Pali Text Society

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The Pali Text Society was founded in 1881 by Thomas William Rhys Davids "to foster and promote the study of Pali texts."

Pali is the language in which the texts of the Theravada school of Buddhism are preserved. The Pali texts are the oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures preserved in the language in which they were written down.

The society first compiled, edited, and published Roman script versions of a large corpus of Pali literature, including the Pali Canon, as well as commentarial, exegetical texts, and histories. It publishes translations of many Pali texts. It also publishes ancillary works including dictionaries, concordances, books for students of Pali and a journal.

Pali Canon

The Pali Text Society offers almost the complete Tipitaka (Pali Canon) available, translated to English. Only a few books of the massive, approximately 20,000 pages, 40 volumes of the Pali Canon has not been translated to English yet. Other books on the Pali Canon and the commentaries are also available.


Thomas William Rhys Davids was one of three British civil servants who were posted to Sri Lanka, in the 19th century, the others being George Turnour, and Robert Caesar Childers (1838-1876). At this time Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was struggling under the weight of foreign rule and intense missionary activity by Christians. It was an administrative requirement that all civil servants should be familiar with the language, literature, and culture of the land in which they were posted, so the three men studied with several scholar monks where, along with an introduction to Sinhala culture and language, they became interested in Buddhism.

The Pali Text Society was founded on the model of the Early English Text Society with Rhys Davids counting on support from a lot of European scholars and Sri Lankan scholar monks. The work of bringing out the Roman text editions of the Pali Canon was not financially rewarding, but was achieved with the backing of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka who underwrote the printing costs.

Childers published the first Pali-English dictionary in 1874. This was superseded in 1925 by the new Dictionary which had largely been compiled by T. W. Rhys Davids over 40 years, but was finished by his student William Stede. Currently another dictionary is being compiled by Margaret Cone, with the first of three volumes (A - Kh) published in 2001.

By 1922, when Thomas William Rhys Davids died, the Pali Text Society had issued 64 separate texts in 94 volumes extending over 26,000 pages, as well a range of articles by English and European scholars.

Fragile Palm Leaves

In 1994, the Pali Text Society inaugurated the Fragile Palm Leaves project, an attempt to catalogue and preserve Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Prior to the introduction of printing presses and Western paper-making technology, texts in Southeast Asia—including the Pali scriptures—were preserved by inscription on specially preserved leaves from palm trees. The leaves were then bound together to create a complete manuscript.

While palm-leaf manuscripts have likely been in use since before the 5th century CE, existing examples date from the 18th century and later, with the largest number having been created during the 19th century.[1] Because of the materials used and the tropical climate, manuscripts from earlier eras are generally not found intact in palm-leaf form, and many manuscripts have been badly damaged. During the colonial era, many palm-leaf manuscripts were disassembled and destroyed, with individual pages of texts being sold as decorative objets d'art to Western collectors.

The Pali Text Society created the Fragile Palm Leaves project to collect, catalogue, and preserve these artifacts, including scanning them into electronic formats in order to make them available to researchers without threatening their preservation. In 2001, the project was formalised as a non-profit foundation in Thailand as the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation.

Presidents of the Pali Text Society

Presidents of the Pali Text Society since its foundation:[2]

  • 1881–1922: Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843–1922) (Founder)
  • 1922–1942: Caroline Rhys Davids (1857–1942)
  • 1942–1950: William Henry Denham Rouse (1863–1950)
  • 1950–1958: William Stede (1882–1958)
  • 1959–1981: Isaline Blew Horner OBE (1896–1981)
  • 1981–1994: Kenneth Roy Norman FBA (1925– )
  • 1994–2002: Richard Francis Gombrich (1937– )
  • 2002–2003: Lance Selwyn Cousins
  • 2003–present: Rupert Mark Lovell Gethin (1957– )

External links