There is much new knowledge about Buddhism coming from fields as diverse as archaeology, philology, etymology and meditative practice, all of which have helped provide an authentic historical context for our own study and practice of Buddhism. We had a wonderful opportunity to put that rich context to use in the recent seventeen-day vipassana meditation retreat at the DCC led by the Theravadan Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Vivekananda. The precious insights from the retreat have helped illuminate our understanding of Buddhism. In this article, we offer several examples of this new research and its value as we study, practice and live the Buddha’s Teaching (Buddhavacana).
Our first example comes from Richard Salomon, a researcher of early Buddhism. He notes the big controversy in linguistic circles about the origin history of writing in early India. Salomon avers that there was a form of writing in proto-historic India going back to the 3rd millennium BCE, the Indus Valley script which is undeciphered and still completely mysterious. Then there was a period of well over a thousand years in which there were no written artifacts. And it’s only during the time of the Asoka emperor in the 3rd century BCE that clearly datable, definite specimens of writing appear in the scripts that became the parent of all the later scripts of the Indian world. Clear specimens of writing dating to around the middle of the 3rd century BCE have been found. Quite a few scholars believe that this form of ‘parent’ writing of later Indian scripts was invented by or during the reign of Asoka, and that there was no writing before that. That has come under question recently. Salomon notes that there is some evidence or reasonable claims of specimens of writing going back to the early 3rd or even into the 4th century BCE. But this is still not back to the time of the Buddha. Thus, it appears that the Buddha lived in a culture where writing was not present; or even if writing were present, he and his followers did not use it as a means of preserving text. In effect, Salomon notes the general agreement among scholars that early Buddhism was a purely oral tradition. Texts were preserved and transmitted by memory and recitation.
Our next example concerns a famous story recounted in the Vinaya, the collection of monastic rules in the Tipitaka, or three collections of the Buddha’s Teaching. According to this tale, there were two Brahmin brothers who had been converted to Buddhism and they were concerned that there were monks ‘of a variety of origins and of family backgrounds’ who were corrupting the word of the Buddha by reciting His Teachings, each in their own way. ‘Let us remedy the situation’, the brothers suggested to the Buddha, ‘by putting the words of the Buddha into chandas’, i.e. into meter and verse as in the style of recitation used for Vedic texts. The brothers seemed to be arguing for doing something more elegant, more standardized, more familiar with the Buddha’s Teachings so that there wouldn’t be, to paraphrase their apparent opinions, this riff-raff with their local accents and local dialects messing up this important stuff.
The Buddha’s response to the brothers’ suggestion, whatever exactly is the nuance with this word chandas, is not at all ambiguous. He forbad the recitation of his Teachings in chandas whether that meant versified, ornate text or whether it meant the actual Vedic language. But then he instructed his followers: ‘Teach the word of the Buddha, each in your own language.’ Teach in whatever vernacular the local people will understand. To put it in Indian terms, use the Prakrit languages. And that is exactly what the Buddhists seemed to have done in the early centuries. There were many Prakrits spoken at that time, Magadhi being one among them. Prakrit is a term applied to the vernaculars spoken in Middle Indic languages in contrast to Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas and the oldest scriptural language of Hinduism. The Prakrits bore the same relationship with Sanskrit as the Romance languages of French, Spanish and Italian do with Latin.
And this is understood as the Buddha’s prescription that his words were translatable. Salomon notes that this direction of the Buddhist tradition is in sharp contrast to that of the Judaic and Islamic traditions where the original languages are essential to their sacred texts. Buddhism is more like Christianity, a language of a religion of translation. Thus, as Buddhism spread across India, it got translated into the local languages; and the original language form – Magadhi - is simply gone. And there really is no reason to hope that it would ever be recovered.
A third example begins with the question: In what language did the Buddha teach? It was commonly assumed that he had taught in Pāli, the scriptural language of Theravadan Buddhism, and that Pāli was synonymous with Magadhi, the old language of Magadha, the capital or political centre of NE India at the time and his birthplace. Old Magadhi was not the only language then spoken in old India or north India. And it seems likely that the Buddha could speak in more than one language.
From a linguist’s point of view however, Magadhi was known from inscriptions and other literatures to be an eastern Prakrit with very different features from Pāli. Etymological specialists have discovered a peculiar feature of Pāli. It exhibits some eastern and a majority of western Prakriti features including some terminology that is thought to go back to old Magadhi itself. In other words, Pāli is a hybrid language containing a peculiar mixture of dialectical forms. Not only did the Buddha not speak Pāli; no one spoke Pāli! Pāli is an artificial language cobbled together from a variety of spoken languages for the purpose of disseminating the Buddha’s Teachings across dialectical or perhaps language lines. It was a compromise language made up of pieces of languages in India at the time. It was used originally and only for religious texts, not only for the canonical texts attributed to the Buddha but later for commentaries and history texts like the Dīpavaṃsa from the 3rd or 4th century CE or the Mahāvaṃsa from the 5th century CE, which were composed in Sri Lanka to recount the history of Buddhism and in the process the history of Sri Lanka.
The word Pāli is the subject of a very old misunderstanding in mediaeval Asian traditions. The word doesn’t appear in the Pāli Tipitaka (the three baskets of the Pāli Canon). It’s a commentarial word that comes from a later layer of Buddhist literature. And when it did appear, the phrase it appeared in was pālibhāsā, the language of the canonical texts (pāli line, row, canon + bhāsā language). Pāli was not a language name; it meant scriptural or religious text. This was a textual language created for a very specific purpose. At some point, Asian Buddhists began to misunderstand this. They forgot that pāli meant texts and began to use it as the name of the language itself. If it had a name, it probably would have been something like Buddhist Hybrid Prakrit.
Another very important example concerns the enormously significant innovation achieved by the ancient Buddhists. They took the Buddha’s Teaching from an oral tradition to a system of writing in the 2nd century CE in Sri Lanka through the invention of the scriptural language of Pāli and the massive effort of compiling and translating into this new hybrid language the Suttas (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya (monastic rules) and Abhidhamma (the Higher Teachings). Similar translation work had been taking place in Gandhāra from about the 1st century BCE. Gandhāra was a small region lying about where Peshawar is today in northern Pakistan, approximately between the modern Afghanistan border on the west and the Indus River on the east.
Jan Nattier notes that it was Buddhism that first brought written scriptural texts to the entire South Asian religious civilization. Buddhism’s introduction of a written textual tradition to its oral tradition was an enormous contribution to the availability and status of religious knowledge in Indian culture and later to the entire world. These were not just the oldest Buddhist texts; they were the oldest Indian written texts aside from inscriptions on rocks. And this innovation took place on the fringes of the Indian subcontinent in Sri Lanka and Gandhāra, and only later trickled back into India, likely because of the resistance of the Brahmanical tradition for a very long time. In this respect, Nattier notes that the Upanishads were not translated until the 15th century or so and only under Persian influence; and the Vedas even later and only under British pressure.
Before we turn our attention to the modern era, another noteworthy fact should be mentioned. The texts of the Pāli Canon and other commentaries were all transcribed on palm leaves in Sri Lanka. In the tropics, this meant that their survival required repeated copying on fresh palm leaves over each generation to ensure their preservation. In the cooler, temperate climate of Gandhāra, scriptural texts were written on birch bark, a medium which allowed longer survival periods. These birch bark manuscripts were rolled up, placed in clay pots and buried under stupas; and only unearthed by archaeologists in the past two centuries. A team of linguists led by Richard Salomon have been kept busy over the past quarter century with the painstaking work of reassembling the crumbling scrolls, and deciphering and translating the ancient Gandhāri texts.
DCC members will be interested to learn that in the early seventies, the Dalai Lama approached James George, the then Canadian High Commissioner to India for assistance in preserving the scriptural manuscripts of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, whose survival was now being threatened by the tropical Indian climate. George had been instrumental in resettling several hundred Tibetan refugees in southern Ontario at the time, and was a good friend of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. George hired a Canadian student working on a CUSO (Canadian University Students Overseas) scholarship to work in the basement of the New Delhi offices of the Commissioner. Over the span of a year or more, the student created microfiche copies of all the manuscripts. The originals and microfiche copies were returned to the Dalai Lama. Later, Kalu Rinpoche donated the Karma Kagyu School’s microfiche copies to the DCC for safe keeping. Lama Sonam Gyatso has overseen this task. Recently, he began the work of digitizing the microfiche copies since they too were beginning to deteriorate with age. Once the first ‘batch’ of work had been completed, I had the pleasure of taking Lama Sonam to meet Jim George, now in his late nineties, to honour him for this meritorious labor in support of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. The work of digitizing the remaining manuscripts is an ongoing responsibility of DCC Archivist Bill Rolph and donations to complete this work are invited.
Skipping forward in time to our next example, we learn from Anthony Warder that the Arab and Turkish conquests from the 10th to the 12th century CE destroyed most of the early schools of Buddhism, the main centres of which had remained in Magadha and North West India. To which could be added a further thought from the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi: “The Buddhists in India were not attacked by Hindu armies. However, a resurgent Hinduism engaged Buddhists in debates and revived the Vedic and Brahmanic traditions. Since the Brahmins offered more rituals and ceremonies relevant to the cycles of household life than the Buddhists did, they gained a stronger following. The rise of devotional Hinduism also proved popular, to the detriment of the Buddhists. By the 10th and 11th centuries, Buddhism had become largely confined to the monasteries, which were supported by royal patronage and wealthy donors; thus, it was cut off from contact with ordinary people, which opened the gates to the Hindu resurgence. In the 11th century, the Muslim hordes swept into India and killed the Buddhist monks and destroyed their monasteries and libraries. Since Buddhism was highly dependent on the monasteries, it could no longer be sustained and died out in India. But because Hinduism pervaded the lives of ordinary people more extensively, it proved more resistant to the Muslim campaigns of conversion.”
In this next example, we learn about the development of Buddhism through mediaeval times. From its stronghold in Sri Lanka, the form of the Buddha’s Teaching later termed Theravadan Buddhism moved eastward to Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Pāli Canon was preserved in Sinhala script in Sri Lanka; and was reproduced in Burmese and Thai scripts in those lands. In time, their indigenous languages became suffused with Pāli vocabulary. Buddhist philosophy and psychology began to influence the lives and perspectives of ordinary people in the Theravadan countries; monasteries were built to provide shelter for the growing, predominantly male monastic communities as well as centres for study, meditation, devotional practice and teaching purposes. A similar phenomenon accompanied the migration of the newer strain of Mahayana Buddhism across Central Asia to Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. In the process, a Tibetan Canon and Chinese Canon were set down in writing in those lands. The three Canons became thereby the only more or less complete scriptural texts of the Buddha’s Teaching in the world.
In his recently published doctoral thesis, Erik Braun aptly characterizes the traditional life of people in mediaeval Buddhist lands: Prior to the colonial era, in Burma as in other Theravada cultures, some monks and even some laypeople studied meditation as a scholarly topic, but this did not lead to its widespread practice. Rather than meditate, monks mostly studied, taught, and acted as “fields of merit” (puññakhetta), that is, suitable recipients of the charity of lay people, traditionally provided in the form of food and robes. In turn, the laity focused on cultivating good karma (kamma in Pāli) through generosity and virtuous behavior. Both groups oriented their actions around the Buddha as a figure of devotion, still present in his relics.
The next example concerns the modern development of meditative practice. Braun notes that meditation nowadays is regarded by many people as Buddhism’s synecdoche. Many Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike assume that most Buddhists meditate. Yet, mass meditation, by both monks and laypeople, was born in Burma only in the early years of the twentieth century and at a scale never seen before in Buddhist history. He contends that one person, a Burmese monk named Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), played a leading role in the rise of Buddhist meditation.
During Ledi’s lifetime, many people believed the prediction of the scriptures that the Buddha’s Teaching (the Sāsana or Doctrine) was in decline and would soon disappear under colonial influence. The British conquest of Burma proceeded in three stages: the southern annexation in 1826, lower Burma in 1852 and upper Burma in 1856. This protracted conquest gave the Burmese time to observe the disruptive effects of British power. These included the zealous activities of Christian missionaries to convert the populace whom they regarded as mired in superstition. In response, Ledi launched a two-prong initiative to protect Buddhism by dispersing its study and practice throughout the Burmese laity. He focussed the study of doctrine on the Abhidhamma; and of practice through simplified forms of meditation.
The teachings on meditative practice found in the canonical texts and their commentarial literature were organized into a massive compendium, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) in the 5th century CE by the monk Buddhaghosa. This treatise describes forty calming and concentration practices (samatha) as well as nine insight knowledge practices (vipassana). It is understood that a certain level of concentration should be established in order to undertake the mindful observation (sati) of the three characteristics of all phenomena, impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-essence (anatta), a meditative practice which leads ultimately to realization. Ledi promoted the benefits of insight meditation practice for lay people in all walks of life. Braun notes the critical role played by Ledi’s ‘capacious formulation’ of practice in shaping a collective, lay-centered model of meditation on a mass scale that became firmly embedded in the Burmese culture.
Throughout the Buddhist world, lineage has always been a primary element in establishing religious authority. A teacher is considered legitimate if he can place himself in an unbroken line back to the Buddha. Braun notes that many of the current meditation movements originating in Burma locate the starting points of their recorded histories only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several practice lineages, including the S.N. Goenka organization, claim Ledi as their root teacher. When asked who Ledi Sayadaw’s teacher was, Goenka said: ‘There is no recorded history, but Ledi Sayadaw says he learnt this technique from a monk in Mandalay.’
The monk U Narada (1868-1955), known as the Mingun Sayadaw, another early proponent of lay meditation, also searched for a method of practice and met a monk in the famous meditation-caves in the hills above the town of Sagaing in Upper Burma. This monk directed him to study the Buddha’s teachings in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (the Greater Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness).,  Mingun Sayadaw was the teacher of Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) who is credited with disseminating his master’s style of lay meditation throughout Burma and around the world.
Mahasi’s work has continued under his student Sayadaw U Pandita (1921-2016). Sayadaw U Vivekananda, the leader of two DCC vipassana retreats in 2015 and 2019 and my teacher, trained under U Pandita in Myanmar. U Pandita installed Vivekananda as the resident teacher at Panditarama Lumbini International Vipassana Meditation Center in Lumbini, Nepal, the Birthplace of the Buddha in the late nineties. U Pandita has also given him permission to leave his post at Panditarama Lumbini for up to ninety days every year in order to conduct international retreats.
Our final example comes from our May, 2019 DCC retreat. In his evening Dhamma Talks, Sayadaw systematically reviewed the characteristic aspects of mindful contemplation of the four foundations of mindfulness described in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta. He addressed a key insight knowledge, Knowledge of the Dissolution of Objects (from the Visuddhimagga, Ch. XXI, Purification by Knowledge and Vision) during one of his last Talks. He drew our attention to a Dhammapada verse and its counterpart in the Suttanipata:
Dhammapada, Verse 170
[Translated by Daw Mya Tin, Myanmar Pitaka Ass’n., Yangon, Myanmar]
If a man looks at the world (i.e. the five khandas),
In the same way as one looks at a bubble or a mirage,
The King of Death will not find him.
The Sutta Nipata (Sn 5.15)
[Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997]
This Sutta reports a conversation between the Buddha and the Brahman Mogharaja with a point similar to that of Dhp Verse 170:
In what way does one view the world
so as not to be seen by Death's king?
View the world, Mogharaja, as empty,
always mindful to have removed any view about self.
This way one is above and beyond death.
This is the way one views the world
so as not to be seen by Death's king.
Several times during his Talk, Sayadaw stressed the essential importance of mastering this insight knowledge, specifically the ability to witness the ending of objects (phenomena) as they present themselves in the mind. Accomplishing this undertaking will hasten our passage to Nibbana, he insisted. I thought this profound teaching is an appropriate place to finish this brief and highly selective survey of the contributions of modern-day scholarship and teachers to our understanding of Buddhism and Sayadaw U Vivekananda’s participation in this grand effort to awaken the world.
August 20, 2019
 Richard Salomon is Professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington and a leading figure in the field pf early Buddhist studies.
 Richard Salomon: The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra: An Introduction with Selected Translations. Wisdom Publications Inc., Somerville, Mass. 2018. Also, listen to audio podcast of Salomon interview: https://vimeo.com/263106314.
 From: The Buddhist Monastic Code II: The Khandaka Rules. Translated & Explained by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 3rd Edition. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2013, pp.100-101, 107. [https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/index.html#bmc2]
The controversy about dialect is addressed by a rule on teaching Dhamma in the Vinaya Pitaka. The rule is addressed in the fifth Khandhaka of the Cullavagga: The Khandhakas (literally, “Collections”) form the second major portion of the Vinaya Pitaka, following the Sutta Vibhaṅga and preceding the Parivāra. There are 22 Khandhakas in all, divided into two groups: the Mahāvagga (Mv.), or Great Chapter, composed of ten Khandhakas; and the Cullavagga (Cv.), or Lesser Chapter, composed of twelve. Each Khandhaka is loosely organized around a major topic, with minor topics inserted in a fairly haphazard fashion.
The rule states: “The speech of the Awakened One is not to be raised into meter (a Veda). Whoever should do so: an offense of wrong doing. I allow that the speech of the Awakened One be learned in one’s own dialect.” (Cv.V.33.1).
Cv.V.33.1 reports the efforts of two brahman bhikkhus who set the Buddha’s teachings to meter after objecting to the fact that bhikkhus who had gone forth from different clans, different nationalities, different families were spoiling the Buddha’s words by putting it in “own dialect” (sakkaya niruttiyā). The Buddha however forbade that his teachings be set to meter and allowed that they be learned by each in “own dialect.”
There are two controversies surrounding these two rules. The first is over the meaning of ‘own dialect’. The Commentary insists that it means the Buddha’s own dialect, and that therefore the Dhamma must be memorized in Pali. The context of the story, however, suggests that own dialect means each bhikkhu’s own native dialect. The original reference to bhikkhus of different clans, etc., was a snobbish one (the same phrase shows up in the snobbish comments of Ven. Channa in the origin story to Sg 12), and the two brahman bhikkhus were objecting to the lowly nature of some of the dialects spoken by their fellow bhikkhus. Otherwise, their reference to bhikkhus of different clans, etc., would make no sense in the context of the origin story: The other bhikkhus would have been just as likely to mangle the Buddha’s teachings in metrical form as they would had they tried to memorize them in the Buddha’s own dialect. Also, it is hard to imagine them making a sneering reference to “own dialect” in the Buddha’s presence if, by that, they meant his own dialect. There is epigraphic evidence showing that Pali was not the Buddha’s original dialect—it was instead related to the dialect of Avanti, the area from which Ven. Mahinda left on his mission to Sri Lanka. If the bhikkhus were required to memorize the Buddha’s teachings in the latter’s own dialect, those teachings would never have been put into Pali. So, the allowance must have been for bhikkhus to memorize the Buddha’s teachings each in his own dialect. In showing respect for the Dhamma, there is thus no need to state it in Pali.
The second controversy centers on what is meant by setting the teachings to meter. The Commentary states that it means translating them into a Sanskrit text “like a Veda,” and here the Commentary seems on more solid ground. However, its explanation needs to be further refined for the Buddha’s prohibition to make sense. Meter (chandas) was a Sanskrit term for the Vedas. Thus, to set (literally, “raise”) the Buddha’s teaching into meter meant turning it not just into a text like a Veda, but into an actual Veda, with all the long-term limitations that that would have entailed. After the passage of a few generations, only specialists would be in a position to understand and interpret it. Because the brahmans had made a specialty of mastering the Vedas, the “Buddha-veda” most likely would have become their exclusive possession, subject to interpretations that would have favored their caste. Also, the Buddha’s words would not have easily spread outside of India. Thus, to avoid these limitations, the Buddha forbade that his teachings be turned into a Veda, and instead allowed his followers to memorize the Dhamma each in his own language.
 Oskar von Hinüber: A Handbook of Pali Literature. De Gruyter Publications Inc., Berlin; 1996.
 See Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dipavamsa.
 William Geiger: The Mahāvaṃsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. Ceylon Gov’t. Info. Dept., Columbo. 1960. Also, see the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahavamsa.
 K.R. Norman: The Pāḷi Language and the Theravādin Tradition. In: A History of Indian Literature Vol. VII, Facs. 2, Pāli Literature, 1983. (http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Articles/The%20Pali%20Language%20and%20the%20Theravadin%20Tradition_Norman_1983.pdf)
 For information of the Abhidhamma Pitaka or the Basket of the Abhidhamma see: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/abhi/index.html.
 Gandhāra essentially was a small area lying about where Peshawar is today in a river valley of the Peshawar river, approximately between the modern Afghanistan border on the west and the Indus River on the east. While a small area, it was strategically located on the frontier line between the Indian world, the world of Iran and of Central Asia beyond. In his book, Salomon distinguishes between Gandhāra proper, the small area delineated above, and Greater Gandhāra, the much larger region under the cultural influence of Gandhāra at that time. Basically, that means it is the region in which the local vernacular Gandhāri became the principal language during the first two or three centuries of the CE. Bamiyan is within the Greater Gandhāran area of influence. This was a period when a series of kingdoms and empires were established, mostly by immigrants or invaders from the west and north, particularly the Kushan dynasty from about the mid-first century into the early fourth century CE which had transregional influence in the development of Greater Gandhāra.
 See the Wikipedia entry for the Upanishads: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanishads.
 See the Wikipedia entry for the Vedas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedas.
 From a video of a Keynote Address by Jan Nattier entitled The Proto-History of Buddhist Translation: From Gāndhārī and Pāli to Han-Dynasty Chinese, given at the Translation &Transmission Conference of the Tsadra Foundation, Boulder, Colorado. June 2, 2017. [http://conference-wp.tsadra.org/session/the-proto-history-of-buddhist-translation-from-gandhari-and-pali-to-han-dynasty-chinese/]
 Salomon, 2018. Ibid.
 A.K. Warder: Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi, 2008.
 From Email correspondence with the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, April 19, 2015.
 Erik Braun: The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2013. p.2.
 Braun, 2013; Ibid, p.3.
 Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa: The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāņamoli. BPS Pariyatti Editions, an imprint of Pariyatti Publishing, Onalaska Washington, 1991.
 Braun, 2013; Ibid, pp.5-6.
 Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (the Greater Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness). Sutta 22 in the Digha Nikaya: The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Translated from the Pāli by Maurice Walshe., Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Mass. 1995.
 Braun, 2013; Ibid, p.8.
 Nyanaponika Thera: The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness. Samuel Weiser, Inc., New York. 1996.