Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa

Revised April 10, 2017; August 28, 2018; January 7, 2019; December 8, 2020; revised April 15, 2021, with the new title. revised March 1, 2022

Dhamma Concepts Explained at Three 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.Tesaṃ hētuṃ tathāgato āha;
    Tesañca yo nirōdhō, Evaṃvādī mahāsamaṇō
    is the uddēsa version. 
  • In English, the uddēsa version is:
    “Of those phenomena which arise from causes. Those causes have been taught by the Tathāgata (Buddha),
    And their cessation too – thus proclaims the Great Ascetic.”
  • The fundamental characteristics of “this world” stated that everything arises due to causes. But that explanation is not enough to understand the embedded deep concepts. Assaji (who later became Ven. Sariputta) attained the Sotapanna stage by hearing that uddēsa version.

2. However, that word-for-word translation is NOT enough to convey the teachings of the Buddha to an average person.

  • The next level of explanation is theniddesa” version. A teacher must explain that “dhammā” here refers to the kammic energies created by the three root causes (hetu): lobha, dosa, and moha. Cessation of avijjā (ignorance of the Four Nobel Truths) leads to eliminating those root causes and thus to Nibbāna.
  • Clarification of each term in Paṭicca Samuppāda (avijjā, saṅkhāra, viññāna, nāmarupa,” leading to “upādāna, bhava, jāti, and suffering), requires long explanations with examples. That is the paṭiniddesa explanation.

3. Some sections of the Tipiṭaka have explicit uddēsa and niddesa versions. However, that is mainly in the Original commentaries that explain certain concepts in SOME detail.

Patiniddēsa (Detailed Explanation) in Commentaries and Discourses

4. 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 fundamental concepts. 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)

5. 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, most people today 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 neyya persons with dvihetuka patisandhi in previous lives. They had strived to gain more wisdom and now benefitting from this life. Thus there is no point worrying about whether one is a tihetuka or dvihetuka.
Erroneous Commentaries Are Harmful

6. 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.
Direct Translation of the Niddesa Version can be Dangerous!

7. Word-for-word translation of some suttas (in the niddesa form) can lead to utter confusion.

  • I have explained that problem in “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  • As pointed out there, the translation of “avijjā nirodhā.. viññāṇa nirodho” as “when ignorance ceases,. .  consciousness ceases is insane.  Did the Buddha lose consciousness upon attaining Enlightenment? Would an Arahant lose consciousness upon attaining Arahanthood? That is the danger of direct word-for-word translations! That is just one example.
  • This problem is so serious that I have started new series of posts to explain in detail this problem: “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
Many Suttā Are in Uddēsa or Niddēsa Versions

8. 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 impossible to condense all that information in a sutta for mostly oral transmission that was available at the time. Each sutta is condensed (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.
Special Role of Jāti Sōtapannas With Patisambhidā Ñāna

9. From time to time, jāti Sōtapannas are born. They had attained the Sōtapanna stage in a previous life, possibly when Buddha was alive. They likely have had births in the deva loka for long times and are reborn humans now. Some have the unique capability to interpret the keywords/phrases in the suttā. This specialized knowledge is “Patisambhidā Ñāna.

  • At least once before, a Thero brought out the lost 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

10. The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma would go through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting deep suttā would not be present. Thus suttā were composed so that only the “conventional” meaning was apparent. That was necessary 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 sorted into various categories (Nikāyās). That is my theory, and I believe it will be proven accurate in the future.
Deeper Meanings May Stay Hidden for Long Times

11.  There are times when jāti Sōtapannas with the Patisambhidā Ñāna are not born for a long time. 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 even before the time of the Buddha. He learned those methods from such yogis before attaining Buddhahood.

12. The following are the key points from the above discussion that I wish to emphasize:

  • The suttās convey “conventional” meanings while keeping the “deep meanings” embedded in them.
  • Those “deep meanings” bring out the uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma.
  • Word-for-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

13. It is an offense (pārājika) 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 (to provide the idea): “Monks, these two people slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who briefly explains a deep discourse when it needs a detailed explanation.  The other explains a discourse in detail whose meaning is already clear. 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

14. The Buddha advised resolving any issues by consulting the three Pitaka: Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.

  • For example, a concept in the Sutta Piṭaka, for instance, must be consistent with other places in the Sutta Piṭaka. It must also be compatible 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 memorize the Pāli suttā. (Memorization is needed only for transmission purposes).
Good Resource for Pali Tipiṭaka

15. A helpful 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 valuable resource; consider donating if you find it useful.
  • However, those translations are frequently incorrect for critical Pāli words, as evident on many websites.
  • Furthermore, the practice of word-for-word translations is there too. The following sutta is just one example of such obvious contradictions mentioned in #4 above, “Paṭhamabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.1)“ 
  • But at least one can see the correct Pāli version.

Next, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?

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