Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa

Explanation of dhamma concepts in the Tipiṭaka comes under three categories: “uddēsa, niddēsa, paṭiniddēsa.” One should not translate the uddesa version directly from Pāli to other languages.

Revised April 10, 2017; December 8, 2020; April 15, 2021; March 1, 2022; rewritten February 9, 2023

Word-by-Word Translations Lead to Confusion 

1. Many suttās are in the “uddesa” or “utterance” form; see #2 below. The word-for-word translation of such suttās can lead to utter confusion Keywords like viññāṇa, and saṅkhāra have different meanings depending on the context. 

  • Most suttās only give only the uddesa form of the Paṭiloma (reverse) Paṭicca Samuppāda, for example, “avijjā nirodhā.. viññāṇa nirodho.” If that is translated word-by-word as “when ignorance ceases,. .  consciousness ceases,” that leads to utter confusion.  Did the Buddha lose consciousness upon attaining Enlightenment? Would an Arahant lose consciousness upon attaining Arahanthood? That is the danger of direct word-for-word translations! Not only that, those direct translations say sensory contacts, and vedanā, also stop arsing with the cessation of avijjā! See, for example, “Paṭi­c­ca­samu­p­pāda­ Sutta (SN 12.1).
  • Many terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda (saṅkhāra, viññāṇa, phassa, vedana) need to be explained in detail. Many online discussions illustrate the confusion: “Do Arhats experience contact with their sixfold sense media? What about vedanā?” “Cessation of DO?” and “Vedana” are just a few examples. 
  • I discussed that problem in “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Dhamma Concepts Explained at Three Levels

2. Explanation of dhamma concepts in the Tipiṭaka comes under three categories: “uddēsa, niddēsa, paṭiniddēsa.” A fundamental concept is first stated (“uddēsa” or “utterance”). “Niddēsa” is a “brief explanation.” Finally, “paṭiniddēsa” explains in detail with examples to clarify complex or “knotty” points.

  • For example, “yē dhammā hetuppabbavā.Tesaṃ hētuṃ tathāgato āha; Tesañca yo nirōdhō, Evaṃvādī mahāsamaṇōis the uddēsa version. 
  • In English, the uddēsa version is: “Of those phenomena which arise from causes. Those causes have been taught by the Tathāgata (Buddha), And their cessation too – thus proclaims the Great Ascetic.”
  • The fundamental characteristics of “this world” state that everything arises due to causes. But that explanation is not enough to understand the embedded deep concepts. Upatissa (who later became Ven. Sariputta) attained the Sotapanna stage by hearing that uddēsa version from Ven. Assaji. See “Ye Dhammā Hetuppabhavā.. and Yam Kiñci Samudaya Dhammam..

3. Therefore, word-for-word translation is NOT enough to convey the teachings of the Buddha to an average person.

  • The next level of explanation is theniddesa” version. A teacher must explain that “dhammā” here refers to the kammic energies created by the three root causes (hetu): lobha, dosa, and moha. Cessation of avijjā (ignorance of the Four Nobel Truths) leads to eliminating those root causes and thus to Nibbāna.
  • Clarification of each term in Paṭicca Samuppāda (avijjā, saṅkhāra, viññāna, nāmarupa,” leading to “upādāna, bhava, jāti, and suffering) requires long explanations with examples. That is the paṭiniddesa explanation.

4. Some sections of the Tipiṭaka have an explicit niddesa version. However, that is mainly in the Original commentaries that explain certain concepts in SOME detail.

Patiniddēsa (Detailed Explanation) in Commentaries and Discourses

5. During the Buddha’s time, other bhikkhus explained each sutta in detail to audiences when they delivered discourses. That is the “paṭiniddēsa” version. Especially after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, many Arahants started composing “Attakathā” or commentaries on fundamental concepts. But a few were composed during the time of the Buddha. Of course, these were also composed in a way suitable for oral transmission and, thus, do not have lengthy explanations.

  • Three original early commentaries remain preserved in the TipiṭakaPaṭisambidhā Magga Prakarana, Nettipparakana, and Petakōpadesa. Of these, the Paṭisambidhā Magga Prakarana consists of the analyses by Ven. Sariputta, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, and the  Nettipparakana by Ven. Maha Kaccāyana. Thus we are lucky to have these three original commentaries still with us.
  • These three books contain “niddesa/paṭiniddēsa” versions of many essential suttās, which describe the keywords/phrases in a given sutta.  Other excellent commentaries have been lost; see “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background.”
Most People Today Need Patiniddēsa (Detailed Explanation)

6. During the time of the Buddha, some could understand just the uddēsa version. For example, Upatissa and Kolita (who became Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggalana later) became Sōtapannas upon hearing the verse, “yē Dhamma hetupabbhavā..…”. They had done much in their past lives and needed “just a little push” to complete that understanding. They are called ugghaṭitañña or “persons with high wisdom.”

  • And many could understand the niddēsa version. Those were vipañcitañña and needed a bit more explanation to grasp the concepts. “Ugghaṭi­tañ­ñū Sutta (AN 4.133)” discusses the four categories of persons — ugghaṭitañña, vipañcitañña, neyya, and padaparama.
  • However, most people today are in the lower category of neyya and padaparama. They need detailed explanations (i.e., paṭiniddēsa)  to grasp a concept. They also belong to two groups. Those with tihetuka paṭisandhi (optimum births) can attain magga phala in this life. But those with dvihetuka paṭisandhi (inferior births) cannot achieve magga phala but can accrue merits to attain magga phala in future lives. Of course, there is no way for anyone to figure out (except for a Buddha) whether a particular person has a tihetuka or dvihetuka paṭisandhi.
  • It is essential to realize that those who are either ugghaṭitañña or vipañcitañña had been neyya and padaparama persons in previous lives. They had strived to gain more wisdom and now benefitting from this life. Thus there is no point worrying about whether one is a tihetuka or dvihetuka. This is the concept of “pāramitā“; see “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?
Erroneous Commentaries Are Harmful

7. There are many erroneous commentaries today. The best example is the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. It was written around 400 CE (where CE is “Current Era” or AD) when the “pure Buddha Dhamma” was already lost, and the conventional meanings were commonplace, just as now.

  • The “pure Dhamma” has been lost for an extended period from about 200 CE up to now. See “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline.” But the original suttā survived because people at least used and preserved them even if they used the “conventional” or “mundane” (“padaparama” in Pāli) meanings.
  • Thus we can see why people have been translating suttās“word for word” and just getting the conventional meanings. But it can also lead to contradictions and confusion, as we saw above. Profound verses in suttās need detailed explanations.
Many Suttās Are in Uddēsa or Niddēsa Versions

8. Most suttās are in uddēsa or niddēsa versions (Digha Nikāya is an exception, even though some verses do have deeper meanings). They require detailed explanations. Translating word-by-word is not appropriate in many instances.

  • For example, “anicca, dukkha, anatta” is only in the niddēsa version in Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta and Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. 
  • However, each sutta took many hours to deliver. It was impossible to condense all that information in a sutta for primarily oral transmission that was available at the time. Each sutta is condensed (most likely by the Buddha himself; see below).
Tipiṭaka Was Compiled for Faithful Oral Transmission

9. The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma would go through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting deep suttā would not be present. Thus suttā were composed so that only the “conventional” meaning was apparent. That was necessary to preserve the suttā, especially before writing became commonplace.

  • It is important to remember that Ven. Ananda had memorized all the suttās that he recited at the First Buddhist Council, just three months after Buddha’s Parinibbāna. They are in a format suitable for oral transmission. 
  • Ven. Ananda was Buddha’s assistant over the last few decades of the Buddha’s life. I believe that the Buddha condensed each sutta and Ven. Ananda memorized them. The Buddha synthesized each sutta in a “double meaning” way for them to survive the “dark periods.” That part is my theory, and I believe it will be proven accurate.
  • Then, at the first Buddhist Council, all the suttās were recited and sorted into various categories (Nikāyās). The Vinaya Piṭaka was also completed.
  • The Abhidhamma Piṭaka was started at the First Council but finalized at the Third. Having learned Abhidhamma from the Buddha, Ven. Sariputta taught it to his 500 student-bhikkhus. They had to expand that summary to the form we have in seven books today. That task was completed only by the Third Council. See #9 and #10 of “Abhidhamma – Introduction.”
Deeper Meanings Can Stay Hidden for Long Times

10.  There are long periods when the correct teachings remain “underground” or “hidden.” That happened just 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha with the emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism. During such times, people use conventional interpretations. And that served the purpose of keeping the suttā intact, especially before written texts became common.

  • A perfect example is the Ānāpānasati Sutta (or the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta).  The conventional meaning is to tie up “āna” with breath inhaling and “āpāna” with breath exhaling.
  • That was consistent with the breath meditation that has been there in the world at any time. Many yogis practiced it even before the time of the Buddha. He learned those methods from such yogis before attaining Buddhahood.
  • For details, see “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.”
Special Role of Jāti Sōtapannas With Paṭisambidhā Ñāna

11. From time to time, jāti Sōtapannas are born. They had attained the Sōtapanna stage in a previous life, possibly when Buddha was alive. They likely have had births in the Deva loka for a long time and are reborn humans now.

  • However, not all jāti Sōtapannas can explain Buddha Dhamma to others. Some have the unique capability to interpret the keywords/phrases in the suttā. This specialized knowledge is “Paṭisambidhā Ñāna.
  • Waharaka Thero was such a jāti Sōtapanna with Paṭisambidhā Ñāna. He brought out these deeper meanings in recent years. See, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro.”
Misinterpretation of Dhamma Concepts Is an Offense

12. It is an offense (pārājika) to misinterpret suttā (and dhamma concepts in general.) That is in several suttā in the “Bālavagga of Aṅguttara Nikāya 2.”

  • For example, AN 2.25 is a short sutta that says: “Dveme, bhikkhave, tathāgataṃ ­nābbhā­cik­khanti. Katame dve? Yo ca neyyatthaṃ suttantaṃ neyyattho suttantoti dīpeti, yo ca nītatthaṃ suttantaṃ nītattho suttantoti dīpeti. Ime kho, bhikkhave, dve tathāgataṃ ­nābbhā­cik­khantī” ti.
  • Translation (to provide the idea): “Monks, these two people slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who briefly explains a deep discourse when it needs a detailed explanation.  The other explains a discourse in detail whose meaning is already clear. These are two who slander the Tathāgata.”
  • Two perfect examples of the first type of slander say that the words anicca and anatta are fully explained by “impermanence” and “no-self.” Those two concepts require detailed explanations. See “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”
Checking for Inter-Consistency Among the Three Piṭakas Is the Key

13. The Buddha advised resolving any issues by consulting the three Piṭakas: Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.

  • For example, a concept in the Sutta Piṭaka, for instance, must be consistent with other places in the Sutta Piṭaka. It must also be compatible with explanations in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the Vinaya Piṭaka. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
  • As the Buddha emphasized, what matters is to get the IDEA across and not memorize the Pāli suttās. (Memorization is needed only for transmission purposes).

14. The following are the key points from the above discussion that I wish to emphasize:

  • The suttās convey “conventional” meanings while keeping the “deep meanings” embedded in them.
  • Those “deep meanings” bring out the uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma.
  • The word-for-word translation of a sutta does not convey the message of the Buddha. Examples are critical Pāli words like viññāṇa, saṅkhāra,  anicca, and anatta.
  • The surviving three original commentaries in the Tipiṭaka can verify the deep meanings of the keywords/phrases.
Good Resource for Pāli Tipiṭaka

15. A helpful resource for finding Pāli Tipiṭaka (and translations in several languages) is

  • Once you open a sutta, click on the left-most drop-down to choose one of several languages. That is a valuable resource; consider donating if you find it useful.
  • However, as I explained above, those translations (and most English translations elsewhere) are frequently incorrect.
  • But at least one can see the correct Pāli version. 

Next, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

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