Translating 'dhamma' and 'dhammā'

thank you for the clarification

in the context of the sequence enumerating types of sensory perception such interpretation is understandable as mind activity there is accounted for by Viññātaṃ, so translation of Mutaṃ as referring to mind would be a tautology, and this sequence seem to be quite standard across the suttas, other examples are found in AN 4.183, AN 11.18, MN 143 etc

this is kind of like kāmehi in the 1st jhana formula assuming special meaning of objects of sense desire because (among other reasons) kāma the sensual desire is already accounted for by being implied in akusalehi dhammehī

how would you reconcile this? you probably have already come up with a version for your own translation

The reason for this translation is because of the Abhidhammic penchant for fitting everything into nice neat categories. They want to match this set up with the 5 aggregates, so they make nice equivalents. But that misconstrues the point of these dhammas (not the mention the five aggregates).

The set of “seen, heard, thought, and cognized” is at root epistemological. It’s not meant as an overall category of things, but of ways that we come to understand teachings, or gain spiritual insight and purification. That’s why the three senses are omitted, as they are not ways that we typically arrive at understanding of doctrines. Once you add “sensed” to the list, it completely loses the whole point of the thing.

We “see” by way of the actual presence of a teacher, we “hear” what they say, we “think about” what they say, and we “directly know, i.e. cognize” the truth of it through meditation and contemplation. If you look at the various passages that talk about how to arrive at the truth, they always use some variation of this.

It’s been some time since I looked at the research on this point, but if I recall correctly, this was argued in some detail by Jayatilleke.

It’s an Upanishadic set, and is found prominently in passages of Upanishadic influence or style, such as chapters 4 and 5 of the Sutta Nipata. In some such cases, eg. Snp 5.8, we find sīlabbata added to the list. This is of course inexplicable if it is considered as a categorization of sense experience. But sīlabbata was a normal way of obtaining spiritual insight or purification.

This is why we’re told that we have to give up such things:

Ye sīdha diṭṭhaṃ va sutaṃ mutaṃ vā,
Sīlabbataṃ vāpi pahāya sabbaṃ.
Anekarūpampi pahāya sabbaṃ,
Taṇhaṃ pariññāya anāsavāse;
Ahampi te oghatiṇṇāti brūmī
One who has given up all that’s seen, heard, thought,
and also precepts and vows;
who has given up all the many kinds of things,
and has fully understood craving, free of defilements,
I declare that they have crossed the flood.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t see or hear anything. Elsewhere, we’re told that we can’t find freedom without these things. It means that none of these things, in and of themselves, bring freedom. If we’re attached to ideas derived from seeing or hearing, we’re still attached.

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Yes, you could use “mental state” there, it’s pretty close to the regular English meaning. But the problem is that the term has been so hijacked in Buddhist contexts that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether.

Hi Bhante,

Very interesting. So is the instruction to Bahiya/Maluṅkyaputta (SN 35.95) espisemological?

“Ettha ca te, mālukyaputta, diṭṭha­suta­mu­taviñ­ñātab­besu dhammesu diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṃ bhavissati, sute sutamattaṃ bhavissati, mute mutamattaṃ bhavissati, viññāte viññātamattaṃ bhavissati.

“Here, Maluṅkyaputta, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and cognized by you: in the seen there will be merely the seen; in the heard there will be merely the heard; in the sensed there will be merely the sensed; in the cognized there will be merely the cognized.

You’d translate muta as known or thought rather than sensed?

In the seen merely the seen, in the heard merely the heard, in the thought merely the thought, in the cognized merely the cognized.

The ordering is a puzzle to me, since thought sounds more abstract than cognition, and so I would be inclined to put it at the end if I was composing the sentence, but perhaps there are other reasons for the ordering?

right, the reading suggested by Ven Sujato changes and challenges the entire perspective on the import of this celebrated sutta and likely of a few other as well

This connection of seen, heard, thought with concepts and understanding is also easily found in Snp 4 & 5, where so much is about clinging to views etc. e.g. the end of Snp 4.13

To me at least viññāna is very abstract, after all it appears in the dependent origination before differentiating into nama-rupa. I would not put ‘cognized’ but rather ‘known’ for the sake of connotation. We tend to forget that in contrast to the ‘sensed’ and ‘thought’ the known is largely unconscious. What we know is not a concrete graspable event in our mind, it is much more a possibility, a potential.


They have no enemies in the doctrines,
Whether seen, heard, or thought;
The sage is freed, having put down the burden,
Not planning, not wanting, not wishing.

I guess that’s what I was getting at, but perhaps I the wrong terminology. Viññāna seems to be to do with just knowing, whereas thinking is more elaborate.

In the sense that it’s a more complex operation, yes, thinking is more evolved. But still, viññāna is just right there are the base of things. Maybe “known” would be better, let’s see.

Absolutely. Interestingly enough, a quick check of a Chinese parallel for this passage (SA 312) reveals that it has the standard form of the six senses. I would suspect that the Sarvastivadins had a similar Abhidharmic explanation of this passage, and it got read back into the text rather than remain as a commentarial gloss, as in the Theravada.

When I was a young monk I studied the Sutta Nipata a lot; in fact I memorized most of it. While this issue is one that has been discussed in several places, it was from my immersion in that text—together with Jayatilleke’s work—that it became so clear what these group of dhammas was about.

this find was reassuring

IDEA: the word dhamma is gerundive from the verb dharati (to carry, to remember), thus it means literally a “carryable, a rememberable.”

Ven Nanamoli “Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha”

In Seng Can’s On Trust in the Heart there is lovely verse -

In the Dharma there are no separate dharmas - yet everything is included.

One could translate this - In Reality there are no separate realities.

In Reality there are no separate “things”.

In the great Oneness of things there are no separate units.

This is not perhaps a Theravada idea, but it is an indication how Buddhist thought saw the two aspects of the word as closely related.

Bronkhorst - Some Uses of Dharma in Classical Indian Philosophy
"With regard to Buddhism we can be brief. The word dharma here came to be used for the items collected in lists in what is known by the name Abhidharma. These lists may originally have contained no more than items considered important to be memorized, often mental states. For our present purposes all that counts is that when at last one of the Buddhist schools decided to put order into the inherited teachings, it promoted the items thus collected, the dharmas, to the status of being the ultimate, and only, constituents of all that exists."

Olivelle - The Semantic History of Dharma
"This somewhat brief though comprehensive survey of the use of dharma in texts roughly belonging to the middle and late vedic period (around 800–400 BCE, although some of the individual texts and passages may be from a later period), shows that in the early texts of this period, especially the Brahmanas and the early Upanisads, the term is used most frequently with reference to Varuna and the king. It is likely that dharma was part of the specialized vocabulary associated with royalty, especially because of its frequent use within the royal consecration. In all likelihood, dharma referred to social order and the laws of society that the king was obligated to enforce. Dharma thus becomes an abstract concept and entity, a cosmic force that stands above the king; it is called ksatrasya ksatram, the power behind the royal power. "

Horsch - From Creation Myth to World Law. The Early History of Dharma
"The origin of the concept of dharman lies in the creation myth of the holding apart and supporting of heaven and earth, whereby order and ‘support’ was produced from the primordial uniformity of the unstable chaos. The basic meaning of dharman is therefore ‘prop’, ‘support’; it is suitable for all older passages, sometimes with the nuance of ‘keeping’ and ‘maintaining’; it is employed at the cosmic, ritual and ethical-social level. Early on, dharman, as an autonomous power of a numinous nature, separated itself from the mythical function of the ‘support’ of specific gods and thereby becomes a universal principle of ‘maintenance’, stability and permanence of the cosmos. This explains the semantic development of the concrete mythical notion into the abstract concept ‘law’."

Brereton - Dharman in the Rgveda
"Its meaning derives directly from dhr ‘support, uphold, give foundation to’ and therefore ‘foundation’ is a reasonable gloss in most of its attestations. Dharman can mean a physical and even a universal, cosmic foundation; a foundation created by the ritual and a foundation for the ritual; and a foundation comprising royal authority which creates material or social bases for communities."

Payutto - Vision of the Dhamma
"Literal meaning by Term Analysis. They are called “Dhamma” since, in accordance with their applications,

  1. they uphold (or maintain) their own nature;
  2. they are upheld (or supported) by conditions;
  3. they uphold their own result;
  4. they uphold one who fulfils them, not letting him fall into woeful states;
  5. they maintain their own characteristics; or
  6. they are held in (caught, occupied, settled in or determined) by the mind. (PsA.20)"