Triratna News

Triratna’s first Pali symposium

On Fri, 10 June, 2016 - 18:09
Munisha's picture

Saturday 15th May saw Triratna’s first Pāli Symposium, in Cambridge, UK. Mitra Dr Sarah Clelland reports.

“Jayarava, Dhivan, Śraddhāpa, Jan Osborne and I met in the library of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre to read, translate and discuss two texts - some verses by the bhikkhunī Patācārā from the Therīgāthā, and the Kaccānagotta discourse by the Buddha – as well as investigating the meaning of the Pāli word sutta, which may not after all be the same as the Sanskrit word sūtra. 

As Sangharakshita once wrote, “The ideal method of studying Buddhism would be to read in the original language a number of carefully selected texts belonging to the Pāḷi, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian or Japanese canonical Buddhist literature.” Jan, the newest member of the group, echoed him in saying, “Reading Pāli gives me a sense of a connection to the Buddha’s teachings that reading in English cannot quite do. There is something magical in this process and it is lovely to share this with others in the sangha.”

The idea for the Symposium grew from a small reading group which met in Cambridge for a year. When Dhivan moved away to Bristol, we started thinking about how to grow our little community and reach out to those living farther afield, both beginners and those who already knew Pāli.  

The Symposium was for those who could already read Pāli, and it was a treat to get together with several published scholars. Dhīvan has an MPhil in Sanskrit and Pali from Cambridge University, and wrote This Being That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching on Conditionality. Jayarava has studied Pāḷi, Classical Buddhist Chinese and Sanskrit and is currently writing a book on the history of the idea of karma and rebirth in Buddhism. Śraddhāpa has studied Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese, and Tibetan, and produced new translations of the Pure Land Sutras for Ratnaguna’s book Great Faith, Great Wisdom. As for myself, I’m a mitra living near Cambridge and teach Pāḷi in my spare time.

But we also want to encourage beginners to enter into the word of the Buddha. Jan only began learning Pāli over the last year with Jayarava and me, but she was able to read original texts with us at the Symposium. We would like that opportunity to be there for many more people. Our plans include offering ‘Introduction to Pali’ retreats, producing accessible, user-friendly materials for learning Pali, and of course, holding another Pāḷi Symposium next year.  Come and join us!”

(Dhivan is speaking at York University’s ‘Translating Buddhism’ conference, 30th June - 2nd July.)

triratnapaligroup [at] (Email) the Triratna Pāḷi Group. 
Follow the Triratna Pāḷi Group on Facebook. 
Visit the Triratna Pāḷi Group’s website.

drsarahclelland [at] (Email Sarah Clelland )for Pāli lessons/reading groups near Cambridge.
Follow Dhivan’s blog.
Follow Jayarava’s blog.
Visit Jayarava’s mantra website. 
Look at Jayarava’s scholarly writing.
Follow Jayarava on Twitter: @Jayarava
Follow Śraddhāpa on Facebook.

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LauraP's picture

Hello Munisha, I stumbled upon your post when trying to find information on the difference between suttas and sutras. I remember reading something once that stated there is a difference, but I cannot find anything (apart from an uncited reference to it on Wikipaedia) to confirm it. I noticed you wrote “the Pāli word sutta, which may not after all be the same as the Sanskrit word sūtra.” Do you have any further information on this, or can you point me to a reliable source?

So far I am aware that suttas are the scriptures within the Theravadin school, and sutras are those in the Mahayana school (frequently, but not always, overlapping). The difference I am aware of is that - given the tendencies of the schools - the sutras use imagery, whereas the suttas do not. I know this is very simplistic, so if there is anything else you can add (or correct me on) I would be very grateful.

Many thanks in advance.


Laura x

Munisha's picture

Hello there Laura,

I’m not qualified to answer this question but I’ve forwarded it to those involved so they can enlighten us all!

With metta,

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Hi Laura. I can answer your question. Don’t worry about the quote you cite, “the Pāli word sutta, which may not after all be the same as the Sanskrit word sūtra,” as this was a quote from a talk I gave at the Pāli symposium, which was a technical talk on the derivations of words, not about suttas and sūtras themselves.

The word sutta is in the Pāli language, and the equivalent word in the Sanskrit language is sūtra. So they are the same word in two closely related languages. They both mean the same thing, which is ‘discourse’, and they are both used in relation to discourses of the Buddha.

The early Buddhist discourses, which record the teachings of the Buddha, were preserved in several Indian languages, but only the Pāli version has survived, so when people talk about ‘suttas’ they usually mean ‘early Buddhist discourses’. The Mahāyāna Sūtras do not record the teachings of the Buddha, but instead are literary creations of later Buddhists which in some ways are based on the literary forms of the early Buddhist discourses. So when people talk about ‘sūtras’ they usually mean ‘Mahāyāna discourses’.

There is lots of imagery in early Buddhist discourses, there are lots of stories, gods, miracles, poems, and so on, but in the Mahāyāna discourses the volume is turned up – it’s cosmic sci-fi with tassled elephants.

If you want to read more you could try Sangharakshita’s The Eternal Legacy, or Buddhist Thought in India by Williams, Tribe & Wynne, or Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism. All the best, Dhivan.