A tangled interpretation

That was a really bad pun to start with, I apologize for that.

One of the most celebrated verses in Pali is found at SN 1.23. Ven Bodhi’s translation:

A tangle inside, a tangle outside,
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama,
Who can disentangle this tangle?

The fame of the verse is because it was chosen by Buddhaghosa as the key to his Visuddhimagga. The Buddha’s answer starts with:

A man established on virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet:
He can disentangle this tangle.

Thus introducing the trio of ethics, samadhi, and wisdom. Buddhaghosa asks, what are these things? And spends the rest of the Visuddhimagga answering that question. The whole Visuddhimagga is in fact a commentary on these lines; an elaborate, playful literary conceit.

Now, the Visuddhimagga here explains jaṭā as tangled up trees, bamboo, and so on. However, I find this very dubious. Nowhere in the EBTs, so far as I know, is jaṭā used in this way. In its concrete sense, it is always applied to matted hair, especially that of the brahmanical ascetics known as Jaṭila.

Apart from the commentary on this passage, I can only find one reference to jaṭā used in any other way, and this is a passing reference in the commentarial background story to the Jātakas (Ja.i.64; PTS Dict says this is to “trees”, but this is a mistake; it is in fact to the “scents and garlands” dropped in such masses on the Bodhisatta by the gods on the night he went forth that it obstructed his progress.)

When considering commentarial interpretations, we should be neither overly credulous nor overly skeptical. One kind of case where we should question their interpretations, however, is in contexts that deal with the rival sectarian groups at the time of the Buddha. Whether out of bias or ignorance, the commentaries frequently misconstrue such passages, displaying a lack of familiarity with the religious context in the Buddha’s time (a millenium before and a continent away.)

It is no surprise, then, to find a term that exclusively refers to a rival ascetic movement divorced from that context; certainly a more general reading would have been more relevant to the Visuddhimagga’s Sri Lankan audience.

This reading has the advantage of making the underlying metaphor more concrete. Rather than relying on an assumed metaphor of “tangle”, the question is, with due allowance for poetic expression, saying: “These Jatilas are just as tangled up inside as their dreadlocks are outside!” It also makes the metaphor stronger: untangling a tangle is no great task, we’ve all done it. But untangling dreadlocks matted for years?

This interpretation is further supported by the later verses, which refer to the cessation of nāmarūpa. This is another classic case of a teaching that has lost its Brahmanical context in the commentarial explanations. Nāmarūpa is in fact lifted from the Upanishads, and is frequently used in discussions with Brahmins (Kevatta Sutta, Parayanavagga, and so on.) So it’s right at home here in a critique of the Brahmanical Jatila ascetics.

Here’s my translation of the full text. As the text moves from a concrete to a metaphorical meaning, I reflect this in the translation.

“Antojaṭā bahijaṭā,
“Matted hair within, matted hair without:
Jaṭāya jaṭitā pajā;
these people are tangled up in matted hair.
Taṃ taṃ gotama pucchāmi,
I ask you this, Gotama:
Ko imaṃ vijaṭaye jaṭan”ti.
Who can untangle this tangled mass?”
“Sīle patiṭṭhāya naro sapañño,
“A wise man grounded in ethics,
Cittaṃ paññañca bhāvayaṃ;
developing the mind and wisdom,
Ātāpī nipako bhikkhu,
a keen and self-disciplined mendicant,
So imaṃ vijaṭaye jaṭaṃ.
can untangle this tangled mass.
Yesaṃ rāgo ca doso ca,
For those who have discarded
avijjā ca virājitā;
greed, hate, and ignorance—
Khīṇāsavā arahanto,
the perfected ones with defilements ended—
tesaṃ vijaṭitā jaṭā.
the tangle has been untangled.
Yattha nāmañca rūpañca,
Where name and form
asesaṃ uparujjhati;
cease with nothing left over;
Paṭighaṃ rūpasaññā ca,
and impingement and perception of form:
etthesā chijjate jaṭā”ti.
it’s there that the tangle is cut.”


another support for this reading could come from the usage of the word pajā - generation, because it’s applied specifically to ascetics and brahmins in the stock passage

this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans

sadevako loko samārako sabrahmako ­sassama­ṇab­rāhmaṇī pajā sadevamanussā

and in a passage from SN 35.229 ascetics and brahmins are explicitly associated with entanglement

Here this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans, for the most part is submerged, become like a tangled skein, like a knotted ball of thread, like matted reeds and rushes, and cannot pass beyond the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world, saṃsara.


Well spotted, I hadn’t noticed that connection. We frequently find that kind of “allusive ellipsis” in verses, where brief phrases only make sense in the context of a well known and more explicit prose passage.

Actually, I just came across another example of this. In SN 1.29, we have the image of the body imagined as a cart, and the question:

kathaṃ yātrā bhavissatī

Which Ven Bodhi translates as:

How does one escape from it?

But, as already noted in the PTS dict, there’s no need to use any special meaning here. Yātrā (related to yāna, yantra, etc.) is always used in the sense of “keep going, maintain (the body and life)”, especially in the stock passage for reflecting on food:

yātrā ca me bhavissati anavajjatā ca phāsuvihāro cā
I will keep on living blamelessly and at ease

The grammar is a little awkward in English, more literally:

proceeding will exist for me, blamelessness and dwelling at ease

Since this passage is likewise concerned with the body, and is similarly phrased, there is no call to assume a different meaning. In the verse, the me should be assumed, and the phrase literally construed as:

How will proceeding exist for me?

or more idiomatically,

How will I keep on living?

Thus the verse as a whole concerns, not how to escape from the body, but how to live in this body without attachment.


Jata is the name of the ascetic who asked the question. It is also the name for Turban (which he might have been wearing) and also the word used for matted locks (external and internal tangles or ‘confusion’).


Inability to acknowledge a wrongdoing.
Inability to implement advice.
Inability to control one’s actions
Not knowing deep seated emotions
Not knowing dangerous yet subtle thoughts
Not seeing avijja.
Not seeing the insubstantiality of dhammas.
Not seeing the causality of phenomena
Not knowing the world can end; in nibbana!


Thanks @Mat! I listened to SN 1.23 earlier today. :smiley:

What are the external tangles?

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Some external tangles.

Tangled global environment
Tangled political action
Tangled military action and economics
Tangled religious actions
Criminal activity
Tangled actions of law makers; police; arms manufacturers; and other professional activities
Tangled societal norms
Tangled institutions and livelihood
Tangled family norms/parenting
Tangled educational systems
Tangled ethical views
Tangled environments for children growing up


What has tangled hair got to do with name & form?.

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Entangled, like matted locks - putajjana confuse the form; confuse the name, with each other. And upon their separation (nama-rupa paricceda nyana) see which is what! They ascribe value to elements [read atoms, if you like] and attempt to hoard them; while discarding other (similar) atoms. Sila atoms; more valuable- than ordinary atoms! They think atoms of God when there are only atoms! Only atoms; in a cause and effect dance. Where’s self/god/sila in atoms? Nowhere… nothing worth clinging too, suffering arising and passing.


I do not think the above is found in the discourses. I may be wrong. If it is in the discourses can you provide the discourse reference.
With Metta

nama-rupa paricceda nyana

Knowing what, seeing what does the destruction of the cankers occur? ‘Such is material form, such is the arising of material form, such is the passing away of material form. Such is feeling… perception… mental formations… consciousness; such is the arising of consciousness, such is the passing away of consciousness’ — for one who knows and sees this, monks, the destruction of the cankers occurs. Upanisa Sutta: Discourse on Supporting Conditions