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How should we translate samādhi?

If we elect "concentration " for samādhi, perhaps we could include a simile -

Just as brine is concentrated by the evaporation of water by the sun, so too is the mind concentrated by the evaporation of the defilements by xyz (to be filled in).

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Yeah, I see.

Beautiful (though maybe lots of ‘baggage’ in terms of connotations).

lots isn’t even the word

@sujato let’s vote on metta :relaxed:

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You can start a vote if you like, but I’m happy with “love”.

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What about translating samadhi as ‘safety mode’?

And what, bhikkhus, is right safety mode? Here, bhikkhus, turning off the five senses, logging off from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born from being offline.

Hang out:

And what, bhikkhus, is a right hang out? Here, bhikkhus, ditching sensual pleasures, ditching unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and hangs out in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of hanging out.

Mental shelter:

And what, bhikkhus, is right mental shelter? Here, bhikkhus, escaping from sensual pleasures, escaping from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and finds shelter in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of finding shelter.

Supermind:

And what, bhikkhus, is right supermind? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first mind-blowing state of awareness, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

Or just meditation:

And what, bhikkhus, is right meditation? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.


Just as a side point, when it comes to studies of idea generation (paywall :confused: ), there seems to be some indications that quality isn’t maxed out until around 200 ideas are generated.

I don’t know how transferable it is to this situation, but one approach could be to like generate a list of at least 100 suggestions for translations of samadhi, and then picking the 7 best, and voting on that.

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I can see how translation issues can stir a healthy level of discussion and discord; the issue of the definition of metta has always been one of these issues.

When I read an article such as http://www.iep.utm.edu/love/ , the word “love” carries so much breadth and power. One needs only to appreciate the history of the word to understand how it may be the best translation of metta, despite the criticisms of its use in English. I recall that Ven.Thanissaro rejected its use, as he saw the word “love” generally used in the West in its romantic or erasthia -ish quality. But this word in an Aristotelian sense means so much more, and is highly appropriate as a translation for metta. Especially where (at least as I understand) Bhante’s goal is to make his translations accurate, precise, and yet at the same time welcoming and embraceable by readers of all levels of understanding.

The first condition for the highest form of Aristotelian love is that a man loves himself. Without an egoistic basis, he cannot extend sympathy and affection to others (NE, IX.8). Such self-love is not hedonistic, or glorified, depending on the pursuit of immediate pleasures or the adulation of the crowd, it is instead a reflection of his pursuit of the noble and virtuous, which culminate in the pursuit of the reflective life. Friendship with others is required “since his purpose is to contemplate worthy actions… to live pleasantly… sharing in discussion and thought” as is appropriate for the virtuous man and his friend (NE, IX.9).

We should think any translation of ‘samadhi’ (or keeping it untranslated) together with a good glossary. After all the indians also turned the term in every direction their context led them. ‘samadhi’ appears in the yoga sutras (still in a buddhisty way), and in the upanishads, and then everywhere, it is sometimes even synonymous with ‘nirvana’ or ‘death’.

When we have ‘unification’, you can read into it ‘unification of man and god’ ‘atman and brahman’ etc. When it’s ‘stillness’ there are other ways to misunderstand it, etc.

My point is, a more detailed description needs to be found in the glossary anyway, with references to sutta passages, and ideally contrasting it with other common understandings of ‘samadhi’.

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This becomes especially clear when the background of the people in the Suttas who became Arahants is looked at. Apart from a few characters obsessed with debate, most of them earnestly seek deliverance above everything. The view that all of life is dukkha is itself hard to attain and the incessant churning in the mind regarding innumerable subjects is the hardest obstacle to overcome.

Vipallasa Sutta makes this clear - one’s view of the world has to undergo a radical change. I think the tranquility and peace that arises in samadhi is a result of the contentment of withdrawal (vivicca). The din of the world has finally ceased and this can happen only when the world is rightly seen as dukkha.

But this effort is mainly thwarted by the desire to somehow participate in life and activities of the world.

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Is samadhi another of these pali words that are context dependent?

In “samma samadhi” it is explained as encompassing the four jhanas.

As a mind state, I am not sure if it corresponds to the achievement of the second or of the third jhana.

but samadhi is much more common so it my be worth considering alternatives for them.

From 520 million words of American English text from 1990 to 2015, over a variety of genres, here are the 10 most likely words to appear in a sentence with each of the proposed words to use for translation (aka word collocates). Search range ± 4 words:

  • Stillness: silence, quiet, moment, utter, perfect, eerie, sudden, absolute, broke, movement
  • Coalescence: neutron, forces, rather, signal, theory, movement, result, toward, mimetic, lesion
  • Concentration: camp, camps, high, highest, largest, higher, intense, nazi, total, increased
  • Composure: her, regained, regain, regaining, maintain, lost, keep, regains, kept, lose
  • Convergence: between, toward, divergence, harmonic, factors, interests, media, economic, zone, points
  • Oneness: god, sense, experience, nature, separateness, universe, divine, unity, humanity, feeling

I thought this was an interesting perspective to bring to the table; not just a word’s dictionary definition but how it is used and what concepts it is used to illustrate in contemporary language.

Clearly the most spiritual word is ‘oneness’, maybe followed by stillness. Coalescence seems to be a sciency word. Concentration, obviously WW2 connotations but also conveying a sense of intensity and magnitude.

Composure is something you regain. Convergence seeming to be mostly used to describe convergence between or toward something.

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Thanks, that’s really interesting. Amazing how “composure” is gendered, I would never have thought that.

These days I’m trying out a new rendering: “immersion”. You wouldn’t be able to run that for me?

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Here’s for immersion, collocates within ±5 words:

Immersion: total, blender, program, language, english, programs, cultural, full, experience, culture

We can probably disregard ‘blender’ as it comes from writings on immersion blenders.

The most common way to use immersion is in the expression ‘total immersion’. Overall the main use seems to be with language and education; program/programs seems to often be a language ‘immersion program’. Another main use is to be sucked up into or surrounded by something; a total immersion into Spanish/nature/virtual reality/a foreign culture.

For example, being totally immersed in French probably entails moving to France and living among French people, being totally surrounded by their French ways.

I think immersion works quite well for samādhi, because it captures the idea of moving into a new, perhaps unfamiliar space of experience, away from the environment one is used to. An immersion experience also seems to be more intense than ordinary experiences.

‘a total immersion into the mind’ could be a nice idiomatic phrase, or ‘totally immersed in jhana’, etc.

  • 10 most likely nouns to follow immersion: (+5 words)
  • [blender], program, students, culture, experience, school, water, world, language, theater
  • 10 most likely nouns to precede immersions: (-5 words)
  • language, college, water, work, baptism, years, education, mandarin, program, puree

The search enginge for the contemporary American English corpus is free to use and quite easy to search by the way: http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

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There’s a good case to be made for using the translation “concentration” for samadhi. We know the problems with the concept of “concentration”, but there’s something to be said for adopting translation terms that have already become industry standard. For example, dukkha = suffering. nirvana = enlightenment. When first reading Ven. T’s (Thanisssaro) sutta translations, His translation of dukkha as “stress” and nibbana as “unbinding” really threw me off. It took me a while to map his translations to the more popular and industry standard terms of “suffering” and “enlightenment.” When I closely examined why he chose his terms, I could appreciate the subtleties and nuances of it, and I’m not criticizing his choice of using those terms, but I am pointing out that if there are established terms in english western Buddhism, it’s helpful to leverage that for beginners, and it makes it a little easier on the learning process.

I’ve been using “concentration” as a translation term for that very reason, even though it’s far from my favorite. But I think learners and beginners will benefit if we adopt standards, and they’ll have the benefit of comparing different english translations and know which terms are referring to the same concepts.

An example of how messy things can be when there isn’t an industry standard English translation for Pīti and sukha. You really have no idea what different English translators mean by their various word choices unless you have the pali passage memorized for comparison.

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Thanks so much for this. In addition to these, which probably represent the historical uses, it is becoming more in vogue in the context of virtual reality, where it is common to speak of “an immersive experience”. This is, I think, the closest we have to a native term for what samādhi really means.

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Talking about Chinese transliterations and translations with someone today, I realized that 定 is actually not that bad of a translation for samadhi if we think of its classical readings. It’s most commonly used as an adj./adv. meaning “certainty” or “definite.” It means something is settled and there’s no question about it.

Now, in classical times, this meaning was used more conceptually. The term can mean a conflict becoming settled, or the political situation of the country stabilizing after a rebellion or civil war. The conflict is settled. It’s the opposite of turbidity. I think this is more likely what the original reading was when it translated samadhi, but 定 quickly became a technical term and lost that meaning to Buddhists.

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Is it an option for translators to use different english terms to describe the same pali word depending on the context of which the pali word is being used?

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I have been tossing around various ideas for this and the most recent translation of samadhi I’m thinking about using is: lucid unification.

The reason for this is twofold, one is that it captures the etymology of samadhi quite fully: the “sam” element is captured by unification and the -dhi (which is associated with visionary meditative states and light) is captured by “lucid”.

The second reason is that by using a compound like this, it allows me to translate the term, and still show the reader that this is a technical term which does not correspond to the everyday meaning of a single English language phrase. This could not work if I used “concentration”, “meditation” and so on since those words already are widely used and come with their own baggage. But when a reader sees “lucid unification” not only do they get some of the etymology of samadhi, but they might understand that this is a technical term that is being used and might be less likely to read some other meaning into it.

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One of the difficulties for translators is handling words in one language with a broad set of uses if there isn’t a good equivalent in another language. It you want to transmit the nuanced meanings, you have to choose different translations carefully. Systematic translators will identify the different usages and decide how exactly to translate them, and then try to stay consistent throughout.

Dukkha is a good example of that. If covers different intensities of pain or discomfort, physical and emotional. English separates them with different words. Citta is also an example. English bifurcates rational and emotional parts of the psyche into mind and heart. So, if you translate citta as “mind” everywhere, it can sound biased towards ideas and logic to some readers.

The opposite problem is more difficult. The original sometimes captures nuances with several different words, but English doesn’t really make those distinctions. That’s a tougher problem to translate the meaning well. Translators end up transliterating, hijacking English words, or coining new words. An example of that might be all of the types of meditative states like samadhi and dhyana. English doesn’t really know how to express those distinctions.

So, these are two basic problems that make a literal one-to-one translation between languages practically impossible and unwise.

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I’m becoming more partial to unification (of mind) as a reading of samadhi, but I’ll probably stick with concentration because it’s more often used as a description of a person’s mental state. Adding a qualifier to unification would help communicate to the reader what you mean, though, I agree.