Sakãya niruttiyã revisited / Vin. 2.139

Continuing the discussion from The Proto-History of Buddhist Translation, lecture by Jan Nattier:

The Buddha wanted his very words, in his own vocabulary and designations, memorized, repeated and recited. This is the gist of the Cullavagga incident, and the significance of the phrase sakaya niruttiya. (Levman, Bryan Geoffrey (2008-2009): Sakaya niruttiya revisited. In: Bulletin D’Etudes Indiennes 26-27, S. 33–51).

I would like to pick up this topic again: Did the Buddha allow his mendicants to use their own dialect?

The topic is raised in SuttaCentral

Now at that time Yameḷu and Tekula were the names of two monks who were brothers, brahmins by birth, with lovely voices, with lovely enunciation. They approached the Lord; having approached, having greeted the Lord, they sat down BD.5.194at a respectful distance. As they were sitting down at a respectful distance, these monks spoke thus to the Lord: “At present, Lord, monks of various names, various clans, various social strata have gone forth from various families; these corrupt the speech of the Awakened One in (using) his own dialect. Now we, Lord, give the speech of the Awakened One in metrical form.” The Awakened One, the Lord rebuked them, saying:

“How can you, foolish men, speak thus: ‘Now we, Lord, give the speech of the Awakened One in metrical form’? It is not, foolish men, for pleasing those who are not (yet) pleased …” And having rebuked them, having given reasoned talk, he addressed the monks, saying:

“Monks, the speech of the Awakened One should not be given in metrical form. Whoever should (so) give it, there is an offence of wrong-doing. I allow you, monks, to learn the speech of the Awakened One according to his own dialect.”

Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma bhikkhū dve bhātikā honti brāhmaṇajātikā kalyāṇavācā kalyāṇavākkaraṇā. Te yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkamiṃsu, upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ nisīdiṃsu. Ekamantaṃ nisinnā kho te bhikkhū bhagavantaṃ etadavocuṃ—“etarahi, bhante, bhikkhū nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā. Te sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṃ dūsenti. Handa mayaṃ, bhante, buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropemā”ti. Vigarahi buddho bhagavā … pe … kathañhi nāma tumhe, moghapurisā, evaṃ vakkhatha—“handa mayaṃ, bhante, buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropemā”ti. Netaṃ, moghapurisā, appasannānaṃ vā pasādāya … pe … vigarahitvā … pe … dhammiṃ kathaṃ katvā bhikkhū āmantesi—“na, bhikkhave, buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropetabbaṃ. Yo āropeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassa. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṃ pariyāpuṇitun”ti.

And is addressed by Bryan Levman in Sakaya niruttiya revisited. For discussion purposes I have attached his paper. The questions are:

  1. nirutti is not dialect/language?

  2. sakaya refers to the Buddha and not the mendicants?

  3. therefore the Buddha dictates that his teachings are to be recited (and taught) in the Buddha’s own expressions and words?

Would you agree with Levman’s conclusion? I would especially like to invite the Venerables @Brahmali, @sujato and @Dhammanando to express their opinion if they feel so inclined, but of course everyone else is welcomed to discuss. :pray:

Levman - Sakaya niruttiya revisited - Kopie.pdf (2.7 MB)


This can hardly mean “They corrupted the Buddha’s teaching by using his [the Buddha’s] own language”!

There was a persuasive paper some time ago that argued that nirutti means “terminology” rather than “dialect”, and I have adopted that rendering.


Levman also makes the case for “terminology” for nirutti, although he does not use this excact term. He argues that since sakāya occurs twice it refers to two parties: at the first occurence it refers to the mendicants and in the second to the Buddha.

the grammatical subject of the first sentence is “the monks", therefore, “own language" must be their own language; in the second sentence the grammatical subject is “I” … so “ own language" must refer to the Buddha


Hi Florian,

Yes, I have read Levman’s paper as part of my translation of the Vinaya Piṭaka. I cannot now recall all the details of his argument, but I agree with his conclusion that nirutti means “terminology” rather than language. The great thing about this is that it does, I think, resolve the meaning of the Vinaya passage in question. Clearly it makes sense that we should use the Buddha’s terminology, especially if this is understood to mean his categories of discourse, such as the five khandhas, the sequence of dependent origination, etc, etc. So I agree with Levman here.

This conclusion implies that this Vinaya passage is neutral as far as language is concerned. And there is no indication anywhere else that one should not use one’s own language. In fact, MN 139 makes it fairly clear that one should be flexible with language use, which is precisely what the monks have been historically, with translations into Chinese, etc.

Here is my current translation of the passage you quote:

At this time there were two monks called Yameḷa and Kekuṭa, brothers born into a brahmin family, who were well-spoken and had good voices. They went to the Buddha, bowed, sat down, and said, “Venerable Sir, the monks now come from a variety of families, clans, and classes. They corrupt the word of the Buddha by using their own expressions. Now we could give metrical form to the word of the Buddha.” The Buddha rebuked them, “Foolish men, how can you say such a thing? This won’t give rise to confidence in those without it …” after rebuking them … the Buddha gave a teaching and addressed the monks:

“You should not give metrical form to the word of the Buddha. If you do, you commit an offense of wrong conduct. You should learn the word of the Buddha using its own expressions.”

Here are a couple of notes I have on this:

Sakāya niruttiyā. Nirutti is found at bhikkhu-parājika 2 (several occurrences), where its contextual meaning must be “expression” or “manner of speaking” rather than “language”. If the word is used in the same way here, it follows that sakāya must refer to the particular expressions used by the monks. Using the Buddha’s own way of expression would not have been problem. For a scholarly discussion of nirutti that supports this view, see Bryan Levman, “Sakāya niruttiyā revisited”, BEI 26-27 (2008-2009): 33-51.

And the commentarial view:

Sakāya niruttiyā. Sp.4.275: Sakāya niruttiyāti ettha sakā nirutti nāma sammāsambuddhena vuttappakāro māgadhiko vohāro, “Sakāya niruttiyā: here ‘own expression’ means the Māghadhan language as spoken by the fully Awakened One.” This gloss refers to this particular usage of this expression, and it does not necessarily follow that it also glosses the same expression as used immediately above.


Is this comparable to the use of “jargon” in our modern usage? Jargon being basically, an agreed upon usage of particular terms/words/phrases/acronyms, that varies/is more specific/may have a different meaning, than general usage.

(Note, the negative connotations aren’t a fundamental part of the word ‘jargon’, but a result of it’s overuse :smile:


Or of natural language change.


Yes, “jargon” is an interesting possibility, at least in the context of this passage. The problem is I don’t think it will work in other contexts.


I would like to bring in the following story from the Visuddhimagga:

The elder asked, “Why have you come?”—”To hear the Dhamma,
venerable sir.”—”Friend Abhaya, they ask me about the Dìgha and the Majjhima
from time to time, but I have not looked at the others for thirty years. Still you may
repeat them in my presence by night, and I shall explain them to you by day.
” He
said, “Good, venerable sir,” and he acted accordingly.

The inhabitants of the village had a large pavilion built at the door of his
dwelling, and they came daily to hear the Dhamma. Explaining by day what had
been repeated by night, the Elder [Dhammarakkhita] eventually completed
the instruction (Nanamoli: 92).

It’s not clear to me when exactly the villagers came, during the day when the texts are explained or at night when they are repeated.

In order to have a communal recitation the community needs to have a single text. This is what will be repeated by night in the the above story. This would be in Pali and incomprehensible for the villagers. And then during the following day the Pali texts will be explained, presumably in the vernacular for the villagers to understand as well. But according to the Vinaya the explanation should use the Buddha’s nirutti (terminology) even though the vernacular is used. Similar to the English dhammatalks at BSWA.

So, the Vinaya story would concern the mendicant’s commentary and not the texts used for communal recitation.

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But it seems unlikely that they would put a commentary into metrical form. Surely this must refer to the word of the Buddha. In fact the word Buddhavacana, quite literally “the word of the Buddha”, is used.


I gather from Levman’s article that K.R. Norman does take it to mean this!

Though I’m not convinced he’s right (actually I’ve yet to read the article cited by Levman), I don’t think the idea is so implausible that one can just dismiss it out of hand.

Suppose, for example, that the two brahmin-born bhikkhus were Mīmāṃsakas avant la lettre in their conception of the nature of language. Suppose further that despite their conversion to his teaching they hadn’t yet been exposed to the Buddha’s more pragmatic conception of language. In that case it wouldn’t be unlikely that they might continue to fetishize the language of the Vedas, desire that it be used as the medium for the long-term preservation of the Dhamma, and regard the use of any vernacular for this purpose (including the Buddha’s own Prakrit) as inherently corrupting.