Translation issues (2): taṇhā and ‘craving’

In a previous essay, I explored the issue of how to translate the Pāli word dukkha, so often translated ‘suffering’. But ‘suffering’ is hardly ever the right English word. Sometimes dukkha means ‘painful’ and sometimes it means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first noble truth, that ‘this is dukkha’, is better understood as ‘this is unsatisfactory’. The first noble truth does not claim that life is painful and suffering, but that this existential situation that we find ourselves in is unsatisfactory and imperfect. Sometimes life is unsatisfactory because it is painful, and certainly it is imperfect because there is suffering, but pain and suffering are examples of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not the whole of it.

In this post I turn to the Pāli word taṇhā, which is usually translated as ‘craving’. The second noble truth taught by the Buddha is that dukkha or unsatisfactoriness has an origin (samudaya), and that its origin or causal basis is taṇhā. The second noble truth is thus sometimes rendered, ‘the cause of suffering is craving’. This might be even more misleading than the translation of the first noble truth as ‘life is suffering’. The problem with the English word ‘craving’ is that it invariably suggests a strong desire for things like sex or chocolate or alcohol, as if psychological states such as strong desires for sensual pleasures were the root of all our problems. By contrast, taṇhā in fact means ‘thirst’, and thirst is fundamentally a metaphor for a general existential condition of  humanity, which is an unsatisfied longing.[1] So the second noble truth ought to be translated, ‘this is the origin of unsatisfactoriness – thirst’. 

The Buddha’s second noble truth is that taṇhā is the origin of dukkha:

Monks, this is the origin (samudaya) of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), a noble truth – the taṇhā leading to renewed existence, associated with enjoyment and passion, finding pleasure here and there – namely, taṇhā for sense-pleasures, taṇhā for continued existence, taṇhā not to exist.

So what is taṇhā? The most important thing to know about this word is that it is a metaphor. The word taṇhā literally means ‘thirst’. The equivalent word in Sanskrit is tṛṣṇā. The words taṇhā and tṛṣṇā come from the verbal root tṛṣ meaning ‘to be thirsty’.[2] In fact this Sanskrit verbal root goes back to a word in Proto-Indo-European from which our English word ‘thirst’ also derives.[3] In English we also use the word ‘thirst’ in a metaphorical way, for instance when we talk of a scholar’s ‘thirst for knowledge’ or a general’s ‘thirst for victory’. The problem is that the English word ‘thirst’ is not metaphorical enough. It primarily refers to the desire to drink. By contrast, the Pāli word taṇhā is never used in early Buddhist texts in reference to its literal meaning. Whenever anyone in early Buddhist texts wants to talk about actual thirst, they use the word pipāsā (which means ‘desire to drink’).[4]

The fact that the Pāli word taṇhā  means ‘thirst’, and yet is only used metaphorically and never as a word for actual thirst, suggests that taṇhā is used as a technical term, to name a specific concept in Buddhism. This concept is that of a general existential condition for all living beings – taṇhā is the condition of thirsting for satisfaction that, along with spiritual ignorance (avijjā), is responsible for the evolution of the cosmos and for the constant transmigration of living beings in the cosmos. 

But what is it about the experience of thirst that allows the word taṇhā to do the work of naming this big concept? When we are thirsty, our bodies lack water and we want to drink to satisfy an urgent longing. There is bodily and affective dimension to the experience of thirst, in that there is a certain discomfort felt distinctively as a lack of water and enjoyment in the satiation of it; and there is also a cognitive dimension to thirst, inseparable from the affective dimension, in the form of thoughts and plans connected with getting water and gaining satisfaction. Thirst involves emotions and beliefs that lead to action, and not just psychological states.

Bearing in mind the metaphorical nature of taṇhā, let us turn to the wording of the second noble truth. Thirst (taṇhā) is described as having three characteristics:

  1. it leads to renewed existence (ponobbhavikā): just as physical thirst is the urge to drink, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the urge to find satisfaction, and this metaphorical ‘thirst’ is the driving force of transmigration (saṃsāra), whether within this life or over lifetimes;
  2. it is associated with enjoyment and passion (nandi-rāga-sahagatā): just as actual thirst involves affective states of enjoyment when drinking, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the passionate pursuit and enjoyment of what gives satisfaction;
  3. it finds pleasure here and there (tatra-tatrābhinandinī): just as the thirsty body finds pleasure in the refreshment it can get, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) becomes attuned to the kinds of pleasure possible while looking for the satisfaction of longing.

Characteristic (3) looks very much like an account of psychological hedonism: the claim that living beings do in fact seek pleasure and avoid pain. Characteristic (2) similarly looks like the related claim that it is pleasure and pain that motivates us to act. Characteristic (1) is the wider claim that motivational hedonism drives the round of birth and death. This suggests a cosmological context for the Buddha’s teaching that taṇhā is the cause of unsatisfactoriness. In the Vedic tradition, the related term ‘desire’ (kāma) is a force that creates the many from the one and drives creation. The Nāsādiya Sūkta, a famous hymn from the Ṛg Veda, includes the lines:

Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire (kāma), which existed as the primal semen. 

Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent.[5]

In the Upaniṣads, this same desire (kāma), a cosmic and metaphysical force, becomes the necessary condition for karma and reincarnation: 

A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action. And so people say: ‘A person here consists simply of desire (kāma)’. A man resolves in accordance with his desire, acts in accordance with his resolve, and turns out to be in accordance with his action.[6]

The Buddha appears to accept the ancient Indian metaphysics of desire, but he alters it by renaming this force of desire ‘thirst’, and shifting attention from cosmic and metaphysical desire to the driving force of biological organisms, which get thirsty and need to drink. By doing this, the Buddha shifts attention from a force of creation to an existential condition of life.

There are fascinating parallels with the Indian metaphysics of desire in the western philosophical tradition. In his Symposium, Plato presents eros (passionate love) as a force running through the living world, driving all beings to seek beauty. He teaches the sublimation of eros, from the bodily urge to reproduce, to an appreciation of philosophy, and finally to knowledge of beauty itself. In the medieval period, the concept of conatus was used to explain the innate tendency for things to continue in being. The evidence for conatus in human beings is willing, our active efforts to survive and thrive. Schopenhauer took up this theme, making ‘will’ the metaphysical reality behind appearances. Freud saw the libido as the energy of our drives and instincts, and as the basis of much of psychic life. The Buddha’s concept of taṇhāhas something in common with all of these concepts, although the Buddha taught more practically that taṇhā is a general existential condition, evident in our motivational hedonism.  

Going back to the second noble truth, the Buddha, having characterised taṇhā in a threefold way as the existential condition of life, goes on to say that taṇhā manifests in three ways:

  1. taṇhā for sense-pleasures (kāma-taṇhā): this is a metaphorical ‘thirst’ not just for pleasurable objects of sense, such as food and sex, but more broadly for an enjoyable worldly life, involving for instance family, house and wealth;
  2. taṇhā for continued existence (bhava-taṇhā): this kind of metaphorical ‘thirst’ is for more life in whatever state we find ourselves, based on an eternalist view, and could also be for continuation in a refined or formless realm of existence through meditation;
  3. taṇhā for non-existence (vibhava-taṇhā): a ‘thirst’ to no longer exist, based on an annihilationist view; Anālayo also relates this form of taṇhā to ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’, which might be found for instance through meditation.[7]

With this analysis of three ways in which taṇhā appears, it is possible to understand why taṇhā is the origin of unsatisfactoriness. Firstly, all sense-pleasures (from chocolate to children) are impermanent and unreliable. To live one’s life in search of that which, like oneself, is liable to arise and cease, is an ‘ignoble quest’ (anariya-pariyesanā),[8] for sense-pleasures cannot finally satisfy us. Secondly, any form of continued existence is in fact subject to ageing, illness and death, and so to live one’s life in pursuit of the eternal cannot lead to actual satisfaction. Thirdly, neither suicide nor a mystic merger with reality will keep one from the ongoing process of rebirth. But this is not the end of the story. As Sāgaramati explains, there can be a wholesome taṇhā, a thirst for the end of thirst, a desire for awakening, a wholesome longing for the end of longing, desire and thirst.[9] This is the cessation of dukkha, the subject of the third noble truth, nirvāṇa, which comes about through practising the eightfold path, the subject of the fourth noble truth. 

Metaphorical ‘thirst’, our basic unsatisfied longing, can be fulfilled with the realisation of awakening. This could be seen as a ‘vertical’ ending of thirst. But the human experience of thirst suggests another way of thinking about metaphorical ‘thirst’. Physical thirst is not a social emotion, but an individual and personalised bodily experience. I cannot experience your thirst, and you cannot quench mine by drinking. Likewise, the Buddha describes how metaphorical ‘thirst’ (seeking for the satisfaction of longings) tends to depend on appropriating inner and outer objects (making them my own):

Now, monks, there are these eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside, and eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “I am”, there are the ideas of “I am this”, “I am like that”, “I am otherwise”, “I am lasting”, “I am transient”, there are the ideas of “I might be”, “I might be this”, “I might be like that”, “I might be otherwise”, “might I be?”, “might I be this?”, “might I be like that?”, “might I be otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “I will be”, “I will be this”, “I will be like that”, “I will be otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “this is me”, there are the ideas of “this makes me like this”, “this makes me like that”, “this makes me otherwise”, “this makes me lasting”, “this makes me transient”, there are the ideas of “this might be me”, “this might make me like this”, “this might make me like that”, “this might make me otherwise”, “might this be me?”, “might this make me like this?”, “might this make me like that?”, “might this make me otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “this will be me”, “this will make me like this”, “this will make me like that”, “this will make me otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.[10]

In this discourse, the Buddha evokes some of the very many ways in which unsatisfied longing manifests in an individual’s thoughts and feelings, dependent on identifying with them as ‘myself’ and dependent on appropriating objects of various sorts as ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Such egotistical desire could be for sense-pleasures, continued existence, or non-existence. Deep-rooted egotism wraps us up, ties us down, and drives us on. The discourse just quoted ends like this:

Now this, monks, is that taṇhā, which is ensnaring, a river, entanglement, pervasive, by which this world has become smothered and overgrown, has become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from saṃsāra with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies.

This suggests that metaphorical thirst involves an impossible egotism about satisfaction. Living one’s life expecting a personal satisfaction of desire may leave one tangled and mouldy. A ‘horizontal’ ending of such thirst would be the overcoming of egotism, involving for instance the development of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abodes’ of kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity; qualities which extend one’s sphere of concern beyond oneself. Such meditation may lead to a liberating insight into the lack of a fixed permanent self in experience, and hence a liberation from the ensnaring, entangled river of egotistical desire.

I began this essay with a translation issue: is ‘craving’ the best translation of taṇhā? I argued that taṇhā means ‘thirst’ and is a metaphor. But it turns out that the way the Buddha uses this metaphor to characterise our human predicament goes well beyond a comparison with desiring to drink. Taṇhā has taken on a life of its own as a technical term in Buddhist thought. I would argue that translating taṇhā as ‘craving’ suggests to the unwary that the problem with the human predicament is a psychological state of strong desire. Whereas translating taṇhā as ‘thirst’, and making this literal translation of taṇhā the standard one, might help remind students of Buddhism, old and new, to remember to think metaphorically, and to reflect on the unsatisfied longing that constitutes the existential ground of human life.


[1] This point is argued at length in Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.144–8 ().

[2] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. tṛṣ.

[3] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. taṇhā.

[4] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. pipāsā. This word is from the desiderative form of the verb , ‘to drink’, which derives from another Indo-European root, pō(i), evident in English words coming from Latin, like ‘potable’ (from pōtus) and ‘imbibe’ (from bibere).

[5] Ṛg Veda 10.129.4, trans. Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton (2014), The Rig Veda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India, New York: Oxford University Press, p.1609.

[6] Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1998), The Early Upaniṣads, New York: Oxford University Press, p.121.

[7] Anālayo (2012), Excursions Into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Onalaska WA: Pariyatti Press, p.16.

[8] From ‘Discourse on the Noble Quest’ (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta), Majjhima Nikāya 18.

[9] Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.151–3 (www.westernbuddhistreview.com).

[10] From ‘Discourse on Thirst’ (Taṇhā Sutta), Aṅguttara Nikāya 4: 199. This is my translation, but also see Sujato’s and Ṭhanissaro’s translations at https://suttacentral.net/an4.199

Mettā for Plants

sweet love gerbera

Some years ago, while learning Pāli, I made a translation of the Mettasutta, or ‘Discourse on Kindness’, one of the best-known early Buddhist discourses.[i] The verses of this discourse describe how a practitioner should develop the quality of mettā, or ‘kindness’.[ii] Having established oneself in an ethical lifestyle, one develops, imaginatively and emotionally, the quality of kindness to all beings, as part of the training of mind and heart that culminates in liberation and awakening. Among the verses that describe the development of mettā are these:[iii]

ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi
tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā
dīghā vā ye mahantā vā
majjhimā rassakā aṇukathūlā

diṭṭhā vā ye vā addiṭṭhā
ye ca dūre vasanti avidūre
bhūtā vā sambhavesī vā
sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā

Which I translated like this:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.

When I translated these verses, it seemed to me obvious and uncontroversial that the class of ‘living beings’ (pāṇābhūta) should include living beings that are both ‘moving’ (tasa) and ‘still’ (thāvara), and that these Pāli words referred to animals and plants. However, last year, in conversation with Buddhist friends, I discovered that in fact almost all other translators of the Mettasutta translate the words tasa and thāvara as ‘weak or strong’, or words to that effect, with the implication that plants are not included.[iv]

This discovery surprised me. Surely, I thought, the class of living beings towards which Buddhists should develop mettā, or kindness, should include plants as well as animals. But in fact, as I found out, the Theravādin Buddhist tradition excludes plants from the category of sentient beings; it takes the Mettasutta to teach that one should develop kindness towards sentient beings, hence not towards plants. In this post I will argue two things: first, that the original intention of the Mettasutta was to recommend the development of mettā towards all living beings, including plants; and second, that the development of mettā towards plants ought to be an important part of the practice of developing mettā. But before that, some background on the traditional interpretation.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent translation of the Sutta-nipāta, the verses of the Mettasutta in question are translated like this:[v]

Whatever living beings there are
whether frail or firm, without omission,
those that are long, or those that are large
middling, short, fine, or gross.

Bhikkhu Bodhi also translates the traditional commentary on the Suttanipāta, giving the contemporary reader easy access to the way the Theravadin tradition understood the discourses. The section discussing ‘frail or firm’ reads like this:[vi]

In this way, with the expression “whatever living beings there are” having shown all beings collectively, classified into pairs and triads, now, with the expression “whether frail [tasa] or firm [thāvara], without omission,” he [i.e., the Buddha] shows all these classified by way of this pair. Here the frail [tasa] are “those that tremble (or thirst)”; this is a designation for those with craving and with fear. The firm [thāvara] are those that stand firm; this is a designation for arahants, who have abandoned craving and fear.

In an interesting long note, Bodhi explains how the commentary invokes a word-play on the two meanings of tasa, ‘trembling’ and ‘thirsty’.[vii] The commentary evidently connects ‘trembling/thirsty’ (which Bhikkhu Bodhi and others render into English as ‘frail’, ‘weak’) with living beings that are unawakened and experience craving and fear. By contrast, the commentary connects living beings who are ‘still’ or ‘firm’ with awakened beings who no longer experience craving and fear. Bhikkhu Bodhi admits that this commentarial interpretation feels forced. Not only that, one might add, but the English rendering ‘frail or firm’ does not even get across the forced commentarial explanation. In English, to speak of ‘frail or firm’ living beings tells the reader nothing at all about their craving or awakening. It tells the reader only about their physical and mental strength. In his long note, Bodhi continues:[viii]

Norman 2004, 81, takes the expression [tasā vā thāvarā vā] in its original sense [of ‘moving or still’]…, but since, on this interpretation, thāvara signifies vegetation or inanimate objects, this would mean that mettā would be developed towards non-sentient objects, which is contrary to the intent of the practice [my italics]. While the commentarial explanation may be forced, I would surmise that even during the Buddha’s time tasathāvara had lost its original sense and had come to serve as a conventional expression applicable solely to the domain of sentient beings.

We see, therefore, that Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the verses,  ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi |tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā, as ‘Whatever living beings there are / whether frail or firm, without omission’, following the commentary, and with the surmise that even in the Buddha’s time, the phrase tasathāvara already meant ‘sentient beings’, excluding plants. Without implying any criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi, since he has translated the Sutta-nipāta as it is understood in the Theravādin tradition, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the original meaning of tasathāvara. This is based on the remarkable in-depth scholarship of Lambert Schmithausen. In his unlikely-sounding book, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earlier Buddhism,[ix] Schmithausen addresses the question of whether tasathāvara includes plants in early Buddhism. This phrase, meaning ‘moving or still’, is a common expression in ancient Hindu and Jain texts from the time of the Buddha for the class of living beings. The Jains, indeed, have not at all changed their conception of what counts as a living being, or jīva. As Paul Dundas puts it, according to Jain belief:[x]

Embodied jīvas are divided into two types, those which are stationary (sthāvara) such as plants, and those which are moving (trasa) such as insects, gods, hellbeings, animals and human beings.

For Jains, the practice of non-harming (ahiṃsa) extends to stationary (sthāvara) beings like plants as well as to moving ones like animals. In Schmithausen’s view, the Buddhists, like the Jains, used the word pāṇa (‘living being’) in a comprehensive sense, to include both tasa and thāvara, animals and plants. Schmithausen reviews early Buddhist literature and concludes that we should infer that the Buddhists used the phrase tasathāvara in just the same way as the Jains; practitioners should not harm or kill living beings, whether moving or still, but should protect them and suffuse them with mettā. The evidence that Schmithausen presents, despite being inferential rather than direct, very much undermines Bhikkhu Bodhi’s surmise that the meaning of tasathāvara had already in the Buddha’s time come to refer only to sentient beings.[xi]

However, Schmithausen also traces the way in which later Buddhists (such as the Pāli commentators) came to exclude plants from the category of sentient beings. He also ventures an opinion on how this change could have come about. Even in the Buddha’s day, plants were regarded by the Buddhists as borderline cases of sentient life; after all, harming plants was a necessity for obtaining food, without which no ascetic could eat and gain liberation. While wanton destruction of plants, based on an attitude of greed or hatred, was wrong, the careful use of plants for food did not incur any bad karma.[xii] This pragmatic attitude, so typical of Buddhists, was quite different to that of the more literalist Jains. In later times, the Buddhist attitude to plants shifted to exclude them altogether from the class of sentient beings, in a doctrinal shift that sorts out the ambiguities of Buddhist pragmatism.

Therefore, we should understand the original meaning of tasathāvara in the Mettasutta as ‘moving and still’, that is, ‘animals and plants’. I now turn to the idea that the intention of the mettā practice is to develop kindness only towards sentient beings (not plants). Bhikkhu Bodhi’s understanding of the mettā practice here no doubt reflects the practice as explained in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.[xiii] Here, one is instructed to develop mettā towards human beings, in stages, beginning with oneself, then a good friend, a neutral person and a difficult person, and culminating in extending mettā to all sentient beings. But this constitutes, for practical purposes, a relatively narrow method of practising mettā. The early discourses, by contrast, teach the practice of mettā in terms of radiating boundless kindness in all directions, to all living beings, not specifically to human or sentient beings.[xiv] Again, this suggests that mettā should be developed towards plants.

Indeed, some contemporary meditation teachers recommend the development of mettā towards plants. Sharon Salzbergdraws on research that shows how elderly people in a care home who had been given a pot plant to care for became healthier and better connected to the world. Ajahn Brahm describes how one of his students began to develop the quality of mettā by bringing to mind the plants she had recently re-potted: she developed an attitude of appreciation, kindness and concern to those plants, and was subsequently able to extend this development of mettā towards humans and all beings. Such meditation teachers still teach the traditional five-stage practice of mettā-bhāvanā, but take a broad and creative approach to contacting the quality of mettā to start with.

Perhaps we should go further than this. In the modern world, many people are disconnected from nature and lack a sense of emotional appreciation of the living environment, upon which we depend for food, air, beauty, and more. As the mostly urban-dwelling humanity of the 21st c. heads towards the growing challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and over-population, the deliberate and systematic development of mettā for plants, trees and forests, in addition to animals, including humans, might be particularly valuable. An appreciation of our place in the wider world of life may awaken the heart to kindness, and then help us to formulate new attitudes and relationships to plants and insects, and to all the hidden interconnections between our lives, that we have for so long been able to take for granted, but which there is still time to learn to love. 

With this in mind, I propose that we should interpret the Mettasutta for our own times. We should translate tasā vā thāvarā vā as ‘whether plant or animal’, but we should understood these two kinds of living beings as representative of the whole world of life, including bacteria, plants, fungi and animals, and whatever other living beings are yet to be identified. And in our practice of mettā we should extend the quality of kindness towards the whole borderline-sentient world of plants, trees, forests, now at risk from human beings. Hence:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.


[i] The Mettasutta can be found in the Suttanipāta, 1: 8; see https://suttacentral.net/snp1.8 for editions and translations. My translation can be found here

[ii] The Pāli word mettā is derived from the word mitta, ‘friend’, which suggests the meaning ‘friendliness’ (the Sanskrit equivalent maitrī is similarly derived from mitra). The word mettā can also be translated as ‘love’, ‘loving-kindess’ and ‘benevolence’. But I like the one-word translation ‘kindness’, as the English word ‘kindness’ means the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate, which is more specific than ‘love’, and suggests emotional open-heartedness. 

[iii] Suttanipāta, vv.146–7, taken here from the PTS edition.

[iv] For instance, H. Saddhatissa (The Sutta-Nipāta, London: Curzon, 1985, p.16) translates, ‘Whatever living beings there be: feeble or strong…’; Laurence Khantipalo Mills: ‘whether they be frail or strong’.The exception is K.R. Norman (The Group of Discourses, PTS, Oxford, 2001, p.19), who translates ‘Whatever living creatures there are, moving or still without exception…’.

[v] Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2017, The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses, Boston: Wisdom, p.179.

[vi] The Suttanipāta, p.577. I have included some of the Pāli in [square brackets]. Text in bold is quotation from the Mettasutta, the ‘lemma’, or text which the commentary comments on.

[vii] Bodhi, n.696, p.1407.

[viii] The reference to Norman is to K.R. Norman, ‘On Translating the Sutta-nipāta’, Buddhist Studies Review, 2004, 21: 1, pp.69–84. Bodhi’s reference should be to p.82 rather than p.81.

[ix] Lambert Schmithausen, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism, Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. This book is an accompaniment to Schmithausen, Buddhism and Nature, Tokyo: The Internation Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. Neither work is easy to get hold of, but I have created links here to downloadable versions.

[x] Paul Dundas, The Jains, Abingdon: Routledge, 1992, p.95

[xi] Here I summarise the detailed discussion in Schmithausen, Sentience, §§19–21, pp.58–65.

[xii] Schmithausen makes this argument in Sentience, §§22–7, pp.66–78.

[xiii] Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, PTS: London, 1920, p.295ff; trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Path of Purification, Kandy: BPS, 5th ed., 1991, p.288f.

[xiv] Discussed in Anālayo, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2015, pp.20–6.

Translation Issues (1): dukkha and ‘suffering’

The Pāli word dukkha has so often been translated as ‘suffering’ that it might seem to have become the standard translation of the term. We have got used to seeing the teaching of the first Noble Truth, in the Buddha’s Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, rendered something like this:

Monks, there is the noble truth that ‘this is suffering’ (dukkha): birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are suffering.[i]

When dukkha is translated in this way, it is hard for the unwary reader not to see the Buddha’s message as a rather pessimistic portrayal of our human condition, fHarvey Introduction to Buddhismocussed on the vale of tears, but not noticing the beauty of the dawn. But the British Buddhist scholar, Peter Harvey, remarks that dukkha is ‘suffering’ only ‘in a general inexact sense’.[ii] The issue is that our English word ‘suffering’ can be a noun (‘the mute suffering of the innocent’), a present participle (‘suffering blame’) or an adjective (‘those suffering boys’). The word dukkha, however, is an adjective. When the Buddha said that ‘birth is dukkha’ he meant more precisely that birth is painful, in the sense that birth is an occasion when the experience of suffering tends to arise. Harvey goes on to translate dukkha as ‘painful’ rather than ‘suffering’. By translating dukkha in this way, the Buddha’s first Noble Truth looks more like a factual reminder that the human state is unavoidably painful. But does it always work to translate dukkha as ‘painful’?

In fact, the Pāli word dukkha has two distinct applications. Firstly, it is used in relation to vedanā, ‘feelings’ or ‘felt experience’. According to the Buddhist analysis, there are three sorts of feelings, sukha, ‘pleasant’, dukkha, ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, and asukhamadukkham, ‘neither pleasant nor unpleasant’ or ‘neutral’. Of course, some dukkha-vedanā are very unpleasant and certainly count as suffering. But the word dukkha, in relation to vedanā, covers a broad spectrum of more or less unpleasant feelings.

Secondly, dukkha is used in relation to all conditioned things. There is a well-known stanza in the Dhammapada:

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’ti
yadā paññāya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe
esa maggo visuddhiyā.

‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’ –
seeing this with understanding
one turns away from the unsatisfactory.
This is the path to purity.[iii]

To say that ‘all conditioned things’ (sabbe saṅkhārā) are dukkha is to say that they are imperfect. Being conditioned they arise and cease, and cannot totally satisfy.

Margaret Cone’s new Pāli dictionary clearly distinguishes these two senses of dukkha. As an adjective dukkha means (1) ‘painful; unpleasant; bringing pain or distress; uneasy; uncomfortable; not what one wants; wrong’. It also means (2) ‘(used to characterise all experience) unsatisfactory; bringing distress or trouble’.[iv]

But if the word dukkha has two different meanings, can we translate it with one English word at all? Bhikkhu Anālayo thinks not. He argues that the translation of dukkha as ‘suffering’ simply ‘does not do justice to the different dimensions of this Pāli term… in its early Buddhist usage’.[v] Sometimes dukkha means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, in relation to feelings, but this does not necessarily imply ‘suffering’. But when dukkha is used in relation to conditioned things, it embraces pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings, and it therefore hardly makes sense to say that dukkha is ‘suffering’. Rather, dukkha in this sense means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that the human condition is unsatisfactory rather than suffering. Anālayo suggests that we just use the Pāli term dukkha, only translating it when the context makes clear that it means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘unsatisfactory’:

Our ability to understand early Buddhist thought suffers from the inadequate translation of dukkha as “suffering.” Although in general it is preferable to translate Buddhist doctrinal terminology, in this case it might be better just to use the Pāli term. When translation appears to be required, “painful” or “unpleasant” could be employed if the context concerns one of the three feeling tones; “unsatisfactory” would be the appropriate choice if the term dukkha applies to all conditioned phenomena. In this way, the import of the early teachings could be more adequately conveyed and misunderstandings be avoided.[vi]

Anālayo’s judgement that we cannot do justice to the meaning of dukkha with one English word, ‘suffering’, is in fact borne out by a discussion in an early Buddhist text. The sixth of the seven books of the Theravādin Abhidhamma Piṭaka is called the Yamaka, ‘The Book of the Pairs’. The chapter on ‘Pairs on Truths’ (sacca-yamaka) begins by asking:

Is dukkha, the truth of dukkha? Is the truth of dukkha, dukkha?

The first of these questions concerns the relationship of the term dukkha to the term ‘truth of dukkha’ (dukkha-sacca), which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. This distinction is a way of distinguishing dukkha (1) ‘unpleasant’ from dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The answer ‘Yes’ to this question tells us that the scope of the term dukkha (1) is entirely contained within the scope of the term ‘truth of dukkha’, which means dukkha (2). The answer to the second question, however, is not ‘Yes’, but:

Apart from dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling, the remaining truth of dukkha is truth of dukkha but is not dukkha feeling; dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling are both dukkha feeling and truth of dukkha.[vii]

The answer to the second question implies the distinction between dukkha (1) ‘painful’ and dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The ‘truth of dukkha’ implies that the meaning of dukkha in the formulation of the Noble Truths is dukkha (2), and that this dukkha in fact includes pleasant feeling (sukha-vedanā), which is by definition not dukkha (1). However, since pleasant feeling is impermanent and liable to change, it is therefore unsatisfactory.

Caroline Rhys DavidsThe formulation of the distinction between dukkha (1) and dukkha (2) in the Yamaka was not yet very clear to Mrs Rhys Davids when she was editing the text for publication by the Pali Text Society more than a century ago;[viii] in her introduction to vol.1 she writes of her trouble understanding this difficult work, and the lack of anyone to explain it, ‘unless indeed our friends in the Burmese vihāras are able to come forward and help us’.[ix] In the introduction to vol.2, she records her gratitude to several Burmese teachers who responded to her request for help. Among those teachers is Ledi Sayadaw, whose lengthy reply, in what Mrs RD calls ‘nervous, lucid Pāli’,[x] is included as an Appendix in the PTS ed., and is wonderfully entitled, landana-pāḷi-devī-pucchā-visajjanā, ‘Reply to the Questions of London’s Pāli Queen’.[xi]

The Pāli Queen’s translation of extracts from Ledi Sayadaw’s article soon appeared in the Journal of the Pali Text Society.[xii] In clarifying the Yamaka pair discussed above, which distinguishes dukkha from the truth of dukkha, Ledi Sayadaw first explains the meaning of dukkha (1):

Here the word dukkha means pain which is experienced, and has the essential mark of “unpleasant”.[xiii]

He then explains the meaning of dukkha (2):

But in [such doctrines as] the “Truth concerning dukkha”, and [the Three Marks] “impermanence, dukkha, not-self”, we are considering dukkha in the sense of a state of fear and danger, having the essential mark of no peace, no safety, no good fortune. This is obvious, for pleasant feeling, from the point of view of enjoyment of life, is not dukkha; it is just happy experience, with the essential mark of the “agreeable”. But as included under dukkha when used to mean “no peace”, then this pleasurable feeling becomes just [one aspect of] dukkha.[xiv]

He compares the situation to one of a very sick man, who if he were to enjoy rich food would end up in great pain. He would know that such sukha would also be dukkha; and this is the meaning of the first noble truth, that even sukhafeelings are in the end unsafe, unsatisfactory, dukkha. In fact, anyone who holds onto experience, thinking “this is mine!”, is like a fish who has swallowed a bait. As the Buddha says:

Monks, one who rejoices in material form rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkha is not free from dukkha, so I say. Monks, one who rejoices in feeling, perception, formations and consciousness, rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkhais not free from dukkha, so I say.[xv]

In this way, Ledi Sayadaw explains how the truth of dukkha includes bodily and mental unpleasant feeling but is not limited to that narrower meaning of dukkha. This distinction, which is clear though mostly implicit in early Buddhist texts, was made explicit in the Abhidhamma. Anālayo makes the same distinction clear in contemporary English. The word dukkha should be understood in two sense: as meaning ‘painful’ or ‘unpleasant’, in relation to feelings; and as ‘unsatisfactory’, in relation to the Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths. To translate dukkha as ‘suffering’ obscures rather than reveals the Buddha’s teaching. The first Noble Truth should rather be translated something like this:

Monks, there is the Noble Truth that ‘this is unsatisfactory (dukkha)’: birth is painful (dukkha), ageing is painful, sickness is painful, association with the unloved is unsatisfactory, separation from the loved is unsatisfactory, not getting what one wants is unsatisfactory; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are unsatisfactory (dukkha).[xvi]

In this translation, the Noble Truth points to shift in perspective on the human condition, one that recognises that life is characterised, not so much by suffering, as by unavoidable sources of painful feeling and existential unsatisfactoriness. This is not pessimism so much as turning towards the situation with open eyes. This in turn raises the question of why the human condition should be this way and what can be done about it; which of course is a question that the other three Noble Truths, and indeed the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, tries to answer.

[i] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation.

[ii] Peter Harvey (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, p.53.

[iii] Dhammapada v.278.

[iv] Margaret Cone (2010), Dictionary of Pāli, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.410. Cone also translates dukkha as a noun, with the same distinction of two broad meanings.

[v] Anālayo (2019): ‘Craving and dukkha,’ Insight Journal, 45: 35–42, p.35.

[vi] Anālayo (2019), Insight Journal pp.36–7.

[vii] This translated is adapted from the new translation by C.M.M Shaw and L.S. Cousins (2018), The Book of Pairs and Its Commentary. A translation of the Yamaka and Yamakappakaraṇaṭṭhakathā. Vol.1, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.279. Shaw and Cousins consistently translate dukkha as ‘suffering’, which somewhat obscures the point being made in this pair.

[viii] Caroline Rhys Davids, ed., The Yamaka: The Sixth Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, London: Pali Text Society. Vol.1 was published in 1912, Vol.2 in 1913.

[ix] Vol.1 p.xv.

[x] Vo.2 p.vii.

[xi] Vol.2 pp.219–86.

[xii] JOPTS 7 for 1913–14, pp.115–64. She acknowledges the help of Mr S.Z. Aung.

[xiii] ettha hi dukkhasaddo asātalakkhane anubhavanadukkhe vattati (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248). I have had to modify the Pāli Queen’s translations a bit. Her solution to the problem of translating dukkha was to translate it ‘Ill’. This did not catch on, perhaps because this use of ‘ill’ diverged too much from conventional usage.

[xiv] dukkhasaccan ti ca aniccaṃ dukkhaṃ anattā ti ca ettha pana asanti-akhema-asīva-lakkhane sappaṭibhayatā dukkhe vattati. tathā hi sukhā vedanā loke anubhavaṭṭhāne dukkhā nāma na hoti, sātalakkhaṇā sukhā eva hoti. (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248).

[xv] Saṃyutta Nikāya 22: 29, pts iii.31 (my translation).

[xvi] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation. Would it work to leave dukkha untranslated here? Or might doing so diminish the literary effect of the teaching?

The Chapter of the Eights

the-buddha-before-buddhism

My review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, Shambhala, Boulder, 2016, paperback £15, 180 pages.

Gil Fronsdal’s new book is a translation of and commentary on ‘The Chapter of the Eights’ (Aṭṭhakavagga), the fourth chapter of the Sutta-nipāta, itself a miscellaneous collection of Pāli Buddhist verses (including such classics as the Karaṇīya-metta sutta and the Ratana sutta). I was excited when I heard about this new translation, because The Chapter of the Eights is a fascinating work, presenting the Dharma in a form that seems to take the reader back to an unfamiliar world of ancient Indian asceticism. In this world of heated argument about beliefs and practices between professional renunciates and spiritual wanderers, the Buddha’s teaching is presented as something beyond belief, beyond views and opinions, as a lived insight that combines a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation with an attitude of careful investigation and letting go. The non-dogmatic and practical approach of The Chapter of the Eights reads like the living words of the Buddha in his teaching heyday, in contrast to the lists and repetitions of the prose nikāyas, which can often appear formulaic. This has led to speculation about the Eights poems – that perhaps they are older than the prose discourses; that perhaps they represent an early and unsystematised version of the Buddha’s teachings; that perhaps they represent ‘the Buddha before Buddhism’, as the title of Fronsdal’s book proposes.

There is good news and bad news about Fronsdal’s new translation. The good news is that he has written some useful introductions to and commentaries on the sixteen poems that make up The Book of Eights, making these old Buddhist verses more easily accessible than they have been before in English. The bad news is, unfortunately, quite bad. It is that the translations themselves generally lack precision, and are occasionally wrong. Fronsdal does not seem to know Pāli particularly well. In my view, the book can hardly be recommended as a translation, though if it encouraged readers to investigate further it could be said to have some value. In what follows I will firstly discuss the importance of The Book of Eights, and how Fronsdal presents it, before indicating some of the problems with his translation.

Fronsdal’s preface begins: ‘This book is a translation of a collection of ancient Buddhist poems often considered to be among the Buddha’s first teachings.’ It might seem that Fronsdal is here starting to elaborate the claim made by the book’s title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’. The claim is that the Aṭṭhakavagga contains some of the oldest records of the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps dating from a period early in his teaching career, before the more systematic teachings with which we are familiar. However, despite this opening sentence, Fronsdal does not particularly push this claim; and indeed in his Afterword he presents an accurate summary of the uncertainties around making any definite claim for the date or original purpose of the chapter. In this regard, I had the sense that the title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, was possibly chosen by the publisher to act as a magnet for those drawn to the idea of ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’. Alas, the whole idea of getting back to ‘the Buddha’s own words’ looks, from the scholarly point of view, increasingly like an impossible dream. Fronsdal doesn’t actually dispute this. But before I present his view of The Chapter of the Eights, I will summarise what might positively be said about the text’s historical importance.

The Sutta-nipāta as a collection was probably assembled rather later than the discourses in the four main nikāyas or collections. It is arranged in five chapters, the fourth being The Book of Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) and the fifth The Way to the Beyond (Pārāyanavagga). The reason for supposing that these two chapters contain relatively old materials is twofold. Firstly, they are both commented upon in another canonical work called the Niddesa (‘Explanation’). This early commentarial text also comments upon the Rhinoceros Discourse (Khaggavisāṇa sutta), in the first chapter of the Sutta-nipāta. The Niddesa cannot be precisely dated but the fact that it exists shows that the texts it comments upon were valued in a special way from an early point in Buddhist history. Secondly, The Chapter of the Eights is itself mentioned in the prose nikāyas. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, 22:3, the householder Hāliddakāni asks the Venerable Mahākaccāna to explain to him the meaning of a stanza from the Māgandiya in The Chapter of the Eights (Sn 844). Moreover, in the Udāna 5:6, the Venerable Soṇa is said to recite at the Buddha’s request the whole of the The Chapter of the Eights, and the Buddha compliments Soṇa on his recitation. These two stories seem to imply that The Chapter of the Eights were in existence prior to the composition of the prose nikāyas, in the time of the Buddha himself. (The Way to the Beyond and some other stanzas similarly appear to have been in existence during the Buddha’s lifetime). We should also say, in support of the idea that The Chapter of the Eights is old, that its language is archaic (which is presumably why the early Buddhists composed a commentary on it).

However, it must be emphasised that The Chapter of the Eights is relatively old, compared to other early Buddhist texts. This does not allow us to date it. Because the early Buddhist scriptures were composed and transmitted orally for hundreds of years, there is a kind of ‘event horizon’ which we cannot get behind. This horizon is about two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. The fact the early Buddhist scriptures describe The Chapter of the Eights as already in existence at the time of the Buddha in fact shows that the Buddhists of two hundred years after the Buddha’s death believed that The Chapter of the Eights was an old record of the Buddha’s teaching. But we cannot be any more certain than that about the matter. This has not stopped scholars speculating about it. The late Tilmann Vetter thought that the Eights were originally composed among non-Buddhist ascetics and then later included in the Buddhist canon.[i] Other scholars have speculated that the Eights describe an early form of Buddhism, that existed prior to organised monasticism and Buddhist doctrine.[ii] However, K.R. Norman, whose translation of the Sutta-nipāta is the most scholarly though it is very literal,[iii] has discussed the Aṭṭhakavagga in relation to early Buddhism, and concluded very convincingly that it is a mistake to suppose that the contents of The Chapter of Eights can somehow be taken to represent ‘Buddhism’ of any period. The Eights should be taken as more of a snap shot of one approach to the Dharma.[iv] While we can identify the particular characteristics of this approach, it is not possible to know what other discourses and teaching were in general circulation when the The Chapter of the Eights was composed. It is likely that The Way to the Beyond was in circulation at that time, which presents the Dharma in rather different terms, so it is likely that The Chapter of the Eights was always one approach among several, in which case it does not necessarily represent ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’.

Despite his book being titled ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, Fronsdal’s introduction and commentaries concentrates on the original content of The Book of Eights rather than on speculative questions about where the Chapter stands in relation to the Buddhism of the prose nikāyas. He identifies four distinct themes of the Chapter: (i) letting go of views; (ii) sensual craving; (iii) the description of the sage; and (iv) training. However, it must be said that the most strikingly original theme in the Chapter is the first theme, letting go of views. This theme is visible in the four discourses (2–5), each of which contains eight (aṭṭhaka) stanzas, that probably give the Chapter of the Eights its name (Aṭṭhakavagga). One can get a flavour of the argument from v.787:

One who is attached argues over doctrines –
How and with what does one argue with someone unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.[v]

Other discourses in the Chapter make the same point: that a religious practitioner seeking peace should let go of views, should not get involved in religious arguments, should practise a sceptical abstention from debate, and by contrast learn to seek peace through a different method, by understanding the relationship of views and emotional attachments, so as to abandon the former by letting go of the latter through insight.

As Fronsdal explains in his introduction, this message is not unique to The Chapter of the Eights, but is the subject of the Honeyball Discourse (Madhipiṇḍika sutta) in the Majjhima-nikāya, which explains how disagreement and debate is a result of conceptual proliferation (papañca), which itself arises from feeling, perception and thinking. Many other discourses, it might be said, present the same message from different angles, most obviously The Discourse on Brahma’s Net (Brahmajāla sutta) in the Dīgha-nikāya, which explains the arising of sixty-two kinds of wrong view on the basis of feeling and contact. The other themes of The Chapter of the Eights which Fronsdal identifies can likewise be found discussed in other discourses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the Eights is vividly focussed on the fruitlessness of religious debate. In the eighth poem, the Discourse to Pasūra (Pasūra sutta), the speaker of the discourse (presumed to be the Buddha) addresses Pasūra:

Wishing for an opponent, you roar
Like a hero nourished on royal food.
Run off, O Hero, to where the fight is;
As before, there is no fight here.[vi]

Pasūra seems to be an avid debater, and implied by the poem is a context of lively debate between ascetics (samaṇas), on topics of religious and spiritual importance. The Buddha simply refuses to participate:

Pasūra, what opponent would you get
From those who live without opponents
Who don’t counter views with views,
Who don’t grasp anything here as ultimate?[vii]

From these extracts, I hope to have given a taste both of the main theme of The Chapter of the Eights, and the accessible style of Fronsdal’s translation. Likewise, Fronsdal’s introductory comments to each of the sixteen poems open up the unfamiliar concerns and presuppositions of the ancient verses for contemporary readers. In this sense, Fronsdal’s book is not aimed at scholars, and indeed does no more than hint at the scholarly discussions on various topics. For instance, the eleventh poem, The Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes (Kalahavivāda sutta), is of great interest (at least to some of us), since it presents many of the nidānas or causal links familiar from the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent arising – but without any apparent awareness of that highly structured formula. It would seem that this poem represents an early presentation of themes that only later became the twelve links of dependent arising.[viii] Fronsdal’s introduction to the eleventh poem instead speculates on the relation of the discourse to the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, which is not an impossible hypothesis though it would need more discussion to look like more than guesswork.

Turning now to the translation issues I highlighted earlier, one could perhaps simply enjoy Fronsdal’s accessible new translation, as a way to explore a particularly interesting example of early Buddhist literature. However, any reader wishing to explore the meaning of the stanzas in detail should be aware of the many mistakes in Fronsdal’s rendering. Let me start with two general issues. First, Fronsdal translates nibbāna as ‘release’,[ix] nibbāti as ‘frees’[x] and nibbuti as ‘release’.[xi] These three words are etymologically and conceptually related; nibbāti means ‘goes out’ (of a flame) and is used metaphorically in early Indian religious thought in relation to the ending of the process of being reborn in saṃsāra. Likewise, nibbāna means ‘going out’, ‘quenching’ and is a metaphor for the summum bonum of the spiritual life and the end of rebirth; likewise nibbuti is regarded as cognate with nibbāna while also connoting ‘happiness’, ‘being at ease’.[xii] So why does Fronsdal write blandly “release is a translation of nibbuti”?[xiii] It just isn’t. ‘Release’ would be a translation of vimutti, which is a different concept. I would guess that Fronsdal wanted to maintain a this-worldly and psychological kind of tone in his translation.

The other general issues is Fronsdal’s translation of bhavābhava as ‘becoming and not-becoming’.[xiv] He does not in fact explain what he thinks he means by ‘becoming and not-becoming’, but it occurs in such contexts as:

This wise one doesn’t associate with
Becoming or not-becoming.[xv]

The Pāli here is bhavābhāya na sameti dhīro: ‘the wise person does not go to bhavābhava’. The word bhava means ‘existence’ or ‘becoming’, or ‘state of existence’, such as one of the six ‘realms’ of the wheel of life – existence as a god, animal, human, and so on. As K.R. Norman points out, the Pāli commentary explains bhavābhava as bhava-bhava ‘one or other state of existence’, saying, ‘in bhavābhava means in states of existence in the sensory realm and so on, or in bhavābhava means in one or other state of existence, in ever-renewed states of existence’.[xvi] That is to say, bhavābhava means ‘existence after existence’ or ‘various states of existence’. It does not mean ‘becoming or not-becoming’. Indeed, as the example above shows, the translation ‘becoming or not-becoming’ does not even make sense, whereas it makes perfectly good sense (in the ancient Indian context of belief in rebirth) to say, ‘the wise person does not go to various states of existence’, meaning that the wise person does not undergo rebirth into a god realm or back into the human realm and so on. Again, one might guess that Fronsdal wanted to avoid references to the rebirth cosmology of early Buddhism.

As well as these two general issues with Fronsdal’s translations, there are many specific points. In the context of this review, let me just take one, to make my point. Fronsdal translates the first two lines of v.898 as follows:

Those who say virtue is ultimate
Dedicate themselves to purity and religious observance.

The context is the statement of an opponent’s point of view – the view that it is the strict observance of a moral code that makes for spiritual purity. The Pāli here is sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ / vataṃ samādayā upaṭṭhitāse – ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate say that purity is through restraint. / Undertaking a vow they are dedicated.’ But Fronsdal writes in a note: ‘The meaning of this sentence is obscure. To translate this line most scholars look to the canonical commentary on this verse found in the Niddesa and borrow the idea that purity comes from self-restraint. I have tried to understand the sentence on its own terms, without the commentary. No English translation that I know of, including mine, translates saññā (‘concept’, ‘perception’) in the opening phrase sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ.’[xvii]

This note shows, however, that Fronsdal does not understand the Pāli and misrepresents previous translators. The word saññamena has nothing to do with saññā but is the instrumental singular of saññama, from the verb saṃ-yam, ‘restrain’.[xviii] Hence, ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate (sīluttamā) say (āhu) that purity (suddhiṃ) is through restraint (saññamena)’. This is not at all obscure, and shows that in this case previous translators did not borrow the the idea of ‘restraint’ from the commentary.[xix] I have found another fifteen specific examples of mistakes in Fronsdal’s translation, simply based on not understanding the Pāli.[xx] What to say? In his Acknowledgements on p.ix he thanks various people such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu for checking his translation. Not very thoroughly, one might think. Fortunately, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta-nipāta and its commentary will be published very soon.

[i] Tilmann Vetter, ‘Mysticism in the Aṭṭhakavagga’, in The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, Brill: Leiden, 1988.

[ii] For instance, Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: a survey with bibliographical notes, KUFS Publication: Tokyo, 1980.

[iii] K.R. Norman, The Group of Discourses (2nd ed.), Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2001.

[iv] K.R. Norman, ‘The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism’, Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, ed. Olle Qvarnström, Asian Humanities Press: Fremont, 2003.

[v] Fronsdal p.51, the last stanza from ‘The Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt’ (Duṭṭhaṭṭhakasutta).

[vi] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 831.

[vii] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 832.

[viii] See, for instance, Hajime Nakamura, ‘The Theory of “Dependent Origination” in its Incipient Stage’, in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula ed. S Balasooriya et al., Gordon Fraser: London, 1980, pp.165–72.

[ix] In v.940, 942, although in v.822 he has ‘nirvana’, without explanation.

[x] In v.915.

[xi] In vv.917, 933.

[xii] All this can be easily checked in either PED or in Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli vol.II.

[xiii] Ch.14 n.3 p.171.

[xiv] In vv.776, 786, 801, 877, 901.

[xv] Final two lines of v.877.

[xvi] Norman 2001, p.328, n.776, quoting the commentary Paramatthajotikā II p.517: bhavābhavesū ti kāmabhavādisu, atha vā bhavābhavesu ti bhava-bhavesu, punappunabhavesū ti.

[xvii] This is n.4 on p.170.

[xviii] This is perfectly obvious from the Mahāniddesa p.309 and from Pj II p.558, both of which gloss saññamena as saṃyamamattena, ‘through mere restraint’.

[xix] Hence Norman p.118 translates: ‘Those who consider virtuous conduct to be the highest thing say that purity is by means of self-restraint’.

[xx] Contact me for a full list of mistakes and issues.

The meaning of the Pāli word ‘sutta’

well said

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Pāli word sutta: it is equivalent to the Sanskrit word sūtra and it means ‘discourse’. It is used in the sense of a discourse of the Buddha, one of the many discourses which generally begin evaṃ me sutaṃ, ‘thus have I heard’, and which are traditionally regarded as having been remembered by Ānanda, the Buddha’s friend and attendant.[1] At the same time, from the point of view of the word itself, we often read that the word sutta does not literally mean ‘discourse’, but that it means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and that the meaning ‘discourse’ is an applied meaning. However, in this essay I will show how some recent as well as traditional scholarship does not support the idea that sutta means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, but that the word was always understood to mean ‘discourse’.

Let us begin with the Pali-English Dictionary (PED). There are in fact two entries for sutta, in that sutta1 means ‘asleep’, being the past participle of supati ‘sleeps’. We can leave this meaning of sutta aside. The other meaning is as follows:

sutta2 (nt.) [Vedic sūtra, fr. sīv to sew] 1. a thread, string… 2. the (discursive, narrational) part of the Buddhist Scriptures containing the suttas or dialogues, later called Sutta-piṭaka… 3. one of the divisions of the Scriptures (see navanga)… 4. a rule, a clause (of the Pātimokkha)… 5. a chapter, division, dialogue (of a Buddh. text), text, discourse… 6. an ancient verse, quotation… 7. book of rules, lore, text book…[2]

PED thus relates sutta to Sanskrit sūtra and both words to sīv ‘to sew’, and gives its primary meaning as ‘thread’ as well as other meanings including ‘discourse’. Following PED, Buddhist commentators have tried to explain why a word meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’ should also be used as the word for Buddhist discourse. Sangharakshita, for instance, explains that:

meaning literally a thread, the word [sūtra, also sutta] suggests a series of topics strung on a common thread of argument or exhortation. By implication, therefore, a sūtra is of considerable length, systematic in form and substantial in content.[3]

However, there is a puzzle associated with this kind of explanation.

There certainly is a Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and there certainly is a Pāli word sutta with the same meaning.[4] There also certainly is a genre of Sanskrit literature called sūtra. This genre, perhaps the best-known example of which is the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, consists of a number of brief aphoristic sayings in verse (each called sūtra). The genre long pre-dates Buddhism, being first used around 800 BCE in the Śrauta-sūtras, concerned with Vedic ritual, and the genre remained important in philosophy and literature for many centuries. The aphorisms of the genre can certainly be said to have been strung together or to have a common thread, and perhaps were so-called for this reason. However, neither the Pāli suttas nor the Sanskrit Buddhist sūtras are like this at all. The Buddhist discourses are not in the least aphoristic and neither do they consist in sayings of the Buddha strung together. It is therefore a puzzle to read even in an up-to-date Dictionary of Buddhism under the entry sūtra:

In Sanskrit, lit. “aphorism”, but in a Buddhist context translated as “discourse”, “sermon”, or “scripture”; a sermon said to be delivered by the Buddha or delivered with his sanction. A term probably used originally to refer to sayings of the Buddha that were preserved orally by his followers (and hence called “aphorisms”), the sūtra developed into its own genre of Buddhist literature, with a fairly standard set of literary conventions…[5]

Reading this entry, one might reasonably ask why a word meaning “aphorism” would have been used to describe the oral record of the Buddha’s teaching, and why this word later came to refer to a genre of Buddhist literature which was not in the least aphoristic.

Scholars have proposed a pleasing and elegant answer to this puzzle. It is that we have been misled by the Sanskrit word sūtra into supposing that the Pāli word sutta means ‘thread’ and therefore ‘aphorism’. The Indian Buddhists who used the Sanskrit word sūtra were incorrect to use it as an equivalent to the older Middle-Indo-Aryan word sutta, and this earlier word should actually be derived from sūkta, meaning ‘well-spoken’, hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha. As Prof. K.R. Norman puts it:

Many Buddhist Sanskrit texts are entitled sūtra. To anyone who comes to Buddhist studies from classical Sanskrit studies, this name comes as a surprise, because, in Sanskrit, sūtra literature is a specific genre of literature, composed in prose, usually of a very abbreviated and concise nature, while Buddhist sūtras have an entirely different character. This difference is due to the fact that the word sūtra in Buddhist Sanskrit is a Sanskritisation of the Middle Indo-Aryan word sutta, which is probably to be derived from Sanskrit sūkta, a compound of su and ukta, literally “well-Spoken”. It would be a synonym for subhāṣita, which is the word used of the Buddhavacana [sayings of the Buddha] by the emperor Aśoka… when he said: “All that was spoken by the Lord Buddha was well-spoken”.[6]

According to this explanation, the word sutta means ‘well-spoken’ and hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha, from the verb vac ‘to speak’ (the past participle of which is ukta) with the prefix su meaning ‘well’, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. If this is true, the early Buddhists who used the word sutta to mean ‘discourse’ did so with good reason, and did not do so thinking that sutta meant ‘string’ or ‘thread’. This meaning of sutta is to be understood as distinct from the meaning of sutta as ‘thread’, just as sutta also means ‘asleep’. Hence, sutta1 ‘asleep’ (past participle of sup), sutta2 ‘thread’ (from sīv), sutta3 ‘discourse’ (from su+ukta).

Inevitably, however, other scholars have found fault with the details of this explanation. Prof. Oscar von Hinüber thinks that this proposed etymology of sutta from sūkta is unnecessary. He writes:

In der Theravāda-Überlieferung findet die Annahme, daß sutta eigentlich sūkta- entspräche, nirgends eine Stütze, wie die lange Erörterung zu sutta-, As 19, 15–26, mit aller Deutlichkeit zeigt.[7]

In the oral tradition of the Theravāda, the assumption that sutta really corresponds to sūkta nowhere finds a support, as the long discussion on sutta in As 19, 15–26, quite distinctly shows.

Von Hinüber’s point is that, while it is theoretically possible that sutta is derived from sūkta, and that this would elegantly explain its usage, there is no traditional support for such a derivation. He cites the Atthasālinī, the Theravādin commentary on the Dhammasaṅganī, the first book of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka.[8] This commentary gives the following explanation of the word sutta:

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca ‘suttan’ti akkhātaṃ.

tañhi attatthaparatthādibhede atthe sūceti. suvuttā cettha atthā veneyyajjhāsayānulomena vuttattā. savati cetaṃ atthe, sassamiva phalaṃ, pasavatīti vuttaṃ hoti. sūdati cetaṃ, dhenu viya khīraṃ, paggharatīti vuttaṃ hoti. Suṭṭhu ca ne tāyati rakkhatīti vuttaṃ hoti. suttasabhāgañcetaṃ. yathā hi tacchakānaṃ suttaṃ pamāṇaṃ hoti evametampi viññūnaṃ. yathā ca suttena saṅgahitāni pupphāni na vikiriyanti na viddhaṃsiyanti evametena saṅgahitā atthā. tenetametassa vacanatthakosallatthaṃ vuttaṃ –

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca suttanti akkhātan’ti.[9]

From showing (sūcana) the good, from having been well spoken (suvutta), from begetting (savana) and from giving out (sūdana);

Through being an excellent shelter (suttāṇa), and from being like thread (sutta), sutta is called ‘sutta’.

For it shows the good (attha) consisting of the good for one’s self, the good for others, and so on. And meaning (attha) has been well spoken in this respect through being spoken in conformity with the dispositions of those ready for the teaching. And it begets the good (attha), like crops do fruit, so it is said that it brings forth. And it gives it [the good] out, like a cow does milk, so it is said that it flows out. And it excellently shelters and protects it [the good]. And it is similar to thread, for as the carpenter’s thread is a measure, so it is too for the wise, and as flowers tied together with thread are not scattered and damaged, so by it good things are tied together. Therefore this has been said about it for the sake of knowledge about the meaning of the word: [repeat of stanzas].’[10]

This traditional discussion of the meaning of sutta is revealing, in that although Von Hinüber is correct in saying that it does not definitively support the derivation of sutta from sūkta, neither does it support the derivation of sutta from the word sutta meaning ‘thread’. Let us look more closely at this traditional explanation.

The Atthasālinī explains the meaning of sutta (as in sutta-piṭaka, the ‘discourse collection) in six distinct ways:

  1. It means sūcana (‘showing’, ‘indicating’), as it shows the good. The word sūcana comes from sūcī (‘needle’) via the denominative root sūc. Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary (MW p.1241) links sūcī with sīv (‘to sew’), the root of sūtra, but the PED doubts this connection (p.721).
  1. It means suvutta (‘well spoken’, ‘well said’) from su (‘well’, ‘excellent’) and vac (‘to speak’). This explanation amounts to the derivation proposed by Norman, that sutta = Sanskrit sūkta. However, the commentary is not claiming that sutta is the same word as suvutta or that it derives from su+vac, only that sutta can be explained as suvutta (‘what has been well spoken’).
  1. It means savana (‘begetting’), which can be derived from the Sanskrit root su4 (= 2) (‘to generate’) (MW p.1219). This explanation gains strength from the fact that the past participle of su is suta, literally meaning ‘issue’, hence ‘son’ (PED p.717). There is hence an edifying background word-play between sutta and savana via suta.[11]
  1. It means sūdana (‘gives out’), which is cognate with the Sanskrit root sūd, which, according to MW p.1242 can have the meaning ‘eject’ (nikṣepana).
  1. It means su+(t)tāṇa (‘excellent shelter’), from the prefix su together with the word tāṇa (‘shelter’), cognative with Sanskrit trāṇa from the root trai (‘shelter’, MW p.457). This explanation is an example of explanation through edifying word-play, since the commentator would not have supposed that the word sutta was etymologically connected with suttāṇa, only that the resemblance of sounds between the words could be exploited to explain the meaning of sutta. 
  1. The final explanation is in the form of a comparison. Sutta is said to be suttasabhāga (‘like or similar to sutta’) where sutta in this case means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, which is derived from the Sanskrit root sīv (‘to sew’).

From these six explanations of the meaning of the word sutta, we can see how the commentators primarily took the word to mean ‘discourse’, and then they explained this meaning in various ways, relating sutta to other words that were either homonyms (sutta meaning ‘thread’), or were edifyingly similar in sound (suttāṇa, sūdana, sūcana), or were both similar in sound and related in meaning (suvutta), or were related in meaning (savana). The impression one gets is that the commentator does not have a single view about the derivation of sutta.

However, from a historical perspective the commentator’s explanation of the meaning of sutta is from a later period, and does not tell us much about how the early Buddhists who first used the word sutta understood it. We can also only wonder whether the commentator was familiar with the Buddhist Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘discourse’ as the equivalent of the Pāli sutta. If he was, which seems likely, then two interesting conclusions seem to follow. Firstly, the Pāli commentator does not seem to relate the words sutta or sūtra to the genre of Indian literature called sūtra or ‘aphorism’. Rather, the words sutta or sūtra are explained as comparable to a string or thread only as an edifying metaphor. Secondly, the Pāli commentarial explanation of sutta seems to allow that this word may be the equivalent either of Sanskrit sūkta or of sūtra.

In conclusion, then, the Pāli word sutta, when used to refer to Buddhist literature, need not be taken literally to mean ‘thread’. It is equally possible to derive sutta from su+ukta as from the root sīv (‘to sew’), and the former derivation would support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’, in the sense of ‘what has been well spoken (by the Buddha)’. While the Pāli commentary does not give any direct support to this derivation, it does support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’ and does not appear to support any connection of sutta to the Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘aphorism’, derived from the meaning of sūtra as ‘thread’. In short, despite our not knowing for certain the derivation of sutta, it is consistently used to mean ‘discourse’ in a way that supports its derivation from sūkta, ‘well-spoken’.

[1] The situation is in fact more complicated, in that the early Buddhist scriptures record a nine-fold analysis of Buddhist literature, the first sort being sutta, meaning ‘discourse’, the second being gāthā, ‘verse’, the third geyya, ‘mixed prose and verse’, and so on. However, this nine-fold analysis appears to have been superseded by the more now-familiar three-fold division of the scriptures into three piṭakas or collections, including the sutta-piṭaka or ‘discourse collection’.

[2] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali–English Dictionary, PTS: London, 1925, p.178.

[3] Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy, Tharpa: London, 1985, p.14. Cf. A Survey of Buddhism, 6th ed., Tharpa: London, 1987, p.17.

[4] This and the following information from Brian Levman, Linguistic Ambiguities, the Transmissional Process, and the Earliest Recoverable Language of Buddhism, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014, pp.228–30.

[5] Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2014, p.875.

[6] K.R. Norman, A Philological Approach to Buddhism, PTS: Lancaster, 2006, p.135. His explanation was first suggested by Walleser in 1914. Norman’s suggestion has been taken up by Richard Gombrich, ‘How Mahāyāna Began’, in Journal of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, 1988, 29–46, p.32; also by Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.13, n.1.

[7] Oscar von Hinüber, ‘Die neun Aṅgas: ein früher Versuch zur Einteilung buddhistischer Texte’, WZKS 38, 1994, 121–35, p.132. Von Hinüber’s view is followed by Johannes Bronkhorst in Buddhist Teaching in India, Wisdom: Boston, 2009, p.xi n.4.

[8] As is an abbreviation for Atthasālinī.

[9] Atthasālinī ed. Edward Müller, PTS: London, 1897, p.19.

[10] My translation; there is also a PTS trans. by Pe Maung Tin and Mrs Rhys Davids, The Expositor, vol.1, London: PTS, 1920, p.24. The explanation of sutta is also found in a slightly different form in the commentary to the Sutta-nipāta, the Paramatthajotika II, vol.1, ed. Helmer Smith, PTS: London, 1916, p.1.

[11] Thanks to Bryan Levman for his advice on savana. This word may be related to several different Sanskrit roots: ‘impel’, su ‘press out’ as well as su ‘generate’. It is possible that the Pāli commentators had several meanings in mind.