Overview of Translators of Pali Buddhist Scriptures

We are very fortunate to be living in a time when the entire Sutta Pitaka has been translated into clear modern English. As a beginner, one should not be overly hung up on choosing the “best” translation. All of the translators on this page have created texts that you can read with confidence. They are all slightly different, as you will read in the comments below. And as you read and learn, you may develop preferences of one over another. You may even be motivated one day to learn the Pali language. But in the mean time, you can start by choosing any of these translations and not worrying that you are going to be misinformed.

Honestly, the best translation to start with is the one you have. You may want to look at the article on choosing a text by your experience level or by the time you have available to practice.

With a few exceptions, this list is restricted to complete translations that are available in print or as a pdf that can be printed.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Translations by Bhante Bodhi are very faithful to the original Pali and are usually in line with what have come to be standard  translations of technical terms. His English is fluent if a bit formal. The new reader can benefit from copious footnotes and introductions. (Note: Bhikkhu Bodhi is the editor of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha found under Nyanamoli Bhikkhu) (available from Wisdom Publications)

  • The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya
  • The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya
  • The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries
  • In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
  • The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

Ajahn Thanissaro

The majority of Ajahn Thanissaro’s translations are of the first four nikayas, but none of the nikayas are complete. His anthologies are found in a (now) four volume set titled Handful of Leaves. Although incomplete, for a beginner they contain more than enough to get a solid grounding. He is well known for novel translations of key technical terms, most famously “stress” as a translation of dukkha. If you are a big fan of his voluminous writings and translations of modern Thai teachers, then his sutta translations will be a good fit. He also has five complete translations from the Khuddaka Nikaya. As well, he has many anthologies based on important topics. (Available in print from Metta Forest Monastery and download online.)

  • Handful of Leaves, anthology from Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas
  • Khuddakapatha: Short Passages
  • The Dhammapada
  • Udana: Exclamations
  • Itivuttaka: This was said by the Buddha
  • Sutta Nipata: The Discourse Group
  • Numerous anthologies on important Dhamma concepts

Bhikkhu Sujato

Published in 2018, this is the first time that the first four nikayas have been translated and published simultaneously by a single author. From the translator: “My goal was to make a translation that was freely available, accurate, and consistent. In doing so, I wanted to make it more readable and approachable than former translations.” There was also an attempt to use gender neutral language whenever possible. When read on-line it is possible to see the original Pali along with the English. (Available for download from SuttaCentral.net. Print publication of the nikayas is pending. Unofficial ebook of the Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya available here. More are coming soon. Theragatha available in paperback and hardback from lulu and as an ebook here.)

  • Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya)
  • Middle Discourses (Majjhima Nikāya)
  • Linked Discourses (Saṁyutta Nikāya)
  • Numbered Discourses (Aṅguttara Nikāya)
  • Verses of the Senior Monks (Theragāthā)

Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli

The translation Majjhima Nikaya shares many of the qualities of the later works written by the editor, Bhikkhu Bodhi. The language is lucid and slightly formal. The Life of the Buddha translation is distinctive in its drastic reduction of repetitions which may be useful temporarily for beginners. (The Majjhima Nikaya is available from Wisdom Publications; Life of the Buddha is available from the Buddhist Publication Society.)

  • The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya
  • The Life of the Buddha, According to the Pali Canon

Maurice O’C. Walshe

This is currently the only complete translation of the Digha Nikaya easily available to purchase in print. It is one of the older modern translations. The only shortcoming is found in the footnotes where the author shares more of his own ideas and biases than necessary. But this does not really affect the translation. (available from Wisdom Publications)

  • The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya

Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero

The translations published by Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery attempt to use as simple and modern language as possible. As such they are well suited to non-native English speakers and those without a background in Buddhism. (Available at their monasteries or Amazon.com)

  • Dhammapada: What Does the Buddha Really Teach
  • This Was Said by the Buddha: The Itivuttaka
  • Stories of Heavenly Mansions from the Vimanavatthu
  • Stories of Ghosts from the Petavatthu
  • The Voice of Enlightened Monks: The Thera Gatha
  • The Voice Of Enlightened Nuns

KR Norman

KR Norman is the only translator in this list who works professionally as a Pali scholar. While his translations are not completely literal, they are as close as possible while still being very readable. He refrains from any innovation in terminology. For these reasons, his translations are great especially for Pali students. (Available from the Pali Text Society)

  • Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada)
  • The Rhinoceros Horn and Other Early Buddhist Poems (Sutta Nipāta)
  • Poems of Early Buddhist Monks (Theragāthā)
  • Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therīgāthā)

John D. Ireland

These two translations, published as a single volume, benefited greatly by the editorial work of Bhante Bodhi. They are lucid and faithful to the original Pali. (Available from the Buddhist Publication Society. This website has a free download of the Itivuttaka.)

  • The Udāna and the Itivuttaka, Two Classics from the Pali Canon

Anandajoti Bhikkhu

The translations below are just a fraction of the work done by Bhante Anandajoti, but they are the only complete works from the Sutta Pitaka. All of his translations are available in line by line Pali and English as well as English only. They are available in many digital formats including audio recording. (Available from ancient-buddhist-texts.net)

  • The Short Readings (Khuddakapāṭha, Khuddakanikāya 1)
  • Dhammapada (Dhamma Verses, KN 2)
  • Exalted Utterances – Udāna (KN 3)

Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita

Although this is Bhante Buddharakkhita’s only complete translation from the sutta pitaka, he was a prolific author of books on the suttas. This translation of the Dhammapada is both fluent, accurate, and poetic—a rare accomplishment. The newest edition is available in print from the Buddhist Publication Society. An older edition is available free on line, including here.

  • The Dhammapada

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Dhammapada As a Daily Practice

The Dhammapada is an excellent text for a daily sutta practice. The verses are packed with material for contemplation as well as implementation. The reading can usually be done in as little as five minutes a day plus as much reflection time as you are able to give. If you do not have an established sutta practice, this is a great text to begin with both because of the breadth and depth of the teaching as well as being very accessible. It is also very easy to commit to reading one chapter a day and develop this habit and hunger for the suttas.

Choosing a translation

If you are a Theravada Buddhist, it is important to use a translation of the Dhammapada that accurately reflects Theravada doctrine. Because of the pithy language of the original Pali text, it is easy for a translator from a non-Buddhist tradition to subtly insert concepts that are incompatible with the Dhamma. Be careful of books called “versions” or “renderings” as they sometimes play fast and loose with important concepts.

The following are good translations to use in terms of adhering to Theravada teachings:

All three are available on-line in some form but, as always, try to work directly from a book for your daily practice. To get a feel for which translation you like, read the same chapter in each one and pick the one that is most appealing. They are all good so there is no need to spend too much time laboring over your decision. Better just to get started. By reading a chapter every day you will be able to complete the book in less than a month so after several cycles of a single translation you can always try another one. If you stick with your favorite over several years you will begin to memorize important verses simply by repeated contact.

Regardless of the translation you use, at some point read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction (available on line at accesstoinsight.org)

How much to read.

The easiest practice is to read one chapter per day. This has several advantages:

  • You will always have time to do this practice. (See the 2nd P) The only reason to miss a day is if you forget. There is always five minutes to read the Dhamma, no matter what your life is like.
  • There will always be at least one verse that you understand and connect with. In this way you will always have something to contemplate.
  • You can read the entire Dhammapada in less than a month, fourteen times in one year.

The last chapter is about twice as long as the rest, so you may want to split that one and read it over two days.

After having done several cycles with one chapter a day, you may want to try reading the same chapter each day for a week. This will allow you to work more deeply with the verses. In this way you will read it a total of seven times in six months.

You could also simply read until you find a verse that strikes you and then contemplate on it for some time. Mark where you stopped with a post-it flag and pick up there the next day. In this way you will be sure to cover everything eventually.

Make it your story

The ancient commentaries contain a record of the events that lead the Buddha to utter each verse. These are an excellent source of inspiration and understanding.

For a sutta practice, however, it is beneficial to imagine how the Buddha might have uttered these verses as a result of events in our own lives. Can you remember a time when you were caught in an argument, causing much suffering for yourself and other people? How would it have been for the Buddha to have appeared and uttered verse number 6:

6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.            A. Buddharakkhita, trans.

Imagine what it would have been like to hear the teachings in that moment. This is how we make the suttas come alive. When we do this, it will be easier to remember to bring these teachings to mind the next time a dispute arises.

Keep it a sutta practice

The Dhammapada is also an excellent text for deeper textual study, Pali language study, and even comparing different translations. However, during your designated practice time, try to work with the text on a personal, experiential level. To this end it is beneficial to:

  • Stick with a single translation at a time, at least for a year. The translations listed above will be useful to illuminate areas for personal cultivation and reflection.
  • Just read the text and not the background stories at least for the first three or four cycles.
  • Focus on implementation not interpretation.

Lofty language

As you are reading you will come across many passages that talk about arahants, fully enlightened beings. This may not always be obvious because the language used is generally non-technical. But it may be clear that it is talking about someone who has reached a high level of perfection. We have to use these verses to lift up our hearts, fill them with happiness knowing that such a state is possible, and that the path leading to that state was taught by the Blessed One. These are our heroes and we need to get to know their qualities very personally.

Conclusion

As with any sutta practice, try to connect it with a regular daily activity. Really commit to reading every day. This will give you a lot of energy for your understanding and keep the Dhamma constantly in your life. Consider using the Don’t Break the Chain technique. And remember this can be a perpetual practice, so always begin again.

Some of these verses will surely end up in your Personal Anthology. And even if you haven’t started a Personal anthology, you can easily use the Almost Anthology technique with the Dhammapada, simply flagging verses as you find them.

In his excellent introduction to Ven Buddharakkhita’s translation of the Dhammapada, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes a wonderful case for using the Dhammapada as a constant companion in your sutta practice:

As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study, sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be used as a manual for contemplation. After his initial reading, he would do well to read several verses or even a whole chapter every day, slowly and carefully, relishing the words. He should reflect on the meaning of each verse deeply and thoroughly, investigate its relevance to his life, and apply it as a guide to conduct. If this is done repeatedly, with patience and perseverance, it is certain that the Dhammapada will confer upon his life a new meaning and sense of purpose. Infusing him with hope and inspiration, gradually it will lead him to discover a freedom and happiness far greater than anything the world can offer.

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Have you read the Dhammapada as a daily practice? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Building a Sutta Library

Because there is no single vloume that contains all of the ancient Pali scriptures,  it can be a little confusing trying to complete your collection. It can also be difficult to decide which translations are best and whether or not the book is a complete translation or just an an thology.

Below is a link to a two-page PDF that gives book recommendations and sources for building a near complete library of the teachings of the Buddha found in the suttas. It is intended to be a resource for people beginning to explore the suttas as well as people who are tasked with creating an actual sutta library for an organization. It is also very useful for Buddhist families where the parents want their children to grow up in a home that has all of the Blessed One’s teaching.

Building A Sutta Library PDF

The following is the main text of the PDF above:

Use this list to build a basic collection of the discourses of Gotama Buddha that is very accurate and written in clear English. The following is a good foundation for a sutta library; other translations may be obtained later as interest grows. For other reliable translations, visit the Canonical Collections for Practice page at ReadingFaithfully.org. Paperback editions are listed when available. See the second page for useful anthologies and book sources. Those books marked with a * can be given priority for people just starting to read the suttas.

Canonical Collections

These are books of suttas grouped in the ancient categories. Unless otherwise indicated, they are complete translations.

  • The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, by Maurice Walsh (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861711031)
  • * The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861710720)
  • The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861713318)The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-1614290407)
  • * The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, by Acharya Buddharakkhita (BPS, BP203S)
  • * The Udāna and the Itivuttaka: Two Classics from the Pali Canon, by John D. Ireland (BPS, BP214S)
  • The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 9781614294290)
  • Stories of Heavenly Mansions (Vimānavatthu) and Stories of Ghosts (Petavatthu), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thera. Complete translations in simple, modern language. (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com)
  • The Voice of Enlightened Monks (Theragāthā), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com). For a more literal translation, try Poems of Early Buddhist Monks (Theragāthā), by K. R. Norman (PTS, paperback ISBN 0 86013 339 7)
  • The Voice of Enlightened Nuns (Therīgāthā), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com) Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therīgāthā), by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids and K. R. Norman (PTS, paperback ISBN 0 86013 289 7)
  • Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology (three volume set) by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki (BPS, BP 622S / BP 623S / BP 624S) This is a collection of the commentarial stories with the verses included in the prose narration. It is a selection of the most important stories.

Sutta Anthologies

These are book that contain selections of suttas based on a particular topic. Anthologies are an excellent way to begin reading suttas.

  • * In the Buddhas Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861714919) This is the single best starting place for beginning to read the teachings of the Buddha.
  • Handful of Leaves Volumes 1–4 (an anthology of the suttas), Dhammapada, Itivuttaka, Merit, Into the Stream, A Mediators Tools, Beyond Coping, A Burden Off the Mind, Mindful of the Body, Recognizing the Dhamma. All translated by Ajahn Ṭhanissaro (Metta Forest Monastery, free)
  • The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon, by Nyanamoli Thera (BPS, BP 101S)
  • Buddha, My Refuge: Contemplation of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (BPS, BP 409S)

 Reference

  • Every sutta library must have a good English dictionary readily available for looking up unfamiliar words. It should be as large as possible.
  • Concise Pali-English Dictionary, by A.P. Buddhadata Mahathera. Provides simple definitions for thousands of Pali words. Available from Pariyatti.org. (Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN: 978-81-208-0605-4, Paperback)

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