The Suttanipata - Introduction

An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries


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Introduction (excerpt) 

1. The Suttanipāta as a Collection  

The Suttanipāta is an anthology of Buddhist discourses belonging to the Khuddaka Nikāya, the fifth collection in the Sutta Piṭaka of the Pāli Canon. The title of the work means a compilation (nipāta) of discourses (sutta). Several of these discourses occur elsewhere in the Sutta Piṭaka, but most are unique to this collection. The commentary to the work, Paramatthajotikā II, already recognizes its composite nature when, in its introductory verses, it says that “it is so designated [Suttanipāta] because it was recited by compiling suitable suttas from here and there.” It is sometimes claimed that the Suttanipāta is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts. This may be true of some of its contents, but it is not true of the collection as a whole. As an anthology that emerged from the oral tradition, the Suttanipāta is a multitextured, multilayered work that spans several phases of Buddhist literary activity. It includes material that belongs to the most ancient stratum, but it also contains other material which, while still representative of Early Buddhism, has to be assigned to a later period. Exactly when the anthology came into existence is not known, but since, as a collection, it has no parallel in the texts surviving from other Early Buddhist schools, it is likely to be unique to the Pāli school now known as the Theravāda.

The stratification of material in the Suttanipāta shows that as a collection it underwent a process of gradual growth and evolution as newer material was added to a more primitive core and the contents were rearranged until it arrived at its present shape. The growth of the Suttanipāta by the addition of new material does not necessarily mean that all the suttas inserted into the anthology at a later time were composed subsequent to those included earlier. It is likely that as the work took shape, older suttas and strings of verses that were floating freely in the oral tradition, without anchorage in any established textual collection, were absorbed into the Suttanipāta in order to provide them with a secure home.

An illustration of this point is the Uraga Sutta, the first discourse in the collection. Four versions of the Uraga verses in Indic languages are known, and from their common theme and method of arrangement it is clear the verses always existed as a set. The version transmitted in the Gāndhārī language was inserted into the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, at the end of the chapter on the bhikkhu (chapter 2, corresponding to chapter 25 of the Pāli Dhammapada). Another version, found in the Patna Dharmapada, has its own chapter (22), the last in the work. And still another version, in Sanskrit, is included in the bhikṣu chapter (32) of the Udānavarga, a work of the Dhammapada genre; several verses referring to flowers are included twice, in the bhikṣu chapter and the chapter on flowers (18). Obviously, these arrangements reflect decisions made by the transmitters of these traditions about the most suitable place to accommodate the verses. The transmitters of the Pāli tradition made a different decision. They assigned the verses not to its Dhammapada or some similar work but to another anthology unique to that tradition, the Suttanipāta. Although the verses are very early, their placement at the beginning of the chapter suggests they were added there at a relatively late time.

As it stands now, the Suttanipāta is divided into five chapters (vagga): the Uragavagga, the Cūḷavagga, the Mahāvagga, the Aṭṭhakavagga, and the Pārāyanavagga. The number of suttas they contain, respectively, is 12, 14, 12, 16, and 18; in the last case the introductory verses and the epilogue are counted separately along with the sixteen pucchās, or question sections, that make up the body of the chapter. Although the Cūḷavagga, the “Minor Chapter,” has more suttas than the Mahāvagga, the “Great Chapter,” the two differ in length and in the number of their verses. The verse distribution among the five chapters is respectively 221, 183, 361, 210, and 174. The Mahāvagga also contains several relatively long suttas in which the verses are embedded in prose.

It is generally recognized that the last two chapters of the Suttanipāta, the Aṭṭhakavagga and the pucchās of the Pārāyanavagga, are extremely old. They are quoted in the Saṃyutta Nikāya and Aṅguttara Nikāya and evidently existed as collections in their own right before they were integrated into the anthology that became the Suttanipāta.

The Aṭṭhakavagga as a distinct collection is mentioned in an incident recorded twice in the Pāli Canon, in the Vinaya and in the Udāna. In the Vinaya Mahāvagga it is reported that Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa, a pupil of the Elder Mahākaccāna, traveled from distant Avantī to visit the Buddha at Jetavana in Sāvatthī. After his arrival the Blessed One asked him to recite some Dhamma. In response, he recited all the texts of the Aṭṭhakavagga (sabbān’eva aṭṭhakavaggikāni sarena abhāsi). At the end of the recitation, the Buddha applauded him with the words: “Excellent, excellent, bhikkhu! You have learned well, attended well, memorized well the texts of the Aṭṭhakavagga.” The Udāna version adds a further detail. It states that Soṇa recited all sixteen texts of the Aṭṭhakavagga (soḷasa aṭṭhakavaggikāni sabbān’eva sarena abhaṇi), and the Buddha mentions the figure in his word of appreciation: “Excellent, excellent, bhikkhu! You have learned well, attended well, memorized well the sixteen texts of the Aṭṭhakavagga.”  

The Aṭṭhakavagga is also referred to in SN 22:3 (III 9–12). Here a householder named Hāliddakāni comes to Mahākaccāna, Soṇa’s preceptor, and says: “Bhante, this was said by the Blessed One in the Questions of Māgandiya of the Aṭṭhakavagga” (aṭṭhakavaggiye māgandiyapanhe). He then cites verse 844 and asks for an explanation. Mahākaccāna explains the verse in detail and then recites it again at the end of his reply.  

The Pārāyana is mentioned six times elsewhere in the canon. In SN 12:31 (II 47) the Buddha addresses Sāriputta, saying: “This was stated in the Questions of Ajita of the Pārāyana.” He then cites verse 1038 and asks Sāriputta to explain it. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya the Buddha refers to the Pārāyana in the following places:

AN 3:32 (I 133) refers to 1048 from the Questions of Puṇṇaka

AN 3:33 (I 134) refers to 1106–7 from the Questions of Udaya

AN 4:41 (II 45–46) again refers to 1048 from the Questions of Puṇṇaka

On each occasion, rather than introducing the verse at the beginning of a discourse, he cites the verse at the end, preceded by the phrase “And it was with reference to this, bhikkhus, that it was stated by me in the Pārāyana” (idanca pana m’etaṃ, bhikkhave, sandhāya bhāsitaṃ pārāyane).

At AN 3:61 (III 399) a group of elders are sitting together after their meal when one of them says: “This was said, friends, by the Blessed One in the Pārāyana, in the Questions of Metteyya.” He then cites 1042  (with a slightly different reading of the first line) and asks his fellow monks how they understand it. Each offers his own interpretation, after which they go to the Buddha for clarification. The Buddha then repeats the verse (at AN III 401) and explains his intention. Finally, in AN 7:53 (IV 63), it is said that early one morning the female lay disciple Nandamātā recited the Pārāyana in a voice so pleasing that the divine king Vessavaṇa, passing nearby, stopped in his flight and congratulated her for her recitation.

It may be significant that these passages refer to the work as Pārāyana rather than as Pārāyanavagga. The suffix –vagga, “chapter,” may have been added only after the Pārāyana became a chapter in the Suttanipāta. In the case of the Aṭṭhakavagga, however, the suffix seems always to have been part of the title, perhaps implying that the group of suttas formed a set, not necessarily a chapter in a larger work.

The antiquity of these two chapters—the Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyana—as well as their importance for the Buddhist community, can be understood from the fact that each was made the subject of an ancient commentary, the Niddesa, which was incorporated into the Sutta Piṭaka. The larger section, the Mahāniddesa, comments on the Aṭṭhakavagga; the shorter section, the Cūḷaniddesa, comments on the Pārāyanavagga and the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta.

Circumstantial evidence for the early existence of several other texts presently included in the Suttanipāta is provided by the Bhabra Inscription of King Asoka, where he cites seven discourses on the Dhamma that he desires “many monks and nuns should hear frequently and meditate upon, and likewise laymen and laywomen.” Three can be reasonably identified with texts now existing in Sn. The Munigāthā are almost certainly the verses of the Muni Sutta (I,12). The Moneyya Sutta is probably the Nālaka Sutta (III, 11), excluding the introductory verses. And since Upatissa was the personal name of Sāriputta, the Upatisapasina—Upatissa’s Questions—is probably the Sāriputta Sutta (IV,16), where Sāriputta asks questions of the Buddha.

In commenting on its respective source texts, the Niddesa often buttresses its points by quoting from other texts (not the Aṭṭhakavagga or Pārāyanavagga), usually prefaced with the remark: “For this has been said by the Blessed One” (vuttaṃ h’etaṃ Bhagavatā) or “Hence the Blessed One said” (ten’āha Bhagavā). Several of these texts are now included in Sn. The ones most often referred to are the Sabhiya Sutta (III,6) and the Padhāna Sutta (III,2). Verse 271  from the Sūciloma Sutta is cited several times, as well as 576–81  from the Salla Sutta; individual verses from other texts are also cited. The Niddesa does not refer to these works by their titles, though in its citations from the Sabhiya Sutta it includes the line where the Buddha addresses Sabhiya by name. These quotations testify to the existence of those discourses at the time the Niddesa was composed, though from this it cannot be determined whether they had as yet been incorporated into the anthology now called the Suttanipāta. The earliest known references to the Suttanipāta are in the Milindapañha (at 369, 385, 411, 413, and 414), but these are all in a section of that work recognized as relatively late.

The formation of the Suttanipāta can only be reconstructed through critical analysis of its texts with reference to their language, doctrinal content, and the social conditions they reflect. The most thorough attempt at such a reconstruction was made by N. A. Jayawickrama in his “Critical Analysis of the Suttanipāta.” 5  Jayawickrama suggests that the suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga, the pucchās of the Pārāyana, and the poems extolling the muni ideal are likely to be the oldest parts of Sn. At a subsequent phase, he conjectures, the work was enlarged by including other material. In this phase he puts the didactic poems of the first three vaggas, the two biographical discourses (the Pabbajjā and Padhāna Suttas), the older dialogues of the Mahāvagga the dialogue poems of the Uragavagga, and the yakkha poems. He considers four of the popular discourses—the Maṅgala, Metta, Parābhava, and Vasala Suttas—along with the Cunda and Kokālika Suttas to be a little younger but still pre-Asokan. The youngest suttas he takes to be the Ratana, the Vijaya, and the Dvayatānupassanā, and the latest compositions to be the vatthugāthā, the introductory verses, which were added at a relatively later time to the Nālaka Sutta and the Pārāyana. I would qualify this, however, with the observation that while the Dvayatānupassanā itself might be relatively young, its verses likely stem from an older period and may have been brought into the sutta to give them a framework. Several of these verses are found elsewhere in the Aṅguttara, Saṃyutta, and Itivuttaka. Verse 728 is identical with 1050 ef–1051 of the Pārāyana, from which it was evidently taken.

Jayawickrama ascribes the composition of the bulk of the poems roughly to the period 400–300 b.c.e. He delineates five stages in the evolution of the anthology. (1) First, there was “an early nucleus of more or less floating material” available for the creation of an anthology. (2) Next came an attempt at a collection by bringing together the Aṭṭhakavagga, the Pārāyana pucchās, the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta, and a few other suttas on the ascetic ideal. These became the foundation of the work. (3) This was followed by a transitional stage in which more suttas considered representative of the Buddha’s teachings were selected and bundled along with the foundational texts. (4) As more material was amassed, the Cuḷavagga and Mahāvagga were separated off, thus yielding the five chapters we have now. (5) The final phase, he suggests, “was marked by the prefixing of the Uraga, Ratana, and Pabbajjā (and Padhāna) Suttas to the three respective vaggas under the editorial hand of monastic redactors for the purpose of propagating the Dhamma.”


2. Formal Elements of the Suttanipāta  

The discourses of the Suttanipāta exhibit a variety of structures and forms. There are suttas delivered entirely in verse, as straightforward expositions of a particular topic. Others take the form of dialogues in verse. And still others present the verses embedded in a prose framework. The prose may merely establish the setting of the discourse, as is the case with the Parābhava and Maṅgala Suttas, or the prose may weave a more elaborate narrative that culminates in a conversation in verse, as we find in the Sabhiya and Sela Suttas. The table on p. 34 classifies the suttas by way of their formal structures. The classification is based largely on Jayawickrama (PBR 1977, 87–88). I have, however, made several changes. I classify the Rāhula Sutta (II,11) as didactic verse rather than as a discourse given in reply to a question, since the body of the discourse has no direct relation to the introductory question. I classify the Kalahavivāda Sutta (IV,11) as a conversation in verse, since there is a repeated exchange of questions and replies. I also reclassify the epilogue to the Pārāyana, which includes dialogue in the verse portion.

Whereas the verses of the Suttanipāta are cast in a variety of styles characteristic of different periods in the evolution of Pāli prosody, the prose passages are in the standard canonical style of the main Nikāyas. This suggests that the prose passages may have originally been an orally transmitted explanation of the background to the sutta, without a fixed and formalized wording. These sections may have been spoken extemporaneously by the reciter so that the listeners could grasp the situations that occasioned the verses. Over time, as the canonical texts assumed a more definite shape, the prose narratives were integrated into the sutta and acquired a fixed wording, cast in the style that prevails elsewhere in the Pāli Nikāyas.

This hypothesis may explain certain discrepancies we encounter between the prose and the verses. For example, the Sundarikabhāradvāja Sutta (III,4) relates a background story identical with that which begins a sutta of the same title in the Sagāthāvagga of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 7:9, at I 167– 68), yet, with a few exceptions, the verses in the two suttas are entirely different. Obviously, the Buddha did not speak to the same brahmin under the same circumstances on two different occasions, on each of which he spoke different verses. The difference in the verses can only be explained by assuming that there were groups of verses held together by a vague story of how the Buddha uttered them in a conversation with a brahmin who held brahmanical beliefs about recipients of offerings. When the two groups of verses were being collected and incorporated into suttas, they were each provided with the same background story, one that had been orally transmitted in relation to one group of verses but was now attached to both.

Occasionally we find in Sn lines in which the speaker is identified or the person being addressed is mentioned by name (or both). These lines, though included in the Pāli text, are metrically not part of the verse itself but additions; in modern editions they are therefore enclosed in parentheses. Thus verses 18–29  identify the speaker as either Dhaniya or the Buddha; 33 identifies the speaker as Māra and 34  as the Buddha; 153–63  identify which of the two yakkhas, Sātāgira or Hemavata, is the speaker; and in 169 the Buddha is said to be addressing Hemavata. And so in a number of other verses. According to the commentary, in all cases these lines were added by the compilers (saṅgītikārā).  When I have added my own identification of a speaker, I put the name in brackets above the verse.

The additional lines that identify the person being addressed are to be distinguished from those in which the auditor is addressed by name within the verse itself. The contrast might be clearly seen by comparing 1062 with 1064. Verse 1062 contains an additional line in which the Buddha is said to be addressing Dhotaka, Dhotakā ti Bhagavā. In 1064, the vocative Dhotaka is part of the verse proper and conforms to the meter: kathaṃkathiṃ Dhotaka kanci loke.


3. Interlocutors and Auditors  

The Suttanipāta depicts the Buddha teaching and conversing with people from different walks of life in the Indian society of his time: a herdsman, a farmer, brahmins, monks, wandering ascetics, and lay disciples. His ministry in the texts extends even beyond the human sphere to devas and yakkhas. In this respect the anthology resembles the Sagāthāvaggasaṃyutta, with which it shares several suttas. The Sagāthāvagga is classified according to the types of people and beings with whom the Buddha speaks. Though the inquirers and auditors in Sn are far less numerous, they fit into most of these categories.

The following list shows the types of interlocutors in Sn who meet the Buddha and the other auditors whom he addresses, along with the numbers of the discourses in which they appear. The list is based solely on information provided by the text of Sn itself or by reasonable inference from the text.  It does not take into account the background information related by the commentary, whose attributions may stem from a later narrative tradition.

Ascetic inquirer(s): III,6, III,11. Total 2.

Bhikkhu(s), unnamed: II,6, II,9, II,10, II,14, III,3, III,10, III,12, IV,15. Total 8.

Bhikkhu, specified: II,11, II,12, III,3, IV,7, IV,16. Total 5.

Brahmin(s): I,4, I,7, II,2, II,7, III,4, III,7, III,9. Total 7.

Brahmanic students: III,5, V,1–16. Total 17.  

Deities: I,6, II,1, II,4. Total 3.

King: III,1. Total 1.

Layperson, specified: I,2, I,4, I,5, II,14, IV,9. Total 5.

Māra: III,2. Total 1.

Yakkha(s): I,9, I,10, II,5. Total 3.

Unspecified: II,13, IV,8, IV,10, IV,11, IV,12, IV13. Total 6.

None: I,1, I,3, I,8, I,11, I,12, II,3, II,8, III,2, III,8, IV,1, IV,2, IV,3, IV,4, IV,5, IV,6. Total 15.

In this scheme I distinguish suttas that make no mention of an interlocutor or auditor from those in which the interlocutor or auditor is left unspecified. Those that make no mention of an auditor also do not specify a speaker; the implication is that the speaker is the Buddha himself. The Uraga Sutta (I,1) and the Metta Sutta (I,8) are examples of discourses that fall into this category; taken on their own, without reference to the commentary, they appear to be straightforward didactic poems bereft of any dialogical or expository format. The Khaggavisāṇa Sutta can also be cited as an example of this type, though the commentary explains each verse as the utterance of a particular paccekabuddha.

Suttas with an unspecified interlocutor feature another voice that poses questions, which the Buddha answers. The other speaker either asks questions at the beginning of the sutta, which the Buddha responds to without interruption in the body of the sutta, or the other speaker and the Buddha engage in an alternating question-and-response exchange. The Sammāpabbājaniya Sutta (II,14) is an example of the former type; the Kalahavivāda (IV,11) and the two Viyūha Suttas (IV,12–13) follow the question-and-response format. The commentary explains that the inquirer in all six suttas without a specified interlocutor was a duplicate buddha that the Blessed One had mentally created for the purpose of asking these questions, which no one else was capable of posing in just the way the Buddha wanted. While this explanation might seem to exceed the bounds of credibility, the background narrative to several sūtras in the Chinese 義足經  (*Arthapada), a parallel to the Aṭṭhakavagga, provides a similar explanation. This suggests that the two spring from a common narrative tradition, one that goes back to a very early period.

Among the categories of interlocutors and auditors who are identified, it might seem that “brahmin students” (māṇava ) constitutes the largest group. However, the number in this category is inflated by counting separately the sixteen students of the brahmin Bāvari, who visit the Buddha as a group and ask him the sixteen sets of questions that make up the body of the Pārāyanavagga. If we collapse these into one, the distribution per category would more faithfully reflect the actual number of separate interlocutors. Further, since these sixteen students seem to have adopted the lifestyle of celibate ascetics, they could also be reassigned to the category of “ascetic inquirer,” which would then expand to eighteen.

The categories of interlocutors and auditors in the Suttanipāta roughly correspond to those of the Sagāthāvagga, though proportions and details vary. Two discourses are spoken to deities in response to questions, and a third can be added if we include the Ratana Sutta, apparently addressed to earth and sky deities. Three suttas involve yakkhas, including two parallels to suttas from the Sagāthāvagga. Only one discourse reports a conversation with a king, the Pabbajjā Sutta, where King Bimbisāra visits the future Buddha outside the city of Rājagaha. This contrasts with the Sagāthāvagga, where an entire chapter of twenty-five suttas is devoted to the Buddha’s conversations with King Pasenadi. Māra, too, appears here only once, in the Pabbajjā Sutta, also assigned to the period prior to the enlightenment. In the Sagāthāvagga Māra, too, gets an entire chapter of twenty-five suttas. There are no discourses involving bhikkhunīs, though according to the commentary the Vijaya Sutta, on the repulsive nature of the body, was taught to two bhikkhunīs for the purpose of removing their attachment to their beauty. Among the distinct categories, brahmins claim a disproportionately large number. This may be indicative of the friction that existed between Buddhism and Brahmanism. It is telling that in five of these discourses the Buddha challenges tenets and practices of the brahmins prevalent during this period (see pp. 41–42).

When we take an overview of the Buddha’s interactions with inquirers from the different groups, one consistent feature that stands out is his success in winning them over to his teaching. Among householders, Dhaniya (I,2) and Māgandiya 38 The Suttanipāta  (IV,9), who both start off scornful of the Buddha, end up going for refuge and entering monastic life along with their wives, after which they attain arahantship.8  The two ascetic inquirers, Sabhiya and Nālaka, leave behind their old loyalties and go forth under the Buddha. The three yakkhas not only take refuge but extol the Buddha with exuberant words of praise. With the brahmins, perhaps the most difficult challenge and potentially the biggest win, the Buddha always ends victorious. Three of the brahmins—Kasibhāradvāja, Sundarikabhāradvāja, and Sela—not only take refuge but enter the homeless life, while the others become lay disciples. The brahmin student Māgha becomes a lay follower, and the sixteen brahmin inquirers of the Pārāyana become monastic disciples. In the Vāseṭṭha Sutta, Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja become lay disciples, but at the beginning of the Aggañña Sutta it is reported that they were living among the bhikkhus seeking to become bhikkhus themselves. They did so even in the face of sharp condemnation by their fellow brahmins (DN III 80–81).

These cases of conversion point to what might have been an underlying purpose behind the compilation of the Suttanipāta—perhaps not the sole or primary purpose but a major one: to show the Buddha in his role as the incomparable teacher of devas and human beings (satthā devamanussānaṃ). Even when faced with fierce resistance, he prevails. Even when confronted by hostile antagonists, he wins them over. His adversaries, despite their prestige and rhetorical skills, are no match for the Buddha. With his wisdom, patience, wit, and skillful means, he turns his opponents into ardent disciples some of whom even attain the final goal of the holy life.


4. Themes of the Suttanipāta  

The discourses of the Suttanipāta span a wide range of topics in Early Buddhism. These include personal and social ethics, devotional praise of the Triple Gem, reflections on death and loss, the path of monastic training, discussions with brahmins about class status, and the nature of the spiritual ideal. The Thematic Guide (pp. 93–94) offers a broad overview of the topics dealt with in the work. Here I will discuss the more important of these topics.

It is worth noting at the outset that the Suttanipāta does not contain systematic discussions of Buddhist doctrine in the analytical style that prevails in the prose Nikāyas. Such topics as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the three marks of existence, the five aggregates, and other doctrinal topics are seldom mentioned or totally passed over. The word anicca, for instance, does not occur at all in any of the poems, and there is only one mention of anattā (at 756 a). From such observations, some scholars have suggested that the unstructured teachings we find in Sn and kindred works represent the authentic and original teachings of the Buddha and that the doctrinal expositions of the prose Nikāyas are late developments, perhaps the product of monastic editors.

Such a suggestion, however, would have bizarre consequences. It would in effect reduce the Dhamma to a collection of poems and aphorisms with only the barest unifying structure. The plain fact is that the discourses of Sn have a different purpose than to provide a comprehensive overview of the Dhamma. As works mostly in verse, their primary purpose is to inspire, edify, and instruct rather than to provide systematic doctrinal exposition. While the exact diction and format of the prose suttas might have taken shape at the hands of monastic editors, without the light shed by these suttas it is virtually impossible to determine the purport of the verse collections and the vision that unifies them.


(1) Lay Ethics  

The Suttanipāta contains five discourses, popular in character, that have served as sources of moral guidance for lay Buddhists through the centuries. These are the Parābhava, the Vasala, the  magandha, the Mahāmaṅgala, and the Dhammika Suttas.  The first four inculcate standards of conduct that are not exclusively tied to Buddhist faith in the narrow sense but reflect the moral values accepted as normative by Indian society from a very early period. These norms constitute “Dhamma” in the broad ethical sense, as the timeless law of righteousness and moral truth that classical Indian thought sees as the bedrock of the cosmic and social order. It is this concept of Dhamma that King Aśoka, in his Rock Edicts, commended to his subjects, knowing that such norms were affirmed by the many diverse religious systems prevailing in his empire.10  The Dhammika Sutta (at 393–404 ) prescribes a code of lay ethics built on the blueprint of the five precepts and thus one that is more distinctively Buddhist in character.

The Pāli commentaries distinguish two aspects of morality, the negative and the positive, prohibitions and injunctions, rules of abstinence and guides to virtuous conduct. The negative side is called vāritta, the positive side cāritta. Two separate discourses, both spoken in conversations with devas, can be seen to serve as paradigms for these two dimensions of morality, especially as they relate to laypersons. The Parābhava Sutta (I,6) deals with vāritta, the types of conduct to be avoided. This includes bad friendship, neglect of one’s filial duties, false speech, miserliness, maligning ascetics, womanizing, drinking and gambling, and other types of dishonorable behavior. Such conduct is said to be the cause of a “downfall” in that it defiles one’s character, ruins one’s reputation, leads to loss of wealth, and brings a fall to subhuman realms of rebirth.

The positive side of morality is broadly covered in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta (II,4), which sketches the actions and personal qualities that lead to individual moral progress and harmony in the community. The actions advocated include association with the wise, support for one’s parents and other family members, earning one’s living by a respectable line of work, and giving to those in need. The discourse extols such virtues as heedfulness, reverence, humility, patience, and devotion to religious practice. The last verses apply more specifically to monastic life, advocating austerity, celibacy, insight, and realization of nibbāna.

Such codes of conduct, in both their negative and positive aspects, have a significance that extends beyond personal purification. While they sustain individuals in their endeavors to fulfill the moral and spiritual good, they contribute to the formation of a society marked by mutual care, kindness, and respect. In simple words and phrases they reveal the kinds of socially responsible conduct treated more elaborately in the Sīgalovāda Sutta (DN 31), which explains the reciprocal duties of householders in their relations with other members of their household and the broader society.

In the living Theravāda tradition three discourses in the Suttanipāta—the Mahāmaṅgala, the Ratana, and the Metta Suttas—play a special role as parittas or protective suttas. Recited daily in the monasteries and on ceremonial occasions, these discourses are regarded as a source of spiritual blessings. Each makes its distinctive contribution to this end. The Mahāmaṅgala Sutta delineates the guidelines for success in both mundane and spiritual undertakings. The Ratana Sutta invokes the protection of the deities and extols the excellent qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. And the Metta Sutta teaches the cultivation of loving-kindness, a virtue that resonates throughout the sentient cosmos and attracts the protective care of the deities.


(2) Brahmanism and the Social Order  

The Suttanipāta contains seven discourses that depict the Buddha engaging in discussions with brahmins: I,4, I,7, II,2, II,7, III,4, III,7, and III,9.11  Five of these—I,7, II,2, II,7, III,4, and III,9—challenge fundamental tenets and practices of Brahmanism. In mounting these challenges the Buddha makes use of strategies tailored to the case at hand. At times he bluntly rejects brahmanic observances that he considered contrary to the rule of righteousness. This approach is evident in the Brāhmaṇadhammika Sutta (II,7) where he condemns animal sacrifice, which the brahmins had been urging upon the rulers in order to increase their wealth. At other times, rather than simply reject a prevalent brahmanic belief, he tries to undermine it from within, for instance by redefining a concept to subtly transform its meaning. Thus in his discussion with the haughty brahmin Aggikabhāradvāja (I,7), he redefines the concept of outcast (vasala) so that it does not refer to people of inferior birth but to those of dishonorable conduct. The same method is employed in the Vāseṭṭha Sutta (III,9), where he ascribes a new meaning to the word brāhmaṇa, so that it comes to mean not one born into the brahmin caste but the truly holy person replete in clear knowledge and virtuous conduct. In the Sundarikabhāradvāja Sutta (III,4) the Buddha issues a rejoinder to brahmanic beliefs about who is worthy of offerings. In the  magandha Sutta (II,2), when the brahmin Tissa accuses 42 The Suttanipāta  the past buddha, Kassapa, of transgressing the moral norm by eating meat, Kassapa turns the tables on him by explaining “impure fare” in terms of behavior rather than diet.


(3) The Turn toward Renunciation  

In the Pabbajjā Sutta, King Bimbisāra visits the future Buddha at his hillside cave and tries to persuade him to give up his quest in order to resume his role as an elite member of the khattiya caste. The youthful mendicant replies: “Having seen the danger in sensual pleasures, having seen renunciation as security, I will go for the purpose of striving: it is here that my mind delights” (424). This pithy statement makes renunciation the pivot point of the spiritual quest. For Early Buddhism, as exemplified by the Buddha’s own career, the household life is “confinement, a basis for accumulation of dust,” while the homeless life is free and open. Thus, to bring the spiritual quest to completion, at some point a step must be taken beyond the life of righteousness within the world, a step that brings one onto the stainless path that leads to emancipation from the world. The act that marks this transition is “going forth from home into homelessness.”

The spur for taking this step is the clear discernment of the faults of mundane life and the faith that there exists a higher dimension of spiritual freedom that can only be won by turning away from the pleasures and rewards of life in the world. While the Suttanipāta does not explore the pitfalls of mundane life in a systematic way, it brings together suttas that highlight these faults from different angles. The Kāma Sutta (IV,1), for example, points out the drawback of sensual pleasures, highlighting their addictive quality and the suffering that inevitably lurks just below their surface. The Vijaya Sutta (I,11) strips away the veneer of beauty that covers the physical body, exposing to the inner eye its inherent repulsiveness, transience, and impersonal nature. The Salla Sutta (III,8) and Jarā Sutta (IV,6) offer sobering meditations on old age and death. And the Dvayatānupassanā Sutta (III,12) offers methodical contemplations on suffering and its origin, holding up nibbāna, the cessation of all conditioned things, as the imperishable truth and the highest happiness.


(4) The Monastic Training

For those who embark on the life of renunciation, a clear path of self-discipline is needed to bring the goal into view. The Suttanipāta does not offer a systematic model of the monastic training as found in such prose discourses as the Sāma..aphala Sutta (DN 2), the Cūḷahatthipadūpama Sutta (MN 27), and the Dantabhūmi Sutta (MN 125), each of which describes in sequence the steps that proceed from the initial act of “going forth” to the attainment of arahantship. But what the text lacks in systematic arrangement is compensated for by the attention several of its suttas devote to the details of monastic training.

The Dhammika Sutta (II,14), for example, explains how the monk should conduct himself on alms round, how he is to converse with disciples, and how he makes proper use of the four material requisites. The Tuvaṭaka Sutta (IV,14) speaks about the need for wakefulness and heedfulness in all activities. It rejects certain types of wrong livelihood, points out the need to remain unmoved by praise and blame, describes the kind of speech a bhikkhu should avoid, and prescribes patience and equanimity in the face of difficulties. The Sāriputta Sutta (IV,16) instructs a bhikkhu to be free of fear; to patiently endure oppressive conditions such as illness, hunger, cold, and heat; to ward off anger and arrogance; and to vanquish discontent. It describes the deportment the monk should assume when wandering for alms, the kind of speech he should utter, and the need to resist the lure of enticing sense objects. Perhaps the only discourse in Sn that provides a structured picture of the training is the short Rāhula Sutta (II,11). Here, speaking to his son, the Buddha traces the main steps of the training, from the initial act of entering the homeless life through to the attainment of perfect peace.

(5) The Spiritual Ideal  

The Suttanipāta uses several terms to describe the person who has realized the final goal. In the prose Nikāyas this type of person is the arahant, but in Sn the word “arahant” is mostly restricted to stock prose passages on the Buddha’s epithets  and the announcement that a particular monk became an arahant. The only place in the verses where the word is used as an acclamation is at 644c, where the true brahmin, as the Buddha defines this term, is said to be “the arahant with influxes destroyed” (khīṇāsavaṃ arahantaṃ). Instead of arahant, Sn uses three other words to designate the ideal figure: bhikkhu, brāhmaṇa, and muni.



Since the best qualified practitioner of the Buddhist path, according to Sn, is the bhikkhu, this word is occasionally extended beyond its normal use, as designating an ordained monk, and employed to represent one who has realized the goal. In the Uraga Sutta (I,1) the bhikkhu is depicted as one who has removed anger, cut off lust and craving, swept away conceit, uprooted the unwholesome roots, and abolished the latent tendencies—all criteria of an arahant. In the Sammāparibbājaniya Sutta (II,13), when asked how “a bhikkhu might properly wander in the world,” the Buddha describes the bhikkhu in terms normally applicable to an arahant. He is one utterly released from things that fetter, who has abandoned greed and existence, who no longer harbors latent tendencies, who has destroyed the influxes, and has eliminated conceit. These expressions, as used here, again establish a functional equivalence between bhikkhu and arahant.



The Vāseṭṭha Sutta contains a long passage (620–47), already referred to, in which the Buddha attempts to reconceptualize the word brāhmaṇa so that it no longer designates one born into a brahmin clan but rather one who embodies ultimate holiness. As described in these verses, the brahmin is one who has cut off all fetters, bears his final body, dropped lust and hatred, and reached the supreme goal. The Aṭṭhakavagga also employs the word brāhmaṇa in this way. Thus a brahmin is one who does not grasp any view as supreme (795 ), who “does not posit even a subtle notion about what is seen, heard, or sensed,” who does not cling to any view (802). A brahmin “does not indulge in mental constructs,” he is “not a pursuer of views,” he “maintains equanimity while others grasp” (911). He has relinquished all and is called peaceful (946).



The word used most often in the Suttanipāta to represent the liberated sage is muni. While the word usually denotes an arahant, as a nontechnical term it has a more numinous ambiance of meaning than arahant, suggesting an ineffable depth of realization. Since no English rendering can quite capture the mystical feel of the word, I have left muni untranslated, and by the same token I render moneyya and mona  as “munihood” rather than translate them as sagehood or sagacity.

Jayawickrama (PBR 1977, 32) draws a distinction between the bhikkhu and the muni, maintaining that “in addition to possession of all the characteristics of the bhikkhu, there appears something nobler and more positive about [the muni] than the bhikkhu.” This distinction seems to me partly misleading. Both the fully dedicated practitioner and the accomplished sage, as depicted in Sn, are bhikkhus. For the sake of convenience, the word “bhikkhu” may be taken to primarily denote the disciple in training, the word “muni” one who has reached the goal. But this usage is not fixed and inflexible, nor does it imply that the accomplished muni is not a bhikkhu. The two words are used with a certain fluidity and ambiguity that varies according to the context. In places “bhikkhu” describes the liberated sage; in other places “muni” designates one still in training. The Nālaka Sutta describes the practice for attaining the state of a muni in terms appropriate to the most austere training of a bhikkhu. Verse 221 slides seamlessly from “bhikkhu” to “muni” as if they were synonymous.

The Mahāniddesa, the canonical commentary to the Aṭṭhakavagga, says that there are six kinds of munis (p. 1037): householder munis, homeless munis, trainees, arahants, paccekabuddhas, and the Buddha, whom it calls “the muni among munis.” I do not know of any references to householder munis in Sn. When the text uses the word, it usually refers either to monks in training, arahants, or the Buddha.

The Nālaka Sutta is the best example of a text that uses the word “muni” to describe a monk in training. The theme of the discourse is the practice to attain moneyya, the state of a muni, yet the sutta also uses moneyya to describe the practice for attaining munihood. Accordingly the word “muni” here signifies one who, though still in training, has earnestly taken up this practice. With this sense in view, the discourse says “women try to seduce a muni,” who must be on guard against temptation (703 cd). The muni should resort to the woods and sit at the foot of a tree (708d). The muni should behave properly when going on alms round in the village (711). The muni is one who maintains self-control and does not speak much (723ab). Since such injunctions, often expressed with optative verbs, would be unnecessary in relation to the arahant, it is clear they are identifying the muni with one still walking the ascetic path, a bhikkhu who has adopted an austere life of solitary wandering and strict meditation for the purpose of winning the final goal.

The following is a sampling of lines from the Muni Sutta that describe the arahant-muni:

207c: one without an abode and without intimacy (see too 844 b)

208c: a solitary wanderer

209cd: a seer of the final end of birth, who cannot be designated

210b: one without greed

212c: one freed from ties, not barren, without influxes

214c: one devoid of lust, with well-concentrated faculties

219ab: a seer of the supreme goal, who has crossed the flood and ocean


The Aṭṭhakavagga especially extols the muni for his aloofness from conflict. The muni “does not become involved in an arisen dispute” (780c); the muni “would not engage in contentious talk with people” (844d); “liberated by knowledge, the muni does not enter disputes” (877bc). Since he does not take sides in disputes, the muni “is peaceful among the restless, equanimous, without grasping while others grasp” (912cd).

Munis dwell detached not only from disputes but from all phenomena. They are untainted by possessions (779b), untainted by sensual pleasures and the world (845 f). They are not dependent on anything, for they take nothing as pleasant or unpleasant (811b). Being free from the “swellings” of conceit, they do not think of themselves as superior, equal, or inferior to others (855). Just as the lotus is untainted by water and mud, so too “the muni does not cling to anything among the seen, heard, or sensed” (812).

“Muni” is also used as an epithet of the Buddha. He is directly addressed as muni at 508c, 700c, 838b, 1058b, 1081e, and 1085b. At 225b he is extolled as Sakyamuni, one of the rare appearances of this term in the Pāli Canon. At 83 a and 359 a he is called “the muni of abundant wisdom” (muniṃ pahūtapannaṃ). At 484c and 540c he is called “the muni possessed of munihood” (muniṃ moneyyasampannaṃ). At 541c he is said to be “the muni, the fully enlightened one” (munī’si sambuddho). At 545b (= 571b) he is called “the muni, the conqueror of Māra” (mārābhibhū muni). Verse 211, which from other sources we know refers to the Buddha, describes him as a muni who “has overcome all, all-knowing, very wise, untainted among all things, and liberated in the destruction of craving.”


(6) The Repudiation of Views  

The above description of the muni leads into another theme prominent in the Aṭṭhakavagga, namely, the rejection of adherence to views. Throughout this chapter, the Buddha is shown maintaining that views are a spiritual blind alley. One who adopts a view grasps it tightly, proclaims it as supreme, and thereby becomes embroiled in conflict with those who hold contrary views. When views are grasped, sincere inquiry gives way to dogmatism as rival thinkers reject the impartial search for truth in favor of frenzied attempts to bolster their own standpoint. Like a hunter caught in his own snare, the theorists become trapped in systems of their own devising.

The adherence to views, according to Sn, is bound up with conceit. Inflated esteem for one’s opinions leads to an inflated opinion of oneself, so that the theorist becomes “intoxicated with conceit, thinking himself perfect” (889). In contrast to the disputatious theorist, the sage—the muni or real brahmin— does not stick to any views and thereby experiences peace and inner freedom. Having seen through the commonplace opinions, amid those who grasp the muni abides in equanimity (911). Having seen into views, not grasping any of them, the sage discovers peace within (838).

These admonitions against the adoption of views have to be interpreted cautiously. They should not be taken in isolation from other teachings of the Buddha and read as an injunction to jettison right view and the aspiration for consummate knowledge. Rather, they are best understood in the light of the prose passages of the main Nikāyas that expose the dangers in views and teach the proper attitude to adopt toward right view. The Mahāniddesa repeatedly glosses the word “views” in the Aṭṭhakavagga as the sixty-two views, the speculative views about the self and the world laid out in the Brahmajāla Sutta, which describes all such views as “the feelings of ascetics and brahmins who do not know or see, the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.” The explanation of the Mahāniddesa accords with a coherent picture of the Buddha’s teachings, unlike the position that all views should be discarded without qualification, which would lead to a dead end.

Right view, as a constituent of the path, is essential for all the other path factors to reach maturity. It may be just a plank in the raft for crossing over from “the near shore” to “the far shore,” but without that plank the raft would sink (see MN I 134–35). Reading the Aṭṭhakavagga in the light of the prose discourses, its message would be: (1) discard wrong views, morally subversive views and speculative assertions about the self and the world, which are rooted in false assumptions; (2) do not engage in disputes over views, which merely generate dogmatism, conceit, self-righteousness, and indignation; and (3) adopt right view and use it correctly, not as an object to be cherished, not as a subject for debates, but as an instrument of self-cultivation. The liberated one, the arahant or muni, no longer requires right view, but even after liberation the arahant possesses “the right view of one beyond training” (asekhā sammādiṭṭhi), the clear experiential knowledge of the truths realized along the path.  

The interpretation I offer here accords well with Steven Collins’s thesis that the attitude toward views adopted in Early Buddhism is stretched out on “a continuum, along which all conceptual standpoints and cognitive acts are graded according to the degree to which they are held or performed with attachment.”15  At the lowest point on this continuum there is the attitude of the ignorant worldling, who adopts views out of sheer attachment. In the middle, there is the attitude of the disciple, who adopts right view as a guide to wholesome action and as an integral part of a training aimed at severing attachments and realizing the ultimate state of liberation. And at the highest point—actually beyond the continuum—there is the unconditioned freedom from views of the muni, who has overcome all attachment and thereby attained liberation, including liberation from the bondage of views. To use this third attitude, the one that transcends the continuum, to repudiate those that operate along the middle and upper reaches of the continuum is to discard the means that make that attitude possible.


(7) The Ultimate Goal  

For the Suttanipāta, as for all the texts of Early Buddhism, the ultimate goal of spiritual training is said to be nibbāna. Exactly how the discourses of Sn understand this goal has been a matter of debate. The Dvayatānupassanā Sutta seems to take an ontological perspective on nibbāna. The sutta says that whatever is transient is of a false nature, but nibbāna, not being transient, is of a non-false nature. The noble ones realize this truth, and by doing so they are “fully quenched” (parinibbutā), with all defilements extinguished (757–58).

Some interpreters, however, see a tension between such statements and the position of the Aṭṭhakavagga. The Aṭṭhakavagga, it is said, does not describe the goal in terms suggestive of transcendent liberation but instead emphasizes the tranquility the illumined sage wins in this very life through freedom from attachment. Though the Aṭṭhakavagga is certainly shy about treading in metaphysical waters, it might still be rash to conclude from this that the text actually conceives the final goal of Buddhist spiritual endeavor as nothing other than the tranquility that comes from non-attachment. The core suttas of the chapter, those on freedom from views, hardly provide a comprehensive picture of the Buddha’s teachings, and thus their particular slant on the ultimate goal should not be regarded as categorical and complete.

While it is hard to understand why references to nibbāna as a state of transcendent liberation are not found in the Aṭṭhakavagga, it would strain credulity to infer from this that the chapter takes the ultimate aim of the Dhamma to be simply a state of inner peace not so very different from the ataraxia—the 50 The Suttanipāta  calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet—sought by the Pyrrhonic skeptics of ancient Greece. It is also hard to see how the rigorous self-discipline laid down for the bhikkhu in the last three suttas of this chapter could culminate merely in a state of cognitive agnosticism, even if that includes a tranquil abiding in the here and now. Surely there must lie behind these suttas a background of understanding that the compilers and reciters shared but did not think necessary to articulate.

Though not very much is said about it, references to nibbāna as the goal of endeavor are not entirely absent from the Aṭṭhakavagga. The inquirer at 915  asks the Buddha how a bhikkhu attains nibbāna, which is here qualified as “seclusion and the state of peace” (vivekaṃ santipadaṃ). At 940 cd the Buddha instructs the bhikkhu to “pierce through sensual pleasures” and “train for one’s own nibbāna” (sikkhe nibbānam attano), and 942 cd states that “one whose mind is set on nibbāna should not persist in arrogance.” Admittedly, these statements in the text come from suttas that seem to be less archaic than those on transcending views, but there is no reason to consider the two perspectives as antithetical and mutually exclusive.

While the Aṭṭhakavagga may have its reasons for remaining taciturn about the goal, other suttas in the collection uphold the established view of nibbāna as a state of transcendent liberation. Chief among these is the Pārāyana, whose very title, “The Way to the Beyond,” leaves no doubt about its point of view. As with the prose suttas, the Pārāyana describes nibbāna as the negation of the factors responsible for bondage. It says that nibbāna is to be won by the abandoning of craving (1109 cd). “The state of nibbāna, the imperishable” is the dispelling of desire and lust for all pleasant objects of cognition (1086). When Kappa asks the Buddha to point out to him “an island” in the midst of the flood of old age and death, the Buddha declares that the island is nibbāna, “the extinction of old age and death” (1092–94 ). While such expressions are suggestive rather than explicit, they point in the direction of a world-transcending liberation gained by ending the cycle of repeated birth and death.

Apart from actual occurrence of the word “nibbāna” in Sn, the text also uses metaphorical terms to convey some idea of the goal. This is fitting for a work mainly in verse, which aims at inspiration and edification more than at doctrinal explication. Perhaps the most striking metaphor used for the goal is that of “going beyond,” an image that draws its meaning from the crossing of a river, a common experience in monsoon-prone India. The following is a list of expressions in Sn that invoke the idea of going beyond, expressed in Pāli as pāragata, pāragā, and pāragū:

gone beyond all phenomena: 167c, 699d, 992b, 1105c, 1112c (said solely of the Buddha)

gone beyond birth and death: 32c (said of the Buddha)

you will go beyond the realm of death: 1146de (said of Piṅgiya)

you have gone beyond suffering: 539a (said of the Buddha)

Several verses simply speak of one “gone beyond” (pāragata) without specifying an object overcome. Thus at 210d, the muni is described as one who “does not endeavor, for he has gone beyond.” At 359 b, the Buddha is addressed as a muni “who has crossed over, gone beyond, attained nibbāna.” And at 638c, the Buddha praises the arahant, the true brahmin, as “a meditator who has crossed over, gone beyond . . . attained nibbāna through no clinging.”

Another metaphor for the attainment of nibbāna is “crossing over,” an expression that likewise draws upon the river imagery. The exact expressions used in the text ring the inflections of the verb tarati, “to cross,” and its past participle, tiṇṇa. Variations on this expression with their sources are as follows:

crossed over attachment to the world: 333c, 857d, 1053 d–1054d, 1066d–1067d, 1085d–1087d

crossed beyond: 1059d

crossed over birth, old age, death: 355c, 358cd, 1045e–1046e, 1047d-1048d, 1052c, 1060d, 1079f–1080 f–1081g, 1119d

crossed over doubt or perplexity: 17b, 86a, 514b, 540b, 1088c–1089c

crossed the flood: 21b, 173ab–174d, 179d, 183ab–184ab, 219b, 273cd, 471a, 495b, 771c, 779a, 823c, 1052c, 1059c, 1064d, 1069abd, 1070b, 1081e, 1082g–1083g, 1101b, 1145d

crossed over greed and miserliness: 941cd

crossed over sensual pleasures: 948a

cross the tie: 791b

“crossed over” without a specific object: 36b, 515c, 545d (= 571d), 638c

Still another expression relevant to understanding the goal posited in Sn is bhavābhava, which I render as “various states of existence.” The form itibhavābhavataṃ occurs at 6b. The commentaries sometimes interpret this compound as combining a positive and a negative, that is, as bhava and abhava, representing the dichotomy of gain and loss, success and failure, merit and demerit; they also see it as establishing a contrast between eternal existence and annihilation. Usually, however, they explain it as meaning “existence upon existence, various states of existence,” with the long middle vowel indicating mere repetition. It thus signifies the round of repeated becoming, saṃsāra. Since the text pinpoints craving for bhavābhava as a cause of suffering, it instructs the disciple to overcome craving for bhavābhava and praises the one who has removed such craving. This suggests that the goal is not merely a state of tranquility to be realized within this life but a state of world-transcendence: release from the beginningless series of existences to which ordinary people are bound by their craving and delusions. In Sn we find the expression bhavābhava in the following verses:

6b: a bhikkhu has transcended such and such states of existence

496b: those worthy of offerings have no craving for any state of existence here or beyond

776d: inferior people are not devoid of craving for various states of existence

786b: one who is cleansed constructs no view about states of existence

801ab: one has no wish for various states of existence here or beyond

877d: the wise one does not come upon various states of existence

901d: those who are dependent on various practices are not rid of craving for various states of existence

1060d: the wise man has loosened this tie to various states of existence 1068 d: one should not create craving for various states of existence