Why learn Pali?

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Why learn Pali?

Postby Pannapetar » Sat May 15, 2010 1:45 am

Hello friends,

I hope you don't mind if I ask: Why learn Pali? What's your personal motivation?

Of course, there is an obvious answer to this question: to read the Pali canon. Unfortunately, that doesn't really explain it for me. You see, I once elected to learn Latin at high school (instead of French as a SFL) which I came later to see as a really big mistake. Like Pali, Latin is as dead as a mouse. Nobody speaks or writes in Latin or Pali. If you want to read Ovid, Virgil, or Cicero, there are a number of excellent translations to choose from. Same with Pali. This isn't the 19th or early 20th century. If you want to read the Pali canon or its commentaries, there are likewise a number of excellent translations to choose from.

Life is short and learning Pali takes long. Looking at the cost/benefit analysis, I can think of very few (actually none) arguments that speak in favour of it. So, why learn Pali? I wish to understand the motives. What brought you to learn it? Looking forward to your replies.

Cheers, Thomas
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby retrofuturist » Sat May 15, 2010 1:59 am

Greetings Thomas,

I like to understand key individual terms, because some of them are quite deep in their meaning and are translated differently by different translators (e.g. sankhara, dukkha, jati, bhava, namarupa, upadana) so my interest is in trying to understand the words. The sentence construction, grammar and so on isn't of so much interest to me yet, in terms of return for effort.

I've heard this approach compared to that of scientist, who learns a lot of specialised terms and applies them in discussion, but still uses these terms against the backdrop of their native language, rather than adopting a separate "scientist language".

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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby David N. Snyder » Sat May 15, 2010 2:11 am

Pannapetar wrote:Life is short and learning Pali takes long. Looking at the cost/benefit analysis, I can think of very few (actually none) arguments that speak in favour of it. So, why learn Pali? I wish to understand the motives. What brought you to learn it? Looking forward to your replies.


Hi Thomas,

A good source for supporting your argument may be here:

I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own dialect.” Cullavaga, Vinaya

The Buddha was opposed to "holy" languages and deliberately did not speak in Sanskrit, which was often reserved for the Brahmins and priests. He wanted his teachings accessible to all.

However, those who study and learn Pali don't do it as a "holy" language and I think most do it for studying the original words or original teachings, to get to the real meanings. Many times things are lost in translation or even have the meaning changed. And for this view we have this as supporting evidence:

"When the letters are wrongly pronounced and there is wrong interpretation of their meaning. For when the pronunciation is wrong, the interpretation will also be wrong" (regarding the disappearance of the Dhamma (Anguttara Nikaya I. 59)
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Ben » Sat May 15, 2010 2:33 am

It is a wholesome use of one's time - if one has the time.
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

Taṃ nadīhi vijānātha:
sobbhesu padaresu ca,
saṇantā yanti kusobbhā,
tuṇhīyanti mahodadhī.

Sutta Nipata 3.725


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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby plwk » Sat May 15, 2010 2:37 am

One:
Doesn't hurt to learn something new...

Two:
At the very least, during the pujas, one can blend in with ease and read/understand the Pali chants without having to keep referring to the English translations...

Three:
At the very most, one can read the canonical texts to understand the original for oneself (besides relying on notable and scholastic vernacular translations as support) and can readily spot especially certain 'butchered' online versions (most notorious ones are the Kalama & Dona Suttas)

:anjali:
Bhikkhus, if you develop and make much this one thing,
it invariably leads to weariness, cessation, appeasement, realization and extinction.
What is it? It is recollecting the Enlightened One.
If this single thing is recollected and made much,
it invariably leads to weariness, cessation, appeasement, realization and extinction.

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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby mikenz66 » Sat May 15, 2010 2:46 am

Hi Thomas,
retrofuturist wrote:I like to understand key individual terms, because some of them are quite deep in their meaning and are translated differently by different translators (e.g. sankhara, dukkha, jati, bhava, namarupa) so my interest is in trying to understand the words. The sentence construction, grammar and so on isn't of so much interest to me yet, in terms of return for effort.

Like Retro, I think that it is useful to know the Pali words for important concepts because they are technical terms in what we are studying. And as Retro says, it's helpful to be able to make sense out of different translations. If I am reading a translation by the Sri Lankan Westerners (Nyanatiloka, Bodhi, Namamoli, etc) then when I read "suffering" I think "dukkha". When I'm reading Ven Thanissaro's translations I read "stress" and I think "dukkha". When I'm talking with a Thai monk who speaks English poorly and I'm not sure what exactly he's referring to I can ask if he means (for example) vedanā, or saññā.

Again, like Retro, I don't have the time or energy to learn Pali in detail. And, in fact, I find it rather amusing watching people who have a similar, or poorer, grasp of Pali trying to analyse a Pali sentence by just looking up each word. I think that is particularly pointless. You need a lot more than a dictionary to understand the nuances of a language.

So, of course, most of us are very reliant on the whims of modern translators, so I do envy my monastic friends who can read Pali fluently.

Speaking of that, I've heard stories of Monks visiting another country and carrying on conversations in Pali because they did not have any other common language. Mahasi Sayadaw presumably wrote "Progress of Insight" in Pali in order to reach a larger monastic audience across South and South East Asia...

Mike
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Wind » Sat May 15, 2010 3:00 am

Sometimes I wonder how do we know for certain that the Pali word is translated correctly? What if the early translator who translate it to English made some errors? When I watch foreign movies with subtitles, I noticed many times the translation is off because there is no actual equivalent phrases or words to replace it with. And because of that, the original meaning is lost.

So when I look at a Pali word and the translated English word, I wonder if it is really correct. I guess we really have no other option since the Pali language is dead.
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Reductor » Sat May 15, 2010 3:38 am

I'm endeavoring to now learn Pali, but having just begun I don't know yet just how difficult it is going to be.

As I've been reading the SN I have experienced a certain unease about the translation. Not that I mistrust Bodhi the man, but rather there is a sense that I couldn't get to the real meaning if in fact it had been obscured. That bothers me. In some instances I would read a passage, then read the note in which he would consider the commentary and his own opinion, then present a conclusion, which was already clear in the text I had read. So, if his conclusion is in fact in error, or what have you, then that is the conclusion I have picked up unwittingly without an easy way to balance it. I don't have any PTS access, and much of the SN is not translated for public access online, or the translations are just very poor.

What to do, what to do?

Also consider the cost of a single copy of the SN: 120 canadian dollars. Wow. Lots, yeah.. and it's only a small part of the canon and commentary. To buy that entire collection would cost to much. Whereas Lily De Silva has a free primer online and Warders Intro to Pali set me back 30 bucks (and I was over charged, as its hard to find a copy here in the cold north).

Besides which, I hear that multilingual persons have a lower incident of dementia in old age. So, you know, its win-win.
Last edited by Reductor on Sat May 15, 2010 4:29 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby alan » Sat May 15, 2010 3:50 am

I hope you don't mind if I ask: Why learn Pali? What's your personal motivation?

I've also wondered about this. But a recent look into the subforum explaining one word a day was very interesting. Found it quite useful to get a different take on some of the key words.
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Dmytro » Sat May 15, 2010 8:32 am

Hello Pannapetar,

Pannapetar wrote:I hope you don't mind if I ask: Why learn Pali? What's your personal motivation?


There's hardly any other way to learn firsthand the words of the Buddha, and understand them enough to apply them.

Much of the Western Buddhism, like rendering 'sati as 'mindfulness', is a modern invention:
viewtopic.php?f=23&t=4299

The existing English translations mostly render the surface layer of the Pali Canon, skipping the deep layer of subtle terms which are important for practice. The rendering of 'nimitta' as 'sign', 'anissita' as 'detached', etc. is simply misguiding.

Only the knowledge of Pali lets you to understand the whole corpus of texts, for example, to know that 'anissita' in the Satipatthana Sutta is the same as in Anathapindikovada Sutta.

Buddha himself said:

"I ordain the words of Buddha to be learnt in _his_ own language (i.e.Magadhi, the language used by Buddha himself)."

Culavagga V.33.1 = Vin II.139
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Pali/message/5761

Metta,
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Anicca » Sat May 15, 2010 2:23 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:... A good source for supporting your argument may be here:
I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own dialect.” Cullavaga, Vinaya
The Buddha was opposed to "holy" languages ...


Dmytro wrote:Buddha himself said:
"I ordain the words of Buddha to be learnt in _his_ own language (i.e.Magadhi, the language used by Buddha himself)."

<i.e.Magadhi - the "holy" language>

:juggling:

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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun May 16, 2010 12:19 am

Anicca wrote:
Dmytro wrote:Buddha himself said:
"I ordain the words of Buddha to be learnt in _his_ own language (i.e.Magadhi, the language used by Buddha himself)."

<i.e.Magadhi - the "holy" language>
:juggling:
Momma told me there would be days like this.


:shrug: Magadhi is not spoken or used today. It is Pali that is studied because that is what the ancient texts are in. The oldest teachings of the Buddha are in the Pali Canon and they are in, well, Pali. So I still see no holy language, but I do see a language worthy of study to get to the original meanings.
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Anicca » Sun May 16, 2010 1:06 am

David N. Snyder wrote: :shrug: Magadhi is not spoken or used today. It is Pali that is studied because that is what the ancient texts are in. The oldest teachings of the Buddha are in the Pali Canon and they are in, well, Pali. So I still see no holy language, but I do see a language worthy of study to get to the original meanings.


A known scholar of Pali, Wilhelm Geiger wrote in the introduction to his book "Pali Literature and Language":
"A consensus of opinion regarding the home of the dialect on which Pali is based has therefore not been achieved. Windish therefore falls back on the old tradition - and I am also inclined to do the same - according to which Pali should be regarded as a form of Magadhi ..."


Oops - i took this quote linked by Dmytro to mean that he was contesting your translation of the Culavagga which seems to say the Buddha allowed the Canon in any language.

I thought Dmytro implied the Buddha was referring to only the language of the Buddha - Magadhi - of which Pali is a form, which makes Pali a form of the "holy" language of the Buddha - my inference - my bad.

Sorry for the interruption - keep moving - nothing to look at here...
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Dmytro » Sun May 16, 2010 6:44 am

Hi Anicca,

Anicca wrote:Oops - i took this quote linked by Dmytro to mean that he was contesting your translation of the Culavagga which seems to say the Buddha allowed the Canon in any language.

I thought Dmytro implied the Buddha was referring to only the language of the Buddha - Magadhi - of which Pali is a form, which makes Pali a form of the "holy" language of the Buddha - my inference - my bad.


The orthodox Theravadin interpretation of this quote from Culavagga, given by Buddhaghosa, is that Buddha ordained for his words to be learnt in Pali.

David Snyder has given a usual Western interpretation of the same quote.

That's one more illustration of the need to learn Pali.

Pali is now presented as not a language of the Buddha - but have you seen a single sensible and conclusive evidence of that?

As in China the teaching of the Buddha was transformed and merged with local Taoist wisdom, so in the West the Dhamma gets transformed and merged with psychology, according to the sensitivities of 'political correctness', 'democracy', 'pluralism' and scientism.

Nobody really cares that there wasn't a 'Noble Truth' in the Buddha's teaching -
viewtopic.php?f=23&t=4283
since the Western Buddhism got a life of its own.

Or do you know, for example, that according to the Commentaries (Dhammasangani-Atthakatha 200, etc.) jhana in Anapanasati is a subtype of air kasina practice?
Nobody in the West really cares about the Pali Commentaries. They are instead often bashed without reading, to free the space for the 'independent original thought'.

The Western 'mindfulness of breathing' is mostly just a fuzzy method of 'stress reduction'. Just keep attention focused below the nose, and the rest will sometimes happen all by itself. No need to know more details.

The few Western people I know who get far along the Path are studying at least the essential Pali terms.

Metta, Dmytro
Last edited by Dmytro on Sun May 16, 2010 7:09 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby tiltbillings » Sun May 16, 2010 7:06 am

Dmytro wrote:
Pali is now presented as not a language of the Buddha - but have you seen a single sensible and conclusive evidence of that?
Actually K.R. Norman does a decent job at looking a Pali, putting is a bit later than the Buddha

As in China the teaching of the Buddha was transformed and merged with local Daoist wisdom, so in the West the Dhamma gets transformed and merged with psychology, according to the sensitivities of 'political correctness', 'democracy', 'pluralism' and scientism.
This is hardly an accurate reflection of Buddhism in China, and far as the West is concerned, it is not that black and white either.

Nobody really cares that there wasn't a 'Noble Truth' in the Buddha's teaching -
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=4283
since the Western Buddhism got a life of its own.
And as usual Norman does an excellent job of pointing out the issues around Ariya-sacca, which gives an idea of how rich and multivalent the language is. And in terms of Dhamma practice and understanding of the language, there are few better than Ven Nanananda.

Or do you know, for example, that according to the Commentaries (Dhammasangani-Atthakatha 200, etc.) jhana in Anapanasati is a subtype of air kasina practice?
Nobody in the West really cares about the Pali Commentaries. They are instead often bashed without reading, to free the space for the 'independent original thought'.
Part of the problem is that the commentaries are written in a form of Pali that is not easy to learn. It would be good if the primary commentaries all were available to us in toto.

The Western 'mindfulness of breathing' is mostly just a fuzzy method of 'stress reduction'. Just keep attention focused below the nose, and the rest will sometimes happen all by itself. No need to know more details.
Again, a broad brush stroke that obscures those teachers who know the Dhamma of what they speak.

The few Western people I know who get far along the Path are studying at least the essential Pali terms.
There is a great deal to be said for doing more than just studying a few words. Actually learning the language at least to the extent of finishing Warder's book would not be a bad idea. Ideally, learning Sanskrit as well would not be a bad idea.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Anicca » Sun May 16, 2010 7:24 am

Hi Dmytro,
Dmytro wrote:Pali is now presented as not a language of the Buddha - but have you seen a single sensible and conclusive evidence of that?

Nothing seems conclusive - what i think is sensible is subjective and lacks objectivity, i assure you.

Dmytro wrote:Nobody really cares that there wasn't a 'Noble Truth' in the Buddha's teaching

Obviously someone does care.

Dmytro wrote:Or do you know, for example, that according to the Commentaries (Dhammasangani-Atthakatha 200, etc.) jhana in Anapanasati is a subtype of air kasina practice?

No - there are huge gaps in my knowledge.

Dmytro wrote:Nobody in the West really cares about the Pali Commentaries. They are instead often bashed without reading, to free the space for the 'independent original thought'.

I can be fooled - but i thought they were studied and when compared to the suttas, if they are in disagreement, then they were questioned - but only when they disagree with the suttas. The appeal of Theravada to this westerner is hardly 'independent original thought'.

Dmytro wrote:The Western 'mindfulness of breathing' is mostly just a fuzzy method of 'stress reduction'. Just keep attention focused below the nose, and the rest will sometimes happen all by itself. No need to know more details.

I have been so bombarded by so many differing descriptions from simple to detailed - jhana has been defined so distinctly different by different teachers and nimitta - sheesh - when i heard of the jhana headaches - sorry - i just had to laugh.

Dmytro wrote:The few Western people I know who get far along the Path are studying at least the essential Pali terms.

Could you point to a good list of the essentials?

Thank you, Dmytro

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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby mikenz66 » Sun May 16, 2010 7:33 am

Tilt, Dmytro,
tiltbillings wrote:
Dmytro wrote:Nobody in the West really cares about the Pali Commentaries. They are instead often bashed without reading, to free the space for the 'independent original thought'.
Part of the problem is that the commentaries are written in a form of Pali that is not easy to learn. It would be good if the primary commentaries all were available to us in toto.

Aside from the learning Pali aspect, I feel it is strange that more people don't at least read some of the classical commentaries that are readily available in English: http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.ph ... 340#p65535
Whereas they seem happy to read hundreds of pages of modern commentary. When one only sees snippets from the commentaries in footnotes to translations, stripped of the context, I think that it's easy to get some wrong impressions about what the commentaries are trying to do.

Mike
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby tiltbillings » Sun May 16, 2010 7:54 am

mikenz66 wrote:When one only sees snippets from the commentaries in footnotes to translations, stripped of the context, I think that it's easy to get some wrong impressions about what the commentaries are trying to do.

Mike
I would trust the Ven Bodhi does right by the commentaries when he refers to them, quotes and even as might differ with them.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby mikenz66 » Sun May 16, 2010 8:40 am

Hi Tilt,
tiltbillings wrote:
mikenz66 wrote:When one only sees snippets from the commentaries in footnotes to translations, stripped of the context, I think that it's easy to get some wrong impressions about what the commentaries are trying to do.

Mike
I would trust the Ven Bodhi does right by the commentaries when he refers to them, quotes and even as might differ with them.

Sorry, clearly I wasn't explaining myself well. I do trust Bhikkhu Bodhi to extract most of the important things from the Commentaries. However, if one hasn't looked at at least a few commentaries in full and just sees one of these these footnotes then it is sometimes seems like it has come out of nowhere and it is hard to appreciate that it is just a sentence or two out of a commentary that is several times the size of the sutta and that it probably makes a lot more sense when seen in context.

Mike
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Re: Why learn Pali?

Postby Dmytro » Mon May 17, 2010 7:59 am

Hi Tilt,

tiltbillings wrote:Actually K.R. Norman does a decent job at looking a Pali, putting is a bit later than the Buddha.


IMHO, the arguments of K.R. Norman are well summarized and dealt with in the article:

The Buddha Spoke Pāli
Stefan Karpik

http://pali.nibbanam.com/kosalan.htm

This is hardly an accurate reflection of Buddhism in China, and far as the West is concerned, it is not that black and white either.


Well, if you look in more detail at the history of Buddhism in China, there are more interesting parallels with the development of Buddhism in the West, - from the early translations with the usage of Taoist or Christian terms, to the gradual development of totally new schools, aligned to local mentality.

Metta, Dmytro
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