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What is the translation for equanimity?

The Hungarian Vipassana committee is trying to find a new translation for “equanimity”, because the current descriptions were misleading and students were unhappy with it. The problem is, there isn’t really a Hungarian word for it (most translations have multiple connotations, for example: közöny could mean detachment, indifference and negligence in Hungarian, which makes it more of a negative word), and we are worried we would go with a translation based on our own understanding, instead of its true meaning.

I would like to ask for explanations and synonyms for equanimity, so we can have a discussion on how to correctly translate it to Hungarian.

Thank you all in advance.

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The literal meaning seems to be “looking on something from a distance”: SuttaCentral.

Bhikkhu Anālayo also talks about it in his “Compassion and emptiness in early Buddhist meditation”:

Equanimity or equipoise, upek(k)hā, from an etymological perspective
suggests a mental attitude of “looking upon”, not an indifferent
“looking away”. The term thus conveys an awareness of whatever
is happening combined with mental balance and the absence of
favouring or opposing.

The book in its entirety is definitely worth reading! :heart:

P.S. Great to hear that you Hungarians are working on new Sutta translations! :dolphin: What exactly is the scope of your project? (Maybe you can reply in a PM, since this is a bit off topic.)

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Thank you again for your help :slight_smile:

I think the scope is the translation of the explanation of the technique, the evening discourses and maybe some prints for the 10 day Vipassana (Goenka) courses only.

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Interesting! More like “to observe”… :thinking:

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Yes, but it is still on the basis of the other brahmaviharas. They are the foundation on which upekkha develops. Metta and all that stuff doesn’t get lost on the way. This is how I understand Ven. Anālayo’s explanations.

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Indeed, when listed it always comes last, right? :anjal:

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Here is a full essay by Bhikkhu Analayo on Upekkhā which might help provide some inspiration.

I don’t speak Hungarian at all, but here are a few words I found on Google Translate. Do any of these sound like they match what B. Analayo talks about above?

elfogulatlanság, nyugalom, tárgyilagosság, egyensúly, kiegyensúlyozott, higgadtság

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Yeah! I usually, in my own head, think of upekkhā more as impartiality, objectivity, unbiasedness something like that. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Dear Richard, interesting question! And may I just add on a personal note, I know Hungary is going through difficult times, as are many countries, and you have my sympathies! :pray:

Yes, just to confirm, the literal meaning is “onlooking” or “watching over”. Even by the time of the suttas, however, this literal meaning had taken on a strong connotation of “neutrality”, “equanimity”. A good example of this is in the context of vedanā, where upekkhā is sometimes used in place of “neither pleasant nor painful” feeling. In other places, such as the simile of smelting gold, the sense of “watching over” is stronger. Ven Ñāṇamoḷi tried to catch both these sense by using “onlooking equanimity”, which is correct but cumbersome.

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Thank you all for the suggestions!

This is really helpful, because most translations tend to imply indifference or disinterest even. I realized from @Khemarato.bhikkhu 's link that my understanding of the word was also off, and will need will need to reread the essay with more focus.

@sujato can you please elaborate on “onlooking” or “watching over”? Would “observing”, “noticing” or “caring attention” be a good translation also?

Thank you again

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In context, perhaps. But if you’re speaking of the meaning in the central doctrinal contexts, like the brahma viharas, jhanas, and so on, then it has a sense of emotional neutrality. Something like anupassanā has a more direct sense of “observing” or “contemplating”. There are lots of Pali words that inhabit that semantic field, and for the most part in usage they don’t overlap with upekkhā. So it does have that sense of your attitude towards what you’re watching.

It’s really hard to say how things will come across in another language!

Not directly on that, but on translation generally, when faced with this kind of doubt, i sometimes just start using the new translation, put it in a variety of contexts, and sit with it for a while. Let the shock of the new subside and get a feel for how it fits. Sometimes the new one works out, but often enough I want to revert to an older rendering, despite its flaws.

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sabbamitta, I wonder (coming from a background of casual sanskrit study) regarding the literal meaning of “looking on something from a distance”. The reason being that upa has been understood and taught to mean “near” [upa - Sanskrita]

`उप
úpa [ upa ]

ind. ( a preposition or prefix to verbs and nouns, expressing ) towards, near to ( opposed to apa, away ), by the side of, with, together with, under, down ( e.g. upa-√ gam, to go near, undergo; upa-gamana, approaching; in the Veda the verb has sometimes to be supplied from the context, and sometimes upa is placed after the verb to which it belongs, e.g. āyayur upa = upâyayuḥ, they approached). `(upa - Sanskrita)

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Hi, Bhante. Is this ever the case in the suttas? In the actual discourses I can only recall seeing the “neutral feeling state” as “neither-pleasant-nor-painful.” I’d assumed that the shift to describing neutral feelings as “upekkhā” was an abhidhammic and commentarial development.

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No, it is found occasionally, mostly in the five-fold division of vedanā. For example, in SN 48.37 we find:

Katamañca, bhikkhave, upekkhindriyaṁ? Yaṁ kho, bhikkhave, kāyikaṁ vā cetasikaṁ vā nevasātaṁ nāsātaṁ vedayitaṁ.
And what is the faculty of equanimity? Neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling, whether physical or mental.

To be clear, this is not the so-called “five spiritual faculties”, but five kinds of feeling as faculties.

The commentaries make explicit the distinction between upekkhā as an attitude or emotion—as in the brahma viharas and so on—and as a feeling. Most of the time it’s pretty clear in the Suttas which one is being referred to.

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I think I also came across this same point somewhere before.

I thought the literal meaning was something like:

“Look at something closely/from up close”

I thought about the 4 brahmaviharas and how they might be translated in simple English…without compromising accuracy as much as possible.

I came up with:

Friendliness
Compassion
Appreciation
Fairness

I was thinking “fairness” could be the best fit in this set because it seems to be something “social” and in accordance with Dhamma-Vinaya (as opposed to say “equality,” which doesn’t seem to be inherently positive, or “equanimity,” which is often used in the face of difficult situations even when the situation doesn’t involve other people or social situations).

What do you think of the translation of “fairness” in that set?

What bugs me the most about that translation is that it doesn’t quite fit with what you mentioned here:

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That’s right, the connotation is “close watching” rather than “watching from a distance”.

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Thank you all again.

Can you please describe “watching over” / “close watching” in more detail?
What would be the purpose be of doing the watching? Would it be to understand something better without intervening? Would it be to take care of something?

I am still unhappy with the closest translations in Hungarian: “figyelni” or “megfigyelni” is more like paying attention in class, monitoring, and can even mean watching someone secretly and getting information on them.

So basically, the most similar words either imply a bit of control/discipline or a bit of apathy/indifference.

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Firstly it is necessary to draw attention to the OP statement “students were unhappy with it,” which is a populist sentiment. This sounds suspiciously like equanimity is being used in an escapist sense due to misunderstanding of its actual function as a strategy to be applied only in certain situations.

"He discerns that ‘When I exert a [physical, verbal, or mental] fabrication against this cause of stress, then from the fabrication of exertion there is dispassion. When I look on with equanimity at that cause of stress, then from the development of equanimity there is dispassion.’ So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. "—MN 101 (Thanissaro)

The Buddha cannot describe the situations in which equanimity would be appropriate, this has to be discovered from personal experience. “Fabrication of exertion” means employing the strategies of right effort, which are specific to the hindrance to which they are opposed and described here:
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html
Equanimity has an agenda, the removal of suffering, and differs from the fabrications of exertion only in that it requires much less effort, and so can be a trap for students.

This shows that attention is an active process:

“There are fermentations to be abandoned by seeing, those to be abandoned by restraining, those to be abandoned by using, those to be abandoned by tolerating, those to be abandoned by avoiding, those to be abandoned by dispelling, and those to be abandoned by developing.”—MN 2

In practice equanimity is rarely appropriate. The analogy of crossing on a raft is used in the suttas, and Hungarians familiar with travelling on water would know that the times when the current and winds combine to carry the raft towards the further shore without action by the rower are few indeed, and even then constant vigilance is required.


Equanimity of energy

A practical way to look at equanimity or equipoise is as a balance point to be attained in regard to the two extremes of sluggishness and restlessness as states of mind, related to the third tetrad, the third foundation of mindfulness and the seven factors of awakening. Beginning with mindfulness of the state of mind, either investigation or tranquillity can be applied depending on what mindfulness has revealed, both resulting in equipoise:

“When the mind is in a low energy mode, there are three awakening factors that can energize it — investigation, energy and joy. And when the mind is in a too-energetic mode, there are three awakening factors that can calm it down — tranquility, concentration and equipoise. This is the basic way I think one works with them. The main point is having the ability to monitor one’s own mind during practice because the awakening factors are not the object of the practice. Instead, with awareness as the foundation, we can bring the mind to a balance point. I see the factors in each group as being interrelated. Investigation is really a sense of curiosity and exploration that is maintained by energy. The investigation is of such a type that it is not pushy and leads to joy. In the other group of factors, tranquility leads to a mind that is concentrated and then leads on to equipoise.”—Analayo

In English you might say, “keeping an eye on it”. One useful example is the case of the equanimity when smelting gold.

It’s like when a goldsmith or a goldsmith’s apprentice prepares a forge, fires the crucible, picks up some gold with tongs and puts it in the crucible. From time to time they fan it, from time to time they sprinkle water on it, and from time to time they just watch over it. If they solely fanned it, the gold would likely be scorched. If they solely sprinkled water on it, the gold would likely cool down. If they solely watched over it, the gold would likely not be properly processed.

So the idea is to look after it without interfering.

The purpose is to remain alert so that you’re ready to act when needed, but you don’t interfere until needed.

Yes, but more than “understanding” it, it is actively monitoring it.

I’d say rather that it’s an aspect of taking care of something. For everything there is a season, and upekkhā keeps note of what is going on so we don’t miss the time.

This is, I’m afraid, poor Pali and worse English. :pray:

  • Here saṅkhāra is a simple synonym of padhāna or viriya etc., not the threefold saṅkhārā (which would be plural.) That this is so can be seen from contexts such as AN 10.94: Yañhi, gahapati, padhānaṃ padahato, where padhāna takes the exact same role in the sentence as saṅkhāra. Comm. agrees, glossing sampayogavīriyaṃ karontassa.
  • “Fabrication” is a Hybrid English word, never used in this sense in idiomatic English. In this context it is not merely unidiomatic but actually wrong, since the sense is “energy” not “construction”.
  • “Fabrication of exertion” is an unnecessary and incomprehensible neologism, for which a search returns results only from Thanissaro’s translations.
  • The dative construction here is poorly served by the term “against”. It means to become dispassionate “for” or “towards” something, and does not have an adversarial sense.
  • Dukkha doesn’t mean “stress”. :man_shrugging:

The syntax, moreover, is misconstrued. The dative relates to the final phrase virāgo hoti, i.e. “there is dispassion for this source of suffering”, not “exerting against the source of suffering”. In attempting (and failing) to be literal, it obscures the sense. A truly literal translation would be something like this:

imassa kho me dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti
When actively striving there is, due to active striving, dispassion for this my source of suffering.

But “When actively striving there is, due to active striving” is unnecessary. Such reduplicated verbal constructions are common in Pali and there is in general no call to replicate them in translation; they merely clog up the sense.

In English the present participle construction adequately conveys the causal sense. One might say, “When I stay too long in the midday sun, I get burned.” But you’d never say, “When I stay too long in the midday sun, then, due to staying too long in the midday say, I get burned.” It’s just not how English is used.

If I may submit my own translation:

They understand: ‘When I actively strive I become dispassionate towards this source of suffering. But when I develop equanimity I become dispassionate towards this other source of suffering.’ So they either actively strive or develop equanimity as appropriate. Through active striving they become dispassionate towards that specific source of suffering, and so that suffering is worn away. Through developing equanimity they become dispassionate towards that other source of suffering, and so that suffering is worn away.

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And yet Bikkhu Bodhi’s translation is the same as Thanissaro’s.