please join! (or log in), it's free and we only need an email, no personal info; yet, it helps us to improve the site, to distribute the dāna to authors, and to keep you updated (if you so wish) when a new magazine comes out or when you have notifications waiting.
28 days ago

Pāḷi: together… but separately?

by Denis Wallez (@DenisWallez)
scroll to bottom of comments

te vasantā pi ekato'va vasanti,
pakkamantā pi ekato'va pakkamanti.

could be translated as

When dwelling, they dwell together,
when going forth, they go forth together.

This is found in describing how a monastic rule, the second training rule on furniture, came to be.

The funny thing is that ekato is an adverb meaning as one, from one, together… as well as on one side and separately!


A translation as together thereby implicitly points to some “us vs. them” mentality… a together separately!

In English, there's a similar implicit meaning for together. The proposed translation would likely be understood as describing a close-knit group of people, excluding those who don't enthusiastically join in every single activity of the group…

The etymology of together seems (through old English) to rely on to gather; the Pāḷi similarly seems to rely on as one; and yet, both communicate an underlying dualistic view of the world, some “us vs. them” mentality (in which belonging is tied to excluding).


It's interesting, then, to look how the meaning of together is informed by the context, really!

“We should work together on this” would point to a desire to find a common ground. But “members of that community live together” would more likely point to separation… “We vs. they”, “us vs. them”…

In Pāḷi, it would also seem that the meaning of ekato above is in fact tied to the demonstrative pronoun te (they / these)… Given the preceding sentence in the original text (at that time the monks from the group of seventeen were friends), this pronoun te could have stayed implicit, which would then turn its explicit mention into an insistence on these, a case of finger-pointing.

However, is it really the case, or is this merely a projection of our own mental structures and prejudices onto another culture, tainting our translation? Well, the very story continues with something akin to

The monks of few desires complained and criticized them… The Buddha criticized them…

Mindful monks vs. negligent monks, us vs. them… The distinction appears quite clearly.


Discernment is the root of both wisdom and ignorance. We ought to question whether a specific discernment is wholesome / constructive / skilled / helpful in the context at hand, or not: we ought to refrain from splitting the community, from creating conflicts… and yet we also should refrain from naïvely glossing over differences, as we cannot improve anything if we're blind to causality and to how different conditions will unfold into different outcomes.

There's no choice but to keep juggling between a together pointing to commonality / universality, and another together not only grouping some elements but also separating the said group from the wider context.

There's a text, called the Harmony of Difference and Equality by 石頭希遷 (Shítóu Xīqiān, 700–790; (Jpn.) Sekitō Kisen). It includes

Grasping at things is surely delusion;
[but] according with sameness is still not enlightenment.