Danny Fisher reflects on how important learning scriptural languages like Pali has been for engaging his Buddhist practice.
One of the most valuable parts of my education as an engaged Buddhist practitioner has been my study of Pali—the Middle Indo-Aryan language in which the earliest Buddhist texts are preserved. Not being a particularly adept linguist, I resisted the study of any Buddhist language for a very long time. It was not until my first day as a student in the Master of Divinity program at Naropa University that I realized the incredible importance of language study and knew that I had to get over my difficulty with it.
At the start of the Abhidharma course, our professor, Judith Simmer-Brown, wrote the word “dukkha” across the blackboard, asking for definitions. Voices chimed in unison: “Suffering.” Judith acknowledged that while the word has historically been translated into English this way, it actually means something closer to “misaligned axle,” like an axle misaligned on a wagon wheel. She went on to explain why this image was appropriate in this context: we could understand birth, age, sickness, and death, the three associations, and the five khandhas (Skt, skandhas) as dukkha because they are realities that portend “a bumpy ride” in life.
Hearing this literal translation rocked my world. I felt like I had never understood a key Buddhist term completely until that moment. There was poetry in the more accurate translation; it pointed to nuance that the rather broad term “suffering” could never quite capture. I hadn’t realized just how much was lost in translation until then. It dawned on me just how limited my understanding of the Buddha’s teaching really was.
When I finally did begin studying Pali (as well as Buddhist history) more closely during my doctoral studies at University of the West, I was excited at the prospect of expanding my knowledge of the buddhadharma. Under the tutelage of Sinhalese Buddhist scholar Ananda W.P. Guruge, I learned that the origins of the Pali language are thought to be in the vernacular, regional languages of ancient India, and not in the elite, classical Sanskrit that the Vedic priests used. (The language went through a process of Sanskritization at some point, though.) This suggested a lot to me about the character of the historical Buddha. It told me that he was a leveler—that he didn’t believe knowledge and awakening should be restricted to just a privileged few. And it was certainly consistent with the content of the suttas, in which nobility is determined not by birth or by status, but by the practices of calm abiding, wisdom, and virtue—practices that could be undertaken by anyone at any moment.
Though I was already deeply committed to the path of engaged Buddhist practice, something moved me tremendously about being shown this original precedent for social justice work in our history. From the get-go, the Buddha’s dharma was a social dharma. I had understood that this was true in terms of what he said. But I hadn’t understood until then that even in the very language in which he chose to express himself, the message was crystal clear: benefit all beings.
The lesson I take from studying Pali, the vernacular tongue the Buddha chose for teaching, is that American Buddhist communities and individuals also need to take stands for social justice and not dissociate from the concerns of the day. As Maha Ghosananda said:
We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of contemporary human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefield will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.
We should all find such inspiration studying Pali!