More fun with terms: "Friend" or "reverend"?

It has become conventional to translate the Pali āvuso with “friend”.

There’s a famous passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta where the Buddha, supposedly, establishes a hierarchy in title, insisting that a senior should use āvuso to a junior, while a junior should use āyasmā to a senior. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but this is the relevant part.) It is from this, I guess, that we use the formal “venerable” for āyasmā and the familiar “friend” for āvuso.

The problem is that āvuso really has nothing to do with the notion of “friend”. In fact it is from the same root as āyasmā, both of them relating to the notion of āyu, age or seniority. And while “friend” and “venerable” have an unmistakable difference in degree of respect, this is not the case with āvuso and āyasmā. In fact there are many passages where they are used interchangeably, or do not denote a strict hierarchy of respect.

As just one example, in AN 5.166, Sāriputta uses āyasmā udāyī, while Udāyī—clearly the junior in both monastic seniority and spiritual attainments—uses āvuso sāriputta. The difference here is not degrees of respect, but mere parts of speech (vocative vs. nominative).

In fact, it seems that the Mahaparinibbana passage is a useful text-critical device, as texts that ignore this hierarchy may well stem from before a time when this rule was made. (However, in my opinion it’s likely this passage is somewhat late, probably from the Second Council, so it doesn’t help as much as it might.)

Anyway, I’m trying out using “reverend” instead of “friend” for āvuso. This has the advantage that it’s similar in meaning to “venerable”, but perhaps a little less respectful; although in English, as in Pali, these things are not clear cut. It won’t work all the time, as āvuso is sometimes used to address laymen, but then so is āyasmā.

It might be a little disappointing to find that mendicants were not, in fact, addressing each other as “friend”, but what can I do? I’m just a translator.


What about Brother/Sister for āvuso?

this is what i feel it connotes
or may be i have been conditioned by English translations?

Perhaps “confrère” could also work.

I’ve thought seriously about this, but I don’t think it can work. It has a number of problems:

The Pali is quirky. It uses the actual word for “sister” (bhaginī) for nuns, but not “brother” for monks. If we adopt this, we lose sight of this distinction; which is, admittedly, probably not very important.

The bigger problem is that we end up having to gender everything.

And also, these terms have very different usages in European and Asian English. In Australia, when I grew up, “brother” and “sister” as titles were used specifically for ordained members of a religious order, and i think this is pretty much universal in Britain, US, and Canada. However in Asia they’re used widely for anyone who’s part of the same group (while “uncle” and “aunty” are used for elders in the group) Asian Buddhists feel the use of “brother” and “sister” is inappropriately familiar when applied to Buddhist mendicants.

Do you see any problem with “reverend”?

It would be good to find out if āvuso is often employed by the Buddha. It is my impression that the Buddha does not normally use honorifics in addressing other people (an exception might be when he addresses kings, whom he calls mahārājā), yet in the Rohitassa Sutta he addresses his deva interlocutor as āvuso. If this is an isolated instance, there should be no problem. But is it?

Good point. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it is common.

In any case, there will have to be a little variation in usage. āyasmā, āvuso, and ayya are all used by monastics to lay people, where “venerable” and “reverend” wouldn’t fit.

And here’s one I thought of today:

dosantarena = passive-aggressively. I mean, it’s pretty close, right? Criticizing someone, pretending to act for their welfare, but secretly angry.


I don’t know why but I don’t care for ‘reverend’. May just be my conditioning, associating it with a certain role, like a pastor of a church or something like that. Also, in terms of English, I think of ‘reverend’ being a little more respectful than ‘venerable’, not less. But really I think again, it’s just the connotation of reverend with a specific ‘religous’ figure or role, whereas ‘venerable’ has a broader aplication/nuance (at least to me). So it’s really not necesarily to do with more or less respect, but a particular role vs a more general usage. But of course I’m just saying this in terms of (American) English usage.

Why not just ‘venerable’ for both āvuso & āyasmā since, as you say, they are sometimes used interchangeably? But not sure how you would then translate the passage in the Mahaparinibbana sutta.

To me ‘reverend’ sounds about as good as ‘venerable’. And I got used to ‘venerable’, so I suppose I will also get used to ‘reverend’.

Both are used as titles but really mean “person to be revered” so I don’t really see a big problem with using the terms when addressing layfolk or devas with good morality for example.

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I have the same feeling regarding that word. It should not be a reason to stop prevent its usage if that is the appropriate word, but I would like to explore other options if possible.

So we have so far:

  • Reverend
  • Brother
  • Venerable

Other options (Some are not very good, but a brainstorm could help)?

  • Comrade
  • Venerated
  • Esteemed
  • Estimable
  • Honoured
  • Noble
  • Dignified
  • Respected
  • Exalted
  • Acclaimed
  • Eminent
  • Illustrious
  • Noted
  • Royal
  • Praisable
  • Praiseworthy
  • Valued
  • Reputed
  • Recluse (It appears as a synonymous of monk)
  • Companion

As @raivo says, I guess we would get used to any term with some time. But since the plan is do to a more up-to-date translation, I guess we should look for a word that sounds more familiar this days.

Best regards.

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Esteemed Colleague?

Perhaps even a simple “M.” or “Mre.” or “Mssr.” in front of the name…

i too had this in mind, for example Sir and Madam

it’s respectful enough, provided āvuso isn’t as informal and affectional as brother

In my translation I have often not included the vocatives, since they often sound a bit artificial in English.

Passive-aggressive? Not sure about that. I think dosantara is probably broader than this and includes situations where you are not pretending to act for someone’s welfare.

by vocative in English do you mean the ‘O’ before the name?

Well, it’s the grammatical case that can be represented in English by using “o”, although normally we don’t.

Typical English vocatives:

  • man (whatever, man)
  • dude
  • guys (hey guys!)
  • ladies and gentlemen