In a lot of discussions here in B.S.E, the topic of the exact meaning of some terms keeps recurring, and nobody seems to have the last word.

Words such as 'upapajjati', 'paccājāyati', 'abhinibbatti' are often translated as "rebirth", but for some, that doesn't seem to be the case. Or other terms as 'deva' or 'abhiñña' are understood as "god" and "psychic powers", respectively. Or even outside of Buddhist culture we find some terms such as 'prana', 'chakra', 'messiah', and so on.

How can we now the way people contemporary to the origin of such words understood those terms?

It is possible that they used those words to describe phenomena that we currently know by other more scientific terms?

For instance, in this entry (https://torvol.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/the-chakra-system-is-an-analogy-to-get-your-shit-together-not-spiritual-woo-woo/), this blogger assures that 'chakras' were the way used to talk about the regulation of emotions.

I hope you can understand my point.

Have a nice day, and thanks for your time!

  • 1
    This is the reason why the Buddha denies the follower to recite tipitaka in the other language in vinaya-pitaka. Tipitaka can explain itself directly while reciting. Reciting and memorizing are the way that used by atthakatha-teacher to explain tipitaka.
    – Bonn
    Dec 22, 2018 at 5:49
  • I understand the idea behind this reasoning, by I don't think that memorizing and chanting can assure the fidelity in the transmission of the original meaning of the words. Differences in interpretation may arise even between monks from the same tradition. Dec 22, 2018 at 6:16
  • 2
    The rule of buddhist council is "reciting sutta together" and explain it together with 500-1000 Ariya-members. When one recited it wrong, he will know himself. When one explain it wrong, the other can ask him for the evidence from the other sutta. Another, the reciting helps the reciter to understand the relation between word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, sutta, vagga, paṇṇāsa, saṃyutta, nipāta, nikāya, and piṭaka. This is called "weaving sutta as weaving flower to make tipitaka an effective system". Many mistaking comes from the only reader without reciting.
    – Bonn
    Dec 22, 2018 at 10:58
  • 2
    If you want to know the rule of word&meaning's relation in sutta. I recommend Netti: tipitaka.wikia.com/wiki/Nettipakarana
    – Bonn
    Dec 22, 2018 at 11:57
  • 1
    The discussion on "Different Pali words translated as ‘rebirth’ & ‘reborn'?" at SuttaCentral may also be of interest to you.
    – ruben2020
    Dec 22, 2018 at 13:58

4 Answers 4


How can we know the original meaning of a word with certainty?


I'm sure there's a scholarly answer -- not this from me though.

Your mentioning "chakras" reminds of something similar, i.e. the "chi" that we're taught in Tai Chi -- which I learned from, was taught by, a Chinese master.

His English wasn't good, even with a translator I didn't ask complicated question, my own Chinese was non-existent though, I'm not complaining. Anyway part of what he'd do is describe the movement of chi -- especially the dan tien for example -- in reply, some students would say they could feel the chi, others not.

Based on a couple of answers (one on Skeptics.SE, another on MartialArts, which I won't reference) I've decided that "chi" doesn't exist as such -- not objectively measurable, and/or not separate from other things.

But ...

A lot of the preliminary work is to affect how you stand -- posture -- knees, hips, back, neck, and so on. We're told to "stand straight" ... and to, "imagine there's a thread, from the sky to the top of your head, and that you're hanging from that thread -- so instead of being pressed and heavy and bent by gravity, you're being pulled and light-weight and hanging straight, with vertebrae aligned each above the other".

The exercise is effective, at least when you see it and follow along.

In reality, there is no such "thread"! :-) -- but I think it's a useful visualisation exercise. It helps you to stand straight ...

I guess I'm getting around to saying that "meaning" of a word is maybe difficult to ascertain.

One way, perhaps an important way, to know a word is by its effect -- what does it mean to you? What does it mean to other people? What is the effect of using the word?

In Tai Chi you can kind of judge how people practice --- how well (they practice), and how beneficial (their practice is).

Perhaps it's something similar in Buddhism -- i.e. you practice for a purpose, towards a purpose ... perhaps a purpose of your own ... or perhaps toward a goal and following a curriculum set by a teacher -- and the meaning of the words might be assessed by their effect, whether they help you to practice.

In a word like "rebirth" I think there are two important questions:

  • What does it originally mean?
  • What does it mean to me?

I see those as separate questions. I don't, can't, assume that I know the original meaning. I don't assume that what I understand is the real meaning.

It's partly a matter of ... is "humility" the right word? Knowing what you don't know? For example there's a bunch of stuff I know, that children don't -- how to drive a car, even how to bicycle. I imagine explaining that to a child, if they ask ... or "How does a radio work?" I could use words to explain, but would the words have the same meaning? If I say "electromagnetic radiation", what's that to someone who hasn't studied it? What is it even to someone who has studied it?

Similarly I, being only very ... you know ... a student, I don't think I should assume that I'm able to understand the "meaning" even when it's explained.

But "what does it originally mean?" is an important question. I've posted questions, "what does X mean?", so that people can explain that. And I don't think I should post to say "It doesn't mean that". I don't want to misrepresent, I don't want to falsify the transmission.

It used to be that my knowledge of, access to Buddhism was very second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand -- e.g. I'd read a book, explaining Buddhism, written by someone who had studied with people who had studied with other people -- and what's written in the book is, sort of, their opinion, their summary ... which is OK but, maybe not reliable, and maybe not much depth, the words are an easy explanation and superficial and there isn't much there, much substance, to study.

So I'm grateful to meet something like an original scripture and be able to study that, like, to be able to read what people are talking about.

But "What does it mean to me?" is an important question too, though. It's good to ask and good to be told, not enough though to be only able to repeat what you've been told. It's like, maybe I go to a Maths lecture -- and being able to repeat what was said, to memorise the lesson, that's one thing -- to use what's learned, to understand new (Maths) problems and to know how to solve them properly, that's another.

So I take an interest in both:

  • What is the, what is an, orthodox doctrine ... about the meaning? Can I understand it? Can I reference it? Can I, even, repeat it without distorting it?

    Are there several orthodox doctrines? Not overly surprising if there were. Does a word have more than one meaning? Does the meaning depend on the context? Did it have several meanings in the original? If several people understood it, did it have several meanings then? Was it intended for several people, perhaps with different understandings?

  • What does it mean to me? How can I use that doctrine? Can I use it? If I only understand it partially, is there a part of it I can use?

I guess a final question might be, how do I manage a part doctrine that I don't understand? I guess I "neither approve nor disapprove" but "put it aside". There's a lot of knowledge in the world -- practical and theoretical knowledge, science, arts, know-how -- the fact that I don't know something or don't understand it doesn't mean it's untrue, doesn't mean it's impractical, or badly taught.

nobody seems to have the last word


This is meant to be a Q+A site, is one thing, so in theory everybody "has the last word". You ask a question, people answer, and you select from among the answers to build your own understanding. There may be some good answers, maybe some less good, you don't always have to have the last word, or do you.

One of the stack exchange guidelines I read was that answers should be "backed up" or "based on" something, either:

  • A reference
  • Something you have experience personally

I think that's quite a good guideline for this site and this topic (i.e. Buddhism) too.

If I answer I like to ...

  • provide a reference
  • and/or, explain from my personal experience

... and by doing that I hope to be not misleading.

(Not that all answers require references on this site ... e.g. with many people/users/readers are familiar with the same doctrines and it's often enough and more convenient to explain a doctrine without references).

Perhaps I should, I don't know whether I should, mention one more thing -- i.e. that you might want to know, be certain of, your own understanding -- perhaps to ask, "what do I understand?", to avoid confusion.

For me personally I think it's right to, I think we're taught to, disentangle from a "thicket of views", perhaps recognise and avoid "a thicket" from a distance, maybe "know your own mind" for what that's worth as they in English, and maybe no "It means this! No, it means that!" like the sectarians.


When possible, the suttas give physical references for clarity:

They’re like a flax flower that’s blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. --DN33

Note that the Buddha's blue is not our blue.

However, the translation and understanding of experiential terms such as vitakka presents difficulties. The difficulties arise because what each term defines is a subjective experience. Fortunately, the suttas are quite consistent in terminology, especially EBT's such as the Pali Canon. Modern translations have difficulty achieving the same level of consistency because the meaning of modern languages changes in our lifetimes (and even with a single viral video). However, what is remarkable about the suttas is that one can map personal experiences to the terms used in the suttas. This is why we study the suttas. We study them for inconsistencies in our understanding.

Given that the practice and study of the suttas is deeply personal, it is useful to consult with a Sangha and/or teacher if you can. The Buddha warns about the thicket of views that arises as we search for meaning out of ignorance. Indeed, he flatly states:

For this principle is deep, hard to see

Fortunately, the suttas themselves provide a practical guide for study that is focused on what is

immediately effective --SN35.70

In general, if a sutta isn't immediately effective, just go on to what is indeed immediately effective. Eventually, one experiences a deeper understanding that unlocks formerly confusing suttas.

For example, one could get all contorted thinking about rebirth as literal reincarnation of a soul migrating between bodies. How do we test this? By dying? Do let us know how that goes... :D

But what is immediately effective is to think about simpler meanings for words used in the suttas. For example, each of our cravings has a life. Our cravings are reborn because we want them to have continual existence, etc. We say "I like chocolate cake" and tell our friends. That saying has a life of its own. And because it has a life of its own, we can apply the teachings immediately to any such craving to see how it arises (I want the cake), how it ceases (I ate the cake) and how it is perceived and on the way to rebirth (I see cake).


There are three refuges in Buddhism. The Dhamma Refuge is comprised of two aspects, namely:

(i) the Dhamma was perfectly spoken by the Blessed One; and

(ii) this Dhamma is knowable & verifiable in the here-&-now has being immediately effective in leading to peace.

Therefore, the above conviction is the 1st step to knowing the original meaning of words.

Since the Dhamma is perfectly spoken, the 2nd step is to research the suttas and examine how the words 'upapajjati', 'paccājāyati' & 'abhinibbatti' are used contextually.

For example, 'abhinibbatti' definitely does not mean "rebirth" (it means "production") and on B.S.E we have researched the word 'upapajjati'. The word 'jāyati' does not necessarily mean "rebirth", such as in suttas AN 3.112, AN 4.200 & AN 5.26.

The greatest difficulty is divorcing the mind from the monks such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Sujato, etc, who people seem to place unshakeable faith in.

Personally, I think if you have even the slightest disposition to believe in post-mortem rebirth, this is your destiny. I think it will be quite difficult to convince you otherwise.

  • A few days ago I asked you something related to this issue, and I got no answer. I'll ask again: if the Dhamma is so clear and evident, why did the Buddha used terms such as 'deva' or 'realms', when those same words were being used in other religious contexts, and so, using the same word with different purposes may have caused confusion between indian audiences of that time? You said that the word 'deva' meant something other than 'god', but you provided no sources. What are your sources to say that devas were brahmin or ascetics? Thanks for your time. Dec 22, 2018 at 1:36
  • Firstly, the Buddha spoke to people personally, There were no public written teachings. His Dhamma was an oral tradition. Secondly, about "deva", i think it is quite difficult to prove what the Buddha said about this; in contrast to the Brahmanistic cosmology monks possibly later placed into the suttas in their efforts, particularly under King Asoka, to convert people. Since I actually personally know enough people, mostly Christians but also Buddhists, with psychic powers, I have no doubts about psychic powers or what I think devas refer to. To me, deva (angels) are just people. Dec 22, 2018 at 1:41
  • I think the question should be asked: "Why are there so many sects in Buddhism?" We seem to believe monks have integrity & are loyal to the Buddha but the number of sects in Buddhism show this is obviously not the case. If you go to the website called Sutta Central, you will probably see the 1st monk ever embracing Cultural Marxism & nuns engaging in all kinds of "non-gender" politics. This is merely a demonstration of how monks & nuns are prepared to depart from the Dhamma to pursue their personal agendas. Dec 22, 2018 at 1:45
  • the thing is, 'abhiñña' can be translated as "direct knowledge". 'Clairvoyance' and 'intuition' are loaded words with some cultural baggage on them. We assume those they are "paranormal" abilities, but did that difference between 'normal' and 'paranormal' existed back then? Also, what evidence do you have to say that brahmanistic concepts and ideas were added afterwards to Buddhist teachings, corrupting the original teachings? Dec 22, 2018 at 1:48
  • I already posted I have no evidence for the Brahmanistic cosmology. I merely said it was "possible" or "probable". By reading the suttas, we can read how fiercely the Buddha kept his core teachings pure yet there are suttas where jhanas are called brahma gods. Personally I doubt the Buddha would ever substitute Brahma gods for jhanas. As I said in my answer, you appear to not have taken the 1st step, which is Refuge in the Here & Now Dhamma. Dec 22, 2018 at 1:51

One approach I follow is to use the Appendix section of Thripitaka to find places the word is used and read them. Sutta pitaka and Abhidhamma pitaka can be both useful. I also use search on them. I do this in pali.

Usually, important words with respect to Buddhism (e.g. Dukkha) are well defined within Thripitaka. By important words I mean, the ones considered those in relation to attaining nibbana.

Do also note that at the lack of certainty, there are only five ways to pick a solution (according to Buddha):

  1. Based on faith
  2. Based on liking
  3. Based on reference
  4. Based on contemplation
  5. Based on views

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