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Language use in Buddhism

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

1. Gautama Buddha's Revolutionary Religion

Gautama Buddha broke several conventions in his life. The religion propounded by him did not approve the practice of caste hierarchy. He did not support the Brahmanical Hindu religion.

He did not think that soul existed as an independent entity to which karma was attached. He did not approve animal killing, and he insisted on the monks to be wholly celibate. His insistence on morals and ethics, not on ritual purity, was something revolutionary at that time in India.

He insisted that everyone should work out his or her salvation on his or her own.

Help from others is of no avail in this regard, he declared. However, his categorization of people into two groups, monks and the laity, and declaration that the monks had the chance of attaining nirvana sooner than the laity, established a two-tier system, even when the caste hierarchy was removed.

Buddha wanted his followers to be well versed in Scriptures and be in a position to teach with clarity. Gautama Buddha has, on several occasions, emphasized the need to have good language skills (fluent speaking, in particular) and diligent wisdom or knowledge.

A monk who is fluent in the language and who is knowledgeable may be a student under another only for five years. Then he graduates to become a teacher himself.

On the other hand, persons not able to speak fluently and who demonstrate no knowledge will remain students all their lives.

2. Embracing Dialects

One of the most significant aspects of Buddhism is that it embraced dialects without any hesitation as fit vehicles for its scriptures. Gautama Buddha, thus, inaugurated a linguistic revolution.

This position of Gautama Buddha was against the tradition of holding Sanskrit as the most sacred, if not the only sacred language, for Hindu Scriptures.

Early Buddhist scriptures were all written in Pali, perhaps the dialect spoken by Gautama Buddha himself.

Although Pali, thus, acquired an important place in Buddhism, the Buddhist monks and scholars were encouraged to use the dialects and languages of the people whom they were trying to lead to the Buddha Marga.

3. Pali and Buddhism

Pali is considered to be one of the dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan. It appears that the Pali used in early Buddhist Scriptures, followed in Theravada Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, has many features common to other Indo-Aryan dialects as well.

So, some scholars consider Pali to be a mixed language, rather than a distinct dialect.

Some others consider it as the Avanti dialect spoken in Ujjain. Some consider Pali to be only a literary language, at least after it was used extensively in Buddhist Scriptures well beyond India.

Over the centuries, Buddha's command that the Buddhist monks use the colloquial language of the people to communicate his teachings is not wholly practiced. In Buddhism Pali now occupies the position given to Sanskrit in Vedic Hinduism.

Although Pali is thus "frozen" in some sense in the philosophical discourses of Theravada Buddhism, Buddhist monks, in countries where Buddhism became the dominant majority religion, continuously adopted Pali terms for names, places, and processes and other words and changed their pronunciation and spelling according to the genius of their languages.

The adaptations were not looked down upon, nor was it claimed that the sacredness of the Buddhist concepts was lost because of translation or adaptation.

4. Buddhism is home for Massive Translations

Buddhism is home for massive translations. Buddhist monks and scholars were devoted to translation as a means to transfer their theology into host cultures where Buddhism entered.

Long before the evangelical Christian missionaries started translating the Bible into various languages, Buddhists engaged themselves in translating Buddhist scriptures in various languages.

It is amazing to learn that monks from India, not merely from north or northeast India, but in great numbers from south India as well, traveled far and wide, settled themselves in these lands and began translating Buddhist texts in the local languages. We really do not have much knowledge of the methods of translation they adopted.

Did they learn the local languages first?

How did they learn the local languages?

How long did they learn these languages to become proficient in them to do the translation?

Did they take the help of local scholars for the translation work?

How did they decide on the words in the local languages for the theological concepts found in Pali or Sanskrit texts? In Mahayana, Chinese and Indian scholars together translated Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Gard (1961:45) writes, "Translations from certain Pali, Sanskrit, and especially Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit texts were made into various languages and from these versions further translations were made into other languages in addition to new texts being composed in all these languages …"

Original Pali words and the adaptations of these words were common in Buddhist texts used in Sinhalese, Myanmarese, Cambodian, Laotian, Mon, and Thai languages.

Use of original Sanskrit words and their adaptations are common in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Mongolian. While Pali is the language of Theravada Buddhism, Sanskrit and Chinese, and to some extent Tibetan, are the languages of Mahayana Buddhism.

Word analyses will indicate the ethnic basis of translations.

Since Pali was a dialect currently used when Gautama Buddha began his teaching, the colloquial speech of the people at that time had changed the pronunciation values of Sanskrit words used in the dialect.

These dialect versions become the standard in Pali. For example, Sanskrit word dharma is written and pronounced dhamm in Theravada texts. The Buddhist texts in Tamil, however, went in for loan translation, following the Tamil tradition of not using the Sanskrit or Sanskrit-related words with their original spelling and to create loan translations instead of borrowing words from other languages.

Buddhist Tamil texts were mostly in the nature of didactics, not really the expositions of Buddhist scriptures.

It appears that for theological expositions Buddhist monks preferred to use Pali in south India, rather than using the Dravidian languages. Nagarjuna, one of the greatest of all Buddhist monks and theologian, came from Andhra, but his work is in Sanskrit.

5. Emergence of Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit

It appears that Buddhist monks were really interested in the linguistic processes of communication and concept formation.

Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit is not Pali, but perhaps an Indo-Aryan dialect currently spoken written with a deliberate addition of Sanskrit words.Hybrid Sanskrit, Pali, and Sanskrit, thus become the major vehicles of Buddhist thought.

The prestige attached to Sanskrit and the ever growing numbers of Brahmins entering monasteries would have contributed to acceptance and use of Sanskrit as an important language of theological exposition among Buddhists, whose leader originally wanted them all to use the dialects, the language of common men.

Edgerton (1954) reports, "Thousands of words were used which are unknown in Sanskrit, or not used there with the same meanings.

To this curious language, which became widespread in North India, I have given the name Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. … there is no reason to assume any single 'original language of Buddhism.'

And whatever the dialects of the missionaries may have been, the sacred texts were soon adapted to the speech native to each locality" (cited in Gard 1961:47).

6. Relationship between Pali and Hybrid Sanskrit

The relationship between Pali and Hybrid Sanskrit is very interesting. Many words are common in both, but the pronunciation values may be quite different.

Edgerton writes, "In some Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit works, especially the Mahavastu, etc. we find passages, in both prose and verse, which correspond more or less closely to passages of the Pali canon.

In such passages the vocabulary used in Pali and in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is very largely identical, though the phonetic and grammatical forms are different.

This is natural, for both were inherited from a common tradition older than either.

Neither was translated from the other; each was adapted independently to the dialect of its locality, but used a word-stock that was to a considerable extent identical.

And such words, common to both, continued to be used in both languages in new compositions dealing with the Buddhist religion, which were composed in the separate monkish communities where Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit flourished" (Gard 1961:47).

7. Use of Commoners' Language and Dialects: Developing Buddhist Science OF Rhetorics

Buddhists were very particular how they used language and communicated the Buddhist ideas to common people. Gautama Buddha adopted four methods, according to Buddhist texts.

"In the first method, the doubts of the interlocutor are ascertained at the outset by putting suitable questions and then removed by appropriate answers; in the second, a direct reply is given to an enquirer without entering into a discussion with him; in the third, answers are given separately to the different aspects of the question; and in the fourth, it is pointed out that as the question is untenable, no reply will be given.

Buddha insisted that his disciples should be very discriminating in adopting one of these methods for delivering their courses" (Gard 1961:63-64).

In many Indian languages, for example, in Tamil, discussions on rhetoric form part of traditional grammar. These discussions adopt, add, and refine the above listed methods.

Didactics of morals and ethics are integrated with rhetoric in Indian grammatical traditions. Tamil classical works impacted by Buddhist thought adopt the methods listed above for their moral and ethical content.

Buddha also recommended that the preachers make their presentations in gradual steps, "observe sequence in the details composing a theme, use words of compassion, avoid irrelevant matters, and make his speeches free from caustic remarks against others" (Gard 1961:64).

He cautioned that only simple elementary precepts of Buddhism be given to the laity be given. This also should be done in several steps.

The deeper concepts were not for the laity, but only for those who become monks. The monks are prohibited from preaching Dharma in more than five or six words to a woman.

They have the freedom to preach longer "in the presence of an intelligent man." Moreover, teaching "Dharma word by word to an unordained person is also prohibited.

These offences, "unless repented of and expiated, will be punished by an unfavorable rebirth," according to the Book of Discipline of the most influential Sarvastivadin school current in India then. (Conze 1959:77).

8. Medium of Instruction

Gautama Buddha was a staunch supporter of instruction through mother tongue! He told his disciples: "I allow you, O monk, to learn the word of Buddha each in his own language."

He also said that "undue importance should not be attached to the dialect of a particular janapada, i.e., a monk should be accommodating to dialectical variations, and not insist upon the use of a particular word" (Gard 1961:67).

There was no hesitation to produce early Buddhist Scriptures in the languages or dialects of the people.

In this, "Buddha made a radical departure from the ancient Indian custom of recording the scriptures in a particular language, and this can well be pointed out as one of the causes of the success of Buddhism" (Gard 1961:67)

9. Right Speech and False Speech

One of the essential precepts of Buddhism given under the Eight-fold Path is that people should follow or adopt right speech so that they will acquire good karma.

What is this right speech?

Buddhist Scriptures define right speech as "abstaining from lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk."

Here are some of the characteristics of right speech: "Getting rid of lying words, the monk Gotama refrains from falsehood.

He speaks truth, and nothing but the truth; faithful and trustworthy, he does not break his word to the world." "Getting rid of rudeness of speech, the monk Gotama refrains from using harsh language.

He speaks only those words that are blameless, pleasant to the ear, lovely, reaching to the heart, polite, pleasing to the people, and beloved of the people." "Getting rid of frivolous talk, the monk Gotama refrains from vain conversation.

At appropriate times he speaks, in accordance with the facts, words full of meaning . . . And at the right time he speaks words worthy to be noted in one's mind, fitly illustrated and divided according to the relevancy of fact." (Gard 1961:133-143)

A commentary current in Buddhaghosa's time (A.D. 400, in Sri Lanka) defines false speech in an interesting manner: " 'False' this refers to actions of the voice, or actions of the body, which aim at deceiving others by obscuring the actual facts. 'False Speech is the will to deceive others by words or deeds.

One can also explain: 'False' means something which is not real, not true. 'speech' is the intimation that that is real or true. 'False speech' is then the volition which leads to the deliberate intimation to someone else that something is so when it is not so.

The seriousness of the offence depends on the circumstances.

If a householder, unwilling to give something, says that he has not got it, that is a small offence; but to represent something one has seen with one's own eyes as other than one has seen it, that is a serious offence.

If a mendicant has on his rounds got very little oil or ghee, and if he then exclaims, 'What a magnificent river flows along here, my friends!', that is only a rather stale joke, and the offence is small; but to say that one has seen what one has not seen, that which is not so, the thought of deception, an effort to carry it out, the communication of the falsehood to someone else. There is only one way of doing it: with one's own body. . . . (Conze 1959:72).

10. Koan

Several schools within Mahayana Buddhism, including Vajrayana, may adopt solving riddles as a legitimate meditative practice. In particular, Zen Buddhism adopts this process elaborately.

These riddles are couched in normal sentences and employ normal narrative techniques such as anaphora and cohesion. However, the logical propositions are apparently either meaningless or baffling. Solving one koan is enough to achieve Enlightenment.

The koans are hard for ordinary men to solve, but the devoted and determined student achieves it.

"Of course there is nothing against a man examining all the seventeen hundred Koans which exist in order to try the power of his vision of the true self, but it does not mean that one has to solve several of them in order to be enlightened" (Conze 1959:143). Consider the following koan: "Hear the sound of one hand!"

A succinct description of Zen koan practice is given by Chang (1969) as given below. The Zen master gives an insoluble or seemingly impossible riddle to his disciple.

The disciple cannot solve this riddle using language or logic.

He must beyond his normal language, logic, and experience and should solve it practicing his higher order mental skill. The Zen master may ask his disciple to talk without tongue, play a stringless lute, clap with single hand, or solve certain problems presented in a story, etc. It is claimed that there are 1700 koans.

An example of a Zen koan is as follows (Burtt, 237): "Riko [Li-k'u], a high government officer of the T'ang dynasty, asked Nansen: 'A long time ago a man kept a goose in a bottle.

It grew larger and larger until it could not get out of the bottle any more; he did not want to break the bottle, nor did he wish to hurt the goose; how would you get it out?' the master called out, 'O Officer!' to this Riko at once responded, 'Yes!' (The master said, 'There, it is out!' This was the way Nansen produced the goose out of its imprisonment."

The solution to koans go beyond the normal processes of linguistic comprehension. The goal is to go beyond the usual processes of understanding that is suggested and guided by the linguistic structures and diction employed in a sentence or discourse.

In fact, we are called upon to deny or reject such understanding. "Zen [[[meditation]] means to cut off at the root the mind which thinks 'I understand it', and to enter the state where there is no impure discrimination …" (Conze 1959:143, based on an eleventh century Zen school).

Note that from the use of colloquial languages and dialects to communicate Buddhist precepts, Buddhism moves to use the ordinary language sentences for extra-ordinary meditative practices.

Since the ultimate reality is nothingness, make that which has meaning a meaningless utterance, and derive a meaning that is not manifestly expressed by an utterance.

This process is not akin to idiom formation, nor is it similar to metaphor, simile, etc. In these processes, convention plays a crucial role in bestowing meaning upon the linguistic utterances. On the other hand, koans are intended to break the conventions; the result and the experience are purely subjective.

11. Other Logical Processes for Understanding and Communicating Buddhism

A lower level exercise may be solving ordinary logical propositions through arguments for and against. Consider the following from an [[Buddhist text], Questisons of King Milinda:

"The king asked: 'Is there, Nagasena, any being which passes on from this body to another body?'

-'No, your majesty!' -

'If there were no passing on from this body to another, would not one then in one's next life be freed from the evil deeds committed in the past?' - '

Yes, that would be so if one were not linked once again with a new organism. But, since your majesty, one is linked once again with a new organism, therefore one is not freed from one's evil deeds.' - "Give me a simile!' - '

If a man should steal another man's mangoes, would he deserve a thrashing for that?' - 'Yes, of course!' - 'But he would not have stolen the very same mangoes as the other one had planted.' - '

Just so, your majesty, it is because of the deeds one does, whether pure or impure, by means of this psycho-physical organism, that one is once again linked with another psycho-physical organism, and is not freed from the evil deeds.' - 'Very good, Nagasena!' (Conze 1959:151).

12. The Roots of Peculiarities of Language Use in Buddhism

Some of the peculiar characteristics of language use in Buddhism stem from its preference for the dialects and languages used by people as ordinary language, the resistance to the use of a standardized closed system like Sanskrit, the emergence of frozen expressions in languages and dialects originally used,

the necessity to standardize the terms within the discourse, and the use of Sanskrit later on as one of the languages of Buddist expression and theological exposition, and popular currency of Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit.

Conze (1959) identifies several interesting characteristics of language use in Buddhism.

First, the diction in Buddhism has its own peculiarities. These may be due to the belief that Gautama Buddha was no ordinary being. He is a "god-like being" and that there was something numinous about the diction he used. Such usage departed from the standards of normal Indian usage … Buddhist writings, with few exceptions, are full of the artificews of Sanskrit rhetoric.

… Far more intractable is the difficulty presented by the technical terms which abound everywhere. In the original they are quite inconspicuous, but in all translations into non-Indian languages they stand out like so many foreign bodies. The Chinese either retained them in Sanskrit, or coined some strange neologism. 'Dharma', in particular, is deliberately ambiguous, with up to ten meanings. …

In this respect, as in much else, they differ radically from contemporary 'linguistic analysts'. Buddhist thinkers had weighty reasons for preferring ambiguous, multivalent terms, … The authors of the Buddhist Scriptures were in fact unwilling, or unable, to state their message without a liberal use of technical terms. …

The Scriptures as they stand cannot be read without some mental effort, and they demand a minimum of intellectual agility and attainment. … A great deal of Indian thought, on the contrary, is enshrined in memorial verses of almost unbelievable precision.

(Conze, 1959:13-16). In other words, the Buddhist language use became obtuse over the centuries.

13. Nonverbal Communication

I notice that several interesting nonverbal features are used in Buddhist practices. This subject cannot be exhausted within this short paper. Linguistic features such as recitation, fastidiously correct pronunciation of words and mantras, repetition of mantras and mantra like utterances, and use of prayer wheels, etc. are quite common.

The secret syllables that a master gives to his disciple are assumed to have magical powers. Just as these linguistic devices, nonverbal devices are also employed.

For example, an early Buddhist text by Buddhaghosa (A.D. 400, in Sri Lanka) suggests that an individual should adopt the appropriate meditative exercises to suit the personality type he belongs to.

Six types of behavior are recognized, and these fall under three groups: greed/faith, hate/intelligence, and delusion/discursiveness.

Certain similarities between the members of a pair are identified. But I shall not go into those details. What is most interesting is the association of certain nonverbal behaviors to each of these six types.

For example, "the natural gait of someone who is dominated by greed is graceful; gently and evenly he puts down his foot, evenly he lifts it, and his step is springy.

The hate-type walks as though digging up the ground with his toes; abruptly he puts down his foot, abruptly he lifts it up, and his step drags along.

The delusion-type walks with a troubled gait; hesitatingly he puts down his foot, hesitantly he lifts it, and the feet are pressed down rather hastily" (Conze 1959:117).

The communicative elements of other postures are also listed. Modern nonverbal communication studies also focus on the meaning of bodily actions in communication and personality assessment.

14. To Conclude

To conclude, Buddhism exploited colloquial languages and dialects for the propagation of its ideas. It engaged in massive translation processes. The techniques adopted for the translation of Buddhist Scriptures need to be studied.

It is possible that the original concepts in the original tongues of Buddhism, namely, Pali and Sanskrit, may have undergone several changes by way of additions, deletions, and transformations of the meanings attached to these concepts through translations.

Over the centuries, because of standardization and canonization, colloquial dialects and languages were used mainly to communicate with the laity, and the monks learned the "classical or frozen languages" and used these for their philosophical expositions. Language played a very crucial role in attaining nonexistence, nirvana.


Burtt, Edwin A. 1955. The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. New York: Mentor Books, New American Library.

Chang, Lit-sen. 1969. Zen-Existentialism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Conze, Edward. (Ed.) 1959. Buddhist Scriptures. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Edgerton, Franklin. 1954. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Language and Literature. Benares: Benaras Hindu University.

Gard, Richard. (Ed.) 1961. Buddhism. New York: George Braziller, Inc.