Facing west and back to front

Note: This topic has generated a fair amount of discussion for such a minor point. At the very least, I have been able to share some of my pain at dealing with these problems every day. Not, I hasten to add, that it is anything other than a delicious pain!

In any case, just to note that so far as I am concerned, the question was solved by @DKervick when he pointed out that MN 107 is set in Sāvatthī, so the sense “headed west” works in both cases. So I’m just keeping the following as a record of the discussion.


In a couple of places we find the idiom pacchāmukha, which has been translated as “facing west”. It occurs in MN 107, where a man is given instructions as to the road to Rājagaha, but takes the wrong path and “goes west”. It also occurs in Thag 10.1, where the monk Kāḷudāyin encourages the Buddha return home to the Sakyan republic, crossing the river Rohiṇī “facing west”.

Now, both of these contexts kind of make sense, but I have my doubts.

Firstly, there is a standard idiom for facing in a direction, and it uses abhimukha rather than just plain mukha. So far as I know, we don’t find mukha used this way with any other direction. But maybe it’s just an idiomatic variation.

Secondly, in MN 107 it’s not clear why heading west would be associated with someone losing their way. There’s nothing in the setting to indicate that they have any particular spatial relation to Rājagaha, so why introduce a specific direction here?

Finally, in Thag 10.1 they are said to be seen by the Sakyans and Koliyans as they cross the Rohiṇī. Now, as is well known, a story in the Buddhist tradition concerns the dispute between these two clans over the water from this river, which apparently formed a boundary between them. According to the background story, the Buddha is at Rājagaha, and it does make sense that he would cross the Rohiṇī heading west.

However, perhaps another meaning is intended: pacchā means “back, behind”, and mukha means “front”. In the context of the road to Rājagaha, this clearly makes better sense: he gets the instructions “back to front” and goes the wrong way.

In crossing the river, it is not so clear, but it could refer to the fact that the Sakyans and the Koliyans, on opposite sides of the river, see the Buddha crossing both “back and front”.

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Probably not connected, but one place where cardinal directions are mentioned is when the Buddha is facing east with his monks behind him and his visitors are facing him, i.e. facing west. There is at least one sutta in DN and likely others I’m not recalling where this is the case. Perhaps the rising sun symbolizes light and clarity whereas the setting sun symbolizes darkness and confusion. Simplistic, but plausible. Maybe “going west” could be an idiom for “losing one’s way.”

Maybe, I’m not sure. But if it had a negative connotation, why use it for crossing the Rohini?

Anyway, for those of us who have lived in Sydney, this is certainly plausible!

Ah of course. Not just darkness, but the sun in one’s eyes as well. Blinded by the light!

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I like your explanation, Bhante, but in defense of the older reading and in response to this question, one could argue that since the setting of the sutta is Sāvatthī, and Rājagaha is to the east of Sāvatthī, then a person who failed to follow the Brahmin’s instructions, and took a wrong road to the west instead of the east, would get lost.

Also, in connection with Thag 10.1, since the Buddha is a scion of the Sakyans, who were thought to be kinsmen to the sun, there is a kind of poetic significance in the Sakyan hero crossing the Rohini in a direction that imitates the path of the sun.

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Gosh, I didn’t even think of that, I only looked in the immediate context. You’re probably right, I may well have to retract the argument …

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I don’t know if it has any significance in this context, but in the ancient Chinese traditions, the directions of the compass were highly symbolic.

From the I Ching:

The southwest is the region of retreat, the northeast that of advance. The time of toil and effort is indicated by the west and south. The east symbolized the place where a man receives orders from his master, and the north the place where he reports on what he has done.

In Feng Shui the cardinal directions have to do with the Earth magnetic forces in those directions and are said to have specific qualities based on those directions.

Also in the old Celtic traditions of Europe, special significance was given to the various cardinal directions, which had to do with the movement of celestial bodies.

I can imagine that in ancient India some special significance was given to this too.

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Not so quickly. The Thai translator monks at Mahachula University appear to concur with your proposal. In their translation of the Gaṇakamoggallānasutta pacchāmukho gaccheyya is rendered เดินไปเสียทางตรงกันข้าม (“he goes a wrong and contrary way”).

As for Kāḷudāyī’s gāthās, passantu taṃ sākiyā koḷiyā ca, pacchāmukhaṃ rohiniyaṃ tarantaṃ is rendered ขอพวกศากยะและโกลิยะทั้งหลาย จงได้เข้าเฝ้าพระองค์ที่แม่น้ำโรหิณีอันมีหน้าในภายหลังเถิด. I’m not familiar with the expression อันมีหน้าในภายหลัง (literally: “which has front/face at the back/behind”) but it does sound a bit like “back to front” and certainly doesn’t mean ‘west’.

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Huh, well, I was just about to delete my original post! Now I don’t know what to do!

ทางตรงกันข้าม certainly sounds like it is rendering pacchāmukha in the sense I proposed.

Wouldn’t พระองค์ที่แม่น้ำโรหิณีอันมีหน้าในภายหลัง mean “the river Rohini, whose face is at the back”?

@Dheerayupa, any help here?

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Those that head West may lose their way. For the West is a spiritual wasteland. :smile:

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Dear Bhante,

I’ve phoned Aj Chatchai to ask him about this as I can’t make heads or tails of the Thai translation จงได้เข้าเฝ้าพระองค์ที่แม่น้ำโรหิณีอันมีหน้าในภายหลังเถิด. He agreed that it didn’t make sense.

Am searching for the Pali version in Thai script together with the Thai translation.

Will get back to you soon, ka.

Dheerayupa

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Good to know!

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Yes, I think we need a native speaker here. I’ve posted a query to a Facebook Thai language learning group but so far have only received one (highly unlikely) answer:

ดอน เซนา:
อันมีหน้าในภายหลัง =?= ‘which foresees one’s future existence’ – that is, after death and rebirth according to the karmic law of retribution

:frowning:

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Dheerayupa is looking into it, so we should be good.

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Here’s the Mahamakut University translation:

ขอพวกศากยะและโกลิยะทั้งหลาย จงได้เข้าเฝ้าพระองค์ที่แม่น้ำโรหิณี อันมีปากน้ำอยู่ทางทิศใต้เถิด

“Let the Sakyans and Koliyans see him [the Buddha] at the Rohiṇī River which has its source in the South!”

Actually ปากน้ำ can mean both the mouth of a river and its estuary.

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Interesting to see such varied renderings!

Pretty sure ปากน้ำ means estuary, rivermouth, in fact that’s the only meaning I can see in the dictionaries. Not sure how they got the “south” part, though.

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Yes, you’re right. I was actually under the mistaken impression that mouth meant source. No wonder I failed geography at school.

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Dear Bhante,

Ajahn Chatchai has clearly disagreed with the translation อันมีหน้าในภายหลังเถิด and อันมีปากน้ำอยู่ทางทิศใต้เถิด.

The first one doesn’t make sense.

The second one, he was trying to decipher how the translators could come to such an interpretation, but failed to understand them.

Another Thai translation (claimed to be by Maha Chula):

พระประยูรญาติทั้งฝ่ายศากยวงศ์และโกลิยวงศ์จะได้เฝ้าพระองค์
ผู้ผินพระพักตร์ไปทางทิศตะวันออกซึ่งกำลังเสด็จข้ามแม่น้ำโรหิณี

Ajahn said that it sounds likely. From what he was taught pacchāmukha or ปจฺฉามุขํ means ‘turn your face back (= look back in normal English)’ or ‘turn back’.

A long-time disciple of his was visiting him, so the discussion was cut short. :cry:

However, may I offer an interpretation based on your English (as I have no single clue of the Pali language)?

Is it possible that Kāḷu­dāyi persuaded the Buddha to go and allow his clans to ‘see’ him or to listen to his dhamma (not literally see him). Then, on The Buddha’s way back, while he is crossing the River, Kāḷu­dāyi hopes that

“In hope, the field is ploughed;
The seed is sown in hope;
In hope, merchants travel the seas,
Carrying rich cargoes.
The hope that I stand for:
May it succeed!”

In short, he hopes that the Buddha’s trip will be a success and the dhamma will have been sown in the mind of the people after his visit.

Sutta studies rookie,
:smiley:

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ปากน้ำ means estuary

:slight_smile:

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Thanks so much. Can you translate this to English for me: it’s a little poetical!

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