Even more terms

Dear All,

In translation work there is hardly any end to the number of terms that need to be carefully considered, but I thought it would be worthwhile to mention a few more. These are all part of the core Buddhist vocabulary and so a translation that people relate well to is important. Here we go.

Sugata: This is one of the epithets of the Buddha, and the literal meaning is “well-gone”. Old translations like “well-farer” are unacceptable to my mind, but it was recently pointed out to me that even Ven. Bodhi’s “fortunate one” (which he probably inherited from Ven. Nyanamoli) may not be the best of choices. Fortunate means lucky, and it seems rather inappropriate to call the Buddha lucky. This leaves the field open for a new translation.

Sugata/sugati is normally used to denote that someone has reached a good destination (usually a temporary one), whether upon rebirth or in this very life, and in the case of the Buddha it obviously refers to his last life. Two possible renderings are “the Accomplished One” and “the Successful One”. “A good destination” also refers to the fact that one is happy, and a translation that points to such happiness might also work.

Tathāgata: This is a word that can be interpreted in a number of ways, and it is therefore impossible to settle on a single literal meaning. Tathā/a can mean “thus” or “truth”, whereas the second part of the word can mean either “arrived” or “gone”. The word existed before the advent of the Buddha, as can be seen from its usage by non-Buddhist wanderers. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that it had an indefinite, slightly mystical, meaning already at the Buddha’s time. As such it might be justifiable to leave it untranslated, which would certainly keep the mystery intact for most readers.

On reflection, however, the mystery in the Pali is the fact that the word is multifaceted, with even the individual meanings being somewhat mysterious, not that the word is entirely incomprensible. To capture this in English, it now seems better to me to translate the word in such a way that a slight sense of mystery lingers over the word. The translation “Truthfinder” has been suggested to me, and I am beginning to warm to this. Does anyone else feel the same “heat”? Or just cold rejection …

It is good to keep in mind that Tathāgata is usually just used by the Buddha when he is referring to himself.

Bhikkhu/bhikkhunī: My strong preference is to translate these with “monk”/“nun”, but it has been suggested to me that it may be better to leave them in the Pali since this is less problematic when it comes to gender. The point seems to be that the word “nun” is sometimes used in an inferior sense, and not as a female monastic on par with bhikkhu. But is this really the case in English?

Sikkhāpada: “Training rule” or “training precept” or neither? I am particularly interested in perceptions on rule vs. precept.

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Some free-floating ideas this morning…

Sugata ~ The Inviolate/Secure One

Tathāgata ~ Truthwalker

Bhikkhu/bhikkhunī ~ Monk/Nun feels like the more natural set of terms; otherwise perhaps Mendicant or even Friar (e.g. the Ochre Friars of the Blessed One).

Sikkhāpada ~ Training Precept; the ‘Buddhist Rule’ is the Vinaya, it seems to me, but this’ll be my Catholic exposure creeping in.

Dear Ajahn,

Sugata/sugati is normally used to denote that someone has reached a good destination (usually a temporary one), whether upon rebirth or in this very life, and in the case of the Buddha it obviously refers to his last life. Two possible renderings are “the Accomplished One” and “the Successful One”. “A good destination” also refers to the fact that one is happy, and a translation that points to such happiness might also work.

Maybe “the Happy One” would be nice; actually it works very well in Latvian.

With much metta from Latvia,
Rudite

two more for Sugata - Auspicious and Grace-filled

@Brahmali
Sugata: First I have to say that I’m partial to using translations that retain some of the Pali etymology if possible. Anyway, for that reason, I don’t mind ‘well-gone’ or ‘one gone well’ though I can see it could be confusing for someone totally new to the texts. I also don’t have as strong a feeling as you & Bhante Sujato about the importance of translating every term (Actually when I started to read the suttas, BB’s translations, and encountered words that were not translated, that’s when I started getting a much clearer sense of the teachings. For me it actually cleared up a lot of things!)

In terms of ‘fortunate’, I do not equate this word to ‘lucky’. To me it does not have the nuance of ‘chance’ that ‘lucky’ has. For example, I feel fortunate in my life for many reasons, most of all because I encountered the Dhamma. I do not feel this was by chance. In fact I think ‘fortunate’ avoids both extremes of ‘chance’ and ‘fate’ (or anything of that sort), but rather points to causes and conditions. And of course, as you say, the texts talk about ‘fortunate’ rebirths, etc., nothing to do with chance. So to me, the Buddha is the ’most (or completely) fortunate one’. Or ‘the consummate one’, but I recall you mentioned before that that word is problematic for some people due to other connotations. However, when I think of ‘consummate’ I think of virtuosity, mastery, excellence that is a result of skill and training.

I also like ’accomplished one’ since he is ‘Sugato’ because he has done what needs to be done. I don’t care for anything relating to ‘happy’ directly as people have all kinds of ideas about what it means to be happy. So until one has some understanding of what true happiness means according to the Buddha’s teaching, it might cause some confusion.

Tathāgata: ‘cold rejection’ to ’truthfinder’, sorry :slight_smile: What about taking words like Sugata and Tathāgata and just using ’the Buddha’. For readers, it’s obvious from the context that this is the case (or if not, it certainly clarifies it!) and therefore the words must be epithets. Then if one has further interest as to why those specific words, she can always look in the dictionary.

Only idea I can think of in English is ‘the one who has discovered the way’. But my preference is untranslated :slight_smile: I like your point about how the word was in use before the Buddha. So to me, leaving it untranslated and seeing it in the context of the Buddha’s teaching may better show how the Buddha is different than previous spiritual teachers. Also, I think I"ve heard the translation ‘way-farer’ somewhere, maybe not bad, but a bit old-fashioned.

Bhikkhu/bhikkhunī: I have a slight preference to leaving untranslated as it emphasizes there were Bhikkhunis as the time of the Buddha and because they share the same name, albeit in feminine gender, with monks, it puts them on a more equal/respected footing. Also more people might be already familiar with the word ’Bhikkhu’ but not ’Bhikkhuni’ so I think it’s nice in that regard. As for nun, I don’t think it necessarily always has an inferior sense in most Western countries (though it can) but might well more often have in Asia or some other places (not that one can generalize totally).

Sikkhāpada: I prefer ‘training precept’ or ‘code of training’ because I do think ‘rule’ supports some unfortunate perceptions and ideas, whereas ‘precept’ or ‘training’ bypasses what might be a conditioned negative response (whether conscious or not) to the word ‘rule’ for some people (depending on their religious, family and cultural background, upbringing etc).

Great respect to you, Bhante Sujato & anyone working on translations!

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Hi ven,

My tuppence:

  • sugata: I’ve been using “holy one”, without any great enthusiasm!
  • tathāgata: It seems to me the meaning here is a little more precise. The connotations are strongly with the notion of tathā as truth, with the term signifying someone who has realized or embodies or lives according to that truth. So I’ve been using “Realized One”, and am happy with that.
  • bhikkhu/bhikkhunī: as I mentioned earlier, I’m using “mendicant”, since is both accurate and gender free, albeit a little clumsy. But in this case I think the slight disjunct is worth it; it displaces the assumption that we are automatically talking about the same thing as today’s bhikkhus/bhikkhunis. I’m not sure that the term nun, in everyday English, has a more negative connotation than monk.
  • sikkhāpada: I think rule, as it is simpler.

nice!

Sugata - We’re all trying to go somewhere. To happiness in our own ways. Reaching goals. I think the use of the word ‘Sugata’ is in itself a teaching because the irony is that in order to be the one who is ‘well gone’…one has to understand what it is to stop going, to stop the journey. For me the use of this word points to what Right Effort might actually be, sitting there in the middle of the rest of the 8 fold path.

(So I don’t think Sugata or Tathagata should be translated as the Buddha…because it is the shades of different meaning in these words that point to truths that we’re all trying to comprehend.)

…So I think to me it means: one who has reached the good end of a good journey. But how to put that into a less words? Perhaps leaving such a word untranslated and providing a discussion of it’s meaning somewhere is the best that can be done…?

Tathagata - once again there’s the completion of a journey. But instead of the emphasis on the wellness/rightness quality and skill of that journey, it’s about ‘this truth’. So it’s perhaps a reference to one who has completed the journey to the Noble Truths. I think again…best untranslated and a few paragraphs of explanation somewhere. For instance, after reading this thread, I feel a slightly better sense of appreciation for these words…which is huge and wonderful. It makes me appreciate the different explanations, from everyone who has posted, and it leaves me with a greater love and respect and perhaps a different feeling for the untranslated word.

Mendicant - I liked this. But then I looked it up and the meaning is linked to begging. And that’s not how I see things. I mean, monastics don’t go around begging! They’re not out there asking on hands and knees. It completely misses the point. Is there anything wrong with “renunciant”. I don’t have a problem with monk/nun either. And I’m equally at ease with these terms being untranslated. More and more people are coming to either know, or ask, what these words mean. Who knows, they might become part of the English language in a 100 years or less!

Wonderful post Bhante and wonderful comments. So nice to read about different perceptions of these really important words. Thank you and metta to all :pray:

@sujato
This makes me think that Sugata could perhaps be ‘excellent one’ (disregarding ‘gata’)

I think Gombrich may be on to something re Tathāgata -

Exegetes do not like an apophatic description: it gives them
nothing to get their teeth into. But the Buddha certainly did.
According to the Pali canonical texts, after his Enlightenment he
always referred to himself as Tathāgata. This word, the same in
Sanskrit and Pali, is a compound with two parts: tathā, which means
’thus’, and gata, which commonly means ‘gone’. The whole word
is often translated into English as ‘Thus-gone’. The Buddhist
tradition has made various attempts to etymologize the term,
attempts which I regard as fanciful. The word gata when it occurs
as the second member of a compound of this type often loses its
primary meaning and means simply ‘being’. For example, citra-gatā-nārī
is not ‘the woman who has gone into the picture’ but simply
’the woman in the picture’. The Buddha is referring to himself
as ‘the one who is like that’. This is tantamount to saying that there
are no words to describe his state; he can only point to it. Moreover,
though the epithet Tathiigata most commonly refers to a Buddha,
and in later texts does so exclusively, in the Pali Canon it can refer
to any enlightened person (MN I, 140).

What the Buddha Thought, p.151

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Regarding gata, sure. But tathāgata is explained by the Buddha in the suttas, and the basic implication of tathā is not “such” or “thus” (whatever that means), but truth: as he says, so he does.

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Maybe, but “excellent” is under fairly heavy demand …

The reason I chose “holy one” was because I didn’t want to overly secularize the term. In Pali it is very common to refer to heaven and hell as sugati and duggati. This is, in fact, by far the most common use, with sugata as an epithet the next common. Now, that doesn’t mean they have an explicit connection. Heaven is a “good place”, and a sugata is “one in a good place”, but not “one in heaven”. Still, there is, I think, an unmistakable resonance in the word. It didn’t just mean “excellent”, as you might say to a school child. It has a connotation of the sublime; which, in fact, is another possible rendering.

They don’t beg in the sense of ask, but they do go out seeking alms. The term mendicant is used specifically to refer to a religious ascetic who relies on alms. It’s never used, so far as I know, for “beggar” generally.

I suspect that the reason we don’t use mendicant more broadly is because today most bhikkhus don’t live a mendicant lifestyle, hence in Sri Lanka they are called “priests”. The “mendicant order” is a modern reform movement in Vietnam who identified themselves as mendicants so as to get back to this fundamental meaning of bhikkhu.

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@sujato

Bhante, do you have reference for this?

Ok, but “holy” has so much baggage. I think secularisation is ok, because we are dealing with something completely different from Western religion. Or we should use more universally acceptable “spiritual” terms.

@rudite
Yes, I did actually consider this myself. But I wondering if it is too broad and general, and therefore doesn’t convey much meaning.

@Linda

I have to confess I am less and less inclined to rely on etymology. Once you look up the etymology of words in a language you know well, it quickly becomes clear that the distance between the origin of a word and how it is used contemporarily can be vast. The best way to gauge the meaning of a word is context, and the best dictionaries, such as OED and the Critical Pali Dictionary, are written on this basis. However, if no other information is available, then etymology may at least provide some information about a word.

I actually agree with this, but I believe it takes a a particular kind of personality. I happen to know lots of people, especially those who use English as a second language, who have given up on reading the suttas because they find it too hard.

I understand you point , because this word is multifaceted. The problem is that it also includes the meaning luck, and I think many people may read it in this way.

Right, and that’s exactly why I would prefer to avoid “fortunate” also in this case.

Thanks for your generous feedback!

@Kay

Yes, that’s pretty much what I was thinking.

Well, as Bhante Sujato has pointed out, this is difficult to do with an online text. People are unlikely to be reading the suttas in any particular order, and so there is no natural place to put such an explanation. I think a translation that captures the meaning in an approximate way is better than leaving it untranslated.

@sylvester
I dont’ t really agree with Gombrich on this. The Buddha discusses the nature of arahantship in many ways, and so I doubt he uses Tathāgata because he is incapable of describing what he has achieved. In any case, if Bhante Sujato is right and tathā unambiguously refers to “truth”, then the problem is solved.

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The Unexcelled?

Oh, nooo :frowning: good point, whatever can be done to not have this happen…

the reason for this is probably something else because the percentage of untranslated words in english translations is extremely low
it could be the concepts or the language of the translations used to convey them

Yes, the proportion of untranslated words is quite low. But it’s not just that, it’s a combination of many factors, including choice of vocabulary, and, very importantly, syntax. Each thing is an extra bit of grit that makes it just that little bit harder to read. It’s not a problem for we hard-core sutta geeks; we like that stuff. But what about the next billion?

Thanks Ajahn Brahmali.

I wonder if the references Bhante Sujato was thinking of are AN 4.23 and It 112, where it appears that the Buddha did explain why He calls himself Tathāgata. The 2 passages out of the 4 which could be interpreted as pointing to “truth” are -

Yaṃ, bhikkhave, sadevakassa lokassa samārakassa sabrahmakassa ­sassama­ṇab­rāhma­ṇiyā pajāya sade­va­manus­sāya diṭṭhaṃ sutaṃ mutaṃ viññātaṃ pattaṃ pariyesitaṃ anuvicaritaṃ manasā, sabbaṃ taṃ tathāgatena abhisambuddhaṃ. Tasmā ‘tathāgato’ti vuccati.

Yañca, bhikkhave, rattiṃ tathāgato anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisam­buj­jhati yañca rattiṃ anupādisesāya nibbānadhātuyā parinibbāyati, yaṃ etasmiṃ antare bhāsati lapati niddisati sabbaṃ taṃ tatheva hoti, no aññathā. Tasmā ‘tathāgato’ti vuccati.

(1) “Bhikkhus, in this world with its devas, Māra, and Brahmā, among this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans, whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, reached, sought after, examined by the mind—all that the Tathāgata has fully awakened to; therefore he is called the Tathāgata.

(2) “Bhikkhus, whatever the Tathāgata speaks, utters, or expounds in the interval between the night when he awakens to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment and the night when he attains final nibbāna, all that is just so and not otherwise; therefore he is called the Tathāgata.

per BB

Based on those 2 readings, I wonder if gata has the meaning of “attained”, to give us the epithet “Attained to Truth”.

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Indeed, see the related topic I’ve now posted.

This is still overreading the term. An innocuous suffix, which means little more than an abstract noun ending, has been elevated to the primary, and assertive, capitalized Main Thing!