Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars

April 29, 2017; revised August 14, 2018; February 3, 2020; critical revision on July 14, 2021


1. Degradation of Theravada Buddha Dhamma occurred gradually over the past 1500 years, but two drastic changes took place during that time:

  • (i) Buddhaghosa’s introduction of Hindu meditation techniques 1500 years ago,
  • (ii) misinterpretation of anicca and anatta by the European scholars when they translated both Tipiṭaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.

2. To understand the current situation, one needs to understand the historical background in this section, “Historical Background,” but at least the posts starting with “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline. “

  • As I explained in earlier posts in this section, much worse distortions to Buddha Dhamma occurred via branching out of various sects based on Mahāyāna, Zen, and Tibetan (Vajrayāna). It started with the rise of Mahāyāna in India about 500 years after the Buddha.
  • Degradation of Theravada Buddha Dhamma occurred gradually over the past 1500 years. Still, two drastic changes took place during that time: (i) Buddhaghosa’s introduction of Hindu meditation techniques 1500 years ago, (ii) misinterpretation of anicca and anatta by the European scholars when they translated both Tipiṭaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.
Background for This Discussion

3. To set up the context for the present discussion on (ii) above, we also need to know the following facts (Detail in posts in this section).

  • Pāli is a “phonetic language” (sounds give meanings in most cases, especially for keywords). It comes from Māgadhi (Maga Adhi or Noble Path) language that the Buddha spoke.
  • Furthermore, Pāli does not have its alphabet. The Sinhala script was used to write down the Tipiṭaka 2000 years ago. Details at “Historical Background.”

4. The root problem of writing a given Pāli word in English must have been a critical issue to address for those English, German, and French scholars who took on the daunting task of translating the Tipiṭaka in the late 1800s.

  • Now there are two separate key issues: First is to write the Pāli text in English, like writing “අත්ත” as “atta” instead of “aththa” as one would write in “Standard English.” A “Tipiṭaka English” convention was adopted before 1900 to preserve the Pāli sounds and keep the text short. See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″
  • The second issue is even more important: The actual translation of the Pāli word to English. In this particular case of the word “අත්ත,” they translated it as “self.” That translation is incorrect, and now let us see why those early translators like Rhys Davids, Eugene Burnouf, and Edward Muller chose that meaning.
Tipiṭaka Had Not Been Translated Until Recently

5. Going back to our main discussion, Tipiṭaka was not TRANSLATED to the Sinhala language until 2005. It had remained in the Pāli language (written with Sinhala script) since first written down in 29 BCE (2000 years ago).

  • Before written down 2000 years ago, the Tipiṭaka was transmitted orally for over 500 years. It is composed in a special, condensed way to make it easier to recite and remember.
  • It is not POSSIBLE to just translate the Tipiṭaka word-by-word. That is discussed in detail in “Sutta – Introduction.”
  • Furthermore, Sinhala commentaries (called Sinhala Atthakathā) were composed to expand and explain the key concepts in the Tipiṭaka.
  • But all those were lost, and we only have commentaries written after about 500 CE (including Visuddgimagga), and they have many errors. See, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background. “
Confusion on Pāli and Sanskrit Texts

6. Those Europeans first came across Sanskrit vedic texts in India. Later on, they found the Pāli texts in Sri Lanka, Burma, and other countries. That is very important to note.

  • By the time of the arrival of English, Buddhism in India had totally vanished. There were no Pāli texts in India except those inscribed on the “Pillars of Ashoka, “the stone columns made by Emperor Ashoka about 300 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
  • So, when they tried to interpret those inscriptions, they were very confused because that language (Pāli) was not in existence in India. Furthermore, there were Sanskrit texts which were written well before the Buddha’s time.
  • Another important point is that Pāli was never a widely-used language in India. It appeared in India for a relatively brief time while Buddhism flourished for a few centuries encompassing Emperor Ashoka’s reign.
The Book “The Search of the Buddha” by Charles Allen

7. To get an idea of how those European pioneers struggled with first interpreting the inscriptions on Ashoka pillars and later translating the Tipiṭaka itself, I highly recommend the book “The Search of the Buddha” by Charles Allen (2003). His family had been in India for generations serving in the British governments, and he was born in India.

  • The book has a lot of information and pictures of many historical sites in India before they were restored; even though not shown in that book, historical sites in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries were in similarly bad shape. It is truly fascinating to read about the efforts of those who dedicated their lives to the effort of uncovering Buddha Dhamma.
  • All those Asian countries (Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, etc.) were in decline, and Buddhism itself was in much worse shape than today. Those European scholars are really responsible for the current revival of Buddhism.

8. However, the only bad outcome was that they mistranslated most of the key concepts of Buddha Dhamma. We cannot really blame them. They were doing their best, and there were no bhikkhus (even in Sri Lanka) who were knowledgeable at that time.

  • At least, in the beginning, those pioneers thought Sanskrit and Pāli were very much related. They are related, but not in a useful way. Sanskrit adapted many Pāli terms but made them “sound sophisticated.” But the true meanings were not as apparent.
  • For example, pabhassara in Pāli Pāli became prabhāsvara in Sanskrit. While the meaning of pabhassara can be discerned from its Pāli roots (see, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga“), as far as I know, that is not true for the Sanskrit word prabhāsvara.
  • Another example is Paṭicca Samuppāda (see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppāda“), which was adapted to Sanskrit as “Pratittyasamutpada,” which sounds more sophisticated, but does not convey anything useful.
Wrong Translation of Anicca and Anatta

9. The most significant damage was done with the translation of the two Pāli words of “anicca” and “anatta” when those pioneers took those two words to be the same as the two Sanskrit words “anitya” and “anathma. “

  • Sanskrit word “anitya” does mean “impermanent,” but that is not what is meant by the Pāli word “anicca. “  Similarly, the Sanskrit word “anathma” does mean “no-self” but “anatta” means something totally different; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations. “
  • This has been responsible for preventing millions of people from attaining Nibbāna for the past 200 years. 

10. Let me show just two verses that obviously do not make any sense if “anatta” is interpreted as “no-self”:

  • Many people translate “Sabbe dhammā anattā”  asall things are not-self.”  How can dhamma have a self in any case? For example, it is necessary to say that “Buddha Dhamma has no self?”.
  • Another example from the Anatta Sutta: “..Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā“.
  • If we translate that verse with “anatta” as “not-self,” it says, “bhikkhus, there is no “self” in any rūpa, vedanā, saññā,  saṅkhār, or in viññāṇa..”.
  • How can an inert rūpa (or vedanā, saññā, etc.) have a “self” anyway? Those are nonsensical statements IF we translate “anatta” to be “no-self.”
Sinhala Scholars Who Learned Buddhism from the Europeans

11. To complete the historical background relevant to this discussion, let me emphasize the “time evolution” of Buddhism starting in the 1700s.

  • The invasions by the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British spanned over 4 centuries starting in 1498; see “Portuguese presence in Asia.” This led to a drastic decline of Buddha Dhamma in all Asian countries. However, that trend finally changed with the insight of some British civil servants in the 1800s. This is why I recommend the book by Charles Allen in #7 above.
  • Due to the efforts of those civil servants and several scholars in European countries, a coordinated effort was undertaken to collect and interpret the vast historical documents found in the Asian countries. Those included not only Tipiṭaka documents but Mahayana and Vedic documents too. This is where they made the mistake of translating anicca and anatta incorrectly.
  • There were no true Buddhist scholars with deep insight at that time. Even the number of bhikkhus had drastically declined.

12. Those European scholars truly made their best efforts to interpret the vast collection of historical documents. Those efforts are well-documented in Charles Allen’s book. Professor Rhys Davids was among those scholars and most current interpretations are based on his work.

  • Following the original translations by Rhys Davids, Eugene Burnouf, and others,  contemporary Sinhala scholars like Malalasekara (a doctoral student of Rhys Davids) “learned” Buddhism from the Europeans and thus started using wrong interpretations.
  • Other Sinhala scholars like Kalupahana and Jayathilake also learned “Buddhism” at universities in the United Kingdom (received Doctoral degrees on Buddhism) and wrote books in both English and Sinhala.
  • Of course, scholars in other Buddhist countries did the same in their languages, and the incorrect interpretations spread throughout the world.
  • So, I hope I have provided enough information to at least contemplate why the opinions of “scholars” are likely to be wrong due to reasons beyond their control. Again, I admire and appreciate what Rhys Davids, Burnouf, Muller, and others did those days, and it was not their intention to distort Buddha Dhamma. It is not the fault of current scholars either.
Tipiṭaka was written on Ola Leaves.

13. It is also important to note that mass printing was not available until recent years and became common only in the 1800s; see, “Printing press. “

  • In the early days, Tipiṭaka was written on specially prepared leaves and needed to be re-written by hand every 100-200 years before they degraded. So, we must be grateful to the bhikkhus in Sri Lanka who did this dutifully over almost 2000 years. That served another important purpose. Any changes to Sinhala script over those two thousand years were taken into account!
  • Thus mass production of books became possible only with the new rotary printing presses in the middle of the 1800s. By the time those key concepts had been mistranslated, printing had become widespread.
  • The Pāli Text Society was founded in 1881 by Rhys Davids and started printing those translations. So, it was unfortunate that those “distorted English translations” spread throughout the world.
  • Luckily, we still have the original Pāli Tipiṭaka and three original commentaries.
  • With the help of those three original Pāli commentaries, Waharaka Thero was able to “re-discover” the Buddha’s original teachings over the past 25 years or so. Unfortunately, Waharaka Thero attained Parinibbāna recently; see, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thero.”
The Buddha prohibited translation of Tipiṭaka to Sanskrit

14. The Buddha had foreseen the problems of a direct translation of the Tipiṭaka. He warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipiṭaka to ANY LANGUAGE, and particularly to Sanskrit. There were two Brahmins by the names of Yameḷa and Kekuṭa who were experts on the Vedic Texts. They became bhikkhus and asked the Buddha whether they should translate the Pāli suttā to Sanskrit.

  • The Buddha admonished them that Sanskrit was a language with musical overtones developed by the high-minded Brahmins. Thus, it was not possible to convey the true meanings of Maghadhi (Pāli) words in Sanskrit; see Chulavagga 5.33.
  • In the Sutta Central English translation, the Pāli word for Sanskrit (Chandasa) is mistranslated as “metrical”; see, “15. Minor matters (Khuddaka),” which is the translation of “1. Khuddakavatthu“. The relevant Pāli text is located close to the end, and starts as, “Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma…”.
Role of the Commentaries To Tipiṭaka

15. Therefore, the Tipiṭaka was not translated to even Sinhala for 2000 years in Sri Lanka. Instead, commentaries were written in Sinhala to expand and explain the Tipiṭaka. Unfortunately, ALL those have been lost except for three commentaries in Pāli included in the Tipiṭaka. See, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background. “

  • However, the Tipiṭaka was translated to Sanskrit (despite the admonition by the Buddha not to do that), and those translations were likely in even Sri Lanka within the Abhayagiri sector.

16. Recently, I participated In two online forums briefly. One of the criticisms published at the Dhamma Wheel and the SuttaCentral discussion groups was that I was not using “..international standards used by Indologists for over a century”.

  • With the above explanation, I hope one can understand why those standards established in the late 1800s have actually distorted Buddha Dhamma. Of course, it was not intentional.
  • A few Pāli words give different meanings based on how they are written and pronounced, and I will write about them in the future.
Pāli Is a Unique Language

17. I cannot emphasize enough that Pāli is unlike any other modern language. Meanings come from how one pronounces words. One cannot use etymology with the way one spells it out (in English). Again to emphasize:

  • Pāli does not have its own alphabet. Tipiṭaka was written in Pāli with Sinhala script.
  • Pāli does not have grammar rules, even though those European pioneers tried to invent grammar for Pāli, compose Pāli-English dictionaries, etc.
  • Sanskrit words should never be used to interpret Pāli words. That is because many Pāli words have been “Sanskritized,” and that leads to much confusion. For example, there is no corresponding word for anatta in Sanskrit. But the Sanskrit word “anātma” is regularly used as the translation of “anatta.” Anatta does not mean “no-self,” but “anātma” does have that meaning, as mentioned in #9 above.
  • While a Pāli-English dictionary could be useful in some cases, there are cases where they give wrong interpretations (anicca, anatta, pabha, etc.); see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
San” Is a Unique Word in Pāli

A key Pāli word, the meaning of which has been hidden for thousands of years, is “san” (pronounced like son). See the section on “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra).”

18. In the Dhammapada verse,

Aneka jāti sansāram
sandā vissan anibbisan
gahakaram gavesan to

dukkhā jāti punappunam”

  • There are four places above where “san” comes in. This and another gāthā (verse) capture the intense joy felt by the Buddha at the moment of attainment of Buddhahood. I will write a post on this in the future.
  • The word “san” appears very frequently in the Tipiṭaka. But it is often masked by the fact that in many places, it rhymes as “sam, “as in “samsāra, “sampādeta, “Samma“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
Critical Role of the Printing Press in Widespread Circulation of the Incorrect Interpretations

19. The printing press became widely available only after the rotary press was invented in 1843:  “Printing press. “ As pointed out above,  Rhys Davids started publishing the English translations of the Tipiṭaka in 1881. That led to the widespread circulation of the incorrect interpretations of those Early European scholars!

  • Up to that time, the printed version of the Pāli Tipiṭaka was on specially prepared ola (palm) leaves; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma.” This was a laborious process, as detailed in that post. Fortunately, bhikkhus kept re-writing the Tipiṭaka material every hundred years or so when the “old version” started degrading.
  • The key point is that there were only versions of the original Tipiṭaka. It was not in wide circulation until the printing press was invented, just in time for the incorrect interpretations to be widely circulated.  Rhys Davids started publishing the English translations of the Tipiṭaka in 1881.
  • This is why there is no record of the correct interpretations of keywords like anicca and anatta in Sinhala. Those interpretations were in the original Sinhala commentaries (Sinhala Atthkathā.) It is safe to assume that the same holds in other Asian countries.
  • The invention of the printing press was a key factor in spreading the incorrect interpretations that early European scholars came up with (unintentionally)!

Also see, “Tipiṭaka Commentaries – Helpful or Misleading?“.

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