Sīlabbata = Sīlavata?

Sīlabbata is usually equated with Sīlavata. Grammatically I guess it would make sense (reduplication of the consonant in a compound), yet both can be found quite frequently in all Nikayas

I have several questions here:

  • Is it really the same word? Very strangely in Snp 4.5 both terms are found in subsequent verses! It makes no difference for the meter, so why both spellings if it’s the same word? Same in Snp 4.13 - both spellings.
  • Do they cover the same semantic ground? E.g. in AN 3.59 Sīlabbata is perfected for arahantship. In AN 3.78 Sīlabbata is basically rendered meaningless, neither good nor bad. In SN 35.132 it’s in the context of Vedic practices. In Dhp XIX (v271) it is rather good, but not sufficient.
  • Sīlavata is equally versatile. In Snp 1.12 the sage/arahant has it for example

For now the vibe I get is that Sīlabbata at least rather goes together with an OCD type of habitually obsessive restraint, so not ‘ritual’ in the Vedic sense, but almost in a pathological sense of constantly washing hands, just in a religious context.

Has anyone investigated this further? At least I haven’t seen a more thorough study on it.

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It’s correct that sīlabbata = sīla + vata. But…

The -vata in sīlabbata is the noun vata, “rite”, “vowed observance”.

The -vata in sīlavatā (sīlavā, sīlavanto, etc.) is the suffix -vanta, meaning “possessed of …” In this case, “possessed of virtue” or simply “virtuous”.


Thanks a lot for the explanation! If I may, is this grammatical analysis, or commentarial explanation?

Is there a way to spot which is which since nouns and adjectives are so similar in Pali?

The analysis of sīlabbata as sīla + vata predates the commentaries. The first explicit statement of it is found in the Niddesa. Possibly it might also be inferrable from even earlier texts, but I haven’t looked into the matter.

That one may use the suffix -vanta to form adjectives meaning “possessed of…”, “characterized by” or sometime simply “-ing” is an elementary point of Pali grammar. We find it explicitly recognised in the Vinaya Piṭaka. For example in the word definitions for the fourth saṅghādisesa rule we find:

sīlavantan ti pāṇātipātā paṭivirataṃ, adinnādānā paṭivirataṃ, musāvādā paṭivirataṃ.
“…who is virtuous” means one refraining from killing living beings, refraining from stealing, refraining from false speech."
(Vin. iii. 133)

As for spotting which is which, I think it’s pretty easy in the present case, for (afaik) sīla + (noun) vata always becomes sīlabbata. But if I’m wrong about this (i.e. if it sometimes becomes sīlavata), it would still be possible to distinguish them because the noun vata is inflected in a quite different way to words ending in the -vanta suffix.


Excellent, thank you!


Having now checked, I see that I am wrong about it. Sīla + vata can in fact take the form sīlavata. However, the form is far less common than sīlabbata and seems to be found only in verse.

My second point still stands, since homonymity between their respective inflections is limited to just three morphemes:

  1. sīlavatā: instr. and abl. sg. of sīlavantu; nom. pl. and abl. sg. of sīlavata.
  2. sīlavato: dat. and gen. sg. of sīlavantu; nom. sg. of sīlavata
  3. sīlavataṃ: dat. and gen. pl. of sīlavantu; acc. sg. of sīlavata


sīlavā | sīlavā, sīlavanto
sīlavantaṃ | sīlavante
sīlavatā, sīlavantena | sīlavantehi, sīlavantebhi
sīlavato, sīlavantassa | sīlavataṃ, sīlavantānaṃ
sīlavatā, sīlavantā, sīlavantasmā, sīlavantamhā | sīlavantehi, sīlavantebhi
sīlavato, sīlavantassa | sīlavataṃ, sīlavantānaṃ
sīlavati, sīlavante, sīlavantasmiṃ, sīlavantamhi | sīlavantesu
sīlavā | sīlavā, sīlavanto


sīlavato | sīlavatā
sīlavataṃ | sīlavate
sīlavatena | sīlavatehi, sīlavatebhi
sīlavatassa | sīlavatānaṃ
sīlavatā, sīlavatasmā, sīlavatamhā | sīlavatehi, sīlavatebhi
sīlavatassa | sīlavatānaṃ
sīlavate, sīlavatasmiṃ, sīlavatamhi | sīlavatesu
sīlavata | sīlavatā


I thought I had to check the grammar myself, but since I’m not very good at that - thanks again!

I hope to get a clearer idea about what this ‘fetter’ was all about. It’s not that clear-cut, as the common idea that it’s simply against “rites and rituals” is not warranted.


It is important to clarify the exact meaning of this fetter.
Many people observe five precepts in the sense of Silabbata Paramasa.
They will not kill a mosquito thinking there is a mosquito. That is Silabbata Paramasa.
Arahant (even a Sotapanna) will not kill as they do not have the Sakkaya Ditthi.

I guess this is an understanding based on tradition? or is it sutta-based?

I think the fetter has to do with unreflectingly following some regimen thinking that in this way you’ll be purified. The problem may be that the puthujjana is always in danger of following some practice uncritically whereas the sotapanna knows that they need to assess precepts and practices according to whether they develop helpful qualities such as non-greed, non-hate, non-delusion.

Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “Ananda, every precept & practice, every life, every holy life that is followed as of essential worth: is every one of them fruitful?”
“Lord, that is not [to be answered] with a categorical answer.”
“In that case, Ananda, give an analytical answer.”
“When—by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth—one’s unskillful mental qualities increase while one’s skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when—by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth—one’s unskillful mental qualities decline while one’s skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.”
That is what Ven. Ananda said, and the Teacher approved. Then Ven. Ananda, [realizing,] “The Teacher approves of me,” got up from his seat and, having bowed down to the Blessed One and circumambulating him, left.
Then not long after Ven. Ananda had left, the Blessed One said to the monks, “Monks, Ananda is still in training, but it would not be easy to find his equal in discernment.” - SuttaCentral


I heard this from a Sri Lankan monk. (Ven. Kumara Kassapa)

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sīlabbata= sīla+ v(r )ata. Sanskrit combination vr (the “suppressed” r) becomes bb in the Pāli compound as the expected phonetic combination vv is not allowed in Pāli.

There is a good explanation of the term sīlabbata-parāmāsa on p124 of “A Life of Inner Quality” by Luang Ta Maha Boowa, where _parāmāsa_is translated as “fondling”. This reading of “parāmāsa” as “fondling” (in a more literal sense) can be confirmed in the bhikkhunī pāṭimokkha pārājika 5, where consenting to it will make a bhikkhunī pārājika’ed. Etymologically= para (excess)+āmāsa (“touching”, also in a figurative sense of “thinking about”). The extended figurative meaning of “parāmāsa” as “excessive touching” would be something like “worrying” (excessive thinking about) in this context. The commentaries give some other explanations (such as “perversion of precepts”, etc, etc, with the focus on wrong morality) but I don’t think this is really the right track.

The translation “clinging to rites and rituals” seems to have been advanced by the early German scholar-monks in Sri Lanka such as Ven. Nyanatiloka. “Clinging” isn’t so bad, as sīlabbata-parāmāsa could also be glossed as “sīlabbata-upādāna”. But “rites and rituals” doesn’t really express sīlabbata, which ought to cover a very wide range of religious observances and discipline…the point of the fetter seems to be the emotional attachment.

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