Discussion of Bhante Sujato’s An Introduction to Itivuttaka - week 2

There was some very interesting discussion this week, but for now I’ll just comment on Bhante’s comments about Nibbana.

In the talk he mentioned that suttas such as: SuttaCentral are ontologically negative but psychologically positive:
“Nibbana is not-this, not-that, not-the other… But it’s great!”.

This seemed to me a good way of being able to hold those two modes of description together.

Another theme is that the idea of nibbana is (and should be) disturbing, and can be grasped wrongly. See SuttaCentral

I liked the comment to the effect that if we get confused by all this, just remember that we’re aiming for the ending of greed, hatred, and delusion…


I loved the concept of approaching suttas on 4 levels - Literal, Moral, Metaphorical, and Transcendental. I also really liked the caution about getting too focused on just the moral (practical application) aspect of reading the suttas. I forget exactly how Bhante Sujato phrased it, but the idea was there is no reason to believe every sutta should have to teach you something about how to live your life.


Yes, it’s very useful and is expanded on in some of Bhante’s other presentations:

The ontological/psychological contrast I mentioned also seems related to different things you can take from the suttas.


Thank you! Yes!

That’s why I need a better note taking system. I found the ontological/psychological contrast quite helpful, but since I didn’t jot it down I was on my way to losing it until you reminded me! :pray:

The Week 2 Talk is on YouTube here. (I’m looking forward to listening soon.)

I’ve heard Bhante say that he learned this approach from a Jewish scholar of Hebrew scriptures. I really appreciate it too, because it forces one to avoid literalist interpretations. :slight_smile:


I’ve listened now, and find that it was a woman rabbi no less! :smiley: That makes me happy.

Bhante talks about the difference between drawing on the suttas for ethical teaching and moral control on the one hand, and on the transformative power of the Dhamma on the other. So that he cautions us against looking for a personal moral meaning in every bit of text we read, and reinterpreting the meaning of the text to suit our personal ethics.

Yet, at the same time as Bhante says, "If the text says ‘don’t kill’ the text means don’t kill, he encourages us to have a creative (metaphorical) response. Responses are, after all, different from interpretations.

He pushes us to considers the transcendental, transformative, interpretation that - when it’s used in the right way - points to nibbana … and skillfully directs us towards the core teachings of the dhamma.

I found it hard to draw any concusions about the nature of the collection of the twos, overall tho.


I scribbled down a few notes this time.

There was a fair bit of discussion about the literal, moral, metaphorical and transcendental interpretation scheme. This actually sounded somewhat familiar to me (I think this actually cropped up when Bhante was in Dublin during his Europe/US tour late last year).

There were several questions relating in one way or other to translation/interpretation.
There was a comment that quite a few prominent teachers, for some reason, have engineering backgrounds, which perhaps goes with an inclination to have a precise unambiguous meaning! :wink: I guess the four-way interpretation scheme might be a bit of an antidote to that.

A Schrodinger’s cat (the quantum physics thought experiment where a cat in a box is simultaneously live and dead until someone looks into the box and collapses the wave state) metaphor was described for translation. Basically, translators are continually killing Schrodinger’s cats during the translation process and they are continually collapsing ambiguities to zero! :slight_smile:

Some questions on the pros and cons of some translation choices, e.g. “mendicant” for “Bhikkhu” (quite a bit about that and possible alternatives), and later about active/positive v passive/negative translations for Pali words, e.g. “non-ill will” v “kindness”, and correspondence between modern Pali words in languages like Sinhalese and their ancient equivalents.

There was a question too on sense restraint, which led onto a discussion of various miscellaneous related topics like the heavy cognitive load in modern life, browser ad blockers and a story about a tarantula! :slight_smile:

Iti43 prompted a lot of discussion (perhaps unsurprisingly). The ontologically negative but psychologically positive angle mentioned earlier was argued for. Though a nice reminder was that nibbana in its perhaps simplest formulation is about cessation of greed, hatred and delusion. Iti49 was mentioned in that if one is not a little scared/uncomfortable about the idea of cessation, then perhaps one is not considering it fully.

The final few minutes was a rather compressed attempt to answer a question about free will as time was running out. I found this an interesting topic. The general argument was that this was something of a non-problem in the East (more a leftover issue from Western theism). Humean causality was also mentioned. Must study the few notes I scribbled down on this and think about it some more. Interesting but complex.


Some deep topics were touched on: the nature of nibbāna and free-will versus determinism, that made for some interesting discussion. In talking about the nature of extinguishment, the term “binary” was used, but perhaps it’s more apropos to talk about a unary operation. Yājñavalkya’s method of “neti, neti” is basically a unary operation (negation) (’!’ as an abstraction for the logical operator of negation in some programming languages), the Buddha just goes one step further and negates Self/ātman/brahman. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of it as an operator and not as an operand, to avoid the confusion of zeroness (nothingness of nothing). Eh, that’s enough swimming in the deep end…