Reply To: Suññataloka Sutta – How Close is the English Translation?


Yes. These word-by-word translations can lead to a lot of confusion.
– Most translators use a “mechanical way” to translate suttas. They have certain Pali words associated with certain English words, and just “plug in” the English word for the Pali word!
– Wherever the word “atta” comes, they translate that as “self.”

1. “Atta/anatta” can have many meanings depending on the context. There are two main groups.
– Some meanings of “anatta” are associated with “having no essence.”
– The other means “not worth to be taken as mine.” The deeper meaning there is nothing in this world (including one’s body) is associated with an entity like a “soul.” Those below the Sotapanna Anugami stage (i.e., without comprehension of anicca, dukkha, anatta OR Paticca Samuppada) should go with the first version. Before one comprehends Paticca Samuppada, it is not advisable to think too much about its deeper meaning.

2. “suñño” or “suñña” literally means “empty.”
– However, “‘suñño loko” does not means “the world is empty.” Of course, the world is NOT empty.
– The meaning of that verse is “the world is empty of anything substantial or worthwhile.”
– We attach to things in this world with the view and perception that those things are of value. Then we may even do immoral deeds in pursuing them.
– The first step in Paticca Samuppada is “avijja paccaya (abhi)sankhara.” We think, speak, and do things with that ignorance (avijja). All those mano, vaci, and kaya sankhara lead to “bhava paccaya jati” and “jati paccaya jara, marana, etc.” or the “whole mass of suffering.”
– Thus, the sutta explains that it is unwise to pursue things without value and get into trouble!

3. If we take the verse, “Cakkhu kho, ānanda, suññaṁ attenaattaniyena” it needs to be understood in the above context.
– “attena” in the above implies “cakkhu (not just the physical eyes) is not of true essence/value” especially when used in accumulating akusala kamma. attaniyena means it is also not wise to “take it as mine.” But this sutta is not suitable for those starting because it may lead to confusion (“What do you mean the eyes are not mine??” is a reasonable response! The sutta does not say that; but this requires a lengthy explanation. Basically, I need to start teaching Paticca Samuppada here!)
– Thus, explaining the sutta reasonably will take at least an hour-long discourse.
– The key point is that before trying to understand these suttas, it is necessary to understand Paticca Samuppada (PS.)
– Thus, instead of reading badly translated suttas, it is better to spend time trying to understand PS. Once one understands PS it will be much easier to understand many suttas.
– See the discussion at, “What if Nibbana Is not the Final Achievement?

4. A good starting point could be “Paṭicca Samuppāda in Plain English.”