The future perfect tense in Pali

While the future tense may be used in a wide variety of ways, I have yet to find a grammar that mentions what in English we refer to as “future perfect tense”. This may well be an oversight of mine, so if anyone does find such a reference, please let me know.

In any case, I have come across one passage that is an example of future perfect tense in Pali. It’s in MN 81. The Buddha smiles at a certain place, and on being questioned by Ānanda, reveals that the Buddha Kassapa in a past age had sat on this spot. Ānanda invites the Buddha to sit down, saying:

Ayaṃ bhūmipadeso dvīhi arahantehi sammāsambuddhehi paribhutto bhavissatī
Then this piece of land will have been occupied by two perfected ones, fully awakened Buddhas.

The use of future tense in combination with the past participle in context must function as a future perfect tense.

I am sure you will sleep much easier knowing this. You’re welcome!


Just like French. Indo-European languages are strange like that. 2000+ years of separation and they somehow preserve that future tense + past participle = le futur antérieur.


Indeed, it’s always amazing what is preserved and what is lost. Tiny features of spelling can be maintained for thousands of years. Why do we spell the number “two” with a “w”? Well, the Pali is dve, so this harks back at least three thousand years, probably much longer. This is the power of ideas to replicate themselves, staying alive in consciousness, skipping from host to host, and far outliving any mere individual.


A dumb question: what is the present form of ‘paribhutto’ and which root is it derived from? A dumber question: what is the normal way of forming the future passive in Pali? A less dumb but still unrelated question is whether the passive voice functions as mediopassive in Pali.

The general question is whether there are any other analytically formed tenses in Pali, what auxiliaries they are formed with and what their semantics are. I mean, it is highly unusual for the future perfect to be a naturally arisen tense in absence of other similar verb forms. In Germanic languages like German or English, the future perfect is a more or less artificial form that was poplarized by grammarians to make the respective grammar more symmetrical. In Romance languages like French or Spanish it is hardly ever used in the colloquial register. In short, if the Future Perfect is a legit thing in Pali, we should expect other similar and much more widely used analytical forms. If we don’t find them, we should intepret it in a different way.

[quote=“Vstakan, post:4, topic:4630”]
In Romance languages like French or Spanish it is hardly ever used in the colloquial register. In short, if the Future Perfect is a legit thing in Pali, we should expect other similar and much more widely used analytical forms.
[/quote]“Pāli” and “non-colloquial French” have something in common, in as much as neither have ever been “colloquial” dialects, and so are not necessarily beholden to what comes to a “native speaker” naturally. Spoken French, especially the French we have here in Canada, lacks many features of sometimes-called “Literary French” or the “Formal Register” of the French language, which most academic discourse, in French, takes place in.

In “Spoken French”, as the user @Vstakan points out, the “future perfect” appears very rarely, however in “literary”/“educated” French, unlike the sheac spoken in my hometown, the future perfect appears very frequently and often. This is due to the prestige of the “fuller” declension systems older Indo-European languages have, IMO. Grammarians of the 19th/20th century, in Europe, were very eager to illustrate how their respective national languages’ grammars “preserved” postulated Proto-Indo-European “full” inflectional grammars.

I can’t help but extend this proclivity, in theory alone, to the historical tradition of Pāli grammarians as well.

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The thing is, there is no Future Perfect in Vedic, so there was nothing to preserve. In other word, it would have been an innovation. Moreover, a highly atypical innovation that doesn’t happen in other languages at all. Imagine Literary French without passé composé but with future antérieur. It is neither logical nor plausible, languages - and grammarians - just don’t work this way, trust me. Which is why I asked whether there are any other similar analytical forms, because languages do work this way.

My hunch is that for some reason ‘paribhutto’ didn’t form the synthetic Future Passive Indicative, so the periphrastic passive with ‘bhavissatī’ was used instead (cf. Latin ‘factus est’). I don’t say this is the case but it could be possible and we know that languages do behave like this. Or maybe this is a construction meaning something like ‘is going to be done’, I don’t know, I need more data :slight_smile:

Paribhutto is the past participle of paribhuñjati, to use or enjoy, root bhuj.

As for the more in-depth questions on grammar, I’m afraid I would have to defer to someone with a better knowledge.

I looked up the use of prephrastic constructions in Geiger’s Pali grammar (§173, p.168 in the standard English translation, which can be found on Scribd), and the Future Perfect indeed sems to be a thing in Pali. The example that Geiger provides is gato bhavissatī Ja II 214,4. Parallel forms in other tenses are also attested: patto abhavissaṃ, vutth’ amha. It should be also noted, that transitional verbs like paribhuñjati also have an additional passive meaning in the periphrastic forms, and I would venture a guess that they were frequently used to avoid forming obscure synthetic passive forms (seriously, what would be the Passive Future Indicative of paribhuñjati?),_ but don’t quote me on that.

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This is only partly accurate. Sure, the Victorian grammarians wrote there are five cases in English (or six? whatever…), but there is a big difference between superimposing the Latin grammatical grid on an existing language and creating new verb forms. Take the French future anterieur, e.g. il aura eu. Do you know what the corresponding Latin form of habeo would sound like? Habuerit! In other words, creating or popularizing the futur anterieur could have been a part of the grammarians’ agenda, but the form itself was not a continuation of the ancient Indo-European or Latin grammar but rather an innovation, and they were well aware of that.

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Okay, thanks. So it would seem that the use is very unusual, and this may be the only example in the EBTs. It seems, from the examples so far, that the future perfect must take the past participle: does Geiger say anything about this?

Incidentally, the reason I looked this matter up was because of another passage, in MN 60:

sace kho natthi paro loko evamayaṃ bhavaṃ purisapuggalo kāyassa bhedā sotthimattānaṃ karissati

Which was translated as “after death, he will have made himself safe”. I find this reading unsatisfactory on several grounds, but it is hard to find a better. Anyway, I had no convincing evidence of a future perfect, obviously you looked more carefully than I did! But still, there is no past participle here, which still seems to rule it out.

I have translated it as:

‘If there is no other world, when this individual’s body breaks up they will keep themselves safe.

But contextually this doesn’t make sense. How can annihilation be safety? Normally the idiom attanam karoti is used as you would expect, when you find safety, i.e. survive. Anyway, how is the person actually doing anything? If there is no afterlife, that’s just how it is, they are not making themselves anything at all.

I suspect the original meaning may have been:

If there is no other world, then, for all that this individual tries to keep themselves safe, still their body breaks up.

But I can’t justify this grammatically, and I think the passage is corrupt.

Yes, he does: the future perfect and other corresponding tenses take the past participle. In the periphrastic perfect atthi is always omitted, hoti very frequently. Moreover, there exist progressive periphrastic forms taking the present participle: sayāno 'mhi and lots and lots of other periphrastic forms with more exotic auxiliary verbs, e.g. so adeva abhinivissa voharoti.

I think it depends on how attanam karoti was understood by Pali speakers. It is possible that it meant among other things ‘to be safe from punishment’, i.e. basically ‘to get away with it’, which also makes sense in the context.

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Thanks so much, this solves a long-standing problem.

I think other translators have read it to mean something like this, but I don’t believe it: I think it’s an apologetic for a corrupt text. And this grammatical info confirms this. If the future perfect requires the past participles, the passage must mean “after death he will make himself safe” which is obviously impossible.

Let’s assume it is correct and do an idiomatic English translation: ‘he gets away with it at death’. Does it make sense in English? It does. Now, imagine someone will analyse this phrase 2,500 years later and would interpret the English phrase literally rather than ideomatically. Will it make much sense to them? I don’t know.

i don’t say that your hunch is incorrect, it may be correct. What I mean is that this single sentence doesn’t provide enough information on the idiomatic usage of attanam karoti. The traditional theory still remains plausible, at least for me, because ‘to be safe (from punishment) at death’ makes sense to me. If we want to prove it is incorrect, it is advisable to compile a small corpus of Pali phrases where this expression is used and analyze the actual usage of the phrase case for case. If this sentence proves to be the only one in the Canon where the expression is used in such a way or if other instances are derived from this one, then you’re right.

That’s exactly what I did!

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Well, if you provide this corpus with corresponding explanations of the actual usage, then you can write a (hopefully) small paper or essay about this expression and make a convincing case for your argument :slight_smile: A claim of text corruption is a big thing, so showing that ‘attanam karoti’ never means ‘make oneself safe from punishment, get away with it’ is necessary :sweat: Anyway, glad to be of help! :pray:

Yes, I made do this if I get around to it, but up till now I never had the grammatical info I needed. I do post a bunch of issues here, but there are many more that remain just as scrappy notes, so far at least.

Having said which, instances of sentences corrupted so badly as to be unintelligible are rare, and I agree, should be carefully justified. On the whole, it is essential to assume that the text we are reading makes sense, and to do otherwise is to lack compassion. And of course, in the vast majority of passages the Pali is perfectly clear. Still, in a corpus of a million words, to expect no corrupt sentences is a little unrealistic.


Following Geiger and Warder’s leads, perhaps it’s better to describe this phenomenon not as demonstrating a future perfect tense, but a future perfect sense.

The auxillary verb in this periphrasis would be bhavissati, while the governing verb would be paribhutto.

Geiger at s.172 - 173, Warder at p.234.

I wonder if this pericope counts as showing this periphrasis -

iti me chando na ca atilīno bhavissati, na ca atippaggahito bhavissati, na ca ajjhattaṃ saṅkhitto bhavissati, na ca bahiddhā vikkhitto bhavissati


Sounds very precise!

I don’t think so, it’s just straight future, “will not be scattered”, not “will not have been scattered”.

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Perhaps this other occurrence ?

sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ bhavissati

all suffering will have been exhausted
MN 14

That’s a good one. BB has “all suffering will be worn away”, and so far I have done the same, but it makes more sense for this to express the completion of the process: “all suffering will have been worn away”. Let me change that …

So, are you going to go through the whole canon and hunt down all examples of this? A noble quest, indeed!