Language and Liturgy in Buddhism

I recently read an interesting article today on Yahoo News about the recently changed liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church and thought it was very interesting. In my younger years, I had a brief interest in Catholicism, sat in a few Masses from time to time, and got to know the liturgy a little bit, so I can imagine how hard it is to change 50 years of habits.

But the article also brings up an interesting subject because there is this clear tension between accessibility/ease and doctrinal purity. If you have liturgy in the local language, it’s easier for the congregation but due to evolution of languages, it will diverge from the original more and more (and from other versions of the translation). On the other hand, if you keep the liturgy in the original language it’s keeps things consistent, but is harder for the congregation to follow. People who use Latin today don’t always pronounce it correctly either (sounds too much like Italian).1

The same exists in Buddhism as well, but is even more complicated. The Buddha originally spoke Magadhi language (still spoken today in India, albeit changed over generations), but Magadhi had no written language. So, people used Pali langauge, which was like a lingua franca at the time, similarly to how people in the world today try to learn English as a second-language for trade and business. So, many Buddhist texts and liturgies are preserved in Pali which is pretty close to Magadhi.

However, many Buddhist texts and liturgies are also preserved in Sanskrit, which is a language frequently used in India for liturgical, religious and literary use (much like Latin in the Middle Ages). So, Sanskrit also works.

However, for most of East Asian Buddhism, Buddhist liturgy is preserved in Classical Chinese. When Buddhism first came to China, the vast bulk of literature was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit. Also, Chinese-influenced cultures like Korea, Japan and China all drew their liturgy from China and still do today. Lastly, many Mahayana Buddhist texts are only preserved in Chinese (e.g. the Heart Sutra), so you can’t always just go “back to the source” and Indian languages only.

So, just with classic liturgy alone, you have three possible options: Pali, Sanskrit and Classical Chinese, all of which are difficult to use for anyone who hasn’t studied them extensively. Purists will contend that liturgy should only be done in the original languages, but this can be intimidating for people who aren’t used to it, or they may become passive and just recite it without understanding the meaning.

But even if you try to translate into English, there’s loads and loads of translations. Because the Buddhist religion is more decentralized than the Catholic Church, Buddhists everywhere compose new translations of varying quality. If you look up the Heart Sutra in English, there’s easily a dozen or more translations (hell, even I did one), same goes with the Dhammapada, the Kalama Sutta and so on. The most popular, basic Buddhist texts have many English translations, and there’s little oversight or quality-control to ensure things work. So, while revisionists will contend that it’s better to keep using new and updated translations, this will lead to potential confusion between different groups and wasted argument over interpretation (i.e. “we’re right and you’re not”).

I am not really sure which approach is the right one. I admit I am personally inclined toward the traditional liturgy more because of the consistency and the sense of connection to the past, but that is my personality as a nerd and scholar.

What do you think?

1 The famous phrase by Julius Caesar, veni, vidi, vici correctly sounds more like weni, widi, wiki but most people read it incorrectly as if it were Italian. You can imagine how Sanskrit and Pali are similarly misread by modern audiences, myself included. ;-p


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Language and Liturgy in Buddhism”

  1. I’d say that it’s important to be careful of rigid interpretations, no matter what. Whether it’s a matter of the original text or a modern translation this can be a danger. In many cases, the original texts are replete with metaphor, and whether we attempt to understand the original language or someone else’s interpretation of the original language, I think it’s essential that we keep in mind it is just that: an interpretation. To me, that’s also a way to avoid dogma.


    1. Hi Mark and welcome to the JLR! I thought I wrote back to you already, but I see I didn’t. Sorry for the delay. Anyhow, yes, I think you’re quite right: rigidity of interpretation is a problem either way and it certainly does happen in every religion including Buddhism. Ironically, I think it sometimes happens to those who self-identify as “liberal” as much as it does to more traditional Buddhists. Something to consider, certainly. πŸ™‚

      P.S. Enjoyed reading your blog the other day as one linguist to another. πŸ™‚


  2. I’m just an old woodcutter and although I have taken the precepts in Zen I hold a Tibetan name my body is Theravada and my mind is Mahayana the Damapada I enjoy was translated by a Spanish scholar and he used the word “Love ” a lot which doesn’t seem to be used in other translations “Love” seems to be like honey it’s sweet and sticky compassion on the otther hand is sleek and smooth like “silicone” I chant the Heart suttra in Japanese and also in Sanskrit from them i geet to totaly differant feelings, I think for me when I take a step forward that will exspress my Buddha nature.


    1. Hi timetales, you are a testament to eclectic Buddhism. I am admittedly somewhat eclectic to in spite of my love of tradition. My Buddhist altar is a mess of accumulated Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and guardian figures plus ofuda amulets. :-p


    1. Hello and welcome. If you want to know the meaning of the liturgy, you just need to study. It takes time, but is worth the effort. Good luck.


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