Translation of "kilissanti" in MN86

I am bothered by the translation of “kilissanti” as “filth” @sujato or “impure” (Horner) in regard to a woman suffering with a breech birth in MN86, SuttaCentral . (Ask any woman going through a difficult birth if she is “suffering impurity” and I imagine you will get an earful.)

Of the various choices of meaning in the SC Pali-English lookup:
“2. is troubled, is afflicted; feels pain*;*(sic) is or becomes dirty or stained; is morally stained”
the first 3 seem to fit better: is troubled, is afflicted; feels pain

While there may be other occurrences of “kilissa(n)ti” where the translation as dirty/stained/impure is appropriate, this doesn’t seem (to me) to be one of them.
Thanissaro (access to insight) translates it as “tormented”.


If I understand correctly, the sentence is: “kilissanti vata, bho, sattā; kilissanti vata, bho, sattā’’ti!”
Cone’s Dictionary indeed gives “is troubled, is afflicted, feels pain” for this form of the verb, and cites this passage.
The Nanamoli/Bodhi translation reads, “How beings are afflicted! Indeed, how beings are afflicted!”
and a footnote there mentions a bit of the ṭika: “although Angulimāla had killed almost a thousand people, he had never given rise to a thought of compassion. But now, through the power of his ordination, compassion arose in him as soon as he saw the woman in painful labour.”


@greenTara, can you please give the Sutta passage where you found this? Thank you!

Oh, it’s in the title—I was just unmindful … :see_no_evil:


The smell of labour, you know, are quite… well, match the description, I’d say.

Umm… Angulimala doesn’t provide a blessing so that the smell of the labor will be nice, but that she and her baby will be safe.

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Yes, its true, but I believe that sentence in which the word is spoken, was clearly that he was exclaiming to himself to what he had just witnessed

What he observes is not just any sort of birth but an obstructed, or breech, birth- the baby is positioned wrong with feet down-, which in those days was often fatal for both mother and child. In such a situation it would be heartless for him to be concerned with odor.


Yes, I agree.
Witnessing a woman’s excruciating labor gives rise to compassion in the mind of Angulimāla for the first time. This spark of compassion will lead to his full enlightenment.

Just to be correct, In the translation, Venerable Angulimāla says “Beings suffer…” Not “Beings is…”

But perhaps one has to witness a total stranger giving birth in front of one, note that feeling, so one could get the translation right :wink:

And maybe Bhante @sujato could offer reasons why he chose that word?

Correction noted and edits made, but my objection stands. I have gone through challenging births twice and in neither case did I shout “oh it stinks!”


I like the Ñanamoli/Bodhi and Thanissaro sense of “affliction” or “torment” too.
Strange that the sight of a being screaming in pain, anyone would first feel only disgust/pity for smells/filth endured by the afflicted baby and mother. That’s frankly the last thing on their minds as you say.

Or course, but a third person or a stranger who is the one that witness it may not feel the same as you do. I’m told that my father, on witnessing my mother gave birth to my sister, he saw it, and just ran away, it was a devastated scene for him. Birth is suffering after all. With metta :pray:t3:

I have no doubt that some people would react in this way, but I don’t think it fits the larger context of the story. Angulimala was trained to be a doctor, and so not likely to be faint hearted about bodily fluids. Then he goes to the Buddha for advice. Would the Buddha have advised him to return and give a blessing if Angulimala was not moved by the actual suffering of the woman and child, but instead was only thinking of his own discomfort?


I share your concern with the wording, but I am not convinced that another reading is justified.

Curiously, the commentary says nothing on this point.

The root of the word is the same as kilesa, which means “slimy, dirty” and morally “defiled”. It’s used very commonly in these senses, and here we merely have a verbal form of the same word.

Of course when translating, I want to stay true to the meaning of the original, regardless of my own opinions. But it is true that childbirth is commonly depicted with words describing it as filthy, etc. I’d personally rather if it wasn’t, but here we are. In such cases, I try to remain especially alert to not reading in my own biasses.

Now, clearly kilesa and related words can be used in a metaphorical sense. Yet here we are in a situation where there would have been a lot of blood and tears and fluids. It’s an unusual word to use in this case if the sense was simply “beings suffer”. Why not just use dukkha?

One of the tendencies in interpreting ancient scripture, especially spiritual scripture, is to go too quickly to a metaphorical meaning for things. Obviously words do often have metaphorical meanings, and that can readily be inferred from the context. In this case, however, it seems to me that the root meaning is very applicable, and so I’m reluctant to treat it purely as a metaphor. Surely at least the association of filth is intended?

I tried to convey the sense that Angulimala was not accusing the woman of being filthy, but was empathizing with her travail. Perhaps I was not successful. I’m open to rephrasing, but I haven’t seen any compelling alternatives so far.


@sujato Thanks for responding. I can see the dilemma. Any possibility that the text has been corrupted over time? It seems like such a glaring inconsistency with the concern for safety associated with the blessing (not that birth be less filthy).

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Maybe? It’s certainly possible, even probable, that there are dimensions of connotation that escape us. I’ll see if I can track down any other usages that might clarify.

The fact that Cone, and so many good translators, accept the sense of “affliction” is a weighty point that I do not discard lightly. I just haven’t seen a decisive support for it yet.


Alright, so checking the Sanskrit sources, it seems that the sense of “distress, suffering” predominates there. Not only that, but we have the occurrence in Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa 22.45 of the compound garbhakleśaḥ, which occurs in the verse:

Not such gratification did my mother or my sister get, O king! as I have felt in hearing that my son has been slain while protecting the Muni. Those who die, sighing, in great distress, afflicted with illness, while their relatives lament,—their mother has brought forth children in vain. Those who, while fearlessly fighting in battle to guard cattle and dvijas, perish crushed with arrows, they indeed are really men in the world. He who turns not his back on suppliants, friends, and enemies, in him his father has a real son, and in him his mother has given birth to a hero. A woman’s pain of conception reaches, I think, its success at the time when her son either vanquishes his foes or is slain in battle.

Charming. /s

Here it would seem that “distress” or idiomatically, “travail” would be the more suitable sense.

Thanks for getting me to look at this more closely, I’ll adjust my translation accordingly.

Oh, beings undergo such travail!

For the record, I just noted that I had previously made a comment on this line, which is now superseded, but for history’s sake here is what I thought when I made the original translation:

This is a difficult line. I have not traced a parallel in the Chinese versions, nor does comm or tika say anything. While obviously kilesa and variants normally refer to mental defilement, here it seems the bloody messiness of childbirth is meant. Compare, say, Snp 3.10, referring to people being immersed in blood and pus in hell, or Iti 83, where the deva’s cloths become “dirtied”. BB has “afflicted”, Thanissaro has “tormented”, and Nyanamoli had “what defilements they suffer”: but none of these capture the organic mess of it. We should not ignore the strong taboo notions around childbirth. The point here is that in samsara, birth is undergone by all beings, and the messiness of it afflicts both mother and child.


Fantastic! My respect for Angulimala is restored! I think this also suggests an interesting double meaning in some occurrences where “defilement “ is the primary meaning, giving an undercurrent of torment or travail to it as well?


Glad to be of service!

sure yes, well they are certainly linked.

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Excuse me for being late, but this just came with my weekly summary.

I think there’s a problem here with both sides assuming that there’s a sharp line of demarcation in this case between suffering and filth. Could it not be the case that the filth itself is a determining factor in, as well as a defining characteristic of, the affliction? It seems to me to totally conceivable that this could have been a nuance the redactor (not Angulima) was trying to capture. Otherwise,

Just for context, I have experience as the third party witnessing births: I caught six of my wife’s at home deliveries. (I and I alone: no other people in attendance.) We have never had a breech, bit we have had extremely difficult labors (i.e., days on end). Deliveries are events wherein all parties–birthers, the birthed, and even the birth assistants–suffer mental and physical torment and are simultaneously bathed in asubha bodily fluids in a manner by which they would be disgusted under normal circumstances. If I were one with a monastic’s sensibilities (again, like the redactor and not Angulimala), already highly sensitized to feelings of revulsion with regard to samsaric experiences and the pain that accompanies them, I’m sure filth and suffering (filth mixed with suffering/filth as suffering) would have been foremost in my mind. And I think the text reflects that.

We worldlings, however, tend to see things with “perverted” (vipallasa) perceptions, minds, and views. (At least, I do.) I am reminded here of the udana of Ud 2.8:

“The disagreeable in an agreeable form, the unlovely in a lovely form,
The painful in the form of pleasure, overcome the heedless one.”

This is taken from a sutta, a favorite of my wife and I, which tells the story where childbirth’s pain,

The Koliyan lady Suppavāsā was with child for seven years, and for seven days it was lost in the womb and couldn’t be delivered… she was affected by painful, sharp, harsh, and bitter feelings…


Then venerable Sāriputta said this to that little boy: “Can you bear up, little boy? Can you carry on? Do you have any pain?”
“How, reverend Sāriputta, can I bear up? How can I carry on? For seven years I have been living in a bloodbath.”

and subsequent joy (at least, for the foolish worldling)

“Suppavāsā, do you long for another such son?”
“Gracious One, I long for another seven such sons.”

is all wrapped into one.

No disrespect intended, @greenTara , for you or your childbirth experiences. For me, I have no doubt that it is only my love (samisa kamaraga, not metta!) for my wife and child that caused me to disregard any notion of impurity. Would a monk feel the same? I don’t know. Ultimately, these are @sujato 's decisions with respect to his own translations. I just think it is a shame that we are going to lose the nuanced connotation of kilissanti here. Awareness of asubha is not for everyone, but it is a key component in early Buddhist teaching.