IV : The Octet Chapter (Aṭṭhaka Vagga)
The Aṭṭhaka Vagga1 is a set of sixteen poems on the theme of non-clinging. The poems cover all four types of clinging—clinging to sensuality, to views, to habits and practices, and to doctrines of the self (MN 44)—with a special emphasis on the first three. They touch the issues of what constitutes the nature of the clinging in each particular case, the drawbacks of the clinging, the advantages of abandoning clinging, ways to abandon clinging, and the subtle paradoxes of what it means not to cling.
This last point is discussed in many suttas in the Pali Canon, as the Buddha’s teachings on non-clinging all contain a central paradox: Some of the objects of clinging that must ultimately be abandoned nevertheless form part of the path to their abandoning. A certain amount of sensual pleasure in terms of adequate food and shelter is needed to follow the path to go beyond sensuality; right view is needed to overcome attachment to views; a regimen of precepts and practices is needed to overcome attachment to habits and practices; a strong sense of self-responsibility is needed to overcome attachment to doctrines of the self.2
Other passages in the Pali Canon offer clear analogies to explain these paradoxes, often in terms of movement toward a goal—taking a raft across a river, walking to a park, taking a series of relay coaches from one city to another3—in which the motive and means of transport are abandoned on reaching the goal. AN 4:194 states explicitly that release occurs only when, after having endowed oneself with right virtue, right concentration, and right discernment, one makes the mind dispassionate toward phenomena that are conducive to passion, and liberates the mind from phenomena that are conducive to liberation.
The Canon also contains passages that state in fairly specific language how the views and habits of the path are right not only because they are true, but also—and especially—because they allow for their own transcendence. AN 10:93 is particularly enlightening on this point. In it, Anāthapiṇḍika visits a group of sectarians who ask him what views the Buddha has. Anāthapiṇḍika—who was a stream-enterer at the time—states that he doesn’t know the full extent of the Buddha’s views. This reflects the fact that the Buddha’s awakening was not defined by his views, so that even a stream-enterer, who is consummate in view (diṭṭhi-sampanna) needed for the path, would still not know the full extent of what views a fully awakened person might have.
At Anāthapiṇḍika’s request, the sectarians tell him their views, after which he criticizes them for clinging to views that are “brought into being, fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen,” and therefore inconstant and stressful. In clinging to those views, he says, they are thus clinging to stress.
The sectarians then ask Anāthapiṇḍika his view, and he states it in these terms: “Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen: That is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. This is the sort of view I have.” The sectarians then accuse Anāthapiṇḍika of clinging to this view, and thus clinging to stress, but he responds that in seeing this view well with right discernment he also discerns the escape from it. In other words, right view teaches him not only the way things are, but also encourages him to develop dispassion to all things fabricated, including right view itself. This answer leaves the sectarians speechless. Anāthapiṇḍika then goes to report this conversation to the Buddha, who approves of what he said.
In simple terms, the message of Anāthapiṇḍika’s statement is that right view includes a correct understanding of what to do with right view. This point is conveyed by the simile of the water-snake in MN 22: There are right and wrong ways of grasping the Dhamma, but before letting it go, one must grasp it correctly in order to get the best use out of it. One of the wrong ways of grasping right view is to engage in formal debates with those who want to argue in defense of wrong view. MN 60 and AN 4:24 show why these kinds of debates are best avoided both by people on the path to awakening and by those who are fully awakened. MN 60 points out that one of the implications of the four noble truths is that there exists cessation of becoming. This is in direct opposition to the wrong view that there is no cessation of becoming. But as long as one has not seen and known for oneself that there is cessation of becoming, it would not be fitting to argue that there is cessation of becoming, saying, “Only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless.” One is not yet fully qualified to make that statement. But even when one has verified the truth that there is cessation of becoming, AN 4:24 points out one would no longer be defined by or “fastened to” a view about that fact, in which case one feel no personal need to enter into debate on the topic.
The Aṭṭhaka contains many passages that agree with MN 60 and AN 2:24 on these points. However, its primary argument for avoiding debates is that they give rise to conceit, and that conceit in turn leads to becoming and non-becoming. In fact, this is the Aṭṭhaka’s main strategy for avoiding clinging to all aspects of the path: Follow the path, it says in essence, but don’t develop conceit around it. Renounce sexual intercourse, but don’t suppose yourself to be better than others because you do (4:7). Don’t boast of your habits and practices (4:3), and don’t despise others for theirs (4:14). These points are in line with the passage in MN 78 that defines the “cessation of skillful habits” as the case where one is virtuous but not fashioned of virtue—i.e., one does not define oneself in terms of one’s virtue.
Similarly with views: 4:9 states that an attainer-of-knowledge isn’t fashioned of views, and so isn’t measured or made proud by them. For a person still on the path, it’s easy to get entrenched in one’s views (4:3), so it’s best not to get involved in debates. Even winning a debate doesn’t establish the truth, and one risks falling into the trap of regarding oneself as inferior, equal, or superior on the basis of view (4:8).
These teachings on the first three forms of clinging are summed up in the Aṭṭhaka’s simple statements about avoiding the fourth form of clinging, to doctrines of the self: Don’t theorize about self (4:14), don’t display “self” in any realm (4:6), and remove all sense of “mine-ness” or “mine” (4:2, 4:6, 4:11, 4:14–15).
So the Aṭṭhaka’s teachings on these points fall in line with those in the rest of the Canon in resolving the paradox around the topic of clinging. Nevertheless, the poems in the Aṭṭhaka also contains a handful of passages that present these paradoxes in a mystifying way. In fact, some of the paradoxes—particularly in the discussions of abandoning clinging to views and habits and practices—are stated in terms so stark that, on the surface, they are hard to reconcile with teachings in other Pali suttas or with other passages in the Aṭṭhaka itself. Taken out of context, they seem to say that the path consists of no views, that it is a practice of no fixed practices and no goals, and that it is not even aimed at knowledge.
The question is thus whether these paradoxes should be taken at face value or further interpreted. Or, to put the question in terms used by the Buddha himself (AN 2:25): Is their meaning, as stated, already fully drawn out or does it have to be inferred? Readers of the poems have offered arguments for both sides.
The argument for taking the paradoxes at face value is based on two major assumptions: that the Aṭṭhaka is historically prior to the rest of the Pali Canon and that it contains a complete statement of the Buddha’s early teachings. From these assumptions, the argument goes on to conclude that if these poems conflict with other passages in the Canon, that is simply because those other passages are less true to the Buddha’s original message.
Both of the assumptions on which this argument is based, however, contain several weaknesses.
• To begin with the assumption about the age of the poems: Five pieces of evidence are offered as proof that they predate the rest of the Canon—
2) Another book in the Canon, the Mahāniddesa (Nd I), is devoted to offering detailed commentaries on each of the poems, an honor that is extended to only two other sections in the Canon: the Pārāyana Vagga (Sn 5) and the Rhinoceros Sutta (Sn 1:3).
3) Although poems in different parts of the Canon borrow passages from one another without mentioning the fact, no other passage in the Canon borrows any of the verses in the Aṭṭhaka without mentioning their source.
4) The language of the poems is more archaic than that used in other suttas.
5) A complete version of the Aṭṭhaka, along with several additions, is found in the Chinese Canon. No other book of the Pali Canon has such a direct correspondence in the Chinese Canon.
However, none of these pieces of evidence can carry the weight of what they are supposed to prove.
1) The first piece shows simply that an Aṭṭhaka Vagga predates the three passages in question, not necessarily that the Aṭṭhaka Vagga as we have it is identical to the one they mention or that it predates the entire remainder of the Canon. In the three passages in question, only one verse from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga is actually quoted, which is not enough to establish the identity of the Aṭṭhaka Vagga as a whole.
It’s not even possible to determine with any certainty which poems in the vagga (chapter) were composed before the others. Because four of the poems in the vagga—4:2–5—have “Aṭṭhaka” in their Pali names, it has been argued that they may have formed the original core of the vagga. But a common feature of the Pali Canon is that a vagga will often be named after the most prominent suttas or rules in the vagga, but that these are not necessarily placed first in the vagga. Nor were they necessarily composed first. The poems in the first half of the Aṭṭhaka are arranged in order of increasing length, and the vagga may have taken its name from the simple fact that, given this arrangement, the “Octets” became prominent.
2) The existence of Nd I shows simply that the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, from early on, was regarded as a difficult text, one that required thorough explanation. It’s no proof that the Aṭṭhaka predated everything else in the Canon. In fact, there’s always the possibility that Nd I—and its partner, the Cullaniddesa (Nd II), the text explaining 1:1 and 5—were part of a planned effort to explain the entire Sutta Nipāta, an effort that, for one reason or another, was never completed.
3) The fact that none of the passages of the Aṭṭhaka Vagga were borrowed by other poems in the Canon may simply be due to the fact that its most striking passages carried a meaning strongly shaped by context, and the Buddha or the compilers of the Canon realized that if they were taken out of context they could have been easily misunderstood.
4) The version of the Aṭṭhaka Vagga in the Chinese Canon was translated many centuries after the Buddha passed away. So its existence proves nothing about what may have predated the Pali Canon.
5) As for the archaic nature of the language, that is common to a great deal of the poetry throughout the Pali Canon. Just as Tennyson’s poetry contains more archaisms than Dryden’s prose, the fact that a Pali poem uses archaic language is no proof of its actual age. It’s easy for a poet writing at a later age to affect the language and poetic styles of an earlier age to give an air of venerability to the message of a poem. And considering that the audience to whom these poems were addressed included brahmans, and—as we noted in the Introduction—brahmans may have preferred archaic modes of expression, there is good reason to believe that the Buddha may have deliberately adopted archaic forms in order to appeal to that segment of his audience.
• However, even if the Aṭṭhaka Vagga actually was composed early in the Buddha’s teaching career, that does not mean that it contains a complete statement of his early teachings. In fact, internal evidence in the Aṭṭhaka strongly suggests otherwise.
To begin with, the discussions on clinging throughout the Aṭṭhaka state that clinging is caused by craving, and that it should be abandoned so as to avoid becoming and not-becoming. Anyone familiar with dependent co-arising will notice that these three factors, in this order, form a part of that larger teaching. However, nowhere in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga is there any explanation about what kind of becoming and non-becoming the Buddha is talking about, or what their drawbacks are. Only in suttas that provide the larger context of dependent co-arising—which shows how becoming leads to repeated birth, and so to suffering and stress; and how even the desire for non-becoming leads to becoming—are these points explained. (See, for instance, SN 12:2 and MN 49.) Anyone listening to the Aṭṭhaka without any knowledge of that larger context would naturally question why becoming and non-becoming should be avoided, and why clinging is thus inherently bad.
Similarly, the Aṭṭhaka states that inner peace cannot be found except through views, learning, and knowledge (4:9), and that one should train for the path of knowledge (4:11), but nowhere does it state clearly what kind of views, learning, and knowledge it’s talking about. Again, anyone unaware of the Buddha’s teachings elsewhere on these topics would surely ask for clarification on these points.
In addition, the Aṭṭhaka recommends avoiding objectification (4:11, 4:14), being mindful (4:1, 4:10, 4:14, 4:16), practicing jhāna (4:14, 4:16), and aiming for unbinding (4:7, 4:14–15), but never explains what these terms mean.
It’s hard to believe that, in delivering the teachings in the Aṭṭhaka, the Buddha would not be asked these questions on these topics. And it’s harder to believe that he would not answer them. Yet that’s what we’re asked to assume if we are to believe that the Aṭṭhaka was a complete statement of his early teachings.
In AN 2:46, the Buddha divides assemblies into two sorts: those trained in bombast, and those trained in cross-questioning. An assembly trained in bombast is eager to hear teachings that are elegant in their terms and expression, but they are not encouraged to ask the meaning of the terms or how the terms are to be applied in practice. An assembly trained in cross-questioning, however, is trained to ask these questions and to expect clear and practical answers. To believe that the Aṭṭhaka is a complete statement of the Buddha’s early teachings is to assume that he was training his followers in bombast—an assumption that is hard to accept.
• Finally, there is the issue of consistency. As we have noted, the starker expressions of the paradoxes in the Aṭṭhaka have been interpreted to teach a view of no views, and a practice of no fixed practices and no goals, not even aimed at knowledge. Yet these interpretations are inconsistent with other passages in the Aṭṭhaka itself, such as the clear-cut view explaining the sources of conflict, presented in 4:11, the long descriptions of how a monk should and shouldn’t practice (such as those in 4:14 and 4:16), the statement that one should train for the path of knowledge (4:11), and the frequent references to unbinding (nibbāna/nibbuti) as the goal of the practice. So even if the Aṭṭhaka is appreciably older than the other Pali suttas, we would have to assume gross inconsistencies in its message if we were to take its paradoxes at face value.
The argument that the meaning of the Aṭṭhaka’s paradoxes must be inferred—that they were intentionally stated in obscure terms—is based on firmer ground. First is the simple fact that they make better sense, when taken as a whole, if the paradoxes are explored for meanings not obvious on the surface. A prime example is the passage toward the beginning of 4:9, in which the Buddha in one sentence seems to be saying that an awakened person would regard purity as not being found by means of views, habits and practices, etc., and then in the next sentence says that it is not found through lack of views, habits and practices, etc. Māgandiya, the Buddha’s listener, responds understandably that such a teaching is confused.
Readers who have acquired a taste for Mahāyāna non-dualities, and who would take the Buddha’s statement at face value, might scoff at Māgandiya’s narrow-mindedness. But, if the words are taken at face value, Māgandiya would be right. The words on the surface are very unhelpful, for they give no idea of what one should do.
It turns out, however, that there is a grammatical pun at stake. The terms in the Buddha’s initial statement are put in the instrumental case—which can be interpreted literally as “through” or “by means of,” but idiomatically as “in terms of” or “in connection with.” The second sentence puts the words for lack of view, etc., in the ablative case, which carries the meaning “because of” or “from.” If we interpret the instrumental in the first sentence in its idiomatic sense, the two sentences make sense in and of themselves, and fit with the rest of the Aṭṭhaka—and the Canon as a whole: An awakened person would not define purity in terms of views, habits and practices, etc., but would also realize that purity cannot be attained through a lack of these things. This fits with the position taken throughout the suttas, that the goal is unfabricated, but the path to the goal must of necessity be fabricated. Therefore the path requires developing qualities that are not contained in the goal and that will have to be abandoned when the goal is reached (see, for example, MN 22, MN 24, and Iti 90).
This case shows that there is a lot to be gained by looking under the surface of paradoxes so that, unlike Māgandiya, we won’t be confused by them.
A second reason for regarding the paradoxes as requiring interpretation is one that we have already noted in the Introduction. In their use of puns and grammatical wordplay, they follow an ancient Indian genre—the philosophical enigma—that by its very nature called for extensive interpretation. Evidence in the Ṛgveda shows that ancient Vedic ritual included contests in which elder brahmans used puns and other wordplay to express philosophical teachings as riddles that contestants were then challenged to solve.5 The purpose of these contests was to teach the contestants to use their powers of ingenuity in thinking “outside the box,” in the justified belief that the process of searching for inspiration and being illuminated by the answer would transform the mind in a much deeper way than would be achieved simply by absorbing information.6
Although the Aṭṭhaka poems advise against engaging in intellectual contests, they occasionally imitate the Vedic enigmas in the way they use language to challenge the reader. Individual words—sometimes whole lines and verses—in the poems can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and it’s up to the reader to explore and consider all the various meanings to decide which are most helpful. Although our culture at present associates wordplay with jokes, the Aṭṭhaka stands at the head of a long line of Buddhist texts—both Theravādin and not—that use wordplay with a serious purpose: to teach the reader to think independently, to see through the uncertainties of language, and so to help loosen any clinging to the structures that language imposes on the mind.7 This type of rhetoric also rewards anyone who takes the text seriously enough to re-read and re-think what it has to say.
These points suggest that the obscurity of some of the Aṭṭhaka’s language can be regarded as a function, not of the poems’ age, but of the genre to which they belong. The proper reading of a text like this requires that you question your assumptions about its message and clarify the intention behind your efforts at reaching an understanding. In this way, the act of reading is meant not only to inform but also to transform. The more you give to it, the more it opens up new possibilities in the mind.
Translating wordplay of this sort presents enormous challenges; even when those challenges are surmounted, the act of reading such word games in translation can never be quite the same as reading them in the original language and cultural setting. Fortunately, aside from the more controversial passages, much of the Aṭṭhaka is perfectly straightforward—although Ven. Mahā Kaccāna’s commentary in SN 22:3 on one of the simpler verses in 4:9 should serve as warning that even the straightforward passages can contain hidden meanings. In passages where I have detected multiple meanings, I’ve included all the detected meanings in the translation—although I’m sure that there are instances of double meanings that I may have missed. Wherever the Pali seems ambiguous, I’ve tried to use English equivalents that convey the same ambiguity. Wherever this has proven beyond my abilities, I’ve resorted to explanatory notes. I have also used the notes to cite interpretations from Nd I and other passages from earlier parts of the Canon that help explain paradoxes, puns, and other obscure points—both as an aid to the serious reader and as a way of showing that the gulf assumed to separate the Aṭṭhaka from the rest of the sutta collection is more imagined than real.
Two final notes on reading the Aṭṭhaka:
• Although these poems were originally composed for an audience of wandering, homeless monks, they offer valuable lessons for lay people as well. Even the passages referring directly to the homeless life can be read as symbolic of a state of mind. Ven. Mahā Kaccāna’s commentary, mentioned above, shows that this has been done ever since canonical times. Addressing a lay person, and commenting on a verse describing the behavior of a sage who has abandoned home and society, he interprets “home” as the aggregates, and “society” as sense impressions. Thus in his hands the verse develops an internal meaning that lay people can apply to their lives without necessarily leaving their external home and society. Other verses in the poems can be interpreted in similar ways.
• The poems center on descriptions of sages (muni) and enlightened people (dhīra), but these words don’t have fixed meanings from verse to verse. In some contexts, they denote arahants; in others, nothing more than intelligent run-of-the-mill people. So be alert to context when reading descriptions about sages and enlightened people, to see whether they’re describing people following the path or those who have already reached the goal.
1. The name of the Aṭṭhaka (Octets) appears to derive from the fact that four of its poems—4:2–5, all of which contain the word aṭṭhaka in their titles—are composed of eight verses.
2. On the skillful uses of “self,” see AN 3:40 and AN 4:159. See also Selves & Not-self. For a discussion of the four types of clinging, see The Mind Like Fire Unbound, chapter 3, and The Paradox of Becoming, chapter 4.
4. Ven. Mahā Kaccāna—cited by the Buddha at AN 1:146 (1:197) as foremost among the monks in his ability to analyze in detail meaning of what was stated in brief—is mentioned in connection with the Aṭṭhaka in all three locations. As a well-educated brahman, he would have been trained in detecting and resolving philosophical enigmas. His personal reputation indicates that he enjoyed doing so.
5. On this point, see Willard Johnson’s, Poetry and Speculation of the Rig Veda, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
6. By the Buddha’s time, these contests had left the ritual arena and had become public philosophical debates much closer to our current notion of a formal debate. However, they were driven by an assumption—derived from the belief in the spiritual transformation that accompanied the correct solution of the philosophical enigma—that holding a winning view was, in and of itself, the measure of a person’s high spiritual attainment. The paradoxes in the Aṭṭhaka attack this assumption by, paradoxically, making use of the genre of philosophical enigma from which it originally derived.
7. Other examples of such wordplay in the Pali Canon include SN 1:1 and Dhp 97. For more modern examples of Buddhist texts using word play with a serious purpose, see A Heart Released and The Ballad of Liberation from the Khandhas, both by Phra Ajaan Mun Bhūridatto.