A while back, Bengali monksAshin Sopaka and I had some discussion about what the best English translation of ariyasavaka should be. We were each influenced by different experts. He preferred the translation “Noble Disciple,” while I preferred the translation “disciple of the Noble Ones.” It’s important to keep in mind that these translations are not mutually exclusive, but they are indeed different. Noble disciples comprise individuals who have achieved Noble attainments, while disciples of the Noble Ones have not necessarily reached that level. The latter translation is much broader than the first. As neither Ashin Sopaka nor I consider ourselves Pali authorities, the question was forwarded to the experts themselves…

My biases are firmly grounded in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s body of work, so my first move was to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. “Why translate as disciples of the Noble Ones instead of Noble disciples?” Thanissaro Bhikkhu frankly told me that when he was younger, he had preferred “Noble Disciples” but that he later switched to “disciples of the Noble Ones” after he noticed instances in the Suttas where he felt ariyasavaka could only be translated with the latter meaning. But I guess that just left me where I’d started.

My next move was to ask the Pali Collective. There are some major Pali brainiacs there (I mean that as a compliment), and I encourage anyone who’s serious about learning Pali to join their newsletter. The following three responses were the most helpful, although to cut to the chase, the general conclusion was that both translations are possible. (Keep in mind that the Pali below is written using the Velthius scheme.) From Ardavarz:

In my opinion both translations are correct. The difference is in interpretation of the compound word (samaasa) as “adjectival compound” (kammadhaaraya) in the first case or as a “case compound” (tappurisa) in the second one (you can see the explanation of the compounds in Lesson XX of Ven. Naarada Thera’s “Elementary Pali Course”). Which would be in a concrete instance should be infered from the context.

And from Dhivan:

The compound ‘ariyasaavaka‘ is genuinely ambiguous – it can be taken to mean ‘noble disciple’, which (as Ardavarz says) is to take it as a karmadhaarya, or as ‘a disciple of the noble ones’ which is to take it as a The compound ‘ariyasacca’ is just the same – it could mean ‘noble truth’ or ‘truth of the noble one’ (i.e. the Buddha) or even ‘truth of the noble ones’ (i.e. enlightened beings). In English we tend to say ‘noble truth’ but the commentator Buddhaghosa actually prefers ‘truth of the noble one’. But all this is just to say that there is this ambiguity with compounds in Pali.

Lastly, Jim’s response to a different question regarding ariya:

I don’t know much about this myself but a few weeks ago I came across the following comment on “ariyasaavako” in the A”nguttaranikaaya-a.t.thakathaa:

“Ariyasaavakoti atthi ariyo na saavako, seyyathaapi buddhaa ceva paccekabuddhaa ca; atthi saavako na ariyo, seyyathaapi gihii anaagataphalo; atthi neva ariyo na saavako seyyathaapi puthutitthiyaa. Atthi ariyo ceva saavako ca, seyyathaapi sama.naa sakyaputtiyaa aagataphalaa vi~n~naatasaasanaa. Idha pana gihii vaa hotu pabbajito vaa, yo koci sutavaati ettha vuttassa atthassa vasena sutasampanno, aya.m ariyasaavakoti veditabbo.” — Mp I 62

It defines who is called an ariyan but not a disciple, a disciple but not an ariyan, neither, both. Only buddhas or paccekabuddhas belong to the first category. One who is both an ariyan and a disciple is one whose fruit has come and does not belong to the first category. Elsewhere, I have seen an ariyasaavaka defined as a disciple of an ariyan which would also include the disciple whose fruit has not come (the 2nd category above). The diffrence depends on how one inteprets the compound (kammadhaaraya or tappurisa) and in the last sentence with “yo koci… sutasampanno” (anyone who is possessed of hearing [the Dhamma]), the ariyasaavaka in the sutta would suggest the inclusion of both categories 2 and 4. However, all this needs further corroboration and further research.

So here’s the take-home mesasge I thought I’d share: be very careful when you work with translations. Sometimes there’s ambiguity in a source text, but this ambiguity cannot be preserved in translation; one of the two meanings must be chosen. This discrepancy is what arose in the case of ariyasavaka, which we were only able to grasp thanks to our beloved Pali scholars. Translations are of course great. They make Lord Buddha’s words more accessible, but they most certainly aren’t the words he spoke. (Of course, that brings up yet another sticky issue…)

3 Replies to “Ariyasavaka”

  1. Hi Arun,

    This is really a beautiful term 🙂
    It reminds me of all those SN passages where the Buddha talks about the “ariyasavaka” as the one who starts the insight process seeing, thinking…etc. with yathabhuta manasikaro.

    So, he starts out as the disciple of the noble ones with his first baby steps and turns himself into those he is following, becoming an ariyasavako ;-). Through the practice of an ariyasavaka becoming an ariyasavaka.

    I guess you both were right then.

  2. Hi Arun, as usual, a fantastic posting!

    At a conference recently, I met several monks who not only read and write Pali, but can also SPEAK it! I asked two of them about this, and they both said the meaning was contextual, that it means both an unenlightened disciple of the Buddha, as well as at least a steam-enterer (sotapânna).

    To further the grammar discussion, one said that ariyasâvaka is a combination of two words: ariyassa + savâka and ariya + savâka, corresponding respectively to a disciple of the Buddha and the “at least” stream enterer. But in its combined form, determining which meaning is intended can only be gathered in context.

    Thus, in the Salletha Sutta discussed in my post about the two arrows of suffering, it would probably be the stream enterer who has eradicated mental suffering.

    In your post on “BS”, I completely agree that we can never know if the Tipiíaka contains the actual words of the Buddha, but for sure, the “spirit” is contained therein and can be seen through a combination of study and practice. Ven (?) Bodhipaksa commented “…it’s pretty much inconceivable that one person memorized the entire canon…” Ânanda Thera reputedly only recited the Suttapiíaka, while more recently, Mingun Sayadaw did memorise and recite all three baskets, Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma. Subsequently there have been another 12 or so Tipiíaka Reciters and at present there are circa 120 full-time residents at Mingun Monastery preparing for the exams. There are also many monks only studied one or two baskets, but after some time, decided not to continue. Who knows how many there were prior to these monks, especially so close to the time of the Buddha when oral teaching was the ONLY method of learning Buddhadhamma. So, it’s not that inconceivable 🙂

  3. Thank you theravadin and Ashin Sopaka! And a Happy Vesak to you!

    @Ashin Sopaka: Yes, both Bodhipaksa and Prof. Schopen expressed some incredulity that Lord Buddha could have said everything in the Pali Cannon. But here’s something else to chew on. There are inscriptions from the time of King Asoka, many of which include references to suttas that we have kept alive to this day. But there are also references to suttas which have been lost. Of course, for the faithful scholar, the assumption is simply that those references are unclear. But even if we grant this assumption of preserved-yet-unclear-suttas, then that still raises the question: What suttas could possibly have been so clear to King Asoka, but which have not been passed down to us? And if text was selectively discarded, could selective text just as easily been added?

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