Learning Pāli online

For those of us with a secular approach to the dharma, the study of the early writings, the suttas, is growing in importance as an aspect of our practice. But haven’t you wished you could access these early texts in plain English, without having been filtered through the eyes and minds of 19th and 20th century translators who clearly have a metaphysical approach to the teachings?

You may have tried to study the Pāli languageon your own at home, using one of the grammars available on the internet. It’s not easy, right? Well, there are currently two online course offers that will give you a better shot at it.

The OCBS Pāli Online Course

The Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies has launched a three-part online course series for Pāli, with the following features:

  • the courses are completely online and on-demand, meaning you can enrol whenever you want and start learning right-away
  • the course series is structured into three levels, each consisting of 24 lessons (amounting to about three hours of instructional videos)
  • a lesson always consists of a lecture, fact sheet, exercises, vocabulary list and vocabulary exercises
  • your access has no expiration date, with all future updates automatically included
  • the entire course series takes you from a beginner with zero knowledge of Pāli to being proficient enough to read and understand canonical Pāli texts on your own
  • each level can be bought independently: if you already know Pāli on an intermediate level, you can enrol directly into Level 2 or Level 3
  • very low price.

The main caveat with these courses is that, although one can leave comments which get answered by the OCBS, it lacks live interaction between the learner and the teacher. For this, it would be necessary to subscribe to their Pāli reading club.

The University of South Wales Pāli module
the University of South Wales offers a module in Pāli language as part of their MA in Buddhist Studies, but open to all. This 15 week course:

  • is completely online
  • will enable you to read early Buddhist texts in an original language, appreciating and understanding the dharma at a new level
  • enables you to progress from beginner level to independent translation of Pāli texts
  • offers flexible sessions in a supportive online learning environment
  • is longer than Richard Gombrich’s intensive course
  • is reasonably affordable, and
  • offers you the opportunity to join a lively, interactive, online student community.

The main caveat with this course is that it does not have to take place. In 2015, for example, the course did not attract enough students and therefore had to be cancelled. Also, although being online, it is attached to the university’s term dates and therefore can only be taken during its scheduled time.

With just a basic grasp of the Pāli language, you will be able to refer to the original texts whenever you have difficulties with something you’re reading, or your group is studying.

The estimated fee for the course is GBP £550. For more information write to Dr Nick Swann nick.swann@southwales.ac.uk or go to:


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  1. Frances Le Vaillant
    Posted October 14, 2015 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks heaps for this information, Ramsey. The whole MA looks interesting, and the idea that the Pali course will be available to all is pretty cool. It’s not a possibility for me this year, but perhaps Dr. Swann might repeat the experience in the future.

    This post made me think of the Introductory Sanskrit I and II papers offered as distance courses by the Religion Programme at Otago University. Otago offers a Certificate of Proficiency (COP) at both Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels (as do other NZ universities — I have one from VUW), so presumably interested people could enrol for the papers that way.

    I’ve had the Otago courses “bookmarked” for a while; just thought I’d mention them in case others were interested. It feels great to be a part of this community.

    • Posted October 15, 2015 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      Hi Frances!

      I am currently doing the MA and it is indeed very interesting!! The Pali course did not happen this autumn due to not enough people having showed commitment, though we came very close to the amount of students necessary for the course to run.

      It will be offered next autumn again and, hopefully, it will come true. There is more time to market it now and any help you might offer will be very much appreciated!

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