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Home Newsletters OCBS News March 2013 - tipitaka

OCBS News March 2013 - tipitaka

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Report on Dhammachai Tipiṭaka Project March 2013

by Richard Gombrich


Except for a very few scholars, few people either know or care that no critical edition of the Pali Canon has ever been produced. If you believe, as I do, that the Pali Canon is the best source, and will probably always remain the best source, for the teachings of the Buddha (which is not to say that it simply reproduces those teachings), it is rather astonishing that there has been no serious effort to establish its texts as accurately as possible.

For about 2,000 years this collection of Pali texts has been transmitted in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. For most of the period the transmission has been through palm leaf manuscripts, though hardly any manuscripts now survive which are even five centuries old. Recently there have also been printed editions, and some of these have now been reproduced electronically. The transmission follows four more or less national traditions, those of Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia and Laos (the latter including what is now much of northern Thailand). These traditions are close to each other, close enough to put it beyond doubt that they stem from one original recension; it would therefore seem that the task of a critical edition would be to establish the text of that recension. However, the issue is not so simple and one has to make a choice of precisely what to aim at. Probably the best choice available is to aim to reconstitute the text known to Buddhaghosa in Sri Lanka in the fifth century AD.

The two editions of the text most widely used in modern times have been those published in roman script by the Pali Text Society and the text printed by the Sixth Buddhist Council, begun in 1956 in Burma to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Enlightenment; the latter is also on CD. The PTS version is based on a very few manuscripts, almost all from Sri Lanka and Burma; the Burmese text sticks to readings in the Burmese tradition.

It was therefore a milestone in the history of Buddhist studies – perhaps I should say of Buddhism itself – when in April 2010 Wat Phra Dhammakāya (Thai: Dhammachai), situated near Bangkok, launched a project to produce a critical edition of the Tipiṭika. The plan is first to produce a version printed in roman script, then to print it in all the regional scripts of Theravāda Buddhism, to put all these online, and also to publish facsimile editions of particularly good manuscripts. The manuscripts themselves are digitised and stored.

The first editor-in-chief has been Prof. G.A. Somaratne, from Sri Lanka. Under him the project employed a large number of monks, mostly from Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, who collected, photographed, digitised and copied many manuscripts (initially 45), and began to create a database of their readings. An international Advisory Board of scholars was appointed, and met for the first time in June 2011 for a day of discussion with those working on the project. They brought many problems into focus and offered tentative solutions; Prof. Oskar von Hinüber summarised these in writing. As a result, the editorial team was enhanced in February 2012 by Dr. Alex Wynne, who joined as Assistant Co-Director. The number of manuscripts considered was reduced to 19, selected to represent the four script traditions, and the number of copyists was correspondingly reduced. After Dr. Wynne’s arrival production became much faster, and within a year the project printed the first third of the Dīgha Nikāya, the Sīlakkhandhavagga, and reconvened the Editorial Board to discuss it. They met the editorial staff on 22nd February. Dr. Wynne spent several hours taking those present through a variety of issues for advice. Members of the Board expressed surprise and delight at the progress made.

Since both Prof. Somaratne and Dr. Wynne have been my pupils at Oxford and have learnt about editing Pali texts from me, I naturally take an almost paternal interest in the project and feel proud that my pupils have achieved so much.

To mark the occasion, Wat Phra Dhammakāya held a one-day conference on the day after the Advisory Board meeting: “The Transmission of Dhamma from the Buddha’s time to the Present Day”. Four members of the Advisory Board were invited to lecture. I spoke on the oral transmission; Prof. von Hinüber on the manuscript tradition; Prof. Rupert Gethin on printed editions; and Prof. Masahiro Shimoda on “The Dhamma in the Digital Age”. To round off the conference several of us formed a panel to answer questions from the audience.

The project aims to complete its work in about 15 years. This may be impossibly ambitious. Wat Phra Dhammakāya has pledged to find the finance; but the greatest difficulty will probably be finding and keeping enough skilled editorial staff. At the moment there are only two scholars there qualified to take editorial decisions. I have recommended, privately, that they already start considering the problem of succession and training younger scholars who will be able to take over.



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