How should we translate samādhi?


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.


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?


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:


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


Just use “heart-mind” !

That’s what I do. It’s not that uncommon, I’ve seen translators of Chinese classics use this term when translating the Chinese term 心


I agree with everything you said. I am personally very grateful to bhikkhus who learned pali and put too much effort into translating the suttas in the best way possible. :pray::heart::anjal:


What’s the practical difference between samatha and samadhi?


We can and do. In fact the idea of “one Pali word for one English word” is not carried out by any translator.

One peculiarity of early Buddhist texts is the highly formalized and technical use of language. A term is defined in one place, and used in many other places, and we have to know how to carry the context over. This kind of problem happens all the time, much more so than in regular language. So when trying to translate accurately, we lean towards enforcing a more strict consistency than one might if translating regular prose. But this is, of course, never absolute. No technical term is ever 100% precise. And it is not always clear when a word is being used in a technical or non-technical sense.

Samadhi and jhana provide good examples of this. In formal doctrinal passages they almost always mean the four jhanas. But what about in verses, where they are often used in ways that appear more loose and informal? Taking just the verses by themselves, one would be inclined to translate them more informally (as “meditation” perhaps, or “stillness”). This is not unreasonable. But it is also not unreasonable to suppose that the terms should be understood as they occur in strictly defined passages, and the text assumes the same meaning applies where they are not so strictly defined. In that case you would use “absorption”, etc. That might make the verses sound less idiomatic, but make the doctrinal connection with prose passages clearer.

So the task of the translator is to decide which set of compromises is best in a particular case.