T E A C H I N G S ••  T I - P I T A K A

 R  E  S  O  U   R  C  E  S 

Pali - Conclusion

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.



The Pali Language:
A question often asked is: ‘Did the Buddha speak Pali?’
If so, how much of the original language has been retained? If not, how much has translation affected the accurate transmission of the teachings?
There seems to be no one answer to these questions but I offer the following as the results of my investigation.

The paramount power in India for two centuries, spanning both before and after the Buddha, was the Kingdom of Kosala, of which the Buddha's birth kingdom, Magadha, was a fiefdom. Magadhi seems to be a dialect of Kosalan, and there is some evidence that this was the language that the Buddha spoke. The Pali of the Canon seems to be based on the standard Kosalan as spoken in the 6th and 7th centuries BC. The script used on the rock edicts of Asoka is a younger form of this standard. On one of the Asoka pillars (about 300 BC) there is a list of named Suttas which can be linguistically placed within the Singhalese Canon.

Sanskrit was also widely spoken and warrants discussion. It seems to have been the language of the Brahmin's, the 'spiritual' class. It is etymologically older than Pali but, as regards texts and inscriptions, the native tongue (Kosalan) was the more common or popular medium. In the Text we see the Buddha encouraging his disciples to teach in the popular language of any area. However after the Buddha's death, what were considered more 'learned' forms were gradually made use of, despite the fact that these gave a less faithful picture of the living speech. Slowly the efforts to represent the real facts of the spoken language gave way to another effort, the expression of learned phraseology, until roughly 300 AD, classical Sanskrit became used exclusively in relation to Buddhism. This trend is reflected in the scripture of later Buddhist traditions.

The use of Pali is practically confined to Buddhist subjects, and then only in the Theravada school. It's exact origin is the subject of much learned debate and from the point of view of the non-specialist, we can think of it as a kind of simplified, common man's Sanskrit. The source of the Pali Text we have lies in the North of India. It is definitely not Singhalese in origin as it contains no mention of any place in Sri Lanka, or even South India. The similes abounding in the Singhalese literature are those of a sub-tropical climate and of a great river valley rather than those of a tropical island.

Being an essentially oral language, lacking a strong literary base of its own, it adopted the written script of each country it settled in. It is clear that by the time the Text arrived in Sri Lanka, with Asoka's son Mahinda, about 240 BC, it was considered closed.

Any historical study is much like a jigsaw puzzle. Piecing together information from a scrap of parchment here, a clay tablet there; comparing various bits of antiquity, the opinions and insights of others; analysing and evaluating - and then - coming to a conclusion. The more Buddhist history books I studied, to try and determine precise information, the more opinions I ended up collecting. History, it seems, can be very much a matter of opinion.

Very few undisputed facts exist by which to prove the authenticity of the Pali Canon. Even the dates of the Buddha are questionable. The earliest reliable dates in Indian history that we have are those for Emperor Asoka's rule; 274 - 236 BC. We can also be relatively certain that the Text remained unchanged from the time it was written down, about 80 BC.

As regards the reliability of the Text I felt two items to be of greatest importance.
Firstly: The reason that anything survives the rigours of more than 2000 years of history is that it is considered to be of great value. Presumably the reason for this evaluation was that the teaching was seen to work, i.e. to lead to the transcendence of suffering. Such a known treasure would have been well guarded and part of this protection would have been a tremendous concern for retaining the 'jewel' in its entirety, i.e. accurately.
Secondly: After several centuries of travelling to many different lands and being translated into different languages, the disparity between the various renderings of the main Text existing today in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan is typically greatest in matters of least importance. Only very rarely are differences founded on doctrinal matters. It can be seen that these works are clearly not independent compositions, being very similar in their substantive content. This ‘authenticity by comparison' is an important item in support of scriptural accuracy. More specifically, the Vinaya is almost without exception, identical in every Buddhist tradition.

On a more general note:
I feel that the majority of us who have come to give the Text some consideration, originally set out in search of a guide by which to find a way to resolve the root-problem of our personal existence. The process of production warrants investigation but surely the true test of any guide book is its ability to lead one to the desired destination. The whole energy behind the Buddha's teaching was the ending of suffering. If what you glean from the Text eases or ends your suffering then the teaching has been accurately transmitted. What is of greatest importance is to take the teachings that seem relevant, that feel applicable to your life, and to make them a personal reality, to turn the theory into practice.