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Kalama Sutta, Help Us!

Two Kinds of Language

Looking Within

Happiness & Hunger

The Dhamma-Truth of Samatha-Vipassana
For The Nuclear Age

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Everyday Language & Dhamma language

Lecture at Suan Mokkhabalarama, Chaiya
8 October 1966
Translated by Roderick Bucknell

Today's talk is rather special. Time and time again I have noticed that, regardless of how the subject is explained, there are a great many aspects of the more profound teaching that the majority of people dont understand at all. People hear things explained many times over and still don't understand. Why is this? If we look into it, we discover the reason. Most of us are familiar only with everyday language, the language spoken by the ordinary person, ordinary worldly language. We fail to realize the existence of another quite different and very special language: the language of religion, the language of Dhamma.

The language of Dhamma is something altogether different from the language of everyday. This point must be borne well in mind. Everyday language and Dhamma language are two distinct and different modes of speaking. Everyday language is worldly language, the language of people who do not know Dhamma. Dhamma language is the language spoken by people who have gained a deep insight into the Truth, into Dhamma. Having perceived Dhamma, they speak in terms appropriate to their experience, and so Dhamma language comes into being. This special mode of speaking is what we call Dhamma language. It is a language quite distinct from ordinary everyday language.

So there are two languages: Dhamma language and everyday language. Everyday language is based on physical things and on experiences accessible to the ordinary person. Being based on the physical rather than the spiritual, it serves only for discussion of physical, worldly matters and situations. It serves only for the tangible things perceived under ordinary everyday circumstances. By contrast, Dhamma language has to do with the mental world, with the tangible, non-physical world. In order to be able to speak and understand this Dhamma language, one must have gained insight into the mental world. Consequently, only people who have seen Dhamma, the Truth, speak the Dhamma language, the language of the non-material mental world which is above the physical.

Let us put this another way. We distinguish ordinary physical language from metaphysical language. The field of metaphysics is utterly different from that of physics and consequently there is a special metaphysical language. So in addition to the ordinary language of the physical, there is a language that transcends the physical. The physical language is the worldly, conventional language used under ordinary circumstances and based on physical things. The metaphysical language is based on mental things. It has to be learned, studied, and understood. It is based not on the physical world but on the mental. I hope you can now see the distinction between everyday language and Dhamma language.

The point now is that if we know only everyday language, we are in no position to understand true Dhamma when we hear it. If we don't know the language of Dhamma, then we can't understand Dhamma, the supramundane Truth that can truly liberate us from unsatisfactoriness and misery (dukkha). The reason we don't understand Dhamma is that we know only everyday language and are not familiar with Dhamma language.

It is essential always to interpret the Buddha's teaching in terms of Dhamma language as well as in terms of everyday language. Both meanings must be considered. Please take careful note of the following passages:

Appamatto ubho atthe adhiganhati pandito, 
Ditthe dhamma ca yo attho, yo ca'ttho saparayiko.
Atthabhisamayadhiro pan d ito ti pavuccati.

The wise and heedful person is familiar with both modes of speaking: the meaning seen by ordinary people and the meaning which they can't understand. One who is fluent in the various modes of speaking is a wise person.

This is a general principle to be applied when studying Dhamma, whether at a high or low level. It is also applicable in ordinary spoken language. The passages cited contain the unambiguous expression "ubho atthe," that is "both meaning" or "both modes of speaking." A discerning person must consider both meanings or modes of speaking and not just one of them alone. Anyone who, for instance, considers only the ordinary everyday meaning and ignores the other meaning, the meaning in terms of Dhamma lanugauge, cannot be called a wise or discerning person. As the Buddha said, a discerning person is one who is able to take into consideration both modes of speaking. It behoves us, then to be careful and to study diligently in order to acquire this ability to take into account both possible interpretations, the one in terms of everyday language and the other in terms of Dhamma laungauge.

We shall now consider some examples of what I mean. Each of the following words will be explained according to both everyday launguage and Dhamma language. This should enable you to clearly understand both modes of expression.


The first example is the word "Buddha." As you know, the word "Buddha" in everyday language refers to the historical Enlightened Being, Gotama Buddha. It refers to a physical man of flesh and bone who was born in India over two thousand years ago, died, and was cremated. This is the meaning of the word "Buddha" in everyday language.

Considered in terms of Dhamma lanugage, however, the word "Buddha" refers to the Truth which the historical Buddha realized and taught, namely the Dhamma itself. The Buddha said:

One who see the Dhamma sees the Tathagata. (a word the Buddha often used to refer to himself) One who see the Tathagata sees the Dhamma. One who sees not the Dhamma, though grasping at the robe of the Tathagata, cannot be said to have seen the Tathagata.

Now, the Dhamma is something intangible. It is not something physical, certainly not flesh and bones. Yet the Buddha said it is one and the same as the Enlightened One. "One who sees the Dhamma sees the Tathagata." Anyone who fails to see the Dhamma cannot be said to have seen the Enlightened One. So in Dhamma language, the Buddha is one and the same as that Truth by virtue of which he became the Buddha, and anyone who sees that Truth can be said to have seen the true Buddha. To see just his physical body would not be to see the Buddha at all and would bring no real benefit.

During the Buddha's lifetime, the majority of people were unfavorably disposed towards him. Some abused him and even did him physical harm. They didn't understand him because what they saw was only his physical body, the outer shell, the Buddha of everyday language. The real Buddha, the Buddha of Dhamma language, is the Truth in his mind, knowing which the man because "Buddha." When he said, "Whoever sees the Truth see me. Whoever sees me sees the Truth," he was speaking Dhamma lanugage.

Again, the Buddha said, "The Dhamma and the Vinaya (Discipline), which I have proclaimed and have demonstrated, these shall be your teacher when I hae passed away." Thus the real Buddha has not passed away, has not ceased to exist. What ceased to exist was just the physical body, the outer shell. The real Teacher, that is, the Dhamma-Vinaya, is still with us. This is the meaning of the word "Buddha" in Dhamma language. The "Buddha" of Dhamma language is the Dhamma itself, which made him Buddha.


The second word to consider is "Dhamma" (Dharma in Sanskrit). At the childish level of everyday language, the word is understood as referring to the actual books that contain the scriptures, the "Dhamma" in the bookcase. Or it may be understood as referring to the spoken word used in expounding the Teaching. This is the meaning of the word "Dhamma" in everyday language., the language of deluded people who has not yet seen the true Dhamma.

In term of Dhamma language, the Dhamma is one and the same as the Enlightened One. "One who see the Dhamma sees the Tathagata. One who sees the Tathagata see the Dhamma." This is the real Dhamma. In the original Pali language, the word "Dhamma" was used to refer to all of the intricate and involved things that go to make up what we call Nature. Time will not permit us to discuss this point in detail here, so we shall mention just the main points. The word "Dhamma" embraces:

1. Nature itself;
2. The law of Nature;
3. The duty of each human being to act in accordance with the Law of Nature;
4. The benefits to be derived from this acting in accordance with the Law of Nature.

This is the wide range of meaning covered by the word "Dhamma." It does not refer simply to books, palm-leaf manuscripts, or the voices of preachers. The word "Dhamma," as used in Dhamma laungage, refers to non-material things. Dhamma is all-embracing; it is profound; it includes all things, some difficult to understand and some not so difficult.


Now we shall consider the word "Sangha." In everyday language, the word "Sangha" refers to the community of monks who wear the yellow robe and wander from place to place. This is the Sangha as it is understood in everyday language, the language of the unenlightened person who has not yet seen the Truth. In Dhamma language, the word "Sangha" refers once again to the Truth, to the Dhamma itself. It refers to the high qualities, of whatever kind and degree, that exist in the mind of the monk, the man of virtue. There are certain high mental qualities that make a man a monk. The totality of these high qualities existing in the mind of the monk is what is called the Sangha.

The Sangha of everyday language is the assembly of monks themselves. The Sangha of Dhamma  language are those high qualities in the minds of the monks. The Sangha proper consists of these four levels: the stream-enterer (sota-panna), the once-returner (sakadagami), the non-returner (anagami), and the fully perfected being (arahant, worthy one, undefiled by any egoism), These terms, too, refer to mental rather than physical qualities, because the physical frames of these people are in no way different from those of anyone else. Where they do differ is in mental or spiritual qualities. This is what make a person a stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, or arahant. This is how the word "Sangha" is to be understood in Dhamma language.


Now we come to the word "religion" (sasana). In everyday language, the language of the undiscerning person, the word "religion" refers simply to temples, monastery buildings, pagodas, saffron robes, and so on. If there are pagodas and temples all over the place, people say, "Ah! The religion is thriving!" This is what "religion" means in everyday language.

In Dhamma language, the word "religion" refers to the genuine Dhamma which can truly serve people as a refuge or point of support. The Dhamma which actually can be for people a basis of support, which really can bring about the end of dukkha (suffering, misery, unsatisfactoriness), the Dhamma is the religion. This is the meaning of "religion" as that term is used in Dhamma language. "The religion is thriving" means that this very special something which has the power to put an end to dukkha is spreading and expanding among people. To say that the religion is thriving does not by any means imply progress in terms of yellow robes. The religion in everyday language is temples, monastery buildings, pagodas, yellow robes, and so on; the religion in Dhamma language is the truth which genuinely serves humanity as a refuge

Those who take the word "religion" to mean "the Teaching" are nearer the mark than those who take it as standing for temples and so on. To consider progress in religion study and instruction as true religious progress is correct up to a point. But it is not good enough. To understand the religion as simply the Teaching is still to understand it only in terms of everyday lanugage.

In terms of Dhamma language, the religion is "the sublime or Excellent Way of Life" (brahmacariya), that is to say, life lived in accordance with Dhamma. It is this exalted way of living which is "glorious in its beginning, middle, and end." By Sublime Way of Life the Buddha meant the way of practice that can really extinguish dukkha (suffering). The glory of its beginning is study and learning; the glory of its middle is the practice; the glory of its end is the real reward that comes from the practice. This is the Sublime Way of Life, the religion of Dhamma language,. Taken as everyday language, "religion" means at best the teaching; taken as Dhamma language, it means the Sublime Ways of Life, glorious in its beginning, middle, and end. The two meanings are very different. 

Kalama Sutta, Help Us! Two Kinds of Language 2


Extract from "Keys to Natural Truth" - Buddhadasa Bhikkhu ,
translated by Santikaro Bhikkhu, Published and distributed by Mental Health Publishing, 14/349-350 M.10, Rama II Road, Bangmod, Bangkok,Thailand
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