Buddhist Pronunciation – A Joy and a Challenge

IMG_0004.JPGBy Nicolas Soames

Thus have I heard.
These words traditionally mark the opening to the Pali suttas. There are other English translations of this standard phrase – ‘I have heard’ or ‘So I have heard’, but in the early days of the suttas in English, this was generally the beginning. It offered at once a warmly familiar and an evocative start to a discourse. And it set the scene: Ānanda remembering what he heard the Buddha say.
It underpins the fact that from the very early days of the Dharma, and for hundreds of years afterwards – and even now! – dharma teaching was oral.

That is the a justification, were one needed, for the start of this new venture – Dharma Audiobooks. In fact, listening to dharma in the form of original texts, commentaries, teachings, memoirs or even stories, is a delight – and works extremely well! There is something very direct when a lively, pertinent voice brings matters to life.

This was my own experience because, when I was in the early stages of a journalistic career, I would commute into London and listen in my car to dharma talks by Urgyen Sangharakshita. The Noble Eightfold Path, Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal, The Higher Evolution, Incidents from the Pali Canon – these extensive and rich series of lectures, and many more individual talks such as The Taste of Freedom were available on cassette, in varying degrees of recording quality. No matter – the content was remarkably clear and Sangharakshita provided ground-breaking relevant introductions to Buddhism generally. (These talks are all available in their original form from www.freebuddhistaudio.com on a dana basis, though Dharma Audiobooks will provide a few re-mastered versions on audible in the coming months).

I never actually got round to asking Sangharakshita what he thought of my practice – whether it was a good thing to listen while beating a path down the A1 in the height of the rush hour, or not! All I could say in my defence was that I had been at many of the original lectures, and my in-car listening was, in some ways, a revision.

Now, many decades on, the medium of audiobooks has become far more reputable. It is ok to say ‘I am listening’ to a new novel or a ‘history’ or whatever, without receiving a pitiable glance from someone who clearly feels that one should have a printed (or e-) book in hand.

So I say boldly: Welcome to Dharma Audiobooks! And equally boldly I say there are many benefits to listening to dharma on audiobook apart from the sheer enjoyment of a text being well-read by someone who understands it – and in many cases has actually practised it!

One of the greatest benefits, perhaps, concerns the issue of the pronunciation of names, words, places. Of course, this is a complete minefield because of the huge number of variants depending on the provenance of the text and/or the speaker. One immediately encounters the question of Pāli or Sanskrit: dhamma or dharma, or Gotama or Gautama, of metta or maitri and so on. Often on the printed page one of the alternatives is presented in parentheses, but this sounds laborious on a recording.

And hearing the ‘correct’ pronunciation is very important. When reading a book, the eye and the brain scans the letters and moves on. But it is always interesting when reading some dharma out loud for the first time, that one suddenly can become unsure of how to pronounce a word – even if there are diacritics to help with the vowel sounds. For example, which syllable in a word should be given the principal stress, or are all the syllables to have equal stress. This may be totally unclear by just looking at the word.

Let’s say you are at an event and are asked to read out loud a passage from the Nandakovāda Sutta because it is generally known you are a confident sight-reader. Well try the following paragraph, and best of luck:

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park.

Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī together with five hundred bhikkhunīs went to the Blessed One. After paying homage to the Blessed One, she stood at one side and said to him: “Venerable sir, let the Blessed One advise the bhikkhunīs, let the Blessed One instruct the bhikkhunīs, let the Blessed One give the bhikkhunīs a talk on the Dhamma.”

Of course, with some understanding of the basic rules, and a familiarisation with the principal names in the Buddhist canon, it all comes clear. And suddenly, a passage like this because truly beautiful to listen to. There is a classical elegance and balance (with the best translations) akin, in some ways, to listening to the King James Bible. For all the repetitions, occasional obscurities or antiquated expressions, the sense becomes very clear (when presented by a good reader) and the poetry can go straight to the heart.

It also is a great aid to normal silent reading, because the inner ear is alive to the names and the places, and the flow of reading is not interrupted by uncertainties and complexities. In fact, the passage is given extra life because you can hear the sounds.

Then, of course, there are the geographical variations. The Buddha refused to allow his ‘dharma’ to be translated into Sanskrit because he wanted it to be directly accessible by everyone – in their own language. He exhorted his monks, as they went wandering and teaching, to teach in the local vernacular. Of course, Pāli and Sanskrit have served as useful ‘international’ media (though the pronunciation of even very familiar terms can alter from Cambodia and Burma to Japan and Sri Lanka!). It means that many basic Buddhist words (some with multiple meanings like ‘dharma’ itself) are best rendered in Pāli or Sanskrit within an English or French or German sentence. But then there are even different pronunciations of names when part of an English sentence: Padmasambhava may seem obvious on the page. But to many Europeans he is PadmaSAMbhava, while to many Americans he is PadmasamBHAva.

This may seem unbelievably arcane to some, but it is surprising how proprietorial one can be when encountering a different pronunciation. The first time I came across PadmasamBHAva on a youtube video I nearly fell off my chair. I would have fumed or tut-tutted in the standard English manner of disapproval had it not been very evident that the reader was Richard Gere, a practising Buddhist with close Dalai Lama connections. Oh. Maybe it was just the local custom, I thought.

It is now October 2015, and Dharma Audiobooks, since starting in the Spring, has made some 11 recordings, half of which are already up on audible. More coming. Although I have been a practising Buddhist for nearly 40 years, and, for 20 years, ran Naxos AudioBooks, recording some 800 classics in that time, it has still been a bit of a learning curve when it comes to pronunciations. You can suddenly find yourself brought up short by even very basic words which, for some reason, you have never actually spoken before, or never doubted your habitual pronunciation which may or may not be right in context.

So, I can say that this is still work in progress. It will probably continue to be. But these six months have been extremely stimulating. I hope you enjoy these new recordings which may open the gates to something new for you, or allow you to re-engage with texts or talks or books you have known and loved. All feedback is very welcome!

Nicolas Soames