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.