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Much of the Theravadan scriptures are written in Pali, so are a lot manuscripts written in Sanskrit, but is there any benefit in learning these languages while the Canon is already translated in other languages i.e. English?

Also:

  • Should one learn Pali or Sanskrit first?
  • Should one put effort in learning to speak Pali/Sanskrit (if that is possible)?
15

There absolutely is value in learning either Pali or Sanskrit (and I'd stick to the one for the lineage you are practicing - Theravada = Pali, Mahayana in general = Sanskrit). You don't have to become fluent, but it is extremely helpful knowing a good deal of the vocabulary. There are certain words that just don't translate well into English or just don't have any English equivalent. I think this is especially true for the meditation terminology - especially mental factors and phenomenology. To give you an example from Pali, the word pīti is a condition that arises during mediation. It is often translated as "rapture", but I don't think this really gets at it (bright joy? I don't know. Something like that.) The point is, if you read that word just as "rapture", you miss out on the full meaning of the concept. Translated texts put you at one remove from those subtle nuances. And really, it's the concepts we're worried about in our practice; poorly translated words lead you away from that core essence.

Don't learn to speak it though - that's a total waste of time!

9

Learning Pali is indeed beneficial if you have a inclination to be a scholar or to teach. If it is your salvation you are after you are better off spending time practicing. But to teach others the bar is much higher than practicing on your own. This is also a worthy cause.

7

I agree with those who praise learning Canonical languages. Studying Pāli texts in Pāli is very rewarding. I have found my understanding of the Buddha's teaching blossomed through reading Pāli texts. I enjoying reading texts in Pāḷi and I teach beginners Pāḷi around my local Buddhist Centre.

Pāḷi is not a difficult language to learn. I would start there. It is always advantageous to learn Sanskrit because word morphology and derivations are much clearer and regular in Sanskrit. One can do without it to some extent, but especially once you start reading poetry Sanskrit comes in very useful.

What else you learn will depend on your interests. If your interest is primarily early Buddhism then the language to learn is Chinese. Not Mandarin but Middle or Classical Chinese. Studying the parallels between Pāḷi, Gāndhārī and Chinese is a hot topic at present. Often a Chinese text cannot be understood without a Pāli or Sanskrit text to compare it to. The Chinese script is difficult, but the grammar is very simply and easy compared to Sanskrit!

Sanskrit requires a much greater commitment and perseverance to learn. It is mostly written in Devanāgarī and has many more declensions and conjugations as well as a dual in addition to singular and plural. However, if you are interested in Mahāyāna texts a combination of Sanskrit and Chinese unlocks the Canon, so you cannot do without it. Sanskrit is also useful for historical interests - it is more closely related to ancient Iranian for example. Sanskrit also helps with the Brahmanical texts which were being written and discussed at various times by Buddhists. Being at least a little bit familiar with the early Upaniṣads helps to clarify some of the Buddha's teachings.

I've not tried Tibetan or Japanese. The former can be very useful for Mahāyāna texts and of course for Tibetan Buddhism. The latter has a huge body of scholarship that does not get translated into European languages. Many of the early Japanese Buddhists, like Kūkai, wrote in Classical Chinese.

If you want to know how people think, learn their language.

  • Great answer, thank you and +1 for the statement "If you want to know how people think, learn their language". Can i ask how did you learn pali language? – Lanka Aug 16 '15 at 19:10
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No, I would say this is a trap, a side-trail that does not lead to the goal.

It looks attractive to the ego, because it stimulates certain hope in us, a hope to get closer to the Truth -- but this is a false hope. There is a Pali term, papañca, which can be translated as "conceptual bullshit". This is the danger here, getting caught up in quasi-intellectual masturbation.

The Truth is known by realized teachers, this is whom we must seek. Teachers show us how theoretical dharma maps to real life. The only reason to prefer the books over teachers' interpretations, is if you don't trust the teachers. If this is the case, then you should take a good look inside yourself and ask: "why do I assume that no one really understands Dharma? Could it be a projection of my distrust/aversion to this world with its people and values?" Surrendering yourself to a teacher helps.

That said, it is tremendously useful to know the main terminology. So I keep my Sanskrit and Pali dictionary links on my Google Chrome toolbar, and use them all the time. You can learn a lot from understanding the raw meaning, and the story behind, some words.

There are people who were able to turn the trap into a blessing. Take Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi for example (the famous translator of Nikayas into English) - he got caught up in a fly trap, but because he was so determined, he was able to tear through all words, understand the meaning, and get to the nectar -- while benefiting all of us. But unless you are a super-geek like him (I respectfully bow at his feet!) -- your time is much better spent putting dharma to practice.

  • 2
    Interesting aside regarding Bhikkhu Bodhi that sort of reinforces your point - he's physically unable to meditate. It gives him severe migraines. I'm curious as to whether we'd have his translations if not for that. – user698 Sep 11 '14 at 17:55
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    I must say I have never heard of 'quasi-intellectual masturbation', great use of words. The only reason to prefer the books over teachers' interpretation, is if you don't trust the teachers - @enenalan presented another valid reason too in my opinion, which is that the English terminology is not completely compatible with the Pali terminology. I understand that the point you try to make is to seek value in practice rather than learning the Dhamma. But is there really no value in trying to understand the core teachings directly and more profoundly (not to the extreme level)? – Jordy van Ekelen Sep 11 '14 at 17:57
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    "English terminology is not completely compatible with the Pali terminology" -- all words are like that, they are not "completely compatible" with life! We have to know what is spoken about, only then can we see the message behind the words. "I understand that the point you try to make is to seek value in practice rather than learning the Dhamma" -- not at all. Learn Dharma, master it in practice, instead of pretending to be busy while entertaining one's brain. "Is there really no value in trying to understand the core teachings directly" - only experience is "direct", not reading. – Andrei Volkov Sep 11 '14 at 18:41
  • I can't agree, I see some value in it as @enenalan says, but you seem to take it to the extremes. I however agree with your view on that, but it wasn't exactly the question. You say one must put the Dharma to practice, so what if one practices based on interpretation which is most likely always the case in the absence of a teacher (which could be the case and there might be several reasons for it). – Jordy van Ekelen Sep 12 '14 at 9:55
  • I say "it is tremendously useful to know the main terminology" -- but be careful and don't fall into the trap of papan'ca. This is a balanced position. You seem to think that terminology is not enough and one should learn the entire language. This is a bit extreme, no? – Andrei Volkov Sep 12 '14 at 12:08
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If the question is for academic research purpose, I will add one advantage in learning Sanskrit - it will greatly aid in researching ancient Buddhist documents in Nepal, where Sanskrit continues to be the liturgical language of Newar Buddhists.

protected by Lanka Aug 16 '15 at 19:06

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