An extremely dense four words

Usually in the EBTs the style tends to be explicit, even overly verbose. Much of this is due to the repetition required to preserve the meaning; but also, the Buddha in doctrinal passages is concerned to make the meaning clear and unambiguous. However, outside of strict doctrine, in narrative, dialogue, and verse, we sometimes encounter a more playful and allusive spirit.

DN 27 Aggañña, on the (re)creation of the world, is a great example of this. As has been recognized by Gombrich and others, there is a humor and light-heartedness to this narrative, no matter how serious the overall intent. I won’t go into this too much, only to note that play is an essential aspect of myth.

I would like to draw attention to one short sequence of words. Now, it is a commonplace, and I think a mistake, to assert that Pali is especially rich in meaning, and many terms are untranslatable. Sorry to disappoint, but Pali is just a language, and is no more rich or translatable than any other. What can be tricky is translating the ideas that are expressed in Pali. But that is the case in any kind of translation. But having said that, this particular sequence is so dense in allusions that it is, I think, impossible to translate properly, hence this essay.

As a bit of background, in DN 27 the Buddha is discussing with the brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvāja, who want to ordain. The other brahmins have been dissing them for hanging out with the menial ascetics, when they are from the high caste of brahmins, sprung from the head of Brahma. The Buddhs uses this as a chance to tell a myth of origins. In typically Buddhist style, this takes the basic tropes of origin myths—the primordial waters, the arising of social institutions, and so on—and turns them on their head. We should be alerted to the subversive character of the myth when the Buddha starts his myth of origin with the line: “There comes a time when the world ends.”

The Buddha tells of the origins of society and the beginnings of moral decay. Here the thematic unity of the text becomes very satisfying. Normally, of course, when listing the castes the Buddha puts his own caste, the khattiyas or aristocrats, first. Here he gives an explanation of why this is so. He connects khattiya with khetta, “field”, and traces their origin to the beginnings of agriculture.

While the details of this are obviously mythic, the overall sense of it is very accurate. People originally used foods that were provided naturally. But due to overconsumption, they exhausted the natural resources, and started cultivating their own food so as to support a denser population. This required a sense of ownership over land, dividing it up, and laying the roots for inequality and punishment.

One of the key changes that cultivation brought about was the storing up of food, principally grain. No longer were populations bound to the seasons, they could construct large silos and store food all year round. Of course, monastics are not allowed to do this, and in this sense are depicted as returning to an earlier and purer way of life.

Now, when people started to store up grain, the Buddha says that certain people, disgusted by this immorality, withdrew to leaf huts in the forest to meditate. This is the origin of the brahmin caste. And this where the web of allusions starts to get dense.

First up, in saying that the brahmins originated as renunciates, the Buddha is upending traditional brahmin beliefs (and, incidentally, actual history). Rather than selling out the true brahmanical tradition, Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvāja are returning to its pure roots—just like the Buddhist mendicants. So the Buddhists, in an important sense, are truer to the brahmanical tradition than the brahmins themselves.

In fact, the origin of the word brahmin is traced, rather implausibly, to the word bāheti, to “ward off” bad things. Thus rather than the metaphysical explanation given in their own mythology, the brahmins are redefined according to the Buddha’s ethical approach. Brahminhood is a matter of behavior, not birth. This too is one of the basic teachings of the Buddha, and so here again he is subverting the brahmanical mythology.

So, how do they do this? They build leaf huts in the wilderness—just like Buddhist monastics. And what do they do in those huts? Here at last we come to the four words:

jhāyanti vītaṅgārā vītadhūmā pannamusalā

Let me first take the chance to say here that the following allusions and webs of meanings are absolutely intended by the text. This is no accident, no reading of meanings into an innocent saying. The brahmins were the intellectual elite of the time, and, speaking with highly educated and intelligent brahmins, the Buddha is knowingly introducing a series of terms, highly unusual in the context, that force a reading on multiple levels.

Here are the basic meanings.

  • jhāyanti: they meditate.
  • vītaṅgārā: free of glowing coals
  • vītadhūmā: free of smoke
  • pannamusalā: with shovel put down

I’ll try to tease out the layers of meaning, no easy task. It should be immediately obvious that the surface meaning alone is inadequate.

Jhāyati has the dual senses of “contemplate, meditate”, and “burn, illuminate”. In the sense of meditation of course it normally means to practice jhāna. Whether it means specifically that here is debatable, although it certainly implies something of the sort.

However, the sense of “burn” is not far away, as shown by the following terms. Taking these three words of out context, you’d think it referred to something like a lamp that glowed without flames or smoke. Clearly the allusion is intentional. In DN 2, for example, the Sangha is said to jhāyati in the hall, meditating like pure bright lamps, leading the way. These original brahmins were shining, bright, and pure, an example and inspiration for others.

But this is just the beginning. A little lower in the text, there is a pun on jhāyaka and ajjhāyaka. Ajjhāyaka is a completely different word, meaning “reciter”. The pun says that these brahmins were originally jhāyakas (meditators), but some couldn’t meditate, so they went back to the villages and complied texts, i.e. the three Vedas. they then became ajjhāyaka (non-meditator = reciter). In the old days this was said to be worse, but these days, the Buddha laments, it’s considered better.

So not only is the metaphysical origin of the brahmins disputed, but the basic task of the brahmins, to recite and preserve the Vedas, is felt to be a betrayal of their original practice. And once again, it is among the Buddhists that the practice of jhāna prevails.

Next the brahmins in their huts are said to be free of glowing charcoal and smoke. This is a direct continuation of the previous passage, on the storing up of food. In its most literal sense it means that they didn’t cook; once again, just like Buddhist monastics. The passage makes this clear when it goes on to describe how they would go to the village for alms; just like, you guessed it, Buddhist monastics.

As we have already seen, however, these terms not only refer directly to that most pervasive icon of civilization, the cooking fire, but they serve to illuminate and qualify the previous term, jhāyanti, evoking a pure smokeless flame.

But it goes even further than this, for they also undermine another basic feature of the brahmanical life, the worship of the sacred flame. Going back to the very roots of Indo-European religion, probably further, the worship of fire predates even the reciting of texts. But, so it would seem, not only did the original brahmins not worship fire, they were characterized by their rejection of fire. And—you’ll never guess this one—Buddhist monastics are also restricted in lighting fires.

Finally, they are said to have “put down the shovel”. This phrase is usually mistranslated as “mortar and pestle” or something like that, but there is no doubt it refers to specifically a digging implement. It only occurs in one other place in the nikayas, MN 81, where Ghaṭikāra is praised because he “put down the shovel and doesn’t dig the earth with his own hands” (pannamusalo na sahatthā pathaviṃ khaṇati). This phrase is echoed in the Sanskrit text of the Sanghabhedavastu (nikṣiptaparṇamusalo na svahastaṃ pṛthivīṃ khanati na khānayati).

As I have discussed in a previous post, one of the practices of Jain ascetics is that they will not accept food from a house where there is a musala inside. In that post, I said musala might either mean “club” or “shovel”. These days I tend to think “shovel” is more likely in that case; but regardless, that’s clearly what it means here.

Digging the soil is, of course, also essential for agriculture. So along with cooking, these original brahmins reject tilling the soil. You know who else is forbidden from digging? Surprise! It’s Buddhist monastics.

At a spiritual level, the putting down of the shovel is not just the refusal to disturb the soil, but a committment to a life of simplicity and renunciation. Like the similar term pannabhāra (“with burden put down”), which describes the arahants, these original brahmins are described more by what they don’t do than what they do do.

Free of the burdens and duties of civilization, unconcerned for the future, relying on the spontaneous generosity of others, these brahmins devote their lives to meditation, pure and unsullied. They shine as examples for the rest of us, reminding us that the path of greed, ownership, and holding on is the path of suffering.

Given the above, any overly literal translation is doomed to fail. Here is the best I can do.

They build leaf huts in a wilderness region where they meditate pure and bright, without lighting cooking fires or digging the soil. They come down in the morning for breakfast and in the evening for supper to the village, town, or royal capital seeking a meal.


I love this essay, Bhante, but there is something that doesn’t add up to me in the moral myth told in these texts that underpins both the Jain and Buddhist traditions. There is, as you say, a negative judgment against agriculture, the clearing and tilling of land, the use of fire, and the creation of households and agricultural civilization. But why, then, does the Buddha’s teaching not extol returning to the forest and living independently by oneself off of what is naturally provided. Why, instead, does Buddhism extol a life of living in dependence on the food provided by other people, however those others might have obtained it?

It is also interesting that the two traditions don’t even extol the life of the hunter-gatherer, but include hunting in the disapprobation. But why does the Buddha not say one should return to the forest and live off of the fruits of plants?

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And, so, Bhante, is the Buddha painting for the brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvāja a suggestion that the true Brahmin history is that of renunciants having gone forth? Or, is he knowingly mischaracterizing this history in order to teach them about the underlying ethics and value of renunciant life? As you write, the Buddha upends the idea of Brahminhood as being based on nobility of birth, and teaches that the highest ideal of life is that of ethics, no matter one’s birth clan. Later, then, the Brahmanic ideal of being a reciter of the Vedas is discounted, and the superiority of jhanas is valued.

The idea of the shovel being in the hut makes sense, it seems. Earlier in DN27, there is a discussion of mushrooms as food ( to be dug up… “these outgrowths of the soil” ), and “creepers,” which must mean creeping plants including bamboo, that would also be chopped and dug up with a shovel.

Thereafter, rice appears, which needs to be cleaned and scooped:

So, with the implements of gathering of food and cooking of food discarded by the meditators, and the meals gathered on alms rounds, the highest form of ethical behavior is achieved. Am I even close to understanding this?


Yes, good point. This exposes one of the key differences between myth and rationality.

In rational logic, a fact cannot exist with its contradiction.

In mythic logic, a fact cannot exist without its contradiction.

Stories are driven by tension, by conflict, by the mutual coexistence of irreconcilable forces. In rational philosophy, we try to determine what exactly is the outcome when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. In myth, we’d say, “Wow, that’s so awesome!” Without these contradictions, there’s no emotional response, and the story does not exist; no-one would bother telling it.

The point of the story is not to solve this dilemma, but to get you to ask it.


Is there a connection between reciter and one of these variants on jhayati?
jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati

26.“The Blessed One, brahmin, did not praise every type of meditation, nor did he condemn every type of meditation. What kind [14] of meditation did the Blessed One not praise? Here, brahmin, someone abides with his mind obsessed by sensual lust, a prey to sensual lust, and he does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen sensual lust. While he harbours sensual lust within, **he meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates.**1035 “” He abides with his mind obsessed by ill will, a prey to ill will…with his mind obsessed by sloth and torpor, a prey to sloth and torpor…with his mind obsessed by restlessness and remorse, a prey to restlessness and remorse…with his mind obsessed by doubt, a prey to doubt, and he does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen doubt. While he harbours doubt within, he meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates. The Blessed One did not praise that kind of meditation.

  1. “na ca kho, brāhmaṇa, so bhagavā sabbaṃ jhānaṃ vaṇṇesi, napi so bhagavā sabbaṃ jhānaṃ na vaṇṇesīti. kathaṃ rūpañca, brāhmaṇa, so bhagavā jhānaṃ na vaṇṇesi? idha, brāhmaṇa, ekacco kāmarāgapariyuṭṭhitena cetasā viharati kāmarāgaparetena, uppannassa ca kāmarāgassa nissaraṇaṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti; so kāmarāgaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati. byāpādapariyuṭṭhitena cetasā viharati byāpādaparetena, uppannassa ca byāpādassa nissaraṇaṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti; so byāpādaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati. thinamiddhapariyuṭṭhitena cetasā viharati thinamiddhaparetena, uppannassa ca thinamiddhassa nissaraṇaṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti; so thinamiddhaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati. uddhaccakukkuccapariyuṭṭhitena cetasā viharati uddhaccakukkuccaparetena, uppannassa ca uddhaccakukkuccassa nissaraṇaṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti; so uddhaccakukkuccaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati. vicikicchāpariyuṭṭhitena cetasā viharati vicikicchāparetena, uppannāya ca vicikicchāya nissaraṇaṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti; so vicikicchaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati apajjhāyati. evarūpaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, so bhagavā jhānaṃ na vaṇṇesi.

This may be tangential to the intent of your question, but I think the Buddha deliberately laid out the rules of depending on lay people for requisites so that the liberative teachings could last a long time in the world. I know if I was a monk during the Buddha’s time, and he didn’t have that rule, I’d be one of the first ones running into the forest and subsisting on what I could grow and gather myself without having to deal with pesky lay people. Especially in hostile countries and provinces where lay people abuse and revile monastics. How many hardships and tribulations the Sangha of monastics have had to endure to ensure the Dhamma survived to this day. Every day is thanksgiving when we reflect on that.


I think another reason for the dependence is to hold those ordained accountable for their conduct - if they misbehaved lay people would know and would often complain to the Buddha- hence the cause of some of the vinaya rules. It’s a system checks and balances. It is also good for defilements that arise when with other people and not when living alone. It discourages narcissistic omnipotence and encourages living socially which can be an antidote to conceit.

With metta


In Sri Lanka we use the word Buddha Jayanthi to commorate 2500 years of Buddhas birth,
We use the word Mussla to mean unauspises or less fortunate an bad luck person.

but what about…there was something else similar in Sanskrit somewhere=====> search results for musala in DCS

(sannamusale vyaṅgāre nivṛttaśarāvasampāte bhikṣeta. Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra 2.11.16–22)
MBh, 12, 9, 22.1 vidhūme nyastamusale vyaṅgāre bhuktavajjane /
MBh, 12, 234, 8.1 vidhūme sannamusale vānaprasthapratiśraye /
MBh, 12, 269, 9.1 vidhūme nyastamusale vyaṅgāre bhuktavajjane /
MBh, 13, 129, 53.1 vidhūme nyastamusale vyaṅgāre bhuktavajjane /
ManuS, 6, 56.1 vidhūme sannamusale vyaṅgāre bhuktavajjane /
vidhūme sannamusale vyaṅgāre bhuktavajjane / KūPur, 2, 29

I think it might be an accident. (Interestingly, also not in the Chinese versions in T10 and DA5.)

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Wow, that’s amazing. The fact that we have the three words together, in the identical context—alms-going for brahmin mendicants—establishes without doubt that the Buddhist context is related to the brahmanical.

Also noteworthy is that none of them include jhāyaka or any related words, in either sense.

Presumably the Buddhist text is quoting from a brahmanical saying about the life of an ascetic. But the three texts represented here are all much later than the Pali. So it must have been in some, perhaps now lost, root text that was drawn on by all our sources.

The Aggañña has attracted quite a range of scholarly attention over the years: has this been noted before, I wonder?

It is interesting. Not sure why that is so; maybe it is a late addition to the Pali; or else, perhaps it was too hard to translate, what with the puns and everything.


Very insightful analysis venerable @sujato ! My first impression is that it cannot be translated in the same succinct way, it won’t convey the full meaning. This is high poetry even though it appears in prose. Because every word of the four has double meaning as you have shown.

jhāyanti = both meditation and glowing.
vītaṅgārā vītadhūmā = smoking embers and cooking.
pannamusalā = shovel/pestle and agricultural livelihood.

More over they are possibly causally related to each other: the Brahmins are glowing/meditating because there isn’t any burning coal / cooking, etc.

This is just poetry! But if we were to insist on reflecting that poetic dimension, I would depend on this causal relationship to illustrate the meaning, & I’d start with the latest:

Having abandoned shovel and cooking, they sit meditating in their smoke-free leaf huts where no coal is burning, but only them glowing.

This is just quick thoughts but venerable, thank you so much for sharing these insights with us, non of this exists in other available translations. It teaches us to be very careful while reading. :anjal:


Thanks, Ven, nice suggestion, I will bear it in mind.

Normally when translating I follow what I call the “principle of least meaning”. The idea is that, rather than try to overload the translation with layers of interpretation, to capture every nuance and suggestion, the aim should be to present simply and plainly the main meaning of the passage.

Part of the issue here is that we tend to overinterpret texts, especially ancient spiritual texts, burdening them with meaning beyond what is reasonable, so that the translated text becomes more an expression of our own connotations than the words found on the page. So to counter that, we use a working assumption that the simplest and plainest meaning and rendering is usually the best.

But as in all good things, the exception proves the rule. This is one case—I think a fairly rare one—where the text is in fact deeply loaded with multiple meanings. So the question then becomes, to what extent we can capture those multiple senses, without losing the clarity of the basic meaning of the sentence. And this is where the creativity of the translator comes into play.


Well, Venerable, in truth I haven’t stopped thinking about this passage since I saw the post today and I was aware that it completely ruined my day! :slight_smile:

First thing I want to say is that the addition of “but only them glowing” was for demonstration purposes! Remove this sentence and there is nothing, imho, “over interpretive” in the translation I provided. The method that I would employ in deciding whether to keep or remove this sentence is to check whether the double meaning use on the word “jhāyanti” occurs elsewhere in the text. If it does, even once, then I would be very tempted to keep it! [I actually don’t remember if it does!]. However even the “over interpretive” use of this sentence in that particular case, does not really in my view confound the “least meaning”. The only real problem with it is that it is possibly imposed, independently from any intention on the part of the speaker himself, in this case the Buddha. Otherwise, I actually love it! And you would agree, Venerable, that it would be really astonishing if the Buddha did intend to make these poetic references!

I was just thinking about what you are addressing above Venerable. I was wondering whether passages like this are “rare” or whether I just did not notice them before; and I agree that they are generally rare, though certain other forms of subtlety exist, and very often, I presume most translators sit wondering whether this verbal play was intentional (i.e. by the Buddha) or whether it was coincidental in any other way.

I like the “least meaning” criterion, but respectfully Venerable, I myself wouldn’t go so far as to consider it a “principle”, and especially in translating verse. This is not just my opinion here but it is rather widely held, that there is nearly “no point” in translating poetry with a criterion like this! Because then one’s translation ends up being merely a “description” or “report” of what the poem is talking about in the original language! But I really am very interested in grasping the spirit and the way with which ideas are expressed - this is very important for me, although it only adds to the weight of the task; I cannot possibly let go of it. Specifically what I am referring to here is the duty to reflect the “verbal intentions” of the Buddha (or whomever else who is speaking) rather than just their “meaning intentions”. So to use the example above, if I am convinced that the Buddha had intended to employ such double-meaning of words, which you yourself bring to light Venerable, I will undoubtedly make the maximum possible effort to reflect that according to the capacities of the target language, and in that case I will have to carry the responsibility of my choices, or “stand by my translation” as they say sometimes, when others criticise it for being “over-interpretive”; which is quite common and fair in the world of translation as far as I know. It will be also precisely for this interpretive effort that the translation may be praised!

Another important variable here is also the target language; for imho, and according to the little that I still remember from my university studies in linguistics, the heaviest limiting factor is imposed by the target language. And this is very true, I know that by experience: the Pali verse come out astonishingly beautiful, they come out “just right”, when I translate them to Arabic rather than English; but then, try to put the analytic phrases of Venerable Sariputta in the Arabic tongue … God Almighty! :slight_smile: … it never works! It is precisely in a situation like this -where English for example proves to be much more adequate in presenting the “whole meaning”- that I wholly embrace the “least meaning” criterion! So it really depends.

And in many occasions, we will even be forced to add some “layers of interpretation”, not really to “capture every nuance and suggestion”, but to succeed at all in conveying that very “least meaning”, or else it will be completely lost (imho, this is very common in current translations)! This is precisely what you did, Venerable, when you made such explicit references to “cooking”, “pure”, and “bright”, where non exist in the text, adding to that the omission of the reference to “smoke”, a word which I myself believe possibly carries poetic connotations.

And for me, to prioritise meaning over expression should only be an option rather than principle; because there are such occasions in the suttas when I feel that what matters is to highlight the spirit or character of the teacher rather than the content of the teaching! This never means to drop all commitment to the meaning, but only to attend with more flexibility to such compromises between expression and meaning which very much constitute the art of translation as far as my understanding goes.

It is important also to discuss whether that “least meaning” is really something that is inherent in any text! And whether “least meaning” and “all meaning” are always, if ever, different! :slight_smile: But this will render this reply too long, and the sun has already gone down here!

Venerable, I sense that you might not be in agreement with this but I believe that, in whatever language, a good translation of the Suttas must inescapably be highly interpretive, for reasons which I believe have to do not only with the nature and usage of the Pali language, but even more importantly, on the conceptual level; on the level of what “experience” is being referred to by this or that Pali word, or by the one and the same word in various different contexts. Examples of this abound in the suttas. This is mainly why I believe that Dhamma practitioners are better translators than Pali scholars! To me one of the best “translators” of Pali concepts I have come across so far was Venerable Maha Boowa, despite of the fact that I haven’t even read his talks and books in the original language.


But I really am enjoying this discussion and appreciative of this opportunity which this forum brings forth! Anumodami.

Thanks for that lovely discussion.

Just to be clear, by “principle” I simply mean a rule of thumb. It’s helpful as a check to ensure that one is not over-egging the translation.

As far as as translating poetry goes, this is not an area that I feel I have handled very satisfactorily. The problem is that not only is Pali verse much more difficult than prose, it varies tremendously in its “poeticness”. Some verses are highly flamboyant, while others are mere mnemonic checklists; and everything in-between. In some cases, the verse contain doctrinal points and usages that you really want to render consistently with the prose, in other cases they are inspirational, and literalness just drags them down.

Added to this is the problematic nature of modern English poetry in general. To render Pali verse properly, we should really use metrical verse forms, but that is hard, and anyway, few are trained in those. Ven Ñāṇamoḷi remains perhaps the only Pali translator to excel in this area. Yet in some cases his verse renderings are sheer flights of fancy.

And another major problem for me, frankly, is time. If you check the essays on this site, you’ll see I published translations of a few verses, from the Sakkapanha and the Bhaddekaratta. These are verses that I thought were distinctive and interesting enough to warrant a more elegant style. But it takes, not twice as long, but maybe ten or twenty times as long to render those verses. I simply can’t do that for all the verses in the canon.

Anyway, for me the upshot is that in most cases I render verse essentially as prose, divided into lines that loosely correspond with the Pali. This has some advantages, especially in keeping consistency of terminology with the prose. But to make really good poetic translations, I think it’s best to focus on chosen verses of significance, rendered in a way to bring out the special qualities of each set of verses.

Of course, this is my experience in English, and in Arabic, so it seems, an entirely different set of challenges is faced! I imagine sorting out the technical vocabulary must present quite a challenge.



For all of us, venerable, for all of us! Full time job to be sappurisa, full time job to translate! Two full time jobs!

Exactly so venerable. Luckily some of the technical vocabulary from the impressive practice of ‘Sufism’ provide some help.

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Sorry sorry sorry yes that was Gombrich in the Buddha’s Book of Genesis, 1992. Also discussed by Alf Hiltebeitel in Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative. Informed readers can make their own judgements about the latter. (edit- I just remembered that Hiltebeitel picked up some further parallels that Gombrich omitted).

The unfortunate thing about dharmasastra literature is that much of it was probably composed from oral maxims/custom which may precede the texts themselves. I don’t know if you were being sarcastic about a lost root text (sarcasm doesn’t transmit well in print? I have to guess?), but “floating” oral legal maxims are actually a thing. The Mahabharata, as an encyclopedia of custom which contains “everything”, naturally also contains them.

The Chinese texts generally do a lousy job with the puns. But they aren’t omitted completely- the jhāyaka /ajjhāyaka pun is translated (they tried) . However, he three words: vītaṅgārā vītadhūmā pannamusalā are completely omitted from all Chinese versions. Possibly because the text which was transmitted didn’t contain them. Possibly because they are late/extraneous & reading them as if they were a well-thought out part of the text might be pushing it a bit. Still waiting for the Aggañña Sutta Critical edition!