On the very idea of a critical edition of the Pali Canon

I just read Alex Wynne’s article on the work he is leading for creating a critical edition of the Pali canon. Here’s the article for those interested, it’s well worth a look.

The_critical_edition_of_the_Pali_canon_b.pdf (1.8 MB)

In Wynne’s article, he speaks of the great multiplicity of manuscripts consulted, and discusses the principles underlying the development of a critical edition. Most of these are sensible enough; prefer explicitly attested forms to inferred ones, prefer forms with multiple attestation, prefer Middle Indic to Sanskritic, and so on. The aim is to construct something similar to that used by Buddhaghosa.

I will leave aside the political dimensions of the work; suffice to say, the organization sponsoring this has been recently embroiled in a billion dollar financial scandal. To think they’ll successfully shepherd this project through to it’s projected completion date of 2027 is optimistic at best, especially given the current Thai political climate, and aging leadership of the organization.

Like any large-scale project, there are problems. There are very few scholars truly competent to make such judgment calls. The standards are inevitably flexible and require interpretation. A different approach might develop a different critical edition, one that was no more or less authoritative.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with their approach; as long as it’s clear, sensible, and consistent it will work fine. It’s just that this method does not produce something that’s somehow objectively better, it’s just one particular approach, a perfectly fine and sensible one to be sure, but still, just one. And due to the monolithic nature of the project, if you wanted to do another critical edition based on different principles, you’d probably have to start again from scratch.

And it is an incredible amount of work, all the considerations and reconciliations that have to go into each and every phrase. This is inherent in the very idea of a critical edition: there has to be one mainline text, and that has to be justified.

But does there have to be a mainline text? It’s an idea rooted in the technologies and philosophies of the 19th century: does it still have a place? Is all that work really going to accomplish anything? I must admit, I have my doubts.

Consider an alternative approach. Throw out the whole idea of editing a critical edition. Instead, implement a three step process:

  1. Type up the manuscripts.
  2. Put them on github.
  3. Enjoy a nice cup of coffee, and catch up on some meditation.

Github, or git in general, is a version-control system, whose fundamental purpose is to record differences between things. It is used for, well, just about all software development these days, and it really is pretty amazing. It allows you to instantly visualize or list differences between text in multiple different ways. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a very simple example. This is a change made to one of our Indonesian texts, just a spelling correction.

As you can see, the text is there, with the difference highlighted, time-stamped, with author and comment: what more do you need? It’s simple, fast, universal, and super reliable.

The texts put into git can be very simple. Plain text, with a number to mark the manuscript boundaries. Maybe some minimal markup, if headings or whatever are found in the manuscripts. The parallel passages in the different editions can be kept in sync just by keeping one sutta per file and matching the line breaks.

So basically all you need is good typing. While this is not a trivial task, it doesn’t require anything like the level of scholarly proficiency of creating proper critical editions. It’s certainly quite achievable; with our very limited resources, we have sponsored several successful projects for SC. There’s no limit to the number of manuscripts, they can be just typed and added indefinitely.

One great advantage of this approach is that it’s immediate. Type it up and it’s available. Unlike a monolithic, controlled, top-down project, you don’t have to wait till the end to see if anything’s any good. And because the typed version is always matched with a scanned image of the manuscript, you can always check it, and improve it if necessary.

In this approach, when there’s a dubious reading, you don’t have a pre-digested answer. Good: I don’t want one. What I want is the textual evidence, and some advice and discussion by experts to guide me. But at the end of the day, I’ll make up my own mind, thanks. So again, rather than a unified, concentrated, closed body where decisions are made, it is open and flowing, allowing for comments and discussion. The only thing that’s sacred is the integrity of the text itself, not the scholarly interpretation of it.

Once text is on github, it can be easily forked and applied in all kinds of different ways. These days, to make a text application is not that hard. By separating out the basic content from the application, it makes the whole process a lot smoother. You can always just read stuff on github itself if you like, just as you can today with SC’s text. But if someone wants to use it for search, or for multiple variant display, or as a iPhone app, or whatever, they just pull the same data content and apply it.

With a significant number of texts available like this, it becomes possible to analyze the forms statistically and compute relations between texts. Currently this would still be hard, but with the rapid evolution of AI it will become trivial in the near future. So you could do work like, say, the recent discoveries in Shakespearean scholarship, which have clarified Marlowe’s contributions at long last.

None of this is possible until we have multiple open, reliable textual witnesses. We have the technology: do we have the people to do the work?


Thank you for this essay and the Wynne article. These, and a good cup of coffee, made my morning.

I have some sense that almost anything that Dhammakaya touches these days should be viewed with suspicion. Perhaps in this case, the monumental task using 20th century technology is more of a testament to hubris and empire building.

While the technologies you discuss are not part of my wheelhouse I certainly can see how available and developing digital technologies could be true game changers in the field of Pali text study and publication. Maybe someone needs to tap Dhammakaya on the shoulder, and kindfully suggest that all of this time, effort and (embezzled) money could be put to use more appropriately using a 21st century digital and AI approach as you have defined.

Or, you know, just liberating the texts from control by any organization …


Interesting stuff but let me put out the question: what do you think the crazy Dhammakayaists expect to gain from this project?

I mean, these people are not to be trusted, deep in their understanding of the world and Dhamma they have a very crazy and dangerous sort of Scientology (read more) mixed with a Herbalife-inspired take of multi level marketing of Dhamma and donations (read more) …

Do you think they are after a way to insert here and there in their critical edition of the Tipitaka the words and phrasings they need to make their crazy mumbo-jumbo sound legit?

1 Like

They certainly would not have any ethical qualms about altering the Pali text. They have a consistent decades-long record of sponsoring “academic” research in order to promote their ideas. But the presence of qualified and respected scholars like Wynne means that such obvious tricks won’t make it through.

The real agenda is more subtle. Well, not that subtle. The group concerned is using this to leverage the prestige of western academia in Thailand. What they will do is tell the western scholars that they want to make a great edition of the Pali Canon. Meanwhile, they’ll say to the people of Thailand, “See? We’ve been saying for years that our doctrine is the real true original message of the Buddha in the Tripitaka. These Thai scholars argued against us, but they’re just biased. Sad! Now everyone can see, the best international scholars are all working for us. They know that this is the real, true scientific real Buddhism. The best! Very science! Now they’re all followers of us. Look, see our western scholars! Now you can go to an even bigger nibbana, you just have to give us even more money!”

This is their standard schtick, they’ve been doing it for years. And it becomes very hard for the scholars to say anything about it. The Thais will never actually read the texts, of course. And what are the scholars to do, write articles criticizing the organization that pays their bills? Even if they did so, the organization runs whole TV channels and 24/7 propaganda networks. Who’s going to read an academic article?

They’ll pay for a project like this out of the spare change left in the donation box on a Tuesday. Meanwhile, the prestige it creates for them will multiply their billions.


Word up!

1 Like

There is at least one factor I would like to highlight in this big project and your comment. You call it ‘19th century’, but I’m afraid your perspective has not fully arrived in the 21st century yet. The common reader and practitioner still favors the image of the Buddha speaking, faithful disciples recording, and us reading.

The deconstructivist position of ‘multiple texts speaking in multiple discourses to the multiple recipients inside of us’ has been driven too far in social sciences (in my opinion at least) with the followers of Foucault and Derrida. But the contributions have been valuable: they point the finger much more to the reader who should be more conscious of how s/he constructs or interprets the texts.

In the past the teacher was standing on the podium talking as the authority. Now we should be aware that the teacher is only as good as the disciple is. It is on us to investigate the material and to take the responsibility for our informed understanding - even when there is no authority left to tell us “Well done, this is precisely what I meant”. At least this is how I understand you here[quote=“sujato, post:1, topic:3511”]
What I want is the textual evidence, and some advice and discussion by experts to guide me. But at the end of the day, I’ll make up my own mind

1 Like

I’m not quite sure I understand you here. I get the issue, but I’m not clear how it relates to what I was saying; could you explain a little more for me?

:slight_smile: sorry for beings too abstract. I mean that, I guess, you don’t have the fantasy any more to discover or recreate the most original text out of the different manuscripts. The manuscripts with all the tiny or sometimes bigger different variants are a fact we have to deal with. And you expressed that you would not want to make the differences go away in favor of a clean end product of scholarly discussion. Especially not in the context of a possible political agenda in the background.

So you/we as the contemporary reader would not like a remote authority to tell us how to read/understand a text. That is in a way how Derrida dealt with texts. Being very knowledgeable with the (con)text he took a wide liberty to interpret and frame it in a personal way --> The Dhamma not as a monolithic philosophy, but as a teaching with a complex texture of variants, different readings.

Or simply put, this is why I for example like the Anguttara so much, because the material is so diverse. Not because I find the ‘one truth’ in there. But I can explore in ever new ways, it keeps me alert towards the more standard formulations, offers perspectives I wouldn’t have thought about if the small variations wouldn’t have been there.

In that sense I understood your basic critique of a critical edition: allow the reader to make new connections. Am I too far off?


That’s right. Having said which, I don’t have any great objections to the idea of a critical edition as such. If one existed, I’d probably use it. Even the Mahasangiti edition on SC is the closest thing we have to a critical edition today. For most purposes, it’s fine. But I don’t think it will make a huge difference to the actual interpretive problems of the canon. As compared to the approach I outline above, any advantage would be, I think, minimal at best, and there are many disadvantages.

But it depends on the context. In the case of the old Gandhari and Sanskrit manuscripts, for example, it is essential to have a critical edition, since there are so many issues with collating manuscripts, obscured or lost glyphs, reconstructing words from translations, and the like. Most Pali manuscripts, on the other hand, are perfectly readable. Understanding the differences between them is useful, but I have my doubts as to whether creating a critical edition is the most effective way of doing this.


No worry on the corruption of text/teaching, it has been there for more than a thousand years. Buddhism as of now practiced by majority is no longer Buddha’s teaching, it’s all about feel good and self-sacrifice.

Yes, the technology is there but the problem is the number of Pali developer-scholars. Looking at suttacentral-data, I’m itching to create an alternative of suttracentral.net to see if can get more people’s attention to Pali, but there’s just so much of work :cold_sweat: and I am too lazy.

Also people generally like to read arranged and easy to follow text, contrast to Pali canon that we read :slight_smile: I think accesstoinsight.org is the most successful in capturing audience, I hope there are more sites like that.

We don’t need another “authoritative” text, it’ll just create more problems than it solves. What is needed is to flood the Internet with websites of suttas and translations focusing on different aspects, imagine dozen of suttacentral.net and accesstoinsight.org!

1 Like

I agree the most important think is to get more people reading the Suttas. This is what wil have the greatest impact, both in terms of people’s personal development, but also in advancing the field of Buddhist studies.

As all of SC’s material is on Github, you are most welcome to fork it and implement it in any way you want. Let us know if you need any help.


Bachew: I think I understand the drift of your post, but before there are thoughts of dozens of SuttaCentrals, consider hanging tight with Sutta Central for a bit. SC has a very unique and valuable approach, and it, like a google or a Wikipedia, might just end up being a gold standard for Sutta and Vinaya translations in a variety of languages across the globe, along with a community of scholars and interested parties that collaborate, critique, and contribute on a live forum to add a real spirit of energy, quality and kalyana mitta-stuff to the site. Nevermind the contributions of scholars like Bhikkhus Sujato and Brahmali, who give us accessible and accurate translations and expert opinion on these Sutta and Vinaya terms and translations; our Bhikkhus here have as skin in the game only the idea to actively offer the Dhamma in as welcoming and accurate manner as possible, in as many languages as possible. How cool is that? And the Watercooler, a place to just hang out and discuss issues of interest!

I am glad that you, like me, are too lazy to try to replicate Sutta sites. Just as I lazily look to Wikipedia as a first recourse to understand, say, the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, join me in supporting and contributing thoughts to SuttaCentral…I believe it’s going to be a 21st century gold standard for Early Buddhist resources and friendly learned exchanges.


Thanks so much for the support. But I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree! I think that there are many different possible approaches. I like our approach (obviously) but I fully understand why someone might want to do things differently. Perhaps they want to make a specialized app. Or a version in a particular language. Or something that’s integrated with another website. Or maybe they just want to take a different approach with design and presentation.

I think all of these are valid, and the more energy there is in the area, the more we can spark off and learn from each others’ ideas. From the very beginning, I’ve been inspired by the idea that, just as we have built on the great work of so many, others will take our work and build something from that.

As for the content, since we are continually improving, I would recommend that any approach be based on pulling from our Github repository, and keeping up to date, rather than just making a static copy from any point in time.


Bhante, at the end of the day, and with the recent conversation here about Linus Torvalds, you’re right about the spirit and benefits of SC as an open source. Hours after posting, I began to rethink what I wrote…it’s been said of my ilk that if we ran the world, we’d all still be living in caves :smile:

Of course, I hope that people approach the open source material in good faith, and do as you rightly suggest, and be a rising tide that lifts all the boats. And, I’ll still reiterate that Sutta Central does have a secret sauce, largely the way that you and generous experts like Ajahn Brahmali offer your time, kindness, humor and expertise to educate and inspire the rest of us, in a way that ATI and/or other present and future derivative sites simply cannot and will not. SC has made a real difference in my training and practice, and I’m not the only one that feels that way, I’m sure.


I have some ideas, but no stale copy that’s for sure. Still need more thinking though :thinking:

@Anagarika I think Buddhists give up too easily (or letting go?) :laughing:


Hi Bachew, I think Buddhists have true staying power! :slight_smile: This Path is not an easy gig, but certainly well worth it! :slight_smile:


Ok, I don’t really have anything earth-shattering to say about this, but I’ll write comment anyway.

Wynne’s article is well-written and in part persuasive. When leading scholars write articles of this sort, it is often easy to get impressed by the apparent erudition. This is certainly such a case. But the article does not give full justice to a number of complicating factors.

I think those involved in such projects overestimate their ability to pick the right readings. To be able to do so reliably requires a broad set of skills that are rarely found in a single individual or even in a group. To create a critical edition of the Pali Canon is really akin to creating the Critical Pali Dictionary (although the scope is quite a bit smaller). The CPD is certainly an impressive piece of scholarship, especially the first volume, which covers the letter “a”. (That’s correct, a full volume for just one letter!) Each entry covers the whole range of usage of a particular word and the choice of translation is normally very carefully considered. I must admit I am quite impressed by this dictionary.

Still, the dictionary is not flawless. Minor problems are occasionally uncovered by scholars. Moreover, it took them 25 years just to finish just the first volume. If this is true for the CPD, the compilation of which was done by some of the very best Pali scholars in the world, then I wonder about the quality of the Dhammakaya project, which is supposed to be completed in little more than ten years and whose access to top scholars is much more limited. Even a scholar such as Alexandre Wynne is probably not a philologist of the same calibre as some of those who worked on the CPD, such as Helmer Smith. I am therefore somewhat sceptical that they will be able to create a truly critical edition.

The examples that Wynne furnishes to show how they intend to go about this project seem reassuring enough. The problem with these examples is that they have obviously been chosen because they are fairly clear-cut and straight-forward cases. But there are thousands of other cases where similar decisions have to be made and where the reasoning is bound to be far less straight-forward. As usual, what we are given in the article is the obvious, whereas the truly difficult choices remain hidden. I don’t blame Wynne for this, since he is obviously trying to sell a project, and no doubt he is blinded by a certain bias. That’s just life. But the problems remain.

Further, when you have to adjudicate between different possible readings, you need to draw on a range of skills; being a clever philologist is certainly not enough. In particular, you need a broad knowledge of the EBTs and comprehensive understanding of Buddhism. I am reminded of some of the translation choices made by leading philologists, such as K.R. Norman, and how ridiculous some of them look when you know the Dhamma well. This is one reason why Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a much better translator than Norman – with his broad understanding of the Dhamma, he avoids the pitfalls of a one-sided reliance on linguistics (despite the fact that Norman is by far the more accomplished linguist).

Wynne knows much more about Buddhism than Norman, but I still wonder whether he knows enough. First, his practical experience is bound to be limited. The importance of practical experience can at times be overstated (especially where depth of experience is lacking), but in combination with textual study it can be a very powerful tool. Second, as an academic, Wynne has had all sorts of responsibilities that would have detracted from a full emersion in textual study. It is common for academics to spend only a small fraction of their time on academic study. Finally, his peers are other academics rather than people who live the life described in the texts. There is a reason why Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations are regarded by many as the gold standard, not the translations of some academic.

On top of this one may query the influence of Dhammakaya’s own understanding of the Dhamma, and how this will affect editorial choices. Wynne will not be working in isolation, and it is hard to envisage that Dhammakaya will be able to entirely separate its own outlook from the textual redaction, even if they sincerely wanted to.

So I have my doubts whether the final product will be much better than existing versions of the canon, such as the Burmese sixth council version or the Mahāsaṅgīti version. And even if it is better in some respects, it is virtually impossible that it will satisfy anyone seriously immersed in the study of early Buddhism as a final and unimpeachable authority.

There is, however, one aspect of the work which I think is very useful and which I think may make the whole exercise worthwhile. Although I agree with Bhante Sujato that in principle it would be sufficient to have all the various manuscripts available for scholars to study and choose the best readings, this is often very time-consuming and unrewarding work. If we had a fairly authoritative version of the canon – which would be worth acquiring on its own merits – and this included an apparatus that showed all important variant readings from a very large sample of existing manuscripts, then we would largely be spared the work of having to go through all those manuscripts. Even if they can only achieve this much, it seems to me they will have provided a great service to Buddhist studies.


Thanks for the comments, thoughtful as ever!

A couple of general points I’d like to make on the proposal.

I have come to have more doubts about the idea of creating a text that aligns with the text of Buddhaghosa. This continues the long Theravadin project of subsuming the suttas under Theravadin orthodoxy. It is another incremental step towards unfiying the text and commentary. I have no interest in seeing this. On the contrary, the exciting thing for me is to see what the text could have been before Theravada, and to do this the primary point of reference must be the Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan texts, as well as knowledge of Middle-Indic. But of course, there is no way a Theravadin donor would sponsor such a project.

There’s another issue here. To state it plainly: there’s no way in niraya that the commentaries were based on a unified edition. The Mahavihara had 5000 or more monks, they must have had stacks of different manuscripts, used by Buddhaghosa and his assistants. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that the commentaries are largely edited and translated from older commentaries, which must have relied on a variety of other manuscripts. These many different manuscripts must have had the same kinds of minor variations as we observe in manuscripts today.

Regarding your reservations about the actual editorial work, this was discussed over at Dhamma Wheel, where Gombrich was quoted as saying:

the greatest difficulty will probably be finding and keeping enough skilled editorial staff. At the moment there are only two scholars there qualified to take editorial decisions. I have recommended, privately, that they already start considering the problem of succession and training younger scholars who will be able to take over.

And finally, regarding what you said:

My proposal doesn’t preclude this. That’s because, as I have spelled out in more detail in a subsequent post, what I am proposing is essentially data entry. This is valuable in and of itself, and to my mind removes much or all of the need for a critical edition. However, if anyone wants to make a critical edition, it will then be much easier: pull the data and start editing. The groundwork is all laid, and you can focus on the actual “critical” part.


Sādhu! This is certainly something to aim for. But in our lifetime?