Are the Tāyana Verses really Buddhist?

One of the favorite set of verses for Buddhist monastics is the Tāyana Verses (SN 2.8), which speak to the necessity of sincere and energetic application to the spiritual life for those gone forth. They’re recited after the pātimokkha each fortnight in the Thai tradition.

It might seem odd to suggest that such a well-known set of verses is not really Buddhist; but the verses themselves tell us as much. They’re spoken, not by the Buddha, but by the god Tāyana, who is very unusually said to have in a past life been a religious founder. The Buddha, of course, repeats them, but this is a mere formalism.

The verses are mostly found elsewhere, including the Dhammapada, which means they boast an impressive list of parallels. However, despite the fact that we have no less than three (not all complete) versions of the Sagāthavagga, there doesn’t seem to be a parallel for the sutta as a whole. Moreover, one line in particular, which is the one that strikes me as non-Buddhist, doesn’t appear to have any parallels (though this is based on very incomplete research!)

The line I’m concerned with is the last line of the first verse. The verse is usually translated something like this:

Chinda sotaṃ parakkamma,
Having striven, cut the stream!
kāme panuda brāhmaṇa;
Dispel sensual pleasures, brahmin.
Nappahāya munī kāme,
A sage who doesn’t give up sensual pleasures
nekattamupapajjati.
doesn’t give rise to unification.

So what’s non-Buddhist about this? Nothing; but I don’t think the last line is correct. The key terms are ekatta and upapajjati.

Now, ekatta is an abstractive from eka “one”, and might have a variety of meanings. However the most standard usage is to refer to states of rebirth: in the “nine abodes of sentient beings” and the “seven planes of consciousness” it refers to beings who are “unified in body” and/or “unified in perception”.

The rendering above takes it for granted that the term refers to meditative unification, i.e. jhana or samadhi. However ekatta is not really used as a standard term in that context, although we do find it used that way occasionally (eg. AN 8.86).

The verb upapajjati, however, does not have the same ambiguity. It means “is reborn”. It occurs hundreds of times in this sense in the EBTs. Other uses are very rare; in MN 148 it is used in a special logical sense to mean “tenable, defensible”. So we’d need a strong reason to think that another meaning was meant here, and I can’t see that there is. Given that the most common use of ekatta is precisely to refer to a state of rebirth, surely that is what is meant here.

This substantially shifts the meaning of the verses. As currently taken, they mean that a mendicant must devote themselves to practice, without which they can’t gain samadhi. We take it for granted that this also implies realizing extinguishment; but this is not stated in the verses.

The verses warn us that the penalty of misbehavior is rebirth in hell, while not dealing with the advantages of good behavior in any great detail. It is precisely this unusually stern, scary tone that has recommended it for use in the patimokkha.

If the verses are taken at face value, they are not teaching us to meditate to realize Nibbana at all. In fact there is no real mention of the standard Buddhist terms such as mindfulness, samadhi, and so on. Instead, the emphasis throughout is on strident effort and ethics only.

The terminology is reminiscent of our Jain friends, too: we find tapati used twice, and the stirring up of dust (raja), a very jain idea. The text also refers to the practice of vata (“vows”), once again typical of Jainism or other non-Buddhist sects.

Now sure, these terms, among many others, can be adopted for use in a Buddhist context, but here there is no reflection or modification of their meaning; they’re simply applied as if taken for granted, while the whole field of meditation, wisdom, and release is passed over.

If we are to assume that the text is a Buddhist one, then it is natural to assume that it is recommending that we practice for samadhi, and the phrase ekattamupapajjati, while unusual, is easily read as a poetic expression of this idea. I suspect that this unchallenged assumption has conditioned the various translators.

If we relax this assumption and translate ekattamupapajjati according to its standard usage, the text is telling us to keep ethics, make ardent effort (implying the practice of austerities) in order to be reborn in a state of unified perception.

Here is my proposed translation of the first verse:

Having striven, cut the stream!
Dispel sensual pleasures, brahmin.
A sage who doesn’t give up sensual pleasures
is not reborn in a unified state.

While as a final injunction this is not really characteristic of Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t outright contradict them. The Buddha would also say that effort is required (but effort in meditation, not mortification), that sense desire must be cut (but by the bliss of samadhi, not by burning up desires through self-torment), and that unity should be gained (but samadhi as a basis for insight, not with the goal of rebirth in such a state.) The terminology and phrasing is close enough to Buddhism to allow it to be interpreted according to our usual Buddhist path, which, presumably, is how the text slipped into the canon.

If I am correct, this text becomes another illustration of a principle I first observed in my study of the Satipatthana Sutta: The more popular a text is in contemporary Buddhism, the less likely it is to be authentic.

Okay, this is not really true! There are plenty of counter examples; the patimokkha itself being one of them. Still, there is something to it. The Buddha’s teachings are subtle and difficult, and there is, it seems, an almost inexorable pull back to the more primitive teachings of the pre-Buddhist era.


Note, I edited this essay at a later date after coming across the use of upapajjati in MN 148, hence some of the discussion may be out of date.

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Hello,

Why do you see it as mere formalism? In different parts of SN the Buddha repeats and changes verses slightly if they lack something important. Maybe, in this instance, he liked them the way they are?

Maybe! It’s a formalism in the sense that it applies a formal template, one that is used several times. Since we know that this template exists, we know that anyone, at any time, can create texts by simply applying the template. That means that the template does not establish that the text is inauthentic, but equally, it can’t prove that it is authentic.

The striking thing here is that, while the Sagathavagga has its own distinct character and rhythm, this particular idiom is not characteristic (it seems to be unique in this context, but I haven’t checked carefully.) Normally, as you say, the Buddha responds and varies the original statement. But here—as in DN32 Āṭānā­ṭiya­ (!) and MN 89 Dhammacetiya—he echoes it and adds the uggaṇhatha … pericope, which is clearly acting as a statement to authorize its inclusion in the canon.

Most suttas, of course, don’t need to do this; it’s a sign of lack of confidence. Exaggerated claims like this are like when someone constantly says “believe me!” Rational people don’t say this, because they expect to convince others with the facts, not by an appeal to their personal charisma. In the same way, the Buddha normally didn’t have to make a special effort to get people to remember the teachings.

None of these things by themselves prove very much. But when we have multiple characteristics, all pointing in the same direction, and nothing pointing in the opposite direction, they paint a coherent and convincing picture. This is the best method we have for distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic texts.

So far with the Tāyana verses we have:

  1. lack of Buddhist terminology
  2. extensive use of non-Buddhist terminology
  3. embraces unified rebirth as the goal of the holy life.
  4. uses formal structures uncharacteristic of its setting, but in common with a known late sutta (DN 32)
  5. devotes extra effort to claim authenticity
  6. lack of parallels

This is more than enough to conclude that the text is unlikely to be authentic.

Perhaps I should add another point: whenever I look closely at any aspect of the text, I find something new to add to the list. Like everyone else, I assumed it was an authentic text, until I started translating it. Something about that one phrase bugged me, and it unraveled from there.

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Hello,

thanks a lot for your reply which makes a lot of sense!

After bit of contemplation I started to wonder about term upapajjati. You said that it’s usually unambiguous and means “is reborn”. Yet every dictionary always mentions its another more vague meaning “to arise, produce, occur”. I wonder why that’s the case? Is it because we have verses like the one which is discussed above, where this term “ought” to be interpreted this way because otherwise (without analysis as yours) it made little sense. Or are there instances of upapajjati in the Canon where it really means “to arise” and it has nothing to do with rebirth?

If second case is possible then maybe these verses can be treated as a kind of pun. In the mouth of deva it meant one thing and in the mouth of the Buddha another. But if not:

[quote=“sujato, post:3, topic:3374”]
Like everyone else, I assumed it was an authentic text, until I started translating it. [/quote]

Then “The Art of Disappearing” by Ajahn Brahm needs a bit of errata :smiling_imp:

Okay, well I checked the Critical Pali Dict, where we find 4 senses mentioned.

  1. We find a single entry in a Jataka verse, where upapajji uposathaṃ in Ja 300 apparently means “enter the uposatha”.
  2. The standard sense of “to be reborn”, which occurs several hundred times throughout the nikayas.
  3. “to be possible, adequate, suit”, for which we have one or two occurrences (the entry is unclear to me). They are, firstly, to a text called the Saddanīti—but this is a grammar, so it doesn’t count. Secondly, to the Abhidhammāvatāra (“Introduction to the Abhidhamma”), a fifth-century text. Again, the phrase occurs in verse, and the interesting thing is that it uses the same expression as in the Tāyana verses: ekattaṃ upapajjati. Without knowing anything about this text, I can’t help but wonder whether it isn’t in fact quoting or alluding to the Tāyan verses, which would have been well known by this time. Thus it is at best weak evidence of this meaning for the early texts, and quite possibly the sense arose as an explanation for the Tāyana itself.
  4. As for the sense “to arise, occur, be produced”, to quote the CPD:

(?); (this meaning seems to be almost entirely confined to the aorist, where uda- usually occurs in the place of upa-, either in the text or as a v. l., in one or other of the printed ed.s, giving the possibility that this is the correct reading in every occurrence, even where there is no authority for the reading)

In other words, this occurs rarely (almost always in later texts), there are almost always variant readings (usually udapad- or uppad-), and it almost always occurs in the aorist. But even this is dubious, for the sole reference it gives in the EBTs is to a verse in the Sanghabhedakkhandhaka concerning Devadatta, viz (Horner’s translation):

Mā jātu koci lokasmiṃ, pāpiccho udapajjatha;
Never let anyone of evil desires arise in the world;

Even if this really is upapajjati, the most likely meaning is “be reborn”. So for this to form the basis for a different meaning of upapajjati in the EBTs is thin to say the least.

None of this is to say that the term can’t mean something different here. The root pad is very fertile and occurs in many different senses. There just doesn’t seem to be any real support for it. I started out assuming it would have a variety of idiomatic senses, but I’m surprised how consistently upapajjati occurs.

? I haven’t read it, so i don’t get this: does he quote the Tāyana?

Is ‘uppajjati’ the same word as ‘upapajjati’?

Kāye vā hānanda, sati kāya­sañ­ceta­nā­hetu uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ.

Ānanda, when there is the body, because of bodily volition pleasure and pain arise internally

SN 12.25

~~

Upapajjati [doubtful whether a legitimate form as upa + pad or a diaeretic form of uppajjati = ud + pad. In this case all passages ought to go under the latter. Trenckner however (Notes 77) defends upa˚ & considers in many cases upp˚ a substitution for upa. The diaeresis may be due to metre, as nearly all forms are found in poetry. The v. l. upp˚ is apparently frequent; but it is almost impossible to distinguish between upap˚ and upp˚ in the Sinhalese writing, and either the scribe or the reader may mistake one for the other] to get to, be reborn in (acc.); to originate, rise Vin iii.20 (nirayaŋ); A iii.415; v.292 sq.; Sn 584; It 13 (nirayaŋ), 14 (sugatiŋ; v. l. upp˚), 67 (saggaŋ lokaŋ; v. l. upp˚); 43 = Dh 307 (nirayaŋ); Dh 126, 140; Pv i.107 (v.l. BB. udapajjatha = uppajja PvA 50); Pug 16, 51, 60; Nett 37, 99, cp. Kvu 611 sq. <-> pp. upapannā (q. v.). – Caus. upapādeti & pp. upapādita (q. v.)…

Upapajjati is a tricky word but could very well mean born/risen/appeared rather than re-*. I say this because, the word sounds similar to uppadita, upapaddhita, uppatti. All in Sinhalese mean birth/born rather than rebirth. I imagine “origination” is a good translation here.

Yes, on page 128 he refers to this verse:

The Tāyana Sutta (SN 2:8) says that you cannot reach oneness of mind, samādhi, without abandoning the five senses and sensual desire. That’s an important teaching.We know that the world of the five senses is suffering by its very nature and inevitably leads to problems and difficulties.

No, they’re distinct forms, though from the same root, and with related meanings. Which no doubt is why the texts frequently confuse them. But upapajjati is reserved for “is reborn”, while uppajjati usually has a range of more general sense like “arises”, etc.

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Probably a good idea.

Just a couple of observations, bhante. I think you are right about ekatta and upapajjati, especially the latter. I am guessing Ven. Bodhi’s rendering is a classic example of over-reliance on the commentaries. I can see the same tendency in my own translations. Sometimes, with obscure terminology, of which there is quite a bit in the Vinaya, the commentaries, even the sub-commentaries - or indeed any work that can shed light on a particular matter (I have been looking at texts I never thought I would use, such as, the Abhidhānappadīpikā, Kaccāyanabyākaraṇa, etc.) - are unavoidable. The problem is that sometimes you use them and then forget to stop! So I sympathise with Ven. Bodhi. At the same time it’s great that you are correcting some of these things.

When it comes to the meaning of individual words, I think it is crucial to remember A.K. Warder’s advice that words only get their meaning from the context, and that the shortest textual units with clear and unambiguous meanings are sentences, sometimes even paragraphs. I think this principle is especially useful in oral literature, where the number of contexts a particular word appearsa in is limited and usually standardised. In the present case this means it is probably more useful to look at he phrase ekattaṃ upapajjati than either of the individual words, and then see how this phrase and related ones are used. Ekatta and upapajjati then derive their precise meanings from this. I don’t think this changes anything in the present case, but I think it is very useful to bear the general principle in mind.

The other thing, which is a bit more meaty, concerns the relationship between parakamma and ekatta. If parakamma really refers to austerities (as you seem to suggest with your reference to the Jains), it seems to me that ekatta (whether referring to rebirth or samādhi) is not a natural outcome of this. There is that sutta in the Cittasamyutta where Mahāvīra is portrayed as not knowing much about samādhi. This may be a Buddhist exaggeration, but it is perhaps not too far from the truth.

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And I’m sure in many cases I will correct what shouldn’t be corrected and fail to correct what should be corrected. Oh, well.

Admittedly it’s too vague a term to bear this weight specifically. But in the context of Jain-like practices, that’s what it would entail.

This agrees with what we know about Jain scriptures and contemplative practices (such as they were).

But the point is that the Jains didn’t believe that nivvāna (to use the Ardhamagadhi) was the outcome of what we know as samādhi.

Whether the Jain goal could be described as ekatta is, on the other hand, dubious. It certainly sounds more apt for the non-dual brahmins. But regardless, the fact that they are commonly included as descriptions of heavenly rebirth shows that someone must have wanted to go there!

I don’t really think we can pin down exactly the affiliation of these verses; they’re pretty general, which is why the Buddhists could adopt them. It seems to me they fit well with the general pre-Buddhist contemplative context; perhaps, after all, more on the brahmanical side than the Jain.


This morning I’ve been keeping an eye on the presidential debate updates on the Guardian, while at the same time translating the sabbe sattā marissanti verses. They seem strangely soothing.

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Well, according to the [commentaries] (http://tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/s0301a.att2.xml), ekkata means jhāna.

Ekattanti jhānaṃ. Idaṃ vuttaṃ hoti – kāme ajahitvā muni jhānaṃ na upapajjati, na paṭilabhatīti attho.

My translation goes like this:
The term ekatta means jhāna. This line was said to mean that a sage, not having abandoned sensual pleasures, cannot attain, that is, cannot obtain jhāna.

I respectfully disagree. I am going to argue that the phrase is neither unusual nor poetic.

Let’s begin by taking a grammatical look at the phrase. Upapajjati (upa+pada+ya+ti) is not a causative form. You cannot translate it as “causing something to rise or reborn.” Furthermore, rising and being born are intransitive verbs, which would force the aṃ vibhatti in ekattaṃ (eka+tta+aṃ) to act like some other vibhatti, which is, though not rare, non-standard. Please note that the preposition “in” in your translation “reborn in a unified state” indicates a non-standard use (the aṃ vibhatti acts like samiṃ vibhatti).

As a rule of thumb, it is usually a good idea to attempt standard use first. Pada root that is in the divādi group (hence the ya paccaya in upapajjati) means to go, arrive, know or attain. The upa prefix mostly means inside or near (among many other uses). Therefore, upapajjati literally means arrive inside (a life form) or to attain (an internal state).

Ekatta literally means oneness. This term reminds me of ekaggatā (which is an element of jhāna). Please recall that jhāna is the commentaries’ intepretation of ekatta. I would say that jhāna and ekaggatā can be used interchangeably in this context. Why? You cannot attain ekaggatā without attaining the remaining four elements of jhāna. Ekatta could very well refer to oneness of all elements of jhāna.

Indeed, ekaggatā counteracts kāmachanda (which is one of the five hindrances). It is thus only logical that a sage who still has kāmachanda cannot obtain jhāna.

Would it be a hard sell when you relax the assumption that “the text is a Buddhist one”, but refuse to step away from a non-universal, albeit popular, use of a word?

If you are familiar with such Pali linguistic texts as Subodhālaṅkāra and Nettipakaraṇa, you may succeed in interpreting some non-Buddhist text in a way that is consistent with Buddhist concepts. Lord Buddha himself did this occasionally.

Having said that, trying too hard to insist that a non-Buddhist text is Buddhist is not a good idea. But not trying at all, or ignoring to look at commentaries as one possible interpretation is just sad (why nobody here refers to the commentaries at all). I would say, give commentaries a chance, but with an analytical eye, while trying to come up with competing hypotheses.

By the way, there is no over-reliance on grammar. Grammar is supposed to be consistent with Lord Buddha’s words and meaning, as in “Jinavacanayuttañhi” (Padarūpasiddhi 60). Sometimes we may need to step away from standard grammar and employ very non-standard tools such as niruttinaya (for more info, please read Nettipakaraṇa). Perhaps the problem here is that interest and rigor in Pali grammar studies are declining.

I stumbled upon this webpage by accident while googling something else totally different. I must admit that while it is refreshing to see people discuss Buddhist text in a brave, unrestrained manner usually seen in academic circles (not religious circles - I am a Buddhist monk, by the way), I would say that it is dangerous to enter a deep forest without good survival skills and tools. Anyone would need both.

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Hi Venerable. Thanks for the comments. I’d like to address some of the issues you raise. As implied by the title of the post, the article was exploratory, not definitive, and I am very much open to being persuaded. But first may I ask, how would you translate the line in question?

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