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Thread: To learn Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali or something else?

  1. #1

    To learn Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali or something else?

    If you wanted to learn a foreign language with the aim of reading classic Buddhist works in their original language, which language would you choose? Japanese, Sanskrit or Pali?

    Is it even possible to learn ancient Japanese? I googled a bit and found Nishijima, who said:

    (I think that even Japanese, which Master Dogen used in writing Shobogenzo 13th Century, was so much different from the modern Japanese, and so even though I am a native speaker of Japanese,
    it was necessary for me to spend 16 years to translate Shobogenzo 98 Chapters from the old Japanese by Master Dogen into the modern Japanese today utilizing 8 hours everyday throughout
    365, or 366 days every year.)
    So that's a bit discouraging.

    Any advice welcome!

    --Helena

  2. #2
    If I had to choose I'd certainly choose Pali. That's where it started after all.

    Gassho
    W

  3. #3
    Hi Mr. Walker,

    Yes, but just because something was earlier, does not necessarily mean that it is the most refined or polished version. I think of the early doctrines like the Model T automobile or Wright Brothers airplane, and that centuries of Practice with those doctrines added many improvements. This process is still going on. Now we have the 777 jet!

    For example, I would recommend perhaps English as the best language right now for the study of Buddhism. Why? I believe that a student of Buddhism, in this current day and age, can get a better Buddhist education, have access to talks by teachers, Buddhist books and commentaries on Buddhist books (and participate in a Sangha and have interchange with other students ... as at Treeleaf!! ) better via the internet and their local library than monks ever received at the 'Great Monasteries' in centuries past. I say English, because it is the Lingua Franca right now for international Buddhist discussions. As with Christian monks in centuries past, Buddhist monks in Japan, China, Tibet, Thai, etc., were not necessarily the most educated folks. Nor did they have access to many of the resources and knowledge available to you right now. Even the ancient conditions for Practice and sitting Zazen may not have been as good as what you now have.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4
    Jundo, with all due respect, please read Helena's question again. It was not about whether traditional buddhism is better than a more recent version, and it was not about which language is best to study buddhism.

    Her question was "If you wanted to learn a foreign language with the aim of reading classic Buddhist works in their original language, which language would you choose? Japanese, Sanskrit or Pali? "

    Humbly
    Walker

  5. #5
    Thanks Walker and Jundo,

    I agree that Walker understood my question better I want to learn a language to read classic books. My first ideas were Greek or Hebrew, because I am somewhat familiar with those, but then I thought that it would perhaps be more interesting at this point to be able to read some classic Buddhist texts than it would be to read the Bible or Homer (though the idea of being able to read the Old Testament in Hebrew is still appealing as well -but choices need to be made).

    I am not sure I agree that Pali is the better language because that's where it all started. I also don't think I agree with Jundo's opinion that newer is better - it are just different teachings and I value them all.

    I know that Japanese is known as a hard language to learn and that Dogens books are also known as difficult. Does that mean that trying to learn Japanese with the goal of being able to read Dogen in Japanese is doomed to fail? One side-benefit for me of learning Japanese would be that it might still be useful today (in, uhm, say, understanding Japanese video games).

    I don't know anything about Sanskrit or Pali. I read (on Wikipedia) that there is some scientific debate over whether to use Pali or Sanskrit sources; is there a benefit to learning Sanskrit over Pali? It seems that there are more resources for learning Sanskrit than Pali, and that western students usually learn Sanskrit. Are Sanskrit/Pali significantly more or less difficult to learn than Japanese?

    Does anyone here read any of these languages?

    --Helena

  6. #6
    Hi Helena,

    I don't know any of those languages, but I have a teacher who does translation work in all three!

    Just this past week, we had a conversation about Pali and Sanskrit. He said that they are often quite similar languages - about as similar as Latin & French.

    Sanskrit is the language of the early Mahayana texts (like the Chinese Agamas).

    Some of the Pali liturgy has been preserved in the Japanese tradition (the Three Refuges is one that I know). But there's a lot more Sanskrit terms around than Pali (eg "karma" not "kamma," "prajna" not "pranna"). And the popular Mahayana mantras (like the Great Compassion Mantra, Heart Sutra, etc) are in Sanskrit (and Chinese/ Japanese/ etc of course).

    So I guess it depends on what you mean by "classic" works. The earliest Buddhist canon is Pali, but there are an awful lot of ancient scriptures (Mahayana, Sarvastivada, etc) in Sanskrit instead.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Mr Walker
    Jundo, with all due respect, please read Helena's question again. It was not about whether traditional buddhism is better than a more recent version, and it was not about which language is best to study buddhism.

    Her question was "If you wanted to learn a foreign language with the aim of reading classic Buddhist works in their original language, which language would you choose? Japanese, Sanskrit or Pali? "

    Humbly
    Walker
    Hi,

    Absolutely right on all counts. Sorry. And, yes, many old things are better than new! I did not mean to leave the impression otherwise!! (I know that this is true for rock music).

    I have no particular comment on the language study issue, except to say that classical Chinese and classical Japanese are very far removed from the modern. I am now trying to move from modern Japanese to classical. I find it rather like moving from English to Spanish.

    I have heard that Pali is relatively simple to pick up compared to the Chinese and Japanese.

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... gpali.html

    Gassho, Jundo

  8. #8
    Hi again,

    Now that I think about it - I'm not sure how much of the Chinese Agamas are really still in Sanskrit. I think it's mostly Sanskrit written with Chinese characters.

    I'll ask my teacher on Tuesday.

  9. #9
    I know that Japanese is known as a hard language to learn
    I guess it may depend on the person undergoing the study, but I'd have to say that Japanese is probably the easiest language to learn.

  10. #10
    Jundo
    (I know that this is true for rock music).
    Hehe. As somewhat of a musicologist, I have to disagree.

    I'll see what I can dig up.

    Gassho

  11. #11

    old versus new

    One thing I thought I'd mention. hehe A little off Zen topic.

    Perhaps what you like about older rock music is it's rawness and feel. Today anyone with a half decent computer and some programs can record an album similiar to anything today. One of the big things in the industry today is "compression", which (if you don't know) makes the music sound louder by: basically bringing up the lower sounds under a certain amount of decibles and compressing the louder decibles. This leaves the music with a little amount of dynamics. A lot of people who master music as a living actually don't like this. One person said "the volume of the music should be up to the listener。"

    Compared to an old recording where there is not so much or no compression, you can get the dynamics of the sound. It sounds somewhat more earthy or real.

    Another industry standard is "Band" or "Superstar" packaging. Which means image is more important than the music. It has been around since record labels existed. It's what sells records a lot of the time. However, if one can get past all the Hocus Pocus they'll find some good music. I don't like to classify music as this is bad or that is good. There is definitley some good music out there right now, but you have to look a little harder. The industry has become really saturated.

    A good place to look is "Indie Labels" and bands. Indie music kind of goes against the grain of what is popular. You'll also find a lot less polished music than what you hear on the radio.

    Some indie labels are:
    Hardwood Records
    Matador
    Kill Rock Stars
    Lookout
    K Records
    Touch and Go
    Thrill Jockey

    A couple indie bands (Canada has a huge Indie scene or maybe had)

    Hayden
    Elliot Smith (Album: Either/Or, Self Titled )
    Weezer (the blue album and Pinkerton)
    Thrush Hermit
    Joel Plaskett
    Modest Mouse
    Red House Painters
    Built to Spill
    Badly Drawn Boy (first album)
    The Strokes (First Album, Mainstream but fun)
    Beck (mainstream)
    And the list goes on...

    Gassho Will

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by paige
    I don't know any of those languages, but I have a teacher who does translation work in all three!
    Wow!

    Quote Originally Posted by paige
    Just this past week, we had a conversation about Pali and Sanskrit. He said that they are often quite similar languages - about as similar as Latin & French.
    Oh. I hoped it would be more like Spanish and Italian, because the similarities seem so striking (dharma/dhamma indeed) :?

    Quote Originally Posted by paige
    So I guess it depends on what you mean by "classic" works. The earliest Buddhist canon is Pali, but there are an awful lot of ancient scriptures (Mahayana, Sarvastivada, etc) in Sanskrit instead.
    I am not sure. I think it would be great to be able to read the Heart Sutra or the Dhammapadda or Dogen in its original language, but that's just because I don't know anything about Buddhist literature yet. It is difficult to know what would be most useful, because sometimes you only know that after the fact. For example: I discovered my interest in the Gospel of John only after I could read it in Greek and better understood what it was about.

    Could you ask your teacher if he has a recommendation for a beginner? (I did learn Greek and Latin in school - I am not totally new to the concept of learning foreign languages).

    Quote Originally Posted by Jun
    I guess it may depend on the person undergoing the study, but I'd have to say that Japanese is probably the easiest language to learn.
    Could you elaborate on that a little bit more? What makes Pali and Sanskrit harder in your opinion?

    My searchings on the internet were not that encouraging either (this website was a notable exception), and I am starting to wonder if my time and effort at this point might be better spent elsewhere. Still, I would like to learn a language with my child when she is older and if she is interested, so your opinions remain welcome.

    Jundo, thanks for the link. I feel that we live in miraculous times. Never before could a normal person like myself learn a totally foreign ancient language, and now I can just buy the book that everybody recommends for only 15 dollars.

  13. #13

  14. #14
    Hi again Helena,

    I spoke to my teacher yesterday, and he confirmed my suspicions that there's not a lot of Sanskrit left in the Chinese records. In fact, the Chinese translations are often a lot older than the Sanskrit documents found in India, Tibet, etc.

    I found links to a couple of (free!) online Pali courses, can't vouch for the quality:

    http://www.tipitaka.net/pali/pali.php?course=index
    http://bodhimonastery.net/courses/Pali/course_Pali.html

    Also, the Buddhist community E-sangha has a number of language forums - the Pali one seems to have the most traffic. For some reason, you need to register for an account just to read the posts. Weird.

    Hope that's helpful,

    -paige

  15. #15
    Hi Helena!

    Say, would you be willing to tell us a little about why you would like to undertake this type of learning? How are you hoping this will enrich your understanding of your practice?

    I ask because my younger son, Eli, is a collector of languages. Right now he's fairly conversant in English (as a native speaker), Japanese, Spanish and German. (He's lived in Japan, Mexico and Germany for varying amounts of time.) He is studying Russian, Czech, and Arabic at this time and is doing quite well (he is self taught through the Rosetta Stone programmes.) I can see him getting to Sanskrit or Pali or something ancient as time goes on.

    I have asked him what drives his need for learning languages as he doesn't seem to want to do anything like translate or work for the UN or anything. He says "just cuz," which is as good as it gets (he's the 25 year old in the Missoula cave.) :P

    You seem to have a goal for this and I'm really interested in how you see it working in your life.

    In Gassho,

    *Lynn

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by paige
    In fact, the Chinese translations are often a lot older than the Sanskrit documents found in India, Tibet, etc.
    Oh no! I would never have considered that possibility, though it does make sense.

    Thanks for asking, and for the links (thanks to you too Will). I will check them out, you are very helpful.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lynn
    Say, would you be willing to tell us a little about why you would like to undertake this type of learning? How are you hoping this will enrich your understanding of your practice?
    My main motivation is that I find that reading something in its original language provides a depth that translations just cannot provide. I just bought an English version of "Winnie the Pooh" for my daughter and was astonished about the difference it made over the (very good) Dutch translation. And this is just a translation of an English children's book to Dutch. When you translate ancient wisdom from the other side of the world, you lose so much more.

    So, no lofty goals like becoming a UN translator here either, but I hope I answered your question

    --Helena

  17. #17
    Thanks, Helena! BTW, if you would like to read a Buddhst book of translated work that is just fabulous (especially the intros to each chapter) please have a gander at "In the Buddha's Words" trans. by Bikkhu Bodhi. It's an anthology of his full works translating the Pali Canon. A true gem.

    In Gassho~

    *Lynn

  18. #18
    Lynn,

    Great Recommendation!!! I'm re-reading it right now in preparation for tackling the four major Nikayas. We really owe a debt to Bhikkhu Bodhi and Wisdom Publications for making them available to us.

    In Gassho,

    Greg

  19. #19
    Thanks Lynn! I will check that out. I really like classic books with good introductions and explanations. I find that without those, I am usually lost, because it is such a different time and culture.

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