21 January 2011

Philogical Odds & Ends VI - Meditation Words

philologyMANY WORDS HAVE INTERESTING STORIES associated with them. This is a sixth set of terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own. There is a list of other terms I've written about at the bottom of this post.

In this post I cover words related to meditation: dhyāna, anusmṛti, bhāvanā, yoga, samādhi, sādhana, and meditation.

Most of us will be familiar, I think, with the notion that the Japanese word Zen is in fact the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, most often translated as 'meditation'. Here I will go over that ground but in some detail, then go one step further and look at the Proto-Indo-European origins, before considering the translation as 'meditation'. Beginning with East Asia we find the following:
or chán - traditional Chinese.
chán - simplified Chinese.
zen, ぜん - Japanese.
sŏn, - Korean
thiền - Vietnamese.
I'm using the Pinyin transliteration system for Chinese where diacritics indicate tone. In the other most common system - Wade-Giles - 禪 is spelled ch'an. These forms all stem from an original Chinese 禪那 (chán ), which is a transliteration, not a translation - i.e. it is an attempt to capture the sound, not the meaning - of the Sanskrit word dhyāna. It was probably pronounced something like /ʥanːa/ (using the International Phonetic Alphabet). My friend Maitiu tells me:
"this character 禪 has the phonetic element dān 單 which has two small boxes at the top and wherever this character is used with simplified characters in Chinese these two boxes are are replaced with two strokes 单. In the Japanese version of this character the boxes are replaced with three strokes . The radical can also be written two ways - 礻and 示 - hence the two different characters and . Of these 示 is the older form, and also an independent character meaning 'to show or instruct'. Originally 示 was a pictograph of a sacrificial altar and it's used as the radical in lots of characters with meanings associated with sacrifice, ritual and religion. Originally 禪 meant a sacrifice to the earth made by the the King or the ritual of abdication, though in these meanings it has the alternate reading shàn."
Note: Some fonts seem to default older forms to newer ones and even traditional to simplified. Getting the various characters to display correctly is quite difficult - but at time of publishing I see them in the text.  
The Pāli spelling resolves the conjunct dhyā as jhā, i.e. jhāna, while Gāndārī is jaṇa. This made me wonder if the Chinese had decided on the sound chán because they were hearing a central Asian pronunciation with /j/ or /jh/ sound instead of Sanskrit /dhy/. Most of the early Buddhist contact with China was by Central Asians (from cities like Khotan on the Silk Road), or from Gandhāra and other western regions of India. I asked about this and Maitiu replied:
"禪那 is also used in the transcription of the place names Ujjayini and Nairañjanā which supports a reading of jana. Having a quick search the earliest uses of the transcription 禪那 seem to be by Kumārajīva [344 CE – 413 CE] and Dharmarakṣa [4th century] who were both central Asian."
From China, most likely through Central Asia, we come back to India and Sanskrit. Authorities differ on the root of dhyāna. MW lists it under √dhyai. PED points to √dhī as the root. Whitney has √dhyā and distinguishes this from √dhī; he simplifies the meaning as 'think'. The word forms listed under each root are different: √dhī: 'dhīmahi, dīdhayas' vs √dhyā 'dhyāyati, dhyāti' (3rd person singular present indicative forms). However √dhyā and dhī are evidently related.
The noun dhyāna is formed by adding the primary suffix (kṛt-pratyaya) -ana (known as lyuṬ in the Pāṇinian code) to the root. 
The PIE root is *dheiǝ 'to see, to look, to show', and according to AHD this has a variant *dhyā which is where our words come from. A suffixed form *dhyā-mṇ (where is called a 'sonant' form, a sort of nasal vowel) gives us the Greek sēmeion and sēma 'a sign' from which we get our words semantic, semiotic, semaphore, etc. The Indo-European Lexicon lists dhī as a variant form of dheiǝ. The word dhyāna then from it's etymology means something like 'to observe mentally'.

Rather than transliterate, the Tibetans translate dhyāna as bsam gtan (བསམ་གཏན), pronounced 'samten', meaning 'mental focus'. It is made up from bsam 'thought, intention'; and gtan, an intensifier, also meaning 'order, system'. Clearly there is only a semantic, and no etymological or phonological connection. Tibetan translations were standardised quite early one, meaning that one can almost always reconstruct the original Sanskrit terminology.

There are a series of meditation practices referred to as anusmṛti (Pāli anussati). The root is √smṛ 'to remember', and with the prefix anu- we get 'to recollect, or bring to mind' and anusmṛti is an action noun meaning "recollecting". These are practices therefore of recollection, remembrance and reflection. In Pāli there are six anussati meditations: recollections of the Three Jewels (buddhānussati, dhammānussati, and sanghānussati), reflection on ethics (sīlānusati), generosity (cāgānussati), and on [the merit of] the devas (devānussati); or ten with the addition of four (three with only sati instead of anussati) reflection on death (maraṇasati), on being embodied (kāyagatāsati), on the breath (ānāpānasati), and on peace (upasamānussati).


Bhāvanā is from the Sanskrit root √bhū 'to be' in the causative form (bhū and be are cognate). It therefore means 'development, cultivation'. This is the word most commonly translated as 'meditation' (see below). There are two types of bhāvanā: śamatha and vipaśyanā. The cultivation of śamatha 'calming, tranquillity' is more or less synonymous with dhyānabhāvanā in early Buddhism. Also mettābhāvanā - the development of loving kindness. The word vipaśyanā means 'seeing' (paśyanā) through (vi-). The anusmṛti meditations are vipaśyanā-bhāvanā. If we were to create a Latinate neologism to translate vipaśyanā it might be 'diavision'.

Yoga means 'connection, joining; application, meditation, spiritual practice' from the root √yuj ‘to yoke’ originally the act of yoking animals esp horses together, or to a chariot or plough. PIE *√yeug ‘join’ > Greek. zygon > Eng. –zygous, syzygy; Latin jugum ‘yoke’ > Eng. jugular, conjugate, & Latin jungere > E. join, junction, junta, etc; cf Welsh iou ‘yoke’; Old English geoc ‘yoke’; also S. yuga ‘eon, era’. [definition from my book Nāmapada]. Buddhaghosa's usual term for a meditator is yogāvacara 'devoted to yoga', but this and the related term yogin 'one who practices yoga' do not occur in the Nikāyas.

This word means 'concentration, focus'. The Pāli commentators consider it to be synonymous with 'one-pointedness of mind' (cittass'ekagatā). The root is √dhā 'to place' with a double suffix sam- + ā; c.f. śraddhā 'to place the heart'. Samādhi is a morally neutral state - one can be focussed on good or evil. In the Abdhidhamma it is one of seven mental states which are always present - i.e. for their to be consciousness at all we must be focussed on something. Samyak-samādhi (Pāli sammāsamādhi) is the 8th limb of the eight-fold path. With respect to meditation samādhi has three degrees (in Pāli) parikamma-samādhi 'preparation focus'; upacāra-samādhi 'access concentration'; and appanā-samādhi 'attainment concentration;, i.e. the dhyānas.

Sādhana is an action noun from the root √sādh ‘to succeed’, meaning 'leading to the goal, effective, efficient'. This word is not used in this sense in Pāli, and is more particularly associated with tantric practice. Someone who does spiritual practice is a sādhaka. √sādh is most likely related to the root √sidh which also means 'to succeed' and gives us the words siddha 'an adept, accomplished, one who has succeeded', and siddhi 'accomplishment, success'.

By contrast the English word meditation comes from a PIE root meaning 'to measure': *med. Through Greek metron, we get the English cognates meter, measure, symmetry ('with measure'), and via Latin medērī 'to look after, to heal' (i.e. to take appropriate measures) words such as medical, medicine, remedy. Other words from Latin variants include modest, moderate; mode, model, modern. A Germanic compound *ē-mōt-ja is the source of the word empty. The word meditate, comes from L. meditārī 'to think about, consider, reflect'. I see a definite semantic cross-over with vipaśyanā-bhāvanā style meditations which generally do involve reflection, but not with śamatha-bhāvanā style meditations. Some people have opted to translate dhyāna as 'trance' but this seems to miss the point completely; 'absorption' will just about do; though I think now that 'concentration' is more common, though again I wonder whether concentration really capture the expansiveness and openness of the experience of dhyāna.


See other Philological Odds & Ends posts:
  • I: tathāgata, sūtra, śramaṇa, loka, gahapati/gṛhapati.
  • II: cakravartin, cintāmaṇi, yoniso manasikara, pāramitā, etymology.
  • III: bodhisattva, anagārikā, samyak/mithyā.
  • IV: vrata, mitra, kavi.
  • V: megha, mañju, saṅgha.
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