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The many ways to say meditate / meditation in Pali

What is usually rendered simply and homogeneously as meditate / meditation in English translations is in fact found in different forms in Pali.

Let’s see how what is translated into English as meditation (noun), meditative training (noun) & meditate (verb) is found in the original in Pali.

Atha kho āyasmā mahācundo sāyanhasamayaṃ paṭisallānā vuṭṭhito yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami

Then, when it was evening, the venerable Mahā Cunda rose from meditation and went to the Blessed One.
Source: MN8

paṭisallānā is the term here, and it would be more accurately framed as seclusion. The translator is correctly assuming that Maha Cunda’s seclusion was not for a nap but for a meditation session!

(…) ādimeva nu kho, bhante, bhikkhuno manasikaroto evametāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ pahānaṃ hoti, evametāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ paṭinissaggo hotī”ti?

(…) Now does the abandoning and relinquishing of those views come about in a bhikkhu who is attending only to the beginning of his meditative training?
Source: MN8

manasikaroti seems to be the term here, and it would be more accurately framed as focusing of the mind, taking to the heart, reflection, ponderation, meditation!

Note that this term is used in the suttas in sentences like saññan manasikaroti = ponder over the idea of impermanence and is synonym for pajānāti, which is the verb from which the word ñana (insight) is derived from. The translator here associated the mind training of a bhikkhu with this practice of religious contemplation, ergo meditation.

There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, Cunda, do not delay or else you will regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”

Etāni, cunda, rukkhamūlāni, etāni suññāgārāni, ​​jhāyatha, cunda, mā pamādattha, mā pacchā­vippa­ṭisārino ahuvattha—ayaṃ kho amhākaṃ anusāsanī”ti.
Source: MN8

​***​​jhāyati*** seems to be the term here, and it would be more accurately as absorb, consume, do jhanas - PTS Pali-English dictionary says this is the Pali rendering for two distinct Sanskrit terms: dhyāyati (shine, perceive) and kṣāyati (burn, consume). This is the verb from which the very well known word jhāna / dhyāna (meditative absorption) is derived from.

Well, it seems the Suttas are telling us of a Master who made use of a very rich vocabulary to inspire his disciples to engage in a varied range of mental behaviours, practices and habits.

What we usually read in English translations as a single instruction or urge to meditate in the Pali original points to things that range from simple pondering, bearing in mind, to comprehensive reflection, and of course to the pursuit (or allowing for) the attainment of mental absorptions - jhāna - as the synonym for samma-samadhi.

Hence, the intention of this post is to:

1. explore further and discuss what are the different ways the concept of meditation is conveyed in the suttas / sutras;

2. and, most importantly, discuss how helpful it may be to be able to qualify and differentiate the practical aspects of the different terms found in the suttas / sutras.

Additionally, it would be great to confirm whether the Chinese translations kept some of this rich vocabulary or ended up constrained to using a single concept to render so many different practical aspects of the samadhi and pañña elements of the Path, as in the case of contemporary translations.

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Very interesting topic, thanks. There is indeed no one word in Pali that corresponds exactly with the English word “meditation”

To add to the confusion, I’m not using “meditate” for any of cases you mention. I’d agree fully with your suggestions. However I am using meditation for the following (not a full list!):

  • vihāra/viharati: This is very commonly used in the sense of “meditate”. Eg:

Catunnaṃ jhānānaṃ ābhicetasikānaṃ diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārānaṃ nikāmalābhī hoti akicchalābhī akasiralābhī
They get the four absorptions—blissful meditations in the present life that belong to the higher mind—when they want, without trouble or difficulty.

  • bhāveti:

Pathavikasiṇaṃ bhāveti
They develop the meditation on universal earth

  • bhāvanā:

bhikkhu bhāvanārāmo hoti bhāvanārato
a mendicant enjoys meditation and loves to meditate

  • samādhinimitta: = “meditation that gives rise to samadhi”.

  • In some contexts, simply “walking” (caṅkamati) and “sitting” (nisīdati) mean meditation:

rattiyā pacchimaṃ yāmaṃ paccuṭṭhāya caṅkamena nisajjāya āvaraṇīyehi dhammehi cittaṃ parisodheti.
In the last part of the night, they get up and continue to practice walking and sitting meditation, purifying their mind from obstructions.

  • satipaṭṭhāna: = “mindfulness meditation”.

  • padhāna: usually translated as “striving”, however it often means simply “meditate”. A normal word for a “meditation hall” in India is padhānasāla.

samavepākiniyā gahaṇiyā samannāgato nātisītāya nāccuṇhāya majjhimāya padhānakkhamāya
Their stomach digests well, being neither too hot nor too cold, but just right, and fit for meditation.

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Some thing interest me was the Samadhi in threefold division of Noble Eightfold Path.
Right effort, Right Mindfulness and Right concentration are termed as Samadhi (bhavana).

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Very interesting Bhante! I was not aware of the term padhanasala. I will definitely look for it in the Suttas to understand better the kind of situations it is used.

Also, I really like the way the term viharati is used to describe mind abiding or habits one invests himself/herself into, like in the MN118. It is not something constrained to a posture or activity alone, it is about how one lives his life.

If there are so many terms that are or can be translated as ‘meditate’ or ‘meditation’ and no direct counterpart in the Buddhist texts, wouldn’t it be at least logical to say that ‘mediation’ is ‘a later idea, later term’ having no ground in the EBT? Not the actual practices or actual experiences but rather the concept, idea of meditation or ‘meditative training or practice’. That would be pretty much what we do when we discuss how Abhidhammic works reorganize the khandhas into a fourfold classification and still prefer sticking to the old concepts.

Just think for a second what benefits it would bring: insight meditation and samatha meditation would no longer be two competing types of the same practice, they would be two separate practices altogether. Even though it wouldn’t solve all the issues existing between their practitioners, it slightly changes the whole context of the discussion. So why should we really stick to the ‘meditation’ concept instead of trying to get rid of it?

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It’s not used in the suttas, or anywhere in the Pali as far as I know. But it is found in various inscriptions, etc; Google turns up a few references.

Well, obviously in the sense that it’s an English word. I mean, the word “meditation” doesn’t (historically) even mean “meditation”; the sense that we use it in was invented in the 20th century to cover the Hindu/Buddhist usage.

It’s virtually impossible to find even a single word in any language that covers the same ground as a single word in any other language. That’s why good translation needs to step back from words, and understand what a sentence means in its context. If these words mean meditation, then that’s the word we should use.

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I wasn’t talking about words, I was rather talking about concepts as something behind words. The word ‘meditation’ when used in expressions like ‘samatha meditation’ and ‘mindfulness meditation’ suggests we have a concept of some activity or aspects of different activities that are common to both of these practices. Since there is no corresponding concept in Pali, my assumption is that these practices were perceived and categorized as slightly more different, separate if you will, than is the case right now. To give an example, in English you can say ‘I went there’ whereas in German you can and in fact quite often have to say ‘I flew there’ or ‘I drove there’ by specifying which transport you used.

You are certainly correct when you say a good translation is not about words. However, if we talk about concepts, it is not always a very good idea to abandon the conceptual structure of the foreign language in favour of that in the target language or target audience, otherwise abominations like ‘becoming’ start haunting the Buddhist circles for decades and there appear virgins in Isaiah 7:14. The explanations in those cases would be something like: ‘Well, this word certainly refers to becoming, so we translate it as becoming!’ or ‘Well, there was a virgin later so Isaiah was certainly referring to one!’

Certain practices were treated as separate or at least were not explicitly regarded as variations, subsets of ‘general meditation’ in the mindset of the people who compiled the EBT, it may be a good idea to maintain this distinction in translations by not using a common term. Imagine there is a phrase in a foreign language saying: ‘Soldiers did push-ups every day, played cards every second night and went to a shooting drill next morning’. Then you translate it as ‘Soldiers did lying exercises every day, played cards every second night and went to a shooting exercise next morning’. I think you will agree that while technically correct it is not a very good rendering. It becomes even more problematic if you render ‘playing cards’ as ‘gaming exercise’, which may well be the case with some of the Pali terms translated as ‘X meditation’.

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In the 37 dharmas conducive to Bodhi, three of the most commonly repeated items are mindfulness, energy, and samādhi. All three appear in the Five Roots, Five Powers, and Seven Factors of Bodhi. Mindfulness and samādhi also appear in the Noble Eightfold Path, and energy appears in the Four Ṛddhipāda.

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I don’t think getting rid of it is possible anymore. Nevertheless it is worth taking time to develop an approach more aligned with what apparently the Blessed One taught.

In my case, going back to basics has proved not only effective but as well reassuring. When I went to the “source code” of the Four Noble Truths, I saw that at the highest level the four tasks, and not practices, that matter are:

This noble truth is that suffering should be fully known
(…)
This noble truth is that the origin of suffering should be abandoned
(…)
This noble truth is that the ending of suffering should be witnessed
(…)
‘This noble truth is that the practice leading to the ending of suffering should be developed’

The Pali for these are pariññā , pahīna , sacchikata and bhāvetabba.

The only external condition for our own liberation is already present: a Buddha has re-discovered these Four Noble Truths. The rest is with us, and these are the four “tasks” he left to us in an ultimate sense.

In this way, the task of fully knowing suffering is fulfilled with the powerful insight (vipassana balava) attained by a mind unified in jhanas. This comes in turn from the fulfillment of the task of cultivating the Path in its eight links, having right view as forerunner and right samadhi as expected result.

It in turn allows then fulfillment of both the tasks of witnessing the end of suffering and corresponding complete abandonment of the causes the suffering itself. This should be something almost simultaneous, or at least reciprocal: by abandoning the causes of suffering, the end of suffering comes about, right?

Well, from this perspective, whatever one may label as virtue, generosity, renunciation, meditation, meditative training, practices, etc, all become all equally important parts of the gradual and beautiful individual journey along the path.

In other words, one should be always aware of the big picture of the impersonal and natural process that this is all about and avoid at all costs getting stuck in a single aspect or activity involved in it.

In the end, I would say that the only tasks we have in hands are the tasks of cultivating the path, in its eight elements, and fully knowing / understanding the nature of arising and cessation of suffering.

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the correct spelling is jhayati with the infinitive’s -ti suffix

https://suttacentral.net/define/jhāyati

and it comes up in the embedded dictionary at AN 11.9 for instance

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Well, these are all good points, all I can say is that this is part of the limitations that we have to deal with. We have to compromise in one way or another; there’s always a price to pay. For me the final question is always: how do we actually express in modern English what this is saying?

I appreciate the point, although just to note, I would not use the phrase “serenity meditation”, precisely for reasons such as you articulate.

Maybe, maybe not. Language is just too flexible for this kind of assumption.

Not necessarily. It’s not good English, but it depends what words are available. In a hypothetical language where these were the best terms you had, it would have to suffice. It’s certainly not obviously wrong.

I appreciate exorcising the ghost of “becoming”! But I’m not sure how you reach this conclusion. Is it not the case that the term was introduced precisely in order to mimic perceived linguistic structures of the original language (the difference in sense between hoti and atthi), despite the fact that it created un-idiomatic and borderline incomprehensible English?

Thanks for that LXNDR, fixed it.
Note however that in the case of the MN8, the lookup does not recognize the verb in the form jhāyatha

‘cultivation of concentration’ and ‘establishing mindfulness’ are just two variants that came to my mind right off the bat. I am sure better English translators than me can come up with dozens of variants, so the best ones can be chosen after an extensive discussion.

But it is always better to err on the safe side, isn’t it? :slight_smile:

The thing is I am sure the English language does have better terms than that. Moreover, I think the more important thing is that overusing the word ‘meditation’ in our translations we may be doing the second mistake, calling a game of cards ‘a gaming exercise’. Not that any spiritual Buddhist practice is as useless as playing cards, it’s just may have been regarded as something completely separate from, say, cultivating concentration.

It can be true, in which case it violates the first and most important part of any good translation: ‘It should be readable.’ The justifications I came across were all about ‘the dynamic nature of being in the Buddhist thinking’, etc., but the linguistic reasoning was possibly chronologically first. Still, I think you will agree there are many terms whose variant translations are sometimes influenced by the ideas of their translators: ‘sankharas’, ‘anatta’, etc.

My impression is that the overuse of generalizing concepts like ‘meditation’ or its counterparts in Asian Buddhist cultures, contributed to the start of the Great Dhyana Argument: ‘Insight meditation is meditation and samatha meditation is meditation, meditation is needed for enlightenment, so you can neglect samatha’ - and vice versa.

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i believe the backend engine can’t parse a declined form without having in its database the word jhāya down to which it could prune such a declined form

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It doesn’t quite work like that, but the effect is the same, there is a limited capacity to parse different forms. What actually happens, I believe, is that the lookup engine, which is written in javascript and runs in the browser, tries lopping bits of the end off to see if it can get a match. It compares these truncated forms with similarly lopped off entries in the dictionary.

The process of chopping bits off is guided by an understanding of how Pali grammar works, but it’s not sophisticated enough to take into account all the (very many) variations and exceptions. The end result is, as we all know, somewhat quirky, and sometimes obvious words are not recognized while very obscure terms are.

So there’s no separate database of terms from which we build up words. We have discussed doing it that way, but it would be very hard. Essentially, once you get words down to their roots, building them up is much more complicated. Now, in principle, it would allow a more accurate and intelligent approach.

In practice, however, the language overwhelmingly favors certain forms over others—third person singular verbs, for example—and there is little use in theoretically calculating all forms when, in many cases, they simply don’t occur. It would, in addition, make for a far more complicated set of calculations for your browser. Bear in mind, when you activate it, it calculates and fetches the terms for all the words on the page.

I very much want to improve this engine, but i suspect such improvements will involve a gradual evolution rather than developing a proper grammar parser, sadly. Perhaps the problem could be solved by some much more advanced kind of programming, using neural nets for natural language processing maybe, but we’re not there yet!

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I would question the idea that there is no general word in Pali for “meditate-meditation”.

The words jhāna and jhāyati cover it very well. While “bhāvanā” would cover “practice” pretty well too.

When the dying Buddha told the bhikkhus,

Jhāyatha, bhikkhave, mā pamādattha; mā pacchā vippaṭisārino ahuvattha. (MI.118)

He seems to have meant quite simply "Meditate! Don’t be careless. Don’t have to be sorry later!

particularly in view of the reference to tree roots and empty buildings before.

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Did he not specifically mean ‘practice jhāna’?

The verb is jhayathi. It means to meditate, to absorb or consume oneself. Check SC’s dictionary entry:

https://suttacentral.net/define/jhāyati

Well since there is no equivalent word for ‘meditate’ as Sujato pointed out above, I can’t really personally accept that it is equal to the word ‘meditate’. I would rather know the parameters of what it means in context. Is there good reasoning to suggest that it does not mean practicing jhāna here? If so, then what is it referring to?

Jhāna is derivedfrom jhāyati,1 BSk. dhyāna.

So yes, “practice jhāna” would be a correct translation.

Because “jhāyati” has a broader range of activities in context than the more specific four jhānas of samma samādhi, that’s presumably why translators often use “meditate” for jhāyati.

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