Dr. Peter Masefield belongs to that rare breed of scholars who thrive on translating ancient Buddhist texts into English. An Englishman from Birmingham who has spent much of his adult life in Asia and Australia, Dr. Masefield has translated a number of texts for the Pali Text Society, the Oxford-based organization that pioneered the study and translation of Theravada Buddhist texts in the West over a hundred years ago.
His translations include the commentary on the Vimanavatthu, a collection of stories describing the heavenly delights that await supporters of the community of monks. TheVimanavatthu is one in a larger collection of texts that make up the Sutta Pitaka, the overall collection of discourses of the Buddha and of some of his immediate disciples. The Sutta Pitaka, together with the Vinaya Pitaka and the Abhidhamma Pitaka, constitute the Tipitaka, or the Pali canon. According to the Theravada tradition, the Pali canon records the complete teachings of the historical Buddha. Depending on how you count them, there are some forty-five separate texts in the canon, some quite short, and others filling several printed volumes. Each canonical text is explained and interpreted by a commentarial text, often much longer than the text that it explains.
At first meeting, Dr. Masefield, a tall, lanky man of about sixty years, may seem a fragile and eccentric scholar, isolated and protected among his books. With a little prompting, however, he will tell you, with sparkling eyes and a keen wit, of adventures in places ranging from Indonesia to Korea to the Indian subcontinent: stories of poisonous snakes, lethal falling coconuts, and drunken bats, or of his bout of elephantiasis after climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka to see the footprint of the Buddha. What he saw was the outline of a foot sketched in a slab of concrete that protected the actual imprint and the precious stone that held it.
As a young man with a general interest in all things Indian, Dr. Masefield spent several months traveling—often hitchhiking—in India and Sri Lanka. The experience inspired him to study Indian religions at university back in England. While working on his Ph.D. at Lancaster, he returned for two years to Sri Lanka, where he taught himself the Pali language. Living and studying in Buddhist lands gave Dr. Masefield a perspective unusual among Western Buddhist scholars, and his 1986 book, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, was ahead of its time in recognizing that there is more to the Buddhism of the Pali canon than the rational and scientific aspects that Western scholars so often emphasize.
Dr. Masefield is currently a lecturer at Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University in Bangkok and is consulting on the editing of previously unpublished palm-leaf manuscripts of Pali texts. I interviewed Dr. Masefield at his home, a small apartment overlooking a quiet, tree-lined lane in Bangkok. Settling into his ample sofa, we discussed translation. As the light faded and evening became night, Dr. Masefield would occasionally leap up and reach for a book from among the piles that graced the television cabinet, in order to illustrate the details of his craft.
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