By Kalinga Seneviratne
A former musician turned Buddhist monk, Bhante Sujato, an Australian, has taken up a mammoth task to translate and publish thousands of Buddhist texts known as Sutta (discourses of the Buddha) into many languages. Accompanied by Sri Lankan Kandyan dancers and drummers, he recently launched an Internet portal ‘Sutta Central’ to make the Buddha’s teachings available to the world free of charge.
The word Sutta derived from the ancient Indian language Pali in which the Buddha preached his dhamma (teachings) and its literature forms the backbone of the Buddhist teachings. The Suttas were originally transmitted orally, thus when the Suttas are chanted in the Pali language—which is very popular in the Theravada Buddhist tradition—they usually commence with the phrase “evaṃ me sutaṃ,” meaning “thus have I heard”.
< A former musician turned Buddhist monk, Bhante Sujato
“In Suttas, Buddha talked about the abundance of love. Buddhism has compassion for the whole world. That is the abundance of Buddhist philosophy and anyone can come to Sutta Central and find something useful,” Bhante Sujato told an audience of about 150 Buddhists from different traditions at the launch of the portal in Sydney.
Sutta Central contains early Buddhist texts contained in the Tipiṭaka or “Three Baskets”. The Tripitaka includes Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), Vinaya Pitaka (discipline for the monks), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (psychological-philosophy of the teachings).
The Sutta Pitaka is a large collection of teachings attributed to the Buddha or his earliest disciples, who were teaching in India around 2500 years ago. They are regarded as sacred canon in all schools of Buddhism. Sutta Central hosts the texts in original languages, translations in modern languages, and extensive sets of parallels that show the relationship between them all.
“I have been a voracious reader since I was a young boy,” Bhante Sujato told Lotus News in an interview. “I wanted to read dhamma books (because I was told that) the real stuff on the dhamma was in the suttas and I wanted to read them,” he said. “As soon as I started reading these I began to realize that this is where all (the teachings) comes from.”
Born as Anthony Best in Western Australia in 1966, he played with the post-punk Australian band Martha’s Vineyard in his youth. After backpacking to Thailand to find something different, he came across Buddhism at Wat Ram Poeng, a popular backpackers’ monastery in Bangkok. “I went to Thailand to extend my horizons because I thought life here in Australia was getting a bit monotonous,” he recalls.
After a few more visits to Thailand and attending Buddhist retreats in forest monasteries, he became a monk in 1994, when he was ordained at Wat Pah Narachat in Ubon Ratchathani. He lived in Thailand for many years, before returning to Australia.
When asked, how he found life as a monk after being a musician in Australia, his response was interesting. “Being a monk did not change my lifestyle that much as being a musician, in the sense that both circumstances I did not have money. Being a musician in Australia it is a struggle to make a living.”
“For me, music was a voyage of discovery I had to learn about myself. Becoming a monk was also being curious,” he adds. “When I learned the dhamma it was certainly much deeper than anything I have learned before…. So I realized there is a path where I needed to listen.”
Upon returning to Australia he spent several years at Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia that was founded by the respected Australian Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, before going on to found Santi Forest Monastery in 2003 where he served as its abbot. In 2012, Bhante Sujato turned it over to become a nun’s monastery, and he decided to concentrate on developing Sutta Central, which was in fact launched in 2005, but copyrights issues with Pali translations of the Sutta hindered its progress.
“When we first started Sutra Central I had no experience with Internet (and) as we expanded the project we realized we are making connections with different Buddhist traditions so it became a vehicle for connection,” points out Bhante Sujato.
Buddha’s teachings have bound people together for such a long time through connections—through oral transmissions—until it was handwritten as ‘Tripitaka’ at the Aluvihara in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE. Thus the Suttas have been handwritten for almost 2000 years, printed for over 400 years, and it is now digitized in the past 30 years.
The launch of Sutta Central may well become a landmark event in the history of the dissemination of the dhamma, as every Sutta is now not only digitized but is gradually being available in different languages from the same source.
Bhante Sujato’s dedication to the project is such, that after being unable to secure copyright-free digital translations of the Pali Canon for Sutta Central, he moved to a remote island of Chimei, off the coast of Taiwan, to undertake the task of creating English translations of the nikayas (volumes of the Suttas), living there from 2015 to 2018. The Pali Sutta Piṭaka is divided into five main collections called nikāyas, that includes the longer versions called the Dīgha Nikāya and the shorter ones called Majjhima Nikāya (middle-length discourses), Saṃyutta Nikāya and Aṅguttara Nikāya (shorter texts). The translations of the latter nikayas in particular, have since been published on Sutta Central, and as free edition books.
Sutta Central has materials that have been translated into English not only from Pali but also from Tibetan, Chinese, and Sanskrit. “From the Pali canon, these are Suttas taken from India to China usually around 400AD(CE) and translated into Chinese. These are in Sutta Central, I don’t speak ancient Chinese but translated by others. This is an ongoing project,” says Bhante Sujato. The translations are done by people, he points out, not by machines, such a Google Translate. “Those (Google) translations don’t work,” he adds
In a virtual address at the portal launch in April, Bhante Sujato’s mentor Ajahn Brahm described Sutta Central as an easy way to learn what the Buddha taught. “It’s wonderful to have the information clear and trustworthy,” he said. “We need to inspire people to become good Buddhists by getting proper teachings.”
Bhante Sujato believes Sutta Central is a “generational job” and it will be an ongoing project for some time. “So far we have some translations in over 40 languages. There are certain language groups better represented than others like main Asian languages Hindi, Chinese, Sinhala, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, and European languages German, French, English, Spanish,” he points out. “We don’t have many translations in Arabic and we don’t have any translations in Swahili or any other African languages. It will be wonderful if every person in the world could read the Suttas in their language.”
Bhante Sujato emphasizes that everything they do is free and they also make it available in iPad, apps and will soon make it available in books. A ‘Sutta Central Development Trust’ has been established to help raise funds for the ongoing activities to expand its offerings.
Bhante Sujato wants to point out a new addition to Sutta Central. “In Sutta Central, we also read the Suttas for you. Especially for people who are visually impaired or anybody who wants to read the Suttas .. maybe when you are driving a car or so. It’s in English and expanding to other languages as well.”