Understanding Piti and Sukha
February 12, 2005
(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)
I spent 2 afternoons in the University of Arizona library researching the Pali terms "Piti" and "Sukha" in the 4 Pali to English Dictionaries of Childers, Rhys Davids, Buddhadatta, Nyanatiloka & Nyanaponika. I wish I could say I came away with some confidence, however instead I came away with the feeling these dictionaries were written by scholars who really do not understand the subjective states of absorption. However, we can see the general consensus is as follows:
Piti - "the emotion of joy, delight, zest, or exuberance is one of the mental factors or concomitants (cetasika) and belongs to the group of mental formations (sa–khara-kkhandha)."
Sukha - "Pleasant, happy, happiness; pleasure, joy, bliss. It is one of the three feelings (s. vedana) and may be either bodily or mental."
As they are interpreted by the various translators these two words seem to be synonyms, however, I believe originally during the day of the Buddha there must have been something else meant when he invoked these two words. However, since that time 26 centuries ago there seems to be little authoritative knowledge coming from a lineage of enlightened ones within the Four Vehicles of Buddhism to inform us of their correct meaning. Thus I believe we are forced to interpret the suttas within our context and our personal subjective experiences of meditation.
While the Pali terms "Piti" and "Sukha" seemed to be used within the Pali language for a wide range of experiences, not just for the absorption states, then it seems difficult to translate these terms directly into English unless we acknowledge that English has several different terms for pleasure. For instance we call the pleasure or sex "lust, passion, concupiscence, desire, eroticism, libidinousness, passion or prurience;" and we call the pleasure of food "gluttony, gormandizing, edacity, esurience, rapacity and voracity." When we accept that the English language simply has different words for the various forms of pleasure then we might be willing to accept that the word "bliss" is simply the English word for pleasure of a spiritual origin, such as what one would expect from meditation. Thus I believe "bliss" might be the most appropriate term to translate the Pali term "piti" as it is used as a factor in the jhanas.
Bliss - n. A state of pleasurable contentment and gratification happiness, joyousness, joyfulness, elatedness, gladness, beatitude, joie de vivre, cheeriness, blissfulness, felicity, delight, pleasure, enjoyment, elation, jubilation, ecstasy, exultation.
n. A state of great joy ecstasy, Elysium, cloud nine, delight, dreamland, dream state, heaven, nirvana, paradise, rapture, exaltation, transport, utopia, enchantment, seventh heaven.
There is a contemporary folk use for the term "piti" that does not seem to show up in the Pali to English dictionaries. This folk use for the term "piti" is common among people who discuss jhana. The Pali term "piti" is often used by people today to refer to various sensible phenomena that are characteristic of absorption (jhana), or what would be more accurately called "jhana-nimitta."
There is yet another English term that is worth reviving from contemplative Christianity and that is the word "succor." The word "succor" was frequently used in medieval and renascence contemplative literature, such as that of Saints Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The term "succor" literally means "an instance of helping assistance;" however, if one were to read medieval or renascence spiritual literature one would find that this "assistance" that the mystics received came from a spiritual origin. In their context it was a gift from God, and that gift was most often in the context of gnosis, which was the sensible experience of the "presence of God." I believe this "sensible experience of the presence of God" was in fact the characteristics of absorption, which appear to have been much like the piti or jhana-nimitta that are described by some Buddhist contemplatives.
Thus the reason why I propose the term "succor" as a translation for the Pali term "sukha" is I believe the term "succor" may have common origins to that of Sanskrit and Pali term "sukha." It is possible that the Pali terms "piti" and "sukha" may actually be synonyms, and it is additionally possible that sukha might have been the term used for the sensible phenomena, or what we have been calling "jhana-nimitta," since it is one of the "three feelings (s. vedana) and may be either bodily or mental." Additionally, the common use for the term "piti" for the sensible phenomena of absorption might simply be an incorrect use for the Pali term "piti" but might be more appropriately used for the Pali term "sukha." While this premise is arguably an intellectual "stretch" it is at least worth speculating,
Succor - n. The act or an instance of helping assistance, aid, assist, assisting, backing, bolstering, boost, hand, help, intercession, leg up, reinforcement, relief, service, support.
n. A consoling in time of grief or pain consolation, balm, cheer, comfort, condolence, encouragement, assuagement, soothing, solace, support
v. To give hope to in time of grief or pain comfort, buoy up, cheer, console, hearten, solace.
v. To give support or assistance to help, aid, abet, do for, assist, lend a hand, pitch in, obstruct (antonym), hold back (antonym)
American Heritage Dictionary
******* Piti *******
Piti- (f.), Joy, delight. Ab. 87, 1129. Pitimayan vacanam, a joyous expression. Piti-janano, causing joy, gladdening. Pitibhakkha, feasting on joy (Dh. 36). Pitipamojjam, joy and gladness (Dh.67). There are five sorts of piti (pancavidha or pancavanna pitit), khuddaka piti, khanika piti, ekkhantika piti, ubbega piti, pharana piti, slight joy, momentary joy, joy that comes like a sudden shock (comment says "like a wave breaking upon the shore"), transporting joy (comment says "that will make you leap into the air"), and all-pervading joy (Vij.).
-- Childers --
Piti- (f.) [cp. Class. Sk. Priti E Vedic prita pp. Of pri, see pineti, & piya] emotion of joy, delight, zest, exuberance. On term see Dhs. Trsl. 11 and Cpd. 243. Classed under sankharakkhandha, not vedana.
-- Rhys Davids --
Piti-f. joy; delight; emotion--pamojja, nt. Joy and gladness.--bhakkha, a. feeding on joy.--mana, a glad of heart; exhilarated.--rasa, m. taste or emotion of joy.--sambojjhanga, m. the joy-constituent of enlightenment.--sahagata, a. accompanied by joy.
-- Buddhadatta --
Piti- "rapture" , enthusiasm (rendered also by joy, happiness); interest. It is one of the mental factors or concomitants (cetasika) and belongs to the group of mental formations (sa–khara-kkhandha). As in sutta texts, it is often linked in a compound word, with "gladness" (pamojja) or "happiness (sukha), some western translations have wrongly taken it as a synonym of these two terms. Piti is, however, not a feeling or a sensation, and hence does not belong to the Feeling-Group (vedana-kkhandha), but may be described psychologically as "joyful interest". As such it may be associated with wholesome as well as with unwholesome and neutral states of consciousness (cognition).
A high degree of Rapture is characteristic of certain stages in meditative concentration, in Insight practice (vipassana) as well as in the first two Absorptions (jhana, q.v.). In the latter it appears as one of the Factors of Absorption (jhananga; s. shana), and is strongest in the 2nd absorption. Five degrees of intensity in meditative Rapture are described in Vis. IV, 94ff.--It is one of the factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga, q.v.).
-- Nyanatiloka & Nyanaponika --
******* Sukha *******
Sukho-(adj.), Blest, happy; delightful, pleasant; easy. Dh. 22, 35, 59. Atthan aharitum; sukham hoti, it is easy to acquire the meaning (Alw. I. Cviii). Sukhasamvaso (adj.) pleasant to live with (Dh.37). Ditthadhammasukhaviharam anuyutto, devoted to a life of ease in this world (Dh. 104). Sukha vedana, pleasurable sensation. Neut. Sukham, happiness; welfare; ease, comfort (Ab. 88; Dh. 1,6). Sukham dukkham, pleasure and pain, welfare and misfortune (Dh.15, also sukhadukkham). Na sukham labhi, couild get no peace of mind, took no comfort (Mah. 157, comp. Gog. Ev. 29). Sukham bhavato hotu, I wish you joy. Sukhakari (adj.), casing happiness (Sen. K 419). Sukhakari (adj.), casing happiness (Sen. K. 419). Sukhappatto, come to well-being, prosperous, happy (Ten J. 110, prapta). Sukhanisinno, seated peacefully, or with a serene mind )Das.3). Adv. Sukham, happily, easily, comfortably. Sukham seti, or edhati, or viharati, or vasati, or jivati, t be at ease or happy (Dh. 15, 31, 35, 36, 68, 217; Ten J. 47; similarly sukham thito, Cl. Gr. 132). Also, adv. Sukhena, easily, comfortably (Alw.1. xxvi).
Sukha- (adj.) [Vedic sukha; in R. V. only of ratha; later generally] agreeable, pleasant, blest Vin i.3; Dh 118.
Sukha- nt. Happiness; comfort. --kama, a. longing for happiness. --tthika, --tthi, a longing for happiness. --da, a. producing happiness. --nisinna, a. comfortably seated. --patisanvedi, a. experiencing happiness. --ppatta, a. happy. --bhagiya, a. participating in happiness. --yanaka, nt. An easy-going cart. --vipaka, a. resulting in happiness. --vihrana, nt. Comfortable living. --sanvasa, m. pleasant to associate with. --samphassa, a. pleasant to touch. --sammata, a. deemed a pleasure.
Sukha-Pleasant, happy, happiness; pleasure, joy, bliss. It is one of the three feelings (s. vedana) and may be either bodily or mental. The texts distinquish between the happiness of the senses and the h. of renunciation (AII), worldly (carnal; samisa) and unworldly (non-carnal; niramisa) happiness (M10), See A. II, ch. VIII.--Happiness is an indispensable condition for attaining concentration of mind (samadhi, q.v.), and therefore it is one of the 5 factors (or constituents) of the 1st Absorption (jhananga, s. jhana) and is present up to the 3rd absorption inclusively. "The mind of the happy one has concentration as it fruit and reward" (AX.I).--"In him who is filled with happiness, right concentration has found a foundation" (A.X.3).
Nyanatiloka & Nyanaponika
If you practice diligently you will become enlightened in this very life-time,
Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
The American Heritage Electronic Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1994, InfoSoft International, inc.
Buddhadatta, A.P. 1887-1962, Concise Pali-English Dictionary, U. Chandradasa De Silva of Ahangama, Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd. 1957
Childers, Robert Caesar, 1838-1876, A Dictionary of the Pali language, Rinsen Book Co., 1976, Kyoto, reprint of 1875 ed. Trubner, London
Nyanatiloka edited by Nyanaponika, "Buddhist Dictionary," third revision, Buddhist Meditation Centre, Singapore. 1991
Rhys Davids, T.W., FBA, D. Sc., Ph.D.,L.L.D., D. Litt. And William Stede, Ph.D. editors, The Pali Text Society"s Pali-English Dictionary, Published by the Pali Text Society", By Luzac & Company 1966, London
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