Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars

April 29, 2017; revised August 14, 2018

1. April 29, 2017: I have removed the previous post entitled, “Answers to Criticism of Pure Dhamma Interpretations” and have re-written this post to replace it.

  • 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 Tipitaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.

2. In order to understand the current situation, one really needs to have an understanding of 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 took place with branching out of various sects based on Mahayana, Zen, and Tibetan (Vajrayana). It started with the rise of Mahayana in India about 500 years after the Buddha.
  • 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 Tipitaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.

3. To set up the background for the present discussion on (ii) above, we also need to know at least the following facts (they are discussed in detail in posts in this section).

  • Pāli is a “phonetic language” (sounds give the meanings in most cases, especially for key the words). It comes from Magadhi (Maga Adhi or Noble Path) language that the Buddha spoke.
  • It has no grammar like most other languages, even though people have tried to “force Pāli grammar” over the past two hundreds of years.
  • Furthermore, Pāli does not have its own alphabet. When the Tipitaka was written down 2000 years ago, it was written in Pāli with Sinhala script.
  • For example, we can write any word in another language with the English alphabet: The Pāli word “අත්ත” that is written with Sinhala script can be written in English as atta, attha, or aththa. Phonetically, “aththa” is more correct, but we see it written mostly as “atta” or “attha”. To make it short, probably “atta” is better. We will go with the latter, and thus write as atta and anatta, for example.

4. Some people believe “atta” and “attha” have two different meanings. But I have not seen any clear examples given to show that they have different meanings. From the above discussion it is clear why they mean the same.

  • This is where we need to pay attention to the issue of how to refer to the Tipitaka. Someone may be writing that word as “atta” in one sutta and another person writing another sutta may write it as “attha“.
  • So, many people at the forum quote different passages from different suttas trying to prove that they have different meanings. This practice of just quoting from suttas and (mostly incorrect) commentaries is making the discussions incomprehensible.
  • Of course “atta” can have different meanings depending on where the word is used; see, “Atta Hi Attano Natho“.

5. The root problem of writing a given Pāli word (that was originally written with Sinhala script 2000 years ago) 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 Tipitaka in the late 1800’s.

  • Now there are two separate key issues: First is to just write the Pāli text in English, like writing “අත්ත” as atta, attha, or aththa, for example. We discussed this issue in #3 and #4 above.
  • The second issue is even more important: 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.

6. Those Europeans first came across Sanskrit vedic texts in India. They found the Pāli texts in Sri Lanka, Burma, and other countries later on. This is very important.

  • 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 Parinibbana of the Buddha.
  • So, when they tried to interpret those inscriptions, they were very much 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.
  • This is an important point that I will address in future posts. 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.

7. Going back to our main discussion, Tipitaka was not even TRANSLATED to Sinhala language until 2005; see #12 below. It had remained in Pāli language (written with Sinhala script) since first written down in 29 BCE (2000 years ago).

  • Before written down 2000 years ago, the Tipitaka was transmitted generation to generation orally for over 500 years. That is why it composed in a special way to make it easier to recite and remember.
  • That is another reason why we should not get hangup on whether “atta” is different from “atto” or “bhava” is different from “bhavo“. They convey the same meaning. For example, “upadana paccaya bhavo” (which rhymes better) appears in some places instead of “upadana paccaya bhava”. Both give the same meaning.
  • Furthermore, Sinhala commentaries (called Sinhala Atthakatha) were composed to expand and explain the key concepts in the Tipitaka. 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“.

8. In order to get an idea of how those European pioneers struggled with first interpreting the inscriptions on Ashoka pillars and later translating the Tipitaka 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 also 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 similar 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 a much worse shape than today. Those European scholars are really responsible for the current revival of Buddhism.

9. 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 prabhasvara in Sanskrit. While the meaning of pabhassara can be discerned from its Pāli roots (see, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“), as far as I know that is not true for the Sanskrit word prabhasvara.
  • Another example is paticca samuppada (see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda“), which was adapted to Sanskrit as, “Pratittyasamutpada”, which sounds more sophisticated, but does not convey anything useful.

10. 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, Sanskrit word “anathma” does mean “no-self” but “anatta” means something totally different; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • This itself has been responsible for preventing millions of people attaining Nibbana for the past 200 years. 

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

  • Many people translate, “Sabbe dhammä anattä”  asall things are not self”.  How can dhamma have a self in any case? For example, it is necessary 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, no self in matter, no self in feelings, no self in perceptions,  no self in volitional thoughts, no self in consciousness..”.
  • How can an inert rupa or vedana, sanna, sankhara can be “self” anyway? Those are nonsensical statements IF we translate “anatta” to be “no self”.

12. The Buddha had foreseen this and warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipitaka 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 suttas to Sanskrit.

  • That is when the Buddha admonished them that Sanskrit was a language with musical overtones developed by the high-minded Brahmins and thus it was not possible to convey the true meanings of Maghadhi (Pāli) words in Sanskrit; see, Chulavagga 5.33.
  • In the SuttaCentral English translation, the Pāli word for Sanskrit (chandasa) is translated incorrectly 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…”.
  • Thanks to a “devoted reader” who sent me those two references!
  1. So, the Tipitaka was not translated to even Sinhala for 2000 years in Sri Lanka. Instead, commentaries were written in Sinhala to expand and explain the Tipitaka. Unfortunately, ALL those were lost except for three commentaries in Pāli included in the Tipitaka; see, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background“.
  • However, the Tipitaka was translated to Sanskrit (despite the admonition by the Buddha not to do that), and it is likely that those translations were in even Sri Lanka within the Abhayagiri sector.

14. Recently I participated In two online forums briefly, and 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”.

  • I hope now one can understand why those standards established starting in the late 1800’s have actually distorted Buddha Dhamma (not intentionally of course).
  • It does not matter whether one writes gati or gathi, hethu-phala or hetu-phala, micca diṭṭhi or micchā diṭṭhi, Satipaṭṭhāna. In fact, I just Googled micca diṭṭhi and micchā diṭṭhi; both get hits, because different people just spell them differently; see #3 and #4 above.
  • There are a few Pāli words that give different meanings based on how they are writte and pronounced, and I will write about them in the future.

15. 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 out (in English). Again to emphasize:

  • Pāli does not its own alphabet. Tipitaka 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.
  • 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?“.

16. Another criticism was that my interpretation of saṃsāra as “san” +”sāra” must be incorrect because saṃsāra is defined in the verse, “khandhanan ca patipati, dhatu-ayatanana ca, abbhocchinnam vattamana, samsaro’ ti pavuccati ti“, or “the process of the aggregates, elements and bases, proceeding without interruption is called saṃsāra“.

  • There are many ways to describe a given concept and all of them can be inter-consistent. Samsära can also be stated as a “non-stop rebirth process that has no beginning” in addition to the above two descriptions.
  • In another example, “sabba” or “all” in this world can be stated as, “pancakkhandha” or ten ayatana, or 18 dhatu, etc. There is no fixed definition.
  • By the way, the pronunciation of “san” +”sāra” can be either “samsāra” or “sansāra“; I prefer the latter because it shows how it can be derived from “san“.
  • Furthermore, Buddha Dhamma has many words with “san” and they are all consistent. Furthermore, by knowing what “san” is, one can easily figure out the meaning of those “san” words; see, “San“.

17. In the Dhammapada verse,

Aneka jati sansāram
sandā vissan anibbisan
gahakaram gavesan to

dukkhā jāti punappunam”

  • There are four places in the above where “san” comes in. This and another gātha were the expressions of intense joy felt by the Buddha at the moment of attainment of Buddhahood. I will write post on this in the future.
  • The word “san” appears very frequently in the Tipitaka, but it is often masked by the fact that in many places it rhymes as “sam“, as in “samsāra“, “sampadeta“, “samma“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

18. In order to complete the historical background relevant to this discussion, I need to point out a couple of more points.

  • Following the original translations by Rhys Davis, Eugene Burnouf, and others,  contemporary Sinhala scholars like Malalasekara (who was a doctoral student of Rhys Davis), “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 whole world.
  • So, I hope I have provided enough information to at least contemplate on 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.

19. 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, Tipitaka 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.
  • Thus mass production of books became possible only with the new rotary printing presses that came out in the middle of the 1800’s. 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 just unfortunate that it was those “distorted English translations” that spread throughout the world.
  • Luckily, we still have the original Pāli Tipitaka and three original commentaries.
  • With the help of those three original Pāli commentaries, Waharaka Thero was able to “re-discover” the original teachings of the Buddha over the past 25 years or so. Unfortunately, Waharaka Thero attained Parinibbana recently; see, “Parinibbana of Waharaka Thero“.

20. August 14, 2018: I just realized that the discussion in #19 above has another important implication, due to comment at the following discussion forum on the “The teachings of Ven. Waharaka Abhayaratanalankara Thero“.  You may want to read the posts there especially from about July 25, 2018 (top of page 16 of that discussion forum).

  • It is reasonable to question how a team of European scholars were able to change interpretations of keywords like anicca. In a few words, this can be attributed to the revolution in printing that essentially overlapped this period of the “uncovering of Buddhism” by the European scholars.

21. European invasions of Sri Lanka (and essentially all Asian countries) started around the year 1505, and the British took complete control of Sri Lanka in 1815: “History of Sri Lanka“. British civil servants started their historical works on Buddhism in Asian countries (especially India and Sri Lanka) around 1850.

  • 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 Tipitaka in 1881.
  • Up to that time, the printed version of the Pāli Tipitaka 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 Tipitaka material in every hundred years or so, when the “old version” started degrading. This served another important purpose. Any changes to Sinhala script over those two thousand years have been taken into account!
  • There are no surviving Sinhala texts on palm leaves. Of course, there were no bhikkhus in India to maintain their copies of the Pāli Tipitaka; only the Asoka pillars survived.
  • The key point is that the old Sinhala commentaries had been destroyed long ago, and only the Pāli Tipitaka was maintained for hundreds of years when  Rhys Davids started publishing the English translations of the Tipitaka in 1881.
  • This is why there is no record of the correct interpretations of keywords like anicca and anatta in Sinhala. It is safe to assume that the same holds in other Asian countries. The invention of the printing press was a key issue.

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



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