A brief note on the Pali word for "rebirth"

One sometimes hears the opinion that there is no word for “rebirth” in Pali. This is used as support for the project of marginalizing or dismissing the significance of rebirth in early Buddhism. Of course, you are all too smart to be taken in by that level of analysis, right? The presence or absence of specific words for specific things tells us nothing about the concepts, merely about how they are expressed.

In any case, it’s worth noting that there is a word that literally equates to the English “rebirth”. And that is paccājāta. It’s the past participle of the verb paṭi + ā + jāyati, where:

  • pati = “re”
  • ā = “come”
  • jāta = “born”

Literally, “come to be born again”, i.e. “reborn”. It’s used in a context such as Ud 3.6:

Vacchassa, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pañca jātisatāni abbokiṇṇāni brāhmaṇakule paccājātāni.
For five hundred lives without interruption Vaccha was reborn in a brahmin family.

There are plenty of other terms that mean “rebirth”, if slightly less literally: punabbhava, pubbe nivāsaṁ, or even just jāti.

The moral of the story is: Be deeply suspicious of any argument that draws a significant doctrinal conclusion from a narrow linguistic basis. (Hint: linguists don’t make such arguments.)

There are lots of people who think they know Pali, but very few with any real depth. How to know the difference? Well, here’s a rule of thumb I find useful: real experts don’t just hammer away at their own special theories; they make genuine, lasting contributions to the field. Next time you come across a sexy new theory, ask yourself whether its proponent passes this test. It’s a surprisingly effective filter!


Loosely interpreted according to some schools of Buddhism in Sri Lanka:
pati with long a to the end (*patiyā) is interpreted as a bond (noun). In that sense, paṭi + ā + jāyati can be the bond to “jayati”
puna +bbhava - Puna or “yalith” means again, so punabbhava can be again bhava.

This is incorrect, I’m afraid. :pray: The word is broken up wrongly, and there is no such noun as patiyā. I give the correct formation above. This is not a matter of opinion, it is how the word is formed according to 2,500 years of linguistic science. Check a dictionary!

Imagine someone encountered the word “trainstation”, but they didn’t know English. Rather than asking someone who does know English, they decided to just make up what seemed right to them. So they might say, "Well, this is a compound, starting with a word trai, which means something you put something on; then nstat, which is short for “in-state”, in other words, something where someone is in the state of being “in something”, and ion which means an “eon”, i.e. an endless period of time. So what “trainstation” means is “a place where you are in somewhere and it seems like it lasts forever”! I mean, it’s not a bad description of a train station!

To anyone who knows English, it’s just bizarre and obviously wrong. But this is exactly what these modern interpreters are doing.

As I said in the original post:


:sunflower: Noted with metta bhante, as a native Sinhala speaker, intrinsically I could not help but notice this. I guess that could be because I know Sinhala more than Pali or English. To clarify is in Sihalala we interpret patiyā as a bond (noun) and not in English or Pali.


Ahh okay, well it must be a different word then. :pray:

1 Like

Thanks Bhante
as a student delighting in working with Pali at kindergarten level I am always appreciative of sound advice.
with metta