A mistranslation in the analysis of dependent origination?

I have just had a look at the Vibhaṅga-sutta of the Nidāna-saṃyutta (SN 12.2). The analysis of existence (bhava) reads as follows in Ven. Bodhi’s translation:

And what, bhikkhus, is existence? There are these three kinds of existence: sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, formless-sphere existence. This is called existence.

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, bhavo? Tayome, bhikkhave, bhavā— kāmabhavo, rūpabhavo, arūpabhavo. Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, bhavo.

I find it curious how BB adds the word “sphere” to each of the three kinds of existence, a word not found in the Pali. I have checked the commentary and it too has nothing that corresponds to sphere. Why, then, has BB added it?

My guess is that he has added it because this is how we tend to relate to existence, at least in our present day. There is an objective sphere called the world, and we exist within that sphere. We are entities situated within a larger world out there. In this way we import contemporary notions of existence into the suttas.

If, however, we translate the Pali as it stands, we instead get:

And what, bhikkhus, is existence? There are these three kinds of existence: sensual existence, material existence, and immaterial existence. This is called existence.

This way of rendering the Pali places more emphasis on the experienced reality of each particular kind of existence, with a corresponding lesser emphasis on “spheres out there”. This fits the overall philosophy of early Buddhism, in which the world is largely defined in terms of personal experience (AN4.45).

This simple example shows how difficult, even impossible, it is to read the suttas on their own terms. This is all the more reason to take extra care not to read these texts through the lens of contemporary ideas.

Bhante Sujato, I know you have recently translated this. Any thoughts?


This is a complicated issue, and one of the hardest things to get right. A bit of a detour is required, I think, to get at what Ven Bodhi is doing here.

The basic problem is that when the suttas talk about bhava they are speaking about rebirth. But when we use the word “existence”, it doesn’t by itself carry that connotation. So how are we to convey the meaning?

The distinction is subtly implied in your translation. Even though it tries to be literal, you have “kinds of existence” for bhavā rather than “existences”. Perhaps this is innocuous, but it does hint at the notion that “existence” and bhava have different nuances. We tend to think of “existence” as an overarching state, whereas in the Pali it has a more concrete, specific meaning.

Compare how Google puts it. The primary meaning is:

the fact or state of living or having objective reality.

But also, as a secondary meaning:

any of a person’s supposed current, future, or past lives on this earth.
“reaping the consequences of evil deeds sown in previous existences”

Leaving aside the curiously unnecessary “on this earth”, this is a pretty good Buddhist definition of bhava. Under “life”, we also have:

(in Hinduism and some other religious traditions) any of a number of successive existences in which a soul is held to be reincarnated.
“a spiritual pilgrimage into her past lives”

So this shows that either “existence” or “life” can be used in the sense of bhava. (It also shows the wonderful recursiveness of dictionaries: “life” is defined as “existence”, and “existence” is defined as “life”!) Also, these two dictionary entries nicely illustrate the emotional difference between these two words: an “existence” is somewhere you’re subject to bad karma, while a “life” is where you go for “spiritual pilgrimage”.

In translation, the problem is context. While these meanings work, it’s not necessarily the case that they’ll be apparent. Generally, in English they are very much secondary meanings, whereas in Buddhist texts they are the primary meaning. The suttas will often use bhava in a shorthand way, and it is obvious what it’s talking about. But when we translate that into English it doesn’t necessarily convey that meaning.

This is not just a technical point. It is a major reason why many secular Buddhists argue away the notion of rebirth altogether. For them, rebirth is not mentioned in the four noble truths or dependent origination, and hence is not a core teaching of Buddhism. This is obviously a mistake, but if we render bhava simply as “existence” we are inviting such misunderstandings.

So the challenge is to translate these and related terms so that they clearly and unambiguously convey the sense that they have in Pali, without relying on the crutches of notes, explanations, or Buddhist Hybrid English.

To get back to your original question, I think this is why Ven Bodhi uses “sphere” of rebirth here. I confess, I’ve been doing something similar, except I’ve been using “realm” or “state”.

Now, as to your main point, I understand what you’re getting at, and I agree that it’s important that in Buddhism existence is not a purely objective thing. The suttas are very subtle on this point, and it is not easy to maintain that.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that this particular rendering makes a major difference. After all, there are plenty of places in the suttas where there is a “world” into which a “being” is reborn. On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely in these more explicit philosophical contexts such as dependent origination that a more nuanced depiction is required.

No translation is perfect, and perhaps we simply have to choose. If we can’t capture every nuance of a term or phrase, I’d prefer to exclude actual mistaken interpretations of the basic meaning, rather than a possible misinterpretation of a subtle philosophical point.

To make a successful translation, I think, we have to be very clear what we want out of it. And what I want out of my translations is that someone who doesn’t know very much about Buddhism and has not studied philosophy should be able to simply and straightforwardly understand the basic meaning of the text.

It would be better, of course, if we could avoid the issue by finding a rendering that will satisfy both requirements.

In my renderings of bhava I have tried to ensure that the primary meaning is apparent in each context, rather than being completely literal or consistent. Sometimes I render as “existence”, sometimes “life”, sometimes “realm of existence”. Sometimes I use a more extended phrase such as “rebirth into a state of existence”. Sometimes I use “future existence” for bhava, on the assumption that it is essentially a contraction of āyatiṁ punabbhavabhinibbatti.

Here’s some cases. These are just from the first few books of the Anguttara, so there’s plenty more!

avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­naṃ sattānaṃ taṇhā­saṃ­yoja­nā­naṃ hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ evaṃ āyatiṃ punabbha­vā­bhi­nib­batti hoti.
The consciousness of sentient beings—hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving—is established in a lower realm. That’s how there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future.

for the sake of rebirth in this or that state

sabbe bhavā aniccā dukkhā vipariṇāmadhammā
All states of existence are impermanent, suffering, and naturally fall apart

appamattakampi bhavaṃ na vaṇṇemi
I don’t approve of even a little bit of future existence

Bhavadiṭṭhi ca vibhavadiṭṭhi ca.
Views about being reborn and views about not being reborn.

utterly ended the fetters of rebirth

upādānapaccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti
Grasping is a condition for future existence. Future existence is a condition for rebirth.

Kāma­dhātu­ve­pakkañca, ānanda, kammaṃ nābhavissa, api nu kho kāmabhavo paññāyethā
“If, Ānanda, there were no deeds to result in the sensual realm, would future existence in the sensual realm come about?”

Kāmayogo, bhavayogo, diṭṭhiyogo, avijjāyogo
The attachment to sensual pleasures, future lives, views, and ignorance.

Idha, bhikkhave, ekaccassa puggalassa orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti, upapattipaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti, bhavapaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti.
One person hasn’t given up the lower fetters, the fetters for getting reborn, or the fetters for getting a continued existence.

A couple of related points.

Why have we tolerated the translation of jāti as “birth”? Birth means “the emergence of a baby from the womb”. In Pali, this is vijāti. Jāti is never used in this sense, but always means the conception of new life in the process of rebirth, and it should be translated as “rebirth”.

For rūpa in this sense, I have, as you well know, struggled mightily. When used in the context of the realms of existence, rūpabhava, rūpadhātu, etc., it is surely related to the rūpa that appears to the meditator, which in modern usage is called nimitta. This, of course, harks back to the older sense of rūpa as “sight, appearance, manifestation, form”. It’s also closely associated with the Brahma realms, where the rūpa aspect is expressed in terms of light (ābhassara, etc.) So I’ve been using “luminous form”. What do you think?


I like, very much!

It’s for this reason that I do not think that arūpa means “immaterial”. I think any state of immateriality would already begin with the rūpabhava, where one is said to have a manomaya (mind-made) body.

I’ve never really liked the translation of manomaya as “mind-made”, as it does not say whether the body if made by mind, or made of mind. Thankfully, the term is attested in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5 -

sá vā́ ayám ātmā́ bráhma vijñānamáyo manomáyo vāṅmáyaḥ prāṇamáyaś cakṣurmáyaḥ śrotramáya ākāśamáyo vāyumáyas tejomáya āpomáyaḥ pr̥tʰivīmáyaḥ krodʰamáyo 'krodʰamáyo harṣamáyo 'harṣamáyaḥ [K śrotramayaḥ pr̥tʰivīmaya āpomayo vāyumaya ākāśamayas tejomayo 'tejomayaḥ kāmamayo 'kāmamayaḥ krodʰamayo 'krodʰamayo] dʰarmamáyo 'dʰarmamáyaḥ sarvamáyas.

Clearly, this self is brahman—this self that is made of perception, made of
mind, made of sight, made of breath, made of hearing, made of earth, made of wa-
ter, made of wind, made of space, made of light and the lightless, made of desire
and the desireless, made of anger and the angerless, made of the righteous and the
unrighteous; this self that is made of everything. (Olivelle’s translation)

This connection between rūpa and appearance seems to be implied in this listing of synonyms that deal with the formless -

\ +++ arūpam anidarśanam apratighaṃ ++++\\


Back to bhava. I think when Ven Bodhi was translating the passage in question, he may have been thinking of AN 3.76, where kāma­dhātu and kāmabhava appear in the same breath -

Kāma­dhātu­ve­pakkañca, ānanda, kammaṃ nābhavissa, api nu kho kāmabhavo paññāyethā”ti?

I’m not sure if this means that the 2 are qualitatively different. Perhaps the kāmabhava refers to the concrete existence of the being that is reborn, while the kāma­dhātu is the potential type of existence for all beings headed to that state?


Dear Bhante,

Sorry if it’s rather out of topic, but is there any connection between this “bhava” of dependent origination and the “antarabhava” (intermediate state)? I have read your paper about rebirth and intermediate state in early Buddhism. I think, perhaps “bhava paccaya jati” here indicates a state of existence (bhava) before rebirth (jati) happens, which includes an intermediate state. What do you think, Bhante?

In this Upanishad quote, it must mean made of mind, of course. However in the Dhammapada manoseṭṭhā manomayā it should be made by mind. Hence, I think, a deliberate ambiguity in the rendering.

In the context of manomayakāya, well when it comes to rebirth everything is made by mind, in the sense that it is produced by karma (which is the point of the Dhammapada verse), so perhaps it means made of mind.

An impressively obscure reference, well done! The same idea occurs in Pali, of course.

There is indeed, and the Anguttara is one of the places where the antarabhava is mentioned quite frequently. The last quote that I gave above, for example, is from AN 4.131. Later it says:

Katamassa, bhikkhave, puggalassa orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, upapattipaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, bhavapaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni? Antarāparinibbāyissa.
What person has given up the lower fetters and the fetters for getting reborn, but not the fetters for getting a continued existence? One extinguished in-between one life and the next.

I think bhava by itself covers everything, including the in-between state, so it is not only “before birth”.


Bhante, what does this mean exactly? That they have become enlightened but will get reborn because it happened between lives?

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AFAIR we once discussed it here

i think it’s tolerable because considering the mark of anatta nothing gets RE-born per-se, but simply a new birth takes place as a result of certain finished life

I am definitely no scholar and do not even try to pretend to be one. My understanding of Bhava is that it is the continuous process of coming into formation of a suitable conception jati based on actions performed by body, by words and by mind. I think this state is ever present during the lives of all sentient beings. This is my two cents please.

I am not convinced bhava always implies rebirth. I agree that it does in certain contexts, most obviously in suttas such as AN 3.75 and AN 3.76. In these suttas bhava is virtually defined as the kamma made in one existence together with the consequent rebirth in a subsequent one. And there are other contexts where this definition of bhava is also appropriate.

When it comes to dependent origination, however, I am not so sure. In this case rebirth is already accounted for by jāti, and it makes no sense to me why bhava should refer to the same thing. Here I would therefore understand bhava in a narrower sense, as only referring to the kamma that is produced by living in a certain way. What I am proposing, I suppose, is that bhava can be divided up into two sub-categories: a broad bhava that includes rebirth, and a narrower version of the term that relates only to existence in a specific life and perhaps includes intermediate existence. (And the range of translations you suggest further down actually matches this twofold classification quite well.)

I know this flies in the face of the traditional interpretation of the commentaries. I just cannot see the justification for including upapatti-bhava (rebirth-existence) in the bhava of dependent origination.

To me “kinds” here suggests that we are dealing with classes of existence, rather than specific instances of it.

But in dependent origination the word jāti should dispel all doubts as to what it is about. If jāti is not accepted as involving rebirth, I doubt that loading the same meaning onto bhava will make any difference. In other contexts, however, this may be more of an issue.

Perhaps, but the implication is very deep, since Ven. Bodhi does not use the word rebirth.

But how then do you handle AN 4.131 where you find upapattipaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni and bhavapaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni side by side in the same sutta. Here it seems that upapatti must mean rebirth, whereas bhava possibly refers to intermediate existence. (Ok, I see you have quoted this sutta below. You distinguish between “getting reborn” and “getting a continued existence”. As an aside: in the last phrase, don’t the words “get” and “continue” clash with each other?)

But aren’t future existence and rebirth the same thing? I find this confusing.

And regardless of the actual meaning of jāti, “rebirth” cannot be wrong, because all birth is also rebirth.

Interesting. I think this captures the meaning quite well, much better than “materiality”, in fact. You will end up with a variety of translations for rūpa, but why not? Conveying meaning is what matters.


Dear Bhante @sujato & @Brahmali,

How is the concept and meaning of bhava in the contemporary traditions, e.g. Brahmanism/Vedic tradition and other samana traditions (Jainism etc.)? Perhaps, early Buddhism borrowed this concept from those traditions too…

And, about antarabhava, was there any contemporary tradition of the Buddha’s time using the same concept or idea of intermediate existence? AFAIK, only Buddhism has this concept…

Thank you


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To be sure, it’s not entirely clear. But to me, bhava is more general. It includes the whole of the next life, not just the occasion of “rebirth” at the start of life, and in addition, covers the antarabhava. In DO, perhaps, “the ongoing process of existence” would be better.

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I’m not really sure. The Brahmanical notion of rebirth was, contrary to popular opinion, not clearly or uniformly established before the time of the Buddha. Most of the Brahmanical and Jaina texts that deal with this in clear terms are post-Buddhist.

But I do believe that part of the objection by the Theravadins to the notion of the antarabhava was because they believed it subtly reintroduced the notion of a soul. Thus they criticized those who had this idea, especially the Puggalavadins.

However, in the relevant discussion at Kv 8.2 there is no suggestion that the opposition is being influenced by Brahmanical ideas. The discussion is solely about interpretation of the suttas.


Well, just to play the ‘devil’s advocate’, if looking at the sequence of DO in a linear way (not that that is the only way, nor always appropriate) this would put “the whole of the next life” before “the start of life”.

Though I think you have a good point about bhava being more general, I too find the differentiation you’re trying to make between ‘future existence’ and ‘rebirth’ rather confusing (except in the case of intermediate existence). Maybe it’s just that the English words don’t do it for me. They seem too similar in concept.

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Dear Bhante

I’m in close agreement with the above, reading bhava as closely approximating kamma. If I may offer a refinement, I’d like to zoom in on this -

Iti kho, ānanda, kammaṃ khettaṃ, viññāṇaṃ bījaṃ, taṇhā sneho. Avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­naṃ sattānaṃ taṇhā­saṃ­yoja­nā­naṃ hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ evaṃ āyatiṃ punabbha­vā­bhi­nib­batti hoti.

In the first sentence, we see 3 nouns being explained by similes, ie action, consciousness and craving. Consciousness and craving pop up again in the second sentence, which implies that kamma must have been intended here as well.

Rather than individual kamma per se, I think the sort of kamma in mind here is the cumulative effect (or is it type) of kammas performed over a lifetime which directs rebirth into a particular dhātu. This is furnished by the phrase viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ (consciousness is established).

I’m thinking of AN 4.123, where it appears that rebirth among the Brahmas does not occur with just an occasional dalliance with the jhanas, but the meditator has to -

Tattha ṭhito tadadhimutto tab­bahu­la­vihārī

This to me seems very much an expansion of the idea that consciousness is established in something by habituation. And any habit is nothing more than kamma.


Hopefully this isn’t too far off-topic, but I was reading about the massive Borobudur Temple in Indonesia and apparently the architectural design is based on the “three realms”; a symbolic and artistic expression of the cosmology.

I’d like to raise the point for consideration that perhaps these realms/spheres/bases don’t necessarily apply just to the cosmology and possible rebirth destinations. Could it be said that jhāna being “quite secluded from sensuality” is actually “based” in rūpa/form. Without having to call it rūpa-jhāna like in the later commentaries, I still think it makes logical sense that the experience devoid of sensuality is an experience based in form? The devas of the rūpadhātu are said to be sexless, passionless and to feed on pure joy, bliss, etc. In some sense, I think there is some connection between what is said to be possible in meditation “here and now” and these other realms. Thoughts?


May I add some ideas to the discussion of the dep.orig.? They are rather logical this time and not philological, so forgive my lack of pali references - it’s a think piece…

Viññāṇa not as consciousness, but rather as ‘mental apparatus’, or simplified ‘mind’. The difference is that a mental apparatus might be necessary for consciousness to occur but can also be completely unconscious. It includes unconscious drives, impulsed, tendencies etc.

nāma-rūpa not just as name and form, but - to give it a different twist - as signifier and signified, as introduced by de Saussure and applied by Lacan. The signifier here is ultimately un-knowable, it is which gives the knowable its meaning (Buddhaghosa’s ‘it bends’?) The signified on the other hand is what can be known, a meaning is imposed on it (Buddhaghosa’s ‘it is molested’?). Snp Iv.13 says “A man who sees will see (only) name and form”. When both signifier and signified are seen ‘meaning’ collapses and the mind stops proliferating in its usual way.


what does this mean exactly? That they have become enlightened but will get reborn because it happened between lives?

Since I don’t yet see a reply to your post, here’s mine. First to answer your specific questions:
Yes, they have “become enlightened” between lives
No, there would be no further rebirth. That is impossible.

More specifically, by the end of the last life the person had abandoned the five lower fetters (had become a ‘non-returner’, would no longer be reborn in a sensual realm in a human or deva existence). And this sutta is interesting in that it then differentiates between two different types of ‘non-returners’ (the last stage of awakening prior to arahantship). While both have abandoned the five lower fetters, one has not abandoned the “fetters for obtaining rebirth” nor the “fetters for obtaining existence” and one has abandoned the “fetters for obtaining rebirth” but not the “fetters for obtaining existence”. The first would go on to another life in a very subtle higher realm (the Pure Abodes) and the other (which your question refers to) would awaken after their last life, but prior to another life happening. I take this to mean that there is enough kammic push, so to speak, to continue into an intermediate existence wherein Nibbana is attained.

Language is difficult here, makes it sounds like persons moving here or there. But it’s really just a matter of kamma, in other words, when are the final fetters abandoned. But whenever and wherever, Nibbana is total extinguishment. There is no more rebirth.


Thanks for that information. I see how it is referring to the non-returners rather than those that had reached enlightenment. I think that is the part that was unclear. As you say if you are enlightened you cannot be reborn which is the part that threw me off based on the language.

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Quite right. You attain the jhānas regularly in this life, and then because you mind inclines to jhāna when you die, you get reborn in the correxponding realm. The same idea applies to all kinds of rebirth.

Viññāṇa is defined as that which knows (vijānāti) at MN43. The “unconscious drives, impulsed, tendencies etc.” is likely to be represented in the suttas by the anusayas, usually translated as “underlying tendencies.”

How can the un-knowable be seen?


The question is though if knowledge and understanding are fully conscious events - they are neither thoughts nor perceptions. As there are things ‘I don’t know I know’ they should be rooted in a sphere (viññāṇa) that is itself beyond consciousness. For example I might realize that human bodies are not attractive after all, and then realize ‘I knew that all along - it explains my conflicted relationship to the body…’[quote=“brahmali, post:19, topic:2872”]
How can the un-knowable be seen?

That is tricky of course. In psychoanalysis the signifier can be carefully distilled and conceptualized - in the end they get an image of it that works more or less. E.g. ‘Identifying as a body’ --> ‘a male body’ --> ‘a male heterosexual body’ --> … the mind must produce these tendencies. This careful conceptualization doesn’t work in the full speed of meditation - even though one could argue that these are ditthi. How I deal with it is that when a feeling / thought (i.e. meaning) arises I assume that these feelings/thoughts get their meaning not from ‘me’ but from a view/attitude that is implanted in my mind. So it has no meaning/value at all. Like: Someone left an envelope with a quest in my bedroom and when I wake up I am supposed to go after it? why?.. In the reflection afterwards I can try and distil the actual ditthis that must have been active to produce these thoughts/feelings.