Sutta – Introduction

Revised April 10, 2017; August 28, 2018; January 7, 2019

1. Buddha dhamma in the Tipiṭaka is in three categories: “uddēsa, niddēsa, patiniddēsa.” A fundamental concept is first stated (“uddēsa” or “utterance”). “Niddēsa” is a “brief explanation”. Finally, “patiniddēsa” is explaining in detail with examples to clarify complex or “knotty”  points.

  • For example, “yē dhammā hetuppabbavā..” is uddēsa. There, the fundamental characteristics of “this world” just stated, that everything in this world arises due to causes.
  • In the niddēsa version, Paṭicca Samuppāda is “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna,.……..” (all 11 steps): These are concise statements.
  • In contrast, discourse (desana) is the patiniddēsa version of explanation: a detailed explanation with examples.

2. Most suttā are in uddēsa or niddēsa version (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. It is in the “niddēsa” version. They are in verse format for oral transmission.

3. During the time of the Buddha, other bhikkhus then described in detail each sutta to audiences when they delivered discourses. That is the “patiniddēsa” version. Especially after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, many Arahants started writing “Attakathā” or commentaries on essential suttā. But a few were written during the time of the Buddha.

  • Three of the original books with such 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 the “patiniddēsa” versions of many of the essential suttā, which describe in detail 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.”

4. In this section, I will be discussing the suttā in the patiniddēsa mode, providing explanations of verses in the Tipiṭaka with deeper meanings.

  • 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. They need detailed explanations (i.e., patiniddēsa)  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.

5. By the way, many erroneous commentaries are there today, and 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.

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 human now. Some of them have the unique capability to interpret the keywords/phrases in the suttā. This specialized knowledge is “Patisambhidā Ñāna.

  • There has been at least one time previously that the real meanings were brought out by a Thero with the Patisambhidā Ñāna. But this is not the time to discuss that.
  • However, we have a few Theros at this time who have this ability. I will leave it up to others to decide for themselves whether this is true or not. I have experienced the benefits of these clarifications, and I want to make them available for anyone who could benefit.

7. Here is my personal belief about what happened. The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma would be going through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting the suttā will not be present. Thus the 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 which he then recited at the First Buddhist Council, just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
  • 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.

8.  There are times when bhikkhus 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 “ana” with breath inhaling and “pana” 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.
  • Another phrase is “majjhimā patipada” in the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta. It is easy to interpret it as “middle path” since the sutta describes the two extremes of kāmasukallikānu yōga and the attakilamatānu yōga. It is true that “majjhima” means middle, and it makes sense. However, there is a deeper meaning too.
  • Majjhi” is getting intoxicated (with not only alcohol/drugs but also with power, beauty, wealth, etc.), and “” is to remove that tendency. Thus “majjhimā patipadā” is to stay away from the extremes and to maintain a purified mind.

9. Regardless of the validity of my claims about the Buddha purposely synthesizing the suttā with “double meanings,” 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 the 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.

10. It is an offense to misinterpret suttā. 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? He who explains a discourse whose meaning that needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needing clarification. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”

11. I will first discuss the foundation of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta in a “bottom-up” approach, starting with the goal of the sutta in mind and developing the related concepts. These ideas are in other posts, so it will be a matter of tying them up together.

  • That would be a refreshing approach than to start with the Pāli version of the sutta and try to discuss each line.
  • 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).

12. If one recites suttā with the understanding, it can be beneficial. It also needs to be recited in an appropriate tune without too much “dragging.” (there are some recordings in the Sutta Chanting section).

April 18, 2017:

A useful resource for finding Pāli suttā is

  • 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.

Next, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?” …………

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