Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

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Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

March 4, 2017; Revised March 5, 2017; Revision March 7, 2017; May 17, 2018; 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 Thero.

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 “WebLink: grammar.yourdictionary.com: Words with Multiple Meanings”).

In the Pāli language, there are many keywords with different meanings. In many cases, there is a conventional and deeper meaning, as mentioned above: “Sutta Interpretation – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.”

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 the verses, “Buddhaṁ Saranaṁ gacchāmi,” “Dhammaṁ Saranaṁ gacchāmi,” for example. [In Pāli, if the verb is “gacchāmi” with the ending “..mi” it is for the 1st person singular I, and if the word is “gacchāma” with the ending “..ma” it is for the 1st person plural We and similarly for 2nd person (si , tha - you, you all), and 3rd person (ti, nti - he, they).]

There is no subject in the above verse. The first of course means, “I take the refuge in the Buddha,” but “I” is missing in “Buddha Saranaṁ gacchāmi. It is just understood.

If you look at suttā, there is no clear grammatical structure.The sound that gives the meaning, and most verses have “double meanings”: There is a simple meaning, but deeper meanings may be hidden. I have discussed this to some extent in the post, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.

Some key Pāli words are discussed in the post: Sorting out Some Key Pāli Terms (Taṇhā, Lobha, Dosa, Moha, etc)” and “What is “Saŋ”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṁsāra).”

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,” “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, one could see the difference in meaning by the way they are pronounced: attā versus atta.

Both these meanings appear in the Dhammapada verse (gāthā), “Attā Hi Attano Nātho” 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 yoga 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. [asāraka :(adj.) [a + sāraka] unessential, worthless, sapless, rotten.]

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 Pāli word paramattha has been translated to Sinhala as “paramārtha” or “ultimate meaning.”

Therefore, the four types of ñāṇa (pronounced “gnāna”) involved in the Patisambidha Ñāṇa are, “attha, dhamma, nirutti, patibhāna.” These days, they appear in Sinhala as, “artha, dharma, nirukthi, patibhāna.”

I will write a separate post to discuss those four terms in the Paṭisambidhā Ñāṇa. A person qualified to explain Buddha Dhamma to others is supposed to have the Paṭisambidhā Ñāṇa. 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 Sotāpanna (i.e., an Ariya).

7. Of course the most problematic misuse of “atta” as “a person” or “a self” is in Tilakkhaṇa, 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 fixed meaning for the word “atta, as well as 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 ñāṇa 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 keywords without paying attention to contex.

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,” just as in Pāli.

If “paṭi” means “against,” how would that be compatible with many other words with “paṭi“? For example, “paṭisamvedī” or “paṭisanvedi” (“paṭi + “saŋ” + “vedi”) means vedanā due to bonds with “saŋ” 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 – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.”

10. One could get a better idea of a keyword by looking at its application in various situations. The word paṭisambhidā in paṭisambhidā ñāṇa is a good example.

Paṭisambhidā comes from paṭi + saŋ + bidhā.Saŋ” is, of course, a keyword; see, “What is “Saŋ”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṁsāra),” and bidhā means to separate or to break apart; “bindeema” is the Sinhala word.

So, Paṭisambhidā ñāṇa is the knowledge to be able to sort out the meaning of a word by breaking it down to locate “saŋ,” i.e., connection to defilements.

And that interpretation must be consistent with “attha, dhamma, nirutti, patibhāna” 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: “supaṭipanno bhagavatho savaka sangho, Ujupaṭipanno....”

Here the “bonding” is to “good things.” Supaṭipanno means “bound to moral things,” Ujupaṭipanno means “bound to be straightforward,” Ñāyapaṭipanno means “bound with wisdom,” and Sāmīchipaṭipanno means “good to associate with.”

Another is “paṭisandhi,” which comes from “paṭi” + “sandhi,” where sandhi (which is also a Sinhala word) means “to join.” At the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, one’s mental body (gandhabba) dies and one grasps a new existence. So, this joining of two adjacent lives is called paṭisandhi.

Note that cuti is pronounced as “chuthi.” See, ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1” and ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”

Of course, the most important is “pati” in Paṭicca Samuppāda; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppāda.”

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 deeper meaning depends on the context (where the word is used); a good example is, “Attā Hi Attano Nātho.”



Deeper Meaning


Person, self

In control, has essence or ultimate truth


no-self (incorrect)

helpless, no essence and devoid of value


in and out breathing

take in moral, discard immoral (in the mind)



majji + ma (avoid intoxication of mind)





permanent (incorrect)

can be maintained to liking


impermanent (incorrect)

cannot be maintained to liking


against (incorrect)



(i) good
(ii) friend (incorrect)

saŋ + ; removal of “saŋ

13. Also see, “Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?and “What is “Saŋ”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṁsāra)

Mostly the deeper meanings of Pāli words can be found at: “Pāli Glossary – (A-K)” and “Pāli Glossary – (L-Z).”

Again, one must pay attention to make sure that the meaning found in a dictionary is compatible with the context.