Interview: Pāli Literature in Burmese Art

Interview with Venerable Javanasami on the use of Pāli literature in Burmese literary and performance arts, recorded on August 7, 2019, Shan State, Myanmar.

Link to the oratorio theater performance of the Mahosadha Jataka (with music):


“Evaŋ me sutaŋ” .. On the ‘Narrator’ in Pāli Literature

One of the most interesting features of the suttas, and which is mostly overlooked, perhaps due to its systematic and unchanging repetition: is the “evaŋ me sutaŋ” which form the very first sentence of the great majority of suttas. Firstly, this systematic “intro” which means “this is what I heard”, establishes the very existence of the “narrator”, and further, emphasizes the fact that the events which he’s for about to narrate are ones which he didn’t witness himself, but only heard about, which in turn immediately evokes questions such as: “Who is this narrator? And who are those to whom he’s listening and from whom he hears these events? And which of them is the true source of the descriptions not only of the teachings of the Buddha, but also the character of persons and nature of events?”

Secondly, this intro further suggests that, by employing it, that narrator is wholly exempting himself of the burden of originality and the possibility of lying, that is, telling a story as if it was factual. It is as if he’s saying: “This is merely what I heard; whether it be authentic or imagined, true or false, accurate or exaggerated – that I do not claim to know!” It is quite amazing, then, to see the host of researchers knocking their conceptualising and speculating heads against the textual wall, making all sorts of claims about the authenticity of a text that itself, openly states, that nearly all of its content is based on nothing but hearsay!

This is quite a unique feature of Pāli literature which distinguishes it from most other religious texts, where the originality and authenticity not only of the text as a whole, but sometimes down to every letter in it, is being presented as something that is coming from no less than god himself, or from the wisdom or gnosis or revelation from the prophet or founder of the religion. The need for such emphasis on authenticity is of course due to the fact that in most cases, writing down such spiritual or transcendental teachings and doctrines happened only centuries, if not even a millennium after the departure of the founder of the religion, and nearly always in times when sectarian sub-doctrines have already developed with their different and often irreconcilable views on fundamental aspects of doctrine and practice.

I am presently studying more such literary aspects of the Pāli text in general, believing such kind of examination to be potentially very useful on various different levels and in ways which go beyond semantic or etymological analysis of individual words, which has been the common form of linguistic analysis of Pāli literature.

Pāli Rhetoric in Translation

This is the part which least affects purport and interpretation, but mostly of literary interest and value. The Buddha’s rhetorical tongue is well established in Pāli, … We frequently encounter the anaphora, and its counterpart, the epiphora, in prose; in fact more in prose than ever in verse!! They are sometimes unique in Pāli, comparing to other classical languages, and are nearly always left not translated or otherwise reflected in the target language (so … English!). Despite of being usually beautiful and effective in their usage in Pāli, yet quite often they do not readily lend themselves to any emphatic or poetic resonance in English, …
Read the full essay.

The Present State of Dhamma-Understanding

Authenticity and inauthenticity are not to be measured by the sutta, but by each utterance in it. A sutta can involve both authentic and inauthentic utterances, and more prominent in its confounding effects than inauthenticity, is ambiguity, with which the text is rife. So it is not necessarily the case that Abhidharmic and Vedic influences are found in the text due to inauthenticity, but often, Abhidarmic and Vedic influences are found in the interpretation of the text due to its characteristic ambiguity. And this is understandable, because only an accomplished practitioner can allow himself or herself to embark on a completely intuitive, fresh, reinterpretation of the text; and i suspect that even an arahant will meet numerous challenges and exclaim often: “I haven’t a clue what this (sentence, phrase, section, or entire sutta) is talking about!” etc. An interpreter whose practice and training is still ongoing, on the other hand, is in dire need for a point of reference, or points of reference, to aid him in the understanding of that which he cannot fully independently grasp, and in as much as we struggle now to pin down “sankhara”, previous generations in the distant past did just as well, probably even in times before any teachings were committed to writing.

Read the full article.

The Vihāra Sutta Puzzle … Solved?!

Following my paper Issues with Pāli Literature and its Translation, I wish to henceforth demonstrate further some of the points I have made in the paper by taking up some examples from the Sutta Pitaka.

The Pathama- and Dutiya- Vihāra suttas are two short nearly identical suttas (SN 45.11-12) which differ in the reported duration of Buddha’s secluded retreat (a fortnight in the first and three months in the second) and in other unimportant ways relating to the systematic representation of ideas. Reading it carefully, both in the original and in translation, will not fail in arousing one’s curiosity; and it may take some time for one to finally discern its sweetness and super-importance, despite of its ambiguous references which otherwise appear vividly and immediately.

Read the full paper

On the ‘Novelty’ of Pāli Study & Criticism

Pāli is our “Classical” literature and language. It is to us as are Greek and Latin to those studying Western philosophy and science, or as Arabic is to those studying Islam, Sufism, and Middle-Eastern Literature, and so on. But there are these two significant differences which distinguish our Pāli situation from those others.

Read the full essay.