The meaning of "發菩提心" in the context of SA 659

I would like to ask @cdpatton some questions about SA 659 if he doesn’t mind.

In SA 659, the Buddha explained about the definitions of the five faculties. However, there is this curious phrase “發菩提心”. In the very same text, there is also “初發菩提心”. This phrase seems to occur only once in T 99 and nowhere else in the four Chinese Agama collections. It occurs, however, in a few standalone texts namely: T 80, T 81, T 121, and T 126.

The aforementioned phrase seems to mean “bodhicitta”, a concept that is taught in Mahayana Buddhism. It seems that it is rendered as “發菩薩心” in both EA 35.2 and EA 36.5, in the collection of T 125 where such occurences of the phrase seem more natural considering the weird nature of the collection itself.

As of now, I hesitate to conclude that the occurrence of “發菩提心” in SA 659 is the result of Mahayana Buddhism’s influence because there is an instance of another term that is popular in Mahayana Buddhism that appears only once in Pali EBTs (DN 27) and only once in T 1 (DA 2). That term is “Dhammakaya” or “法身” in Chinese Buddhism (I found 20 more Chinese Buddhist texts that contain this word, but I don’t think those occurrences matter in this discussion).

It seems that “Dhammakaya” in DN 27 has quite a different meaning from the one that is understood in Mahayana Buddhism. Ven Sujato translated it as “the embodiment of truth”; whereas in 1992, Prof. Paul Harrison took it to mean that the Buddha is equated with his teachings. I assume that it likely means the same thing in the context of DA 2, except that the Buddha’s disciples are equated with the teachings instead.

So, I would like to ask you if “發菩提心” or “初發菩提心” in the context of SA 659 could mean something else other than “bodhicitta” where it has a non-Mahayana meaning, or if it is indeed the result of Mahayana Buddhism’s influence.


This is a perplexing occurrence on the face of it. The definition of the five faculties is certainly non-standard, the standard definition happening a couple sutras before SA.659.

The thing to remember is that the Mahayana use of the term bodhicitta has pre-Mahayana origins, namely in the theory of the bodhisattva career that’s found in the later Avadana and Jataka literature.

I’m inclined to read it as the “Tathagata’s resolve for bodhi” (如來發菩提心) in these passages, which makes it an allusion to his previous career as a bodhisattva. Thus, for example:

What is the faculty of faith? If the noble disciple’s pure faith is that attained by the Tathagata’s resolve for bodhi, this is called the faculty of faith.

根 almost seems to mean literally “root” in these question, when I read it that way, but I wouldn’t expect that in a series of sutras about the five faculties.

It’s an interesting case of bodhisattva theory in the Agamas without being explicitly Mahayana, like the Bhiksu Maitreya who appears in the Madhyama Agama.


Thank you very much for your answer. This is the first time that I heard of how “bodhicitta” actually has pre-Mahayana origins. This is really neat to know.

I would like to ask you with further questions if you don’t mind.

In The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism (in 2000) by Ven Choong Mun-keat, he translated the relevant passages from SA 659 as:

What is faith-faculty? If a noble disciple generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to attain a mind of pure faith, this is called faith faculty. What is effort-faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to strive with effort, this is called effort faculty. … mindfulness-faculty. … concentration faculty. What is wisdom faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to give rise to wisdom, this is called wisdom faculty.

Ven Choong Mun-keat also concluded about the occurrence of “菩提心” that:

The SN counterpart lacks the word bodhicitta. For example in the case of faith, it simply states: " … a noble disciple who is utterly devoted to faith (ekantagato abhippasanno) in the Tathagata, … who has faith (saddhassa) … " The presence in the SA version of the term bodhicitta, much used in Mahayana Buddhism, is likely to represent a relatively late addition.

So, what I would like to ask you further is what do you think might be the reason of Ven Choong Mun-keat’s different translation and interpretation of the passages? Is there something in the passages that may cause uncertainty in translating and interpreting them aside from the occurrence of “如來發菩提心”?

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Yes, that’s another way to read it, and it was the way I attempted to read it at first. The issue is the prepositional phrase, which might include only Tathagata or the entire phrase “Tathagata’s resolve for bodhi”.

It makes less sense to me to say “resolve for bodhi in regard to the Tathagata.” The Resolve for bodhi is the resolve to become a Tathagata, so I guess it might mean that. In that case, the noble disciple is taking the vow of a bodhisattva, which makes the passage straightforward Mahayana. It’s possible, but the only other material in the Samyukta like that is in the Asoka Avadana that appears to have been added to it later.

My reading makes a little better sense to me, but it’s still a little cryptic, and I’m stretching the grammar. Choong Mun-keat’s is the more ordinary way to read the Chinese, grammatically speaking.

Another slight possibility is that bodhi shouldn’t be in the passage at all and was added by a copyist because the expression is so common in Mahayana texts. 發心 by itself means to make a resolve or decide on something. There are no variant readings, though, to support that idea, so I dismissed it.


The impression that I get from both readings is that I think yours is more in line with EBTs, while Ven Choong Mun-keat’s is more in line with Mahayana Buddhism. Personally, I don’t see how bodhicitta has anything to do with the five faculties. Which is why SA 659 gave me quite a headache.

In any case, thank you very much for the clarification.

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How are they substantially different? The Buddha’s resolve toward bodhi is what bodhicitta is. It seems to me cdpatton and Mun-Keat largely agree on the meaning of the passage.

It seems the main difference is if the Tathāgata’s resolve for bodhi is presented in an instrumental form or not (generated via/by the Thus Come’s bodhicitta or generated with regard to the Thus Come one).

If anything, I think the opposite might be inferred. Since faith-generation “with regard to” could be a reference to buddhānusmriti, and “by the Thus Come’s bodhicitta” calls the mind of the disciple, calls a non-Tathāgata-mind a Tathāgata-mind, albeit ambiguously and indirectly, which would be very Mahāyāna in its own way.

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Hi Charlie , Eric :

If you don’t mind ,
My take is ,
here appear to mean :

If the noble disciple Relying on the Tathagata and aspiring for the bodhi(enlightenment) ,
attained to Confidence ,
this is called the faculty of faith .

Best regards.


The reason why I take the meaning to be different is because of cdpatton’s translation:

Another translation by Gene (thank you very much for another take of the translation):

In both cdpatton’s and Gene’s translations, it seems that a noble disciple’s faculty of faith and the other faculties come to be because of the Buddha’s resolve for awakening. In other words, I take it that the noble disciple is inspired by the Buddha’s resolve for awakening. And because of being inspired by such resolve, the noble disciple develops the other faculties as well in order to become awakened themselves (being awakened is also for the disciples as well in EBTs, which is attested in the teachings of the seven factors of awakening). Being inspired by such resolve is in accord with MN 68 and MA 77.

Now, with Ven Choong Mun-keat’s translation:

What is faith-faculty? If a noble disciple generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to attain a mind of pure faith, this is called faith faculty. What is effort-faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to strive with effort, this is called effort faculty. … mindfulness-faculty. … concentration faculty. What is wisdom faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to give rise to wisdom, this is called wisdom faculty.

Here, the noble disciple is clearly described as generating bodhicitta themselves. This is why I take Ven Choong Mun-keat’s translation as being more in line with Mahayana Buddhism.

It depends on which lens you see such resolve with. In EBTs, the Buddha before his awakening sought out for the end of suffering only for himself. This is attested in MN 26 and MA 204. It’s only after his awakening that the Buddha’s compassion arose in him (more studies can be found in Ven Analayo’s Genesis of the Bodhisattva ideal). While in Mahayana Buddhism, as far as I know, bodhicitta stands for the altruistic wish to save sentient beings which arises since the very beginnning, not after becoming a Buddha.

So, the Buddha of EBTs didn’t have bodhicitta, he had compassion for beings after his awakening. Buddhas of Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, have bodhicitta even before their awakening. Since SA 659 belongs to T 99, a collection of EBTs, so I read SA 659 in the context of EBTs. Ven Choong Mun-keat’s translation just happened to be in line with Mahayana Buddhism, so I have to read his translation in the context of Mahayana Buddhism. It’s simply impossible to read it otherwise.

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I guess another thing to think about is whether the resolve for bodhi was understood the way we are assuming it was. By the 4th century CE it would be, but maybe in some early texts it was something not necessarily referring to bodhisattvas. It’s pretty thorny when we encounter passages like this. The passage could be older than the popularization that bodhisattva theories, or it could be a later addition or emendation. It turns into a judgement call, semantically.

Overall, I think Mun-keat’s reading is the more straightforward option; mine is more awkward.

Hmm, I think 於 is introducing a direct object before a verb. But yeah, that’s another way to read it.

Okay, so there’s now three translations for the passages in SA 659.

The first is cdpatton’s:

Some comments about this translation are:

Next is Ven Choong Mun-keat’s:

What is faith-faculty? If a noble disciple generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to attain a mind of pure faith, this is called faith faculty.

Some comments about this translation are:

And the last (but not least) translation is Gene’s:

A comment about this translation is:

I would like to ask the following questions to both @cdpatton and @Gene if they don’t mind. Now that there are three translations, does this mean that all three translations are equally valid for the aforementioned passage? I just can’t make sense of how the seemingly bodhicitta and the five faculties are mentioned in the same place (in an EBT of all places too). They are completely unrelated aren’t they? The five faculties are obviously for the “sravaka”, while bodhicitta is for bodhisattvas.

I wonder if it’s possible to apply the case of “Dhammakaya” (法身) here. In Mahayana Buddhist texts, it means one thing, which is the truth body, one of the three bodies of a Buddha. But in DN 27 and DA 2, it means quite another, which is either the embodiment of truth (Ven Sujato) or the equation of the Buddha with his teachings (Prof. Paul Harrison). Do you think the same can be said of “發菩提心” or “初發菩提心” as well?

At first, I thought that “發” or “初發” might mean something like “intent”, which would make “發菩提心” or “初發菩提心” correspond with the earlier Pali “bodhisatta” (one who intents on awakening) instead of the later BHS or standard Sanskrit “bodhisattva” (an awakened being) where the original meaning of the word was somehow preserved in SA 659, but since there’s “心” in the phrase, my guess becomes unlikely.

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As in English, we can sometimes argue about how to read a sentence in classical Chinese based on how we decide to divide it into clauses or their relationship to each other. It’s not as precise as Indic languages because there’s not separation of terms or even punctuation in the original. So, even compound words can be a point of confusion in poorly written sentences.

This passage is a case in point, mainly because we’re scratching our heads about how to interpret bodhicittôtpāda occurring without much context, and it doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Agama. In that situation, I tend to avoid over interpretation, having caught myself forcing strange readings on texts in the past.

初發菩提心 usually means specifically the first time someone makes the resolve for full enlightenment in the future, which is the official starting point of a bodhisattva career. 初 means “initial” or “first.” 發心 is a translation of cittôtpāda, which can mean making a firm decision or resolve to do something. The Chinese inserts bodhi in between the terms as a matter of grammar, keeping the verb at the head of the expression.

But, yes, I wonder a little bit if this term could have a meaning that fits early teachings, maybe taking bodhi to be the four fruits of sramanas instead of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. I don’t know the history of the term, though, so it may just be a spurious idea. Also, the Pali parallel has terms that mean having full confidence in the Tathagata where this term occurs. Maybe it was a meant to translate a term like that?


I don’t know if this will help but in early Buddhist thought, there’s no difference whatsoever between the liberation of the Buddha and the liberation of disciples (arahant) according to MA 145 at T I 655c28. SN 22.58 and SA 75 both say that the only difference between the Buddha and arahants is that the Buddha discovered the path and taught it, while arahants followed the discovered path.

If you mean the history of the term “bodhisatta”, which is in Pali and other Middle Indo-Aryan languages, I found the following studies:

Steven Collins in “A Pali Grammar for Students” writes:

This word has traditionally been analyzed as bodhi + sattva, enlightenment-being, which makes no grammatical sense. What seems to have happened is that the Pali (or related MIA) word satta has been re-Sanskritized as sattva. This is possible correspondence, but satta in Pali can be equivalent to two other words in Sanskrit, both of which make better sense than sattva. From √sañj, to adhere to, be intent on, the past participle is sakta which → satta in Pali. From √śak, to be able to, be capable of, the past passive participle is śakta, which also → satta in Pali.
Intent on enlighment or capable of enlightment are both more à propos than enlightment-being, so it is likely one of these two sense of bodhisatta was the original

In Bodhisattva-Bodhisakta Ven Sujato writes:

The compound bodhisatta is uncomfortable: “awakening-being”. What does that even mean?

In the EBTs, bodhisatta is almost always used of the period of striving between leaving home and awakening, and there, “one intent on awakening” has a perfect sense. Regardless of how you construe the terms, the sense of the term must be something like that in the EBTs, so I translate, for example:

Pubbeva me, bhikkhave, sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato etadahosi
Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought:

In “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas”, Ven Bodhi writes:

Incidentally, in any Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) language, the word would be bodhisatta. This was Sanskritized as bodhisattva, “enlightenment being,” and we take this meaning for granted; but the Sanskritized form might be an erroneous back-formation. For MIA bodhisatta could also represent Sanskrit bodhisakta, meaning “one intent on enlightenment,” “one devoted to enlightenment,” which in context makes better sense than “an enlightenment being.”


No, I meant the history of the term bodhicittôtpāda, which the Chinese appears to translate. The issues with the term bodhisattva are definitely interesting and make sense. In later texts, the bodhisattva largely became a title or a personal noun, so perhaps that’s why it settled into the derivation that it did.

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The Chinese translated bodhisatta phonetically and 埵 seems to have some elements of a voiced labio-velar approximant glide, namely possibly w. This isn’t anything you could base a thesis on though, for instance. The is a great deal of v/w ambiguity in Prākrits like Gāndhārī, as well as various traditions of how to pronounce Sanskrit (to this day, in fact).

菩提薩埵 *bɨuhdeisɑttuɑh
(Middle Chinese, Baxter-Sagart, IPA but X replaced with h for clarity’s sake)

The u in the *tuɑh (technically, with good IPA it’s *tuɑx & * bɨuxdeisɑttuɑx) being the aforementioned voiced labio-velar approximant (glide?).

There is no indication that Chinese makes any attempt to preserve a consonant cluster like -kt-, but this consonant cluster would likely have been reduced by the time of the Prākrit in question (almost definitely so) that the Chinese was translated from anyways.

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Hi Charlie / Eric ,

If refer to Sa 658 , there is no bodhicittôtpāda to be found .
So , my guess is the issue with Sa659 could be due to the translator Guṇabhadra (394年-468年) was a mahayanist .



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Ven Guṇabhadra was an early Yogācāra practitioner AFAIK, so yes, I agree. This could have influenced his decisions on how to translate certain terms, technical vocabulary, concept, &c. But this scripture had likely passed through many layer of Mahāyānika copying, possibly copy-editing, and possibly also inter-Prākrit translation and also possibly even a layer (or two) of (potentially differing) Sanskritization(s) before it even entered into the Chinese language through Ven Guṇabhadra’s efforts. So, he could have added it or translated it that way from the Prākrit or someone added it earlier, both are possible IMO.

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Sorry, my bad.

As for bodhicittotpāda, I found only one study that talked about it. There is this study “Indian Altruism: A Study of the Terms bodhicitta and cittotpada” where its author, Gareth Sparham, said that the origin of cittotpada is to be found in a later part of Arya-Jasta-sahasrika-Prajna-paramita text (he referred to this as “A” or “the Origin-Passage”). He further said that:

Based on the Origin-Passage, cittotpada was originally an attitude, constucted out of the willful manipulation of ideas or imagination, that welled up within the person banishing negativism and depression and inspiring further effort. In the earliest formulation of cittotpada this uplifting of the heart was to be caused by thinking about living beings in a certain fashion: (a) imagining them to be relatives and (b) reflecting on the sameness of them and oneself. Such thoughts or ideas were to make bearable the difficult work of a bodhisattva. Although altruistic sentiments are clearly identifiable in the Origin-Passage there is no unequivocal altruistic message, in the sense of an exhortation urging the bodhisattva to make work for others his primary motivation.

The author also talked about bodhicitta and cittotpada:

The first part of the compound bodhi-citta (synonymous with bodhi-sattva in the early PP [Prajnaparamita] sutras?) should be understood not as referring to a for-others state of enlightenment (a sambhoga-kaya) but to the the Prajna-paramita herself, beyond all conceptualization and absorbed indivisibly with the ultimate. Rather than a dative tatpurusa, the compound is better construed as a curious Buddhist sort of bahuvrihi meaning (one whose) fundamental state of being or mind is perfect wisdom, i.e., the ultimate. It is a curious compound because the Buddhist axiom which denies the existence of a person beyond the five constituent-aggregates (skandha) leaves both compounds without a clearly identifiable noun to qualify.

The cittotpada set forth in the Origin-Passage cannot, then, be equated with bodhicitta (or bodhisattva) nor can it be thought of as the outcome of a systematic understanding. Rather it was a notion which would itself contribute, as an integral part of a revealed text requiring explanation, to the development of Mahayana scholasticism’s systematic understanding of two truths. The early notion of cittotpada would be transformed, under the influence of later systematization associated paticularly with Madhyamikas, into the conventional or surface level (samvrtya) bodhi-cittotpada, i.e., one concerned with conventional realities such as the needs of other living beings and the attainment of enlightenment. This would be unlike the ultimate bodhi-cittotpada which was none other than the original bodhicitta (i.e., the non-dual liberating vision and ultimate reality called Prajna-paramita) changed insofar as it was now a part of an edifice of scholastic thought.

This explanation of the terms has the great benefit of explaining what are, otherwise, confusing usages of bodhicitta, cittotpada and bodhi-cittotpada. The two former terms were originally different in meaning. Later, however, bodhicitta became even more popular, as a shortened form of bodhi-cittotpada, than the original cittotpada itself and it was used with this secondary sense by later writers in contexts where it is historically inappropriate to do so.

It seems to me even cittotpada by itself has a somewhat different meaning in later periods of Buddhism. In early Buddhism, cittotpāda is equivalent to cittuppāda (rise of a thought) in Pali; it occurs in MN 8 and its parallel in MA 91 where MA 91’s Indian original is translated as “發心”. In both of this versions, this word is used in the context of how even just giving rise to or the arousal of wholesome thinking is of much benefit. But by itself, it simply means rise of a thought.

This is one of the things that has been bugging me. If the occurrence of bodhicittotpāda was indeed because of Ven Guṇabhadra’s affiliation of Mahayana Buddhism, then why is it that it occurs only in SA 659 and not other texts of the same collection? It is a possibility, but I’m not sure.

In fact this really strange situation can be compared with the sole occurrence of “Dhammakaya” in Pali Nikayas (DN 27) and “法身” in T 1 (DA 2). In the context of those mentioned two early Buddhist texts, “Dhammakaya (法身)” has a quite different meaning from the one that’s understood in later Buddhisms. In Exploring Dharmakāya in EBTs and Early Sectarian Buddhism, there was a person who asked Ven Sujato whether the occurrence of “Dhammakaya (法身)” in EBTs might be a result of later addition or the term was actually early but it was misunderstood by Buddhists of later periods. This is Ven Sujato’s answer:

I think it’s the latter. It’s quite normal in sacred scripture for words that to be used in a simple, colloquial way, and then to have all sorts of extra significance read into them by later generations. In fact, this is so prevalent that I made it into one of the foundational guidelines of my translation: the principle of least meaning. When faced with two or more options in translating, choose the one that conveys the least significance, treating the passage in the most everyday, obvious sense.

This is why I think there is also a possibility that “發菩提心” or “初發菩提心” in SA 659 might be early and had a different meaning from how they were understood in later times. If Ven Analayo continues his translation of T 99, I wonder how he will translate SA 659.

Ven Sujato’s comment about choosing words that convey the least significance reminds me of cdpatton’s comment about his own approach of translating Chinese Buddhist texts:


Let me take an opportunity to praise you guys for the great discussion here. The main reason I come to this forum every day is to read and learn from interactions such as the above. Keep up with the beautiful conversation!


It seems I have reached a dead end regarding the meaning of “發菩提心” or “初發菩提心” in the context of SA 659. I guess there’s nothing much I can do about it.

Let’s review the three available translations for the last time here.
The first is cdpatton’s:

The second is Ven Choong Mun-keat’s:

What is faith-faculty? If a noble disciple generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to attain a mind of pure faith, this is called faith faculty. What is effort-faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to strive with effort, this is called effort faculty. … mindfulness-faculty. … concentration faculty. What is wisdom faculty? [If] he generates bodhicitta with regard to the Tathagata to give rise to wisdom, this is called wisdom faculty.

The third is Gene’s:

So, I would like to ask either @cdpatton or @Gene how they would translate “何等為信根?若聖弟子於如來發菩提心所得淨信心,是名信根。” in light of all the available information in this thread, if they don’t mind, in the following contexts:
-In the context of early Buddhist texts where the passages are treated in the most everyday, obvious sense without over interpretation.
-In the context of later Buddhisms like Mahayana Buddhism for example.
-In the context of your very own take of the passage (you don’t need to answer these questions if you think your translation is fine as it is).

And this question is specifically for cdpatton. You said that:

Could you please give some examples of when you forced strange readings on texts in the past? I think it would be interesting to know what kind of passages are problematic for translators of Chinese Buddhist texts, and why they are so.

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It usually happens when 1) I didn’t understand the grammar of the sentence, 2) didn’t understand the meaning of a term, or 3) read a text outside of its own context.

With Chinese Buddhist texts, it’s the transliterations that are a special kind of fun. Sometimes common word are used to represent syllables instead of meaning, which leads to expressions that look like gibberish. If you don’t realize you’re dealing with a transliteration, you end up creating readings that were never there in the first place just to make sense of it.

There’s also the problem of technical terms that aren’t explained anywhere. Buddhist Sutras were composed assuming they’ll be explained in person, I think, so if we don’t have a record of the explanations, we’re stuck trying to decipher it ourselves. This I think is the biggest difficulty with the Chinese Agamas. We don’t have exhaustive glosses and commentaries to explain the literary devices and double meanings that were intended. So, obscure terms or unusual contexts leave us stumped sometimes.

In cases like this, unless I could find some sort of explanation or similar passage with more context, I’d have to shrug, translate it literally the way I think a classical Chinese reader would understand it and add a footnote with the different possibilities I can think of that might explain it so the reader can judge for themselves.