The Dhamma in one's own language

Somewhere the Buddha says that one should learn the Dhamma in one’s own language. But where? I don’t find any promising trace in the Suttas and suspect it must be in the Vinaya.

I have no clue about the context or the wording, so I don’t really know where to start searching.

I hope Ajahn @brahmali can help perhaps?



Are you thinking of this passage in the Cullavagga (Vin. II,139)?:

Now at that time Yameḷu and Tekula were the names of two monks who were brothers, brahmans by birth, with lovely voices, with lovely enunciation. They approached the Lord; having approached, having greeted the Lord, they sat down at 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 sakāya niruttiyā. Now we, Lord, give the speech of the Awakened One chandasas.” The Awakened One, the Lord, rebuked them, saying […]: “Monks, the speech of the Awakened One should not be given chandasas. Whoever should [so] give it, there is an offence of wrong-doing. I allow you, monks, to learn the speech of the Awakened One sakāya niruttiyā

If so, you might be interested in the following article:

Eltschinger, Vincent. “Why did the Buddhists adopt Sanskrit?” Open Linguistics (2017;3:308-326).

It is available as an open access download. If you have trouble finding it, feel free to PM me an email address and I will forward it.

Abstract: Western scholarship has long wondered about the reasons that led the Buddhists, or, to be more precise, specific sectarian components of the Indian Buddhist communities (most conspicuously the [Mūla]sarvāstivādins), to abandon the Middle Indic vernaculars as their scriptural, scholarly and probably vehicular language, to turn to Sanskrit, the celebrated and elitist language of Brahmanical scriptures (first and foremost the Veda), ritual, and culture. The fact is all the more intriguing that insistent Buddhist traditions traced to the Buddha himself, apparently a champion of regional languages, a prohibition to use Sanskrit or, at least, to emulate Brahmanical linguistic behavior. The present paper presents a partly new hypothesis concerning one aspect of this important sociolinguistic phenomenon by looking into the legitimations provided by these Buddhists for studying (Sanskrit) grammar


Thank you, I found the passage in Ajahn Brahmali’s draft translation on GitHub. It’s in Khandhaka 15, segment 33.1.1 ff. The passage goes:

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.”

“Using its own expressions” is not quite the same as “one’s own language”; so I am not sure if I was mistaken with my vague memory or if there is still something else.


Maybe this is of interest as well:


Yes, the Pali word here is nirutti, which I understand to mean the categories in which the Dhamma is expressed, such as the twelve factors of dependent origination, the five aggregates, the four noble truths, etc. I don’t think it has anything to do with language, as in English vs. German. Here is my note to this passage:

Sakāya niruttiyā. Nirutti is found at bhikkhu-parajika 2 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.

There is also a passage at MN 139 that suggests that one should use the local way of speaking, not some sort of standardised language. Here it is in Bhante Sujato’s translation:

It’s when in different localities the same thing is known as a ‘plate’, a ‘bowl’, a ‘cup’, a ‘dish’, a ‘basin’, a ‘tureen’, or a ‘porringer’. And however it is known in those various localities, you speak accordingly, thinking: ‘It seems that the venerables are referring to this.’ That’s how you don’t insist on local terminology and don’t override normal usage.

I think the meaning here is quite clear that one should use the local language, not stick some predetermined norm. I am bit puzzled, therefore, by the translation, which is also the one opted for by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. What exactly is the difference between “local terminology” and “normal usage”? In this sutta they are contrasted with each other, one is good, the other not. But to me they seem to mean roughly the same thing. Isn’t “local terminology” precisely “normal usage”? In fact, I am not convinced janapada-nirutti means “local terminology”. Janapada usually refers to a fairly large area, even a whole country. I think the meaning here may be more that one should not insist on the official language. This would then fit much better with not overriding “normal usage”. Bhante @Sujato, do you have any comment on this?


Interesting point, do we have any precedent to support janapada in this sense? It would mean something like “national” as in “national anthem”, correct?


This is a hilarious quote indeed, Venerable! A “porringer”? :rofl: I just had to look that one up.

But to get back on topic, could this be referring to “Code Switching”?


I guess rendering it as “national” might be anachronistic, but not by much. Clearly nation states were emerging at this time. We all know of the sixteen nations, janapadas. Yet even if janapada did not mean nation in the modern sense, it seems that it referred to an extensive area of land, not just a locality, as implied by “local terminology”. Here are a few examples:

rājā hoti cakkavattī dhammiko dhammarājā cāturanto vijitāvī janapadatthāvariyappatto (DN3)

the wheel-turning monarch … has attained stability in the janapada

Sotthi, bhaddante, hotu rañño, sotthi janapadassā (DN 3)

May king and country be safe

In the following janapada seems to mean country in opposition to towns, but not a specific locality:

bhoto kho rañño janapado sakaṇṭako sauppīḷo, gāmaghātāpi dissanti, nigamaghātāpi dissanti, nagaraghātāpi dissanti (DN 5)

janapadacārikaṃ pakkamiṃsu

They went wandering in the country (DN 14)

Here it pretty much means country:

Tena kho pana samayena bhagavā parito parito janapadesu paricārake abbhatīte kālaṅkate upapattīsu byākaroti kāsikosalesu vajjimallesu cetivaṃsesu kurupañcālesu majjhasūrasenesu (DN 18)

I will stop there for now. But my impression on this limited evidence is that janapada means country in much the same way as it is understood in English: country as opposed to town, or country as a nation state. In either case it does not seem to mean locality.


Bhante and dear Sabbamitta,
after reviewing the relevant passages, I came to the conclusion that it cannot be determined with much exactitude, it is too vague. There is still the possibility that nirutti in this context means language and that this refers, with the evidence from the aṭṭhakatha, to the “language of Magadha” (māgadhabhāsā). What has been adduced against the validity of this explanation is, in the main, that the Buddha did speak against insisting on fixed expressions, but this passage is not unambiguous itself (see below).

One way of creating a congruent narrative is this: There was at the Buddha’s time a widespread, transregional koine in use (a theory now generally favored by scholars), or even several, depending on the main geographical areas, and it is possible that it (or one of them) was called Māgadhabhāsa, the language of Magadha, which the Buddha made also use of. Now the two Brahmins, still attached to things Vedic, were offended by the way the Buddhist teachings were transmitted in the peoples’ own mundane language (sakāya niruttiya) since the appropriate medium for such lore would be Vedic. They go to the Buddha and complain, but he refuses, instead declaring that this practice is unproblematic.

We also have to take into consideration the Vedic background with which infused the brahmins made this request; what did they understand by nirutti and what did they mean when they wanted to render it chandaso? I asked the renowned Sanskrit scholar Patrick Olivelle and this is his reply:

Thank you for your message and the query. With regard to “chandas”, which is your main question, the term has several related meanings. First, it is one of the Vedāṅgas, the limbs of the Veda, and in that context it refers to meter. It also had a related meaning of chant (probably metrical texts were chanted), and was connected especially with the Brahmins of the Sāma Veda. So we have the “chāndogya upaniṣad” belonging to the Chāndoga brahmins.

In grammatical literature chandas is used with reference to the language of the Veda (as Pollock has pointed out), especially in contradistinction to “bhāṣā” which was the spoken Sanskrit of the time. The distinction in grammar between the two is often pointed out. This distinction parallels the other distinction you find in grammatical works between “Veda” and “loka” — that is what is found in the Veda, including its language, and what is found in the world, the normal discourse and speech patterns.

So, the Buddhist reference [i.e. that of *sakāya niruttiyā*] clearly parallels the latter meaning, and must refer to the way Vedic texts are composed, especially the metrical part, and the language in which it is composed — which is supposed to be eternal and fixed. This also facilitated the memorization of the texts — after all there were no written texts then; the Veda was all in memory.

We can thus see that they probably intended to put his teaching into Vedic (perhaps alongside its distinctive rhythm) and that contrasts best with another language with which the Buddha’s teaching were perceived by them to be spoiled, possibly the common speech pattern of the transregional koine. That is exactly how the aṭṭhakathā and ṭīkā traditions took what the Brahmins intended, for example the Vimativinodanīṭīkā:

They ruin (dūsenti) the word of the Buddha with their own language (sakāya niruttiyā) as it relates to the canon (pāḷi): ‘Surely, those of inferior birth who learn [memorize; the buddhavacana] are ruining [it] with the language of Magadha (māgadhabhāsāya) to be spoken by all with ease (sabbesaṃ vattuṃ sukaratāya)’ – this is the meaning.

Also possible that the connotation of “grammar” for nirutti played into it as well, as understood in the context of the Vedaṅgas.

Bhante, I find that the occurrences of nirutti are quite variegated and that there are passages where it can mean language, for example:

In the context of the four analytical discriminations (paṭisambhidā) nirutti has the same implications bearing a significance of “term” but can also be understood as “grammar” – “language” as a whole not being impossible too.

The meaning of language has also found entry into Cone. The demarcation line between “way of speaking”, “nomenclature” etc. and “language” is also a very fine one.

In my opinion, I find this passage has generally been invested with too much linguistic significance. It does not rule out that there was a standard canon in, for example, the Māgadhabhāsā, or whatever it may have been, alongside profane regional speech differences. What this text, to me, is saying is that one simply shouldn’t fuss about what term to use in everyday interactions, which is also corroborated by the fact that very mundane items are given as examples, nothing necessarily to do with what the reciters were handling parallel during chanting. Just recently I had a conversation with a monk from the U.S. and I, with my background in British English, used the term “flat”, meaning “apartment”. He understood, but he perceived it as odd. I think it is about such things. So, when one is in the U.S. as a Brit, for example, one doesn’t insist on the term “flat” instead of “apartment”. :pray:


A teaching in a foreign language is not visible in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.

Many thanks to all the translators for their endless work throughout the ages and in times to come.



You may well be right that nirutti is often hard to pin down. Yet I do know that in certain contexts it is used quite specifically. Here is one such context:

Tena kho pana samayena aññataro bhikkhu ajjhokāse cīvaraṁ pattharitvā vihāraṁ pāvisi. Aññataro bhikkhu— “māyidaṁ cīvaraṁ nassī”ti, paṭisāmesi. So nikkhamitvā taṁ bhikkhuṁ pucchi— “āvuso, mayhaṁ cīvaraṁ kena avahaṭan”ti? So evamāha— “mayā avahaṭan”ti. “So taṁ ādiyi, assamaṇosi tvan”ti. Tassa kukkuccaṁ ahosi …pe…. Bhagavato etamatthaṁ ārocesi. “Kiṁcitto tvaṁ, bhikkhū”ti? “Niruttipatho ahaṁ, bhagavā”ti. “Anāpatti, bhikkhu, niruttipathe”

On one occasion a monk spread out his robe outside and entered his dwelling. A second monk, thinking, “May it not be lost,” put it away. The first monk came out of his dwelling and asked the monks, “Who’s taken my robe?” The second monk said, “I’ve taken it.” The first monk took hold of him and said, “You’re no longer an ascetic.” The second monk became anxious … He told the Buddha.

“What was your intention?”

“Sir, it was just a way of speaking.”

“If it was just a way of speaking, there’s no offense.”

The context here makes it clear that this concerned a misunderstanding of the verb “to take”, avaharati. In other words, avaharati/take has the same double meaning in Pali as it has in English. There is no basis here for thinking that the two monks were speaking different languages.

Then there is the fact that there is another word in Pali, found in bhikkhu-pārājika 1, for foreign language, milakkhaka, which is contrasted with ariyaka, “the language of the ariyans”. (I have rendered ariyaka as “Indian”, but this is not quite correct, considering the number of different languages in India. “Indo-ariyan” might be the most accurate rendering, but is there anything a bit more colloquial that might be used? Some suggestions would be great!)

Lastly there are the findings of Bryan Levman that nirutti means expression rather than language.

A general principle I use for translation is that wherever the meaning of a word is vague it should be understood in terms of the cases where it is used unambiguously. This leads me to translate nirutti as “expression”.

Of course, as you also point out, there is no absolute distinction between “expression” and “language”, the former being an important part of the latter. Yet “language” is clearly broader. If we don’t make a distinction between the two, the enterprise of translation will seem dubious. Since I believe nirutti does not mean language in its usual sense, I believe translation is unproblematic, in fact highly desirable. But we should strive to express the Dhamma as the Buddha did, using his categories and trying to grasp his intent. We should not, for instance, render jāti as “arising”, but as “rebirth”.

There is also the fact that the Dhamma was translated from quite early on. We know that it existed in different Prakrits, such Gandhārī, as well as in Sanskrit. Around the beginning of the Common Era translations into Chinese started to appear, as well renderings into a number of Central Asian languages. In other words, it seems it was quite widely accepted that the Dhamma could be (or should be?) translated. I am not aware of any controversies around this. It could perhaps be argued that they made the mistake of not keeping the originals. I think our present practice of not only translating but also securing the originals in Pali (or other languages) is a better practise.

Interesting point. I think you may well be right that this is the main meaning. I suppose the question is whether it extends to Dhamma vocabulary. In the absence of any evidence against, I would say it does.


Thank you all for the interesting discussion!

As the old saying goes:

Ask on D&D, and you’ll get good answers. :heart:

My original question has basically been answered by @Leon’s pointing to the Vinaya passage in question, completed by Ajahn @brahmali’s hint at MN 139 which probably has in fact one of the most hilarious lists of synonyms found in the EBTs—and there are many! :laughing:


Yes, and “basically” seems an appropriate word. You have found the two passages that are often quoted as saying that “one should learn the Dhamma in one’s own language”. But when you inspect them carefully, it is far from obvious that either passage says just that.

The quote from MN 139 is the easiest of the two to interpret. It is quite clear, at least to me, that it says one should use local terminology and expressions, not insist on some other standard. This could reasonably be extended to the idea that one should use local languages, although this does not seem to be the exact intent of the original passage.

Then there is the remaining conundrum of why the text seems to contradict itself. First it says:

And however it is known in those various localities, you speak accordingly …

And then:

That’s how you don’t insist on local terminology …

But should we not expect the last line to read:

That’s how you don’t insist on non-local terminology …

There is something strange going on here. I suspect our understanding of janapadanirutti is wrong. Otherwise we have a blatant contradiction in terms. Bhante @Sujato hasn’t engaged on this issue. Yet to me it seems quite significant.

It’s a bit awkward that a passage that shows such anomalies is our best evidence for the Buddha saying we should speak the Dhamma in the local language. It means we don’t really have a very solid basis for this at all. For the passage from the Vinaya is in fact much more ambiguous than the one at MN 139. Here it is again for reference:

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 … ‘‘kathañhi nāma tumhe, moghapurisā, evaṃ vakkhatha – ‘handa mayaṃ, bhante, buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropemā’ti. Netaṃ, moghapurisā, appasannānaṃ vā pasādāya … vigarahitvā … dhammiṃ kathaṃ katvā bhikkhū āmantesi – ‘‘na, bhikkhave, buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropetabbaṃ. Yo āropeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassa. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṃ pariyāpuṇitu’’nti.

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.”

What we can say with relative certainty is that the Buddha - or perhaps his students, one or more generations removed - disallowed giving metrical form to the Dhamma, or alternatively that he disallowed rendering it in Vedic Sanskrit. (Classical Sanskrit did probably not yet exist.) This is already quite useful. It presumably means that we should not give an artificial status to the suttas that accord with social ideas of class. In other words, Buddhism should avoid falling pray to the class structure of general society, at least in certain areas. Although this does not directly support the idea that translation should be done, it does point in that direction. Local languages tend not to have to have fewer class signifiers than standards imposed from outside.

Apart from this, it is not clear what other conclusions we can draw from this passage. The critical phrase is sakāya niruttiya. Sakāya means “one’s own”, and nirutti, as I have argued, means “expression” and perhaps by extension “language”. The phrase occurs twice in the passage above, both of which I have bolded for ease of reference. In the first occurrence the meaning is obvious: sakāya refers to the nirutti of the monks who are said to “corrupt the word of the Buddha”, “their own expressions”. In the second instance things are far less clear. There are at least two possible meanings:

You should learn the word of the Buddha using your own expressions.

If nirutti meant “language” rather than “expression”, this might be fine. But if nirutti does mean expression or terminology, then this rendering seems quite implausible. If the monastics started using their terminology, it would not take long before it would be difficult to agree on what the Buddha had said, let alone what he had meant. That way only lies the decline of the Dhamma. So if nirutti means “expression”, it seems we are forced to render this as I have in the quote above:

You should learn the word of the Buddha using its own expressions.

And this, of course, means that there is no guidance at all in this passage on whether we may translate or learn the Dhamma in our own language. So it seems to me that a passage that has always been used to support the idea of using local languages, in fact has nothing to do with it. Anyway, that’s how I see it. I would be very happy to hear counter-opinions.

Where does this leave us? Personally I believe the passage from MN 139 is sufficient to say that the Buddha encouraged the translation and teaching of the Dhamma in local languages. But even if this is reading too much into it, I do not think there are any passages to contradict this idea, and so we are left with silence. Whenever there is no specific prohibition - and we see from history that translation has been the norm - I believe we have all the information we need to happily continue with our translation projects, and by extension to teach the Dhamma in local languages. If the Buddha didn’t prohibit something, we may assume it is allowable.


When we look at Pali, it is not really that different from Sanskrit. Honestly, Pali is like an accent of Sanskrit. When you get down into the gritty of the grammar, it is clear that they are different languages, but looking at Pali and Sanskrit phonetically written, it is clear that someone without a great knowledge of grammar could actually quite easily believe them to be the same language.

“Local/one’s own/vernacular usage,” could mean just that. Instead of pronouncing the “rv” in “sarva” you just leave it a geminated plosive “bb” like in your “normal” usage. You don’t speak “proper,” you speak “normal.”

IMO at least.

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Thank you for picking that up again and giving an overview on the state of affairs.

My personal question hadn’t been so much whether translation is justified or not, but rather where this quote comes from, and how authentic it is. I will definitely be more careful now in using it!

Very much so!

In my opinion, the most important justification for translation is well summarized by Karl’s remark

If we had no translations the Dhamma would be inaccessible for 99% of the population, or even more, and this can’t be what the Buddha intended.

So let’s continue translating and making the Dhamma accessible to anybody who is interested!

:woman_technologist: :man_technologist: :page_with_curl: :books: :speaking_head: :headphones:


I think there is a line from a Maharastri language drama Lilavai which sums up MN 139 for me (a text which I find very confusing). A mistress asks her lover for a story, but with the following caveat:

"So tell me a tale in Prakrit, which simple women love to hear—but not with too many localisms, so that it’s easy to understand.”

The word for “local” here is “desi”, i.e. pertaining to a desa (locality or country). The mistress in the drama wants normal Prakrit (spoken) language, but at the same time, she doesn’t want hyperlocalised patois/slang, which she can’t understand. Relatable.


Looking a bit closer, I find 1) how it should not be done:

scid: mn139:12.5
pli: Iti yathā yathā naṁ tesu tesu janapadesu sañjānanti tathā tathā thāmasā parāmāsā abhinivissa voharati:
en: And however it is known in those various localities, you speak accordingly, obstinately sticking to that and insisting:

and 2) how it should be done:

scid: mn139:12.10
pli: Iti yathā yathā naṁ tesu tesu janapadesu sañjānanti ‘idaṁ kira me āyasmanto sandhāya voharantī’ti tathā tathā voharati aparāmasaṁ.
en: And however it is known in those various localities, you speak accordingly, thinking: ‘It seems that the venerables are referring to this.’

The first part of the sentence is the same each time, and only the second part differs. That means what you do is actually the same, and the difference lies only in the way you react to it which is rather something mental but something physical.

What you do is that you speak according to how the term in question is known in the respective locality. In the first case you insist that this is the only way, and in the second you don’t; you just think, “well, that’s the way they do it here”.

But there’s no difference in the way you use the language.

Which surprises me!

Do I see that correctly? :thinking:


I think this could do with some clarification. “Pure” Vedic Sanskrit is quite different from Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, but often Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is merely Pāli-like Prākrit with a dusting of Sanskritic phonetics. A lot of words are particular to Buddhist Sanskrit and Pāli and are not “Vedic.” This could be part of what the Buddha and those monks are discussing.

A good example of this is the somewhat sexist dressing-down that Migalasa Upasika receives in some versions of the Migasālāsutta.

migasālā upāsikā bālā abyattā ammakā ammakapaññā

This in Sanskrit is basically

migasālopāsikā bālā avyaktā ambikā ambikaprajñā

This is not a cogent statement in strict pure Sanskrit (barring my mistakes), but if I am not too wrong we can see how close Buddhist Sanskrit is to Buddhist Prākrit.

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