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Confusing translation in AN 3.34


#1

Hey, first post here! I just wanted to check if I’m understanding AN 3.34 right.

I found the following in particular to be confusing:

Any deed that emerges from greed—born, sourced, and originated from greed—ripens where that new life-form is born. And wherever that deed ripens, its result is experienced—either in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.

So, which is it? Does Kamma only ripen in the next life, as the first sentence implies, or during both this life and the next?

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation has the same dilemma:

Any kamma, bhikkhus, fashioned through greed, born of greed, caused by greed, originated by greed, ripens wherever the individual is reborn. Wherever that kamma ripens, it is there that one experiences its result, either in this very life, or in the next rebirth, or on some subsequent occasion.

I’m no expert, but I checked the Pali used, “attabhāvo nibbattati”.

Now, while the official translation of “nibbattati” is “is born, results, arises”, in other Suttas it’s translated as “manifests”, e.g. AN 5.148

“Attabhāva”, aka “living being”, is also an interesting word. I guess a literal translation would be “conditioned self”?

So it’s more of a “wherever the conditioned self manifests”, implying both this life and future ones, rather than only after rebirth?


#2

“Just as when seeds are not broken, not rotten, not damaged by wind & heat, capable of sprouting, well-buried, planted in well-prepared soil, and the rain-god would offer good streams of rain: Those seeds would thus come to growth, increase, & abundance. In the same way, any action performed with greed… performed with aversion… performed with delusion—born of delusion, caused by delusion, originating from delusion: Wherever one’s selfhood turns up, there that action will ripen. Where that action ripens, there one will experience its fruit, either in this very life that has arisen or further along in the sequence."—AN 3.34 Thanissaro

Just like seeds, kamma ripens when conditions are suitable. Just as an untended seed might germinate this season, or in some future season depending on the rains, so kamma- producing actions can ripen in this life or some future life, and like seeds they can only ripen once. Actions motivated by non-delusion do not produce kamma.


#3

Well, interesting question. I agree, the flow of the text is a little puzzling, and as a translator I don’t necessarily have the answer!

I can clear up a couple of things, though. Attabhāva is a rather curious idiom, but it is always used in the sense of a “life-form”, “body”, or a specific reincarnation.

Now, there clearly seems to be some tension between the first line, saying that kamma ripens where the “life-form” “appears”, whereas the second sentence quite explicitly says it can ripen in this life, the next, or sometime in the future. This, of course, is the normal doctrine, and it is unlikely that the first sentence is meant to contradict this. It’s also worth noting that the sutta has no parallels, and this phrase appears to be unique in the Pali canon. As such if there is something that contradicts a well-known doctrine, it is likely that it is a simple error of textual transmission.

The commentary explains the phrase in the same way as Ven Bodhi and myself:

Yatthassa attabhāvo nibbattatīti yasmiṃ ṭhāne assa lobhajakammavato puggalassa attabhāvo nibbattati, khandhā pātubhavanti
“where that new life-form is born”: in the place where that person who did the deed born of greed, their life-form appears, their aggregates manifest.

It’s not entirely obvious in English, but the stock phrase khandhā pātubhavanti confirms that the commentary is talking about rebirth here.

To resolve the dilemma, it seems we should:

  • Assume a textual error.
  • Translate nibbattati as “appears”.

It’s always a good principle to read texts with kindness, to assume it probably knows what it wants to say. So let’s try the second option. Rather than specifying a new rebirth, we could say:

A deed that emerges from greed—born, sourced, and originated from greed—ripens where one’s life-form appears. And where that deed ripens, its result is experienced—either in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.

Also, in this version, I have de-emphasized the universality of the pronouns. Pali has strong forms to indicate “Any” (yaṁ kiñci) but here is the more ambiguous "yaṁ*, which can mean either “any” or just “a”.

What do you think, does that read any better?


#4

Much better, imo!

Perhaps “wherever”?


#5

Hmm. The difficulty this presents is an indirect affirmation of identity view in that “one” is often read as “me, myself and mine.” Perhaps something less specific?

A deed that emerges from greed—born, sourced, and originated from greed—ripens where it is reborn. And where that deed ripens, its result is experienced—either in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.


#6

:thinking: I don’t think this works unfortunately. It makes it sound like the verb “reborn” is pointing to the deed instead of the attabhāva (which your suggested translation omits entirely).


#7

Ah… I had intended the “it” to refer to the craving, not the deed. Because craving leads to this whole sorry mess of identity and rebirth.


#9

I try to avoid “one”, not just for this reason, but because it is overly formal and archaic. It’s okay, but because of the way Pali sentences often have an implicit subject, translators tend to overuse it IMHO> But i have been very strict about this in the past, so these days I am a bit more apt to let an occasional “one” slip by.

Having said which, attabhāva “life-form” is literally “self-state” (cf. Thanissaro’s very literal “selfhood”). The Pali doesn’t fall into the trap of linguistic essentialism, nor should we.

Well, invoking the “principle of least meaning”, the text isn’t strongly universal, so the translation should not be, unless there is a good reason. Is there?

I do, however, feel like the syntax could be straightened out. And perhaps “bears fruit” might be clearer than “ripen”.

A deed that emerges from greed—born, sourced, and originated from greed—bears fruit where one’s life-form appears. And its fruit is experienced in that same place, whether in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.


#10

Ooh, a reply from the man himself! Thank you very much for taking the time to explain it in depth!

“where one’s life-form appears” does indeed make the meaning more obvious. I have also previously heard Rebirth to mean more of a “the five aggregates being in different contexts from moment to moment”, and it just so happens that sometimes the context change involves a new body with new memories, in a new environment, so, from that perspective, the initial translation would make sense as well, though it would be less intuitive.

Also, a thousand thanks for your hard work on translations, and this great website, that makes it so easy to compare translations and look up the Pali!


#11

Thank you!

I actually forgot to check accesstoinsight.org! That translation does appear very literal, I like it!
Though it appears there may be more nuance to it…


#12

Hmm, that’s different from my understanding. Can you quote a source for it?

Many examples of repeated ripening of deeds leap to mind, such as the Therigatha story of Ven. Isidāsī: an arrogant wealthy young man violated a woman and therefore suffered multiple lives of abject misery, until finally being reborn as a girl in a wealthy family, who suffered again from that evil deed by being cruelly rejected by everyone who married her; that is what prompted her to leave home life to ordain.

[Minor edits for clarity]


#13

In the example given, the seed ripens once in the first life, and then the effects continue in subsequent lives. But thank you for clarifying that the effects could extend over several lifetimes.


#14

Hi Scatterbrain. I think ‘production’ is the most broadly applicable translation of ‘nibbattati’ and ‘individual character’ is the most broadly applicable translation of ‘attabhavo’. Note: ‘Individual character’ (per the many suttas with ‘attabhava’) can refer to both mental and physical individual character. Having examined each use of ‘attabhavo’ in the suttas, I found MN 114 to be a most clarifying sutta, where ‘attabhavo’ is shown to not refer to anything inherently unwholesome but is just a generic neutral word. Regards :slightly_smiling_face:

I say that there are two ways of acquiring individual character (attabhāvapaṭilābhampāhaṃ)

Attabhāvapaṭilābhampāhaṃ, bhikkhave, duvidhena vadāmi—

that which you should cultivate and that which you should not cultivate.

sevitabbampi, asevitabbampi;

MN 114