Playing With Pali: Poking Under the Hood

Digital Pali Reader puts Pali at your fingertips.


I was not good at grammar in grade school, and I got no better at it in high school. I found all the terms and the rules to be counter-intuitive, a lot like geometric axioms. In both cases, it seemed like these were rules applied on top of things that should be understood in some entirely other way (in one’s bones). I could understand them while I worked with them or when I was in the middle of a course of study, but they instantly disappeared from my memory the second I turned my back for a moment. How bad I am at grammar will come as no surprise to those who understand grammar and enough Pali to feel pain when observing my ongoing dabbling in translation via my personal blog. The question they must be asking themselves — and you may well ask, too — is “Why does she bother?”

The reason is this: however bad at grammar I am, with my cheat sheet and the free tools that are readily-available via the internet, there is no better way to check the integrity of the translations I’m looking at than to poke around in the Pali that is the closest we will get — short of time travel — to the Buddha’s actual words.

Of course, I am fortunate, in that I am one of those people who learns best by doing. My mistakes may embarrass the scholars out there, but I love them because I learn — memorably — when they occur. It’s also good that I actually like words in general. If you do, too, and have any interest at all in a different sort of deeper study of the Buddha’s teachings (his “dhamma”), this is my invitation to you to get your hands dirty by poking under the hood of the translations that are readily available to us.

To begin, you really only need one tool — a wonderfully rich piece of software that is constantly enhanced by Noah Yuttadhammo — called “Digital Pali Reader” (DPR). This tool runs independently (once downloaded) on Firefox, and when you set it up, if you choose to also take on the Access To Insight database, this will give you the seamless ability to pull up the English equivalents of the texts you examine (if they are on the site). You can also gain access to the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, as well.

It is glorious to have on hand, not only because it links to the English translations, but because it gives us access to the entire Pali canon in Pali, with one-click translations of the words (suggestions, anyway), and even, in many cases, one-more-click to the various inflections of the words into their various grammatical forms.

I’d like to give an example of why poking into the Pali is helpful. It will be best if you have the DPR loaded for this process (we’ll wait while you go get it, if you like), though it might be possible to follow along just with the screen shot and some imagination.

There are many reasons why messing around with the Pali is worth doing, too many to try to list, but just one quick poke into a phrase or two that is often encountered in reading translations of suttas might be enough of an example.

Let’s start with a piece of MN 4, in the section about how the Buddha came to his awakening:

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives.” — MN 4.27 translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, p 105 of Wisdom Publications “Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha” (NOTE)

My question, on reading the above, is “How close a match are those words to what we find in the Pali?” I am particularly interested in the phrase “the recollection of past lives”. Before we can poke those words, though, we need to find them in the Pali.

The first thing we need to do is to get oriented in the text. A lot of poking of Pali words and comparing to the English text will get us there eventually, but the Wisdom Publications books make it a little easier by providing the page numbers of the Pali Text Society (“PTS”) versions and these are also marked in the DPR Pali texts. In the screen shot at the top of this article, in the box at the upper right, which is where the text of the sutta lies, you can see a little blue letter “P” which stands for “PTS” and hovering your cursor over that marker brings up the little box also shown in the image — it says “PTS: vol. 1, p. 22”. If you have the Wisdom Publications edition handy, you’ll find on its page 105, toward the top of the page, that the same number is referenced with [22] stuck between words.

The way I get to what we are looking for is to simply click on words after that [22] marker and look for something to match them in the text. Clicking on avicāraṃ gets us “a-vicāram” in red on the bar below, which also offers information about the prefix “a-” and then if we click on either the red “vicāram” or choose it in the drop down box to the right, we find it means “investigation” — which doesn’t seem too helpful — so let’s try clicking on the next word, samādhijaṃ, which comes up as “produced by concentration” which seems a good match for the words at the end of the same paragraph “born of concentration”.Keeping in mind that the word order in Pali is not going to match the order we put things in English, if we keep poking Pali and tracking forward through the text, we will eventually discover that catutthaṃ jhānaṃ means “fourth jhana” and that gets us to the paragraph just before the phrase we’re looking at.

(Note that this whole process gets easier and easier the more you do it. Plus, poking at all those words turns up wonderfully surprising things.)

Pali doesn’t actually come with commas and periods — in fact most of the words are run right into each other, so where they are broken into individuals in the versions we see is usually done by the editors as an aid to you and I, the beginners — but the provided punctuation usually does match what we find in the English translations, so that is a help. Since we are looking at the first sentence in this paragraph (marked “27” in the book, “52” in the DPR’s Pali text), and the word abhininnāmesiṃ has a period after it, that’s the sentence to work on:

so evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe vigatūpakkilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ.

 

I like to put a phrase like this into a word processing file where I can color-code and match the translator’s words to the ones I find in the Pali, like so:

 

This leaves us with that last long phrase pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ meaning “I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives.”

The word cittaṃ is the same as the above citte, “mind” which would be the “it” in the translation, “I directed it/my mind to…” When we click on abhininnāmesiṃ we find it means “to bend towards, to turn or direct” so that takes care of “I directed it to” — and that’s two out of three of the Pali words. We’re left with the impressively long pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇāya. When we click on that, on the right side of the bar we get the first part of the word translated:

pubbenivāsānussati: remembrance of one’s former state of existence. (f.)

but on the left side of the bar, we find that dictionary can’t parse the first part of the word but gets the second part (in red) okay:

 Ñāṇa: knowledge, intelligence insight, conviction, recognition

A word as long as pubbenivāsānussati is usually a compound made up of smaller words, and finding out what those are can be revealing. The DPR tries to offer lots of possible ways to break it down but sometimes the options are too great to fit in the box. This time we get lucky, though, because in the phrase that follows immediately after we find the first part of the problematic term: pubbenivāsaṃ and when we click on that and open the drop-down box, we are offered lots of possible combinations. Trying just the first one — pubbe-nivāsaṃ — we find (by clicking on the red terms) that pubbe has been assigned a meaning, in compounds like this, of “in a former existence” but it has its stand-alone meaning as “abode in a former life, one’s former state of existence” — or as the blue text has it, “formerly; in the past”. And nivāsaṃ means “stopping, dwelling, resting — place, abode; living, sheltering”, and is given in this phrase as being “to remember one’s former abode or place of existence (in a former life)”. The root words actually say nothing about “a life” at all.

It is easy to conclude from the definition of pubbe in a compound as “in a former existence” that we are indeed talking about “in a past life”, but the question needs to be asked: who says that is what the word means? Who gave it that as a definition when nothing in the root says “a past life”? Was it someone who believed that that was what the Buddha was speaking about? With its uncompounded meaning of “formerly; in the past” combined with nivāsaṃ‘s “stopping, dwelling, resting — place, abode; living, sheltering” might the words actually indicate something far less specific than Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation “recollection of past lives” indicates? Even “in a former existence” might not indicate a literal past life; in one of my former existences, I was a sailor (I’m not a sailor in this existence, though).

 *~*~*~*

I hope that this run-through of a readily-available (and free) tool — that lets even a beginner like myself satisfy my curiosity and check into the Pali — will encourage you to do the same. The words seem intimidating at first, but with such a wonderful piece of software that allows us to try different combinations to sort out meanings, it is much easier than it has ever been. To gain a better understanding of what the Buddha taught — to have the opportunity to see if what we are told he taught is, necessarily, the only interpretation — we will need many who are willing to dirty their hands under the hood.

If you are interested in learning more, please join us in the Discussion area of this site, where you’ll find a forum called “Learning Pali” — start a topic yourself if you have something to say that doesn’t fit what’s already there. And please feel free to comment, below, on this post — let me know if this was of interest and if you’d like more of the same (or something different but related).

 

*~*~*~*

 

NOTE: This sutta can also be found in a translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu online, but it is not as easy to get oriented in his translations because he does not include the PTS page markers. Still, the more translations we have to look at, the merrier. His is:

 

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives.

 

 

 

 

No Comments

  1. Linda on March 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    If you download DPR and have any trouble with the fonts, pick up and install the Gentium Unicode font here: http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&id=Gentium_download

  2. Dana Nourie on March 4, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Wow, this is fascinating, Linda! I enjoyed the reading about the process you are using to learn (reminds me a bit of the math learning I’m doing now but detested in school), and how you are piecing some translations together.

    I also find this encouraging in that you show how doable the process is, and what fascinating nuggets of info you discover. I have not been a fan of some of our current translations because some of it seems so contradictory to what Buddha taught and what we see in our life experience. I’ve had sneaking suspicions that some of these translations have been taken off course. John Peacock made the point of saying that the first translators were Christians, and therefor translated from a religious viewpoint.

    I find your example particularly interesting. “in a former existence” certainly need not refer to a past life, but a previous state of mind, a previous life style, both of which the Buddha did experience. You even hear people today refer to “in a former life I was a policeman” when referring to a previous career.

    I’m hoping more people will pick apart the suttas so we can get eyes on them who are not viewing the words through a big religious lens. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

  3. Candol on March 5, 2012 at 6:19 am

    I don’t know, i feel one could easily waste a lot of time on things like this (red herrings) instead of working on practicing the dharma. If i have any doubt about a translations, i’d check it against every known translation i could find before going making up my own version. Reason being, people who’ve done the translations have been at i for a long time if i was to make at least a good a job of it as they had, i’d also need to spend a long time.

    In a former existence, is an idiomatic way of speaking. My bet is that its even a very modern phrase given that these days we change teh course of our lives so readily where as in the past most peoples lives seemed to be very stable. Job for life, no divorce, etc etc.

    If one is stll in doubt, one could check the word against what is written in sanskrit and compare. Sanskrit is stll around or at least went out of daily usage more recently and have you noticed how similar these two languages are.

    Anyway i am not in a hurry to buy into Linda’s idea and i think one should be careful not to be to quick to make the mistakes of former translators.

    today i was listening to John Peacocks podcast about language. I don’t agree with all his takes on pali words but i do on some of them. What i also noticed is that translation is suited to the times it is translated into. While there is common consensus, it seems that the word dukkha has been badly translated, i didn’t agree with what he said about ignorance, he preferred confusion. I think ignorance is not just better, its correct, where Peacocks choice, confusion, is actually incorrect. And i disagree with him that people should feel insulted by the use of the word ignorance. I think enough people know the meaning of the word ignorance not to be offended by it. this is just one word i felt he’d take wrongly and you can see how he was translating according to what he thinks about today’s culture.

    So perhaps its the case that a translation does need to be redone in order to speak more accurately to people in different times.

    • Linda on March 5, 2012 at 9:27 am

      I both agree and disagree with you about “ignorance”, and it seems to me the reason I have both reactions is that there are two things to consider when talking about “translating”.

      My initial reaction to John Peacock’s “confusion” was the same as yours. It’s not the right word. Ignorance isn’t pejorative, it’s not an insult, it simply speaks to the fact that we don’t know something, not that we are stupid. It also contains in it the cure to the problem: gain knowledge.

      When doing an actual translation to try to get the Buddha’s words across, it is important to try to be as faithful and accurate as possible to every aspect of it — not just to the words but to the grammar — tense, number, case. In the sentence I used in the post, Bhikkhu Bodhi says “my mind” but Thanissaro Bhikkhu used “the mind”. The difference may seem insignificant but over the course of all the dhamma, it may turn out to have significance, which is why being faithful to the language — in a translation aiming to give us an accurate rendition of what we have as the words of the Buddha — is important. At least for this particular fellow — a man who (I maintain) was very careful in his use of language — precision is important, because the idea of “ignorance” may get played upon in various places throughout the suttas, and that it is ignorance, not confusion, may be key to some passages.

      But when someone is trying to convey the *meaning* they understand the Buddha’s words to carry for us in the present time, then the words don’t have to be preserved as precisely. Then it becomes important to stop using traditional language — which carries its own connotations which may add to misunderstandings — and try to convey the information in as *relevant* and accurate a way as we can.

      So my first reaction to John’s substitution of “confusion” for “ignorance” was: “Confusion of the four noble truths? That makes no sense,” but then I substituted for “the four noble truths” what they actually are, and find it *does* make sense. Going for a more modern reading, rather than a direct translation, it becomes: confusion over what dukkha is, confusion about where it comes from, confusion about how it could be stopped, and confusion over the path to stop it. That actually does make at least as much sense — probably more sense — than “ignorance” used in the same place. It conveys a more accurate picture of what it *feels* like, as well as pointing out the impact it has on us, rather than being confined to intellectual processes.

      Bottom line: there are two kinds of “translations” — attempts at precise renderings of someone’s words from one language to another, and something more like “explanations” of what is taught — translating the ideas rather than the sentences.

      • Candol on March 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm

        “confusion over what dukkha is, confusion about where it comes from, confusion about how it could be stopped, and confusion over the path to stop it. That actually does make at least as much sense — probably more sense — than “ignorance” used in the same place.”

        Well no because its not as if the person who is said to be confused or ignorant knows of the four noble truths. He does not know them and has no interest in knowing (i heard someone say that yesterday or read it. It might even have been John Peacock.)

        the person being spoken of is no what one would call a buddhist or a follower of the dharma but someone following a whole other position. Someone who has not yet met the dharma.

        • Linda on March 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm

          It’s not “ignorance of the four noble truths” that’s the point. It’s ignorance of why we experience dukkha — which we do, even if we don’t call it that, even if we mislabel it and misidentify the source. That’s the point — we are unclear on what is actually going on — that’s what’s meant by confusion.

          One can certainly be confused about what dukkha is, and what its cause is, without having ever been informed about the terms or definitions, and prior to ever even caring that there are such terms and definitions.. We all start out there. We all experience dukkha — misery, gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes and tearing out of our hair — and we all want to know “Why me? why does this happen to me? I am a good person, I try very hard to do the right thing, so why do I still keep suffering?” That’s before we have ever been introduced to Buddhism or its concepts. That is the very definition of “ignorance” and a perfect example of “confusion” because we tend to look in the wrong places when trying to identify the problem.

          We might, for example, think we are suffering because someone stole our candy, but what we identify as the suffering (“I’m sad because I lost my candy.”) isn’t the actual cause at all.

          When the Buddha talks about “ignorance of the four noble truths” he isn’t talking about “ignorance of the phrases repeated when we talk about the four noble truths” he is talking about ignorance of the processes described by the four noble truths. It is conceivable that a person could come to understand those processes without ever encountering the words that describe the four noble truths, or even encountering Buddhism — they would then end their ignorance and confusion, without ever having heard of the four noble truths or Buddhism.

    • Linda on March 5, 2012 at 10:11 am

      One could waste a lot of time poking in the Pali, of course. One could waste a lot of time listening to second-hand descriptions of what is in the suttas, too, allowing others to give their impressions of what is in there. But what I am doing is not wasting time, but learning. Is learning a waste of time?

      I put what I learn into my practice in everyday life, and — my experience may be different from that of others (aka “YMMV”) — I have found that the more I look into the Pali, the clearer and more effective my practice becomes. But it is certainly not for everyone.

  4. Candol on March 5, 2012 at 6:21 am

    and moreover i suspect that the phrase in a former life/existence is an idiom that is actually derived from the concept of reincarnation.

  5. Linda on March 5, 2012 at 10:16 am

    I agree with this, but I think it is an incorrect rendering to add the words “of past lives” when they weren’t there in the original, for the same reason I give above for using “ignorance” and not “confusion” or “the mind” and not “my mind” in a translation. The Buddha was very precise with his language with good reason.

    What I see is that he intentionally chooses idioms that can be interpreted in more than one way. When we change the wording to pin the meaning down to just one interpretation, we do his teaching a disservice.

  6. Mark Knickelbine on March 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Linda, great post! I can’t wait to start playing around with this thing (I won’t have to pester you with as many questions perhaps).

    Regarding your example, I’m certain you understand that, if you read that particular section in context, it’s clear he is talking about what we call “past lives” because he goes on to describe what he remembers about his former existance in such a way that it couldn’t really be considered to have all occurred in one lifetime (one couldn’t change one’s clan, for instance). Or perhaps you’ve poked some of the rest of the passage and found similar issues?

    • Linda on March 5, 2012 at 11:58 pm

      Glad you’ll try the DPR, Mark. I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun with it.

      As for the rest of the sutta, that wasn’t the point of the article. The point was just to illustrate something one could do when one wonders.

      But were I to take you up on the debate about the meaning of the phrasing that follows, we would just end up with the same old rounds of confusion between us, so I shall refrain, at least until my article on Dependent Arising sees print (well, virtual print — PDF only, I think) because only with the full context of that most-central of the Buddha’s structures before us, can I explain why, when he describes his myriad past lives oh-so-literally-sounding, I don’t take it literally. Maybe (just maybe) then I will be able to show you why I say it’s important that he uses mushy language like “past abodes” in the same sections as the literal-sounding sections.

      I’m hoping for April’s edition.

  7. Dana Nourie on March 5, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Oooooh, the plot thickens! I want to hear how the rest of that sutta translates out, where Buddha describes those previous experiences!

  8. […] by Linda Blanchard’s recent post, a naturalistic interpretation of the First Watch pericope began to occur to […]

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