“Elephant in the Room” – Direct Translation of the Tipiṭaka

February 28, 2022; revised March 1, 2022; October 16, 2022 (new #2, among other revisions) 

Direct (word-for-word) translation of Tipiṭaka suttas is a significant problem. Many people are confused by contradictions that inevitably arise due to this practice.

“Elephant in the Room”

1. To quote Wikipedia: “The expression “the elephant in the room” (or “the elephant in the living room”) is a metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about, but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable and is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous.” See “Elephant in the room.”

  • Even though the Pāli Tipiṭaka remains intact, Buddha’s teachings are NOT correctly communicated these days. After many years of writing an English website on Buddha Dhamma and participating in discussion forums, the root cause has slowly dawned on me. The main problem is the word-for-word translation of the suttas.

2. I have pointed out this problem in several posts during the past few months. See, for example, “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

  • Even after providing clear evidence, many people ignore this “elephant in the room.” I then realized that many people do not have the basic understanding necessary to see the problem! They simply don’t see the elephant. Thus the need for this series of posts.
  • Tipiṭaka was not translated word-for-word to any language until the 1800s. That practice started with European scholars in the 1800s trying their best to understand the vast amount of Pāli and Sanskrit texts found in India, Sri Lanka, and many other Asian countries.

3. For example, a direct translation of the Tipiṭaka to the Sinhala language took place only in 2005. The Tipiṭaka had remained in the Pāli language (written with Sinhala script) since first written down in 29 BCE (2000 years ago).

  • During that time, bhikkhus clarified key concepts with long discourses or written commentaries. Many suttas in the Tipiṭaka are in a highly-condensed form (uddesa version) suitable for oral transmission (Ref. 1.) That was necessary because the Tipiṭaka was transmitted orally in the first 500 years after the passing away of the Buddha.
  • Deep concepts in those suttas were explained to the general public in their native languages by bhikkhus. Furthermore, three commentaries were composed in Pāli during the time of the Buddha. Per the Sinhala version of those three commentaries, one was the work of Ven. Sariputta and the other two attributed to Ven. Mahākaccāna (or Mahākaccāyana.)
  • About 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha (i.e., about 2300 years ago), Ven. Mahinda in Sri Lanka started writing commentaries in the Sinhala language (Sinhala Atthakathā.)
  • When writing on leaves became more widespread (but still tedious) around 2000 years ago, an assembly of Arahants wrote down the Pāli Tipiṭaka and the three original commentaries. That constitutes about 60 volumes of the Tipiṭaka that we have today.
Mahāyāna Influence on Theravāda

4. Within 500 years of the passing away of the Buddha, the Indian Mahāyānists started not only refining but incorporating concepts that were alien to Theravāda Buddha Dhamma.

Those who started this revision process tried to make things “simpler” and “innovative” by replacing anicca and anatta. So, they defined those in their terms (anitya and anātma) and then got into a slippery slope in explaining those terms by inventing more concepts. It snowballed, and in the words of Edward Conze, who translated many Mahāyāna texts to English (Ref. 2):

  • “……About 100 BCE (roughly 400 years after the Buddha’s  Parinibbāna), many Buddhists in India felt that the existing statements of the doctrine had become stale and useless. They were convinced that Dhamma required new reformulations to meet the needs of new ages, new populations, and new social circumstances. So they set out to produce new literature, which ultimately became known as Mahāyāna Buddhism. The creation of this literature was one of the most significant outbursts of creative”energy known to human history and”sustained for about four to five centuries. Repetition alone, they believed, cannot sustain a living religion. They believed that unless counterbalanced by constant innovation, it will become fossilized and lose its life-giving qualities”.
Poor Status of Buddhism in the 1800s

5. To complete the historical background relevant to this discussion, let me quickly summarize the sad status of Buddhism in the 1800s.

  • The invasions by the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British spanned over four centuries starting in 1498; see “Portugues” presence in Asia.” That led to a drastic decline of Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) in all Asian countries (Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, etc.)
  • Buddhism was non-existent in India by the 1800s. However, Mahāyāna Buddhism arose in India just 500 years after the Buddha and flourished for several centuries. Those heydays of Mahāyāna Buddhism corrupted Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. See Ref. 2.
  • The following video is in the Sinhala language. It provides an account of the restoration of Ruwanvalisāya, one of the largest stupās in Sri Lanka. That project took many years and was completed with assistance from the British Governor in Sri Lanka at that time. You can see the status of Buddhist temples and stupās in the 1800s before their restoration:

  • A picture of Ruwanvalisāya in the early1800s is at @1:10 minutes. By 1869, a small residence for bhikkhus had been built (@1:30 mins.) Even by 1921, complete restoration had not taken place.  Also, see the Wikipedia article “Ruwanwelisaya.”
Revival of Buddhism Starting in the 1800s

6. In the 1800s, Buddhism underwent a period of revival due to the efforts of some British civil servants.

  • They found many key Buddhist sites like Lumbini and even the Asoka pillars in India in ruins. They also found many Sanskrit texts in India and Pāli texts in Sri Lanka, Burma, etc.
  • Those civil servants coordinated to collect the vast historical documents in Asian countries. Those included not only Tipiṭaka documents but Mahāyāna and Vedic documents as well. Scholars in European countries tried to sort them out and figure out those new concepts.
  • However, even Theravāda bhikkhus had already mistakenly mistranslated anicca and anatta to be the same as Sanskrit anitya and anātma by that time. That was due to the influence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism just 500 years after the Buddha; see #4 above and in Ref. 3.
The Book “In Search of the Buddha” by Charles Allen

7. To get an idea of how those European pioneers struggled to interpret the inscriptions on Ashoka pillars and the vast collection of Pāli and Sanskrit texts, I highly recommend the book, “In Search of the Buddha” by Charles Allen (2003). His family had been in India for generations serving in the British government, and he was born in India.

  • The book has a lot of information and pictures of many historical sites in India before their restoration. For example, a photo of The Mahābodhi Temple taken in 1799 is on p. 147.
  • It is truly fascinating to read about the efforts of those who dedicated their lives to uncovering Buddha Dhamma. Even though not shown in that book, historical sites in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries were also dilapidated, as shown in the video of #3. Charles Allen’s book focuses on India.
  • Those civil servants/European scholars were primarily responsible for the current revival of Buddhism. However, they unintentionally solidified some critical damages previously done to Theravāda concepts (especially misinterpretation of anicca and anatta). 
Imagine the Task of Diciphering Three Novel Religious Concepts Written in Two Foreign Languages!

8. There were Sanskrit documents in India. No Pāli documents on Theravāda or Sanskrit documents on Mahāyāna were found in India.

  • Mostly, Pāli texts on Theravāda were found in Sri Lanka. Sanskrit texts on Mahāyāna, as well as Pāli texts on Theravāda, were found in other Asian countries. See “Sanskrit Buddhist Literature.”
  • The enormity of the task faced by those European scholars becomes apparent when one realizes that three sets of different concepts were involved in Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vedic texts.
  • Many academics in European universities then started translating the Tipiṭaka into English, German, and French. They needed to learn the concepts of Buddhism (as well as Pāli and Sanskrit languages) from “local experts,” but at that time, there were no bhikkhus with in-depth knowledge of Buddha Dhamma.
  • That is when the practice of translating the Tipiṭaka word-for-word to another language started.
Academic Credentials Not Enough to Teach Buddha Dhamma

9. Those European scholars did their best to interpret the vast collection of historical documents. Those efforts are well-documented in Charles Allen’s book. Professor Rhys Davids was among those scholars, and most current interpretations are based on his work.

  • Following the original translations by Rhys Davids, Eugene Burnouf, and others,  contemporary Sinhala scholars like Malalasekara (a doctoral student of Rhys Davids) “learned” Buddhism from the Europeans and thus started using wrong interpretations.
  • Other Sinhala scholars like Kalupahana and Jayathilake also learned “Buddhism” at universities in the United Kingdom (received Doctoral degrees in Buddhism) and wrote books in English and Sinhala.
  • Of course, scholars in other Buddhist countries did the same in their languages, and the incorrect interpretations spread worldwide.

10. I hope I have provided enough information to contemplate why the opinions of “scholars” are likely to be wrong due to reasons beyond their control. Again, I admire and appreciate what Rhys Davids, Burnouf, Muller, and others did in those days, and it was not their intention to distort Buddha Dhamma. It is not the fault of current scholars either.

  • To emphasize, one needs to learn Buddha Dhamma from a true disciple of the Buddha who has attained at least the Sotapanna stage.
  • Academic credentials mean NOTHING as far as teaching Buddha Dhamma is concerned. With all due respect to those European scholars, they DID NOT understand the key message of the Buddha. That message is that the rebirth process is filled with suffering, and the goal of a true Buddhist is to stop the rebirth process and attain Nibbāna. See “Basic Framework of Buddha Dhamma.”
Summary and Future Posts

11. The description above provides the necessary historical background.

  • The main point I will focus on in the upcoming posts is the following: Confusion caused by the word-for-word translation of the Tipiṭaka. I will address that in detail in the next post.
  • Of course, those European scholars who started that practice had no idea it was the wrong approach.
  • Within the past 20 years, the correct interpretations of the Tipiṭaka started circulating. Explanations by Waharaka Thero became increasingly widespread, first in Sri Lanka and then in other countries by Sri Lankans who resided in those countries.

12. How was Waharaka Thero able to make those correct interpretations?

  • Waharaka Thero was a jāti Sotapanna, as he had declared. Once one attains the Sotapanna stage, one will not lose that deeper understanding through future lives.
  • However, Waharaka Thero was more than just a jāti Sotapanna. A Sotapanna may not be able to explain concepts to others, even if they understand them. That is a unique ability of only those with “Paṭisambhidā Ñāna.”

13. How can we trust those interpretations to be correct?

  • Just as in modern science, the ultimate test is self-consistency. The Tipiṭaka, compiled AND written down by Arahants, is fully self-consistent. Therefore, any interpretation must be self-consistent within the Tipiṭaka as well.
  • I will first show that most current interpretations are blatantly self-contradictory. Even a child can see those contradictions. I will first provide many instances of such contradictions.
  • Then I will also show that the interpretations of Waharaka Thero are entirely self-consistent.
  • I welcome comments at the discussion forum.

1. Details on uddesa, niddesa, and paṭiniddēsa at “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”

2. Edward Conze,  “A Short History of Buddhism” (1980)

3. “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”  I will expand that analysis later in this series.

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