A better Pali Dictionary

It makes sense to work first of all on the P-H range of the Pali alphabet which is not yet covered by the published volumes of Margaret Cone’s dictionary.

Not at all. For example, we discussed the term “Buddha”:
but the results of this discussion remained in our closed group.

Even such widely used terms remain underexplored, with established translations which are used by habit.

That’s why I’m interested in exploring the key Pali terms - they are often mistranslated or misunderstood.

CPED, being too simplistic, is sometimes outright misleading.

Sometimes an article on the narrow contextual usage of the term, like:

Akira Hirakawa
The Relationship between Paṭiccasamuppāda and Dhātu

helps to understand what the sutta is about.

I would like for such contextual explorations to be added to the body of knowledge.

[quote=“sujato, post:24, topic:2445”]
If I might add, the issue is not to find a software, but to use a well-defined form of structured data. Using a consistent, predictable form of structured data, you can transform it into another format easily, and various kinds of software can assist in doing various kinds of things.[/quote]

Yes, indeed. I wonder how to find a balance between the ease of adding new entries, as in Wiktionary:
and the transferability of the body of knowledge.

What would be its advantage over other dictionaries?

I’m thinking along the lines of Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, where scholarly community would gradually extend the dictionary.

Such frequency lists allow to easily see what terms are used in the early Buddhist texts, and what terms occur only in later literature.

Yes, indeed, to make the frequency lists perfect, one would need a Pali stemmer.
AFAIK, David Alfter has not yet made the stemmer.
( )
So we are left with the raw frequency lists, which are also useful.
Knowledge of several hundreds of most frequent words makes most of the text comprehensible.

CPED sometimes creates the illusion of understanding the term, with articles like:
nimitta : [nt.] sign; omen; portent; cause.
which tragically misses the meaning of the term in meditative practice.
So, IMO, it is most frequent words that require extended treatment.

Good question… I have extensive experience in database development and project management.

My experience with the Suttas is that I started reading them a little over a year ago and have found them to be … what can I say? This is it. This is what I have been looking for since I was 8 years old. So I have a passion and a thirst for knowledge and understanding. I am looking into M.A. and Ph.D. programs, people of like-mind in my area (Northern Arizona).

I also have an attention for detail and comprehension, and intelligence according to the tests.

I’ve been reading on right speech and so this is a little off to be saying things about my skills. I have many faults and shortcomings. I suppose the first is that I am hesitant to list them all at the moment. I have some sort of ADHD and/or PTSD that limits my ability to memorize things. So part of my personal reasons for working on this sort of project is to make the texts more accessible and convenient in terms of being able to view as much as needed as possible on one screen so as not to rely on memory.

I also have time. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make a living without having to spend time commuting, and am able to make enough $/hour that I don’t have to work 40 hours/week.

So, if we could agree on a course, I could and would commit to the project, with gladness and dedication.

1 Like

Oh, thanks, okay, now I get it. I will respond further down.

Okay, so we are talking about two quite different things here. So we need to clarify that!

My goal—and this is something that is only becoming clear as the discussion proceeds—was to create a dictionary for basic Pali terminology. The primary use of this would be for word lookup, and thus it would extend, and hopefully complete, the range of words that were correctly identified by our Pali lookup tool. Let’s call is a Glossary rather than a Dictionary, if you like.

What you’re interested in, and if I’m not mistaken, Elissa too, is more of a dictionary of Buddhist terms. Perhaps something like Payutto’s Dictionary of numerical Dhammas, perhaps, but not just numerical. There are a number of such:

And no doubt others. However, none of them, so far as I know, deal specifically with early Buddhism.

This is also a great project, and would fill another need that I have felt for SC. Let me first discuss a little how I envisage something like this being used—or at least, one application—and then consider the project itself.

One of the things we have done with the texts on SC is to remove the footnotes. I have discussed this at length elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. But one gap this leaves us is that we end up with texts that liberally use technical terms and ideas that will be unfamiliar to readers. Someone reading a sutta and coming across the term “aggregate” is unlikely to know what this means, unless they have some background in Buddhism already.

Now, footnotes are one way to deal with this, but not a very good one, especially in a digital medium. Why? Because they explain the term once, and we need the information to be contextual. People aren’t going to read the suttas sequentially, and we shouldn’t structure our information as if they will.

So, what to do? Well, I think that in a web environment we can use several means to approach this. One of those is this very discourse site, where we can discuss things, post essays and so on. But this doesn’t give us the fine-grained ability to explain specific words in a text. For this, I envisage two things.

  1. A system of site-wide annotations, where people can write notes on specific passages, and
  2. A terminological dictionary, such as the one we are considering, which will define doctrinally significant terms in a meaningful and useful way, to be applied site-wide.

So what you’d do is, if you wanted help with terminology, turn on the terminological dictionary, then the explanations will appear as popups for the terms wherever they appear in the site. The annotations would be similar, except they apply to specific passages, not general terms.

Of course, the terminological dictionary could also be used just as well on its own, or in other ways, maybe even printed.

What is the relation between this doctrinal dictionary and the simple glossary that I was envisaging?

Well, there doesn’t have to be a relation. Perhaps they are two separate projects. Or perhaps, we start by making a simple glossary, then enriching it with further information. I think both approaches could work. The latter approach would be conceptually more satisfying; but then, Worse Is Better!

1 Like

Well, just what I have been saying: clear, comprehensive, accurate.

Are we talking at cross purposes here? The list of terms that I made, and on which I was proposing we base the glossary, is just those that are found in the EBTs.

It would be possible to map out the kind of evolution you’re talking about, but you’d need to use the much larger Pali corpus at the VRI site. It would be a great thing to do. But it would be really, really hard. You’d need to accurately stem the Pali words from all periods, and not only that, but to break up compounds as well. This is why I was proposing we work only on the vocabulary actually used in the EBTs, as it is a reasonably concise task. Only 80,000 tokens!

Interesting, I wasn’t aware of this. I’ll read it carefully. In fact SC has a stemmer in javascript, but it works on quite simple principles. You can get maybe 90% accuracy, but beyond that it’s hard. My thinking is that, again, by restricting the corpus to the EBTs, we can avoid the hard computational problems. Use the computer to do what it can, then correct and fill in the blanks by hand. (BTW, Google does the same thing. Part of its secret is that it employs thousands of people around the world to google stuff and submit corrections …)

Well, in this case I would disagree. I think this is fine, although I’d probably say “sign, mark, precursor, hint, cause, omen”.

The meaning of nimitta as “bright light seen in meditation” doesn’t occur in the suttas. In meditative contexts nimitta usually means “cause”, perhaps “precursor”, or even “aspect”. Lights in meditation are called simply “light” (obhāsa, pabhassara, pariyodāta, etc.) This is why, when assembling a dictionary of early Buddhist terms, we need to be diligent about rejecting later meanings.


Very good!

Not at all! I asked, and it’s important to know.

Well, that sounds fantastic.

Duh, I am in fact well aware of this project! In fact while in Germany I went to the University of Trier and discussed it with the developer. Fun fact: this started as a side-project to another University project dealing with the connections between Buddhism and ancient Egypt! So cool. But he didn’t know if there were any results from that.

However, the Pali project itself was a bit of a disaster. The core to it was a detailed annotated version of the PTS dictionary, without which the program is pretty useless. But after a lot of the basic programming work was done, one of the team members, a core IT guy, just disappeared one day, and with him, the keys to the relevant data. It just all vanished, and extensive searches couldn’t find it. So basically it just all collapsed, and now the developer—who doesn’t have any special interest in Buddhism, it was just a class project—is doing other things.


and it’d be nice if it were multilingual or at least user expandable through translation to languages other than English

Sure. This a later meaning which emerged due to the semantic shift of concretization.
With time, subtle abstract concepts were reduced to more concrete and easily comprehensible ones. In case of nimitta, Stephen Hodge writes:

“I understand “nimitta” to be roughly equivalent to basic sense, perceptual data or just percepts, such as colours, shapes, sounds and so forth. Perceptual data derived from the external world are mediated by consciousness (vij~naana / vi~n~naan.a) and apprehended by sa.mj~naa / sa~n~naa. In other words, I believe that “nimitta” are mental phenomena rather than external things per se, if that is what you mean here by “objects”. External objects in themselves are neither pleasurable or otherwise – is not that element introduced by the person perceiving and labelling the bare object ? Though, of course, from the viewpoint of the untrained person, it is the external itself which seems to be pleasurable etc, so ultimately your translation is not wrong in that sense. I normally translate “nimitta” as “perceptual form” – I would prefer “perceptual image” but I use that for “aakaara”. The popular translation of “nimitta” as “sign” seems laughably crude to me in the context of Buddhist accounts of perceptual processes.”

“Nimittas are created inside the individual by sa.mj~naa / sa~n~naa. Thus, Buddhaghosa defines sa~n~naa as “”, which corresponds exactly to the understanding of other Indian Buddhist schools. A nimitta is a result of synthesized raw sense data, combined with vedanaa, and, usually, also involves a labelling process – which is why sa.mj~naa / sa~n~naa also means “name” etc. Indeed, sa.mj~naa / sa~n~naa can describe, according to the context, either the process and the product. Hence, the Chinese version of the Anguttara text in question does not actually translate nimitta as such but instead has the standard equivalent for sa.mj~naa / sa~n~naa.”

Fotrunately, some of the modern research has trickled down to the Margaret Cone’s dictionary, where we read:

nimitta 3. (ii) an internal appearance or total awareness; a mental impression (appearing as an early stage of jhana, a sign of progress); A IV 418,24 …

What I would like to see is a system like Digital Dictionary of Buddhism where all the scholarly research of terms would be collected, with relevant Pali glosses.

1 Like

I wonder if you will find useful the table from Kogen Mizuno’s dictionary, to give look-up hints on grammar:

1 Like

You may find useful the Pali Tools project:


Ta, yes that looks very useful. @blake, you should check it out!

Stephen’s interpretation here is based on later texts, and doesn’t apply to the Suttas. Nimitta in the EBTs doesn’t mean “perceptual form”. In the context of meditation it means, like I said, “cause”. Even a word like “object”, which Stephen is used to, based on later Buddhism, has no place in the EBTs.

I would also be cautious about claiming that abstract terms become concretized. While this happens occasionally, it is far more common for concrete terms to assume abstract meanings. In fact, all abstract terms originate from concrete meanings: where else?

This raises a more general question, which is this: if we are to do a “doctrinal” dictionary of early Buddhism, then we need to have a broad knowledge base of understanding what that is.

And I am far from confident that this is the case. I have been talking about these things for years now—I discussed the meaning of nimitta in my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers, written 15 years ago—but there are not many others.

If we were to crowdsource it, how would we ensure even a basic level of confidence that we are discussing meanings as found in the EBTs? I guess we could require references and argumentation for any citation.

How to deal with the commentaries, though? For many, probably most, Theravadins these are effectively canonical.

But even if we reject the authority of the commentaries, they remain useful, even indispensable, for countless terms. And in many cases there is no objection to using them, it is only in cases where they impose their own doctrines that it becomes problematic.

But what are those cases? To understand this, you have to not only have a good knowledge of the EBTs, but also of text-critical methods, and an understanding of the commentaries themselves, so you can see where their ideas intrude. When I have been reading, for example, the footnotes to Ven Bodhi’s Numerical Discourses, I immediately recognize where the commentarial explanations occur, and which ones should be rejected out of hand. But it has taken many years to have the familiarity with the material to do this. And many years to do the unlearning of habitual phrasings and words: I still trip over myself, falling into bad habits!

I am more and more of the opinion that including such commentarial explanations is, on the whole, a bad thing, even if you make it clear that that is what you are doing. It makes it actively harder to understand the text, and introduces a whole range of concepts and terms that are just unnecessary.

Anyway, i don’t want to get too sidetracked, just to say that the notion of having detailed doctrinal explanations of early Buddhism is not unproblematic. This is not necessarily a bad thing: perhaps the very process of discussing and debating issues can help clarify the many issues. But it is not as if we can simply draw on an established, well-understood body of knowledge.


although not without some quirks like inability to search by spelling with diacritics, SPED 1.0 is a great tool for offline use

Yes, this whole area requires further research, with references and argumentation. For example, I can give such a gloss for nimitta as 'representation, perceptual image":

‘‘Katamañca, bhikkhave, anurakkhaṇāppadhānaṃ? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu
uppannaṃ bhaddakaṃ samādhinimittaṃ anurakkhati aṭṭhikasaññaṃ
puḷavakasaññaṃ vinīlakasaññaṃ vicchiddakasaññaṃ uddhumātakasaññaṃ." (AN 2.16 = DN 3.225)

That’s what I like about Margaret Cone’s dictionary - it gives glosses for every meaning of the word, and you can explore these glosses further yourself. An electronic dictionary may well have a feature of adding glosses as well.

As Charles Muller writes, “it is desirable to have a locus classicus wherever possible”
( )
and a personal responsibility with clear authorship
( )

(Just one point to start, may I ask that you use the SC method of quoting texts, it makes everything work smoothly. You’ve used vol/page, we use the section and sutta number. In this case the passage is at AN 4.14)

Well, let’s have a look at this. First, to establish that one sense of nimitta is cause, we have the following at SN 48.40:

uppannaṃ kho me idaṃ sukhindriyaṃ, tañca kho sanimittaṃ sanidānaṃ sasaṅkhāraṃ sappaccayaṃ

This is nice clear explicit text, and nimitta is listed as a synonym of the standard words for “cause” or “reason”.

Second, to consider why it’s a word for cause. The more basic meaning is, of course, “sign”. How do we get from a “sign” of something to a “cause” of something?

Well, consider in what sense it’s a sign. One common use is to say that the dawn is the pubbanimitta of the sunrise. In other words, when we see the sky starting to light up, we know that the sun will soon appear. So a nimitta is something, when it appears, you know that something else is about to appear. Of course, we know the difference between correlation and causation, and so did the Buddha, and we know that the dawn doesn’t “cause” the sunrise. But it is very natural and normal for the mind to make these kinds of connections, and thus it’s easy for the language to slip from one meaning to another.

(Notice also, that in this context, even though the actual meaning is that of “sign”, the connotation is of an emerging brightness. This is, I believe, one of the contexts that gave rise, much later, to the idea that nimitta somehow means a light or perceptual image.)

Okay, so what of meditation? Nimitta is used quite commonly in meditation, and it has the general meaning of “something that you pay attention to that will develop or give rise to some other quality”. So simplistically, cause or basis, but more subtly something like aspect or characteristic.

Consider the phrase samādhinimitta. The normal, expected meaning of this, based on the general use of nimitta in the suttas (and energetically purging our minds of the taints of the commentaries!) is “something that you pay attention to in order to give rise to samādhi”.

Thus we have at MN 44, cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā, “the four kinds of mindfulness meditation are the basis for samādhi”, i.e. you do satipaṭṭhāna in order to get into samādhi. This is just restating the normal function of the seventh path factor, right mindfulness, which is to lead to the eighth factor, right samādhi.

It is, of course, quite impossible for nimitta here to mean “perceptual image” or any kind of visual image, as this would not apply to most of the satipaṭṭhāna practices.

Now, in the passage you quoted above, the kinds of corpse contemplation are, of course, part of the first kind of mindfulness meditation, the observation of the body. So there’s no reason to think that any other meaning is relevant here. I’ve translated the passage you quote from AN 4.14 as:

a mendicant preserves a meditation that’s a fine basis for convergence: the perception of a skeleton, a worm-infested corpse, a livid corpse, a split open corpse, or a bloated corpse.

This is clear and straightforward. It’s talking about cause and effect: what to practice in order to develop the path factors.

In this case, since the meditation can include an element of visualization, it is possible to read nimitta as implying a perceptual image. This might be plausible if that meaning was well established elsewhere in the suttas. But it isn’t, which is why this passage is cited. But you can’t establish the meaning of a word by relying on an ambiguous context.

There’s no problem with reading this passage in terms of the normal, well-established meaning of nimitta. So there is no compelling reason to introduce a new meaning, which is otherwise unattested until many hundreds of years later.

Sure, these things are good. There should be no problem to set up a “wiki”-style system that preserves authorship. Regarding glosses, perhaps we can also include this as part of a “gradual enhancement”. Set up the basic meanings first, then create the ability to add glosses.



Dear Bhante @Sujato,

Thank you for this:

:heart_eyes:Excellent translation. Now I am beginning to understand the exact and correct purpose of the corpse meditation! It’s not to be repulsed but to understand nature and anicca!

with respect, reverence, and gratitude,