Free or confident?

This little essay is a discussion of a trope that appears in a number of suttas. In the Anguttara, for example, we find it in AN 4.178, AN 5.200, AN 8.30, and AN 9.41, and it appears frequently elsewhere in the canon, too. The problem, which is a very unusual, perhaps unique situation, is that the phrase occurs in two variants. While linguistically close, they have quite distinct meaning. Our task is to sort out which to use.

cittaṃ pakkhandati pasīdati santiṭṭhati vimuccati
cittaṃ pakkhandati pasīdati santiṭṭhati adhimuccati

As you can see, only the final term differs, and this merely changes the prefix from vi- to adhi-.

Now, in Pali such changes in prefix often have little or no effect on the meaning. This very root, for example, appears as vimuccati, pamuccati, and parimuccati all having a similar meaning of “escape, freedom, release, liberation”. No doubt such flexibility has contributed to the confusion around this term.

However, the terms adhimuccati and vimuccati are quite distinct, and are not synonyms at all. While vimuccati stays closer to the root meaning of “release”, adhimuccati has an idiomatic meaning of “decide, be confident”. A stock phrase pairs the word with several synonyms of “confidence”:

kaṅkhati vicikicchati nādhimuccati na sampasīdati
One wavers, doubts, is undecided, and not confident.

So the question remains. In our problematic passage, do we accept adhimuccati or vimuccati? Or might they be simply used differently according to context? This is the approach used by Bhikkhu BodhI. Here are the renderings he uses in Numerical Discourses, together with notes.

AN 4.178: launch out toward it, acquire confidence, become steady, and focus on it
AN 5.200: launch out upon them, and become placid, settled, and focused. Note: Though all three editions here read vimuccati, Mp glosses the word with adhimuccati. The latter makes better sense to me. The manuscript traditions, as well as printed editions, show irregular variations between these two readings throughout the Nikāyas
AN 8.30: launches out upon the cessation of proliferation, becomes placid, settles down, and is liberated in it
AN 9.41: launch out upon renunciation and become placid, settled, and liberated in it. Note: Mp glosses vimuccati here as “liberated from the opposing qualities” (paccanīkadhammehi ca vimuccati). Since all three editions, with the support of Mp, have vimuccati, I translate in conformity with this reading, but I think it likely that the original reading was adhimuccati, “resolved upon” or “focused on.” As the text unfolds with respect to the successive meditative attainments, in each case the bodhisatta is vimuccati/adhimuccati upon the attainment before he actually achieves it. In such a context being “focused on” rather than “liberated in” makes better sense.

Leaving aside minor variations in the wording elsewhere in the phrase, Ven Bodhi translates adhimuccati as “focus” and vimuccati as “liberated”. He is willing to translate against all three manuscript readings, but only with the support of the commentary. Lacking such support he translates against his own better judgement. Note, too, that the presence of different explanations in the commentary show that this confusion is an old one. Needless to say, this is all a bit unsatisfactory.

I’ve been rather peripherally aware of this problem for some time, without taking a stance on it, but when doing my own translations I had to make up my mind one way or the other. I can no longer vimuccati, I must adhimuccati!

As Ven Bodhi says, the readings throughout the nikayas vary. Given the age of the problem, and the ease with which adhimuccati and vimuccati can be interchanged, I would anticipate that we find a similar situation in the Chinese and other texts. In any case, such comparisons are of limited use at such a fine level of detail. Not to say such work shouldn’t be done, I just doubt it will help.

In this case, I think we can arrive at a clear decision by logic. Let’s see!

Point #1

The first thing is to appreciate that the choice of readings doesn’t just change that term, it changes the nature of the list. in Buddhist texts, such lists are typically one of two types. Either they are progressive—that is, they list a sequence of items that get progressively more refined—or they are identical, merely listing synonyms or near-synonyms. It’s very rare to find a list that is not one of these, and also rare to find one that is hard to classify.

Now, adhimuccati is a synonym of “faith”, and as such is a relatively basic term in Buddhist psychology. Vimuccati as “freedom” is one of the highest dhammas. So if vimuccati is correct, the list must be a progressive one. We have a sequence of dhammas, starting with more basic ones, and leading to the highest. On the other hand, if adhimuccati is the final term it must be an identical list, merely a group of synonyms.

Given this, I think we have strong grounds to assume that the list is one or the other. It’s unusual to find lists that vary even the phrasing of single term by substituting a synonym. To find two similar lists, which don’t merely vary a term, but become a different kind of list, is so far as I know, unheard of.

It would, therefore, fit better with the well established patterns of the suttas to have one list, which due to textual corruption appears in two forms.

Point #2

So, if we should choose one term, which should it be?

Normally such a question could be assisted by considering the other items in the list, as such lists are always meaningful. However, as it happens, the rest of the terms in the list allow for both readings, something that has probably contributed to the confusion.

  1. pakkhandati: has a sense of “starting out, initiating”, so it works at the beginning.
  2. pasīdati: is a synonym of adhimuccati, as you can see in the other stock phrase I quoted above. So it works either as a synonym for adhimuccati in an identical list or as a precursor to vimuccati in a progressive list.
  3. santiṭṭhati: has a basic meaning of “stand, be steady, firm.” It’s based on the root for “stand”, which is one of the most fertile stems in Pali, and can appear in a very wide range of meanings. Often it is associated with samādhi, and in this sense it would fit nicely after “confidence” and leading up to vimuccati. However it could also has the sense of “steadiness, lack of wavering = confidence”, so it would work in an identical list, too.

So we can’t decide this based on the other terms in the list.

What about contextual meaning? Well, as you can see from Ven Bodhi’s notes above, he struggled with the rendering vimuccati even when it was the sole reading in the manuscripts. So it seems that at least in some cases, adhimuccati makes better sense.

What of AN 8.30, where he uses vimuccati without comment? Here is the passage as he translates:

Here, a bhikkhu’s mind launches out upon the cessation of proliferation, becomes placid, settles down, and is liberated in it.

Now, in this context, we are dealing with a high dhamma, so the meaning of “liberated” fits. However, there’s no reason why adhimuccati would not also fit.

So it seems that there are some contexts where either reading works, and other contexts where only adhimuccati works, but (so far!) no contexts where only vimuccati works.


Time for Occam’s razor: since it is preferable to have only one reading, and since adhimuccati is acceptable in all contexts while vimuccati is not, we should dispense with the reading vimuccati and use adhimuccati in all contexts.

This conclusion is also in line with the text-critical principle lectio difficilior potior, “the more difficult reading is preferred”. In this case, neither reading is problematic in itself, and both are common terms. However, vimuccati is far more common, occurring roughly four times as often in the canon, not to speak of the many variants with similar meanings. It is also, as I noted above, closer to the normal spectrum of meaning for the stem, whereas adhimuccati is quite idiomatic. Thus is would seem likely that adhimuccati has been normalized to vimuccati, whereas the opposite transformation is less likely.

Note that these two terms, with their distinct meanings, are known in Sanskrit forms as well. However, while vimukti and its many variants are very frequently found in the sense of “liberation”, adhimukti gets a scant entry in the Monier Williams dictionary, where it is characterized as Buddhist term. It would thus appear that it is rare or absent in this sense in the wider literature, and is a special idiom of the Buddhist texts. This would make it even more likely that the term has undergone corruption over the years, as the reciters or copyists may not have been familiar with it.


As a postscript to this, there is a difficult passage at MN 106.

Sampasāde sati etarahi vā āneñjaṃ samāpajjati paññāya vā adhimuccati

Which was translated by Ven Bodhi as:

Once there is full confidence, he either attains to the imperturbable now or else he resolves [upon it] with wisdom.

The meaning is far from clear, and the commentary, rather extraordinarily, proposes that the sequence of the clauses be reversed!

Etarahi vā āneñjaṃ samāpajjati. Paññāya vā adhimuccatīti ettha etarahi vā paññāya adhimuccati, āneñjaṃ vā samāpajjatīti evaṃ padaparivattanaṃ katvā attho veditabbo

The Chinese text at MA 75 has 以慧為解 “liberated by wisdom”, which is surely a more persuasive reading. According to Analayo, the Tibetan text at D (4094) mngon pa, ju 228a 2 or Q (5595) tu 260a7 has shes rab rnam par grol bar ’gyur ro. According to the translation tool at this also means “liberated by wisdom”, harking to an original vimukti.

I suggest there was an old corruption from vimuccati to adhimuccati.


That’s much better. Once you have deep samādhi, you either go further in samādhi or you use it to deepen your wisdom. Even adhimuccati can have this meaning: “to apply oneself to, to set one’s
heart to” (from CPD). The whole idea of “resolving [upon] it with wisdom” is hard to make sense of.