Even more terms

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


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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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.

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


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!


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.

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”.


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!

O Bhante! Thou shalt not have too many scruples about reification. The Buddha was not beyond borrowing terms originally smacking of hypostatis, eg the Upanisadic sarvaṃ/sabbaṃ but using it without all those connotations. How else do we explain the suttas’ use of what sound like reifying language to describe Nibbana as ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ (the Thinginess in the passage comes through from the existential verb atthi used in conjunction with these words).

Which brings us to an ancillary issue - would the Buddha always have spoken clinically, or did He also resort to “emotive” language?

This passage is frequently invoked to thingify Nibbāna, but it doesn’t have to be read in this way, nor probably should it. In Pali the prefix a is often simply privative, that is, negating the meaning of the unprefixed word. As such ajāta probably only means “freedom from the born” and asaṅkhata “freedom from the conditioned”. Moreover, the fact that these statements are only found in the Udāna make them slightly suspect. They may well stem from a time post Buddha.

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Indeed Bhante. Let me be the first to disavow any “thingified” Nibbana; I wanted only to make the point that suttas do show usage of reifying language, even if the intent may have been purely evocative.

Phew! :relaxed:

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Dear Ajahn, I would like to suggest that when the Buddha uses the word/title Tathāgata, it is meant in a more general sense than just himself.

The feeling I get from the suttas, is that Tathāgata (mostly) refers to the naturally occurring phenomenon ‘someone becomes a Buddha’.

Here are some illustrative examples:

“Monks on the manifistation of the Tathāgata […]” (AN 4:128; Bhikku Bodhi; In the Buddha’s Words; p.191)

"So too,
brahmin, here a Tathāgata appears in the world […] "(MN 27)

A Tathāgata is something that appears or manifests, more like an important event in the universe rather than a particular person.

On the flip side, whenever the Buddha talks about his bodhisatta days, he always uses regular pronouns: “Before my enlightenment, when I was still a bodhisatta” etc.

As far as I know, it’s never “Before the Tathāgata’s enlightenment, when he was a bodhisatta”, or anything like that.

And for example like in the Group of Ones, there is a lot of:

“Monks, I don’t envision even one other […]”

My own impression is that there are plenty of examples where the Buddha uses “I” to refer to himself.

So I would suggest something like “an Awaited One” as a translation for Tathāgata .

Because without the Dhamma taught by a Tathāgata, basically you just have to wait until one arises if you want to get out of samsara.

And there are other titles which talk about how awesome the Buddha as a being is, but not so many which capture the idea of the Buddha as a rare and precious event; a narrow window in time where beings can escape.

Anyway, just my two cents :slight_smile:

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You are quite right that Tathāgata is also used in a more general sense; I even think it is occasionally used to describe arahants in general (or is this my memory leading me astray!). But the main usage of Tathāgata in the suttas is the Buddha applying it to himself. It occurs in this usage hundreds of times, perhaps more.

I quite like your rendering “an Awaited One”, except that nobody is actually waiting for anything. They should be waiting, but everyone is too deluded to do so! Waiting implies that you know what you are waiting for, but of course that knowledge is exactly what is missing and it is why the arising of a Buddha is so crucial. In any case, although your idea is inspired, it is perhaps a little too far from the most likely meaning of the word, which revolves around “truth”.

Judging by your avatar, it must be very cold in Norway right now!

Is it possible that the main use (that of self-reference {haha} ) is a later devotional effort, the way Thai folk will have the Buddha speaking in a royal-esque way?

Perhaps it was a neologism?

Dear Ajahn, I took the liberty of skimming through Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “In the Buddha’s Words”, looking for uses of “I” and “Tathāgata”.

According to my counting, the Buddha uses “I” to refer to himself about 40 times (39 “I” + 3 “me”). He uses Tathāgata about 22 times.

Some observations:

  • 6 out of 22 uses of Tathāgata have appear, arisen or manifestation in the same sentence.

  • 2 out 22 uses of Tathāgata are in plural, spoken by someone else, as in “Tathāgatas are awesome”.

Of course, “In the Buddha’s Words” as a sample doesn’t necessarily represent the general trend of the suttas.

Here are also some excerpts from the suttas about the Tathāgata:

“Here, bhikkhus, a Tathāgata appears in the world, […] This, bhikkhus, is the first person appearing in the world who appears for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans. Iti 84

So too, bhikkhus, so long as a Tathagata has not arisen in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, for just so long there is no manifestation of great light and radiance, but then blinding darkness prevails, a dense mass of darkness; for just so long there is no explaining, teaching, proclaiming, establishing, disclosing, analysing, or elucidating of the Four Noble Truths. SN56:38

I agree that Tathāgata has something to do with truth, perhaps that he is the first being to discover the truth (in a world where the truth has been lost).

What about “Discoverer” as a translation for Tathāgata?

I also think “Realized One” is good.

I guess I just feel that “Tathāgata” is tied to this narrative of a great spiritual event in the universe. I would guess that it was probably a myth that existed in the time of the Buddha, about the appearance of a great sage who would hold the answers to the mysteries of the universe, or something like that.

And also, I would be so bold as to respectfully suggest that the the Buddha usually (statistically) uses “I” and “me” when he is referring to himself, and that when the Buddha uses Tathāgata, it includes himself, but it also serves the purpose of defining what a supreme spiritual being must be like.

Sort of like taking the word ‘messiah’ and defining it to be one who awakens and teaches the four noble truths.

Anyway, there are many good options, I am sure whatever choice is made will bring much praise and blame :smiley:

Edit: It’s not so cold, but there is wind and a lot of slippery ice; a perfect day for staying inside reading suttas and meditating! :slight_smile: