On the Pali Commentaries
The Pali canonical texts are accompanied by an extensive and detailed set of commentaries ( aṭṭhakathā ) and subcommentaries ( ṭīkā ). These texts are, for most people, even more mysterious than the canon itself, so let me say a few words on them.
The main commentaries were compiled by the monk Buddhaghosa at the Mahāvihāra monastery in Anuradhapura, then the capital of Sri Lanka, in the 5th century. Buddhaghosa inherited a series of older commentaries in the old Sinhalese language, now lost. These had been compiled over the centuries in Sri Lanka, mostly between around 200 BCE–200 CE; that is to say, the main content of the commentaries was closed several centuries before Buddhaghosa.
It was all a bit messy, with text in Pali and commentaries in Sinhala, and a variety of different commentarial texts. Buddhaghosa aimed to streamline the situation by combining all the old commentaries into a single system, translated into Pali.
Buddhaghosa’s work remains as an extraordinary accomplishment of traditional scholarship. He had an almost preternatural mastery of his materials, and the clarity and rigor of his texts make light work of what must have been an exceedingly difficult task. It is crucial to remember that he saw his work as that of an editor, compiler, and translator. That is what he claimed to be doing, and from everything we know about his work, he was a scholar of integrity who did exactly what he said. When he felt a need to express his own opinion he said so; but such interventions were rare and hesitant. The commentaries are the record of discussions and explanations of the Pali texts handed down in the Mahāvihāra tradition, not the opinions of Buddhaghosa.
While Buddhaghosa compiled commentaries on the major texts, he left some incomplete. It is not always certain which commentaries were by him; but in any case later scholars completed his work. Subsequently, subcommentaries were written to clarify obscure points in the commentaries.
In modern Theravāda the commentaries have become a sadly and unnecessarily divisive issue. Some people take the entire tradition uncritically and regard the commentaries as essentially infallible. Others flip to an extreme of suspecting anything in the commentaries, rewriting Theravādin history as a conspiracy of the commentaries. But any serious scholar knows that the commentaries are often helpful, even indispensable, on countless difficult and obscure points. Without them, there is no way we would have been able to create the accurate dictionaries and translations that we have today. Yet they cannot be relied on blindly, for, like any resource, they are fallible, and must be read with a careful and critical eye. On some doctrinal issues, the position of the commentaries had shifted considerably from the stance in the suttas, and not in illuminating ways.
I once read some advice from a Burmese Sayadaw—I am afraid this was many years ago and I have forgotten who it was—on how to use the commentaries. He said—and I paraphrase—something like this. First read the sutta. Try to understand it. Read it and meditate on it again and again. If there’s anything you don’t understand, see if it can be explained elsewhere in the suttas. If, at the end of the day, you still cannot understand it, check the commentary. If it answers the question, good. But if, after equally careful study, the commentary is still unclear, then check the subcommentary.
This has always seemed like sound advice to me, and I have tried to follow it. The purpose of the commentary is to help explain the suttas. Where the suttas are clear—and mostly they are—there is no need to refer to the commentary. The only extra thing I would add is that, in addition to the commentaries and subcommentaries, we now also have Chinese and Sanskrit parallels to help us understand difficult passages.
In these introductions, I almost completely leave aside the commentarial explanations. In several places the explanations I have given differ from those in the commentaries. I am aware of this, and have written on most of these things elsewhere, but I do not want to burden the introductions by re-litigating every controversy. I don’t contradict the commentaries out of ignorance or stubbornness, but because after many years of study, contemplation, discussion, and practice, I have come to see some things differently.