Pali is the language used to preserve the Buddhist canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which is regarded as the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts surviving in an Indian language.
Pali is closely related to Sanskrit, but its grammar and structure are simpler. Traditional Theravadins regard Pali as the language spoken by the Buddha himself, but in the opinion of leading linguistic scholars, Pali was probably a synthetic language created from several vernaculars to make the Buddhist texts comprehensible to Buddhist monks living in different parts of northern India. It is rooted in the Prakrits, the vernacular languages, used in northern India during the Middle period of Indian linguistic evolution. As Theravada Buddhism spread to other parts of southern Asia, the use of Pali as the language of the texts spread along with it, and thus Pali became a sacred language in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Pali has been used almost exclusively for Buddhist teachings, although many religious and literary works related to Buddhism were written in Pali at a time when it was already forgotten in India.
This course is designed to help you to learn the basics of Pali grammar and vocabulary through direct study of selections from the Buddha’s discourses. It thus aims to enable you to read the Buddha’s discourses in the original as quickly as possible. The textbook for the course is A New Course in Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha by James Gair and W.S. Karunatilleke (1998, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, India. ISBN 81-208-1440-1). The Pali grammatical tables were designed by Bhikkhu Nyanatusita.
The course proceeds sequentially through the chapters, or “Lessons,” in the textbook, each of which has three parts:
- An initial set of readings and an accompanying glossary
- Grammatical notes on the forms in the lesson
- A set of further readings and a glossary
The lectures will be much more meaningful if the listener obtains a copy of the textbook and studies each lesson before listening to the associated set of lectures. Also, the textbook and lectures assume that the listener has a fundamental understanding of grammar. For those whose who feel that their knowledge of grammar needs refreshing, we recommend Pali Grammar for Students by Steven Collins (2006, Silkworm Books, ISBN 978-974-9511-13-8).
A Word from the Teacher
These recordings are of lessons that I gave at Bodhi Monastery between January and October 2003 (with a few added at a later date). They are all based on the book, James Gair and W.S. Karunatilleke, A New Course in Reading Pali (publisher: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi). They contain all the imperfections of extemporaneous classes, including discussion between teacher and students, the students’ delayed answers, a teacher’s poor jokes, a teacher’s occasional stumbling to find the best method of explanation to students whose mother tongue, in most cases, is not English.
I gave this course as an introduction to Pali on the assumption that the students (mainly of Chinese origins) would be able to learn Pali grammar from this reader. My assumption turned out to be premature, and by October it became clear that we would have to backtrack to a Pali primer that teaches the basic elements of Pali grammar. I therefore now recommend that students who wish to learn Pali on their own first work through a Pali primer. My personal recommendation is Lily de Silva, A Pali Primer, which is available as a printed book from Pariyatti and on the Internet from the Vipassana Research Institute. I suggest that you do the exercises of translating Pali into English, but pass over the exercises of translating English into Pali (unless, of course, you wish to acquire proficiency in Pali composition). Once you have gained familiarity with the building blocks of Pali grammar, learned from the primer, you can then move on to the Pali reader, which is explained in the lessons recorded here. By the time you finish these lessons, you should be ready to move directly into the reading of texts from any of the Nikāyas, aided by reliable translations and a good dictionary (the PTS’s Pali English Dictionary and the first part of its intended replacement, A Dictionary of Pali). If, however, you find the idiom of the Digha and Majjhima Nikāyas too difficult, you can take up A.K Warder’s Introduction to Pali. Despite the title, Warder’s book is not an introduction to the language, but an introduction to reading suttas from the Digha Nikāya. You can work quickly through the first half of the book, which mostly repeats principles you already know; you can then concentrate on the second half, which focuses on long, sometimes complex and difficult, passages from the suttas of the Digha Nikāya.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
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