Pali Text Society

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The Pali Text Society[1] (PTS) is a registered charity in the United Kingdom, whose stated purpose is to foster and promote the study of Pali texts. It is the principal Western publisher in the field. Pali is the traditional language of Theravada Buddhism, and the most important Pali texts are those constituting the Pali Canon. The narrative here is for convenience divided up into the "reigns" of the successive presidents of the Society.

T. W. Rhys Davids (1881-1922)

Thomas William Rhys Davids was born in England of Welsh descent. In his personal life he used Rhys as his first name and Davids as his surname, but professionally he treated Rhys Davids as a compound surname alphabetized under R. He first came across Pali as a civil servant posted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). After a brief period as a lawyer, he went into an academic career, becoming Professor of Pali at London and then Professor of Comparative Religion at Manchester. He founded the PTS in 1881, assisted by German scholar Hermann Oldenberg. For its first few years the Society operated as a "book club": you paid your subscription and received copies of whatever the Society published. In addition to subscriptions, the Society received donations, the list headed by £200 from the King of Siam (Thailand). After a few years, books started being published more normally, but not by the Society; rather, they were published "for the Pali Text Society by" different publishers over the years. PTS became its own publisher only much later (see below). A text series and a Journal both started in 1882.

Early in the 20th century the Society took over the administration of the Sacred Books of the Buddhists series, which had been founded by Max Müller as an extension of 50-volume set of Sacred Books of the East he had edited. The books in this series, however, did not carry the "published for the Pali Text Society" label and were not included in its lists of issues appearing in the Journal. Only much later (see below) did they become official PTS publications. However, the Society started its own translation series in 1909.

Rhys Davids' largest contributions to the PTS list were his editions (with J. E. Carpenter) of the Digha Nikaya and its commentary. However, his most important was probably the Society's Pali-English Dictionary[2], which was intended to supersede the only previous Pali dictionary produced by Western scholarship, that of Childers published before the Society was founded. Unsurprisingly, this took a lot longer than expected, but Rhys Davids lived to see it start publication, with the first fascicle appearing in 1921.

C. A. F. Rhys Davids (1923-42)

Caroline Augusta Foley was English. Her marriage to Rhys Davids produced three children, none of whom ever married, and the family eventually died out. Her own largest contributions to the Society's list, editions of various Abhidhamma texts, had mostly already appeared before her husband's death.

The last fascicle of the Dictionary appeared in 1925, and the whole was later reprinted as a single volume. It is kept in print, with only limited corrections, at a subsidized price, to aid and encourage learners.

In 1927, with the appearance of Apadana, volume II, the Society regarded the Western scholarly edition of the Canon as complete, though this included the Vinaya and Jataka issued by other publishers, which were not reissued by the Society till later. Also in this year, the Journal ceased publication for a long time.

W. H. D. Rouse (1942-50)

William Henry Denham Rouse was born in India to a British family. His varied career included headmaster and translator of Homer. His translations of volumes II, IV and (with E. B. Cowell) VI of the Jataka was reissued by the PTS some time after his death.

William Stede (1952-8)

Wilhelm Stede originally came to Britain during World War I as a German prisoner of war. He later settled there and anglicized his name. His main contribution was as coeditor of the Dictionary with Rhys Davids.

I. B. Horner (1959-81)

Isaline Blew Horner was English. In her student years she had met the Founder. She was and is customarily referred to as "Miss Horner" though in fact she held a doctorate. In her term in office, the Society completed its project of issuing printed editions of the commentaries on the Canon. It also issued its first subcommentary.

In 1963 the Society issued Warder's Introduction to Pali, which can be used as a "teach yourself" book. It was later reissued in paperback. It adopted an unusual approach (for the time). Western scholars had approached Pali via Sanskrit (and still do), while teaching within the Theravada tradition starts with the later, not the canonical, idiom. Warder, however, teaches the canonical idiom directly (more specifically that of the Digha Nikaya, though the rest of the Canon is not much different, apart from the Milindapanha included in some editions).

In the early 1970s, the Society officially became a publisher in its own right. All publications then in print were assigned new ISBNs accordingly. This included the SBB series, which thus became officially PTS issues. Miss Horner's own largest contribution was her 6-volume translation of the Vinaya, started in Mrs Rhys Davids' day and finished in her own.

She lived to see the Society's centenary year.

K. R. Norman (1981-94)

Kenneth Roy Norman was English. Known as Roy to the comparatively few people from whom he accepted such familiarity, he preferred to be called Mr Norman even after becoming a professor. His largest contribution was the eventually 8-volume collection of reprints of most of his scholarly papers. He was the first president to retire rather than die in harness. He edited the Journal revived in the centenary year. It has continued to the present day under various editors.

Richard Gombrich (1994-2002)

English-born Richard Francis Gombrich is the son of Austrian-born art historian E. H. Gombrich, but pronounces his surname with an English, not a German, ch. His translation with Margaret Cone of the Vessantara Jataka was reissued by the Society in 2011.

In 2001 the Society published the first volume of a new Dictionary of Pali, by Margaret Cone. This of course reflects much more up-to-date scholarship than the old Dictionary, but is also much longer and much more expensive, and it is expected that the old one will be kept in print even when this is completed.

L. S. Cousins (2002-3)

Lance Selwyn Cousins was English. His index to the Maha Niddesa had been published by PTS. He was sacked by the Annual General Meeting on the recommendation of the Council, which gave no reason. In addition to his academic work he was also a Buddhist meditation teacher.

Rupert Gethin (2003 to date)

Rupert Mark Lovell Gethin was born in Scotland of Welsh descent, but sounds entirely English. His translation with R. P. Wijeratne of the Abhidhammatthasangaha and its principal commentary had been published by the PTS in 2002, as the 50th, and last, volume in the Sacred Books of the Buddhists series, which has been discontinued. He is also a Buddhist meditation teacher.

In 2005 the Society branched out somewhat by publishing translations from Pali into French and German. More recently, it has made some publications available in download format.

In 2010, the Society published the second volume of the new Dictionary of Pali, by Margaret Cone[3]. The third volume has appeared in 2020. Dr Cone has now retired, and the final volume is being prepared by Martin Straube.

In 2017, the Society published translations of substantial parts of the Niddesa and Yamaka, the only remaining canonical books not already so covered.

Notes

  1. Pali Text Society online: http://www.palitext.com , last access 9/18/2020
  2. Pali Text Society's Pali-English Distionary online: http://lirs.ru/lib/dict/Pali-English_Dictionary,1921-25,v1.pdf, last access 9/18/2020
  3. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 14, 2013 - Issue 2, "Book review by Andrew Skilton of 'Margaret Cone. A dictionary of Pāli, Part II'", pp 344-346, published online: 27 Nov 2013 https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2013.832085