Even more terms to consider …

I have been going through the Pali words in my translation that are still left untranslated, hoping to find a English equivalents for as many as possible. Many of these are customarily left untranslated, sometimes because it is difficult to find adequate renderings in English, but often simply because this has become the convention. It would be good to get some feedback on my attempts so far.

Dhamma: this is most complex word in the Pali Canon, and large number of words are required to render it in its different contexts. So far I have used “qualities,” “principles,” and “legitimately,” the last one being an adjectival use which is common in the Vinaya Piṭaka. However, this leaves Dhamma as a reference to the Teachings of the Buddha. I have tried a few alternatives: (1) the Teaching – this is virtually spot on, but it has the drawback that it clashes with the verbs meaning to teach that are usually used with Dhamma, that is, you tend to get “teaches the Teaching;” (2) doctrine – this is actually a very good word as far as its dictionary meaning is concerned, but I feel it is too dry and has too many associations with dogma; (3) theory – again, too dry and it misses the point that the Dhamma is full of amazing similes and personal anecdotes. I won’t even mention some of the other things I’ve considered! Since I am not satisfied with any of these, I have fallen back on leaving Dhamma untranslated.

Sangha: my preferred rendering for now is “monastic order,” or just “the Order” if the word is repeated frequently within a few paragraphs. I feel it’s important to make the point that in early Buddhism Sangha refers to monastics and not the Buddhist community at large. “Monastic community” would also work, but “order” has a more established sense of a religious community with a special entrance ritual.

Vinaya and pātimokkha: where vinaya refers unambiguously to the Vinaya Piṭaka (this usage is much more common in the Vinaya than in the suttas) I use “monastic law” (otherwise I use “training”), and I render pātimokkha as “monastic code.” The Vinaya Piṭaka is a set of regulations that covers anything from what is prohibited for monastics to procedures to be adopted, and it seems to me that “law” is suitably broad to cover all these nuances. The pātimokkha by contrast – at least the way it has come down to us – it specifically about rules and generally excludes procedures. Although I believe “code” is often used in a more restricted sense than “law” (“a set of conventions or moral principles governing behaviour in a particular sphere”), I am still not sure if it is sufficiently differentiated from “law.”


Just my thoughts.

We need a corpus including as much Pali texts we can find. This needs to be regularly analysed dictionary completeness. This way you can know which words are missing from which additionally. Also you can have the distribution of words from which you can look into improving existing entries. Completeness of dictionaries may aid in the translation and also setting up automatic translations.

I use the same. “Legitimate” works well in a legal context rather than “righteous”.

In AN I also use “thing”, as in, “These three things should be developed …”. Sometimes “qualities” or “principles” works best here, but often, following BB, and following the principle of translating with the least meaning, the most natural idiom is simply “thing”.

I also use “teaching” where it normally means that, and where it clashes in idioms like dhammaṁ deseti I simply say “teaches the Dharma”. (Yes, I am using Sanskritized spellings for the very few Indic terms I retain. Gritting my teeth and hating myself for it, to be sure. But as I am committed to making a “plain language” version, the unavoidable fact is that many more people know the Sanskritic forms.)

Good point. I had been leaving this untranslated, but as you say, it must be clear what it actually means. This is another case where the modern meaning of Sangha has changed from the time of the Buddha, so keeping the untranslated form is no guarantee of correct meaning.

Sounds reasonable to me.

And how about this one. I was thinking about the translation of upaṭṭhāna. While I was giving a Dhamma talk, I realized that I never say “establish mindfulness”, but instead “settle mindfulness”, as in “settle mindfulness on the breath”. It struck me that in English to “establish” and to “settle” can be synonyms: you can either “establish” or “settle” a town.

And it further seems to me that upaṭṭhāna and its variants have a warm emotional tone—nursing, caring for, worshiping, attending on—which is entirely lacking in “establish”. And in several Abhidhamma lists, upaṭṭhāna appears alongside terms, often also derived from ṭhā, that basically mean samatha.

So how about we drop “establishment of mindfulness” and instead, “settling of mindfulness”?

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It is not just a matter of having as much Pali text as possible, but the right sort of texts. Pali, like any language, changes over time, and the meaning of words in later stratas of literature can be quite different from the meaning in earlier strata. A common problem in translation is to impose these later meanings on the earlier texts, and then it can all get quite distorted. So as always, quality is more important than quantity!


I am glad to see that we are thinking along the same lines.

As for “settle mindfulness,” it certainly sounds much better. I suppose the question is whether upaṭṭhāna refers to giving rise to mindfulness or to its focus on an object. (To me the latter has always been the primary meaning, and I have translated it as “focus of mindfulness.”) In satipaṭṭhāna it seems to mean using an already present mindfulness to focus on various aspects of the khandhas: this is what satimā refers to. In parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā (MN 118) it is a bit ambiguous, but the main point seems to be to bring an existing mindfulness in front, thus focusing it. So I think it works very well, and it has the important benefit of showing that satipaṭṭhāna is mostly about using mindfulness, rather than giving rise to it. (It is the job of the first six factors of the eightfold path to give rise to mindfulness.)


@sujato @brahmali

I like ‘settle mindfulness’. To me it works in several ways, such as settling of mindfulness, settle into mindfulness (so to speak), settle mindfulness on the object, or settle mindfulness in front as in parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā


I simply say “teaches the Dharma”. (Yes, I am using Sanskritized spellings for the very few Indic terms I retain. Gritting my teeth and hating myself for it, to be sure. But as I am committed to making a “plain language” version, the unavoidable fact is that many more people know the Sanskritic forms.)

:frowning: Please reconsider! Surely the terms are close enough not to be too confusing for someone familiar with the word Dharma but not Dhamma. By the time they read it a few times, it will start to sound natural. Why reinforce Dharma for Pali texts?

Also for someone not that familiar with the Buddha’s teaching, not to mention specifically as in the early texts as opposed to later teachings, it might just give pause long enough to not immediately overlay some other idea of Dharma (which they may have heard used in other spiritual traditions, since as you say, it’s a familiar word, but that does not mean it’s always associated with Buddhism). Kind of like the word karma– being familiar with the word, but not the Buddha’s teaching might just mean that someone carries quite an incorrect meaning into reading the text. So ‘knowing’ the word may actually be a disadvantage, not an advantage, so maybe better to be close, not exact.


Does this mean that mindfulness is not present in one not walking the eightfold path, or that it is exclusively a special quality and not a mundane one?

Mindfulness is on a continuum, from the very weak to the very powerful. But a certain minimum is required to be able to meditate properly, as in watching the breath. That’s why the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) starts off with settling mindfulness. Without mindfulness being properly established, watching the breath becomes a matter of will-power, and then it all becomes quite unpleasant.


I like the simplicity of “the Teaching”. Have you tried using a different verb in such instances? Perhaps something like “explains the Teaching”, “expounds the Teaching”, “gives the Teaching”, “presents the Teaching”, …


My thoughts exactly. People may know the terms but their meanings are derived from Hinduism depicted in Hollywood movies, self help books and maybe the occasional Dalai Lama quote. This is of course an oversimplification but that’s the way it seems to me when I’m talking to people who haven’t read the suttas.


As an additional little note to the point, the ‘Dhamma’ spelling is recognised by popular online dictionaries such as Dictionary.com; Collins Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries, as well as the OED which gives the slightly unfortunate definition:

= dharma n. (esp. among Hinayana Buddhists).


Dear god, have they not got the message yet? Hinayana was declared to be a derogatory term in the Buddha Jayanthi meetings in the 50s!



Yes, I did consider this, but the amount of rewriting required seemed quite considerable. But you are right, “the Teaching” is nice, and so I will take another look at what can be done.


Although I hate to admit it, I probably agree with you on the use of Dharma. Like most people here I have a certain emotional attachment to Dhamma, but I feel pragmatism should trump attachments. My sense is that most people are far more familiar with Dharma than Dhamma, and this to me is reason enough to adopt it. As you have rightly said, in accessing the message of these texts, the language should be as small a barrier as possible. Any unusual term will stop the reader in their tracks, and the imparting of the message will be affected. It is when the reading flows on naturally, that the message comes across most directly.

What this means, however, is that we should probably take this one step further and abandon Dharma/Dhamma altogether, as @raivo is urging us to do. With a bit of rewriting we may be able to use “the Teaching” throughout, and we will then not have to worry about comprehension at all. At the moment this is what I plan to do.

This leads me to another important point, the choice of spelling. Again, my natural instinct is to go with Australian or British spelling (which in any case are very close), but my pragmatic side says we should go with American spelling. These days the reach of American is far greater than standard English, and people around the globe are more likely to be familiar with American. Since this is a highly international project, it seems American spelling is what we should use. In addition to this, it is my understanding that Americans often have little familiarity with other versions of English, and thus they may be puzzled by what they would considering faults in the text.


Yes, use of American spelling is far more widespread, as it is found in most Asian countries.

the use of Dharma instead of Dhamma in my view blurs the distinction between Mahayana suttas and the Pali Canon, and so fastens the wrong assumption that Mahayana suttas as well are the Word of the Buddha


That’s my thought as well, LXNDR; Dhamma, or the Teaching, but “Dharma” seems unacceptable for pragmatic reasons, even leaving aside emotional ones.

The historical Buddha does not count as a Mahayana Buddha; Mahayana Dharma must be differentiated.


There are plenty of early texts that use Sanskrit. Dharma or dhamma has been used in India for thousands of years to refer to all kinds of things, including entirely different religions. Never have they used dialectical forms to distinguish them.

Having said which, it may be moot, like Brahmali I am considering not using it at all. Perhaps it is best, after all, to not use any Indic terms.

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What about if it’s sāvakasaṅgha? It’s not clear to me that this must refer to a monastic order. Or am I missing something?

If we use Order for saṅgha and Teaching for dhamma, then there are very few remaining Indic terms, apart from proper names. Perhaps we should dispense with them altogether? The more I think about it, the more reasons I can think of for not using Indic terms. At the end of the day, they will always be exotica, which have a more “woo-woo” feel to them than the ordinary words that they are. There are few words more humdrum than kamma or dhamma, or even saṅgha (never forget the migasaṅgha!). But no matter how used we become to them in English they will always feel like special words. If we use the Indic form, it can only be because there is no word in English that is Big and Important enough!

Regarding vinaya, I’m wondering whether we can use “way” for paṭipadā and related terms and “practice” for vinaya?


On Dhamma/Dharma/Teaching: I’ve no understanding of Pali to make the point with confidence, but at least currently I am under the impression that Dhamma/Dharma has multiple meanings and one attraction to using either of these over “Teaching” is that their polysemy hint towards the fact that the Buddha’s teaching is in a way just a description of how things work (the ‘governing laws’ would still be so even if the the seeker Gotama didn’t discover and teach them).

Again, I lack the knowledge of Pali to be certain it is a sturdy point, but at least the example of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of AN 4.21 suggests to me that Dhamma has a bigger meaning than just the Buddha’s Teaching, when the Buddha says: “It occurred to me: ‘Let me then honor, respect, and dwell in dependence only on this Dhamma to which I have become fully enlightened.’”

When I first started engaging with the texts I definitely would have appreciated the “Teaching” rendition as I really struggled to get a hold of what was meant by Dhamma/Dharma - whether an ‘m’, or an ‘r’ was used was entirely insignificant in my own case. Reflecting on it now, I’m glad that I wasn’t presented with a term that was so accessible I didn’t have to think about it, I believe the process of engagement was and remains beneficial. Of course, the point won’t be true for everyone.

The fact of the matter is, for anyone who wants to get anything substantive from these texts (whether they include Indic terms, or not) effort will be required. From this point of view, I’d suggest rather than making translations accessible, it’s only necessary to worry about making translations accessible enough. I’m not sure such a person who’d say they can’t be bothered with all this Buddhism stuff any more because the translator used Dhamma rather than Dharma or vice versa really exists. This is in no way to undermine the importance of trying to make things accessible (but merely a point of proportion) and the day the term ‘the aggregates’ is booted out of the texts will be a happy, happy day for me.

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Regarding vinaya, I’m wondering whether we can use “way” for paṭipadā and related terms and “practice” for vinaya?

I like this (assuming you do choose to dispense with the Indic terms). Maybe even ‘path’ for paṭipadā?

Dharma or dhamma has been used in India for thousands of years to refer to all kinds of things, including entirely different religions.

I think this relates to the point I and others made in comments somewhere above in this discussion re Dharma (about unnecessary confusion)

Of course, as you say there are plenty of early texts using Dharma, but not the Pali texts which is what you’re translating. Regardless, I will let go of my preferences and look forward to reading whatever you and Ajahn Brahmali decide to do :slight_smile: