Saturday, January 30, 2010

How To Find A Sutta

I have long felt that at this stage in the development of Buddhism beyond its traditional homelands that it is very important to distinguish between the words of the Buddha himself and those of the ancient commentators, between concepts derived from the Buddha’s words and those derived from popular beliefs and traditions. This is not to say that one is of value and the other not (although I do think this is often the case), but the failure to understand which is which only leads to confusion. If a theologian wrote ‘According to Jesus…’ and then quoted Aquinas, someone who lived over a 1000 years after Jesus, his collogues would scandalized and accuse of him of trying to pull a swifty. If a study of Freud’s psychology used dozens of quotes of Jung while attributing them to Freud, the book would be condemned as inauthentic and dismissed as useless – and rightly so.
But this is exactly what many, many books on Buddhism do. I recall once listening to a talk by S. N. Goenka in which he said that his meditation would allow the meditator to actually experience individual atoms (mahakalapa) arise and pass away and that this is exactly what the Buddha had said. In reality, the theory of mahakalapas does not occur in the suttas or even in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and only developed many centuries after the Buddha. This is not to say that this idea is therefore wrong. But if it is attributed to the Buddha and then is found to be wrong, or if a skeptic considers it a bit fanciful, the poor old Buddha gets the blame.
Come on people! Excellent translations of the suttas are now available. Let’s familiarize ourselves with them. Hundreds of generations of dedicated monks have cherished these writings and carefully passed them on so that we can have them today. Let’s study them. I often tell my Chinese students about how Huien Tsiang walked all the way from China to India, without money or maps, crossing some of the highest mountains in the world, fording swollen rivers and dogging bandits, just so he could get authentic copies of the suttas. Then I add, ‘If he was prepared to risk his life to get the suttas, should we not read them?’
It is for these reasons I often quote the Buddha’s words and as much as possible give their reference from the Tipitaka. Occasionally readers of my blog ask me what the references I give mean and I have answered these questions before. Alessandro asked this question in a comment on the post for 28th January so I will take this opportunity to answer him fully for his and future readers benefit.
I always use the Pali Text Society’s editions of the Pali Tipitaka as it the most easily available of all the editions of the Tipitaka, it is the only one in Roman script and it is (I think) as accurate as the other editions. These are the PTS abbreviations for the main Pali texts.
A = Anguttara Nikaya
D = Digha Nikaya
Dhp = Dhammapada
Dhp-a Dhammapada-atthakatha
Ja = Jataka
It = Itivuttaka
M = Mijjhima Nikaya
Mil = Milindapanha
S = Samyutta Nikaya
Sn = Sutta Nipata
Th = Theragatha
Thi = Therigatha
Ud = Udana
Vibh = Vibhanga
Vin = Vinaya
Vism = Visuddhimagga
Often after an initial will be a Roman numeral which refers to the volume number of the PTS edition of the book. Of course, Dhp, It, Sn, Th, Thi, Ud and Vism will not have a Roman numeral because they are in one volume. These initials will have a number after them which will represents the verse number in the case of Dhp, Sn, Th and Thi, and the page number in the case of It, Ud and Vism. If I use the Apadana (Ap), Buddhavamsa (Bv), Kathavatthu (Kv), Petavatthu (Pv), Vimanavatthu (Vv) or other more obscure works, I will try to remember to give the full reference, i.e. no initials.

Hears an interesting bit of sociological information for you. After finishing this post I put ‘sutra’ in my image search hoping to get a picture of a Buddhist sutra. All I got were sexual images related to the Kama Sutra, hundreds of them. So then I put in the Pali equivalent ‘sutta’ and all I got was pictures of an actress named Jessica Sutta. In the end I settled on this picture of Huien Tsiang carrying copied of the suttas back from India.


gustav said...

I think that what it says in the Satipatthana sutta about the momentary coming to be and disappearance of the body can be understood in the way Goenka explains it. It is open to interpretation, I think, definitely it can be understood as referring to the continual coming to be and disappearance on the level of the cells in the body, that change every second of one's life. We all have learned this in Biology lessons, or may be we have read it again as adults in the Biology books that explain the development and functioning of the human body.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gustav,
The theory of mahakalapas resulted from late Abhidhammika speculation about one concept taught by the Buddha, impermanence, and the theory of Dhammas from the Abhidhamma Pitaka. While not found in the Tipitaka,it has become a part of Theravada orthodoxy. My old Abhidhamma teacher Prof. Y. Karunadasa has written several outstanding studies on how and why these concepts developed. Look them up under his name on your search engine.

Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable,

The Burmese, Thai, and Sinhala editions of the Tipitaka are all available in Roman script these days, as is the World Tipitaka edition. These electronic editions of course, but the latter is coming up for printing.

The PTS editions are eclectic, some are good, but some (eg Udana, Samyuttanikaya) are very poor indeed, based on insufficient materials, and badly edited.

I think myself what is needed is a standardised way of categorising the material so that it can be found in any edition, but the value of that has yet to be appreciated.

Tazzie said...

Hi Bhante, and thanks for your tireless and stimulating input into this great Blog. It just goes to show how Buddhism is still "the quiet acheiver" of the big four or five world faiths. I bet if you had googled, for example sura, you would have recieved an avalanche of references, including lots of youtubes of grim, bearded individuals waving their forefingers. I would make an educated guess that the Islamic sura is linguistically derived or related to Sutta (Jessica who?) and Sutra, but is clearly their historical junior. Just like the modern day name of the city,Kandahar in afghanistan, reflects the historical past of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara where Huien Tsiang was supposedly headed to reclaim the true Dharma....all those years ago.
This also causes me to reflect upon how the jungle enveloped
Borobuddhur in Java as one of the other "big four" enveloped Java,s people as a whole. I figure that any Buddhist who blithely shrugs their shoulders and says "well even The Buddha said that the Dharma would eventually pass away" has the rare luxury of reflecting upon whether we can work harder to delay that day as much as we possible can! But I digress!
Does the Visudhimagga have a kind of honorific status in the Pali Tripitika? I always thought that it was a commentorial inclusion, however some Buddhist friends do not seem to think so. Oh while I remember(the actual reason I was replying today) when you quoted the four limbs of Stream Winning what is your definition of Sangha in this instance, ie faith in the Sangha.
Thanks again,


willyh said...

Can you recommend translations for an american english reader who would like to read the sutras?

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lance said...


Not only the mahakalapa is mentioned as attributed to the buddha but also notable mahayana contexts like the prajnaparamita sutra, the story of the origin of zen where kashaya is given a flower somethin, amitabha buddha is also attributed to gautama by pure land buddhism and also the worship of ksitigarbha. Interestingly, popular beliefs are ruining the original buddhism by attributing them to old gautama. For beginners a little easier to decieve to attibute the buddhist apologetics by buddhaghosa and be cnfused of what the buddha really taught.

Russ said...

Hi Willyh,

I'm not a translation expert, but this website contains several thousand scholarly translations in english that seem to mirror Bhante's translations (for the most part):

samahito said...

@Willyh - there are two excellent resources for the Pali Suttas in English: Firstly, I agree with Russ, has a vast collection of Suttas translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and others - in addition there are many insightful essays and interviews.

Secondly, I reccomend the in-print translations of the Majjhima, Digha, and Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Here'a a link on Amazon:

May the desire to learn Buddhism via the Buddha's own words bring much peace and many blessings to everybody!

Guek Har said...

Guilty as charge, Bhante. I get my Dharma books/VCDs from a premise in Fortune Centre (at Bencoloon Street) where the materials are for free distribution. While online resources are useful, it is also important to have printed or electronic books (call me old fashion :)).

Would it be possible to set up an online "Donate" function (Paypal or credit card, etc) for your readers, especially worldwide ones, so more of Dharma books can be made available?

gustav said...

I have heard and read that Dharma is a transmission of words and meaning. What it says in the Satipatthana sutta is a description of the arising and passing away of the body. Here the speaker is referring to an experience and knowledge gained through meditation and intellectual analysis, -is this still agreed to? I namely believe that Goenka is referring to this very experience, or a field of experiences that has numerous different levels, ie the arising and passing away of the human body. Even if the Buddha did not mention the atoms in this passage of the Satipatthana Sutta, it is included in it, as an experience corresponding to the words of the sutta. It is impossible, or beside the purpose of this Sutta, to put the complete description of this theme in the sutta, so it is described only very briefly, it is more like just mentioning it.

Alessandro S. said...

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu anumodhami.

Alessandro S. said...

Anandajoti, it's too bad the Budsir site seems to have been abandoned years ago. It's impossible to navigate today, the registration form, the only page I can get to, does not work. I remember years ago I wrote a couple of emails to the site's webmaster asking if it was possible to have a version of their software that would work on platforms other than MSWindows. But I never received any answer. I think it's too bad that a country like Thailand neglects such an opportunity that making the Thai Tipitaka available online represents. When I see things like this I stop wondering why so many monks in that country cannot even name the five Nikayas.

anotherqueerjubu said...

Please find images of ancient sutra leaves here:

willyh said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I've ordered the book and I'll check out the sites.

Tazzie said...

Anotherqueerjubu and Thanks for that link to those ancient sutras.

Pity, I can only translate ancient greek(joke). At least one from ancient Gandhara. Amazing that anything of this subject survived the last millenium or so from that location.
regards, Tazzie

Zoja said...

You may find the Metta Sutta in pali here:
If I got it right, it's meant to be shared.
Personally, I prefer the pic you chose...