Sutta – Introduction

Revised on April ,2017; August 28, 2018

1. Buddha dhamma is structured to be presented via a method called, “uddesa, niddesa, patiniddesa”. A fundamental concept is first stated (“uddesa” or “utterance”); then it is described in a summarized way (“niddesa” or “brief explanation”), and then it is described in detail (“patiniddesa” means explaining in detail with examples to clarify difficult or “knotty”  points).

  • For example, “ye dhammā hetuppabbavā..” is uddesa, where the fundamental characteristics of “this world” are just stated, i.e., everything in this world arises due to causes.
  • In the niddesa version, paticca samuppada is “avijja paccaya sankhara, sankhara paccaya vinnana,.……..” (all 11 steps): How causes lead to effects is stated succinctly.
  • In contrast, in a discourse, it is the patiniddesa version of explanation: detailed explanation with examples.

2. Most suttas are in uddesa or niddesa version (digha nikaya is an exception). They need to be explained in detail. Translating word-by-word is not appropriate in many instances.

  • For example, “anicca, dukkha, anatta” is discussed only in the niddesa version in Dhamma cakka pavattana sutta and Anatta lakkhana sutta.
  • However, each sutta took many hours to deliver, and it was not possible to condense all that information in a sutta for mostly oral transmission that was available at the time. Each sutta was made into a condensed form most likely by the Buddha himself; see below.
  • Thus the material in each sutta as written in the Tipitaka is CONDENSED in most cases, i.e., in the “niddesa” version. They are also composed for easy oral transmission.

3. During the time of the Buddha, other bhikkhus then described in detail each sutta to audiences when they delivered discourses. This is the “patiniddesa” version. Especially after the Parinibbana of the Buddha, many Arahants started writing “attakatha” or commentaries on important suttas, but a few were written during the time of the Buddha.

  • Three of original books with such early commentaries have been preserved in the Tipitaka: Patisambidha Magga Prakarana, Nettipparakana, and Petakopadesa. Of these, the Patisambidha Magga Prakarana consists of the analyses by Ven. Sariputta, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, and the  Nettipparakana by Ven. Maha Kaccayana. Thus we are lucky to have these three original commentaries still with us.
  • These three books contain the “patiniddesa” versions of many of the important suttas, which describe in detail the key words/phrases in a given sutta.  All other such great commentaries have been lost; see, “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background“.

4. In this section, I will be discussing the suttas in the patiniddesa mode, providing explanations of the deeper meanings of phrases that have been condensed for easy oral transmission.

  • During the time of the Buddha there were some who could comprehend just the uddesa version, for example, Upatissa and Kolita (who became Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggalana later) became Sotapannas just upon hearing the verse, “ye Dhamma hetuppabbava..…”. They had done much in their past lives and needed “just a little push” to get there. They are called uggatitanna or “persons with high wisdom”.
  • And there were many who could understand the niddesa version. Those were called vipatitanna and they needed a bit more explanation to grasp the concepts.
  • However, these days, most people are in the lower category of neyya. They need detailed explanations (i.e., patiniddesa)  to grasp a concept. And they also belong to two categories: those with tihetuka patisandhi (optimum births) can attain magga phala in this life, whereas those with dvihetuka patisandhi (inferior births) cannot attain 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 important to realize that those who are either uggatitanna or vipatitanna had been neyyas with dvihetuka patisandhi in previous lives, and had strived to gain more wisdom in this life. Thus there is no point worrying about whether one a tihetuka or dvihetuka.

5. By the way, there are many erroneous commentaries that are available today, and the best example is the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. It was written at a time (around 400 CE; where CE is “Current Era” or AD) when the “pure Dhamma” was already lost and the conventional meanings were common place, just as now.

  • Actually, we have had a long period from about 200 CE up to now that the “pure Dhamma” had been lost; see, “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline“. But the original suttas survived because people at least used and preserved them even if they used the “conventional” (“padaparama” in Pali) meanings.
  • Thus we can see why people have been translating suttas “word for word” and just getting the conventional meanings. They are NOT supposed to be TRANSLATED; they are supposed to be DESCRIBED in detail by bringing out the deep meanings of some of the words/phrases in the suttas.

6. From time to time jati Sotapannas are born; they had attained the Sotapanna stage in a previous life, possibly during the time Buddha was alive, and have had births in the deva loka for long times and are reborn human. Some of them have the special capability to interpret the key words/phrases in the suttas. This special knowledge is called “patisambidha nana”.

  • There has been at least one time previously that the real meanings were brought out by a Thero with the patisambidha nana, 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 upto others to decide for themselves whether this is true or not. I have experienced the benefits of these clarifications, and I just want to make them available for anyone who could benefit.

7. Here is my personal belief of what happened: The Buddha knew that Buddha Dhamma will be going through periods of decline where bhikkhus capable of interpreting the suttas will not be present. Thus the suttas were composed in a way that only the “conventional” meaning is apparent. And that was a necessary step to preserve the suttas, especially before writing became common place.

  • It is important to remember that  Ven. Ananda had memorized all the suttas which he then recited at the First Buddhist Council, just 3 months after the Parinibbana 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 in order for them to survive the “dark periods”.
  • All that was done at the first Buddhist Council was to recite all the suttas and to put them into various categories (nikayas). This is my theory and I believe that it will be proven to be true in the future.

8.  And during the times when bhikkhus with the patisambidha nana are not born for long times, it is those conventional interpretations that are adopted by people. And that serves the purpose of keeping the suttas intact, especially before the written form was not common.

  • A very good example is the Anapanasati sutta (some of which are also part of the Satipatthana sutta).  As we discussed in “What is Anapana?”, the conventional meaning is to tie up “ana” with breath inhaling and “pana” with breath exhaling and that was consistent with the breath meditation that is there in the world at any time (it was practiced by yogis at the time of the Buddha, and he actually learned those methods from such yogis before attaining the Buddhahood).
  • Another phrase is “majjima patipada” in the Dhamma cakka pavattana sutta. It is easy to interpret it as “middle path” since the sutta describes the two extremes of kamasukallikanu yoga and the attakilamatanu yoga. People just ASSUMED “majjima” means middle and it made sense. We have to keep in mind that Pali was just a spoken language and to date it does not have an alphabet. Thus it was easy to change the meanings of the Pali words. The Pali word for middle is not “majjima” but “madhayama”. We will discuss that sutta in the future.
  • Majji” is getting intoxicated (with not only alcohol/drugs, but also with power, beauty, wealth, etc) and “ma” is to remove that tendency. Thus “majjima patipada” 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 suttas with “double meanings”, the following are the key points from the above discussion that I wish to emphasize:

  • The suttas 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 translations of the suttas (with incorrect interpretations of key Pali words (like anicca and majjima) do not convey the message of the Buddha.
  • The surviving three original commentaries in the Tipitaka can verify the deep meanings of the key words/phrases.

10. I will first discuss the foundation of the Satipatthana sutta in a “bottom-up” approach, starting with the goal of the sutta in mind and developing the related concepts. I have discussed many of the concepts in other posts, so it will be a matter of tying them up together.

  • I thought that would be a refreshing approach than to start with the Pali version of the sutta and try to discuss each line.
  • But at 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 Pali suttas (other than for transmission purposes).

11. There are some benefits in reciting suttas, and that effect is much more amplified if one recites them with understanding and also in an appropriate tune without too much “dragging” (there are some recordings in the Sutta Chanting section).

April 18, 2017:

A good resource for finding Pali sutta is

  • Once you open a sutta, click on the left-most drop down to choose on of several languages. This is good resource; consider making a donation if you find it useful. Note: I am not associated with them in any way.
  • Of source, the translations are incorrect frequently for key Pali words, as is the case at many sites. But at least one can see the correct Pali version.

Next, “Pali Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“, …………

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