Pāli Suttās in Tipiṭaka – Direct Translations are Wrong

<< Click to Display Table of Contents >>

Navigation:  Buddha Dhamma – Advanced >

Pāli Suttās in Tipiṭaka – Direct Translations are Wrong

March 20, 2024

Pāli suttās in the Tipiṭaka are commonly in the “brief” or “uddesa” version. Many suttās should not be translated directly from that uddesa version because that leads to confusion. They must be translated to provide the “hidden meanings” by providing sufficiently detailed explanations.

Many Pāli Words in Suttās Are Abbreviated

1. Many Pāli words like cetanā, phassa, vedanā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa must be understood based on the context. In MOST sutta verses, they mean sañcetanā (saŋ cetanā), samphassa (saŋ phassa), samphassa-jā-vedanā, abhisaṅkhāra, and kamma viññāṇa (which is more than “consciousness” or “vipāka viññāṇa.”)

This becomes clear looking at the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda in the frequently encountered uddesa version”:avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra; saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa; viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpa, nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana, salāyatana paccayā phasso, phassa paccayā vedanā, vedanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā paccayā upādāna, upādāna paccayā bhavo, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, maraṇa, soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti.”

The Buddha taught that to attain Arahanthood, ALL the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda must be stopped from arising. The meaning of the word “nirodha” means “to stop from arising” and NOT “destroy or end what is existing.” The verse “dukkha nirodha” does not mean you can stop existing cancer or an injury from causing suffering; that requires medical treatment. Dukkha nirodha” means to “stop future suffering from arising.” It is critical to understand that. Please ask questions at the forum if this is not clear.

With the complete cessation of avijjā, all the rest of the terms MUST not arise. None of those terms arise for an Arahant. However, an Arahant can feel, think, take actions, etc. Thus, for example, vedanā arises for an Arahant but not samphassa-jā-vedanā; see below.

Many online discussions illustrate this confusion: “WebLink: dhammawheel.com: Do Arhats experience contact with their sixfold sense media? What about vedanā?” “WebLink: suttacentral: Cessation of DO?” and “WebLink: dhammawheel.com: Vedanā” are just a few examples.

2. I have emphasized that in previous posts, as summarized below. However, I think it is necessary to emphasize this point again because many are still unaware of this problem.

If written explicitly, the terms convey the meaning better and that is called the niddesa version.” Here, the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda are: “avijjā paccayā abhisaṅkhāra; abhisaṅkhāra paccayā kamma viññāṇa; kamma viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpa, nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana, salāyatana paccayā samphasso, samphassa paccayā samphassa-jā-vedanā, samphassa-jā-vedanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā paccayā upādāna, upādāna paccayā bhavo, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, maraṇa, soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti.”

When the Tipiṭaka was written for the first time 2000 years ago, preparing ola leaves and writing each word by hand was extremely laborious. Imagine writing all 57 books in the Tipiṭaka that way! See “Preservation of the Dhamma.” Writing was minimized using two techniques: (i) frequently use the “uddesa” version, and (ii) Words are combined to minimize the number of ola leaves used. For example, “cakkhuviññāṇaṁ” appears instead of “cakkhu viññāṇaṁ.

Therefore, it is critical to be able to interpret a term’s meaning depending on the context. That holds for most suttās in the Sutta Piṭaka. In many cases, cetanā, phassa, vedanā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa REFER TO sañcetanā, samphassa (saŋ phassa), samphassa-jā-vedanā, abhisaṅkhāra, and kamma viññāṇa. (Note: This confusion is absent with the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, where everything is discussed in detail, but only a few read or can understand Abhidhamma.)

Cetanā, Kamma, and Saṅkhāra

3. Cetanā means “intention.” However, all intentions are not bad. Only “defiled intentions” or “sañcetanā” need to be avoided.

WebLink: suttacentral: Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)” defines kamma as “Cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā.” Cetanā is a “universal cetasika,” meaning it is in every citta. This is a critical observation because an Arahant would also have the “intention of doing something.”

However, an Arahant would not intend to act with rāga, dosa, moha (or defilements.) There is a specific word that indicates defiled intentions: sañcetanā, i.e., those with “saŋ” (rāga, dosa, moha.) Thus, an Arahant generates cetanā but not sañcetanā.

Thus, an Arahant can generate kāya, vacī, mano kamma with kāya, vacī, and mano saṅkhāra with cetanā. But an Arahant would NOT do immoral/unwise kamma with kāya, vacī, mano abhisaṅkhāra with sañcetanā. Note that some types of abhisaṅkhāra (see #11 of “Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra – What Is “Intention”?) do not lead to immoral kamma but still are unwise because they move a mind away from the “pabhassara mind.”

However, since most suttās describe the mindset of those striving to attain Arahanthood, most suttās use the words cetanā and saṅkhāra to indicate sañcetanā and abhisaṅkhāra. Furthermore, kamma” means “defiled kamma” done with sañcetanā. Thus, “avijjā nirodhā kamma nirodho” refer only to immoral kamma.

Understanding the relationships among sañcetanā, abhisaṅkhāra, and immoral/unwise kamma is critical. See “Kamma and Saṅkhāra, Cetanā and Sañcetanā.”

Phassa and Samphassa

4. Phassa is a universal cetasika that makes the “contact” between a rūpa with an internal āyatana leading to the corresponding viññāṇa; for example, “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhu viññāṇaṁ.” That viññāṇa becomes a “defiled viññāṇa or a “kamma viññāṇa” only if the mind generates an attachment to it with “saŋ,” i.e., if sañcetanā arises making it a “defiled contact” or a “samphassa.”

An Arahant can see the external rūpa like anyone else; that is only a “vipāka viññāṇa” that does not involve sañcetanā and abhisaṅkhāra.

Details in the post “Difference between Phassa and Samphassa.”

Kamma Viññāṇa and Vipāka Viññāṇa

5. In the suttās, the terms “vipāka viññāṇa” and “kamma viññāṇa” do not appear. Following Waharaka Thero, I adopted those terms to explain the usage of “viññāṇa” in different situations. This became necessary because almost all English translations translate “viññāṇa” as “consciousness,” which leads to much confusion. Only “vipāka viññāṇa” can be translated as “consciousness” because “kamma viññāṇa” is more than consciousness. I explained this critical problem (in #2 and #3) in “Niddesa (Brief Description) of Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

Further details in “Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”

However, at a deeper level, we can see that entirely defilement-free viññāṇa does not arise in a puthujjana. As we have discussed recently, even at the beginning of the “purāṇa kamma” stage, it is already defiled to some extent. However, that level of defilement cannot bring future vipāka, especially rebirths. Strong defilement occurs only in the “nava kamma” stage after “upādāna” takes place; see the chart discussed in #7 of “Ārammaṇa (Sensory Input) Initiates Critical Processes.”

Vedanā and Samphassa-jā-Vedanā

6. A sensory input (ārammaṇa) is necessary to initiate kamma generation via Paṭicca Samuppāda and to contribute to pañcupādānakkhandha (“five grasping aggregates.”) We discussed that in the recent post “Ārammaṇa (Sensory Input) Initiates Critical Processes.”

That should be clear, especially in the chart in #10 of that post: The left side of the chart explains how the Paṭicca Samuppāda process proceeds, and the right side explains the “build-up” of the pañcupādānakkhandha via the “purāṇa kamma” and “nava kamma” stages. The latter is further explained in the chart of #7.

Vedanā” is the “neutral awareness” of the object in the early “purāṇa kamma” stage. Within a split second, the mind of a puthujjana attaches to the sensory input with rāga, dosa, or moha, and it evolves into “samphassa-jā-vedanā.” We cannot stop the initial “vedanā” from arising, but we can stop it from evolving into “samphassa-jā-vedanā.

For details, see “Vedanā and Samphassa-Jā-Vedanā – More Than Just Feelings.”

Uddesa, Niddesa, and Paṭiniddesa

7. We briefly discussed the “uddesa” and “niddesa” versions of Paṭicca Samuppāda in #1 and #2 above.

It is necessary to explain the “uddesa version” in the Tipiṭaka not only with the “niddesa version” but also in detail with the “paṭiniddesa version.” In the old days, bhikkhus delivered discourses to provide detailed explanations. I have tried to do that (i.e., close to the “paṭiniddesa version”) with posts like those mentioned above. There are more posts on each topic on the website because explaining everything in a single 2000-word post is difficult.

More posts on each word can be found using the “Search box” on the top right.

For another discussion on the subject, see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.”

Paṭicca Samuppāda and Pañcakkhandha – Only Mental Entities Involved

8. All the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda, pañcakkhandha, and pañcupādānakkhandha involve only “mental entities.” They all describe what happens in the mind.

Furthermore, most suttās in the Sutta Piṭaka discuss pañcupādānakkhandha and not pañcakkhandha. That is because it is the pañcupādānakkhandha that we need to worry about.

As the Buddha pointed out in his first discourse (“WebLink: suttacentral: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)”), “In brief, Dukkha is pañcupādānakkhandha” OR “saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.

Please think carefully: Pañcupādānakkhandha is a MENTAL PROCESS in the mind. All five terms involved are MENTAL entities. It is obvious that the “mental entities” of vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are “mental.”

Thus, it must be emphasized that “rūpa” in connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda, pañcakkhandha, and pañcupādānakkhandha involve only “mental impressions of external rūpa.”

Furthermore, “rūpa” refers not only to visuals but also to sounds, smell, taste, touch, and dhammā (that can be detected only by the mind.)

Rūpa” Does Not Mean “External Rūpa

9. With the recent deeper analyses (“Sotāpanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā),”) we can see that the rūpa involved in this process are not external rūpa and a mental impression of that external rūpa. We can summarize the steps as follows:

(i) An “altered version” of the external object (whether sight, sound, etc.) is prepared by the brain and is presented to the mind via the cakkhu pasāda rūpa. This happens because our physical bodies have been designed by kammic energy (via Paṭicca Samuppāda) to provide a “distorted saññā” about that rūpa. The basic idea is discussed in “Mulapariyaya Sutta – The Root of All Things” and “Fooled by Distorted Saññā (Sañjānāti) – Origin of Attachment (Taṇhā).” This is why different species have cravings for different foods, for example. Brahmas are not even interested in food or sex because their births originated from attachment to “jhānic pleasures.”

(ii) Consider a puthujjana (an average human) taking a mouthful of a tasty meal. In this case, the “rūpa” is not the meal but the “impression of that food created by the brain.” In Pāli, it is a “rasa rūpa.” Within a split second, the mind would attach to that “rasa rūpa” since a puthujjana has kāma rāga. This step does not involve conscious thinking but is automatic.

(iii) Then the mind goes through a few more steps to get to the “upādāna” stage, where one may or may not “consciously attach” to that “rūpa.” That process is discussed in #7 through #9 through the rest of the post “Ārammaṇa (Sensory Input) Initiates Critical Processes.”

Therefore, it should be clear that a “rūpa” mentioned in a sutta mainly refers to such a “mind-made version of the external rūpa.”

Nirodha – Misunderstood Word

10. “Nirodha” is commonly translated to English as “cessation.” That implies the cessation or destruction of an existing entity.

However, “nirodha” means to “stop the arising of an entity.”

The verse “Rūpaṁ abbhaññāsiṁ, rūpa samudayaṁ abbhaññāsiṁ, rūpa nirodhaṁ abbhaññāsiṁ, rūpa nirodhagāminiṁ paṭipadaṁ abbhaññāsiṁ” appears in the “WebLink: suttacentral: Upadanaparipavatta Sutta (SN 22.56)” and in that link it is translated as “I directly knew form, its origin, its cessation, and the practice that leads to its cessation.”

However, it is impossible to make an existing external rūpa “cease to exist”! Also, the use of the word “form” does not convey that it could be a sound, taste, etc.

It is possible to stop “mind-made rūpa” from arising in a mind. That holds for all Arahants at their death, i.e., at Parinibbāna. But it can happen in a living Arahant who can get into “nirodha samāpatti” while living. Both pañcakkhandha and pañcupādānakkhandha cease arising while in “nirodha samāpatti.” Thus, “rūpa nirodha” can be experienced even during a life!

That is why Nibbāna is also called “loka nirodha.” Even external rūpa (including stars and planets) cease to exist for that mind! (while in nirodha samāpatti” or after Parinibbāna.)

See “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna).”

Rūpa, Vedanā, Saññā, Saṅkhāra,  and Viññāṇa Arise Simultaneously

11. An easy way to grasp what we discussed above is as follows. In a sensory event, all five entities, rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa, arise simultaneously.

None of them will arise in nirodha samāpatti (or after Parinibbāna).

In the “WebLink: suttacentral: Upaya Sutta (SN 22.53)” (among several others), the Buddha stated that viññāṇa cannot arise without rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra.

They all arise simultaneously in the mind!

Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the forum. Some of these concepts are new and may need clarification.