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.