Adding footnotes to SuttaCentral

Seven years ago I wrote an incendiary post explaining why SuttaCentral doesn’t have footnotes.

Time passes, and now I am thinking of undertaking a plan to add notes over the next year or so. Let me explain what has changed about my thinking and why, and what has stayed the same.

Firstly let me get the least interesting detail out of the way. In the former post I pointed out that footnotes are not properly supported in HTML, which means there is no simple and consistent way of presenting them. This is still true, but we no longer are constrained by HTML. Our texts are in our own Bilara format, which means the texts and markup are completely separated. Bilara has first-class support for notes, so we can now not only make notes per segment, but in principle, can make as many different sets of notes as we like, and include them or leave them out of the text as desired.

  • The former constraint about HTML markup does, however, still apply to legacy texts—i.e. any translations, such as those of Ven Bodhi, which were formerly published elsewhere. We will never support notes for such texts.

Notes are already available for Snp and Ud on the web, which you can see here. In addition, our upcoming Publications project (about which more news very soon) supports footnotes in plain HTML, EPUB, and PDF. Here’s an example.

The upshot of this is that technical support for footnotes now exists. How are we to use it?

In the published notes for Snp, the notes mainly comment on the translation choices. It is an especially difficult text and the choices by different translators often vary considerably.

The most important thing for me, however, is to make the texts available for the 99%, not just for those who want to study the Pali. And for this, a set of notes for general readers is warranted.

I’ve already made a start on this as a test case, and you can see it on DN 1 here.

  • :warning: Ignore the formatting of the notes, we are rebuilding that. You can make the notes less intrusive by enabling “Tooltip on asterisk” in the “Views” panel.

Let me explain what I am trying to do here.

First of all, what is a note?

  • A note is a short piece of information that explains, clarifies, or adds context to a passage.
  • A note is generally self-contained. You glance at it, learn what you need, and move on.

There are exceptions to that: a note may link to elsewhere in the Suttas or refer to the work of others. But these are kept minimal. And when there is a reference, it is explained in the note so that it is not necessary to look it up in order to understand the issue.

  • :negative_squared_cross_mark: Don’t: See MN 23.
  • :white_check_mark: Do: See MN 23, where the same passage is framed in terms of the five aggregates.
  • :negative_squared_cross_mark: Don’t: See Bodhi’s note 23.
  • :white_check_mark: Do: In his note 23 on this passage, Bodhi shows that the variant reading añña must be correct.

For my project, I will focus on two kinds of notes.

  1. Explain the translation choices.
  2. Help the general reader.

What I would like is that if someone new to the suttas, with little in the way of background and context, should be trying to read a sutta, they see a note and go, “Hmm, nice.” Because text and note are separated, there seems to be no reason not to take a maximalist approach: explain what might need explaining. If you don’t like the notes, turn them off.

Non-goals include:

  • Summarizing the commentaries: refer to commentaries only if they are actually useful to clear up the text or reading.
  • Teaching the controversy: a note is not an essay and not all controversies are worth teaching.
  • Expounding special views: stick to things that are simple and straightforward. See above re “not an essay”.
  • Apologetics: it’s not my position to judge but to clarify.
  • Linguistics: only discuss the Pali if it is necessary to explain a translation choice.
  • Comparatives: checking the Chinese and other parallels for everything is out of scope: I have to make a limit somewhere, else it won’t get done.
  • Referencing the literature: this is not an academic project, and will generally not refer to articles and the like, again, except where they directly affect the translation.

All of these things have their place, but for my notes I’ll keep them at a minimum.

In my previous post I imagined a more expansive role for notes, with various contributors and multiple streams of different types of notes. And this is still something I look forward to at some point. With Bilara, there is no reason we can’t have multiple sets of notes from different perspectives, but we have to start somewhere.

Please check out the existing notes for Snp and DN 1 and let me know what you think. The project is in its initial stages, so I am still exploring options. :pray:

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Thanks so much Bhante! :pray:

The notes are clear and I believe many people will enjoy and benefit from them. :slightly_smiling_face:

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:partying_face: This is most welcome news, Bhante! And that PDF screenshot is titillating!

I would vote for keeping these two kinds of notes separate in the underlying data if you aren’t already. Even if they get turned off and on together in the current UI, it would enable what I always wanted in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work: a toggle to keep the general notes but hide the more technical ones.

Cheers!

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Thank you, Bhante. I found the notes for DN 1 quite helpful. I felt they decreased my distance from the text. I’m very excited about this project.

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I’ve thought of that, but I’m not sure if the overhead is worth the convenience. It’s not difficult to implement, I guess the writing side is the more tricky, toggling between the two. I’m just not sure that there are enough technical notes to make it worthwhile.

Apart from Snp, there just aren’t that many technical notes.

Taking DN as an example, I made 130 general notes on DN 1. In the whole of DN there are about 500 unedited notes. So that’s about 350 apart from DN 1, so about ten per sutta. Those ten are mostly technical, although some cases are borderline. So compared to the general notes in DN 1, less than 10% of the notes are technical.

Anyway, I’ll bear this in mind and proceed with DN. Let’s see how it looks as I go along.

Aww thanks Jim!

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Good! There is one little thing, however, that seems a bit weird: the asterisk is next to the subsequent line, rather than immediately after the full stop of the the line it belongs to. Should this be fixed? Can it be fixed?


Apparently Discourse will not let me make a post consisting entirely of quotes from previous posts. It’s almost as if doing so would be considered passive-aggressive or snarky.

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Ah okay, if it stays at about that ratio than I agree: no need. :slight_smile: :pray: Cheers!

Yes, if someone does a Norman and writes extensive linguistic notes on every line (which I would love!) then that should definitely be separate.

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We now have live notes for the whole first chapter of dn.

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