Introduction to the Sutta Nipāta
The Sutta Nipāta—the Discourse Group—is the fifth text in the Khuddaka Nikāya, or Short Collection, which in turn is the fifth collection in the Sutta Piṭaka of the Pali Canon.
The collection totals 72 suttas in all, arranged in five chapters, and includes some of the most famous poems in the Pali Canon, such as the Discourse on Goodwill (Karaṇīya-Mettā Sutta, 1:8), the Discourse on Treasures (Ratana Sutta, 2:1), and the Discourse on Protection (Maṅgala Sutta, 2:4). It also contains two sets of poems that were apparently well-known in the Buddha’s time as deep expressions of advanced points of doctrine: the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, a set of sixteen poems on the theme of non-clinging, and the Pārāyana Vagga, a set of sixteen dialogues, with a prologue and epilogue, in which the Buddha provides succinct answers to questions posed to him by brahmans who appear to have been adept in concentration practice. In addition to these more well-known poems, the collection also contains many useful instructions of a highly practical nature, covering everything from the most basic standards of conduct to the most subtle issues of discernment.1
The Sutta Nipāta differs from its neighbors in the Khuddaka—the Dhammapada, the Udāna, and the Itivuttaka—in that its suttas follow no standard form. All of them contain passages of poetry, but some suttas are entirely in verse, whereas others include prose passages as well. The poems vary greatly in length, the longest consisting of 63 verses; the shortest, of three. In some cases the longer poems present a continuous argument; in others, they are strings of short verses tied together by a common image or refrain. The longest poem in the collection, 3:9, combines both formats. The predominant verse form is the poetic dialogue, in which two or more people converse in verse—an ability that was highly prized in the Buddha’s time—but there are other verse forms as well, including short monologues (such as 2:10), longer narratives (such as 3:1, 3:2, and 3:10), and poems appended to prose discourses as memory aids (as in 3:12).
Because the suttas collected here follow no standard form, we have to look elsewhere to get an idea of what holds the collection together and how it functions in the context of Dhamma as taught by the Pali Canon as a whole. Of course, it’s possible that there is no overall unity to this collection, that its compilers simply gathered poems that didn’t fit elsewhere in the Canon, but two points suggest otherwise.
1) To begin with, there is some overlap between the Sutta Nipāta and other poetic texts in the Canon. Five of its suttas—1:10, 2:5, 3:3, 3:7, and 3:9—are identical with suttas found in the Majjhima and Saṁyutta Nikāyas, and a sixth—1:4—is nearly identical with a sutta in the Saṁyutta. If the Sutta Nipāta were intended to be merely a repository of suttas left over from the rest of the Canon, there would have been no reason for this overlap.
2) A comparison of the poetic texts in the Pali Canon with texts from other early Buddhist traditions—such as Sanskrit texts found in Nepal, translations in the Chinese Canon, and Gāndhārī manuscripts found in Central Asia—shows that different traditions shared many of the same verses, but that they organized those verses in different ways. The Chinese Canon, for instance, contains a section composed of 16 poems similar to the 16 poems in the fourth chapter of the Sutta Nipāta—the Aṭṭhaka Vagga—but to two of those poems it adds verses found elsewhere in the Pali Canon. A Sanskrit text quotes the first dialogue in the fifth chapter of the Sutta Nipāta—the Pārānaya Vagga—inserting a question and answer that, in the Pali version, is found in a sutta later in the same chapter. Gāndhārī manuscripts contain versions of two poems in the Sutta Nipāta that are composed of strings of smaller verses tied together by a common refrain, but in each case the verses are arranged in a different order.
All of this suggests that compilers in each tradition were working with many of the same building blocks in putting together their Canons, but that they organized those blocks in different ways, in line with their own ideas of what made thematic or aesthetic sense.
So the question is, what pattern can we detect underlying the choice of suttas that compose the Sutta Nipāta? This question might yield a number of valid answers, but one fact about the collection suggests an answer that is especially useful in helping to understand and interpret the teachings it contains. That fact is the sheer number of times that brahmans play a role in these poems, and the number of poems that, even when not mentioning brahmans by name, discuss issues that would be especially important for brahmans learning about the Dhamma.
In focusing on this fact, there is the possible danger of limiting the message of the Sutta Nipāta too narrowly to its historical context, giving the impression that it deals exclusively with brahmanical issues in ancient India and missing its more universal import. But there are three reasons why understanding how the Buddha and his early followers dealt with the brahmans can actually help in understanding how the message of the Sutta Nipāta applies to our time as well.
1. Many of the issues raised by brahmanical teachings—such as racism, classism, the best use of wealth and status, and the desire to secure well-being both now and after death—are still very much alive.
2. The brahmans, along with the noble warriors, were the educated elite of ancient India. As the Sutta Nipāta portrays the brahmans of the Buddha’s time, they were torn between pride in their education and culture on the one hand, and a sense that the training provided by their education was still uncertain and incomplete. This is similar to the situation in which we find ourselves now that the Dhamma is coming West: Westerners are proud of their education but often sense that it has not made them truly happy, and that something important is missing. The way the early Buddhists approached the pride and ambivalence of the brahmans gives useful lessons in how to deal with the pride and ambivalence of the West.
3. Brahmanical education focused not only on the content of brahmanical doctrines, but also on the language in which those doctrines were expressed. Thus the brahmans had very particular ideas about how to use words, to compose literary texts, and to conduct philosophical dialogues. Buddhists, to speak effectively to brahmans, had to satisfy the brahmans’ expectations on these issues. And of course, some Buddhist monks themselves had obtained a brahmanical education before their ordination—or, as in the Buddha’s case, seem to be conversant in the content of brahmanical education—so it would be natural for them to express themselves in the literary forms in which they had been trained from an early age.
As we will see, the suttas in the Sutta Nipāta portray the Buddha as being conversant not only with the content of brahmanical doctrines, but also with the brahmanical standards for how to present a teaching in a persuasive way. The problem for us, when reading these suttas, is that if we don’t understand these standards, it’s easy for us to miss what the Buddha is saying, and why he says it in the way he does. A prime example is his use of ambiguity and wordplay, which for the brahmans was a prized talent in philosophical dialogues, but for us—operating with different assumptions—can simply be confusing. But if we understand the background from which both the Buddha and his listeners were coming, it casts light on passages that otherwise would be obscure.
So the purpose of this introduction is to provide some information on that background, in hopes that it will be an aid in getting the most out of the act of reading the suttas in this collection.
A stock passage describing a highly educated brahman of the Buddha’s time, found both in the Sutta Nipāta and in the four main nikāyas, runs as follows:
“He was a master of the Three Vedas [Knowledges] with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, etymology, & histories as a fifth; skilled in philology & grammar, he was fully versed in cosmology and in the marks of a Great Man.”
Several terms in this description provide a good framework for analyzing the various ways in which the Sutta Nipāta deals with brahmanical issues. Under “Three Vedas” we will discuss how the Buddha redefined the three knowledges that constituted a true education, along with the ways in which he showed how Buddhist knowledge was superior to brahmanical knowledge. Under “liturgy,” we will discuss the liturgical passages contained in the Sutta Nipāta. Under “history” we will discuss the ways in which the Sutta Nipāta rewrites brahmanical history on the one hand, and provides an alternative history, focused on the Buddha, on the other. Under “philology and grammar” we will discuss the ways in which passages in the Sutta Nipāta play with brahmanical assumptions on the use of language and literary forms; under “cosmology,” we will discuss how Buddhist cosmology as shown in the Sutta Nipāta dealt with—and challenged—brahmanical debates surrounding the structure of the universe; and under the “marks of a Great Man” we will discuss the ways in which the Sutta Nipāta presents the Buddha as the ultimate person, superior even to the Brahmās from which the brahmans claimed descent and with whom they hoped to gain union.
The Three Vedas were ancient religious texts that constituted the core of the brahmanical education. A person who had memorized these texts was called an attainer-of-knowledge (vedagū) or a three-knowledge person (tevijja). The Buddha adopted these terms and applied them to himself on the basis of the three knowledges he had gained on the night of his awakening: knowledge of previous births, knowledge of the passing away and re-arising of beings through the power of their actions, and knowledge of the ending of the mental effluents (āsava). He also asserted that the brahmanical use of the terms vedagū and tevijja was illegitimate, and that these words found their legitimate meaning only in a person who had mastered the same three knowledges that he had (3:9).
The Sutta Nipāta portrays several ways in which the Buddha convinces his brahmanical listeners of the validity of his claims. To begin with, he shows knowledge of a brahmanical hymn that was considered the highest expression of the Vedas (3:4, 3:7), and that the brahmans held to be their exclusive possession. This was a signal that he was not making his claims in ignorance, and instead had knowledge of an esoteric point in their education—implying that he knew other things about their education as well.
Although he recognized that there were good teachings in the brahmanical tradition, that most brahmans of the past had been serious meditators (2:7), and that some individual brahmans in the present were still holding to those traditions (5 Prologue), he maintained that, by and large, brahmans of the present day had fallen away from the good traditions of their past. Some were now nothing more than common householders, living in great luxury (2:7). Many passages in the Sutta Nipāta focus on criticizing the practices of brahmans in the Buddha’s time, and from these passages we learn that the brahmans were a heterogeneous lot. The Buddha criticizes them for practicing useless austerities (2:2, 5:3), for engaging in philosophical debates (4:3, 4:5, 4:8, 4:11–13), for making their living through interpreting dreams and omens (2:13, 4:14), for believing that purity could be attained through rituals or through seeing specific sights or hearing specific sounds (4:4), and for conducting animal sacrifices (2:7).
On a more positive note, the Buddha most often shows the superiority of his Dhamma by simply teaching it, providing solid instruction based on the second and third knowledges he gained on the night of his awakening to clear up issues that the brahmans debated among themselves. Based on the second knowledge, he describes how lay people can reach heaven by behaving in a moral way—rather than by hiring brahmans to perform animal sacrifices (1:6–7, 1:10, 2:3–4, 3:3). He also teaches how to attain the brahmanical goal of reaching the Brahmā world (1:3, 1:8, 3:5). Based on the third knowledge, he teaches brahmans who are apparently advanced in their practice of concentration how to go beyond the dimension of nothingness and gain full release from rebirth (5:1–16).
Based on both the second and third knowledges he sets new standards for what it means to be learned, who qualifies as a good teacher, and the proper etiquette for treating one’s teachers (2:8–10, 3:6, 3:10). In particular, in two suttas in the collection he makes it clear that teachers should not teach for a fee—which, of course, is a standard that would deprive many brahmans of their source of livelihood (1:4, 3:4).
He also redefines many brahmanical terms to bring them in line with both knowledges. Most importantly, he redefines the term “brahman” itself, saying that arahants—fully awakened people—are the only true brahmans, regardless of their caste at birth (3:9, 4:4–5, 4:9, 4:13, 4:15, 5:4–5). There are even cases, such as 5:14, where this redefinition is asserted by one of his brahman interlocutors. Underlying this redefinition is the general principle that one becomes a brahman, not by birth, but by one’s actions (1:7, 3:6, 3:9). Here the Buddha is taking an issue that had already arisen among brahmans, and redefined the meaning of “action.” As 3:9 shows—and it is supported by MN 93—brahmans themselves had debated whether mere birth to brahman parents was enough to qualify as a genuine brahman, or if one had to be virtuous and act in line with brahmanical practices as well. In other words, did status as a brahman require only birth or both birth and brahmanical action? The Buddha, however, removed both birth and brahmanical practices from the question entirely, making status as a brahman entirely a result of one’s actions in line with the precepts and other factors of the path to awakening. In this way, he entirely rejected the racism and classism underlying both sides of the brahmanical argument. An individual’s merit is thus purely a matter of his/her behavior, and has nothing to do with his/her race or cultural traditions.
Conversely, and in line with the same principle, the Buddha redefined the term “outcaste” so as to apply to any individual, regardless of caste at birth—even a brahman—who behaves in an immoral way (1:7).
Even the Buddhist term “arahant” is borrowed from the brahmans, giving it a new meaning. The word literally means “worthy one,” and as 3:5 shows, it was applied to those who were held to be worthy recipients of the cake produced by a brahmanical sacrifice—“worthy” in the sense that giving to such recipients produced great merit for the donor (3:5). By calling fully awakened people “arahants,” the Buddha was making the point that they are the most meritorious individual recipients of any gift.
Arahants are also given the title vedagū—attainer-of-knowledge—as a way of asserting that their knowledge is superior to that of the three brahmanical Vedas (2:8, 3:4–6, 3:12, 4:9, 4:15, 5 Prologue, 5:4).
A large number of suttas redefine another brahmanical term, that of the “sage” (muni), and describe in great detail how to behave so as to become a sage (1:1–3, 1:5, 1:12, 2:6, 2:11, 2:13, 3:4–5, 3:9, 3:11, 4:6–7, 4:9–10, 4:14–16, 5:1–2, 5:7, 5:9). An old brahmanical tradition identified a “sage” as a person who takes a vow of silence, thereby arriving at a state of peace (see Dhp 268). The Buddha, however, redefines the term so that sagehood (mona) and sagacity (moneyya) are a matter of one’s actions and one’s ability to attain total release from the cycle of rebirth: That, in his eyes, was what truly counted as arriving at peace. The concept of sage was so important in ancient India that Asoka, in his list of suttas that Buddhists should listen to and ponder frequently, included a “Muni-gāthā,” which may be identical to 1:12.
Liturgy. As noted above, the Buddha criticized the brahmans for their useless recitations. One sutta (2:4) tackles this point head on, asserting that protection (maṅgala) comes from one’s actions, and providing a long list of actions that act as protection, ranging from not associating with fools to gaining arahantship. Pointedly, brahmanical recitations are not included in the list.
Nevertheless, the Sutta Nipāta contains two suttas that apparently served (and one of them still serves) a liturgical purpose. One, 2:1, is a blessing chant for general well-being that bases its efficacy on the truth of the noble attainments. The other, 4:13, is a chant that was apparently used to frame the ceremony of taking the precepts, placing it in the context of the Buddha’s own original experience of saṁvega, thus providing the proper frame of mind for those who are taking the precepts.
In this way, although the early Buddhists criticized the brahmans for their useless liturgies, they did provide their followers with the comfort of protection so that they wouldn’t be tempted to revert to brahmanical practices.
History. In a similar pattern, the Sutta Nipāta undercuts the histories that the brahmans told about themselves, while at the same time providing alternative histories of the Buddha to inspire its readers/listeners to practice the Dhamma. On the one hand, 2:7 provides a revisionist history of the brahmans that casts their sacrifices, in particular, in a very bad light: The brahmans composed their hymns and designed their animal sacrifices, not through divine inspiration, but through greed for wealth and status. Instead of being pleased by the sacrifices, as the brahmans maintained, the devas were horrified by them. Instead of bringing prosperity and harmony to the human race, the sacrifices brought disease, discord, and violence.
On the other hand, three suttas—3:1, 3:2, and the beginning of 3:11—provide inspiring histories of the Buddha’s birth and quest for awakening. One of them, 3:2, contains passages describing the events in the Buddha’s own words. The other two are told entirely in the third person. These histories fill the vacuum left when the brahmanical histories were discredited, providing alternative examples for what counts as heroic in the conduct of one’s life. Tellingly, the Sutta Nipāta contains no history of the most important event in the Buddha’s life: his awakening. It recounts only a few of the events leading there. There is no way of knowing why early Buddhists did not put the events of the night of the Buddha’s awakening into verse, but it may have been that they didn’t want the constraints of meter to get in the way of giving an accurate portrayal of the knowledges the Buddha gained in the course of that awakening.
Philology and grammar. Linguistic theory and usage were areas in which brahmanical knowledge appears to have been in flux throughout the ancient period in India. Of special interest for our purposes are brahmanical texts that lay down rules for how poetic texts should be composed. These texts postdate the Buddha’s time by a few centuries, but they appear to have been based on earlier oral traditions developed among actors and directors in the very ancient, and very active, Indian theater. Poetry in the Pali Canon shows signs of having been composed in line with many of the aesthetic and literary theories of these texts. This indicates that the educated classes of the time—the brahmans and noble warriors—were familiar with those theories and had developed a taste for them. In fact, the Canon contains some of the earliest extant records of works composed in line with those theories.2
At the same time, it contains passages that appear to be contributions to the on-going development of those theories. However, not all the passages in the Canon—or even a poetic text like the Sutta Nipāta—were composed with an eye to their literary flair. In particular, many of the dialogues in the Sutta Nipāta appear to fall into another tradition, that of the philosophical enigmas posed as part of the brahmanical rituals.
Thus the discussion here will fall into three parts: an analysis of how some of the poems in the Sutta Nipāta follow the generally accepted literary theories of the time; a discussion of its contributions to those theories; and a treatment of how the tradition of the philosophical enigma influenced some of its more perplexing passages. Understanding these three topics will go a long way toward dismantling many of the misconceptions that have grown up around the way the Dhamma is expressed within the Sutta Nipāta.
General aesthetic theory. The central concept in ancient Indian aesthetic theory was that every artistic text should have rasa, or “savor,” and the theory around savor was this: Artistic literature expressed states of emotion or states of mind called bhāva. The classic analysis of basic emotions listed eight: love (delight), humor, grief, anger, energy, fear, disgust, and astonishment. The reader/listener exposed to these presentations of emotion did not participate in them directly; rather, he/she savored them as an aesthetic experience at one remove from the emotion. Although the savor was related to the emotion, it was somewhat different from it. The proof of this point was that some of the basic emotions were decidedly unpleasant, whereas the savor of the emotion was meant to be enjoyed.
Each of the emotions had its corresponding savor, as follows:
love — sensitive
humor — comic
grief — compassionate
anger — furious
energy — heroic
fear — apprehensive
disgust — horrific
astonishment — marvelous
Thus, for instance, a heroic character would feel energy, rather than heroism, but the reader/listener would taste that energy as heroic. Characters in love would feel their love, but the reader/listener, in empathizing with their love, would not experience love, but instead would taste that empathy as an experience of being sensitive.
An ideal work of literary art was supposed to convey one dominant savor, but if it was long enough, it was expected, like a good meal, to offer many subsidiary savors as well. The Sutta Nipāta is unlike the Dhammapada and Udāna in that it does not have a single dominant savor—in this respect, it’s like the Itivuttaka—but many of its individual poems do. The most common savors in the collection are:
• the marvelous (1:4, 1:6, 1:9–10, 2:1, 2:4, 2:5, 3:4, 3:6–7, 3:9, 3:11, 5 Prologue & 5 Epilogue—although in the italicized cases the marvelous savor comes simply from the fact that the Buddha’s interlocutors are devas and yakkhas).
In all these examples—and especially in the ones where the Buddha is doing battle with Māra and yakkhas—the heroic and marvelous savor surround the person of the Buddha, providing a particularly Buddhist perspective on what it means to be a hero, and what kind of people with what kinds of qualities should be regarded as amazing.
Less frequent in the Sutta Nipāta are the horrific savor (1:11, 3:10) and the apprehensive (the beginning of 4:15 and 5:16). In the case of 1:11, which goes into detail on the disgusting aspects of the body, the horrific savor is a direct inversion of the sensitive savor that would normally be evoked through descriptions of the human body in erotic poetry. In this way, it subverts the lust that stands in the way of awakening. The remaining cases of the horrific and apprehensive evoke a sense of horror and apprehension surrounding the dangers of rebirth.
In these ways, early Buddhists—beginning, presumably, with the Buddha himself—employed the concept of savor to make their poetry attractive while at the same time directing the concept toward a specifically Buddhist end: inspiring the qualities that will lead to awakening and freedom from the cycle of repeated birth and death.
One of the prime ways of giving savor to a literary text was through the use of ornamental language. Classical treatises devoted a great deal of space to discussions of how language could be used to convey different savors. Many of their recommendations had to do with the sound of the language, as in alliteration and rhyme, and so are hard to convey when translating. Others, however, do survive translation.
This is particularly true of three types of ornamentation: similes, metaphors, and a type of figure called a “lamp” (dīpaka). Lamps are a peculiarity of poetry in Indian languages, which are heavily inflected, a fact that allows a poet to use, say, one adjective to modify two different nouns, or one verb to function in two separate sentences. (The name of the figure derives from the idea that the two nouns radiate from the one adjective, or the two sentences from the one verb.) In English, the closest we have to this is parallelism combined with ellipsis. An example from the Sutta Nipāta is in 2:5—
thoughts fling the mind around,
as boys, a (captive) crow
—where “fling around” functions as the verb-phrase in both clauses, even though it is elided from the second. This is how I have rendered some of the lamps in many of the poems, although in other cases, such as the end of 3:6, I have repeated the lamp word either to emphasize its double role or simply because it was hard to render into English syntax a parallel construction in which a single word would work effectively. I have flagged some examples of lamp words and phrases in the notes to the individual suttas.
By far the most common types of ornamentation are similes and metaphors. A list of the suttas in which they are found would include these:
Other ornaments frequently used in the Sutta Nipāta include:
The praise is primarily directed toward the Buddha, as a way of enhancing the sense of the marvelous around his attainment and his ability to teach that attainment to others; the admonitions reflect the strong didactic tone in many of the suttas; and the rhetorical questions reflect the fact that many of the poems are presenting a reasoned argument of a particular point.
Ornaments less frequently used include:
Benediction (āśis): 2:1;
Etymology (nirukta): 3:6;
Wish (manoratha): 5:16.
Another way in which poetic language can convey savor is through a varied use of meters. Classic brahmanical poetry—such as the Vedas and the Upaniṣads—were composed primarily in two meters. But at approximately the time of the Buddha, new types of musical meters were being developed—“musical” both in the sense that they were inspired apparently by specific songs, and in the sense that two short syllables were precisely equal to one long syllable, just as two half notes equal one whole note in music. These meters quickly multiplied into a large variety of permutations, syncopated and not, that greatly expanded the repertoire of Indian poets from that time onward.
Although the majority of the suttas in the Sutta Nipāta are composed in the old meters, seven are composed in the new: 1:1, 2:13, and 3:6 are either entirely or primarily in combinations of the opacchandasaka and vetāliya meters; 1:8 and 4:14 are entirely or primarily in the ariyā meter; 4:6 is entirely in the vetāliya meter; and 3:10 is composed in several meters, including the vetāliya, vegāvatī, and dodhaka.3 These meters are difficult to reproduce in English, but their existence in the Sutta Nipāta is worth noting for three reasons.
One is that their existence belies the idea, often advanced, that the style of the Sutta Nipāta is consistently old, and therefore must represent an old stratum in the Pali Canon. The fact that some of the poems are in the new meters shows that this is not necessarily the case. At the same time, however, their existence does not prove that the poems in which they were composed postdated the Buddha. There is no way of knowing when the meters were introduced, although the Canon contains hints that the new meters may have already been current in his time. For instance, a verse in one of the most famous poems in the Canon, the summary of the Ovāda Pāṭimokkha (Dhp 184), is composed in the opacchandasaka meter. The tradition teaches that the Buddha recited this poem during the first year of his teaching career, which—if the tradition is correct, and there are no grounds for doubting it—would indicate that the new meters were already in circulation when he was alive. Similarly, 3:6—one of the poetic dialogues composed in the new meters—mentions in passing that the Buddha was still young at the time when the dialogue took place, which also suggests that the meters did not postdate his time.
The second reason for noting the existence of the new meters in the Sutta Nipāta is that they were apparently meant to show that the Buddha was current with the latest developments in literary expression. In two of the cases where he uses them—2:13 and 3:6—he is speaking in response to questions posed in the new meters. Throughout the Sutta Nipāta, when a person opens a poetic dialogue with the Buddha, the Buddha always answers in the same meter (or meters) in which the question was posed. His ability to respond in the new meters was thus one more example of his skill with language.
Third, it’s also worth noting that none of the interlocutors identified as brahmans in the Sutta Nipāta use any of the new meters. This may account for the larger number of suttas composed in the old meters: The brahmans themselves may have preferred the old meters because of their association with Vedic and other brahmanical texts. The old meters were thus “theirs.” This would indicate that even with the existence of new meters, there would be reasons to compose new verses in the old style. The same point applies to the choice of vocabulary in these poems as well. Still, the compilers of the Sutta Nipāta included a few poems in the new style, showing that the Buddha and the tradition he founded were not bound by old ways of expression. They embraced the developments in poetics and the means of inducing savor when they saw that it would further their ends.
Nevertheless, despite the ornamental language used in some of its suttas, the Sutta Nipāta also contains a fairly large number of suttas that either provide none of the standard savors or, at most, convey those savors only weakly: 1:5, 1:8, 2:2–3, 2:6, 2:9, 2:11, 2:13–14, 3:5, 4:11–12, 4:16, 5:1–3, 5:7–15. This fact may be related to the strong didactic nature of the collection, but it also seems to be related to a particularly Buddhist contribution to ancient Indian aesthetic theory.
Buddhist aesthetic theory. It was common practice in ancient India for writers to announce the dominant savor they were trying to produce in their works, usually stating in passing that the savor of that particular work was the highest savor of all. This tendency carried over into the Pali Canon, where, for example, the Dhammapada—whose dominant savor is the Dhamma savor, traditionally a variant of the heroic—announces that Dhamma is the highest savor (Dhp 354).
Similarly, the Sutta Nipāta contains a passage identifying the highest savor—one, however, that is not one found in the standard list. In 1:10, the Buddha is quoted as saying that the highest savor is truth. This statement is nowhere explained, but it is echoed in the statement in 3:3 that “Truth indeed is deathless speech,” and seems related to a remark that appears twice in the Pārānaya Vagga (5:8 and 5 Epilogue):
In the past,
before hearing Gotama’s message,
when anyone explained ‘It is,’ ‘It will be,’
all that was hearsay,
All that promoted conjecture
and gave me no pleasure.
In other words, for a person seeking truth, there is only one savor that is genuinely satisfying: the savor of a direct statement of the truth. Thus, even though many of the poems in the Sutta Nipāta provided pleasure in their use of ornamental language, that use was meant to serve a higher purpose, the conveying of truth—and was truly satisfying only to the extent that it allowed the truth to shine through. And as the passages in 1:10 and 5:8 seem to be saying, even an unornamented passage, if it states the truth, has a savor that gives pleasure to a person tired of hearsay.
Because the Canon gives no further explanation of truth as a savor, it’s hard to tell whether the Buddha proposed this savor as a ninth addition to the standard list of eight or as a subset of one of the eight: the savor of the marvelous. This latter possibility is suggested by the Buddha’s reference in DN 11 and AN 3:61 to the miracle of instruction:
“And what is the miracle of instruction? There is the case where a monk/person gives instruction in this way: ‘Direct your thought in this way, don’t direct it in that. Attend to things in this way, don’t attend to them in that. Let go of this, enter and remain in that.’”
This instruction is miraculous because, in the Buddha’s hands, it can lead to a direct and true experience of unbinding.
The sense that genuine truth is miraculous is also suggested by 2:1, in which the statement of truths about the noble attainments is said to have the power to bring about well-being. And it is suggested by the many passages elsewhere in the Canon where, after the Buddha states an especially perceptive truth, his listener(s) comment that it is amazing and astounding how well he has stated it (see, for example, MN 82, MN 87, MN 106, and SN 42:11).
Whether the savor of truth was meant to be an independent savor or a variant of the marvelous, the high position that the Sutta Nipāta gives to the savor of truth relates to another specifically Buddhist point of aesthetic theory: the Canon’s classification of poets into four types. The classification is found at AN 4:231:
“Monks, there are these four kinds of poets. Which four? The thought-poet, the heard-poet, the meaning (attha)-poet, and the extemporaneous poet. These are the four kinds of poets.”
The Canon does not explain these terms, and they are not found in any other records of ancient Indian aesthetic theory. The Commentary states that the thought-poet invents stories, the heard-poet retells old legends, the meaning-poet gets to the meaning of things, and the extemporaneous poet comes up with a new poem on the spot.
Of the four, the meaning-poet is most concerned with the truth, and his accomplishment is pleasurable in direct relationship to his ability to convey the savor of truth in his poetry. This is precisely the role that the Buddha plays throughout the Sutta Nipāta. Even more impressive is when the meaning-poet can at the same time play the role of the extemporaneous poet, which the Buddha does in all of the poetic dialogues except one: 1:2, 1:4–7, 1:9–10, 2:4–5, 2:9, 2:13–14, 3:2, 3:4–7, 3:9–11, 4:7, 4:8–14, 4:16, 5 Prologue, and 5:1–16. The one exception is 2:2, where the main speaker is not our Buddha, but a previous one: the Buddha Kassapa.
In translation, it may be hard to fully appreciate the Buddha’s accomplishment as a combined meaning- and extemporaneous poet, but it’s possible to gain at least some sense of his level of skill by comparing his verses with those of three other extemporaneous poets portrayed in the Sutta Nipāta: Ven. Vaṅgīsa in 2:12 and 3:3; Sabhiya in 3:6; and Sela in 3:7. In only one case—Ven. Vaṅgīsa in 3:3—do these poets display anything near the Buddha’s ability to convey useful, detailed truths in extemporaneous verse.
Philosophical enigmas. Even though the meaning of the vast majority of the Buddha’s verses is direct and clear, there are a few cases where the verses seem deliberately ambiguous or obscure. On the surface, this would seem to be a flaw in a meaning-poet, but verses of this sort have to be understood in the context of another ancient Indian tradition: the philosophical enigma. Evidence in the Rig Veda 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. The purpose of these contests was to teach the contestants—usually students studying to become ritual experts—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.4 In other words, there are occasions when ambiguity can be a useful pedagogical tool.
The Canon contains occasional examples in which the Buddha seems to be deliberately following this tradition. In MN 18 and MN 138, for instance, he makes an enigmatic statement and then, without allowing any time for questions, gets up from his seat and enters his dwelling, leaving it to the monks to figure out for themselves what the statement meant. In SN 1:1 he answers a deva’s question—“Tell me, dear sir, how you crossed over the flood”—with a paradox: “I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.” Apparently, his purpose there was to subdue her pride. In other cases, he plays with words in a shocking way to shake up his listeners’ sense of language—as when, in Dhp 97, he says that the ultimate person is akataññū, which can mean both “ungrateful” and “knowing the unmade.” In still other cases, he quotes a passage from one of his own poems and then interprets it in a way that is not at all obvious from the surface meaning of the passage (see 5:3, note 5). The purpose in these cases is apparently to convey the point that some of his statements have multiple levels of meaning and so are worth pondering in depth.
The problem with this sort of pedagogical tool is that it can be understood only in context. Outside of that context, it can seem strange and even lead to confusion. This is true of several passages in the Sutta Nipāta, but two examples in particular stand out. The first is 3:6, in which the Buddha is asked to define a long list of terms, and many of his definitions revolve around wordplay. In the context of the philosophical enigma, this sort of wordplay was highly prized, which is why Sabhiya, the Buddha’s interlocutor, is so impressed by it. Outside of that context, the wordplay loses its force.
Another even more serious example is the grammatical pun that lies at the heart of the Buddha’s dialogue with Māgandiya in 4:9. On the surface, the pun seems to be saying that the goal is not by means of views, learning, knowledge, habits, or practices, but that it cannot be attained except through views, learning, knowledge, habits, or practices. Actually, though, the grammatical case indicating “by means of” in Pali can also mean “in terms of”: Thus the passage actually means that the goal is not defined in terms of those things, but it cannot be attained except through those things—a point made in many other passages in the Canon as well. As with the deva in SN 1:1, the Buddha’s purpose in making this pun was apparently to subdue Māgandiya’s pride. Māgandiya, unfortunately, caught only the surface meaning, and so was confused. Even more unfortunately, many scholars today catch only the surface meaning, which has led to many misunderstandings. But if we keep in mind the fact that many of the dialogues in the Sutta Nipāta were intended for people whose sense of the philosophical dialogue included a taste for the philosophical enigma, we can be alert to look for deeper meanings in cases where the surface meaning of a passage may seem contradictory or ambiguous. I have tried to provide notes to help unlock many of these enigmas, but there may be instances that I have missed. Reading and interpreting ancient poetry, even with a sense of ancient context, requires care.
Cosmology. In SN 12:48, a brahman cosmologist approaches the Buddha and asks where he stands on the two big issues that cosmologists at the time debated in an attempt to base their cosmology on first principles: (1) whether everything exists or doesn’t exist; and (2) whether everything is a oneness or a plurality. The Buddha refuses to take a stance on either issue, saying that all four positions given in answer to these questions are “extremes,” and that he avoids these extremes with his teaching on dependent co-arising (paṭicca samuppāda). Because dependent co-arising is essentially a teaching on how the actions of the mind can give rise to suffering and can put an end to suffering, he is stating in effect that the most important principle in understanding the cosmos is not the nature of its existence, but the efficacy of actions, delineating which actions are skillful or unskillful in putting an end to suffering, along with the possible consequences of acting in either way.
In 3:9, the Buddha states this point in this way:
The wise see action [kamma] in this way
as it has come to be,
seeing dependent co-arising,
cognizant of action’s results.
Through action the world rolls on.
People roll on through action.
In action are beings held bound together,
as in a linchpin,
a chariot traveling along.
When considering the possible consequences of action, the brahmans of the Buddha’s time were primarily concerned with two issues: whether there was life after death and, if there was, what kind of actions in this lifetime might play a role in shaping that life. Several of the classic Upaniṣads—such as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, and Kāṭha Upaniṣads—accepted the possibility of life after death, although they differed among themselves as to how one’s actions might affect the way in which one was reborn. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad, for instance, taught that actions played a role in the post mortem fate of only middling and lower beings. Brahmans with knowledge of the self, it taught, were higher beings who would not be affected by their actions, and instead were guaranteed union with Brahmā after death (ChU V.3–10).
However, not all brahmans of the Buddha’s time believed in the possibility of rebirth. DN 1 reports the existence of brahmans and contemplatives who, for various reasons, taught that the self was annihilated at death. In one case, these brahmans defined the self in a way similar to the views of modern materialists as to what constitutes a person: A person is nothing but a body, and so no longer exists after death.
So when the Buddha gained his second knowledge on the night of his awakening—knowledge of the passing away and re-arising of beings in line with their actions—he was not simply following an assumption shared by everyone in his culture. He saw that rebirth was a fact, and that it was shaped by the skillfulness of one’s actions, which in turn were shaped by one’s views. He also saw that one’s caste in this lifetime played no role in determining one’s future course after death.
This was a point on which he differed radically from the beliefs of many of the brahmans of his time. Among the brahmans who believed in rebirth, many also believed that their status as brahmans prevented them from falling into lower states after death. Instead, they were at the very least guaranteed rebirth in the brahman caste in the next life. This is one of the reasons why they debated whether having simply been born in the brahman caste was enough to earn this guarantee, or if one had to follow brahmanical traditions as well.
As we have already noted, the Buddha redefined this question by making the action that qualifies one as a brahman, not a matter of brahmanical traditions, but a matter of virtue and all the other skills that lead to full awakening.
This meant that neither brahmanical birth nor brahmanical traditions could guarantee a good rebirth after death, a point that the Buddha makes clear in 1:7:
Though born into a family of scholars,
brahmans, with chants as their kinsmen,
are repeatedly seen with evil deeds:
blameworthy in the here-&-now,
with a bad destination in the afterlife.
Their birth doesn’t prevent them
from blame & a bad destination.
As for the range of possible destinations that await a person after death, the Sutta Nipāta does not give a complete account. It simply notes that the Buddha knows the way to the Brahmā world (3:5), and that he also has directly known hell and the way leading to hell (3:10). Also, the many suttas in which devas and yakkhas appear or are mentioned (1:6, 1:9–10, 2:4–5, 2:14, 3:6) indicate that these levels of beings are among those from which one may come to the human world and to which, depending on one’s actions, one may be reborn.
So the Sutta Nipāta’s teachings on rebirth and action challenged a wide variety of views that brahmans held at the time. This is an important point to remember when we consider how these teachings challenge modern views on these topics as well. Instead of bowing to the beliefs of his culture, the Buddha maintained the truth of what he had known and seen, and what he regarded as useful—in light of that knowledge and vision—for the long-term welfare and happiness of his listeners.
Marks of a Great Man. For a modern reader, some of the least appealing passages in the Sutta Nipāta concern the brahmanical view that there were 32 marks to look for in a great man—one who would either become a universal monarch or a Rightly Self-Awakened One—and the corresponding Buddhist assertion that the Buddha was endowed with all 32 marks. These passages, found in 3:7 and 5 Prologue, seem to be in direct contradiction to the Buddha’s own assertion in 3:9 that a person’s physical attributes are no measure of his/her worth.
Nevertheless, these passages are best understood as part of a strategy to convince brahmans that the Buddha was worthy of the highest respect. And fortunately, the compilers of the Sutta Nipāta provided plenty of examples to show that the Buddha really did possess the excellence of which the marks were supposed to be signs.
The most immediate proof of the Buddha’s excellence lies in the quality of his teaching, and in particular his understanding of the intricacies of the mind and how they can be mastered so as to put an end to suffering. As is typical of the poetry in the Khuddaka Nikāya, most of the poems in the Sutta Nipāta give no more than brief mention to many of the Buddha’s basic teachings—such as the noble truths and their duties (2:1, 2:4, 3:7), the five hindrances (1:1), the five faculties (2:11), mindfulness (1:4, 1:8, 2:11, 3:2, 3:4–6, 3:12, 4:1, 4:10, 4:14, 4:16, 5:1–2, 5:4–6, 5:8, 5:10, 5:12–13, 5:15), jhāna (1:1, 1:9, 1:12, 3:2, 3:5, 3:9, 3:11, 4:14, 4:16, 5:13), unbinding (1:5, 1:10–11, 2:1, 2:4, 2:13, 3:3, 3:6, 3:12, 4:7, 4:14–15, 5:5, 5:8, 5:10, 5:13), and the ending of birth (1:4, 1:12, 2:1, 2:12, 3:4–7, 3:9, 3:12, 5:3–4, 5:7, 5:10–11, 5:16).
However, three poems give very detailed instructions on practical points of Dhamma—direct proof that the Buddha was an excellent teacher. The descriptions of goodwill practice in 1:8, of body contemplation in 1:11, and of the factors of dependent co-arising, rendered in poetry and prose in 3:12, are among the most detailed instructions on those topics found anywhere in the Canon. At the same time, the subtle points of doctrine discussed in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga and Pārānaya Vagga show that the Buddha had really mastered the ways of the mind and could offer practical instruction to others in how to attain that mastery as well.
In addition to technical discussions of doctrine, the suttas here also show how the Buddha taught an admirable set of values. Many of these values fall under the eight headings listed in AN 8:51 as proof that a teaching qualifies as genuine Dhamma: if, when put into practice, it is conducive to being unfettered (1:3, 4:10), to gaining dispassion (2:14, 4:1, 4:4, 4:6, 4:9, 5:6), to shedding pride and conceit (2:14, 4:3, 4:5, 4:8–10, 4:14–15), to modesty (2:9, 4:3, 3:11, 4:8, 4:10, 4:14), to contentment (1:12, 2:14, 3:11, 4:16), to reclusiveness (1:3, 2:14, 3:11), to aroused persistence (2:10, 3:2, 4:14, 4:16), and to being unburdensome (3:11, 4:16).
In line with the teaching that all skillful qualities are rooted in heedfulness (AN 10:15), several of the suttas focus on the need for heedfulness in the face of the fact of death and separation (3:8, 4:6), and the corresponding need to overcome attachment to the body (1:11), greed and sensuality (4:1), and sexual intercourse (4:7).
The ultimate proof of the value of these teachings, of course, comes only when the reader/listener puts them to use and finds that they do, in fact, lead to the ending of suffering and stress (MN 27). But the Sutta Nipāta also provides provisional proof in the way it depicts the Buddha’s demeanor as an embodiment of how these teachings are lived. He is able to read minds (5 Prologue). He is ready with an answer to all the questions put to him (except in 4:8, where he is distrustful of his listener’s motivation in looking for an argument), and he shows many admirable attributes in the way he engages with his interlocutors. For instance, in 2:7 and 3:9, he doesn’t criticize brahmans until brahmans directly ask for his opinion of them and their traditions. In 3:6 he shows an open readiness to answer questions that had sparked other religious teachers to behave in a surly and impolite way.
All of this prepares the reader/listener to accept the many passages in the Sutta Nipāta devoted to praise of the Buddha. In line with a passage from DN 16—saying that the Buddha is praised by those who themselves are worthy of praise—the suttas here quote the praise that brahmans, excellent poets, and even supernatural beings have bestowed on him (1:9, 1:10, 2:1, 2:12, 2:14, 3:3, 3:6–7, all of 5). Some of the terms of this praise had special meaning for brahmans: In 3:5 and 3:7, brahmans actually call him Brahmā, their highest possible praise, and in 3:4–5 and 3:7, they agree that the Buddha and his noble disciples are the most deserving recipients of brahmanical sacrificial gifts.
They also call him the “One with Eyes” or the “All-around Eye” (1:2, 1:9, 2:12, 2:14, 3:9, 5 Prologue, 5:5, 5:6, 5:9, 5 Epilogue), terms that require special explanation. From Vedic times, a person’s spiritual power was thought to reside in his/her eyes. The power of the eye was indicative not only of the ability to see—and thus being an “Eye” meant that one had especially penetrating knowledge of things—but also of the ability to grant blessings or inflict curses with a glance. This is why it was considered auspicious to gaze into the eyes of a holy person or heavenly being, and to be gazed upon by such a being as well. Moreover, divine beings were thought to be “all eye,” in the sense that they could see with every part of their body. Thus simply to be in their presence or to see any part of their body was considered a blessing.5 So when the poems here call the Buddha an Eye or and All-around Eye, they are treating the Buddha as a divine being of great power and insight.
However, they do not stop with depicting the Buddha simply in these terms, or even as the highest figure in the brahmanical cosmos. He is something higher. All of the awakened, the poems say, have gone beyond the Brahmā world (3:6), and their course can’t even be known by devas (this includes Brahmās) or human beings (3:9, 5:6). In 3:10, a Brahmā bows down to the Buddha as a sign that he recognizes the Buddha’s superiority—and that all other beings, brahmans included, should do so as well.
Perhaps even more impressive than the praise showered on the Buddha is the way in which he responds to that praise. He is not abashed by it—after all, as he notes in DN 1, there is no way that the praise given by others can do full justice to his attainment. At the same time, though, he is not made proud by the praise. Instead, he looks to see what provoked it. In 3:7, for example, his response to Sela’s high praise is first to affirm his status as Buddha, but then to penetrate further to the fact that Sela’s praise is actually motivated by doubt. So the main thrust of his response to Sela is to address that doubt directly. In other words, his concern is less with his own image in the eyes of others, and more with the genuine well-being of others, whether they give him praise or blame.
When we understand the various ways in which the Sutta Nipāta engages the main elements of brahmanical education—the Vedas, liturgy, history, philology and grammar, cosmology, and the marks of a Great Man—we can see that the Buddha and his early followers borrowed many of their concepts and techniques of expression from the brahmans. On one level, this is only natural, in that the Buddha and his more literate followers had received a brahmanical education or were familiar with its terms. This was the language in which they were already trained to think.
However, as a general principle, they did not allow the brahmans or brahmanical education to set the agenda as to what and how they taught. Everything from Indian culture, whether new or old, was evaluated as to how it did and didn’t fit in with the Buddha’s own three knowledges as gained on the night of his awakening—and if it didn’t fit, how it might be altered to further the Buddhist purpose of teaching the path of awakening to others.
The Sutta Nipāta contains only one sutta that breaks with this general principle. In 3:7, brahmanical traditions set the terms of the discussion. Sela is impressed with the Buddha simply because the latter exhibits all 32 marks of the Great Man, and because his response to praise falls in line with what Sela had learned from “the aged line of teachers.” The Buddha, in response to Sela’s questions, does not encourage Sela to have faith in him only after having tested his teachings (see MN 95, AN 3:66, and AN 4:192). Instead, he simply tells Sela to abandon his doubts immediately. How this sutta was received by brahmans of the time may be indicated by the fact that it was translated into Sanskrit and included in the Divyāvadāna. But from a modern perspective the sutta is one of the weakest in the collection, conveying the least amount of practical Dhamma. Thus, even though it is an exception to the general principle of not allowing brahmanical beliefs to set the agenda in conveying the Dhamma, it shows the wisdom of the general principle with which it breaks.
From this perspective, we can see that the Buddhist appropriation of brahmanical terms was strategic. In some cases, the Sutta Nipāta uses brahmanical terms in a way that preserves their original brahmanical meaning. In others, it gives new meanings to those terms so that they will fit with the entirely new standard, set by the Buddha’s awakening, for what counts as knowledge and what that knowledge can enable people to do.
Similarly with brahmanical practices: In some cases, such as animal sacrifice and racism, the brahmanical practice is denounced and rejected outright. In others, such as the practice of sacrifice in general, or in the conduct of philosophical debates, certain key concepts—such as the means of sacrifice, the merit of donation to a worthy recipient, the use of philosophical enigmas—are converted to serve the purpose of a culture devoted to awakening.
Although the act of reading the Sutta Nipāta at present requires that we step outside of our own educational background to develop an appreciation for the background that the poems here assume, we can take these poems as lessons in how to understand the Dhamma in relation to our own context: using the Buddha’s awakening as a standard for determining what in our culture can serve the purposes of our own awakening, and what needs to be redefined and reimagined if it is to serve that end.
A note on the translation
The primary foundation for this translation is the Thai edition of the Pali text, printed by Mahāmakut Rājavidyālaya, Bangkok, 1980. I have also consulted Sri Lankan and Burmese editions available online through the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Digital Pali Reader. All of these texts have their flaws, so I have had to make choices among them. In cases where the Thai text contained readings that were obviously wrong, I have chosen readings from one or both of the other sources. In cases where none of the variant readings in the different editions seemed obviously better than the others, I have stood by the Thai reading because there already exist English translations based on the Sri Lankan and Burmese editions; I felt that the Thai edition should have its chance to speak to the larger world.
The attempt to render Pali verse into set meters in English, in imitation of the meters in the original, leads inevitably to distortions, in which words are cut from some lines, and extraneous words are used to pad others to maintain the meter. To avoid this sort of misrepresentation, I have chosen to render the poems here into free verse, as this allows for the fewest distortions in meaning, as well as for the ability to highlight parallel constructions and to emphasize words that are emphasized in the original in ways that normal English prose syntax would not allow.
1. There is no firm evidence that any other early Buddhist tradition had a text corresponding to the Sutta Nipāta. However, there is one text suggesting that at least one other tradition might have had such a collection. That text is the Milinda Pañhā—the Questions of King Milinda. This text exists now in a Pali rendering, which in Myanmar is actually considered as part of the Pali Canon. Internal evidence, however, suggests that the text came originally from another tradition. Its dialogues often quote the words of the Buddha, but in many cases the quotations cannot be traced to any part of the existing Pali Canon—a sign that the text possibly had its origins in a tradition that accepted different records of what the Buddha had said. However, in five of the dialogues the text quotes short passages that it identifies as “in the Sutta Nipāta,” and which are found in the Pali Sutta Nipāta. (The passages are found in 1:2, 1:12, 2:6, and 3:11.) Of course, the phrase “in the Sutta Nipāta” may have been added when the text was translated into Pali, but at the very least it leaves open the possibility that the Pali tradition was not the only one to have such a compilation.
As for records of other traditions as they relate to the Sutta Nipāta: In addition to those mentioned here in the Introduction, two complete Sanskrit texts—the Mahāvastu from the Lokottaravādin school, and the Divyāvadāna from the Mūlasarvāstivādin school—contain versions of some of the suttas. The Mahāvastu contains Sanskrit parallels with 1:3, 2:1, 3:1–2, 3:6, and 4:9; the Divyāvadāna, with 2:1, 3:7, and 4:9. A manuscript discovered in Central Asia contains fragments of four suttas from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, 4:7–10. The Mahāyāna philosopher Asaṅga quotes Sanskrit versions of three short passages from 4:1, 4:13, and 5:1. Also, in addition to the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, there are passages from some of the other suttas in the Sutta Nipāta found in the Chinese Canon, but I do not have access to them.
In the case of parallels to which I do have access, I have not attempted to use them as a basis for altering the Pali in search of what might strike me as a more original version of any of the poems. Such judgments are inevitably subjective, and reveal more about the interpreter than about the text being interpreted. This point applies even more forcefully to Chinese versions of the Canon than to Sanskrit ones, in that they are linguistically and chronologically even further remote from the Pali than the Sanskrit versions are.
2. On the topic of ancient Indian aesthetic theory and its affect on the Pali Canon, see A. K. Warder, Indian Kāvya Literature, volumes 1 and 2.
3. For more information on these meters, see A. K. Warder, Pali Metre.
4. See Willard Johnson, Poetry and Speculation of the Ṛg Veda.
5. See Jan Gonda, Eye and Gaze in the Veda.