The King of Siam's Edition of the Pali Tipitaka

By Robert Chalmers
Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society
1898, pp. 1-10

p. 1 Though four years have passed since the publication, at Bangkok, of thirty-nine volumes of the Pali Canon, under the auspices of His Majesty the King of Siam,(1) it was not till a more recent date that, thanks to His Majesty's _munificence, copies of this monumental work reached the Royal Asiatic Society, and other libraries in Europe, and so became available for study by Western scholars. The recent visit of the King to this country gave me an oppor- tunity of discussing the genesis and circumstances of the edition with H.R.H. Prince Sommot; and I now desire to communicate to the Royal Asiatic Society the information which I owe to the Prince's scholarship and courtesy. The value of that information will be recognized when it is stated that Prince Sommot is Private Secretary to the King, served on the Editing Committee, and is brother to the Priest-Prince Vajirananavarorasa, who has edited eleven out of the thirty-nine volumes already published. ----------- 1. His Majesty has informed the Society that there will follow in due course an edition of the Atthakathas and Tikas. p. 2 The first matter which I sought to clear up was the purport of the Siamese preface prefixed to every volume. This preface, though written in Siamese, contains so con- siderable an admixture of Pali words and idioms that it requires a sound knowledge of Pali as well as Siamese for its comprehension. The following is a translation:-- "Faustum Sit! Dated Saturday, the first day of the fortnight of waning moon in Magha month of the Mouse year, 2,431 years since the Buddha died. "King Culalankarana, son of King Maha-Makuta, be- thought him how all the teachings of the Buddha, which the followers of the Buddha have learned and fulfilled from earliest times till now, have all sprung from the Tipitaka. From the beginning it has ever been the wont of royal kings who were Buddhists and professed Buddhism, to maintain the faith, to support the Order, and to aid successive Councils, first to purify the Canon (such has been the royal custom uninterruptedly), and thereafter to compile a book of the scriptures as the authoritative exemplar and accepted standard for all Buddhist lands. "In early times Buddhist kingdoms were still inde- pendent; the king of each was a Buddhist, and both endowed and supported Buddhism. This was the case in many countries, to wit, Siam, Ceylon, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. When accident or injury befell the sacred books, so that portions of the Canon were lost, each kingdom was able and was wont to borrow from others, and so to restore its own copy to a complete state; and such exchange was mutual. But in the present time Ceylon and Burma have come under English dominion; the governors of those countries are not Buddhists; they take measures to foster the secular rather than the spiritual welfare of the people; and they do not maintain Buddhism as did the old Buddhist kings. Thus it has come to pass that Buddhist priests have from time to time set up different sects according to their own lights; and, as the bad naturally outnumbered the good, the faith has p. 3 been perverted, now in one direction, now in another, as seemed good to each one in turn. Cambodia came under French dominion, so that the people there could not maintain the faith in its full vigour. As regards the country of Laos, which is in the kingdom of Siam, the princes and people there professed a distorted form of the faith, which included such errors as the worship of angels and demons, and therefore cannot be regarded as having authority. "Thus, if the text of the Tipitaka is in doubt, there is nowhere to be found that with which to compare and amend it as before. Hence it is only in Siam that Buddhism stands inviolate. It follows, then, that the present is a fitting time to look into the scriptures, to purge them, and to multiply copies of them for circulation, so as to form an immutable standard of true Buddhism for future times. Any word or precept which the Buddha taught is indeed precious and conducive to salvation from suffering; it is very truth and beyond price; this it is that the wise seek after in order that they may learn it, ponder it, follow it, and profit thereby, according to the measure in which they master it. Assuredly, too, learners will not be lacking in times to come. Wherefore the Buddha's teachings ought to be preserved for posterity. "It has been the custom in Siam, in past times, to issue the sacred books as manuscripts written on palm-leaves to make them durable. But the task was laborious; even a single volume took a long time to complete; and it was difficult to multiply copies for distribution. Furthermore, it has always been the Siamese custom to employ the Cambodian character, which has thus come to be regarded as the essential vehicle for Buddhist writings, whereas, in fact, the character in which the texts are written is im- material; any character can be used. Indeed, the various other Buddhist countries-- Ceylon, Burma, Laos, Cambodia --have been accustomed to use each its own character. "Such, then, were the considerations which led His Majesty the King of Siam to conceive the plan of examining p. 4 and purifying the text of the Tipitaka, with a view to printing it in Siamese character, some books in a single volume, some in two or more. For His Majesty failed not to see that such a plan must command greater advantages than the writing on palm-leaves. With a single setting-up of type, many hundreds of copies can be struck off; and such printed copies are more easy to carry and more convenient to consult, since many fasciculi(1) can be comprised in a single printed volume. While it is true that paper is less durable than palm-leaves, yet with a single setting-up of type the printing-press can strike off a great number of copies, and these with care can be preserved for centuries; multiplication of copies can, therefore, readily be ensured. By these means the scriptures can be diffused throughout Siam, and this was seen by His Majesty to be a great advantage. Consequently, His Majesty gave orders to print and circulate the Tipitaka, feeling that this was a great service to render to the Buddhist faith for the future, "Moreover, it was in contemplation to complete the printing by the close of the twenty-fifth year of the King's reign, and so to mark that Jubilee by celebrating the happy consummation of so pious an undertaking. It was beyond human foresight to know whether His Majesty would survive until the date in view; but the plan of collating, printing, and distributing the Tipitaka seemed to His Majesty to be conducive to the good of mankind, and to be a meritorious work rightly conceived and calcu- lated to ensure the fulfilment of his hope. "So there came a Royal Order to Prince Bhanurangsi- svangvamsa to be President of a Committee to arrange for the printing of the Tipitaka, and orders were given to issue invitations to the Princes who were in the priesthood, and to Abbots, and to the learned in each degree of the clergy, to assemble and hear the King's wishes, and then to divide among them the work of examining and settling the text for the press. ----------------------- 1. i.e. twenty-four palm-leaves. p. 5 "That work has now been done, as the King desired, and may the merit which has been gained by the fulfilment of the work of issuing these scriptures be shared by all mankind! Long may the work endure!" Such, then, is the purport of this interesting preface, prefixed to every volume. As above stated, there are thirty-nine of these volumes, and the contents, etc., of each, according to the Siamese arrangement, are as follows: p. 7 It will have been noticed that eight texts in the Khuddaka Nikaya (about 1,300 more pages) remain to be edited in order to make the edition complete.(1) Their omission, I believe, was due solely to the inability of the small body of editors to cope with their task in its entirety before the King's Jubilee. It is to be hoped that these omissions may be made good forthwith, and that His Majesty will not leave his building without a coping-stone. I pass now to indicate some of the main features of the edition. Chief of these is the fact that the King of Siam has abandoned the exotic Cambodian for the native Siamese character. To Europeans this may seem a small matter; to the average Siamese it is a revolution. Centuries ago, when the Siamese took their Buddhism from Cambodia, they took with it the Cambodian character; and the result has been to give to the latter a sacrosanct significance in the eyes not only of the unlettered but even of the cultured Siamese. Thus it was a bold step to adopt the Siamese character; and the disappearance of the old "sacred" character marked a triumph for rationalism. To a Siamese there is nothing sacred in the Siamese character, and accordingly he can view the new volumes printed in the Siamese character without any of the superstition which gathered round the old MSS. in the Cambodian character; he can tuck one of the new volumes under his arm without the sense of impiety which would assuredly have dogged him, had he so treated the same scripture in Cambodian MS. Partly because the edition is printed in the common character, and partly because of the prestige which the royal undertaking has given to Pali scholarship, an impetus has been given to the study of Pali and Buddhism in Siam which it would be difficult to overestimate. One early fruit of the enterprise, and a condition essential to its subsequent success, was the establishment of the Pali ------------------ 1. It has been questioned whether the Patthana as edited is complete, owing to the absence of manuscripts at one part. Whether this be so or not, I am unable to say, as there is no Pali Text Society's edition wherewith to collate the Siamese. p. 8 College, from which already there has sprung so strong and universal a community of scholarship throughout Siam that important national results may follow in the direction of fixing the language and fostering a literature. The second, and to Europeans more important, point is the nature of the materials used in settling the text of the King's edition. A cursory glance at almost any one of the volumes will show that the editor had before him not only a local text but also manuscripts in the Burmese and Sinhalese character, together (it is gratifying to note) with the Pali Text Society's edition. The editor not infrequently appends a footnote indi- cating the variants of "Si" (= Sihala = Sinhalese), "B" (= Bama = Burmese), and "Yu" (=Yuropa =Europe, i.e P.T.S.). But, so far as I have been able to ascertain, these variants, taken from non-Siamese sources, are merely noted, and have not been taken into serious consideration in the settlement of the text adopted. That text, with unimportant exceptions, has been settled from Siamese sources. Rather more than a century ago the king who in 1781 founded the royal city of Ratanako- sindra (which we know by the less stately name of Bangkok), caused the learned priests of his day to purge the text of the canon,, and produce an authoritative redaction. This was done, and some two or three exemplars were prepared. It is from these and copies made therefrom that the present Siamese edition has been prepared by the scholars whose names appear on the title-pages of the several volumes. It appears that the learned editors did not feel themselves at liberty to prepare what we should call a critical edition of the Tipitaka; they restricted themselves, very naturally and intelligibly, to restoring the national redaction, and to removing the errors which had marred the work of the last century..From the European point of view this self-imposed restriction is one of the most valuable features of this most valuable edition. In the present Siamese redaction we have no eclectic text pieced together from the divergent recensions of Siam, Burma, and Ceylon; on the contrary, we have p. 9 a purely Siamese text, embodying to a very high pitch of accuracy(1) the ancient traditions of Siamese scholarship. Space prevents my discussing in the present article the characteristic features of the Siamese recension now first made public. My conclusions are, that the Siamese readings stand about midway between the Burmese and the Sinhalese readings, the regular divergences of which are indicated in the preface to the Pali Text Society's edition of the Sumangala Vilasini. In the case of a difficult passage or a rare word, the authenticity of which is proved by Buddhaghosa's com- mentary, it will not be found that the Siamese text evades the difficulty, after the Burmese fashion, by conjecturing an easier reading. On the other hand, as Pali scholarship in Siam has never been overshadowed by Sanskrit, the Siamese text does not fall into the Sinhalese trick of introducing Sanskrit sandhi. After collating some hundreds of pages of the Majjhima Nikaya, I am disposed to regard the new Siamese text as being on the whole nearer to the original than any other text now available,(2) though the value of the best Sinhalese MSS. (which the Siamese edition cites) will always be recognized by scholars in crucial questions of readings. While these qualities in the King of Siam's edition appeal more directly to an editor than to the reader of an edited text, it has ether features, which must evoke universal gratitude from Pali scholars in Europe. To a Western eye it is a very great gain to find the text intelligently divided into punctuated sentences, with the component words of each sentence duly separated one from another. The difference in appearance is that between barbarism and civilization. Another point is the excellent scheme of ----------------------- 1. A table of errata (sodhanapatta) is prefixed to each volume. 2. As a rule the readings of Buddhaghosa represent the best standard for settling a Pitaka text. In the following case we can go behind him to an authority seven hundred years older, viz., to the inscriptions sculptured on the temple of Bharhut. The 83rd Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (like the 9th Jataka) relates to the king called Makhadeva in Sinhalese MSS. and Magghadeva in Burmese MSS. In the Siamese edition this king's name is spelled Maghadeva, as it is at plate xlviii (2) of the "Stupa of Bharhut." (Apparently, Buddhaghosa follows the Sinhalese spelling.) p. 10 transliteration which, with a paged table of contents (kittanapatta), precedes the text of each volume. With the aid of this very useful key to the Siamese character, the Pali text can be read without difficulty by European scholars, who will be grateful for the consideration thus shown to their needs by Siam. The "get-up" of the volumes is not what it might have been. Though the format is well chosen and the binding is suitable, the paper is bad, and quite unworthy of the great and lasting purpose of the undertaking. Perhaps a slightly larger margin should have been allowed, and it is a question whether the title-pages should not have been in Pali. But these shortcomings are too petty to mar the signal success with which this editio princeps of the Tipitaka has been produced in Siam. In Pali scholarship the edition will always remain a great landmark on the path of pro- gress, and an enduring monument--alike in Europe and in Siam-to the Buddhist King who conceived and executed so excellent an undertaking.