Etymologies of Dhātu and Dhamma

Greetings All:
My Chinese/Pali classes have begun again and, while we were discussing a few Indic words and some of their old Chinese translations, the discussion turned to one translation for samādhi: 等持. 持, “to hold,” presumably, was their rendering of the second half of the word, -dhā; this is also one way the word dhāraṇī (a mantra/manta which is memorized, or “held” in the mind) was translated: 受持.
It was only then that I realized (after years of being puzzled) that this must be why element (dhātu) was translated 持 (or, also, 本持). But why? The true meaning of is not quite “element,” I’ve know that for a while–and that, as far as I know, has to do with why the Chinese translation 界 came about and, eventually, stuck. Still, though, I’ve never quite had a handle on what exactly dhātu means. And, also, I see that dhamma (or, more properly, dharma) seems to have the same root–though I do not believe it was ever translated in any way involving 持. Could some of our resident Chinese and Pali experts shed some light on the issue?


maybe this previous discussion is interesting to you. I quoted here some etymological observations about dharma: Translating 'dhamma' and 'dhammā'


等持 is what I would call an etymological translation. Functionally, it’s like transliterating a word since there’s no attempt to translate the contextual meaning. The Sanskrit word is broken down into its parts and they’re translated individually and strung together. Xuanzang and later technical translators started doing that during the Tang dynasty.

Dhatu is an awkward case in Chinese like dharma is. They chose to translate a single reading and use it throughout at a certain point early on. With dhatu, they chose the reading of “world” or “sphere” the Buddhists added to dhatu, even though it’s typically used for basic elements or constituents. So, yeah, it reads strangely when you read the Chinese literally. It’s a case of a conventional translation that’s literally not great, but people learn it’s different meanings and understand it.

Regarding 本持, Anshigao must have been groping for a way to translate “constituent” into Chinese. At T603.173c8, he says that since its a “root” or “basis” of the senses (本), he therefore translates dhatu as 本持.


According to Choong Mun-keat, the Chinese term 界 (“realm”, “locus”, or “field”) fits better to the teachings on dhātu based on the text, Dhatu-samyutta of SN/SA. This is because “element” is not a good fit for term dhātu, which is used variously in the text to mean “set of conditions”, “natural individual characteristic or ethical qualities”, “meditative attainment”, and “material element”. He uses “the realms of nature”, and “natural condition” for the term dhātu (Choong MK, Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 130, 149).


Thank you to all for your informative responses.