\ The Rhys Davids | Discovering Buddha

The Rhys Davids

Thomas William Rhys Davids

(May 12, 1843 – December 27, 1922)

I want to say up front that TW Rhys Davids is one of my heroes—I consider him the pivotal player in the resurgence of Pāli studies in the west and have given him a central place on this website.

He was a child of the European enlightenment—the era of rationalism, objectivity. He was bound to the rigorous rules of Victorian scholasticism. Blind faith was not an option. Every detail unearthed in the pursuit of truth had to be backed up by scientific thinking.

In the Kalāma Sutta, The Buddha addresses the question of who is the real teller of truth—who can be trusted and followed. This referred to the various teachers of the Buddha’s day, of course, but Buddha’s answer still rings true. Basically he said: do not take anything as true and good, merely because it is said by someone in authority, or even is rational. Test it! Test it for yourself, on yourself.

If it is agreed upon by the wise and you prove it for yourself by direct observation—then only can you take it to be true and good. On the other hand, if it is rejected by the wise and you prove it false by your own observation—then only reject it as false.

Is this not the Scientific Method? 25 centuries ago! Do the intellectual research, see what others have said—yes. But then test it for yourself to prove it.

This rationalism pervades the Buddha’s teaching and this is what Rhys Davids saw in the Pāli words he was translating. On many occasions he spoke against what he was finding—he denied the doctrine of Karma, for instance, because he could not see any rationality in it—but he insisted in the fair treatment of Buddha’s teaching from other scholars and he continuously called to task those who dismissed the Dhamma and put down anything non-European because of the missionary or colonial agenda.

Of course, his were not the best or final words on the doctrine of Buddha. It is clear to those who follow the Buddha’s Path that Rhys Davids made mistakes—his translation of important technical terms had many errors and reading them today sometimes seems confusing or even just wrong. But we need to understand that he was working from scratch. He was laying the groundwork for those who would follow. And leaders are bound to make blunders.

Nor was he rigid in his thinking. He was ready to soften his stance in later years, as is evident if his first and last books are read closely. Always, it was said of him, there was a calm and loving attitude to those he worked with. And though he could not openly declare his faith in the Dhamma, it was clear that he was a fellow traveler.

Rhys Davids famously said, “Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path.”



Early life

Thomas William Rhys Davids was born in Colchester, Essex, the eldest son of Thomas William Davids, a Welsh Congregational minister, and Louisa Winter. In 1853, when he was 10, his mother, aged 37, died following childbirth. He attended school at Clive House School, Brighton.

Deciding on a Civil Service career, Rhys Davids studied Sanskrit under A.F. Stenzler, at the University of Breslau. While there, he earned his money teaching English. He returned to England in 1863.



After passing his civil service exams, he was posted to Ceylon, where he held a number of posts in the Ceylon Civil Service, including District Judge.

As Magistrate of Galle, a case was brought before him involving questions of ecclesiastical law. In that case, a document in the Pāli language was brought as evidence, a language that no one present could translate.

With his interest aroused, and in the spirit of full justice, he decided to learn both the local languages, Sinhalese and Tamil as well as Pāli. To learn Pāli, he sought out a Buddhist scholar, the Ven. Yatramulle Unnanse.

‘When he first came to me the hand of death was already upon him. He was sinking into the grave from the effects of a painful and incurable malady . . . There was a strange light in his eyes and he was constantly turning away from questions of Pāli to questions of Buddhism . . . There was an indescribable attraction, a high-mindedness that filled me with reverence.’

In 1871 he was posted to Anuradhapura, an administrative centre. The governor at that time, William Gregory involved Rhys Davids in the role of Archaeological Commissioner in the excavation of the ancient Sinhalese city of Anurādhapura, the capital of King Devanampiya Tissa at the time of Ashoka. This city in the plains to the north of Kandy had been abandoned after an invasion in 993 CE. Gregory took an interest when a young Buddhist monk named Naranwita Sumanasaru Unnanse took it upon himself to start single-handedly clearing the acres of jungle that had swallowed it up.

Rhys Davids began to collect inscriptions and manuscripts, and from 1870–1872 wrote about them in a series of articles for the Journals of the Ceylon and Bengal branches of the Royal Asiatic Society and for the Indian Antiquary. Some were re-published in the GBI version of the JRAS.

His civil service career and his residence in Sri Lanka came to an abrupt end, however, when personal differences with his superior caused a formal investigation, a tribunal and dismissal for misconduct.

Returning to England in 1873, he studied for the bar; he became a barrister in 1877 and briefly practiced law. During this time he continued to publish articles about Sri Lankan inscriptions and translations.

There is an excellent book about Rhys Davids’s years in Ceylon, The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids in Sri Lanka, by Ananda Wickremeratne, MLBD, Delhi 1984. Here are three reviews of The Genesis of an Orientalist Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka

The Pāli Text Society

In 1881 he founded the Pāli Text Society, and served as its chairman until his death in 1922. The PTS was started, in RD’s words, “ . . . in order to render accessible to students the rich mine of the earliest Buddhist literature that were lying unedited and practically unused in the various manuscripts scattered throughout the University and other public libraries in Europe.”

Led by him and his wife, the PTS almost completed the publication of the Pāli canon in Pāli before his death. This work established the standard interpretation of Pāli Buddhism.

The above link gives an in-depth look at the Pāli Text Society and its publications over 40 years.

Royal Asiatic Society

He held the posts of Secretary and Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society from 1885–1904. These posts allowed him to greatly influence the interests pursued by the Society as well as the subject matter in the society’s journal. He was a part of each journal: writing articles, answering letters, reviewing books, and honoring his colleagues with eloquent obituaries. 

His literary career

Here is a full list of his 18 full-length books,  and his many articles for JRAS, JPTS, ERE, EB and other journals and books.


Other posts held

He was appointed Professor of Pāli and Buddhist Literature at University College, London, 1882–1904, a post which carried no fixed salary other than lecture fees.

He was a founder of the British Academy, 1901.

He took up the Chair of Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester, 1904–15.

Rhys Davids attempted to promote Theravada Buddhism and Pāli scholarship in England, actively lobbying the government (in co-operation with the Asiatic Society of Great Britain) to expand funding for the study of Indian languages and literature.

In his retirement, he wrote for the Manchester Guardian and worked on the preparation of a Pāli dictionary.

His family life

In 1894, at age 51, Rhys Davids married Caroline Augusta Foley, a noted Pāli scholar, 14 years his junior and together they dominated Pāli studies for sixty years.

The features of Buddhism they documented and validated through their meticulous and dedicated study of Pāli texts remain the basis of not only Western understanding of Buddhism but that of many modern Buddhist movements in Asia.

They had three children, Vivien, Arthur and Nesta.  Arthur, a WW I Royal Flying Corps ace had 25 kills before he himself was shot down in October 1917. It was said that both Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids took this very badly, their grief leading them into an involvement with spiritualism.

Here is an interesting and comprehensive list of the Rhys Davids family papers archived at Cambridge University

Thomas William Rhys Davids died in Chipstead, Surrey, 27 December 1922. His obituary in Nature noted that, “England has lost a great oriental scholar”

 I have left this sketch brief, but here are links to some very loving eulogies of TWRD.

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