On MN 140 and the tides of conceiving

@mikenz66 has highlighted one of the most inspiring passages in the suttas:

He has raised a number of translation issues, which are well considered, but on returning to the text I find there are more issues than I thought. I wonder, in fact, whether my translation has been unduly influence by the commentary.

Here’s the Pali; note the punctuation in the MS edition:

Cha dhāturo ayaṁ, bhikkhu, puriso cha phassāyatano aṭṭhārasa manopavicāro caturādhiṭṭhāno;
yattha ṭhitaṁ maññassavā nappavattanti, maññassave kho pana nappavattamāne muni santoti vuccati.

There’s a list of attributes describing the person, literally “this is a person of six elements, six spheres of contact, eighteen mind-explorations, four adhiṭṭhānas.” (Leaving the last term untranslated for now.) The MS edition supplies a semicolon after this list, implying that the items go together, which is implied by the Pali syntax in any case.

Now, the second phrase begins with yattha “where”. The commentary construes this as referring back to the four adhiṭṭhānas, which it interprets as “grounds, foundations”.

Yattha ṭhitanti yesu adhiṭṭhānesu patiṭṭhitaṃ

This makes good metaphorical sense, as the next line refers to the sweeping over of the tides of conceit. Someone who is well-grounded is able to stand and resist the tides. And it is for this reason that I, as well as Ven Bodhi, and I think Ven Nyanamoli, followed the commentary in this case.

However there are some reasons to question this.

Grammatically, there is no reason why yattha should call back to the previous phrase. It would be a little odd, in fact, for the yattha to call back to only the last item in the preceding phrase. The phrase itself, as noted above, treats all its clauses equally.

What is more, the phrase occurs three times in the Sutta, and only the first time does it directly follow the passage concluded with the four adhiṭṭhānas. Thus when I wrote “They have four foundations, standing on which the streams of identification don’t flow”, or when Ven Bodhi wrote “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations”, we have supplied what we think the intended meaning is, but the four adhiṭṭhānas are not actually mentioned.

Instead, we can simply read it as saying “wherever they stand …”. This construction is common in the Vinaya, for example pli-tv-bu-vb-pc50:2.2.2:

Yattha ṭhito passati, āpatti dukkaṭassa.
Wherever he stands to see it, he commits an offense of wrong conduct.

It should also be noted that adhiṭṭhāna doesn’t usually mean “foundation” in the Suttas. The normally meaning is “resolve, determination”, or else it is a term for attachments. In this case, Analayo uses “resolutions”, and notes the following renderings:

MĀ 162 at T I 690c9 as “four spheres of establishment”, 四住處, and D (4094) mngon pa, ju 35b7 or Q (5595) tu 39a3 as “four resolutions”, byin gyis brlabs (D: gyi rlabs) bzhi pa, while T 511 varies, cf. T XIV 780b27: “four solid phenomena”, 四事堅, but then T XIV 780b28: “four solid intentions”, 四堅志.

The translations, therefore, also oscillate between the senses of “resolution” and “foundation”, even within the same text. If we sever the metaphorical link between “tides of conceiving” and “foundation”, then it opens the question as to whether the better established sense of “resolution” should apply.

On the other hand, the commentary, both here and in DN 33, has the sense of “foundation, ground, standing place”, saying that the prefix adhi here is a mere particle. In the text itself, under the first category, that of wisdom, it says:

Tassa sā vimutti sacce ṭhitā akuppā hoti.
That liberation of theirs stands on truth, and is unshakeable.

Here the sense of “stand, grounding” must apply. On the whole, then, I am inclined to accept the sense of “foundation”.

A couple of other points of translation. I have, reluctantly, abandoned the Nyanamoli/Bodhi use of “conceives/conceit” for maññati/māna. It’s an extremely clever translation, as it connects the ideas of “thinking”, “conceptualizing”, “constructing a sense of self”, and “pride”. The problem is, I think a naive reader would miss all that.

To say “does not conceive earth”, in simple English means “has no idea of what earth is”, rather than “does not construct the idea of earth in relation to a self”. So I reluctantly use “does not identify with earth”. This is clearer, but captures less nuance, and unfortunately overlaps with other uses of “identify”. Anyway, opinions welcome!

Now, let’s talk about “has”. Normally the possessive in Pali is indicated by the genitive case, but here it’s all nominative all the way down. This implies as stronger connection, “is”, expressed by Ven Bodhi as “consists of”. However, he is not able to maintain this consistently, and the person is said to “have” the four foundations, creating a split in the syntax where none exists in Pali.

That the sense of “have” is justified is supported by the text, which says

iminā paramena paññādhiṭṭhānena samannāgato hoti
endowed with this ultimate foundation of wisdom

And since the Pali maintains a uniform syntax, I think it’s best to keep it as “has” throughout.

Finally, the verb here, pavattati, literally means to “proceed” (cf. the Dhammacakka). It doesn’t have a particular sense of “sweep over”.

Cha dhāturo ayaṁ, bhikkhu, puriso cha phassāyatano aṭṭhārasa manopavicāro caturādhiṭṭhāno;
This person has six elements, six fields of contact, eighteen mental preoccupations, and four foundations.
yattha ṭhitaṁ maññassavā nappavattanti, maññassave kho pana nappavattamāne muni santoti vuccati.
Wherever they stand, the steams of identification do not flow. And when the streams of identification do not flow, they are called a sage at peace.


Hi, I’m only able to use this forum with my iphone, as somehow my browser can no longer display the D&D forum properly. So, no diacritical marks.

I believe mannitametam should be resolved as the neuter past participle of mannati (mannitam) plus etam.

So literally:
“‘I am”, monk, this (is) a conceiving/ identiflying” etc.

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OK. Thanks. So ‘etaṁ’ means ‘this is’. (I was struggling with it :face_with_spiral_eyes:).

‘Asmī’ (“I am”), bhikkhu, maññitametaṁ (mannita this is). :pray:t2:

The New Concise Pali English Dictionary says:

man + ya

  1. imagines; is of opinion; deems

It seems a translation using “imagines” eliminates the vagueness of “conceives” and makes the non-literalness of “identifies” unnecessary. Therefore:

  • MN 1: pathaviyā maññati - they imagine things about earth.
  • MN 140: ‘Asmī’ti, bhikkhu, maññitametaṁ - “I am” this is an imagining/imagination

Is this OK. :saluting_face:

“Imagine” is sometimes fine for maññati, but it doesn’t really work in this context, as it doesn’t have any connotation of a “self”, which is what the term is about.

But is not “self” self-explanatory in the MN 140 text, with the terms asmī, ayamahamasmī, bhavissan, etc?

Also, is not “imagines” more beneficially broad, for MN 1, therefore can include other (perverted) imaginings, such as ‘permanence’, ‘pleasurableness’, etc? Thus, MN 1 concludes with: “pathaviṁ abhinandati: they take pleasure in earth”.

For example, since MN 1 includes: “pathaviṁ meti maññati: they identify that ‘earth is mine’”, surely your translation here involves a tautology? If every case of maññati was about “self” then this would seem to imply “pathaviṁ meti maññati” would be unnecessary.

Thank you

For the statement in Mulapariyaya sutta “pathavim me’ti maññati”, Nyanamoli rendered it as, “he conceives earth to be ‘mine’”

Do you see a tautology because of the ‘pathavim me” + maññati ?

maññati can have various shades of nuance in the suttas, sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, like tam kim maññantha
(What do you think about this, i.e. what’s your opinion) but can also have the more negative connotation of a conception springing from a deluded mind.

In the Pali Buddhist Review printing of Ven. Nyanamoli’s Mulapariyaya translation, he has a helpful table of terms that apply to the putujjana, sekha, and arahant.
Putujjana=conceives that to be (maññati)
Sekha= ought not to conceive (mā maññi)
Arahant= does not conceive (na maññati)

Regarding the concern that “does not conceive earth” would be unclear to a naive reader, I think this is certainly true but the whole sutta would be as well! It really needs a lot of glossing.
I tested out “does not identify with earth” here with someone with very little Buddhist background and got an uncomprehending stare. “Doesn’t sound like English”!
So much of the sutta sounds like Buddhist Hybrid English until it is explained.

As for using ‘imagines’, it seems to have a hypothetical connotation. For the putujjana, he does not ‘imagine’ things as ‘mine’, he is utterly convinced they are his. There are no moments when this idea isn’t present. (Thus the problem)


Misconceive? Conceive just doesn’t have the required meaning. Ingenious perhaps, but misleading. Bhkkhu Bodhi agreed, and changed his translation in the Aṅguttara.

What did he use there?

Oh, you mean he used “misconceive” (In AN 4.24 at least). I dunno, not hugely convinced.

For anyone who’s following, just to note that when the Dictionary gives the sense “imagine” it’s not really in the sense of “use your imagination!” (for which parikappati would probably be closer). It’s for contexts like an7.64:3.5:

Kodhanoyaṁ, bhikkhave, purisapuggalo kodhābhibhūto kodhapareto, anatthampi gahetvā ‘attho me gahito’ti maññati, atthampi gahetvā ‘anattho me gahito’ti maññati.
When an irritable person, overcome and overwhelmed by anger, gets what they don’t need they imagine, ‘I’ve got what I need.’ When they get what they need they imagine, ‘I’ve got what I don’t need.’

Here “think” or “imagine” both work.

It’s true. And in the end, if a difficult text is difficult to understand in translation, that’s okay. Some things just are hard. The main thing is to make sure that a simple text is not difficult to understand.


Just to add another point from the perspective of a non-native English speaker: The first thing I think of when hearing “conceive” is conception in the sense of conceiving a child, getting pregnant. And it takes an active effort to carefully check the context to see that something else is meant.

This is because in German we don’t use the same word for these two contexts.

But that shouldn’t influence your translation.

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In addition to “imagine”, I also like “misconstrue”. :saluting_face:

It’s a tricky one, because we use the English idioms in a similar way. Consider the humble “think”.

What do you think?

No worries! But then:

So you’re right and I’m wrong, is that what you think?

Same word, different senses. But even in the second case, where there is clearly an implication that you are “misconceiving” it, we don’t use the negative form.

So far so good. But the problem is, when we use English we control the context and expression, so we know the sense gets through. Translating from Pali, it’s not so easy.

That ‘conceive’ has the double sense of to grow in the womb and to construct in the mind seems a good thing, the ‘sankhara’ aspect of maññati (making/fabricating) is captured.

The ‘ceive’ part of conceive comes from PIE kap-, ‘to grasp’, related to accept, catch, chase, receive, and many more.
Ven Sujato mentions ‘parikappati’ in this thread (lit. to think around??), parikappa= preparation, assumption, supposition.

This connection would surely not be lost on the classically trained Nyanamoli.

Standing place is how I would read 住處, rather than spheres of establishment. 處 is a place, and 住 is a fairly basic verb that can mean to abide or stand around, depending on context.

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ok, good to know.

Still looking for solutions, what about “form a conceit”? (example from MN1)

They perceive earth as earth. But then they form a conceit of earth, they form a conceit regarding earth, they form a conceit as earth, they form a conceit that ‘earth is mine’, they take pleasure in earth.

This is still playing on the same pun of “conceit” as both “idea” and “vanity”, but the dual meaning is more obvious than if we use “conceive”.

MN 140 would then be something like:

Wherever they stand, the steams that form conceit do not flow. And when the streams that form conceit do not flow, they are called a sage at peace.

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When an angry person gets these things that are the exact opposite of what they need, it’s for their lasting harm and suffering.

To me, this passage points to how a person comes to a wrong conclusion due to a wrong and incomplete assessment; they haven’t fully considered what’s really true. Perhaps assume, presume or surmise might fit better than imagine.

Good point, maybe “assume”? Hmm.

Etymologically it fits: “to take to oneself”.