Pali Text Society

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PALI TEXT SOCIETY . In 1881 British scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids (18431922) founded the Pali Text Society (PTS) to facilitate the study of Theravāda Buddhism by producing editions in roman characters of the Theravāda texts written in the language called Pali, and translations of as many as possible of them into English. Pali literature includes the Pali canon, a collection of texts the Theravāda Buddhists claim preserves the "words of the Buddha," and the commentaries on those canonical texts, as well as the subcommentaries on the commentaries, independent works of history and poetry, and works about ritual practice and monastic discipline.

Rhys Davids had learned Pali from Theravāda Buddhist monks during his years in the Ceylon Civil Service (18661872). In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) he came to regard Theravāda as the oldest form of Buddhism, and its Pali literature as the repository of the most authentic Buddhist teachings. Upon his return to England, Rhys Davids continued his study of Buddhism and contributed to some of the earliest efforts by European scholars to edit, translate, and interpret Pali texts. He founded the PTS to complete this task. By doing so, he sought to deepen international understanding of Buddhism, and thereby to advance the study of the history of religion, language, and human culture. From the outset, the work of the PTS interested scholars in Europe, America, and Asia. It also appealed to the members of the growing middle class in Britain whose recent access to higher education, increased income, and leisure time enabled them to explore foreign religions as alternatives to what they saw as the empty materialism of modern science and the mindless dogmatism of the dominant religions of their own culture.

Rhys Davids succeeded in enlisting European and Asian scholars to edit and translate Pali texts. Although these scholars donated their services and subsidized the work by purchasing subscriptions to the Society, Rhys Davids needed more funds to cover the costs of printing the projected tens of thousands of pages. He obtained early support from the king of Siam (now Thailand), who funded the first volume, from private friends whose subscriptions supported the second, and from "poor men and scholars" (including Buddhist monks in Ceylon) who each paid a guinea (£1.05) a year to receive one copy of each of the PTS publications. Rhys Davids frequently urged "anyone intelligent enough" to see the significance of the Society's work to donate funds.

At first the PTS undertook the apparently finite task of completing the publication of roman-character editions of the canonical Pali texts, and translating into English as many of those texts as possible. The scope of the Society's work soon expanded to include editing the Pali commentaries. In 1896, Rhys Davids reported that in just twelve years the PTS had accomplished about half its work, having published thirty-four volumes. By the time of Rhys Davids's death in 1922, the PTS had issued sixty-four texts in ninety-four volumes, and had begun to publish a new Pali-English dictionary. Two years later, his wife and the second president of the PTS, Caroline Rhys Davids, reported that the original task of the PTS was completedunless the Society undertook the translation of more texts into English or the editing of the Pali subcommentaries. The PTS carried on with this expanded mission, under the leadership of Caroline Rhys Davids and, after her death, of W. H. D. Rouse (president 19421950), then W. Stede (president 19501958), and I. B. Horner (hon. secretary 19421959, president 19591981).

In 1954, Horner reported that the PTS founder's dream of making the Pali literature available in the West was "all but realised," with the publication of 123 volumes of Pali texts and commentaries, plus the shorter texts and commentaries included in the Society's journal, forty-eight volumes of translations, and the publication (19211925) of the PTS Pali-English Dictionary. She noted that the Society had also begun to produce a concordance of the Pali canonical literature, a project originally envisioned by Caroline Rhys Davids. According to Horner, the "only" remaining tasks were to complete the last few editions of the Pali commentaries, to produce editions of one or two subcommentaries, as well as editions of a few "other and later works," and to translate more texts. Horner also considered it advisable, given the advances in the study of Pali in the first half of the twentieth century, to begin to re-edit and retranslate some of the earlier volumes, as well as to reprint texts and translations to keep available as many volumes as possible.

From the 1950s onfirst under Horner and then during the successive tenures of PTS presidents K. R. Norman (19811994), Richard Gombrich (19942002), L. S. Cousins (20022003), and Rupert Gethin (beginning in 2003)the work of the PTS has proven to be ever-expanding, while remaining remarkably true to Rhys Davids's original vision. The PTS now publishes new and revised editions and reprints of Pali texts in roman characters, English translations of these texts, dictionaries (including the multi-volume Dictionary of Pali by Margaret Cone), a concordance, grammars and other books for students of Pali language, and a journal. The Society has also collaborated with the Dhammakaya Foundation of Thailand to publish the entire PTS edition of the Pali canon on CD-ROM. In addition the PTS offers grants to scholars for research expected to foster future publications of Pali texts.

The foundational work of the PTS, like the initial development of Buddhist Studies as a separate field of academic research, took place in the context of western Europe's colonial domination of large portions of Buddhist Asia. Western scholars, as well as western-educated Asian scholars, who studied Buddhist traditions during that period tended to reflect colonial attitudes in the methods and aims of their work. In the widely accepted interpretive framework of their time, the beliefs and practices of living Asian Buddhists were seen as degenerate manifestations of a pure philosophy taught long ago by the Buddha, which had been developed legitimately into its full "classical" form, and subsequently corrupted by many centuries of unenlightened folk practices. Scholars who sought to recover the authentic Buddhist teaching focused on gaining access to and interpreting the written texts, which they saw as the most promising sources of Buddhism's "classical" formulations of the Buddha's wisdom. Quickly shipping whatever such texts they found in Asia off to the libraries of Europe for safe-keeping and careful study, they edited, translated, analyzed, and interpreted them to determine the shape and content of the real Buddhismone that existed over and above the particular cultural contexts in which it appears.

Not surprisingly, for many decades the publications of the PTS reflected this narrowly intellectualized, exclusive understanding of Asia's Buddhist traditions. More recently, as Europe has moved beyond colonialism, scholars of Buddhism have developed more nuanced and inclusive ways of discussing their subject matter. Although the work of the PTS, by necessity, remains focused on texts, its publications continue to incorporate the latest developments in philology and to reflect the changing assumptions and methodological approaches of Buddhist Studies. By producing substantially revised editions and translations of previously published texts and expanding the range of new texts it publishes, the PTS continues to foster and promote the study of Pali literature in service of greater understanding of the history of religion, language, and human culture.

See Also

Buddhism; Horner, I. B.


Carpenter, J. Estlin. "The Passing of the Founder." Journal of the Pali Text Society 7, no. 4 (19201923; reprint, London, 1978): 121.

Hallisey, Charles. "Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravāda Buddhism." In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by Donald S. Lopez, pp. 3161. Chicago and London, 1995.

Horner, I. B. "The Pali Text Society." The Middle Way 29, no. 3 (1954): 122123.

Horner, I. B. "Early Days of Western Pali Studies." The Middle Way 39, no. 3 (1964): 109112.

Lopez, Donald S. "Introduction." In his Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, pp. 129. Chicago and London, 1995.

Norman, K. R. "The Pali Text Society: 18811981." In Collected Papers. Vol. 2, no. 47, pp. 194199. Oxford, 1991.

Norman, K. R. "The Pali Text Society: 198186." In Collected Papers. Vol. 3, no. 62, pp. 108114. Oxford, 1991.

Norman, K. R. "The Pali Text Society: Its Contribution to Buddhist Literature." Jagajjyoti: Sanghanayak Dharmapal Mahathera Felicitation Volume, pp. 8994. Calcutta, 2000.

Pali Text Society homepage:

Rhys Davids, T. W. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Some Points in the History of Indian Buddhism (The Hibbert Lectures, 1881). 2d ed. London, 1891.

Rhys Davids, T. W. Buddhism: Its History and Literature (American Lectures on the History of Religions, First Series, 18941895). New York and London, 1896.

Wickremeratne, L. Ananda. The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. New Delhi, 1985.

Grace G. Burford (2005)