Possibly More Suitable Translations of Popular Pali Words

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May this thread be used for discussing alternate translations of popular Pali words.

Pali: dukkha
Popular translation: suffering, stress
Potentially more suitable translation: sadness, unhappiness
Reasoning: in current Indian languages, dukkha and sukha are commonly used simply ordinary words that seem most equivalent to sadness and happiness, sad and happy, etc.

Pali: sati
Popular translation: mindfulness
Potentially more suitable translation: memory, carefulness
Reasoning: mindfulness seems to have come from the Judeo-Christian context meaning “keeping the mind full of God.” Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be a simply, ordinary word that fits with the rest of the seven parts of the eightfold path (view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration). “According to Robert Sharf, smṛti originally meant “to remember”, “to recollect”, “to bear in mind”, as in the Vedic tradition of remembering the sacred texts. The term sati also means “to remember”.”

Pali: bhavana
Popular translation: meditation
Potentially more suitable translation: cultivation, development
Reasoning: "To explain the cultural context of the historical Buddha’s employment of the term, Glenn Wallis emphasizes bhavana’ s sense of cultivation. He writes that a farmer performs bhavana when he or she prepares soil and plants a seed. Wallis infers the Buddha’s intention with this term by emphasizing the terrain and focus on farming in northern India at the time in the following passage:

I imagine that when Gotama, the Buddha, chose this word to talk about meditation, he had in mind the ubiquitous farms and fields of his native India. Unlike our words ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation,’ Gotama’s term is musty, rich, and verdant. It smells of the earth. The commonness of his chosen term suggests naturalness, everydayness, ordinariness. The term also suggests hope: no matter how fallow it has become, or damaged it may be, a field can always be cultivated — endlessly enhanced, enriched, developed — to produce a favorable and nourishing harvest.
Bhavana - Wikipedia

Pali: tanha
Popular translation: craving
Potentially more suitable translation: thirst, psychological thirst
Reasoning: Tanha (Pāli: Taṇhā , also tanha ; Sanskrit: tṛṣṇā , also trishna ) literally means “thirst,” and is commonly translated as craving or desire.

Please feel free to offer feedback for these alternate translations and provide your own ideas and examples regarding this topic here too.


Hi SeriousFun136,
It’s great to see your awareness of how different translations of specific words can effect our responses to what we read.

If you want to follow up on the many discussions that already exist on the meanings of difficult terms you can use the search button (top right) to see what has already been said about these and other terms.

As we keep the Translation category on this discussion board for the more scholarly types to thrash out problems they encounter when they are working on particular texts (and as the Discussion category is for discussing texts) I’m going to move this to the Watercooler.

I hope you enjoy the general discussion as it evolves. :smiley:


In English ‘thirst’ is sometimes used as a substitute for ‘craving’, especially in literary contexts. I rather suspect that’s not the case in all languages.


For me, sadness, unhappiness are unsatisfactory translations of the spectrum I understand dukkha to be; they are particular nuances of unpleasant feelings. I am leary of trying to conform Buddhist thought with contemporary meanings of Indian languages; contemporary meanings in languages are kites moved by the world’s winds.

Your analysis for mindfulness seems to insert Deism, which appears to disagree with etymology mindful | Origin and meaning of mindful by Online Etymology Dictionary (which attributes to “mindful” etymology “of good memory.”)

Redefinition can make discussion difficult or impossible. Imo it should be done rarely and with care, as can cultivate confusion and identity view. I’d rather read a new translation in context, than a list of new suggested definitions severed from texts or previous discussions.


Interesting point. But my guess is that the meaning of the word in this particular case seems (to me) to have been stable over a long time, since the way the words dukkha and sukha are paired in contemporary Indian languages seem quite similar if not identical to the way that they might be paired in pre-Buddhist Hindu texts.

Does suffering seem to be a better alternative?
From my understanding, it seems that the Buddha preferred to use the most easily understood simple and ordinary words. While you might be right that the word sadness doesn’t capture the meaning in the Buddhist context, one could argue that the Indian word “dukkha” didn’t capture the meaning what what the Buddha was trying to convey in the first noble truth - that he might have taken a simple word like sadness and redefined it to mean something much more profound and far-reaching than what the word originally meant.
My guess is that the Buddha would use a simple English word that even children could understand the same way he seems to have chosen the word dukkha to express a meaning that is definitely not captured in the ordinary meaning of the word dukkha in both contemporary nor ancient Indian languages.
I think that the word dukkha and sukha often were paired together to mean sadness and happiness in the sense of “pain and pleasure” - perhaps the Buddha used it both in this sense as well as in a deeper sense as well when he taught?

Perhaps you are right on this count.
But even so, my point about choosing ordinary and simple words still holds: if mindful means “of good memory,” why use a words besides memory to express the meaning of the word memory?

To be honest, I think that we are in agreement and that you are spot-on on this fundamental point.
It would probably be significantly more suitable to formulate a full and complete translation of the Dhamma-Vinaya text and experiment with suitable translations for words and phrases this way - the impact of this might be far more valuable than translating individual words detached from the texts.


Indeed. I have no interest in thinking as or becoming Hindu, or feeding the view that Buddha was Hindu.

While also unsatisfying, it seems to me to be unsatisfying in a different way, one that invites or requires further examination.

I think the Buddha chose words out of wisdom and compassion, for different audiences, all to the purpose of teaching the 4 Noble Truths to the world. Some of those words were simple and ordinary, some were not, all fit for the occasion of that speech; those that we have were deemed worthy of being remembered and recited and examined and translated as best can be done, by those who translate.

There seems to me to be more speculation, interpretation, and presumption in such arguments than I can engage in at this time. However, that is perhaps a personal preference.

Hmm. I cannot agree. Buddha, AFAIK, never said “let the little children come to me”; Jesus is said to have said that, inspiring much thought and writing on that theme among Christians. Beautiful ideas, but not imo especially Buddhist.

But it does not mean that; that is only its etymology. I do not think the words “mindful” and “memory” are interchangeable.

I look forward to reading your work, if you do this work and share it.


A general difficulty I see here is that the meaning of words can depend on context, so the same Pali term can have different meanings in different suttas.
Partly for that reason, I think it is inadvisable to attach to single word translations of Pali terms.


“Thirst” is also popular slang for “lust”, like if someone is “thirsty” they are lustful. I think that’s a pretty neat feature of early 21st century slang prefigured by the Blessed One twenty-five centuries prior.


Thinking about dukkha and sukkha…
thinking about translation and meaning…
…one tangentially realizes that…

Saying Adukkhamasukhāya is just soooooo very wonderful on its own. It becomes an endlessly chantable mantra that slips us into blissful onomatopoeia. Not sure how one would translate that…

Perhaps the purpose of any translation is to simply introduce us to the chorus of translations that giftwrap the Dhamma.

MN102:22.7: When neutral feeling ceases, spiritual bliss arises; and when spiritual bliss ceases, neutral feelings arises.


MN102:22.7: Adukkhamasukhāya vedanāya nirodhā uppajjati nirāmisaṃ sukhaṃ, nirāmisassa sukhassa nirodhā uppajjati adukkhamasukhā vedanā.



lol, my statement was a response to what you said here:

I meant that the meaning of the words dukkha and sukha seem to have endured relatively stably across a vast amount of time - what they mean in contemporary languages seems to closely if not identical to what they meant even prior to the time of the Buddha. Thus, your claim that the contemporary meanings in languages are kites moved by the world’s wind may not be false per se, but might overestimate just how quickly they may change. In any case, my response had nothing to do with thinking as or becoming Hindu or feeding the view that the Buddha was Hindu.

So yes, you think suffering is a better alternative translation for the word dukkha than say sadness or unhappiness is?

Fair enough. Well-said.
Even so, the word “dukkha” is quite common in many Indian languages and seems to have remained relatively stable in meaning over a large duration of time. Western translators seem like they would do well to heed these in their pursuit to find the most suitable ways to translate texts which were originally spoken in, perhaps some dialect of Prakrit, lest the translations deviate significantly towards inaccurate and unsuitable translations of even the most basic words used by the Buddha. These deviations seem like they could easily add up little by little cumulatively until the meaning of the translation as a whole could become significantly different from what was originally said.

Arguments in favor of translated English words like mindfulness, suffering, craving, etc. seem like they are also based on quite a bit of “speculation, interpretation, and presumption” as well.
It’s interesting how often I am told by those who favor defending such popular (though possibly unsuitable) translations not to cling to words as they themselves continue to cling to the popular translations.

Furthermore, I don’t think that there is much speculation in arguing that the Buddha preferred using more easily understandable words than esoteric jargon and overly-technical obscure terminology - yes, he probably did use technical terminology if it fit the occasion like I think that you rightly pointed out, but definitely not unnecessarily so.

I don’t hear people say the word “mindful” as often as I hear people say “careful” or “memory.” I have heard people ask what “mindfulness” means, but I have rarely heard people ask what careful or memory means. I do not think the Buddha actually used an equivalent of the English words “mindful” or “suffering,” etc. in real life. I think he used simpler and more easily understood words. This is my view based on my understanding so far, which I acknowledge could turn out to be either false or further refined.

I never claimed that he did though.
My point was that I think the Buddha used relatively simple, ordinary, and easy-to-understand words over esoteric, obscure, overly-technical jargon.

Thank you for clarifying.

That makes sense.
It begs the question: how did a word (sati in Pali or smṛtiin Sanskrit) which meant to remember, recollect, or bear in mind become translated as mindfulness instead of the more obvious translation of memory?

It’s a big ‘if’, but if I am actually able to deliver on something like this, then I would appreciate that very much. Thank you. :pray:

I agree.

Good point!

Makes sense.

Exactly! :sweat_smile:
Exactly my thought! :upside_down_face:

This seems to translate more suitably as:
“When neither-sad-nor-happy feelings end”
“When neither-painful-nor-pleasurable feelings end”
“When neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feelings end”

There is a discourse in which the Buddha warns that badly set down words and phrases lead to badly interpreted meanings. Thus, it seems like not all translations are equally accurate or valuable!



:slight_smile: This observation appears to be true. It’s possible the complexities I see are different from the complexities you or others see. This is one reason conversation can be beneficial.

I posted in response to this.


Which observation?


I agree :slightly_smiling_face:

Thank you :pray: I shall continue to consider all of your feedbacks.

If you have or anyone else has more, I would be interested in considering those too.


Another reason this may be true is because most words even in English usually have several definitions that are usually a sentence. I also heard one scholar say that in his opinion some pali words might be better translated in English with two or more words. I tend to agree with that.

For example, for me, in the context of meditation, present moment awareness is a more helpful translation of sati than mindfulness.

Thanks for the original post. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with positing different ideas as we explore the Dharma. I’m pretty sure there’s significant room for improvement and growth in our understanding of what the Buddha taught 2500 years ago.

With metta,


This is an explanation of sati according to modern teachers, but it’s not really what sati means in the suttas. For starters, there’s no concept of “present moment” in the suttas . I know, right! :mindblown: “Awareness” in the sense of “all-round perception of context” is closer to sampajañña, which I translate as “situational awareness”.

Asanga, perhaps the greatest of the ancient Indian commentators, defined sati thusly:

What is mindfulness? The non-forgetting by the mind of the [previously experienced] object. Its function is non-distraction.
smṛti katamā / saṃsṛte vastuni cetasaḥ asaṃpramoṣo 'vikṣepakarmikā

GRETIL text: Asanga: Abhidharmasamuccaya


While this is one of the best succinct definitions I have seen, still it is not entirely in line with the EBTs, as the concept of “object” belongs in Abhidharma and is not found in the suttas.

It’s taken a lot of work to uncover all these changes in usage, and many of them are still not widely understood.

As a gentle tip, one of the first bits of advice I give to sutta students is to be wary when you read things according to what is helpful. What this means is that you’re translating the Dhamma into what you see in your own context. But the Dhamma is not for you. It is by the Buddha, speaking to different people in a different time and place. To understand it, we have to enter into that world, and not insist that that world adapts to ours. If we always adapt the Dhamma to what is relevant for us, we preclude the possibility of radical transformation.

Is the Dhamma, then, relevant? That’s for us to find out! I think so. But if it isn’t, that’s a discovery.

I’m glad Wallis says this is his imagining, because that’s exactly what it is. If we want to make a textual argument, we have to focus on specific readings in specific contexts. Imagination should inform and enrich our readings, but it doesn’t substitute for them.

The term bhāvanā can be translated as meditation, development, or cultivation, all of which can work fine in different contexts. But so far as I know, it is already a quite abstracted and normal word in the language; it doesn’t retain the “smell” of any rural metaphor. I may be wrong: give me some examples and specifics!

Language always moves from a metaphorical basis in some concrete reality, towards a more abstracted application. Abstract language is, in fact, made of dead metaphors. It is tempting when playing around with a language to notice certain etymological connections and over-determine the power of their associations. But if you look closely at how you use language, mostly words just mean what they mean, and it’s only when we get into poetry or word-play that the metaphors get revitalized.

During the process of evolution, the loss of the concrete metaphorical basis is not abrupt or clear-cut; it can vary in different historical stages, between users or contexts. So a sensitive and contextual reading is always required.

It’s not uncommon to find a word in the suttas that retains something of its concrete roots, which by the time of the Abhidhamma has lost it entirely. Yoniso springs to mind; in the suttas, it is almost always associated with its root idea of “womb” in the sense of understanding causes. But later on it just meant “carefully, properly, wisely”.

The very first words, however, to lose their metaphor, are the most common, basic ones, like “to do” or “to be”. Bhāvanā, from the root bhū “to be”, has an extremely wide variety of forms and applications in Pali. It’s almost purely abstracted, and its meaning should be inferred from context and usage; the dictionary lists only abstracted uses. If you think “cultivation” is a good rendering, fine, but any connection with agriculture is probably best left to the imagination.


I’ve thought about dukkha as disappointment, but it may be too weak. However, craving and clinging to the impermanent unavoidably yields disappointment, sometimes very grave disappointment. The cessation of wanting/craving and clinging means the end of disappointment in this very life, while still allowing for some pain, which the suttas suggest can become very severe even for an arahant.


I definitely agree that “disappointment” is a form of dukkha.
The limitation I sense with this particular translation is that it play into the pop culture/new age spiritual perspective that the problematic part of life is not the bad things that happen, but one’s expectations that good things will happen which sets one up for disappointment when those good things don’t happen and bad things happen instead.
However, it seems like the Buddha meant for the word dukkha not just to include disappointment that one’s expectations weren’t fulfilled, which is definitely a form of dukkha, but also the bad things themselves, especially very real, real-life sad events like aging, illness, and death. The Buddha seems to claim that it is possible to end these and there is a way to do so.


Generally speaking, I’ve found that focusing on etymology and word origins goes hand-in-hand with learning languages. It reminds me of how East Asians teach Chinese characters/Kanji characters. They often break them up, give simple meanings to the parts, etc to help the learners internalize the words they represent. Eventually, you drop all of that as you become more fluent.

I run into people asking me about characters sometimes, and they start excitedly reciting how this radical means fire and that one is sun. It’s great to see the enjoyment of grasping the meanings. But at some point I have to try to gently point out that it’s just a word. Sure, the main radical will often give you an idea of the type of word it is, and the other half will tell you how to pronounce it. Fire radical characters will deal with cooking. Bird radical words will be names of … you guessed it … birds. But that’s as far as it actually goes.

The trouble with ancient, dead languages is that it’s difficult to become fluent in them. Nobody speaks them as a living language, really. Not as they were at the time the ancient texts were written. It much more difficult to really get to fluency. The only way to do it is reading. Lots of readings. Coupled with background research to keep yourself grounded and not floating off into your own personal version of what the words mean. It’s tough to do.


Yes, I do realize this. There are problems with it being too narrow and too weak. But clinging to the impermanent leads to this particular kind of suffering in more obvious and direct way than other forms of suffering do. But ultimately I don’t think it can be a a universal stand in for dukkha, for the reasons you mention.


:pray: :pray: :pray:

Personal vision can be so exciting and enticing … and also misleading :cry:

It’s hard work learning any language. Learning about the contexts in which ancient languages were used is challenging. … But in the end so much more worthwhile than going down the “I really want it to mean such and such” path.


In French, I like to translate “dukkha” by “souffrance-insatisfaction”, which in English would be “suffering-dissatisfaction”.