Translating ‘hoti’ and ‘atthi’ in context of rebirth

Venerable, I’m just going through these passages once more, trying to wrap my head around it!

I like your approach and I want to see in what way it should be applied.

So far we have considered the cases of hoti tathāgato paraṁ maraṇā. Previous discussions have touched on atthi attā:

And atthi devā:

In the latter cases I have used “exist absolutely”. This is not very idiomatic English, and according to your argument, also misses the nuance of the verb “to be” here, which is about time not being.

The thing that’s persuasive to me is that in all of these cases, the issue at hand is, indeed, to do with time, and specifically survival after death.

  • Pasenadi explains atthi devā as whether gods come back to this world
  • The Buddha says natthi attā would side with annihilationists, i.e. “the self (which currently exists) will cease to do so.”
  • And the state of the Tathagata is obviously about what happens “after death”.

There are a couple of interesting nuances to this:

  • it doesn’t seem t matter whether the verb is hoti or atthi
  • each of the statements either explicitly refer to rebirth or are explained as such.
  • they don’t make great sense if translated in “boring present”.
  • they’re not in contexts of ontological metaphysics that would justify “exist absolutely”

Now, as to translation. As always, it would be nice to be consistent, so long as that does not sacrifice sense.

In the case of “do gods exist”, using “still” would be problematic, as it would imply that they may have gone extinct: “do gods still exist?”

Perhaps we could use “survive” here?

  • “Do gods survive?”
  • “Does the self survive?”
  • “Does a Realized One survive after death?”

What do you think?

Another option might be:

  • “Do gods go on?”
  • “Does the self go on?”
  • “Does a Realized One go on after death?”

Perhaps we could use “affirmed” to make this distinction clearer?

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Thanks Venerable,

I’ll get back to this later in detail. For now I’ll just say that verbs as general as atthi and hoti are flexible in meaning and I wouldn’t insist on a single translation throughout. It’s extremely context dependent. Especially the Vacchagotta sutta on natthi atta is messy. I think sometimes there it means present tense, sometimes future (as in the annihilist statement).

Haven’t looked at the deva thing yet. Again, will get back to it.

On first glance I like it. But context has to decide of course.

For now, I typed the following reply offline before I read this. Perhaps it helps already. (Gotta scoot now, Zoom meditation group.)

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Just to clarify that I’m not a Pali heretic, :see_no_evil: I want to give some more support for my translation of “no longer” for na in “after death the Tathagata no longer exists”. The thing is, others have done exactly the same in other contexts:

SN1.27: Kattha vaṭṭaṁ na vattati? “Where does the round no longer revolve?” (Bodhi)

In other words, where will the round (of samsara) no longer revolve (in the future).

SN6.5: Na me, mārisa, sā diṭṭhī, yā me diṭṭhi pure ahu “I no longer hold that view, dear sir, the view that I formerly held.” (Bodhi)

Again we have a distinction in time, between past (“formerly”) and now. (Or you could translate “I don’t hold that view anymore”. Or whatever else works.)

SN12:32: Yā vedanāsu nandī sā na upaṭṭhāsi “Relishing of feelings is no longer present.” (Sujato) / “Delight in feelings no longer remains present.” (Bodhi)

While earlier there was delight, now it’s gone. So we’ve got a distinction in time again, and hence “no longer” or something similar is necessary in English, even when it’s not necessary in Pali.

It took me like 2 minutes to find these instances. I only looked at SN1 until SN12, so there are probably loads more.

So, here’s my suggestion, where the main verb structure of the Pali sentence is effectively no different from the above examples:

Na hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā. “After death the Tathagata no longer exists.”

“After death” also clearly implies a distinction in time.


Venerables Bodhi, Sujato (and @Brahmali) are more knowledged in Pali than I. But translation is not just about Pali. It’s just as much, if not more, about English (or whatever target language), and sometimes English is very tricky.

So I think the English here needs to be considered carefully, so it reflects the inherent meaning of the Pali. Then we can avoid confusion of the kind in this thread, where we all agree on the essential Dhamma, but are just struggling with words and convoluted explanations. All, imo, just because we just look at the English and not at the Pali.

Now all I hope Ven. Sujato will take this on board, and then this little rant will have been more than worth it! :smiley:

So, @Sujato, here’s my feedback again from just after you finished the Majjhima:

MN 25: “after death, a Realized One exists, or doesn’t exist, …” A Realized One (referring to ‘self’) doesn’t exist after death (neither before), so the statement “after death, a Realized One […] doesn’t exist” would technically be right. The issue, I think, is that Pali tenses do not always translate well into English, especially in cases such as this (Cf. “natthi atta”). I suggest: “after death, a Realized One [still] exists, or doesn’t exist [anymore] …” Or: “after death, a Realized One [keeps existing], or [stops existing]…” Something like this will avoid (hopefully) unnecessary confusion surrounding this passage.

I rest my case. :slight_smile: And I’m gonna rest my brain. See y’all again later. :wave:

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Here’s what I am trying. I like using “survive” because it’s the idiomatic English word for the concept at hand.

“But sir, do gods survive?”
“But what exactly are you asking?”
“Whether those gods come back to this state of existence or not.”


“Master Gotama, does the self survive?”
But when he said this, the Buddha kept silent.
“Then does the self not survive?”
But for a second time the Buddha kept silent.
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta got up from his seat and left.
And then, not long after Vacchagotta had left, Venerable Ānanda said to the Buddha:
“Sir, why didn’t you answer Vacchagotta’s question?”
“Ānanda, when Vacchagotta asked me whether the self survives, if I had answered that ‘the self survives’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists.
When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not survive, if I had answered that ‘the self does not survive’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.
When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self survives, if I had answered that ‘the self survives’ would that have helped give rise to the knowledge that all things are not-self?”
“No, sir.”
“When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not survive, if I had answered that ‘the self does not survive’, Vacchagotta—who is already confused—would have got even more confused, thinking: ‘It seems that the self that I once had no longer survives.’”


“Master Moggallāna, is this right: ‘the cosmos is eternal’?”
“Vaccha, this has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“Then is this right: ‘the cosmos is not eternal’ …
‘the world is finite’ …
‘the world is infinite’ …
‘the soul and the body are identical’ …
‘the soul and the body are different things’ …
‘a Realized One survives after death’ …
‘a Realized One doesn’t survive after death’ …
‘a Realized One both survives and doesn’t survive after death’ …
‘a Realized One neither survives nor doesn’t survive after death’?”
“This too has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“What’s the cause, Master Moggallāna, what’s the reason why, when the wanderers who follow other paths are asked these questions, they declare one of these to be true? And what’s the reason why, when the ascetic Gotama is asked these questions, he does not declare one of these to be true?”
“Vaccha, the wanderers who follow other paths regard the eye like this: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’ They regard the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind like this: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’
That’s why, when asked, they declare one of those answers to be true.
The Realized One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha regards the eye like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ He regards the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’
That’s why, when asked, he does not declare one of those answers to be true.”

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Perhaps we split this off into a new thread in the Translation forum? Maybe a mod can do that?

Nice!

Much clearer on the meaning behind it. Carries the notion that the view of eternalism and annihilationism requires the identification of self to things.

How about the MN2, exist or not exist absolutely? What’s it’s like in survive language?

Lol yes, it will take a bit of trial and error, this kind of change will affect a number of passages. So I’m not sure about that one yet!

We have “persist” and “desist” too, if that’s any help?

Just did a quick look at the usage:

“Survive after death” is more popular than “persist after death”, but not as much as I would have thought.

Checking the usages, it seems that we speak of a “person” or a “soul” that survives after death; but of “consciousness” or “memories” or “the body” that persists after death. Not an absolute distinction by any means, there are plenty of counterexamples. But it seems that “survive” has a more “soulish” feel to it, whereas “persist” is, whether consciously or not, more “sciencey”. Perhaps, then, we should use “survive” in non-Buddhist contexts, and “persist” in Buddhist ones.

Then using survive is a good translation, as it involves soul/self which is not found according to Buddhism. Thus the survive terminology is problematic as it’s based on non-existent concept of soul. That’s why the questions of survival are not declared.

Thanks for the great discussion.
"kiṁ pana, bhante, atthi devā’”ti?
““But sir, do gods survive?””
Could a more idiomatic expression be, “Are the gods eternal”? i.e. continue to exist?

(the king is asking the question from the perspective of one who takes the existence of devas for granted, he’s not asking about if they exist or not.)

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Hi all, especially Venerable,

Lots of interesting things going on here. Let me see what stands out for me, and I’ll reply as I read. Thinking out loud. Sorry for the chaos! If anything doesn’t seem to refer to anything said before, let me know and I’ll clarify.

I agree on the issue of time. The verb “to be”, being very flexible in all languages, doesn’t mean just the present moment. Fellow monks often say to me “there is no Dhamma talk” and I’ll understand it to mean there won’t be a talk later today, i.e., in the future. I know that because of the context. So, we have to consider (as we are right now doing) the context wherein atthi and hoti are used, especially with doctrinal important passages.

I concur “it doesn’t seem to matter whether the verb is hoti or atthi”. Although the two are generally used in somewhat different ways, they aren’t absolutely different. Also shown by the fact there is no future tense of atthi, and when the future tense is used, it is always of hoti/bhavati.

“Each of the statements either explicitly refer to rebirth or are explained as such”. OK. But you selected those statements on what basis?

“They don’t make great sense if translated in “boring present”.” Usually not, no. And you see the kind of confusion it created in this thread! Though by itself “the Tathagata exists after death” makes sense, of course implied is to continue to exist after death. A Tathagata isn’t gonna pop into existence at death. That’s not the point of the statement. The point is does they still exist?

“They’re not in contexts of ontological metaphysics that would justify “exist absolutely””. I suppose I agree, but I still don’t really get “exist absolutely”, anyway. I feel it is a pleonasm. What would it mean to exist non-absolutely?

“Now, as to translation. As always, it would be nice to be consistent, so long as that does not sacrifice sense.” There is no value per se in being consistent. It may have value for the reader to connect passages. If it’s a word like sankhāra or whatever, as it is a doctrinally central term. But with words like hoti I’d rather be inconsistent, if by being consistent I sacrificed sense even slightly. Since hoti has no central place in the dhamma. And if the sense in this case is translated rightly, then whatever connections the readers need to make, they will anyway.

“Survive” has a natural, spoken feel and avoids the problems with “exist (absolutely)”. But it does sometimes take away from the “emotional” importance of existence. How to put this? “To exist or not to exist” versus “To survive or not to survive.” Do you see what I’m getting at? “A Realized One doesn’t survive after death,” I don’t think gets to the heart of the matter.

Also, in a sense the underlying issue is still the existence of a self in the present (that would then either continue on or get annihilated). “Survive” doesn’t infer that. (I have a hard time wording my thoughts here. Let me know if you’d like clarification.) So I’d still prefer “A Realized One no longer exists after death.” With this translation there’s need to change hoti’s basic meaning. Just changes the meaning of na, as I pointed out above.

In your draft of the Ananda vacchagotta Sutta, though, I think “survive” overall works very well. Especially the statements about annihilism and eternalism just make sense straight away. Quite beautifully, in fact.

But I’m not sure if “survive” (or “keep existing”) is always the meaning of atthi in this sutta. It could be… maybe I need more time with your translation. But I used to think the meaning of atthi kind of shifts back and forth (from future to present) in a way that English will never be able to capture.

Especially troublesome, of course, in your current translation, is the last sentence ‘ahuvā me nūna pubbe attā, so etarahi natthi’”ti. You kinda leave out etarahi, which means now. But it could still technically mean “now (after this statement) won’t survive (in the future)”. Perhaps, though, before we translate, we should ask what the meaning of it is? Is Vacchagotta here assuming that suddenly, in the moment, he has no self?.. Hmm. That’s what I used to think. And at first glance that’s what the Pali seems to say. I don’t know what’s right here. If I get more insights, I’ll let you know. Perhaps I’ll try to translate the sutta myself and see what happens.

On MN90, with the devas, I agree the standard translation “are there devas?” makes no contextual sense. “Do the devas keep existing?” is my initial intuitive feel, with the sense that they keep existing as devas, and not become something else. (Edit: I see @stephen has the same intuition.) “Hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā” at some point I also translated as “the Tathagata keeps existing after death”. “Exist absolutely”, as I said, on it’s own I don’t get the meaning of, but your explanation of it in the other thread makes sense and seems to come down to “keep existing”. I feel “survive” or “go on” here is a bit awkward, but still better than “exist absolutely”. “Persist” here would work, I suppose. “Do devas persist?”

I’m not absolute convinced of this (then again, when am I?), but as it doesn’t touch upon any major doctrinal point, I think it’s a safe guess. I’d prefer it over something awkward that leaves a reader confused about something of very minor importance.

MN2: “The view: ‘My self exists in an absolute sense.’ ‘Atthi me attā’ti; The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’ ‘natthi me attā’ti

I can’t relate to these translations. Who has such views on an emotional level? I have: “I have a self” and “I don’t have a self”. Although these statements look very similar to the Ananda-vacchagotta sutta, I think the me makes all the difference. I think it’s the term of importance here, which creates the wrong view, not atthi And me is used in the same genitive sense as in SN5.6 which I shared above: Na me, mārisa, sā diṭṭhī “I no longer have that view, dear sir”. As Pali has no verb “to have”, I think atthi takes its place here, together with the genitive.

Last general comment: I get the feeling, Bhante, you try to connect passages together more strongly than is warranted. I’d look at them individually, and not assume too much of a connection.

Time for bed… Don’t be surprised if I take a while to recover from this discussion :smiley: See ya when I see ya. Metta!

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I think this is a great point.
Maybe (yet another!) way of translating it could be:
-After death the Tathagata continues to exist.
-After death the Tathagata does not continue to exist.

In this way, the hoti is translated the same way in both statements, capturing the ‘no longer’ quality.

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Thanks to both of you. I don’t really disagree with any particular point, except for:

To exist in a conditioned way, as a stream of ever-changing phenomena. But look, let’s leave this one behind, shall we?

I don’t agree with this. I think “survive” is a more emotive word than “exist”.

No, I render it as “no longer survives”. You could use “now does not survive”, but it’s less idiomatic.

On this I disagree. The entire Pali tradition clearly places a major premium on consistency of both language and meaning, and the exigencies of translation don’t change that. While obviously context must be the final determinant, this is something I learned when I went from translating a few suttas to translating thousands. Words, phrases, ideas, idioms, keep popping up and permutating all over the place, and the firm hand of consistency is essential to maintaining clarity of meaning.

When you neglect consistency, you think it’s fine. But it’s like leaving roots of weeds all over your garden. They pop up again in unexpected places, and change things in unknown ways.

One advantage of this is that I use the same idiom for bhava in dependent origination; bhava is, of course, simply the noun form of the verb here, hoti.

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Hi Venerable, thanks for a brief structured answer to a somewhat chaotic post.

“To exist in a conditioned way, as a stream of ever-changing phenomena. But look, let’s leave this one behind, shall we?”

Yup! More than happy! :wink:

“I don’t agree with this. I think “survive” is a more emotive word than “exist”.”

OK. I think in the back of my head I’m connecting “survival” mostly with the kind you do on a deserted island.

But apart from that, I think to use “exist” in “the Thatagata exists” connects more directly to bhava as
“continued existence” (which I like a lot), “craving for existence”, and suchlike terms, which I think are very powerful. (Bhava also coming from hoti of course.) [I typed this before I read your reply to Stephen.]

“No, I render it as “no longer survives”. You could use “now does not survive”, but it’s less idiomatic.”

I see. I guess I would have expected “now no longer survives”, as I’m now so accustomed to read just the na (here in natthi) as “no longer”. The underlying point, though, is that on the surface the statement looks more like it’s about the present moment, the view “I have no self”.

“Words, phrases, ideas, idioms, keep popping up and permutating all over the place, and the firm hand of consistency is essential to maintaining clarity of meaning. […] When you neglect consistency, you think it’s fine.”

I’m not saying it’s fine to neglect it. I’ve even made a script that automatically replaces phrases and permutations, probably like your Bilara does. In such cases, definitely be consistent. But I’m saying (probably in a clumsy way) is that what we are talking about here are not the same phrases or idioms, and I think also not (all) the same ideas. So therefore here there is imo no need to be consistent and use “survive” everywhere. I think that may be taking consistently too far the other way.

Anyway, I think all our “disagreements” are only on the level of personal choice. I prefer your draft translations for over the old ones, and if you decide to keep them, I’ll rejoice! I guess I’d just do them somewhat differently. But then again, I can do that!

Just the Ananda-Vacchagotta sutta, that’s a hard one, but I’ve said that a few times already. :slight_smile: It’s not even that I disagree with anything per se. It’s just that I don’t know if I agree! I’ll give it some time.

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And, Bhante Sujato,

how about survival and non-survival for the Kaccanagotta sutta? :thinking:

“Kaccāna, this world mostly relies on the dual notions of survival and non-survival." (SN12.15)

:face_with_monocle:

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A very interesting idea Venerable!
But it seems to me that translation choice would require some sort of explanatory note to help it.
i.e. that it’s not about Darwinian natural selection. :upside_down_face:

I vote for ‘continuing existence and the ending of existence’
(i.e. even a modern-day atheist-annihilationist likely thinks he currently exists.)

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Exactly. That’s why I never was a fan of “non-existence”.

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