SuttaCentral

MN 72 - use of the third person plural pronoun


#1

In MN 72 @sujato translation we have:

“But Master Gotama, when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where are they reborn?”

a mendicant’s mind = singular
where are they reborn = plural

I didn’t check the Pāli, but that sentence doesn’t work in English. [Edit: ok I am a native speaker and it didn’t seem to work for me, but I now acknowledge that there is accepted use of ‘they’ singular, however confusing that might be for me in this context]

Also not clear if it is referring to minds or mendicants being reborn.


#2

also M.5 anangana…
Ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ, āvuso, vijjati yaṃ añño bhikkhu ārāmagatānaṃ upāsikānaṃ dhammaṃ deseyya, na so bhikkhu ārāmagatānaṃ upāsikānaṃ dhammaṃ deseyya.

This situation occurs, your reverence (friend?), when another monk may teach dhamma to (it has bhikkhunis when the pali is upasikas) who are in a monastery, when that monk may not teach dhamma to the nuns who are in a monastery.


#3

#4

Ah, yes, sometimes we can use plural in a singular meaning like that. But I personally find this sentence very strange. It would seem more understandable as

when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where is he reborn?

The Pāli is also masculine singular, right? Maybe that is not as unambiguous as the Pāli gender thing. But still, this sudden mention of the plural throws a spanner into the meaning, making us think what ‘they’ is referring to, especially since there’s only one mendicant.

Linguistically it would seem more likely that this ‘they’ is referring to ‘the mendicant + his mind’ (thus making it plural), for example.

I actually came to look at this sutta because on another thread someone is following Maha Boowa’s ideas which seem to have citta as the attā. And this person was claiming the citta is eternal, and passes from life to life, which is why I took a look at this. I now see in the Pāli that is seems to be the question of the bhikkhu getting reborn, not the citta or anything else. But that is not apparent in the translation - that’s when I found this odd ‘they’ getting hypothetically reborn.


#5

The use of the third person plural pronouns as gender neutral singular pronouns has been observed in English writing since the 14th Century. There is nothing odd about it and it is perfectly understandable. You could update your knowledge of English by reading the Wikipedia article, for example.

When one is translating a text one is not bound to slavishly repeat the grammatical conventions of the source language.

A modern translation is often gender neutral because women also read and practice Buddhism.


#6

I was coming more from being a random native English speaker/reader. Maybe the passage would not have the same effect on all native speakers, but I can report at least that it did for this one.

No, for sure. However in this case the grammar of the Pāli was actually far more unambiguous and easier to understand from an English perspective, than the grammar of the English translation. Remember, I did not even understand the meaning of this English sentence until I read the Pāli. I could not get to that conclusive meaning from the English, even though seems to be clear in the Pāli.


#7

I would say that if we are to allow our grammar to be flexible, but want to make sure it is gender neutral, then the following would resolve this issue while preserving the intended meaning of the Pāli:

But Master Gotama, when mendicants’ minds are freed like this, where are they reborn?

The disadvantage here is that we don’t know if the question is about the mendicants being reborn, or their minds. However, keeping it in the singular, it becomes unambiguous that the sentence (in harmony with the Pāli) is questioning whether he will be reborn, not his mind:

when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where is he reborn?

And apparently this is an important distinction! Because a Maha Boowa admirer was taking this sutta to be the Buddha’s refusal to say that the citta was not reborn! Thus supporting the idea that the citta is permanent, eternal, the ‘core’ of the person, as Maha Boowa apparently taught. That belief was apparently supported by this English speaker by the lack of clarity on that in English translations of this sutta. But it is the bhikkhu’s rebirth, not the mind’s rebirth, which seems to be discussed here, if I am understanding the Pāli correctly.

Consulting the English did not clarify this for me, it just gave even more ambiguity, for me at least. But the Pāli seemed to be quite clear. Which is why I have advocated what I have said above.


#8

Thanks for the support!

The whole translation is gender-neutral, and while it can sometimes be a bit tricky to decide on the best approach in any given case, on the whole I think it works okay.

I believe that, in a few decades, gendered texts will seem as old-fashioned as “thees” and “thous” do to us today.


#9

We need a new gender neutral 3rd person singular! Maybe ‘te’ or something! Until then I guess we are left with a choice of compromises.

Though, we could evolve to have ‘he’ be both gender specific and gender neutral, just like the Pāli is in this case!


#10

The article that Jayarava and I linked to discusses various options like that:


"They" is the standard pronoun in documents where I live.

I’m not sure how you could interpret:

as being about where the mind is reborn. Of course the Pali is clearer:

But mostly because of how it is ordered. The sentence could be rendered something like;

When mind is freed, Master Gotama, where is a mendicant reborn?

Not because there is a masculine pronoun…


#11

Not really, vimuttacitto agrees with bhikkhu and it means “a mendicant whose mind is freed”.


#12

As a native English speaker myself, I’d like to say that the singular pronoun they should be preferred to new pronouns and is to my mind not confusing at all and is obvious in context. I used it all the time writing philosophy papers when talking about a hypothetical person or individual as opposed to a hypothetical man or woman.


#13

Ah, thanks for the clarification.

However, am I correct that there are no pronouns in the sentence, so the fact that Pali typical uses the masculine form inclusively is not relevant to the translation of this particular sentence?


#14

Yes, there are no pronouns, but I’m not sure what point you’re making here.


#16

One possibility is the mendicant + his/her mind. When I myself looked at it, I thought of 3 possibilities:

  • mendicant + his/her mind being reborn
  • mendicant/s being reborn (and the mix of singular and plural got me really confused)
  • mendicant/s’ mind being reborn.

The Pāli cleared it up. All I am really suggesting is that the English be as clear as the Pāli. Even if the single/plural issue is not seen as an issue by seeing ‘they’ as singular, it leaves the issue of not knowing if it is the mind or the mendicant being reborn. And if you really want to believe thatt he mind is the thing that is reborn (e.g. followers of Maha Boowa), then this English can potentially (and indeed has been here on this forum) used to support that idea, since this then can seem to them to be an example of the Buddha refusing to deny that the citta continues after death.

Much less ambiguous. I would say this is preferable. Except it does introduce a touch of ambiguity regarding whether it is the mendicant’s mind which is free, or the person who’s considering the question - i.e., ‘when your mind is freed, your view is (becomes) that mendicants are reborn where?’ Perhaps that is the danger which Ajahn points out here?

Totally unambiguous could be

But Master Gotama, when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where is the/that mendicant reborn?

But the English is a bit more ugly.

I guess it’s not really a big deal in the end. It was just something I came across, as I said in discussion about Maha Boowa’s citta view. Because I came at this sutta with a specific eye on citta as it had been given in support of that, it was striking that the English could not answer the question, but the Pāli could. But I do understand that that will often be the case, especially when needing to clarify something specific. Actually this also gives me more appreciation for the importance of learning Pāli. I guess the English will always reflect some aspects of the Pāli more clearly, and some less clearly, whichever translation we choose.

Just to clarify about Maha Boowa, he apparently took “Attahi attano Natho” (Dhammapada 160) to mean “Self is the refuge of self”, seeming to take atta here to mean the eternal core he calls citta, whereas it seems clear from the verse and the preceeding verse that it is the mundane atta, the conventional ‘self’ in the non-technical use of the term, that is being refered to. He took citta to be “the nucleus of existence—the core of the knower”. He taught that citta ‘transcends’ anicca, dukkha and anatta. All sounds very much like an atta doctrine.

It’s been claimed that calling the citta ‘not anatta’ does not mean it is atta. I think that is entirely flawed logic. If something is not not atta, then it is atta. And since he said it is not anicca, we should note that he apparently did mean it not being impermanent meant that it was indeed permanent:

The citta is conditioned by anicca, dukkha, and anattã only because things that are subject to these laws come spinning in to become involved with the citta and so cause it to spin along with them. However, though it spins in unison with conditioned phenomena, the citta never disintegrates or falls apart. It spins following the influence of those forces which have the power to make it spin, but the true power of the citta’s own nature is that it knows and does not die. This deathlessness is a quality that lies beyond disintegration. Being beyond disintegration, it also lies beyond the range of anicca, dukkha, and anattã and the universal laws of nature.

And:

Then, neither fear nor courage appear, only the citta’s true nature, existing naturally alone on its own, forever independent of time and space. Only that appears—nothing else. This is the genuine citta.


#17

As a native user and teacher of English I find

very acceptable usage. English unfortunately does not have a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun so a writer/ translator who wishes to avoid privileging one gender at the expense of another has to find some accommodation. “where he or she is reborn” is clunky, “s/he” is affected and it’s best to avoid unnecessary new coinages. Using the readily available gender-neutral third person plural is an accessible solution, and one which slips unnoticed through many everyday conversations. Sadhu to Bhante Sujato for deciding to produce gender-neutral translations.


#18

I guess part of this is that I am so used to reading ‘monks’ in the suttas, where the Pāli although masculine is also gender neutral plural so long as there is at least one monk in the mix, so far as I understand - and reading he/she into many he occurences, thus basically already taking he as gender neutral if the person is not specified. So maybe it’s about me needing to adjust to a more gender neutral rendering of the canon, and catching up with the more varied use of they as singular. And it does seem very noble aiming for gender neutrality in translation. I support that, and don’t mean to stifle that!

I guess if it had not introduced the ambiguity about the (e.g. mind+mendicant=plural) and what is reborn, no issue would have arrived for me.


#19

I did wonder whether to refer to what I have seen discussed somewhere about arahants being degendered (unfortunately I can’t remember where it was: on this site? Ajahn Brahm discussing The Word of the Buddha?), which could be another case for using gender-neutral words.


#20

Sorry, it was a reference to the statement that I have bolded in this quote:

The point is that the pronoun “they” is not a “translation” of a Pali masculine singular pronoun, it is an addition that is there due to the way English grammar happens to work.


#21

Well, ‘they’ here translates bhikkhu.

Evaṃ vimuttacitto pana, bho gotama, bhikkhu kuhiṃ upapajjatī”ti?

Literally perhaps something like

But mind liberated in this way, master Gotama, monk is reborn where?

Since bhikkhu (masculine singular) is the subject of the second clause, but since in English bhikkhu has been translated (as mendicant) for use in the first clause (the one whose mind is liberated), presumably to avoid repetition, it has been substituted with ‘they’ in the second clause.