Translation of 'upadanakhandha' as 'clinging aggregates'?

Dear forum

For the Pali term ‘upadanakhandha’, Bhikkhu Thanissaro has produced the translation of: “clinging aggregates”. Does anyone know what Thanissaro infers by this translation?

Is not “clinging” a “verb”, thus “upādiyati”. Where as “upadana” an adjective?

What do we think? :seedling:

For starters…

A detail: “clinging” is a present participle, i.e. a verbal noun (or possibly used as an adjective), derived from a verb form – the act of clinging. (*)

Otherwise, “clinging aggregates” does seem awkward, as one hears more commonly that they are aggregates subject to clinging, clung-to (by the mind), not aggregates that themselves cling.

btw: (an esoterica?) There are also 5 khandha-s not subject to clinging (according to Nanamoli in his translation of the Vissudhimagga), listed in footnote 82, to paragraph 219 in Chapter XIV (“The Aggregates”):
The aggregates of virtue, concentration, understanding, liberation, and knowledge and vision of liberation (S I 99), etc.

(*) Nanamoli writes elsewhere (footnote 23 to Chapter XIV paragraph 52):
23. Upādinna (also upādinnaka) is pp. [part-partciple] of upādiyati (he clings), from which the noun upādāna (clinging) also comes…"

However, according to the PTS Dictionary, upādāna seems noun or adjective:
(nt.) [fr. upa + ā + dā]—(lit. that (material) substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive or going), fuel, supply, provision; adj. (—˚) supported by, drawing one’s existence from S i.69; ii 85 (aggikkhandho ˚assa pariyādānā by means of taking up fuel); v.284 (vāt˚); J iii.342 sa—upādāna (adj.) provided with fuel S iv.399; anupādāna without fuel DhA ii.163. 2. (appld.) “drawing upon”, grasping, holding on, grip attachment; adj. (—˚) finding one’s support by or in clinging to, taking up, nourished by…

Thanks for that Chris. SN 22.48 & SN 22.85 (termination of arahant life) also refer to khandha not subject to clinging. For ‘upadana’, I chose the adjective, which I read is treated the same as a noun.


I had fun today (ignoring business) trying to crack the Pali formula with compounds. I found this link, which discussed Tappurisa compounds & Kammadhaaraya Compounds (& other compounds, which I ignored due to being overwhelmed :dizzy_face:).

I assumed the compounds in the 1st noble truth are Tappurisa compounds because the word ‘dukkha’ keeps changing, namely, ‘dukkham’, ‘dukkhā’ & ‘dukkho’.

Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ—jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

Although my assumed formula did not always work, it seems there is the following relationships with the compounds:

  1. A neuter (eg. maraṇa) prefix or context (ariyasaccam) results in ‘dukkhaṃ’ (singular).

  2. A feminine prefix (eg. jāti) results in ‘dukkhā’ (singular).

  3. A masculine prefix (eg. byādhi or yogo) results in ‘dukkho’ (singular).

However, as for ‘saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhādukkhā’, I got a plural for ‘dukkhā’, which makes sense to me, since there are many types of suffering. My translation was:

saṃkhittena pañcupādāna (neuter adjective) kkhandhā (nom masculine & plural ) dukkhā (nom, neutral plural)

in summary, sufferings are the five aggregates when clung to; taken as one’s own.

I assumed the word ‘five’ relates to the ‘khandha’ word and the word ‘upadana’ is merely an adjective relating to the khandha word. Thus, five-aggregates-grasped is the order of translation.


I also looked at SN 22.48, which seems straightforward (I hope).

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, “Monks, I will teach you the five aggregates & the five clinging-aggregates. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak. “And what, bhikkhus, are the five aggregates?”

Sāvatthinidānaṃ. “Pañca, bhikkhave, khandhe (masculine, accusative, plural) desessāmi (speak about), pañcupādānakkhandhe (compound, masculine, accusative, plural) ca. Taṃsuṇātha
Katame ca, bhikkhave, pañcakkhandhā (compound, numeral, masculine, nominative, plural)


Maybe my conclusions are all wrong. :neutral_face: But it was fun. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thanks for that reference work (“Elementary Pali Compound Reference Sheet”). That’s an area where trying to learn Pali seems more difficult in the beginning (where I’m pretty much still stuck) – one has to recognize the individual words (as we call them in English) before one can parse the compounds.

Than-Geoff makes an interesting note about this in his translation of excerpts from the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā, re this wonderful little rhyming one-verse poem:

(10. (Dutiya)-devasabhattheragāthā)

‘‘Sammappadhānasampanno, satipaṭṭhānagocaro;
Vimuttikusumasañchanno, parinibbissatyanāsavo’’ti.

His translation:
“Consummate in the right exertions,
the establishings of mindfulness his range,
blanketed with the flowers of release,
he will, without effluent, totally unbind.”

His footnote:
“Formally, this verse is noteworthy in that each of the first three lines is composed of a single long compound. [It actually looks like all 4 lines are so.] This style, which became common in later Indian literature because it was considered to convey strength, is uncommonly “strong” for a verse in the Pali Canon. For a similar example, see Dhp 39.”

Dhp 39 reads (in the CST4.0 version):
Anavassutacittassa, ananvāhatacetaso;
Puññapāpapahīnassa, natthi jāgarato bhayaṃ.

Where in fact it’s the first three lines here that are single compounds. TG apparently slipped-up.

btw: One can communicate with TG directly about such things – by mail or telephone (see “contact” at the Wat Metta website A while ago I was able to submit a couple of suspected errata from reading his book “Buddhist Romanticism”.

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Hi Deele,

That’s an example of Buddhist Hybrid English which can be found in works of many translators. Surely it’s hardly comprehensible, yet it’s part of a “sacred language”.

Other variations, - “aggregates of clinging”, etc., are equally confusing. How did this come about?

This language was standardized by a hidden patriarch of Western Buddhism, Thomas Rhys-Davids, in his Pali-English Dictionary. Since in the new dictionary by Margaret Cone this expression also remains rather cryptic, there’s little chance that its understanding will change.

Yet I would suggest a straightforward translation of this expression as “appropriated aggregates”:

In line with understanding preserved by those who used other dictionaries:

upādāna -‘Appropriation’ arises with the movement of saṁskāras through sensorially operative live bodies, conditioned by pleasure/pain. What is pleasurable I desire to repeat; what is painful I desire to avoid. To repeatedly reach out and grasp for what has given me pleasure, or to negatively seize on ways to avoid what has given pain, is called appropriation. Its enactment presupposes the prior establishment of a teleological, referential relationship between X and Y such that X has desired Y, has in some manner made it his goal, and now has succeeded in attaining it.

Appropriation also involves a kind of accrual (prāpti) onto or into the self. Only that which in some sense is external to me can be appropriated. If it were already internal, intrinsic, I could not take it; it would already be mine. Even my innermost feelings and thoughts can only be appropriated when they are elsewhere or otherwise then how and where I presently find myself. That which is already mine, according to Buddhism, likewise should not be seen as essentially or intrinsically mine (sva-bhāva), but as products and fruits of prior appropriative acts. We appropriate in order to expand, strengthen and affirm our selves. Self-definition, self-identification arises through appropriation. What is other either becomes mine, or else it serves as the boundary marker that circumscribes my limits, and thus what I am. The ‘more’ I possess, the ‘greater’ I am.

Conversely the corollary, negative appropriation, defines me by what I reject." Negative appropriation consists of attempting to eject out from myself that which I carry with me always, viz, the memories of previous pains." However it shares the same objectives as positive appropriation, viz, to expand, strengthen and affirm the self, but in these instances, by the avoidance of that which opposes or hinders, i.e., hurts, the self’s efforts at self-perpetuation.

Appropriation thus sets and defines the limits of my ‘self’ while simultaneously striving to always alter it. As I accrue or divest, I expand or contract my self, my horizons. Appropriating ideas, things, people, relationships, personal biography, beliefs, the sensations and feelings which are mine, etc., I become the person who, after the fact, can be pointed to as who “I” am. And this “identification” is always retrospective and constructed.

Whereas desire (tṛṣṇa) affectively establishes goals and objectives, appropriation (upādāna) actively grasps and clings to them. Appropriation is the behavioral correlate to desire. They are two aspects of a conational drive, with desire primarily a mental aspect and appropriation primarily an enactment in action. Desire is an intent; appropriation is the effort to fulfill that intent. They overlap, since the conative is always constituted by affective as well as active aspects or as Buddhists might put it, since karma is the ‘activity of body, mind, and speech,’ desire and appropriation, insofar as they are sensorial, cognitive and linguistic affects /actions, karmically share the same conative structure.

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[quote=“cjmacie, post:2, topic:5799”]
A detail: “clinging” is a present participle, i.e. a verbal noun (or possibly used as an adjective), derived from a verb form – the act of clinging. (*)
[/quote]These are also called gerunds, are they not? Or does this not count as a gerund on account of a grammatical quirk I am not familiar with?

OK. I think I am starting to make some progress, just in the last two hours, after finding this excellent easy to follow publication:

Exploring the Sacred, Ancient Path in the Original Words of the Buddha. A short introduction and guide to Pali pronunciation and Pali grammar


Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ—jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

  1. it appears ‘dukkha’ is an adjective noun (per SC dictionary)

  2. Adjectives are declined according to the nouns they define. (page 30)

  3. Therefore, as I assumed previously, the word ‘dukkha’ (an adjective) is declined according to the noun it describes (e.g. birth; death)

  4. ‘Birth’ is feminine (per SC dictionary), singular, nomative (per guessing), therefore the adjective ‘dukkha’ becomes feminized as dukkhā :slightly_smiling_face:

  5. ‘Marana’ is neuter (per SC dictionary), singular, nomative (per guessing), therefore the adjective ‘dukkha’ becomes neutered as dukkhaṃ :slightly_smiling_face:

  6. However, this revelation is disappointing to me because I wanted the translation to be the opposite, namely, dukkha to be the noun and the prefix to be the adjective :neutral_face:. In other words, the common translations of birth “is” suffering appear to be correct :unamused:. I prefer “suffering of birth” rather than “birth is suffering” but it appears I must abandon this preference.


Therefore, back to: saṃkhittena pañcupādāna (neuter adjective) kkhandhā (nom masculine & plural ) dukkhā (adjective). Khandha is plural & masculine, thus ‘khandhā’; therefore ‘dukkha’ becomes 'dukkhā '. :slightly_smiling_face: My translation is:

:fireworks: In summary, the five aggregates attached to/taken as one’s own is suffering. :sparkler:


Lastly, to dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ. Here, it appears ‘dukkhaṃ’ is an accusative noun (object) rather than an adjective; ariya is an adjective & sacca is a single nominative neuter noun (subject). :dizzy_face: OK. Lets see how it goes.

  1. In general the last member of the compound gets inflected according to its declension while the other members keep their stem form (page 21).

  2. In cases where nominal compounds convey an adjective sense, its term is bahubbihi samāsa. (page 21)

  3. Sacca (single nominative neuter noun) = saccaṃ :slightly_smiling_face:

  4. Sacca cannot be an adjective to describe ‘dukkha’ (eg. what is “true” dukkha?) since ‘dukkha’ would become a nominative noun and thus be ‘dukkho’. Also, ‘ariya’ would not make sense

  5. Ariya is an adjective that keeps its stem form = ariya :sweat::slightly_smiling_face:

  6. Dukkha is neuter accusative noun (object) = :violin: = dukkhaṃ :fireworks::tada::innocent:

Time for sleep. :deciduous_tree:

[quote=“Coemgenu, post:6, topic:5799, full:true”]

Yes, I’d forgotten that term.

Judging from Wikipedia articles on both “participle” and “gerund”, the former is more general – past as well as present participles – while the latter resembles the present participle.

Wikipedia “gerund”:
“In traditional grammars of English, the term gerund is used to label an important use of the form of the verb ending in -ing … Other important uses are termed participle (used adjectivally or adverbially), and as a pure verbal noun.

An -ing form is termed gerund when it behaves as a verb within a clause (so that it may be modified by an adverb or have an object); but the resulting clause as a whole (sometimes consisting of only one word, the gerund itself) functions as a noun within the larger sentence.”

In “clinging aggregates” it seems to be used “adjectivally”, i.e. as participle. In another phrase “clinging to aggregates” it would be a gerund, i.e. as a noun (the act of clinging).

Both wikipedia articles indicate indicate many subtleties and complexities.

I agree it seems to be an adjective.

How about translating ‘u­pādā­na-k­khan­dha’ as ‘blazing masses of fuel’.

This is Prof. Gombrich’s idea. Upādāna can mean fuel. Aggi-kkhandha is a common term for a blazing fire. Gombrich states “In the compound upādāna-kkhandha I believe the word for fire, aggi, has been dropped, being felt to be redundant when the word for fuel is present.”

I will quote Gombrich further but the OCR is not so good on my text, so sorry for errors:

My hypothesis is surely confirmed by another short text centring on these words, SN 11, 84-5. To establish this point is so important that I shall go into detail. The text has been translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi;’ his footnotes show that, as usual, he has scrupulously followed the cornmen tary - but he has missed the metaphor. In my suinmary, I shall give his translation of the key terms in italics. (Otherwise the translation is my own.)

If one lives in expectation of enjoyment from things that can be clung to, one’s thirst increases; through thirst, clinpng through clinging, becoming; through becoming, birth; through birth, decay and death, grief, lamentation, sorrow, sadness and torment come into being. Thus there comes about the arising of this whole mass of suffering.

This is like when a great bonfire of many loads of wood is blazing away, and a man from time to time throws onto it dry grass, cow dung and wood, so that it goes on blazing a long time, sustained by thnt matericcl, fuelled by it. Conversely, if one considers the risks in things that can be clung to, one’s thirst for them is destroyed, and this leads to the destruction of the rest of the chain. ‘Thus there comes about the destruction of this whole mass of suflm’ng.’ This is like when the same bonfire is not given any more fuel: when the original fuel is consumed, lacking sustenance it would be extinguished.

The word for ‘bonfire’ is ace-kkhandha, mentioned just above. ‘Mass of suffering’ translates dukkha-kkhandha, so it is a blazing mass:

we have not just a simile but also a metaphor. This is extended by punning on upiidiina, the word translated as ‘fuel’ in the simile but as ‘clinging’ when referring to a person. Both translations are of course correct; but the point has been lost. Similarly, at the beginning the translation ‘that can be clung to’ is correct, but conceals the fact that the word, upiidiiniya, can also mean ‘potential fuel’. There is a parallel metaphor in ‘sustained by that material’, which translates tctd-iilziirct, and ‘lacking sustenance’, which translates an-iihii7-a; i i h ~ r ~ means ‘food’, and in English too we talk of ‘feeding’ a fire. The last \vords in my summary translate nibbiiyeyyu, a form of the verb which gives us nibbiina. So the parallelism shows that if we stop giving it fie1 to feed on, the blazing fire of our suffering will likewise go out.

Once one understands that the five processes that constitute our experiences are being compared to burning bundles of firewood to feed either the fire of our suffering or the fires of passion, hatred and confusion (it makes no difference which way you look at it), this also rnakes sense of the old terms for the two kinds of nirvana: sn-upridi-sesn and an-upadi-sesax As the PED, s. v. upiidi, tells us, upiidi = up6diina. The attainment of nirvana during one’s life (the only time when it is possible to attain it!) is called sa-upiidi-sesa, but this does not mean that one still has a residue of grasping -just a little bit of vice! If we follow the metaphor, we understand that at the moment when we extinguish the fires of passion, hatred and delusion we still have the five khandha, the potential to have experiences, so we still have a residue (sesa) of fuel (upcidi); however, it is no longer burning. When the five khandha cease to exist, i.e., when we die enlightened, we have no more potential for experience; we have run out of fuel."

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I tried to read this but it is difficult for me to follow. I might try to read it later.

However, I got the impression:

  1. Upadanakhandha was equated with duk­khak­khan­dhassa, which does not make sense to me. This is because: “duk­khak­khan­dhassa” appears to be a ‘genative case’ in relation to ‘nirodha’ therefore “khandha” here is singular. Where as ‘khandha’ in ‘upadanakhandha’ is plural.

  2. Nibbana with residue was regarded as Nibbana with aggregates. While I understand this is the common interpretation, my view is Nibbana with residue refers to Nibbana with feelings (vedana), as described in Iti 44 & particularly MN 140, where the metaphor of fuel refers to feeling (vedana).

  3. The phrase “when we die enlightened” is incorrect because the enlightened do not die.

  4. It seems influenced by old Brahmanistic metaphors & puns again, which is not meditative.

In conclusion, “blazing masses of fuel” appears to not show any causation therefore it is impractical. In other words, it does not directly diagnose the problem therefore does not indicate the solution.

Where as the term “attachment” directly diagnoses the problem and directly indicates the solution, namely, abandoning attachment.

The suttas (SN 12.2) state there are four types of attachment. If we follow Gombrich’s suggestion, these must be translated:

  1. blazing masses of fuel of sensuality

  2. blazing masses of fuel of views & opinions

  3. blazing masses of fuel of rules & rituals

  4. blazing masses of fuel of words of self

This does not describe what is occurring, namely, ‘attachment to’ or ‘picking up’ or ‘carrying’ sense objects.

Instead, it would mean ‘setting sense objects on fire’, which is more describes craving than upadana.

Upadana is about ‘carrying an object in the mind’, as described in SN 22.22:

A burden indeed
are the five aggregates,
and the carrier of the burden
is the person.
Taking up the burden in the world
is stressful.
Casting off the burden
is bliss.
Having cast off the heavy burden
and not taking on another,
pulling up craving,
along with its root,
one is free from hunger,
totally unbound.

SN 22.22 seems to support my view that inappropriate comparison, namely, “duk­khak­khan­dhassa”, was chosen, which resulted in a questionable analysis.

Regards :palm_tree:

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