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

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Also curious…


No, it’s “mendicant” in general contexts and “monk” or “nun” where it’s relevant. In the latter case, the most important are instances where there is a gender differentiation in the text itself, for example if it refers to “bhikkhus and bhikkhunis”.

In some cases knowing the gender is significant; for example in MN 44 Culavedalla the questioner is the nun’s former husband. And as a general principle, since the voices of women are relatively rare in the suttas, I think it’s important to make it clear when it is, in fact, a woman speaking. There are one or two places where previous translations have attributed words to men, but they were by women.

I’m a bit ambiguous as to cases where a specific “bhikkhu” is speaking, but the gender doesn’t really affect the text at all. In such cases I probably waver between attributing it to a “mendicant” and a “monk”.

This is the general principle I tried to follow, but there are grey areas so it’s not always going to be clear cut.

What do you think? Does that approach work?



You know, Bhante, i don’t know how long i’ve been around in this samsara through how many births. But, i find it a strange time we are in, in our contemporary Western English culture, where we have completely different words for male and female monastics, one from Latin and one from Greek. It is abnormal, even contemporarily in other languages, as well as in the ancient texts we are looking at. How did that happen?

And, i see, and often hear, how divisive it is, how much such language affects people’s minds, their ideas, and even their sense of capacity or capability for self or others. It is because of this that i care about it.

Having lived for years in other language contexts, as well as now for years back in the US in a largely English language context, i see and feel the difference.

I also recognize that contemporary language is a moving target; it’s continually being co-created by us, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I like bringing intentionality to these things as much as possible, together with understanding of conditional causation, knowing our role as co-creators.

I can’t tell you how often i’ve heard people comment, here in the US, or in international English language contexts, how “monks” and “nuns” are essentially different. Saying so based first in language, together with a whole tangle of related ideas, many of them, as you know, negative and incapacitating value judgments.

More than ten years ago, one of the topics brought up for council at our yearly Western Buddhist Monastic Conference in USA was what words we are using or would like to use for male and female monastics.

We discussed for a few hours, shared practices and perspectives from different communities. And then we had a vote, just to see how the preferences came out. There were several options proposed, and three that came up for the vote: (1) using “monks” for both male and female monks, like the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives and several of the Asian Buddhist traditions do in English translation; (2) using “monk” for male monastics and “nun” for female monastics, like you are here; (3) using the gender neutral “monastic/s” for both, as a way to be closest to the ancient traditions and most equal and neutral contemporarily, in a way already in use in the society and culture – in example, its common to speak about “monastic life” for either male of female monastics.

The result of the vote? A little less than one third preferred the first (complicated by the Theravada non-ordained nuns/female renunciates situation); about one third the second (also complicated by the very same situation, and who the word “nun” should be used for); and a little more than one third preferred the last.

I voted for the latter at that time. And i still do. That’s not to not appreciate the other options, or even the options that didn’t make the vote. Like just using “bhikkhu” and “bhikkhuni”, etc… I like it. Or, using “Sanghan” as done in Chinese and Korean, although i find that a little harder in English.

In our contemporary US English speaking culture, the word “nun” is heavily laden with negative baggage, i’m so sorry to say. Mostly not from Buddhism. But then, especially the women’s ordination situation in Tibetan and Theravada traditions, has added a whole mass of specially Buddhist baggage to that. “Monk” does not have that in our culture. And “monastic” doesn’t either.

Earlier in our conversation, i was noticing, with regards to “Ayya” or “Ayye”, used for both men and women in the Pali texts, how when we translate into English using the gendered terms “Lord/Lady” or “Master/Mistress”, how one, the male term, is generally contemporarily respected. It has retained a high status. And one, the female term, is not just a female equivalent of the male term – not at all.

Whether “nun,” or “mistress” or “madam”…

Sometimes we don’t see things until we really stop and take a look at them clearly. In this case…oh what a spotlight. I really see so much that is harmful, derogatory and debilitating in our culture. So much, that with right view, right mindfulness and right effort, we (i speak for myself) would not want to be knowingly perpetuating.

I really think, with the Buddha’s teaching and practice, we are so well placed to be bringing so much helpful and beneficial consciousness to this and so many other things… And it seems a rightful task of Buddhism to be doing so, at the individual level, at the interpersonal and relation levels, and in ever broadening spheres. All the way out to things that the canon tells us the Buddha taught about continental or global political leadership…or simple environmental things, like not throwing your waste into the water in a way that will harm living beings, or cause offence to those downstream.

Bhante, having been musician, you may understand i’ve just gone on a riff here…

Coming back, i’d rather we use words, whenever possible, with innate parity, like “monastic” and “monastics”. And add on gender descriptive words, prefixes or suffixes, just when called for in the context, as you said: “male monastics,” “female monastics.”

Or “male and female mendicants”…although “mendicants” is an even less commonly known English word here and gets confused with medicaments, which may be better known. And, with long-standing popularity: (*note, all male group).


I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate the complexities. Translation is a deeply unsatisfactory affair! Perhaps in future a new version can be made that will resolve these issues, which are in a state of rather drastic turbulence in the language of 2018. At the very least, I hope to have reduced the amount of gendered language.

Just FYI, the reason I preferred “mendicant” over “monastic” is that in the Buddha’s day, not all bhikkhu/bhikkhuni were living in monasteries. I think it aptly describes us today, but then, not so much.


You are still in such a fortunate position as English speakers! For German there are no gender neutral words for persons at all. In some cases something might work for the plural, but never for the singular!! :sob:

Still I like translation work… :smiley:



Thanks, Bhante. I remember you writing this elsewhere too. I don’t think we must equate being a monk (or monastic) with living in a monastery or being a nun with living convent–although these two (or three) are generally argued all together at the same time (and you are only arguing one part).

Just like to share the gist of several conversations between Buddhist and Christian monastics in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue here in US –

Q: “Why are you Buddhist monks called ‘monks’ when many of you don’t live in a monastery?”
A: “Because Buddhist monks don’t necessarily need to live in a monastery to be monks, and live a monastic life. Our monastic life, like the Buddha’s, can be, and originally was, peripatetic, a wandering life: “gone forth, free as air”. We are not avowed to a monastery like in Benedictine monasticism. Our monastic life is based on our ordination and precepts, which we carry with us wherever we go, even if we are staying at the roots of a tree, or alone in a cave, like the early Christian desert mothers and fathers.”

Q: “Why are Buddhist nuns called ‘nuns’ when they don’t live a cloistered life in a convent? In Catholic monasticism, the word ‘nun’ is only used for those who are cloistered.”
A: “Because, in Buddhism, being a ‘nun’ is not necessarily defined by living a cloistered life. It is defined by her renunciation and her precepts. Her precepts and her samvāra–her vow, her discipline–are her cloister.”

If i remember rightly, in my language studies a few years ago, we learned that the “mona” in “monk” and “monastic” and “monastery” has the same linguistic root as “muni” as in “Sakyamuni”! :blush: This language predates the Christian Rule of St Benedict that monks have to be avowed to a monastery for life, by at least 500, if not a 1000, years–or more. And it is certainly part of our Buddhist heritage.

So, we can have a bhikkhunī named “Moneyyā” or “Ayyā Munivarā”, who is a real and genuine monastic in Buddhism; she can undertake renunciation through training in the full 311 precepts of the Pātimokkha, and rightly live the perfectly complete holy life for complete ending of all suffering. (“Sadhu!”)

And then, with right knowledge and understanding, and rightly liberated in both ways, in her loving kindness and munificence, she can pronounce the excellent Dhamma: good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end, spreading that teaching far and wide, for the good and well-being of the many, for the happiness and benefit of the multitudes. (“Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!”)

She is a true monastic, a true renunciate, a true bhikkhu,* a true brahmin.* A blessing for gods and humans; a field of merit for the whole world.

(*Here i use “bhikkhu” and “brahmin” as gender-inclusive terms, as the Buddha himself is represented as doing time by time in the Pāli-text suttas.)

Mona {Mona} (nt.) [fr. muni, equal to *maunya taken by Nd as root of moneyya] wisdom, character, self-possession Sn 540 (°patha=ðāṇa-patha SnA 435), 718, 723; Nd1 57; Nd2 514 A (=ðāṇa & paððā); Th 1, 168.

Moneyya {Moneyya} (nt.) [fr. muni, cp. Vedic moneya] state of a muni, muni-hood; good character, moral perfection. This is always represented as 3 fold, viz. kāya°, vacī°, mano° (see under muni), e. g. at D III.220; A I.273; Nd1 57; Nd2 514 A (where also used as adj.: moneyyā dhammā properties of a perfect character). Cp. also Sn 484, 698, 700 sq. On moneyya-kolāhala (forebodings of the highest wisdom) see the latter.

Bhante, just like to say how much i appreciate your work here. And i’m really sure, like you, we’re not going to be able to please everyone all the time. But that doesn’t mean we’re giving up on everyone! Holding it all in kindness and in freedom.


It’s interesting that we think of a monastic as someone who lives in a monastery, i.e. a religious community, since the word originally comes a Greek word meaning to live alone.

monastic (adj.)
mid-15c., from Middle French monastique “monkish, monastic,” or directly from Late Latin monasticus, from Ecclesiastical Greek monastikos “solitary, pertaining to a monk,” from Greek monazein “to live alone” (see monastery). Related: Monastical (c. 1400). Etymonline


Greetings Polarbear,
Yes, and these Greek and Latin words share root with their Indic counterparts, both in spelling and in tone of meaning, as we can see in the “Muni suttas” of the Sutta Nipata. Thus, in use, muni often meant a “silent sage,” and is still translated in this way. See for example, the very recent and very wonderful translation of an old (still living) forest hermit bhikkhu:

Here’s also Mill’s translation of the Muni Sutta on Sutta Central: SuttaCentral

[1209] From familiarity fear is born,
from household life arises dust;
no household, no familiar life—
such is the vision for the sage.

[2210] Who, cutting down what has grown up,
plants not again, supplies no means for growth,
they call that Sage who fares alone;

And, another lovely contemporary Dhamma Dana English translation of the whole collection:

Bhante, have you seen if the Path Press translation by Ven Nyanadipa linked to here can be shared on Sutta Central? It is so wonderful, the felt heart and spirit coming through so beautifully.


Thanks for the reply Bhante. I don’t know much about etymology except what I look up. But from the dictionaries I don’t see that anyone has made an etymological connection between muni and monastic.

Muni as one who is silent seems to be related to mūka.

Muni [cp. Vedic muni, originally one who has made the vow of silence. Cp. Chh. Up. viii.5, 2; Pss. of the Br. 132 note. Connected with mūka: see under mukha. - Muni PTS

Mukha (nt.) [Vedic mukha, fr. Idg. *mu, onomat., cp. Lat. mu facere, Gr. muka/omai, Mhg. mūgen, Lat. mūgio to moo (of cows), to make the sound “moo”; Ohg. māwen to cry, muckazzen to talk softly; also Gr. mu_qos word, “myth”; Ohg. mūla=Ger. maul; Ags. mule snout, etc. Vedic mūka silent, dumb=Lat. mutus=E. mute] 1. the mouth Sn 608, 1022 (with ref. to the long tongue, pahūta – jivha, of the Buddha or Mahāpurisa) - Mukha PTS

So it seems Muni may come from a different PIE root. The same root as mute which makes a lot of sense.

mute (adj.)
late 14c., mewet “silent,” from Old French muet “dumb, mute” (12c.), diminutive of mut, mo, from Latin mutus “silent, speechless, dumb,” probably from imitative base *meue- (source also of Sanskrit mukah “dumb,” Greek myein “to be shut,” of the mouth). Form assimilated in 16c. to Latin mutus. - Etymonline

Whereas monastic and monastery come from PIE root *men

*men- (4)
Proto-Indo-European root meaning “small, isolated.”
It forms all or part of: malmsey; manometer; monad; monarchy; monastery; monism; monist; monk; mono; mono-; monoceros; monochrome; monocle; monocular; monogamy; monogram; monolith; monologue; monomania; Monophysite; monopoly; monosyllable; monotony. - Etymonline



Can you trace the etymological root of the word ‘nun’? Thanks! :pray:


Just FYI, I only rely on a simple google search and prefer the Online Etymology Dictionary to Wiktionary.

nun (n.)
Old English nunne “nun, vestal, pagan priestess, woman devoted to religious life under vows,” from Late Latin nonna “nun, tutor,” originally (along with masc. nonnus) a term of address to elderly persons, perhaps from children’s speech, reminiscent of nana (compare Sanskrit nona, Persian nana “mother,” Greek nanna “aunt,” Serbo-Croatian nena “mother,” Italian nonna, Welsh nain “grandmother;” see nanny). - Etymonline

No PIE root mentioned.

Personally, I prefer the word Bhikkhunī to Nun.


Thank you very much!

That’s a bit what I was suspecting, and why I actually don’t like the word ‘nun’ for a female mendicant or monastic. The word ‘monk’ refers to a solitary way of life, whereas the word ‘nun’ rather depicts something like a kind elderly auntie… —very different connotations! (Nothing against kind elderly aunties, btw :wink:)

But I haven’t found a solution yet, especially for German (which has very related words for ‘monk’ and ‘nun’). We don’t have options like ‘monastic’ or ‘mendicant’.


What about “bettler”?


:joy: :rofl: Are you sure?

This has extremely negative connotations… You wouldn’t call your monastics ‘beggars’, would you?


If I am directly speaking to a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni I’d say Bhante, but I think it would be cool if, for example, Bhikkhu @sujato was known as Sujato the Beggar. I think there’s a spiritual tradition of taking lowly terms on for oneself and thereby both remaining humble while also elevating such terms to a higher meaning. Bhikkhu(ni) does mean beggar after all.

Bhutapubbam Sujato bhikkhu…

Once upon a time Sujato the Beggar…

I think it sounds cool. But I imagine it won’t catch on and I wouldn’t press my point. But I wish you luck in finding a suitable translation.


I think it’s two different things, interacting with a person or talking within a Buddhist circle, and translating Early Buddhist texts for the wider public. You cannot assume that people who are not Buddhists would understand this sort of reasoning you are making.

When I translate a sutta I’d not only do this for Buddhists but for everybody. Terms that are familiar within Buddhist circles and have a particular meaning there may have a very different meaning to someone else. If in my translations I’d use something like “insider” terminology the suttas would become very exclusive, and that would not be my intention.

Already now people who are not Buddhists often look upon Buddhist monastics as people who live on the expenses of others, let other people work for them and just enjoy a lazy life. If in the Buddhist texts themselves they were called ‘beggars’ this would further encourage such an understanding.


It’s a bit of a side note sorry, but it makes me think about the Carhusian Order in Catholicism. All the writings of the monks in this order are destroyed when they die but sometimes they publish the writings of one of them, when they are especially good and inspired I suppose… and these books are always anonymous, signed only with the words 'A Chartreux’, the name of the author is never mentionned.


I agree with Shravasti Dhammika here, where he objects to calling female monastics “monks.” He raises a valid question — why is it acceptable to refer to females with masculine language, but not to males with feminine language? Isn’t that a form of sexism in its own right? He states:

I suspect that that insidious American disease political correctness is at work here and indeed it is mainly in American Buddhist publications that I see these terms. But if it is political correctness then it is a poorly considered expression of it. ‘Female monk’ clearly still tips the balance towards the masculine gender; you are merely a female version of the male. If you genuinely wanted to redress the gender prejudice and add a bit of affirmative action language as well, you should actually start calling priests male priestesses and monks male nuns.


Nice use of bold, @TathaalokaBhikkhuni. And thank you for all that you have said in these posts, I found it very thought provoking and interesting reading.

Personally, I’m all for destroying and rebuilding language wherever necessary. (Although this is not the job of the translator which is a sacred art but therein lies our problem.). Minority groups have a long history of repurposing language, including strategies like re-appropriating insults, like the N word,or Queer, Fag, Dyke etc, as well as ‘innoventing’ new terms to describe themselves, such as non binary, or ze, zhim, etc. Friends of mine who have married and don’t want to do the patrilineal surname thing, either combine their names imaginatively or invent an entirely new name for themselves. Perhaps we could just invent a new term. ‘munk’ or ‘nunk’ or something?

Of course, making it ‘happen’ is the hard part, and I’m reminded of that moment from Mean Girls, (which is of course the apotheosis of high culture) when someone was trying to get a new slang word into popular use:


The language we have inherited is limited, but doesn’t have to remain so. It would require boldness!



Perhaps, and, there are some other things at work here too.

Ven Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, who was referred to in the original article, lives in Thailand. During my time in Thailand, i was continually called a “lady monk” or “female monk” by people, both monastic and householder Buddhists. Not because they were trying to be politically correct according to western standards, but rather just the opposite.

In native Thai language, people naturally call bhikkhus phra pu-chai (male phra) and bhikkhunīs phra pu ying (female phra). The word phra is an ordinary honorific used for ordained monastics in Thai Buddhism, and it is translated as “monk”. So out of this comes the English “male monks” and “female monks”. And the word mae-chee, which is used for white robed 8-precept women renunciates is generally translated into English as “nun.” So, at the Thai temple, it has happened on any number of occasions that someone referred to me as a “nun,” and then a well-meaning Thai person corrected them that “pben (she is) phra bhiksunī”; “she has buot phra (ordained as a phra) – you should not call her ‘nun’!”

And then sometimes here at the Thai temple in the US, another westerner (especially those with the western branches of the Ajahn Chah tradition), will jump in and correct the Thai person, and tell them; “No, that’s not correct. In English, we use ‘monk’ for males and ‘nun’ for females – with nuns it doesn’t matter whether they are ordained or not.” And then, the Thai person is really confused, or feels like the western person does not really understand their cultural situation, and what the meaning and distinction is. But doesn’t want conflict. “Why is English so confusing?!”

So, this is the situation that Ven Dhammananda is living with in Thailand. And it’s not only traditional Thai Buddhists who translate into English like this, but also Lao, Cambodian, and Burmese Buddhists, all the more so where Christianity has not become pervasive. And, i’m not saying here that they are wrong. I deeply appreciate it is a nuanced situation with many cultural factors and variables involved.

Another story ~

I mentioned earlier here that a few years ago, i did a study of the linguistic development of the words “monk” and “nun” in English and the precursor languages, wondering why we have separate words in English, when we don’t in most other languages. Even the words “monk” and “nun” come from in Greek and Latin both have both male and female counterparts. Its not the case that one is just for men and the other is just for women.

19 Mar 2009 note:

linguistics from my Christian monastic dialogue partners ~

  • “monk” and “nun” mean basically the same thing, only one is from Latin and the other is from Greek. in both the Latin and the Greek the words are very similar for men and women, showing only gender difference, but sharing the same root. Nonnus and Nonna are male and female monastics in Latin, as are Monakhos and Monakha in Greek, and as in the Italian monaco and monaca and Spanish monje and monja. The two Latin and Greek words directly translate into each other. So the ‘m’ and ‘n’ are interchangeable, as are the ‘o’ and ‘u’ in the words, and the ‘n’ or ‘nk’. all this to show that people’s jokes about “nunks” and “muns” really ARE linquistically justified… :>

So, i went on a search for the linguistic dividing point…

…and i came to a reference of a monastery in…where was it?..maybe Wales…old Welshe??? And in it, the brethren, the ordinary male monks, were called a word very much like “monks”. But the abbot, now, who sat on the high seat in the monastic refectory and gave sermons…he was the “nun”! – or a word very much like nun.

That was because in Old Welshe, if i remember rightly, that world like “nun” was used for The Grandmother. And The Grandmother was highly revered, and had a very important role in the family and community. A role those people back then, especially those monastics, felt akin to the role of the abbot in the monastery.


I trust you may get my point. I hope you know i’m smiling at heart. Not bitterly and painfully, but lightly… These are the things of our world.

Dependant origination (conditional causation) in everything…

Loving kindness and metta to all, boundless ~
Time to go back to the 24th Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering.