How to Overcome Sanskrit-Pali Anxiety (SPA)

by Curt Pawlisch
While not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “universal authority for psychiatric diagnoses” (according to Wikipedia), many SnowFlower members suffer from Sanskrit-Pali Anxiety or its ironic acronym, SPA.

SPA’s symptoms are well-known and typically manifest before and during readings or dharma discussions. Sangha members report feelings ranging from anticipatory embarrassment to an overwhelming dread of verbal humiliation.

Picture yourself as you are called upon to read aloud these excerpts from Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path White Clouds:

“Three days after their ordination, they departed with the Buddha and the other bhikkhus and headed toward Vesali, where they rested three days in Mahavana Park. After that, it took them ten days to reach Bamboo Forest Monastery in Rajagaha. Venerables Kassapa, Moggallana, and Kondanna were happy to see the Buddha again, as were all six hundred bhikkhus living at Bamboo Forest. King Bimbisara lost no time in paying the Buddha a visit as soon as he learned of his arrival.”

“King Pasenadi did not die peacefully in his palace in Savatthi. He died in Rajagaha in circumstances hardly befitting a king. After visiting the Buddha that day in Medalumpa, the king walked back to his carriage. He was surprised to find only one carriage instead of the four he had left there. His attendant informed him that General Karayana had forced the others to return to Savatthi. The general still held the king’s crown and sword. He told Prince Vidudabha to return at once to Savatthi and claim the throne as his own. The general said King Pasenadi was too old and weak to reign any longer. The prince was unwilling, but when General Karayana threatened to usurp the throne himself, the prince felt he had no choice but to obey the general’s wishes. King Pasenadi headed straight to Rajagaha intending to ask his nephew and son-in-law, King Ajatasattu, for assistance.”

Faced with multiple polysyllabic words and names—“Are the vowels or long or short?” “Where should I place the emphasis?” “Is there an emphasis?”—SPA victims may:

  • Declare, “Oh, I left my reading glasses at home.”
  • Email a SnowFlower friend before sangha, “My cat got sick so I guess I can’t make it to sangha.”
  • Rush over syllables hoping no one will notice.
  • Pause long enough for a veteran practitioner to fill the void.
  • Shorten names or substitute Western names for their Buddhist counterparts (e.g., “Moggallana” becomes “Moggie,” or “Morgan.”).

Mindful of the suffering of those afflicted with SPA, we offer possible remedies:

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