Buddhist teachings were originally spoken, and eventually recorded, in Indic languages. Two of these, Pali and Sanskrit, remain important today.  These belong to the same family as English. As such, we can recognize many cognates — words or parts of words that have common etymological roots.  I do not think we need to become master linguists. Moreover, the nuance, idiom, and metaphorical significance  of cognates may not be identical.  We also need to be wary of false etymology. However, looking at the etymology of the Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist terms can enrich our understanding of what Buddhist terms mean.  Three elements;  prefixes,  verbal roots,  and suffixes  can be fairly easy to identify; without getting too awfully technical.


It is also useful to see how terms were translated, in ancient times,  from Sanskrit to other languages; especially Tibetan and Chinese.  Or we might be starting with an East Asian Buddhist vocabulary derived from the Chinese, such as Sino-Japanese or Kango (漢語).  In that case we can try to back translate the word to the Sanskrit original, and then locate the Pali equivalent. [Note that the Pali term may or may not be exactly the same as the Sanskrit.]  Looking at the Chinese or Tibetan might tell us how the translator understood the term, or even how the original meaning might have become corrupted.  Or else we may be unable to even find a Sanskrit original. That is a clue that the concept expressed might have been developed later on, outside of India.

Note that the Pali  and the Sanskrit texts both descended from a common Indic source. The Pali texts; which are associated with Theravada Buddhism, are largely still extant. They also contain concepts that come from commentaries; which might not be found in other schools. The Pali Texts,  by the way,  are sometimes called the Nikayas.

The Sanskrit texts are mostly lost; only a few fragments remain. However, these still largely exist in Chinese translation. If I understand correctly, the Tibetans might also have hybrid Sanskrit versions of some Mahayana texts; but not the Agamas. The  Sanskrit texts are associated with Mahayana, as well as some now extinct early school or schools that gave rise to Mahayana.  The texts , including commentaries, that correspond to the Nikayas, are sometimes called the Agamas.  Mahayana also has its own Sutras and commentaries; which are not found in either the Pali Canon or the Agamas.  These include completely unique Mahayana concepts;  as well as  differing interpretations of concepts common to Theravada.

Attempting to sort all of this out, in my opinion, can help us better understand the Buddha’s intention.  I have concluded, for example, that Theravada has some things right; which Mahayana  got wrong,  and vice versa.  Keep in mind  that sorting it out is a daunting task and there are more questions and ambiguous  answers than clear answers. There are also different views, even within Theravada; and this is even more true of the various Mahayana schools.

I think it is vitally important to maintain the attitude non-attachment to fixed views.  We are going to makes mistakes. Also, due to lack of accurate information, we are going to do good work, but still get things things wrong.  Besides that,  objectivity is wholesome quality. This does not mean we should not have views. It is just best if we keep them more or less tentative.  It also does not mean we should deny emotion, it is a matter of balance.  It is also good to maintain a trust or faith that answers do exist; even if we can never find them.  It is actually takes  stronger faith to live with brutally honest agnostic ambiguity or uncertainty, than to emotionally cling to wrong views,  or pretend to know what we do not.