Should we standardize the Sutta terminolgy translations?

I found it is very difficult sometimes to understand the translations by different teachers due to the usage of different terminology.
I think we should leave certain Pali words as it is without translation.

Imo, no. We should learn to discern context by reasoned investigation & vipassana. What would be the benefit of leaving words untranslated if the meaning is not understood or doubtful?

MN 95 states:

But what, Master Gotama, is most helpful for a reflective acceptance of the teachings? We ask Master Gotama about the thing most helpful for a reflective acceptance of the teachings.”

“Examination of the meaning is most helpful for a reflective acceptance of the teachings, Bhāradvāja. If one does not examine their meaning, one will not gain a reflective acceptance of the teachings; but because one examines their meaning, one gains a reflective acceptance of the teachings. That is why examination of the meaning is most helpful for a reflective acceptance of the teachings.”

For example, in SN 47.42, it is not in alignment with the teachings that “phenomena arise from attention (manasikara)” since it would be expected phenomena arise from sense contact (phassa).

Therefore, if the suttas are examined, it will be found in many places that understanding of the Dhamma teachings & path arises from attention (manasikara), such as when it is taught wise attention & good friends are the pre-requisite for the arising of the noble eightfold path.

Bhikkhus, this is the forerunner and precursor of the rising of the sun, that is, the dawn. So too, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu this is the forerunner and precursor of the arising of the seven factors of enlightenment, that is, careful attention. When a bhikkhu is accomplished in careful attention, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the seven factors of enlightenment.

SN 46.13

Mindfulness and clear comprehension, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for mindfulness and clear comprehension? It should be said: careful attention

AN 10.61

The Buddha declared his Dhamma was perfectly spoken. It is consistent. Thus the meanings of words in context should be clear by examining the usage &/or definitions found in the suttas.


For example, words such as Nibbana or Kamma are kept un-translated.
So words such as Anatta, Dhamma etc to be kept un-translated.

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Imo, we should strive to understand the Dhamma rather than strive for worldly control of the Dhamma.


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What I am saying is say for example if eight different translators use eight different words for Dhamma, it could be very confusing for the reader.
Specially a person like me, read and listen to various teachers.

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Dukkha, nibbana, namarupa, papanca. These terms are far too complex to be described by an English word or phrase. I’ve found that my task in applying the dhamma involves first a full investigation into how the term came to be understood and used by the people of that time and culture as well as with lots of meditative and awareness time to see how it manifests. Assigning a translation like “suffering” for dukkha falls way too short. When I read “dukkha” I know what it means but when I read “suffering” instead, I need to translate “suffering” into dukkha to make it make sense to me. Same goes for namarupa. When I read “mind and body” it seems lazy and loses all of it’s rich meaning. Better to just use the Pali word sometimes.

Which would mean that a newcomer would have no interest in trying to disentangle this knot of weird-sounding Pali words that don’t make any sense to him. Have you ever read Wittgenstein, Kant, Adorno or even Foucault? Sartre? Even more importantly Heidegger? Here’a an example from a nice article on the over-complicated philosophical language:

I find problematic, the idea of an essential psyche, autonomous of objectivity: that is, a mind distinct from the objectified subject– i.e., the egoic existent, the Heideggarian dasein of “being-there”. Sartre revised the classic Cogito in his interpretation of the initial “I” as a state of being, a condition, the negative consciousness which is the sole determinant of humanity. Instead, French existentialist theory places a doubling of thought, the reflexive self-awareness of the self as thought, which condition results in the act of being-in-doubt. This annihilative process of Sartre, I think, works better in late modernist theories; also, the rational thought is conditional of all it takes into account– so that, being depends upon the experiential basis of thought, and the interchangability of an empirical reality with the doubt of such an order of significance: that order which leads from the effect to the generalization of causations.

There is another abstract from a randomly selected paper on astrophysics published on

To probe the star-formation (SF) processes, we present results of an analysis of the molecular cloud G35.20−0.74 (hereafter MCG35.2) using multi-frequency observations. The MCG35.2 is depicted in a velocity range of 30–40 km s−1. An almost horseshoe-like structure embedded within the MCG35.2 is evident in the infrared and millimeter images and harbors the previously known sites, ultra-compact/hyper-compact G35.20−0.74N H ii region, Ap2-1, and Mercer 14 at its base.

And another fictional passage on a point of contention among certain Muslim traditions:

Can iman grow? It is the Sunna of the Prophet, sallallahu alaihi wasallam, found in many hadiths sahih, though not ijtihad of all ulama, that the principles of din teach us that it can grow or become diminished.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really understand them at all. In fact, these three fragments are written in languages that are not really English: Call them Jargon English or Hybrid English, if you will. Now, if these authors really wanted to address a new audience, I am sure they would try to change the obscure terms to their more readily understandable renderings in Common English. This is exactly the case with the Buddhist terminology and its translation.

If I were on a search for answers to the Ultimate Questions (and I was once, and it led me to Buddhism), and I read Suttas full of anatta, papanca, namarupa, dukkha, satipatthana, anapanasati, metta, anicca and lots and lots of other Pali expressions, I would close the book or webpage then and there and never open it again. It was the nice albeit not perfect translation of Questions of Milinda by A.V. Paribok and Russian translations of the English translations by Ven. Bodhi that first introduced me to the EBTs. After that I started to read the the latter in English, then I started looking up the Pali terms and their variant translations and got in the philosophical discussions about their meaning, and whatnot. So, it would make sense to have more ‘astrophysics-like’ translations with the Pali terms left intact, and more beginner-friendly, lightweight translations where they have a more recoginzable shape.


The words cannot be universally translated in one way because their meanings vary according to context. For example, dukkha means:

  1. Dukkha vedana = unpleasant/painful feeling

  2. Dukkha lakkhana = characteristic of unsatisfactoriness due to impermanence

  3. Upadana (sankhara) dukkha = mental suffering of attachment (papanca)

I personally have no problems with it because I was taught from the beginning words such as ‘dukkha’, ‘dhamma’, ‘sankhara’, ‘nama-rupa’, ‘nirodha’, etc, have different meanings in different contexts. When a translation is illogical to me, I research to find the logical meaning. Since the Buddha declared his dhamma was plain & straightforward (MN 22), I personally believe suttas should read overtly, with no hidden or obscure meanings.

Imo, the Western translators such as BB and Thanissaro have rendered their many of their translations as inflexible by generally using the same translation for each context.

Since ‘nama’ is defined in some contexts (eg. SN 12.2) as ‘feeling. perception, intention, contact & attention’, it obviously means ‘mentality’ or ‘mind’; just as the ‘rupa’ comprised of earth, wind, fire & water (refer to MN 62) means the ‘physical body’ or ‘materiality’.

In other contexts, particularly when answering questions of non-Buddhist Brahmans (eg. SN 7.6; DN 11), ‘nama-rupa’ retains the Brahmanistic meaning of ‘naming-forms’ or ‘name-form’ (as it does in DN 15).

I personally have no issues with it, such as was discussed here by some of us, where we examined the suttas in context to find the appropriate meaning of the word ‘dhamma’.

Kind regards :seedling:

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Thanks, Deeele. I think my post didn’t convey what I intended! I meant to say that I don’t care for blanket translations for complex terms. Perhaps that is what you said here: