Deconstructing Pali

The First Step in Learning Any Language
The Pali Alphabet
The Structure of Pali
The Pali Noun
Compounding Nouns
The Pali Verb
The Online Pali Canon
Improving Comprehension through Contextualizaton

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, August 9, 2014.

The First Step in Learning Any Language

Tim Ferriss is able to converse in over 20 languages, not all with equal fluency, but well enough to speak in those languages with MIT students in a single evening. Ferriss has studied neuroscience and language acquisition at Princeton and has worked for Berlitz. He is the author of “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in One Hour.”

As a result of his studies he concluded that the first step in language acquisition is deconstruction, by which he means identifying the grammatical structures, rules, and sounds, developing a “big picture” comprehension of the language, determine what you need to learn to learn the language before learning the language, and design the most efficient method to get you to the goal, all of which – he says- can be accomplished in the first hour of study. This is completely contrary to how most schools teach languages, piecemeal, largely using memorization and rote learning in an analytical/functional approach, but very similar to how the famous American polymath Buckminster Fuller thought education should be designed. Most academics are specialists, and they teach their subject as a specialist would, whereas Fuller thought that students should start with the universe, and then deepen and refine their knowledge progressively over time through a pragmatic iterative experiential process. This is the task-oriented approach. The basis and method of this approach is simplification and focusing on the goal.  One can accomplish this by studying the syntax of a short sample of text, including verb conjugations, sentence structure, noun cases (a.k.a. declensions), and alphabet.

Sound simple? It is. Of course, there are languages and there are languages. In the next hour, we’re going to talk about Pali. Specifically, were going to deconstruct Pali in accordance with Mr. Ferriss’s advice, and we’re going to finish off with a word for word translation of the first stanza (three lines) of a Buddhist text from the most popular sutta of the Pali Canon, the Dhammapada. In addition, were going to do it in one hour. Sound impossible? Stay tuned.

The most important thing in education, as Plato pointed out, is motivation. Therefore, the first question you must ask yourself is: Am I motivated to learn Pali? I’m assuming everybody in this group is strongly motivated to understand the dharma. Translations are valuable, of course, but every translation is only as good as the translator, and it is very difficult to convey all the nuances of the original words of a language in a translation, as we shall see. Learning Pali is as close as we can come to hearing the original words of the Buddha, which the Buddha himself said is the first step in the path of understanding the perfect philosophy.

Fortunately for us, we already have several advantages in learning Pali. First, Pali is an Indo-European language, like English. Therefore, the underlying grammar, syntax, and even word roots of Pali are similar to English and therefore familiar to us. I have worked for the past ten years on a translation of the Tao Te Ching, written, of course, in Old Chinese, and I can tell you that translating the Pali Canon is far easier than translating the Tao Te Ching. Second, Pali, as an oral language, has no alphabet. Instead, Pali sounds/letters are represented using the orthography of the cultures in which it is studied, including Brahmi, Sinhala, Khmer, Burmese, Thai, Devanagari, and Mon. Thanks to the Rhys David’s and the Pali Text Society, the entire Pali Canon, as well as other Pali texts, are available in the Roman alphabet. Consequently, there is no need for the Western student of Pali to learn a foreign alphabet. Third, Pali is a dead language. The likelihood that we will ever have the opportunity to converse in Pali is approximately zero, nor is this skill necessary to understand the words of the Buddha. Therefore, we will only be discussing reading and translating Pali here. We can however acquire a reasonably good approximation of Pali pronunciation very easily, for purposes of discussing Pali words and perhaps chanting, though the latter is not our focus. Unlike English, Pali is a phonetic language, so it is pronounced as it is spoken, making pronunciation easy. Reading and translating Pali are of course two distinct activities, but the best way to learn to read Pali is to translate it. If we commit enough time to translation, reading will come naturally, so in this talk we will be discussing translation only and nothing else. This is much easier than “learning a language,” which implies fluent reading, writing, composition, speech, and vocabulary acquisition. Fourth, the Pali of the Pali suttas, including the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka, is far simpler and more basic than the comparatively sophisticated later texts of the Abhidhamma and the commentaries. This indicates their antiquity. If our objective is to understand the Word of the Buddha, the suttas are what we want to study. Finally, fifth, there is a variety of excellent online resources to aid us, including interactive Pali dictionaries, grammar crib sheets, courses, and of course, the entire text of the Pali Canon itself is available online in Romanized Pali text. In the notecard version of this talk, I will include references to these resources with the relevant URLs and in the online version, I’ll be including appendixes with tables and additional complete information only alluded to in this talk that you can use to decipher your first Pali text!

 One thing that you really should have before studying Pali is a basic understanding of general grammatical terms and concepts. If you’ve studied Latin at any level, then you probably know all you need to know. If you haven’t, and you really don’t know the difference between a subject and an object, or the meanings of such terms as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, declension, conjugation, etc., then perhaps you should spend some time studying basic grammar. Wikipedia will give you all you need. I will, however, include a very brief, high-level overview of grammar in this talk too. While this talk will not make you an accomplished Pali scholar, it will give you the basic tools you need to produce a competent English translation of any sutta.

The Pali Alphabet

The Pali alphabet consists of 41 letters, including 1 pure nasal, 8 vowels, and 32 consonants divided into five groups. Thus, Pali has 15 more letters than English. Fortunately for us, Pali does not have its own script. The Pali language, which was of course an oral language, has always been transcribed using the letters of the culture in which it is being transmitted, so there are multiple scripts  used to represent Pali, none of them inherent in Pali itself. This is good news for English-speakers and others who use the Roman script, because the entire corpus of Pali literature is available in Roman script both in print and online and there is no need to learn a new alphabet to learn Pali. In order to represent the extra Pali letters, English uses diacritics, which is just a fancy word for dots and lines, and letter ‘h.’ There really aren’t as many letters as it sounds, either, because in English, we consider a long and a short vowel to be one letter but in Pali they are two. In Pali, the addition of an ‘h’ to a ‘k,’ ‘g,’ ‘c,’ ‘j,’ ‘t,’ ‘d,’ ‘p,’ or ‘b’ also makes a separate letter, so now we’ve reduced the total number of essential letters in Roman transcription to 21, five less than English!  Pali is also a phonetic language. It is pronounced exactly as it is spelt and, being a dead language, there is little historical drift from this, so in Pali we have no words like “knight.” English used to be a phonetic language, so “knight” was pronounced “k-nicht.” Tibetan is even worse!

One irritating feature of Pali dictionaries and glossaries is that they follow the order of the Pali alphabet, which differs from the order of the English alphabet, which makes it hard to look words up. On the other hand, the order of the Pali alphabet is extremely logical, especially the consonants. The order of the Pali letters corresponds to how the mouth is shaped and where the tongue is placed to pronounce each letter. The consonants are divided into five groups, called guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial. Guttural means pertaining to the throat or gullet, so this means that the tongue is “pointed” at that region of the mouth. Palatal letters are pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. Dental letters are pronounced with the tongue touching the teeth. Labial letters are pronounced with the lips. Cerebral letters are pronounced with the tongue lying limp and wet in the hollow of the mouth.

 Some Pali consonants are represented in English by the addition of the letter ‘h,’ which refers to the breath. English also has this, like the compound letters ‘ch,’ ‘th,’ and ‘ph,’ but the pronunciation of the Pali letters differs from the English. In Pali, the ‘h’ sound is made by adding a puff of air to the consonant, so ‘th’ for example is pronounced like a ‘t’ with a puff of air, more like ‘shit hole’ than ‘the,’ and ‘ph’ is pronounced like ‘top hat,’ not an ‘f.’  Otherwise the consonants are very much like English, with the exception of ‘c,’ which is always pronounced like ‘ch’ in ‘church,’ and ‘v,’ which is pronounced more like a ‘w’ except when it is the initial letter, when it sounds like the English ‘v’ in ‘view’ for example. The addition of a dot below a letter, indicating a dental, gives the consonant a sharper sound, like the ‘t’ in ‘tack’ versus the ‘t’ in ‘truck.’ The addition of the dot to the ‘m,’ sometimes represented by an n with a dot over it or an ‘n’ with a tail, makes the nasal, like ‘ng’ in ‘ring.’ Some Pali grammars make a distinction between the pure nasal and the guttural nasal. Finally, the ‘n’ with a curvy line above it (called a tilde) is pronounced like the ‘n’ in ‘manyana.’ The rest of the consonants sound pretty much like English. Of course, every culture has its own accent so Pali pronounced by a Thai will not sound like the Pali pronounced by a Burmese, etc., and therefore neither will you.

The vowels progress from A through I, U, E, and O. A, I, and U have both short and long forms, whereas E and O are always long. A horizontal line shows the long vowel over the letter. Short a sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘another,’ long ‘a’ like ‘a’ in ‘art.’ Short I sounds like ‘I’ in ‘ink,’ long ‘I’ like the ‘e’ in ‘eel.’ Short ‘u’ sounds like ‘u’ in ‘under,’ long ‘u’ like ‘u’ in ‘prudent.’ E and O are usually long, like ‘age’ and ‘own’ respectively. When followed by a double consonant they are short. Long vowels are also elongated, and pronounced for one and a half or two times as long as the short vowel. This naturally accents Pali words on the long vowels.  Often the terminal ‘a’ is not pronounced unless it falls after a double consonant.

Of course, the purpose of this talk is not to make you all into fluent Pali speakers, but it is useful to know how to pronounce the words approximately correctly since we may use Pali words in English discussions of Buddhadharma.

The Structure of Pali

Pali is an Indo-European language, and as such is very similar to other Indo-European languages both in diction and in grammar. It is even possible to recognize Pali and Sanskrit words in some English words, such as Aryan, deva, mandala, mantra, maya, yoga, and others. If you have ever studied Latin, then you are familiar with how the functions of words in sentences are indicated by the addition of specific endings to words, and how these endings vary according to different classes of words. This is still true of languages such as French and Spanish I believe, but less so of English, where the function of the words is also shown by their position in the sentence. Still, English has suffixes like ‘s’ to form a plural or a possessive, the addition of ‘ly’ to an adjective to make an adverb, etc. Similarly, the declension of adjectives and adverbs must match the declension of the nouns that they modify. In general, word order in Pali is quite like English so often one can get a sense of the meaning just from translating the Pali words in order. However, in order to make a more precise translation, or if the syntax is more complex, it is important to be able to distinguish between the basic parts of speech and the endings that indicate their function in the sentence.

The Pali Noun

The stem of a Pali noun may be male, female, or neuter. As with Latin, French, and other similar Indo-European languages, the gender does not necessarily correspond to what one might expect! There are two numbers, singular and plural, and eight cases: nominative, accusative, instrumental, genitive, dative, ablative, locative, and vocative. Unlike English, where case is inferred from location and context, the case of a Pali noun, again like Latin, indicates the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence.

Nominative nouns are usually the subject of the sentence.

Accusative nouns are usually the object of the sentence.

The vocative is used for address, usually conveyed in English by “o.”

The remaining cases are generally indicated in English by the use of propositions.


Instrumental: with, by

Genitive: of, ‘s

Dative: to, for

Ablative: from

Locative: in

Four types of nouns are common: masculine and neuter, with stem ending in a, and feminine with stem ending in i. There are only three declensions. In order to decline a noun, you remove the ending, and add the ending corresponding to the part of speech. When translating, the process is the reverse. You identify the stem, and then determine the part of speech from the ending. We’ll do this for one noun only, just to give you the idea.

Dhamma, doctrine, quality, is a masculine word, indicated by the stem ending in a. The declension follows:

Nom.: dhamm-o, dhamm-a

Acc.: dhamm-ang, dhamm-e

Gen.: dhamm-asa, dhamm-anang

Dat.: dhamm-aya, dhamm-anang

Inst.: dhamm-ena, dhamm-ehi

Abl.: dhamm-a, dhamm-ehi

Loc.: dhamm-e, dhamm-esu

Voc.: dhamm-a, dhamm-a

In order to work out the rest, you should compile these into a table. Then, when you encounter a noun in a text, work out the stem and then refer to the ending to determine the part of speech. Extensive crib sheets with the declensions, conjugations, pronouns, and other grammatical information are available on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Pali language course online.

Compound Nouns

It’s very common in Pali to form new words by combining old words into new compound nouns especially. Although many of these words appear in the dictionary as words in their own right, it is still useful to understand the component words, which were presumably closer to the surface when the Pali Canon was composed than now. For example, in the stanza that we will be deconstructing, the first word is Manopubbangama. The dictionary will tell you this means “directed by mind.” However, one quickly discovers that Manopubbangama is Mano + pubba + anga-ma.

Mano, the mind/heart/consciousness (masc. nom. singl.)

Pubba, having been before (adj.)

Ga, go, goes (verb)

“the mind that has gone before”

The Pali Verb

Pali verbs have three persons, two numbers, six tenses, three moods, and two voices. Today we are going to look at the three singular and plural persons of the present indicative active = the basic tense that expresses direct action by the subject in the present.

Verbs consist of a root and a present stem. The present stem is the basis of the conjugation into the present tense, referring to an action in present time. There are three persons: first (I, we), second (you, ye), and third (he, she, it, they). The stem of different types of verbs ends in different letters: a is common. Thus, the present tense singular ends in -mi, -si, -ti, and the plural ends in -ma, -tha, -nti. For example:

Root: pat, fall

PT stem: pata

First: patami,patama

Second: patasi, patatha

Third: Patati, patanti

Again, when translating, identify the root from the stem, then identify the person from the ending.

With both nouns and verbs you may find duplicate possible endings. In this case, you must determine the correct part of speech from the context. Sometimes where the parts come together in a word, the vowels may change slightly.

Locating English Translations in the Online Pali Text Version of the Pali Canon

Something you’re going to want to do as you read the translations and become more familiar with Pali is to find the original Pali word or phrase underlying a translation. You can do this using the complete Pali text of the Pali Canon that is available online at This is the Burmese edition finalized in May 1956 because of the Sixth Buddhist Council, held to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the reputed “passing on” (parninibbana) of the Buddha, believed to have occurred in 544 BCE. There are other editions too, but this is the only complete online edition that I know of. A critical edition of the Pali Canon is in preparation apparently but will take many years to complete.

In order to find your text you must know how the Pali Canon is organized. The Pali Canon consists of three large divisions, of which only the first two concern us here – the Vinaya, essentially the rules of the Order with additional historical information, and the Suttapitaka, the dialogues or conversations attributed to the Buddha and his close disciples. The recitation of the Vinaya at the First Buddhist Council is attributed to Upali, formerly a barber, who was considered to be the foremost expert on the Vinaya, having learned it directly from the Buddha himself. The recitation of the Suttapitaka is attributed to Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant during the last 25 years of the Buddha’s life, who was famous for his memory. The word “Pitaka” means “collection” or “container.”

If you go to the Tipitaka website, and click on “Roman – Web,” you’ll see the Tipitaka as the first item in the window to the left. The Atthakatha and Tika refer to the commentaries and subcommentaries, written hundreds of years later. Anya refers to other, later works. If you open the folders for the Vinaya and Suttapitaka, you’ll see a subset of folders, corresponding to the main divisions of each collection. I’m not going to recap the entire structure of the Pali Canon here, but you can find it discussed in a great little book online, Russell Webb’s Analysis of the Pali Canon, which I will include in the References in the notecard and online. Instead, let’s look up something. In the Digha Nikaya, in the first sutta of the Pali Canon, entitled the Supreme Net (Brahmajala Sutta), in the Large Section on Morality, the Buddha provides a list of “wrong means of livelihood,” including various kinds of fortune telling, magic, witchcraft, and other things. He describes all these things as “base arts.” Suppose we’re interested in finding out just what the equivalent Pali phrase to “base arts” means.

The Large Section on Morality is the third section of the Digha Nikaya. The paragraph number is 21. If we find the 21st numbered paragraph in the Pali version, we see that it follows immediately after the heading, Mahasilam, which means the Great Morality. The noun immediately before “base arts” is “living,” so I entered “life” in the Tamilcube English-Pali dictionary and saw that “jiva” is the Pali word for “life” or “living.” This is also the 13th word in the Pali text, so I enter the next word in the online dictionary and immediately recognize the third person plural ending – nti. We discover that ‘kappenti’ means something like ‘they make.’ Looking at the word before ‘jivatam,’ ‘micchajivena,’ we note that ‘miccha’ means ‘untruth, falsehood, false, wrongly, wrong.’ Thus, we have the basis for the phrase “wrong means of livelihood” which follows ‘base arts’ in our translation. Going back one more word, we find ‘tiracchanavijjaya.’ This word stumps our dictionary. It is probably a compound of some sort. The word before it, ‘evarupaya,’ seems to mean something like ‘only resource,’ referring perhaps to ‘earning their living,’ and the word before that means ‘ate,’ so it seems likely that ‘tiracchanavijjaya’ is our word based on its position in the sentence! But what does it mean? A little experimentation with the dictionary soon discovers that ‘vijja,’ a feminine noun, means ‘higher knowledge, science,’ and that the ending –ya indicates an instrumental or locative singular. Thus, this word means ‘with, by, or in higher knowledge or science.’ From there it is a small step to discover that ‘tiracchana’ means ‘animal’ or ‘beast,’ a masculine noun. This is somewhat surprising, since we were expecting an adjective, so we look this word up in the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English dictionary, and discover that the literal meaning is ‘going horizontally,’ and that the word means ‘leading to rebirth among beasts.’ Thus, the original meaning of “debased art” means something like “a secret or esoteric knowledge or science that leads to an inferior animal rebirth.” Interestingly, the Buddha includes astronomy and weather forecasting, poetry composition, philosophy, accountancy, and medicine and surgery in this category, probably due to cultural associations with sorcery. By this means, we have deepened our understanding of the original text.

Higher Comprehension through Contextualization

A mechanical construction of a Pali text using one or more dictionaries may yield a creditable translation, certainly better than Google Translator, but the real understanding of any language comes from the study of its cultural context. Pali words are related to Sanskrit originals that in turn relate to many similar words in the Indo-European universe. These nuances and associations develop an ineffable intuition of the meaning of words that can only be developed by the study of the Pali words in context, and the study of the Pali etymologies themselves. As previously mentioned, many Pali words are created from component words that are easy to identify. Just as in English, studying the Pali etymologies will develop an intuitive impression of the types of concepts that the Pali might be referencing through psychological association. These insights in turn aid good translation. If one wants to pursue the matter still further, one might familiarize oneself with the cultural context of 5th and 6th century BCE India. The Vedic and Indo-European cultural legacies, the perennial philosophy, and shamanism as well as non-canonical Pali literature, collating different editions of the Pali Canon, collating different canons and translations of Pali texts, and finally the late commentaries, are all potential areas of opportunity that are opened up by the learning of Pali and that would in turn enrich one’s understanding of it. At each step, seeking the highest and most comprehensive point of view possible will accelerate learning and yield maximum benefit. In addition, learning Pali to study the dharma is an intrinsically meritorious activity.


The Pali Alphabet

  Roman Pali Alphabet Classes Pronunciation* Alt Code
1 a Vowels but, hut; a in banana
2 ā father, cart, heart 0257
3 i bit, tip, it
4 ī machine, keen, clean 0299
5 u put, foot, push
6 ū rude, boot, youth 0363
7 e way, fade, cape (long always except before a double consonant in which it is short – as in bed, bet, head
8 o home, bone, know (long always except before a double consonant in which it is short as in not, sawall)
9 Pure nasal as  or – pure nasal without release through the mouth
10 k Gutturals skin, cook, candle
11 kh king, backhand
12 g girl, good, gift
13 gh  log-head, big-house
14 sing, finger, ink 0324
15 c Palatals choose, chin, discharge
16 ch ranch-house, ranch-hand
17 j jug, gem, judge
18 jh hedge-hog
19 Ñ señor 164 (0241)
20 Cerebrals tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate 0803
21 ṭh tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate
22 tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate 0803
23 ḍh  tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate
24 tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate 0803
25 t Dentals stay, stand (but with the rip of the tongue at the back of the teeth)
26 th light-house, ant-hill (but with the rip of the tongue at the back of the teeth)
27 d dog, dirt, door (but with the rip of the tongue at the back of the teeth)
28 dh mad-house, red-house (but with the rip of the tongue at the back of the teeth)
29 n name, north, no (but with the rip of the tongue at the back of the teeth)
30 p Labials space, spend
31 ph top-hat, upheaval, uphill
32 b bag, born, bed
33 bh lab-host, rub-hard
34 m himmother, map
35 y Resonants yes, year, you
36 r ram, ring, roam
37 l lamp, light
38 tongue tip curled back just under the hard palate 0803
39 v  in-between the english v and w
40 s Spirants sit, story, smoke
41 h inherent, voiced fricative

*Metta Net. English-Pali Dictionary.

Brahmi script
Brahmi script (circa 3rd cent. BCE)

Pali Declensions of Nouns (Wikipedia)

[Editor’s Note: Pali, like all languages, is subject to changes over time, so different classifications of the endings may vary slightly according to the text and the authority.]

Pali nouns inflect for three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and two numbers (singular and plural). The nouns also, in principle, display eight cases: nominative or paccatta case, vocative, accusative or upayoga case, instrumental or karaṇa case, dative or sampadāna case, ablative, genitive or sāmin case, and locative or bhumma case; however, in many instances, two or more of these cases are identical in form; this is especially true of the genitive and dative cases.


a-stems, whose uninflected stem ends in short a (/ə/), are either masculine or neuter. The masculine and neuter forms differ only in the nominative, vocative, and accusative cases.

Masculine (loka- “world”) Neuter (yāna- “carriage”)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative loko lokā yānaṁ yānāni
Vocative loka
Accusative lokaṁ loke
Instrumental lokena lokehi yānena yānehi
Ablative lokā (lokamhā, lokasmā; lokato) yānā (yānamhā, yānasmā; yānato)
Dative lokassa (lokāya) lokānaṁ yānassa (yānāya) yānānaṁ
Genitive lokassa yānassa
Locative loke (lokasmiṁ) lokesu yāne (yānasmiṁ) yānesu


Nouns ending in ā (/aː/) are almost always feminine.

Feminine (kathā- “story”)
Singular Plural
Nominative kathā kathāyo
Vocative kathe
Accusative kathaṁ
Instrumental kathāya kathāhi
Dative kathānaṁ
Locative kathāya, kathāyaṁ kathāsu

i-stems and u-stems

i-stems and u-stems are either masculine or neuter. The masculine and neuter forms differ only in the nominative and accusative cases. The vocative has the same form as the nominative.

Masculine (isi- “seer”) Neuter (akkhi- “fire”)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative isi isayo, isī akkhi, akkhiṁ akkhī, akkhīni
Accusative isiṁ
Instrumental isinā isihi, isīhi akkhinā akkhihi, akkhīhi
Ablative isinā, isito akkhinā, akkhito
Dative isino isinaṁ, isīnaṁ akkhino akkhinaṁ, akkhīnaṁ
Genitive isissa, isino akkhissa, akkhino
Locative isismiṁ isisu, isīsu akkhismiṁ akkhisu, akkhīsu
Masculine (bhikkhu- “monk”) Neuter (cakkhu- “eye”)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative bhikkhu bhikkhavo, bhikkhū cakkhu, cakkhuṁ cakkhūni
Accusative bhikkhuṁ
Instrumental bhikkhunā bhikkhūhi cakkhunā cakkhūhi
Dative bhikkhuno bhikkhūnaṁ cakkhuno cakkhūnaṁ
Genitive bhikkhussa, bhikkhuno bhikkhūnaṁ, bhikkhunnaṁ cakkhussa, cakkhuno cakkhūnaṁ, cakkhunnaṁ
Locative bhikkhusmiṁ bhikkhūsu cakkhusmiṁ cakkhūsu

Present Tense Personal Endings

Present tense verb stem,-a ending

Singular Plural
1st person -mi -ma
2nd person -si -tha
3rd person -ti -nti

Personal Pronouns

Pali pesonal pronouns

 Analysis of the First Verse of the Dhammapada

Pali Word Root Ending POS Declension/conjugation Meaning(s)
Manopubbaṅgamā Mano + pubban + gam- -a Adjective ò Directed by mind, dominated by thought (lit. “mind-before-goes”)
dhammā Dhamm- -a Noun Masculine nominative plural dharma
manoseṭṭhā Man + setth- -a Adjective ñ Mind + Foremost, excellent
manomayā Man + may- -a Adjective ñ Made of mind, consisting of mind, made by the magic power of mind, magically formed
Manasā Man + as- -a Noun Neuter ablative singular (“from”) Mind, intention, having the intention of (adj.)
ce Ce Conditional particle Indeclinable If, even if
paduṭṭhena Padutthen- -a Adjective ñ Made bad, spoiled, corrupt, wicked (lit. “thief-footed”)
bhāsati Bhasat- -ti Verb 3rd person present tense Says, speaks, shines
va Conjunction Indeclinable or
karoti Karot- -ti Verb 3rd person present tense Does, acts, makes, builds
va Conjunction Indeclinable or
tato Tat- o Indicative Ablative From there, from that, thence, therefore, thereupon
nam Na- m Enclitic Accusative singular Just so, like this, as if, as
dukkhaṁ Dukkha- m Noun Neuter nominative-accusative singular Suffering, pain,  misery, agony, discomfort
anveti Anve- -ti Verb 3rd person singular Follows, approaches
cakkaṁ Cakk- -am Noun Neuter nominative-accusative singular (genitive-dative plural?) Wheel, circle, disk, cycle, command
va Va Indicative Particle Indeclinable Like, as
vahato Vaha- o Noun-adjective Masculine nominative singular Leader, cart, cartload; beast of burden; torrent; carrying, leading (adj.)
padaṁ Pada- -am Noun Neuter nominative-accusative singular (genitive-dative plural?) Foot; step, footstep, track

Manopubbaṅgam dhammā, manoseṭṭhā manomayā;

Manas ce paduṭṭhen, bhāsati vā karoti vā,

Tato nam dukkhaṁ anveti, cakkaṁ’va vahato padaṁ.

 Literal translation

Dharma (is) directed by mind, mind foremost, mind made.

If one speaks or acts from corrupt mind,

From this just so suffering follows as the cart (or the beast) the wheel-track.

Final Translation

Directed by the anterior mind, appearances are pre-eminently mind, magically formed by the magical power of mind.

(Therefore,) if one speaks or acts from (or with) an evil mind,

Thereafter, just like that, despair follows, as the animal cart (follows) the rut.

Another Example

Sabbesu bhūtesu nidhāya daṇḍaṃ, aviheṭhayaṃ aññatarampi tesaṃ;

Na puttamiccheyya kuto sahāyaṃ, eko care khaggavisāṇakappo.


Sparing all beings from the rod,

Vexing not even one of them,

Not wanting a child, less a friend,

Go alone, like the sword-horned one.


Bhikhu Bodhi’s Pali course.

Bomhard, Allan R. (2012). An Introductory Grammar of the Pali Language. Charleston, SC: Charleston Buddhist Fellowship.

Duroiselle, Charles (1997). A Practical Grammar of the Pali Language. 3rd ed. Buddhadharma Education Association.

How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.

Lessons of Language: Pali.

Narada Thera (1952). Elementary Pali Course. 2nd ed. Buddha Dharma Meditation Association.

Pali English Dictionary (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

Pali Tipitika (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

Pali Toolbox (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

PTS Pali-English Dictionary (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

Resources for Learning Pali (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

Tamilcube Pali Dictionary (accessed 2014, Sept. 3).

Webb, Russell, ed. (1991). Analysis of the Pali Canon. 3rd ed. Wheel Publication #217. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.