Meaning in the Udāna

The term udāna has two meanings, one denoting a vocal expression, the other a genre of text. As a vocal expression, it can be translated roughly as “exclamation,” and in particular an exclamation that’s spontaneous and inspired. As a genre of text, udāna means a style of narrative that developed in an effort to commit to memory the Buddha’s inspired exclamations, along with brief accounts of the events that inspired them.

Several passages in the Pali Canon (such as AN 7:64 and MN 22) depict the Buddha as mentioning nine genres in which his teachings and events in his life were memorized during his lifetime, udānas being among them. Cullavagga XI reports that, shortly after the Buddha’s passing away, a large council of his disciples met to agree on a standardized form in which to remember his teachings, beginning a process that led to the Pali Canon we have today. At present, the Khuddaka Nikāya (Short Collection) contains as its third text a collection of eighty udānas called, simply, Udāna. (To distinguish between individual udānas and the collection as a whole, the standard practice is to capitalize the latter and not the former.) Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime–for a few observations on this question, see Appendix One–but there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. That is why I felt that a complete translation of the Udāna we currently have would be worthwhile.

The role of the Udāna within the context of the Pali Canon is to focus on the values and principles–“meaning” in the larger sense of the term–that underlie the Buddha’s teachings. This point can be seen clearly in how each udāna is organized. It begins with a narrative of an event or series of events, followed (with a few variations) by the formula: “Then, on realizing the significance/meaning (attha) of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed.” This, in turn, is followed by a spontaneous exclamation–a poem, a passage of prose, or a combination of the two–in which the Buddha expresses what that meaning or significance is.

To understand the purpose of this way of structuring each udāna, we can compare it to the itivuttakas (“quotations”), which resemble the udānas in three ways: They are listed among the original nine genres of Buddhist texts; they currently exist as a book in the Khuddaka Nikāya (the fourth, immediately after the Udāna); and each consists of a prose passage followed by a poem. The itivuttakas differ from the udānas in that the prose passage is a summary of a Dhamma talk, and the concluding poem further distills the basic points of the talk into an easy-to-memorize form. Thus the closing passages in an itivuttaka are meant primarily as memory aids.

In an udāna, however, the closing exclamations are aimed more at understanding the significance of what can be learned from an event. Although some of these exclamations give recommendations on what to do in response to an event of that particular sort–such as how to deal with unfair criticism–most of them express and extol more general values in their praise or criticism of people or attitudes involved in the event. The fact that no human being but the Buddha was present to record some of the exclamations reported in the Udāna–such as those in 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:7, 2:1, 3:10–suggests that he himself played a role in the shaping of the genre, for these events wouldn’t have been recorded unless he had reported them to others. But whether the idea of collecting these pieces as a distinct genre originated with him or with his disciples, we have no way of knowing.

What we can know, however, when we look carefully at the form and content of the Udāna as a whole, is that a cohesive set of values runs throughout the collection. We also find that those values run directly counter to the values of domestic society in the Buddha’s time: stating, for instance, that brahmans–people worthy of respect–are made and not born; and that the happiness of lay life is nothing compared to the happiness of renunciation.

This last value, of course, flies in the face of the domestic values not only of the Buddha’s time, but also of human society in all time. Thus the Udāna seems aimed at having a revolutionary impact on the mind of any reader raised in domestic society. To make these values palatable to the reader, the compilers employed all the literary skills at their disposal when shaping the narratives around the Buddha’s explanations and organizing them into a collection. So as we look at the values expressed in the Udāna, we have to be sensitive not only to the content of the Buddha’s spontaneous exclamations, but also to the form and content of the compilers’ contributions in collecting them.

First, in terms of the Udāna’s content, we can learn a lot, on the one hand, by looking at the types of events that inspired the Buddha to break forth with a spontaneous exclamation, and on the other, by identifying the values his exclamations express.

What kinds of events would inspire an awakened one to exclaim? When we sort the events described by the narrators into categories, we find that they fall primarily into two: those inciting a sense of pasāda (cheerful confidence) in the practice and attainment of the Dhamma, and those inciting a sense of saṁvega (dismay) over the heedlessness of those who don’t practice the Dhamma. In the following list, individual udānas are indicated by their number in the collection.


Celebrating the Dhamma and the Buddha’s own attainment of it: 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, 1:7, 2:1, 3:10, 6:1, 6:3, 7:7, 7:8, 8:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4

Celebrating the attainments of his disciples: 1:5, 1:6, 1:8, 1:10, 2:10, 3:1, 3:2, 3:3, 3:4, 3:5, 3:6, 3:7, 4:4, 4:6, 4:7, 4:9, 4:10, 5:6, 5:7, 5:10, 6:7, 7:1, 7:2, 7:5, 7:6, 8:9, 8:10

Joy in solitude: 4:5

Miraculous events: 2:8, 7:9, 8:6

In praise of the practice of giving, virtue, and meditation: 8:5


Chastising monks: 2:2, 3:8, 3:9, 4:1, 8:7

Commenting on monks’ misbehavior: 4:2, 5:5, 5:8

Seeing the foolishness of other sectarians: 1:9, 2:4, 2:6, 6:4, 6:5, 6:6, 6:10

Teaching children who are harming animals: 2:3, 5:4

Teaching a king: 5:1, 6:2

Seeing hardships of domestic life: 2:5, 2:6, 2:7, 2:9, 8:8

Commenting on the foolishness/heedlessness of lay people’s behavior: 2:8, 5:9, 6:8, 6:9, 7:3, 7:4

Contrasting the attainment of the Dhamma with the situation of ordinary people: 3:10, 8:6

In response to a death: 2:7, 4:3, 5:2, 5:3, 7:10, 8:8

It’s interesting to note that the emotions of pasāda and saṁvega are paired rarely in the Canon but frequently in later Theravāda texts focusing on the emotions to be developed when visiting memorials to the Buddha, such as stūpas or Buddha images. Pasāda is the appropriate response to feel when reflecting that the Buddha’s total unbinding (parinibbāna) transcended birth and death because he had awakened to the birthless, deathless dimension (8:1, 8:3, 8:4). Saṁvega is the appropriate response when reflecting on your own situation, subject to repeated rebirths and redeaths as long you have yet to awaken to that dimension yourself.

Thus the experience of reading the Udāna is like that of gaining inspiration from a stūpa or Buddha image–a point reinforced not only by its explicit reference to the dimension beyond birth and death in 8:3 and 8:4, but also by the large number of deaths mentioned throughout the collection. It’s also reinforced by the way in which the deaths of those who have not reached awakening (2:7, 4:3, 4:8, 5:2, 8:8) are contrasted with the deaths of those who have (1:10, 5:3, 7:10, 8:9, 8:10, and the foreshadowing of the Buddha’s own death in 6:1 and 8:5). When an unawakened person dies, it’s a cause for saṁvega; when an awakened person dies, a cause for pasāda–although in the case of Suppabuddha the leper (5:3), his death is a cause for both: saṁvega over the past kamma that led to his present rebirth as a leper, and pasāda for the fact that, having gained the Dhamma-eye just before dying, he is now a prominent deva in the heaven of the Thirty-three.

It’s also interesting to note from these lists how often the narratives in the Udāna focus on celebrating the accomplishments of the Buddha’s disciples, a point to which we will return below.

Just as it’s instructive to note what would cause the Buddha to exclaim, it’s also instructive to note what doesn’t: He never exclaims over the beauty of the body or of material possessions, the wealth or power of those who govern, the joys of a loving relationship, or a kindness done to him personally. In other words, he doesn’t exclaim over the things that people in domestic society normally value. This fact relates directly to the values that his exclamations express.

To understand these values, it’s useful to map them against a list found elsewhere in the Canon, in the Buddha’s instructions to his foster mother concerning the eight basic values that determine which dhammas–teachings, actions, qualities of mind–qualify categorically as true Dhamma. Again, in the following list, udānas expressing a particular value are identified by their numbers in the collection. Individual udānas expressing more than one value are listed more than once.

“As for the dhammas of which you may know, ‘These dhammas lead:

to dispassion, not to passion [1:7, 2:1, 2:8, 3:10, 4:4, 7:3, 7:4];

to being unfettered, not to being fettered [1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:5, 1:8, 1:9, 1:10, 2:1, 2:4, 2:10, 3:2, 3:4, 3:5, 3:6, 3:10, 4:4, 4:9, 4:10, 6:1, 6:3, 6:4, 6:6, 6:7, 6:8, 6:9, 6:10, 7:1, 7:2, 7:3, 7:4, 7:5, 7:6, 7:7, 7:8, 7:9, 7:10, 8:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4, 8:5, 8:6, 8:7, 8:8, 8:9, 8:10];

to shedding, not to accumulating [1:4, 2:4, 4:8, 7:9, 7:10];

to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement [3:1, 3:8, 5:9, 6:4, 6:5];

to contentment, not to discontent [1:6, 2:1, 2:10, 3:7, 4:6];

to seclusion, not to entanglement [1:8, 2:1, 2:5, 2:6, 2:7, 2:8, 2:9, 3:3, 3:9, 4:2, 4:5, 4:6, 5:6, 6:2, 8:7, 8:8];

to aroused persistence, not to laziness [2:2, 3:1, 3:3, 4:1, 4:2, 4:3, 4:6, 4:7, 5:2, 5:3, 5:5, 5:7, 5:8, 5:10, 8:5];

to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’ [1:6, 2:3, 3:7, 3:9, 5:1, 5:4]:

You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’” AN 8:53

The first thing to notice about these values is that, even though they are closely interrelated, they can be divided into three sorts: those touching on the goal of the practice (dispassion, being unfettered), those touching on internal virtues needed to reach that goal (shedding, contentment, aroused persistence), and those touching on one’s relations with others in the course of the practice (modesty, seclusion, and being unburdensome). In each case, these values are all noble–which means that nothing is lost when you engage in putting them to the test. Even if you don’t attain the ultimate goal, you have developed qualities worthy of inner and outer respect, at the same time alleviating a fair amount of suffering in the here and now.

Also notice that all eight values are expressed in the Udāna. Far and away, the largest number of udānas focus on values related to the goal–dispassion and being unfettered–but in doing so, they also provide motivation for developing the virtues and values needed to attain that goal. This motivation is important, for all of these values, as we have noted, run counter to the common values of domestic society–as expressed both in the particular structures of Indian society in the Buddha’s time, and in the common values of domesticity in human cultures across time.

For instance, the values of dispassion and being unfettered run counter to the pursuit of sensuality and to the sense of “I,” “mine,” “we,” and “ours” that underlie family life. The value of shedding runs counter to the domestic desire to accumulate as a protection against future lack; because this value includes the shedding of pride, it also runs counter to the desire for prominence in social affairs. The value of contentment runs counter to the domestic concern with accumulating wealth and stockpiling for the future; the value of modesty, counter to the desire for fame and recognition; and the value of seclusion, counter to the domestic desire to be surrounded by loved ones. The value of being unburdensome, on its face, coincides with the domestic value of frugality, but on a deeper level–in light of the fact that the act of creating a family places extra burdens on the environment to feed and support more people–it counsels celibacy as the ideal way to be unburdensome. Thus it runs directly counter to the domestic idea that the creation of a family is a gift to the world. As for persistence, both the Dhamma and domestic society value persistence in the pursuit of one’s aims, but they differ widely in their understanding of what those aims should be.

All of this means that the task of the Udāna is to convey–and make convincing–the countercultural message that the reader would be wise to focus on the drawbacks of many of the values and structures in which he/she has been nurtured since childhood, and to see the advantages of taking on a more demanding set of values in their place.

This task, in turn, relates directly to the form of the Udāna as a collection, for it shows clear signs of having been consciously and skillfully shaped to present a coherent impression and message. It’s not simply a stenographic account of all the Buddha’s explanations or a random set of texts arranged so that they would be easy to memorize.

The fact that the Udāna was consciously shaped can easily be seen by comparing it with the rest of the Pali Canon. On the one hand, the Udāna does not contain all the Buddha’s exclamations recorded in the Canon. Appendix Two contains the three accounts of the Buddha’s exclamations that the Udāna’s compilers did not include in their collection, and a glance at these accounts helps to suggest why: In one case (SN 56:11), the exclamation was too short to convey much of a meaning. In the other two, there is no record of any event whose significance–sparking either saṁvega or pasāda–incited the Buddha to exclaim. In both of these latter two incidents, the Buddha also had to explain the exclamation to his audience. Thus these cases did not fit into the pattern of the udāna genre.

On the other hand, there are six passages in the Kosala-Saṁyutta and Māra-Saṁyutta (SN 3 and 4) that follow the form of the udānas: a short narrative, followed by the formula, “Then, on realizing the significance/meaning of that, the Blessed One on that occasion…” but instead of exclaiming, the Buddha is said simply to have “spoken these verses.” Aside from this small discrepancy, this formula is exclusive to the udānas.

As it turns out, one of these passages has a direct parallel, and another a near parallel, in the Udāna itself. (See Appendix Three.) All of this suggests that these passages may have been part of the original collection of udānas but later were moved to the Saṁyutta instead. Similarly, but at one step further removed, several suttas included in the Bhikkhu-saṁyutta (SN 21) lack the standard udāna formula but otherwise follow the udāna format in presenting a common udāna theme: the Buddha commenting in verse on the good or bad behavior of his monks. In fact one of these suttas–SN 21:7–is a near parallel with Ud 7:5. Thus these suttas might have originally been udānas that were later moved to the Saṁyutta as well. Because nothing in the content or form of any of these Saṁyutta passages differs from the udānas included in the Udāna, there is the possibility that the monks who made the final selection simply wanted the number of passages in the Udāna to equal a round eighty, the number of years in the Buddha’s life.

The conscious shaping of the Udāna is also apparent when we look at its overall arrangement, for it shows a literary sensibility at work. first, there is the narrative arc of the whole. It begins with the Buddha’s awakening, includes several passages that foreshadow the Buddha’s final unbinding (nibbāna)–the final unbinding of Bāhiya in 1:10, the narratives of the Buddha’s last year in 6:1 and 8:5, and the discussions of unbinding in 8:1-4–and ends with the final unbinding of another one of his disciples, Ven. Dabba Mallaputta. The form of the genre would not have allowed the collection to end with the Buddha’s own final unbinding–he wouldn’t have been present to comment on the meaning of the event–and so Ven. Dabba Mallaputta’s final unbinding is made to stand in for the Buddha’s, thus giving narrative closure to the whole.

Underlying this narrative arc are two doctrinal arcs. The first lies in the fact that the udānas of the first four chapters focus on basic principles–the true brahman (the person worthy of admiration) in the first chapter, true bliss in the second, the ideal monk in the third, and the importance of training the mind in the fourth–whereas all of the udānas in the last two chapters focus on the theme of being unfettered. The collection thus starts with basics and ends with the ultimate goal.

The second doctrinal arc starts with the description of dependent co-arising in the first three udānas. While this teaching is by no means simple or elementary, it is basic in the sense that it provides the framework for understanding one of the more difficult teachings in the collection: the arahant’s abandoning of any sense of personal identity–a point mentioned in 2:1, 4:1, 6:6, and 7:1, and graphically symbolized in 8:9 and 8:10. In this way the first udānas introduce a string of udānas that help to explain how what in the last two udānas looks like annihilation actually is not: Instead, it is simply the ending of suffering and the attainment of an indescribable destination, beyond location, that brings unwavering bliss.

Within these overall arcs, many of the individual udānas play off of one another in a dialog on recurring themes. For instance, 3:2, 3:3, and 3:4 all comment on how the ideal monk’s mind is like rock, a point illustrated in the narrative to 4:4, in which Ven. Sāriputta’s mind is shown to be even stronger than rock. The proper attitude of the alms-going monk is the focus of 1:5, 3:7, and 3:8, and this in turn highlights a recurring narrative motif: Many of the Buddha’s exclamations are inspired by observations on lay life that he or the monks make while going on alms. This shows that alms-going was not only a means of physical support for the monks, but also an opportunity for them to reflect on the Dhamma.

Other recurring themes include the jealousy of other sectarians over the support given to the Buddha and his disciples (2:4, 4:8), and the difference between the way in which pain is handled by unawakened people on the one hand (2:6) and by the Buddha and his disciples on the other (2:7, 3:1, 4:4, 8:5). There are also three udānas on the misery of having children (2:6-8) and three on the theme of not harming others, in which–with no little irony–the Buddha teaches King Pasenadi the same message in 5:1 that he teaches two groups of boys tormenting animals in 2:3 and 5:4.

There is also a recurring pattern of imagery, as when the clearing of the well water in 7:9 foreshadows the clearing of the river in 8:5. And, as we have noted above, the most prominent recurring theme concerns the difference between the death of those who haven’t gained awakening and the death of those who have. All of these elements give an overall unity to the collection.

This sense of unity is augmented by the fact that the collection has a dominant aesthetic savor (rasa). Ancient Indian aesthetic treatises focused a great deal of attention to the theory of savor, to the point where “savor” became the central technical term in Indian aesthetics. Critics wrote volumes on how savor gave unity to a work of art and on the techniques for best conveying it. The basic theory was this: Artistic composition expressed states of emotion or states of mind called “vibhāva” or “bhāva.” According to the earliest treatises, which were apparently known in the Buddha’s time, there are eight basic emotions: love, humor, grief, anger, energy, fear, disgust, and astonishment. The reader or listener exposed to the presentation of these emotion did not participate in them directly; instead, he/she savored them as an aesthetic experience at one remove from the emotion. Thus, the savor of grief is not grief but compassion. The savor of energy is not energy itself but admiration for heroism. The savor of love is not love but an experience of sensitivity. The savor of astonishment is a sense of the astounding. The proof of the indirectness of the aesthetic experience was that some of the basic emotions were decidedly unpleasant, while the savor of the emotion was to be enjoyed.

Although a work of art might depict many emotions, and thus–like a good meal–offer many savors for the reader/listener to taste, one savor was supposed to dominate. I have noted elsewhere that the dominant savor of the Dhammapada is the heroic. In the Udāna, the dominant savor is the astounding (abbhūta), and it is conveyed on many levels. On the most obvious level are the many events that the narrative itself describes as amazing and astounding. These range from the perfectly natural–such as the amazing stubbornness of the monk in 5:5–to the more singular–the Buddha’s ability to see through the disguised ascetics in 6:2, the abrupt end of the verbal abuse of the monks in 4:8, and amazing and astounding qualities of the Dhamma & Vinaya described in 5:5–to the outright supernatural–such as the most improbable event in the entire collection: Suppavāsā’s unnaturally long pregnancy and labor issuing in a healthy child just as the Buddha says, “May Suppavāsā the Koliyan-daughter be well & free from disease. And may she deliver a son free from disease.” (2:8) Other supernatural events include the Buddha’s taking Nanda to the heaven of the Thirty-three in 3:2, his crossing the river in 8:6, the clearing of the well in 7:9, the clearing of the river in 8:5, Ven. Dabba Mallaputta’s final display of his powers in 8:9, and many others.

Before proceeding to the other levels on which the astounding savor is conveyed in the Udāna, it’s necessary to point out that–in line with the theory of savor just mentioned–the collection conveys subsidiary savors as well, both to augment the astounding and to counteract its excesses. The primary augmenting savor is the heroic, the foremost example being the Buddha’s behavior in 8:5 after his final illness: Not only does he continue walking to Kusinarā despite his weakness and pain, but he also has the compassion to make sure that Cunda, the donor of his final meal, is never made to feel regret for having given the food that brought on his final illness. Other examples of heroism in the collection include Ven. Saṅgāmaji’s firm response to his previous wife’s use of his son as bait in 1:8, the endurance of the unnamed monk in the face of pain in 3:1, and Ven. Sāriputta’s ability to withstand the yakkha’s blow in 4:4.

The primary leavening savor in the Udāna is humor. This is to counteract the tendency of the astounding savor, if over-emphasized, to become unbelievable, and thus ridiculous in the eyes of the reader. To counter this reaction, the narrators add a dash of humor when relating the most astonishing events to show that, no, they have not lost their sense of reality. For instance, after treating the story of Suppavāsā’s pregnancy, the compilers add the humor of the discussion between Ven. Moggallana and his supporter, along with the humor of the final scene, in which Suppavāsā, thrilling over her son, states that she would be willing to go through the same misery seven times more. Also there is the humor in the story of Ven. Nanda, as his fellow monks, after hearing of his deal with the Buddha, treat him sardonically like a man who has sold himself for a price.

Other examples of humor in the collection include Ven. Ānanda’s obtuseness in 3:3 and 5:5, Ven. Sāriputta’s “slight headache” in 4:4, the reflections of the bull elephant in 4:5, Queen Mallikā’s frank rebuff of King Pasenadi’s advances in 5:1, the famous story of the blind men and the elephant in 6:4, and Ven. Sāriputta’s teaching Ven. Bhaddiya the Dwarf, not knowing that Ven. Bhaddiya has already attained arahantship, in 7:2. All of these touches of humor–and there are others–help to establish a sense of rapport between the narrators and the reader, thus making the blatantly astounding events in the collection, if not more believable, at least more palatable.

There is one savor, however, that is studiously avoided throughout the collection, and that is the horrific, the savor associated with disgust. On two occasions when the story risks getting into disgusting details, the narrative avoids direct language. The first instance is in the story of Sundarī, the lady wanderer killed by her fellow wanderers in 4:8. When they dig up her body, the narrative simply refers to their digging up “what they had buried.” The second instance is in the story of the Buddha’s final illness in 8:5. When he develops dysentery, the illness is not mentioned by name. Instead, it is a “severe illness with blood.” In this way, the horrific savor is carefully avoided so as not to spoil the astounding.

In addition to cultivating the astounding savor by narrating astounding events, the Udāna also conveys it in more subtle ways. To begin with, there is what may be called the cast of characters. In AN 1, the Buddha lists his foremost disciples–male and female, ordained and lay–citing the area(s) in which each is pre-eminent. Of these, 22 of his 40 foremost monk disciples and three of his ten foremost lay female disciples appear in the Udāna (see Appendix Four). In five udānas we actually get to see the events–or examples of the events–that led the Buddha to single these individuals out for praise: Ven. Mahā Kassapa’s practice of strictness in 1:6 and 3:7; Bāhiya’s quick awakening in 1:10; Ven. Moggallana’s psychic acuity in 4:4; Ven. Soṇa’s fine recitation in 5:6; and Suppavāsā’s gift of meals in 2:8. In other cases, the Buddha gives his prominent disciples more general praise; and in others, we simply get to see these disciples in action.

As we noted above, the most frequent instigation for the Buddha’s exclamations is in celebration of his disciples’ attainments. So it is only fitting that many of his foremost disciples appear in the collection, lending a sense of heightened occasion to the narrated events. But what adds a more genuine touch of the astounding to the savor of the text is the way in which their stories are handled. This is apparent in the treatment both of the monks and of the female lay disciples.

It would have been all too easy for the compilers of the Udāna simply to bask in the reflected glory of the pre-eminent monks as a way of advertising their own worth as a field of merit. And, admittedly, an air of competitiveness with rival sectarians pervades the collection, with the support and respect accorded to the Saṅgha frequently contrasted with the lack of support accorded to other sects. There is also the strong contrast between the noble and heroic behavior of the pre-eminent monks and the way in which other sectarians are made to look petty (2:4), ridiculous (6:4), ignorant (6:10), and vile (4:8).

However, that’s not all there is to the treatment, for not all the monks are portrayed in a flattering light. In fact, there are more udānas focused on the misbehavior of monks than there are on the misbehavior of rival sectarians. Thus the simple fact that a monk is a member of the Saṅgha does not mean that he is automatically worthy of admiration. The text sets an extremely high standard for what makes a person a true monk. In this way it portrays an ideal toward which the monks should strive, at the same time informing the laity of how to judge who is truly worthy of their respect.

A similar impressive maturity is found in the treatment of the stories of Lady Visākhā and Suppavāsā, both of whom the Buddha cited for their pre-eminence in giving material support to the Saṅgha. It would have been easy for the compilers to focus simply on their generosity–or the pleasant rewards of their generosity–as a way of encouraging the generosity of others. Had they done so, it would have confirmed the common stereotype that monks see women only in the role of donors. But that’s not how the text treats these women at all. Both are portrayed as suffering–from the pains (2:8) and sorrows (8:8) of family life, and from disappointment in business dealings (2:9)–a fair warning that generosity to the Saṅgha is not always quickly rewarded. And the Buddha’s attitude toward both is admirable. Instead of sweet-talking them into even more generosity or humoring their weaknesses, he chides them for their heedlessness: somewhat gently in Lady Visākhā’s case; startlingly abrupt in Suppavāsā’s. This shows that his main concern was with their true welfare, and in particular with showing them that they shouldn’t fall prey to society’s demand that they look for their primary happiness in bearing and raising children.

In this way the Udāna’s cast of characters lends the savor of the astounding to the collection not only in the eminence of the individuals, but also in the mature way in which their stories are treated.

A touch of the astounding flavors the collection’s treatment not only of the Saṅgha but also of the Dhamma. Although a few specific Dhamma teachings are explained (as in 4:1, 6:2, and 8:6), most of the standard teachings, such as the four noble truths or the five aggregates, are not even mentioned. The few standard lists that are mentioned are complex and presented as unexplained lists. The collection opens (1:1-3) with an unadorned statement of what the Buddha called his deepest and most complex teaching–dependent co-arising–completely devoid of preparation or explanation. The seven lists in the wings to awakening are mentioned, again without explanation, in 5:5, where they are described simply as amazing and astounding. The complexity of kamma (action) is touched on in 4:3, 5:2, and 5:3, but never really clarified. And two particularly abstruse topics of meditation are mentioned–again without explanation–in 7:7 and 7:8. The only detailed meditation instructions given in the collection are those the Buddha teaches to Bāhiya in 1:10, but from the context these are clearly appropriate only for a person on the verge of awakening. There is no explanation of how an aspiring meditator should practice to attain that advanced level. All of this gives the impression that the compilers of the Udāna were interested less in clarifying the techniques of Dhamma practice than in conveying a sense of how astounding and marvelous they are.

The text also makes use of poetic figures (alaṅkāra) to intensify the astounding savor. I have commented on some of the more technical figures in the notes to individual udānas. Here I would like to focus on two of the most prominent figures in the collection as a whole: paradox and contrast.

Paradox augments the astounding savor by surprising the reader. Some of the paradoxes in the Udāna deal in imagery, such as the observations that people are not cleaned by water (1:9) and that rain soddens what is concealed, but not what is left open (5:5). Other paradoxes deal on the level of ideas, such as the assertion that self-love is the basis of compassion (5:1, 5:4), or that release from becoming is achieved neither through becoming nor non-becoming (3:10). The deepest use of paradox, however, deals with the fact that unbinding, the goal of the practice, lies beyond the dichotomies inherent in human thought and language. Thus 8:10, while stating that the destination of the arahant after death cannot be described, characterizes it as unwavering bliss. This, in turn, seems to contradict 1:10, which describes it as freedom from bliss and pain. The verses in 6:3 and 8:2 suggest that unbinding is more like a nothing, whereas 8:1 suggests that it is a something. The exclamation in 8:1 also states that unbinding cannot be described either as a staying or a moving. The exclamation in 8:4 asserts that it doesn’t fall into the categories of here, there, or between the two, echoing a point from the Buddha’s instructions in 1:10. All of these paradoxes serve notice that ultimate freedom is something that defies even the most basic categories of thought.

There is also an element of paradox in the way the Udāna reverses the conventional values of domestic society. Because the brahmans of the time were vociferously advancing the idea that they were superior to others because of their birth–the ancient Indian form of racism–there’s a certain amount of shock value in the fact that the collection opens with a series of exclamations that redefine how a person becomes a brahman–not through birth, but through the cultivation of the mind (1:4-6, 1:9). Similarly, there is an implicit reversal of conventional domestic ideas of happiness as the collection repeatedly makes the point that loved ones, sensuality, power, and responsibilities actually bring misery, whereas the highest bliss lies in being unpossessive to the point of abandoning the conceit, “I am” (2:1, 4:1, 6:6, 7:1). Perhaps the most shocking rejection of domestic values is in 1:8, where the Buddha praises Ven. Saṅgāmaji for not even looking at his little son.

Because the paradoxes concerning unbinding might seem nonsensical on the surface, and because the frequent rejection of domestic values goes against the grain, the collection makes heavy use of contrast to emphasize the point that things are not always what they seem. This contrast is most prominent in the story of the false ascetics in 6:2, in the famous story of the blind men and the elephant in 6:4, and in the contrast between Ven. Bhaddiya the Dwarf’s physical appearance and the description of his mind as a beautiful chariot in 7:5. However, the contrast between appearance and reality plays a role in many other udānas as well, such as 2:7, 2:8, 2:10, 3:2, 3:6, 3:7, 4:1, 4:8, 5:3, 5:5, 7:1, 7:2, 7:10, 8:5, and 8:7. These contrasts help to make concrete the point that paradoxical teachings should not be rejected because of surface contradictions, for they may speak of a level of experience that is not below logic but above and beyond it.

The contrasts in the Udāna occur not only within individual udānas but also between them. This higher level of contrast occurs frequently throughout the text, but most strikingly in chapters two and eight. In chapter two–which is devoted to the topic of pleasure and bliss–five of the stories, 2:5-9, focus on the actual miseries inherent in the supposed joys of lay life: having children and engaging in business affairs. These are then sharply contrasted with the story of Ven. Bhaddiya in 2:10, who rejoices in the joys of living at the root of a tree and his release from the worries of kingship.

There’s a similar strong contrast in chapter eight. The story of Ven. Nāgasamāla in 8:7, suffering for not following the Buddha’s choice of which path to take–a story that is surely meant to have symbolic overtones–contrasts strongly with the preceding udāna, in which the monks who follow the Buddha are carried by his psychic power effortlessly over the flooding river. Similarly, the story of Lady Visākhā, mourning the death of her grandchild in 8:8, contrasts with the following udāna, in which Ven. Dabba Mallaputta voluntarily heads for death with a final display of his psychic powers. In this way, the astounding savor of these psychic displays is augmented by contrasting them so directly with ordinary mundane human failings.

In fact, the formal nature of the udāna genre, focused on the Buddha’s exclamations, seems designed to emphasize this element of contrast. As we have seen, when the Buddha exclaims, it is usually from one of two strongly contrasting emotions: saṁvega and pasāda. Because of the strong contrast between these two emotions, the act of collecting stories around these exclamations naturally heightens the savor of the astounding by placing them in sharp contrast with one another.

And there are other ways in which the formal structure of the Udāna helps to convey the savor of the astounding. For example, in 8:5 the story of the Buddha’s final illness is told in a combination of prose and epic-like verse, a form called the campū, which heightens the sense of the importance of the events. Because, chronologically, this is the last story in the collection, leading up to the Buddha’s final exclamation, this heightened style adds to the solemnity of the narrative.

Then there is the basic format of each udāna text. As we have noted, each narrative ends with the formula (or a close variation of it): “Then, on realizing the significance/meaning (attha) of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed.” This formula assigns the Buddha’s exclamations to two categories of poetry explained in a discourse elsewhere in the Pali Canon (AN 4:231–4:230 in the Pali Text Society (PTS) version):

“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 discourse doesn’t explain these four, but the Commentary notes 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 and the extemporaneous poet require the most skill, and to combine these two skills is a sign of genuine accomplishment: a level of accomplishment that the udāna formula assigns directly to the Buddha. In calling his statements “exclamations,” the formula asserts that his remarks were extemporaneous; in stating that they were inspired by his understanding of the significance/meaning of the event, the formula categorizes him as a meaning-poet. And he is able to find meaning not only in extraordinary events, but also in some of the most ordinary imaginable: boys hitting a snake with a stick (2:3), men fighting over a woman (6:8), women wanting more children and grandchildren (2:8, 8:8). The Buddha’s ability to combine these two skills in this way, grasping the meaning and expressing it memorably on the spur of the moment, is–from a strictly literary point of view–one of the most astounding aspects of the udāna texts.

This, in turn, relates to one of the most basic features of the udāna genre: the fact that the Buddha plays a double role in all of these pieces, both as a character in the stories and as the author of the comments on the stories. The way the compilers handle the stories–both in the choice and organization of events, and in their use of literary technique to foster the astounding savor–capitalizes on this double role in two ways.

The first, of course, is to help clarify the Buddha’s exclamations, showing what led him to exclaim in the way he did. The second is to give his exclamations more credence and weight. As a character in the stories, he is shown to be capable and upright: a person of reliable character who has mastered an amazing range of skills and who has trained others to become skilled as well, capable of finding an amazingly satisfying happiness. Thus when he states values that go against common social norms, he is not to be dismissed as someone who has failed to live up to social standards. He has seen the limitations of those standards by developing an integrity and a range of skills that go beyond them.

Similarly, as a partial author of the text, he is shown to be extremely capable in expressing what he has to say. Thus, when he states that unbinding lies beyond the structures of language, it’s not because he is deficient in his mastery of language. It’s because he knows, through a high level of mastery, the limits of precisely how far language can go.

In this way, the udāna genre helps give extra meaning to the Buddha’s exclamations in two senses of the term: “meaning” in the sense of helping to explain what the words signify, and “meaning” in the sense of having value for the reader. Of course, the fact that the compilers of the Udāna were skilled with words does not prove that the values they promote actually do lead to an unfettered freedom beyond the values of words and social norms. The ultimate test of the meaning of the udānas for you will lie in your own practice: your willingness to learn the techniques of the practice from other parts of the Canon and from reliable members of the Saṅgha, and to apply them in your thoughts, words, and deeds. But my hope is that the act of reading the Udāna will help convince you that there is value in giving the Buddha’s teachings a fair try.

On Reading the Udāna

The Udāna’s focus on communicating values to revolutionize the heart and mind of the reader is precisely where it runs up against modern and postmodern attitudes toward finding meaning in a text. Because these attitudes are so entrenched in our culture, and because they are cited so often not only in scholarly circles but also among Buddhist practitioners, it’s worth asking how useful they are when reading texts–like the Pali Canon in general, and the Udāna in particular–that offer guidance on how to attain total freedom. Because both modern and postmodern attitudes toward reading claim to be aiming at freedom for the reader, we need to look carefully at how the types of freedom they offer measure up against the freedom taught in the Pali Canon, to see whether–if you adopt them–they enhance or interfere with the benefits that can come from the act of reading these records of the Buddha’s words.

Modern ways of reading approach pre-modern texts by asking questions first about the texts’ historical reliability. In the case of the Udāna, these would cover whether udānas really were memorized during the Buddha’s lifetime and, if so, how they were related to the Udāna we have at present. Were his words memorized accurately? Are the stories associated with his words accurate accounts? Could they actually have happened?

Questions of this sort can be fruitfully explored in one of two ways: by finding reliable evidence outside of a particular text against which to measure its reliability, or by searching for inconsistencies or improbabilities within the text itself. What makes this approach “modern” is that it subjects the text to the standards of materialistic empiricism established in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and further developed in the historical method of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its purpose is to free us in the present from the irrational and ignorant superstitions of the pre-modern world.

This approach is useful when applied to texts whose historical context is well documented from other sources, and it has succeeded in exposing the weak and arbitrary foundations for many a pre-modern system of thought. But it’s relatively fruitless when applied to the Udāna. To begin with, there are no outside contemporary accounts against which the history of the Pali Canon can be measured. As for internal inconsistencies, those that occur in the various recensions of the Udāna and parallel passages elsewhere in the Canon are all so minor that they do not affect the basic meaning of the text.

The text does, however, contain many elements that, from a modern materialist point of view, are highly improbable. A good number of the stories revolve around meditative powers, some of them quite extravagant, and a strictly modern reading would reject them out of hand. Many of the values expressed in the Buddha’s exclamations fly in the face of a materialist view of life and death. To strip the text of these elements might satisfy a modern reader, but would leave very little behind.

And why should the narrow views of modern materialism–the views of those with little expertise in meditation–have the final word on what can and cannot be achieved through the training of the mind? Even the physical sciences of recent times are filled with discoveries about physical and chemical events that are deeply counter-intuitive; the study of non-linear systems shows that the complex interaction of even physical laws can lead to highly unlikely singularities. And that’s just in the physical sciences. There’s even more that we still don’t know about the complex workings of the mind. If we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by the likely–and if we define “likely” in line with the views of those who lack meditative prowess–we close our minds to the possibility of the singular. There are many useful things we will never be open to learn.

This would not be a problem if the modern approach could provide a freedom equal to or greater than the freedom to which the Udāna points. You could simply ignore the Udāna and other texts in the Pali Canon, and still gain liberation. But the problem is that the modern approach leaves us trapped in our historically conditioned assumptions about what seems reasonable and likely.

The Romantics recognized this trap and rebelled against it, and postmodern theory continues this rebellion. Yet despite their quest for freedom, these two approaches, too, work against allowing the values of a text like the Udāna to have a truly revolutionary effect on the heart and mind. This is because each, in its own way, places the reader’s pre-existing values over and above any values that might be absorbed from a text.

Their rationales for doing so, however, are quite different. The Romantics–and the American Transcendentalists who followed them–posited a common source of inspiration within the deepest part of each person. According to them, authors and readers throughout time have had access within to the same source of inspiration. To understand which meanings within an ancient text might have value in our day and age, we need only check the text against the original source deep in our own minds. Wherever the author’s expression differs from this inner sense of inspiration, it can simply be rejected as no longer relevant. Whatever resonates with this inner sense of inspiration can be accepted as trustworthy and true.

This approach, however, leaves no room for the possibility that a person like the Buddha could have realized truths about experience that are not already available to the reader. In other words–contrary to a basic principle of the Buddha’s teaching–there was nothing special or singular about the Buddha’s awakening. The only teachings of any value derived from that awakening are those that agree with what the reader already feels deep down inside to be true. There is nothing really new to be learned from the Udāna or from any Buddhist text. The only reason to read them is to confirm what we already know.

The postmodern approach leads to a similar conclusion but via a different route, for it denies the existence of any common inner source of meaning. Instead, it maintains that authors and readers can know nothing but the arbitrary systems of values to which they have been exposed at their point in history–systems that are inherently suspect because they are created and propagated by social structures of power. (This postmodern theory is called poststructuralism because it arose in reaction to structuralism, the theory that the structures of human thought are innate to the human mind.) Thus, from this point of view, a fully reliable source of meaning is nowhere to be found. As a result, postmodern ways of reading a text–although they start with the Romantic realization that modern ways of reading can’t produce the freedom they promise–tend to be even less willing than the modern or Romantic approach to be changed by the values expressed in any text.

This attitude is most often based on an observation from poststructuralist theory: that a text–regardless of the conscious intentions of the author–may be the product of a structure of meanings and values inherent in language that is oppressive to the reader, no matter how rational or objective it may seem. Freedom from that oppression can be maintained only by digging up and exposing those structures, and by reading the text in a way that is resistant to those values. From this observation comes the argument that the most liberating way to read a text is to approach it with a sense of suspicion and to create one’s own meanings–and sometimes one’s own personal language–out of it, and to ignore whatever the author(s) had in mind. The fact that this approach is applied even to modern texts is what makes it postmodern. And, just as the modern approach has exposed the arbitrary foundations of oppressive patterns of thought in pre-modern texts and institutions, the postmodern approach has done the same for many seemingly rational but oppressive patterns in texts and institutions from the modern period.

It can, however, fall into the trap of the poststructuralist paradox: that the reader’s own values and reading of a text may be shaped unconsciously by structures that are equally–if not more–oppressive than the unconscious values expressed in the text. Thus a suspicious reading of a text may often leave the reader more entrenched in his/her own preexisting state of oppression than before. And, in fact, poststructuralist theory holds little hope that a human being could ever gain freedom from value structures. Meanings, it insists, point only to other systems of meanings, which in turn point to other systems of meanings, ad infinitum, never arriving at any experience in-and-of-itself. Thus the quest for liberation is an always on-going process doomed never fully to succeed.

Never. This is where poststructuralist values depart most radically from the Dhamma. Although there is a recent fashion to apply poststructuralist theory to the act of reading and interpreting the Pali Canon, it’s hard to imagine a system of values more at odds with what the Buddha, as portrayed in the Canon, had to say: that total freedom is possible, that strategies of values and practice can be used to reach it–at which point they are put aside–and that the teachings contained in the Canon are among those strategies. Anyone who is content to regard total freedom as an impossibility and would prefer to hold to a postmodern identity is free to maintain a poststructuralist attitude to the Canon. But if you’d like to test to see if the Buddha was right, you have to bring a different attitude and set of assumptions to the act of reading the Canon’s message.

Fortunately, the Pali Canon is not a text like the Bible, demanding total, unquestioning acceptance. It assumes the authority, not of your creator who has the right to tell you what and what not to believe, but of an expert, someone who has found the way to total freedom and offers to show how you can find that freedom yourself.

The primary working hypothesis when testing this expert’s teaching is that total freedom is possible. Thus, contrary to poststructuralist theory, you have to assume that some experiences are not embedded in structures of meaning created by human minds. This is not that difficult an assumption to make. After all, there’s physical pain. You don’t need to run pain through an interpretive structure in order to experience it. You first encountered it well before you knew anything of signs or words. However, the Buddha noted that there are two primary responses to pain–bewilderment and a search for how to put an end to it (AN 6:63)–and from these responses we tend to develop systems of values and meanings that, because they are ignorant, lead only to more mental suffering.

The second working hypothesis in testing the Buddha’s recommendations for ending this suffering is this: that the basic pattern underlying any attachment to these oppressive systems of values and meanings is constant regardless of culture. In other words, the way we cling to these meanings is the same regardless of their content or our culture. Otherwise, a path taught to alleviate suffering in India more than 2,500 years ago would be irrelevant to our problem of suffering now. Again, the commonality of suffering is not a difficult assumption to make, for the Buddha’s basic image of how and why we suffer is the act of feeding, both physically and mentally. This is something common to all beings, and not just human beings living in social structures. We all suffer from the need to feed, regardless of how the details of this need are shaped by culture.

From these two assumptions, we can see precisely what the Buddha asks us to test: his strategy of feeding the mind in new ways that give it the strength to reach a dimension where it no longer needs to feed. Part of this strategy is to adopt skillful structures of value and meaning–called appropriate attention and right view–that focus on the problem of suffering in a way that dismantles attachment to unskillful structures and, ultimately, even to themselves. This way they dismantle all attachment (AN 10:93), leading to a different type of experience beyond the need to feed, and beyond interpretation: unbinding, total freedom from any and all conditions.

This claim means that the texts derive their meaning and value from how helpful they are in accomplishing this freedom. Because they themselves cannot provide this liberation for you, but only point out the techniques and values that can lead there, the test of their validity depends on your actually adopting their teachings in your actions and then gauging the results. And because the goal to which they point, freedom from suffering, is something you can potentially touch directly, the guarantee of their validity lies ultimately in your own honest experience.

At the same time, however, the texts do set some conditions on what counts as a valid test. Even though you’re not asked to accept without question whatever the Pali texts say, if you’re interested in putting an end to suffering, you have to develop within yourself the qualities that will make you a competent judge of their message.

This will require energy, dedication, and time. And this, in turn, requires a special attitude toward reading the discourses, approaching them with openness and respect. In other words, you experiment to see where you are taken by the working hypothesis that the monks who assembled them knew something of value and were basically honest in their desire to transmit it to later generations, you included. The texts recognize that there can be errors of transmission (DN 16), so respect does not mean accepting without question whatever the texts say. But it does mean giving them the benefit of the doubt until you can meet the conditions of a valid test and determine what does and doesn’t actually work in leading to true freedom.

A large part of the “something of value” transmitted in the Canon consists of specific tactics and techniques for training the mind, but it also consists of more general values and principles. This, as we have noted, is one of the Udāna’s functions: to present these values in an appealing and “savorful” way. Yet the Canon treats even values and principles as actions–attitudes that inform a larger strategy of practice–which means that they, too, can be tested. Thus, as with all the texts in the Canon, the act of reading the Udāna is not meant as an end in & of itself, as an opportunity to enjoy its astonishing and humorous savor. Instead, it’s meant as a challenge for you to test whether the values it expresses, when adopted as working hypotheses, really do lead to the singular and ultimate savor of the Dhamma (5:5): the savor of release.