Mistake in the Pali English Dictionary regarding asceticism, consequences for Sutta Central translations

I’ve been away from the forum for long, sorry if I left any conversations unfinished!
I was looking at the ‘2 extremes’ and noticed this in the PED:

  1. Tapa & Tapo (p. 297) Tapa & Tapo Tapa & Tapo [from tapati, cp. Lat. tepor, heat] 1. torment, punishment, penance, esp. religious austerity, selfchastisement, ascetic practice. This was condemned by the Buddha: Gotamo sabbaŋ tapaŋ garahati tapassiŋ lūkhajīviŋ upavadati D i.161=S iv.330; anattha – sañhitaŋ ñatvā yaŋ kiñci aparaŋ tapaŋ S i.103; J iv.306 (tattatapa: see tatta).

This seems to be a mistake - I have put the relevant part in bold.
Now here’s what we actually have in SN 42.12:

“Sir, I have heard this: ‘The ascetic Gotama criticizes all forms of mortification. He categorically condemns and denounces those self-mortifiers who live rough.’
“sutaṃ metaṃ, bhante, ‘samaṇo gotamo sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati, sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhajīviṃ ekaṃsena upavadati upakkosatī’ti.
Do those who say this repeat what the Buddha has said, and not misrepresent him with an untruth? Is their explanation in line with the teaching? Are there any legitimate grounds for rebuke and criticism?”
Ye te, bhante, evamāhaṃsu: ‘samaṇo gotamo sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati, sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhajīviṃ ekaṃsena upavadati upakkosatī’ti, kacci te, bhante, bhagavato vuttavādino, na ca bhagavantaṃ abhūtena abbhācikkhanti, dhammassa cānudhammaṃ byākaronti, na ca koci sahadhammiko vādānuvādo gārayhaṃ ṭhānaṃ āgacchatī”ti?

So this is actually Rāsiya the chief reporting what he had heard that the Buddha had said. In DN 8, the other text the dictionary is citing, we have the same question but asked instead by the naked ascetic Kassapa. And on both occasions, the Buddha replies:

“Chief, those who say this do not repeat what I have said. They misrepresent me with what is false, hollow, and untrue.
“Ye te, gāmaṇi, evamāhaṃsu: ‘samaṇo gotamo sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati, sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhajīviṃ ekaṃsena upavadati upakkosatī’ti, na me te vuttavādino, abbhācikkhanti ca pana maṃ te asatā tucchā abhūtena.

In both suttas I see no instance of the Buddha making any categorical criticism of tapa. Rather, he does the exact opposite, and denies teaching that.

Similarly, when he goes to explain the two extremes to be avoided, he does not use the term tapa:

Indulgence in sensual pleasures, which is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And indulgence in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless.
yo cāyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo cāyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito.

He uses the term attakilamathānuyogo.

I therefore wonder if it might not be a good idea to translate, as @sujato seems to, both tapa and attakilamathānuyogo, as ‘self-mortification’. The Buddha is opposing one but not the other, it seems. Well at the very least he’s opposing attakilamathānuyogo that is ‘dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito’.

Logically if we adopt ‘self mortification’ for ‘tapa’, then we have to say that the Buddha is not opposed to all self-mortification. Which would also mean that the Buddha is not opposed to all attakilamathānuyogo. Doesn’t that leave us in a mess? And perhaps the Pali English Dictionary is a part or even connected to the cause of the mess?

[Edit: in these passages it seems @sujato has translated tapaṃ as ‘mortification’ and tapassiṃ as ‘self-mortifiers’. So he seems to be switching between ‘mortification’ and ‘self-mortification’. I wanted to clarify that.]

I suggest instead translating tapa as ‘religious austerity’ (which Monier also gives in the Sanskrit dictionary) or ‘ascetic practice’, two of the definitions given in the PED. And perhaps tapassiṃ as ‘ascetic practitioners’ or ‘practitioners of religious austerities’, or even the PED’s definition, ‘ascetic’.

If I have simply misunderstood something here, please correct me.


I’ve only now looked at any alternative translation. I have Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, which seems to be in some agreement with my position above.

For tapaṃ he gives ‘austerity’.
For tapassiṃ he gives ‘ascetic’.
For attakilamathānuyogo he gives ‘self-mortification

Clearly he is differentiating between the two concepts, that tapa is not ‘self-mortification’. And saying that one who practices austerities seems fair enough. Although, it may be seen as problematic that in the very same sentence, he also translates ‘samaṇo’ as ascetic, and that’s describing the Buddha.

So that would lead to the question, do Buddhists practice tapa? If they do, and Buddhist samana (or all samana?) can be regarded as tapassin, then that’s fine, we could consider the two words to be synonyms. Otherwise, perhaps it’s a little strange to make them so in this sentence? But anyway so far as I am understanding this issue, differentiating it from self-mortification seems wise.

Seems no interest in this topic so far! But I’ll give an update to what I’ve come across.

At Kp 5, it’s a god speaking - the god sounds as if he’s a Buddhist. Bhikkhu Anandajoti translates it as:

““Austerity, living spiritually,
insight into the noble truths,
and experiencing Emancipation:
this is a supreme blessing.”

Tapo ca brahmacariyañca, ariyasaccāna dassanaṃ; Nibbānasacchikiriyā ca, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ’.

While it’s not the Buddha teaching, it does suggest tapa as being able to be used to refer to Buddhist practice.

That’s a positive view of tapa. By the way, should I be saying ‘tapa’ or ‘tapas’?

Now here’s a negative one:

Thank goodness that, steadfast and mindful, I have attained awakening.”
Sādhu vatamhi mutto bodhiṃ samajjhagan”ti.

And then Māra the Wicked, knowing what the Buddha was thinking, went up to him and addressed him in verse:
Atha kho māro pāpimā bhagavato cetasā cetoparivitakkamaññāya yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami; upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ gāthāya ajjhabhāsi:

“You’ve departed from the practice of mortification
Tapokammā apakkamma,

by which humans purify themselves.
ye na sujjhanti māṇavā;

You’re impure, but think yourself pure;
Asuddho maññasi suddho,

you’ve strayed from the path of purity.”
suddhimaggā aparaddho”ti.

Then the Buddha, knowing that this was Māra the Wicked, replied to him in verse:
Atha kho bhagavā “māro ayaṃ pāpimā” iti viditvā māraṃ pāpimantaṃ gāthāhi ajjhabhāsi:

“I realized that it’s pointless;
“Anatthasaṃhitaṃ ñatvā,

all that mortification in search of immortality
yaṃ kiñci amaraṃ tapaṃ;

is as futile
Sabbaṃ natthāvahaṃ hoti,

as oars and rudder on dry land.
phiyārittaṃva dhammani.

My question here is, is this speaking against all tapa? Or only the subcategory ‘amaraṃ tapaṃ’?

And, is this ‘immortality’ (amaraṃ) the good kind, like in the sense of nibbāna being a ‘deathless element’ (amataṃ dhātuṃ) or is it some other kind, that Buddhism doesn’t approve of or i.e. sees as not real?

Also, while I understand one uses ‘a’ and the other ā’, is it merely a coincidence that he’s talking about futile practices leading to ‘a+mara’ - not subject to mara (death), with Māra, death personified? (They share the same root, right?)

I mean, he’s just attained enlightenment, and now far from death being eliminated, he’s right there chatting to death himself! And of course the Buddha does die eventually. So could it be saying that it’s futile to try cheat death? If you know what I mean. Maybe I’m overthinking that…

Or, maybe when he said:

all that mortification in search of immortality
yaṃ kiñci amaraṃ tapaṃ;

… could it be that by saying ‘that’, it means he’s referring specifically to all ‘that’ tapa that he did as a Jain? Therefore not referring to all tapa.

Now, it’s interesting that so far we’ve had a god talking, then the Buddha talking to Māra, and next we have the Buddha replying to a god, in SN 2.17:

“Not without understanding and austerity,
“Nāññatra bojjhā tapasā,

not without restraining the sense faculties,

not without letting go of everything,
Nāññatra sabbanissaggā,

do I see safety for living creatures.”
sotthiṃ passāmi pāṇinan”ti.

Here @sujato chooses austerity. Interesting. Is this because ‘self-mortification’ would seem wrong here because this is being presented as… essential Buddhist practice?

If so, should we not make that same choice when he’s being asked if he condemns all tapa, and he explicitly says no? This seems a potentially important point if we want English technical words so that these Pāli technical categories can be understood by English readers, and therefore enable them to be able to differentiate what the Buddha accepted and what he rejected, as it is apparently so nicely available in the Pāli. Otherwise they may fall into the same trap that the PED did, in thinking he rejected tapa. Unfortunately for the PED, in this case that seems to make the Buddha’s words apply directly to them:

those who say this do not repeat what I have said. They misrepresent me with what is false, hollow, and untrue.

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