Chinese Agama texts are now on SuttaCentral

At last, after a very long time, you can read the Chinese Agama texts on SuttaCentral. In the past we linked to the texts on the CBETA site, but now you can stay within SuttaCentral, and especially, use our amazing Chinese>English lookup tool, which is available in the sidebar.

Given the vast number of texts involved there are bound to be some errors, so please help out by letting me know if you spot any.

If you have some knowledge of the suttas, and would like to start plunging into the Agama world, I suggest you begin with the Samyuktagama. This, like the Pali Samyutta, has mostly simple doctrinal suttas, which use mostly familiar phrases and expressions.

Start with the first suttas in the collection. You can see that we have translations for the first 34 suttas; these are by Ven Analayo, so they are very accurate. You can read the Chinese texts using the lookup tool alongside the translation. You’d be surprised how quickly things start to make sense! Once you’ve read these 34 suttas you’ll be well on your way to exploring independently.

With the inclusion of these texts, SuttaCentral now has almost all the extant early Buddhist texts. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that the vast majority of the Buddha’s words in their earliest form have been gathered in one place, in one coherent form.

However, we still have some missing pieces:

  • A few Chinese texts are still missing. These are mostly later texts which include small segments that have been identified as parallels with the early texts. In most cases, it wouldn’t be worth it to add these vast texts for the sake of a few parallels, so for the foreseeable future they will remain as external links.
  • Some Sanskrit texts are missing; these are texts that are either not yet published, or not available in digital form. If and when Sanskrit texts become available, we will add them.
  • Tibetan early Buddhist texts. We are looking to add these in the next year.

Given the vast corpus of literature, and the uncertain boundaries of what an early text actually is, it will never be possible to clearly say that a collection of early Buddhist texts is complete. But we are getting pretty close.

In addition to the Chinese texts, we have in recent weeks added sutta translations in Indonesian and Spanish. We hope to greatly expand our coverage of translations in the coming year.

That we could get so far is due to the very hard work and countless hours that have been given by so many workers, many of them volunteers, who have made their work available for others to use. In this way the Buddha’s words continue to be a living force, adapting to new environments.

In particular, the Chinese texts we have added were all typed, formatted, and curated by the amazing CBETA project, mainly based at Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. We have incredible gratitude for the wonderful folk at CBETA, who have created an incredibly careful, detailed digital edition of the vast corpus of Chinese Buddhist texts, and have made it available freely for all.

I hope that in the future people will take the texts on SuttaCentral and do new and amazing things with them, and that they make us out of date as soon as possible!


The date of the Buddha’s birth

The last couple of days I’ve received a whole bunch of emails announcing a breakthrough in dating the Buddha. An international team of archeologists has dug beneath the previously excavated remains at the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, where they found the remnants of a wooden structure, which was dated to the 6th century BCE. Breathless reports in the New York Times and elsewhere said that this is the first time we can fix a concrete date to the Buddha’s life.

Okay, so great, new findings are always welcome But what did they find, exactly? I haven’t had the chance to read the peer-reviewed article yet. But the topic was posted on the academic discussion forum H-Buddhism, where Jonathon Silk had the following to say:

what has been found is wood beneath the Asokan layer. There is *no* indication that the wood is connected with the Buddha in any way shape or form. … And in fact, except for a single–I would say incautious–sentence, the article basically says this… the traditional spot rebuilt by Asoka had earlier a wooden structure upon it. What that structure may have been, and whether it could conceivably have had any connection with the Buddha–no evidence at all!

Sorry about that. Truth can be dull, can’t it? The fuss did raise the following interesting response from Achim Bayer. It discusses the prestige in which archeology seems to be regarded, which avid readers will recognize is an issue I have whinged about before. Good to see this is being addressed directly.

Another of the issues involved is that archeology, dealing with material things, seems to be considered “science”, while the study of history as a whole is just “humanities” (at least in the anglophone world) and thus less reliable.

These were my experiences when dealing with the “Lama Wearing Trousers” last year.

I have now organized a panel by the title “Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at the IABS 2014 in Vienna – to which everyone interested in such methodological questions is warmly invited.

Interpretation of the third Precept pericope—evidence from the Agamas, by Ravichander R

I’ve had some conversations off-list with our commenter Ravichander. He had some interesting thoughts regarding the third precept, so I encouraged him to put them in a form I could publish here. So here they are. Congratulations, Ravichander, it’s not easy doing this reasearch!


Preliminary evidence from the Agama version suggests that the explanation of sexual misconduct referred to rape or at least included it in its purview. Further comparisons from the Chinese/Sanskrit fragments would add more clarity to this matter.

Interpretation of the third Precept pericope

While browsing through the translations from the Tibetan version of the Upayika at, I came across the passage that explains the precept on sexual misconduct. It was much the same as the Pali version except for one significant detail1. This led to a hunt for the Sanskrit/Agama version of the passage resulting in this study.

I give the Pali text and its translation first:

Kāmesumicchācārī kho pana hoti. Yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sassāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.2

Translation 1: He is given over to misconduct in sexual desires: he has intercourse with such (women) as are protected by the mother, father, (mother and father), brother, sister, relatives, as have a husband, as entail a penalty, and also with those that are garlanded in token of betrothal.3

Translation 2: Misbehaves in sexuality, misbehaving with those protected by father, mother, mother and father, brother, sister, relations, with those with a husband, becoming liable to punishment, or even those garlanded and made to promise.4

(Italics mine)

The Pali doesn’t actually say ‘has intercourse with’ or ‘misbehaving with’. Literally it says ‘gets into action’ with them (cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti). Of course, from the context it has been inferred that it refers to sex and hence sex with any of the types of women listed in the passage is considered a violation of the third precept.

The list itself seems to be illustrative of various kinds of single (unmarried/widowed/celibate) and non-single (married/betrothed) women.

(Some editions of the sutta apparently don’t include ‘gottarakkhita’ meaning protected by the clan/gotra and ‘dhammarakkhita’ meaning protected by dhamma usually interpreted to mean nuns. They are not included in the translations presented above)

Parallel versions I have been able to find so far:

Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana sutra

( kiṁ nu) tvayānanda śrutaṁ yās tā vṛjīnāṁ vṛjiprajāpatyo) vṛjikumārikāś) ca pitṛrakṣitā mātṛrakṣitā bhrātṛrakṣitā bhaginīrakṣitāḥ śvaśurarakṣitāḥ śvaśrurakṣitā jñātirakṣitā gotrarakṣitāḥ saparidaṇḍāḥ sasvāmikāḥ kan)yāḥ paraparigṛ(hītā antaśo) mālāguṇaparikṣiptā api tadrūpāsu) na sa (hasā cāritram āpadyante | )5

Dharmaskandha, Sarvastivada Abhidharma

DhskM 21r8. -mithyācārād vairamaṇir upāsakasya śikṣāpadam iti kāmamithyācāraḥ katamaḥ / evaṃ hy uktaṃ bhagavatā kāmamithyācārī khalv ihaiko bhavati sa yās tā bhavanti parastriyaḥ parabhāryās tadyathā mātṛrakṣitā vā pitṛrākṣitā vā //

DhskM 21r9. śvaśrūrakṣitā vā śvaśurarakṣitā vā jñātirakṣitā vā jātirakṣitā vā gotrarakṣitā vā sadaṇḍāḥ / sāvaraṇāḥ sadaṇḍāvaraṇā antato mālāguṇaparikṣiptā / api tadrūpāsu sahasā balenānupraskandya kāmeṣu cāritram āpadyaty ayam ucyate ///

Upayika version

Some who have committed sexual misconduct—these are those who have not abstained from sexual misconduct, that is, seducing a woman guarded by her mother or guarded by her father or guarded by her brother or guarded by her sister or guarded by her father-in-law or guarded by her mother-in-law or guarded by her relatives or guarded by her family or guarded by her clan or a woman who has been garlanded in token of betrothal and isunder threat of punishment and veiled, because she has been already obtained by somebody else and is thus somebody else’s woman, or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her.

German Translation of a Chinese version from Mulasarvastivada Vinaya

Ananda, hast du wohl gehört und weißt du, ob die frauen und jungfrauen jenes Landes behütet werden von den Müttern, behütet werden von den Vätern oder von den Brüdern, den Schwestern, den schwiegereltern oder der verwandtschaft behütet werden; ob diese (verwandten) sie, wenn sie übertretungen begangen haben, ermahnen und strafen; ob (die Frauen und Jungfrauen,) wenn sie Frauen order Nebenfrauen eines anderen (d.h. Mannes) geworden sind und sogar durch blumenüberreichung deren Ehefrauen zu werden gestattet haben, nicht mit diesen übereilt unsittliche Dinge treiben?6

(Italics mine)

Apart from the inclusion/variations in the list of women, the material difference seems to be the addition of the Sanskrit/Pali word – sahasā.

This term has two meanings: (i) Forcibly and (ii) Hastily

That the Chinese version also contained the word ‘sahasā’ can be inferred from the German word ‘übereilt’ in the translation. It means hasty/rash.

Choice of translation

The Tibetan translators of the Upayika apparently preferred the first meaning (forcibly) while the Chinese the second (hastily). We have two sources to show that the first meaning is to be preferred.

Vasala sutta in the Suttanipata(uraga vagga) uses the term ‘sahasā’ contrasting it with ‘sampiyena’ clearly referring to forced vs consensual sex. The commentary also confirms this.

‘‘Yo ñātīnaṃ sakhīnaṃ vā, dāresu paṭidissati;

Sāhasā [sahasā (sī. syā.)] sampiyena vā, taṃ jaññā vasalo iti.

Commentary: sāhasāti balakkārena

The Dharmaskandha version quoted above glosses the word with ‘balenānupraskandya’ ie having entered by force.

Construing the sentence with sahasā

The English translation of the Upayika adds ‘or’ to the last phrase. But the Sanskrit sources do not seem to contain it and neither does the Pali.

The last type of woman listed is ‘even those garlanded and made to promise’ ie betrothed. The addition of ‘api’(even) shows that the list has come to an end.

Then comes the phrase ‘tathārūpāsu’ which can be translated as with such women as these; The commentary confirms this by saying ‘evarūpāsu itthīsu’. This would imply that the list is only illustrative(showing the range of single/non-single women) and not exhaustive.

Now, including the word ‘sahasā’ following the Northern sources we have ‘sahasā cārittam āpajjitā hoti’. This translates to ‘gets into forcible action with’.

Therefore, the passage ends with ‘(he) gets into forcible action with women such as these’. In the absence of words like or/and (vā/ca), I feel the whole pericope refers exclusively to rape. I can’t see how else to construe the passage.

This point can be clarified only by collecting and comparing all parallel versions of this passage.( I hope Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā can re-confirm if the Tibetan Upayika indeed contains ‘or’ in the final phrase).

For discussion (not a conclusion!)

The question remains whether the word ‘sahasā’ was dropped from the Pali version or added to the Sanskrit version. Even if it was added by the Sarvastivadins, it would imply that they added it as a clarificatory gloss. This further implies that they considered the pericope as referring to rape even without the word.

However, it might just be possible that the word was dropped inadvertently or advertently from the Pali.

Inadvertantly because the sentence makes easier sense with the word – ‘acts forcibly’ instead of just ‘acts’.

Advertantly perhaps to widen the meaning to include consensual sex with the non-single women listed.

Only when more translations of the Agama versions are made available, can we draw any definite conclusions.

Irrespective of the meaning of the pericope, it is generally agreed that every precept has a primary meaning and then a wider one – as evidenced by many canonical passages. Thus the first precept primarily refers to killing but the wider meaning includes cruelty of any kind. The fourth precept primarily refers to false testimony but in a wider sense to any kind of harmful lies/slander. Similarly the third precept might primarily refer to rape but certainly includes adultery in its wider sense as evidenced, for example, by the Veludvara sutta in the Samyutta nikaya.

1 Includes the phrase “or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her”. (

2 Saleyyaka Sutta MN41 (



5; Text probably based on the work of Ernst Waldschmidt

6 Researches in Indian and Buddhist Philosophy: Essays in honour of Professor Alex Wayman; Pg 13.(translation by Ernst Waldschmidt)

A Sanskrit problem

Update: Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion. This translations is now live on SuttaCentral! We have released a large number of texts, and a few translations. Some of these have never before been released in digital forms. You can see the list of texts here. Original texts are the highlighted links in the left-most column; translations are on the right. Enjoy.

I’ve been dabbling in a little Sanskrit translation, and there are some points where you just go, “What the!?” I thought I’d try crowdsourcing, and see whether any of you can help with an occasional knotty turn of phrase. Here goes.

There is a Sanskrit version of the “Nagara Sutta”, which tells how the Buddha rediscovered the Dhamma, like coming across an ancient city. It is part of the Nidana samyukta, and is one of those dependent origination texts that does not complete the full 12 links, but goes as far as the mutual dependence of viññāṇa and nāmarūpa. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ven Bodhi’s book on the Mahanidana Sutta is the best!)

Here, the Sanskrit has a peculiar phrase:

tasya mama vijñānātpratyudāvartate mānasaṃ nātaḥ pareṇa vyativartate

The Pali parallel is this:

Tassa mayhaṃ, bhikkhave, etadahosi– paccudāvattati kho idaṃ viññāṇaṃ nāmarūpamhā na paraṃ gacchati.

Which we would translate:

Monks, it occurred to me: this consciousness turns back from name and form, it does not go beyond.

There are a number of peculiar features of the Sanskrit. First, the opening phrase appears truncated, and probably should be read, “tasya mamaitad abhavat“.

vijñānātpratyudāvartate is straightforward, and directly parallels the Pali.

But where the Pali has nāmarūpa, the Sanskrit has mānasa. Mānasa just means “mind”, but it is a rare term, normally reserved for poetry (cf. Metta Sutta: mānasambhāvaye aparimāṇaṁ) It’s appearance here in dependent origination is just weird.

Then there’s the word nātaḥ, for which the only meaning I can find is “dancer”(!) The whole phrase looks to me as if it’s just dropped in there.

Finally we have pareṇa vyativartate, which looks to me like a misreading for: pare na vyativartate.

I have tentatively translated the phrase as:

“Then it occurred to me: ‘Consciousness turns back at the mind (mānasa), it does not go beyond.’

But I have to admit this is more a reconstruction based on what I think it probably means, rather than a direct translation.

Anyone care to offer some help?

A good day for fans of the Suttas

Two great pieces of news for all of you sutta fans out there.

First, the first part the long-awaited translation of the Madhyama Agama has been released. This translation was sponsored by the Numata Foundation, with principle translators Ven Analayo and Rod Bucknell, and also Marcus Bingenheimer. It consists of the first 71 suttas (out of 222). This is a historic event, and constitutes the first ever translation of a major early Buddhist collection from Chinese into English.

Moreover, the translation has been done by a highly qualified team, and I have no doubt it will serve to establish a “canonical” method of translation of early Buddhist texts from Chinese, much as the work of Venerables Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi has with the Pali texts.

As a monk I am not supposed to tell people what to do with their money, but I can drop hints. So here’s a hint: go here and buy this book. Is that subtle enough? We’ve ordered some copies for Bodhinyana, and can’t wait to see them. So far the book is released in hard copy only; but this is one book you will want to have on your shelves. Numata does a nice hardback, clean and well-produced. Typically they release their translations in pdf form a few years after the original publication.

The second great news: Wisdom Publications has launched their new website. This includes selections from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations. You can access them through here. If you haven’t started with the suttas yet, this is your best introduction.

SuttaCentral: the Upayika

Following the launch of SuttaCentral, I’d like to do a series of blog posts to discuss various aspects of the site. I’ll be picking topics more or less at random, and posting them when I can. If there’s anything about the site you’d like to know more of, let me know.

For today, let’s look a little bit at one of the texts that is likely to be new, even to those who have some knowledge of the suttas. That is a text called the Upayika. You can access it straight from the front page of SuttaCentral: or at least you can access the bits that we have ready.

The Upayika is a collection of quotes from the early suttas that was gathered by a monk called Śamathadeva, who probably lived in India sometime after the 5th century. The full name is Abhidharmakośopāyikanāmaṭīkā, so you’ll appreciate that we use the abbreviated form! The Upayika is sort of like a reader’s assistent for the great work of Vasubandhu, the Abhidharmakośa. The Kośa frequently refers to suttas from the early Āgamas, but it assumes the reader knows them (or has access to them). So Śamathadeva took it upon himself to hunt down those references and compile them in one text.

The original was composed in Sanskrit, and includes texts from the Mūlasarvāstivādin school. The Sanskrit no longer exists, but it was translated into Tibetan by a monk called Jāyaśrī, probably around the 11th century. Even though the work as a whole is of late date, even a casual perusal of the texts reveals that it simply copies out the Āgama texts as is, and in doing so provides an invaluable source of many texts that are otherwise unknown, or known only in Chinese translations. It is one of the major sources of early Buddhist texts in the Tibetan canon.

Modern work on the text has been mainly by a Japanese scholar called Honjo. His work has been taken up and brought to the English speaking world by Samaneri Dhammadinna, formerly Giuliana Martini. She’s working at Dharma Drum mountain in Taiwan. She has published a number of articles, with excellent studies of the texts, as well as some translations. She is working on a more complete edition and translation of the text, and we look forward to continue working with her as this long-term project develops.

So far, we only have a few of the Upayika texts listed as parallels, and even fewer translations. Confident that the work is in good hands, we hope to extend our coverage of this important work in the not-too distant future. In the meantime, you can check out the translations that we have, and if you’re interested to learn more about this fascinating collection, the links to Samaneri Dhammadinna’s full essays on the texts are provided on the translation pages.

The new SuttaCentral is live

I have some wonderful news today: our new SuttaCentral is finally live!

You can see it here at:

We have been working very hard on this for some time now, and are very happy with the results so far. I will be writing on various aspects of this project in the coming weeks, so for now let me just introduce a few of our main features.

  • A complete new design from top to bottom. The whole site, in fact has been rewritten from the ground up.
  • Much faster more powerful navigation.
  • Instant search!
  • Many added new references and improved structure
  • Many texts are now hosted on site, including the main Suttas of the Pali, the Vietnamese translations, and some English and Korean translations.
  • Brand new translations from the Saṁykuta Āgama (both the main and shorter version), and the Upāyika. Together with the older translations of the Ekottara and Dīrgha Āgamas, SuttaCentral now has the most comprehensive collection of Āgama translations available anywhere.
  • We also have newly available online versions of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s classic translations from the Dīgha Nikāya
  • The Pali and Chinese texts have a very cool instant word lookup function. (We only have one Chinese text online for now, more coming soon.)
  • A very powerful, intuitive pretty URL structure: you can go anywhere on the site directly from the address bar if you know the abbreviated uid for the text.
  • A Feedback forum: tell us what we can do to make it better! (BTW, while feedback anywhere is good, generally it will be better to leave specific suggestions for the site on that forum rather than here.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that some time ago I complained about how there was no ready good source of Early Buddhist Texts online. Today, we begin to change that.

There are many areas where we want to expand and improve the site, but I hope that it is already something of help for anyone who wants to learn what the Buddha taught.

I have been absent from this blog for some time, as I have wanted to commit myself fully to getting SuttaCentral ready. Now that it is up, I hope to spend some more time back here.

Get the stuff out of the way, let the Dhamma shine

The New SuttaCentral

In recent weeks I’ve been working hard on the revamped SuttaCentral. Not quite ready for prime time yet, but it won’t be long. SuttaCentral has for several years been the only place on the web you can get reliable and comprehensive data on Sutta correspondences: how to find out whether there are any other versions of a Sutta, and where and what they are. It’s rapidly becoming much more than that, and in future posts I’ll talk about some of the great innovations we’ve put together.

One of the biggest changes is the inclusion of texts on our site itself. In the past we merely linked to texts hosted elsewhere. That means we have full control over the presentation and markup, and can integrate the texts in ways never before possible.

The Upāyikā

Suddenly, all sorts of new things are coming together. One exciting development is the appearance of brand new translations by Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā (ex Giuliana Martini) of the important Tibetan work, the Abhidharmakośopāyikānāmaṭīkā, which she refers to more succinctly as the Upāyikā. This is one of the few Tibetan texts that contains substantial translations of Suttas from the early Āgamas. Previously the only substantial work on this text has been in Japanese. Now Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā has undertaken a series of translations with detailed notes and commentary, and has graciously allowed SuttaCentral to host the text. In keeping with our focus on making accessible the actual texts, we will just present the translated Āgama Sutta portions, and will link to the full essays.

The Upāyikā contains the full text of the many (hundreds?) of passages referred to in Vasubandhu’s famous Abhidharmakośa. It has long been known among scholars of early Buddhism, but we have been ignorant of the detailed contents. Now, thanks to the patient, detailed, careful work of Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, we can all read these precious teachings.

Cut by numbers

But when I was reading her essay, I have a little hiccup moment. Nothing to do with the translation or the essay: I stumbled over the reference system for the texts.

Each translation is given a number, such as Up 9001. When I saw this, I did a double take. What, there’s over 9000 quotations in this book? I knew it was extensive, but that’s a bit much! I was confused, and didn’t know how to interpret the numbers. I looked through the essay and notes, but couldn’t find any explanation. So I emailed Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, and got the answer. It was explained deep within a nearly page-long footnote:

“… the quotation number as established in Honjō 1984 and successive supplementations in his publications (for example, “Up 9001”, which stands for quotation number 1 in chapter IX of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and Upāyikā)…”

Problem solved, no big deal. But somehow this little detail sparked a connection with many other details that I have encountered in my recent work on SuttaCentral. It made it clear for me all the countless ways we, as Buddhist scholars, obscure the work we should be illuminating.

At the time of reading the translations, I was inspired, excited. This is an amazing thing! That such teachings could have survived over thousands of years; transmitted in India in countless generations, then brought to remote, forbidding Tibet and rendered in the local tongue by Śamathadeva, an expert scholar, to be preserved, copied and passed down to us. And now, translated into English so we can all see, once more, the heart of the Dhamma beating in the Suttas.

And then a little reference number changed my emotions from excitement to confusion, from inspiration to doubt, without me even noticing. Suddenly, instead of focussing on the teaching, I was focussing on understanding the reference number. Sure, only a little thing. I got over it. The point is, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

What went wrong? Basically, the reference system ignores conventions. Chapter 9, section 1 should be referenced as “9.1”, not “9001”. This referencing method is simple, informative (because it clearly differentiates between chapter and section), and is used in millions of documents. It is so basic that it’s the default method for numbering “chapter/section” in every software for structured documents, like word processors or LaTeX.


So what’s the difference? Who cares? Once you know the method, you can find what you want, so big deal.

The big deal is that we shouldn’t have to relearn the method. There is already a method, time-honoured and worn smooth by custom and usage. It works fine. And when we use it, it vanishes. If I had seen “Up 9.1” I would not have even noticed it. It is there when I need it, and simply disappears when I don’t.

Think about the road signs, the warning notices, the nutrition information on food. All this structured data is presented in consistent, clear formats so that you can immediately recognise it and use it when you need it without having to think about it. If you have to think, “Is that a speed limit or a no-parking sign?”, it’s failed already.

So why use this unconventional method? Because it was established by the pioneer scholar in this text, Honjō Yoshifumi. This is standard in scholarly circles: keep consistency with previous work. Which is of course a good thing on the whole, but it does result in the perpetuation of outdated data (like the absurd practice of referring to Pali texts by reference to the volume and page of the century-old, often poorly edited editions of the Pali Text Society). Why did Honjō use this method? I have no idea. Maybe they do things differently in Japan.

People matter

Do we really need to keep this consistency? It will only ever be noticed by that subset of sentient beings who are a) human, b) scholars of early Buddhism, and c) fluent in Japanese and English. Not, I suspect, a double-digit audience. On the other hand, there are many people who would be interested to read these in Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā’s excellent, lucid translation. How many? Thousands, at least, probably much more. So why not think about those thousands instead of the tiny handful of professionals?

This is why the Buddha said he did not transgress the conventions of the world: by using conventions properly, they fade into the background so we can focus on what matters.

I know, I know! Why get worked up about something so small? Because, as I suggested earlier, this is just one of a million similar details. The more I work on this material, the more I realise just how abrasive the Buddhist scholarly method is. It’s death by a thousand papercuts. Arcane terminology; massive footnotes; obscure references; dead languages; paywalled journals; pedantic explanations of the obvious and unstated assumption of the unobvious; and the pervasive sense of a dialogue between scholars, not a dialogue with people actually interested in Dhamma.

All this, and much more, is just grit in the gears. Every Pali term is a cypher creating confusion in every single person who reads it (apart from Pali scholars). Every reference number is a meaningless string of symbols unless you are familiar with the field. As long as you place this stuff in the foreground, you are having a conversation between experts. Which, of course, needs to happen. It’s just that it shouldn’t be the only conversation. An outsider who listens to this conversation feels confused and excluded, and, unless they are unusually persistent, they will just give up.

Smooth like butter

We should get the stuff out of the way. Someone who wants to read the Buddha’s words should not have to learn referencing systems, Pali, and abbreviations. They should just get to what they want seamlessly and intuitively.

I was invited for a meal with a very kind and warm Vietnamese family the other day. The kids were playing with iPads. One was very young, I don’t know, maybe 4. I watched how they interacted with the screen, with each other. How intuitive it is! They just pick it up, doing complex tasks without even trying. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring that kind of experience to something profoundly meaningful, like, say, the words of the greatest spiritual teacher ever?

These things don’t happen by accident. They come because the engineers at Google, Apple, Facebook, the gaming companies, or wherever, do their work, and then get out of the way. They know it’s not about the code, it’s about the experience. So they sweat every tiny detail until the code disappears.

People use these things because they have a positive emotional response: they like it. And when you get that kind of engagement, you don’t have to make someone do it. If anything, you have to make them stop.

We should give at least as much time and care and attention to presenting the Buddha’s words as a coder gives to a game. A reader should just read. That’s hard enough, and it’s simply unreasonable to expect more.

Who reads?

A survey of Americans showed that 19% read the Bible daily. Daily. And this was seen by Christians as a worrisome sign of declining religiosity. They asked, “Why don’t all of us read the Bible every day?”

How many Buddhists read the Suttas every day? 1%? Frankly, I doubt if 1% of Buddhists have read any Suttas ever. Why is that? Because the Bible is inherently better, more compelling as scripture? I don’t think so. I think it’s because we haven’t tried. Because we get lazy and complacent and used to speaking to our little circle. Because we don’t have the vision to imagine things could be different.

There’s no great secret here, nothing mysterious. Just paying the same kind of careful attention to every detail in presenting the texts as the scholars have in preparing them.

A little faith

Dhamma is inherently compelling. We just need to get out of the way. The Buddha didn’t say, “MN39.4, note 17”. He said, “I teach for one who feels!” As his students, we should be letting people hear his words, not ours. SuttaCentral, even the new edition, is very far from realising this ideal. But one step at a time.

So, let’s get to work. You tell me: what can we do to make the experience of reading the Suttas better? What’s your papercut? What’s that moment when you tried, but stumbled over something you didn’t immediately understand, and then you gave up?

Looking back over this essay, I can see how I am not yet practising what I preach. My sentences are full of Pali or Sanskrit names and terms, and assumed ideas. I’m leaving them there as evidence for the prosecution. I’m guilty as charged. But, your honour, I really want to change! I promise I’ll be better next time. But I’m a hopeless addict. I just can’t let go of my Pali, not by myself anyway. I need your support.

The exalted extract of the Vinaya

As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.

I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.

Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.

The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.

Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.

It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.

This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.

Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.

This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!

The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.

The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.

All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.

Concerning baskets

The hero Kartaga grappled with the Swan-woman. Long they wrestled. Moons waxed and waned and still they wrestled; years came and went, and still the struggle went on. But the piebald horse and the black horse knew that the Swan-woman’s soul was not in her. Under the black earth flow nine seas; where the seas meet and form one, the sea comes to the surface of the earth. At the mouth of the nine seas rises a rock of copper; it rises to the surface of the ground, it rises up between heaven and earth, this rock of copper. At the foot of the copper rock is a black chest, in the black chest is a golden casket, and in the golden casket is the soul of the Swan-woman. Seven little birds are the soul of the Swan-woman; if the birds are killed the Swan-woman will die straightway. So the horses ran to the foot of the copper rock, opened the black chest, and brought back the golden casket. Then the piebald horse turned himself into a bald-headed man, opened the golden casket, and cut off the heads of the seven birds. So the Swan-woman died. (Frazer, The Golden Bough, ch. 66.)

The basket question

There is a question that has been keeping many of you awake at night, tossing & turning, endlessly ruminating over the meaning of the paradox at the heart of the matter. In the interests of a good night’s sleep, I hereby propose to solve the paradox and ease your torment. The question that has been driving you mad is: what does pitaka really mean?

Fear not! A solution is at hand, a solution that may surprise, even delight you.

Pitaka means “basket”, of course; but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the early Buddhist texts, known as the “Three Baskets” were oral scriptures. It would make perfect sense to think of a “basket” of manuscripts; but what are we to make of a “basket” of memorized texts?

The word pitaka is not used of the Buddhist texts in the canon itself. They refer to themselves, rather, as angas, or “limbs”. Pitaka is used, however, to refer to a traditional text, obviously referring to the Vedas, where the Buddha, most famously in the Kalama Sutta, says we should not accept something merely because it is “included in the basket” pitakasampada. There is inherent in the use, therefore, the notion that something in the pitaka is, or may be, authoritative. It is not just ordinary words or sayings, but a collection that has been specifically preserved and passed down as an authority. It is something valuable.

And that is, I think, coming closer to the point of the metaphor: a basket is something for preserving something valuable. A basket defines and separates, it keeps things together, keeps them clean, protects from the rain, from rats, from unwanted prying hands.

This is important, and I think often missed: the metaphor must originally have referred to the container, not to the contents. Of course, by the time of the Buddha the metaphor had already lost its grounding and referred to the contents as a whole. But in its original meaning, it referred to the container. But oral texts have no container—or do they?

Who uses baskets?

Containers are such an ordinary part of our life that we give them little thought. We put something in a plastic bag, stick in in a box, or place it in a cupboard, and rarely do we spare a thought for the inner life of the container. How thankless a task! To be nothing in itself, merely useful because of what is in you. I hope, after reading this, that you treat your containers with a little more compassion.

We find containers everywhere in human culture; the simplest hunter-gatherer societies will weave little bags or baskets. But they have few possessions, and little need for a container, beyond keeping together today’s gleanings from the forest. Containers come into their own in the town.

The shift from the village to the town is one of the most important moves in human society, the beginnings of the urbanization that still continues today. And the defining capability that makes towns possible is the ability to store food. In a village, you are never far from the forest, and a day’s hunting, fishing, or gathering is usually enough to supply food. Farming is done, sure, and gradually comes to supplant the gathered food. But it is not as essential as it is for a town. Once you have more than a few families living in a stable location, it is absolutely essential that you have a reliable source of storable food.

This food is primarily grain. This implies a substantial cluster of technologies and infrastructure: roads and carts for transport, granaries for storage; fields with specialist farmers using ploughs and possibly irrigation; and a stable political authority. It also implies a shift in relation to time: no longer is what is gathered in the morning sufficient for the afternoon (as depicted in the Agganna Sutta), but what is harvested each year must be put aside, deferred, sacrificed if you will, for the future. This implies an ability to plan ahead, to conceive of life as a predictable cycle. It also implies a degree of control, or at least understanding, of nature.

In the baskets, then, is held the very life of the community. If thieves were to take it, fire to burn it, water to rot it, or rats to eat it, starvation and the possible annihilation of the society lie close at hand.

If the basket originates as a metaphor for “safekeeping, preservation”, and if this metaphor is of special relevance for the orgins of towns, can we pinpoint it more precisely? I believe we can: at the founding of the Kuru kingdom, roughly 1100 BCE. (The following picture summarizes Michael Witzel’s ideas on the topic in “The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu”

The ancient Aryan peoples, after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization, spread through north-western India. At the south-easternmost extension, according to the Rg Veda, were the Kuru peoples at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The centre of gravity of the Vedic peoples continued its south-eastern shift, possibly driven by climate change in the north-west, and so the Kuru region became the centre of the Aryan world. Its remnants are what the archaeologists call the “Black and Red Ware Culture”, and among their technical innovations was the production of iron, unknown in the Rg Veda or the Indus valley.

The Rg Veda as a “collection”

The Vedic literature itself marks the advent of a newly unified and centralized Aryan culture. The literature has a curious structure: the main texts of the Rg Veda, the so called “family books” consist of groups of verses that belong to individual family or clan traditions. They seem very much like the local rites and lore, preserved in jealous isolation, of the sages of the clans. These clan groups were not very large; rather more like villages or clusters of villages than towns. There is agriculture, but more emphasis is on the pastoral and nomadic life, and little respect is there for established buildings and the settled life of towns.

Yet this picture of distinct clan traditions is precisely not how the Rg Veda is handed down, and has not been since the Kuru age. On the contrary, there is a standard, received body of Vedic literature, and all the clans had the works of all the other clans. This is no small thing: the mantras held the secrets to the cosmos, to magic, to success in war, to the favours of the gods. Sharing them would have been comparable to sharing of military intelligence among modern nations. To gather them all in one place would have required persuading the sages of the clans to share their secret lore, and to spend endless hours teaching the memorized verses.

Instead, the individual “Family Books” books are collected within a larger structure, one that is based on a very different way of life. The “Family Books”, 2–8, have been prefaced and addended by new collections of verses. The purpose of these verses is to harmonize and unify the collection. For example, Rg Veda 1.59 speaks of Agni as the lord of all people, the trunk of which all other fires are branches, above the gods, centre of the earth, king of settled lands. And the final verse of the Rg Veda is, even more emphatically, the verse of unification.

HYMN 10.191–4. Agni.

1. THOU, mighty Agni, gatherest up all that is precious for thy friend.
Bring us all treasures as thou art enkindled in libation’s place
2 Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
3 The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
4 One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.

RV_10,191.01a saṃ-sam id yuvase vṛṣann agne viśvāny arya ā |
RV_10,191.01c iḷas pade sam idhyase sa no vasūny ā bhara ||
RV_10,191.02a saṃ gacchadhvaṃ saṃ vadadhvaṃ saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatām |
RV_10,191.02c devā bhāgaṃ yathā pūrve saṃjānānā upāsate ||
RV_10,191.03a samāno mantraḥ samitiḥ samānī samānam manaḥ saha cittam eṣām |
RV_10,191.03c samānam mantram abhi mantraye vaḥ samānena vo haviṣā juhomi ||
RV_10,191.04a samānī va ākūtiḥ samānā hṛdayāni vaḥ |
RV_10,191.04c samānam astu vo mano yathā vaḥ susahāsati ||

This is no longer the voice of a tribal sage, an invoker of the gods for the immediate needs of clan. It is the voice of a nation-builder, whose priority is to persuade a disparate and epically fractious association of peoples to act together as one.

Notice the various elements of the hymn: the invocation of the god Agni, unifier of all the people; recognition of the blessings he has brought (my knowledge of the Vedic is insufficient, but it seems to me that what is implied here, as well as material wealth, is the treasures that have just been recited, i.e. the Vedas themselves); the repeated use of terms beginning with sam-, indicating unity; the association of this unity with happiness; and the injunction to action, the actual performance of the fire oblation that is central to Agni’s rite, and which constitutes such a central part of the verses just recited.

Buddhist adoption of the Vedic “container”

This verse has an uncanny resemblance to the final statement in the Buddhist patimokkha, which is recited each fortnight as a statement of unity in the Sangha. A very similar statement is found in all the patimokkhas. The Pali is, characteristically, the shortest though in this instance possibly not the oldest. Here I offer a translation of the Pali, with the additions in brackets being mostly common to the Sarvastivada and Mahasanghika groups of schools.

This much is passed down in the sutta, included in the sutta of the Blessed One (the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Fully Awakened One), which comes up for recitation each fortnight (and also other major and minor teachings that have come down). Therein each and every one should train (together), in harmony, with mutual rejoicing, without dispute, (with unified recital, one like mixed milk and water, living happily and at ease).

Ettakaṃ tassa bhagavato suttāgataṃ suttapariyāpannaṃ anvaddhamāsaṃ uddesaṃ āgacchati. Tattha sabbeheva samaggehi sammodamānehi avivadamānehi sikkhitabbanti.

Here, for comparison, is one of the Sanskrit texts, that of the Mahasanghika:

etakoyaṃ punastasya bhagavato tathāgatasyārhataḥ samyak saṃbuddhasya dharmavinayo prātimokṣasūtrāgato sūtraparyāpanno yo vā anyopi kaściddharmasya anudharmo tatra samagre hi sarvve hi sahite hi saṃmodamāne hi avivadamāne hi ekoddeśe hi kṣīrodakī kṛtehi śāstuḥ śāsanaṃ dīpayamāne hi / sukhañca phāsuñca viharante hi anadhyāvācāya śikṣākaraṇīyā

All five of the aspects we have noted recur here: the invocation of the Buddha; the acknowledgement of the treasures gathered in the text just recited; the repeated use of sam– to indicate unity; the association of this unity with happiness; and the injunction to action by training in accord with the rules just recited.

The conclusion seems inevitable: the Buddhist Sangha copied the literary form of the Veda, specifically when it came to the concept of the framing narrative, the bookends that preserve the fragile words, in other words, the basket.

This inheritance is even more apparent in the Sanskrit texts than the Pali. I have checked 4 Sanskrit patimokkha texts, those of the Mulasarvastivada, Sarvastivada, Mahasanghika, and Mahasanghika-lokuttaravada. As you can see, these represent two of the main groups of early schools, the Sarvastivadins and Mahasanghikas. Generally speaking, agreement between these texts is a sign of a pre-sectarian heritage. Perhaps the agreement of these texts is a sign that the Pali has, in this instance, undergone loss of text.

All the Sanskrit texts add the word sahita, which I have translated in brackets above as “together”. But this is the normal word used for the Vedic collections, as in the “Rg Veda Samhita”, the “Collection of the Rig Veda” (and other Vedas). The word sahita in fact appears in Pali as a poetic term for sacred scriptures, in Dhammapada 19-20, where the commentary confirms that this is a word for the Tipitaka of the Buddha’s words. I find it to be a remarkable coincidence, if coincidence it be, that this passage, with so many evident connections with the Vedic Unity verse, should include the very word for the Vedic collections themselves!

This passage is a stock one, and appears in many places. In fact, the passage we have just quoted is a secondary one, for the Buddha is referred to in third person: this is not direct Buddhavacana. In other places, however, similar words are attributed to the Buddha, notably in the Kinti Sutta (MN 103). There, the Buddha is concerned to downplay the significance of Vinaya as the source of harmony, and emphasizes rather the harmonious practice and recital of the 37 Bodhipakkhiya dhammas, using the same phrase we have seen above. Many scholars, myself included, have seen in this and similar passages a hint that the earliest canonical collection of Buddhist teachings consisted largely of these 37 Dhammas. It seems that the redactors borrowed the phrase to use in the conclusion for the patimokkha.

The Buddhists were aware, almost painfully so, of the Vedas and of the prestige and influence that this ancient body of knowledge bestowed on the Brahmins. It must have been frustrating, since the Buddhists believed that their teachings were far superior to what they regarded as the endless, vapid rituals and invocations of the Vedas. Yet despite the many limitations of the Vedic literature, they got one thing right: it lasted.

The literary innovations of the Kurus included gathering the family hymns, organizing them in minute detail (for the structure of the Rg Veda is subtle, rigorous, and complex), adding the framing narrative, and organizing for all the “families” to recite the whole scripture. The result of this was that the text was preserved with uncanny precision for thousands of years in the oral tradition. It was nearly a thousand years old when the Buddha was alive.

The problem facing the Buddhist Sangha was not dissimilar from that facing the Kurus. Just as the Aryan people were up to that stage semi nomadic, semi settled people, the Sangha was semi-nomadic, semi-settled; just as the Aryans were united in a general cultural sense, so were the Buddhist Sangha united in a sense of belonging to the same community; and just as the Aryans were divided into independent clans each with its own scriptures, so the Buddhist Sangha was divided into various monasteries, districts, and teacher’s lineages, each with its own characteristic texts.

It is little wonder, then, that given such similar problems, and given the highly successful solution to that problem implemented by the Kurus, the Sangha used the Vedic precedent. Note that in the passage above we are hearing the voice of the Sangha, not of the Buddha, as he is referred to in the third person as Bhagava.

Everything is neatly wrapped

If we consider the Buddhist texts in this light, this principle is absolutely pervasive. Each sutta starts with an introduction (nidana) giving the setting and main characters, and asserting that what is to follow is the words of the Buddha (usually). It then finishes with the monks rejoicing (and in several traditions, determining to practice what was taught). Thus each text is defined by its nidana, as if it were wrapped in a leaf for safety. Without such definition, each “sutta” would blur into the next, and they would become irretrievably mixed.

Of course, this is an ideal situation, for in reality not every sutta, especially the shorter ones, actually has such a nidana. But there is a sense in which they all are ideally supposed to have one; and the inadequacy of the current situation is seen in that the suttas do in fact blur into each other from time time. Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example, in his recent translation discusses the cases where it is difficult to tell whether a text should be considered as one sutta or two.

Not only is each sutta “wrapped” as by a leaf, they are then “wrapped” in groups of ten to form a vagga, or “chapter”. Each “chapter” is then wrapped in a larger section, and so on. The largest scale “wrapping” is the life of the Buddha himself, within which all the events and teachings of early Buddhism take place.

This puts in a new light the Vinaya passages that give instructions on redaction technique. With his usual cynicism, Gregory Schopen, titles his essay on this topic, “If You Can’t Remember, How to Make it Up”. But this is precisely what the texts he quotes are not saying.

The passage refers to the situation where a monk has difficulty remembering the setting or other framing details of a sutta. In such a case he should insert the usual tropes (e.g. by saying the sutta was at Savatthi and so on).

In light of what we have seen above, the purpose of this is precisely to preserve and maintain the actual sutta—the words of the Buddha—by ensuring that they are “wrapped” well. That the incidental details on the wrapping are not authentic is clearly of little importance: what matters is the actual substance of the teaching.

Likewise, if there is difficulty remembering the sutta as a whole, it should be written down. Again, this is a method for preserving the text without change, not a method for inventing a new text, as Schopen implies.

This reasoning applies to the majority of the techniques that are often regarded as “artificial” in the Pali and other Early Buddhist texts—repetitions, stock phrases, unified language, and so on. Each of these was employed for the same purpose: to make it possible to preserve the teachings as-is, without alteration, except in incidental details of structure and organization.

Just as the Vedic redactors formed a resilient, lasting “basket” in which to preserve their sacred texts, the Buddhists created a “basket”of astonishing sophistication and flexibility which has, despite all the ravages of time, succeeded in its purpose: to preserve the word of the Buddha.

And what of the soul?

Which brings us at last to the little fable at the start of this essay. It is one of a large genre of stories, of which Frazer gives many more examples, and which are particularly prevalent in India. The King (or the wizard or the ogre) keeps his soul in a safe place, stored far away. He cannot be killed as long as the soul is safe, locked away in apparently impenetrable “baskets”. In just the same way, the people of the town keep their grain in a safe storage, and they will survive as long as the grain is safe.

Similarly, the Buddhist community keeps its scriptures locked away in safe places, stored in the basket, the cabinet, the shrine. If the texts were to be destroyed, we would lose our very life, our soul; Buddhism would be cast adrift, like a garland that is not tied together with string. The fable warns of false pride and complacency. No matter how well we think our “soul” is guarded, sooner or later it will meet its end. Thus it will be for all the Buddhist scriptures, and for the Buddhist religion as a whole. The early Buddhist community, attuned to the contemplation of impermanence, was keenly aware of this, and used every means at their disposal to postpone that grim day as long as possible.