A brief note on upaṭṭhāka

The Pali term upaṭṭhāka may be familiar from the modern Thai word upathak, which means an appointed attendant to a senior monk. The literal meaning of the term is “one who stands near”, and it may be compared with the related term upaniṣad, “sitting near”.

It is usually translated as “attendant”, but in the EBTs it has three distinct uses that, I believe, are more idiomatically rendered per-context.

  1. “Attendant”: this is the same sense as noted above, a mendicant who looks after another, typically a senior. This would include general duties like helping with chores, or tasks such as managing appointments, which we see Ānanda doing for the Buddha.
  2. “Carer” or “nurse”: For a sick mendicant, the duty of care falls to the upaṭṭhāka, who in suttas such as AN 3.22 is given various duties and responsibilities that are essentially identical with a modern nurse or carer. “Carer” may be better, as it is not a specialized position. In any case, in modern English we don’t use “attendant” for this.
  3. “Supporter”: In places such as Ud 2.8 or MN 81, a mendicant is said to have a lay upaṭṭhāka. This is not an “attendant”, as they do not offer personal services in the same way, but rather is one who supports the mendicant with meals or other requisites. Here, the modern term is “supporter”.

Well, guess what, here are my three contextually dependent renderings for upaṭṭhāka:

  • an attendant
  • a nurse
  • a supporter

So I salute your analysis!

This, in fact, is the sort of thing I have had in mind when I have insisted on translating the same term differently depending on context. I have found this to be useful for quite a broad range of words. The main proviso is that each context must be quite separate from the others.

The result of this is not just that the translation becomes more precise, but also that it becomes more alive and vibrant. To my mind, it becomes more elegant and fun to read.


That’s interesting. It’s makes me wonder why in Vimuttimagga they have many translated words ‘hearers ’

Of course coming from chinese. The translators know that the word used was used for ‘hearers’

But since maybe it was commonly used in early Buddhism. Although the meaning here is different. But I think that literal translation indicates it supposed to be that used expression ‘hearer’

Because the one that “one who stands near” is the one that can hear.

I understand there is other Pali word for hearer

But this I remember reading from a 5 CE text. This is how they explain Hearer. Mostly in Indian texts.

Because in Agamas there is Buddha discourse also where Buddha says

Listening to the true Dharma too is conditioned; it is not without conditions. By what is listening to the true Dharma conditioned? The answer is: listening to the true Dharma is conditioned by approaching [a teacher].
Approaching [a teacher] too is conditioned; it is not without con- ditions. By what is approaching [a teacher] conditioned? The answer is: approaching [a teacher] is conditioned by having respect.
If one has respect for good friends, one hears what one has not heard before, and having heard it, benefits from it. If there are good friends, but one does not have respect for them, then this is detrimental to having respect.

So see here the approaching [a teacher]

is like one stand near. And the person that stand near. Is a hearer.

The term for hearer most likely is sāvaka.

That’s true right now it seems. But sāvaka is actually just disciple. It’s some Mahayana wrongly called it hearer. As the ones that learn by hearing. But it’s funny. Because if they didn’t hear about Buddha’s teachings they didn’t have their tradition or path.

king Asoka used actually another form of sāvaka. It have Half Buddha half Sakka.

So I think the word might have evolved

In early Buddhism they liked using the word Hearer but they explain it like I did.

Actually exactly like Bhante said. Hearer because they come near. Something like that

The tricky bit is determining the context and ensuring it’s consistent within a particular usage.

The other thing—there should probably be a name for it—is where you get “semantic bleed”, as one fairly well-defined context bleeds into another fairly well-defined context, and the Pali word has a different semantic scope than the English terms.

I’m thinking of something like kāya, which sometimes clearly means “body” and sometimes clearly does not mean “body” and other times seems to be moving from one to the other.


Is the word also related to Upasaka? So actually we are Sangha supporters. Makes sense

Yes. The good things about the suttas, and perhaps especially the Vinaya, is that words tend to be used in a limited number of standard passages. It is much more artificial than a natural language. This makes it easier to separate out the various contextual usages.

There are exceptions, of course, kāya being a good example. In these cases, where there is a spectrum of meanings, you need to decide on slightly artificial cut-off points for where one meaning end and the next begins. And sometimes there may different opinions on how best to do this. Still, I think it is better to attempt this difficult task rather than sticking too closely to a one-English-word-for-each-Pali-word kind of translation, which to my mind has failed in the past.

Having said this, one needs to be careful to be consistent when the context is the same or similar. It is too easy to get sloppy and just use whatever one thinks is the best rendering in any particular situation. This latter approach leads to a text that lacks coherence, with the result that it is hard for the reader to see important connections and relationships that exist in the source text.


Actually this I had to share with Bhante.

From Agama

By what is hearing the true Dharma conditioned? The answer is: it is conditioned by association with good friends. Association with good friends too is conditioned; it is not without conditions.
By what is association with good friends conditioned? The answer is: it is conditioned by good people. That is to say, because there are good people, there will be association with good friends.

association here is probably upaṭṭhāka

In AN10.61 it’s saṁseva:

AN10.61:6.26: Ko cāhāro saddhammassavanassa?
AN10.61:6.26: And what is the fuel for listening to the true teaching?
AN10.61:6.27: ‘Sappurisasaṁsevo’tissa vacanīyaṁ.
AN10.61:6.27: You should say: ‘Associating with good people.’

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Bhante I was reading this commentary I accidentally got this translation. It’s very nice.

and devotion to duty d(upaṭṭhāka)

There seems a typo. The d. But I think it’s devotion to duty

That’s what I was thinking earlier. Because it’s because devotion.