As a small organization with a big mission (enriching the world by disseminating the words of the Buddha) Pariyatti receives support from invaluable volunteers, or Dhamma servers, to be able to offer its services. In past newsletter issues we reported on the Art of Reading Dhamma Books and the production of the film ‘Seeds of Awareness’. This time we want to shed some light behind the scenes of the Pariyatti Learning Center (PLC).
We asked Klaus Nothnagel about what’s involved in creating these helpful online tools for studying Pāli. Below is a report of the information he sent us, giving an unexpected and wonderful insight in the olden days as well.
Klaus started practicing Vipassana in the early 1970s with Goenkaji and studying Pāli in the late 1980s, and in hindsight it was an experience in his very first course that became the cornerstone for his affinity with and interest in Pāli. Many Vipassana meditators look back on their first courses thinking they slept more hours then the course schedule technically allows, and Klaus shared with us it was the same for him.
After having slept in for the first few days of the course, the day he did make it to the hall early he was surprised to find Goenkaji on the Dhamma seat, chanting. “To me it seemed that suddenly the whole atmosphere of the hall was engulfed by calm and peace and I was surprised about my deep meditation at that moment,” Klaus said. “It was only more than a decade later that I learned that the chanting was a sutta spoken by the Buddha in the original language of Pāli.”
It was in the late 80s Klaus read in a rarely-received Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) newsletter (a paper copy as there was no internet at the time) that VRI was planning a one-year residential Pāli course. Klaus said he felt thrilled, but by that time he was married and working as a teacher in government service (in his home country Germany) and chances were slim he would be able to take a year off, something much more common these days. “Due to whatever reason I found a loophole in the official regulations and was granted four years off - a leave that only later I was informed had been a bureaucratic mistake.”
Dhamma works, and fortunately Klaus was able to join that first Pāli course. It was there that he met Sean Salkin, who—like Klaus—is currently one of the teachers conducting Pariyatti Pāli workshops. Especially in those days India was not a country known for its efficiency, and the Pāli students ended up serving at Dhamma Giri a lot more than studying Pāli.
Even though Klaus felt his Pāli knowledge was “like zero”, he did put his hand up when VRI looked for a volunteer to edit the then-used Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta translation—Vipashyana Vishodhan Vinyas from All India Press—that had some paragraphs missing and contained various errors. “I slowly went through the sutta; I checked nearly every word in the dictionary. I made a literal translation and corrected several errors. This process refreshed and deepened my interest in Pāli and I started to spend as much time I had available reading different suttas.”
While back in Germany in 1997, Klaus was informed that Goenkaji wished for Pāli courses to be available around the world and asked Klaus to start conducting Pāli workshops. Although hesitant at first, Klaus prepared some simple material and the first three-day Pāli workshop was held at Dhamma Geha, the then German Center. (Nowadays Vipassana Centers are dedicated to meditation practice and Pāli courses are held at off-center locations).
When the sabbatical was introduced in Germany, Klaus and his wife—together conducting Vipassana courses by then—were able to join the first 45-day Pāli workshop by Tandonji, conducted at in a site adjacent to Dhamma Salila. Tandonji expressed that the material prepared for the Workshop had been chosen at random but that he wanted a more systematic approach. He asked Klaus to research, select and place suttas in a suitable order, explaining the Eightfold Noble Path. “It had already been my intention to find all the suttas that Goenkaji refers to in the 10-day and long-course discourses (as in quotes like ‘from darkness to brightness’, ‘so difficult to encounter the teaching (dullabho)’ and stories such as the one about Thera Mahātissa of Cīragumba, who kept high sīla, even when he was dying of hunger surrounded by mangos)—so I had a double task,” Klaus said. At that point Klaus was not working on the creation of the online PLC yet, but his research let to a selection of suttas in the order as it is found now in the online course Exploring The Path (ETP).
The outline that developed in Klaus’ mind was as follows; “Starting with texts that show what a rare opportunity it is to come in contact with Dhamma, what a rare opportunity it is to learn the proper practice of meditation and to support the spread of Dhamma, what a rare opportunity it is to understand and follow the Eightfold Path, to find texts about supporting the Dhamma financially by giving donations and the results thereof and sharing one's merits with others by the practice of Mettā. I have been working on [this concept] ever since!”
From all the material gathered over time Klaus said it became clear that only the simpler texts could be used for the residential workshop. The idea developed to make use of the rest as well; originally to publish it in a book.
Klaus knew Rick Crutcher, Director of Pariyatti at that time, from when he was at VRI, India, as Rick had finalized the editing of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta translation (together with Patrick Given-Wilson) and he contacted him about publication once he had material ready to be published. But Rick was quite aware of the digital age and proposed to present the material in a digital format, suitable for online learning, including introductions, vocabulary-tools and audio. “The whole project turned into something much more challenging and demanding,” Klaus said, explaining that this had meant he'd had to learn to use various software and recording hardware as well. “I am not a PC-wallah!,” he said, “But it actually turned out to be more fun even, as by researching introduction material I come across a lot of texts and information I would have missed otherwise!
The course material initially uploaded on the PLC took nearly three years longer to finalize than initially planned, due to the extra tasks mentioned above, Klaus said. The PLC was finally launched around the full moon of July 2011, marking the anniversary of the start of the Buddha's Teachings (when he gave the Dhammacakkapavatana Sutta).
The creation of new lessons is still ongoing (although Klaus mentioned publication nowadays is somewhat more irregular as he would like, due to his duties as Center Teacher of the new Polish center Dhamma Pallava). Working from a dedicated ‘Pāli corner’ in his home—“I retire whenever there is time”—Klaus said lessons take at least one full week to work at, with around five to six hours per day. “But in general they spread over months these days and I work bit by bit. I often catch an idea (sometimes they pop up in my mind while meditating) for a future lesson that I research and work on—to save it and get back to later once the time has ripened.”
When searching for specific terms Klaus usually uses the CST (Chatta Sangayana Tipitaka by VRI) and its search option. “I then read whatever I can find and is available in my private library around this text. This way I get inspiration and ideas in many ways. Usually this is followed by the process of a first rough translation of the sutta, by secondly thinking of what kind of introduction would be helpful, what vocabulary would be important to point out.”
The PLC currently offers three different free online courses; an ‘Introduction to Pāli’ course, an intermediate Pāli course – Exploring the Path- and a course called Buddhasahassanāmāvali that uses verses by Vipassana meditation teacher S.N. Goenka as the basis for learning Pāli.