The Long Discourses of the Buddha - Introduction

A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya


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This translation is a ‘substantive’ translation because it is complete as to substance. Nothing has been omitted except the more wearisome of the very numerous repetitions which are such a striking feature of the original.

The Pali scriptures here translated are from the ‘Triple Basket’ (Tipiṭaka), a collection of the Buddha’s teachings regarded as canonical by the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is found today in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, and was until recently equally strong in Laos and Cambodia. It is now also well established in Britain and other Western countries. The claim of this school is to have preserved the original teaching of the Buddha, and there are good grounds for at least considering that the doctrine as found in the Pali scriptures comes as close as we can get to what the Buddha actually taught. In any case the Pali Tipiṭaka is the only canon of an early school that is preserved complete. It is not, however, in the true spirit of Buddhism to adopt a ‘fundamentalist’ attitude towards the scriptures, and it is thus open to the reader, Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist, to regard the texts here translated with an open and critical mind.

The Life of the Buddha

Siddhattha Gotama (in Sanskrit, Siddhartha Gautama), who became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, may have lived from about 563-483 B.C., through many modern scholars suggest a later dating. Oriental traditions offer a number of alternative datings, that favoured in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia being 623-543. It was on this basis that the 25th anniversary of his passing into final Nibbana was celebrated, as Buddha Jayanti, in the East in 1956-57. He belonged to the Sakya clan dwelling on the edge of

the Himalayas, his actual birthplace being a few miles north of the present-day Indian border, in Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was in fact an elected chief of the clan rather than the king he was later made out to be, though his title was raja—a term which only partly corresponds to our word ‘king’. Some of the states of North India at that time were kingdoms and others republics, and the Sakyan republic was subject to the powerful king of neighbouring Kosala, which lay to the south.

Disentangling the probable facts from the mass of legend surrounding Gotama’s life, we may assume the following to be approximately correct. Though brought up to a life of luxury, the young prince was overcome by a sense of the essentially sorrowful aspect of life, and he decided to seek the cause and cure of this state which he termed dukkha (conventionally but inadequately rendered ‘suffering’ in English). At the age of twenty-nine he renounced the world, going forth ‘from the household life into homelessness’ in accordance with an al­ ready well-established tradition, thus joining the ranks of the wandering ascetics (samaṇas: see p. 22). He went successively to two teachers, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, who taught him how to attain to high meditative states. Realising, however, that even the attainment of these states did not solve his problem, Gotama went off on his own and practised severe austerities for six years, gathering a little group of five ascetics around him. However, finding that even the most extreme forms of asceticism likewise did not lead to the goal, he abandoned these excesses, and sat down at the foot of a tree by the river Nerañjarā, at the place now known as Bodh Gaya, determined not to arise from the spot until enlightenment should dawn. During that night he passed beyond the meditative stages he had previously reached, and attained to complete liberation as the Buddha-the Enlightened or Awakened One. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life wandering up and down the Ganges Valley, expounding the doctrine that he had found and establishing the Sangha or Order of Buddhist monks and nuns, which still exists today.

Historical and Philosophical Background to the Buddha’s Times

‘Ascetics and Brahmins’

India in the Buddha’s day did not yet suffer from the grinding poverty of the present time. The modem caste system had not fully developed, but we find its germ in the division of society into four groups or ‘colours’ (Pali vaṇṇā). The designation betrays the origin of the distinction, being based on the con­ quest of northern India in about 1600 B.C. by the comparatively light-skinned Aryans, who looked down on those of darker hue they found there. In the context of Buddhism, where this racial and aristocratic term (literally ‘noble’) is applied to the nobility of the spirit, we shall use the form Ariyan, based on Pali.

The Brahmins were the guardians of the religious cult brought into India by the Aryans. In later, non-Buddhist sources we always hear of the Brahmins as taking the leading place in society. Buddhist sources, however (Sutta 3, for example), assert the supremacy of the Khattiyas (Skt. kṣtriya), the Noble or Warrior class to which Gotama belonged. It appears that while further west the Brahmins had already established their supremacy, this was not yet the case in the Ganges valley. In the third place came the Vessas (Skt. vaiśya) or merchants, and finally the Suddas (Skt. śudra) or workers. Below these there were certainly some slaves (we even hear of a Sudda having a slave), and some unfortunates of the class who were later to become known as ‘untouchables’. But in addition to these groupings, there were considerable numbers of people, including at least a few women, who had opted out of conventional society.

In the texts we frequently meet with the compound samaṇabrāhmaṇā, which we render ‘ascetics and Brahmins’. While the Pali Text Society dictionary correctly states that this compound expression denotes quite generally ‘leaders in religious life’, it is also true that the two groups were usually rivals.

The religious situation in northern India around 500 B.C. is very interesting, and was undoubtedly exceptionally favourable to the development of the Buddhist and other faiths. Though the Brahmins formed an important and increasingly powerful hereditary priesthood, they were never, like their counterparts elsewhere, able to assert their undisputed authority by persecuting and perhaps exterminating other religious groups. It seems that some Brahmins would not have been adverse to such a course, but it was not open to them. They were a caste set aside from other men (in reading about them in the Buddhist texts, one is insistently reminded of the New Testament pictures of the Pharisees, though in both cases the picture presented is, to say the least, one-sided). They alone were learned in the Three Vedas, knew the mystic mantras, and could conduct the all-important, bloody and expensive sacrifices. In fact, not all Brahmins exercised their priestly functions; some had settled down to agriculture or even trade, while continuing to expect the deference which they regarded as their due.

The earlier (Dravidian?) inhabitants who had been overrun by the Aryans were the creators of the Indus Valley civilization with the great cities of Harappā and Mohenjo Dāro, all now in Pakistan. And it is to this civilization that we must look for the origins of the second stream of religious life, that of the samaṇas (Skt. śramaṇas). These have sometimes been absurdly called ‘recluses’, whereas the term really means the very opposite. True, a samaṇa might occasionally be a recluse, a hermit shut away from the world in a rocky cell, but the more usual type was a wanderer who had indeed ‘abandoned the world’ to lead a more or less ascetic life. He—or, rarely, she—was in fact, to use a modern expression, a drop-out from society, though differing from our modern drop-outs in at least one important respect: the samaṇas as a group received no less respect from all classes, even kings, than did the Brahmins (see Sutta 2, verse 25ff.). Their teachings were many and varied—some wise and some exceedingly foolish, some loftily spiritual and some crudely materialistic. The point is that they were completely free to teach whatever they pleased, and, so far from being persecuted as they might have been elsewhere, were received with honour wherever they went. We can distinguish several different groups of these people. There were in particular the self-mortifiers on the one hand, and the wanderers on the other, whose only austerity probably consisted in their detachment from family ties and, in theory at least, their observance of chastity. Many of the bizarre and often revolting practices of the first group are detailed in Sutta 8, verse 14. As pointed out in a note to that Sutta, the practice of extreme austerity (tapas) should not be called ‘penance’ because the motivation is entirely different from that of a Christian penitent, to whom such people might be superficially compared. The word tapas, which basically means ‘heat’, is used both for the austere practices indulged in and for the result they are intended to achieve, which is power, that is, the development of various paranormal powers. The belief was that these could be achieved by means of such practices and, in particular, by sexual restraint. Thus, so far from practising austerity like the Christian penitent, to atone for past sins, they undertook these practices in the hope of future powers, including, perhaps, those very joys that had been temporarily renounced.

The wanderers (paribbājakas), some of whom were Brahmins, wore clothes (unlike many of the others, who went completely naked), and they led a less uncomfortable life. They were ‘philosophers’ who propounded many different theories about the world and nature, and delighted in disputation. The Pali Canon introduces us to six well-known teachers of the time, all of whom were older than Gotama. They are Pūraṇa Kassapa, an amoralist, Makkhali Gosāla, a determinist, Ajita Kesakambali, a materialist, Pakudha Kaccāyana, a categorialist, the Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (the Jain leader known to us as Mahāvīra), who was a relativist and eclectic, and Sajaya Belaṭṭhaputta, an agnostic sceptic or positivist (I borrow most of the descriptive epithets from Jayatilleke). Their different views are quoted by King Ajātasattu in Sutta 2, verses 16-32.

Besides these there were the propounders of the originally secret teaching incorporated in the Upaniads which came to be grafted on to orthodox Brahmanism, and whose doctrines were later to form the core of the Vedanta system. For them, the impersonal Brahman is the supreme reality, and the goal of the teaching is the realisation that the individual human soul or self (ātman) is ultimately identical with the universal Self (Ātman), which is another term for Brahman (the capitalisation here is merely for clarity: the teaching was at first and for long oral, and even when written down in an Oriental alphabet, such a distinction could not be made, since capital letters do not exist in any Eastern script). These aupaniṣadas are not mentioned in the Pali Canon, though it is almost (but not, perhaps, quite) certain that Gotama was acquainted with their teachings.

It has been urged that ‘at depth there is no contradiction between the greatest insights of the Upaniṣads and the Buddha’s teaching’ a view that would be contested by many. We shall return very briefly to this point later (page 31). Suffice it to say here that any theory that the Buddha taught a doctrine of a supreme Self can only be said to fly in the face of the evidence. Nor is it true, as is sometimes said, that in ancient India every­ body believed in karma (the law of moral cause and effect) and rebirth, or indeed in anything else. There were, as we have seen, materialists, sceptics and equivocators, and all sorts of fantastic theorists. Neither can we accept the statement that the Buddha was ‘a Hindu who sought to reform the ancient religion’. Apart from the anachronistic use of the term ‘Hindu’, this is wrong because he rejected the claims of the Brahmins as religious authorities and, while not totally denying the existence of their gods, assigned to these a fundamentally unimportant role in the scheme of things. In so far as he belonged to any existing tradition, it was that of the samaṇas, and like them he taught as he saw fit. As a teacher he was not beholden to anyone: he agreed or disagreed with tradition or the views of others entirely in accordance with his sovereign perception of the truth. It is, however, correct to say that the situation in India in his time was particularly favourable to the spread of his teaching, while the Teacher’s long life enabled this to become firmly established in his lifetime and under his direction.

Main Points of the Teaching

The main points of the Buddha’s teaching need only be briefly summarised here. In his first sermon (Saṁyutta Nikāya 56.11) the Buddha taught that there were two extremes to be avoided: over-indulgence in sensuality on the one hand, and self-torture on the other. He had had personal experience of both. Buddhism is thus the middle way between these extremes, and also between some other pairs of opposites, such as etemalism and annihilationism (see Sutta 1, verse L3off. and verse 3.9ff.).

The Four Noble Truths

The most succinct formulation of the teaching is in the form of the Four Noble Truths:

1. Suffering (dukkha);
2. The Origin of Suffering (dukkha-samudaya), which is craving (taṇhā)
3. The Cessation of Suffering (dukkha-nirodha);
4. The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering (dukkha­nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā), which is the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya-aṭṭhangika-magga). This consists of:

(1) Right View (-) (N.B. singular, not Right Views!)
(2) Right Thought (sammā-sankappa)
(3) Right Speech (sammā-vācā)
(4) Right Action (sammā-kammanta)
(5) Right Livelihood (sammā-ājīva)
(6) Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma)
(7) Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati)
(8) Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi).

For a full account of these, see Sutta 22, verses 18-22.

The eight steps can be subsumed under the three heads of I. Morality (sīla) (steps 3-5), II. Concentration (samādhi) (steps 6-8), and III. Wisdom (paññā) (steps 1-2). It will be noticed that in this arrangement the order is different. This is because, while some preliminary wisdom is needed to start on the path, the final flowering of the higher wisdom follows after development of morality and concentration (cf. Sutta 33, verse 3.3(6)).

Stages on the Path

Progress on the path leading to the cessation of suffering, and hence to Nibbana, is described in many places, notably in Sutta 2, in a long passage which is repeated verbatim in the following Suttas. The most fundamental meditative exercise is set forth in Sutta 22. The breakthrough to the transcendental is achieved in four stages, each of which is subdivided into two: path (magga) and fruition (phala). By attaining the first of these stages one ceases to be a mere ‘worldling’ (puthujjana) and becomes a noble person (ariya-puggala). The stages or ‘path­ moments’ are designated in terms of the successive breaking of ten fetters. Standard descriptions of these stages are given at many places.

At the first stage, one ‘enters the Stream’ and thus becomes a Stream-Winner (sotāpanna) by an experience also referred to (for example, in Sutta 2, verse 102) as the ‘opening of the Dhamma-eye’. The first path-moment is immediately followed by the fruition (phala), and likewise with the other three paths. At First Path, one is said to have ‘glimpsed Nibbana’ (cf. Visuddhimagga 22.126), and thereby three of the five lower fetters are discarded for ever: 1. personality-belief (sakkāya-diṭṭhi), that is, belief in a self; 2. doubt (vicikicchā) and 3. attachment to rites and rituals (sllabbataparāmāsa). In other words, having had a glimpse of reality and perceived the falsity of the self-belief, one is unshakeable and no more dependent on external aids. One who has gained this state can, it is said, no longer be born in ‘states of woe’ and is assured of attaining Nibbana after, at the most, seven more lives.

At the second stage, one becomes a Once-Returner (sakadāgāmī), in whom the fourth and fifth lower fetters are greatly weakened: 4. sensual desire (kāma-rāga) and 5. ill-will (vyāpāda). Such a person will attain to Nibbana after at most one further human rebirth. It is interesting to note that sensuality and ill-will are so powerful that they persist, in however attenuated a form, for so long.

At the third stage, one becomes a Non-Returner (anāgāmī), in whom the fourth and fifth fetters are completely destroyed. In such a person all attachments to this world have ceased, and at death one will be reborn in a higher world, in one of the Pure Abodes (see Cosmology p. 42), and will attain Nibbana from there without returning to this world. It may be mentioned that in Saṁyutta Nikāya 22.89 the Venerable Khemaka actually gives some account of what it feels like to be a Non-Returner. Finally, at the fourth stage, one becomes an Arahant (Sanskrit Arhat, literally ‘worthy one’), by the destruction of the five higher fetters: 6. craving for existence in the Form World (rūpa-rāga), 7. craving for existence in the Formless World (arupa-rāga) (see p. 42 for more about these), 8. conceit (māna), 9. restlessness (uddhacca), 10. ignorance (avijjā). For such a one, the task has been completed, and that person will attain final Nibbana ‘without remainder’ at death.

It should perhaps be added that there are two different ideas that are widely circulated in the East. One is that in this degenerate age it is not possible to become an Arahant. The other, less pessimistic view is that while lay persons can attain to the first three paths, only monks can become Arahants. There is no scriptural authority for either idea. It should also be mentioned that the Arahant ideal is one that is perfectly valid for all schools of Buddhism. Likewise, the concept of the Bodhisattva, who renounces the enjoyment of Nirvāṇa in order to bring all beings to enlightenment, which is considered the hallmark of the Mahāyāna schools as opposed to the Hīnayāna, 3 in fact exists in Theravāda Buddhism as well. The difference of schools is one of emphasis, and does not constitute the unbridgeable gap imagined by some, chiefly in the West. But it cannot be our task to enter further into these matters here.

Nibbāna or Nirvāṇa

The Sanskrit form is better known in the West than the Pali Nibbāna. There are, not surprisingly, many misapprehensions about this. In fact it has been said by one witty scholar that all we have to go on is our misconception of Nirvāṇa, because until we have realised it we cannot know it as it really is. But if we cannot say much about what it is, we can at least say something about what it is not. Robert Caesar Childers, in his famous and still useful Pali dictionary (1875), devoted a whole long article, in fact a short treatise, to proving to his own satisfaction that Nibbāna implies total extinction, and this view, though certainly erroneous, is still to be met with among some Western scholars. And yet, it would be odd indeed if Buddhists were supposed to have to tread the entire path right up to the attainment of Arahantship merely in order to finish up with that total obliteration which the materialists, and many ordinary people today, assume to occur for all of us, good, bad and indifferent, at the end of our present life. It is true, some colour is given to this idea by the etymology of the term (nir + √vā = ‘blowing out’ as of a lamp). Contrasted with this, however, we find other very different descriptions of Nibbāna. Thus in Sutta i.3.20 it is used for ‘the highest happiness’, defined as the indulgence in the pleasures of the five senses obviously a non-Buddhist use of the word, though it is not otherwise attested in pre-Buddhist sources. We thus find two apparently contradictory meanings of Nibbāna: i. ‘extinction’, 2. ‘highest bliss’. And while these were wrongly used in the examples quoted, they both occur in authentic texts.

In considering this problem, it is as well to note the words of the Venerable Nyāṇatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary:

One cannot too often and too emphatically stress the fact that not only for the actual realization of the goal of Nibbāna, but also for a theoretical understanding of it, it is an indispensable preliminary condition to grasp fully the truth of Anatta, the egolessness and insubstantiality of all forms of existence. Without such an understanding, one will necessarily misconceive Nibbāna according to one’s either materialistic or metaphysical leanings either as annihilation of an ego, or as an eternal state of existence into which an Ego or Self enters or with which it merges.

What this in effect means is that in order to ‘understand’ Nibbāna one should have ‘entered the Stream’ or gained First Path, and thus have got rid of the fetter of personality-belief. While scholars will continue to see it as part of their task to try to understand what the Buddha meant by Nibbāna, they should perhaps have sufficient humility to realise that this is something beyond the range of purely scholarly discussion. In the systematisation of the Abhidhamma (see p. 52), Nibbāna is simply included as the ‘unconditioned element’ (asankhata­dhātu), but with no attempt at definition. Nibbāna is indeed the extinction of the ‘three fires’ of greed, hatred and delusion, or the destruction of the ‘corruptions’ (āsavā) of sense-desire, becoming, wrong view and ignorance. Since the individual ‘self’ entity is not ultimately real, it cannot be said to be annihilated in Nibbana, but the illusion of such a self is destroyed.

Very oddly, in the Pali-English Dictionary, it is said that Nibbana is ‘purely and simply an ethical state . . . It is therefore not transcendental.’ In fact it is precisely the one and only transcendental element in Buddhism, for which very reason no attempt is made to define it in terms of a personal god, a higher self, or the like. It is ineffable. It can, however, be realised, and its realisation is the aim of the Buddhist practice. While no description is possible , positive references to Nibbana are not lacking: thus at Dhammapada 204 and elsewhere it is called ‘the highest bliss’ (paramaṃ sukham), and we may conclude this brief account with the famous quotation from Udana 8.3:

There is, monks, an Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded (ajātaṁ abhūtaṁ akataṁ asankhataṁ). If there were not this Unborn . . . , then there would be no deliverance here visible from that which is born, become, made , compounded. But since there is this Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded, therefore a deliverance is visible from that which is born, become, made, compounded.

This is, at the same time, perhaps the best answer we can give concerning the Upaniṣadic Ātman. Buddhism teaches no such thing-nevertheless the above quotation could certainly be applied to the Ātman as understood in Vedānta, or indeed to the Christian conception of God. However, to the followers of those faiths it would be an insufficient description, and the additions they would make would for the most part be unacceptable to Buddhists. It can, however, be suggested that this statement represents the fundamental basis of all religions worthy of the name, as well as providing a criterion to distinguish true religion from such surrogates as Marxism, humanism and the like.

The Three Marks (tilakkhaṇa)

The formula of the three marks (also referred to as ‘signs of being’, ‘signata’, etc.) is found in many places (in expanded, versified form Dhammapada 277-9). It runs:

1. ‘All sankhāras (compounded things) are impermanent’: Sabbe sankhārā aniccā
2. ‘All sankhāras are unsatisfactory’: Sabbe sankhārā dukkhā
3. ‘All dhammas (all things including the unconditioned) are without self’: Sabbe dhammā anattā

The first and second of these marks apply to all mundane things, everything that ‘exists’ (sankhāra in its widest sense). The third refers in addition to the unconditioned element (a-sankhata, that is, not a sankhāra, thus Nibbana). This does not ‘exist’ (relatively), but IS.

Thus, nothing lasts for ever, all things being subject to change and disappearance. Nothing is completely satisfactory: dukkha, conventionally rendered ‘suffering’, has the wide meaning of not satisfying, frustrating, painful in whatever degree. Even pleasant things come to an end or cease to attract, and the painful aspect of life is too well-known and ubiquitous to need discussion.

The first two marks can perhaps be appreciated without too much effort, even though their profound penetration is more difficult. It is the third mark that has provoked much controversy and misunderstanding.

An-attā (Skt. an-ātman) is the negative of attā/ātman ‘self’. So much is clear. In ordinary usage attā is a pronoun used for all persons and genders, singular and plural, meaning ‘myself’, ‘herself’, ‘ourselves’, ‘themselves’, etc. It has no metaphysical implications whatsoever. This, then, is the self of daily life, which has a purely relative and conventional reality if only because it is an almost indispensable expression in everyday speech. As a noun, attā to the Buddhist means an imaginary entity, a so-called ‘self , which is not really there. The five khandhas or aggregates, the various parts that make up our empirical personality (see Sutta 22, verse 14), do not constitute a self, either individually or collectively. Our so-called ‘self’, then, is something bogus. It is, however, a concept that we cling to with great tenacity. See further, p. 32.

It was said earlier that any theory that the Buddha taught such a doctrine as the Upaniṣadic Higher Self can only be said to fly in the face of the evidence. This is borne out by the third mark: all dhammas are without self. The term dhamma here includes Nibbana, the Buddhist ultimate. Thus this is expressly stated not to be any kind of ‘Higher Self’. There are those who believe that what the Buddha taught and what the Upaniṣads taught must agree. Be that as it may at some deeper level, the expression is certainly different. It is arguable that the Buddha considered the term ‘self’, which to him was something evanes­ cent, to be ludicrously inappropriate to the supreme reality, whatever its nature. To pursue such arguments as this any further is surely fruitless.

Levels of Truth

An important and often overlooked aspect of the Buddhist teaching concerns the levels of truth, failure to appreciate which has led to many errors (see n. 220). Very often the Buddha talks in the Suttas in terms of conventional or relative truth (sammuti­ or vohāra-sacca), according to which people and things exist just as they appear to the naive understanding. Elsewhere, however, when addressing an audience capable of appreciating his meaning, he speaks in terms of ultimate truth (paramattha­sacca), according to which ‘existence is a mere process of physical and mental phenomena within which, or beyond which, no real ego-entity nor any abiding substance can ever be found’ (Buddhist Dictionary under Paramattha). In the Abhidhamma, the entire exposition is in terms of ultimate truth. It may also be observed that many ‘Zen paradoxes’ and the like really owe their puzzling character to their being put in terms of ultimate, not of relative truth. The full understanding of ultimate truth can, of course, only be gained by profound insight, but it is possible to become increasingly aware of the distinction. There would seem in fact to be a close parallel in modem times in the difference between our naive world-view and that of the physicist, both points of view having their us in their own sphere. Thus, conventionally speaking, or according to the naive world-view, there are solid objects such as tables and chairs, whereas according to physics the alleged solidity is seen to be an illusion, and whatever might tum out to be the ultimate nature of matter, it is certainly something very different from that which presents itself to our senses. However, when the physicist is off duty, he or she makes use of solid tables and chairs just like everyone else.

In the same way, all such expressions as ‘I’, ‘self’ and so on are always in accordance with conventional truth, and the Buddha never hesitated to use the word attā ‘self (and also with plural meaning : ‘yourselves’, etc.) in its conventional and convenient sense. In fact, despite all that has been urged to the contrary, there is not the slightest evidence that he ever used it in any other sense except when critically quoting the views of others, as should clearly emerge from several of the Suttas here translated.

In point of fact, it should be stressed that conventional truth is sometimes extremely important. The whole doctrine of karma and rebirth has its validity only in the realm of conventional truth. That is why, by liberating ourselves from the viewpoint of conventional truth we cease to be subject to karmic law. Objections to the idea of rebirth in Buddhism, too, are some­ times based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the two truths. As long as we are unenlightened ‘worldlings’, our minds habitually operate in terms of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, even if in theory we know better. It is not until this tendency has been completely eradicated that full enlightenment can dawn. At Samyutta Nikāya 22.89 the Venerable Khemaka, who is a Non-Returner, explains how ‘the subtle remnant of the ‘I’-conceit, of the ‘I’-desire, an unextirpated lurking tendency to think: ‘I am’ ‘, still persists even at that advanced stage.

Probably the best account of the Buddha’s attitude to truth is given by Jayatilleke in The Earl y Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (1963, 361ff.). It may be mentioned that for those who find this work hard going, his second, posthumous book, The Message of the Buddha (1975), makes for easier reading. Jayatilleke has been attacked for equating the philosophy of Buddhism too closely with the modem school of logical positivism. In this connection it is perhaps best to let him speak for himself:

The Buddha, again, was the earliest thinker in his­ tory to recognise the fact that language tends to distort in certain respects the nature of reality and to stress the importance of not being misled by linguistic forms and conventions. In this respect, he fore­ shadowed the modem linguistic or analytical philosophers. (The Message of the Buddha, 33).

It seems hard to find any fault with that. Jayatilleke goes on:

He was the first to distinguish meaningless questions and assertions from meaningful ones. As in science he recognised perception and inference as the twin sources of knowledge, but there was one difference. For perception, according to Buddhism, included extra-sensory forms as well, such as telepathy and clairvoyance. Science cannot ignore such phenomena and today there are Soviet as well as Western scientists, who have admitted the validity of extra-sensory perception in the light of experimental evidence.

Probably most readers will concede the possibility that the Buddha knew a few things which modem science is only now beginning to discover, or accept. We will leave it at that.


The Sanskrit form of this word, karma, is more familiar to Westerners, but as its meaning in non-Buddhist contexts is not necessarily always the same as in Buddhism, there is some advantage in using the Pali form kamma here. The literal meaning of the word is ‘action’, and at Anguttara Nikāya 6.63 the Buddha defines it as volition (cetanā). It is therefore any deliberate act, good or bad (in Pali kusala ‘skilful, wholesome’ or akusala ‘unskilful, unwholesome’). A good act will normally lead to pleasant results for the doer, and a bad act to unpleasant ones. The correct Pali (and Sanskrit) word for such results is vipāka (‘ripening’), though karma/kamma tends in practice to be used loosely for the results as well as the deeds that produced them even sometimes by those who really know better. But it is as well to be aware of the correct distinction.

The question is sometimes asked wheth er there is free-will in Buddhism. The answer should be clea r: each karmic act is the exercise of a choice, good or bad. Th us though our actions are limited by conditions, they are not totally determined.

In this computerised age, it may be helpful to some to think of kamma as ‘programming’ our future. Thus the ‘karma­ formations’ (sankhāras) mentioned below are the ‘programme’ which we have through ignorance made in past lives. The aim of the practice, of course, is to get beyond all kamma. An account of how to progress towards this aim is given in many Suttas, and especially in the first division of the Dīgha Nikāya.

The Twelve Links of the Chain of Dependent Origination

This famous formulation is found in many places in the Canon, and is also represented visually in Tibetan thangkas in the form of a twelve-spoked wheel. The Pali term paṭicca-samuppāda (Skt. pratītya-samutpāda) is usually rendered ‘dependent origination’, though Edward Conze preferred ‘conditioned co-production’. It has been much debated by Western scholars, some of whom produced some strange theories on the subject. The usual formulation is as follows:

1. Ignorance conditions the  ‘Karma-formations’ (avijjā­paccayā sankhārā)
2. The Karma-formations condition Consciousness (sankhāra­paccayā viññāṇaṁ)
3. Consciousness conditions Mind-and-Body (lit. ‘Name-and­Form’: viññāṇ-paccayā nāma-rūpaṁ)
4. Mind-and-Body conditions the Six Sense-Bases (nāma­rūpa-paccayā saḷāyatanaṁ)
5. The Six Sense-Bases condition Contact (saḷāyata na-paccayā phasso)
6. Contact conditions Feeling (phassa-paccayā vedanā)
7. Feeling conditions Craving (vedanā-paccayā taṇhā)
8. Craving conditions Clinging (taṇhā-paccayā upādānam)
9. Clinging conditions Becoming (upādāna-paccayā bhavo)
10. Becoming conditions Birth (bhava-paccayā jāti)
11. Birth conditions (12) Ageing-and-Death (jāti-paccayā jarā­maraṇaṁ).

This is best understood if taken in reverse order. In Sutta 15, verse 2 the Buddha says to Ananda: ‘If you are asked: “Has ageing-and-death a condition for its existence?” you should answer: “Yes.” If asked: “What conditions ageing-and-death?” you should answer: “Ageing-and-death is conditioned by birth’”, and so on. Thus, if there were no birth, there could be no ageing-and-death: birth is a necessary condition for their arising.

According to the usual view, which is certainly correct but perhaps not the only way of regarding the matter, the twelve links (nidānas) are spread over three lives: 1-2 belonging to a past life, 3-10 to this present life, and 11-12 to a future life. Thus the development of our ‘karma-formations ‘ or behaviour patterns is due to past ignorance (that is, the fact that ‘we’ are not enlightened). These patterns condition the arising of a new consciousness in the womb, on the basis of which a new psycho-physical complex (nāma-rūpa) comes into being, equipped with the six sense-bases (of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, with mind as the sixth sense). Contact of any of these with a sense-object (sight, sound, etc.) produces feeling, which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. On the basis of pleasant feeling, desire or craving arises. The links from consciousness to feeling are the results of past actions (vipāka), whereas craving, clinging and the process of becoming are volitional (that is, kamma), and will therefore have results for the future. In fact they set in train the same process of (re)birth (due to ignorance) that we witnessed before , and birth must inevitably lead to death. This is the continuous process in which we, as unenlightened beings, are caught up.

Curiously, in the Dīgha Nikāya we do not find the twelve links. The steps from feeling to ageing-and-death are mentioned in Sutta 1, verse 3.71, while in the two main expositions in this book, the process in reverse is traced back only to its starting-point in this life, that is, to consciousness arid mind­ and-body, which are said to condition each other mutually. Thus, in Sutta 14, we have a set of ten steps instead of the usual twelve, while in Sutta 15, still more remarkably, the six sense­ bases are omitted, thus making a total of only nine links. In other parts of the Canon there are occasional expansions beyond the twelve links give here, but this is the standard formula. It seems that the repeaters (bhāṇakā) of the Dīgha had a tradition of their own to which they firmly adhered.

While we should certainly not make Ananda’s mistake (Sutta 15, verse 1) of thinking the whole thing easy to understand, we can get some general grasp of it, especially if we regard the links in reverse order, which is the way the Buddha explained it to Ananda. At least we shall find that it is not so arbitrary or nonsensical as some Western scholars have supposed.


There are some people in the West who are attracted in many ways to Buddhism, but who find the idea of rebirth a stumbling-block, either because they find it distasteful and/or incredible in itself, or in some cases because they find it hard to reconcile with the ‘non-self’ idea. Some such considerations as any of these sometimes even lead people to declare that the Buddha did not actually teach rebirth at all, or that if he did so, this was only for popular consumption, because his hearers could not have accepted the truth. All such views are based on various kinds of misunderstanding.

It should be noted, incidentally, that Buddhists prefer to speak, not of reincarnation, but of rebirth. Reincarnation is the doctrine that there is a transmigrating soul or spirit that passes on from life to life. In the Buddhist view we may say, to begin with, that that is merely what appears to happen, though in reality no such soul or spirit passes on in this way. In Majjhima Nikāya 38 the monk Sati was severely rebuked for declaring that ‘this very consciousness’ transmigrates, whereas in reality a new consciousness arises at rebirth dependent on the old. Nevertheless there is an illusion of continuity in much the same way as there is within this life. Rebirth from life to life is in principle scarcely different from the rebirth from moment to moment that goes on in this life. The point can be intellectually grasped, with a greater or less degree of difficulty, but it is only at the first path-moment, with the penetration of the spurious nature of what we call self, that it is clearly understood without a shadow of doubt remaining.

It cannot be the purpose of this book to argue in favour of a belief in rebirth, but sceptics might do well to read Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience by Francis Story (Buddhist Publication Society 1975), which has an introduction by Ian Stevenson, Carlson Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Virginia. This book contains some case-histories from Thailand and elsewhere which are difficult to explain except on the rebirth hypothesis, and Prof. Stevenson, too, has published several volumes of research-findings of a similar nature from various parts of the world. It may be that the excessive credulity which characterised some previous ages has, in the present time, given way to equally excessive scepticism.


If we even provisionally accept the idea of rebirth, this almost necessarily requires acceptance of some kind of spirit-world or worlds. In the Buddhist scriptures we find a scheme of post­ mortem worlds which, while having much in common with general Indian ideas, is in many of its details unique. Here, there are no eternal heavens or hells, though some of both are said to be tremendously long-lasting; but all is in an eternal flux in which worlds and world-systems are born and perish, and living beings are continually born, die and are reborn according to their karmic deserts. It is a grandiose, but ultimately frighten­ ing and horrifying vision. Deliverance from it is only possible through the insight engendered by following the path taught by one of the Buddhas who occasionally arise on the scene. For those who fail to gain this insight there can be a happy rebirth for a long time in one of the temporary heaven-worlds, but no permanent deliverance from the perils of birth-and-death. This is saṁsāra or cyclic existence, the ‘on-faring’.

All existence in the various realms of samsara is in one of the three worlds: the World of Sense-Desires (kāma-loka), the World of Form (or the ‘fine-material world’: rāpa-loka) and the Formless (or ‘immaterial’) World (arūpa-loka), -the latter two of which are inhabited by those who have attained, in this life, the corresponding mental absorptions (jhānas) frequently described in the texts. Beyond all this lies the realm of the Supramundane (lokuttara) or Nibbana the ‘other shore’, the only secure haven. And this, though it can be experienced, cannot be described.

There are thirty-one states in which, it is said, one can be reborn, distributed over the three worlds. The lowest of the three, the World of Sense-Desires, consists of the first eleven states, of which human rebirth is the fifth. Below this are the fourfold ‘states of woe’: hells, the world of asuras (sometimes rendered ‘titans’), of hungry ghosts (petas) , and of animals, while above it are the six lowest heavens. Above these are the sixteen heavens of the World of Form, and above these again the four heavens of the Formless World.

Special importance attaches to the human condition, since it is next to impossible to gain enlightenment from any other sphere than this: the realms below the human are too miser­ able, and those above it too happy and carefree for the necessary effort to be easily made.

The list as it stands show signs of late elaboration, but many of the spheres shown, or their inhabitants, are mentioned in the Suttas of this collection.

Explanations of the Thirty-One Abodes

The World of Sense Desires

1. Hells. The hell-states are often rendered ‘purgatory’ to indicate that they are not eternal. See n.244. Descriptions of the hells, their horrors and the length of time supposedly spent there, became increasingly lurid as time went on. In the Dīgha Nikāya there are no such descriptions, the kind and duration of suffering in such ‘states of woe’ being left quite vague. Jayatilleke (The Message of the Buddha, 251) quotes from the Saṁyutta Nikāya 36.4 (= S iv.206):

When the average ignorant person makes an assertion that there is a Hell (pātāla) under the ocean, he is making a statement that is false and without basis. The word ‘hell’ is a term for painful bodily sensations.

This certainly deserves more credence as a saying of the Buddha than the late Suttas Majjhima Nikāya 129, 130. See also Visuddhimagga 13.93££. for more on the first four abodes.

2. Asuras. See n.512. Rebirth among the asuras or titans is sometimes omitted from the list of separate destinations. In the Mahayana tradition they are often regarded more favourably than in the Pali Canon perhaps a reminiscence of their earlier status as gods.

3. Hungry ghosts. These unhappy creatures are depicted with enormous bellies and tiny mouths. They wander about the world in great distress, which can, however, be alleviated by generous offerings. The Petavatthu, the seventh book of the Khuddaka Nikāya and one of the latest portions of the Canon, has many strange tales about them.

4. The animal world. The animal kingdom, together with the human realm, constitutes the only realm of beings normally visible to human sight and therefore indisputably existing (Ajita Kesakambali, like any modem rationalist, disbelieved in all the rest). There are those today in the West who object strongly to the idea that the Buddha taught that we can be reborn as animals, though at first sight the evidence is all against them. However, since tiracchāna, normally meaning ‘animal’, is used in Sutta 1 in the compounds tiracchāna-kathā, tiracchāna-vijjā, meaning ‘low talk’, ‘base art’, it is just possible that as a ‘destination’ for humans tiracchāna-yoni can be taken as a low rebirth. Some confirmation is provided by the case of Khorakkhattiya (Sutta 24, verse 9 and n.244).

5. The human world. Rebirth as a human being is regarded as a great opportunity which should be seized, since it may not easily recur, and it is almost impossible to ‘enter the Stream’ and so start on the path to Nibbāna from any other condition (but see n.6oo). Beings in the states below the human are too miserable, fearful and benighted, and those above it are too happy to make the necessary effort. In the human world we encounter both joy and sorrow, often very evenly balanced, and it is also possible to attain to a state of equanimity which is favourable to progress. Nevertheless, most human beings are very much under the sway of sense-desires, as indeed are the inhabitants of the worlds immediately above this one.

6. The Realm of the Four Great Kings. These kings are the guardians of the four quarters, and a lively account of existence on their plane is given in Sutta 20, to which reference should be made. The beings from here on are called devas, or in some cases alternatively Brahmas. Various kinds of non-human beings, not all of whom are beneficent, are supposed to be located in or associated with this realm, and are mentioned in Sutta 20. Since the inhabitants of this sphere (especially the gandhabbas, heavenly musicians and attendants on the kings and their followers) are still addicted to sense-pleasures, it is considered disgraceful for a monk to be reborn there. However, as we are told in Sutta 21, verse 11, it is possible for such to progress to a much higher plane if they make the effort.

7. The Thirty-Three Gods. Their heaven had once been the abode of the asuras, who had been expelled from it. No list of the thirty-three exists, but their chief is Sakka (Sankrit Sakra), who is either a reformed Indra or, as Rhys Davids considered, a Buddhist replacement for him. Many good people were reborn in this realm.

8. Yāma devas. These devas are usually only mentioned in passing. The name is said to mean ‘those who have attained to divine bliss’, but may also relate to Yama, king of the dead.

9. Contented devas. It is in their heaven that Bodhisattas reside before their last birth, and Once-Returners are also sometimes born here.

10, 11. Devas Delighting in Creation; devas Wielding Power over Others’ Creations. The former can create any shape they like, the latter delight in things created by others, to get them in their power. These two are the highest in the World of Sense Desires.

The World of Form (Fine-Material World)

12. The Retinue of Brahmā. The inhabitants of abodes 12-21 are known as devas or Brahmas. Rebirth in these worlds is dependent on experience of the lower jhanas as well as moral behaviour. Those who live in them are free from sensual desire, though in most cases only by suppression through the jhanas, not by eradication.

13-14. Ministers of Brahma and Great Brahmas. See below.

15-2t. These are all worlds in which those who have experienced the lower jhanas may be reborn according to their development: thus the highest sphere, number 21, is inhabited by those who have had a strong experience of the fourth jhana, and so on downwards.

22. Unconscious beings. See n.65.

23-27. These are the Pure Abodes in which Non-Returners are reborn, and whence they gain Nibbana without returning to earth.

The Formless World (Immaterial World)

28-3t. These correspond to the four higher jhanas of the Formless World, and rebirth in these realms depends on the attainment of these jhanas, as for numbers 12-21. Gotama attained to the Sphere of No-Thingness under his first teacher, A!ara Kalama, and to the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor­ Non-Perception under his second teacher Uddaka Ramaputta. He thus reached the highest state attainable without breaking through to the Supramundane (lokuttara) which is ‘beyond the Three Worlds’.

Some Names and Designations


In Buddhism there is not one Brahma or Great Brahma but many, and they are not immortal. The origin of the belief in Brahma as creator of the world is given in Sutta 1, verse 2.2ff., and a satirical picture of the boastful Great Brahma (who nevertheless is a true follower of the Buddha) is given in Sutta 1i. But though not almighty or eternal, Brahmas are powerful and benevolent beings who are still believed, in Oriental Buddhist countries, to be able to bestow mundane favours (for example the Brahma shrine outside the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok). One Great Brahma, Sahampati, begged the newly­ enlightened Buddha to teach those who had ‘little dust on their eyes’.

There is no certain or even probable trace of the neuter Brahman in Pali scriptures. In Sutta 13 two young Brahmins consult the Buddha on how to attain to ‘union with Brahma’ or more correctly ‘fellowship with Brahma’. Rhys Davids has been accused of mistranslating sahavyatā here as ‘union’, thus implying a mystical union rather than merely belonging to the company of Brahma. But the Brahmins had explained to the Buddha that they were puzzled because different teachers interpreted the path to Brahma in different ways. Thus both interpretations may well be implied here.


This is of course a generic term, not a proper name: Gotama was ‘the Buddha’, not just ‘Buddha’ (the same should apply to Christ ‘the Anointed’, but usage is against this). It is a past participle form meaning ‘awakened’, thus ‘enlightened’. Buddhas appear at vast intervals of time. Besides the fully­ enlightened Buddha who teaches Dhamma to the world (Sammā-Sambuddha) there is the ‘private Buddha’ (Pacceka­Buddha), who is enlightened but does not teach. As time went on, a more and more elaborate Buddhology developed, the first beginnings of which can be seen here in Sutta 14. It was under the Buddha Dipankara, vast ages ago, that the Brahmin Sumedha first made the determination to become a Buddha, which he finally did as the historical Buddha Gotama. See especially Sutta 14.


This word is difficult to translate, and in general I have retained the Pali form, though in the case of the Thirty-Three Gods I have called them such, since they constitute something of a pantheon like that found in ancient Greece and elsewhere, even though few of them are individually named. As will be seen from the table, the term deva is applied to the inhabitants of all or any of the states above the human, though those in the World of Form can also be called Brahma a term which is probably better restricted to the inhabitants of realm No. 14. The etymological meaning of deva is ‘bright, shining’ (related to Latin deus, dlvus), but the word is popularly associated with the root div ‘to play’.

Devas are said to be of three kinds: i. Conventional, that is, kings and princes, who are addressed as ‘Deva!’ (hence the Indian idea of the ‘god-king’ a title adopted by the kings of Cambodia but misapplied in modem times to the Dalai Lama!), 2. purified, that is, Buddhas and Arahants, and 3. spontaneously born (uppattidevā), that is, devas in the sense as used here. Besides the form deva (which is uncommon in the third sense in the singular), we find the abstract noun devatā used much like ‘deity’ in English. It should be noted that though this noun is grammatically feminine, it does not necessarily imply female sex. When it is wished to indicate the sex, the words devaputta ‘deva’s son’ and devadhītā ‘deva’s daughter’ may be used, though as most devas are spontaneously reborn this should not be taken literally (however, there are some indications of sexual reproduction occurring in the lowest heavens: we learn from Suttas 20 and 21 that the gandhabba chief Timbaru had a daughter).

Devas have all been human, and may be reborn again in human form, which in fact would be good fortune for them, as it is so much easier to gain enlightenment from the human state. In view of their former human state, it has been suggested that they are not unlike spirits (in the Spiritualist sense); another suggested translation is ‘angels’, but on the whole it seemed best (with one slight exception noted) to retain the Pali term for these beings. (The word Devachan used by Theosophists is not in fact derived from deva, but is the Tibetan word bde-ba-can ‘land of bliss ‘, rendering the Sanskrit Sukhāvatī.)


Celestial musicians (see Suttas 20, 21), subject to Dhatarattha, the Great King of the East, they act as attendants on the devas, and are still much addicted to sense-pleasures.

It was formerly thought that gandhabbas also presided at conception, but this is due to a misunderstanding of a passage in Majjhima Nikāya 38 where it is stated that a ‘gandhabba’ must be present in addition to a man and a woman for conception to take place. The word here means, as the commen­ taries explain, ‘being about to be born’, that is the new consciousness arising dependent on that of a being who has died.


These are giant birds, ever at war with the nāgas (except when, under the Buddha ‘s influence, a truce is called: Sutta 20, verse 11). The garuḍā (khruth) is the royal badge of Thailand. In Indian legend, Viṣṇu rode on a garuḍā.


The most interesting and difficult of the various classes of non-human beings. Basically the term seems to apply to snakes, in particular the king cobra, but nāgas are also associated with elephants, probably on account of the snakelike trunk. They are very wise and powerful, though they suffer terribly from the attacks of the garuḍās. The term is often used for a great man, including the Buddha. But as Malalasekera writes (Dictionary of Pali Proper Names ii, 1355): ‘In the accounts given of the nāgas, there is undoubtedly great confusion between the nagas as supernatural (sic!) beings, as snakes, and as the name of certain non-Aryan tribes, but the confusion is too difficult to unravel.’


The word generally used by the Buddha in referring to himself or to other Buddhas, though it seemingly can apply to any Arahant. Etymologically it means either tathā-āgata ‘thus come’ or tathā-gata ‘thus gone’. It would seem to be a way of indicating that ‘he who stands before you’ is not like other beings. For commentarial explanations, see Bhikkhu Bodhi’s separate translation of Sutta 1 (see n.11). The Dīgha commentary (see p. 50) gives no fewer than eight different explanations, and the Mahayana schools have many more.


Yakkhas, who are subject to Vessavaṇa, Great King of the North, are curiously ambivalent creatures, for reasons explained in Sutta 32, verse 2. Some are believers in the Buddha, but others, not wishing to keep the precepts, are hostile to the Dhamma, and they are in fact in the majority. Among the ‘good yakkhas’, however, we find (Sutta 19) Janavasabha, who had been King Bimbisara of Magadha and a Stream-Winner! Later tradition insists more and more on the bad side of the yakkhas, who come to be regarded as ogres or demons pure and simple with the female of the species being more deadly than the male.

The Pali Canon

According to tradition, the text of the Pali Canon was settled at a Council held at Rājagaha immediately after the Teacher’s passing, having been memorised by leading Elders, who were highly realised practitioners of the Dhamma. In fact it is clear that the collection as we have it originated over a longer period. The Canon was preserved in oral form until the first century B.C., when it became apparent that the sacred texts might vanish from the earth if they were not recorded in writing. They were accordingly written down under King Vaṭṭagāmanī at this time in Sri Lanka, though some portions may already have been committed to writing earlier. The feat of memory involved in preserving such an extensive body of text orally for so long may seem extraordinary to us, but was quite usual in ancient India. Writing was certainly known in India in the Buddha’s time, but was not used for such purposes. It must, however, be remembered that in the course of forty-five years the Buddha preached, doubtless often in a standardised form (see p. 49), to many thousands of people, and that many of the monks and nuns had trained minds and memories, and will have known full well the meaning of what they were repeating.

From about the time of the Second Council, held at Vesali a century after the Buddha’s passing, we hear of divisions and the formation of sects within the Order. This led eventually to the rise of the Mahayana schools. An up-to-date account of these developments can be found in A.K. Warder’s Indian Buddhism. Here we need merely note that the Theravada type of Buddhism was carried early to Ceylon, and later to Burma, Thailand and other parts of south-east Asia, whereas the forms of Buddhism that spread to Tibet, China, Japan and other more northerly regions were of the developed, Mahayana type. Portions of the early scriptures of some of the schools that arose have been preserved, either in Sanskrit or, very often, in Chinese and/or Tibetan translations. The Sanskrit of these texts is often very bad, but the attempt was clearly made to lend dignity to the teaching by using the classical language. We thus find that Buddhist terms are found in both Pali and Sanskrit forms, and while the Pali terms are doubtless older, the Sanskrit forms are sometimes better known to the Western reader. Thus Sanskrit karma is more often used by Westerners than Pali kamma, Sanskrit dharma and nirvāṇa than Pali dhamma and nibbāna.

The Pali Language

Strictly speaking, the word Pāḷi means ‘text’. But the expression Pāḷibhāsā, meaning ‘language of the texts’, was early taken to be the name of the language itself. Its use is practically confined to Buddhist subjects, and then only in the Theravada school. Its exact origins are the subject of learned debate. While we cannot go too deeply into the matter here, it may be said that the traditional equation with the language of the ancient kingdom of Magadha, and the assertion that Pali is, literally and precisely, the language spoken by the Buddha himself, cannot be sustained. All the same, the language the Buddha actually spoke was in all probability not very different from Pali.

From the point of view of the non-specialist, we can think of Pali as a kind of simplified Sanskrit. Its development, like that of other early Indian dialects, can be thought of as similar to an early form of Italian just breaking away from Latin. A close parallel is found in the word for ‘seven’, where Latin septem has become Italian sette, the pt being simplified by assimilation to tt. The Sanskrit equivalent sapta is in Pali satta, and similar types of simplification are found in hundreds of words. The grammar, too, has been slightly simplified, though not nearly so much as that of ltalian. But the two languages are still so close that it is possible to convert whole passages of Sanskrit into Pali simply by making the necessary mechanical transpositions. See p. 17 for more details about the relationship between Pali and Sanskrit.

This Translation

The text on which this translation is based is the Pali Text Society edition by T.W. Rhys Davids and J.E. Carpenter (3 volumes, 1890-1910). I have made some slight use of the Thai translation as well as of Franke’s German one, and have also made a few corrections following the Ven. Buddhadatta, Ñāṇamoli and others, as indicated at the appropriate places.

It must be pointed out that any translator of the Pali Canon is faced with peculiar difficulties, if only owing to the repetitiveness of the originals. Even the manuscripts contain numerous abridgements, and any translator must necessarily abridge a great deal more. I have dealt with repetitions in three ways. Long sections have been condensed into a few lines, which appear in italics and include the Sutta and verse numbers of the omitted passages. Where it is clear from the context what is being omitted I have simply used ellipses; where it is not clear I have used ellipses as well as the Sutta and verse number. In doing so I have ensured that nothing of substance has been omitted. I have made no excisions on account of real or alleged lateness or inauthenticity or the like: such matters are left to the reader’s judgement, with an occasional note for guidance. I have as far as possible avoided the use of masculine nouns and pronouns where both sexes are implied. I have, however, always been guided by my understanding of the text, bearing in mind the many admonitions addressed specifically to monks, as well as the words of Brahmins and others who were undoubtedly ‘sexist’. I have also kept the masculine gender in a few cases where to do otherwise would have produced intolerable awkwardness or (in verse) spoilt the scansion. I have tried to convey as much as possible the style of the original, rendering it into an English which is, I hope, neither too archaic nor too hypermodem.

I have permitted myself a few syntactic abridgements. Phrases like Bhagavatā saddhiṁ sammodi sammodanīyaṁ kathaṁ sārāṇīyaṁ vītisāretvā, which Rhys Davids renders: ‘He ex­ changed with the Blessed One the greetings and compliments of politeness and courtesy’, have been cut down, in this case to ‘exchanged courtesies with him’. As regards the designation Bhagavā, I have used ‘the Lord’ in narration, varied occasionally in quoted speech with ‘the Blessed Lord’. Other translators have ‘the Blessed One’, ‘the Exalted One’, and so on.

The repetitions in the Canon have probably two distinct sources. It is extremely likely that the Buddha himself developed a standard form for sermons, which he doubtless uttered verbatim, or nearly so, many thousands of times during his forty-five years’ ministry. He would seem to have gone on the principle which many teachers use and recommend to this day: ‘First tell them what you are going to say, then say it, then tell them what you have said.’ His disciples will then have extended this principle into a system of rigidly stereotyped phrases. The second source of repetition will have been inherent in the oral tradition itself, as is witnessed by oral literature all over the world. This is always characterised by long repetitive passages and stereotyped epithets and descriptions. This tendency will in the present instance have been reinforced by the wish to preserve the Master ‘s words as accurately as possible. It should also be remembered that it was not all a mere matter of mechanical repetition, though this undoubtedly occur­ red occasionally too.

The Authenticity of the Pali Canon

Certainly, not all parts of the Pali Canon are equally old or can be literally taken to be the Buddha’s precise words. This is plain common sense and does not mean completely rejecting their authenticity. Recent research has gone far to vindicate the claim that the Pali Canon holds at least a prime place among our sources in the search for ‘original’ Buddhism, or, in fact, ‘what the Buddha taught’. No attempt can be made here to go into any detail concerning questions of authenticity, or of the chronological stratification of the materials found in the Dīgha Nikāya. Some indications of scholarly opinion on this subject can be found, especially, in Pande, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (1967), though not all his findings are equally acceptable. Personally I believe that all, or almost all doctrinal statements put directly into the mouth of the Buddha can be accepted as authentic, and this seems to me the most important point.

The Commentaries

An invaluable aid to the understanding of the Pali Canon is provided by the old Commentaries (Aṭṭhakathā). These need to be used with caution, and they certainly contain numerous pious fabrications. Without them, however, our understanding of the Suttas would be woefully deficient. The two chief commentaries have been published in Pali by the Pali Text Society. The earliest is called Sumangalavilāsinī (‘Effulgence of the Great Blessing’), but is usually known more prosaically as the Dīgha Nikāya Commentary (Dīghanikāy-aṭṭhakathā or DA, 3 volumes, 1886-1932, reprinted 1971). This is by the great Buddhaghosa, who lived in the 5th century C.E. The second, or Sub­Commentary (ṭīkā), called Dīghanikāy-aṭṭhakathā-tīkā-Līnattha-vaṇṇnanā ‘Explanation of Obscurities in the Dīgha-Nikāya Commentary’ or DAT for short (3 vols., ed. Lily de Silva, 1970), is a commentary on the commentary. Extensive extracts from these two commentaries on Suttas 1 and 15 (with further passages from a third, called the ‘New Sub-Commentary’) are given by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his separate translations of those Suttas, and similar extracts are given by Soma Thera in his version of Sutta 22. Some scanty comments are also quoted (sometimes without translation!) by Rhys Davids at intervals. I have added a few more extracts in my notes where it seemed necessary, besides occasionally clarifying or correcting Rhys Davids’s notes.

Buddhaghosa was an Indian scholar-monk of amazing erudition who spent many years in Sri Lanka, where he wrote The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a comprehensive guide to doctrine and meditation, splendidly translated into English by the Ven. Ñāṇamoli and published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka (1956+). His version is a great improvement on the older one published by the Pali Text Society as The Path of Purity. It appears that the old commentaries on the Pali Canon, some of which seem to have been very ancient, were translated into Sinhalese and the Pali originals lost, and that Buddhaghosa made from these a new Pali version. In general it is clear that he is recording traditional opinions and interpretations, holding back, except on rare occasions, from expressing a personal opinion with admirable self-effacement. It is to be expected that in due course the major commentaries will be translated into English from their rather difficult late Pali language.

The Divisions of the Pali Canon

The Pali Canon is divided into three main sections (Tipiṭaka: the Three Baskets).

1. Vinaya Piṭaka
This deals with monastic discipline, for monks and nuns. Translated by I.B. Homer as The Book of Discipline (6 volumes, PTS 1938-66).

2. Sutta Piṭaka
The ‘Discourses’ (Suttas): the portion of the Canon of most interest to lay Buddhists (see below).

3. Abhidhamma Piṭaka
The ‘further doctrine’, a highly schematised philosophical compendium in seven books, most of which have now been translated into English by the PTS.

The Sutta Piṭaka consists of five collections (nikāyas). The present translation is a new version of the first of these.

(1) Ḍīgha Nikāya (‘long collection’, i.e. collection of long discourses). Translated by T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids (SBB, 3 volumes, 1899-1921) as ‘Dialogues of the Buddha’. The Pali text (ed. T.W. Rhys Davids and J.E. Carpenter, PTS, 3 volumes, 1890-1910) is referred to here as D, the translation as RD (see Note on References).

(2) Majjhima Nikāya (‘medium collection’). The Teachings of the Buddha: The Middle Length Discourses of Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Original translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Boston 1995. [MN]

(3) Saṁyutta Nikāya (‘collection of groups’, i.e. according to subject-matter). Translated by C.A.F. Rhys Davids and F.L. Woodward (PTS, 5 volumes, 1917-30) as ‘Kindred Sayings’. [SN]

(4) Anguttara Nikāya (‘collection of expanding groups’, i.e. single things, twos, threes, and so on up to elevens). Translated by F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare (PTS, 5 volumes, 1932-36) as ‘Gradual Sayings’. [AN]

(5) Khuddaka Nikāya (‘lesser collection’), a heterogeneous collection in 15 divisions of very varying interest to the modem reader:

(i) Khuddaka Pātha (‘minor text’-used as a novice’s hand­ book). Translated with its commentary by Ven. Ñāṇamoli (PTS 196o) as ‘Minor Readings and Illustrator’. [Khp]

(ā) Dhammapada (‘verses on Dhamma’), one of the most famous of Buddhist scriptures, an anthology in 26 chapters and 423 stanzas. Of the more than 30 English translations, the prose version by Nārada Thera (various editions, including one by Murray, London 1972) is recommended for the serious student.

The Penguin translation by J. Mascaro, though very readable, is

marred by serious errors of interpretation. [Dhp]

(iii) Udāna (‘solemn utterances’), translated by F.L. Woodward (SBB 1935) as ‘Verses of Uplift’ (!). [Ud]

(iv) Itivuttaka (‘thus it was said’), translated by Woodward together with (iii) as ‘Thus It Was Said’. [It]

(v) Sutta Nipāta (‘collection of suttas’), verse translation by

E.M. Hare (SBB 1935) as ‘Woven Cadences’; prose translation by

K.R. Norman (PTS 1984) as ‘The Group of Discourses’ [Sn]

(vi) Vimānavatthu (‘stories of the [heavenly] mansions’), translated by LB. Homer (PTS 1974) as ‘Stories of the Mansions’. [Vv]

(vii) Petavatthu (‘stories of the departed’ (or ‘of hungry ghosts’)), translated by H.S. Gehman as ‘Stories of the Departed’ and included wit h (vi). [Pv]

(viii) Theragāthā (‘songs of the male elders’, i.e. Arahants) [Thag] and (ix). Therīgāthā (‘songs of the female elders’, i.e. Arahants) [Thig]. Verse translation of (viii) and (ix) by C.A.F. Rhys Davids (PTS, 2 volumes, 1909, 1937) as ‘Psalms of the Early Buddhists’; prose translation of (viii) and (ix) by K.R. Norman (PTS, 2 volumes, 1969, 1971) as The Elders’ Verses’.

(x) Jātaka (‘birth-stories’, i.e. tales (547) of former lives of the Buddha). Much used as parables, otherwise mainly of interest as folklore. Translated (PTS 1895-1907, 1913 in 6 volumes, reprinted 1981 in 3 volumes) under editorship of E.B. Cowell Ja]

(xi) Niddesa (‘exposition’), an old commentary, ascribed to Sāriputta, to parts of (v). No English translation exists. [Nid]

(xii) Paṭisambhidā Magga (‘path of discrimination’). Translation by the late Ven. Ñāṇamoli edited by A.K. Warder (PTS 1982). [Pts]

(xiii) Apadāna (‘tradition’, i.e. legend). Tales of Arahants

similar to (x). No English translation exists. [Ap]

(xiv) Buddhavaṁsa (‘chronicle of Buddhas’) Translated by LB. Homer (PTS 1975). [Bv]

(xv) Cariyāpiṭaka (‘basket of conduct’) Translated by LB. Horner together with (xiv). [Cp]



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© Maurice Walshe, authors. The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 1987, 1995, 2012)

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