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

: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!

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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?


I just read another article about the critical edition:
Somaratne, G. A. (2015). Middle Way Eclecticism: The Text-critical Method Of The Dhammachai Tipitaka Project. Journal of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Sri Lanka (Journal of Buddhist Studies). Online here

It is more technical in describing the procedure of the edition and giving a short manuscript background for the pali suttas. Both are interesting to read, especially for those interested in EBT manuscripts…

Here is a talk by Wynne on the project at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies:

The talk is not really entertaining, and unfortunately only audio (why?) but gives interesting details about the possibility of an actual Ur-text at Buddhaghosa’s time. Also the announcement that apart from the book-edition all the material including scans of the originals will be available online was new to me.


That’s some very interesting insight, I’ll try to keep this answer simple but I can post some more technical doc if you’re interested. Generally speaking this is quite experimental and we don’t really have some code for our solution.

First, we don’t really produce critical/diplomatic editions at BDRC, but here are a few links on what’s been done by some of our partners:

  • Esukhia is working on a critical edition of the whole Tengyur, it should be published in a few month for a subset of 50 volumes, and the rest by the end of the year, they have some notes on their methodology on their Github repo
  • OpenPhilology got a grant for a related project, the grant proposal has some interesting insight on the notion of Ur texts and we tend to follow that view
  • SARIT has a few critical editions
  • rKTs have built an interface to allow the input of different versions of the Tibetan Canon that provides images and a proposal of text that you can copy/paste, based on other editions, you can see it here, I think it’s a pretty good and simple idea
  • the upama platform, (seen here in action) is I think a good example of a UI for a digital critical edition: you can change the base text, show/hide witnesses or even hide the critical apparatus alltogether if you don’t need it. I think having a UI that adapts to the user (scholars and practitioners have different needs) is important.

Now, let’s get a little bit more technical about data representation. There is a very important use cases we want to allow that are not directly possible with all variants as separate, unrelated texts. It is the ability to reference a portion of a text but not in a specific edition. For instance, if you come across a late commentary that quotes a text, we want to have the information “this part of the commentary is a quote of this part of this text”. But if you have dozens of versions of the original text, which one will you use? A variation of this use case is obviously collation. Now, because we don’t really want an ur text, what we are moving towards is what we call a “base layer” or a “neutral layer”, which is just a mere reference, not a version of the text per se. Then, based on this layer, all other editions are recorded as diffs (using Linked Data technology, here web annotations). So when you want to refer to a specific part of a text in general (when the original edition doesn’t matter), you can just point to some coordinates in the base layer. This brings some interesting benefits: you can stack different layers on top of the base layer; users can even create their own (bookmarks, notes, etc.), and they can also choose what version of the text they want to see, we don’t choose one in particular (because that could only lead to partisan feud). As I said it’s a bit experimental, but all comments and questions are welcome!


Thanks, I’ll check out the projects you mention.

Indeed, this is crucial. In the approach that I describe, the base reference would be provided simply by the segments. Because this is based on semantic divisions in the text itself (sentences, etc.) each text is keyed off this, and a reference to a segment is edition-agnostic. For us, the segments are derived from our edition, the Mahasangiti, but there’s no reason other editions shouldn’t be treated the same way.

So we can refer to, say, MN 1#4.5, which means “Majjhima Nikaya sutta number one, section 4, segment five”. The neat thing is that this reference is not just agnostic between editions of the Pali, but also between translations.

Doing this is probably not too difficult in the Pali sphere, as the differences between editions are (in most cases) very minor. If the editions varied more substantially, it gets more complex. But still, there’s no insuperable difficulty.

I’m not convinced that producing the first critical edition of the Canon is a bad idea. It would be a bad idea if it became The Only critical edition (ie the established truth), but, as Wynne points out in his article, scholarship progresses by work being redone and earlier mistakes being corrected by more recent scholars. In the talk @Gabriel links to in post #22 Wynne says that they are putting the hundreds of texts they’ve collected online for free access and that they have been forced to choose a small selection to base their edition on. In this way they will contribute a small amount to existing knowledge about the canon. As Ven @Brahmali says above good translators need more than philological knowledge; this is another reason why multiple editions would be useful. Wynne is not closing the door on later attempts to extend and correct/replace their findings. This is how scholarship progresses. A corpus full of thousands of texts is great for scholars, but dilettantes like myself will never want to wallow among many unedited transcriptions of original texts and will find somebody else’s best efforts a boon.

I have a couple of questions:

  1. How does the OCBS depository of texts differ from your Github one? (I expect you’ll tell me that yours is more fully interactive, but I won’t really understand the benefits of this as allowing open access for anyone to alter the transcription of a historical texts sounds rather risky to me.)

6 posts were split to a new topic: Temp Topic

Like i said:

Sounds great, except it hasn’t happened to the best of my knowledge. Maybe they will do it, but really, how long does it take to upload a bunch of images? They could have have put it on Internet Archive in an afternoon.

Ahh, existence? I don’t think OCBS has any images. The project is run by Dhammakaya, who so far as I know have the images in-house and have not released any. (This from Mark Allon, who cannot view them even though he is on the board for the project.)

A bad faith actor can hack anything and change anything. It happens all the time. It happened in pre-digital times. In the sixties, a couple of Sri Lankan monks “translated” the English translation of the Chinese translation of the Vimuttimagga back into Pali and claimed they had discovered the original text. They were swiftly unmasked and their reputations ruined. That is how it works.

The fact that people can change things is not the point. The point is, can the change be detected.

Github is perhaps one of the most secure environments available today. The major tech companies—Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and so on—host open-source code on Github and use it to run critical applications every moment. Heck, you are running code from Github right now. What more secure way of hosting things than the place that all the tech companies choose to host their things. Who better to ensure security and safety in a digital medium than those guys, who are protecting their livelihood against much smarter and more dedicated hackers than we will ever face? Any attempt to make one’s own proprietary system for ensuring security will undoubtedly end up less secure.

Github retains an indelible record of every change to every file. If anyone claims to produce something and it differs from the original, it can trivially be checked and those who attempt the fraud will be ruined.


That explains why I couldn’t find anything then. :rofl:

I’m sorry I put you to the trouble of such a long reply. But thank you very much Bhante for spending time on it.

Unbelievable. :open_mouth:

Thank you for information about Github: obviously I am ignorant about these things including

And ultimately anicca rules.