Did The Buddha Only Teach Dukkha and Its Cessation?

Dear All,

I have found this article on Tricycle Magazine written by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi (the translator of 4 Nikayas):

The article says that widely known phrase of the Buddha, “I only teach dukkha and its cessation” (from MN 22 and SN 22.86), is wrongly translated. The word “only” should be omitted, it says.

I’m not a Pali reader/expert, but Bhante @sujato translation is roughly the same as common translation: “All I describe is suffering and the cessation of suffering.”

Ps. Ven. Bodhi admitted his mistranslation leading to misinterpretation of Buddhism:

I have to confess that I am one of the perpetrators of this literary faux pas, for in several of my own past writings I authoritatively cited the wrongly rendered version of the statement as proof that the Buddha’s entire teaching was only about suffering and the end of suffering. But I’ve since learned otherwise. This experience has enabled me to see how linguistic misreadings of Buddhist texts can give rise to wrong doctrinal interpretations and even promulgate modern myths about the meaning of Buddhism.


Yes, I think it’s a good point. I hadn’t really noticed that detail in the usage of eva. But a quick scan of the (many hundreds) of times that idiom is used, it is clear that when used in the form “… ceva … ca” it doesn’t have an exclusive sense. I’ve changed my rendering to:

In the past, as today, what I describe is suffering and the cessation of suffering.


Thanks for bringing up this topic and correcting the translation! The former version of the statement (“I only teach…”) often comes up in discussions to justify whatever argument about the Buddha’s teaching.

Kelly (who supported B.Bodhi in his AN translation) wrote a great article with statistical analysis and shows that when suttas address lay people they have a “Happiness in this life” as a goal to 12%, “Good Rebirth” to 34%, and only 35% Stream-Entry or Nibbana.

Source: Kelly, J. (2011). The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People. Buddhist Studies Review, 28(1), 3-78.


Interestingly in their revised Tipiṭaka translation the Thai monks at Mahachulalongkorn University chose to make a revision precisely the opposite of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s in the new renderings of the Alagaddūpama and two Anurādha Suttas, by inserting the word ‘only’ (เท่านั้น) which was missing in the earlier versions.

ดีละ ดีละ อนุราธะ ทั้งในกาลก่อนและในบัดนี้ เราย่อมบัญญัติทุกข์และความดับทุกข์เท่านั้น ฯ

Good, good, Anurādha. Both in the past and now I set forth only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.

Their revision does seem to be in line with the commentarial glosses:

Majjhima Atthakathā to the Alagaddūpamasutta:

Pubbe cā ti pubbe mahābodhimaṇḍamhiyeva ca. Etarahi cā ti etarahi dhammadesanāyañca. Dukkhañceva paññapemi, dukkhassa ca nirodhan ti dhammacakkaṃ appavattetvā bodhimaṇḍe viharantopi dhammacakkappavattanato paṭṭhāya dhammaṃ desentopi catusaccameva paññapemīti attho.

“Both in the past…” means “Both in the past at the great throne of Enlightenment. “And now…” means “and now during this teaching of Dhamma.”

“I set forth only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha” – the meaning is: “Not having set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma while dwelling at the place of Enlightenment, from the time that I did set it in motion, when teaching the Dhamma I set forth only the four truths.”

Saṃyutta Atthakathā to the Anurādhasutta:

“Dukkhañceva paññapemi, dukkhassa ca nirodhan” ti vaṭṭadukkhañceva vaṭṭadukkhassa ca nirodhaṃ nibbānaṃ paññapemi. ‘Dukkhan’ ti vā vacanena dukkhasaccaṃ gahitaṃ. Tasmiṃ gahite samudayasaccaṃ gahitameva hoti, tassa mūlattā. ‘Nirodhan’ ti vacanena nirodhasaccaṃ gahitaṃ. Tasmiṃ gahite maggasaccaṃ gahitameva hoti tassa upāyattā. Iti pubbe cāhaṃ, anurādha, etarahi ca catusaccameva paññapemīti dasseti. Evaṃ imasmiṃ sutte vaṭṭavivaṭṭameva kathitaṃ.

“I set forth only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha” means: “I set forth only the dukkha of the cycle [of saṃsāra] and the cessation of the dukkha of the cycle: nibbāna.”

Alternatively: by the term ‘dukkha’ is meant the truth of dukkha. When taken in that sense, the truth of arising is included too, on account of its being the root cause [of dukkha]. By the term ‘cessation’ is meant the truth of cessation. When taken in that sense, the truth of the path is included too, on account of its being the means [for realising cessation]. So the sense: “Both in the past and now, Anurādha, I set forth only the four truths” is shown. Thus in this sutta just the cycle and ending of the cycle is spoken of.

Two of the above three glosses (i.e, that to the Alagaddūpamasutta and the second to the Anurādhasutta unambiguously support Bhikkhu Bodhi’s earlier rendering. The other (the first gloss to the Anurādhasutta) is neutral on the question; that is, it could be translated without the word ‘only’.


Hmmm what is meaning of the verb (paññapemi) there? If the verb meaning is general teaching, then the word “only” should be discard; but if the meaning is “set forth” (setting/rolling the Dhamma wheel), then it doesn’t matter to use “only” there (but without “only” is okay too). Just IMHO…

Is the phrase perhaps in the sense of “our topic for today, students, is once again, this…” ?

Back to lurking, and reading. Thank all for this thread.

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Paññapeti is one of about half a dozen common Pali verbs (ācikkhati, deseti, paññapeti, paṭṭhapeti, vivarati, vibhajati, uttānīkaroti …) each meaning more or less “to teach”, possibly with subtle differences of meaning between them, or possibly not.

None of these is the verb used for setting in motion the Wheel of Dhamma, which is dhammacakkaṃ pavatteti.


Thank you for your explanation, Bhante. I think the commentary read it as “set forth” in sense of setting the Dhamma wheel so that the word “only” is needed, cmiiw :anjal:

If we assume that the “description of suffering” includes both an account of the nature of suffering and the causes of suffering, then that statement from MN 22 captures 3/4ths of the four noble truths. The only thing missing is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.


Or, perhaps we should compare with the parallel version from Chinese Agamas and Sanskrit texts (if any) :thinking:

From Bhante Analayo’s comparative study of MN and his translation of SA, it turns out that the Chinese Agama parallel in MA 200 and SA 106 doesn’t contain the statement. So, we can only rely on linguistic construction…


That is interesting. I wonder if they did so based on the Pali, the comm, or on the English? We’ll probably never know!

Ven Bodhi doesn’t really give much of a linguistic argument in his essay, but I’m pretty sure he’s right. The … ceva … ca construction is used very commonly, and it doesn’t seem to ever have an exclusive sense. But as usual, there’s probably an exception somewhere!


Most probably on the commentary. Their official policy is to translate according to the commentary’s glosses and most of the revisions in the new Mahachula edition seem to consist in correcting the earlier translators’ oversights in this matter.

Indeed. When one is composing a Pali sentence of the form:

“subject + verb + only + direct object-1 and direct object-2”

using c’eva … ca seems to be a very uncommon way of doing it, but it is occasionally instantiated in the texts. For example, the Asilakkhaṇa Jātaka has:

Bārāṇasirañño pana putto n’atthi, ekā dhītā c’eva bhāgineyyo ca ahesuṃ.
But the King of Benares had no son; he had only a daughter and a nephew.

Slightly more common is to use eva with saha:

Api c’āhaṃ, bhikkhave, sahā’va sukhena, sahā’va somanassena catunnaṃ ariyasaccānaṃ abhisamayaṃ vadāmi.
But rather, bhikkhus, I declare that the breakthrough to the four noble truths is accompanied only by happiness and only by joy.

But commonest of all seems to be eva without any coordinating conjunction:

Yā janikāmātu mātā yāva sattamā mātumātāmahayugā brāhmaṇaṃ’y’eva agamāsi, no abrāhmaṇaṃ.
Your mother’s mothers back to the seventh generation of mothers of mothers went only with brahmins and never with non-brahmins.

Atha kho s’v’eva amanusso kilamathassa vighātassa bhāgī assa.
Then that non-human would be a partaker only in weariness and vexation.

I suspect c’eva … ca is out of favour for this purpose precisely because of the ambiguity it will sometimes give rise to. However, since it is at least a grammatically possible construal of “dukkhañc’eva … dukkhassa ca nirodhaṃ” Ven. Bodhi’s self-critique of his earlier rendering seems a little overstated to me.


If you do not mind me asking, how does Theravāda commentarial literature and early literature interpret and treat the bodhimanda? I am only familiar with discourse concerning it coming from the Mahāyāna direction.

This is from a Gāndhārī Prajñāpāramitāsūtra fragment, seemingly polemicizing against Mahāyāna’s prevalent docetism (I am speaking of, for instance, when Venerable Guanding speaks of Shākyamunibuddha “casting of his Mahāvairocana robe” and donning a Shākyamuni robe when leaving the bodhimanda to descend to earth):

I’m afraid this isn’t something that I’ve ever looked into with any thoroughness, so I don’t really know much more than what’s given in the entry for Bodhisatta in the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names:

On the day the Bodhisatta attains to Buddhahood, he receives a meal of milk-rice (pāyāsa) from a woman and a gift of kusa grass, generally from an Ājīvīka, which he spreads under the Bodhi-tree ²⁰ for his seat. The size of this seat varies; the seats of Dīpaṅkara, Revata, Piyadassī, Atthadassī, Dhammadassī, and Vipassī were fifty-three hands in length; those of Koṇḍañña, Maṅgala, Nārada, and Sumedha fifty-seven hands; that of Sumaṇa sixty hands; those of Sobhita, Anomadassī, Paduma, Padumuttara, and Phussa thirty-eight; of Sujāta thirty-two; of Kakusandha twenty-six; of Koṇāgamana twenty; of Kassapa fifteen; of Gotama fourteen.²¹

and the Nidānakatha, the introductory part of the Jātaka Atthakathā. See pages 188-196 for the account of Gotama’s construction and placing of the seat, along with Māra’s attempt to challenge his right to it.

And for a comparison of all this with earlier sources, see Ananda Guruge’s The Buddha’s Encounters with Mara the Tempter.

Isn’t it in Mahayana, the Buddha is said to set forth Dhamma wheel three times? The first is teaching Four Noble Truths to five ascetics (this is for teaching the sravakas), second is teaching Prajnaparamita to the Bodhisattvas, and third is teaching Tantras to advanced practitioners. Perhaps, the Pali commentary give the word “only” to deny the possibility of other Dhamma wheel rolling than Four Noble Truths…

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That is a Yogācāra theory, yes. Different sects will have different stances on how to reconcile the fact that their scriptures are older. The Tiāntāi school has a similar scheme without the triyāna, and without tantra/vajrayāna, because it wasn’t around yet.

For instance, in the parallel Tiāntāi framework, take out tantrayāna as the highest teaching to the most advanced practitioners, and substitute the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, particularly as interpreted through two commentaries, 法華玄義 & 法華文句, for the same thing. Each school always seems very sure they have it right.

Probably because their prominence and ability to promulgate their texts and teachings often depended upon patronage from an emperor.


I think the commentators would likely have construed the passage in the way they do even if the Mahāyāna had never existed.

The interpretive principle that any sutta, gāthā or vyākaraṇa taught by the Buddha is (in some way or other, howsoever contrived) an exposition of the four noble truths predates the commentaries by several centuries. It may or may not have been a pre-sectarian idea, but in Indian scholastic Buddhism it was certainly a trans-sectarian one. In the case of the Theravāda we first encounter it in explicit form in the Peṭakopadesa’s exposition of otaraṇa (‘ways of entry’), the twelfth of the sixteen modes of conveying.


It is a good acedemic discussion.
Blut end of the day what else Buddha teach in addition to the Dukkha and the cessation of the Dukkha?
I think all his teachings are revolving around these two.
So I have no problem using that Buddha teach only the Dukkha and the cessaton of Dukkha.
I just wonder whether Bhiikhu Bodi had some political motivation for the backflip hence he has the tendancy to side with Mahayana as Seniya mentioned.

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I don’t think so…

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