A small question of meaning

One of the verses of Vangisa, found in Snp 2.12 and Thag 21.1, has the lines:

So taṁ namassaṁ acari mutyapekho,
Āraddhavīriyo daḷhadhammadassī.

It refers to Nigrodhakappa always living honoring his teacher the Buddha.

When I translated it, I assumed that all the epithets here were in nominative and in agreement, and that it meant something like:

Yearning for freedom, energetic, firmly seeing the teaching,
he wandered in your honor.

However, Norman, Bodhi, and the commentary are all in agreement that daḷhadhammadassī is in fact an epithet of the Buddha, and hence must be a vocative.

Okay, fine, but what does it mean? Norman has “seer of what is firm by nature”, Bodhi has “the one who shows the durable”.

The commentary says:

The one who shows the durable: He addresses the Blessed One. What is “durable” is nibbāna, so called because it is indestructible. And the Blessed One shows that, therefore he says “the one who shows the durable.”

On which Ven Bodhi notes;

The suffix –dassī usually means “a seer of,” but Pj II explains it on the basis of the causal verb dasseti, to show, and thus I render it “one who shows.” Norman renders the expression “seer of what is firm by nature,” but Jayawickrama also follows the gloss of Pj II with “you who point out the immutable state.” I follow Pj II in taking it as a vocative addressed to the Buddha (daḷhadhammadassī ti bhagavantaṃ ālapati), not as a description of Nigrodhakappa.

“Durable” and “immutable” are, on the face of it, a bit of a stretch, since daḷha means “firm, strong, solid”, not really “lasting”. But okay.

It’s worth noting that daḷhadhamma is a common compound used in a very specific way, and never found in the sense attributed to it here. It’s part of the stock description of an expert archer, where it means “strong-bowed”. There seems to be a confusion in the root between dhamma and dhanu. It seems hard to apply such a meaning here, though.

But as to the traditional interpretation, it relies on a series of somewhat unlikely assumptions:

  • dassi doesn’t usually have a causative sense
  • Nibbana is not elsewhere called daḷhadhamma
  • daḷha doesn’t quite mean “immutable”. It’s more likely to be used in the sense of “strong, resolute”
  • Purely subjectively, inserting a vocative to the Buddha at the end of a series of terms extolling someone else feels odd, especially when the semantic and phonetic range of the epithets overlap (daḷha, āraddha). Surely these are meant to chime together.

None of these is in any way definitive, but they make me feel queasy.

Perhaps the solution is found in looking more broadly at Vangia’s idioms. Twice elsewhere in Vangisa’s poetry we find dhammadasa in the sense of “Seer of Truth”. Perhaps we have been misled in treating daḷhadhamma as a unified term after all, when we should have been looking at dhammadassī. The phrase then meaning “resolute seer of the truth”.

I’m by no means sure, but I have hesitatingly changed my translation to:

He wandered in your honor, yearning for freedom,
energetic, a resolute Seer of Truth.