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Bhikkhu Kusalaguṇa
(Le Xuan Do)

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Unlike the analytical knowledge of result and of cause discussed in the preceding chapters, the analytical knowledge of language (niruttipaṭisambhidā) shown in this chapter embodies another aspect, but is inter-connected with its former ones. It is the analytical knowledge of language that understands the language by which the resultant phenomena and causative phenomena comprehended by the foregoing knowledge are indicated. The facts respectively described in this chapter are: a general discussion on the meaning of ‘nirutti’, ‘nirutti’ in the scope of niruttipaṭisambhidā, and then salient characteristics of niruttipaṭisambhidā

4. 1. Meanings of ‘Nirutti

Nirutti’ is a multi-meaning term in the Pāḷi literature, as those ‘attha’ and ‘dhamma’ examined previously. One of well known Pali-English Dictionaries gives it these meanings: “explanation of words, grammatical analysis, etymological interpretation; pronunciation, dialect, way of speaking, expression”[1]. Yet, under the light of careful investigation into the subject-matter, ‘nirutti’ is found to have wider sense.

Formation of ‘Nirutti

Nirutti is an etymologically combined word of the prefix ‘ni or nir (Sk.)’, the root √vaca (or √vac) and the suffix ‘ti’. ‘Ni’ means ‘entire, whole’ (nissese)[2]; the root √vaca[3] means ‘to speak, to say’ (bhāsane). According to the Saddanīti, the consonant ‘r’ is added to the suffix ‘ni’; the root √vaca is changed to ‘va’, then ‘va’ to ‘u’, hence the word ‘nirutti’.[4] Modern method of formation, however, suggests another process. That the consonant ‘c’ of the root √vac is interchanged with ‘k’, then ‘k’ is assimilated to ‘t’ of the suffix ‘ti’; ‘va’ of the root √vac is changed into ‘u’; and the prefix resumes its original form ‘nir’, hence ‘nirutti’.

The definition of ‘nirutti’ varies depending on commentators’ point of view, particularly to the prefix ‘ni’. Here is the definition, which involves the sense of the prefix mentioned above: “Nicchayena, nissesato vā utti nirutti[5] i.e. “that which is pronounced distinctively or entirely”, that is to say, word or vocabulary. Another definition runs “Niddhāretvā vuccati attho etāyāti nirutti[6], “that by which the meaning is said specifically is called nirutti, letter”. Still another definition, perhaps more definitely, reads “Atthaṃ nīharitvā vuccate imāya saddapaññattiyāti nirutti[7], that means “it is the verbal designation by which the meaning is manifestly indicated”.

Different Meanings of ‘Nirutti

All the above definitions in one way or another give ‘nirutti’ some general sense, but they are unable to specify the exact meaning in a certain context. The following account of the meanings of ‘nirutti’, with reference to the Pāḷi Texts, will show how ‘nirutti’ is used in different contexts and how its meanings are applied.            

(1) Speech or saying’, as in “Anāpatti, bhikkhu, niruttipathe[8] [V. I. 72] (Monk, it is not an offence since it is merely speech).

(2) ‘Verbal designation’, as in “Nirutti[9] dhammā” [Dhs. 14] (The Dham­mas which are verbal designa­tions).

In the sense of ‘designation’ or ‘concept’, ‘nirutti’ is synonymous with ‘adhivacana’ (name designation) and ‘paññatti’ (conventional designation). The definition of these three terms found in the Dhammasaṅganī is as follows: “saṅkhā samaññā paññatti vohāro nāmaṃ nāmakammaṃ nāmadheyyaṃ nirutti byañjanaṃ abhilāpo[10] (denotation, nomenclature, conventional designation, appellation, name, name-making, name-assigning, verbal designation, sign, expression).

(1) ‘Conventional expression of language’, as in “Imā kho Citta loka­samaññā lokaniruttiyo[11] lokavohārā lokapaññatti­yo, yāhi Tathāgato voharati aparāmasanti” [D. I. 186] (But, Citta, these are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathāgata uses without misapprehending them)[12].

(2) ‘Local language or dialect’, as in “Janapadaniruttiṃ nābhiniveseyya, samaññaṃ nātidhāveyyā” [M. III. 273] (One should not insist on local language, and one should not override normal usage)[13], and “Suttāni parivattesi, Sīhaḷāya niruttiyā” [Mv. 240, Verse 175] (He translated the Discourses into Sinhalese dialect).

(3) ‘Utterance’, as in “Idhāvuso Sāriputta bhikkhu atthakusalo ca hoti dhammakusalo ca byañjanakusalo ca niruttikusalo...”[14] [A. II. 177] (Here, friend Sāri­putta, a bhikkhu is skilled in explanation of the Buddha’s Word, skilled in the Buddha’s Word, skilled in letters, and skilled in utterance...”.

(4) ‘Terminology or vocabulary’, as in “Niruttiyā sukusalo, [15] atthānatthe ca kovido” [Ap. I. 47] (He is skilful in terminology, and clever in increase and decrease).

(5) ‘Grammatical usage’, as in “Te sakāya niruttiyā[16] Buddhavacanaṃ dūsenti” [V. IV. 280] (They pollute the Buddha’s Word by their own ‘grammatical use’[17]), and “Yo niruttiṃ na sikkheyya, sikkhanto Piṭa­kattayaṃ; pade pade vikaṅkheyya, vane andhagajo yathā” [MggP. 16; Kp. 85] (He who, while learning the threefold Piṭaka, does not learn grammatical usage doubts every word like a blind man going in the forest).

(6) ‘A grammatical treatise’, one of six treatises of Veda, as in “Kappo byākaraṇaṃ joti, satthaṃ sikkhā nirutti ca; chandoviciti cetāni, vedaṅgāni vadanti chā”. [Abhp. 11, Verse 110] (They speak of the set of six Vedaṅga, disciplines of Vedic science, namely, kappa, byākaraṇa, jotisattha, sikkhā, nirutti and chandoviciti).   According to the Tipiṭaka Pāḷi-Myanmar Dictionary[18], ‘nirutti’ in this sense is followed by ‘sattha’, so it should be ‘niruttisattha’.

(7) ‘Terminological method’, as in “Vaṇṇāgamo vaṇṇavipariyāyo, dve cāpare vaṇṇavikāranāsā; dhā­tussa atthātisayena yogo, taduccate pañcavidhaṃ niruttin”ti. [MNdA. 228-229] “Insertion of syllable or epenthesis (vaṇṇāgama), transposi­tion of syllable or metathesis (vaṇṇavipariyāya), interchange of syllable (vaṇṇavikāra), elision of syllable (vaṇṇavināsa), etc.[19]  It is also termed ‘niruttinaya[20].

Thus, the above investigation suggests that ‘nirutti’ is not only used differently in different context, but its meanings are also developed by time and space. Early use of ‘nirutti’ in the Pāḷi literature, as indicated in the first seven meanings—speech, verbal designation, expression of language, dialect, utterance, vocabulary and grammatical usage, is solely involved in verbal communication and language. The meaning number (8) is ‘a grammatical treatise’, one of six treatise of Veda, which is not found in Buddhism; and the meaning number (9) ‘terminological method’ perhaps comes into existence along with the development of language and grammar in the later time.

4. 2. ‘Nirutti’ in the Scope of Niruttipaṭisambhidā

In the scope of niruttipaṭisambhidā, nirutti’ is quite significant. It is explained in terms of both usages, the Suttanta and Abhidhamma, and is combined with other words as well.

In terms of the Suttanta usage, ‘nirutti’ indicates ‘expression of natural terminology’ (dhammaniruttābhilāpa)[21] or ‘name expression’ (byañjananiruttā­bhilāpa)[22] of the resultant phenomena (atthas) and causative phenomena (dhammas); whereas in terms of the Abhidhamma usage, it denotes ‘terminology by which atthas and dhammas are designated’ (yāya niruttiyā tesaṃ dhammānaṃ paññatti hoti). In both contexts, though expressed in different phrases, it suggests ‘expression of natural terminology’ (sabhāva­niruttābhilāpa)[23] or ‘expression of natural designation (sabhāva­paññattiyā abhilāpa)[24]. In other words, ‘expression of natural terminology’ and ‘expression of natural designation’ are synonymous, as they are made clear in the Vibhaṅga Anuṭīkā that ‘natural designation’ is just as ‘natural terminology’ (Sabhāvena niruttiyeva sabhāvapaññattīti)[25].

Critical Analysis of ‘Sabhāvanirutti

What is ‘natural terminology’ (sabhāvanirutti)? The sentence found in the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā states:

“A possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge, when listening to the word ‘phasso’, knows that ‘it is a natural terminology’; however, when listening to the word ‘phassā’ or ‘phassaṃ’, he knows that ‘it is not a natural terminology’” (Paṭisambhidāpatto hiphassoti vutteayaṃ sabhāvaniruttī”ti jānāti, “phassāti vāphassanti vā vutte pana “ayaṃ na sabhāvaniruttīti jānāti)[26].

The Visuddhimagga, in another way, describes that a possessor of nirutti­paṭisambhidā, having heard such a word as ‘phasso’ or ‘vedanā’, etc., he knows that ‘it is a natural terminology’; however, having heard such a word as ‘phassā’ or ‘vedano’, etc., he knows that ‘it is not a natural terminology’.[27]

With reference to the above description, it can be said that ‘natural terminology’ is ‘a grammatically correct terminology expressed in Māgadha dialect’, the dialect we call Pāḷi today. According to Māgadha or Pāḷi grammar, the stem ‘phassa’ belongs to masculine gender; so when declined in nominative and singular, the correct form must be ‘phasso’, but not ‘phassā’ or ‘phassaṃ’. Likewise, the stem ‘vedanā’ belongs to feminine gender; and when declined in nominative and singular, it must be ‘vedanā’, but not ‘vedano’.

Commenting on ‘sabhāvanirutti’, the Visuddhimagga Mahāṭīkā suggests that it is ‘terminology which is not changed’ (aviparītanirutti); it is ‘actual vocabulary (abyabhicārī vohāro), which is always connected with the understanding of such and such meaning’ (tassa tassa atthassa bodhane paṭiniyatasambandho saddavohāro); and it belongs to Māgadha dialect (sā panāyaṃ sabhāvanirutti Māgadhabhāsā).[28] The Abhidhammāvatāra Abhinava­ṭīkā explains ‘sabhāvanirutti’ in a similar pattern to that of the Visuddhimagga Mahāṭīkā, yet with a slight difference, saying ‘it is the terminology which is not changed, the actual terminology perpetually connected with such and such meaning all the time, that is to say the Māgadha dialect (Sabhāvaniruttīti aviparītanirutti, aviparītaniruttīti tassa tassa atthassa bodhane paṭiniyata­sambandho abyabhicāravohāro Māgadhabhāsāti vuttaṃ hoti)[29]. The author of the same treatise adds “other dialects are changed at the (kappa) intervals” (Itarā bhāsā pana kālantarena parivattanti). The Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā seems to agree with the Abhidhammāvatāra Abhinavaṭīkā, saying ‘sabhāvanirutti’ is Māgadhabhāsā (Sabhāvaniruttīti Māgadhabhāsā adhippetāti)[30], which is not changed anywhere, anytime and anyhow but just firmly remains even after destruction of world circle, while other dialects are changed somewhere sometimes (Māgadhā pana katthaci kadāci parivattantīpi na sabbattha sabbadā sabbathā ca parivattati, kappavināsepi tiṭṭhatiyevāti)[31].

It is quite important to note here that ‘natural terminology’ (sabhāva­nirutti) in or belonging to Māgadha dialect (Māgadhikāya) does not mean ‘Māgadha dialect’ itself (Māgadhabhāsā). The Abhidhammāvatāra Abhinava­ṭīkā and Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā seem to likely mix up these two. When we say Māgadha dialect, we mean the entire system of it including grammar, a wide range of vocabulary such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. However, when we say ‘natural terminology’ in Māgadha dialect, we just mean some parts of the dialect.

Suppose ‘sabhāvanirutti’ or ‘natural terminology’ is ‘Māgadha dialect’, then a possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge would know everything related to the dialect. On contrary, the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā[32] denies the notion that one who has attained the fourfold analytical knowledge (paṭisambhidā­patto) could know other words such as noun, verb, prefix, and indeclinable (nāma-akhyāta-upasaggabyañjanasaddaṃ). The commentary also makes clear that ‘knowing such words is not the function of the analytical knowledge’ (Taṃ pana nayidaṃ paṭisambhidākiccanti).[33]

It should be noted that the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā only describes that a possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge knows ‘phasso’ as ‘natural terminology’ (sabhāvanirutti) and ‘phassā’ or ‘phassaṃ’ as ‘not natural termi­nology’ (na sabhāvanirutti); and he does not know other words such as noun, verb, prefix and indeclinable.  Moreover, the commentary does not specify such word as noun, verb, etc., belonging to Māgadha dialect or Sanskrit or other languages. Nevertheless, commenting on the phrase ‘Aññaṃ panesa nāma-akhyāta-upasaggabyañjana­saddaṃ’ described in the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭha­kathā, the author of the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā presents his view in a quite strange way that ‘other words such as noun, verb, and so forth, belonging to Sanskrit’ (aññaṃ sakkaṭanāmādisaddaṃ sandhāya).

This is because, perhaps, the author of the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā keeps in view that ‘sabhāvanirutti’ is ‘Māgadha dialect’, so a possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge who knows ‘sabhāvanirutti’ surely knows such words as noun, verb and so on, in Māgadha dialect, but he does not know them in Sanskrit only. The translation note of Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, the translator of the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā, informs us that he had referred to the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā when translating his work, but he perhaps did not accept and put the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā author’s view in his translation.[34]

Now, we should go back to the synonyms ‘natural terminology’ (sabhāvanirutti), ‘terminology which is not changed’ (aviparītanirutti) and ‘actual terminology’ (abyabhicāravohāro) which is always connected with the knowing of such and such meaning (tassa tassa atthassa bodhane paṭi­niyatasambandho).  One may wonder that there is a terminology which is not changed. If there is, why the Buddha once said “Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā[35], “All conditioned things are impermanent”; and terminology, word or language is also a conditioned thing.

It is a reasonable argument at a first glance. However, the issue needs some more discussion. It is said by the ancient teachers that ‘sabhāvanirutti’, from the aspect of reality, signifies ‘concepts-as-names’ (nāmapaññatti).[36] At first, it is important to know what is nāma or name.

According to the Dhammasaṅganī Aṭṭhakathā, nāma or name is fourfold: ‘that given on a special occasion, that given in virtue of a personal quality, that given by acclamation, that which has spontaneously arisen’[37] (Nāmanti catubbidhaṃ nāmaṃ—sāmaññanāmaṃ guṇanāmaṃ kittimanāmaṃ opapātika­nāmanti)[38]. ‘Name given on a special occasion’ (sāmaññanāma) is such a name ‘Mahāsammato’, the name of the first king on earth, which is chosen and placed by most people in the first world-cycles. ‘Name given in virtue of personal quality’ is such names as ‘Dhammakathiko’ (Dhamma Preacher), ‘Vinayadharo’ (Vinaya Bearer) etc., and as the epithets of the Buddha ‘Bhagavā’, ‘Arahaṃ’, ‘Sammasambuddho’, and so on. ‘Name given by acclamation’ is such a name as given to a baby on the name-giving day by the relatives who decide to give such and such name. ‘Name arisen spontaneously’ is such names as ‘cando’ (moon), ‘sūriyo’ (sun), ‘samudayo’ (ocean), ‘paṭhavī’ (earth), etc., which arise spontaneously following the arising of those respective things. In the earlier world-cycles, they are called ‘cando’, ‘sūriyo’, ‘samudayo’ etc., so are they in the later ones; in the past, they are called ‘cando’, ‘sūriyo’, ‘samudayo’, etc., so are in the present and future.[39] The ultimate phenomena such as vedanā (feeling), saññā (perception)..., like those moon, sun, and ocean..., are included in this last category of name, the name arisen spontaneously with its phenomenon.

It is said that like mahāpathavī (great earth), sūriyo (sun), etc., vedanā, saññā, and so on arise making their own names (attano nāmaṃ karontāva uppajjanti). When they arise, their names also arise (tesu uppannesu tesaṃ nāmaṃ uppannameva hoti). In fact, while vedanā is arising, nobody would say “let you be named ‘vedanā’”. There is no such function of name-taking for it. So are saññā, saṅkhārā and so forth. The designations ‘vedanā’ ‘saññā’ ‘saṅkhārā’... respectively fall upon vedanā saññā saṅkhārā... spontaneously as soon they arises. Nibbāna, however, is always Nibbāna (Nibbānaṃ pana sadāpi Nibbānamevāti).[40] In other words, names or designations of some great elements in universes and of all ultimate realities (paramatthadhammā), from the Buddhist Abhidhamma point of view, come into being together with their respective phenomena. They are termed opapātikapaññatti[41], designations arisen spontaneously, and they are not changed and always connected with the intrinsic nature. Briefly, they belong to nāmapaññatti, concepts-as-names.

What is nāmapaññatti? According to the Pañcappakaraṇa Aṭṭhakathā [p. 26], nāmapaññatti is sixfold as mentioned below:

(1) Vijjamānapaññatti      : A concept of the real, i.e. vedanā (feeling), saññā (perception), etc., are ultimate reality, so the names ‘vedanā’, ‘saññā’, etc., that designate them are the concepts of the real.

(2) Avijjamānapaññatti    : A concept of the unreal, i.e. samudayo (ocean), pabbato (mountain), puriso (man), itthi (woman), etc., are not real in the sense of ultimate realities, so the names ‘samudayo’, ‘pabbato’, ‘puriso’, ‘itthi’, etc., that designate them are the concepts of the unreal.

(3) Vijjamānena avijjamānapaññatti    : A concept of the unreal by means of the real, i.e. ‘chaḷabhiñño’ (possessor of sixfold direct knowledge) is the concept of the unreal by means of the real, ‘since the direct knowledges are ultimately real but the “possessor” is a mental construction’[42].

(4) Avijjamānena vijjamānapaññatti    : A concept of the real by means of the unreal, i.e. ‘purisarūpaṃ’ (materiality of man) is the concept of the real by means of the unreal, since rūpaṃ (materiality) ultimately exists but not the man.

(5) Vijjamānena vijjamānapaññatti      : A concept of the real by means of the real, i.e. ‘cakkhusamphasso’ (feeling born of eye-sensitivity) is a concept of the real by means of the real, since ‘cakkhu’ (sensitivity) as well as ‘phasso’ (feeling) exist in an ultimate sense.

(6) Avijjamānena avijjamānapaññatti  : A concept of the unreal by means of the unreal, i.e. ‘seṭṭhiputto’ (millionaire’s son) is a concept of the real by means of the unreal, since both seṭṭhi (millionaire) and putto (son) do not exist in ultimate reality.

As far as the subject-matter concerned, ‘natural terminology’ (sabhāva­nirutti) or ‘natural designation’ (sabhāvapaññatti) is something to do with what is real, but not with what is unreal. The Vibhaṅga Anuṭīkā (p. 196) also makes clear to us that ‘natural terminology’ is the terminology connected with the ultimate reality (sabhāvena niruttiyeva vā sabbāvaniruttīti), or ‘natural designation’ is the designation of the ultimate phenomena (sabhāvadhamme paññatti sabhāvapaññattīti). Therefore, concerning the sixfold nāma­paññatti mentioned above, ‘sabhāvanirutti’ or ‘sabhāvapaññatti’ is fully related to the number (1) vijjamānapaññatti and the number (5) vijjamānena vijjamāna­paññatti, partly related to the number (3) vijjamānena vijjamāna­paññatti and the number (4) avijjamānena vijjamānapaññatti, and not related at all to the number (2) avijjamānapaññatti and the number (6) avijjamānena avijjamāna­paññatti. Therefore, in order to master all these kinds of paññatti, particularly avijjamānapaññatti, a possessor of the fourfold analytical know­ledge has to learn Māgadha or Pāḷi language, study the Scriptures, listen to Dhamma talk, and question knotty passages in the Pāḷi Texts, as necessary conditions for the purity of the fourfold analytical knowledge, especially the knowledge of language.

Why Māgadha Language?

As mentioned earlier, ‘nirutti’, in the scope of the analytical knowledge of language, indicates ‘natural terminology’ or ‘natural designation’ in Māgadha or Pāḷi language. And we have just come across what ‘natural terminology or designation’ means, yet we still confuse that why Māgadha language, but not other languages. Nevertheless, the foremost critical issue interesting many scholars is that whether the so-called Pāḷi language recorded in the Tipiṭaka is Māgadha language.

In fact, much effort has been made to verify the issue by numerous scholars, from different points of view—etymology, philology, geography, ancient inscriptions, etc.; and the consequence still remains in confusion due to greatly diverse assumptions. According to Robert Cæsar Childers, Pāḷi language is ‘Language of Buddhist Scriptures’, and the most accurate one among two or three dialects of Māgadha people.[43] T.W. Rhys Davids, however, assumes that Pāḷi language is the literary language based on a conversational dialect of Kosala.[44] Kanai Lal Hazra in the Pāli Language and Literature agrees with T.W. Rhys Davids by saying that Pāḷi language belongs to Kosala rather than Magadha.[45] Other scholars also try to locate the language in its truly native home, suggesting other localities such as Avanti, Kosambi, Taxila, Vindhya, Kāliṅga and Pāṭaliputta.[46] Thus, the effort leads to more conflicting assertions rather than a satisfactory conclusion.

According to the orthodoxy of Theravāda tradition, however, the present systematic figure of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was resulted from at least four historical Buddhist Councils, the first three in India, the home land of Buddhism, and the fourth in Srilanka, the second home land of Buddhism after the Indian emperor Asoka’s dynasty collapsed. The first Council was held in Rājagaha 3 months and 5 days after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, [47] and the second Council in Vesāli 100 years after the Master’s passing away.[48] Following these two historical Councils was the third Council held in Pāṭaliputta, the capital of Magadha, 134 years later.[49] Venerable Walpola Rahula’s research reveals that this third Council must be ‘settled and redacted’ in a dialect of Magadha or Māgadha language, the language we call Pāḷi today.[50]

In fact, the assumption of Venerable Walpola Rahula’s research in no way conflicts with the traditional commentaries, and is accepted by all Theravāda Buddhist countries. After the third Buddhist Council, Mahinda Thera, King Asoka’s son, went to Srilanka (Ceylon), carrying with him the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, which was committed to writing down on palm leaves in the fourth Buddhist Council held in the same country. Many centuries later, the Tipiṭaka was inscribed on 729 marble slabs in the fifth Buddhist Council, and finally published in forty books after the sixth Buddhist Council—both of the Councils were convened in Myanmar (Burma).

Now, let ancient commentators share with us some outlook on the Māgadha language, the so-called original language of all beings (sabbasattā­naṃ bhāsā). Buddhaghosa Thera in the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā describes his prior commentators’ estimation at the Māgadha language as follows:

“The mother is Tamil, the father is Andhaka. The child born of them, if he hears the mother’s speech first, he will speak Tamil tongue; if he hears the father’s speech first, he will speak Andhaka tongue. But not hearing either speech, he will speak Māgadha tongue. And he who is reborn in a great forest without a village and where there is no-one else who speaks, he too, when he creates speech of his own accord, will speak only Māgadha tongue. And in hell, animal kingdom of generation, realm of ghosts, in the human world and in the world of deities, everywhere Māgadha tongue is foremost. Herein the rest of the eighteen tongues beginning with the Oṭṭa, the Kirāta, the Andhaka, the Greek and the Tamil, change; only this Māgadha tongue correctly called the perfect (brahma) usage, the noble usage, does not change. Also the Fully Enlightened One, announcing the Buddha word of the Tipiṭaka, did so only in the Māgadha tongue. Why? Because in this way it is easy to seduce the meaning; since the only delay for the Buddha word announced in the text in the Māgadha tongue is that occurring when coming to the ear of those who have attained the Discriminations; but when the ear is merely impinged upon, the meaning appears in a hundred ways, in a thousand ways. But a text announced in another tongue has to be learnt by repeated application.”[51]

After reading the passage, questions would come up immediately in contemporary intellectual critics that whether the commentators spoke the truth, whether they ignored reality due to respect for or favor of their own religion and whether they were not aware of the future circumstances. At the very beginning, one may argue that if Māgadha or Pāḷi language is a part of our own accord or nature (attano dhammatāya), and being born in the jungle without learning the language we can speak it, why we find it very difficult to learn Pāḷi language today, not to say to master it. In Myanmar where Pāḷi learning has been long established, there is also a saying that depicts a similar difficulty: ‘learning Pāḷi grammar for nine times is still in confusion’. Moreover, if the Māgadha language is foremost (ussannā) everywhere, it is now not true anymore. It is not known how common in hell, animal kingdom, realm of ghosts and the world of deva, but in the human world it is no longer spoken. In other words, it is one of the dead languages in the world.

In fact, the passage in the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā as mentioned above is not found in the Visuddhimagga, the first hand commentary of Buddhaghosa Thera, where the fourfold analytical knowledge is also explained in detail. It is indeed the passage of his prior or contemporary commentators, as the phrase preceding it makes clear that ‘this is said’ (idaṃ kathitaṃ). Perhaps, at the time when the passage was written, the Māgadha language was still as common in India extending to Srilanka and other neighbor countries as it was in the Majjimadesa at the Buddha’s lifetime, or at least it was known to almost societies like English language nowadays. The Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīka, the sub-commentary to the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā, and the Vibhaṅga Anuṭīkā, again the sub-commentary to the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā, do not offer any explanation to or comment on the passage. This probably tells us that the speaking and learning of the Māgadha language have declined or begun to decline during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. when the Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā[52] was written.

Despite the fact that the Māgadha dialect is no longer spoken nowadays, the Pāḷi Canonical Texts taught by the Buddha as we have come across is in Māgadha language, which was known to almost everyone in the kingdoms where the Buddha expounded the Dhamma during his lifetime, and which was also probably common to people in neighbor kingdoms during some centuries later. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to say that the analytical knowledge of language is the knowledge that knows the naturally correct usage of word in Māgadha language, because those who attained the fourfold analytical knowledge at that time would have spoken Māgadha language very well. To this, the commentaries[53] are quite relevant when estimating that the fourfold analytical knowledge can be attained only within one thousand years from the Buddha’s Parinibbāna.

4. 3. Salient Features of Niruttipaṭisambhidā

 As stated above, ‘nirutti’ is explained as ‘natural terminology or designation’ expressed in Māgadha language. From the aspect of reality, it signifies designations-as-names (nāmapaññatti), more appropriately designa­tions of ultimate realities (vijjamānapaññatti). Therefore, it can be said that the knowledge of the designations of ultimate realities is the analytical knowledge of language (niruttipaṭisambhidā). In other words, the knowledge of the naturally terminological expression of those atthas and dhammas described in the preceding two chapters is the analytical knowledge of language (tatra[54] dhammaniruttābhilāpe ñāṇaṃ niruttipaṭisambhidā)[55]. Alternatively, the analy­tical knowledge of language is the knowledge of the expression of natural terminology by which those atthas and dhammas are designated (Yāya niruttiyā tesaṃ dhammānaṃ paññatti hoti tatra dhammaniruttiābhilāpe ñāṇaṃ niruttipaṭisambhidā)[56].

 According to the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā, after making sound (sadda) of the natural terminology as object, one reviews the natural terminology, at that time the knowledge that falls into the category concerned with the expression of the natural terminology is the analytical knowledge of language.[57] As mentioned earlier, having listened to a sound (of word), a possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge can distinguish ‘this is a natural terminology, this is not a natural terminology’ (ayaṃ sabhāvanirutti, ayaṃ na sabhāvanirutti). For illustration, when the word ‘phasso’ (masculine declined in nominative, singular) is spoken, he knows: ‘this is a natural terminology’; however, when the word ‘phassā’ or ‘phassaṃ’ is spoken, he knows: ‘this is not a natural terminology’.[58] 

Niruttipaṭisambhidā and Cognitive Process

From perspective of cognitive process (cittavīthi), the foregoing sequence can be divided into two phases—one is in the five-door (pañcadvāre), the other in the mind-door (manodvāre). The former is called the five-door process, which takes the sound of speech, more precisely the sound of naturally terminological expression, as an object. The latter is termed the mind-door process in which, according to commentaries[59], the analytical knowledge of language arises taking the natural terminology as object (nāmaniruttiyaṃ niruttipaṭisambhidā pavattatīti)[60]. For example, when a natural terminology, say ‘phasso’, is heard, two cognitive processes in the ear-door occur—one takes the sound ‘phas’ as an object, the other the sound ‘so’ as an object. After these two cognitive processes, there arise in the mind-door several consequent processes[61] such as conformational mind-door process (tadanuvattikā manodvāravīthi) reproducing ‘phas’ and ‘so’ just perceived in the ear-door process, and then the process grasping ‘phasso’ as a whole (samudāyagāhikā) and so on. Mahāgandhayon Sayadaw informs us that the sounds ‘phas’ and ‘so’ in the ear-door process are the present objects, whereas ‘phasso’ in the mind-door process is a concept.[62] Usually, the object taken by these types of consequent processes in the mind-door is the object firstly taken by the cognitive process in the five-door; therefore, it is the past object.

The question may be raised why it is said the analytical knowledge of language takes a present object (nirittipaṭisambhidā paccuppannārammaṇā)[63]. This is an exceptional case. According to commentaries[64], the knowing of the natural terminology comes into being, after taking the present sound of word (vacanaṃ paccuppannaṃ saddaṃ gahetvā pacchā jānanaṃ[65] sandhāya vuttaṃ). So, they maintain that one present object is in the other (aññasmiṃ paccu­ppannārammaṇe aññaṃ paccuppannārammaṃ). In other words, one present object is resulted from the other. Let’s take the example of ‘phasso’ again, the word ‘phasso’ are resulted from ‘phas’ and ‘so’. It can be said that the sounds ‘phas’ and ‘so’ which are heard at the present, while the word ‘phasso’ is taken as an object by the analytical knowledge of language at the present moment it arises. Therefore, the sounds ‘phas’ and ‘so’ are in the present, so is the word ‘phasso’. Other natural terminologies should be understood in the same manner.

To support the above assertion, the commentaries draw a comparison between the analytical knowledge of language and the knowledge of divine ear (dibbasotañāṇa). The knowledge of divine ear which takes the sound as an object and is the cause of determining whether it is a human voice or celestial voice etc., comes to comprehend such is the human voice and such is the celestial voice, etc. Likewise, the analytical knowledge of language which takes the sound of natural terminology as an object and is the cause of determining whether it is a natural terminology or not a natural terminology, comes to comprehend such is a natural terminology and such is not a natural terminology.

Other Salient Facts Related to Niruttipaṭisambhidā

Another aspect of the analytical knowledge of language is that it is able to understand exactly each and every word related to the ultimate realities, and then able to express, explain and clarify it. The Paṭisambhidāmagga Aṭṭha­kathā makes clear that a possessor of the fourfold analytical knowledge is able to make known the atthas and dhammas described above to others, whenever he wishes to do so (paraṃ ñāpetukāmassa paraṃ sandassetuṃ)[66]. Similar to its preceding twofold analytical knowledge, the analytical knowledge of language is endowed with the special modes of comprehension as pointed out therein. For example, the Paṭisambhidāmagga, after explaining the analytical knowledge of attha and dhamma related to the five faculties (pañca indriyāni) as five dhammas and their five respective functions as five atthas, explains the analytical knowledge of language as follows:

Pañca dhamme sandassetuṃ byañjananiruttābhilāpā, pañca atthe sandassetuṃ byañjananiruttābhilāpā. Aññā dhammaniruttiyo, aññā atthaniruttiyo. Yena ñāṇena imā nānā niruttiyo ñātā, teneva ñāṇena imā nānā niruttiyo paṭividitāti. Tena vuccati—“nituttinānatte paññā niruttipaṭisambhide ñāṇaṃ”. [67]

“There are word, terminology and expression in order to indicate the five faculties, and there are word, terminology and expression in order to indicate their five respective functions. The terminologies for the five faculties are one, and the terminologies for their respective functions are the other. The knowledge which knows these various terminologies knows them analytically. Hence it is said: ‘the understanding of various terminologies is the analytical knowledge of language’.”

The analytical knowledge of language also understands ‘a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical forms and nuances’, so that a single dhamma, say ‘phassa’ (contact), can be expressed in various forms such as ‘phasso’ (contact), phusanā (being in contact), samphusanā (full contact), sam­phassitattha (contacting well) to bring out its various intrinsic meanings’.[68]

Other salient features of niruttipaṭisambhidā are also noteworthy. Like its preceding knowledge—the analytical knowledge of dhamma—niruttipaṭisam­bhidā is mundane (lokiya) and pertains to the sense-sphere. The reason for this is that it arises in the four types of sense-sphere wholesome consciousness associated with knowledge (kāmāvacarakusalato catūsu ñāṇasampayuttesu cittuppādesu) and in the four types of sense-sphere inoperative consciousness associated with knowledge (kāmāvacarakiriyato catūsu ñāṇasampayuttesu cittuppādesu).[69]

On the other hand, niruttipaṭisambhidā occurs to Trainers (sekkha) as well as Non-trainers (asekkha). To Trainers, it arises in the four types of sense-sphere wholesome consciousness associated with knowledge when they review terminology (niruttipaccavekkhaṇakāle), taking the sound of terminology as object. To Non-trainers, however, it takes place in the four types of sense-sphere inoperative consciousness associated with knowledge when they review terminology, taking the sound of terminology as object.[70]

Regarding the quality of its object, niruttipaṭisambhidā is said to have inferior object (parittārammaṇa), for it takes only the sound of word as object. As to the time, it has present object (paccuppannārammaṇa), since it makes only the present sound its object. Concerning the space, niruttipaṭisambhidā has external object (bahiddhārammaṇa), as it makes only the sound its object.[71]


[1] T. W. Rhys Davids & William Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, p. 686

[2] Pdr. 127

[3] The root √vaca has three meanings: viyattiyaṃ vācāyaṃ (articulate speech), dittiyaṃ (shining) and bhāsane (speaking, saying) (Venerable U Sīlānanda, Pāḷi Roots in Saddanīti, p. 147).

[4]Rakārāgamavisaye nipubbasseva vacassa vassa ukārādeso siddho nirutti” [Sdd-Dht. 31]

[5] AbhpṬ. 93

[6] Adp. 273; Nd. 486

[7] PctY. 465

[8]Vohāravacanamatte anāpattīti attho” [VA. I. 328]

[9] “‘Abhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā saṅkhārā’ti [S. III. 79] evaṃ niddhāretvā sahetukaṃ katvā vuccamānā abhilāpā nirutti nāma” [DhsA. I. 94], (‘Etymology is a phrase expressed together with reason, specifying such an example as ‘Bhikkhus, they are compounded, therefore, they are called compound phenomena’).

[10] Dhs. 256; CNd. 197

[11]Lokiniruttimattakāni vacanapathamattakāni” [DA. I. 315]

[12] Maurice Whalshe (trans.), The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 169

[13] Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (trans.) & Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1080

[14]Atthakusaloti Aṭṭhakathāyaṃ cheko. Dhammakusaloti Pāḷiyam cheko. Niruttikusaloti niruttivacanesu cheko. Byañjanakusaloti akkharappabhede cheko...” [AA. III. 60]

[15]Niruttiyā ca kusaloti ‘rukkho paṭo kumbho mālā cittan’ti-ādīsu vohāresu cheko”.

[16] Sakāya niruttiyāti ettha sakā nirutti nāma Sammāsambuddhena vuttapakāro Māgadhiko vohāro” [VA. IV. 56]

[17] Robert Cæsar Childers, A Dictionary of Pali Language, p. 289

[18] Mahāvisuddhārāma Sayadaws & other compilers, Tipiṭaka Pāḷi-Myanmar Dictionary, Vol. XII, p. 717

[19] For illustration, refer to MNdA. 228–229

[20] Mahāvisuddhārāma Sayadaws & other compilers, op. cit.

[21] Vbh. 307–318

[22]Nāmabyañjanaṃ nāmanirutti nāmābhilāpo” [PsmA. I. 277]

[23] VbhA. 371

[24] Ibid., p. 375

[25] VbhAnuṭ. 196

[26] VbhA. 371

[27] Vsm. II. 71

[28] VsmṬ. II. 82

[29] AbhpaṬ. 301

[30] VbhMlṭ. 192

[31] Ibid.

[32] VbhA. 371

[33] Ibid.

[34] Refer to Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (trans), The Dispeller of Delusion, Part II, p. 127

[35] A. I. 289 (Uppādāsutta); Dhp. 52 (Verse 277)

[36]Atthato nāmapaññattīti ācariyā” [VsmṬ. II. 81]; “Atthato panesā nāmapaññattīti ācariyā” [AbhpaṬ. II. 301]

[37] Pe Maung Tin (trans) & Mrs. Rhys Davids (ed.), The Expositor, p. 499

[38] DhsA. 420

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., pp. 421–422

[41] Ibid.

[42] Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, p. 328

[43] Robert Cæsar Childers, op. cit., p. 322

[44] T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, pp. 153–154

[45] Kanai Lal Hazra, Pāli Language and Literature, Vol. I, p. 43

[46] Ibid., pp. 21–42

[47] V. IV. 479–490; VA. I. 2–25; Mv. 12–13

[48] V. IV. 490–508; VA. I. 25–29; Mv. 14–19

[49] VA. I. 29–78; Mv. 37–41

[50] Walpola Rahula, Humour in Pāli Literature and other essays, pp. 9–18

[51] Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Dispeller of Delusion, Part II, p. 128

[52] Written by Ānanda Thera, who lived about 8th or 9th century A.D. [G. P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names, Vol. I, p. 270]

[53] AA. I. 67; DA. III. 83

[54]Tasmiṃ atthe ca dhamme ca” [VbhA. 317]

[55] Vbh. 307–308

[56] Ibid., pp. 309–319

[57]Taṃ sabhāvaniruttiṃ saddaṃ ārammaṇaṃ katvā paccavekkhantassa tasmiṃ sabhāva­niruttābhilāpe pabhedagataṃ ñāṇaṃ niruttipaṭisambhidā [VbhA. 371]

[58]Paṭisambhidāpatto hiphassoti vutteayaṃ sabhāvaniruttīti jānāti, ‘phassāti phassanti vā panaayaṃ na sabhāvaniruttīti jānāti” [VbhA. 371]

[59] VsmṬ. II. 83; VbhMlṭ. 191–192; AbhpaṬ. II. 302

[60] VbhAnuṭ. 192

[61] These consequent processes, in general, happen not exclusively to the ear-door process and to possessors of the fourfold analytical knowledge; they are basically common to any five-sense-door process (pañcadvārānubandhakā) as well as to anyone. (See Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, pp. 163–164)

[62] Ashin Jānakābhivaṃsa, Sammohavinodanī Bhāsāṭīkā (Myanmar word-to-word translation of Vibhaṅga Pāḷi, Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā and Vibhaṅga Mūlaṭīkā), Vol. III, p. 505

[63] Vbh. 320

[64] VsmṬ. II. 83; VbhMlṭ. 191–192; AbhpaṬ. II. 302

[65]Pacchā jānananti saddaggahaṇuttarakālaṃ nāmaniruttiyā jānanaṃ” [VbhAnuṭ. 193]

[66] PsmA. I. 277

[67] Psm. 85–90

[68] U Tin Oo (trans.) and U Ko Lay (ed.), The Great Chronicle of Buddhas, Vol. V, p. 480

[69] Vbh. 318–319

[70] VbhA. 376

[71] Ibid., pp. 377–378


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