When seeking to refine my mental maps of the world in any domain of expertise to more precisely differentiate between similar terms, I have found a thesaurus to be an invaluable tool.

The domain of expertise of the Buddha, namely the path from suffering to the end of suffering, is arguably of more importance than any other domain of expertise, and yet, I am not able to find a Pali thesaurus.

Does this exist?

Is anyone working on this?

3 Answers 3


A Pali dictionary will likely be of more use than a thesaurus. A thesaurus provides synonyms that support a variety of expression. However, the Buddha taught in a very precise manner, using the exact same phrase over and over again for many many years. In mathematics, we don't look for synonyms of "line" since it is precisely defined.

However, the Buddha did in fact adapt his teachings to suit the varying needs of his audience. For example, the key phrase "root of suffering" or "dukkhassa mūlan" is found in several variations:

MN1:171.4: ‘Nandī dukkhassa mūlan’ti—
MN1:171.4: Because he has understood that relishing is the root of suffering,

MN66:17.1: Idha panudāyi, ekacco puggalo ‘upadhi dukkhassa mūlan’ti—
MN66:17.1: Take another person who, understanding that attachment is the root of suffering,

A thesaurus shows the connections between similar words, but the Buddha used the same simple, everyday words (e.g. "root") to reach all audiences. The subtlety of the teachings arises from the combination of these simple words into memorable, powerful phrases. This style of teaching naturally leads us to a search for phrases, not words. The words are indeed important, but only as atomic building blocks for the phrases.

And so we find that these phrases are key to understanding the suttas. It is these phrases, not individual words, that connect the suttas together in constellations of meaning.

If you would be interested in using phrases to explore the teachings, you might find it useful to look at voice.suttacentral.net. In the search box, simply type an English word and it will display key phrases that use that word. It's not a thesaurus, but it does help build mental maps in both English and Pali.

  • Forgive me. I should have been more forthcoming in my aim. I believe the arahats have completely disappeared because incorrect meanings have been given to the terms used by the Buddha. These incorrect meanings have been solidified in the Pali dictionaries. If this hypothesis is true, our task becomes the rediscovery of what the Buddha actually meant by each of these terms. I have found a thesaurus to be useful for this type of work in other domains because it makes the process of "similarity and difference" discovery much quicker.
    – Alex Ryan
    Aug 28, 2022 at 15:41
  • The importance of "phrases" rather than "words" is very helpful. So too is the suttacentral tool to explore these. Thank you.
    – Alex Ryan
    Aug 28, 2022 at 15:47

You can use a Pali-English dictionary, to find similar words.

For e.g. I searched for "contented" on the PTS Pali-English dictionary and was able to find:

Anukkaṇṭhana Anukkaṇṭhana (nt.) [an + ukkaṇṭhana] having no lack anything, being contented or happy J vi.4.

Tittimant Tittimant (adj.) [titti+mant] satisfied, contented, so read at J iii.70 & vi.508 for kittimant.

Tussati Tussati [Sk. tuṣyati to *teus to be quiet, contented, happy] to be satisfied, pleased or happy J iii.280; iv.138; Miln 210. Cp. tuṭṭha (pp.), tuṭṭhi, tuṇhī, tosa, tosana, toseti.

Santussati Santussati [saŋ+tussati] to be contented, or pleased, or happy; ppr. ˚amāna Sn 42. — pp. santuṭṭha & ˚tusita.

Somanassita Somanassita (adj.) [Caus. pp. formation fr. somanassa] satisfied, pleased, contented VvA 351.


You may also find it useful to refeer to The Pali Text Society's Pali-English. Dictionary, edited by T. W. Rhys Davids, a brilliant English scholar of Pali language.

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