Translation of a mirror analogy for clinging/grasping (upādāna) in SN 22.83 and SA 261

In SN 22.83 and SA 261 there is a nice analogy on upādāna. I’ve included the preceding paragraph to the analogy in both the Pali and Chinese version for context.

In SN 22.83, we have:

“It is by clinging, Ānanda, that the notion ‘I am’ occurs, not without clinging. And by clinging to what does ‘I am’ occur, not without clinging? It is by clinging to form that ‘I am’ occurs, not without clinging. It is by clinging to feeling … to perception … to volitional formations … to consciousness that ‘I am’ occurs, not without clinging.

“Suppose, friend Ānanda, a young woman—or a man—youthful and fond of ornaments, would examine her own facial image in a mirror or in a bowl filled with pure, clear, clean water: she would look at it with clinging, not without clinging. So too, it is by clinging to form that ‘I am’ occurs, not without clinging. It is by clinging to feeling … to perception … to volitional formations … to consciousness that ‘I am’ occurs, not without clinging.

However, in the Chinese parallel SA 261:

Ānanda, it is by clinging to states that one conceives ‘I am this’, not without clinging to states. Ānanda, by clinging to what states does one conceive ‘I am this’, not without clinging to them? Clinging to bodily form one clings to it as ‘I am this’, not without clinging to it. Clinging to feeling … perception … formations … consciousness one clings to it as ‘I am this’, not without clinging to it.

’Just as a person who holds in his hand a clear mirror or clean water in a bowl as a mirror and clings to it to see his own face, who sees because of clinging to the mirror, not without clinging to it.

The main difference seems to be that in the Chinese version, you see your own face by ‘upādāna-ing’ the mirror, whereas this is not clear in the Pali version; is the woman looking at her face with clinging or clinging to the mirror in order to see her face?

Here is the analogy in Pali:

Seyyathāpi, āvuso ānanda, itthī vā puriso vā daharo yuvā maṇḍa­na­kajā­tiko ādāse vā parisuddhe pariyodāte acche vā udakapatte sakaṃ mukhanimittaṃ pacca­vek­kha­māno upādāya passeyya, no anupādāya; evameva kho, āvuso ānanda, rūpaṃ upādāya asmīti hoti, no anupādāya. Vedanaṃ … saññaṃ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṃ upādāya asmīti hoti, no anupādāya.

I was also hoping to hear the opinions of Venerables @Brahmali and @sujato, about whether the Pali version allows for the same reading as the Chinese or not.

Thanks :anjal:


In the Pali upādāya (“with clinging” or “attaching to”) has no immediate object, and so it is not obvious from the grammar what is being attached to. It seems clear from the broader context, however, that the main sentence verb, passeyya (“she would see”), takes “face” as its object and one would then expect the absolutive upādāya to do the same. The words for mirror (ādāse) and bowl of water (udakapatte) are both in the locative case and cannot be objects of upādāya. Moreover, the context, especially the “fond of adornments” part, suggests to me that the attachment is to the reflection, what they perceive to be their face.

It would be interesting to find out how certain the translation from the Chinese is. Chinese is well known for lacking much of the grammatical structure found in Indic languages. Translating Chinese, especially ancient Chinese, is therefore an even less exact science than translating Pali. I wonder if there are any alternatives to Ven. Analayo’s rendering that you have quoted here. Are there any experts in Chinese who would be willing to have look at this?


Since a person can see his/her face in any reflective surface even without clinging to that reflective surface, to me the Chinese version makes less sense than the Pali one.

A curious variation! When I first saw it, I though, pshaw, that’s silly. But maybe it’s not so far fetched. Let’s see the Pali:

Seyyathāpi, āvuso ānanda, itthī vā puriso vā daharo yuvā maṇḍa­na­kajā­tiko

this just refers to the youth .

This is the mirror[quote=“Erik_ODonnell, post:1, topic:5147”]
sakaṃ mukhanimittaṃ pacca­vek­kha­māno

“check their own reflection”

Lite: “having grasped, would see, not without having grasped”.

The words upādāya/anupādāya are commonly used in the suttas to express the idea of being with grasping or without. In fact, I can see over 200 instances of the negative form, and all of them appear to have this meaning. The positive form is used more broadly. Generally, though, they don’t seem to be used in the literal sense of “pick up” something.

Then there’s the application of the simile: does it even make sense to say that they can’t see themselves without picking it up? I don’t think so.

Having said this, I checked the commentary, and it had a slightly different take:

Upādāyāti āgamma ārabbha sandhāya paṭicca
Upādāya means relying on, resting on, supported by, depending on

The point here is not that the youth is attached to their gorgeous visage, but that they rely on the mirror to see themselves.

If this reading was adopted, it would require recasting the whole sutta (and a bunch of others that have similar wording!) Instead of:

The notion “I am” occurs because of grasping form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness

We would have:

The notion “I am” occurs in reliance on form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness

Now, the word upādāya does accommodate this degree of semantic slipperiness. Compare the following passage from SN 22.151:

“When form exists, because of grasping form and insisting on form, someone regards it like this: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’

Notice the three terms here: sati unambiguously refers to the existence of the thing; the final term abhinivissa unambiguously refers to the attachment to it; but upādāya could be read either way, as “reliant on form” or “grasping to form”. Probably the ambiguity is deliberate, but when translating you have to come down on one side or the other; or at least, I can’t think of a better way.

To return to the original, I don’t think the text supports a reading of actually picking up the mirror, although it would not take much dialectical slippage for this to become like a reasonable reading.

The question then becomes, are we better off reading upādāya in a more functional way (relying on) or in the doctrinal sense (attached to)? The difference is ultimately reduced, since what you are reliant on is ultimately attachment. This is another variation of the upādāna as fuel/grasping problem.

As a general rule (“the principle of least meaning”) I would prefer to read it in the most semantically thin way, but in this case, since the doctrinal relevance is so strongly established, that seems to be the intended sense.



《雜阿含經》第261 經



I did not see where is the " problem " in the Chinese translations , there is nothing something that like saying " clinging to the mirror " in order to see her face ?!

Perhaps , the translation from
Chinese to Pali or English
by the translator was not Correct !

One has to be very well versed
in order to read or comprehend
in the " old " grammar text
or ancient Chinese writing .
What more if to do the translations !

Thanks .


maybe someone like @Coemgenu might like to comment?

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Is it fair for anyone
in the first place To Criticise ,
that if they
do not know very well
Or even don’t know of
Chinese language ?!

Criticism that based only on the translations
In English and Pali from Chinese Sutta which may be wrong ?!

And probably maybe simply
because of one’s own
Biased due to whatever reason !!!

I wonder if the expertise
Would exhibit this type of mistakes ?

There is a strange mismatch between the analogies and their non-analogy counterparts.

These two statements seem vastly different.

  1. Means that a sense of self occurs by (is reliant upon) clinging to the aggregates. The implication being that if we don’t cling to aggregates, then we won’t have any sense of ‘self’.

  2. Means that we identify with the aggregates that we cling to. The implication being that in the absence of clinging to the aggregates, we might still have a sense of ‘self’.

The mirror analogies seem to not reflect their actual counterparts…
The chinese mirror analogy best fits the pali meaning in sentence 1.

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Edit: Let me just put a disclaimer that I’m not trying to say that my interpretation of the sutta is the right interpretation and that everything else is wrong. This is just how I see it according to my conditioning :penguin:

For me, the mirror analogy explains why we care about the khandas in the first place. Just like we care about mirrors not because of how they look, but because of what they allow us to do: to gaze upon the reflection of ourselves.

Like when I meditate, why do I even care about thoughts or applying my will? Because those are the things I rely on to prove that I exist. If they were gone, how could I claim ‘I am’?

So for me, both suttas are really just explaining that we care about the khandas because they can be used to conceive ‘I am’ (like a mirror can be used to see one’s face).

But I guess that just shows the extent of how different conditioning makes individuals interpret and perceive in different ways :anjal:

Bhante, doesn’t the reading ‘relying on’ jibe a lot better with the contemplation that follows: “is bodily form permanent or is it impermanent?” – it makes a lot of sense psychologically that you cannot really rely on something if it is impermanent/unstable/unreliable.

Or maybe it just jibes better for me as I don’t feel that much emotional connection to the words ‘clinging’ or ‘attachment’.


[quote=“sujato, post:6, topic:5147, full:true”]
maybe someone like @Coemgenu might like to comment?
[/quote]I didn’t see this until much after you can posted it, apologies. I am not an expert, but I will add what I can.

My say in the matter is hardly definitive or final, but the part that this post is wondering about is here:

Analogy such-as young man hand grasping clear[/brilliant] mirror or pure water mirror,

himself sees [his own] aspect/countenance(?) clinging, clinging causes seeing, no [seeing his face?] without clinging***.

[For] this reason, Ānanda! Form [is] clung [to], clinging causes [the] notion [of] this [is] me/mine, no [me/mine?] without clinging***.

***EDIT: this structure “非不生” is actually better rendered as “not without 生”, credit to @James2997 and a StackExchange user I asked, however, if I might defend “no [X] without 生” as an interprative possibility, albeit one that does not admittedly correspond directly in such a pleasing way with structure of the Chinese itself:

When I read “not without 生”, I read it as essentially semantically equivalent to “there can be none of this (i.e. the mirror-gazing analogy) without 生”, does this seem particularly presumptuous as an interpretation of the meaning? After all, it is essentially stating, in this interpretation, that there can be no self-conception without grasping for a self, that action itself decidedly being a hinderance. I can imagine that certain Buddhists would take exception with believing that the Buddha would so directly state that “selfhood” is arisen via grasping “only” perhaps, or, that is to say, the grasping inherent in “selfhood” is antithetical to progress in the Dhamma.[/quote]

I think the significant issue creating ambiguity is the translation of 生 (shēng), which Ven Anālayo seems to have translated as “clinging”, but I am not sure, Ven Anālayo’s rendering of these simpler and shorter clauses seem to indicate so: [quote]自見面生,生故見,非不生。
clings to it to see his own face, who sees because of clinging to the mirror, not without clinging to it.[/quote]I don’t see any reason to significantly doubt Ven Anālayo in his rendering, but I will certainly say that it seems like an obscure and historical usage of 生, but that is only from my own perspective, and I am hardly an expert in the field.

The Chinese does not say that clinging always requires a mirror to occur, which is what I think @James2997 was thinking was being said here about the Chinese?

[quote=“James2997, post:7, topic:5147”]
Is it fair for anyone
in the first place To Criticise ,
that if they
do not know very well
Or even don’t know of
Chinese language ?!
[/quote]I don’t think the intention of the OP was to criticize or marginalize Buddhavacana that is preserved in Chinese. It is very common to see differentiations like this in EBTs, it does not mean that the Chinese is “corrupt”, it simply means that the Chinese explains the matter slightly differently.

The two are very close, the word “mirror” comes up more frequently in the Chinese, but probably because the translator is trying to communicate a metaphor as clearly as possible. In the Chinese recension, as I understood it at least, “everyone is always holding a mirror” if you will, metaphorically, and our constant peering at its surface, that is the constant I-fabricating tendency, but that is only my own off-the-cuff reaction. My insertion of “constant” in this very last paragraph is also an interpretive addition by me, “constant clinging” is not mentioned in the text.

Irrelevant PS:

It is my fault for deciding to word it this way in the end, but as I wrote: [quote=“Coemgenu, post:10, topic:5147”]
the grasping inherent in “selfhood” is antithetical to progress in the Dhamma
[/quote]There was a strong voice in the back of my head echoing another time I had heard something phrased in such a way: [quote]Come see the violence inherent in the system![/quote]:sweat_smile:



S. A. 261
@ 阿難!生法計是我,非不生。

Translations : - -

– 阿难 !于缘生法执着是我 ,
并非不是缘生 。

– Ananda !
– It is in the arising conditions
that clinging to the notion
of I am occurs ,
Not without the arising conditions that
clinging to the notion of i am occurs .

@ 阿难 !云何生法計是我 ?
非不生 。

– Ananda !
– what then arises that the
clinging to the notion of I am occurs ?
and not without
the arising ( of it ) .
– It is with the rupa arises that
the clinging to the
notion of I am occurs ,
And It is not without
the arising (of rupa) .

–(feeling perception volition consciousness)

自見 - a person
holding a mirror and looking at it

面生,reflection appear
生故見,seeing the reflection appear

非不生。(非自见面生 不生故见 )
not without looking at the
mirror can the reflection appear
It is not seeing without
the reflection appear

Metta .


Not at all. I was motivated to make this thread because the Chinese explanation made more sense to me personally, so I thought if the Pali could reasonably be interpreted in the same way, that would be really cool.

I haven’t picked a reply that ‘solves the problem’ because I feel that there isn’t a conclusive answer to my question. Still I found everyone’s posts very interesting and enjoyable to read, and I am happy with that :smile_cat:


[quote=“James2997, post:11, topic:5147”]
Just like a person looks
at the mirror,
One saw the reflection arise (appear) ,
Not without the
reflection arise (appear) .
[/quote]The oddness of the translation stems from rendering 生 as clinging, which is a bit odd, but Ven Anālayo is much more qualified than myself, so I have to defer to him, even though I myself could not find precedent for 生 being rendered as “clinging”. 生 as “arising” (as per your rendition) is a far more common reading of this character, one I’ve encountered a few times. I’ll have to look back at a few parallels from SA to see if its actually “clinging” now!

I am not sure if 生 as “clinging” is more common than I think it is, or if Ven Anālayo has access to other usages of 生 that show that it was used for a period to refer to “clinging” in Buddhist scriptures (there are all sorts of usages unique to [early] Buddhist Chinese), or if “clinging” was chosen because it matches the nikāya.




This is Chinese scholar
says for upadaya :

  1. grasping 执取
  2. that arises 所生- 因缘所生
  3. dependence of 依于


Just as, friend Ānanda,
a man , in looking at
his face in a mirror
would be seeing it reflection
with dependence (of the mirror)
and not without dependence,
even so, friend Ānanda,
it is with dependence (of rupa)
that the notion ‘I am’ occurs,
not without dependence."


[quote=“James2997, post:16, topic:5147”]
This is Chinese scholar
says for upadaya :

grasping 执取
that arises 所生- 因缘所生
dependence of 依于
[/quote]These terms either post-date the āgama translations hosted on SuttaCentral, or they are not simply found in them, so although they are the “proper terms” for what they represent, they aren’t used in the āgamas, which are in a very idiosyncratic Chinese for the time that they come from.

But yes, I think “dependance” works best to, if one only looks at the Chinese as a self-contained document. With the parallels in mind though, and Ven Anālayo’s rendering in mind, I tend to think that the “intended meaning” is probably what Ven Anālayo translated.

Taken on its own, though, I agree, the Chinese does seem to say what you translate, “dependence” and all.

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生 derived from 因缘所生 .
生 Is the " short " for 因缘所生

(of course ,
生 also can be
生起 arising
出生 Birth
缘生 causation )


I found Ven. Analayo’s footnotes to SA 261 here:

SĀ 261 at T II 66a8 has 生法 as its counterpart to upādāya in SN 22.83 at SN III 105, 10 . My translation follows the indication in Hirakawa 1997: 832 s.v. 生 that this character can, besides its more common meaning of utpāda , also render upāda . Perhaps a confusion between utpāda and upāda was already present in the Indic text used for translating SĀ 261. I have decided against a literal rendering of the Chinese text as it is now, because this would not really work for the context. States still ‘arise’ in the case of an arahant, even though an arahant no longer conceives of them in terms of ‘I am this’, etc., which is precisely because an arahant is without ‘clinging’ to any states. That is, conceiving in terms of ‘I am this’ is not caused just by the fact that states have ‘arisen’, but much rather happens because one ‘clings’ to these states."