I’ve been taking the opportunity to read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful (as always!) translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. If you haven’t got it, what are you waiting for?
I noticed a little sutta in the threes, and it struck me that this humble little text is probably the best candidate for the title of the first Jataka story in Buddhism. The text is AN 3.15 Pacetana. There are no known parallels for this text, which is, however, not unusual for the Anguttara Nikaya.
What are the Jatakas?
Jatakas tell of events in the past lives of the Buddha, and sometimes of other personalities from the Buddha’s life. They are everywhere in traditional Buddhism; told in sermons, read to children at bedtime, recited in great ceremonies, depicted in artwork. Yet one of the striking things about Buddhist texts is how few there are in the early teachings. While the Pali tradition alone preserves over 500 stories canonically, and many more in later collections, only a dozen or so are found in the early Nikaya/Agamas. There is an excellent essay on the topic by TW Rhys Davids. It’s a little dated, but still well worth a read. However, Rhys Davids does not notice our current sutta.
I’m greatly struck, in fact, by how few stories there are in the Anguttara (and other Nikayas). Buddhism is one of the greatest story-telling traditions in the world, and yet the Buddha himself seems not to have told many stories at all. The vast majority of suttas are straightforward statements or dialogues on ethics, meditation, and the like. They are often illustrated with similes, and somewhat less frequently with short parables. But there is very little in the way of extended narrative; and most of the narrative that there is is by way of background, not spoken by the Buddha himself. Of course there are exceptions, like the Agganna and Cakkavattisihanada Suttas of the Digha; but few and far between. Why this is, I do not know.
The Pacetana Sutta is another exception. It is a simple story, at the end of which the Buddha identifies himself as the main character, thus qualifying it as a Jataka. While there are several other Jatakas in the early Agamas, most of them contain features that strongly suggest they are of a later date than most of the early Suttas. Alone among the Agama-Jatakas, so far as I can tell, the Pacetana contains a range of features suggesting that it is early.
There was once a king called Pacetana who asked his wheelwright to make a pair of wheels for a battle which was to take place six months later. When but six days remained of this period, only one wheel had been made, but the other was finished within the stipulated time. Pacetana thought that both wheels were alike, but the wheelwright proved to him that the one he had made hurriedly was faulty in various ways, owing to the crookedness of its parts. The Buddha identified himself with the wheelwright and declared that one must be free from all crookedness in order not to fall away from the Dhamma and the Vinaya.
Why is it special?
This is one of those cases where there is not one thing that is particularly unusual. Rather, there are many little details that taken together suggest, to me, that the text is somehow distinctive, and may have originally been, or been considered as, the first Jataka story. Here’s a list of points I noticed.
- The king is unknown. He is not a stereotyped king, such as the Brahmadatta found in so many later Jatakas.
- The Buddha does not identify himself as a Bodhisatta in the past. This is a common feature of all the early Jatakas. There is no suggestion here that the Buddha in the past knew that he was destined for Awakening, or that he was engaged on a spiritual quest spanning many lives, or indeed that what he did in that life had anything to do with Awakening. In other early Jatakas, in fact, he specifically denies that the practices of those days lead to Awakening. (Bearing this in mind, I won’t refer to him as the Bodhisatta in this discussion.)
- While in most canonical Jatakas the Buddha identifies himself as a great king or sage of the past, here the Buddha identifies himself with a lowly chariotmaker. In many other suttas of the Anguttara, the chariotmaker is listed as a lowly, menial occupation like a scavenger, flower-collector, or rubbish-sweeper. (Ven Bodhi’s translation obscures this point somewhat; the translation uses the more distinguished “chariot-maker” here, and “cart-maker” in the other contexts; but the Pali in both cases is rathakara.)
- There is a distinct absence of miracles and wonderous events. Even when pressed by the king, the chariotmaker is unable to do his job well. He is clearly constrained by the usual demands of his craft, unlike the near-superhuman abilities of Bodhisattas in many other stories.
- The chariotmaker would seem to be engaged in wrong livelihood, or at best an ethically dubious trade: making weapons of war. There are, it is true, many Jatakas of the later periods where the Bodhisatta is depicted as breaking various precepts, but this is still noteworthy. It is also perhaps significant that the chariot, specifically the two-wheeled chariot, was the distinctive war vessel of the Aryan people and was, it seems, the decisive technological innovation that spurred their great success in spreading their culture across the world; as unstoppable as the Wheel of Dhamma itself…
- The moral of the story is the importance of gradual development. While not at all unusual in the Suttas, this differs from certain later trends, which emphasized an instantaneous realization.
- There is considerable confusion about the name, both of the king and of the sutta. Variants include Pacetana, Sacetana, Paccetana, etc.; and the sutta is sometimes called “Cakkavatti”. This is interesting, since the sutta refers to the “rolling of a wheel”, but not to the “Wheel-turning Monarch”, which is what the Cakkavatti usually refers to. The previous sutta, in fact, mentions the Wheel-turning Monarch. There seems to be some confusion; perhaps—and this is very speculative—the Pacetana Sutta was the kernel from which the idea of the Wheel-turning Monarch was derived.
- On the same topic, and on more solid ground, it is very striking that this sutta, which deals with “rolling forth a wheel”, is said to have been set at Benares, in the Deer Park. This is, of course, where the Buddha taught his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the “Rolling Forth of the Wheel of the Dhamma”; and the same words are used here. While some later Suttas were taught there, it was not a very common setting. This detail is even more striking when we realize that very few of the suttas in the Anguttara have a proper setting. In almost all cases they simply have an abbreviated setting, or none at all. When the settings are included, it is usually because they have some special relevance for the teaching. So it seems certain that the setting is significant here. Probably it is meant to establish some connection with the First Sermon. And perhaps it is meant to suggest that this is the First Jataka…
- Not only is this the first Sutta in the Anguttara spoken by the Buddha to be given a proper setting, it is the first story told by the Buddha in the Anguttara.
- Unlike the later Jatakas and most of the more substantial suttas, this does not have an ABA structure. Rather, the story is told, then the moral is drawn out. Once again, in itself this is nothing spectacular, but it does suggest, however mildly, a lack of systematic revision.
- The king converses in quite a familiar manner with his chariotmaker. This doesn’t sound like a magnificent monarch of the Moriyan era, nor yet a legendary king of old. It sounds like a little lordling of a smallish garrison city. The preparations for war are, to say the least, perfunctory: one chariot! Of course, in some ways things are no different today: military contracts still don’t come in on time…
- When the wheel is rolled forth, the text speaks of giving the wheel “impetus” to roll. This is, in Pali, abhisaṅkhāra. This term is more normally found in the Pali texts in a more refined, abstract usage, where it is equivalent to cetanā, or intention; in fact, it tends to be used in somewhat technical discussions of kamma and the like. Here it appears in its simpler, older, physical meaning. I wonder whether there is any connection with the king’s name: Pacetana, the “One Whose Will is Done”, perhaps?
- Similarly, when describing the flaws in the wheel, the text uses terms in a physical sense that are more often found in a psychological sense in Pali: savaṅkā sadosā sakasāvā. Also kusala is found in its older sense of “skilled” rather than the more familiar ethical sense.
- In yet another unusual feature, when the Buddha draws out the moral of the story, he says that if “any bhikkhu or bhikkhuni” sees flaws in themselves, they should abandon them. The inclusion of bhikkhunis like this is very unusual in the Pali texts; a quick search only turns up four or five similar cases. Call me biassed, but I have a suspicion that the editors of the Pali canon, whether by accident or design, excluded the bhikkhunis by default. The Satipatthana Sutta, for example, mentions the bhikkhunis in the Sarvastivada version, not in the Pali. If this is correct, it is another sign that this sutta may be early, and has escaped significant editorial alteration.
- The text conforms to the “waxing syllables principle”. This means that in various lists of terms, the words with more syallables come later in the list, such as the phrase I quoted earlier: savaṅkā sadosā sakasāvā. This has been shown in detail by Mark Allon to be an outstanding stylistic feature of the early Pali texts, and an indication of their origin in oral culture.
- Perhaps the most significant feature of all is the text’s use of numbers. Just like the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the text is carefully built around a subtly interlocking set of numbers. Where the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta features “two extremes”, the eightfold path, and the “four noble truths”, in “three rounds” totalling “twelve aspects”, the Pacetana Sutta has the two wheels, each with three parts, each with three potential flaws. These are to be completed in 6 months, but at 6 days short of 6 months only one is done; and the second, poor quality job, is finished in 6 days. The three parts of the wheel parallel the three trainings, each of which also has three potential flaws. While the text doesn’t draw out the connection, it seems a parallel is implied thus: rim=body; spokes=speech; hub=mind. Now, the use of numbers in this way can be seen from a number of angles. But what is this text telling us at its heart: that careful craftsmanship produces a long-lasting, stable wheel. And the long-lasting and stability of the Wheel of Dhamma was indeed one of the major concerns of early Buddhists. I suspect our Sutta is suggesting to us, and perhaps to the early generations of redactors, that well-constructed, formally symmetrical texts, using such mnemonic devices as interlocking numbers to create memorable structures, are the key to preserving the Dhamma.