In 1983 Charles Keyes wrote “the evidence from monastery libraries in Laos and Thailand reveals that what constitutes the Therav─Бdin dhamma for people in these areas includes only a small portion of the total Tipiс╣нaka…Moreover, the collection of texts available to the people in the associated community are not exactly the same as those found in another temple.” What Charles Keyes observed in 1983 can be confirmed today with even the most cursory inventory of the major monastic, royal and governmental manuscript libraries of Laos and Thailand. Generally, the most popular texts were the ─Бnisam’sa (Lao/Thai: anisong) which are blessings used in ritual and magical ceremonies, paritta (incantations for protection), xalong (ceremonial instructions for both lay and religious ceremonies), apocryphal j─Бtaka (non-canonical birth-stories of the Buddha), stories drawn from the Dhammapada-atthakath─Б, kammav─Бc─Б (ritual instructions and rules), local epics (including the Xieng Mieng cycle of stories, Thao Hung Thao Juang, Xin Sai, Om Lom Daeng Kiao), excerpts from the Visuddhimagga and Maс╣Еgalad─лpan─л, grammatica (excerpts from the Padar┼лpasiddhi, Kacc─Бyanavy─Бkaran’a, and local grammatical handbooks), and tamnan (relic, image and temple histories).

As a graduate student I was trained in Indic philology and grammar –- in reading Sanskrit and Pali canonical and commentarial texts to supplement my vernacular skills. However, working in monasteries in Southeast Asia, I realized that my study of the semantics of Pali texts was only partially useful. In studying Pali and Sanskrit I had been studying “language” not “languaging.” The difference is great. As Becker writes, “a language is a system of rules or structures, which…relates meanings and sounds, both of which are outside of it. A language is essentially a dictionary and a grammar. Languaging, on the other hand, is context shaping. Languaging both shapes and is shaped by context. It is a kind of attunement between a person and a context. Languaging can be understood as taking old texts from memory and reshaping them into present contexts…It is done at the level of particularity.” This is what the students and the teachers in Southeast Asia are often doing; they were languaging Pali. They were not learning the Pali language. Certainly Pali has been an important language in the study of Theravada Buddhism (let’s put aside the major problems with the term “Theravada” for now) for 2,500 years, but it should not be seen as more important than local vernaculars.

Most books on Buddhism state that Pali is the signature language of the Theravada lineage of Buddhism. However, it is important to observe that Pali canonical texts are most often in the minority in Southeast manuscript collections not only in Laos and Thailand, but also in Cambodia and Burma. There is little evidence that Pali was widely used as a language of composition in Southeast Asia except for a few exceptions. The general impression that Pali is essential for the study of Theravada Buddhism started in the mid-nineteenth century. Western scholars of Theravada Buddhism, as well as royal and Sangha reformers in Thailand and Sri Lanka emphasized the importance of Pali. There certainly has been an increase in the study of Pali especially due the reforms of King Mongkut and Prince Wachirayan in Thailand which have had some ramifications in Cambodia and Laos. However, despite these reforms, even now less than five percent of monks in Thailand and less in Laos and Cambodia (there are no confirmed statistics for Burma) take higher Pali examinations. Therefore, the signature language of Theravada Buddhism, remains largely unstudied.

This should not, however, be seen as a sign of loss. Pali is alive and well ritually in Southeast Asian liturgical and magical practices. It is used in the blessing of water, houses, water buffaloes, children, and amulets. Short Pali incantations are composed anew for shrines and dedications. Pali is heard chanted in several different styles (22 major styles) throughout the region. For a student of Buddhism then, learning Pali is extremely important even if it isn’t for reading texts for semantic understanding. Without understanding the importance of Pali ritually, we miss why Pali stays relevant in Southeast Asia. When thinking about language and religion therefore, it would be wise to ask ourselves what we mean when we say Pali. Do we mean a living language that is used conversationally? A language used for composition of texts and correspondence? A language of jurisprudence? A ritual language for invoking protection, blessing objects and people, and cursing?

Justin McDaniel is an Associate Professor at the University of California – Riverside. He is also the author of Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Intertextuality and Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Northern Thailand (2008) and the moderator of the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia listserv.