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Pāli Terminologies for ‘Nature’: ‘Harmonious Co-existence’ in Biodiversity

Editor’s note: This article was published in the 10th Issue of the now-retired Bodhi Journal in December, 2008. It has been republished in a slightly altered format, although no content has been removed.


Ian Harris, a prominent scholar, in his essay Buddhism and Ecology, has initially stated that:

It is with great ingenuity that one can identify approximate Buddhist equivalents to the terms, such as ‘environment’, ‘eco-system’, ‘ecology’, or indeed ‘nature’ itself, that are central to the contemporary discourse of environmental concern (Ian Harris, p.112).

Such statements initiating an essay do not seem propitious for a general reader, if not a serious student, to explore in-depth Buddhist ecological philosophy. Of these four terms ‘eco-system’ and ‘ecology’ themselves being of very late origin (the term ecology was introduced by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1866; it is derived from the Greek oikos (“household”), sharing the same root word as economics. The term ecosystem was coined in 1935 by the British ecologist Sir Arthur George Tansley, who described natural systems in “constant interchange” among their living and nonliving parts. (Both quotations from Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation). 

Thus, the term implies the study of the economy of nature), it is quite pointless to seek equivalent terms in a language and civilization more than two millenniums old and no more in use for centuries; thereby no opportunity developing the vocabularies. However, equivalent concepts denoted by the term ‘nature’ are not totally absent in P?li language. If the P?li language has been spoken up to now there is no doubt of terms equivalent to ecology and eco-system being invented in P?li, just as in other languages. Here while adducing the proper reasons for the absence of equivalent P?li terms for ‘ecology’ and ‘eco-system’ I also draw some canonical evidences forwarding P?li terms conveying parallel ideas of ‘nature’ and proposing the term ‘sa?v?sa’ as most appropriate term for ‘harmonious co-existence’ in bio-diversity.

Terms for Nature

Nature, defined as the original form of anything and everything without any human intervention, is equivalent to the Sanskrit word ‘prak?ti’. Prak?ti, formed as pra+k?ti in Sanskrit and pakati (pa+kati) in P?li; k?ti from Sanskrit root k? (to do) means ‘making up, constituting etc.‘ and combined with pra means ‘the original characteristics that make up’. In usages, this means nature. Pakati also refers to habit; as the term ‘nature’ in the expression – human-nature etc. is used.

In language/s like Bengali, the direct transliteration of the term ‘prak?ti’ is used for ‘nature’. The P?li transliteration of the term is ‘pakati’. Another term used for nature in sinhala language is ‘svabh?va’ which has its origin in P?li (sabh?va) and Sanskrit (svabh?va). Sabh?va, formed as sa+bh?vasa (sva in Sanskrit) denoting ‘own’ or ‘original; bh?va from bh? (to be, to exist etc.)’ means ‘existence’; therefore, anything that has its own characteristics has its ‘own nature’. Sabh?va, also used in the way pakati or prak?ti is used. Pakati and sabh?va are used like synonyms.

Lily De Silva proposes three terms – ‘yath?bh?ta’ (yath?b?ta, formed as yath? (just as, as it is etc.)+bh?ta, from bh? (as above) means what has become etc. Yath?bh?ta, often combined with ñ?na (knowledge) meaning ‘the knowledge of what has become/arisen (as it has become/arisen)’; that is, knowing the ‘as it is’ of everything), ‘dhammat?’ (dhammat?, (dharmit? in Sanskrit) formed as dhamma+t?dhamma having manifold connotations also means ‘law’. In this case, meaning law of existence or the phenomenal existence), ‘niy?mat?’ (the word ‘niy?ma’ meaning law has been made an abstract noun and used as a synonym to dhammat?. ‘Niy?ma’ combined with ‘utu’ means the law of seasons. Also combined with citta (mind), dhammakamma (action), and b?ja (seed) in the popular usages) – as most appropriate to ‘nature’ (Lily de Silva, p.10).

All these terms have been used to convey basically twofold ideas – the material nature, and the natural law. In the Buddhist discourses, rather than the general meanings denoting nature, these terms have been philosophized. Although etymologically defined they have subtle differences, when the comprehension or realization of intrinsic nature of phenomenal existence is concerned, they convey the parallel idea. The question of defining the ‘intrinsic nature’ has been developed to such complexity in later Buddhism that some schools relating the theory of anicc? (impermanence) and anatt? (soullessness) have concluded, there is, in fact, no intrinsic nature. In spite of such philosophical expositions of these terms their general meanings are not altogether to be ignored. In fact, when necessity commands, such usages have to be popularized.

The P?li-English dictionary enumerates, according to the commentary to Majjhima Nik?ya, seven definitions of the term bh?ta. Of the seven definitions, all the aspects of nature including animate and inanimate, animal kingdom, plants, vegetable kingdom, etc. have been enumerated.

The Buddhist concept of world as composed of the four great elements (mah?bh?t?ni) has two fundamental aspects. In the popular expression such as – the world is established on turmoil (dukkhe loko pati??hito), the term loka is used to denote:

• the external or natural world, and

• the human body considered as world.

Forwarding the view that human bodies composed of the forces of solidity, liquidity, heat, and motion, there is an attempt to integrate human form and world as one at least in our material constituents. Therefore, the harm that is done to any of these four elements brings counter-reactions to us. This reciprocal relationship helps deconstruct human-pride and develop constant awareness to care for natural objects at least for our own peaceful existence.

In spite of all the terms pointed above, Buddhism recognizes and addresses several plants and animal kinds. The words sattap?na and j?va are used to refer to all forms of sentient beings on earth. Thus, in the expressions contending to develop all-encompassing mett? (loving kindness) and even when the precept of refraining from harming lives are considered, there is no sense of any discrimination. In other words, these terms have been used commonly for all the living beings including human. Thus, the recognition of nature and natural objects in Buddhist literature has been incorporated with the same human values, except in the sense that by nature, animals are morally and intellectually inferior to human beings, but this distinction is true only as long as humans keep up their moral standard.

Harmonious Co-existence in Bio-diversity

Although biodiversity refers to the sum of biologically diverse organisms living on earth, humans, led by a misconception of their capabilities, often tend to overpower the other organisms. The threats of this misconception, placing a big question mark on maintaining our existence, are not imperceptible now. Therefore, utilizing human intelligence and capabilities to maintain harmonious co-existence Buddhism would propose for sa?v?sa (sa?v?sa, formed as sa? (together)+v?sa (living) literally means ‘living together’, also means co-residence) or better saidpiyasa?v?sa (added ‘piya’ to the above term to denote the favourable co-residence) – a vinaya term used to refer to the harmonious communal life. Sa?v?sa, literally meaning living together, denotes the network of relationship in which we live. In this, the Buddha does not only present a system in which we should generally interact but also outlines some principles and disciplines to institute a harmonious existence. Sa?v?sa is possible only if there is co-operation. It is impossible to sustain in a society without co-operation. For our own harmonious sustenance, much of our ego-centric ideals have to be sacrificed. A clean community, in the contexts the word sa?v?sa is used, is compared with an ocean where the force of water thrives ashore all the dirt. Establishing intimacy or harmonious co-existence with ingenuine or impure (evil-afflicted) people or forces is not possible. Therefore, other members should take immediate steps to discard him out to maintain peace within that community (cullavaggap?li (English translation) p 330; (P?li) p.236). This law of co-operation has command even in bio-diversity.

In establishing the necessity of a harmonious sa?v?sa more intelligibly I present a short parable. Two fruit sellers, who have taken up this occupation for existential needs, have the same ambition – to make a better profit. To succeed in this aim they sacrifice much of their moral values. As a result, one selling mango has to adapt artificial methods to ripen the fruits sooner. The other one selling bananas too does the same; but, when he buys mangoes and eats only then he realizes the absence of natural taste and blames the seller. In this way, in the unrestrained desire of ‘profit-making’ and ingenuity, each of us loses the natural taste of fruits that we ought to enjoy, thus harming interpersonal trusts. The same argument is applicable to establish a sustainable co-existence in bio-diversity. One may cut a tree for various necessities; but, admitting the fact that by his act a source to dissolve large part of carbon-gas emitted from factories, he should replant more trees. Therefore sa?v?sa or harmonious co-existence claims not only for genuine inter-personal relationships but also an honest interaction between human and nature. This demands for restraint use of natural resources.


From the above enumeration of P?li terms, ‘pakati’ and ‘sabh?va’, as also used in other languages, are the direct equivalents for nature while the other terms have similar application. In English, eco-system and biodiversity explain the way various organisms live. But, when human beings claiming superior to other organisms approach, it is not possible to maintain peace in that system because of their dominating tendencies. Therefore, human beings have more responsibilities for establishing peaceful co-existence with nature and other fellow beings and preventing environmental pollutions. Sa?v?sa, although a vinaya term, conveys a sense of a system of living in a community. This seems the best rendering from Buddhist literature to explain the sustainable disciplines of co-existence.


• Pali-English Dictionary, PTS, London 1925.

 Cullavaggap?li (both P?li edition and English translation), PTS edition,

• Ian Harris, ‘Buddhism and Ecology’, in Contemporary Buddhist ethics, edited by Damien Keown. Curzon Press, 2000.

• Lily de Silva, ‘The Buddhist Attitude Towards Nature’, pp.9-29 in Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, edited by Klas Sandell, The Wheel Publication, BPS, Kandy, 1987.

by SaravK.

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