Re-Discovering Treasure: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita Chapter 15

It is a scholar’s dream – to re-discover some fascinating old manuscript or long-lost great work. In 1946, Bedouin shepherds discovered what would become famous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before that, in 1907, the archaeologist Aurel Stein negotiated with Wang Luanlu, the guardian of a cave on the Silk Road in China, to look at some 1500 year-old manuscripts that Wang had found hidden behind a wall. So the Dunhuang manuscripts were re-discovered, including the earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, from 868. In the last twenty or thirty years, fragments of ancient Buddhist manuscripts have been re-discovered in Afghanistan, ancient Gandhāra, and have given scholars decades of work, which gives them access to the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence, revealing much about early Buddhist literature.[1]

The second-century Buddhist poet, Aśvaghoṣa, wrote several poetic epics, or kāvya, including the Buddhacarita, or ‘Life of the Buddha’. Aśvaghoṣa was a Brahman convert to Buddhism, who came from Sāketa (modern day Ayodhya) in north-west India. Having been brought up as a brahman, then having converted to Buddhism, Aśvaghoṣa portrayed the Buddha as the epitome and completion of brahmanic culture. So the poem is a celebration of Indian religious culture, which places the Buddha’s discovery and teaching of Awakening at its very summit. He is also a marvellous poet, with a natural and vigorous style and a particular way of using imagery, which had an influence on later poets writing in Sanskrit, including the sixth-century Kalidāsa, author of the well-known play Śākuntala

But only the first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita were thought to have survived in the original Sanskrit, amounting to half of the complete work, taking the reader up to the Buddha’s Awakening, but not beyond. These fourteen cantos were preserved in some Nepalese manuscripts, written on palm-leaves. E.H Johnston (1936) published an edition of those first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita that remains the standard today.[2] Johnston also made the first good English translation, followed by a second by Patrick Olivelle (in 2008).[3] The second half of the poem was not entirely lost, however, as it was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan. Unfortunately, neither of these translations is particularly good, the Chinese being a very free paraphrase and the Tibetan often corrupt and ambiguous. Johnston has made a translation of chapters 15 to 18 into English, based on these translations, but much of the poetry is lost.

How amazing, then, that Canto 15 of the Buddhacarita has recently been re-discovered. The Japanese scholar Kazunobu Matsuda (2020), working with Jens-Üwe Hartmann, has recently identified the whole canto embedded in a Sanskrit manuscript of the Tridaṇḍamālā, attributed to Aśvaghoṣa. This manuscript was preserved in sPos khang monastery in Tibet (200 kms southwest of Lhasa), copied from an original which was brought there from India by Atīśa, who had re-introduced Buddhism into Tibet in the eleventh century. The manuscript was photographed by Giuseppe Tucci and Rāhula Sāṅkṛtyāyana in the 1930s, and, despite parts of the photographs being out of focus, Matsuda has managed to identify almost all of the Sanskrit characters with more or less certainty.[4] Matsuda has also made a translation into Japanese.

Back in 2009, I made a translation of Buddhacarita Canto 3, as part of my Sanskrit studies at the University of Cambridge. It was enjoyable to try to find ways to reproduce Aśvaghoṣa’s turns of phrase and imagery in the very different medium of English. So last year I leapt at an unrivalled opportunity – to make a first English translation of the newly re-discovered Sanskrit original of Canto 15. It has now come out in Asian Literature in Translation, an open-access, online academic journal published from the University of Cardiff.[5] Canto 15 describes the newly-awakened Buddha’s journey from Bodh Gaya to Vārāṇasī, where he meets up with his former companions and teaches them what he has discovered, which is the way to Awakening. 

I tried out something new in my translation, which was to offer two parallel versions, the first in prose and the second in verse, corresponding to two different translation strategies. The prose is a literal word-by-word translation which intends to convey the syntactic texture and wide-ranging vocabulary of Aśvaghoṣa’s Sanskrit in a readable English version. But the verse translation renders Aśvaghoṣa’s stanzas a line at a time, trying to convey some sense of rhythm and sound in English. I used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for the first 51 stanzas of the Sanskrit, which are in an eleven-syllable per line metre called triṣṭubh. The final stanzas are in a more elaborate metre called praharṣiṇī, which I put into an unrhymed ballad metre. 

A highlight of Canto 15, which gives a good sense of the whole Canto, is the Buddha’s teaching to his former companions about the ‘eightfold path’. He has managed to get their attention, after they had been highly distrustful of him, and he has taught them about his discovery of the ‘middle way’ between the painful austerities which they have been practising, and the ordinary life of indulgence in sensual pleasures. Aśvaghoṣa finds a way of making the eightfold path something more than a list, with each aspect of the path given some image or felt sense:

I turned away from both of these extremes
and found a different path, the middle way,
a safe, secure, benign and healthy way,
which brings the relaxation of endless stress. || 34 ||

It shines with the sun of perfect vision, and
is drawn by the chariot of pure intention.
Dwelling in the utterance of perfect speech,
it delights in the garden of lovely acts. || 35 ||

Abundant alms are its blameless livelihood,
perfect application its powerful chaperone.
Its wall and guard are perfect mindfulness,
its land, house, seat and bed are meditation. || 36 ||

If you look hard at stanzas 35 and 36, you can spot how each line describes a limb of the path. My favourite image here is the ‘garden of lovely acts’ (śubhakriyārāmasabhā), more literally, ‘the garden lodgings of beautiful action’, as an image for right or perfect action. With this image, Aśvaghoṣa manages to convey the feeling of of pleasure and ease that comes from actions of body, speech and mind that arise from wholesome and positive intentions. Of course, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but this image helps convey that it is worth it.

Professor Matsuda tells me that he and Jens-Üwe Hartmann have found some more of Aśvaghoṣa’s lost stanzas, this time from Buddhacarita Cantos 16 and 17, which they will be publishing at some point soon. Yet more re-discovered treasure. It really is a scholar’s dream.

[1] Full details in Richard Salomon, The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra, Wisom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018; and my review at

[2] Johnston, E.H. 1932. The Saundarananda, or Nanda the Fair, by Aśvaghoṣa. London: Oxford University Press.

[3] Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2008. Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa. Clay Sanskrit Library. New York: New York University Press/JJC Foundation.

[4] Matsuda, Kazunobu. 2020. ‘Sanskrit Text and Japanese Translation of the Buddhacarita Canto 15’. The Bulletin of the Association of Buddhist Studies 25: 27–46.


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 (

[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

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 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.

Not Easily Repaid


I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while as I have been pre-occupied with my dad’s illness and death on May 9th. But here I am getting back into the swing of blogging by sharing a translation I have made of an early Buddhist discourse from the Pali canon, concerning what we owe to our parents and how we might or might not be able to repay them for what they have given us. This discourse is not unique in the Pali canon, and it helps us put into perspective the Buddha’s well-known rejection of family life, in favour of a life of renunciation. Such renunciation does not imply that we forget everything that has been given us by our families. In fact, our Buddhist practice might be very well expressed by the way we try to repay our parents, by loving actions, speech and thoughts. So this translation is an offering for my father, Richard Jones (who really liked his chickens).

Not Easily Repaid

Monks,[1] I tell you, there are two people who are not easily repaid. Which two? Your mother and your father. You might carry them about on your shoulders, you might look after them when they are one hundred years old, at the end of life,[2] by rubbing their limbs, massaging them, bathing and washing them, and though they might become incontinent, urinating and defecating right where they are, nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. You might establish your mother and father in sovereign dominion over the realm of this great earth, abounding in the seven precious things, but nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. For what reason? Because, monks, mothers and fathers do a great deal for their children, bringing them up, feeding them and introducing them to this world.

But, monks, you could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack trust, in the blessing of confidence (saddhā). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack virtue, in the blessing of virtuous conduct (sīla). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they are selfish, in the blessing of generosity (cāga). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they have poor understanding, in the blessing of wisdom (paññā). To that extent, monks, you have done enough for your mother and father, you have repaid them, you have very much done enough for them.[3]


[1]This discourse does not have a title, so I have invented something suitable. It is from the Aṅguttara-nikāya 2:33, PTS i.61–2. Alternative translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

[2]The text has vassasatāyuko vassasatajīvī, ‘having a life span of one hundred years, living a hundred years’, agreeing with the subject, but it hardly makes sense to think the child at such an age might be looking after their parents, so my translation here is more of an interpretation.

[3]The final phrase, translating atikatañca, is not given in the Burmese ed., though it appears in the PTS and Sri Lankan eds., and ends the discourse nicely.


‘Going for Refuge’ as Idiom and Metaphor


Anyone familiar with Buddhism will know that Buddhists say that they ‘go for refuge’ to the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). This usage goes back to the time of the Buddha, so it is rightly hallowed. Moreover, in the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, going for refuge is seen as especially important, because not only is it the one thing that all Buddhists have in common but, as Sangharakshita puts it, it is the central and defining act of the Buddhist life.[1] However, it seems to me that the English expression ‘going for refuge’ is also a piece of jargon, and a good example of ‘Buddhist Hybrid English’, that is, an expression which nobody else uses except Buddhists.[2] In this essay I want to explore how this expression ‘going for refuge’ is (i) an inexact translation of (ii) an ancient Indian idiom, which (iii) even in its day was a metaphor in Buddhism. I want to open up some imaginative space in which to explore how to give better expression in English to the central and defining act of the Buddhist life.

‘Going for refuge’ is the usual English translation of the Pāli expression saraṇa-gamana, and it is also used as a title for the traditional form of words by which one declares that one is a Buddhist:[3]

buddha saraa gacchāmi
dhamma saraa gacchāmi
sagha saraa gacchāmi

I go for refuge to the Buddha.
I go for refuge to the Dhamma.
I go for refuge to the Saṅgha.

However, a look at the grammar of the Pāli expression quickly reveals a difficulty for the translator. The verb gacchāmi means ‘I go’ and is related to the verbal root gam (with which ‘go’ is cognate). In Pāli and Sanskrit, the goal of verbs of motion like gam is expressed by the accusative case, whereas in English the goal of verbs of motion is indicated by the preposition ‘to’. Hence here buddhaṃ is in the accusative, and buddhaṃ gacchāmi means ‘I go to the Buddha’. But the word saraṇam, which means ‘refuge’, ‘shelter’ or ‘protection’, is also in the accusative, and is thus in apposition to the word buddhaṃ. We should therefore properly translate the expression buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi as ‘I go to the Buddha as refuge’, and saraṇa-gamana as ‘refuge-going’.[4]

This may not seem so important since ‘I go to the Buddha as refuge’ means more or less the same as ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha’. However, what do we mean by ‘go’ here? We are not actually going anywhere, so what do we mean when we ‘go to the Buddha as refuge’? This question takes us to another issue of translation. The root gam has some meanings that the word ‘go’ does not, such as ‘reaches, obtains’,[5] and for this reason it is perfectly correct to translate buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi as ‘I take the Buddha as refuge’, as long as it is clear that there is no implication that one is taking the refuges from anybody else.

But now, whether we go to the Buddha as refuge, or take the Buddha as refuge, the question arises of what we mean by ‘refuge’. The word saraṇa is used to mean ‘house’ in Pāli,[6] so in a figurative sense we could say saraṇa-gamana means ‘coming home’ to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. But really the Buddha is not a building but a ‘refuge’ in the sense of offering shelter and protection. Chogyam Trungpa picks up on a different figurative sense of saraṇa when he explains that anyone who ‘goes for refuge’ must therefore be a ‘refugee’, so that Buddhists are ‘refugees from conditioned existence’.[7] But this figurative language does not explain how the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were considered saraṇas. To understand this we have to go back to the social and linguistic context of ancient India in which the expression saraṇa-gamana arose.

In the Pāli canon it occurs mainly in the context of people declaring their conversion to the Buddha’s teaching, so it evidently became a formulaic expression in the Buddhist tradition early on. Yet this Buddhist use relates to an idiom in which saraṇa-gamana means placing oneself into a reciprocal relationship with a protective power. This is apparent from a later commentarial story illustrating a verse about the unreliability of friends. A king falls ill, and his faithless ministers decide to leave him to seek employment in the court of another king. They think, ‘“This king is not going to live for long; why don’t we seek protection (saraṇaṃ) for ourselves elsewhere?”, and coming before another king they asked to enter his service.’[8] The idiom of saraṇa-gamana is therefore similar to ‘swearing allegiance’ in feudal Europe. In the feudal contract the vassal swears allegiance to the Lord, in return for which he receives the right to land and to protection from the Lord, though the Lord could call on him to bear arms on his behalf. Even today there is a tradition of ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag in the USA, which has the connotation of a reciprocal relationship, of having a right to the benefits of living under the US constitution by by pledging to serve it.

However, the idiom of saraṇa-gamana had already been transferred from a social to a religious context before the Buddhists took it up. We can see this in the well-known stanzas from the Dhammapada:[9]

Impelled by fear many people go mountains
as refuge (saraṇa), to woods, to park- and tree-shrines.

But this is no secure refuge, not the highest refuge.
Going to this as refuge one is not entirely released from pain.

It is not clear what the first stanza means, and the commentary is not very helpful, but it suggests a religious context in which it was believed that making offerings to supernatural beings, perhaps yakṣas, in the mountains and woods, or at their local shrines, would induce those beings to protect the devotee in return. Certainly there are stories in the great Indian poem, the Mahābhārata, in which people go to trees and their guardian spirits for refuge (śaraṇa) from storms.[10]

Combining the political and religious uses of the idiom of saraṇa-gamana is its use in the context of devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa. The true devotee surrenders to Kṛṣṇa as śaraṇa, as refuge.[11] This devotional sense of saraṇa-gamana is probably later than the time of the Buddha, but illustrates how, in the Indian religious context, saraṇa-gamana means seeking divine protection. But alongside such religious superstition and devotionalism there was a use of the idiom of saraṇa-gamana in relation to more sophisticated, though still essentially magical, form of thinking, by which the act of giving to a worthy ascetic or samaṇa was believed to produce merit or puñña, which was understood as existential or metaphysical shelter or protection in the sense of bringing a good rebirth. We can see this kind of thinking in a conversation between the Buddha and a young Brahman called Māgha, who approaches the Buddha, wishing to know to whom to give so as to gain the most merit. The Buddha gives a series of stanzas explaining how renunciants like himself are the most worthy of gifts, including the stanza:[12]

One who has knowledge, loves meditation, is mindful,
has attained awakening, is a refuge (saraṇa) for many –
a brahman seeking merit should sacrifice to him
should make an offering at the right time.

The implication here is that, according to the religious belief of the young Brahman, the person worthy of gifts is a saraṇa because giving to him produces merit.

In conclusion, the saraṇa-gamana or taking-refuge was an ancient Indian idiom indicating a movement of assent on the part of the inferior or suppliant or devotee, to a social or religious power, in a reciprocal relation of protection in return for service or devotion or religious giving. This is the cultural context in which the phrase saraṇa-gamana was used. ‘Taking refuge’ meant expressing one’s assent to a superior power that offered protection – even protection from a bad rebirth; and it also signified agreeing to serve that power – for instance, by giving food. In the Buddhist context, it is clear from the early discourses that people expressed their new-found faith in and devotion to the Buddha, his Dharma and the spiritual community, by just such a saraṇa-gamana. This is expressed by a stock paragraph by which people declare themselves converts having heard the Buddha teach:

‘Wonderful, Lord, wonderful! It is as if someone were to set upright something overturned, or explain something that was obscure, or show the way to someone lost, or carry a lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. In the same way, Venerable Gotama has made the Dharma known in many ways. I go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dharma and to the Sangha of monks. May the Venerable Gotama remember me as a lay-follower who has taken refuge (saraṇaṃ gataṃ) from this day onward for as long as life lasts.’

It is as if this saraṇa-gamana was simply the accepted form of words by which one expressed one’s conversion to a teaching. In this sense, the saraṇa-gamana simply signifies an act of faith, and what makes one specifically a Buddhist is saraṇa-gamana to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. We should add that, in the Indian cultural context, a saraṇa-gamana to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha meant giving food and requisites to the monastic community with the expectation of merit in return.[13]

However, although the Buddha obviously accepted the cultural idiom of saraṇa-gamana and merit-making, he gave it a new and metaphorical twist. Without trying to dissuade people from giving to ascetics like himself, he re-interpreted the meaning of doing so, from a quasi-magical religious act to an explicitly ethical one.[14] He explained that the best kind of saraṇa is acting ethically, and that it is by keeping the precepts that one makes merit and gains existential or metaphysical saraṇa or protection. This is made explicit in a story of two old brahmans, who approach the Buddha to say that they have not done anything good or wholesome, and they have not made a shelter from what is fearful.[15] The Buddha reassures them by explaining that restraint of body, speech and mind will be their shelter, their protection, their island in the flood and their refuge, after their deaths.[16]

Just as the saraṇa-gamana was a reciprocal relation, with the inferior person going and the superior protecting, so the Buddha’s metaphorical re-interpretation of the idiom is reciprocal in that he offers protection by teaching people how to practise ethics. One discourse explains that the Buddha is one who honours and reveres the Dharma, and who provides protection, shelter and defence by setting in motion the wheel of the Dharma, and by making clear what are good actions of body, speech and mind.[17] In the background of the Buddha’s metaphorical re-interpretation of the saraṇa-gamana is his insight into how our character and destiny are shaped by our own actions: our deeds are our refuge. This is explicit in the last of the ‘five topics for frequent recollection’:

I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge (paṭisaraṇa). Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.[18]

In this sense, the saraṇa-gamana, the taking-refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, has the metaphorical implication that we alone are responsible for our destinies, and that the most reliable source of safety in the cosmos is our own accumulation of goodness.

In this brief survey of saraṇa-gamana as idiom and metaphor, I hope to have shown that the English expression ‘going for refuge’ does not communicate the rich network of connections between social protection, religious power and merit-making that the Indian idiom of saraṇa-gamana implies. And in consequence it does not allow us to appreciate the Buddha’s metaphorical twist of the cultural idiom. So why do we use an inexact translation of a idiom which is so culturally remote from us? I would suggest that we do so because we suppose that the expression ‘going for refuge’ is somehow in itself ‘Buddhist’. However, this is not the case, since one is not a Buddhist because of taking refuge, but because of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Taking refuge is simply the ancient Indian idiom for conversion, whereas the important thing from the Buddhist point of view is the metaphorical twist to the idiom, by which taking refuge in the Buddha means ‘obtaining shelter’ in virtue.

We will no doubt continue to use the English expression ‘going for refuge’ since it has already become so well established, albeit in Buddhist Hybrid English. But how do we understand for ourselves this jargon, and how can we explain it to others? How, then, to re-imagine the saraṇa-gamana in good, native English? Movement has to be involved, for, just as the old idiom implies going under a tree or out to give alms, so the saraṇa-gamana implies assent and resolve – a change of life, and not just of belief. I myself have been experimenting with the expression ‘placing trust’ as a translation of saraṇa-gamana. When I say, ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha, to the Dharma, and to the Sangha’, I feel myself to be using a kind of code or jargon that I have to interpret to myself; but when I say ‘I place my trust in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha’, I directly feel the devotional, grateful tenor of the implied existential commitment, while the very words leave an open aura of cultural familiarity in which to hear the deeper implication: I take responsibility for my thoughts, words and deeds; I wrest my destiny from both the cosmic powers and the crowd.

So when I say buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, dhammaṃ ca saṅghaṃ ca, I translate the expression as ‘I place my trust in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha’. For me ‘placing trust’ is a better translation of saraṇa-gamana than ‘going for refuge’.

[1] This is explored by Sangharakshita in The History of My Going For Refuge, Windhorse Publications, Glasgow, 1988.

[2] See Paul J. Griffiths, ‘Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 4 (1981) 2:17–32. Buddhist Hybrid English is ‘a dialect comprehensible only to the initiate’ (p.17).

[3] For instance, in Khuddakapatha 1.

[4] The Pāli texts also use the verbs ‘go’ and upa-i ‘come’ with saraṇa to express the same thing, and these verbs also take two accusatives, e.g. saraṇaṃ taṃ upema cakkhuma, ‘We come to you as refuge, man of vision’, Sutta-nipāta v.31; ime dasasatā yakkhā iddhimanto yasassino / sabbe taṃ saraṇaṃ yanti tvaṃ no satthā anuttaro, ‘These one thousand yakṣas, powerful and famous, / all go to you as refuge; you are our supreme teacher’, Sutta-nipāta v.179.

[5] See Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, s.v. gacchati. The old PED, s.v. gacchati, gives the figurative meanings ‘to come to know, to experience, to realize’.

[6] See PED, s.v. saraṇa, and Sutta-nipāta v.591.

[7] ‘By taking refuge, in some sense we become homeless refugees… The point of becoming a refugee is to give up our attachment to basic security. We have to give up our sense of home ground, which is illusory anyway… because we don’t have any home ground, we are lost souls, so to speak.’ Chogyam Trungpa, ‘Taking Refuge: the Decision to Become a Buddhist’, on

[8] From the commentary on Sutta-nipāta v.75, Pj II pts p.129. The faithless ministers came to no good, for their new king did not pay them.

[9] Dhammapada vv.188–9: bahū ve saraṇaṃ yanti pabbatāni vanāni ca / ārāmarukkhacetyāni manussā bhayatajjitā // netaṃ kho saraṇaṃ khemaṃ netaṃ saraṇamuttamaṃ / netaṃ saraṇam āgamma sabbadukkhā pamuccati //

[10] For instance, in Mahābhārata 12:141. There is a summary of the incident in The Mahābhārata, trans. John D. Smith, Penguin, 2009, p.623.

[11] Mahābhārata 13:145; also Śrimad Bhagavatām 11:11:29–32.

[12] Sutta-nipāta v.503: yo vedagū jhānarato satīmā / sambodhipatto saraṇaṃ bahunnaṃ / kālena tamhi havyaṃ pavecche / yo brāhmaṇo puññapekho yajetha

[13] These days we might set up a standing order with the bank to support our teacher or Buddhist Centre, but we would probably not suppose that this would affect our destiny.

[14] The Buddha similarly gave a metaphorical twist to the Brahmanical concept of karma, redefining karma in terms of ethical instead of sacrificial action: see Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.

[15] They are akatabhīruttāṇā, for they have not made (akata) a shelter (tāṇa) from fear (bhīru).

[16] This story is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:51 and recurs at 3:52.

[17] This is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:14.

[18] This is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57.