Rethinking parimukha

:warning: I subsequently wrote another essay with a different conclusion.

Some time ago we discussed the tricky term parimukha/pratimukha, to inconclusive results. I am just reviewing the evidence and gathering my thoughts.

First, we have two distinct forms: parimukha in the Pali and pratimukha in the Sanskrit. (The Chinese translations do not seem to add any clarity, and I haven’t examined the Tibetan.)

Parimukha is famously defined in late Pali canonical texts Vibhanga (Vb 12:43.4) and Patisambhidāmagga (Ps 1.3:47.11) as:

nāsikagge vā mukhanimitte vā
at the nose-tip or at the mukhanimitta

I’ll come back to the latter term.

In the Vinaya we find the same term used in the context of shaving, where monks are forbidden to shave parimukha. The commentary defines this as “the chest” (ura). I find this unlikely. The next term is aḍḍhaduka, where the commentary continues its southward journey, labeling it as “the stomach" (udara), which I find equally implausible. Aḍḍhaduka means “half a pair”, and surely it refers to shaving one half of the face. Likewise, parimukha here probably simply means “around the mouth”, i.e. shaving so as to leave the hair around the mouth, as in a “circle beard”.

So of the two ancient references to parimukha, one is connected with the nose, and one with shaving the face. That’s pretty specific!

Back to the passage on meditation. It normally appears in the passage on starting meditation. The line says one goes to the forest, sits down, sets the body upright. It is very concrete, and I think this setting rules out any abstract or metaphorical reading, such as “prioritized” (for which there is a perfectly good word, purekkhāra). This is for the early texts; it is likely that over time it became read in a more abstract way.

We return to the fact that the Pali and Sanskrit use different words here. Why is that? Perhaps they both derive from a dialectical word ambiguous to the two forms? Or perhaps the idiomatic senses were slightly different?

  • mukha is extremely broad in meaning, but fundamentally means “face, mouth”.
  • pari- has the root sense “around” (cf. English perimetre.)
  • prati- has the root sense “against”, especially in a reflective sense.

Now, the Sanskrit dictionaries give the following relevant senses for pratimukha:

  • the reflected image of the face
  • standing before the face, facing
  • being near, present
  • towards, in front, before

Up until now I have relied on the third of these senses, understanding the word in the sense of “presence” and translating it as “right there”. But I am now thinking this is too abstract.

Sanskrit also records parimukham but only in a single reference to Panini, “round or about the face, round, about (any person, etc.)”. On the other hand, Pali does not seem to record patimukkha at all.

Let me return to the phrase mukhanimitta. As noted, mukha is extremely variable in meaning, while nimitta is scarcely less so. The basic sense is a “sign”, while it may also mean an “indication, hint”, a “cause”, etc. Mukhanimitta, however, has a much more specific sense, “the reflection of the face” (mn15:8.3).

Now, you will notice that this accords exactly with one of the senses of pratimukha in Sanskrit, and more generally with the sense of the prefix prati-. I take this as a hint, however slender, that prati- may have been the original form, since its meaning is echoed in the Pali explanations. If so, this solves the fundamental problem that focusing attention “around the mouth” (parimukha) seems strange and is not supported by ancient sources.

What does it mean, however, to say one establishes mindfulness at the “reflection of the face”? I think it means just what it says. When you meditate, you bring up mindfulness in front of you, as if looking at your own reflection in the mirror.

This solves the problem of the inconsistent association of this phrase with breath meditation. If you review the old thread you’ll see that the phrase usually, but not always describes breath meditation. The two senses given in the Pali allow for this, either a direct spatial focus at the “tip of the nose”, or a more general awareness at the “reflection of the face”, i.e. “in front”.

One final detail that is easy to overlook. Since this is a stock passage that simply describes when a person is meditating, it is used not infrequently from the perspective of someone looking at the meditator. They see someone sitting, with their body straight, and their mindfulness established. Obviously mindfulness is an internal quality and cannot be directly observed. Still less could one observe the specific point at which a meditator is focusing. But there is something in the presence of a focused meditator. They have a posture of alertness, a sense of focus. I think this is what the observer is noticing. They are not just lounging around or drifting off.

And so, like the wayfinding bird, having examined every direction, I find myself returning to the comforting roost of agreeing with Bhikkhu Bodhi and most other translators. Thank you for joining me on my journey!


@Brahmali , your translation follows the commentary: are you still convinced?

Forbidding monks to shave around their mouth/face seems…odd, is it not? I would assume that’s precisely what one does when they shave their beard, neck, mustache, etc. Am I missing context? (I’d assume this is why the commentary explains it as ‘chest’ or some other non-mouth body part).

EDIT: looking at the context, this would contradict not growing sideburns, not growing mustaches, etc. in the same rule. Shaving the face would be necessary.


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I think it means the opposite: shaving so as to leave the hair around the mouth.

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Ah, makes sense. Like a circle beard :laughing:

Lol yes a circle beard.

As for the “half-shave” (aḍḍhaduka):

Let us give thanks, for the Buddha has saved us from many forms of suffering!


Unless of course this was considered the default meditation, or the phrase was inserted just by default Then we wouldn’t need the reflection concept.

I’ve never been convinced by “abstract or metaphorical reading[s]” either, such as prioritizing the mindfulness. I have taken it to mean “in front” as in, the meditation that is about to happen. But actually that is not supported by any other context. I tend to think now that it does refer to just the “opening” where the breath enters.

Thanks for the nice pictures of those shaves. Are we allowed to do it during the shaving process? I mean, you have to start somewhere! I’d like to try out that last one. :laughing: While nobody is looking of course. :face_with_peeking_eye: :man_beard:


Am I still convinced? Am I ever convinced? True conviction is hard to come by. Anyway, here are a few musings.

Aḍḍhaduka is a curious word. But could it really mean “half a dyad”? It seems like a strange way of saying half the face. Moreover, a beard style that covers half the face does not seem particularly likely. The group of six monks did what they did because they were vain. Has growing a beard on half your face ever been regarded as aesthetically pleasing? I somehow doubt it.

A major problem with aḍḍhaduka is that the reading is highly uncertain. CST gives the alternatives aḍḍhuraka (Sri Lankan) and aḍḍharuka (Thai). (The PTS edition gives a third alternative: aḍḍharūka.) The first of these is particularly interesting: it almost certainly means “half-chest-ed”. It could well be that this is the basis for the commentarial gloss. The actual commentarial reading may be due to a later “correction”, perhaps based on a change in the Canonical text.

If we start with aḍḍhuraka it is relatively easy to explain the other two forms, which weighs in favour of this reading. Aḍḍharuka can be explained as an a/u metathesis in aḍḍhuraka, which is all too common in oral tradition, especially with obscure words. Once the meaning was lost, aḍḍhaduka may have formed as a kind of further corruption, either by accident or through intentional “correction”. We would then see the following pattern of corruption: aḍḍhuraka > aḍḍharuka > aḍḍhaduka. If this is right, I should change my rendering from “sculpted their stomach hair” to “sculpted their chest hair”. And a note is required.

When it comes to parimukha, it does seem rather strange that this should refer to the chest rather than the face or the mouth. This is especially so if we take aḍḍhaduka /aḍḍhuraka as referring to the chest. (I mean, how many ways can there possibly be of dandying up your chest hair?) Perhaps, then, I should go with “circle beard”, as suggested by @Vaddha.


Maybe a beard style covering half of the chest. Like a goatee. That could be something a monk could do. :smile:


Thank you Bhante - this translation makes much sense to me. Parimukha as “around the face” seems very straightforward, and if we consider a nimitta to be a mental image or representation of an object, then perhaps it may also make sense to consider mukhanimitta as an instruction to attend to the mental representation of the face.

Thank you for your gift of the Dhamma.

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The original discussion contained the suggestion that parimukha could originally have meant parimokkha, i.e. "establish mindfulness around liberation”.

I still like this reading. It nicely fits the attitude that the Bodhisatta himself had when he sat down for his last un-enlightened meditation, namely that he set his mind towards liberation

‘Gladly, let only skin, sinews, and tendons remain! Let the flesh and blood waste away in my body! I will not stop trying until I have achieved what is possible by human strength, energy, and vigor.’

I mean, have you seen what people do in the name of vanity? “Hey, let’s cut the hair close on the top and sides, and just keep, like, a really long bit down the back. And we’ll name it after a fish.”

Yes, that does seem plausible. Etymologically I mean, not fashion-wise!

This is far too abstract. The overlap of ideas between patimukha and mukhanimitta make the answer fairly certain IMHO.


Respectful greetings Ajahn :pray: :pray: :pray:
Just fyi, for yourself or anyone else who may feel inspired to tag me in very learned Pali discussions like this (as has happened a couple times recently with several forum members), @Vaddha and I are not the same person, and I for one have not been suggesting circle beards to anyone :grin:


For which we are all truly grateful.


I don’t see the necessity to find a concrete meaning for parimukha only because the previous objects were concrete. After all “establishing mindfulness” is also a complex activity and not as concrete as crossing one’s legs. I like to keep different readings when the context is not forcing us otherwise.

A few examples from Chinese, in case these are helpful:

  • T. 1 (DA): 繫念在前 (at the fore)
  • T. 99 (SA): 繫念面前 (to the front)
  • T. 100 (SA-2) 繫念在前 (at the fore)
  • T. 125 (EA): 繫念在前 (at the fore)
  • T. 125 (EA): 繫意鼻頭 (tip of the nose)
  • T. 223 (Kumarajiva: Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra): 繫念在前 (at the fore)
  • T. 1546 (Xuanzang: Abhidharma Mahavibhasa Sastra): 繫念在前 (at the fore). In its analysis of 繫念在前 in fascicle 21, 在前 (ahead) is repeatedly contrasted with 在後 (behind).

Whoops! My apologies! Anyway, nice to see you here.

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My understanding is that a circle beard may also be a tad more conventional:


This is what I had in mind.

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If they had that sort of beard, they might have had a different nickname! “The group of the bearded six”, or perhaps, “The six beards with monks attached”. :thinking:


What does it mean for mindfulness to be set up behind? (genuinely curious, I have no exposure to the Abhidharma Mahavibhasa Sastra).

Also: Ven. Analayo identifies MA 187 at TI 734a 4: 念不向 (mindfulness which does not face?), as counterpart to parimukha sati in MN 112.

I personally have no opinion on Ven. Analayo’s identification here, but I guess that would mean reading parimukha as abhimukha if this were the case.

There is also a kind of Sanskrit autogloss of parimukha sati as being for the one who is pracinabhimukho in Mvu, in addition to kammatthanabhimukham in the Pali cmy.

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