The suttas of the Pali Canon are teeming with wisdom, and yet it can be difficult to muster up the motivation to actually read them. If you feel overwhelmed by these lengthy, repetitious, and somewhat archaic texts, it’s not because you are a bad Buddhist but because the Pali Canon was never meant to be read in the first place. The canon came out of an oral tradition, and now a new project is seeking to restore the suttas to their original medium.
The website Paliaudio.com has produced dozens of professional recordings of the ancient teachings and put them online for free. The ambitious project started under the guidance of Rupert Gethin, a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol, in the UK. He is the author of The Foundations of Buddhism, a regular feature on college syllabi, and the president of the Pali Text Society, which was founded in 1881 to “foster and promote the study” of the texts that are central to Theravada Buddhism.
Gethin talked with Tricycle about how oral traditions helped shape ancient India, what we can rediscover about the suttas by listening to them, and why the current primacy of the written word might be limiting the way we learn.
What inspired you to undertake this project?
Part of what intrigued me about the project of making these audio files is, of course, that the suttas were composed and transmitted orally for several centuries. So there’s something about the oral medium that seemed true to the original spirit of the teachings—they are oral texts.
Dave Gilbert, the founder of Paliaudio.com, approached me about advising on reliable translations for the recordings because of my involvement in the Pali Text Society and because I had recently published my own translation of an anthology of texts in 2008 called Sayings of the Buddha. There are quite a lot of translations out there, but not a lot of audio ones.
Why did you choose this particular collection of Buddha’s teachings to record and make available online?
We used the early Buddhist texts from the Pali canon (but even the Agama—the Chinese versions that have survived—are basically the same). Just as Alfred North Whitehead said, “All philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” there’s a way that all Buddhism is an expansion of the ideas and concepts expressed in these early texts.
The seeds of nearly everything in the Mahayana and certainly later Indian Buddhism are lurking there. But while beginnings are important, they’re not necessarily the final word. I think we should remember that.
What can we learn from listening to these early Buddhist teachings that we don’t get from reading them?
Listening to an audio recording of the texts can allow us to discover something fresh about them—there’s a certain vibrancy and narrative creativity about these teachings. They’re full of interesting, lively ideas expressed in a very immediate and compelling way.
The intrinsic value to the material is that’s it’s simply wonderful literature. People turn to the Pali texts with too much preoccupation—“Oh, these are the early Buddhist teachings, I’m going to find out what the Buddha really taught” (which may or may not be true). But from a literary perspective, they’re actually beautifully crafted, interesting texts. That aspect of them has been underestimated and underappreciated. Listening to these teachings being read allows them to come across in a way we might miss when reading them, especially if we think we already know what they’re trying to teach.
The trouble is, in the modern world we are taught and trained to read for information. When I give suttas to my students to read, they say it’s a bit boring or they get frustrated with the repetitions. But when we listen, there is a poetic quality to the repetitions. If we get into the right frame of mind, it’s like listening to the chorus of a song or a repeated line in a poem. If a poet repeats a line or refrain, or we read the same poem again and again, we always appreciate it. It seems to me that the repetitions in early Buddhist texts operate like that and have a meditative quality.
So even though we’re hearing the same thing over and over, we can learn something new from repetition?
Yes, repetition is telling us what we already know, but that’s not the point. It’s like doing your meditation. You do the same meditation practice every day, but it’s different every day, or different things happen from day to day. So when you hear these repeated passages again and again, you can engage in the meditative quality—just sit, relax, and listen to the words. And you can think about the meaning, or just absorb the meaning without even thinking too much.
In spoken word, the repetition and rhythm of the text takes on an extra significance. Is there a particular cadence to the Pali canon that you considered when finalizing your translations for the recordings?
Well, I tried to. I wouldn’t want to claim I was always successful, but it was part of what I was thinking about when I was translating. In my written translation, I tried to omit repeated verses and paragraphs. But when we started recording the suttas it made more sense to include the repetitions. The interesting thing about an audio recording is that the cost doesn’t differ much whether the recording is 10 minutes or 20 minutes—unlike when you’re publishing a book and publishers get worried about how many pages the book is! So we decided to be a little more relaxed about repetitions. When you’re listening to an audio file, you’re not in the same kind of hurry to get the information. You’re taking your time with the meditative aspect.
We take writing for granted nowadays to the point where there’s almost a distrust of oral transmission. A written record of events is considered more trustworthy or even authentic. How reliable was the oral tradition for preserving the Buddha’s teachings?
We have to remind ourselves that ancient India, even beyond Buddhism, was slightly suspicious of documents and the written word. Oral transmission was used in the Brahmanical tradition [from early Hinduism] as well as by Buddhists, Jains, and other Indian intellectual, religious, and spiritual traditions. They weren’t fools; they figured out a way to reliably transmit knowledge orally.
In ancient India, they believed that if you knew something, you should know it. It’s not something you look up on your smartphone! There’s a saying in Sanskrit: “Knowledge in books, money that someone else has, when the time comes to use them, they are neither knowledge nor money.” Real knowledge is knowledge that you have in your head.
So there are systems of transmitting and learning orally. One of the reasons there are repetitions in the early Buddhist texts is that a repeated passage becomes embedded in some way. Sometimes when I’m teaching and my students just stare at me I might say, “That’s a bit important, you need to write that down!” I think the same thing would have happened with the Buddha and other early teachers. They would’ve said, “What I just said was important; you need to remember that. Say that back to me. What have I just said?” I think those techniques would have been embedded in the oral tradition, and the early Buddhist suttas and other Indian texts came out of that.
Do you think something has been lost now that the primary means of education is written?
If we look at India, which is a very oral culture originally, there was an emphasis on the idea that if you wanted to learn something, you should learn it from the person who knows it directly. Even in medieval Europe, when books were rare, people would read out loud. Into the 19th century, there was a habit of sitting and someone reading out loud to the family. Now our reading is mostly silent.
I do find that reading silently with the goal of just gaining information feeds a certain part of the brain—the more discursive, chattery side of the mind, which is no doubt useful. But I think that gets overfed, and we’ve fallen out of the habit of just sitting there watching someone talk.
What will a practitioner get out of listening to the suttas?
It’s clear that the suttas are the closest we are going to get to the beginnings of the Buddhist tradition. And I feel there is a kind of freshness in the beginning of a tradition. There’s something special about that.
So if we listen to them with an open mind, we have the opportunity to just allow them to have an effect on us. Listening can be a way of really hearing them again.
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