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October 02, 2017
Western Contribution to Buddhism
Venerable Nyanatiloka's The Buddhist Dictionary
By BGKT Buddhist Group of Kendal (Theravada)

Venerable Nyanatiloka Mahathera birth name Anton Walther Florus Gueth (19 February 1878 - 28 May 1957), was one of the first westerners and the first German in modern times to become a Bhikkhu. He lived for decades in Sri Lanka and died there.

Information about his life is in two books Nyanatiloka Centenary Volume published by the BPS in 1978; and The Life of Nyanatiloka: The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer, written and compiled by Bhikkhu Nyanatusita and Hellmuth Hecker, published by the BPS in 2009.

In 1939, with the British declaration of war Nyanatiloka and other German-born Sri Lankans were interned, first again at Diyatalawa in Sri Lanka and then in India at the large internment camp at Dehardun.

There he wrote The Buddhist Dictionary which is an invaluable source of information for Buddhist practitioners and students. It includes Buddhist doctrinal terms, used in the Pali Canon and its Commentaries. It offers precise definitions and explanations of canonical and post-canonical terms and doctrines, based on the Suttas, Abhidhamma and the Commentaries.

Buddhist Dictionary Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines


The Buddhist Dictionary is currently published by The BPS Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy Sri Lanka. Fourth Revised Edition 1980, Reprinted 1988. (ISBN 955 24 0019 8)

It is available on several websites and can be found by searching for Nyanatiloka Buddhist Dictionary.

The Dictionary appeared also in the author's own German version (published by Verlag Christiani, Konstanz, Germany) and in a French translation made by the late Mme Suzanne Karpeles (published by Adyar, Paris in 1961).

From The Preface To The First Edition 1952 by Nyanatiloka
Published by The Buddhist Publication Society Kandy Sri Lanka

"As a first attempt of an authentic dictionary of Buddhist doctrinal terms, used in the Pàli Canon and its Commentaries, this present manual will fill a real gap felt by many students of Buddhism. It provides the reader not with a mere superficial enumeration of important Pàli terms and their English equivalents, but offers him precise and authentic definitions and explanations of canonical and post-canonical terms and doctrines, based on Sutta, Abhidhamma and Commentaries, and illustrated by numerous quotations taken from these sources, so that, if anyone wishes, he could, by intelligently joining together the different articles, produce without difficulty a complete exposition of the entire teachings of Buddhism.

As already pointed out by the author in the preface to his Guide through the Abhidhamma-Piñaka (Colombo 1938), there are found in the Abhidhamma Canon numerous technical terms not met with in the Sutta Canon; and again other terms are found only in the Commentaries and not in Sutta and Abhidhamma. The author therefore has made a first attempt without, however, laying any claim to absolute reliability or completeness in this by no means easy undertaking - to indicate in the Appendix all the terms that in the oldest Sutta texts are either not found at all, or at least not in the same form or meaning, and to set forth how far these are deviations from the older texts, or further developments.

in this connection, the author wishes to state that the often quoted Patisambhidà-Magga, as well as Niddesa, Buddhavamsa and Cariyapitaka, though included in the Khuddaka Nikàya of the Sutta Piñaka, nevertheless bear throughout the character of Commentaries, and though apparently older than the Sutta Commentaries handed down to us in Buddhaghosa's version, must doubtless belong to a later period of origin than the Abhidhamma Canon.
In rendering the terms into English, I often had to differ considerably from the interpretation of Western scholars, and to introduce quite new words. A great number of such earlier translations must be considered partly as totally incorrect, partly as misleading, or at the very least ambiguous. Incorrect are, for instance, the English renderings of nàma-rupa 'name and form'; javana (impulsion, i.e. the karmic impulsive moments) by 'apperception', etc.

The expositions concerning the true nature of the 8-fold Path, the 4 Noble Truths, the pañiccasamuppàda and the 5 groups of existence - doctrines which, with regard to their true nature, have been often misunderstood by Western authors - are sure to come to many as a revelation.

On the doctrine of anattà, or 'egolessness', i.e. the impersonality and emptiness of all phenomena of existence, the author repeatedly felt the necessity of throwing light from every possible point of view, for it is exactly this doctrine which, together with the doctrine of the conditionality of all phenomena of existence, constitutes the very essence of the whole Teaching of the Buddha without which it will be by no means possible to understand it in its true light.

Thus the doctrine of impersonality runs like a red thread right through the whole book. May this little manual provide an ever-helpful companion and vade mecumto all earnest students in their study of the original Buddhist scriptures, and also give to Buddhist authors and lecturers the opportunity of supplementing and deepening their knowledge of the profound teachings of the Buddha! Should it, for a better understanding, prove necessary to give to certain subjects a more detailed treatment, the carrying out of this task may be reserved for a later edition of this work.


"Central Internment Camp" Dehra-Dun, India


Editor's Preface To The Third Edition
Edited by Nyanaponika Kandy, Sri Lanka March 1980

The present revised and enlarged Third Edition was intended to be issued in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the venerable author's passing away on 28th May 1957. But due to unavoidable circumstances the publication had to be delayed. It was the venerable author's wish to enlarge the first edition of this work, but when a second edition became necessary, he was prevented from expanding it by the illness to which he later succumbed. It rested, therefore, with his pupil, the present editor, to make, within the original scope and character of the work, such additions and revisions as seemed useful. Over seventy articles have been expanded and partly rewritten; others were slightly revised; more source references were included, and information on literature for further study of the respective subjects was added to some of the articles. But only very few new words have been added (e.g. anupassanà, ànupubbi-kathà, etc.). This restriction was observed because the venerable author himself thought only of 'a more detailed treatment' of existing articles (see Preface to the 1st ed.) as he obviously wished to preserve the original form and character of the book. It was also considered that the adding of more words such as those coined in later commentarial and abhidhammic literature, would be superfluous as in the English language such terms will generally be found only in a few scholarly books and translations which themselves give the explanations needed.

This book is chiefly intended for those who study the Buddhist teachings through the medium of the English language, but wish to familiarize themselves with some of the original Pàli terms of doctrinal import. They are in the same position as a student of philosophy or science who has to know the terminology of his field, which for common parlance is mostly not less 'unfamiliar' than are the words of the Pàli language found in the Dictionary. Such acquaintance with the Pàli terms of the original texts will also be useful to the student for the purpose of identifying the various renderings of them favoured by different translators.

It is deplorable that there is a considerable multiplication of new English coining for the same doctrinal term. This great variety of renderings has proved to be confusing to those students of Buddhism who are not familiar with the Pàli language. Even at this late stage when many translations of Pàli texts are in print, it will be desirable if, for the sake of uniformity, translators forgo their preference for their own coining, even if they think them better than others. In any case, doctrinal terms have to be known by definition, just as in the case of philosophical and technical terms in a Western language. As a small help in the situation described, a number of alternative renderings used by other translators have been included in some articles of this edition. In a very few cases, unacceptable though familiar renderings have been bracketed.

The Venerable Nyanatiloka's own preferences have been placed in inverted commas. Generally it may be said that his renderings, based on his comprehensive knowledge of texts and doctrine, are very sound and adequate. Only in a very few cases has the editor changed the author's preferred rendering e.g. 'canker' for àsava (instead of 'bias'), 'right view' for sammà-diññhi (instead of 'right understanding'). The latter change was made for the sake of economizing with the few English equivalents for the numerous Pàli synonyms for 'knowing', etc.; and also to avoid having to render the opposite term, micchà-diññhi, by 'wrong understanding'.
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