Sunday 20 May 2012

Pali Revival and Survival in Cambodia

(1) This is a short notice on some of the things that make the comparative study of Pali and Cambodian so rewarding, and also a few reflections as to why it is now so rare.

(2) Take a look at the illustration.  This is a nanoscale study of just two lines of Pali that equate to three lines of Cambodian text in translation.  Several different language asymmetries arise from this comparison.

Some obvious asymmetries are set out in the table forming the bottom half of the illustration --and these can be seen by someone understanding no language except English.

In some cases, the Khmer-script spelling is identical in the Pali and the (verncaular) Cambodian, but with a wildly different pronunciation:
 • [Pali] paṇḍita ☛ បណ្ឌិត ☛ [Khmer] bąndüt
In other cases, you have the conflation of multiple Pali words in one verncaular Khmer spelling, as is noted with:
 • [Pali] bāla & vāla ☛ ពាល ☛ [Khmer] piel

Some of the other asymmetries require some knowledge of the languages involved to detect.

You might notice that Khmer ស្លាប់ does indeed have the vowel marker for long ā after the first two consonants, but, nevertheless, it is quite necessary for this to be Romanized with a short aˑ (explicitly marked as sláˑp; the symbol after the á [ˑ] is the I.P.A. standard for indicating a short vowel, bearing the awkward technical name of "the triangular half-colon").

Thus, orthographically, we have ស+ល+ ា= ស្លា, but phonetically, we have s+l+áˑ=sláˑ (because sláˑp≠sláːp, they're two different words in contemporary Khmer).  A few specialists may complain that I'm not digressing into the mark that appears above the "p" in Khmer script (ប់ at the end of ស្លាប់) but my reason (for failing to do so) is simply that this would be a digression.

(3) On the top half of the illustration, there are some asymmetries of other kinds.

There are two footnotes to the Khmer-script Pali (top-left, and reproduced in the Romanized Pali, top-right) indicating two (minor) differences between the Cambodian edition of the Pali text and the Sinhalese edition.

However, this isn't the only difference that emerges from comparative reading.  This entire poem in the D.N. (i.e., that these two lines were quoted from) is omitted from the early translation of T.W. Rhys-Davids (1881), based on Sinhalese manuscripts edited by Childers (JRAS 1875-6).  These verses are very similar to a few lines found in the K.N., Sutta-Nipāta, Sallasutta; the two passages may (or may not) share a single origin.

This, too, is an asymmetry that only becomes evident through comparison, and would lead to more comparative reading to see how consistently (or inconsistently) the poem appears with the remainder of the text in different versions preserved by different manuscript traditions.

(4) The asymmetries that arise purely from modern translation are less instructive, but do provide practice of a certain kind for the reader (if you are really reading all three languages concerned).

Does [Khmer] kháŋ-muk really render [Pali] parāyaṇa adequately in this context?  This type of question would arise with any translation of an ancient (dead) language into a modern vernacular, but it is a bit more intellectually stimulating in the Cambodian context (than in English, Chinese, etc.) because of the long historical interaction between the languages involved, and also because of the frequent reliance upon Pali loan-words in the Khmer rendering.  Frequently, these loan-words have shifted in meaning since they were first adopted from Pali (as happens so frequently with English borrowing from Latin and Greek).

For a student of the languages concerned, this type of problem is worth puzzling at primarily as a method of study: you end up memorizing fine distinctions in the (overlapping) range of meanings of all of the words concerned.  It isn't something that anyone should pursue as if it were paleontology: in undertaking this type of work, you wouldn't be in the position of digging up dinosaur bones.  Admittedly, it's closer to digging ditches simply to build up your strength (or as a competitive sport).

With philology and philosophy both, the process is the product: the reason to take on this type of work is to make yourself into a scholar.  There is rarely any other outcome or reward.

(5) I have never met anyone evaluating the Cambodian translations of Pali sources, nor (despite much asking) have I ever heard of anyone doing such work in the past.

The comparative study of controversial passages would allow us to evaluate the extent to which the Khmer translators exercised their independence, in contrast to (pre-existing) English, French and Thai translations.  To some extent, the distinctively Cambodian form of Buddhism would be declared in these differences, or least, Cambodian assumptions about the texts that were incompatible with the other translations might come to the fore.  Conversely, we definitely would also find evidence of the degree of diffidence of a bygone era of Cambodian scholar-monks, who were racing to catch up with European scholarship, and who certainly copied a great deal from the earlier precedents in Europe.  Some of them aspired to imitate the European sources, others to contradict them or outdo them; in looking back (and looking forward) it is not always easy to see who was pursuing which course.

The "new" translations (of Pali into Khmer) that I found in Phnom Penh were all minor rewordings of the old translation published (as the Cambodian canon) in the Buddhist Institute edition associated with the generation of Chuon Nath.

I formed this opinion through comparative reading of the most cursory kind (in this case, comparing Khmer to Khmer --not my forte).  In the new editions that I saw (generally closer to pamphlets than books) all of the changes seemed to be intended to avoid repetition, to achieve a more natural-sounding sentence, etc.; I didn't discover any examples (in my completely unscientific survey) that were substantively "new".  It remains interesting that such books are being published at all, and that they include the original Pali parallel to the Khmer translation.

(6) Another approach to interrogating these texts would be to start from a list of errors (i.e., that we already know to be wrong) originating in old European translations (by Rhys-Davids, etc.) to verify the extent to which the Khmer translation reproduces these errors (that could only have originated in English or French, as the case may be, and could not have arisen in Cambodian spontaneously).  A similar "test" could be run, in some cases, to check for Thai influence (and there was a great deal of Thai influence at that time, because the director of the Buddhist Institute was herself a scholar of Thai, and neither of Cambodian nor Pali, at the time of her appointment by the French to the position).

(7) The lack of any long-term interest in developing scholarship (or even reading comprehension) amongst the donors and the beneficiaries alike has been a recurrent feature of the failed revival of the last ten years.

Manuscript projects, publishing projects, libraries and even universities are predominantly thought of in terms of construction.  The shortage is presumed to be a number of concrete rooms and parking spaces; whereas, in fact, the shortage is of scholars, and of advanced literacy in any of the languages concerned (Khmer, English and Pali).

Libraries have been built, along with monasteries and universities too.  Books have been reprinted, distributed, and now accumulate layers of dust in the same concrete rooms that the donors rushed to provide for a revival that was presumed --but that did not ensue.

I recall a dialogue with the publisher for a (donor-driven) project that was typesetting the entire Pali canon anew (in Khmer script, and with Khmer translation alongside the Pali).  This was under the direction of someone who apparently was fluent in none of the languages concerned (neither Khmer nor Pali) and the actual typing was being done by people who (at most) had some understanding of the Khmer (but some, I suspect, were more familiar with Chinese than Khmer).  Many of these positions (of decisive influence over the project) are determined by fundraising, or else direct donations (in plain English: money).  Of course, the standard for Khmer spelling has actually changed since the original text that they will be copying from, so the matter is not so mechanical as it might seem, even in working from Khmer to Khmer.  New decisions would have to be made (even in such spelling conventions) even if there were no impulse to innovation whatsoever.

Unlike the illustration you've just seen (examining only two lines of Pali) the source text in that project would neither be examined in contrast to the Sinhalese edition, nor to any other; the translation will neither be contrasted to the English, nor any other.  The questions of asymmetry internal to the Khmer edition also will not be puzzled at.  At best, the typists won't introduce too many new errors into the text (as typing a language that you have no comprehension of is much more difficult than typing one that you do: I have no idea how they will "proof-read" the Pali, but my assumption is that it will be approximate at best).

There were zero scholars of any kind involved in scrutinizing the text; worse, there were neither scholars nor students simply learning from it, as the undertaking unfolded.

The process of reading and revising such a text is a tremendous opportunity to learn, even if no improvements are made.  The participation of a number of aspiring scholars in such a project could have created an entire generation of people with reading comprehension of Pali.  The same is true of scribal projects: copying manuscripts need not be a mechanical or meaningless process, but can involve quite a lot of thinking, of exactly the type shown in my two-line example illustrated.

The positive effects of philology can be much more durable than a concrete shack in the tropics.  The "real estate" is thought of as a more tangible and durable outcome of donor intervention; however, in the tropics, the buildings and bookshelves do not last nearly so long as Europeans might imagine.  The donors feel assured that their money isn't being wasted if they can see the outcomes; however, there is nothing easier to fake than the quality of construction itself, unless the donors are truly scrutinizing the concrete as it gets poured.

The result of the example I've just mentioned will probably be an edition full of errors, but, more importantly, it will be a lost opportunity to really produce the next generation of scholars (as the race to compile the canon, and its coeval dictionay, in Chuon Nath's time did before).

Copying out the Pali canon is not a process comparable to setting up a concrete monument (although it is most definitely thought of as equivalent).  The most valuable product is not the printed page, but the scholars capable of scrutinizing the page --and that is exactly what Cambodia is lacking (and what Canada is lacking also, for that matter).

(8) The conditions are not unique to Cambodia: I received a detailed verbal detailed account (from one of the monks present) of the process of typing out one of Thailand's official canons.

The incompetence of the typists was ensured because the job was granted to donors, on the basis of donations.  When a typewritten page was complete, it would be handed to the one monk considered competent to proof-read it.  This monk (who was extremely elderly, with failing vision) would then circle the errors.  The page would then be handed back to the same (Pali-illiterate) typists, who would produce another page, with a different set of errors, at the same rate.

All of the crucial stages were handled by people who both (i) had zero competence in Pali, but, worse, (ii) who had zero long-term interest in developing competence in Pali.  Making mistakes is inevitable; the problem is that the people who have been given the opportunity to make those mistakes are not interested in learning from them.  In this way, a donor-driven project can institutionalize incompetence.

In both instances, Cambodia and Thailand, the donors' money will be spent much like a construction project: the output will be measured in so many hours spent at so many typewriters, producing so many volumes in so many years, just like bricks going into a wall.  Measuring the number of people with reading comprehension of Pali at the start and at the end of the project might be a more important statistic.

(9) The post-war context of Cambodia allows rumors of revival to arise without any basis in fact.  The implicit contrast to the Khmer Rouge makes even a rotting facade seem like a revival --and, indeed, many of the facades created 20 years ago are now rotting rather badly.

There are others who can (and should) write articles about it, but, during the years that I visited Cambodia, it seemed that I witnessed the last spark of life depart from Phnom Penh's Buddhist Institute.  The director there admitted to me openly (during our first meeting) that they had already been blacklisted by many of the donor agencies, and that I should not even mention the name of the institute in my own applications for funding, i.e., even if my plan was to actually base the project in their offices, and co-operate with them.  No such co-operation eventuated, and, on the contrary, in the succeeding years, I was an occasional witness to the skilled staff disappearing (amidst rumors I won't repeat here), the foreign-funded projects disappeared, and, finally, the books disappeared out of the offices.  I am not even insinuating that the books were stolen, however, the office pertaining to Pali had a shelf full of reference materials at one stage, and, the last time I was there, all of the books had disappeared from the same room (perhaps simply because they weren't being used).

Even the very modest manuscript project funded by the EFEO (at Wat Unnalom) has finally folded up its table and closed its doors (firing its last few staff, as of the news that reached me most recently).  The reason I was given for this was simply a lack of money; however, it is more often the case that the money is weighed against throughput and output (in other words, it is rare to encounter a question of money that is not related to a question of value).

When I met with the Japanese charity responsible for reprinting the Khmer-Pali canon (with the Buddhist Institute's name on it), I was astounded to hear them declaim that they had absolutely no interest in Pali, nor in Cambodian Buddhism generally.  They considered themselves "development professionals", who were burdened with these Buddhist publishing projects because their donors (in Japan) forced them to take on the burden, against the interests of the organization, in their opinion.  I wouldn't have guessed this if I hadn't heard it from the executives of the charity directly; however, this example reflects how arbitrarily responsibility is both arrogated by and discarded by those who have their logos stamped on the title pages of Pali texts.

Is this simply donor disinterest, or is it a longer-term pattern of (i) donor-driven development, followed by (ii) donor disappointment and (iii) donor flight?

I both read about and verbally heard about a foreign-funded project for female monks that received no support from the local community (and, indeed, I don't think the monks were even cultivating the support or respect of their parishioners).  When the foreign funding stopped, the project collapsed with some acrimony.  Some people reported this to me as a great injustice; however, from the donor's perspective, the point of the project was not to create a situation of perpetual dependency, but instead to establish some basis for a (viable) community-based project in future.  The final phase of every project must be self-reliance, and that self-reliance must entail the end of foreign funding.

From the donor's perspective, poverty and war are not exceptional, they're the norm: if you have the liberty of donating money to any cause, anywhere in the world, you would need very palpable proof that your money was not being wasted to sink money into anything more scholarly than a sack of rice in Cambodia.  There are plenty of people who could use that sack of rice.

It isn't an easy thing for monks (of any gender) to earn the respect of laypeople, and, in this case (that I am leaving unnamed) the foreign money (and "haughty" sense of entitlement among the monastics) could have prevented the very development of grassroots support that it was supposed to encourage.  The perception of arrogance is a very weighty matter in Cambodian culture, and very difficult to translate in full for outsiders.  Memorably, while I was in Phnom Penh, there was a case reported in the newspaper of an old woman in robes arrived at one of the major temples from the countryside seeking sanctuary; she responded to the arrogance of the refusal she received (from a younger, male monk) by attempting suicide on the spot, at the gates of the same temple.  The degrees of respect and disrespect expressed between one monastic and another, as well as between monastics and laypeople, are deadly serious matters in Cambodia; at the time, it was easy for me to imagine the sense of disgrace (and also of "revenge" against the institution) that motivated the attempted suicide, although it is not difficult to imagine that the younger monk may have been offended at the old woman's sense of entitlement to arrive unannounced and demand a bed.

(10) In beholding the brightly-painted concrete walls that now surround so many temples in Cambodia, it is easy for the casual observer to imagine that there has been a tremendous religious revival in the last 10 years.  I did not meet a single person in Cambodia (neither monk nor layperson, neither student nor professor) who was learning Pali, nor any who aspired to learn reading comprehension of Pali.  Outsiders tend to grossly underestimate the extent of this problem, because they (falsely) assume that the ability to chant a number of short texts (in the context of a funeral ritual, etc.) indicates reading comprehension of the language.

Over a period of several years visiting the country from adjacent Laos and Thailand, plus more than one year living within Cambodia continuously, I did meet several monks who had gone to Sri Lanka to study and who had then returned to Cambodia.  They had learned English, not Pali; they had merely learned to say things about the history of Pali, not to read the language.

Everywhere I went in Cambodia, I encountered people who lectured me about Pali (presuming that they knew much more than I did) who had very basic misconceptions about what the language is (and what it is not).  This included monks, university professors, and so on, as well as people who had no formal education, but who sometimes claimed a connection to Pali literacy via a deceased grandfather.  In its way, this experience was a sort of survey of social attitudes toward the language (and related areas of religion, literature and learning) in 21st century Cambodia.  I can't say that I enjoyed it.

There was a time when Cambodians were proud to present their own versions of the ancient texts, in contrast to both the Europeans and the Burmese.  They were able to muster this palpable link to their ancient past (in both manuscripts and printed editions) when their representatives attended the 20th century council to revise the canon that was convened in Burma, starting in 1954 (an historical event about which there are still more rumors than facts circulating).  When (former) King Sihanouk visited Sri Lanka, he was proud to donate Cambodian palm-leaf manuscripts (in Pali) to the Sinhalese temples he visited.  Thanks to the translation provided to me by Rev. Nyanatusita, I saw some of those manuscripts when I was in Sri Lanka; I think they had been unwrapped very few times since their initial donation, perhaps not even once.  It remains a palpable link to the past, but it is a link that fewer and fewer people care about.

You can teach a language; you can provide the opportunity to learn a language.  You cannot teach people to want to learn a language; you cannot force people not to squander the opportunities they're given.  In Cambodia, the opportunities have been squandered both by the donors and the recipients.

Reprinting (and literally photocopying) old books does not entail a revival: at a minimum, a revival would require reading comprehension of whatever those books contain.  In Cambodia, the facade of Buddhist education is maintained by large numbers of students in robes who learn everything from accounting to carpentry --and who proceed to quit the monastery for the secular life as soon as their university degrees are complete.

In many ways, large and small, Cambodia is coming to the end of an era of excuses: donor fatigue is inevitable, and there will always be another disaster somewhere to command public sympathy.  The cause of literacy and philology is never an emergency: it can't really be justified in the same humanitarian terms as the proverbial sack of rice.


[Addendum: wondering what Cambodians have to say about it?  Take a look at the comments section that follows below KI-Media's reprinting of the article.]