OCBS Pāli Level 1 Online Course: A Review

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Monday 8 July 2019

Through the generosity of the St Andrews Laidlaw program I have been privileged to, over the past 5 weeks, complete the Pāli Level 1 Online course provided by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS). This post documents my experiences taking the course, and serves as a review. I highly recommend the Pāli courses provided by the OCBS, and I look forward to starting the next 2 courses.

What is Pāli?

The Pali canon is the oldest early Buddhist canon which is extant in its entirety. What does this mean? It means Pāli is the liturgical language of over 150 million Buddhists worldwide; their standard scriptures are all in Pāli.

Prof. Richard Gombrich, Founder and Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies also argues one step further. Gombrich claims Pali was the language spoken by Siddhattha Gotama Buddha, the mendicant on whose teachings Buddhism was founded, when he gave his sermons.[1] When the Buddha was travelling to teach throughout India, it is claimed, the Buddha used Pali as a lingua franca which all of his audiences could comprehend. This is the view taken by the Pāli level 1 online course, although the teachers readily admit that this is a point of academic controversy.

Incidentally, a friend of Thai origin recently told me on a one-day meditation course that Pāli is still used as a lingua franca by some Buddhist monks; a Thai and Vietnamese monk might converse in Pāli if they have no other shared language.

Why learn Pāli?

Do you want to read the discourses of Siddhattha Gotama Buddha in the oldest surviving written record of his words? If so, you need to learn Pāli; even just an explanation of the most basic Theravāda concepts is likely to involve Pāli words like dharma, anatta, and Bhikkhu. I have a hunger to learn more about the words of the Buddha, and learning at least some basic Pāli is essential for this.

But ah yes, I’ve also been conducting research for the last 5 weeks of the Laidlaw Scholar Summer program. My research has mainly been looking at discussions of philosophy of time written mostly in Sanskrit and not Pāli. But any brief experience with both languages will show the commonalities between the two. In fact, many Pāli terms are borrowed from Sanskrit, and are simplified for pronunciation. For example, Sanskrit’s “anātman” is used in Pāli as “anatta”. Say both out loud, see which is easier to pronounce.

Finally, one of the amazing opportunities that the Laidlaw scholarship brings is the ability to start thinking about the prospect of further education after university. If I do continue to graduate studies, I think I’d rather move onto a focus on Buddhist philosophy, within Buddhist Studies, rather than Analytic Philosophy. To be a good scholar of Buddhist studies requires proficiency with one ancient Buddhist language minimum, and starting to learn Pāli is a great head start.

The Course

The course consists of 24 lectures, delivered by Dr. Alex Wynne, with a summary sheet for each lecture. There are also 13 vocabulary lists, with translation skills and vocabulary tested with an exercise at the end of every lecture. Not advertised, but very useful, is also a grammar document of inflections (word endings) for all the grammar forms in Pāli level 1. On completion of 80% of every exercise you receive a certificate of completion.

Strengths

  • The course is taught in a structure for its intended use; translation and understanding. Since I am very unlikely to ever converse in Pāli, the course does not try to teach me the skills to do so.
  • Any questions will be answered promptly by the program coordinators
  • The course is well designed by academics who are clearly experts in the Pāli language
  • No assumed previous knowledge of the language is assumed
  • If you fail to achieve an 80% on any exercise, it can be retaken an unlimited number of times
  • You are given unlimited access to the course. Some online courses only provide access for one year or less
  • Upon completion, the certificate lets me know which level I am at in Pāli, and I can present it to any future teachers
  • The last lesson of the course involves a chant, the triple refuge, which I have previously come across on a meditation retreat. It was interesting to learn about something which has been present within my own practice.

Weaknesses

  • Gombrich, in the introduction to the course, explains the advantage of learning Pāli in a manner which is for its intended use; translation of Pāli texts into English. This seems to conflict many of the exercises requiring translation of English into Pāli (although, I can see how this would make one better at translation Pāli-to-English by proxy).
  • A limitation of the online exercises is that sometimes they will unjustly mark a translation as wrong. Particularly with translation into the English present tense: “is going” may be marked wrong in favour of “goes” in one exercise, but “is xing” is preferred in the next exercise. Thankfully, the translation solutions help to check if you identified the right case for all words.
  • A small complaint is that every single lecture has the bookcase behind Dr Wynne in focus and lighting than himself.

Each of the above complaints are relatively minor and are either limitations of the online format or possibly features rather than bugs.

Summary

The Pāli Online Course Level 1 is an excellent resource to learn Pāli. The course founders stress that the best way to learn is always in person over a short period, but for the many who don’t have the disposable time and money to do so this is a brilliant compromise with expert teaching.

[1] Gombrich, R. (2018) Buddhism and Pali pp. 1-24

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