Revised April 10, 2017; August 28, 2018; January 7, 2019; December 8, 2020; revised April 15, 2021, with the new title.
Dhamma Concepts Explained at 3 Levels
1. Explanation of dhamma concepts in the Tipiṭaka comes under three categories: “uddēsa, niddēsa, paṭiniddēsa.” A fundamental concept is first stated (“uddēsa” or “utterance”). “Niddēsa” is a “brief explanation.” Finally, “paṭiniddēsa” explains in detail with examples to clarify complex or “knotty” points.
- For example, “yē dhammā hetuppabbavā..” is uddēsa. The fundamental characteristics of “this world” just stated that everything in this world arises due to causes.
- In the uddēsa version, Paṭicca Samuppāda is “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna,.……..” (all 11 steps): These are concise statements.
- In contrast, discourse (desana) is the paṭiniddēsa version of explanation: a detailed explanation with examples.
- Most people refer to the Sutta Piṭaka to learn dhamma concepts. But there are two other Pitaka, and especially the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, that need to be consulted.
Many Suttā Are in Uddēsa or Niddēsa Versions
2. Most suttā are in uddēsa or niddēsa versions (Digha Nikāya is an exception, even though some verses do have deeper meanings). They require detailed explanations. Translating word-by-word is not appropriate in many instances.
- For example, “anicca, dukkha, anatta” are only in the niddēsa version in Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta and Anatta Lakkhana Sutta.
- However, each sutta took many hours to deliver. It was not possible to condense all that information in a sutta for mostly oral transmission that was available at the time. Each sutta is in a condensed form (most likely by the Buddha himself; see below).
- Thus the material in each sutta as written in the Tipiṭaka is in CONDENSED form in most cases. They are in the “uddesa/niddēsa” versions. They are in a format suitable for oral transmission.
Patiniddēsa (Detailed Explanation) in Commentaries
3. During the Buddha’s time, other bhikkhus explained each sutta in detail to audiences when they delivered discourses. That is the “paṭiniddēsa” version. Especially after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, many Arahants started writing “Attakathā” or commentaries on essential suttā. But a few were composed during the time of the Buddha. Of course, these were also composed in a way suitable for oral transmission, and thus, do not have lengthy explanations.
- Three original early commentaries remain preserved in the Tipiṭaka: Patisambidhā Magga Prakarana, Nettipparakana, and Petakōpadesa. Of these, the Patisambidhā Magga Prakarana consists of the analyses by Ven. Sariputta, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, and the Nettipparakana by Ven. Maha Kaccāyana. Thus we are lucky to have these three original commentaries still with us.
- These three books contain “niddesa/paṭiniddēsa” versions of many essential suttā, which describe the keywords/phrases in a given sutta. All other such excellent commentaries are lost; see “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background.”
Most People Today Need Patiniddēsa (Detailed Explanation)
4. During the time of the Buddha, some could comprehend just the uddēsa version. For example, Upatissa and Kolita (who became Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggalana later) became Sōtapannas upon hearing the verse, “yē Dhamma hetupabbhavā..…”. They had done much in their past lives and needed “just a little push” to understand. They are called ugghaṭitañña or “persons with high wisdom.”
- And many could understand the niddēsa version. Those were vipañcitañña and needed a bit more explanation to grasp the concepts. Ugghaṭitaññū Sutta (AN 4.133) discusses the four categories of persons — ugghaṭitañña, vipañcitañña, neyya, and padaparama.
- However, these days, most people are in the lower category of neyya and padaparama. They need detailed explanations (i.e., paṭiniddēsa) to grasp a concept. They also belong to two groups. Those with tihetuka patisandhi (optimum births) can attain magga phala in this life. But those with dvihetuka patisandhi (inferior births) cannot achieve magga phala, but they can accrue merits to attain magga phala in future lives. Of course, there is no way for anyone to figure out (except for a Buddha) whether one has a tihetuka or dvihetuka patisandhi.
- It is essential to realize that those who are either ugghaṭitañña or vipañcitañña had been neyyas with dvihetuka patisandhi in previous lives. They had strived to gain more wisdom and now are benefitting in this life. Thus there is no point worrying about whether one a tihetuka or dvihetuka.
Erroneous Commentaries Are Harmful
5. There are many erroneous commentaries today. The best example is the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. It was written around 400 CE (where CE is “Current Era” or AD) when the “pure Dhamma” was already lost, and the conventional meanings were commonplace, just as now.
- The “pure Dhamma” has been lost for an extended period from about 200 CE up to now. See “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline.” But the original suttā survived because people at least used and preserved them even if they used the “conventional” or “mundane” (“padaparama” in Pāli) meanings.
- Thus we can see why people have been translating suttā “word for word” and just getting the conventional meanings. Profound verses in suttā need detailed explanations.
Special Role of Jāti Sōtapannas With Patisambhidā Ñāna
6. From time to time, jāti Sōtapannas are born. They had attained the Sōtapanna stage in a previous life, possibly during the time Buddha was alive. They likely have had births in the deva loka for long times and are reborn humans now. Some of them have the unique capability to interpret the keywords/phrases in the suttā. This specialized knowledge is “Patisambhidā Ñāna.”
- At least one time previously, a Thero brought out the real meanings with the Patisambhidā Ñāna. But this is not the time to discuss that.
- Waharaka Thero brought out these deeper meanings in recent years. See, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro.”
Tipiṭaka Was Compiled for Faithful Oral Transmission
7. The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma would be going through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting deep suttā will not be present. Thus suttā were composed in a way that only the “conventional” meaning is apparent. That was a necessary step to preserve the suttā, especially before writing became commonplace.
- It is important to remember that Ven. Ananda had memorized all the suttā that he recited at the First Buddhist Council, just three months after Buddha’s Parinibbāna.
- Ven. Ananda was Buddha’s personal assistant over the last few decades of the Buddha’s life. I believe that the Buddha condensed each sutta and Ven. Ananda memorized each of them. The Buddha synthesized each sutta in a “double meaning” way for them to survive the “dark periods.”
- Then, at the first Buddhist Council, all the suttā were recited and were sorted into various categories (Nikāyās). That is my theory, and I believe that it will be proven to be accurate in the future.
Deeper Meanings May Stay Hidden for Long Times
8. There are times when jāti Sōtapannas with the Patisambhidā Ñāna are not born for long times. During such times, people use conventional interpretations. And that served the purpose of keeping the suttā intact, especially before written texts became common.
- A perfect example is the Ānāpānasati Sutta (some of which are also part of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). As we discussed in “What is Anapana?” the conventional meaning is to tie up “āna” with breath inhaling and “āpāna” with breath exhaling.
- That was consistent with the breath meditation that has been there in the world at any time. Many yogis practiced it at the time of the Buddha. He learned those methods from such yogis before attaining the Buddhahood.
9. The following are the key points from the above discussion that I wish to emphasize:
- The suttā seem to be designed to convey “conventional” meanings while keeping the “deep meanings” embedded in them.
- It is those “deep meanings” that bring out the uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma.
- Word-to-word translation of suttā does not convey the message of the Buddha. Examples are critical Pāli words like anicca and anatta.
- The surviving three original commentaries in the Tipiṭaka can verify the deep meanings of the keywords/phrases.
Misinterpretation of Dhamma Concepts Is an Offense
10. It is an offense to misinterpret suttā (and dhamma concepts in general.) That is in several suttā in the Bālavagga of Aṅguttara Nikāya 2.
- For example, AN 2.25 is a short sutta that says: “Dveme, bhikkhave, tathāgataṃ nābbhācikkhanti. Katame dve? Yo ca neyyatthaṃ suttantaṃ neyyattho suttantoti dīpeti, yo ca nītatthaṃ suttantaṃ nītattho suttantoti dīpeti. Ime kho, bhikkhave, dve tathāgataṃ nābbhācikkhantī” ti.
- Translation: “Monks, these two people slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be explained in detail as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. The other explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs clarification. These are two who slander the Tathāgata.”
- Two perfect examples of the first type of slander say that the words anicca and anatta are fully explained by “impermanence” and “no-self.” Those two concepts require detailed explanations.
Checking for Inter-Consistency Among the Three Pitakas Is the Key
11. The Buddha advised to resolve any issues by consulting the three Pitaka: Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.
- For example, a concept in the Sutta Piṭaka, for example, must be consistent with other places in the Sutta Piṭaka. It must also be consistent with explanations in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the Vinaya Piṭaka.
- But in the end, I will show how the lines in the sutta tally with this description. As the Buddha emphasized, what matters is to get the IDEA across and NOT to memorize the Pāli suttā. (Memorization is needed only for transmission purposes).
Good Resource for Pali Tipiṭaka
12. A useful resource for finding Pāli Tipiṭaka (and translations in several languages) is suttacentral.net.
- Once you open a sutta, click on the left-most drop-down to choose one of several languages. That is a useful resource; consider donating if you find it useful. Note: I am not associated with them in any way.
- Of source, the translations are incorrect frequently for critical Pāli words, as is the case at many sites. But at least one can see the correct Pāli version.