On Norman’s Paper 'The Four Noble Truths’

This is the way I translated the Chinese version. I assume that suffering is what’s known, the origin of suffering is what’s given up, the cessation of suffering is what’s realized, and the path is what’s cultivated. Each of those verbs make sense when read that way. That larger context I think solves the whole issue, IMHO. So, I inserted those understood objects to make it clearer.


Sorry Charles, for the lazy amongst us do you have a link?

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It’s on SC, SA 379, though I can see some things I would change (formation instead of accumulation, abandon instead of terminate, etc). It needs some polish yet.


Sure, but Norman’s point, if I understand it correctly, was that it’s not originally two accusatives, but a syntactic compound: dukkhasamudaya-m-ariyasaccaṁ.

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Isn’t Norman’s earlier point, at 5.1, that ariyasacca.m is an insertion, the most important point here?

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Well yes, but given that it is there, we have to deal with it somehow. Maybe it’s just best to simply go with the flow and translate it as others have done. It’s not hugely satisfying grammatically, but it doesn’t seem to cause any actual problems, the sense still comes through.


Bhante, I think most who are familiar with it mentally translate it into a form similar to what you came up with. Unfortunately, there are some who take the rather clumsy wording as evidence that there is some problem with the Truths…


[Edited for clarity.]

I agree that it’s better to translate what is there than to translate a hypothetical original. It looks like the work of Prof. Norman should be revisited in the light of variation among the parallels. There may be something like a subconscious suspension of disbelief or, subconscious error correction going on here. After all, most people don’t pay much attention to grammar errors if it all makes sense.

That said I can’t help but wonder whether if the word ariyasacca was a later addition. If it was and if SN56.11 was indeed the first discourse, then the discourse is much clearer and 'Koṇḍañña’s conclusion is more believable. The audience would surely have shared similar worldviews. Presumably, the five shared the belief that liberation required, ending dukkha, giving up taṇhā, and so on. Everything makes sense. The insertion of ariyasaccaṁ creates unnecessary confusion.

That is not to say that the idea of the four noble truths is wrong.


Hello @mikenz66,

I don’t think people are saying that there is something wrong with the truths so much as, first, there are different (mostly modern) ways of interpreting what dukkha is and, second, when taṇhā can occur. Modern agnostic interpretations tend to limit dukkha and taṇha to what happens in this life. As a corollary, they tend to limit dukkha to what can be attributed to the taṇhā that occurs in this life. There is also often a tendency to escape dukkha by inappropriate means: e.g., by not forming close personal relationships.


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Here are my thoughts on this issue.

I think the idea that ariyasacca is a later addition, which seems fairly well supported, gives us good grounds for deciphering the grammar. K.R. Norman’s suggestion that we are dealing with a syntactical compound only works if ariyasacca had been there from the beginning. In other words, the expression “the noble truth that ‘this is suffering’”, does not work without ariyasacca. The same can be said for the suggestion that we are dealing with adjective plus main noun. This too only works if the ariyasacca had been from the beginning, because adjective + noun is an integrated whole.

The obvious solution is to take the words as standing in apposition to each other. Words in apposition can be added without affecting the integrity of the text. If we assume that the ancient editors knew what they were doing – which to my mind is the only appropriate assumption – then this seems to be the most reasonable interpretation. Moreover, if we regard ariyasacca as an historical addition, it makes sense to render it as a kind of afterthought, rather than as a core part of the statement. I would suggest something like the following:

“This suffering, the noble truth, is to be understood.”
“This origin of suffering, the noble truth, is to be abandoned.” etc.
“One is to understand this suffering, the noble truth.”
“One is to abandon this origin of suffering, the noble truth.” etc.


Just one more possibility. May be there is nothing wrong with the original pali. May be all that is required is just a shift in paradigm for it to make perfect sense.

Mendicants, develop immersion.
“Samādhiṁ, bhikkhave, bhāvetha.

A mendicant who has immersion truly understands.
Samāhito, bhikkhave, bhikkhu yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti.

What do they truly understand?
Kiñca yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti?

They truly understand: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’.
‘Idaṁ dukkhan’ti yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti, ‘ayaṁ dukkhasamudayo’ti yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti, ‘ayaṁ dukkhanirodho’ti yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti, ‘ayaṁ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā’ti yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti.

Hello @anon87721581,

The problem is with SN56.11, not SN56.1. The issue is that, while everyone knows what is meant, there are some statements in SN56.11 that don’t say what was meant. Each of these statements includes a form of the word ariyasacca that doesn’t fit in very well.

IN SN56.1, which you quote above, the language does not “defy grammar” (see an earlier remark in this thread by Bhante @sujato ). The problem only occurs when the word ariyasaccaṁ is connected to a ti clause as in SN56.11. In SN56.1, the ti clauses are clearly understood to be true. They are not explicitly called noble truths as they are in SN56.11. The issue is that “noble truth”, ariyasaccaṁ, in SN56.11 is poorly related to the ti clause. This is what defies grammar.

Additionally, SN56.1 uses the same verb, pajānāti, for each true statement and always uses the 3rd. person singular form. SN56.11, on the other hand, uses different verbs and different verb forms: both the future passive participle (for what ought to be done about each truth) and the past participle (for what ultimately is done about each truth). This creates the semantic problem mentioned above. The problem is most evident in the second truth, where the text appears to say that the second truth should be given up and has been given up. The noble ones, however, do not give up the truth; instead, they give up the cause of dukkha (dukkhasamudaya), which is mentioned in the statement of the truth. The word dukkhasamudaya performs two functions: first, as part of the name of truth" and second as a part of what should be done about that truth (i.e., that dukkhasamudaya should be and later is given up).

It seems that there are two solutions to the problem. Either the word ariyasacca was not present in some of the original statements and, in some cases, the original demonstrative pronouns were different. Or the word was present and the original differed in some way from the unknowable original. (The possibility that the original had the same issue, is, of course, not a solution to the problem.)

It should be noted that Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu attempts to explain this issue by the analogy between the regional dialects of what is now Italy before the time of Dante [This text, Note 1]. The situation is analogous, however, Ṭhānissaro’s conclusion is a non-sequitur. When one must conclude Q from a true statement P, one is obliged to show that there is something implied by the statement P that combined with known truths implies Q. This obligation Thanissaro fails to discharge. Therefore his argument fails. (This is nothing against Ṭhānissaro. No one reasons perfectly all the time. He may have been mislead because his hypothesis, “Italian was a group of irregular oral dialects until Dante fashioned it into a regular language for the sake of his poetry” is not quite right. Each dialect would have had its own, perhaps unstated, grammar but there was no official standard of what correct Italian was. The dialects were only irregular in hindsight and likely only from an upper-class point of view.)




I think you may have misunderstood my intentions. I was mainly calling for an examination of preconceptions or assumptions whith which one is approaching the problem.

May I know what you mean by ‘the truth’ ?

Edit: Let me clarify why i asked this question. I think there is an assumption about the referent of ‘Ariyasacca’ that is giving rise to the perceived grammatical anomaly.

These are my thoughts. As best as i can express them.

Its the old simile of the finger and the moon. There is an assumption here that ‘sacca’ refers to the meaning of some language based expression. I think this is not the case.

And what is suffering?
Katamañca, bhikkhave, dukkhaṁ?

It should be said: the five grasping aggregates.
Pañcupādānakkhandhātissa vacanīyaṁ.

And what is the origin of suffering?
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, dukkhasamudayo?

It’s the craving that leads to future lives, mixed up with relishing and greed, looking for enjoyment anywhere it can. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence.**
Yāyaṁ taṇhā ponobhavikā …pe… vibhavataṇhā—
This is called the origin of suffering.
ayaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, dukkhasamudayo.

And what is the cessation of suffering?
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodho?

It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.
Yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo—

And what is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering?
Katamā ca, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā?

It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is:
Ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo.

right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion.
Seyyathidaṁ—sammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi.


For example,

Dukka Sacca is pointing at Pañcupādānakkhandhā. In other words, Pañcupādānakkhandhā is the truth that is understood.

Samudaya sacca is pointing at tanha. Giving up the truth of origin simply means giving up tanha.

Hello Bhante @Brahmali,

[I added a third point, below, and made minor improvements.]

If we are to accept your idea, then we still need to make a case for why two case forms seem irregular. (Granted that textbook Pāli was probably never spoken until the language of the suttas became increasingly regular over time.)

  1. Why do we have dukkhasamudayaṁ, not dukkhasamudayo?
  2. And dukkhanirodhaṁ, not dukkhanirodho? (Especially since the form nirodho occurs later in a compound.)
  3. Why do we have neuter, not feminine, participles of the verb bhāveti? (Since one cultivates the path, not the truth.)

The first two cases work syntactically if the current forms are taken to be bahubbīhi compounds, but that creates the semantic problem that the wrong things are said to be abandoned and realized.

Also idaṃ accords with ariyasaccaṃ in every case, but does not accord with paṭipadā. Shouldn’t “this noble truth” be used everywhere?

“Suffering, this noble truth, is to be understood.”
“[The] origin of suffering, this noble truth, is to be abandoned.” etc.
“One is to understand suffering, this noble truth.”
“One is to abandon [the] origin of suffering, this noble truth.” etc.

Then all would work after changing the participles of bhāveti and assuming that samudaya and nirodha can be either masculine or neuter and that both genders can be used in the same text.

Without adequate answers to the above question, we must conclude that at some point the text has been wrongly changed during the oral transmission and that the changes have obscured the meaning of the text especially in those statements of the truths that have future passive and past participles describing what should be done and what has been done.



Hello @anon87721581,

I agree that some, perhaps all, uses of the word ariyasacca were not present in the original text of SN56.11. I would also agree that all sentences which include stated what could be properly called “truths” and that these could be sensibly called “nobletruths” or “truths of the noble ones”.
[Missing quote added below.]

You say, “'sacca’ refers to the meaning of some language based expression.” I’m not sure that sacca could refer to anything else unless, perhaps, you mean that it refers to something mystical that cannot be put into words. If it does, how can we know whether we have the same thing in mind?

I hope that adequately answers your questions to me. If not, please let me know.


We do actually find dukkhasamudayo in certain editions of the Canon, although dukkhasamudayaṁ seems to be more common. It is possible that dukkhasamudayo is the earlier reading.


Well, if paṭipadā and ariyasaccaṃ are nouns in apposition, then you are, in a sense, developing the noble truth, because it is then merely an alternative way of referring to the path. In other words, “developing the path” and “developing the noble truth” would refer to the same thing: “The noble truth, which is the path leading to the end of suffering, is to be developed.” (I haven’t looked at K.R. Norman’s argument. Please let me know if I have missed something here.)

Yes, but these pronouns are tricky. Idaṃ may not have much meaning beyond “the”, or could be an indeclinable, roughly equivalent to “here”. Personally I feel uncomfortable using this to deduce the grammar.


Hello @Brahmali and all.

Ditto, re: missing variants<

It may be my ignorance (I’ve only been seriously studying Pāli for less than two years), but I’m not convinced. A path cannot be a truth. The truth is that the path is dukkha-ending and what should be and, finally, what is done about that. Similarly for dukkha (the truth is what dukkha is, what should be done about that, etc); the origin of dukkha (the truth is what the origin is, etc.) and the ending of dukkha (the truth is the cause of dukkha can be ended, etc.).

In each case, as far as I can see, the truth should be in apposition to the corresponding ti-clause and a key phrase (respectively, dukkha, dukkhasamudayo, dukkhanirodho, or dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā) inside the ti-clause should be repeated to be explicit what should be done and, finally, is done about the truth. That would require some repair to the grammar of the last ti-clause and possibly the second and third. After that we would have what everyone knows was really meant. But a translation of the repaired version could never be called a translation of the original. The best thing would be to translate to original warts and all and explain what was probably originally meant in a footnote that includes references to relevant scholarly works.

It’s also possible that the noun sacca has a wider semantic scope than “truth” so that it could be put in apposition to dukkha, origins, endings and paths. But in that case, the translation of ariyasacca as “noble truth” wouldn’t really work, and we would still have the problem (noted by Woodward) that the thing that should be given up (the cause) is buried in a ti-clause and is not stated explicitly.

In summary, I don’t see much evidence that the ancient editors of SN56.11 did a good job. But as I said I don’t have enough knowledge of Pāli to be sure.

I’ll have a look at the K. R. Norman paper when I have a chance. There’s also a relevant paper by B. Analayo on my reading list.


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Hello Ajahn @Brahmali,

The following just occurred to me, but I haven’t gone through the details yet. Perhaps we can translate the rough Pāli grammar into rough English grammar something like this?

[edit: I added quotation marks around the name of the first noble truth]
The “dukkha noble truth” – there should be knowing.
… – there is knowing.

and so on, leaving what should be known and later is known, etc., understood.

[2nd edit follows]

As understand it (probably poorly), putting two English nouns together as I do above corresponds to Pāli compound formation. In the example about the compound of dukkha and ariyasacca would be a tappurisa compound since the ariyasacca is about dukkha, but is not dukkha. Therefore, the expression would appear in so-called “standard” Pāli in the nominative as something like dukkha-m-ariyasaccaṁ but not as dukkhaṁ ariyasaccaṁ. (The later would imply that dukkha was a sacca, a truth. But that isn’t the case.)


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Hello Ajahn @Brahmali,

I promised a more complete answer to the following:

Please excuse my tardiness. I have been reading Norman’s paper more carefully. I can now attempt to address your request, for more detail on Norman’s paper, The Four Noble Truths. As L.S. Cousins [Cousins] remarks, Norman’s argument is partly based on the assumptions that (1) all truths were originally expressed in the same way, and (2) that the four truths are true statements about dukkhaṃ, dukkha-samudaya, dukkha-nirodha, and dukkha-nirodha-gāminī paṭipadā.

Norman concludes, through comparative analysis of versions in Pāli and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS) that:

6.2. The correct form of the NTs in Pali is: idaṃ dukkhaṃ, ayaṃ dukkha-samudayo, ayaṃ dukkha-nirodho, ayaṃ dukkha-nirodha-gāminī patipadā — 'This is pain, this is the origin of pain, this is the cessation of pain, this is the path leading to the cessation of pain". When the word ariya-saccaṃ is included in the statement, we should translate: "The NT (that) “This is pain”, etc.

6.4. The earliest forms of the … ‘gerundival’ sets did not include the word ariya-saccaṃ.

Here an item of a ‘gerundival’ set (in Pāli) has the form taṃ kho pan’ idaṃ followed by a short expression of the truth. The items of the ‘gerundival’ sets occur in pairs. The first item of each pair is followed by a future passive participle (gerundive) stating what should be done about the corresponding truth. The second item is a past participle of the same verb saying what the Buddha has done about it. The short expressions are idaṃ dukkhaṃ ariya-saccaṃ, idaṃ dukkha-samudayaṃ ariya-saccaṃ, idaṃ dukkha-nirodhaṃ ariya-saccam, and idaṃ dukkha-nirodha-gāminī paṭipadā ariya-saccaṃ.

Earlier, in 4.3, Norman agrees with Woodward’s omission of ārya-saccaṃ from his translation of the ‘gerundival’ version of the second NT. He goes on to say, "Woodward did not … go far enough. He should have suggested the removal of the word ariya-saccaṃ from all four items in the ‘gerundival’ set. In effect, Norman is suggesting removing ariya-saccaṃ from each ‘gerundival’ item and changing idaṃ to ayaṃ when necessary to agree in gender with the following noun phrase.

Woodward’s objection is not the only reason for the removal of ariya-sacca from the “gerundival” set, since ariya-sacca is missing from all “gerundival” items the version he calls lal [SuttaCentral].

Various authors [Cousins, Gethin, Harvey] have observed that sacca in ariya-sacca might mean “real thing” rather than “truth”. If so, since neither dukkha nor dukkha-samudaya are noble, the translation of ariya in each compound needs to be revised to mean "of the noble ones " [Norman2]. Then ariya-sacca could mean “a real thing known by the noble ones”. One could, therefore, let go of theariya-sacca dukkha-samudaya “the origin of truth” without letting go of the truth of what the origin of truth is. But that comes at the cost of an awkward translation.

[Cousins] Cousins, LS., Review of “Pain and its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon” by Carol S. Anderson (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 8 (2001): 36 - 41

[Gethin], Gethin, Rupert, “The Foundations of Buddhism”, Oxford University Press, 1998.

[Harvey] Harvey, Peter, The Four Ariya-saccas as ‘True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled’ — the Painful, its Origin, its Cessation, and the Way Going to This — Rather than ‘Noble Truths’ Concerning These, Buddhist Studies Review, 26.2 (2009) 197–227

[Norman1] Norman, K. R., The Four Noble Truths,
Indological and Buddhist Studies (Volume for J.W. de Jong), K.R. Norman Collected Papers II, pp. 210 — 223, Pali Text Society, Oxford 2003.

[Norman2] Norman, K. R., Why Are the Four Noble Truths Called “Noble”?, Ānanda: Essays in Honour of Ananda W.P. Guruge, K.R. Norman Collected Papers IV, pp.171 – 174, Pali Text Society, Oxford 2003.