AN 4.23 (= Iti 112): The World

Continuing the discussion from Even more terms:

In reply to Ven Brahmali, the relevant sutta is AN 4.23. For some reason this is also included in the Iti under the threes, although the number is clearly four (reasons why the Buddha is called a Tathāgata). I looked up my translation for this, and thought, why not just post it. I leave out the verses (for now). I’ll discuss it a little below.

“Mendicants, the world has been understood by a Realized One; and he is detached from the world. The origin of the world has been understood by a Realized One; and he has given up the origin of the world. The stopping of the world has been understood by a Realized One; and he has realized the stopping of the world. The practice leading to the stopping of the world has been understood by a Realized One; and he has developed the practice leading to the stopping of the world.

In this world—with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans—whatever is seen, heard, thought, cognized, searched, and explored by the mind, all that has been understood by a Realized One. That’s why he is called the Realized One.

From the night when a Realized One understands the supreme perfect awakening until the night he becomes extinguished—through the natural principle of extinguishing without anything left over—everything he speaks, says, and expresses is real, not otherwise. That’s why he is called the Realized One.

The Realized One really does as he says, and really says as he does. Since this is so, that’s why he is called the Realized One.

In this world—with its gods, Māras and Brahmās, this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, gods and humans—a Realized One is the undefeated champion who sees all, the wielder of power. That’s why he is called the Realized One.”

This is a sutta I really like. It talks directly about the nature of the Buddha, giving a profound dimension to the word tathāgata, while leaving aside the excesses of later Buddhology.

The first paragraph reiterates the four noble truths, describing each in terms of the functions first mentioned in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: fully knowing suffering; abandoning the origin of suffering; realizing the stopping of suffering; and developing the path to stop suffering. This is the most important characteristic of the Buddha. In this passage, the word tathāgata is used, but not explained as such. However the basic framework is there, as the association is between the Tathāgata and the truth (sacca). In fact, in the stopping of suffering, the word “realized” in my translation is sacchikaroti, a different term, but with similar meaning (sacca = tathā).

The text then gives four explanations for tathāgata. However, only the middle two explicitly use the word tathā in the explanation.

  1. He understands all that is cognizable. Here the element of “truth” is prominent, but not explicit.
  2. Everything he says is true (sabbaṃ taṃ tatheva hoti)
  3. He does as he says (yathāvādī tathākārī, yathākārī tathāvādī)
  4. He is the undefeated champion. This is a more general praise of the Buddha.

In the cases where the word tathā is explicitly used in the explanations, it is always associated with the notion of “truth” or “reality”. And even when tathā is not used explicitly the overall intent is similar.

I’ve briefly checked the Chinese parallel at MA 137 and it seems to be similar.

So I think we can render tathāgata, and can do so without the quasi-mystical connotations of “One become such” or “Thus-gone One”, and so on. As with so many other terms, it has become so mystified by the commentarial tradition that retaining the Pali merely invites confusion. We should use an English rendering in order to bring the meaning back to earth. I think “Realized One” works well. Perhaps we could use “Truthful One”. “Truth-finder” is not right, because it must include the expression of truth.

Perhaps better still: “he who keeps it real”.

I just noticed some interesting problems in the verses, not really related to the above discussion, but I’ll put it here anyway. Throughout, it seems to me they speak with a different voice.

Mostly they refer to the Buddha in the third person. This is not unusual, the Buddha refers to himself in third person also.

But there’s a variant reading in the very last line of the verses, where we have a choice between second and first person. Our mainline Pali text for AN 4.23 has natthi me paṭipuggalo, “I have no counterpart”. But most readings (Sinhala, Thai, and followed by BB) have natthi te paṭipuggalo, “You have no counterpart”. This is the accepted reading at Iti 112 also. (The Commentary on both passages is silent, while the verses in the Chinese version appear to lack this section.)

So it seems as if this line is spoken to the Buddha (by an unnamed speaker) but editors of a Burmese edition “normalized” this so that it is spoken by the Buddha.

Following the commentary, BB places the second last verse in quote marks, to indicate a third speaker, the praises uttered by the assembled gods. This is justified since the final verse begins with iti. However, the third last verse also begins with iti, and the verses preceding that are similar to the verse in quotes, however BB doesn’t have them in quotes.

But this seems unnecessarily complex and unjustified. Are we to have two sets of verses of praise, one spoken by the gods, and one spoken by the narrator, while the narrator also does the job of narrating? Or are we simply to have a narrator who quotes two sets of verses by the gods?

I think we should have verses 1–4 and 6 in quotes: these are the praises uttered by the gods. Verses 5 and 7 are by the unnamed narrator.

This doesn’t entirely clear up the issues. There is another question: is the narrator quoting the verses of the gods, or is he referring to them? In the first case, we can imagine a context where a narrator is praising the Buddha by saying that even the gods praise him with such high praise. In this case, it’s not really necessary for the gods to be there, or really to have ever been there. It’s a manner of extolling the Buddha. In the second case, we have to imagine a scenario where the Buddha was teaching, and the gods assembled to hear him speak on the Tathāgata, while their actions and words were described by a narrator, something like a commentator at a footy match. There’s no hint in text or commentary that this is so, so I think we are best off with the first, less dramatic, option.

We still have a problem with the person. The narrator’s verses speak of the Buddha in third person (taṃ namassanti), but switch to (probably second person) in the last line. This is of course quite possible. The narrator was there, spoke to an audience, then turns to address the Buddha. But it is, I think, a little abrupt and unusual.

I am, of course, leaving out the elephant in the room, which is that such passages are often late. I mentioned earlier that I felt this had a different voice. But the textual complexities here only add to the suspicions. Elsewhere, say the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, it’s very clear that the “gods” passage is added later. If, as I suspect, the same is true here, then probably the last line is merely imported from elsewhere, which would explain both the unusual voice and the absence from the Chinese.

Of course, none of this has any particular doctrinal significance. But it does illustrate how quickly, when you get into texts that seem late, we end up with textual complications that seem to confirm original impressions.

Anyway, here’s my rendering of the verses, with quotes as I now understand them.

“‘Directly knowing the whole world
and everything in it as it really is,
he is detached from the whole world,
disengaged from the whole world.

That sage is the champion
who has escaped all ties.
He has reached ultimate peace:
extinguishment, without threats from any side.

He is the Buddha, with defilements ended,
untroubled, with doubts cut off.
He has attained the end of all deeds,
freed with the end of attachments.

That Blessed One is the Buddha,
he is the supreme lion.
In the world with its gods,
he turns the holy wheel.’

Thus those gods and humans,
who have gone to the Buddha for refuge,
come together and revere him,
the great one, rid of naivety.

‘Tamed, he is the best of tamers,
peaceful, he is the seer among the peace-makers,
liberated, he is the foremost of liberators,
crossed over, he is the most excellent of guides across.’

Thus indeed they revere him,
the great one, rid of naivety.
In the world with its gods,
you have no counterpart.”


“keeps it one hunnid”
“keeps it ghetto”


(not sure whether that was meant with tongue in cheek, to me it had that flavor, so i just rolled with it)

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Thanks for that. It seems to me that the tathā in the second paragraph (sabbaṃ taṃ tatheva hoti) could well mean “thus” rather than “truth”. Of course, the distinction between “thus” and “truth” is quite blurred, especially in this case, but it may still be meaningful. Rather than just meaning “truth”, I would suggest it means that everything he says has a limited scope for interpretation, since it is a direct an expression of the truth. And I am sure there are other ways of interpreting this as well. So I am not sure if this is as clear-cut as you seem to think it is.

Moreover, the first and the fourth paragraphs, as you point out, are not directly related to the meaning of Tathāgata, but are rather impressionistic. That one is called a Tathāgata because one is “an undefeated champion who sees all”, etc., to me seems to confirm that the term is slightly mysterious, without any final and unambiguous meaning.

Be that as it may, I still think it is better to translate it in a way that incorporates “truth” in one way or another (directly or indirectly), since this makes for a more straightforward and comprehensible English translation.

Indeed. I think most of the verses in the Anguttara that are tacked on at the end of suttas are relatively late. When I translated this a few years ago, I noticed several words that are not normally found in the early suttas, such as Buddha in the plural. Just a few pointers like that is enough to convince me that these are late, possibly quite late. (This seems to be the reverse of what we find in for instance the Udāna, where the prose sections seems to be later than the verses.) It’s good to clear about this. If there are any apparent doctrinal inconsistencies, then we know where we should look for the most authentic expression of the words of the Buddha. (It also makes it clear how work is left to be done on the suttas in properly stratifying them.)


bhante, could you share your reasons for translating Mara and Brahma in plural?

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I didn’t really think about it, to be honest! All the terms in this sequence seem to be plural in effect. There are many Brahmās of course, but normally only one Māra, so perhaps it should be singular.

But it is an odd thing to say: why is Māra even here? I guess the sense is, “all beings, no matter the most exalted or the most depraved”, something like that.

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