Is the composition of the Pali canon good?

For people who can read Pali well, I’m curious if the pali text of the canon is “good” in the following senses: beauty, clarity, efficiency, style, or precision of language.

In other holy texts, most especially the Quran, there’s a lot of effusive praise of the actual original text. I know I’ve heard Ajahn Thanissaro comment specifically on some of the poetry in the canon, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe the prose in terms of it’s compositional quality at all.

Obviously, it’s in a somewhat strange position, being (arguably) the only canonical example of the language it’s written in - unlike with, say, the Book of Revelation, I don’t expect anyone to be able to confidently identify grammatical mistakes (or the lack thereof). But I’m curious just in general terms how it “feels”.

Obviously, it’s highly repetitive in the original, even moreso than in translation. But what are those repeated segments like?

Certainly. They have beauty, clarity, idk what you mean by efficiency, contain different useful styles, and have highly advanced language use. Besides what you mentioned, they also have irony, humor, recursion, logic, that which goes beyond logic, hard truths, and most importantly: just the truth which leads to happiness. Besides the most important things: being properly communicated, being true, and teaching suffering, they’re also logically consistent and it works in practice. They describe everything we need to know about the world, and I believe one could end suffering with just the inspiration from these texts. Whenever the Buddha speaks, it’s clear those words came from someone who truly knows, and he does it better than anyone I’ve seen today. His students are similarly honorable.

Yes, the language felt weird when I first read it, but later on it didn’t feel archaic at all to me. The metaphors feel timeless and naturally worthy of praise. It’s not like that because I want it to be, it’s simply like that.

I should give an example, but there’s many to choose from, so I’ll give the very first of the saṁyutta nikāya (translated by Bhikkhu Sujato):

deity: “Good sir, how did you cross the flood?”

Buddha: “Neither standing nor swimming, sir, I crossed the flood.”

deity: “But in what way did you cross the flood neither standing nor swimming?”

Buddha: “When I stood still, I went under. And when I swam, I was swept away. That’s how I crossed the flood neither standing nor swimming.”

deity (verse): “After a long time I see a brahmin extinguished. Neither standing nor swimming, he’s crossed over clinging to the world.”

I find this one mildly funny and yet also deep. The Buddha didn’t even answer his question, and that’s the actual answer to crossing the flood to the far shore (metaphor for enlightenment): to not stress over questions/worries, to not struggle (swimming) and yet to not be lazy (standing); just stillness. This text is also not afraid to be controversial for the sake of describing truth. Here, it disagrees with how most people approach life: with doing and forcefulness, and you’d find it to be true and relatable when you put this to practice.

You also asked about the Pali. I would guess that Venerable Sujato tries to emulate the beauty of the original phrasing, although you can’t stop that from being lost in translation. The Pali is better than English in a few ways in my opinion. It’s more musical and deep, while English lags behind in our terminology, but it doesn’t bother me so much as to push away the English translations. I like reading the translations, but this does also mean they are susceptible to being misinterpreted without experience, where you wouldn’t yet be able to parse the intended meaning of terms like “becoming”, “body”, “aggregate”, or “name and form”. Knowing the Pali terms for each of those definitely allows for a clearer understanding.

In that sutta quote, I included a verse. I’ll compare prose to verse just for reference, although I know you were only asking about prose. It looked like regular English (although I find Bhikkhu Sujato’s English translations of verses to somewhat feel like actual singable verses), but the actual Pali is a different story, since it has metres, so they end up being rhythmic, allowing melody, and therefore a consistent singing-like style. In comparison, prose doesn’t really have this exact musical style (although you can still chant it with melody), but prose definitely still has a lot of beauty and truth in its meaning and phrasing. It’s true even in just regular conversations between characters, especially when a teacher gives an explanation. Deeper and deeper meaning is found when one recites verse or prose.

That’s okay, there’s still a lot of meaning. It’s not like it’s all just the same one thing repeating, it does that in certain formulaic occasions, and I think it helps mental training to repeat it like that. Like it’s not just feelings that are impermanent, matter is impermanent, consciousness is impermanent, ideas are impermanent, and perception is impermanent too! I could have said that in less words, but it may be more useful to actually go through each thing and ask yourself how each one is impermanent. It’s not replacing and removing meaning with repeated text in its place, it’s adding on extra phrases to something which already has enough meaning.

Even within the texts, they praise themselves, often describing it like:

These teachings are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, meaningful and well-phrased, describing a spiritual practice that’s entirely full and pure.

And there are even longer meta descriptions in the canon.

Hopefully my answer is somewhat satisfying since I know you’re asking for a deeper description of what it’s like, but that’s not the easiest for me to describe (maybe ai would be good at that kind of task). It’s a whole lot of text after all. You could also describe it well in terms of the happiness it has brought its listeners/readers for so many years, which is also so much that I can’t describe how much. I think one would just have to read it to get a real feel for it anyway.


It’s an excellent question, and not easy to answer categorically. Some modern scholars have criticized Pali poetry for being too simplistic and cliched (notably John Brough). But I think the more general feeling is that works must be considered within their purpose.

Clearly Pali verse is almost always more simple and less challenging from a literary perspective than Vedic verse. It’s not even close TBH. Yet the Buddha explicitly rejected overly-literary approaches.

I believe that much of the austere, semantics-first style of the Pali is a conscious reaction against the mysticism of the Vedas and Upanishads, for whom “the gods love hidden things”. The Buddha set out to make his teachings as clear and explicit as possible.

With that aim in mind, there is a lucidity to Pali prose that shines through. It represents its meaning without pretense or fuss. You can see slightly different styles in some of the speakers; Sāriputta is more verbose, Kaccāyana is more analytical, Vaṅgīsa more flowery. And the Buddha’s prose sits right in the middle, saying what it needs to say, no more, no less. Even a stylistic trope such as repetition is always functional. There’s a kind of bare-bones beauty to it.


Yet, despite the lucidity, as we can see so many different EBT teachers around with different views on Jhāna and the nature of parinibbāna, the Buddha’s words can still be interpreted by different people differently.