The nuances of the aorist in MN 123

As I understand it, the aorist (gr., aóristos, lit., ‘indefinite’) is the unmarked or indefinite aspect of the verb. The aspect of a verb indicates its “internal time”, in contrast to its “external time”. Whereas the last one refers to the tense of the verb --past, present or future-- that is the time of the verbal action or state in relation to the time of the speech, the former one indicates whether the end of the action or state expressed by the verb is defined (perfective aspect) or not defined (imperfective aspect).

Thus, the verbal forms with perfective aspect indicate a finished action --whether past, present or future-- whereas the verbal forms with imperfective aspect indicate an ongoing action or repeated situation --whether past, present or future–. Aspectually, then, the aorist is neither perfective nor imperfective, but describes just the action or state in an indefinite way. Tensely, the aorist is neither past, present nor future tense, but describes the action as if occurring in a perennial time, a “timeless time” or a “eternal present”. (Could we say “potential” in Aristotelian categories?)

In languages without aorist, as the English, the aorist is usually translated by the past perfect tense, as referring to past finished events (perfective), but it can alternatively be translated by the present tense, as if the action were occurring right now or in a timeless time. As we can see the indefinite aspect of the verb is replaced in each case by the aspect of the verbal tense, whether perfect or imperfect. Likewise, the no-tense of the aorist is replaced in each case by the past or the present. Too many nuances lost in translation, right?

I have noticed that the original pali of MN 123 precisely uses the aorist. When listing the amazing and incredible qualities of the Buddha, we read, for example:

‘sato sampajāno, ānanda, bodhisatto tusitaṃ kāyaṃ upapajjī’ti.
‘Mindful and aware, the being intent on awakening is reborn in the group of Joyful Gods.’

upapajjī’ is the aorist for ‘upapajjati’, ‘to get to’, ‘to be reborn in’, ‘to originate’, ‘to rise’.

Sujato chooses the present tense to translate the aorist whereas both Thanissaro and Ñanamoli-Bhikkhu choose the past perfect instead:

‘Mindful & alert, the bodhisatta appeared among the Tusita host.’ (Thanissaro)
'Mindful and fully aware, Ānanda, the Bodhisatta appeared in the Tusita heaven. (Ñanamoli-Bodhi)

I was just wondering about the nuances of saying “the bodhisatta appears” in comparison with “the bodhisatta appeared”, knowing that in both cases each verb is trying to render the undefined timeless aorist and, furthermore, taking into account that the speaker is the Tathāgata himself, that is, ‘the one thus come’ or ‘the one who is like that’ (Gombrich, Richard F., What the Buddha Taught, London: Equinox, 2009, p. 151).

How could we grasp that aoristic qualities of the Buddha, amazing and incredible as they are? What is really what is being described or insinuated in this sutta regarding the gestation of a buddha/the Buddha? Any insights are much welcome. Thank you. :crazy_face:


Interesting points here, and it made me go back and look more closely at the uses of tenses.

Not being a grammarian, I basically just know the aorist from Pali, where it most commonly has a past tense, but also serves a variety of other uses. Tenses in Pali are handled in a variety of ways, and the grammatical forms must be read in context.

Now, in the passage about the bodhisatta’s birth, there are two types of time: mythical, represented by the present tense in the sense of a “timeless truth”, and historical, a personal fact about someone’s life, which uses the aorist.

Thus to say that “a bodhisatta is born from Tusita heaven” is a timeless, mythic truth, whereas to say “the bodhisatta was born from Tusita heaven” is a statement about a particular person’s life.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Because the tenses are used in a flexible manner, it is quite common to not represent them literally in translation. And in this case, Vens Bodhi and Thanissaro consistently frame the narrative in the past tense, while I frame it in the present. The difference here, incidentally, is not one of grammar: it is because those two scholars tend to adhere to a more realist historical approach, whereas I think this is a mythological text.

However, on closer inspection, it appears we are all wrong. That’s refreshing!

Let’s start with the parallel passage in DN 14. This begins:

Atha kho, bhikkhave, vipassī bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā sato sampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkami.
When Vipassī, the being intent on awakening, passed away from the group of Joyful Gods, he was conceived in his mother’s womb, mindful and aware.

This is a historical statement about a specific bodhisatta, and hence uses the aorist as past tense. The text goes on:

Dhammatā esā, bhikkhave, yadā bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkamati.
It’s normal that, when the being intent on awakening passes away from the group of Joyful Gods, he’s conceived in his mother’s womb.

From here the passage continues with the same series of items as found in MN 123, all in a similar grammatical form. Thus the text clearly and precisely uses the tenses to distinguish personal from mythic statements.

Okay, so to MN 123. A critical difference here is that the text adds an extra three items at the start of the list. The first one is the line you already quoted:

sato sampajāno, ānanda, bodhisatto tusitaṃ kāyaṃ upapajji
‘Mindful and aware, the being intent on awakening was reborn in the group of Joyful Gods.’

Here the aorist is used, the same as for Vipassi, thus making it a personal statement about Siddhattha, not a timeless truth. Here I was wrong and will correct my translation. The aorist is likewise used for the next several items, until we reach the first item shared in common with DN 14:

sato sampajāno, ānanda, bodhisatto tusitā, kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkami
‘Mindful and aware, the being intent on awakening passed away from the group of Joyful Gods and was conceived in his mother’s womb.’

Here, as in the personal account in DN 14, the aorist is used. However, starting from the next item, we find the present tense:

yadā, ānanda, bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkamati
‘When the being intent on awakening passes away from the group of Joyful Gods, he is conceived in his mother’s womb.

And the present tense is then used throughout.

So what exactly is going on here? Well, I think the textual situation suggests that this account originated in DN 14 and MN 123 was created later. This is the obvious theory, since there are extra items in MN 123. Moreover, the text itself tells us this: MN 123 sets itself up as an account of an earlier teaching of the Buddha.

Looking more closely at DN14, there is a rather odd textual detail. The text is giving the story of Vipassi’s life. It tells of his family and origins, then proceeds to his birth. The first item is historical, using the aorist to describe Vipassi’s rebirth in this life. It then goes on to generalize, saying that it is “normal” (dhammatā) for things to be like this; i.e. this is a mythic truth as well as a historical one. However the text then proceeds to ignore Vipassi and the historical tense, and the remaining items are all in the “mythic present”. Thus only the first item is presented historically with the aorist.

And in MN 123 we find the same item that is presented with the aorist in DN 14 also has the aorist in MN 123. The three proceeding items, added solely to MN 123, also follow the aorist pattern. Thus MN 123 clearly follows the narrative template of DN 14. In DN 14 this is contextually justified: the aorist is used for the historical account of Vipassi, the present for the timeless truths for all bodhisattas. But in MN 123 there is no such contextual justification. However it is clearly a meaningful artefact of the texts and should be preserved in translation.

Just checking some other translations, I note that the very first translation by Chalmers gets this right, Horner gets it mostly right, while Ven Uppalavanna, like Vens Nyanamoli, Bodhi and Thanissaro, read the historical past tense throughout. So on this detail, anyway, it seems the translations have been getting steadily worse!


The same verb in the same tense is applied to the rebirth of all kinds of people: good puthujjanas like the Bodhisatta’s mother in Ud. 5.2, bad puthujjanas like Sunakkhatta in DN 24, and sekha disciples like the householder Ugga in AN. 5.44. That being so, I doubt it’s intended to signify something different or special when applied to a bodhisatta.


So, if I have understood correctly, what you are saying is that both DN 14 and MN 123 consistently use the aorist and the present tense: the first one historically, in relation to specific individuals and events; and the second one mythologically, in relation to general or archetypal individuals and events. That’s indeed a great find, thank you very much for the explanation, Sujato.

Which seems to be confirmed by Dhammanando’s remark that “the same verb in the same tense” --although the aorist is not properly a tense but an aspect-- is applied to the rebirth all kinds of particular people. Thank you too, Dhammanando.

For my part, it has taken me some time to put in order the varied, confusing and not always concurrent grammatical information about the aorist, its meaning and use(s), at least in Greek, although it probably applies to Pali as well. Let me share my finds in a summarized form :blush: :

First, I must say that the etymology of the word confused me a lot.

The word ‘aorist’, comes from the Greek, ‘aóristos’ (‘ἀόριστος’ ), ‘indeterminate’, ‘indefinite’, ‘unlimited’. It is formed by the negative prefix ‘a-’ (‘α-’), ‘no’, ’in-’, ‘without’, plus ‘horistos’ ((‘όριστος’ )), the participle of the verb ‘horizo’ (‘ὁρίζω’), ‘I determine’, ‘I delimit’, from where the English word ‘horizon’ derives as well.

Interestingly enough, the Greek god name ‘Uranus’ (gr., ‘Ouranós’, ’Οὐρανός’) is a compound formed by ‘ouros’ (‘ὅρος’), ‘limit’, ‘boundary’, and ‘nóos’ (‘νόος’), ‘mind’, its literal meaning being ‘limit-mind’, in the sense of ‘the mind that reaches the horizon’ and, figuratively, ‘sky’, ‘heaven’, ‘firmament’. The myth of Uranus —who didn’t allow his offspring to see the light of the world and thrive— being castrated by his own son, the titan Cronus [gr., Krónos, Κρόνος, from ‘krouoh’ (‘κρούω’), ‘I hit’, ‘I bit’, maybe ‘I cut’, and ‘nóos’ (‘νόος’), ‘mind’, literally ‘I-hit-mind’ or ‘I-cut-mind’, ‘He who cuts (through the limit of) the mind’], and the relatively early confusion of Cronus with Chronus (gr., Khrónos, Χρόνος), the personification of time, god of the ages, also called ‘Eón’ or ‘Aión’ (‘Αίών’), invites in principle to a suggestive understanding of the aorist as a temporal indetermination, “a time before time” or a mythical time. [1]

Thereupon, identifying the aorist with the mythical time myself, I was shocked when I read Sujato’s message saying:

there are two types of time: mythical, represented by the present tense in the sense of a “timeless truth”, and historical, a personal fact about someone’s life, which uses the aorist

(rendered as the simple past). I had taken it the other way around!

Fortunately, I found a neat clarification by a grammarian [2] who acknowledges:

The term ‘aorist’ is one of those whose use creates more confusion than anything else. It is a term that we inherited from the ancient Greeks and that it has been used among us in very different ways. It does not seem that the creation of the term was very lucky, in fact. ‘Aorist’ meant ‘indeterminate’ in Greek, and everything indicates that not even in Ancient Greek there was a clear justification for that denomination. The Greek aorist (without going into many details), in the indicative, basically was a perfective past (Comrie 1976:12) [3]. That is, the equivalent English, “I ate” [simple plast]. […] Nonetheless, there has also been among some the idea that the aorist (actually the “category” of aspect) was something exotic, belonging [only] to some ancient languages like the Greek, that not even Latin, much less the modern Romance languages knew.
Nothing is further from reality. The perfective/imperfective opposition in past tense is very common in the modern languages of the world and, without going any further in the actual Spanish and Basque. ’Aorist’, then, is a term that we should abandon, and replace it by ‘perfective’, which is the one used in its place in all currents of modern linguistics.
Perfective (Comrie 1976:16) is the aspect that contemplates the action or state (“situation”) of the verb as a whole. While the imperfective devotes special attention to the internal structure of the situation.

(My translation.)

Furthermore, although in the indicative the aorist or perfective is usually rendered as simple past, it is also important to distinguish properly between perfect tense and perfective aspect.

The ancient Greek grammar featured the following distinctions for the present and past tenses of the indicative:

  1. Present (I eat)
  2. Imperfect (I was eating, I used to eat)
  3. Perfective or aorist = simple past (I ate)
  4. Perfect = present perfect (I have eaten)
  5. Pluperfect = past perfect (I had eaten)

In a shorter more general version, Proto-Indo-European had a three-way aspectual opposition, traditionally called ‘infectum’ (= ‘present’), ‘aorist’, and ‘perfectum’ (= ‘perfect’), which are thought to have been, respectively, modern day imperfective, perfective, and stative (resultant state) grammatical aspects, respectively. [4]

Tense is a grammatical category that points out the time of the action, event, or state, denoted by the verb, in relation to the time of speech, regarded as the present. Thus, we have past, present and future tenses depending the action happens before, during, or after the moment of speech. So tense has to do with a time that is “external” to the time of the action, event or state itself, denoted by a verb.

Aspect, on the other hand, is a grammatical category that expresses how an action, event, or state, denoted by a verb, extends over time —its own “internal” time and beyond. At this regard, we must clearly distinguish two different ‘aspect polarities’ here: perfect-imperfect and perfective-imperfective.

Perfect aspect indicates the relevance, continuity or bond of a previous [finished] action (Comrie 1976: 56). Thus, the present perfect is used to speak about actions that still are relevant to the present moment even though finished (I have eaten by the time he phone). Likewise, the past perfect is used to speak about a still earlier action that is relevant to another past action which is taken as a reference point (I had eaten when he phoned me).

Conversely, imperfect aspect indicates the irrelevance, discontinuity or lack of bond whatsoever of a previous action with another one (I used to eat by the time he phone, I was eating when he phone). Thus, the imperfect is used to speak about actions, events, or states regardless of a reference point, that is, referred to an ongoing or repeated situation. Notice that, by definition, perfection and imperfection require two non-simultaneous actions.

Perfective aspect (Comrie 1976: 16) indicates that the action, event or state, denoted by a verb, is to be contemplated as a whole, with no consideration to its eventual interior composition or development (I ate); whereas the imperfective aspect lends special attention to the inner structure of the action, event, or state because of its simultaneity (He phoned while I was eating) or progression (I eat). So the present tense is basically imperfective whereas the past tense is perfective or aorist.

All in all, the aorist or perfective, rather than some kind of timeless (mythological) verbal aspect is one that —at least, formally— describes an action, event or state viewed as a simple whole —a unit without interior composition or structure, such as being continuous, repetitive, habitual or in progress.

I have gone longer than expected, sorry. Finishing, just add that during my research I’ve come to an unexpected question: Do we live in a historical time or in a mythological time? —which would remit us back to Sujato’s classification of time in those two types. I’m getting into this “revisionism” in my next post. Thank you!


[1] “Uranus,” URL:—ouranos & “Krónos,” URL:—kronos, in Hellenic Gods, Web:, 2010 (last access, 16 Aug 2018).

[2] Aldai Garai, Gontzal (1998) “A propósito del aoristo vasco,” in Fontes linguae vasconum: Studia et documenta, ISSN 0046-435X, Año nº 30, Nº 79, pp. 377-386. URL: (last access, 16 Aug 2018) (In Spanish).

[3] Comrie, Bernard (1976) Aspect: An Introduction to Study of Verbal Aspect, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cited in [1]. Google Books URL (last access, 16 Aug 2018).

[4] “Aorist,” in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Web: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2018, URL: (last access, 16 Aug 2018).

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In my previous post I said I had come to an unexpected question that I’m rewriting in an slightly different manner such as: Do we live in a historical time or in a mythical time? (instead of the original ‘mythological’, which is a little bit different concept).

I also said that this remitted us back to Sujato’s classification of time when he stated at the beginning of his post (slightly edited):

“there are two types of time:

  • mythical, represented by the present tense in the sense of a ‘timeless truth’
  • historical, a personal fact about someone’s life, which uses the aorist".

I wanted to clarify whether the present tense is the most suitable to speak about the “timeless truth” or, rather, the aoristic past tense, that I had initially understood as a timeless tense.

So here’s what I’ve found that brings me to some sort of “revisionism” regarding Sujato’s convention on the two times:

Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) defines ‘myth’ as “that in which we believe without ‘believing’ that we believe in it” [1] or as “the last horizon of intelligibility” [2], that is, of logos. Somewhere else, he adds, “[r]eality is not given to us as logos, but rather offers itself to us as mythos, as that horizon against which we place our own idea of the world…” [3], that is, our own discourse or logos.

Thus, according to this definition, we do indeed live in a mythical time not in a historical time. Thus, the facts certainly belong not to the historical but to the mythical, and, as such, to the forever now or ‘timeless truth’, whereas our interpretations (discourses) about those facts belong to the historical, which is not different from the logos.

I would say that what has changed in course of history is not the facts --the myth-- (in this case, the birth of a bodhisatta) but the interpretations --the logos-- of those facts. Thus, the birth of a bodhisatta certainly happens in the forever now. Now, by definition of ‘text’, the account of that birth in the suttas can’t be but an interpretation of the “true facts”, so to speak, that is a history or a story.

Interestingly enough, at this point, Panikkar remarks that when we demythologize (by virtue of logos), we remythologize or, rather, transmythologize, that is, we awake to another myth from which to continue our discourse. [4]

In conclusion, my only reservations with Sujato’s classification of time have to do with his identification of the historical time with “the facts about someone’s life” instead of “the narratives about the facts about someone’s life”. Anyway, now I do agree with his convention of attributing the present tense to the mythical time and the aoristic past tense to the historical-logical. Thank you! :sweat_smile:


[1] Panikkar, Raimon (1978) Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics, New York, NY: Paulistas Press, p. 5
[2] Vélez de Rea, J. Abraham (2014) “Cross-cultural Hermeneutics,” in Cirpit Review n. 5 - 2014, Proceedings, Milano - Udine: Mimesis Edizioni, p., 70, Web:, URL: (last access, 15 Aug 2018).
[3] Panikkar, Raimon (n. d.) “Mythos-Logos,” in Raimon Panikkar Official Site, Web:, n. d., URL: (last access, 15 Aug 2018).
[4] See, for example, Panikkar, Raimon (2000) “Religion, Philosophy and Culture”, at polylog website, Web:, 2000, URL: (last access, 8 September 2018)

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This will be embarrassing. :flushed: After correcting and saving my previous post for several times, I had the strong feeling that I was missing something or even making some gross mistake(s). For example, when I asserted “we do indeed live in a mythical time not in a historical time” in such a disjunctively extreme way, I would have had to realize that I was going astray the Middle Way.

For me, this is all about try and failure, or polishing once and again. Wouldn’t like to mislead the members of this forum, though. This has been for me a lesson about discerning between thinking before speaking in public, and just thinking aloud, wrong.

Now that I have just slept on it for a while, I am becoming aware of some flaws in what I thought/said that I would like to both point out and correct here… and there could be more… My apologies.

First, the word “mythical” is used with different senses, either in the academy or in daily life, where it has in general rather dismissive usages. Sujato related it to a ‘timeless truth’, and so did I in the beginning, accepting that convention although aware of its vagueness.

So it was not fair on my part to bring up another definition of the word 'myth" or ‘mythos’ by Raimon Panikkar as our horizon of intelligibility, or what we take it for granted, and to elaborate upon it, because, obviously, that was not the sense intended by Sujato that I had initially accepted.

Plus it was not fair on my part to equate the historical, as it is usually understood, with the logical or discursive. Neither all the historical is discursive nor all the logical is historical.

Second, both the mythical and the logical are narratives or narrations. Indeed, both ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’ mean ‘word’ in Greek, although not exactly in the same sense, which is where the real difficulty lies, for me.

So it was not fair on my part to bring up that the mythical is about facts whereas the historical --wrongly equated with the logical-- is about the narratives, interpretations or representations about those facts. For, as I say, as words, both are narratives. I think Sujato’s distinction of mythical and historical fortunately keeps itself away from this mess of mine.

Third, mythos is not more “real” --or “previous”-- than logos, as I had implicitly assumed; as if a mythoi were a phenomenon --a basic or a “presentational” reality-- whereas a logoi were an epiphenomenon --a derived or a “re-presentational” reality–. Instead, mythos and logos have co-existed all the time but not all the time in the same way.

So it was not fair on my part either to implicitly give the mythical a more fundamental status than the historical, nor to state the mythical and the historical in terms of presentational and representational realities, respectively. Moreover, their relationship is not that of a presentation and a re-presentation at all, being both representational.

Panikkar, a self-confessed non-dualist, says that the relationship between mythos and logos is rather “sui generis”, that is, “unique in its kind”, [1] and that it is not possible to reduce any of them to the other without consequences:

“Practically all philosophies have known that truth has a seductive appearance; it simultaneously reveals and hides itself. Not only would absolute truth dazzle us, but it would not enlighten us, for it could not be total if we ourselves were not in it. Or, as we shall insinuate further, all incursion of the light or of the intelligibility of logos within the obscure realm of the mythos is accompanied by another shadow that the logos leaves behind it and which the mythos discreetly covers anew. All demythization is accompanied by a remythization; 6 it is always necessary that something be “pre-sup-posed”.” [2]

“Every philosophy, by approaching the mythos with logos, exercises a demythologizing function, although it otherwise necessarily remythologizes, as I have said. One cannot separate the logos from myth or the myth from logos.” [3]

“Culture is the encompassing myth which makes it possible for us to believe the world in which we live. Every cosmology is the logos of a kosmos which shows itself to us as such, thanks to the mythos which renders it visible to us.” [4]

Fourth, the suttas are not logical narratives about mythical narratives --wrongly taken as non textual facts at that–. Instead, the suttas are both mythical and historical-logical.

So it was not fair on my part to identify logos with text, specially with suttas, whereas mythos with something beyond text or the suttas --even with context, if we were to preserve the wordly character of mythos as well.

To conclude, my previous post was pure folly, absurdity, nonsense, embarrassing from tip to toe. I should better delete it if I didn’t think that error may sometimes be as eyeopening as skillfulness. So I let it be as it is, along with this post, as a reminder to drive myself with more prudence. :flushed:

Anyway, I avail myself of this opportunity to ask the other members about what they understand by what we have called here “the mythical” and “the historical” in the suttas. I think it is well worthwhile to clarify both concepts, if we are to understand the suttas with some guarantees. Thank you! :sweat_smile:


[1] Panikkar, Raimon (n. d.) “Mythos-Logos,” in Raimon Panikkar Official Site, Web:, n. d., URL: (last access, 9 Sept 2018).
[2] Panikkar, Raimon (2000) “Religion, Philosophy, and Culture,” in polylog website, Web:, 2000, URL: (last access, 9 Sept 2018).
[3] Ibidem.
[4] Ibidem.

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Humility and a willingness to look over what you’ve written with critical eyes is never embarrassing.

I also learned that Ibid. was a shortform today.