Finished notes for the Majjhima Nikāya!

I’ve been steadily working on annotating and revising the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya, and just reached the end, sutta number 152! The final set of notes will appear on SC when next we update (usually every week).

My usual process for MN has been to first read the Sutta, writing notes as I go, and looking up in primary sources anything that strikes me as interesting. Then I check Ven Bodhi’s notes to see if I’ve missed anything crucial, and finally refer to Ven Analayo’s Comparative Study of the Majjhima Nikaya for information about parallels. Of course, in individual cases there is often a lot of meandering in-between!

This is a long-term and evolving project, and I am learning a lot every day I work on it. It lets me dig deep into terms and ideas whereas previously I had mostly followed the consensus view (if I may name it such). Of course in most cases there is no change, and in some cases my translation reverses, where I realize my former attempt at revision was poorly founded so I revert to the consensus view. But on the whole the revisions tend towards a more independent wording.

This is mostly because, where Ven Bodhi and most other translators look forward to the commentaries, I prefer to look back to the pre-Buddhist texts.

This different attitude is most evident in the notes. Take MN 140, for example. Ven Bodhi’s note summarizes the extensive and fascinating commentarial story:

According to MA, Pukkusāti had been the king of Takkasilā and had entered into a friendship with King Bimbisāra of Magadha through merchants who travelled between the two countries for purposes of trade. In an exchange of gifts Bimbisāra sent Pukkusāti a golden plate on which he had inscribed descriptions of the Three Jewels and various aspects of the Dhamma. When Pukkusāti read the inscription, he was filled with joy and decided to renounce the world. Without taking formal ordination, he shaved his head, put on yellow robes, and left the palace. He went to Rājagaha intending to meet the Buddha, who was then in Sāvatthı̄, about 300 miles away. The Buddha saw Pukkusāti with his clairvoyant knowledge, and recognising his capacity to attain the paths and fruits, he journeyed alone on foot to Rājagaha to meet him. To avoid being recognised, by an act of will the Buddha caused his special physical attributes such as the marks of a Great Man to be concealed, and he appeared just like an ordinary wandering monk. He arrived at the potter’s shed shortly after Pukkusāti had arrived there intending to leave for Sāvatthı̄ the next day in order to meet the Buddha.

The idea that the Suttas were written down as a gift between kings on golden plates is really interesting, and even though there is no evidence apart from this passage, it is an intriguing possibility.

The more I looked into it, however, the less probable the story seemed. So here is my note on the same passage:

Buddhist texts of the middle period—starting a few centuries after the Buddha—share the story that Pukkusāti had been the king of Taxila in Gandhāra, who went forth out of faith upon reading texts of the Dhamma sent by his friend and ally, Bimbisāra. This story is found in detail in the Pali commentary to this Sutta, and more briefly in several canonical texts of the northern traditions (T 211 at T IV 580c19; T 511 at T XIV 779a; Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya 3.2.26, which spells his name puṣkarasāri, the same name as the brahmin known in Pali as Pokkharasāti). Texts of this period also know of a script called puṣkarasāri (Lalitavistara 10, Vaidya 87; Mahāvastu 14, Senart 1.135). This would presumably have been the writing system in the city of Puṣkarāvati, another city in Gandhāra, the region where the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts have been found. The details of the Pukkusāti legend are improbable and it is mostly likely an origin myth suggested by the similarity of his name with Puṣkarāvati, authorizing the establishment of the Dhamma in Gandhāra in the post-Ashokan period, as well as offering a precedent for the writing down of the Dhamma.

But I’m learning not just about the background, but about how the background applies in the context of the texts themselves. In the same sutta, for example, I looked at the different ways the “elements” (dhātu) are spoken of. Now, the Pali uses two quite distinct terms, dhātu and mahābhūta. Dhātu is used very widely for all sorts of “elements”, whereas mahābhūta is used exclusively for the four material elements and derived materiality. Previously, following most translators, I rendered both as “element”. The commentary, after all, says that mahābhūta is just a name for the elements, and ascribes no particular significance to the term.

But the name means “great truths”, “principle realities”. It seems like a strong term to be merely a synonym. Greater than what? Buddhist texts offer no explanation.

Looking deeper, mahābhūta appears in a prominent passage at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.12, where it is contrasted with the non-prefixed bhūta. Here is the translation from Wisdomlib, lightly modified to bring out the connections with Buddhist terminology.

As a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves with (its component) water, and no one is able to pick it up, but whencesoever one takes it, it tastes salt, even so, my dear, this great reality (mahadbhūta), endless, infinite, is but a sheer mass of consciousness. (The self) comes out (as a separate entity) from these realities (elements, bhūtā), and is destroyed with them. Afterwards there is no more perception. This is what I say, my dear. So said Yājñavalkya.

This is the crux of Yājñavalkya’s philosophy, and a passage that is referred to implicitly many times in the suttas. Yājñavalkya contrasts the plural “realities”, “elements”, the “things of the world” with the singular “great reality” which is the unconditioned and infinite Self of pure consciousness.

Here we find the clear distinction between the ordinary conditioned “realities” and the “great reality” that we are missing in the suttas.

As so often, it seems the Buddha is adopting the terms of his forerunners, especially Yājñavalkya (in whose school, I believe, he studied before awakening), and shifting the meaning: ‘What the Upanishad takes as the “great reality” is actually multiple “great realities”, all of which are merely varieties of conditioned elements.’

The fact that it is matter that is so described is pointed, as that specific passage of Yājñavalkya has been interpreted in a materialistic fashion. If we take his reference to saṁjñā at the end as referring to mind in general, he seems to be saying there is no consciousness after death, and thus that reality is primarily material. This is, it seems to me, clearly a misreading of the passage—it is, rather, contrasting particular, limited knowledge (saṁjñā) with infinite consciousness (vijñāna)—but it is one that one encounters today. Indeed, in the Upanishad itself, it is this point that throws Maitreyī into confusion.

This passage also sheds light on why, when the four mahābhūtas are mentioned in the suttas, they usually appear in a passage that speaks of “the four principle realities, or form derived from the four principle realities”. The notion of “derived form” is solely associated with this wording, and surely harks back to the Upanishadic passage, where the lesser “realities” emerge from the “great reality”.

It also sheds light on DN 11 Kevaṭṭasutta, where the misguided mendicant searches up through the heavens for an understanding of where the four “primary realities” cease without remainder, a search that ends with Brahmā, who advises him to ask the Buddha.

Anyway, I ended up revising my translation and offering the following note:

The Buddha’s use of mahābhūtā (“principle realities”) responds to Yājñavalkya’s core teaching at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.12, where the several “realities” (bhūtā)—namely the diverse manifestations of creation—arise from and dissolve into the “principle reality” (mahābhūta) of the Self, singular and infinite. For the Buddha, the “principle realities” are themselves plural, as there is no underlying singular reality.

25 Likes

I asked Bhante Bodhi what is his thought about the commentary in general and he said that he would take it lightly. Often I heard in his lectures that he disagreed with the commentaries. :blush: Maybe back then it was the only source he could find regarding the background history of Sutta. I know in his Aṅguttara Nikāya Sutta class, Bhante Bodhi always use his Pali search engine to check a word carefully and compare them with other sutta rather than with the commentaries.

3 Likes

Thanks. Good to know that!

1 Like

Bhante, I wonder if you would like to revisit this old thread…

When I read it years ago I took from it the idea that you were not keen on footnotes. However reading it again I can see that this wasn’t exactly your position. And certainly SC has gone from zero footnotes to quite extensive footnotes. So I guess I’m interested to hear if your thinking on this has changed, or if you just feel like you now have the technology to do footnotes in the way you wanted to all along.

A few months ago I started reading your DN translation (on a Kindle) and got kind of overwhelmed by the footnotes. Of course that’s a me-problem. But they do seem to have gone from being very straightforward as a way to help new readers (“X usually means such and such in the suttas…”) to quite speculative. And of course speculation is fine. But it just feels very married in with the translation now. And including them at the bottom of the page in print translation makes them even more prominent.

5 Likes

Congratulations!

Do you mean “category” or “substance” here? “Reality” by definition is singular, being the sum total of all that is (at least when we’re talking metaphysics / ontology).

Bhante, could you expand more on how to understand what you mean in English by “principle realities” as translation for mahābhūtā?

My question relates to how to properly translate this to Portuguese when I come to work on a translation of DN11 informed by yours.

If you know any Spanish, Italian or French, feel free to share how you would translate it to those languages as this will help me getting my head around it.

P.S.: I welcome third party explanations but really want to focus on bhante @sujato’s reasoning and explanation for his choice of words here - translator to translator. :anjal:

3 Likes

Indeed. I don’t think it’s a major difference of overall viewpoint, but a difference of emphasis. I’m able to do this work precisely because Ven Bodhi and others have already tilled the soil and solved so many problems. Nonetheless, in the Majjhima in particular, his notes mostly consist of paraphrasing the commentary, which does not mean that he endorses them.

FWIW, I think we should move beyond paraphrasing and translate the whole of the commentaries.

A bit of both.

The technological issue is that the notes are embedded in the content of the file, and become hard to distinguish. That also becomes a lazy way out for translators, “just put in the footnotes”.

But it’s also simply that as I work longer on the suttas, my understanding becomes deeper and more contextualized, and I feel I have more to contribute. I see discussions of suttas time and again revolving around the same circles, and in my view, all too often missing the point due to lack of understanding context.

I dunno, I feel like we regularly talk about multiple “realities”. But no, neither category nor substance would work. Maybe something else, I’m not wedded to “reality”.

So underlying this is the notion that bhūta is something that has come to be in that state, i.e. a conditioned reality (see SN 12.31). But bhūta is also used in the sense of “truth”, and also “sentient being”, which from an Upanishadic point of view would mean that all the limited, conditioned realities of the world, including the limited sentient beings we think we are. Hence the contrast with the “great being” or “principle reality” of the true ātman of infinite consciousness. Notice how for both the Upanishad and the Suttas, the bhūta are conditioned and limited, they only differ as to the mahābhūta.

So we want something that will try to capture something of that, while still serving as a reasonably coherent way of talking about the four material elements. Perhaps “facts” or “objects” or “entities” would serve.

4 Likes

The DPD includes “primary states” within the definitions of mahābhūtā.

Perhaps that’s a good way to go?

Maybe, I’m not sure what is wrong with “realities”?

1 Like

I am not sure … perhaps it sounds too abstract for many people to make sense of it?

“States” can refer both to literal states of aggregation like solid, liquid, etc., and to a more abstract sense as well.

1 Like

Wait… how is “facts” a fit? #confused Would you refer to a sentient being as a “fact”?

“Entities” makes sense to me given the constellation of meanings you’ve outlined above:

Entity: a thing with distinct and independent existence; the existence of a thing, as distinguished from its qualities or relations; That which constitutes the being of a thing; essence, essential nature; Something that has a real existence
– OED

:pray:

2 Likes

Hi Bhante,

Thanks for your reply.

I am still not sure I get it.

The issue for me is that my understanding of the term “principle” is that it is a noun, not an adjective.

Hence, when I read “principle reality” I read to nouns in a row which doesn’t mean much to me.

Do you mean to say “principal reality” instead?

Principal vs. Principle: Commonly Confused Words.

:anjal:

3 Likes

Thank you for the wonderful notes, bhante! Much gratitude :smiley: These have been a real treat and very helpful in elucidating the often forgotten cultural context of the suttas. I’ve really enjoyed browsing the comments in the discourses I’ve read. It will definitely be a great resource. I also appreciate connecting place names, people names, etymology, historical context, etc.

The notes on dhātu vs. mahābhūta are interesting. This is something I’ve seen discussed here on the forum before. Dhātu seems to be given much more ontological status than I think it deserves, whereas mahābhūta often seems reduced to phenomenal characteristics while it seems to be whispering of deeper connotations lying dormant in the word.

I think it is reminiscent of the ‘ultimate realities’ of the Abhidhamma, which as you know, the four elements are the primary “material” ultimate realities. There are also the four ultimate realities which are a different Abhidhamma list, and there the word ‘realities’ can carry a similarly problematic reading.

I’m not so comfortable with saying the Buddha had a pluralistic view of principle realities.

“Well, is all a unity?”
“‘All is a unity’: this is the third cosmology.
“Then is all a plurality?”
“‘All is a plurality’: this is the fourth cosmology.

To me, this is reminiscent of your discussion on ‘sakkāya.’ Whereas the Upaniṣadic thinkers tended towards a monistic philosophy with one ultimate reality, it seems many samaṇas tended towards a pluralistic view (Jains, Ājīvikas, etc.). The later Vaiśeṣikas are a Brahmanical example of a “sectarian” pluralistic philosophy.

On the other hand, words are tricky, and ‘mahābhūta’ obviously does have connotations of, also, “great beings” in the sense of divinities, deities, or realities. You have also specified that these are considered conditional, rather than ultimate substances.

:pray:

3 Likes

Well done, Bhante.

I’m looking forward to seeing the comments on this passage from MN140:

‘Wherever they stand, the streams of conceiving do not flow. And when the streams of conceiving do not flow, they are called a sage at peace.’
Yattha ṭhitaṁ maññassavā nappavattanti, maññassave kho pana nappavattamāne muni santoti vuccatī’ti

Regarding “primary realities”:

I’m also wary of the use of “realities”. It sounds a bit fixed and static… Furthermore, I fear that “primary realities” will be difficult to understand without a footnote (though of course, one could also say that about “element”).

How is it going to sound in passages such as SN12.2?

The four primary realities [elements], and form derived from the four primary realities [elements].
Cattāro ca mahābhūtā, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṁ upādāyarūpaṁ.
This is called form.
Idaṁ vuccati rūpaṁ.

Ha ha, sorry my bad, you’re right of course. Now I just have to check whether I made the same mistake in the actual texts … OMG I did, fixing now.

Thanks, my absolute pleasure!

Hmm, maybe. In fact we do refer to “states of matter” as solid, liquid, gas, plasma, which is basically the same thing, so that’s probably good.

Maybe yeah, tho I’m inclining to “states” right now.

The four principal states, and form derived from the four principal states.

4 Likes

Sadhu bhante. I have noticed that this happens a lot in Australian English, so maybe we don’t have a pure mistake as the language may be changing! :anjal:

1 Like

Thank you Bhante Sujato for the Excellent Work!

:anjal:

Then you can say the commentary is actually right when it says that mahābhūtā means “the four elements”.

1 Like

For sure, the commentary is not wrong, it’s just not very illuminating.

1 Like