I have recent experience with asking questions with what I thought were well-known terms, only to see the words understood differently. Terminology and interpretation seem to come up A LOT on the SE sites. And, in the world in general. By the way. Hmm...

When I was a child, I ran in to this scenario with my father often: [contrived example] "Get me a fork." (I run to grab a dinner fork and return it to him. "No, I meant a serving fork. (I look puzzled) He says: "If you didn't know, why didn't you ask?" But for me, there was never any doubt. I didn't interpret or interpolate, or guess or even waver a bit. I would have bet my very life that he wanted a dinner fork. [end of example]

So, when we read words, we understand them in the way we are accustomed, and the writer might understand different. It never occurs to anyone that a difference is there, until communication breaks down. Is it possible to avoid wasting time and energy on this kind of thing? Skeptics.SE requires some very definite research and references to establish the validity and content of every single question. I think this is irritating, but for them it might be necessary.

For the field of Buddhism, which has lots of specific terminology, perhaps we need something similar when establishing what a question is about?

  • Has Mr/Mrs no comprende considered his/here question seriously? & did Upasaka @ChrisW consider his statement seriously? "More like the StackOverflow kind of site, which is less about theory, but where you ask practical problems, solving problems in practice. To stay practical. And to stay learning being practical, Atma suggests: meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1919/…, or was it not understood what had happened around the fork. One who has focus on dinner would certainly not see the serving tasks.
    – user7555
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 14:27
  • 1
    @SamanaJohann I am trying to understand the point you are making here and in the meta question you linked. But I am lost in a blizzard of words. Is it possible to make the point succinctly? You could ask a Meta question and then we could all get involved. Thank you!
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 13:44
  • * ....sigh.... * :-)
    – user7555
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 14:02
  • IMO @SamanaJohann is seriously recommending practice, practical problems, practical questions, and/or being practical. The linked meta-topic was about kinds of questions to ask. He posted three links (to references) in that topic, which I presume he is now recommending to us, to read, on the subject of asking questions.
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 21:17
  • @ChrisW I tried to read, but there was so much wording that I could not follow. For the record, I think that understanding people is very practical, and we will not get very far on a site like this without being able to communicate. So this meta question is about how to not make assumptions when reading without even realizing that one is doing so, and how not to make assumptions when projecting ideas when writing, without even realizing that one is doing so. Very vital points.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 13:28
  • @nocomprende this question is likely more suited for the Philosophy Stack. It could be made into a philosophy of language question somehow.... As for your question, I'm posting an answer below.
    – hellyale
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 6:20

5 Answers 5


This is a site about Buddhism so the terminology used here is Buddhist terminology.

If one is not familiar with this terminology, the best thing would be to learn about it, so that one can understand the framework of questions and answers on the site.

Terminology on Buddhism SE cannot change into non-buddhist terminology since that would create obstruction for the entire frame of reference that this SE is working within.

The best advice I can think of, is to try to learn the Buddhist terminology so in the case that one is a non-buddhist, one understands from what point of view Buddhism deals with questions.

Hope this helps.

  • OK, so what is the Buddhist term for Observer in the sense that I mean it, since no one here seems to know or be able to provide a reference? I have seen the term used many times by non-Buddhists (I think), but am at a loss for the proper term here. If I use the word I know in a way that seems very clear and is used by others, but no one here seems to "get it", what do I do then?
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 13:07
  • Buddhism does not recognize an "enduring entity, a Self, an Observer". This is verifyable through the practice insight meditation. There is no one "doing the observing", there is nobody "home". What happens is a stream of impermanent mental and physical phenomena and when one has wrong view, one apprehends these impersonal phenomena as a Self, a Me, an Observer etc.
    – user2424
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:07
  • Regarding the term "Observer", I would specifiy which reality we are dealing with. In Sammuti-sacca, i.e. Conventional reality, we can talk about an observer. In Paramattha-sacca, i.e. Ultimate reality, we cannot.
    – user2424
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:17

Is this a "Father" from Transactional Analysis or something? Anyway, to continue ...

I would have bet my very life that he wanted a dinner fork.

If places at the dinner table were already set, so that he already a dinner fork, why would he be asking for a dinner fork?

Ditto if he is about to serve: if he asks for a fork then, it's for a serving fork.

After you've practised helping to lay the table, after being taught to do so, seeing people at the table daily, you may understand (when you look at it) what's there, what's missing, and what's expected.

See also shared (or 'joint') attention which is part of 'early development'.

But for me, there was never any doubt.

You assumed (wrongly) that you understood?

So, when we read words, we understand them in the way we are accustomed

I guess many users on this site are multi-lingual (not anglophone). You have "no comprende" as a handle, but I don't see why you'd think there's a one-to-one mapping between words and meaning.

Naturally you do understand something, automatically (parsing language is part of your brain's "firmware"); but it may be better to assume that understanding is provisional.

There isn't (a single meaning) even in English. If I said even the most mundane phrase, "go to the store", that might mean (in certain specialized contexts) to go to the private storage (e.g. "larder"), the commercial store (e.g. "shop"), the military store (e.g. "PX or armoury"), a web site (e.g. Amazon.com), or possibly some data store.

You mentioned "Imaginary Icebergs" yesterday which might be figurative poetry. I try to be more of a technical writer (e.g. of user manuals) than a literary author (e.g. of fiction).

Anyway if you're trying to learn something new then you ought to be open to (even looking for) new meaning (and if you're not trying to learn something new, and about Buddhism, I ask myself why you're posting a question).

For the field of Buddhism, which has lots of specific terminology, perhaps we need something similar when establishing what a question is about?

I think that many questions I ask are about specific terminology, or use specific terminology, whether in English like ...

  • What is "rebirth"?
  • What is "deathless"?

... or in Pali (which I understand to be a language, some of words of which Buddhists have tried to use in a specific way), like,

  • What is "effluent (Āsava)"
  • What is "identity-view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)

Skeptics.SE requires some very definite research and references to establish the validity and content of every single question.

Well that may be a good idea.

Today for example I read an English translation of a sutta which mentioned "liberation".

I found another translation of that sutta and it said "release".

I looked at the Pali version of the sutta and it said "something-vimutti".

So I learned that vimutti is a word.

Look that up in a Glossary and it's given as "deliverance".

IMO it's not a very famous word (I don't know why but nirvana/nibanna is more famous, isn't it?).

Still perhaps it's an important word.

I can search for that word (e.g. using Google, and/or on Access to Insight).

I can search for it on this web site.

If I still don't understand it or have a question about it, then I can (and might) ask about it on the site.

Having done that "definite research" I might have formed a specific, better, understandable question.

Furthermore I can give a reference (i.e. to a specific word like vimutti, to a sutta which uses it, or to an article which explains it and that I still don't fully understand).

Doing that might still be hit-and-miss, but it's making an effort.

(Generally I dislike re-reading my questions but I like people reading people's answers to them ... I find my questions are pénible so I try not to inflict them on people often, but the answers are treasure).

Another type of question (which some people like and might prefer that you ask) is when you try to practice Buddhism, and then have a question about the practice.

More like the StackOverflow kind of site, which is less about theory, but where you ask practical problems, solving problems in practice.

  • I thought that the relationship of Mindfulness and the Observer was very practical, and it arose from my experience. At least one of the people I linked to seems to think so as well.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 13:09
  • famous poem: The Imaginary Iceberg, by Elizabeth Bishop (married to Robert Browning). Sometimes poems are more important than facts. Like, the Heart Sutra.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 13:12
  • I thought that the relationship of Mindfulness and the Observer was very practical -- Well yes (I think, because that came up in the context of supervising yourself at work). Using my (private) vocabulary perhaps I prefer a more 'integrated' experience (and, long ago now, felt alarm that such an observer may be 'unwholesome'), though it's also true that a certain (precise type of) 'detachment' may be desirable. Using Buddhist (common) vocabulary (i.e. Buddhist specializations of words like 'mindful') there's a mis-match between your (special) use of the words and their (special) use.
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 13:56
  • Sometimes poems are more important than facts. Like, the Heart Sutra. I've seen someone (some old anglophone non-Buddhist) describe "important" as a "dusty" word. My knowledge of poetry is fairly naive; it's not a subject (a body of knowledge) that I've ever been formally taught; I gather from overhearing English majors ('major' as in 'undergraduate') that literary theory is a subject; and maybe there's philosophy about the theory of 'meaning' (is that called "semiotics"?). I specialized towards Maths (instead of English etc.) because I thought Maths is more objectively right and wrong ...
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:09
  • ... I thought I liked Maths because it allowed me to know for myself (when writing equations) whether what was writing was (objectively) 'correct', and thus avoid having my work (if I were instead writing essays or poetry) judged by (as I naively saw it then, in my early teens) a merely subjective/aesthetic/private opinion of whoever the English teacher might be. I looked at the Imaginary poem that you referenced and didn't understand its meaning (i.e. I thought that its meaning if any wasn't obvious to me). The Iceberg might be a metaphor for something, I suppose, but don't know what.
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:13
  • Are you saying that the Heart Sutra is not factual? :)
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:14
  • I studied Philosophy for a little while as an Undergraduate, thinking it would help me know objectively what is right and wrong. It does not, except after the fact. It is like going to a Coroner when you feel unwell. To me, when I read the Imaginary Iceberg today, it seemed to be eloquently about nonduality, which had not clicked in the past. I like the Heart Sutra, because it systematically disavows every single major truth of Buddhism, such as: "There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to follow." If this is factual, then Buddhism is a lie. (Implication?)
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 23:18
  • The curriculum specializes earlier in the UK: as an undergraduate I only had one subject i.e. various flavours of maths ... ditto at school, for the last 2 or 3 years of my secondary (high) school my only subjects (except one "general studies" class mostly of 20th century history) were maths, more maths, and physics (plus french which I already knew). I studied a few languages (latin, greek, german, russian, french, and english) between the ages of about 11 and 14. I've basically never studied any humanities (e.g. Soc and Psych) nor Philosophy, nor American literature (except Science Fiction).
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 23:37
  • Wow. Well, SciFi should be enough for anyone, if they read Larry Niven, I suppose :-) In US college / university, one can go the first 2 years (age 18-20 or so) without even declaring a major, let alone having any particular direction in school prior to that. Maybe someone could do some research on how this radical difference between US and UK education pays off? What is each system good for and bad for? I have long said that specializing early is the way to become an expert, but I never imagined not studying other things as a teenager. Maybe being an expert is not the most important thing?
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 23:45
  • @nocomprende The Heart Sutra is a.k.a. "Perfection of Wisdom". So I think it's meant to describe the insight of a well-enlightened bodhisattva. Buddhism suggests that a cause of suffering is ignorance, so 'perfection of wisdom' => 'no suffering'. That's what and why the Buddha's teaching is ... I don't understand that as implying that the teaching is non-factual, nor that Buddhism is a lie. "No path to follow" reminds me of the Brahmana Sutta ...
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 23:57
  • ... which isn't meant to imply that there is for example no Eight-fold Way, I think it's saying that having reached the destination the Buddha became trackless (apada).
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 0:02
  • I suggest that Buddhism is a lie to children. The Heart Sutra is intended to wake them from the lie, at such time as they can awaken. It is like seeing the morning light in your room when you open your eyes. It is beautiful, but to one stuck in the "cave" it is too bright to be comfortable. But that is a poetic interpretation, of a poem, and so does not put my dinner on the table.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 0:04
  • It sounds odd (and wrong) to me to describe it as a lie (although yes I have read the 'lie to children' Wikipedia article ... when they taught me Physics they more-or-less avoided 'lie to children' by teaching it as a history of physics, e.g. "Rutherford's model of the atom" etc.). Re. Buddhism, a parallel to this is described in the story of the "parable of the burning house" in the Lotus Sutra. Also Nothing Exists is maybe a warning or an example.
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 0:46

Is it possible to avoid wasting time and energy on this kind of thing?

You can ask here on meta if your question makes sense to other people and if they are understanding as you expect.

Other than that, you can get a sense from the answers of where people are drifting. And if the answers are still insufficient and you feel at lost on how to formulate your question in a different way, you can come to conclusion that the only thing left to do is study the subject at hand and clear your doubts. Moreover, a few paragraph long of text are often unable to properly convey hard-to-understand information. From what I see, many answers for your last question provided links, to wikipedia, to articles, and to books.

In that sense, they did provide some material where the reader can look up further -- which in some sense also means "I might have not made any sense with what I'm saying, but here are some sources that might help you in your inquiry". In a way, taking the material and going further is also acknowledging the limits of this community to understand and answer questions -- which is an important thing, I think.

You might think your question was a simple one. But that episode shows how it is not. Take "what is a bug?": most programmers (which are people you'd expect to know this) think they know what it is, but you'll probably get answers that refer to ambiguous or different things (hence, forerunners of the field coming up with more precise definitions using as terminology "error", "fault", "failure", etc).

For instance, you gave a definition for "The Observer", but one thing to ask is if that definition is precise enough to be clearly understood by your audience. For one thing, the definitions you gave are a couple of sentences long. As a contrast, the link I referred to in my answer points to a book entirely devoted to a single term: sati (tr. as "mindfulness").

Personally, upon seeing The Observer is the experience of being aware of myself, my first impulse is to reflect what 'experience', 'being aware', and 'myself' refer to?. One could read this and think I'm unable to understand common sense and ordinary english words: the problem again is that the formulation insufficiently precise to give a satisfying comparison. I did my best to fill the gaps and answer as I understood, as I did not want to sound like nitpicking in the comments. Again, I and others provided material.

A tangent here is that buddhist literature has a vocabulary that, often, is precise to a rare degree (and if we take abhidhamma in consideration, we get into formal ground). This has repercussions if one is trying to compare two systems of thought.

On another note, since you gave personal definitions, people felt they could tackle the question from what they understood. What you could have done from the beginning is better establish the field you are in (e.g. with a body of strong references) to avoid answers from people who have no prior knowledge. I for one, would never tackle a question that asks for a buddhist understanding of "identity" according to philosopher XYZ, if I'm not familiar with his/her works.

Finally, I think part of the burning out is the unending flow of comments. Engaging in them is optional -- and I think it's wise to chose not to when it's about back-and-forth discussions of concepts that won't get a satisfying explanation in such modality.

  • (I didn't understand what "formal ground" means).
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 17:54
  • 1
    I meant that in its attempt to disambiguate the teachings, it ends up moving towards a formal system -- IIRC, monks from old even wrote books about proof methods. It might not be rigorous to certain current standards, but then again, mathematical proofs are considered informal from the logician standpoint...
    – user382
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 18:04
  • I recently purchased Beth Jacobs book about Abhidhamma, so perhaps I can reach bedrock soon.
    – user2341
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 23:51
  • @nocomprende I hope it's a good reading! I just re-read this answer and it felt somewhat rushed and rude, I'm sorry if it sounded like that.
    – user382
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 1:07

We have to come terms that even in Buddhism each lineage has different interpretation of key terminology sometime bending them to suite or justify a certain mode of pratice. Also pali is not easy to render into English in some cases. With these two issues when certain concepts are rendered into english the issue regarding terminology is further exacerbated. So it would be worldwide to be elaborate as possible on what you mean. If possible include the Pali terms within brackets if you know them.

Also many question in this site seems to be from novice. In such case do not assume what we might know the terms from your background on the site.

I see you have brought up the notion of an observer. This also many present in different ways based on the how someone would explain it. At the core of the rendering is trying to get right of the grasping to concept of person as such grasping give arise to unsatisfactoriness, e.g., someone external has done something not agreeable or you wishing to be of some other nature. One perhaps misunderstood rendering is there is no observer. More correct rendering is what you know about an observer is perception you generate in your mind (Satta Puggala Sanna) about the observer and not the actual observer. Also what you have is concepts about an observer our tendency is to take a static or entity view on the person but in reality is changing process conditions by Dependent Origination. Any mind generated view is a concept (pannatti) hence this is why the book dealing with concepts of the types of Persons (Puggala) is dealt with in the Abhidhamma is called Puggalapannatti. What is a Pannatti is not atomic as it constitutes by Citta, Chetisika and Rupa which are atomic. Buddhism has 2 truths which are atomic / indivisible / ultimate and non atomic / divisible / conventional or conceptual. Hence ultimately even in Buddhism concepts some further explanation and clarification may be merited to avoid miscommunication for people who might not exactly know Buddhist concepts so the site remains accessible to people who are new to Buddhism.


The crux of your issue is that there are many different schools of Buddhism.

They mostly parallel on about everything, some exceptions of course... but the underlying world view varies only subtly with most schools.

There are lineages of varying traditions, where idea A might be called two different things, or word B refers to multiple ideas differently across schools.

This is why it is recommended to take on a guru, a mentor and teacher already versed in the terms, and practicing their school and/or linage and studying it.

These things can be studied in books and texts, but it is easier to communicate ideas and address questions in person.

  • The problem might be that words like "mindful" and "observer" might (allegedly) have a meaning, not only in different schools of Buddhism, but also in conventional American English and/or in schools of (Western) Psychology, which the OP has been versed in.
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 13:03

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