Thais create Buddhist studies landmark


CHIANG MAI — Against a background of terror, conflicts and violence worldwide, during times when consumerism and materialism have been elevated as never before on pedestals surrounded by a divine aura, a small group of modest but dedicated Thai scholars, monks and nuns have worked quietly and efficiently the past three years, seeking solace in the wisdom of Buddha — precisely by resurrecting his genuine words, ideas and teachings.

The basic goal has been to produce, for the first time, a complete romanized Pali Tipitaka: the full Buddhist canon in roman characters.

To achieve this, the Dhamma Society Fund was established in Bangkok under the patronage of the supreme patriarch of Thailand. A group of Thai Buddhist scholars and Pali specialists went through very elaborate sessions, studying and comparing all previous sources — in particular, the international Buddhist Council (or “rehearsal” in Buddhist terminology) held in Burma in 1956 — reciting and correcting variants, restoring missing passages and evaluating various accompanying commentaries.

Significantly, the scholars have also drawn from the tremendous support of an equally dedicated group of young and bright engineers and computer specialists from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. They added a modern, “electronic” dimension to an academic exercise arising from a unique spiritual stream manifested some 2,500 years ago!

Now that 40 volumes of this monumental work have been magnificently printed, the people of the Dhamma Society Fund can be rightly credited for having produced the most complete Tipitaka edition ever to appear, the closest reproduction of the approved text of the Great Council of 1956, a treasure-trove of cross references related to previous editions and a foundation for future attempts at translating the whole text in every foreign language, using the solidly verified present text in Roman characters.

In addition, they and the Fund’s many donors in Thailand may also be proud of establishing, at Chulalongkorn University, the world’s most elaborate center for Tipitaka studies, with the most complete collection of the Pali canon’s editions not only in Thailand but internationally.

The undertaking is not limited to a praiseworthy but overly “esoteric” textual dimension. It is also expanded by several parallel contributions, such as the center for Tipitaka studies; rich visual (video) archives for every stage of the effort with relevant events at temples, special lectures, recitations, working sessions, etc.; and the worldwide dissemination of the knowledge acquired.

Buddhist scholars at large will easily grasp the importance of this effort. For ordinary people with spiritual motivations, it may be of interest for them to note that the Pali canon comprises 84,000 textual units with more than 22,000 pages, or approximately 24,300,000 characters.

To go through such an enormous amount of material in such a meticulous and strictly methodological way, while continuously seeking the closest approximation to the true word, speaks volumes for the dedication of the Thai team.

Another dimension that must be stressed has been eloquently expressed by one of Thailand’s foremost Buddhist scholars, the internationally acclaimed abbot and author Phra Dhammapitaka: “If the Pali canon was lost or corrupted, so was Buddhism . . . . The Pali canon is a huge record of cults, beliefs, religions, philosophies, customs, traditions, cultures, affairs, events and localities, such as the various city states in the past. . . . Whoever claims that he can practice without recourse to the Tipitaka, in effect says that he can practice without recourse to the Buddha.”

Now that the publication of the work has been completed, the Fund is planning, after presenting the first copy to the revered king of Thailand, to offer 1,000 sets of the 40-volume edition to various academic institutions, both in Thailand and abroad, spreading this knowledge to the four corners of our turbulent world.

Apart from the Buddhist world, per se, I believe that this unique project is significant to academia in general, even for those of different religious backgrounds. For it is the result of the enormous work of resuscitating the exact “word” of an old teaching, not only through endless recitations — since Pali language possesses no script, its value is placed in “sound” — but also through comparisons with parallel materials using the technology of our age.

If only we could hold this achievement up as a model of the correct and beneficial exploitation of the endless possibilities of the computer era.

Indeed, during a recent lecture on the completion of the work at Chulalongkorn University, one of the pillars of the Fund, well-known Thai Sanskrit scholar professor Visudh Busyakul said: “Our expectation to render the entire monumental work in a CD-ROM version in XML format will provide future international research with a tremendous potential to use and exploit endless relevant electronic data, attaining, perhaps unimaginable now, levels of convergence in drawing from such an inspiring source of spirituality.”