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Language and Reality

The Buddha preaching Abhidhamma, from

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 6, December 2007.


According to Abhidhamma, if one does not apprehend the true nature of language , the ultimate reality (paramattha) or truth (tathat?) can not be  perceived. The task of Abhidhmmic analysis enables the worldlings (puthujjanas) to discern the ultimate reality of Non-self (Anatt?) ; the task of Abhidhamic synthesis enables the worldlings to apprehend the Law of Dependent Co-arising Pa?iccasamupp?da) through the examination of the 24 conditioned relations which govern the world of empirical experience of any individual. When the ?bhidhammikas reveal that the true nature of language, it could be a frightful experience for the untrained or not well instructed worldlings to face this fact.

According to Abhidhamma, language does not mirror the real truth. In other words, language does not reflect the ultimate truth. A linguistic expression (voh?ra) is merely a n idea or concept (paññatti). Even the teachings of the western philosophers also concurs with the tenet of the Buddha. The Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein (1889-1951) asserts thatlanguage does not mirror the real truth. His philosophical theory concurs with the Word of the Buddha (Buddhavacana).

The ancient Pali Tipitaka, from

Language is not Truth

According to Abhidhamma, language is the combination of both sounds and meanings. The sounds are produced from the vocal cord through activities of the various parts of the mouth to produce the sounds. The throat , teeth, roof , palate , lip , nose and tongue and the two lungs dependently co-produce the sounds. When a worldling receives the stimulus of a sense datum, he or she conceptualizes and produces an idea or ideas. This idea or these ideas or concepts, which occur(s) in our minds, are transformed into sounds which are communicated to the listeners. Without the medium of language, ideas or concepts cannot be communicated in terms of designations or appellations, denotations, names or concepts to others. Language is therefore a very important tool or instrument for communication between two parties who interact for transactions in daily life or mundane activities. Our daily life is governed by the words or terms of language. But, Abhidhamma teaching warns us that we do not understand the true nature of language, we may be deluded.

In the eyes of the Buddha, a worldling can be defined as one who deluded by language usage or specifically by concepts of his or her own fabrications or mental construct (papañca) because the ordinary worldlings have not realized the true nature of human personality and the world. Language is merely the convention commonly accepted to represent universals and particulars collectively called signs, characteristics or marks (nimittas).All these signs, characteristics or marks are designated by language or linguistic terms. Language conveys concepts which are unreal and therefore all signs, characteristics or marks represented by language are illusionary and unreal. Paradoxically, even though language is problematic, we can not abandon the utility of language. An Indian poet in the 4th century A.D asserted thus: If there is no language, the whole world will be enclosed in complete darkness. Language is akin to the light of the world. Devoid of light, the whole world is enveloped in complete darkness and all conventional activities would cease. But the Buddha admonishes that language is to be understood as the tool of expression of concepts which do not mirror the real truth. It should be utilized as expedient device of communication and interaction. Even though language is problematic, the Buddha does not advise us to discard or deny the language. We are advised to use the language without ontological commitment. The nature of language must be comprehended so that we are not deluded. Not only the linguistic terms are problematic, the language structure or syntax is problematic too. The study of Abhidhammais to eradicate the ignorance (avijj?) of the true nature of language. We use Abdhidhamma to train ourselves to be the masters of language and to avoid being the slaves of language. The knowledge of theory of two truths is extremely useful and helpful. The conventional truth (sammuti sacca) is of pragmatic value in social intercourses. Abhidhamma instructs us on the ultimate or absolute truth (paramattha sacca) to discern the world of actuality in the ultimate sense. Hence, the study of Abhidhamma also helps us discern the true nature of language which does not mirror the real truth.

Definitions of Consciousness

In order to comprehend the true nature of language in the ultimate sense, knowledge of the three definitions (s?dhanas) of consciousness (citta) is elucidated in the Vibh?v?n??tik? which is the sub-commentary toAbhidhammattha-sa?gaha (Compendium or manual of Abhidhamma). The three definitions of consciousness are enumerated as follows:

1.      Agency Definition (Kattus?dhana)

2.      Instrumentality Definition (ara?as?dhana )

3.      Activity Definition (h?vas?dhana )

Agency Definition of Consciousness

In the first definition given by the sub-commentary, Citta can be defined as follows:

        ??ramma?a?? cintetIti citta?.

The definition means that ‘Consciousness is that which cognizes the 
object. In this definition, consciousness is the agent of cognition, that is, the subject is consciousness. The clause ‘is that which cognizes the object’ is a predicate. Consciousness itself performs the activity of cognition. It may be illustrated by the following linguistic expression or sentence:


is that which cognizes the object.



The conventional usage of language have given rise to two entities, namely the subject as one entity and the predicate as another entity resulting in the conception of duality. Because the syntax promotes dualistic view, language is considered problematic. In other words, two separate or discrete entities are evident. The Law of Dependent Co-arising (Pa??iccasamupp?da) rejects the notion of duality between subject and predicate or substance and attribute. According to Pa?iccasamupp?da, the subject and predicate are one and not two. They are dependently co-arisen. Moreover, the notion of agency violates the Doctrine of Non-self (Anatt? ). That is the reason why it is asserted earlier that the syntax (sentence structure), which divides a sentence into subject and predicate, is problematic. Therefore, the first definition is not valid in terms of ultimate reality but valid provisionally in terms of conventional reality. Language, used to express phenomena, ensues from the substantial view of phenomena. Substantialist view violates the Buddhist principle that every phenomenon is empty of intrinsic nature and therefore signless. That, which is signless and dynamic, is ineffable, beyond the description of language. Language is capable of describing static phenomena but not for describing dynamic phenomena. The Buddha promulgates that all phenomena are dynamic, mutable and impermanent.

Instrumentality Definition of Consciousness

The second definition of consciousness is stated thus:

Etena  cintent?ti  citta?.

Here, it is defined that consciousness is that by which the mental factors cognize the object. Here, it states that the mental factors are collectively the instrument or tool of cognition or thinking. The consciousness does not perform the activity of cognition or thinking. The mental factors perform the activity of cognition or thinking on behalf of consciousness. The mental factors become the instrument of consciousness. It may be illustrated by the following linguistic expression or sentence thus:


is that by which the mental factors cognize the object



Again, a similar situation occurs. There are two separate entities, namely, the subject and the predicate. Therefore, it has violated Pa?iccasamupp?da. The notion of instrumentality implies the notion of substance or substantiality which violates the Doctrine of Anatt?. Therefore, this definition is also invalid in the ultimate reality but is provisionally valid in terms of conventional reality. Again, there exists a duality between the subject and the predicate. The notion of duality is not acceptable to the Buddha who declares it as a wrong view. Dependent co-arising is non-dualism. Language is problematic because its syntax projects the notion of dualism.

Activity Definition of Consciousness

The 3rd definition of consciousness is given thus:

Cintanamatta? citta?.

It is rendered into English as: Consciousness is itself cognition. There is no notion of agency or instrumentality attributed to the definition of consciousness.

The definition is valid for all dhammas. The other two definitions are valid provisionally, that is, conventionally. In this definition, consciousness and cognition are not two separate independent entities. They are one and the same. They are dependently co-arisen from diverge contigent physical and mental dhammas. The 3rd definition of consciousness is compatible with both the Law of Pa?iccasamupp?da and Doctrine of Anatt? as there is no duality between the perceiver and the object of perception. The two-fold methodology of Analysis and Synthesis is to unveil the conditional relations of all dhammas. The third definition concurs with the ultimate truth of conditionality: All dhammas are supporting and are being supported – the unity of all beings or the oneness or wholeness of the cosmos. Apprehension of the human personality (microcosm) leads to the discernment of the cosmos (macrocosm). Abhidhamma, like any other major esoteric religions, instructs and guide men to perceive intuitively the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. Abhdhamma is Buddhist Theosophy – the highest knowledge which produces maximally excellent person..


It is evident that conventional linguistic expressions mirror only the conventional truth but they do not reflect the ultimate truth. Therefore, the Buddha himself declares that language does not reflect the real truth of the empirical phenomena as they really are. Language is only suitable for description of static substantial entities. It is not appropriate to utilize language to explain physical and mental phenomena which are dynamic, mutable and impermanent. The multiplicity of the empirical world of experience is a cosmic illusion. Ontological commitment to language and the corresponding phenomenal existents is illusion too.


  • Sumanapala, G.D, An Introduction to Therav?da Abhidhamma. Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, 1998.
  • Bikkhu Bodhi, A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma:The Abhidhammmattha Sangaha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1999.
  • Ñ?nananda. Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997
  • Mrs. A.F Rhys Davids. A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics (Dhammasangani). Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1997.

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