Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

March 4, 2017; March 7, 2017; May 17, 2018; October 27, 2018

I have received several emails pointing out that my interpretations of certain words are not compatible 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 true teachings of the Buddha. Of course, I learned this from my Noble teacher, late Waharaka Thēro.

1. In Pāli, a given word can have very different meanings depending on exactly where it is used. Furthermore, sometimes grammar rules are bypassed.

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

2. Even in English language, words can have different meanings depending on where it is used. Following are some examples for three words:

  • right: You were 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 really not her type.

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

  • In Pāli language, there are many key words with different meanings. In many cases, there is a conventional meaning and a deeper meaning, as mentioned above: “Sutta – Introduction“.

3. Pāli is a phonetic language. The Tipitaka was transmitted for many hundreds of years faithfully, because the verses were formulated for easy memorization; grammar rules were bypassed in some cases. This can be clearly seen in the verses, “Buddhaṃ Saranam gacchāmi“, “Dhamman Saranam gacchāmi”, etc.

  • There is no subject in those sentences. The first of course means, “I take the refuge in the Buddha”, but “I” is missing in “Buddhaṃ Saranam gacchāmi“. It is just understood.
  • If you look at suttas, there is no clear grammatical structure. It is the sound that gives the meaning and most verses have “double meanings”: There is an apparently simple meaning, but deeper meanings are hidden most times. I have discussed this to some extent in the post, “Sutta – Introduction“.

4. Let us start with the word “atta” (pronounced “aththa” or “aththā” depending on where 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” or “the essence” or “the truth that is timeless”. Just like the word “anicca“, it is not possible to translate to English. One has to get the idea by learning how it is used in various situations. The opposite of “atta” is anatta (“helpless” in case of a living being or “useless” in case of an inert thing) as in the Tilakkhana.
  • At least in this case, one could see the difference in meaning 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”.
  • The word sutta comes from “su” and “atta“: a sutta can make someone moral and good. So, here also atta is used in the conventional sense.
  • The phrase “anattan asārakatténa” means “(anything in this world) is anatta because it is devoid of any good or any usefulness”. Something can be called atta only if it is 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 was translated to Sinhala as “artha” and now is used to also mean “meaning” in Sinhala. So, the Plai word paramattha is translated to Sinhala as “paramārtha” or “ultimate meaning”.
  • Therefore, the four types of ñāna (pronounced “gnāna”) involved in the Patisambidha Ñana are listed as, “attha, dhamma, nirutti, patibhāna“. These days, they are written in Sinhala as, “artha, dharma, nirukthi, patibhāna“.
  • I will write a separate post to discuss those four terms in the Patisambidhā Ñāna. A person qualified to explain Buddha Dhamma to others is supposed to have the Patisambidhā ÑānaOtherwise, one could mislead others by providing incorrect explanations. Of course, no one but a Buddha can provide explanations that are completely error-free. Yet, 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, where anatta is commonly translated as “no 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”), which is NEVER pronounced “anattā”, i.e., “anaththaa”. 
  • This — together with translating anicca as “impermanence” — had kept Nibbāna hidden for a thousand years: see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.

8. This is why it is not possible for a dictionary to provide fixed meaning for the word “atta“, as well as for anatta, nicca, anicca and many other words.

  • Since many words are supposed to have both conventional and deeper meanings, only someone who has the patisambhidā ñāna can correctly explain the meaning of a verse in the Tipitaka 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 people tend to use one fixed meaning for some key words over and over without paying attention to where they are used.

9. Another such key word is “pati“, which is pronounced also as “pati”, not as “pathi”. I have received emails saying that Pāli dictionaries say “pati” means “against”.

  • Pati is also a Sinhala word that is being used to this day. It means “bonds” or “ties”, just as in Pāli.
  • If “pati” means “against”, how would that be compatible with many other words with “pati“? For example, “patisamvedi” or “patisanvedi” (“pati + “san” + “vedi“) means vedana due to bonds with “san” becoming apparent. Patinissagga means “getting rid of bonds”. Patiniddesa means “detailed instructions on sorting out knotty or difficult points”, etc. The latter is explained in detail in “Sutta – Introduction“.
10. One could get a better idea of a key word by looking at its application in various situations. The word patisambhidā in patisambhidā ñāna is a good example.
  • patisambhidā comes from pati + san + bidhä.San” is of course a key word; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“, and bidhä means to separate out or to break apart; “bindeema” is the Sinhala word.
  • So, patisambhidā 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, patibhāna” as will discuss in a future post. By the way, patibhāna means the ability to describe in detail with examples. Nirutti means finding the origins of key words, i.e., how complex words are put together using key words like pati and atta or attha.

11. Other examples come in the gathā to pay tribute to the Sangha: “supatipannō bhagavatho savaka sangho, Ujupatipannō...”.

  • Here the “bonding” is to “good things”. Supatipannō means “bound to moral things”, Ujupatipannō means “bound to be straightforward”, Nayapatipanno means “bound with wisdom”, and Samichipatipannō means “good to associate with”.
  • Another is “patisandhi“, which comes from “pati” + “sandhi“, where sandhi (which is also a Sinhala word) means “to join”. At the cuti-patisandhi moment, one’s mental body (gandhabba) dies (cuti, pronounced “chuthi”) and one grasps a new existence. So, this joining of two adjacent existences is called patisandhi.
  • Of course, the most important is “pati” in Paticca Samuppāda; see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda“.

12. Here is a table showing conventional and deeper meanings of some key Pāli words. Some meanings given in dictionaries are wrong and they are marked in bold. Whether to use the correct conventional meaning or the deeper meaning depends on 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"

  1. Also see, “Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?“.
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