Dhammapada verses 179-180, on tracks and traces

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In my recent postings of Dhammapada chapters, I have been posting some time after translating, and not writing any comments as I go. But then, by that time the issues and problems—which are many!—are no longer so fresh in my mind. So occasionally I’ll write a little about individual verses as I go, also.

Chapter 14, The Buddha", opens with some rather difficult verses. If you think the Dhammapada is for beginners, all I can say is, try reading the Pali! I still sometimes look at a verse, read it, and go, nope, no idea. Only gradually do they yield their secrets.

Here are the first couple of verses, so far.

Yassa jitaṃ nāvajīyati,
He whose victory may not be undone,
Jitaṃ yassa noyāti koci loke;
a victory unrivaled in all the world;
Taṃ buddhamanantagocaraṃ,
by what track would you trace that Buddha,
Apadaṃ kena padena nessatha.
who leaves no track in his infinite range.

Yassa jālinī visattikā,
For him there is no craving—
Taṇhā natthi kuhiñci netave;
the weaver, the clinger—to track him anywhere;
Taṃ buddhamanantagocaraṃ,
by what track would you trace that Buddha,
Apadaṃ kena padena nessatha.
who leaves no track in his infinite range.

The first couple of lines feature rather obscure verb forms, forms that vary considerably in the different versions. The meanings as I translate them seem fairly well accepted by most translators, however.

Note that in the second line the form (according to the commentary) resolves to uyyāti. This is the verb yāti “to travel or go” with the prefix ud, which usually signifies “up”. It’s only other canonical occurrence is in SN 42.6, where it has a causative form, and means “lift up”. I assume the meaning here is that the Buddha’s victory is such that no-one can “go over” it, i.e. it is unrivaled.

The more interesting problem lies in the second half of the verses. Here the issue is not so much linguistic as poetic.

Several translators (Anandajoti, Thanissaro, Fronsdal) take pada here as “path”, but as I have argued earlier, this seems to be unsupported. Norman and Buddharakkhita take rather the well-attested sense of “track”, and I follow in their footsteps. (See what I did there?)

What, I think, all the translators have missed is that there is a close connection in the terms anantagocaraṃ, and apadaṃ. It is a unified image, and has the same force as the English “needle in a haystack”. The point is that the Buddha leaves no footprints as he wanders in his infinite range, so how could anyone hunt him down, still less defeat him?

The idea of “tracking” is one that is far more important in a culture that lies closer to the hunter than ours. The forest is, or was, a vast and practically infinite domain, and tracking any man or beast was a feat of great skill. But tracking one who leaves no footprints, well, good luck!

The verb neti usually means to “lead” or “guide”, and so most of our translators have it. But the problem is it then makes little sense in the context of the verse, especially when the (somewhat artificial) background story is absent. However, the sense “track” is attested for nayati in Sanskrit. In Pali too, it commonly has a sense in logic of “infer”, which is basically the same thing; “tracing” back meaning.