Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?

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Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?

Original written before October 23, 2015; Revised March 4, 2017; October 8, 2018

I had not given this issue much thought until someone at an online forum pointed out in 2014 that I was using too many Pāli words and it was difficult to understand the meaning of those terms. This is an important point that has two aspects:

In the Arana Vibhanga sutta (MN 130), the Buddha advised bhikkhus to explain the Dhamma by providing the MEANINGS and not to emphasize a given language. As long as one comprehends the concept, it does not matter what language is used.

On the other hand, we need to have a way to transmit the key foundational words for future generations without distorting the meaning of such words. And it is difficult to find suitable words in other languages for keywords like anicca, anatta, and Paṭicca Samuppāda.

I have explained the meaning of any Pāli term I use. But for a first-time reader, this could be a legitimate issue. Please use the “Search” button on the top right to locate relevant posts for any keyword. There is a “Pāli Glossary (A-K) and Pāli Glossary (L-Z)” too.

1. Buddha Dhamma is the most complex theory in the world; it encompasses all of nature’s laws. Even though its basic premises are not hard to grasp, if one needs to dig deeper, one needs to spend some time “learning the basics”, or the “fundamental ideas involved.”

Think about it this way: Can one learn algebra without knowing arithmetic?

The key is to learn the basic ideas well, words like anicca, anatta, bhava, etc. It is said that one could understand the Buddha’s message about existence just by comprehending anicca (which will lead to an understanding of dukkha and anatta), and that is true.

But that is not possible if anicca is translated into English as just one word: impermanence. The Pāli word anicca means much more than just impermanence. So, it is better for the word anicca and to learn what is meant by that word.

Viññāṇa is another word like that. It should not be be translated just as “consciousness”; it is much more complex; see, “Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”

2. There is another aspect too. If one learns the basic concepts in addition/subtraction or even quantum mechanics, it does not matter what language one uses to learn it. The key is to get the IDEA, not just learn the words. One can learn addition/subtraction or quantum mechanics in ANY language, not by memorizing words but by understanding the key concepts.

When a child learns how to add/subtract, he/she has to learn the basic multiplication table and the procedures on how to use that knowledge in handling big numbers. After that he/she can solve any arbitrary problem involving big numbers.

In the same way, one needs to get the IDEAS embodied in some key Pāli words because many of those Pāli words CANNOT be directly translated into other languages: They are highly condensed, each word packed with deep meanings.

In quantum mechanics, the word “quantum” embodies the subject; regardless of the language one uses, one knows what a quantum is. In the same way, one needs to know what “anicca” is. There is no other word for it in English.

Once one UNDERSTANDS the meaning of a certain key Pāli word, then one may even be able to find a suitable word in any language to keep it in mind. There is no need to memorize Pāli words for the sake of memorizing. It is similar to learning any concept.

We just should not change the original Pāli words in the Tipiṭaka. That is the “blueprint” that needs to be transmitted intact so that Buddha’s original message will be kept intact.

3. Let us first examine the reasons why Pāli is a special language.

The Buddha delivered his discourses in Māghadhi language; a version of that language suitable for memorization (Pāli) was used to SUMMARIZE those suttā. For example, Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta was delivered to the five ascetics overnight. How many pages would it take to write all that down? Yet, it was condensed into a few pages.

In the old days, suttā were orally transmitted generation-to-generation, and that was the other reason to condense it into a special form like a poem that is easy to remember and recite. The origin of the word “Pali” comes from that particular way of organization of the words.

4. Therefore, it may take several words in a different language to express the meaning of some Pāli words like anicca, anatta, bhava, etc. Paṭicca samuppāda is another whole phrase that is best kept intact and just learn what is meant by that phrase; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha” + “Sama+uppāda”.”

Thus most Pāli words are impossible to be translated word-by-word to other languages. There is a system to glean the true meanings of the suttā as well as the deep subject of Paṭicca Samuppāda; see, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.”

This is the reason that many commentaries were written in the old days to explain the meaning of keywords and phrases; see, “Preservation of Dhamma” for details.

Unfortunately, most of those original commentaries (Sinhala Attakathā) cannot be found today, except for three; see the above post.

5. Most of the problems we have today are due to such “word by word” translation of suttā into other languages.

The most visible and disastrous translations are the translation of the words anicca and anatta into Sanskrit as anitya and anātma; these words were then ADOPTED in the Sinhala language to express the meaning of anicca and anatta. Then within the last two hundred or so years, those Sanskrit words were directly translated to English and now have become established to mean “impermanence” and “no-self”; see, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”

Incorrect translation of just those words have kept the message of the Buddha hidden for over fifteen hundred years. It is not an accident that there have not been that many Arahants during that time.

For the correct meanings of these words, see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations” and the follow-up post.

6. In fact, it is said that one can reach the Sotāpanna stage by just comprehending the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, the three characteristics of the world. These three words have embodied in them a very broad message. Whole suttā were delivered to describe what was meant by those words! It is WRONG and DISASTROUS to just translate them as impermanence, suffering, and “no-self.”

But if one wishes, and knows the correct interpretations, one can dig much deeper to unimaginable depths. For example, there is a process involving 9 steps where a given citta starts off as a pure (pabhasvara) citta and gets “contaminated” before getting to the viññāṇakkhandha stage within within a billionth of a second!

Those are discussed in detail, for example, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)” and “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga.”

However, there is no need to go to that depth for most people (and many will not have enough time to do that anyway, but there could be a few who would really enjoy it).

I just want everyone to appreciate Buddha Dhamma for what it is, and to help remove many misconceptions that are out there today.

7. To summarize, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of UNDERSTANDING the meanings of key Pāli words. It may take some time to truly grasp those meanings. I keep revising those key posts, whenever a better way to express an idea comes to mind or when someone else points out a better way to express it.

Experience is a key factor in understanding. The word “elephant” may not mean anything to someone who does not understand English. But if it is shown to him what an elephant looks like, then he can associate the word “elephant” with the big animal.

In the same way, it is important to UNDERSTAND what anicca means, by using one’s experience: for example, we cannot maintain even our body the way we would like for the LONG TERM, etc. Then you look at others, especially those who are even older than us, or those who died of old age, and realize that it is true. Then you think about anything in this world, and realize that it is true, i.e., we cannot maintain ANYTHING in this world to our satisfaction, and that is anicca.

Also see, “Saññā – What It Really Means.”

8. The following is a table with some key Pāli words and links to a few posts that describe what those words mean. More posts probably can be found by using the “Search” button on the top right.

Next, “Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism”, ..



Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta

Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta

Gati, Bhava, jāti

Gati, Bhava, and Jāti


Habits, Goals, and Character (Gati), The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas), Sansāric Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsava)



Nirāmisa sukha

Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Nirāmisa Sukha?, How to Taste Nibbāna, Nirāmisa Sukha (Happiness Arising from Dissociating from the 31 realms)

Paṭicca Samuppāda

Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppāda, Paṭicca Samuppāda – Introduction




Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka