Pali Language and Buddhism in the New Century


Pali language can be found as the root of many other languages, especially in Asia. Amid the modernizing world and fear of language extinction, Pali is still widely used and taught in Buddhism via the Buddhist canon or Tripitaka and all chanting.

To celebrate the 96th birthday anniversary of His Holiness Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, the supreme patriarch of Thailand, the first International Pali Conference on ‘Buddhism in the New Century’ is now being organized from 1 to 3 October 2009.

According to Assistant Secretary-General to the Supreme Patriarch Ven Dr Phra Anil Sakya Sugandho during an exclusive interview with NNT, more than 60-70% of Thai language is associated with Pali and Sanskrit origins. This can be found in most things and even in a Thai name. 40-50% of Asian languages are also related with Pali and Sanskrit.

Pali is used as a lingua franca among all Buddhist monks and will be used throughout the discussions in the first International Pali Conference. Ven Dr Phra Anil hence stated that the conference would mark the primary step towards more promotion and support of the Pali language. He added that this would not only influence Pali studies in Thailand but also in other Asian countries.

The conference will be divided into three sections, namely in Pali, English and Thai and will be attended by both Pali and Buddhist scholars from Thailand and other countries. Apart from to paying tribute to the supreme patriarch the discussions are aimed at exchanging opinions and experiences among scholars and promoting studies of Buddhism at both national and international levels.

The assistant secretary-general elaborated that people usually did not realize the value and importance of Pali and it was perceived as either a dead or sacred language. He admitted that even some monks nowadays no longer wanted to study the language.

Ven Dr Phra Anil stressed that knowing Pali plays a vital role in the interpretation of the Bhuddhist canon. He noted that reading from the original text in Pali indeed would be purer and offer more perspectives and ideas compared to reading an interpretation from a translator with his or her own attitudes. He said understanding Pali could make canon readers ‘see what it is’, rather than ‘see what it is like’, and every reading of the dhamma would give readers newer angles with less chances of misinterpretation.

When asked about how people of the new generation can help preserve the Pali language, Ven Dr Phra Anil responded that there was no need to intentionally do things specifically to preserve the language but people should realize and be aware that the language they were using originated from Pali roots. He remarked that a better understanding of the language could help create a more accurate interpretation in communication.