A small number of mild and hesitant suggestions for inconsequential improvements to the "What Morality?" discourse

Sutta Nipata 2.9 offers a short discourse. An unnamed interlocuter asks about the morality to follow. This is ashort discourse with a simple message, but the language is surprisingly tricky. I keep tripping over rare words like sakāsa or unusual forms like erayitaṁ.

The sutta starts with the question, “With what morality … would a person be established?”

A note on the Pali, the third line has niviṭṭhassa, which is not the dative “for one who is established” but niviṭṭh’assa “would one be established”. Assa is third optative singular of atthi, glossed as bhāveyya.

The third line as translated by Norman says “would a man be properly established”. Ven Bodhi as “can a person be properly settled”. Neither of these, it seems to me, really make it clear what is meant. Niviṭṭha means to become established, but it is regularly used in the context of morality to refer to someone who has become habituated. In a negative sense it can be translated a “hardened” criminal. What it means is that there is a solid foundation in morality.

I have:

With what morality, what conduct,
fostering what deeds,
would a person lay the foundations right,
and reach the highest goal?

The second verse includes two similar phrases, kālaññū and khaṇaññū. Clearly these are virtually identical in literal meaning: “one who knows the time”, “one who knows the moment”. Bodhi doesn’t clearly distinguish the senses:

one should know the proper time
one who knows the occasion

Norman’s translation is almost identical.

But if they mean exactly the same thing, why have both of them? It sounds clunky, like bad verse. In good poetry, you include things that are similar but subtly different in order to sound the bell when the two ring against each other.

Kālaññū has the sense of someone who knows the appropriate occasion. In this case, go to a teacher for a Dhamma talk when they are prepared and ready in the Dhamma hall. Not yelling questions at them over the walls of the toilet stall, just for example.

Khaṇaññū has the sense of someone who is aware of the preciousness of the moment. The khaṇa means the chance, the opportunity, the fleeting moment that is gone all too soon.

Ven Thanissaro captures this well. As often, he is sensitive to poetic nuances that more literal translators miss.

should have a sense of the time for seeing teachers;
should value the opportunity when a talk on Dhamma’s in progress;

Here’s my rendering:

“Honoring elders without jealousy,
they’d know the right time to visit their teachers.
Treasuring the chance for a Dhamma talk,
they’d listen carefully to the fine words.

In verse four, there’s an unusual phrase, dhammavinicchayaññū. Vinicchaya is one of those terms that’s common in later Pali (in the sense of “judgement, decision”) but rare in the canon. Ven Bodhi has “knowing how to judge the Dhamma”, Norman has “knowing the exegesis of the doctrine”. I can’t help feeling that both of these lean a little too heavily on the later sense.

A similar phrase occurs only once else in the early texts, at Dhp 144, where, as one might suspect, it’s part of a series of familar terms (sīla, saddhā, samādhi), making it clear that it isn’t really a specialized term, but rather a poetic variation of dhammavicaya.

Near the end the text refers to the teaching that is ariyapavedite, translated by Norman, Thanissaro and Bodhi in the plural with something like “proclaimed by the noble ones”. But this is a synonym of tathāgatapavedita and it means “proclaimed by the Noble One” i.e. the Buddha.


Thank you, Bhante, for the simplicity and clarity of your Snp2.9 translation.
:pray: :heart:

Might one therefore understand kālaññū and khaṇaññū as “at the proper time and place, with mindfulness and situational awareness?”

I’m a bit literal minded, and perhaps I missed a nuance here that puzzles me:

Many will legitimately ask the question posed in the sutta. Indeed, Buddhist ethics are surprisingly subtle without fully understanding the origin of suffering. How would this questioner be an interloper here who does not belong or is not wanted? :thinking:


Perhaps envy would be more appropriate than jealousy?

My bad, I meant interlocuter.


Well, in such cases of very near synonyms, my choices are driven by consistency and context, so I wouldn’t change unless needed.


Might be a quibble, but:

and, of course:

nothing is too quibbilacious for me!

But yeah, it’s a good point. On the one hand, I’d like to distinguish a number of related terms in Pali. On the other hand, the usage here is closer to envy. The problem is of course that the Pali terms don’t necessarily make this distinction in the same way. I’ll review my usage of both terms.

This is from Merriam-Webster:

Depending on who you ask, jealousy and envy are either exact synonyms, totally different words, or near-synonyms with some degree of semantic overlap and some differences. It is difficult to make the case, based on the evidence of usage that we have, for either of the first two possibilities. Both jealousy and envy are often used to indicate that a person is covetous of something that someone else has, but jealousy carries the particular sense of “zealous vigilance” and tends to be applied more exclusively to feelings of protectiveness regarding one’s own advantages or attachments. In the domain of romance, it is more commonly found than envy. If you were to say “your salt-shaker collection fills me with jealousy,” most people would take it to mean much the same thing as “your salt-shaker collection fills me with envy.” But if someone made a flirtatious comment to your partner, you would likely say that it caused you jealousy, not envy.