SEATTLE—Two recently launched Pali reading courses—one offered by Harvard Divinity School, the other by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies—are opening up new channels of academic discourse and providing a welcome boost for the modern study of the Pali language in a Buddhist context.
Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist canon, has received relatively little academic attention over the years, even with the spread of Buddhism to the West and increased interest in the language in Asia. However, the growing popularity of mindfulness practices in recent years (encapsulated in the Pali term sati), has led to a resurgence of interest in both early Buddhism and the Pali language beyond the confines of Buddhist or religious studies scholars.
Harvard Divinity School’s Summer Language Program is offering an in-person Pali language course lasting eight weeks this summer beginning in June. The program is expected to offer the equivalent of a full year of language study. Students should then be able to read Pali texts independently or enroll in a second-year Pali course through Harvard Divinity School. The course is taught by Dr. Beatrice Chrystall, a lecturer in Pali at Harvard.
A second course is being offered online by Prof. Richard Gombrich and Dr. Alexander Wynne of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS) in the United Kingdom. In the video introduction to their course, they state that the point of studying Pali is to read the teachings of the Buddha in one of their earliest written contexts, and to possibly “understand what the Buddha really taught.” (YouTube)
The OCBS course follows on from years of successful in-person courses taught by Prof. Gombrich in Britain, as well as a live online class launched earlier this year. The summer courses consistently filled up and drew interested students from around the world. Prof. Gombrich has taught at the University of Oxford for over 40 years and served as the president of the Pali Text Society from 1994–2002.
Pali is the language of the Theravada Buddhist canon, preserved in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, among other predominantly Theravada countries. It is also a key language of Buddhist scholarship around the world. It is not, however, the “earliest” canonical language of Buddhism, as texts in other languages such as Sanskrit arose at around the same time as the compilation of the Pali canon. Nor was Pali the exact language that the Buddha spoke.
Pāli is the name given to the language of the texts of Theravāda Buddhism, although the commentarial tradition of the Theravādins states that the language of the canon is Māgadhī, the language supposedly spoken by the Buddha Gotama. The term Pāli originally referred to a canonical text or passage rather than to a language and its current use is based on a misunderstanding which occurred several centuries ago. The language of the Theravādin canon is a version of a dialect of Middle Indo-Āryan, not Māgadhī, created by the homogenisation of the dialects in which the teachings of the Buddha were orally recorded and transmitted. This became necessary as Buddhism was transmitted far beyond the area of its origin and as the Buddhist monastic order codified his teachings. (The Pali Text Society)
Numerous practitioners of Buddhism have benefited from learning a basic vocabulary of Pali and/or Sanskrit, as many terms such as dukkha/duhkha and kamma/karma may be translated in a variety of ways or left untranslated altogether. Pali can currently be studied at only a handful of universities in the Western world, and in monastic and university settings in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Its inclusion in Harvard Divinity School’s Summer Language Program and the online course from the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies mark a notable growth in the availability of the language to the wider public.
Online Courses from the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies
Elementary Pali (Harvard Divinity School)
The Pāli Language and Literature (The Pali Text Society)