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.