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Hearing the Buddha


Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by Allah. Christians believe that what Christ said and did was recorded for us, after his death, by the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who knew Jesus personally. The Buddhist position is slightly more complicated because the Buddha lived in a pre-literate age, and his teachings were not written down until several centuries after his death.

Buddhism and Pali coverThe oldest surviving texts are in the language known as Pali. Collectively, they are referred to as the Pali Canon. Followers of one Buddhist tradition, the Theravada, equate these texts with ‘the words of the Buddha’. They accept that the Canon was established at a Council of his closest followers held soon after the Buddha’s death, and that this body of teaching has been faithfully transmitted by monks and nuns ever since. They accept that Pali must therefore be the language in which the Buddha preached. The texts, they believe, are an accurate transcription of his words.

Other Buddhist traditions take different views. They note that several other versions of the same texts, composed in different Indian languages, are known to have existed; some are lost, but several fairly full versions have survived in Chinese translations. They accept that the First Council took place much as described in the Pali Canon, but that the texts then established were the versions proposed in their own traditions. Though the Chinese translations are mostly dated (within the Christian era), we have no solid clues as to the dates of the composition of their Indian originals.

In recent years some scholars of Buddhism, particularly in America, have gone further. They argue that there may never have been such an individual as Gotama Buddha, and that, even if there was, we can know virtually nothing about him or about the dating of all the canonical texts.

I disagree!

In this short book I describe the Pali language and its place in history. I discuss how the texts were composed and preserved in an age when there was no writing. I use strands of what we know about the language and society of the time to construct an argument which makes it appear possible, even probable, that Pali is the language that the Buddha used as he walked to and fro, through the villages of northern India, preaching and interacting with the people he met along the way. I argue that, in order to understand and in turn to be understood by them, the Buddha developed a composite dialect containing a great many local variants. And I suggest that, as he gathered disciples, some of whom travelled with him, the language of his preaching became known as the ‘language for recitation’ (which is what ‘Pali’ means); and evolved into the private (not secret) language of the religious community which he founded, the Sangha.

My claim that Pali was the language used by the Buddha will not come as a surprise to traditional Buddhists, because they have always believed it. They have believed it, however, without always being aware of the difficulties such a notion involves for people from more technologically advanced countries. To give just one example: it is surely remarkable that without writing, let alone any more modern technology for recording speech, all these texts could be accurately preserved for centuries? How could this be?

I point to the fact that students of Sanskrit who have learned at the feet of traditional teachers have observed how not only their Indian pupils but also Western visitors can acquire mnemonic powers of which we did not know we were capable. Another relevant study is modern linguistics: fieldwork has shown that parts of India have evolved common languages which occupy a middle ground between local dialects and the formalised language used by the educated elites.

The more I discover, the more intrigued I have become by the radical possibility that we can get closer than we ever thought to the actual words of the Buddha. If I’m right and Pali, or something very much like it, really was the language he spoke with his close followers, this has profound implications for the history of Buddhism.

Richard Gombrich

Click here to find out about learning Pali online.

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