Tapati, ātāpeti and the Buddha's stance on asceticism

I would like to have the opinion of those who are more knowledgeable in Pali about the following analysis:

SN 42.12

tatra, gāmaṇi, yvāyaṃ tapassī lūkhajīvī attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpeti,
kusalañca dhammaṃ adhigacchati, uttari ca manussadhammā
alamariyañāṇadassanavisesaṃ sacchikaroti. ayaṃ, gāmaṇi, tapassī
lūkhajīvī ekena ṭhānena gārayho, dvīhi ṭhānehi pāsaṃso. katamena ekena
ṭhānena gārayho? attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpetīti, iminā ekena ṭhānena gārayho.

Here, headman, reagarding the ascetic leading a rough life who torments
and tortures himself, yet achieves a wholesome state and realizes a
supra-human state, an attainment in knowledge and vision that is
suitable to the noble ones, this ascetic leading a rough life, headman,
may be disapproved of on one ground and praised on two grounds. And what
is the one ground on which he may be disapproved of? He torments and tortures himself: this is the one ground on which he may be disapproved of.

AN 10.94

“yañhi, gahapati, tapaṃ tapato akusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, kusalā
dhammā parihāyanti, evarūpaṃ tapaṃ na tapitabbanti vadāmi. yañca khvassa
gahapati, tapaṃ tapato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā
abhivaḍḍhanti, evarūpaṃ tapaṃ tapitabbanti vadāmi.

"If, when an asceticism is pursued, unskillful qualities grow and
skillful qualities wane, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is
not to be pursued. But if, when an asceticism is pursued, unskillful
qualities wane and skillful qualities grow, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is to be pursued.

So on one hand we have a categorical rejection (attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpetīti, iminā ekena ṭhānena gārayho - he torments and tortures himself: this is the one ground on which he may be disapproved of) and on the other hand a recommendation (evarūpaṃ tapaṃ tapitabban - that sort of asceticism is to be pursued).

[edit: I no longer think that what follows is accurate:]

The distinction is highlighted by the difference between tapati and ātāpeti. Tapati primarily means to shine, to burn (about the sun), and by extension to bring (somewhat passively) hardship and remorse. The verb tāpeti is the causative to tapati, meaning to make shine, burn, to actively bring harship, to torment. According to Duroiselle, the prefix ā- means to, at, towards, near to, until, as far as, away, all round, so it may be taken as an intensifier that makes ātāpeti mean to systematically torment oneself, to torture oneself.

So it may be gathered that tapati relates to situations where hardship comes to happen on its own, without being specifically pursued and is to be simply endured, whereas ātāpeti relates to situations where hardship is intentionally created and pursued. The former is fine provided it allows kusala dhammas to grow and makes akusala dhammas fade, but the latter is categorically rejected.


Generally speaking, the Buddha’s attitude towards asceticism was to reject the extremes, but to conditionally accept certain mild forms of austerity, so long as they foster the development of skilful qualities.

Now, it is not always to easy to parse out exactly the sense in specific contexts, but so long as we keep this basic principle in mind we won’t go too far astray. There might be one or two cases where the Buddha’s advice is, or seems, contradictory, which might be explained by context.

To come to your specific cases, it’s never a good idea to rely on etymology to determine meaning. The purpose of the etymology is merely to help identify the terms; and occasionally to help us understand what’s going on in cases where the context fails us. After all, we are all quite capable of using our native language far better than we can Pali, even if we know nothing of etymology. And remember, etymology is, at the end of the day, inferred from usage, like all linguistics.

So to investigate this issue, our first priority is to look at the ranges of use as found in the Suttas (and Vinaya). Since this relates to various non-Buddhist practices, it’s always useful to check how the Jains and Brahmins use these terms.

In this case, the most common use of ātāpeti is in the adjectival form ātāpī, where it means “keen, ardent” and is a stock synonym for “energy, effort”. It’s found most famously in the formula for satipaṭṭhāna. While tapati (unprefixed) is used sometimes in a positive sense, it doesn’t occur in any regular doctrinal contexts.

I haven’t investigated the matter in detail, but I doubt if you’ll find any systematic differences between these terms. I think they’re both used in positive and negative senses, which must be inferred from context.


The dhutangas would probably be an example, were they an early practice?

Some of them sound like something an aghori would do.

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Such as?

the major one would be dwelling in charnel grounds, but also wearing discarded cloth (aghori’s, when they do wear clothes will often wear discarded cloth, from the trash, or from the dead (in addition to taking a bit of flesh as a snack I might add))

maybe some others like open-air dwelling, or the practice of never lying down, not sure

Fair enough.

To be clear, we do refrain from snacking in the charnel ground. After all, it’s not dawn yet, and the food hasn’t been offered.


Bhante, is what I have proposed in the OP rather not called morphemic analysis? Etymology is the part of linguistics that deals with the historical development of words.

I am aware of the dangers of morphemic analysis, which is why I have created this thread. I am already writing a contextual analysis through the Vinaya and 4 Nikayas for the word ātāpī (I normally wouldn’t upload a work in progress, but I don’t have the time to copy the relevant part over here), in the course of which I have come, among other things, to these two quotes that might seem contradictory unless we apply the general principle about understanding the Buddha’s stance on asceticism you underlined above, which happens to coincide with the morphemic analysis.

That said, it is true that ātāpī, despite being semantically closer to ātāpeti than tapati, wouldn’t carry the same negative connotation. But does it mean that the morphemic approach as suggested in the OP should be simply thrown out the window, or does it mean that it doesn’t translate equally to all words in the family, especially because of the Buddha’s habit to put his own spin on the key words he used?

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Well if you’re going to use fancy language! I guess you’re right, I’m no linguist.

Looks nice, thanks for sharing.

This is not easy to answer without detailed study. Generally, though, I would say that we would expect that any particular senses of terms would be the same throughout the family.

I can immediately think of some exceptions to that, though. Consider vijānāti, which is regularly used as one would expect, as a verb form of viññāṇa. However, vijānāti is also quite frequently used, especially in verse, as essentially a synonym of pajānāti or jānāti, i.e. to know or understand. Is viññāṇa used in this sense? I can’t think of any examples.

Anyway, regardless of whether this particular case is valid, it is certainly possible that this kind of thing happens. Even so, it is still something conditioned by context and usage, and morphemic analysis should be used carefully as an aid to that.

Forgive me if I seem to harp too much on this point; it’s just that I see this mistake being made very often, so I try to make sure that fellow-students don’t waste their time (like I did!) going off on tangents.

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I am now questioning whether this interpretation is correct. We have for example AN 4.163 explaining that some practices are unpleasant by nature, so they may constiture “hardship [that] is intentionally created and pursued” while still being recommended by the Buddha:

“katamā ca, bhikkhave, dukkhā paṭipadā
dandhābhiññā? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu asubhānupassī kāye viharati,
āhāre paṭikūlasaññī, sabbaloke anabhiratisaññī, sabbasaṅkhāresu
aniccānupassī; maraṇasaññā kho panassa ajjhattaṃ sūpaṭṭhitā hoti.

« And which is painful practice … ? There is the
case where a monk remains focused on unattractiveness with regard to
the body, percipient of loathsomeness with regard to food, percipient of
non-delight with regard to the entire world, (and) focused on
inconstancy with regard to all fabrications. The perception of death is
well established within him.

I have also completed my article on the subject.

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Well done on the article @silence. Very interesting and useful topic.

I think that MN101 is crucial to understand what is the place and what is the kind of painful/exertful practice the Buddha was pointing us to:

At a first moment one who decides to engage in the fourth noble task of cultivating the path, should expect that indeed the first steps towards the goal will be painful and stressful in the sense that he will have to abandon living according to his/her pleasures.

I believe most of us non-monastic but serious beginners go through this somehow, either in our first long retreat or in the first moments of a now more dedicated engagement with the Dhamma.

Once we start acknowledging how living according to our pleasures lead to the increase of unskillful qualities and start doing something about it - we try to be less heedless (i.e. more mindful), we take up precepts, we change old and unskillful behaviors, and even end up avoiding some people and situations - that part of us which was used to get everything it wanted whenever it wanted does indeed start feeling pain and stress!

It is as well very well noted that what we find in AN4.163 shows how even those strong enough to take on robes should as well “brace for impact” and be ready to make use of painful practices such as:

i) cultivate a constant recollection of the un-attractiveness of the body - a very useful thing for those at risk of falling back to the five strings of sensual pleasures.

ii) develop the perception of loathsomeness with regard to food - a very useful thing for those who the only remaining "pleasure of the flesh"is his/her daily meal after 24 hours of fasting!

iii) develop the perception of non-delight with regard to the entire world - a very useful thing for those who no find themselves with lots of time to sit and meditate and unavoidably will have at a first moment a very strong tendency to end up with his mind wandering here and there in this world, across time and space - fueled by views of a self both in the past and future, above and below.

iv) cultivate a constant recollection of the inconstancy inherent to all fabrications - a very useful thing for the now serious and contemplative beginner who may from time to time get glimpses of the peaceful and pleasant states now available and required for his/her further progress in the path.

v) cultivate a constant recollection of the factuality/factualness and inevitability of death - a very important and useful reminder that the clock is indeed against us all and we should never fall to neglect or loose steam in our practice: death awaits and will not wait for us to fulfill the third noble task and attain to the supreme goal of the path in order to press the “reset button” and destroy the sandcastle of the five aggregates of clinging we find ourselves with!

Last but not least, it is very important to see that immediately after these considerations the Buddha points that one should as well understand that once the goal of these “painful and stressful” initial steps of the path has been reached, a pleasure that accords with the Dhamma and one cannot be infatuated with is to be expected and experienced.

And here I trust the Buddha is alluding to the pleasure of the later/higher/more subtle stages of the noble task of cultivating the path: namely the cultivation of right effort, right mindfulness/presence and right stillness/convergence of mind to its entirety - i.e. jhanas and subsequent attainment of right insight/vision and right liberation.

What do you think?


I couldn’t agree more.
Perhaps atapi could also point to the fact that even without moving, when energy becomes strong, the body temperature tends to rise, as if it were ‘burning’ the defilements.

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