Why Learn Pali

Explore the ancient language of the Tipitaka and Theravāda commentaries

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arijitmitter
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Why Learn Pali

Postby arijitmitter » Thu Jul 04, 2013 4:48 am

Some of my fellow Forum members are anxious about Pali meanings and dictionaries.

I have a question. Why does a Theravadan Buddhist need to learn Pali ?

Here are my arguments against making a conscious effort to learn Pali.

A ) Old Testament is written in Hebrew and Aramaic and New Testament in old Greek. Does that mean a person who reads the Bible in English is any less devout ? Does it mean that Mother Teresa who did not know old Greek and was a simple Catholic nun failed to carry out Christ's teaching ?

B ) Pali is a dead language. No one anywhere speaks it. From Sanskrit we have an idea how it is pronounced. Pali scholars and monks have deciphered Pali texts but it takes a life time of education and dedication. Most Theravadan monks cannot understand Pali - verified from a Bhikkhu whom I know [ though they can read Pali written in English or any other language phonetically ] [ just like an ordinary Christian priest can speak some Latin verses used in Church liturgy but cannot converse in Latin ]

Such as take the word Sati - and you try to learn it's meaning. Pali is a way that common people pronounced Sanskrit 2500 years ago. Such as an educated Indian today will say college but an illiterate Indian will say kalej [ I am an Indian so no harm done if I poke my own race in the eye ].

In same way what was in Sanskrit " Smriti " meaning memory or remembering became Sati in Pali and has no relationship with the actual word Sati in Sanskrit [ wife of Shiva who killed herself because Shiva insulted her father - Hindu mythology - probably Puranas ].

So if you try to search Sati in the internet you will end up really confused. Now imagine trying to understand " Kamasukhallikanuyogo ". I can make out that Kama means lust and Sukh means happiness beyond that I am lost. I kind of get that the word must mean happiness from sensual pleasure and guess what - Thanissaro Bhikkhu has translated it as " craving for sensual pleasure " and Ven Nanamoli Thera as " craving for sensual desires ". But I cannot get the meaning of 90 % of what is written in a Pali stanza let alone translate it to erase my doubts should I have reason to believe a translation I am reading is incorrect.. And unlike me you do not know Sanskrit - the root language. For all I know Kamasukhallikanuyogo might have meant refrain from sensual desires !! And I just made a lucky guess.

My suggestion to the members who are not going to devote their life to learning Pali is learn 200 common Pali words and their English meanings. But other than that read the English translations [ more than one if possible ] and get the essence of the Sutta.

:namaste: Arijit

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fig tree
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby fig tree » Thu Jul 04, 2013 5:37 am


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tiltbillings
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 04, 2013 6:31 am


arijitmitter
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby arijitmitter » Thu Jul 04, 2013 6:37 am

Dear Fig Tree,

Let me clarify my position - those who are willing to learn Pali to translate and understand better, I encourage with all my heart. But many who are not, get scared on an internet Forum when they see hair splitting dissection of a Pali word / sentence.

I myself was scared whether Theravada was for me when I saw it. But I pushed past it and thought - Pali Canon is 6 feet long and has 43 large sized volume. Even if I learn 10 % of it that is 1,000 Suttas. At one Sutta per week it will take me 20 years and by that time better translations will have been churned out by scholars and monks who are scholars.

Assuming that a normal practitioner has 3 hours a day to spare - he shall use 1.5 hours for meditation and 1.5 hours for Sutta study in English [ hopefully he does not read it at speed of reading the morning paper ]. If he also gets involved in the task of translating for himself sometimes then he is entering a web of confusion.

I carried the question to two Bhikkhus - one whom I meet with in real life and one on internet - they both said " Concentrate on study and meditation in whatever language you want. Forget about translating Pali; even we do not know Pali "

A few hours back I watched an interview of a monk from West living in Thailand for 30 years. He was describing various concepts like anatta, Kamma, Self when he uttered a Pali word and then said it means " ............. " in English and then followed up by saying " I hope it means that " with a smile.

In 1989 when I learned PC DOS copying files meant C> copy c:smile.exe a: and my mother could not learn it [ I was 19 and she 52 ]. When Windows came along she learned just fine Copy Paste. That does not mean I have stopped tinkering with command line or using Linux.

Most Theravada practitioners who want to join the tradition do not want a black window with white letters C:\>netsh interface ip show config - they want to type in name and password and go to Google and find what they want to know.

However I do not wish to enter a controversy. I wanted to write the post so that should a person who is interested in being a Theravadin chances upon this post he / she knows there is no need to be daunted. It can be learned just fine in English,

:namaste: Arijit

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Ben
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby Ben » Thu Jul 04, 2013 6:51 am

The vast majority of people engaged in Pali translation, who engage in discussion on the meaning of Pali words provide and English translation so there should be no reason for anyone to feel "scared". Those who don't are betraying their lack of ability as a translator or are selfish.
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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mikenz66
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Jul 04, 2013 6:56 am

Welcome Arijit,

Perhaps you should read this thread, which goes over many of the issues you raise:
viewtopic.php?f=16&t=16745

I think it's clear that one can study Theravada Buddhism quite happily without having to learn Pali. However, a Forum such as this allows those who are interested to engage in discussion about technicalities of Pali, among various other topics.

:anjali:
Mike

arijitmitter
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby arijitmitter » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:02 am

I am getting misunderstood. I myself have posted an audio in same sub Forum to aid those who wish to pronounce Pali. So I am all for people reading Pali.

But when I was deciding what type of Buddhist to be and had really no idea of difference between Soka Gakkai, Zen, Mahyana, Theravada and was visiting various Forums and websites for about 2 years I was much daunted by Theravada Forums because of the abundance of Pali [ I do not mean this Forum where there is a Pali sub Forum and being a Pali sub Forum it is normal people will discuss Pali translations here ].

My post was to help such beginners. Suppose this page is web crawled in a month and someone who wants to become a Theravadin - types into Google " is Pali necessary for being Theravada Buddhist " [ assuming unlike me he has no access to an actual Bhikkhu ] - he will know that no it is not essential but if you want to learn Pali and translate that is great.

:namaste: Arijit
Last edited by arijitmitter on Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:09 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Ben
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby Ben » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:07 am

Thank you for your concern, Arjit.
But I think that from experience many of our new members post in the introduction forum or in the Discovering Theravada forum where their concerns are addressed. Buddhists need not learn Pali to be sincere practitioners, but it can be a valuable aid should they have the time and volition to explore the ancient texts in the original language.
kind regards,

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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BlackBird
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby BlackBird » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:27 am

As others have stated some very important reasons why to know some Pali, I have nothing much to add, except that when it comes to the Buddha dhamma translation of different words in certain ways can lead to radically different interpretations of the Dhamma.

For instance the term Nama rupa has traditionally been translated as mind and matter, or mentality/materiality. But a number of translators have seen obvious troubles with this and have (in my opinion correctly) rendered Nama as 'name', giving us name and form. Another troubling case is Sankhara, which in my sub-tradition is translated as determinant, or determination, or if we're trying to be inclusive 'condition' - Essentially interchangable with the word 'hetu' this is radically different to traditional translations where it has been a diverse term with several translations depending upon context - Often it is labelled 'formations' or 'mental formations' and naturally this gives us two very differerent conceptions of this doctrinal term.

I am slowly taking up the practice of learning more and more pali words, and the more I learn, the deeper my understanding of the Dhamma is conceptually. As others have said, translation is problematic, it is often not directly comparable. Often there is no clear word for word comparison between languages, and it is often hard to do a phrase justice. Knowing what the pali word means gives you a more direct way of communicating the Buddha's ideas without using problematic english words that may only approximately cover the original meaning.

Yeah, it's a dead language, but I have heard stories of learned monks conversing in pali. To me that sounds fantastic.

In fact I'm getting excited just writing this, I'm gonna go off an learn some pali!

metta
Jack
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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tiltbillings
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:42 am


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BlackBird
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby BlackBird » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:47 am

"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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tiltbillings
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 04, 2013 7:52 am

This may be of some intertest for those who are not intent of learning Pali full-bore, but want a good and useful taste of the language.

http://store.pariyatti.org/Pali-WorkBook_p_1771.html

arijitmitter
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby arijitmitter » Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:10 pm

Last edited by arijitmitter on Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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reflection
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby reflection » Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:26 pm

Some people can get a lot of insight and/or inspiration when reading the suttas in their original language. This way Dhamma and reading dhamma come together. There is not automatically a gap between the two. Sure, I think some people overemphasize the importance of their understanding of Pali and the suttas, but similar other people probably underestimate how much one can gain from it. Everybody needs to find their own balance and for some this includes learning Pali. And for others, it does not.

That said, I think it's clear what's more productive for our Dhamma practice: Actually learning to read Pali or having a meta-discussion about it, as we are doing now..

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BlackBird
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby BlackBird » Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:42 pm

Last edited by BlackBird on Thu Jul 04, 2013 2:32 pm, edited 7 times in total.
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby Kare » Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:50 pm

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Re: Why Learn Pali

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arijitmitter
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Re: Why Learn Pali

Postby arijitmitter » Thu Jul 04, 2013 3:19 pm


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Re: Why Learn Pali

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Re: Why Learn Pali

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