About the Pali Canon
The Pali Canon, or the Tipitika, is the collection of what are believed to be the original teachings of the Buddha and his closest disciples, which form the basis for the Theravada tradition. It includes the rulebook of the monk, called the Vinaya Pitaka, the book of teachings called the Sutta Pitaka, and a somewhat later book of theory called the Abhidhamma Pitaka. These are said to come from the words of Guatama Buddha or his close disciples, circa 2500 years ago. During the time at which they were spoken, they were kept alive through oral repetition and in memory by the disciples of the Buddha. They were later written down, in the language of Pāli. There is an excellent introduction to the Sutta Pitika, which is the most important section to read, here on Sutta Central. The same website also contains the most comprehensive collection of translations currently available online.
What is the purpose of these translations?
Some time ago, I began to make ‘translations’ of some of the Buddha’s teachings, working at first from comparing different translations in English, and gradually learning to read more directly from Pali as I went along. The purpose was not to make more word-for-word translations, but to make versions for reading whose meaning was clear, open and not overcomplicated by difficult or obscure language. This was originally done for especially the sake of the few practitioners here, for most of whom English is a second language, and later I decided to share them here too, in case they might be of use for others. I am not a Pali expert by any means, and my approach to the suttas is that of a practitioner, not a scholar. My aim was to never write down a sentence without understanding what it meant, and I have relied on Ajahn as a guide in letting me know when my way of understanding was not correct.
Should we take the suttas as our only teacher?
In making these and comparing different translations, it became obvious to me that it is not possible for us nowadays to read or listen to the suttas with the same ears and eyes as those who first heard them. The practitioners and lay followers in the time of the Buddha and closely afterwards had the Dhamma spoken directly to them, in their own native language, with no gaping difference in time, history and culture dividing the listener from the speaker. For us it is different: even simply reading the suttas themselves and translating them involves a good deal of interpretation, especially when it comes to the most practical aspects involving instruction for mindfulness and meditation.
Every school and teacher has their own way of explaining the mindfulness of breathing, for example, and these different ways of practicing cannot be expected to all lead to the same result. Which is to say, that not all of them lead to the end of suffering that the Buddha taught. For this reason, although reading and having knowledge of the suttas is very much to be recommended in order to have a strong base of understanding, at the same time we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that relying on the suttas alone is equivalent to receiving instruction from the Buddha himself, or receiving guidance from an Arya who has seen the Dhamma and has the Noble Right View, and can therefore distinguish right interpretations from wrong interpretations.
It would not be wise, on the other hand, to blindly rely on a teacher without checking for consistency with the suttas. Remember also that the nature of the Buddha’s teaching is that it is ehipassiko, to be seen and experienced for oneself in this life. This is a powerful point: if we practice correctly, we can expect to see the same thing as the Buddha. The results of our own practice, are then the ultimate touchstone in evaluating a teacher or guide; provided we practice with true dedication,
A note about Pali language
Pali is now a dead language no longer spoken anywhere in the world, except in ritual chanting. Interestingly, according to what can be discovered through the work of historians, it is also the case that at the time when these teachings were first being given, even then Pali was not a language spoken by people. At that time in India, there were several regions close to one another in which several different languages and dialects were spoken. It is believed that these languages and dialects all held some similarity with what we know as the Pali language, and they were also similar enough that people from different regions would probably have been able to understand one another well.
Since that time, these teachings have been studied and translated into many languages. There is no translation today of any text in Pali written by a native speaker of Pali. As such, making a precise and accurate translation is very difficult, and different translators often use very different words to translate important points and concepts. The best glossary of important terms that I have found to date is this one. Although I do not quite agree with the rendering certain words (particularly vedana, dukkha, and phassa) the work that has been done and the overall view of the terms and concepts in their proper context is wonderful.
AN 3. 65 | Kalama Sutta – To the Kalamas
Whose teaching can we trust? To which teachers can we look for guidance? And what are the criteria for following a teaching, a practice, a philosophy?
MN 61 | Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone This teaching describes the basic rule which everyone should be taught by the age of four, a rule to know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, between wise and unwise.
MN 141 | MN 141 | Saccavibhanga Sutta: Discourse on The Analysis of the Truths An explanation of the Four Noble Truths, given by Venerable Sariputta.
DN 31 | Sigalovada Sutta: A young person’s guide to living a good household life
A teaching on how to live a good, wise and decent life, which may look simple or obvious but contains a great deal of wisdom, and should not be taken lightly.
Ud 1.10 | Bahiya Sutta: The teaching given to Bahiya of the Bark Cloth
The shortest teaching of the Buddha which led the listener directly to arahantship. There are many things to be learned from it; including the power of renunciation, the simplicity of the Dhamma for the one who is ready to see it, and the teaching itself.
MN 4 | Bhaya-bherava Sutta: Not accepting fear and terror
In this teaching, the Buddha explains how he refuses to accept fear and terror in himself, and how he practices to remove them. How can we learn from his example and take his practice as our reference point?
SN 22.43 | Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself
What it means to be an island to oneself.
An 06.19 | Maranassati Sutta: Mindful of Death (1)
The practice of being ready to die, watchful of death, with a small essay based on the teaching.
MN 131 | Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day
“Do not run after the past, nor hope for what is yet to come. The past is gone; un-existing is what is yet to come.”
MN 38 | The Greater Teaching on the Ending of Craving
A deep teaching which begins with the explanation of why it is wrong to think that it is the ‘same mind’ which is carried from birth to birth. It also explains how not living the ascetic life leads to continued being, continued birth and continued suffering, and how living the ascetic life leads to the end of being and the end of being, the end of birth and the end of suffering.
SN 35.38 | Burning
All is burning. What all is burning?