How should we translate samādhi?


Absolutely, this is the number one priority. The question, how?


I really don’t understand how any informed Buddhist teacher could denigrate the cultivation of samadhi as “sightseeing practice”, given that right samadhi is the final and culminating step in the eightfold path, and the systematic cultivation of the various jhanic levels is taught over and over and over and over and over again in the suttas. There is certainly room for reasonable interpretive doubt about which levels of samadhi are authentically the Buddha’s. But there is no doubt he regarded the cultivation of samadhi as a matter of the highest, and essential importance.

But on the other hand, I guess the mistake is not that surprising, since understanding this staggering difference between what the Buddha taught and what various moderns teach is the very first major realization that hit me once I started reading the suttas in earnest, and dropped most of those “insight meditation” manuals.

The modern suspicion of, and neglect of, samadhi seems to me to be a tragic consequence of the hyper-intellectualism of modern western and western-influenced thought, especially in it’s post-Enlightenment manifestation. (Even the common use of the term “enlightenment” to describe the goal of the path and the holy life probably contributes to the problem.) The western rationalist has been thoroughly indoctrinated to regard cognition and the perfection of cognitive or doxastic states to be of such supreme and overriding value that any state of the heart or mind that is non-cognitive or non-doxastic is regarded by such a person as unquestionably inferior in status. To such a mind, stewed in its obsessive addiction to its intellectual processes and the identity roles formed around these processes, the idea of releasing one’s mind from all cravings and and attachments - including, in the end, the craving and attachment to knowledge and its cognitive manifestations - strikes the modern “insight” practitioner as beside the point, at best, or some kind of terrifying suicide at worst. That is sad. A hysterical fear of release can keep people from progressing toward the goal - at least if no one is teaching them how to subdue that fear.

The Buddhist commentarial tradition has probably contributed to the problem by - just as all knowledge-hoarding and knowledge-obsessed scholastics and professors in all ages and cultures have always done - over-intellectualizing the attainments of the path and treating each one as the acquisition of a particular kind of knowledge. From that point of view, no stage on the path can bring one closer to the final goal unless it can be associated with some piece of knowledge the practitioner has acquired at that stage. Even such a seemingly easy to understand state as not being angry has to be reconstrued by the intellectualists as the possession of some kind of special anger-management knowledge, possibly including sophisticated metaphysics about the emptiness of all dharmas, or whatever.

I’ve been a bit disturbed about this recently, because I was recently with a group of apparently experienced mediators whose questions to the teacher all gave me the strong impression that they regarded the process of meditation as more-or-less identical to the western phenomenologist’s or introspective psychologist’s ceaseless investigation and cataloging of mental processes, apparently to develop something like a theory of how their mind works. That kind of investigation certainly plays a role in the path, but it is not the whole path.

Perhaps the commentarial tradition has done further damage by reworking the sutta’s reasonably clear teachings on the jhanas into a description of elaborately esoteric practices, even the basic levels of which cannot be attained by any but a small number of elite virtuosi. As a result, experienced mediators who have achieved the 1st and 2nd jhanas, at least, often don’t even seem to realize they have done so.


How about translating it as “supermeditation”? Then in the satipatthana sutta it could say “this is the path that leads to supermeditation” and it would be fairly obvious that the point of mindfulness meditation is you take you into supermeditation.

Just like ordinary metals can become superconductors (that have all sort of amazing qualities) an ordinary mind can get into supermeditation if you do the right things to it :slight_smile:


[details=Summary]and how do we translate arahant? obviously as ‘superman’ :wink:

no sarcasm, friendly banter[/details]


That’s sort of what arahants are though, superpeople.

And wouldn’t we be emulating the Buddha if we took common words used today and giving them a new meaning? :slight_smile:


I’d suggest ‘focus’ as another option but I suspect it runs into some of the same problems with concentration.

Though I comment to mention that the apparent etymology is unexpectedly apt:

1640s, from Latin focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), of unknown origin, used in post-classical times for “fire” itself, taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

I’m kinda digging ‘supermeditation’ though.



I like the idea of the already-positive ideas of settled & calm being lightly maneuvered to encompass a samma-composure. It’s also possible to demonstrate a miccha-composure: stoic lack of compassion, prideful disinterest in the face of accurate criticism, etc. (And, with the jhana samadhi, a hard-headed refusal to move, a zoned out daydreaming state, etc.)

I wonder, what does miccha-stillness seem to convey? How does the samma-/miccha- dichotomy get fleshed out, in each case?


So samādhi it is, then?

Perhaps it’s worth considering. Of all the words in the Nikāyas with a specialist spiritual meaning, perhaps this is the one that is most difficult to give a satisfactory translation. I have recently checked my 21 year old OED, and it actually lists samadhi. Presumably it is much more commonly used now than it was then. Could it be that this word is slowly becoming a part of our standard vocabulary?

Perhaps it is acceptable to leave a single word untranslated. As meditation is becoming mainstream, English needs this word. It would enrich the English language, and perhaps help all us become more spiritual people.

If not, there is always the second word on the list. :smiling_imp:


Maybe! There must be a reason why it tends to be assimilated into most languages—Thai, Chinese, and so on.

I am repeating myself here, but my reservation is that, since it is essentially a blank space, people will read into it whatever they think, which IMHO is mostly wrong. I.e., they’ll mentally translate it as “concentration” (if they’re English speakers) or “union with God” (if they’re Indian) or “meditation” (if they’re Thai), and so on.


Well the same thing happens with words like "Dharma’ and ‘karma’ which are often left untranslated (and the Sanskrit words used even when talking about EBTs) since they’ve become part of the English language it seems these days (though I assume you’re translating them?) I’m not sure how much you can ‘control’ with a single word translation how people tend to understand things in terms of their pre-existing views… obviously good to try and minimize this tendency when possible, but context is also important for understanding.

Also maybe occasionally using Pali terms will help people who read the suttas see how the Buddha often used exisiting terms but redefined them. And start thinking accordingly… Some technical terms in Pali simply just cannot be adequately translated in English… I think sometimes attempting to limits their meaning too much and actually feeds into people (mis)understanding the meaning based on their pre-exitsing views instead of encouraging people to think in terms of context (as well as the interrelationship betwen the various teachings). The problem is compounded due to the various connotations the word might carry in English which the original Pali doesn’t (one of the problems of course with ‘concentration’).

Maybe you should add ‘unification (of mind)’ to the list and let people vote for a second choice :innocent: Also I do like what @Brahmali mentioned somewhere about the value of the emotional quality the word evokes (and although I think ‘stillness’ is too generic, ‘unification’ or many of the other choices don’t rate high for me in this regard). Sometimes the Pali can do this more. It’s why I don’t care much for chanting translated into English (and I felt this way before I even knew any Pali at all).

BTW, speaking of such things, how did you decide to translate ‘metta’? I think that’s really another candidate for leaving in Pali (and often is).


There is also the thing, which Tolkein showed us, that people like learning new words with special and strange meanings, so long as it’s not too much. I’m not absolutely opposed to using Indic terms. But it is a translation, and I will fight every step of the way before giving in.

This is pretty much earmarked by ekaggata/ekodibhava.



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).


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:


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

How is mettā best translated (IYHO)?

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.


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.


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 , 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’.


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.


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.