The texts have been newly translated to as “accurate and reliable” as possible, and use gender-neutral language where applicable.
The developers say the website is the first to host complete, easy-to-read English translations of the Pali Nikayas — the body of texts that comprises the Sutta Pitaka, also known as the “basket of discourses,” which make up part of the early Buddhist teachings.
Australian Buddhist monk Sujato Bhikkhu launched SuttaCentral in 2005. Originally, the website was intended to serve as a database for as many translations as their small team of developers could compile.
“Through that process, we realized what an incredible amount of work has been done — mostly by volunteers — to translate these texts,” Sujato said. “But it’s all highly imperfect because it’s incomplete, sometimes inaccurate, and often times inconsistent.”
For Sujato, the most evident gap was that there wasn’t a free, accurate, and complete translation of the Pali Nikayas. After sorting through translations in an attempt to piece one together, he decided to start from scratch.
SuttaCentral took a break from collecting third-party translations, and Sujato spent the next several years in retreat on a small Taiwanese island translating the Nikayas into simple, clean English.
“I wanted to make it as accurate and reliable as possible,” he said.
An important choice for Sujato was to translate the texts into easy-to-read English. As someone who has lived most of his adult life in Asia, Sujato understands that English is often a second language. He wanted his translation to be accessible to people from many different linguistic backgrounds who may face a natural barrier when reading English.
Sujato also wanted to ensure his translation of the Pali Nikayas was gender-neutral when applicable, based on the recent shift in how gendered pronouns are used in English. Sujato says it is also a more accurate depiction of the Pali language.
The entire translation of the Pali Nikayas has been proofread twice by a team of volunteers. Sujato says around 10 percent of the material is still being proofed, but the bulk of the texts have already been combed through and uploaded to SuttaCentral.
Similar to Suttacentral, Access To Insight (ATI) is another longstanding website that provides accurate, reliable English translations.
Launched in 1995, the website hosts material concerning the practice and study of Theravada Buddhism. While SuttaCentral encompasses translations from a variety of early Buddhist teachings, ATI offers more than a thousand translated suttas specifically from the Pali Canon, as well as study guides, tutorials, and essays on Theravada teachings.
“They’re built as a Theravada site, which presents the Pali Canon, translations, and essays by Theravada teachings,” Sujato says about ATI. “We have the Pali Canon, but we also have the Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan parallels between them. Where we can, we also have translations in those languages. We don’t really care what the original language is — or the school — we’re just focused on the original texts.”
Despite the difference in content, both websites have the same goal: offer free, comprehensible Buddhist teachings to as many people as possible.
“The Buddha famously said he doesn’t have ‘the closed fist of the teacher,’” Sujato said. “He would teach widely and teach for everyone, so there were no secret teachings. For the past 2,500 years, the teachings have been passed down. They’re not the property of any individual; they belong to humanity.
“I don’t see this as my work or my property. We do this and we give it out. To me, that’s how the Buddhist tradition works. I think information is better if it’s open and free.”