The Sallasutta (“The Arrow” or “The Dart”) is a direct and unstinting piece of advice on how to deal with the grief of a departed one, especially a close relative. When I started translating this, I was called to speak with a grieving family, whose beloved mother had passed away the week before. Since they were long-term Dhamma practitioners, I thought I would teach from this Sutta. I found it a powerful experience; each of the verses, while circling the same themes, express them from a slightly different angle. I hope the grieving relatives found some solace.
But to the text itself. It is mostly straightforward, and I only found a couple of points of interest linguistically.
The first lines of the Sutta are quite striking:
maccānaṁ idha jīvitaṁ;
Translators have rendered these quite literally, and without explanation: Bodhi has “Without a sign, unknown, is the life of mortals here”, while Norman has “The life of mortals here is without attribute (and) unknown.”
I find these unsatisfactory, for life clearly has many signs and attributes, and is not unknown.
The word nimitta has a range of nuances, which are often not picked up if we just look at the base meaning. Along with many other terms (maṅgala, etc.) it is used in the context of horoscopes and other forms of prognostication. Here it means that there is no way of prophesying or prognosticating the extent of life; the end of life is unknown.
Unforeseen and unknown
is the extent of this mortal life
The next difficult line is near the end of the Sutta, where for someone who sees the corpse of their departed relative lying out, the Buddha advises them to reflect:
Neso labbhā mayā iti.
The most obvious reading of this would be:
That is not possible for me.
Clearly this is not the intended meaning!
The commentary says this means, “I cannot bring this dead person back to life”, and this reading is followed by Norman, Bodhi, and Thanissaro. But I think that reading is suspect on two grounds.
First, it requires reading in quite a bit (so peto “idāni mayā puna jīvatū”ti na labbhā), as evidenced by the [square brackets] in translations of Norman (“He cannot be [brought back again] by me”) and Bodhi (“I cannot [bring the dead back to life]”’).
The second suspicion is doctrinal: it simply isn’t the kind of thing the Buddha encouraged people to say in such cases. Rather, the normal reflection is something like, “How could it possibly be otherwise” (Taṁ kutettha labbhā) or “This body too is of the same nature” (ayampi kho kāyo evaṁdhammo).
I think the text is saying something similar to that. And I suspect the meaning has been lost due to the elision metri causa of a second negative. We should read na eso alabbhā mayā, lit. “This is not not-to-be-gotten by me” or “It cannot be had by me to not be this”, or more idiomatically, “I cannot escape this”.
The loss of an initial vowel in this way is common in Pali, though normally it doesn’t affect the meaning so dramatically. Unfortunately there seem to be no parallels we could look to to test this hypothesis. But for now I accept it in my translation.
We can compare this usage with AN 5.48–50 Alabbhanīyaṭhāna, which speak of five “things that cannot be had”, for example, that someone who is liable to die might not die. Here I believe alabbha has the same force as alabbhanīya.
Neso (a)labbhā mayā iti.
Think: “I cannot escape this.”
That’s about all for this Sutta. It was a pleasure to translate this one, full of pithy and meaningful sayings. I tried to convey the directness of the original, and I hope I succeeded.