Is word of Buddha lost in the noise and translations?

We are on the New Silk Road- but on a massive global, digital scale :sunglasses::computer::artificial_satellite::iphone:

Imagine 100 years ago- you would need to be an academic, well connected or have access to a good library to get even one decent translation of a text, let alone different ones.


Buddha :pray:
Dhamma :pray:
Sangha :pray:

But for one to see the three jewels, Buddha, Dhamma and Arya Sangha, the doubt or vichikichcha has to go. That happens only when one attains Sothapaththi, the first of the four stages.

Well, that is an opinion and is worth to be regarded with doubts.

Buddha means awake, and I find no trouble knowing if I am awake and aware or in an awake sleep state. And it’s not complicated at all to see for oneself if this practice leads to less or higher degrees of suffering in daily life.

What’s the point of three refuges if it’s not attainable in a practical way here and now, and can be used before any attainments?

1 Like

One of best examples of something similar to what is proposed is being taught by Ajahn Bramhall here where 4 different parallels are compared this isn’t unachievable on internet as well though requires deep coordination on linguistic experts in all the parallels to translate it in a intermediate language and debate to conclusions the final word

First, thanks for the link to Ajahn @Brahmali 's lecture. It’s great see this.

I don’t think comparison work can’t be achieved on the internet, but it’s a gargantuan amount of work for a person to write up comparison studies because the corpus of Buddhist texts is massive. To engage in a team effort adds much more time to the process because it’s a negotiation between people. So, this is the primary barrier. Time and mortality enter the picture when a project takes decades to complete.

The other difficulty is that we are still in the early translation phase of the Chinese Agamas. We have first-attempts at translating the Dirgha Agama and Madhyama Agama and first-attempts of selections of the other two Chinese Agamas. First-attempts are important in raising interest and awareness, but they are usually flawed, and it’s the second and third translations that reach a good understanding of an ancient text. The Pali canon has already gone through this process, as the first attempts were made a hundred years ago. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations were built on all the previous translations, so his versions have become a mature translation most people refer to today, even if it is a bit on the overly literal side.

We are probably decades away from achieving that with the Chinese Agamas. And this stands in the way of producing deep comparisons of parallels. If we don’t have a mature understanding of the Agamas, the comparisons are going to run into issues. I would say, at this point, the Agamas are still regarded as counterpoints to the Pali canon. Do they confirm a passage in the Pali canon, or do they argue against a Pali passage as a redaction? As a result, the Agamas aren’t systematically studied and understood as their own traditions. People primarily look at them when they have a specific question about a translation from Pali.

I do think we have only scratched the surface of understanding the complex relationships between Buddhist EBT canons. We’ve done some work comparing individual texts, but there are more systemic studies of, say, the canon of the Sarvastivadins or the Dharmaguptakas, which can be done. We have studies of Abhidharma parallels (see Frauwallner and Dhammajoti), studies of the Dharmapada texts (see Anandajoti and Dhammajoti, etc), studies of Madhyama vs. Majjhima sutras (see Analayo), etc. But bringing it altogether is difficult because of the amount of material involved.

Myself, my time is taken up by the translation work, but I do experiment with comparison studies, which I’ve posted on the forum from time to time. Ultimately, it’s not something I can do while I’m engaged in a translation project if I’m going to get the English released in a reasonable amount of time (which is measured in years). I of course compare parallels while I’m translating the Agamas, but to stop and write it all up would double the project’s length.

Let’s see if I can gather up some links to parallels studies or language issues I’ve posted in the past:

(This is incomplete, but I do intend to find a way to present similar information for AN/EA and SN/SA, but those collections are thousands of sutras.)

There are more topics, but I think these give some ideas of the issues I’ve seen and wrestled with during my translation project.


Thank you for all the links and the writeup, I certainly agree with you this task wont be trivial and will need help and support from multiple people (probably sangha and more).
Another thing I want to mention here is objective isn’t just comparing parallel with Chinese Āgamas, there are

  • One of my observation is sutta translations in English are polarized with western perspective and interpretation of suttas. There must be lot of parallel translations in languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil … and other Indian languages which should be also considered
  • Still people in India who speak Pali as their first / second language, and can help get native context. A friend of mine mentioned his colleague speaks Pali and can translate but he doesn’t have dhamma context, more to find here
  • During Ashoka’s reign he spread dhamma across the world we might have to collect traces of them as well like from Japan , Thailand, Indonesia etc other countries. which might have been in the native languages spoken there, I don’t know what really exists as have never been there.

This kind collection with atleast (3-5 parallels) for each sutta might be something worth and would need active participation and debates from multiple language experts, intermediate language(like English) , conflict settlement, publishing and review cycles for something to come out of this process

This thought is still in incubation phase, no single person can do this task, it needs lot of help , support and collaboration.

1 Like

Wow-that’s amazing ! I didn’t know anyone spoke Pāli as their first language (ever), or even as a spoken language at all.
Could you give more information as to who and where those people are? Have they created new words for modern day objects? What’s the Pāli word for internet?

1 Like

If I may compare small things to great, something similar happens with purely aesthetic creations, translations of poems, or performance of music. A historically purist rendering shows “what’s really there”— but does it? Even if transfer of meaning with no interpretation were possible, which it isn’t, the original has qualities that can’t be digitized.

I value a precise translation for its candor and reticence. I value a poetic interpretation for its life and power to inspire. Unless we know the language, we will triangulate the truth from several sources. This is not a bad thing.

I can’t play music, but I wouldn’t choose between the Landowska and Gould Goldberg Variations. They both have truth.

On the other hand, if you have to have a personal certainty in certain matters, if your mind runs on words like a musician’s does on sound, then learn Pali. It can be done.


Would you be interested in expanding on what you mean by “polarized with western perspective and interpretation”? It’s not that I want to argue the point, I’m just interested in specific examples because, as a translator, I like to hear reader perspectives and reactions. It’s not all about studying the ancient languages.


I have requested my friend to record an interview with the person he knows, will wait for same. Yet to access how much and deep his understanding of pali is.
In the meantime doing a lookup on internet there are several colleges which offer Master of Arts in (Pali) and most are free like Sanskrit, so there should be thousands each year getting this education although back in India there is drive for Western culture and English due to which many of these would get extinct. Sanskrit still has usage in rites and rituals where someone can get paid, not sure about Pali it’s considered inferior and these will slowly become extinct. M.A. (Pali) Colleges in India | list of Master of Arts in Pali colleges in India
Top Pali Colleges in India - 2021 Rankings, Courses, Fees, Admission
Secondly the person mentioned pali is natively spoken by tribals near Patna(capital of magadha), and rajagir (rajagraha mentioned in many suttas), Vaishali. And I assume we can find more and more people who are experts in Pali, Sanskrit, Hindi and English probably

Surely its hard to explain, and I am no expert here, let me give a try. While there is a greater degree of understanding and interpretation of Pali to English over the time, like translating sentences instead of words, and further line by line translations (thanks to Bhante Sujato and others). Still there are differences in interpretations and translations. Great teachers like Ajahn Brahm mention you need to know Pali for better understanding (so don’t ignore) and I find it very useful.
I was born and raised in India and did most of my early education there, learnt 3 languages in school(English(preliminary), Hindi(preliminary+locally spoken) and Sanskrit(preliminary)) and one at home my mother tongue (Marathi(preliminary)). From my experience when there is a need to translate something from one to other

  • need to know the equivalent words for this there should be intermediate language which is most favorable (when you hear the word first instinct and picture of what you see based on your perception) is that one and then translate to equivalent word. for e.g. there is monkey what comes to your mind first, most of our translations are based on this perception and views based on culture where we come from (there is some polarization here).
  • need to know the dialect on how they fit together as exact words wont be meaningful
  • need to know the context on what is said as same words may have different meaning based on context
  • need to know the idioms, phrases and quirks in language for e.g. मुहावरा – हाथ का मैल होना can be translated as
    “Something becomes dirt on hand”. Whereas its a idiom actual meaning - “a trivial task”
  • need to check elsewhere or with others on similar usages of this translation or our memory banks to see how all of it fits in together

For e.g There is a huge difference in these three translation, elaborated below

Arrow - has to be shot by someone with a intention to kill, causes death
Dart - is softer than arrow in terms of impact though intention is same as arrow
Thorn - is very near, but you don’t go in bushes and forest walks any more. better is chip, splinter which can penetrate in skin anywhere, when you careless and are not mindful and is very painful if goes near finger tips and hard to be taken out, and painful to be taken out, some times it gets broken and can’t be taken out, it swells skin and pains for days unless its finally gone, but we are not dead

This is still not bullet proof, so more room to grow here, therefore considering parallel translations and their meanings is very useful

1 Like

Yes, I think that would be very interesting.
It seems equivalent to finding a town in Italy where people still spoke Latin! I bet Latin scholars would descend on that place like a stampede.

1 Like

This is groundbreaking news if it is indeed the case! I find it strange that decades ( centuries even) of research by Pali and Buddhist scholarship ( not to mention historians, anthropologists and linguists-international and Indian) totally missed this …:face_with_monocle:

Are you sure it isn’t a language like this

1 Like

It might be a different one, sounds similar to meitheli, need to find more from people around, in this part. India has many languages, it’s a saying that with every 11 kos language, food and culture changes h


Isn’t there a difference between a school offering study in a language, and a language being spoken in a community?
Plenty of schools offer instruction in ancient Greek and Latin, these languages are no longer spoken outside of classrooms.
Or maybe I am misunderstanding your point?

Yes definitely there is, I am looking further into finding natively spoken community but that needs ground presence and lot of investigation

School offering was just o highlight it’s not dead yet and still taught in schools

Also when we find more information, expectation that those speaking pali will know word of Buddha is not right as they may not have any clue about him or just some hints.

Ah, I see. “Polarization” usually means controversy in English, so I was wondering what you were meaning by it. Most of your points were what I was meaning by “fluency.” When a person is fluent in a language, they understand the informal idioms and the subtle contextual meanings of words, or how one word can be used for a meaning, but a synonym would never be used for it (or people will laugh if they hear a word used that way because it sounds absurd).

Certainly there are many of these kinds of mistakes or literalisms in any translations. Human error is something that happens. Some conventional English translations like “suffering” for dukkha are actually not very good, but we continue to use them because readers have become familiar with them.

On the other hand, there are problems that lie not with the translators but in the ancient texts themselves. There are words that mean different things to different Buddhist traditions (like samudaya or vyākaraṇa). Sometimes two traditions use different words, like Pali padhāna (effort) vs. Skt. prahāṇa (stopping). There’s not much translators can do about this other than explain it to the readers.

I think controversy is a part of it, but to be holistic the perception has to have the culture aspect and understanding with entire paragraph. For e.g. selling meat on cross roads is not a picture very common in western world or is understood properly looking at this translation

MN 10

1.5. Focusing on the Elements
Furthermore, a mendicant examines their own body, whatever its placement or posture, according to the elements: ‘In this body there is the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’
It’s as if a deft butcher or butcher’s apprentice were to kill a cow and sit down at the crossroads with the meat cut into portions.
And so they meditate observing an aspect of the body internally …
That too is how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body.

This translation misses the point and practice which is well illustrated in this link in details by Ven. Anãlayo

The corresponding simile illustrates the effect of this particular
method of contemplation with a butcher who has slaughtered and
cut up a cow to sell. According to the commentaries, the butcher simile indicates a change of cognition (saññã), since after the slaughter the butcher thinks no longer in terms of “cow”, but only in terms of “meat”. A similar shift of cognition takes place when a meditator dissects the body into its elementary qualities: the body is no longer experienced as “I” or “mine”, but simply as a combination of these four qualities

To experience oneself as a combination of material qualities reveals the qualitative identity of one’s own body with the external environment. In this way, a healthy degree of detachment develops, counteracting the grasping at what is, in the end, merely a combination of material qualities. With sustained contemplation a meditator may come to realize that this apparently so solid and compact material body, and with it the whole material world, is entirely without essence

This is interesting what is real translation of dukkha pls let me know.

Here we can match parallels and commentary and understand situation if finally out of 5 different views we conclude to 2, instead of 1 both should be listed so that reader can understand differences clearly

Okay, but what is the alternative? The passage doesn’t explain itself, so a translator would have to give the reader some background in footnotes to explain what it not being said, I think.

I know that dhatu has been a difficult word to translate to English. “Element” is the common rendering, but I think many translators consider it a placeholder, unsure of what a better word would be. Some have used “sphere” instead.

In my experience, it’s not a word that has a single translation to English because it has multiple uses, and English doesn’t have an equivalent word with the same breadth of meaning, other than maybe “unpleasantness”. But in English “unpleasantness” is commonly used as a euphemism for much worse experiences, so it’s a little awkward to translate dukkha that way. “Pain” is another option, but it’s a bit visceral, though it works for some passages.

“Suffering” has a very severe meaning in ordinary English. I think often non-Buddhists are turned off by “suffering” when they hear Buddhists use the word because it usually means physical torture, such as having migraines or other physical pain constantly for days or weeks, not just general unhappiness. So, they consider Buddhists morbid. Life is rarely “suffering” on that level, so it sounds absurd outside of Buddhist circles.

Sometimes “suffering” is an appropriate translation when dukkha means the overall experience of life that torments people. But it doesn’t fit the more abstract or milder uses of dukkha. There’s just a whole spectrum of mild and severe meanings of dukkha that are captured with a single word in Indic languages, but in English proper translations would use different words given the situation.