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.

–Stephen A. Evans

translation
A page from a palm-leaf manuscript of the Abhidhamma-patthana in Tham script, Courtesy of European Cultural Heritage Online

Dr. Masefield, your specialty is translating Pali into English. What is Pali? Pali is a vernacular form of Sanskrit spoken in northern India around the time of the Buddha. Strictly speaking, however, the term Pali does not refer to a language. Rather, the term has traditionally been used to denote the Theravada canon as opposed to the commentaries. Hence one speaks of the “Dhammapada-pali” to distinguish that canonical text from the “Dhammapada-atthakatha,” the commentary on that same Dhammapada. Traditionally, the language of both canon and commentary is Magadhi, the dialect of the region of Magadha, in which the Buddha spent much of his time. However, perhaps as a result of some early misunderstanding amongst scholars in the West, it has become fashionable to use the termPali to denote the language.


Pali, or Magadhi, then, is a dead language?
It’s a dead language in the sense that it is not spoken anymore, but it is still used in the Theravada Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia, whose texts are preserved in that language.

And the Pali Text Society has translated those texts? The PTS has translated most of what we call the Pali canon, those books whose contents are attributed to the mouth of the Buddha, whereas there is a very wide body of commentarial material, very little of which has been translated.

But if the words of the Buddha have been translated, do we really need the commentaries? The commentaries help us understand the teachings of the Buddha. For example, they serve in some ways as a dictionary or thesaurus. They explain the meanings of the words in the Pali canon itself and, indeed, the various Pali-English dictionaries are compiled, in large part, on the basis of the commentaries.

Didn’t the commentaries come much, much later? Why should we trust the explanations of someone who lived a thousand years after the Buddha? Well, one thousand years later is still fifteen hundred years closer to the Buddha than we are now. But this is to misunderstand the commentarial tradition. The Buddhist tradition was, from its beginning, oral. Various portions of the Pali canon were put together as recitations at the First Council following the death of the Buddha. Now, the canon is quite large—in print it fills some fifty volumes. This was all memorized and passed on orally by monk-reciters known asbhanakas.

So the teachings of the Buddha were not written down at the time? That’s right. In the early period you could not just go to the library and pick up the section of the Pali canon that you might be interested in. Instead, you would seek out the services of the group of bhanakas charged with memorizing that portion of the Buddha’s teachings. It may well have been that certain parts of the teachings were not immediately clear. The expert on that area of the teaching, the bhanaka, would then have provided explanations, or partial commentaries.

So the bhanakas memorized the texts, and then, when they recited them for someone, would perhaps explain some parts of the texts. Then those explanations were also memorized, and passed on along with the text? That’s right.

When was it finally written down? Well, memorization and recitation continue to the present day, but both the canonical and commentarial material were finally written down in Sri Lanka around the first century before or after Christ. The commentarial material continued to expand, and by the fifth century was so vast that it no doubt required systematization. The point, though, is that the commentaries are not the views of fifth-century authors. Rather, they are compilations and summaries of previously existing commentarial collections that had grown up along with the transmission of the canon from the time of the Buddha.

If I understand what you said about the commentaries explaining the words in the canon, when a translator of the canon comes across words and phrases he does not understand, he or she goes to the commentaries. Yes, and often the commentaries may offer more than one interpretation of difficult words and phrases, all of which must be taken into consideration.

But this seems to beg the question. If you go to the commentaries to find out what a word means, and that commentary is itself written in Pali, how do you understand the commentaries? The role of the commentaries is often that of supplying a more well-known synonym for a word that is not easily understood. Also, a word in the canon might have two or more possible interpretations. This occurs because Pali is to some extent a simplified form of Sanskrit, and two or more Sanskrit terms may have the same simplified form in Pali. In such cases, the commentary will cover all possible options, as the word of the Buddha is so important. The Pali satta, for example, is the Pali form of four different Sanskrit words: sakta, sattva, shapta, or sapta, meaning, respectively, “holding to,” “being,” “cursed,” and “seven.” The commentaries will give alternate interpretations of a passage for each alternate meaning.

The commentators themselves must have been scholars struggling over the meanings of words.
Perhaps. And the canonical ambiguity may well have been there right from the death of the Buddha. Where this was the case, since the Buddha was dead and gone, the bhanakas would have offered all possible interpretations. Alternatively, it is quite possible that a word was used by the Buddha in a purposely ambiguous way, perhaps as a deliberate double entendre.

Do you assume that the commentators were familiar with Sanskrit? Oh, certainly. You can tell from the contents of the commentaries that the great commentators, Buddhaghosha [fifth century C.E.] and Dhammapala [seventh century C.E.], were highly educated in the classical scholarly tradition of the Indian subcontinent. This tradition embraced just about every facet of human life in India at that time.

It sounds as though translation is a bit more involved than simply pulling words out of the Pali-English dictionary.
(Laughs.) But the meaning of words is only one difficulty. Another is identifying what the words are in the first place.

I should think that would be just a matter of looking into the books. Indeed. All the different versions of the books. You see, for centuries the texts were inscribed on palm-leaf manuscripts. In humid tropical climates such manuscripts do not last very long, and scribes were always at work inscribing new editions of them. That in itself gives plenty of opportunity for copy errors.

Palm-leaf inscriptions are made by scratching the leaf with a metal stylus. It is only after the whole leaf has been inscribed that ink is smeared over the leaf, thereby highlighting the scratch marks. The possibility of copy error was increased by the fact that the scribe would have considerable trouble seeing what he was writing until the ink was spread over the leaf. For example, if he gets interrupted, he may pick up his work at the wrong place. As the texts were propagated to different areas, the number of versions of the same material increased, some of them written in different scripts.

The texts in different countries may differ, then.
Exactly. And at a given place, where errors may have crept into one set of manuscripts, another set may be error-free. In my own case, I always compare the Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Thai editions printed from such manuscripts along with the romanized editions of the Pali Text Society, which were themselves originally derived from palm-leaf manuscripts. This is important also, for example, because certain characters in Sinhala are often difficult to differentiate, with the result that scribal errors often entered into the texts. In Burmese, however, those same characters are quite distinct, so that one can often rectify such scribal errors through a comparison of texts written in different scripts.

But at the end of the day, how can we be sure of the correct reading? Often we can’t. But this is the job of the scholar—to try to eradicate the scribal errors.

translation2 (1)
© Stephen A. Evans

Your specialty has been translating the commentaries. How many commentaries have you translated? Four. However, I should also add that it is normal when translating a commentary that the sutta upon which it is commenting also needs to be translated afresh, since any existing English translation of the sutta may not have taken its commentary into consideration.

If the canonical text was translated without the commentary, then the translation may not be perfect? Because only a handful out of the commentaries have so far been translated into English, it may be that many of the translations that we take for granted may not always fully accord with the explanations found in the commentaries.

Can we say that some existing translations may not quite be right? Yes. And some of the early scholars may have offered translations of canonical texts that were partially idiosyncratic.

Do you mean to say that some of those translators may have put their own ideas into their translations? Indeed. It has to be remembered that Theravada Buddhism was discovered by Western scholars in the middle of the nineteenth century. There was, at that time in Europe, a growing disenchantment with religion following the Hundred Years’ War, which was largely fought over religion. It was at this time that people started to discover Theravada Buddhism. They thought they had found a religion, or a philosophy, that did not require—indeed rejected—belief in the supernatural. So there was a tendency for some of these early scholars and translators to downplay any reference to the more esoteric aspects of early Buddhism, and it became fashionable to portray the Buddha as the Bertrand Russell of Benares. Moreover, the early translations were done when our knowledge of the Pali language was in its infancy, and it is clear that the early scholars had great difficulty in coming to terms with certain Buddhist concepts. As Guy Welbon has shown in his book The Buddhist Nirvana and Its Western Interpreters, different scholars had radically different views as to what nirvana was.

Therefore, as someone who cannot read Pali but who wants to understand the teachings of the Buddha recorded in the canon, I should want the commentaries side by side with the canon to help guide me through the material.
Oh, very much so. It would be much preferable for you to have a translation of the suttas or other canonical texts, as seen through the eyes of, and as explained by, the commentaries.

You have translated four commentaries. Altogether, how many of the commentaries have been translated into English?
I would say eight or nine.

That’s not very many. Out of how many?
Forty-five. We should also consider that none of the tikas, the subcommentaries, have been translated. These not only elucidate the commentaries themselves, but also those parts of the canonical text the original commentaries did not address.

What can be done about this? Wouldn’t it be possible for some organization to mount a major project to translate the commentaries? There are only a handful of people in the English-speaking world who are sufficiently qualified to translate these texts. Yet almost all of those who are competent also have university teaching positions that do not allow them sufficient time. Translation is a full-time job; a person cannot simply pick up translation whenever there is a little free time. A translator of a commentary, many of which are quite complex, has to be free to devote his or her whole time and attention to the task. One requires space to work, space for one’s books, and, these days, computing and printing equipment. Moreover, many commentaries are very long, often in excess of five hundred pages of involved, multifaceted material.

Perhaps rather dull work as well. On the contrary! The commentaries provide a unique and fascinating window on society at the time of the Buddha and afterward. They contain material on Indian classical music, classical dance, cooking methods and recipes. There is, for instance, the story in the Vimanavatthu in which the Buddha is suffering from wind in his abdomen. (Gets up to retrieve a copy of the book.) So the Buddha sends for rice-gruel as a remedy, and the lady of the house prepares the gruel and adds some spices. The commentary goes to great lengths to itemize the ingredients and to explain how the meal was prepared.

Ah! Here it is. “Rice-scum cooked with jujube . . . seasoned with spices such as triple-spice, ajamoja, asafoetida, cumin, and garlic.” Ajamoja was probably a form of caraway. I had the help of other researchers, but we couldn’t be sure. Neither could we be sure what “triple-spice” was composed of. The possibilities are discussed in the notes. © Stephen A. Evans © Stephen A. Evans

Another story that comes to mind is from the Petavatthu, in which a criminal is to be executed. As usual, they shave his head and put a garland of red flowers around his neck, and then parade him from street to street. As the translator, my problem became one of identifying the flower in question. It would have to be in season all year round, since it would be impractical to delay executions waiting for certain flowers to bloom. It seems that this flower is similar to the vadamala, which literally means “death-flower” and was previously used in Sri Lanka for the same purpose. As a matter of fact, I recently saw a photo in a Thai newspaper of persons dressed up as traditional executioners, and they also had red garlands around their necks.

That suggests connections of some practices in the commentarial period with the present day. Oh, yes! And when I showed the list of ingredients used in the rice-gruel to one of my students from Sri Lanka, he told me that they are still used in traditional Sri Lankan herbal medicine, especially in cases of flatulence.

So the translator needs to be familiar not only with the language, but also with the culture of the period. Yes. For instance, when the monk Mahamoggallana, one of the Buddha’s closest followers, visits the heavenly worlds, he finds the female deities constantly dancing with perfumes streaming from their limbs as they twirl around. This leads the commentary to allude to the opening postures of Indian classical dance, expecting you to be familiar with all of them. Then, again, there is a story in the Vimanavatthu in which someone is playing a vina, during the course of which each of the strings breaks, yet he continues playing as sweetly as ever. This inspires the commentary to allude to classical music notation and to the various moods, or ragas. In each case, the translator is obliged to try to discover the lists to which the commentary is alluding.

In reading the commentaries, then, one would learn not only about Buddhism but also about ancient Indian culture. Yes. We see here the ancient world through the eyes of monks of that era, who were not only linguists and philosophers but also experts in cookery, dance, and music.

Dr. Masefield, what do you see in your future? Do you expect to translate more commentaries? (Smiling broadly) Oh, I very much hope so. I should particularly like to work on translating the commentary and subcommentary on the Digha Nikaya. The Digha Nikaya is one of four canonical works that both the tradition and scholars recognize as the core of the Buddha’s teachings and as very early material. Indeed, Buddhaghosa treated theDigha Nikaya as the root text of the entire canon, and it was to the commentary on this work that Buddhaghosha first turned his labors.

I gather, then, that the commentary to the Digha Nikaya has not been made available in English.
It is extremely surprising that it has never been translated into English. Neither have the commentaries to the other core books of the canon, the Majjhima Nikaya, the Samyutta Nikaya, and the Anguttara Nikaya. It is worth mentioning that these four Nikayas are close Pali cousins of the Chinese Agamas, and translations of these commentaries—and by extension, fresh translations of the associated Nikayas—might well shed new light on the Agamas as well as on the Pali texts. Such translations, in other words, would be of interest to the Buddhist world as a whole.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.