Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars

April 29, 2017; revised August 14, 2018; major revision February 24, 2022; revised May 20, 2023


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

  1. Key Pāli words anicca and anatta had been mistranslated to give the meanings of the Sanskrit words “anitya” and “anātma” in the Asian Buddhist countries even before the Buddhaghosa’s time 1500 years ago. That happened due to Mahāyāna‘s influence on Theravāda Buddhism. Those changes have taken root with the influence of the early European scholars and the printing press in the late 1800s.
  2. Buddhaghosa introduced Hindu meditation techniques in his Commentary, Visuddhimagga, 1500 years ago.

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 Theravāda Interpretations – Historical Timeline. “

  • As I explained in earlier posts in this section, 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, i.e., about 2000 years ago.
  • Degradation of Theravāda Buddha Dhamma occurred gradually over the past 2000 years. Two drastic changes took place during that time: (i) misinterpretation of anicca and anatta as “anitya” and “anātma” due to Mahāyāna’s influence, and (ii) Buddhaghosa’s introduction of Hindu meditation techniques 1500 years ago.
  • The subsequent adoption of that by the European scholars, when they translated BOTH Tipiṭaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s, made those widespread.
Background for This Discussion

3. To set up the context for the present discussion, we also need to know the following facts:

  • 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. Attempts to develop Pāli grammar took place about 1000 years ago.
  • Furthermore, Pāli does not have an alphabet. The original Tipiṭaka, written 2000 years ago, is in Sinhala script. 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, the Tipiṭaka English” convention was adopted in the 1800s to preserve the Pāli sounds and keep the text short. See “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″ Thus, the Pāli word  “අත්ත” is written as “atta” instead of “aththa” as one would write in “Standard English.” This was a good step.
  • The second issue is even more critical: Translating key Pāli words to English. In this particular case, they translated the word “atta”  (“අත්ත,”) as “self.” That translation is incorrect, but it was also a logical step at that time, as I briefly explained above.
  • 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 into the Sinhala language until 2005. It has remained in the Pāli language (written with Sinhala script) since first written down in 29 BCE (2000 years ago). The practice of translating the suttas in the Tipiṭaka WORD-FOR-WORD to other languages probably started with the Europeans, as we discuss below.

  • Before being 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 dangerous to translate the Tipiṭaka word-for-word. That is discussed in detail in “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa” and “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
  • Instead of translating the Tipiṭaka to Sinhala, Arahants in Sri Lanka (including Ven. Mahinda) wrote Sinhala commentaries (called Sinhala Atthakathā) explaining the key concepts in the Tipiṭaka. During oral discourses, bhikkhus explained those concepts in detail.
  • But all those Sinhala Atthakathā 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.“ Note that Buddhaghosa wrote Visuddhimagga in Pāli (He learned Pāli while in Sri Lanka.) As I pointed out in the previous post, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis,”

6. Buddhaghosa did use the words anicca and anatta in Visuddhimagga because the words “anitya” and “anātma” are NOT there in Pāli. But even those days, it is likely that the Sinhala texts used “anitya” (අනිත්‍ය) and “anātma” (අනාත්ම.) Note that the Sinhala words for anicca and anatta are අනිච්ච and අනත්ත (same pronunciation.)  Even today, while the Pāli Tipiṭaka has the words anicca and anatta, the side-by-side Sinhala translation has අනිත්‍ය and අනාත්ම (even though word by word they should be අනිච්ච and අනත්ත)

  • Thus, when bhikkhu Nynamoli translated Visuddhimagga to English, he also used the words “impermanence” and “no-self” corresponding to අනිත්‍ය (anitya) and අනාත්ම (anātma.)
  • In my earlier versions of this post, I had written that European scholars mistranslated anicca and anatta because they assumed those were the same as the Sanskrit words anitya and anātma. But even Theravāda Buddhists had already made that transition by that time. That likely happened during the peak of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India around 100-200 AD.
Confusion With Pāli and Sanskrit Texts

7. Those Europeans first came across Sanskrit vedic texts in India. Later, they found the Pāli texts in Sri Lanka, Burma, and other countries. That time sequence is critical to note.

  • By the time of the arrival of the 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.
  • Another critical point is that Pāli was never a widely-used language in India. It appeared in India briefly while Buddhism flourished for a few centuries encompassing Emperor Ashoka’s reign.
The Book “The Search of the Buddha” by Charles Allen

8. To get an idea of how those European pioneers struggled to interpret the inscriptions on Ashoka pillars and later translate 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 government, and he was born in India.

    • The book has a lot of information and pictures of many historical sites in India before their restoration. It is truly fascinating to read about the efforts of those who dedicated their lives to the effort of uncovering Buddha Dhamma. Even though not shown in that book, historical sites in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries were also dilapidated. Also, see #5 of “Elephant in the Room” – Direct Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
    • The following video is in the Sinhala language. It provides an account of the restoration of Ruwanvalisāya, one of the largest stupās in Sri Lanka. That project took over 50 years and was completed with assistance from the British Governor in Sri Lanka. You can see the status of Buddhist temples and stupās in the 1800s before their restoration:

  • In all those Asian countries (Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, etc.) Buddhism itself was in much worse shape than today. Those European scholars were hugely responsible for the current revival of Buddhism.

9. Those European 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.

Status of Buddhism in the 1800s

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

  • The invasions by the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British spanned over four 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 #8 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 Mahāyāna and Vedic documents too. However, even Theravāda bhikkhus had already made the mistake of mistranslating anicca and anatta to be the same as Sanskrit anitya and anātma by that time.
  • There were no true Buddhist scholars with deep insight at that time. We can get an idea about the status of Buddhism in Asian countries at that time by the status of Buddhist temples in the video of #8 above.
Academic Credentials Not Enough to Teach Buddha Dhamma

11. Those European scholars did their best 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 in Buddhism) and wrote books in 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 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 in those days, and it was not their intention to distort Buddha Dhamma. It is not the fault of current scholars either.
  • Just to emphasize: Buddha Dhamma needs to be learned from a true disciple of the Buddha who has attained at least the Sotapanna stage. Academic credentials mean NOTHING as far as teaching Buddha Dhamma is concerned. With all due respect to those European scholars, they DID NOT understand the key message of the Buddha. That message is that the rebirth process is filled with suffering, and the goal of a true Buddhist is to stop the rebirth process and attain Nibbāna. See “Basic Framework of Buddha Dhamma.”
Tipiṭaka was written on Ola Leaves

12. 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. That process automatically took into account any changes to the Sinhala script over those two thousand years! See “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
  • 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, who 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 “re-discovered” the (correct interpretations of) Buddha’s teachings over the past 25 years or so. Unfortunately, Waharaka Thero attained Parinibbāna recently; see “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thero.”
The Buddha prohibited the translation of Tipiṭaka to Sanskrit

13. The Buddha had foreseen the problems of a direct translation of the Tipiṭaka. He warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipiṭaka to ANY LANGUAGE, 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 impossible 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

14. Therefore, the Tipiṭaka was not translated even to the Sinhala language 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.“
  • With the above explanation, we can understand why those standards established in the late 1800s actually distorted Buddha Dhamma. Of course, it was not intentional.
Pāli Is a Unique Language

15. I cannot emphasize enough that Pāli is unlike any other modern language. Some meanings even come from how one pronounces words. Again to emphasize:

  • Pāli does not have its own alphabet. Tipiṭaka was written in Pāli with Sinhala script.
  • As the Buddha himself admonished, Sanskrit words cannot convey the meaning of Pāli words. That is because many Pāli words have been “Sanskritized,” which 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 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

16. 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).”

17. 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 verse captures the intense joy felt by the Buddha at the moment of attainment of Buddhahood.
  • The word “san” appears very frequently in the Tipiṭaka. But it is often masked by the fact that in many places, it rhymes as “saṁin many word combinations, as in “saṁsāra, “sampādeta, “Samma“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
Critical Role of the Printing Press in Widespread Circulation of the Incorrect Interpretations

18. 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 roughly every hundred years when the “old version” started degrading.
  • The critical 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 critical 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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