Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

March 4, 2017; revised October 27, 2018; August 20, 2019; June 28, 2020; February 3, 2023

In the website’s early days, I received several emails pointing out that my interpretations of certain words were incompatible with those in Pāli dictionaries. I hope I can explain why one must be careful in using a Pāli dictionary if one’s goal is to grasp the actual teachings of the Buddha. Of course, I learned this from my Noble teacher, the late Waharaka Thēro.

1. In Pāli, a word can have different meanings depending on the context. Furthermore, sometimes, grammar rules are bypassed.

  • Many problems with an incorrect interpretation of the Tipiṭaka arise mainly because of those two misconceptions.
  • Pāli does not have an alphabet. It was a spoken language. The Pāli Canon (Tipiṭaka) was first written using the Sinhala alphabet around 5 BCE (two thousand years ago); see “Historical Background.”

2. Even in English, words can have different meanings depending on context. Following are some examples for three words:

  • Right: You are right./Make a right turn at the light.
  • Rose: My favorite flower is a rose./He quickly rose from his seat.
  • Type: He can type over 100 words per minute. /That dress is not her type.

(Read more at “Words with Multiple Meanings“).

3. Pāli is a phonetic language. The Tipiṭaka was faithfully transmitted for hundreds of years because verses were formulated for easy memorization. Grammar rules are bypassed in some cases. That is clear in verses “Buddhaṃ Saranam gacchāmi,”Dhamman Saranam gacchāmi,” for example.

4. Let us start with the word “atta” (pronounced “aththa” or “aththā” depending on where it is used). This word can have many meanings depending on the context.

  • In the conventional sense, attāmeans “a person.” It is used with this meaning in some contexts; see below.
  • The deeper meaning of “attais “in full control,” “the essence,” or “the truth that is timeless.” Just like the word “anicca,” it is impossible to translate as one word in English. One has to get the idea by learning how it is used in various situations. The opposite of “atta” is anatta. That means “helpless” in the case of a living being or “useless” in the case of an inert thing.
  • At least, in this case, the difference in meaning can be seen by the way they are pronounced: attā versus atta.
  • Both these meanings appear in the Dhammapada verse (gäthä), “Attā Hi Attanō Nāthō” that I am posting concurrently.

5. We can take more examples to illustrate the application of “atta” with those two very different meanings.

  • In “atta kilamatānu yōga atta is used in the conventional sense to describe “procedures that cause suffering in a person.”
  • Sutta comes from “su” and “atta“: a sutta can make someone moral and ethical. So, here also, atta is used in the conventional sense.
  • The phrase “anattā asārakaṭṭhena” means “(anything in this world) is anatta because it is devoid of any good or any usefulness.” Something is atta only if it is the ultimate truth or has timeless value. Here, of course, the deeper meaning is used.

6. Paramattha comes from “parama” + “attha,” where “parama” means “at the highest level” and “attha” means “the truth that is timeless,” the deeper meaning.

  • This word has been translated to Sinhala as “artha” to indicate “meaning” in Sinhala. So, the Plai word paramattha has been translated to Sinhala as “paramārtha” or “ultimate meaning.”
  • Therefore, the four types of ñāna (pronounced “gnāna”) involved in the Patisambidha Ñana are “attha, dhamma, nirutti, paṭibhāna.” These days, they appear in Sinhala as “artha, dharma, nirutti, paṭibhāna.”
  • I will write a separate post to discuss those four terms in the Paṭisambhidā Ñāna. A person qualified to explain Buddha Dhamma to others is supposed to have the Paṭisambhidā Ñāna. Otherwise, one could mislead others by providing incorrect explanations. Of course, no one but a Buddha can provide entirely error-free answers. It does not make much sense to learn Dhamma from someone who is at least not a Sōtapanna (i.e., an Ariya).

7. Of course, the most problematic misuse of “atta” as “a person” or “a self” is in Tilakkhana, the Three Characteristics of Nature. There, anatta is commonly translated just as “no-self.” One correct expression is “no-unchanging self.”

  • We need to realize that “atta” is always “truth” and “attā” could be “person” in the conventional sense. So, the opposite of “atta” is ALWAYS “anatta” (pronounced “anatththa.”) 
  • That — together with translating anicca as “impermanence” — had kept Nibbāna hidden for a thousand years: see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”

8. That is why a dictionary can’t provide a fixed meaning for the word “atta,” nor for anatta, nicca, anicca, and many other words.

  • Many words are supposed to have both conventional and deeper meanings. Only someone who has the Paṭisambhidā ñāna can correctly explain the meaning of a verse in the Tipiṭaka, regardless of where the word appears.
  • Therefore, in most current English literature on Buddha Dhamma, some explanations are correct, but many are not. That is because of the tendency to use a fixed meaning for a keyword without paying attention to context.

9. Another important such word is “paṭi,” which is also pronounced as “pati,” not as “pathi” (see #11 below.) I have received emails saying that Pāli dictionaries say “paṭi” means “against.”

  • Paṭi is also a Sinhala word that is being used to this day. It means “bonds” or “ties,” as in Pāli.
  • If “paṭi” means “against,” how would that be compatible with many other words with “paṭi“? For example, “paṭisaṃvedī” or “paṭisanvedi” (“paṭi + “san” + “vedi“) means vedana due to bonds with “san” becoming apparent. Paṭinissagga means “getting rid of bonds”. Paṭiniddesa means “detailed instructions on sorting out knotty or difficult points,” etc. The latter is explained in detail in “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
10. One could get a better idea of a keyword by looking at its application in various situations. The word paṭisambhidā in paṭisambhidā ñāna is a good example.
  • Paṭisambhidā comes from paṭi + san + bidhā.San” is, of course, a keyword; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“, and bidhā means to separate or to break apart; “bindeema” is the Sinhala word.
  • So, Paṭisambhidā ñāna is the knowledge to be able to sort out the meaning of a word by breaking it down to locate “san,” i.e., connection to defilements.
  • And that interpretation must be consistent with “attha, dhamma, nirutti, paṭibhāna,” as discussed in a future post. By the way, paṭibhāna means the ability to describe in detail with examples. Nirutti means finding the origins of keywords, i.e., how compound words are put together using critical words like paṭi and atta or attha.

11. Other examples come in the gathā to pay tribute to the Saṅgha: “suppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, ujuppaṭipanno...”.

12. Here is a table showing the conventional and deeper meanings of some key Pāli words. Some meanings given in dictionaries are wrong, and they are in bold. Whether to use the correct conventional meaning or the more profound meaning depends on the context (where the word is used); a good example is “Attā Hi Attanō Nāthō.”

ConventionalDeeper Meaning
AttaPerson, selfIn control, has essence or ultimate truth
Anattano-self (incorrect)helpless, no essence and devoid of value
Anapanain and out breathing
take in moral, discard immoral (in the mind)
Majjimamiddlemajji + ma (avoid intoxication of mind)
Niccapermanent (incorrect)can be maintained to liking
Aniccaimpermanent (incorrect)cannot be maintained to liking
Patiagainst (incorrect)bind
Sammā(i) good
(ii) friend (incorrect)
san + mā; removal of "san"

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