language of recitation used by monks and nuns to maintain the teachings.  He then traces its linguistic history back to a few centuries BCE, showing in particular how it relates to Sanskrit.  The book is concise and succinct, making it easy to digest and follow the lines of thought.  Thus, we have a nice overview of the history of the Buddha, the geography of India and the modes of usage of Pali, especially among monastics.  Then the ancestry of Pali is outlined in three steps, altogether covering a single page.  So it’s a kind of primer, with some footnotes provided for further exploration.

Being condensed, many points are made only briefly. One of the first to catch my eye was that the word phāsa (p.11), which means ‘language’, was originally attached to ‘Pāli’ .  The same word has been brought into Thai (phāsa is rendered as ภาษา, hence ภาษาไทย). In fact, Thai has incorporated many such ‘loan words’ from Pali and Sanskrit, but also from many other languages (its influences are complex)!

The transmission of the Buddha’s teachings was initially an oral tradition, only later written down, typically on palm leaves.  We may take writing for granted now, but (I didn't see this mentioned by Gombrich) one doesn’t have to go back very far to find practitioners who did not make use of written texts.  For example, the founder of Wat Phra Dhammakaya on the outskirts of Bangkok was an illiterate nun, Khun Yay Upasika Chandra Khonnokyoong.

It's remarkable that the texts have been handed down over the centuries with hardly any corruption.  Gombrich uses his philological expertise to cleverly argue how Pali has been preserved and evolved for a variety of pragmatic and conventional reasons, usually under the influence of Sanskrit, but used in a distinct way; its distinction arising because it is an artifice - a vehicle for transmission that needs careful memorisation, but also reflects adaptation to local environments.  He makes the argument easier to follow by comparison with the use of the English language, which he furnishes with examples.

In passing, he also makes the point that the teachings tell us that all this is subject to impermanence and will eventually perish.  From a professional perspective, as another aside, I wonder about the digital context, where we can easily replicate data in the Cloud and ensure integrity using checksums.   Well, checksums are themselves subject to bit rot (corruption) and according to Buddhist cosmology our world and many realms above eventually get destroyed, so that would include all the data centres in the Cloud and in clouds!

I find conservative Gombrich’s statement that “as far as we know” Theravada Buddhism was confined in its first millennium to India and Sri Lanka (p. 22): I am persuaded by the thesis proposed by Lewis Lancaster in the Maritime Buddhism Project that traders carried religious practices across South and South-East Asia much earlier (e.g., across the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, through the Malacca Strait, and up to the South China Sea).  Collaborative research is ongoing to form an electronic atlas.  Whilst the picture is patchy, there is significant archaeological evidence - for example, in Thailand, as reported by Suchandra and Lipi Ghosh,  excavations have unearthed objects with Buddhist inscriptions (in Pali or Hybrid Pali and Sanskrit) dated to the Dvāravatī period that have strong associations with the sea: such as amulets, carried by seafaring merchants to ensure a safe voyage and even images of Buddha Dipankara calming the waves.  I also asked my uncle, Sean Trafford, who spent his working life at sea, much of it in and around SE Asia, and he found the thesis credible.

Perhaps the first intimation I received of such early connections for Thailand was a visit to Phra Pathom Chedi in 1988, which I subsequently wrote about as one of my first articles on the Web.   A traditional overview of how Buddhism came to Thailand was compiled by Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa  There is, of course, a large gap between the time of Emperor Ashoka and the mid first millennium C.E., but it’s narrowing - see e.g. Stephen A. Murphy and Miriam T. Stark’s introduction to period transitions. (Coincidentally, one of my cousins has just started her first year as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Archaeology at Silapakorn University, so I may get to hear about further developments!)

2. The Linguistic Character of Pali

The second chapter - on ‘The Linguistic Character of Pali’ - is the most technical.  It contains material that is second nature to the author, so it’s both easy for him to spell out and difficult for him to gauge how accessible it might be for the reader.  For anyone who has made an initial attempt to learn the language it’s a useful refresher of the main concepts, but others may well observe the guidance, thoughtfully inserted, to just read some of the more general remarks.

These include the use of verse, which I tend not to give much attention to, even though I frequently come across them in sutta study; although the texts are largely prose, verses do feature.  My appreciation and understanding of verse is limited, but some while ago I became keen to learn the meaning of a daily chant called 'A Buddha Prayer Song', so eventually I produced a translation, aided by Thai friends.  It was an example of prosody, so I was pleased to learn more about the metrical structure of such verse. 

3. Pali Prose Style

In the third chapter - on ‘Pali Prose Style’ - Gombrich discusses how its style was especially shaped by the oral tradition.  He also explores the question of how the oral transmission has been so efficient, with some corroboration from neuroscience and illustrations from other disciplines such as music.  There are practical strategies indicated for memorisation such as the division of labour and Gombrich indicates how the Buddhist Councils have helped ensure their preservation.

He goes on to use a linguistic argument based on an incremental style of prose, where words are successively augmented - in length and meaning.  When considered from the view of the practice, we find that the experience is often of gradual development, gradual evolution and progression, so to record this it is fitting to choose words that reflect this in structure and meaning.  This insight helps in the validation of texts, i.e. there is scope for validation through practice. This is particularly the case when undertaking a practice with a sequence of steps, as exemplified by the Ratha-vinita Sutta  (Relay Chariots, translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

Gombrich takes as an example (pp. 57-61) the homage (vandanā) in the iti pi so formula, which is a standard recitation in Pali chanting.  I think it’s an ambitious choice because it’s very condensed with meaning at mundane and supramundane levels, but I think through meticulous analysis he arrives at a sensible interpretation, showing the value of a proper understanding of Pali - it makes rational sense.

However, the scholarly method follows a particular intellectual discipline, so the result is often carefully couched and sometimes speculative; perhaps its deeper meaning cannot be convincingly made by linguistics alone.  In particular, whilst Gombrich also makes the important point that the text carries with it an injunction, of ‘ought’, scholarship doesn’t necessarily bring about this ‘ought’ response, i.e. "Right, let’s undertake the practice!"  To me it seldom is that compelling.  Even from the perspective of practice, it still is a matter of interpretation dependent on view (diṭṭhi) and according to the path (magga) taken.  However, to some extent the words can help to validate practice, so it works both ways.  

Indeed, the linguistic reading can lead on to practice and I’ll try to illustrate this by focusing on the ‘ought’, drawing on the Dhammakaya tradition to which I belong.  I’ll start by making the assertion that the presentation style of a practitioner can be more persuasive about the ‘ought’.  I think especially of the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni, the re-discoverer of this practice.  When he was delivering sermons as Abbot of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Thailand he spoke with a directness and assuredness that arose from meditation experience.  His audience was roused in large numbers over the years and it came about as the audience engaged a different mode of listening and interpreting, through the citta, a Pali word that I would render along the lines of “heart-mind”, to distinguish it from the brain alone. 

The Chao Khun explained every word in the iti pi so, and gave the formula a sense of direction reflecting investigation within what the Buddha referred to as “this fathom-long body” (Rohitassa Sutta).  I summarise the respective interpretations in a table as follows:

TermGombrichDhammakaya traditionComment (Dhammakaya)
BhagavatāBlessed OneBlessed OneBecause the Buddha is breaker of the wheel of Samsara
DhammoTeachingDhammaTeaching (mundane) and Truth as supramundane reality
sanditthikopracticalto be seenDirectly observable
akālikoimmediatetimeless and ever-presentWhether there are Buddhas in the world or not, the Path to Enlightenment lies open, all the same
ehipassikoCome and seeCome and see
opanāyikousefulleading inwardsthe operative mode is given by phrases such as kāye kāyānupassī, ‘contemplating body in body’ in accordance with the Middle Way
paccattamindividually, by oneselfindividually, by oneself
veditabboo be understoodto be realizeddirectly, not just intellectually
viññuhiby the intelligentby the wise

This practice-based approach was even reflected in the design of published materials.  For example, several of the terms, including opanāyiko, were employed on the front cover of a magazine of the Bhikkhus of Wat Paknam, surrounding the image of the Buddha in meditation.

Another area where the orientation of practice can prompt or fashion a different response concerns repetition (pp. 62-68). Certainly some formulaic repetition acts as little more than packaging, but the repetition in the ‘contents’ does need care.  As mentioned, repetition aids and reinforces memory, but it also establishes a rhythm, which can be cyclical in nature, like a spiral staircase, where the completion of each full 360 degree rotation brings a different aspect viewed from a series of successively higher windows (perhaps these are the “small changes” that Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula alluded to?).  Lists are usually intentionally ordered.  Hence the khandhas (pp. 64-5) are to be contemplated, each in turn (it’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s a sermon on practice, not about the practice).

But some cases of repetition do appear to be far less necessary: repetition that arises through reporting - the convention of repeating verbatim each time a new person is to hear what has been said.  Such preservation can make for excessive, even quite absurd, repetition as illustrated (p. 66) and I confess that in study groups we often skip reading out such repeated reports.

Gombrich makes the key point that repetition occurs at every level, which suggests that the Buddha used repetition in his speeches, thereby strengthening the case that the Pali does indeed record the Buddha’s own words.

4. Pali in Buddhist Ideology

Having laid the foundations, the final chapter presents the main thesis: that the Buddha gave his teachings in Pali as part of his ideology; the use of Pali emerged in opposition to Sanskrit as integral to the Buddha’s teachings being in contradistinction to the Vedas.  I hadn’t thought that the Buddha might so deliberately using language (or avoid the use of a particularly structured language) to take an ideological stance, but I can imagine it fits like this. 

Then Gombrich builds his case, showing how the Buddha gave his teachings to anyone who was prepared to receive them, instructing his disciples to make language accessible and adaptable to locality.  A particularly difficult area is establishing what language was used between the time of the Buddha and when it was first formally written down in Sri Lanka.  So Gombrich proceeds to develop a linguistic argument, inviting the reader to imagine the conditions in which the Buddha roamed far and wide and how Pali appears to have accommodated a wide range of dialects to match whilst being based on a predominant dialect, a ‘lingua franca’, becoming the ‘argot’ of the Buddha and his followers (rather than quoting Google, I suggest the entry in an online etymology dictionary).

Such language was used in a pragmatic fashion to convey meaning, so it can be argued that implies purging language of foreign terms.  I’m cautious about that; some terms need to be introduced with all nuances of the original meaning properly established or else much can be lost.  I think, for example, of the term “mindfulness”, which is typically used for sati, but in the process the sense of clear comprehension with an ethical basis has often been removed (think about the sequence of the Eightfold Noble Path).


In the epilogue, Gombrich leaves us with an open problem: how best to teach a basic course in Pali that will enable students to tackle the translation of texts with the aid of a dictionary and other tools.   From past experience, Gombrich has found that the course needs to be intensive over a short period, usually 2-3 weeks, but that has presented various challenges in terms of organisation and commitment irrespective of whether that is offered in person at a physical location or online. 

Efforts are currently being made to provide a more sustainable option through online courses with recorded sessions, which should improve retention, though it will mean reduced personal interaction.  Having been involved in developing and support e-learning platforms, and even a little research, I expect A.I. to offer considerable potential, especially assistance in understanding particular concepts being taught in drill practice.  Financial support would make things easier, remove some barriers, but overall I think that it still largely depends on the student's determination as to whether there will be a successful outcome.

Overall, this little volume has been stimulating and enjoyable and I'm pleased to recommend it.  It has reminded me how fortunate I was to learn the rudiments of Pali from an expert so that I could be in a position to explore the Buddha's teachings with more assurance; today, I mainly use that knowledge outside the academic context, in a local Buddhist group (where we follow chanting and meditation with sutta study, using a plethora of books and some electronic tools).

Postscript [12 January 2019]

After posting the article, I recalled having written about how the Buddha transmitted Dhamma based on knowing the receptivity of his audience and their kamma.  To explain how this worked, I tried to use analogies with concepts in physics (mainly holography, first introducing the basic idea and then elaborating with a further analogy of a radio set.