Questioning the translation of "Ayye" as "Ma'am" for bhikkhunis

In example: (from SC 2.1) -

1“[Upāsakas speaking to Kajaṅgalikā Bhikkhunī]Ma’am, this was said by the Buddha in ‘The Great Questions’: “Vuttamidaṃ, ayye, bhagavatā mahāpañhesu:

2.2‘One thing: question, passage for recitation, and answer. Two … three … four … five … six … seven … eight … nine … ten things: question, passage for recitation, and answer.’ ‘eko pañho eko uddeso ekaṃ veyyākaraṇaṃ, dve pañhā dve uddesā dve veyyākaraṇāni, tayo pañhā tayo uddesā tīṇi veyyākaraṇāni, cattāro pañhā cattāro uddesā cattāri veyyākaraṇāni, pañca pañhā pañcuddesā pañca veyyākaraṇāni, cha pañhā cha uddesā cha veyyākaraṇāni, satta pañhā sattuddesā satta veyyākaraṇāni, aṭṭha pañhā aṭṭhuddesā aṭṭha veyyākaraṇāni, nava pañhā navuddesā nava veyyākaraṇāni, dasa pañhā dasuddesā dasa veyyākaraṇānī’ti. 2.3How should we see the detailed meaning of the Buddha’s brief statement?” Imassa nu kho, ayye, bhagavatā saṅkhittena bhāsitassa kathaṃ vitthārena attho daṭṭhabbo”ti?

3.1“Good people, I haven’t heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha or from esteemed mendicants. “Na kho panetaṃ, āvuso, bhagavato sammukhā sutaṃ sammukhā paṭiggahitaṃ, napi manobhāvanīyānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ sammukhā sutaṃ sammukhā paṭiggahitaṃ; 3.2But as to how it seems to me, api ca yathā mettha khāyati 3.3listen and pay close attention, I will speak.” taṃ suṇātha, sādhukaṃ manasi karotha, bhāsissāmī”ti.

3.4“Yes, ma’am,” replied the lay followers [to Kajaṅgalikā Bhikkhunī]. “Evaṃ, ayye”ti, kho kajaṅgalakā upāsakā kajaṅgalikāya bhikkhuniyā paccassosuṃ.


Some people don’t like ma’am because it reminds them of elderly matrons.

I imagine nuns wouldn’t mind being seen as elderly matrons. While it is unlikely they will ever have children, or be in a child-rearing capacity, quite unlikely, being elderly is unavoidable eventually, and being a woman is generally equally as unavoidable, particularly for a woman.

Some people also use “…ma’am?” with a “certain tone of voice” to dismiss essentially anything coming out of the mouth of a lady over 30. But this is just because ma’am is a somewhat formal way to address a lady that has only recently, and only in certain places, fell out of use.

Ma’am is a shortening of madame, or “my lady”, and would have formerly referred to women of the nobility. English likes to use words derived from the Norman language when it is being formal. The process that takes madame and produces ma’am is the same as the process that takes ever and produces e’er.

To certain ears, though, I am sure it sounds odd. That being said, with it’s full etymology in mind and history, I think it is as good a choice as any similarly respectful English word would be.


Ma’am, can you be more specific?


Greetings, Bhante!

But what if i wrote: “Greetings Master!”?
Or, “Greetings Mister!”?

It resonates differently. Of course, “Mister” is just a contemporary form of “Master,” while “master” has not yet gone out of use. As similarly with “Madame” and “Ma’am”.

Actually, my understanding of the use of “Ayya” or more properly “Ayye” in Pali, whether for male or female, very well equates with our old English “Lord/Lady” and/or “Master/ Mistress”.

But i do not want to be called “Mistress” as translation of “Ayya” in contemporary language! Even less than “Ma’am”.

“Ayya” as a form of “Ariya”, as attested to in cross-traditional studies, could also be translated equally as “Noble”. But also, i don’t think many “Ayyas” would want to be called that! At least until they become arahantas/arahatis (they say).

Bhante, as “bhikkhuni” and “bhikkhu” have already made their way into the Oxford English dictionary, together with “Buddha,” “Dhamma” and “Sangha” –

Why not just let the English text say “Bhikkhuni” or “Bhikkhu” where it does in Pali, and just say “Ayye” or “Bhante” likewise? We are using these very commonly and widely now in contemporary Buddhist English…

Then we would have, as in the example at: SuttaCentral (from SC 2.1):

1“[Upāsakas speaking to the Kajaṅgalikā bhikkhunī]Ayye, this was said by the Buddha in ‘The Great Questions’: “Vuttamidaṃ, ayye, bhagavatā mahāpañhesu:

2.2‘One thing… [through to]…
3.4“Yes, Ayye,” the lay followers replied to the Kajaṅgalikā bhikkhunī or to Kajaṅgalikā Bhikkhunī. “Evaṃ, ayye”ti, kho kajaṅgalakā upāsakā kajaṅgalikāya bhikkhuniyā paccassosuṃ.


Thank-you Ayya :pray:
I feel the same way :slight_smile:



Because these sentences are utterly incomprehensible to anyone who is not part of the Buddhist community. :woman_factory_worker::man_firefighter::man_farmer::construction_worker_man::guardswoman: Try it: speak to someone random on the street, use all those words in a sentence and ask what they make of it. You might as well be speaking Klingon. :alien: Depending where you live, Klingon might be more comprehensible!

It’s a translation. The text should be translated.

I have written at some length on this elsewhere, but in my view retaining words in their original form in a translation is in almost all cases a mistake. One of the many reasons for that is that it feeds into the fundamentalist view that by doing so you preserve meaning. But Pali has evolved over 2,500 years, and almost all the commonly used words in Pali have a different meaning in contemporary Buddhism.

Take bhikkhu for example. It means “mendicant”. But in Sri Lanka, it is translated as “priest”. Now, a priest is:

one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God

Clearly the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis of the Buddha’s day were not priests. Yet it is not an entirely unapt word for the role played by many contemporary Sinhalese bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. When a modern Sinhalese reads the word “bhikkhu”, unless they have some education in early Buddhism, they will automatically think it refers to more or less what they are used to, i.e. “priest”.

The same goes for bodhisatta, samādhi, kamma, nibbāna, and well, pretty much every Pali word that is used in modern Buddhist culture.

For this reason when I started my translation I defined my translation project: everything is translated except for:

  • proper names (mostly),
  • names of plants or animals if unknown (in fact I managed to translate almost all these),
  • any words that are truly untranslatable (the main one of which is “brahmin”, for we have no word in English for a “hereditary member of a traditionally sacred caste who may or may not actual perform religious duties”).

If it makes you feel better, as an Australian I also don’t really like being called “sir”. Or “bhante” for that matter; “ajahn” even less. But I endure it for the sake of the sasana!


I didn’t know that , bhante! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Off the top of my head…

What about “brother” for monks and “sister” for nuns ?

Asian Buddhists find that disrespectful, as they use “brother” and “sister” to refer to fellow lay practitioners.

As is necessarily so with all new words generated by a small subgroup that enter into the broader language pool (aka the process of a living language).

Alas, this in no way guards against the delusion that just because a person is familiar with a word they understand anything about what it is being used to mean. Further, a few pointers to the fact the material being engaged with as a long history pan-cultural history worth pausing to consider is probably no bad thing (I somehow doubt referring to a bhikkhuni as a bhikkhuni will keep too many semantic fundamentalists’ fires alight).

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I’m not sure what point you’re making here? For many modern people, to continue my example, if they hear “bhikkhu” they will either not understand it at all, or will misunderstand it. If they hear “mendicant”, they may or may not be familiar with it, but if they are, it conveys the meaning reasonably well.

In many cases, even when words of Pali or Sanskrit derivation are found in a dictionary, the meanings are incorrect for the early texts. To take bhikkhu as example again, it is not found in the common online dictionaries I’ve checked. Wikipedia says it is a “male Buddhist monastic”. But a monastic is one who lives in a monastery; and at the time of the Buddha, bhikkhus did not necessarily live in monasteries. They are defined by their “mendicant” lifestyle, by walking for alms, not by living in a monastery. Once again, it is easy to read modern conditions—where bhikkhus do almost always live in monasteries—into the ancient texts, where this was evolving and changing over the Buddha’s life.

So no, we can’t guard 100% against misunderstandings. But when we have learned some things about early Buddhism, we can take what steps are available to us to depict what is happening in the texts as clearly and accurately as possible.

Okay, but it doesn’t change the fact that words have come to mean different things over time, and different things in different communities.

You’d be surprised. It is essential to all monastics’ livelihood that they be perceived as genuine heirs of the Buddha and the Sangha. In many modern contexts, to again come back to the same point, bhikkhus rarely if ever go for alms-round. They are no longer “mendicants” in the sense that the word was originally meant. Now, it is not up to me as a translator to say whether this is right or wrong. But it is up to me to recognize that this change has happened, and that it does shift the tenor and connotation of the word bhikkhu as used in the early texts. When this is made explicit it challenges modern Buddhists to not assume that what happens in the Sangha today is the same as it was then.


To continue your example, at least my experience has been that if I start talking to people about “monks” I’m also likely to end up getting into a bunch of confusion quite quickly. Turns out, I typically need to use many more words to get to somewhere where we’re both on a similarish page. Whether I start out using “bhikkhu”, or “monk” makes little difference.

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Ahh well, then it seems we shall have to start by eliminating all forms of delusion. After that, translation will be a doddle! :smile: :pray:


I see the problem, cultural adhesions exist for all terms. However, some terms are worse than others in this regard. Here’s another ‘view’ for your consideration

Sir and Lady for Bhante and Ayya.

Anyway - Good Luck! Impossible to please everyone :sweat_smile:


I have been quite shocked how many people have no idea what a monk is. I’m sure that “mendicant” would be far off the radar.

Personally, I think that the translation philosophy of “~all words translated” is not wrong, but it is clearly not perfect either.

For me it comes down to “criticizing a translation is easy, translating is very difficult.”


For sure. I recently moved from one of the most liberal areas in the US to a more conservative area in the middle of the country and the contrast is striking. I rarely heard “sir” or “ma’am” where I was before and now lots of people here use them without batting an eyelash. And “y’all” too which I quite like as it’s a great word!


Yes, that’s another option. I did try it for a while—maybe I should try it again.

Well that’s right, any translation project captures only part of the text, and then goes on to add its own baggage. I think it’s good to promote multiple different translations, each with a distinct focus and defined project.

Indeed, honorifics are very regional. The same holds true in Thailand, where the same words are used in very different ways in different parts of the country.


@sujato Mate. :wink:

As a little aside here (if I am reading it correctly). I am wondering why in this sutta translation you have chosen ‘nun’ for bhikkhunī rather than mendicant? Is that standard across your new translations? Mendicant for bhikkhu and nun for bhikkhunī?

I imagine that the following has been answered in another thread, so if you or someone could just direct me to the answer. Do you think that knowing the gender of the participants adds anything to the meaning of the sutta? Is this part of the “~all words translated” philosophy that @Snowbird refers to?

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This is absolutely true. I hope that despite the feedback you get from people that you remember how much appreciation we have for all your work.



Bhante, how about “Venerable Sir” and “Venerable Lady”. The former is in common use in international English-language Buddhism. And it makes clear in translation that these words are being used as honorifics, which they certainly are in the original context.

Or, as IB Horner: “Honorable Sir”. And although she didn’t use it: “Honorable Lady”.

Or, as these words were used for the nobility, and then either the Buddha or the early members of the Sangha choose then to use these words for all members of the Sangha irregardless of their class background: “Noble Sir” and “Noble Lady”. It is purely English, and a very proper literal translation*, which makes clear the honorable nature and use of the words. (*although we are adding on more gender words than in the original by using “sir” and “lady” in addition to “noble”)

It actually seems less mortifying and more inspiring than “Venerable Sir” or “Venerable Lady” to our sense over here on the mid-western side of the North American continent, because “venerable” has such a very high meaning of respect in the culture; even more so than “noble”.

If we as monastics feel mortified to hear “noble” used for us because we don’t yet have any superior noble attainments or because we are trying to reduce our pride, we note that challenge can arise all the more so when people bow down to pay respects. And, there are tons of excellent teachings from the Buddha we can and should put into fruitful practice with that situation to become free of these traps and tangles.

Which, thanks to Sutta Central and others, is ready available and accessible.