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Āvuso, an instructional/hierarchical form of address

In the New Concise Pali English dictionary, the entry for āvuso has this:

Of remarkable interest is the short phrase “but not used by … the Buddha”. This is quite fascinating. I haven’t done a thorough search myself, but certain things have become apparent.

  1. Sariputta is the knockout leading champion of āvuso usage with 292 uses in DN33 alone.
  2. In DN24, the Buddha uses the word avuso but not as an address. In fact, he’s asking a questioner to use the word:

DN24:1.7.21: If you wish, Sunakkhatta, go to Korakkhattiya and ask him
DN24:1.7.22: jānāsi, āvuso korakkhattiya, attano gatinti?
DN24:1.7.22: whether he knows his own destiny.

Did the Buddha truly never address the mendicants directly using āvuso? The implications of that restraint and humility are fascinating. Where Sariputta is a lion roaring the Dhamma, the Buddha simply asserts directly neither talking down nor up.

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I’m not sure I follow your reasoning, how does it show his humility?

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From DN 16 just before the Buddha spoke his final words, he said to Ananda,

6.2.1 After my passing, mendicants ought not address each other as ‘reverend’, as they do today.
Yathā kho panānanda, etarahi bhikkhū aññamaññaṃ āvusovādena samudācaranti, na kho mamaccayena evaṃ samudācaritabbaṃ.
6.2.2 A more senior mendicant ought to address a more junior mendicant by name or clan, or by saying ‘reverend’.
Theratarena, ānanda, bhikkhunā navakataro bhikkhu nāmena vā gottena vā āvusovādena vā samudācaritabbo.
6.2.3 A more junior mendicant ought to address a more senior mendicant using ‘sir’ or ‘venerable’.
Navakatarena bhikkhunā therataro bhikkhu ‘bhante’ti vā ‘āyasmā’ti vā samudācaritabbo.

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After my higher ordination in Sri Lanka, in 2003, I returned to the Carolinas (USA), and soon began to interact with another Western bhikkhuni (in California), and then another (in Germany) - forging the first connections among fully-ordained Theravada Western bhikkhunis. We three discovered a weird conundrum: what to call each other?

The Buddha had instructed to call the senior Bhante (Revered Sir) and the junior Āvuso (Friend) - both male words. The Buddha’s intention in his Bhante/Āvuso instruction apparently was to instill awareness and respect for seniority within the Sangha. (He made that intention more clear by adding for seniors the option of using no honorific at all towards juniors, using just their name informally, as in, “Hello, Sudhammā, are you there?”, without giving juniors the same option.) So we wanted to respect the Buddha’s instructions.

The word Bhante was too well known as a term of address only for male bhikkus. (Later research, by the way, has shown ancient uses of Bhante for bhikkhunis.) Our elder advisors said the senior bhikkhuni should instead be addressed as “Ayye”. It’s an abbreviation for “Ariya” or Enlightened/Worthy One, but was used causally, more like “Reverend”, in the scriptures; it could apply to male or female, but was used commonly among bhikkhunis. I resisted the word at first, as in Sri Lankan culture it means something awkward. :grimacing: But Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi answered my inquiry with a letter affirming “Ayye” as the correct term for us, so I reluctantly capitulated.

We also needed a word to address the junior bhikkhuni. For a few years or so we simply feminized Āvuso to Āvusā, but our advisors objected, saying it’s not a legitimate use of Āvuso which is inherently male. Then we were stumped.

Nothing in the scriptures offered us guidance for a mode of address to a junior; all the bhikkhuni conversations in scripture probably occurred before the Buddha advised bhikkhus to speak hierarchically after his passing. Bhikkhunis were quoted only calling each other “Ayye” equally, just as the bhikkhus had once called each other “Āvuso”. For example, “Ayye, are you okay?” Yes, Ayye, I’m okay, are you okay?"

(My Sri Lankan bhikkhuni role models used their own language, words too unfamiliar and complex for us - something like Meheniṃwahansa for a senior, for example - so they couldn’t help us.)

Using the word for Sister, Bhaginī, for a junior was suggested by our advisors, and it does appear in scriptures as a way bhikkhus addressed bhikkhunis, so we adopted it. That word Bhaginī turned out incredibly clumsy for us to enunciate, and ugly-sounding to be called. (The aspirated h after b sounds like you’re coughing at the person.) We gave it a good try for several years or so, but everyone cringed, every time. It felt punitive.

The hierarchical intention in itself caused worse controversy - it’s just not acceptable among women as among men. I suspect this has to do with women’s low esteem of women in general. In faith I wanted to follow the Buddha’s advice to impose a linguistic hierarchy, thinking it’d be good for lowering individual ego while raising respect for the female group as a whole.

Others didn’t see it this way. Some who had arrived as highly educated, accomplished older women chafed at being addressed by a lesser status term; it seemed to hurt their pride. Younger women tended to view any hint of non-egalitarianism as outrageously unacceptable on principle. The ugly awkward word put the resistance over the top; no more saying Ayye/Bhaginī.

We finally settled on addressing each other, regardless of years in robes, with an egalitarian shared “Ayye”. And we adopted “Ayya” as an honorific for our names, as in Ayya Sudhamma, to match Bhante for monks, as in Bhante Gunaratana.

Or at least those of us among the early batches of Western bhikkhunis did. Some Western bhikkhunis coming along years later have shrugged off their elders’ decision in this matter, eschewing “Ayye” and “Ayya”, calling each other “Venerable” instead.

[Edit - typo]

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:anjal: Ayya Sudhamma,

There is actually a precedent in the bhikkhunī pātimokkha that shows that junior nuns and novices were also addressed as “ayya/ayye”.

This is from pācittiya 148, about a sāmaṇerī claiming that obstructions are not real obstructions:

Samaṇuddesāpi ce evaṃ vadeyya: “tathāhaṃ bhagavatā dhammaṃ desitaṃ ājānāmi, yathā yeme antarāyikā dhammā vuttā bhagavatā, te paṭisevato nālaṃ antarāyāyā”ti. Sā samaṇuddesā bhikkhunīhi evamassa vacanīyā: “māyye samaṇuddese evaṃ avaca, mā bhagavantaṃ abbhācikkhi, na hi sādhu bhagavato abbhakkhānaṃ, na hi bhagavā evaṃ vadeyya, anekapariyāyenāyye samaṇuddese antarāyikā dhammā antarāyikā vuttā bhagavatā, alañca pana te paṭisevato antarāyāyā”ti. Evañca sā samaṇuddesā bhikkhunīhi vuccamānā tatheva paggaṇheyya, sā samaṇuddesā bhikkhunīhi evamassa vacanīyā: “ajjatagge te, ayye samaṇuddese na ceva so bhagavā satthā apadisitabbo, yampi caññā samaṇuddesā labhanti bhikkhunīhi saddhiṃ dirattatirattaṃ sahaseyyaṃ, sāpi te natthi, cara pire, vinassā”ti. Yā pana bhikkhunī jānaṃ tathānāsitaṃ samaṇuddesaṃ upalāpeyya vā, upaṭṭhāpeyya vā, sambhuñjeyya vā, saha vā seyyaṃ kappeyya, pācittiyaṃ.

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As a layperson addressing others about the Dhamma, clearly “avuso” is awkwardly unacceptable for me. Therefore, much as I admire Sariputta, his manner of address is completely inappropriate coming from me. It’s not the actual word so much, rather, it is the assertion of hierarchy.

Imagine now my surprise at reading the definition of avuso, to see that the Buddha himself dispensed with its use. :open_mouth:

And the more I investigated, the more I realized just how marvelously the Buddha talked about the Dhamma. He would engagingly say things like:

SN42.7:1.6: “Well then, chief, I’ll ask you about this in return, and you can answer as you like.

This breathtakingly open manner of address humbles me. I find it an inspiration to follow.

And thank you to the Ayyas for a wonderful explanation of bhikkhuni issues of addressing others. :pray:

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Agree, this is such a skillful way to engage with someone!

Thanks for clarifying your reasoning. I’ll ask you a question in return, and you can answer as you like. :innocent: :smile: So if I understood what you mean, the use of avuso is an assertion of hierarchy and therefore since the Buddha didn’t use it, it shows his humility, right?

I’m a bit surprised by this point of view, because I had assumed that avuso was quite a friendly term, sometimes translated as ‘friend’ or ‘brother’, and not hierarchical, since all the monastics were addressing each other in the same way irrespective of seniority. Am I missing something?

In that context, the fact that the Buddha was not addressed by the the term ‘avuso’ but ‘bhante’, clearly put him apart from the lay people and his students. Now, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, but it doesn’t really show any humility/humbleness on his part either. If on the contrary he had asked his monks to address him by the term ‘avuso’ then that would show some humility.

It makes me think of the idea that the Buddha was such a compassionate being, which IMO, is not something that visible in the EBTs where he sometimes appear as quite harsh or detached. Again, I’m not saying that it’s not normal for such a liberated being to be like that, but I feel that sometimes he is attributed human qualities that are just not really visible in the text. Take for example his first encounter with a person after his awakening, he comes across as quite arrogant, no humility there.

But I might be missing a subtlety here so would be happy to be shown what I got wrong about the use of ‘avuso’.

PS: I must disclose that I always felt, and still feel, a bit of unease with the buddhist tradition of using honorific titles (or any other honorific titles for that matter, such as Dr, Her Majesty, Maitre etc). He might be partly due to my french upbringing!

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The definition in the OP was my own introduction to the meaning of and hierarchy of avuso. It was only in reading the remainder of the thread that I understood the alternate meaning of “friend”. Interestingly, note that the Concise Pali English dictionary makes no such mention.

Yet even if we assume the meaning of “friend”, we still note that the Buddha does not use the term. When addressing a chief, the Buddha says “chief”. When addressing a king, the Buddha says “oh great king”. There is no presumption of friendship.

And this, too, is startlingly important and relevant. If someone with aggressive intent approaches me, the LAST thing I would do is call them, “friend”. To do so would only inflame their aggression and suspicion towards me with the assumption of a bond they did not wish to share. When we are arrested by police, the form of address is “yes, officer”, it is never, “friend”. When addressed formally as they see themselves, police are most likely to listen. And this is exactly how I addressed a police officer screaming and cursing at me. He listened to my explanation and let me go with just an admonishment. I thanked him and drove on to work. Thank you, officer, for your kindness and compassion.

What I learned from this thread is the importance of addressing others as they see themselves. When addressing the bhikkus, the Buddha might say, “bhikkhus.” When addressing a king, the Buddha might say “great king”. It is not that the Buddha thought the king to be great, he was simply using the king’s own self-image to establish a suitable connection for communication.

MN81:18.4: Now, great king, you thought, “The Buddha does not accept my invitation to reside for the rains in Benares,” and you became sad and upset.

I still don’t quite know what avuso “really” means. As with all language, the definition of avuso seems to flow and adapt to the needs of the day. I do know that if we met and talked, I would skip the avuso and just say, “Hello, Yasoj.” :pray:

The special case, then, is how to address a Noble One who does not see themself in any particular way. Here, an honorific offered from the heart can suffice: “Hello, Venerable” If done to excess, of course, one might be properly rebuked by being addressed in return as Mara. :laughing:

MN50:16.1: Then it occurred to Māra Dūsī, ‘Even when I do this I don’t know the course of rebirth of these ethical mendicants of good character. Why don’t I take possession of these brahmins and householders and say, “Come, all of you, honor, respect, esteem, and venerate the ethical mendicants of good character.

That is part of the reason Mara Dusi had to go to hell before he became Mogallana. Flattery is the stroking of identity view. The flattered mendicants became devas and thereby wasted a life.

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This is a rather beautiful refinement on right speech for western democracies. In former times, when societies were less fluid and more hierarchical, forms of address were tightly controlled by social convention (and still are in many societies). Some languages have special pronouns to replace he, she, you etc to express lower and higher rank, as well as many specialised obligatory terms of address. This can provide headaches for modern English language translators as they try to find English ways of expressing this.

What I’m trying to say is that, you’ve just shown me an element of what’s helpful in right speech that arises in modern Western/Westernising societies. :pray:

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Isn’t it the use of avuso restricted to other bhikkhus and not lay people in general? :thinking:

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The Buddha also used avuso when he talked with devas, such as to Rohitassa in AN 4.45

“Yattha kho, āvuso, na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, nāhaṃ taṃ gamanena lokassa antaṃ ñāteyyaṃ daṭṭheyyaṃ patteyyanti vadāmī”ti.
“Reverend, I say it’s not possible to know or see or reach the end of the world by traveling to a place where there’s no being born, growing old, dying, passing away, or being reborn.”

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Thanks Ayya. What about lay people or ascetics of other sects. Do we see avuso used for those?

@Gabriel_L, are you asking if the Buddha used avuso for laypeople and other ascetics, or if bhikkhus/bhikkhunīs used it for laypeople/ascetics?

To my knowledge, the Buddha only used avuso for devas, but I haven’t researched it in detail.

Bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs used it for addressing each other, devas, other ascetics, and sometimes also for laypeople:

for devas: SN 1.20

“Na khvāhaṃ, āvuso, sandiṭṭhikaṃ hitvā kālikaṃ anudhāvāmi.

for ascetics: MN 124

“Asīti me, āvuso, vassāni pabbajitassā”ti.

for laypeople: MN 44

“Pañca kho ime, āvuso visākha, upādānakkhandhā sakkāyo vutto bhagavatā, That is: form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. seyyathidaṃ—rūpupādānakkhandho, vedanupādānakkhandho, saññupādānakkhandho, saṅkhārupādānakkhandho, viññāṇupādānakkhandho.


The Buddha is also addressed as avuso by other ascetics: MN 56

“Na kho, āvuso gotama, āciṇṇaṃ nigaṇṭhassa nāṭaputtassa ‘kammaṃ, kamman’ti paññapetuṃ;

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Thank you very much. It answers all my questions. :anjal:

I wonder what was the idiomatic significance of the term in the day to day language in the time of the Buddha and his disciples.

:thinking:

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