On Translating “Buddha”

Bhikkhu Bodhi


Translators of Buddhist texts into English have rendered bodhi and its cognates, particularly buddha, in two different ways, each based on an implicit metaphor. Bodhi has been translated as “enlightenment” and “awakening,” buddha as “enlightened one” and “awakened one.” While the former alternative in each pair prevailed among earlier translators, in recent years a swing has taken place to “awakening” and “awakened one.” The argument offered to support this change contends that these words are more faithful to the root budh from which they are derived than “enlightenment” and “enlightened one.” In this paper the author argues in defense of “enlightenment.” He bases his defense on three grounds: (1) the meaning the words “enlightenment” and “awakening” bear in ordinary English diction, and how those meanings relate to the descriptions of the Buddha’s experience of bodhi found in the Nikāyas; (2) the actual meaning of the Pāli-Sanskrit root budh and its derivatives such as bodhi and buddha, which he maintains primarily signify understanding or perceptual knowledge rather than awakening; and (3) the imagery used in the texts to convey the “flavor” of the Buddha’s attainment and his function in relation to the world.


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