Pali language course gives insight into Buddhist teachings

Until recently, Andrea Taylor, an international corporate tax lawyer, didn’t envision herself sitting in an introductory language class, certainly not to learn a language considered ancient and rarely spoken in modern day. “I never thought 10 years ago I’d be taking a Pali course,” she says. 

That changed when she switched gears mid-career and enrolled in a master of pastoral studies at Victoria University's Emmanuel College with a focus on spiritual care and Buddhism. “I was searching for more meaningful work in the world,” Taylor says. 

One of the requirements for entry into the PhD program in theological studies — which is next on her list — is a language course. So she found herself in Assistant Professor Libbie Mills’s Pali classroom at the Department for the Study of Religion. For Taylor, it made sense to learn the language which most closely resembles what the Buddha spoke in what is now northern India, 2,600 years ago.

“As a student of Buddhism, it’s interesting to be able to understand the texts in their original language and see how they have been interpreted over time,” Taylor explains. Although her enrollment fulfilled a requirement, she soon came to see the value in learning Pali. “Anyone interested in Buddhism would benefit,” she explains. “What does mindfulness really mean? If you go back to the original Pali word you have a much deeper understanding of the teachings.”

That line of thinking makes sense to Bryan Levman, a visiting scholar at the Department for the Study of Religion, and author of the book, Pali, the Language: The Medium and the Message. “To get to the heart of Buddhism you need to know the language,” he says.

According to Levman, if one goal of Buddhist practitioners is to remove the ego, or the self, Pali serves as a medium that assists the practitioner to do that. In this way, asserts Levman, the language the Buddha spoke is just as important as the message he delivered. “The syntactic and phonological structure, the alliteration, the musical element, the simplicity of repetition that we usually associate with a song is not available to you in English, but it is integral to the message,” he explains. “If you want that, you have to learn Pali.” 

“It was a language for reciting the full message.” He continues, “Pali gives you the technology to do that and part of the technology is the repetition of recitation of the teaching, the sonic strength reflects and encapsulates and epitomizes the teaching of lack of self, or “anatta.”

In the pursuit of anatta some Buddhist practitioners employ chanting in Pali as a meditation tool, and Levman believes that to get the benefit it is essential to understand what you are chanting. “Recitation without understanding the words is not helpful,” he says. “Just the sound alone does not help; the Buddha taught you had to know the meaning as well.”

Learning Pali to gain insight into the Buddha’s teachings is one aspect of the course, but Christoph Emmrich, an associate professor in the department, stresses that as scholars of religion it is as important to critically understand the historical development of Buddhism by examining the documents that reach back as far as possible.

The Pali texts were inscribed onto palm leaf manuscripts in a variety of scripts, including Burmese, which are preserved today in Myanmar libraries. “Like fingerprints, every manuscript is different,” Emmrich explains. “Once you start reading a manuscript you are meeting a person who has written it, with all their intricacies.” The manuscripts offer valuable clues for students of Pali. “These texts are connected to a tradition and a country,” he says. “This is a living context which give students a very different approach to learning Buddhism.”

This material insight into Buddhism’s origins appeals to Pali student Richard Wu, who plans on using his knowledge of the language to explore South Asian and Buddhist philosophical thoughts for a PhD in Philosophy. Wu is drawn to the historical linguistic aspect of Pali, and wants to trace the language back to its origins. “My previous understanding about what I knew about Buddhism came from someone else’s interpretation,” he says.

Working with the palm leaf manuscripts gives insight into the people and the place where the text was recorded. “The scribe might be just recording it, when someone else reads it to him, he might have misheard different sounds and written it down wrong, but we wouldn’t know that today,” he says. “These are important contextual factors that go beyond if I were to just read a book on Buddhism in English.”

The Department for the Study of Religion at U of T is the only academic institution in Canada that offers regular Pali courses. Despite a growing interest in Buddhism, the Pali language course remains a hidden gem in the department. Mills would love to see more people learn the language. “This course is so fantastic, so I just burn to have more people enjoy it,” she says. 

Emmrich agrees that the benefits that come from learning Pali extend far beyond filling a requirement. “To read these ancient texts, which are still so alive,” he pauses, thinking before continuing, “For the instructors and the students, it’s a huge experience, intellectually and emotionally.”

Having such dedicated teachers has helped Taylor succeed in the course. “Libbie and Christoph are infectiously enthusiastic about their work and the languages that they teach. For a student, that is contagious,” she says. She plans to stick with Pali, “I understand the teachings differently now. It really does enrich my understanding of Buddhism.”