In a number of places in the Pali texts, we find reference to a cold period in midwinter, when the snow is falling. It was regarded as an especially difficult time for an ascetic practitioner to remain in the open. Here in Sydney, I cannot help but think of the many homeless people who have to endure such conditions, which are harsh even in our relatively mild winters.
The stock passage refers to the antaraṭṭhaka, which can be read in two ways. There is a good note to this on the relevant passage in Horner’s Vinaya translation.
The commentaries, followed by Vens Bodhi and Brahmali, treat the compound as “the eight (days) interval”, the interval in question being the final four days of the month of Māgha and the first four days of the month of Phagguṇa. This explanation is found consistently in the commentaries to MN 18, Ud 1.9, and Kd 1.
Another thread of interpretation treats the compound as meaning “the period between the eights”, the eights in question being the eighth day following the full moon in the months of Māgha and Phagguna. In this reading, the period is a month rather than just a week. This reading seems to ultimately stem from Monier William’s Sanskrit dictionary, where he notes that there is a festival or sacrifice for the hungry ghosts at this time. This reading is accepted by Horner, and followed by the Critical Pali Dictionary and (word for word) by Cone in the latest authoritative source, the Dictionary of Pali.
The distinction is, therefore, rather cleanly between the traditional commentarial reading and the modern western scholars. While no-one disagrees with the commentaries without good reason, it is undeniable that one of their weak points is the understanding of ancient Vedic customs. We have access to a wider range of Sanskritic texts, and in some cases there are references or contexts that are clear to us that were apparently unknown to the commentators. This doesn’t mean that they are right or wrong on this particular point, it just means that there is a precedent for this kind of issue.
Taking the term in and of itself, it seems to me that “between the eights” is a more natural reading. The word “interval” seems strange for a period of four days at the end of one month and four at the start of the next. But whatever, language is weird, so that shouldn’t be given too much weight.
What is more important, I think, is that “eight day interval” is oddly specific for such a time. Surely it’s more natural to say something more vague like “midwinter”.
It is common for the “dead of winter” to be marked by rituals, especially sacrifices to the dead. It was a way of acknowledging the departure of life, while at the same time remembering that spring is on its way. Given that the “eights” were apparently marked in this way, it seems to me natural to identify a period with them, much as we might say “I went on holiday over Christmas”. It’s a general idiom for midwinter rather than a specific set of days.
If we were to adopt this reading, it becomes harder to translate. “Between the eights” is meaningless for a modern reader. “The month between midwinter festivals” is more specific, but perhaps overly interpretative. Another option would be to just say “midwinter”.
Incidentally, a minor correction: several translators, including myself and Ven Brahmali, have rendered ratti here as referring to cold winter “nights”. However, in MN 12 it says:
So kho ahaṁ, sāriputta, yā tā rattiyo sītā hemantikā antaraṭṭhakā himapātasamayā tathārūpāsu rattīsu rattiṁ abbhokāse viharāmi, divā vanasaṇḍe
Here the rattīsu clearly includes both ratti (nights) and diva (days). Thus, following the common Pali idiom, rattīsu must refer to what we call a “day”, i.e. a period of 24 hours.
And on days such as the cold days of snowfall in the dead of winter, I stayed in the open by night and in the forest by day.