Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha - Preface

A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya


The present work offers a complete translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, “The Connected Discourses of the Buddha,” the third major collection in the Sutta Piṭaka, or “Basket of Discourses,” belonging to the Pāli Canon. The collection is so named because the suttas in any given chapter are connected (saṃyutta) by the theme after which the chapter is named. The full Saṃyutta Nikāya has been translated previously and published in five volumes by the Pali Text Society under the title The Book of Kindred Sayings. The first two volumes were translated by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, the last three by F.L. Woodward. This translation, first issued between 1917 and 1930, is dated both in style and technical terminology, and thus a fresh rendition of the Saṃyutta Nikāya into English has long been an urgent need for students of early Buddhism unable to read the texts in the original Pāli.

My own translation was undertaken in response to a request made to me in the early 1980s by then Bhikkhu Khantipālo (now Laurence Mills). This request was subsequently reinforced by an encouraging letter from Richard Gombrich, the present president of the Pali Text Society, who has been keenly aware of the need to replace the PTS translations of the Nikāyas by more contemporary versions. Although this appeal came in 1985, owing to prior literary commitments, most notably to the editing of Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, I could not begin my translation of the Saṃyutta in earnest until the summer of 1989. Now, ten years later, after numerous interruptions and the daunting tasks of revision and annotation, it has at last reached completion.

As with The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, this translation aims to fulfil two ideals: first, fidelity to the intended meaning of the texts themselves; and second, the expression of that meaning in clear contemporary language that speaks to the nonspecialist reader whose primary interest in the Buddha’s teaching is personal rather than professional. Of course, any ideas about “the intended meaning of the texts themselves” will inevitably reflect the subjective biases of the translator, but I have tried to minimize this danger to the best of my ability. To attempt to translate Pāli into a modern Western language rooted in a conceptual framework far removed from the “thought world” of the ancient suttas is also bound to involve some degree of distortion. The only remedy against this, perhaps, is to recommend to the reader the study of Pāli and the reading of the material in the original. Unlike English, or even Sanskrit, Pāli is a highly specialized language with only one major sphere of application—the Buddha’s teachings—and thus its terminology is extremely precise, free from intrusive echoes from other domains of discourse. It is also rich in nuances, undertones, and conceptual interconnections that no translation can ever succeed in replicating.

My translation is a hybrid based on editions of the Saṃyutta Nikāya coming from different lines of textual transmission. In defense of this approach, as against translating exclusively from one tradition, I can do no better than quote Léon Feer in his introduction to Part I of his PTS edition of SN: “In the choice of readings, I made no preference, and I adopted always the reading which seemed the best wherever it might come from” (p. xiii). I used as my root text the Burmese-script Sixth Buddhist Council edition, but I compared this version with the Sinhala-script Buddha Jayanti edition (itself influenced by the Burmese one), and with the PTS’s roman-script edition (which itself draws from older Sinhala and Burmese versions). It was not seldom that I preferred a reading from one of these other versions to that in the Burmese edition, as can be seen from my notes. I also consulted the footnotes on variants in the PTS edition, which occasionally, in my view, had a better reading than any in the printed editions. Though all versions have their flaws, as time went on I found myself increasingly leaning towards the older Sinhala transmission as in many respects the most reliable.

Because Pāli verse is generally much more difficult to translate than prose, at the outset I put aside the first volume of SN, the Sagāthāvagga, composed largely in verse, and began with the four prose volumes, II–V. I was apprehensive that, if I began with the Sagāthāvagga, I would have quickly lost heart and given up shortly after having made a start. This proved to be a prudent choice, for the Sagāthāvagga is indeed sometimes like a dense jungle, with the bare problem of interpreting knotty verses compounded by the multitude of variant readings. The disproportionately large number of notes attached to this volume, many dealing with the variant readings, should give the reader some idea of the difficulty.

Then in late 1998, towards the very end of this project, after I had already written, typed, proofed, and revised my translation of the Sagāthāvagga and its notes several times, the PTS issued a new edition of that volume, intended to replace Feer’s pioneering edition of 1884. At that point I was hardly prepared to redo the entire translation, but I did compare the readings found in the new edition with those I had commented on in my notes. In some cases I made minor changes in the translation based on the readings of this edition; in others I stuck to my guns, mentioning the new variant in the relevant notes. This edition also introduced numbering of the verses, something not found in any previous edition of the Sagāthāvagga but an idea I had already implemented in my translation to facilitate cross-references in the notes and concordances. However, the new edition of the Sagāthāvagga numbered the verses differently than I did, and thus, to keep my translation consistent with the new Pāli text, I had to renumber all the verses—in the text, in the references to the verses in the notes, and in the concordances.

The Saṃyutta Nikāya is divided into five principal parts called Vaggas, which I render as books. These are in turn divided into a total of fifty-six saṃyuttas, the main chapters, which are further divided into vaggas or subchapters (the same Pāli word as used for the books; I differentiate them with capital and simple letters, an orthographic distinction not found in Oriental scripts). The vaggas finally are made up of suttas. In the text of the translation I number the saṃyuttas in two ways: as chapters within the Vagga I give them roman numbers, beginning with “I” within each Vagga; as saṃyuttas I number them in simple consecutive order through the whole collection, in arabic numerals, from 1 to 56. I number the suttas by giving first the absolute number of the sutta within the saṃyutta, and following this, in parenthesis, the number of the sutta within the vagga (except when the saṃyutta has no divisions into vaggas). In the introductions and notes I refer to the suttas by the number of the saṃyutta followed by the number of the sutta within that saṃyutta, ignoring the division into vaggas. Thus, for example, 22:95 is saṃyutta 22, sutta 95. The page numbers of the PTS edition are embedded in square brackets, with angle brackets used for the new edition of the Sagāthāvagga.

I have equipped this work with two types of introduction. At the very beginning, before Part I, there is a general introduction to the entire Saṃyutta Nikāya. Here I explain the overall structure of SN, its place in the Pāli Canon, and its particular function in relation to the Buddha’s dispensation; I end with a discussion of some technical problems concerning the translation. Each of the five parts is then provided with its own introduction in which I give a survey of each saṃyutta in that part, focusing especially upon the doctrinal principles that underlie the major saṃyuttas. Those who find the General Introduction too dry for their taste should still not pass over the introductions to the parts, for in these I aim to provide the reader with a study guide to the material in the saṃyuttas. Similarly, a general table of contents precedes the entire work, dividing it only into Vaggas and saṃyuttas, while a more detailed table of contents, listing every vagga and sutta, precedes the individual parts.

To further assist the reader to make sense of the suttas, often terse and abstruse, a copious set of notes is provided. These too have been allocated to the back of each part. The purpose of the notes is to clarify difficult passages in the texts and to make explicit the reading I adopt in the face of competing variants. Though I imagine that for many readers the notes on the readings (especially to Part I) will bring on a spell of vertigo, from a scholarly point of view the discussions they contain are essential, as I must establish the text I am translating. The different recensions of SN often have different readings (especially in the verses), and a small difference in a reading can entail a big difference in the meaning. Hence, to justify my rendering for readers who know Pāli I had to explicate my understanding of the text’s wording. At one point I had considered having two sets of notes for each part, one giving explanations of the suttas and other information of general interest, the other dealing with technical issues primarily aimed at specialists. But it proved too difficult to separate the notes so neatly into two classes, and therefore they are all grouped together. Though a substantial number of the notes will be of little interest to the general reader, I still encourage this type of reader to ferret out the notes concerned with meaning, for these provide helpful guidance to the interpretation of the texts.

Within the notes (as in the introductions) references to the suttas, verses, and other notes have been set in bold. When a sutta reference is followed by volume, page, and (sometimes) line numbers, without textual abbreviation, it should be understood that these are references to the PTS edition of SN. References to Part I are always to Ee1.

Many of the notes are drawn from the Pāli commentaries on SN, of which there are two. One is the authorized commentary, the Saṃyutta Nikāya-aṭṭhakathā, also known by its proper name, the Sāratthappakāsinı (abbr: Spk), “The Elucidator of the Essential Meaning.” This is ascribed to the great Buddhist commentator, Ācariya Buddhaghosa, who came from South India to Sri Lanka in the fifth century C.E. and compiled the commentaries to the canonical texts on the basis of the ancient Sinhala commentaries (no longer extant) that had been preserved at the Mahāvihāra in Anuradhapura. The other commentarial work is the subcommentary, the Saṃyutta Nikāya-ṭıkā, also known as the Sāratthappakāsinı-purāṇa-ṭıkā (abbr: Spk-pṭ) and the Lınatthappakāsanā (Part III), “The Elucidation of the Implicit Meaning.” This is ascribed to Ācariya Dhammapāla, who may have lived a century or two after Buddhaghosa and resided near Kāñcipura in South India. The main purpose of the ṭıkā is to clear up obscure or difficult points in the aṭṭhakathā, but in doing so the author often sheds additional light on the reading and meaning of the canonical text itself.

To keep the notes as concise as possible, the commentaries are generally paraphrased rather than directly quoted, but I use quotation marks to show where I am quoting directly. I have not given volume and page numbers to the citations from Spk and Spk-pṭ, for I did not have permanent access to the PTS edition of the former, while the latter is published only in Burmese script. The absence of page numbers, however, should not be a problem, for the commentaries comment on the suttas in direct sequence, and thus those using the PTS edition of Spk should be able to locate any comment easily enough simply by locating the relevant sutta. In the few cases where I cited Spk out of sequence, through inquiry I was able to find out the volume and page number of the PTS edition and I give the full reference in the note.

I should state, as a precaution, that the commentaries explain the suttas as they were understood sometime around the first century C.E. at the latest, at which time the old commentaries drawn upon by Buddhaghosa were closed to further additions. The commentaries view the suttas through the lens of the complex exegetical method that had evolved within the Theravāda school, built up from the interpretations of the ancient teachers welded to a framework constructed partly from the principles of the Abhidhamma system. This exegetical method does not necessarily correspond to the way the teachings were understood in the earliest period of Buddhist history, but it seems likely that its nucleus goes back to the first generation of monks who had gathered around the Buddha and were entrusted with the task of giving detailed, systematic explanations of his discourses. The fact that I cite the commentaries so often in the notes does not necessarily mean that I always agree with them, though where I interpret a passage differently I generally say so. I realize that the notes sometimes repeat things already explained in the introduction to the same part, but in a work of this nature such repetitions can be helpful, particularly as novel ideas briefly treated in the introduction may slip the reader’s memory at the time of reading a sutta to which they pertain.

I conclude this preface by acknowledging the contributions that others have made to the completion of this project, for from an early time I was fortunate to have capable help and advice. My most assiduous helper from 1996 onward has been Ven. Bhikkhu Ñāṇatusita of the Netherlands, who read through the translation and the notes at two different stages, made numerous suggestions for improvement, and collected information and references that have been incorporated into the notes. He also kindly provided me with translations of several of the more important notes to the German translation of SN, particularly of Wilhelm Geiger’s notes to the Sagāthāvagga. To Ven. Ñāṇatusita, too, belongs most of the credit for the concordances of parallel passages, an impressive undertaking which required an incredible amount of diligent work.

Ven. Vanarata Ānanda Thera read an early draft of the translation and made useful suggestions. Especially helpful were his comments on the verses, an area in which he has special expertise. A number of his perspicacious remarks, including some radical but convincing readings, are incorporated in the notes. Ayyā Nyānasirı read through the verse translations at an early stage and helped to improve the diction, as did Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu at a later stage. Ven. Brahmāli Bhikkhu and Ven. Sujāto Bhikkhu read through most of the prose volumes and made helpful comments, while Ven. Ajahn Brahmavaṃso, though unable to find the time to read the translation itself, made some valuable suggestions regarding terminology. I benefitted from occasional correspondence with K.R. Norman, Lambert Schmithausen, and Peter Skilling, who provided information and opinions on points that fell within their areas of expertise. I also learnt an enormous amount from Professor Norman’s notes to his translations of the Thera- and Therıgāthās (Elders’ Verses, I and II) and the Suttanipāta (The Group of Discourses, II). In the final stage, William Pruitt of the Pali Text Society reviewed the entire work, from start to finish, and offered suggestions drawn from his extensive experience as a scholar, translator, and editor. Besides this scholarly help, Tim McNeill of Wisdom Publications and Richard Gombrich of the Pali Text Society gave me constant encouragement. By imposing a strict deadline, Tim ensured that the work finally reached completion. I also thank Carl Yamamoto for his meticulous proofreading of the entire translation.

For all this help I am deeply grateful. For any faults that remain I am fully responsible.

This translation is dedicated to the memory of three eminent Sangha elders with whom I had the fortune to be closely associated during my life as a bhikkhu: my ordination teacher, Ven. Balangoda Ānanda Maitreya Mahānāyaka Thera (with whom I first studied the Sagāthāvagga back in 1973), and my chief kalyāṇamittas (spiritual friends), Ven. Nyanaponika Mahāthera and Ven. Piyadassi Nāyaka Thera. When I started this translation all three were alive and gave me their encouragement; unfortunately, none lived to see it completed.

Bhikkhu Bodhi
Forest Hermitage
Kandy, Sri Lanka

How to cite this document:
© Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2000)

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