Buddhaghosa transl. the mūla from Sinhalese into Pāli

I know the following is not a simple matter per se, but I asked this question to another monk via mail and thought it could do more good than harm to also post it here.

In the Buddhaghosuppatti the whole issue as to his nature of work seems to rest on the word parivatteti (PED: to turn round; to turn over) as in such passages as this:

Nāhaṃ bhante bhikkhusaṅghe sikkhanatthāya Jambudīpato Laṅkādīpaṃ āgato Buddhasāsanaṃ (at another similar passage as buddhavacana) pana Sīhaḷabhāsāya parivattetvā Māgadhabhāsāya likkhanatthāya āgato” – “I have not come to Laṅkādīpa (Sri Lanka) from Jambudīpa (India) to train the community of monks, but with the goal of writing the Buddhist religion, having translated from the Sinhalese.”

Would you consider this passage as unequivocally having to be read as referring to translation as such or would a mere copying or transliteration also be plausible as an interpretation? If an actual translation was done I would find such a thing quite sad news, when we in addition follow modern scholarship. The picture looks a bit gloomy then: We would first have a proposed translating from an Ur-canon into Pāli as such (see Levman, Norman and von Hinüber for example), which was brought to Sri Lanka a couple of hundred years or so later, translated again there into Sinhalese by Mahinda, kept some time in that state, edited and sanskritized at the first writing down, until Buddhaghosa back-translates the scriptures into Pāli (or Māgadhese) … Quite a mess … Can you offer a nicer looking picture? Any other sources where it is said that the scriptures were kept intact until Buddhaghosa?

I much appreciate your time and views about the above.



The story of Badantācariya Buddhaghosa comes from a bok called “Buddhagosuppatti” which was criticized by Ven. Polwatte Buddhadatta Thero (a scholar from Sri Lanka). Most of these stories about Ven. Buddhagosha are exaggerations.

He came to Sri Lanka because he needed to bring sinhalese commentaries to india where their commentaries were long gone. Addopting Pali commentaries over sinhalese was a decision of sinhalese bhikkus from Mahavihāra.
Some people says Ven. Buddhagosha burned all the sinhalese books just after the translation. But this is also from the book Buddhagosuppatti which has so many unbelievable illogical stories. It would be much logical to believe that disappearance of sinhalese commentaries happened a much later because of the adoption of pali commentaries over sinhalese.


I’ve always wondered, is there a possibility that most of the commentaries were actually made in Sri Lanka and Singhalese and don’t even come from an earlier Indian source? This would simplify the whole story: the suttas and vinaya in Pali were brought to Sri lanka, translated in Singhalese and then the commentaries made in singhalese over time until their translation in Pali by Buddhaghosa.

Is this a reasonable hypothesis or impossible for reasons I’m not aware of?

It is.
Most of the commentaries are rich of stories originated in Sri Lanka. Eventhough "Mahavansa says otherwise,.

Sīhaḷaṭṭhakathā suddhā, mahindena matīmatā;. Saṅgītittayamārūḷhaṃ, sammāsambuddhadesitaṃ.
The commentary in the Sīhala tongue is faultless. The wise Mahinda who tested the tradition laid before the
three Councils as it was preached by the Perfectly

However, we have to believe that either Sīhaḷaṭṭhakathā originated in originally in Sri Lanka or it was changed while translating. As Ven. Buddhagosha explains he did not just translate Sīhaḷaṭṭhakathā, but he analyzed them and collected data from several commentaries and wrote his own books without exceeding Mahavihāra beliefs.

I think so, although I am not so familiar with the terminology of the period. The literal meaning of the word might be something like “processed”, which would fit with the understanding that, as indicated by Ven Amatabhani below, it was not a straight translation, but an editing, adapting, and compiling of material from various sources.

But he only translated the commentaries from Sinhala: the Tipitaka was always in Pali. I’m not exactly sure how that squares with the statement you quote here, but it is generally accepted that this is the case, and I have never seen anyone argue that the Tipitaka was ever maintained in Sinhala.

Indeed, yes.

As Ven Amatabhani says, the commentaries are rich in stories of Sri Lanka. They also, of course, include much information from India, such as all the stories of the Jatakas, etc. It seems reasonable to suppose that an extensive body of commentarial literature was imported from India, and then expanded on the island. Remember that by “commentary” in the early days we really just mean “the things that the mendicants said about the suttas”. The gathering and evolution of this material in a formalized way took many centuries.


Bhante, from what I’ve seen in Bhikkhu Bodi’s books, the commentaries usually take a word or expression and give possible meanings for it. So I’m wondering, how could a commentary of a Pali word be made in Singhalese? You would need the monastics to know both Pali and Singhalese to be able to use the commentaries along with the Tipitaka - if so, what is the need to translate the commentaries in Singhalese in the first place? And if there was a need for monastics that don’t know Pali… well the commentaries wouldn’t be much helpful to them because they wouldn’t be able to associate them with the Tipitaka (nor read it if there is no translation of it).

Or am I missing something? I probably do and would love to know what, because this issue has bothered me for a while (not much, just like a small itch :slight_smile: ) I’m struggling to find a logical explanation to this historical account. Or is there a good reference that I could read on that topic?

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I think that was the point. Remember, at that time Sinhalese and Pali were quite similar. So one of the roles of the commentary would have been to say: “this word in the text (pali) means this word in either Pali or Sinhala”. I guess that the commentary would have rather freely mixed Pali-ish and Sinhala-ish forms, much as you find in certain kinds of contemporary texts.

I remember a chant I learned years ago in the south of Thailand. It was quite melodic, using the Thai tones as per usual in Thai chanting, but in a very tuneful way. The words mixed up Pali, Pali with Thai inflections, and straight Thai. From memory, and leaving aside diacriticals and tones:

udon rasamim phra buddhagunam
The virtues of the Buddha illuminate the north.

So it combines Pali word endings (-am) with Thai words derived from Pali (udon = uttara), Pali words pronounced like Thai (rasamim = rasmim) and purely Thai words (phra). If this happens even with a completely distinct language such as Thai, it would have been much easier with old Sinhala.

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This is similar to any other translation. When you translate you cannot just use some word to a particular word. Ex: Nibbana, Metta, Karuna
There are no suitabe single words to these. Infact that is the reason sinhalese language adopted so many words from Pali and Sanskrit.

Language in use is always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of its users. But, Pāli is not that kind of language because it was not in day-to-day use from the very beginning. If it was not for the Pāli language the dhamma is long gone.

Commentaries used a myth to justify the use of Pāli language. I am so glad that how ever they kept it that important.

The Pāli canon stayed unchanged for thousands of years because of the language it was tought from one generation to another.

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The Gāthā Phothibaat has got a bit of everything. But you left out the Sanskrit (e.g., būraphā rasamiṃ, = pūrvārasmiṃ) and the two words from Old Khmer: saniad janrai.

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‘Don’t insist on local terminology and don’t override normal usage.’
‘Janapadaniruttiṃ nābhiniveseyya, samaññaṃ nātidhāveyyā’ti—
That’s what I said, but why did I say it?
iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ?
And how do you insist on local terminology and override normal usage?
Kathañca, bhikkhave, janapadaniruttiyā ca abhiniveso hoti samaññāya ca atisāro?
It’s when in different localities the same thing is known as a ‘plate’, a ‘bowl’, a ‘cup’, a ‘dish’, a ‘basin’, a ‘tureen’, or a ‘porringer’.
Idha, bhikkhave, tadevekaccesu janapadesu ‘pātī’ti sañjānanti, ‘pattan’ti sañjānanti, ‘vittan’ti sañjānanti, ‘sarāvan’ti sañjānanti ‘dhāropan’ti sañjānanti, ‘poṇan’ti sañjānanti, ‘pisīlavan’ti sañjānanti.
And however it is known in those various localities, you speak accordingly, obstinately sticking to that and insisting:
Iti yathā yathā naṃ tesu tesu janapadesu sañjānanti tathā tathā thāmasā parāmāsā abhinivissa voharati:
‘This is the only truth, other ideas are silly.’
‘idameva saccaṃ, moghamaññan’ti (MN 139).

Bhikkus were asked not to override normal usage. Thats why sinhalese was used to explain the Dhamma.

Lol, I skipped it because I didn’t know what it was, now I do!

Huh. I thought they were just obscure Thai words. Do you know anything of the history of that chant? I mean, there is a lot of linguistic complexity going on, and in the end it sounds like a pop song.


I’m afraid not. I have seen the question of its authorship being raised on Thai language Buddhist forums, but a variety of answers are given and nobody seems able to back up their claims by citing any reliable source.

The names mentioned most often are Ajahn Fan Ācāro and Khruba Siwichai Sīvijeyyo. If it really is one of these two I should think that Siwichai would be the likelier candidate. I can’t imagine Ajahn Fan pandering to people’s greed by having them chant:

sabbadhanam sabbalābhaṃ bhavantu me

but it wouldn’t be considered out of order for a phra phattanaa to do so.

:laughing: I see what you mean.

It seems like an artefact of a more weird Buddhism that escaped standardization by the authorities. I chanted it when staying at Wat Tam Seua in Krabi.

The other one they did was also very nice to chant, let’s see, it was about the paramis. Again, roughly, and without attempting diacriticals, it started out:

danaparami, danaupaparami, danaparamatthaparami … (and so on)

Then it has another section beginning with something like samatimsa parami tung lai.

Yeah, that’s not much, I used to know it by heart! Do you know that one?

It’s not this one, which seems to be quite common:

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Perhaps this one? …

itipi so bhagavā dānapāramīsampanno
mahājayapākāro varamenātho
vata so dhammakalyāṇādi vipassanāgato
so bhagavā itipi.

The same is then repeated for the rest of the ten perfections. Then the last verse:

itipi so bhagavā dasapāramīsampanno
mahājayapākāro varamenātho
vata so dhammakalyāṇādi vipassanāgato
so bhagavā itipi
itipi so bhagavā buddho anantādiguṇo
vata so bhagavā itipi.

It’s chanted in nearly ever wat I’ve stayed at in Chiang Mai and Lamphun.

I’m afraid not. In the North the Dasapāramī chant is usually followed by the Jātaka-inspired ‘The Lord’s Ten Former Lives’ (phra jao sip chaat). It has an identical melody to the Dasapāramī but goes:

Temiyo nāma bhagavā
seṭṭhaṃ vattakaṃ ārammaṇaṃ
tuvaṃ sohaṃ buddho bhavissati
kusalatā dhamme sammāsambuddho
itipi so bhagavā

In subsequent verses Temiyo is replaced with Mahājanako, Suvaṇṇasāmo, Nemiro, Mahosatho, Bhūridatto, Candakumāro, Nārado, Viḍūro, Vessantaro and Siddhattho.


Okay, well that’s all interesting, but none of them are the chant I remember. Perhaps it’s a southern thing?

Maybe. But I wouldn’t know - in 25 years living in Thailand I think Samut Prakarn is the furthest South I’ve ever been. A preference for mountains over beaches has always led me northwards.


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May I ask, where are you staying now? People often ask me about good places to practice in Thailand, and I am out of touch.

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I’m staying at Wat Pa Jaroen Tham, a small forest wat (three monks, one mae chee) in Amphoe Li, the southernmost district of Lamphun Province.

For Western monks who speak Thai the amphoe has quite a lot of nice forest and hill wats. I don’t think there are any teachers of any note here, but it’s a fine place for eremitical practice.

As for non-Thai laypeople coming to the North to practise, if they’re experienced meditators wanting a quiet place for a self-retreat then I usually direct them to one of these two in Chiang Mai Province:

Wat Doi Phra Keud (วัดดอยพระเกิ๊ด)
Tambon Ban Luang, Amphoe Chom Thong

Wat Tham Tong (วัดถ้ำตอง)
Tambon Ban Pae, Amphoe Chom Thong

If they’re fairly experienced but still want to have an English-speaking teacher around whom they can consult, then I refer them to Ajahn Maha Nophadon:

Wat Phra Phutthabat Tamoh (วัดพระพุทธบาทตะเมาะ)
Tambon Pong Thung, Amphoe Doi Tao
Chiang Mai Province


But if they’re looking for a Mahasi-style or Goenka-style setup where you get to have a daily or twice-daily interview with your teacher, then I don’t really know of any places in this region that I could recommend. I used to know some, but the teachers are all deceased now and the new generation’s teaching style seems to consist in extreme one-size-fits-all macdonaldization, with teachers doing little more than parroting what they’ve read in some meditation teacher’s handbook. Perhaps the best thing would be to go to one of the first two wats above but make arrangements for a daily interview via Skype with some teacher one trusts.