On the Paṭisambhidās: why Theravadins get so mixed up about words


In recent times, there have been a number of discussions, here and elsewhere, on various weird conspiracy-style theories that have emerged among monks regarding highly eccentric, bordering on crazy, theories. They might be systematic re-assigning of meanings of words—which assumes that the people who used a language had no idea what it meant—or a wholesale reinvention of history—the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka, for example. Most of the ones we’ve heard of have come from Sri Lanka, but I’m not sure if that means it’s a feature of Sri Lankan Buddhism, or simply that we haven’t heard so much from other countries.

Most people have no idea what the background of these ideas is, and how they came to prevail in modern Theravada. It’s nothing new; see, for example, Richard Gombrich’s book on Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 80s, which describes a number of similar cases. I’m hoping that this little article will demystify it all and help people to avoid falling into these traps.

The theoretical root of these theories is the peculiar Theravadin conception of a set of dhammas known as the paṭisambhidās. The idea, as it manifests in modern Theravada, is essentially that a certain level of realization enables one to access truths directly from the Dhamma, not in terms of letting go suffering, but as specific textual details and facts. You’re getting live streams of history and textual knowledge right from the Nibbana element.

Lest there be any confusion: all this is delusional, and has nothing to do with Dhamma. Realizing Dhamma means that you let go of suffering and its causes; it tells you nothing about Pali.

How did such a crazy idea get a foothold? Here’s a brief background.

The patisambhidhas are mentioned a few times in the Anguttara. Unusually, they do not appear anywhere else in the EBTs. They are a set of qualities that are essential for someone who wishes to teach Dhamma:

  1. dhamma = text, teaching
  2. attha = meaning, interpretation
  3. nirutti = terminology, language
  4. paṭibhāna = inspiration, eloquence, improvisation

They refer to knowing the text of the teaching, understanding its meaning, having the linguistic knowledge to analyze and express it, and the capacity to marshal all the above in giving a spontaneous Dhamma talk.

And that’s about it. Those of great wisdom, such as the Buddha or Sāriputta, are said to attain mastery in these qualities, hence their unparalleled ability to give clear and detailed teachings.

This set of Dhammas is pretty obscure in the broader scheme of things. They are almost ignored in the northern schools, and where they do appear, the root of the term is different (pratisamvid). It is not clear why either root bhid (= break) or vid (= know) is used, or which is to be preferred. It may be that both are derived from an unknowable earlier dialect.

Despite these humble beginnings—or more likely, because of them—in the Theravada, the patisambhidas came to assume a critical importance. If you look at the Dipavamsa’s account of the first schism (between the Theravada and the Mahasanghika) the chief complaint about the Mahasanghikas was their sloppiness in textual redaction. They mixed up the nouns and verbs, everything was unclear, they rejected some texts and added others. All this is, to be fair, an accurate depiction of the Mahasanghika texts, at least from a Pali perspective. The result of this was that the Theravada—specifically, the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, rather than the broader Sthaviras of the mainland—defined itself as the school of textual precision.

This is great, because it means we inherit the very well edited and consistent texts of the Pali canon. But when it’s held too tightly it also can lead to rather fundamentalist attitude towards textuality.

This found its earliest expression in the book the Patisambhidamagga. One of the latest additions to the Pali canon, this elevated the obscure group of qualities needed by Dhamma teacher, and made it the underlying framework of the path to Nibbana.

It continued in the commentaries, where we find the idea that Pali is the sabhāvanirutti, the “essentially existing language”. Note that nirutti is one of the patisambhidas. The idea here is that Pali exists inherently as part of the fabric of the universe, not just a set of conventions for communicating. If a child were to be brought up without anyone speaking, it would naturally speak Pali; as do, of course, the devas. Again, just to be clear: this is nonsense, and directly contradicts everything the Buddha said about language.

This all might have been just a footnote in history, a record of how sometimes people get a little too enthusiastic about their sacred texts. But the tradition is alive and well. And like all traditions, it is not a fixed thing that stamps out followers from a template. It is a living thing that is engaged and interrogated by those who live it. And when people engage it foolishly, driven by ego and ignorance, they draw from it foolish things. This is not the fault of the tradition, but of its interpreters.

So this is how some people will claim to have access to some special form of knowledge, a way of reading the Dhamma from the universe, via visions or insights in meditation or whatever. Rather than seeing such things as impermanent, as empty, and as unreliable, they take them as a crucial insight into the nature of reality.

Usually such claims are fed by a high level of narcissism. The thing about narcissism, it gives you confidence and charisma, and it’s really easy for people—even intelligent and critically-minded people—to be fooled; at least for a time. The teacher lays claim to a counter-narrative that taps into a more broadly based disillusionment or cynicism. “See,” they say, “how there’s so much corruption and decadence? Here is the reason why!”

Their ideas are simple and obvious, avoiding the hard work that goes into genuine understanding. With minimal commitment, people can get the rush of being part of an inner circle who really gets it. Like a climate change denialist who convinces themselves that their silly notions have somehow never been understood by the climate scientists who have devoted years of their life to actually understanding the topic, such people easily imagine they know better than all the Pali and Sanskrit scholars, dismissing the 2500 year old legacy of linguistic sciences of India.

This is not just an intellectual thing, it comes with a sense of emotional uplift and fervor that can frequently result in heightened meditation or other experiences. Such experiences, being based on delusion, don’t lead anywhere in the long term, but they do give an emotional high that, for the convert, confirms the truth of what they’ve been told. In this way the narcissistic delusions spread, infecting not just the teacher, but their disciples as well, creating wider conflicts in families and communities.

We can’t understand these delusionalities without reference to the wider descent into paranoia, conspiracy-mongering, and anti-truth that we see all around us. It is a peculiarly Theravadin expression of a much wider phenomenon. And one of the things that is common to all these forms of denialism or delusionism is that they obsess about trivial nonsense and have nothing to say about things that matter. The creationists argue senselessly that creation happened 4000 years ago, making zero contributions to actually understanding life and its origins. The climate change denialists endlessly regurgitate the same discredited lies, while contributing precisely nothing to an actual understanding of climate.

Meanwhile, there are issues of incredible importance that face Buddhist communities. To pick just one, global warming will have a devastating impact on South-East Asia, and Theravadin countries in particular. Colombo, Bangkok, Yangon: all are as good as gone. Myanmar is number two in the world for climate vulnerability. What are we doing to help our people, to warn them and prepare them? We do nothing, and meanwhile we waste our time with nonsense about where the Buddha was born, or rewriting the dictionary based on sheer imagination. There’s no wisdom there, no meaning, nothing worth listening to.

And this is what the first lines of the Mangala Sutta are all about.

Asevanā ca bālānaṃ,
Not associating with fools,
paṇḍitānañca sevanā
but associating with the astute,
Pūjā ca pūjaneyyānaṃ ,
paying respect to those who deserve it:
etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
this is the highest blessing.


This is the exact claim that Hindus make of the Vedic language. Funny how things converge.


I do see the problem with words, and especially my own one’s, and still I love the t8fp … maybe I’m not a buddhist, but I find that the teachings is very powerful when one let go of absolutly everything, and then just let the mind marinate in all the worlds concepts and gods, and buddhas, and monks and nuns, Brahms and Sumedho’s …

This brainwashing i find very nice and it works for this stream of “bullshit”, and if the shit works, who am I to say something about shitshower instead of sitting still, and closing my little blue ones … :wink:

We are all gonna die, happy to say :rofl:


Indeed, yes. I assume there might be some influence there, but I haven’t studied it.


Bhante :anjal:

Is there a downloadable version of the english translation of patisambhida magga available anywhere. A pdf would be really nice.


I’m not sure about that. The English translation, being one of the later generation of translations, is good, but hasn’t been released under Creative Commons license.


While it is appropriate to declare one’s categorical rejection of a set of ideas or even an entire interpretive tradition, I’d say it is quite problematic to denounce those ideas or characterise them as “delusional” and “mad” in the process; and even if that is being done with the intention of “saving others” from falling victims to these things. There are both moral and practical reasons for this.

The problem, of course, is ancient, and it comes down to the simple situation where two entities are doing things differently and coming to different, even contradictory conclusions. Ideally speaking, the option always remains open and accessible for people to concern themselves with the understanding of the positive motivations and standpoints of others, and to debate the point declared, the arguments made, rather than speculate about the negative psychological features and traits of personality from which the arguments are presumed to have originated. But putting the ideal aside and looking at the harsh reality; there is the gradation of speech, and of the state of mind from which speech emerges. If someone says something that you find “delusional”, then it is probably alright to be truthful and report what you feel or think: “I think that what you just said is delusional!”. This is far way down below the ideal now, but it is still quite alright; one is here being truthful and honest, as one is simply reporting what he thinks or feels, and is not making any statement about the other! It certainly then becomes a bit grosser to say “what you said is delusional!”; having created a conceptual world of objectivity, placed one’s position in the right and luminous, while placing the other’s in the false and dark. But this is very common, and people have adapted to it quite well, especially if the discussion is friendly and respectful. But grosser still is to say: “You are delusional!” Such is the speech that emerges from a most unrefined form of prejudice, and this too leads to “creating wider conflicts in families and communities”, if not even more than what ignorant delusional assertions and traditions do.

While a psychologist or a psychiatrist may describe someone as “delusional”, he would be doing so only in the context of seeking the benefit of that person, and to help him or her understand their condition and cooperate with the suggested treatment. We are yet to see a carer of mental health going about in public uttering sever words of condemnation against deluded people, nor do we expect such a carer to be “liked”, and to be really regarded as a good carer! For the trouble with delusion is precisely that the patient is unable to see it, and according to what has been said here, he might even confuse it with certitude! What wisdom there is in pointing at a person (or even more so of a “community”) who is thus afflicted by delusion and then shout: “DELUDED!”, when from the experiential perspective of that person, all that he has done is no more than give expression to what he himself regards as true?! And what cruelty can still be mistaken for “care”, when the shouting does succeed in “convincing others” to turn their backs on and walk away from the pointed-out madman.

And the denigration won’t stop here; but it will devour also those who are not mad themselves, but are fooled by madmen and are unwary of following them. And though even an “intelligent person” can, possibly, still be fooled, it just don’t add up how they can be fooled by tricks that are “simple and obvious, avoiding the hard work that goes into genuine understanding”! Is it an oxymoron, or perhaps a punishment, a suspension of the “intelligent” reward-recognition, until the subject repents away from delusion and returns to the fold?!

On the practical side of things, however, the trouble is that such speech does nothing other than distract the listener from paying heed to the points being discussed and debated through discussion in the first place. Further it only reinforces not only their actual dependency on “authorities” of Dhamma interpretation, but confirms their need for authoritative sources, rather than help push them further in a direction of independent inquiry and evaluation. Granted, not all are capable of doing that, and some are lost without guidance; but guidance and “guardianship” are not the same thing! A guide tend to be aware and open about its own limitations and uncertainty, and finds it important, if not even dutiful, to inform and remind the follower and student, again and again, of the importance of developing their own independent wisdom in the course of time, and to keep an eye on the possibilities of the guide’s errors, and even to correct them. A guardian, however, tends toward control, and even tyranny, manifesting in a far from subtle, but grossly visible intolerance of opposition and debate.

The “climate-change” issue makes for an excellent example of this [& I personally have no dog in the race!], where words such as “denialists”, “discredited lies”, and “silly notions”, have been so openly used to degrade the other party, which just so happens to actually involve many other “scientists who have devoted years of their life to actually understanding the topic”, among them is the notable physics Nobel Laureate “Ivar Giaever”, and whom we presume had arisen to such renown through competence and knowledge rather than by being “a silly lier and denialist of evident truths”! Obviously blindness and prejudice take different forms and operate in different ways! And all positions can be equally rationalised; the question is, who on this earth is aware of what lies behind and below the reasons with which we justify our passions!

Here manifests quite visibly how prejudice, blindness, and delusion, can always be confused with certitude! And while the masses turn their back on one condemned voice and follow another that triumphantly sings itself into a loud self-righteous tune, there is still no guarantee for them that by so doing, they will have departed from one delusion without following another! And who can tell which of the two delusions is the worse?! And while one monk will condemn others because they have wasted their time with Dharmic nonsense and did nothing about global warming; another monk condemns others for concerning themselves with mundane woes (which may be possibly imaginary!) while neglecting their Dhamma study. And who is a sublime renunciate?! We are told he is one that never condemns or blames!

Meanwhile what matters is one’s practice and progress! If the “deluded Sri Lankans”, and whom ever that follows in their stead or even remotely resemble them, have a skin thick enough to sustain the injury, then they have so far practised well and learned how to coexist with that which they would still reject and rather avoid. For such temperance in relation to that which causes pain or discomfort is the final word on wisdom. And should those whom the venerable Sujato here denounces and degrades be thus endowed with equanimity and restraint, then not only will they have positively manifested their wisdom and worthiness of every respect, but also rendered the charge of delusion and madness void and null.


I wish each person would sing their own heart song without arguing. So we can listen to what resonates with us. :anjal:


@sujato, I came across the below few minutes after reading your essay… it summarises well the situation we find ourselves when trying to reason with those excentric visionaries …




Interesting phenomenon. I think there has always been some kind of tension between scholar monks, who think knowing the dhamma is mainly a matter of mastering and interpreting texts, and the forest meditators who think the ultimate truth of the dhamma isn’t a matter of verbalizable, propositional knowledge and has to be accessed in meditation. But the phenomenon described here seems like a fusion between those positions that holds that meditation also allows certain spiritually advanced virtuosi to access additional, esoteric texts. It’s not that far removed from the later Mahayana and Tibetan practice of finding additional, hidden texts.

Although it looks like these particular teachers point to specific sutta texts as warrant for their esoteric practice, I’m guessing the practice would exist in some way even if those texts were not there. The motif of the powerful, highly exceptional spiritual teacher surrounded by a cult-like following seems very strong in Buddhism. It lends itself to the followers attributing extraordinary dhamma-revealing powers to a teacher.


I have seen, associated, heard some of the deluded lot @sujato is talking about . It is appalling to see their wrong view. So sad. So soooo sad. :sob: The wrong view is embedded in majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists (my family included). I had to come to Australia to understand what Buddha actually said even though I was taught Buddhism from year 1 in Sri Lanka.

When one is on the dhamma path and knows the dhamma for what it is, that person can usually identify delusion when that person sees it. Thats it. For us to ask questions about their level of understanding as to arrive at such a conclusion is none of our business. Our business is to investigate the dhamma so that when we see delusion we know it’s delusion. Simple. Dancing with words can get you so far. Turning inward is the key. When one sees this, the need to obtain ‘special’ knowledge through revelations and universe jargon will be absent.

Maybe we should train ourselves to identify the fool in our mind and shut it down so we can keep associating the astute in it…

Thank you Ajahns (Brahm, Brahmali & Sujato) for all the work you do. Without your guidance I will be deludingly well settled on a wrong path, :smile: for that I am grateful and I pay respects to you as you deserve it. :pray:t4:


Actually I saw a “g” before I saw the 6 or 9. :rofl:

…just sayin’…


Maybe someone died in the middle of writing an 8!


There are also some Catholic fundamentalists who think God and his angels speak in Latin. So it seems to be a pretty common human tendency.


God speaking Hebrew is a big deal in some Judaisms.


I hear what you’re saying, venerable. I am a work in progress, and I was in a bad mood yesterday! No excuses, but I’ll try to do better.

It’s rather interesting that, according to his biography, when Ajahn Mun became enlightened, he determined that he would not gain the patisambhidas. I’m not sure how widespread the idea of the patisambhidas is in Thai Buddhism; I never heard much about it while I was there. But that the defining narrative of the leading figure of the forest tradition, who in other respects is rather liberally endowed with attainments, should explicitly disavow them is quite striking.

This also is true: the specifics of how it works out in this case are really just arbitrary. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

I’m sorry to hear that, and I hope you can help your family! One of the most painful things that we have heard about, and which the monastics are approached about on a regular basis, is the divisions and conflicts created in families and communities. There’s something unsettling about the fervent adherence to these views. People have the real Dhamma, and they just ignore it. Then this counterfeit comes along and it’s the greatest thing ever.

I appreciate it, we try to help.

I wonder what would happen if their Hebrew-speaking God got together with our Pali-speaking gods? Do they have divine translators, I wonder? There’s builders and charioteers, so why not?


I guess I can see why people would be excited about it. Novelty is always more exciting than the old and well-known. Think how excited we would be if some very ancient Pali palm leaf manuscripts turned up in India containing 100 previously unredacted suttas. If someone really believes in the possibility of the continuous revelation of discourses from the nibbana element, I can see why they might get carried away by claims that someone they respect is doing it.

How old is this tradition? I wonder if it might have something to do with the existence of minority communities of Islam and Christianity in Sri Lanka, both of which have an important place for prophecy. For example, since Muhammad is supposed to be the seal of the prophets, by claiming they have a living and ongoing tradition of revelation, Sri Lankan Buddhists might be seizing on a way of asserting some kind of superiority of Buddhism over Islam?

On the other hand, maybe the influence goes the other way. There are Sufi traditions in Islam, I believe, that hold to neoplatonic-style ideas about the co-eternity of God and the Koran, and the emanation of the latter from the former. My understanding is that Sufi Islam was suppressed in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, by more conservative Tahweed styles of thought. Perhaps some of these Sufis made their way into Buddhism, where they were free to identify their old neoplatonic version of Al-lah with the Deathless in Buddhism, and then to look for further emanations from it.

Just some wild speculations.


This entire thread may be taken as evidence of the conspiracies, by some.

It’s difficult not to get cranky about the phenomenon at times, but perhaps connecting via compassion or morality is easier than logic. However if those who know the texts are being misrepresented and abused and exploited don’t speak out when they see it… how and when and why would the deluded be freed by their own efforts? It might happen, as kamma and such have effects. But it is i think a generosity, at least, to call it out for the benefit of many.


Oh, yes, that’s why there’s no point in trying to discuss it with them.

Oh, I know!

I mean, people are suffering, right? Sometimes I just want to hug everyone. Then I think, well, maybe I could hug those guys … later …



I dont know how long ago you were in sri lanka. But people now are debating these things there is some chaos but good chaos i feel.