Introduction to the Itivuttaka


THE ITIVUTTAKA, a collection of 112 short discourses, takes its name from the statement at the beginning of each of its discourses: this (iti) was said (vuttaṁ) by the Blessed One. The collection as a whole is attributed to a laywoman named Khujjuttarā, who worked in the palace of King Udena of Kosambī as a servant to one of his queens, Sāmāvati. Because the Queen could not leave the palace to hear the Buddha’s discourses, Khujjuttarā went in her place, memorized what the Buddha said, and then returned to the palace to teach the Queen and her 500 ladies-in-waiting. For her efforts, the Buddha cited Khujjuttarā as the foremost of his laywomen disciples in terms of her learning. She was also an effective teacher: when the inner apartments of the palace later burned down, killing the Queen and her entourage, the Buddha commented (in Udāna 7:10) that all of the women had reached at least the first stage of awakening.

The name of the Itivuttaka is included in the standard early list of the nine divisions of the Buddha’s teachings–a list that predates the organization of the Pali Canon as we now know it. It’s impossible to determine, though, the extent to which the extant Pali Itivuttaka corresponds to the Itivuttaka mentioned in that list. The Chinese canon contains a translation of an Itivuttaka, attributed to Hsüan-tsang, that strongly resembles the text of the Pali Itivuttaka, the major difference being that parts of the Group of Threes and all of the Group of Fours in the Pali are missing in Hsüan-tsang’s translation. Either these parts were later additions to the text that found their way into the Pali but not into the Sanskrit version translated by Hsüan-tsang, or the Sanskrit text was incomplete, or Hsüan-tsang’s translation–which dates from the last months of his life–was left unfinished.

The extant Pali Itivuttaka is composed of 112 itivuttakas (to distinguish between individual itivuttakas and the collection as a whole, the standard practice is to capitalize the latter and not the former.) The collection is organized into four groups, according to the number of items treated in each itivuttaka. Thus the Group of Ones contains itivuttakas treating one item; the Group of Twos, those treating two items, and so on up to four. In this way, the Itivuttaka resembles the Aṅguttara Nikāya in its method of organization.

And the resemblance goes beyond that. Many of the suttas in the Aṅguttara are composed of a prose passage followed by a verse summary of what’s given in the prose. This was apparently one of the Buddha’s techniques for helping his listeners remember his message. In the Itivuttaka, all of the passages follow this pattern: a prose passage, spoken by the Buddha to the monks, followed by a verse, also attributed to the Buddha, summarizing the prose passage. However, more often than not, the verses in the itivuttakas add extra information not covered in the prose. In most cases, the extra information is fairly minor, but in a few (such as §63), it’s quite extensive. Because the prose passages are, in many instances, extremely short, this raises the question of whether they report entire discourses or simply gives the gist of those discourses. If just the gist, then perhaps the added information in the verse was actually treated in the full prose of the original discourse.

More than any other collection in the Canon, the Itivuttaka gives a sense of the Buddha’s ability to recycle his material when composing verses. In some cases, entire verses are repeated (e.g., §15 and §105); in others, a verse composed on one topic is fitted to another topic simply with the change of a word or two (e.g., §§1-6). In still others, repeated cadences and lines help to round out verses on a variety of topics (§§52, 54, 56). Although this tendency may seem to indicate a lack of originality, it is not a flaw. It eases the task of listeners trying to memorize blocks of material, and points out parallels between subjects that otherwise might not be clear.

In terms of style, the Itivuttaka differs from its neighbors in the Khuddaka Nikāya–such as the Dhammapada and Udāna–in being less obviously shaped by literary considerations. Most of the prose and verse passages are straightforwardly didactic, and so the collection as a whole does not convey a strong literary “savor” (rasa), the aesthetic experience of an emotion that people in ancient India sought in literary works. However, the collection does contain occasional traces of a literary sensibility.

As an overall organizing principle, the final itivuttaka in each of the four groups conveys the astounding savor: the aesthetic experience conveyed by the portrayal of something astonishing. The Group of Ones ends with a passage (§27) on how good will for all beings is a victory excelling the victories of all the kings of the past; the Group of Twos ends with a passage (§49) on the Arahant’s paradoxical avoidance of both becoming and non-becoming in mastering the path to awakening. The Group of Threes ends with a celebration (§99) of the Arahant as the true brahman; and the Group of Fours ends with an even more elaborate celebration (§112) of the many amazing qualities of the Buddha himself. In this way, even though the majority of passages in each group are not literary, the experience of reading (or listening to) each group ends on an aesthetically satisfying note.

Along the way, there enough poetic figures to maintain interest with touches of aesthetic savor. Although some of these figures, such as alliteration, are hard to convey in translation, others survive the rendering from Pali into English. The most prominent figures are similes (§§27, 38, 60, 69, 74, 75, 76, 78, 82, 87, 89, 91, 92) and metaphors (§§38, 46, 57, 58, 59, 62, 68, 93, 96, 112), including one complete metaphor (§109). Another figure used is the lamp: a poetic figure in which one word, such as an adjective or a verb, functions in two or more different clauses or sentences. The name of this figure comes from the image of the different clauses or sentences “radiating” from the one word. Examples of lamps in the Itivuttaka are in §§27, 87, and 92. Other figures include narratives (§§22, 83, 89) distinctions (§§27, 112), etymologies (§112), an illustration (§92), a rhetorical question (§98), and praise (§§106, 107, 112). These figures provide a variety of aesthetic savors, although the military similes and metaphors (§§27, 46, 62, 67, 68, 69, 82), along with distinctions and praise, make the heroic savor dominant. Because, in the aesthetic, tradition of the time, the heroic savor is supposed to shade into the astounding savor at the end of a work, this harmonizes with the overall organization of each group, noted above. Thus, even though the Itivuttaka is not a blatantly literary work, there is at least some aesthetic unity to the collection as a whole.

In terms of content, the itivuttakas cover the full range of Buddhist practice, with an emphasis on the very basic and very advanced stages. On the basic levels, the texts focus on the distinction between skillful and unskillful behavior. On the advanced, they treat such subtle topics as the role of becoming on the path (§49), the different aspects of Unbinding (§44), and the fact that an Arahant, having abandoned the All (§66; §68) cannot be classified in any way (§63; §69). In fact, many of the discussions about these more advanced points of the practice are found nowhere else in the Canon. If they had not been memorized, our knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings would have been severely impoverished. Like Queen Sāmāvati and her entourage, we are in Khujjuttarā’s debt.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery

Valley Center, CA 92082-1409

March, 2013