Imagine translating thousands of pages of literature written in a lost language into a romanised script, then proofing, correcting and checking the text unless it's print perfect.
It took more than six years, but a group of devoted men attached to the Dhamma Society have completed such a project, the translation of the Buddhist canon known as the Theravada Tripitaka. The 40-volume set, titled "The Buddhist Era 2500 Great International Council Pali Tripitaka" is not only the most accurate version of the Theravada Tripitaka and the first edition ever to be published in Roman script. HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, who passed away on January 2, was honorary chair of the project.
The world record is completely unintentional, says Prasit Seksarn, the society's secretary-general.
"When the project began almost 10 years ago, we just wanted to publish the complete Buddhist teachings in Roman script. We weren't out to make a name for ourselves," he says.
As the Tripitaka is in Pali, all Buddhist monks must study the language to be able to read the Buddha's teachings. Pali does not have its own characters so the canons are written in different scripts, among them Burmese, Sri Lankan and Thai, resulting in variations of pronunciations.
The society obtained a CD of the Tripitaka manuscript from a group of Indian researchers. This manuscript, known as the Chatthasangiti or Sixth Council Edition, was written in Burmese script and was produced at the Great International Council convened in 1956 in Rangoon, Burma, by 2,500 knowledgeable Theravada Buddhist monks. "This edition is held as the most international and authoritative," Prasit explains.
Unfortunately, the CD came in an unreadable format so the society needed someone to retrieve the data. That was how Manop Wongsaisuwan, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's engineering faculty became involved.
"They asked if I could retrieve and change the information into readable text so that they could improve and print it," says Manop.
"After we retrieved the information, which totalled more than 30,000 pages, I ran a data analysis to find out how many alphabets there were in these texts. We saw all kinds, but we also found some more exotic ones that existed only in Sanskrit, not Pali. That's when we realised the manuscript might not be accurate," recalled Manop.
After consulting with Pali experts and comparing the manuscripts with other editions, it was confirmed that the text contained mistakes and they needed to revise it.
While the Pali experts recited the Pali sounds and corrected printing errors, Manop set up a server and created a Tripitaka database.
Together with his student volunteers, the professor developed several software applications to ease the processes of correction, text mark-up and character code changing.
"We used advanced levels of technology from the very beginning, including xml [extensible markup language] and data synchronisation to assure the accuracy of our corrections," he says, adding that he had two teams of volunteers correcting and cross checking simultaneously. "If one of them made an erroneous keystroke, the program would flag it," he adds.
"More importantly, our operation system is based on an open-source system like Linux, ensuring that our project is both inexpensive and legal."
The gold-rimmed, 40-volume set was published in 2005 and since then has been presented as gifts of dhamma and world peace to leading institutions around the world.
HRH Princess Galyani herself made a pilgrimage to Colombo, Sri Lanka, in March 2005 to present an inaugural Tripitaka edition to the country's president. The edition was also presented to Thailand's Constitutional Court, International Court of Justice in Hague, the Netherlands, and Uppsala University, Sweden. Several institutes have also requested the Tripitaka.
Because the database is well marked-up and referenced, the society was last year able to publish the 40-volume Tripitaka Studies Reference, which should make life easier for scholars.
And even though the Princess has passed away, the society will continue with its projects. It already has several upcoming publications in the pipeline, including the Pali Tripitaka Corpus (20 volumes), Pali-English Dictionary (one volume) and the Anthology of Pali Tripitaka in various scripts.
"We want to be a content provider. We plan to upload the entire database to the Internet, linking the information, photos and sounds together so this becomes the world of Tripitaka. People from around the world will have free access to this information," says Manop.
"In return, we hope these scholars will tell us what else we can do with this information to make it even easier for them to study the Tripitaka."
Manop, who has zero knowledge of the Pali language, is amazed at how much he's been able to contribute to Buddhism.
"I'm very happy to have been able to bring technology to this project. I really hope that people who are interested in Buddhism and the Tripitaka will benefit from what we have done in the years to come," he says.
Prasit, who's been involved in the project since the very beginning, says his pride comes not just from being able to help expand the Buddha's teachings, but also from the fact that this project has been created, developed and completed with the Thai people's knowledge and wisdom.
"We may have used existing software, but it's our Thai staff who've adapted and develop the applications. We have talents that are second to none."
He's also learned through the project that religion and technology need not be strangers.
"Without that coupling, this project would have not materialised," he grins.
Special to The Nation