Suttas: are they so holy that they are untouchable?

Please forgive me if this post is too emotional for a dhamma forum.

I’ve volunteered to render a Thai version of some suttas (I don’t think I can finish all before I die).

I’ve started some while learning Pali (meaning my knowledge of Pali is so very, very basic) by comparing the Pali text with the translations by Bhikkhu @sujato, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and the Siam Rath version. (When I actually work on the project, if Bhikkhu @sujato’s differes from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s, I’ll check Ven Anandajoti’s and other monks’, and then will ask Bhikkhu @sujato and other experts here for clarification.)

I sent my version to some friends and associates. Many people find my version more readily understandable than an existing version. BUT… there is always a but, isn’t there?

But some people (politely as they are my friends) warn me that I could change the meaning of the Buddha’s words (when my rendering is different from the existing version) and would go to hell.

Of course, they don’t have faith in my Pali knowledge (totally justifiably), but surprisingly, they don’t think western monks could know Pali better than Thai monks.

It seems to be the preconception of many Thai people that Thailand owns the ‘most’ perfect Pali scriptures (bad grammar as ‘perfect’ can’t take a superlative form), our knowledge of Pali has no flaws, and the translations by Thai Pali-scholar monks are accurate.

People tend to forget that 99% of the time, most good students could learn 80% of what the teacher teaches. (We’re not talking about gifted students.) So, just because some Thai monks have certificates from Pali schools for monks, their understanding of the Pali texts is unquestionable?

I don’t respect teachers who don’t allow students to ask questions. That’s why I really like the Buddha, and that is why I flew from Bangkok to Perth to listen to a monk who can put up with my endless series of questions, not only about his teachings but also about what the Buddha taught.

P.S. edited:

  1. I’ve been flying to Perth since 2011… :smiley: )
  2. I also like some of this monk’s disciples as they are so patient and tolerant and of course open-minded.
  3. I think many of you know this monk. ‘You Know Who’. :smiley:

I have an idea who you mean but I think Ajahn Brahmali is great too :slight_smile:

This is a really interesting question so I am going to bite and give my 2c worth

  1. Majjhima Nikaya 22 is an important reference for this question:

“In the same way, I have taught a simile of the teaching as a raft: for crossing over, not for holding on. By understanding the simile of the raft, you will even give up the teachings, let alone what is against the teachings.”

  1. In this sutra the translation is that the Buddha refers to himself as the teacher. There are also references in the sutras to “Awakened One” or other translations, but not “God” and it doesnt appear to be the case that he referred to himself as the “Holy One”, although you see that translated sometimes, it doesnt “fit” with the “vibe” of the teachings as I read them! I think this is important as not only are the teachings not “Holy”, just a means to the end (Nibbana), the Buddha himself is not considered “Holy” or the creator of this Universe, just the explainer of this Universe.

  2. The first line of the Dhammapada is also critical here

“Intention shapes experiences;
(Bhante’s footnote: Mano here has its usual role as the active aspect of mind, effectively meaning kamma. Translating as “mind” obscures the ethical reading in favor of an idealistic one, which given the remainder of the verse is surely not justified.)
intention is first, they’re made by intention.
If with corrupt intent you speak or act, suffering follows you, like a wheel, the ox’s foot.”

…although I read a different version many decades ago that as “The Mind is the forerunner of all things”, which I like.

So, I think in Buddhism, as I understand it anyway, not only is the teaching not Holy, the teacher isn’t “Holy” and I dont see the teaching of the Buddha as necessarily even arguing in “good” and “evil” (words which are closely linked to God and Devil, neither of which exist in the teachings). I see just cause and effect. So it all boils down to your intent. Your intent is so suffused with good will and so devoid of any ill intent, I really wouldn’t worry at all about your endeavour to translate whatever you can.

Well those are my views anyway, but Im not enlightened so take them with a grain of salt:)


PS: Thanks again for kindly sharing your detailed notes that would have taken you a great deal of time. I will be reading them again over the holidays in my attempts to learn this very difficult language with exception after exception!

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Yeah, as you say, this is Thai culture. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

As far as the Buddha’s teachings on karma are concerned: you go to hell for having evil intentions or unwholesome motivations. As long as you’re open to actionable feedback from the wise, just ignore the haters.


Please read my P.S. no. 2 :grin: :grin: :grin:

P.P.S. These monks are so good that they didn’t frown upon my loud statement that I ‘loved’ them.

The context is: I said though I loved and respected them dearly, I couldn’t have a blind faith in them and their ability in Pali and their understanding of the suttas, and that I would need to be able to ask them questions or question them if in doubt. And of course, the interlocutor of this conversation agreed with me that I should not have a blind faith. This is another example of how great these monks are.

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You’re welcome!

Indeed, easy-to-read Thai suttas will be a huge blessing to many Thai people not just one I’m sure.:grin:

Like those Thai Dhamma Cartoons: maybe it’s “dumbing down” the Dhamma… but some of us need Dhamma at our reading level! :rofl: :rofl:

Anumodana to your good intentions and yes: I hope you can keep smiling :grin:


Thank you, Venerable.

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The Buddha talked about a number of things that may bring you to hell, but as far as I can tell trying to make the Dhamma more accessible to people isn’t one of them. :wink:

I have heard similar concerns from someone who is considering to make new modern Sinhalese Sutta translations.

Even in Germany which isn’t a traditional Buddhist country there are people who criticize me for deviating from older translations made 100 or 150 or even 200 years ago. Those doing this are mostly very old and experienced Buddhists who have spent a long life of study with these translations and hold them dear to their hearts—which is a wonderful thing, and those people are not in need for new translations. They have everything they wish for.

But my main target audience are rather people who are coming new to the Suttas, who don’t have a live-long familiarity with these ancient-sounding old translations, and don’t find them very accessible. Those people too are there, and I think they mostly turn towards writings by modern authors about the Buddha’s teaching; so they can only have a filtered access to the Suttas.

My hope is that such people can benefit from my work. (To be honest, the first person to benefit from it is me because this work gives me much joy and helps me deepen my understanding of the Dhamma. And meanwhile, I also get feedback sometimes that it is beneficial for others too, which makes me quite happy!)

I think such assumptions need to be questioned, though not easy for the one who does it! It’s certainly much more courages to embark in a project of new translations in Thai or Sinhalese than German!

Speaking from my perspective as a translator now (although not a professional one like you):

There isn’t a “perfect” translation that’s by definition beyond doubt, and there never will be such a thing. There are better translations and poorer translations, sure.

When it comes to Sutta translation, there is quite a lot of research and study going on in the field at the moment, for example how the Buddha’s way of expressing himself, some similes and images he uses, and some concepts he refers to are rooted in the culture and religion of his time, namely Brahmanical tradition, and also the tradition of Jains and other non-brahmanical ascetics.

Although it is known since the beginning of Buddhist studies that such relationship exists, the extent to which this is the case and the details of it are only just being discovered. And there are some recent manuscript findings too that haven’t been there 150 years ago and that shed some new light on parallel texts etc. This means there is some information now available that wasn’t available to the old translators (speaking of the situation for German here because this is what I am most familiar with).

Another, and not quite unimportant, point for German is that so far we don’t have anything remotely close to a consistent translation of the canon. Each of the main Nikayas has been done by a different translator (the exception being the oldest of them all, K.E. Neumann, who has translated several Nikayas, but whose language is the most antiquated of all). The Samyutta Nikaya even is translated by three different translators, and in cases where there are parallels in other Nikayas, they haven’t even translated that Sutta at all, but just pointed to the parallel, which is of course then translated by yet another person—the result being that for those who wish to study the SN there is a multitude of different terminologies and translation styles they have to deal with.

If I can’t achieve more than just providing a translation of the entire canon in a consistent terminology, that will already be worth something, and others may come after me and improve all that I’ve got wrong. And, yes, there’s at least one person who has a benefit—which is myself. And some evidence suggests there may be a few more. :laughing:

This is where we met in 2014! :+1: :+1: :smile:


No. They are to be scrutinised and questioned instead of believed on the basis of blind faith. The advice in Kalammas is evidence of this.

If you have a 1) genuine need to uproot suffering 2) urgency 3) a wish to live well, at ease, and at peace: this serves as the north star guiding principle that helps one chop through intellectual fluff and contradiction.

Highest blessings,

You Sutta translators are all awesome! And I’m in genuine awe of all of you. Without you guys I’d be completely lost. I can only speak one language and I’m only just competent in that. Every generation has a new language of their own, albeit based on the previous generations language. So it is absolutely vital that we (those of us who haven’t got the wherewithal to translate from the root texts) get translations that speak to us in our own language. In fact, that’s an instruction by the Buddha I believe.

There’s no way that you’re going to hell Dheerayupa. Just look at all the fantastic stuff that you’ve done! But if the unimaginable does happen, don’t worry, I’ll be right there to give you a big hug and we’ll make our way back to the dhamma. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for us. Your metta-reach is very long and very wide.


I agree so far: I felt to have the same problem when I once tried to set up a personal “buddhist sutta index” (german, btw.) with some explanations & hints for the reader… On thinking deep on that I’ve finally let the small “nano-” index as small as it was.

This is an unambiguous marker in my view. I would stop immediately giving any trust to a person who has such a set-of-mind in his/her head/heart to threat you with a “hell”.
I think: good you changed your residence to another sangha far away…

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FYI, I didn’t deliberately change. It just happened that this You Know Who monk said something so specially for me that I had to listen to more of his talks. (Yeah, while he was speaking to people in Perth and being recorded on an audio tape, and yeah, while he wasn’t aware of my existence! :smiley: :laughing: :rofl:)

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You’re such a wonderful friend. Thank you for your forever support to help keep me going. :heart: :heart: :heart:

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Namo Buddhaya!

If thai pali is so great why is there no ancient thai canon…

As to translating i think it’s fine if one says that this is a matter of one’s conviction & limited ability.

However if one holds wrong views and translates based on those views and people are misled because of it then it can not be good.

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It’s funny how two people from different corners of the world meet?

Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insight. :lotus: :lotus: :lotus:

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You might have misunderstood what I said.

Anyway, I’m not going there.

Apologies if my outburst incited negative feelings in you. There are many good things about Thailand and Thai people (just like any other country). I’ve been frustrated with only some.

In certain cases good intentions indeed protect us from negative results of otherwise harmful actions, but such cases should not be extrapolated universally, since after all what makes samsara so dangerous is that good intentions are perfectly compatible with ignorance which is the most blameworthy quality. After all nobody will perform deliberately certain actions knowing that it will lead to his own suffering. But as we know from Suttas and from our own experience, people notoriously perform actions of very low quality.

“Bhikkhus, without having abandoned these five obstructions, hindrances, encumbrances of the mind, states that weaken wisdom, it is impossible that a bhikkhu, with his powerless and feeble wisdom, might know his own good, the good of others, or the good of both …AN V 51

So one may even argue that many times good intentions may be more harmful to us than ill will. And there is nothing paradoxical in such idea, in fact it should be quite obvious: as Dhamma followers who haven’t realised nibbana we are likely from time to time to be overcome by ill will and perform certain actions influenced by it. But since we practice Dhamma sooner or later we are able to see that we went wrong and so we will try to correct ourselves. But if our intentions are good and due to ignorance we do not see clearly all implications of our actions, we likely will continue to act in that way, quite satisfied with ourselves, hoping to receive merit from that line of action.

So coming back to question of wrong translations, I think there is distinction between translations of Suttas and teaching the Dhamma. Suttas are Buddha’s words, and as far as teaching about morality goes, things as they are, are stated quite unequivocally and it is really difficult to distort the meaning of the five precepts or for example descriptions of right speech. So it is simply impossible to not get merit by translating such Suttas. Perhaps due to such things as style or lack of accuracy (which however does not distort the meaning of the text), merit can be less substantial.

Unfortunately there are also Suttas which deal with right view, where the most subtle distortion of the meaning may be very important. But in such cases we have to take into account, that not so many people have potential to see Dhamma, so such subtle points which aren’t perceived by the translator, they are usually beyond of comprehension of the most readers, and so cannot be harmful to them. So only if certain particular translation really mislead one who otherwise was capable to see Dhamma, translator can expect some negative results. But it should be neutralised by merit from translating Suttas which do not deal with the right view. Also, in the present situation it should be obvious that even if certain translations are misleading it is very unlikely that they would mislead one who has potential to see the Dhamma. Such people by the very definition are intelligent enough to understand that there are not perfect translations, so being interested in Dhamma either they learn Pali, or at least compare many other translations. Anyway one cannot blame only the translator. Pali texts are available, so even if one is mislead, it is so because for this or that reason one didn’t boder to learn Pali.

Teaching of Dhamma seems to be much more dangerous activity, since unlike translations of Suttas, there are possibilities to teach things which in fact are in contradiction even with five precepts, not to mention more subtle points of Dhamma. And while some teachers may be overcome by “gain and honour” so in such cases we cannot speak about “good intentions”, some teachers may distort the meaning of Dhamma with perfectly good intentions since their main fault is that they overestimate themselves. And unfortunately is such cases negative results of their actions may indeed be harmful, the more influential and popular teacher is the greater his merits or demerits depends on quality of his teaching. After all Dhamma offers immortality, it is the highest offering, and responsiblity of one who distorts the meaning of Dhamma is greater than that of one who kills the body. Next birth is coming anyway, but next opportunity to meet and understand the Dhamma may not come so quickly…

“So too, bhikkhus, as to those recluses and brahmins who are unskilled in this world and the other world, unskilled in Māra’s realm and what is outside Māra’s realm, unskilled in the realm of Death and what is outside the realm of Death—it will lead to the harm and suffering for a long time of those who think they should listen to them and place faith in them. MN 34

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who explain non-Dhamma as Dhamma are acting for the harm of many people, the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause this good Dhamma to disappear.

131 (34)–139
(131) “Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who explain Dhamma as non-Dhamma … (132) … non-discipline as discipline62 … (133) … discipline as non-discipline … (134) … what has not been stated and uttered by the Tathāgata as having been stated and uttered by him … [19] (135) … what has been stated and uttered by the Tathāgata as not having been stated and uttered by him … (136) … what has not been practiced by the Tathāgata as having been practiced by him … (137) … what has been practiced by the Tathāgata as not having been practiced by him … (138) … what has not been prescribed by the Tathāgata as having been prescribed by him … (139) … what has been prescribed by the Tathāgata as not having been prescribed by him are acting for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause this good Dhamma to disappear.”.

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who explain non-Dhamma as non-Dhamma are acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much merit and sustain this good Dhamma.” AN II