Pali words with a different meaning today

I thought I’d kick off a conversation about how the meaning of Pali words changes over time.

  • Buddha: today means “Siddhattha Gotama”, but in the suttas is also used of anyone who is enlightened.
  • Dhamma: today usually means the natural principles, or else duty, but in the Suttas it most commonly means the Buddha’s teachings (or other teachings).
  • Sangha: these days used among convert Buddhists (especially of the insight traditions) to mean any spiritual community, but in the Suttas it mostly means the monastic order, and also the enlightened disciples.
  • Bodhisatta: today, someone who sets aside enlightenment to serve others; in the Suttas, someone who leaves others to seek enlightenment.
  • Bhikkhu: today, in Sri Lanka, “priest”, elsewhere “monk”, in the Suttas, “seeker of alms” i.e. “mendicant”.
  • Samādhi: Today, “passing of an enlightened being” (in India), “meditation” (in Thailand), “moment to moment awareness” (i.e. khaṇikasamādhi) in the Vipassana traditions, but “profound immersion in meditative stillness” in the Suttas.

What others can you think of?


vihāra : in the texts: simple dwellings / resting place for monastics.
Today: much larger, brick and mortar buildings for monastics

(Not much difference in functionality, but outwardly very much so :sweat_smile:)


Is this common? I haven’t seen this in the agamas. I can’t remember where I’ve seen it in Pali texts, but I’ve wondered if some later terms like savakabuddha were created in reaction / opposition to Mahayanist ideas coming into Sri Lanka.

Principle works pretty well as a translation for this term in general. It can encompass uses in Buddhism and Hinduism, whether teachings, phenomena, truth, or duties.

Oh, this is such a modern Theravada explanation of a bodhisattva. And ironically, very similar to the old Mahayana polemics.

It seems like the relationship between samadhi and mahasamadhi in India today, is actually pretty similar to that between nirvana and parinirvana in Buddhism. There is a weird relationship in Indian religions between liberation and death.

To these, I will add that I think samatha and vipassana were originally just faculties of correct meditation. They remained that way in Sarvastivada and Tiantai traditions. But in some Theravada traditions, they became whole sets of techniques, or viewed as being mutually exclusive, which seems bizarre to me.


These interpretations of Pali words do not necessarily align with the simple intent of what was preserved in the Pali language canon.

For example, “sangha” is used to describe a collection of various types of animals in the suttas. It simply means a group or collection and it is used in that regard consistently. To say it means more this or that is adding baggage.

By entertaining “new” meanings as being relevant or representative only serves as a backdoor for radical reinterpretations to further personalize preferences to more modern sensibilities or agendas.

The Pali is rather clear when read. Some things are hard to translate into English, like an adjective or noun next to a verb formed from the same stem.

There are words not made explicitly clear in the suttas and the commentaries struggle to make sense of them, yes, they are often rarely used, but these modern usages can only serve to further muddy the waters.

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I thought that in the sutta layer, bodhisatta was only used to refer to the Buddha in his final life before enlightenment, even when he lived at home. So I don’t see the “leaves others” to be a good definition, although of course that’s part of it.

And if we open it to the Jataka commentary layer, the Bodhisatta spent lots of time with other people, although of course he does spend time as an ascetic as well. But then it’s not to attain enlightenment per se.

Sangha is probably a different case from the others since the modern meaning you mention is really, really modern, especially compared to the other new meanings, isn’t it? I also think the usage is much more than North America. I think it has more to do with the whole “Insight” community thing. And of course traditional Buddhists in NA certainly don’t use the term that way. So better to say “convert Buddhism connected with Insight/Vipassana groups.”

Here is Insight Meditation Australia. They seem to call their groups sanghas. So don’t single out the US :grin:


Oops, yes I fixed it.

Indeed, that’s more accurate. The majority of Buddhists in the US probably don’t use it that way. I’ll change this too.


viññāṇa: Thai, ghost.
saññā : Thai, memory.
dhutaṅga: Thai, a foot journey.
sāsana: Sinhalese, a monastic ordination lineage
cetiya: Sinhalese and others- a hall or institution, a temple in general.
sādhu: Sinhalese and others, a monk
pariveṇa: Sinhalese, a monastic school. But in Thai…a restricted area?
saṃkacchika: Buddhist hybrid English “bodice”, as per PTS dictionary.
satipaṭṭhāna: a particular meditation technique associated with certain Burmese influence dry-insight traditions.
piṇḍapāta: going for alms. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the original sense is the food and not the act of walking.
Paṃsukūlika: any cloth given in memorial of the deceased
yoga: a set of postural physical exercises
nesajjika: staying up all night e.g. on uposatha [Thai]
Ācariya [ajahn]: someone who has been ordained more than ten years [Ajahn Chah tradition]
Pabbajjā: receiving ordination as an eight-precept nun [Thai]
aagama: sorcery [Thai]
nimitta: the meditation sign
vinaya: the reason why it’s “ok” to take cash as long as it’s in an envelope :wink:

It’s a bit hard to say what is Pāli and what isn’t though, due to Sanskrit crossover. There are so many loan-words in other languages that the list could get longer…as well as new coinages.

Some of these seem to be making a thing that isn’t particularly exciting more exciting or religious when monks are involved. Like dhutaṅga as a journey and paṃsukūlika robe offering.


The vast, vast majority of Pali words used in the suttas are rather unambiguous and adhere to a consistent simple expression that reads without difficulty.

People adding their own more narrow interpretations that are clearly divergent from what was preserved in the language of the transmission are actually obfuscating the simplicity for some “neo-meaning” which furthers whatever agenda or personal preferences that are trying to be pushed.

To further dispel the notion that “sangha” means ANY ‘spiritual community’ (as in the lay Goenka followers), or the more orthodox ‘Buddhist monastics’ I am providing a root text reference which neatly illustrates the bare practicality and reality of its common simple usage.

The suttas mostly revolve around the Buddha teaching monastics and “sangha” is used to describe his group of ordained community members, though it is used to describe lay followers too. To assert that one is more correct than the other is absurd.


Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, araññe pavane mahantaṁ ninnaṁ pallalaṁ. Tamenaṁ mahāmigasaṅgho upanissāya vihareyya.

Clearly Frank’s epic campaign years ago against selective (inconsistent) reinterpretations of vitakka/vicāra was more than just complaining about a weak translation.


Can you share an example where the term sangha was applied to a group of spiritual seekers? The example you gave is for a herd of deer. I don’t think anyone would dispute that literally sangha could just be defined as a group. The issue is whether it is used to describe a group of lay spiritual seekers as it is being used in some communities today.


I understand what you are saying but the issue you are raising is making my point. Sangha is used to describe the Buddhist monastic community as well as many other groups including lay followers, communities of other sects and even the family unit.

If sangha has such a broad common use flexibility as to also describe animals (non-humans) on what possible grounds could a retroactive restrictionist reinterpretation be considered valid?

Providing further citations would be an exercise in ‘beating-a-dead-horse’ and I don’t want to repeat Frank’s endeavor of wasted time/effort.

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Hmm. I don’t think so. I’m talking about how the word is actually used, not how someone could use it.

Just one where it is used to describe a group of lay disciples would be helpful. This is a discussion after all. If you don’t want to provide one, perhaps someone else might.

I think part of the problem with the modern use of the word Sangha to refer to your Tuesday night meditation group is that many of these folks say explicitly that when you go for refuge to the Sangha you are going for refuge to the folks who are sitting next to you. And that, wouldn’t you agree, is a new and wholly unorthodox meaning?

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I am unconcerned with the existence of such examples, because anyone who is literate in Pali and has read a reasonable amount of root texts would be aware of them. Someone else is more than welcome to provide them.

Who cares what a bunch of non-serious people do with their time? If they wanted to call themselves noble disciples it would still be unconerning. Why should I feel threatened by them?

Samma Samādhi=Brahmacariyā+Samma Diṭṭhi

They are just have fun. Samādhi isn’t a casual thing for people wrapped up in worldly affairs to dip their toes in.

People LARPing, having fun, and fulfilling the human need for community poses no special threat to the dispensation. In general they aren’t being taken seriously in any substantive manner and also aren’t trying to strong-arm modern ideas into the Pali suttas with any real success. If anything they serve as a gateway drug for a small number of people to become serious practitioners.

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There is scant basis in the suttas for group mediation, should we then also condemn monasteries for conducting group meditation retreats for laity?

I think not.

Sangha is a very simple, broadly used common word in the suttas.

I make this easy for myself. I bow to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.
Sangha is the community for the “disciples who have practised well”. Mostly the monastic community but also every being out there who practice sincerely according to the Suttas and tries to turn away from the world “we know”.

I can’t contribute words to this topic, sorry.
I think some things have changed in the last 2600 years and everybody will take the words in, so that his/her mind comprehends it best and is most useful to reach Nibbana. As long we don’t slip of the path and twist and turn words to find excuses to indulge in our senses and “model” our world the way our mind wants it, we are fine.
“With steadfast mind, applying themselves in the Dispensation of Gotama…”
:pray: :herb:


Awesome list, Ayya.

Yes, I’m not sure about Thai usage.

That’s a good one. Almost everything people think they know about satipatthana is derived from there.

Typically, yes. There are passages such as:

Sāvatthiyaṁ piṇḍāya caritvā pacchābhattaṁ piṇḍapātapaṭikkantā

Which literally would be something like:

Having wandered for alms in Savatthi, after the meal, having returned from (eating) alms-food

So probably that’s where the idiom gets blurred.

Yes, this one I find annoying!

And there’s an ambiguity in the EBTs, too: originally pabbajjā and upasampadā meant the same thing (and they do so in the Suttas), but pabbajjā came to mean novice ordination. The later sense is emerging in the Vinaya.

Lol. Also sūtra = “spell”.

As they say in Myanmar: if you know the Vinaya you can kill a chicken! (And no, this is not meant as an excuse for killing! It’s a pointed joke: purely legal expertise can allow you to argue your way into positions that are obviously immoral.)

Also true!

And relatedly, it’s sometimes hard to know through what influences words came to have a presence in the society. In English, a lot of words and ideas assimilate primarily from Hinduism (yoga, karma), and in different ways this happens in Asian languages too.


Yes, บริเวณ in Thai means something like “area” or “vicinity”.

I’ll add one that tripped me up:

ārammaṇa: [Thai] emotion

[Edit:] And the Thai words for karma get a bit mixed up too:

kamma: bad karma
pāramī: charisma

Also, Thai seems to have restricted taṇhā, rāga, and kāma exclusively to sexual desire?


As I understand it, meanings of the ‘dhamma’ in the Suttas, apart from the Buddha’s teachings:

  1. natural/universal law or principles, that all Buddhas teach (they describe in words and show by their triple actions) (DN 28),
    4 Noble Truths
    and law of nature as in Dhammapada 1.5. (an ancient law - “dhammo sanantano.”)

  2. Things , qualities. eg. Dhp 20.279
    “All things are not-self—
    “Sabbe dhammā anattā”ti,”

Translations vary.
Would you please explain how was the word ‘dhamma’ used before the Buddha, in Upanishads?

Thanks. :pray:

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I believe we would transliterate the Sinhala පිරිවෙන as pirivena. Curious, what is the meaning of parivena as a Pali word?

That’s interesting. I had only heard the term used as part of Buddhasasana. I didn’t even know ordination lineages were a thing in Sri Lanka other than the nikayas.

The Sinhala word āgama means religion. As in kristāgama, Christianity.


The most exposure to print Sinhala I have had is from reading newspaper articles from the 1990s re the bhikkhuni revival.

“Bhikshuni-upasampada-shasanaya” is the normal way the bhikkhuni higher ordination lineage is referred to in those articles. I’ve asked a few people about it, one said the usage is incorrect, the other said it’s an extension of the concept of a teaching lineage. But yeah, a bit of a strange usage, but not so strange that it couldn’t make headlines in major SL newspapers.

Pirivena is to parivena as pirikara is to parikkhara.

In the vinaya, parivena is either the surrounding (buildings) of a monastery or the veranda or yard, it’s not 100% clear. The use as school probably came from a widespread practice of using a veranda, yard or outbuilding for the monastery school.


Or as the Youth say, lowkey: mood.

In the same vein:

  • vedanā = pain
  • saṁvega = quiet sadness

Hmm, not sure about that.

Not sure, that’d be an interesting bit of research. I don’t think it’s used nearly as much.

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