CHIANG MAI, Thailand — “Thai” or “Tai”?

A simple letter “h” seems to make a great difference!

“Thai” refers to the main ethnic group living in Thailand, whereas “Tai” designates various ethnic groups related to the Thai, living within or outside the country: the Lao, the Yuan of Chiang Mai, the Shan and the Khon of Chiang Tung (the Shan state of Myanmar), the Lo of Yunnan in southern China.

Why are we today delving into these areas, so well known to the specialists and so esoteric for others? The reason is to remind learned readers of the whole spectrum of important but little known literary traditions from these remote areas and, secondly, to make a case for the variety and potential of academic endeavor that they offer.

The geographical areas mentioned above have produced, for about a thousand years, a real treasure trove of a specific type of popular Buddhist literature. A multitude of stories drawing from moral themes of Buddhism, respect for “the Teaching,” abiding by the basic rules of behavior, the offering of donations etc. were usually recited by the monks in the temples during vigils, especially at the time of the Buddhist season of penitence, akin to Lent.

The faithful, the common folk of the villages in those lands, listened eagerly to the recitations, sharing the anxieties and the emotions of the main heroes and absorbing the final moral message. The texts were written in dham, a kind of sacred script common to this whole geographic area and are found, even today, in manuscripts kept at various temples.

Some of them are being processed in microfilm form at Chiang Mai University, mainly for the benefit of researchers. They belong to the Lanna (northern Thailand) School of religious literature, as one of the two main streams of literary tradition which emerged in the 14th century, the other one being the more sophisticated and scholarly School of Ayuthaya.

After summarizing this little known religious-literary tradition, we should say a word about a current noteworthy effort — perhaps literary crusade would be a more appropriate term — undertaken in the above regions by a solitary but fully dedicated person: A French scholar with solid Asian roots plus deep knowledge of the regional languages and cultures embarked, several years ago, on a mission to identify, preserve and translate hundreds of such dormant manuscripts, whose physical condition keeps deteriorating with the passage of time and which unavoidably become more and more scarce.

Dr. Anatole-Roger Peltier, a distinguished member of the prestigious Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient, has been quietly but efficiently producing a series of books of a most original character.

He publishes first the text of one of the stories in the vernacular, then a rendition in modern Thai, then a translation in French and finally a translation in English.

All his publications represent absolutely original work, as his texts have never before been presented in such an elaborate form. The fruits of such texts are multiple and inestimable indeed. They serve not only as mere translations, but also as educative materials for students wishing to familiarize themselves both with these vernaculars and with Thai, given that both scripts are laboriously reproduced in fonts specifically designed by the author.

Naturally, the addition of French and English makes these rare texts available to a wider circle of Western readers who are curious to venture in textually uncharted areas. It is gratifying for Dr. Peltier and in fact for the whole spectrum which he explores that several thousand students, monks and others, in Thailand and in the adjoining spaces, have discovered and start appreciating his books, both from the literary as well as the educative angle.

This scholarly achievement brings me to a few more general thoughts about the character of present academic research. Bearing in mind the new mantra of aging populations worldwide and of the enormous potential of the information technologies, we may ponder for a moment on the older stereotypes of totally rigid — and therefore remote — academic orthodoxy.

Without attempting to denigrate the high norms of generally established academic work and research, I am sometimes tempted — and I believe I am not entirely alone — to think that in some cases, very deep and well researched specialized papers become so esoteric and restricted to a most limited number of readers that in the final analysis, they tend to portray a kind of erudite correspondence among specialists.

Consequently, learned readership, not to speak of readership at large, fail to grasp the meaning of such texts and the expected dialogue between the two parties is disrupted.

On the other hand, Dr. Peltier, through his work, is showing us the way to other beneficial possibilities: While he is careful to basically maintain serious academic standards, he at the same time keeps to such an orientation as to prove his texts intellectually and morally profitable to much wider groups of people, as already described.

After all, his world is the one of “popular” Buddhist literary traditions which are now facing the risk of perishing or becoming irrelevant in times of unbridled materialism and consumerism.

His method therefore is to resuscitate these forgotten texts through meticulous philological processes but never losing sight of the necessity to spread this knowledge as widely as possible and this in ways acceptable, intelligible and accessible to his readers.

Should we call this effort “generous, unselfish academia?” Whatever the answer, the fact is that what is becoming paramount in our era is the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, for the sake and the pleasure of expanding knowledge, far from formalization and “turf” limitations of the past.

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