Heartfelt Sayings: inspirational passages and stories

I am continuing my series of Guides to my translations of the Pali, and here offer a draft for the Udāna. I intended to write one for each of the translations from the Khuddaka. As always, your suggestions, comments, and corrections are most welcome.

The Udāna is a collection of 80 discourses that are are inspiring, accessible, and epigrammatic. It forms an ideal introduction to the Buddha’s teachings; a combination of simple, catchy, and profound that remains as popular today as it has ever been. The collection speaks of meditation, wisdom, and freedom in the context of dramatic, sometimes quirky, stories, loosely arranged to follow the life of the Buddha. It finds space for ethical examples, ecstatic celebrations of liberation, and solemn meditations on the nature of Nibbāna.

Each discourse has a narrative background culminating in a short passage of heightened significance that conveys the spiritual essence of the text. These passages give the collection as a whole its name. The word udāna literally means “up-breath” and it is translated as “heartfelt saying” or “inspired utterance”. These passages are usually, but not always, in verse. The commentary explains udāna as an overflowing of joy in the heart.

This sense of udāna appears to be specifically Buddhist. The word udāna appears in the Brahmanical Upaniṣads as one of the five “breaths” which form one aspect of the self (eg. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3,9.26, Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3,13.5). There is, however, nothing in these passages that suggests any connection with the Buddhist usage. While the Buddhist texts do have a similar concept of different breaths moving around the body, they describe them with quite different terminology MN 140:17.5, while reserving the word udāna for the sense “heartfelt saying”.

The prose setting and the udāna proper are joined by a stock phrase recording that the Buddha, having understood the events of the narrative, spoke the udāna. A key term in this stock phrase, attha, has been interpreted by some translators as “meaning” (Ireland, Ṭhānissaro, Mahendra) or “significance” (Ānandajoti). Others, however, take attha in the sense of “connection” (Strong) or else “matter” (Masefield), a sense also accepted by Cone in her Dictionary of Pali.

How are we to resolve this? Well, grammatically, etamatthaṁ viditvā reads more naturally as “this matter” than “the meaning of this”, for which the genitive is used for example at SN 22.1:7.3 (etassa bhāsitassa atthamaññātuṁ). We find a further clue in the rather curious detail that in one and only one discourse of the Udāna, there is a tag line that echoes the tag found in all discourses of the Itivuttaka. There, it says that “this attha was spoken by the Buddha”. At the end of Ud 1.10 the tag says “this udāna was spoken by the Buddha”. Since the udāna can only mean the text or substance of what was spoken, it seems the same must apply to attha. In these cases, then, attha does not have its more common textual sense of “meaning”, but rather refers to the passage or matter or substance of what was spoken.

The place of the Udāna and its relation to the Dhammapada

The Udāna is the third book of the Khuddaka Nikāya in the Pali Tipiṭaka. There’s also an udāna in the list of the Buddha’s teachings known as the the nine sections or genres of the teaching (navaṅgadhamma) (eg. AN 4.6, MN 22:10.2). This list appears in a standard form within the Nikāyas, and is found in similar form in the Chinese Āgamas and elsewhere, although there we also find an extended list of twelve sections. The Nikāyas are not mentioned at such an early stage, which suggests that the nine sections were an earlier way of organizing and categorizing the Dhamma, one which may have originated during the Buddha’s lifetime.

This raises the question as to whether the Udāna as we have it today is identical with the udāna referred to in the nine sections. To answer this we shall have to consider the close relation of the Udāna with another class of Buddhist scripture, the Dhammapada (Sayings of the Dhamma).

The Dhammapada is notably absent from the nine sections. And if we look to collections outside of Pali, we find a number of Dhammapada-style texts that are called Udānavarga (Handbook of Heartfelt Sayings). These are attributed to the Sarvāstivāda, which was an early school of Buddhism based in north-east India, especially Kashmir. Today we find several versions in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, all similar but with their own idiosyncrasies. Like the Pali Dhammapada, the Udānavarga is purely verse, without narrative. On the other hand, some texts called Dhammapada supply a narrative background for their verses (T 211 and T 212 in the Chinese Taishō Tipiṭaka). Meanwhile the Pali Dhammapada, while being purely verse in the canon, is accompanied by a set of narrative stories in its commentary, which contain many of the most beloved stories in the Theravada tradition.

It seems, then, that the original idea of the udāna was a collection of short sayings, often in verse. These sayings would have been taught together with a narrative that framed and gave weight and significance to the verses. However, the udānas themselves would have been relatively fixed at an early stage, while the stories would remain relatively fluid. In practice, the stories would have been conveyed by a teacher in a flexible way; this style of Dhamma teaching is still popular today. The narratives vary more than the verses, and we often find that the same verse is accompanied by a quite different background story. This literary form is a common one in Buddhism and we find variations of it in such diverse places as the Jātakas and the Vinaya Vibhaṅgas. At some point, these collections became known as Dhammapada. In the Pali tradition two separate texts emerged, the Udāna with narrative background in the canonical text, and the Dhammapada with narrative background in the commentary.

What is common to all these collections, however, is the character and flavor of the collected verses. They address universal themes of the Dhamma in a pithy and appealing way. Typically the verses stand individually, sometimes in pairs, and and collected in chapters by theme. While the detailed list of chapters and verses differs from one collection to the next, they share many hundreds of verses in common. They differ in the selection and arrangement of verses, not in doctrine.

To answer our question, then, it seems that the text of the Udāna as we have it today is neither identical with the udāna referred to in the nine sections, nor is it completely different. Rather, at first udāna referred to a somewhat fluid genre of short passages of a popular and uplifting nature. Over time, these crystallized as the collections we know today as Dhammapada and Udāna. Each of these collections share a common structure, flavor, and much of the content. The verses would have been taught with background stories, which over time became collected, sometimes in the canonical texts, and sometimes in commentaries.

As a point of clarification, it is worth noting that there is a separate class of verses in Buddhist texts that are called uddāna (with double d). Despite the similar spelling, this is a completely different kind of verse. An uddāna is a summary that appears at the end of a chapter or larger section, and lists the titles of the suttas or chapters. It performs much the same function as a table of contents in a modern edition, and appears very widely throughout all the early Buddhist literature. Traditionally it would act as a mnemonic, so that reciters could check that that had remembered all the suttas of that chapter. Most modern translators, including myself, do not translate these. While udāna traces its root to āna “breath”, uddāna is from the root dayati “to bind”, and means a “set” or “batch”.

Udānas outside the Udāna

The Udāna marks its heartfelt verses, the udāna proper, by saying that the Buddha “expresses this heartfelt sentiment” (udānaṁ udānesi). If we consider the udāna as a literary trope, we find it is not restricted to the book called Udāna, but is used quite widely in the Nikāyas, and even the Vinaya.

Some of these udānas are collected in the Udāna. For example, the first three suttas of the Udāna also appear as the opening sections of the Vinaya Khandhaka (Pli Tv Kd 1). When, at the end of his life, the Buddha decided to relinquish his life-force, he spoke an udāna to mark the dramatic occasion. The verse appears, with narrative context, in several places both in the Udāna and elsewhere (Ud 6.1, AN 8.70, SN 51.10, DN 16:3.10.3). That last sutta, the Mahāparinibbāna, features two other udānas, on crossing the river (DN 16:1.34.3) and on giving (DN 16:4.43.2), which are found in consecutive suttas of the Udāna (Ud 8.5, Ud 8.6).

In other cases, an udāna is not collected in the Udāna. The Aṅgulimālasutta, for example, concludes its tale of redemption with a series of verses described as udānas. Several of these verses appear in the Dhammapada, not in the Udāna, reinforcing the close connection between these collections.

An udāna is often an emotional reaction to a particular context. When inspired by the the Buddha, for example, devoted layfolk such as the brahmin Kāraṇapālī (AN 5.194:9.1), King Pasenadi (MN 87:29.5), the brahmin Brahmāyu (MN 91:23.1), the brahmin Jāṇussoṇi (MN 27:8.2), or the brahmin lady Dhanañjānī (SN 7.1:2.1) uttered the triple udāna of homage that we still use today: namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa.

On the other hand, an udāna might have no particular Dhammic significance outside of context. The Licchavi Mahānāma, when he saw the dissolute youths of his clan respecting the Buddha, was so pleased that he uttered an udāna to the Buddha: “The Vajjis will grow up! The Vajjis will grow up!” (bhavissanti vajjī, bhavissanti vajjī) (AN 5.58:3.4).

An udāna need not be a Buddhist saying. At MN 80:2.4 the non-Buddhist wanderer Vekhanasa expressed to the Buddha his affirmation, “This is the ultimate splendor, this is the ultimate splendor.” The Buddha examined him and found his saying to be hollow, as Vekhanasa could not even describe what he was talking about.

At SN 22.55 we find an “Udānasutta”, which opens with the Buddha making the following udāna: “It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be, and it will not be mine.” The Udāna includes the same saying in a different context at Ud 7.8 . Now, this saying is found several times elsewhere in the Suttas, in subtle variants, without being called an udāna (eg. MN 106:10.1). This shows that the genre udāna need not be limited to sayings that are explicitly called udāna, but rather, is a generic term for pithy and inspired phrases.

While I translate udāna to emphasize their “heartfelt” nature, which was evidently the original intent of the term, it is, sadly, the case that repetition can dull even the most inspiring of teachings. When the monk Cūḷapanthaka was scheduled to give a teaching for the nuns, they complained that he would probably just give them the same boring old udāna that they‘d heard so many times before. And that did indeed prove to be the case. However, when he heard their complaints, Cūḷapanthaka changed his teaching approach, to much more effective results (Monks’ Pācittiya 22).

This incomplete survey shows that an udāna need not be a Buddhist teaching, or even a teaching at all; that it need not be verse; that it need not be labelled as an udāna; and that the sense of “inspiration” might not always apply. Not all udānas were collected in the book called Udāna. In some cases udānas were obviously not suitable candidates for inclusion, but in other cases, such as the verses of Aṅgulimāla, the choice to put them in the Dhammapada rather than the Udāna seems to have rested with the discretion of the redactors.

The narrative purpose of the Udāna

If the mere fact of being an udāna is not sufficient for inclusion in the Udāna, might there be another purpose to their selection? John Ireland, in the introduction to his translation of the Udāna, did not think so, saying there was “often no discernible theme linking the utterances” and that many pieces were “taken from elsewhere in the Pāli Canon, with no obvious systematization.”

Venerable Anālayo, in his article on the Udāna for the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, discusses several kinds of thematic and literary links between the different suttas, and identifies a main theme for each chapter. But he doesn’t posit any overarching purpose in the selection and arrangement.

Venerable Ānandajoti, however, in the introduction to his translation of the Udāna, notes:

Some of the most memorable stories in the Canon have found their way into this collection, which seems to have an overall structural plan, in that it begins with events that happened just after the Sambodhi (also recorded in the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya); and the last chapter includes many events from the last days of the Buddha as recorded in the Mahāparinibbānasutta (Dīghanikāya 16). Note that the Udāna ends, not with the Buddha’s parinibbāna, following which no udāna was spoken, of course; but with the parinibbāna of one of the Buddha’s leading disciples Ven. Dabba Mallaputta.

In the introduction to his translation, Venerable Ṭhānissaro also points out this narrative cohesion, although his essay looks more at the thematic rather than narrative unity. He argues that the Udāna has the unifying aesthetic flavor of the “astounding”. This recurs in many of the extraordinary events depicted in the text. While other flavors complement the main one, he notes that the redactors of the Udāna carefully avoid the incompatible flavor of “digust”, even in contexts where it would be appropriate. This is a sign of the care and attention to detail of the redaction process.

Following up on the idea of the narrative arc of the text, I believe that the redactors of the Udāna did indeed have an overall purpose in mind; and moreover, that they announced this fact clearly with their choice of opening suttas. The Udāna begins in exactly the same way as the section of the Vinaya known as the Khandhakas (or Mahāvagga per Ānandajoti): with the Buddha’s ecstatic proclamation of dependent origination immediately after his awakening. The Khandhakas go on to tell many of the key events of the Buddha’s life until his passing away, and even after, doing so as a narrative context for the monastic Vinaya. The Udāna covers much of the same ground, shifting the emphasis to inspiration and meditative freedom.

It’s hard to over-estimate the significance of the Buddha’s life story to all Buddhists, and especially to the early generations who selected and arranged texts such as the Udāna. Key events were told and retold, contextualized in particular ways to draw out certain patterns of meaning.

While the narrative frame of the Udāna as a whole is not explicit, careful consideration reveals that it is not just in the opening discourses, but the text as a whole is arranged to follow the life of the Buddha. Like the Khandhakas, however, it does not cover his whole life. From the accounts of the very first days of Awakening they move to the establishment of the dispensation, touching on some crucial events of the Buddha’s life, such as the betrayal by Devadatta. And they both conclude with the Buddha’s passing and the establishment of his legacy. For this, the Mahāparinibbānasutta is the key text. In the Pali, this is not found in the Khandhakas, but it dovetails on to the narrative of the Councils at the Khandhaka’s end. In several other Vinayas, however, it is found in the Khandhakas themselves, confirming that it is meant to be seen as part of the same great story.

In both texts, the narrative arc is most pronounced in the beginning and ending chapters, and even then, usually in the first portions of each chapter. Middle chapters are less clearly defined. This is, however, not an indication that the texts have lost the plot, but rather that they follows the standard form of Indian narrative. If you make sure you have a strong and clearly defined opening and closing, then in the middle you have the freedom to take the audience on a wandering journey that may appear random, but which always bears the destination in mind.

In the Udāna, the arc is obscured because, once the theme of the chapter is established (usually in the first discourse of each chapter), other discourses are added. Some of these relate to their particular chapter thematically rather than narratively.

Others are added in a way that might seem random, although I don’t believe that that is the case. I think what is happening is that, since many of the middle chapters deal with struggles facing the dispensation, each chapter counterbalances this by including inspiring stories of individual practitioners who overcome challenges in their meditations. This keeps alive the themes of awakening and happiness announced in the first two chapters, which are woven like a thread binding each chapter into the whole even as new themes are introduced.

Let’s take a bird’s eye view of how the Udāna builds this narrative as we consider the text chapter by chapter.

Ud 1: Awakening—the true brahmin

The first chapter establishes the most astonishing thesis of Buddhism: that it is possible, in this very life, and without assistance from divine entities of magical powers, to let go of all suffering and realize human perfection simply through the power of understanding.

The chapter opens in Uruvelā with three discourses celebrating the Buddha’s awakening. It thus signals that the narrative of the Udāna begins with the Buddha’s awakening. Now, the life story of the Buddha as a whole follows the three-fold pattern of the classical hero myth. The first part deals with the Buddha’s “origin story”: his life at home in Kapilavatthu, and the reason he left on his quest. The second part is the six years in the wilderness culminating in his realization of awakening. The third part begins with the awakening and tells of how the Buddha brought the fruits of his experience back into the world for the benefit of others. And this third part, the Return, is what the Udāna is about.

This narrative arc finds its fullest expression in the portion of the Vinaya known as the Khandhakas. Indeed, the Khandhakas begin with a series of teachings that are found in the Udāna as discourses 1–4 of the first chapter, and the first discourse of the second chapter. The Khandhakas wrap up their main narrative with the Buddha’s passing away, and along the way deal with some of the same events we find in the Udāna, such as Devadatta’s betrayal. The overall theme of the two texts is the same: how is the radical experience of the Buddha’s awakening brought back into a world that has very different priorities? While the themes and some narrative beats are the same, the Khandhakas focus on legal procedures and good conduct, while the Udāna is more concerned with inspiring people to take up the challenge of freedom.

Each of the texts in this chapter deals in one way or another with the idea of the “brahmin”, and thus can be seen in relation to the “Chapter on Brahmins” that concludes the Dhammapada. The brahmins were the most influential religious group in the Buddha’s time, posing a major challenge to the Buddha and his followers in establishing their new religion. The Buddha co-opted the term “brahmin” and redefined it, not as a hereditary caste, but as one who was spiritually awakened.

In the first three discourses, this awakening is attributed to the Buddha’s realization of dependent origination. In brief, this set of twelve conditions shows how, due to ignorance, we make moral choices that propel our consciousness into future rebirth. Once born in a new life, we grow to become attached to our experiences of pleasure and pain, not understanding that this is how we got here in the first place. Craving kicks in again and the round continues. The discourses of the Nidāna Saṁyutta (SN 12, “Linked Discourses on Causation”) analyze this process from many angles, but here the focus is on the inspirational outcome of understanding (Ud 1.3):

When things become clear
to the keen, meditating brahmin,
he remains, scattering Māra’s army,
as the sun lights up the sky.

The Buddha spent several weeks after his awakening simply sitting in meditation, enjoying the bliss of freedom. During this time he was approached by a “whiny” brahmin, occasioning an explanation of the real spiritual meaning of brahmin (Ud 1.4). From there, the chapter follows the theme rather than narrative.

Many mendicants are identified as brahmins, showing that it was not the Buddha alone who could find perfection (Ud 1.5). One of these is Venerable Mahākassapa, who showed his noble nature by refusing to accept the alms from deities—the most elevated food imaginable—and instead visited the streets of the poor and destitute, giving them a chance to make merit (Ud 1.6). The rest of the chapter continues to illustrate the qualities of real and fake brahmins.

There is a challenging episode when the mendicant Venerable Saṅgāmaji is approached by his ex-wife with a child she says is his. She asks him to help look after her and the child. This is a call-back to the discourse with Mahākassapa, which praises him as one who does not support a family. Saṅgāmaji ignores his ex-wife’s pleading, and she leaves with the child. On the face of it, it’s a shocking story, where Saṅgāmaji’s heartlessness is praised as equanimity. Yet the story is more subtle than it might seem.

Near the end of the text, the ex-wife makes to depart, leaving the child behind; but when she sees that even this provokes no response, she returns for the child. Now, the text describes her behavior here as vippakāra, a somewhat obscure term that is usually translated following the commentary as “bad manners” or “misbehavior”. However, this word normally means “change, alteration” (Cone’s Dictionary of Pali), and in its only other occurrence in the canon it means simply a change in posture (Parivāra 15:37.6). Here, therefore, it merely refers to the observation that she turned around and went back for the child. What that means is that neither here nor anywhere else in the text is she criticized for her actions.

We don’t know the circumstances of Saṅgāmaji’s departure from his wife. What kind of marriage was it? Why did he leave? We do not know. The commentary fills in some details, but since these are mostly lifted from the famous story of Raṭṭhapāla, it is difficult to feel too confident in their veracity. And even then, it does not discuss his former marriage or how he left home. We are left with a story of an ex-wife’s all-too-human need for her husband’s support, and a confirmed renunciate’s determination to continue on his path. The narrative highlights the tension between their responses, each determined by a different scale of value.

The chapter concludes with a memorable combination of narrative and teaching, the story of Bāhiya. The core of the Buddha’s teaching to Bāhiya is enigmatic, yet has become famous in modern meditation circles:

In the seen will be merely the seen; in the heard will be merely the heard; in the thought will be merely the thought; in the known will be merely the known.

Here, as always in early texts, the third term muta means “thought”, not “sensed” per the commentary. While it’s tempting to take this pithy teaching as a guide to meditation, it’s worth remembering that the narrative emphasizes that Bāhiya had already lived as an ascetic for many years. Indeed, he regarded himself as already awakened. The passage appears in another sutta as well, where it is also given to an experienced mendicant (SN 35.95). Bāhiya’s belief in his own awakening was a case of over-estimation, but his spiritual sincerity is testified by the fact that once he realized this he rightaway accepted the fact and rushed to find the real thing. And his innate spiritual potential is shown when he immediately realizes full awakening upon hearing the teaching.

Oddly, perhaps, the udāna here is not the central teaching, but rather the concluding verses given after Bāhiya’s untimely death. Anticipating the final chapter of the Udāna, they offer a solemn meditation on Nibbāna.

Ud 2: With Mucalinda—spiritual and worldly happiness

The second chapter picks up the narrative thread, and we find ourselves back in Uruvelā (Ud 2.1). We have established the goal of Buddhism—freedom from worldly attachments—but may be left with the feeling that this is a cold and distant state; admirable, perhaps, but not all that enticing. The Buddha was well aware that his teaching could be intimidating, even terrifying. So, just as an ad for a meditation retreat would show a smiling meditator, he made sure to emphasize that his is a path of happiness. Happiness is already introduced in the first chapter, as the Buddha’s meditation is said to be the “bliss of freedom”. That one idea becomes the seed for the second chapter.

It opens with an awe-inspiring event. As the Buddha meditates on the bliss of freedom, a great unseasonal rainstorm blows for seven days. As it happens, while I write this on the east coast of Australia, we are also experiencing a great and unseasonal period of rain, with floods threatening peoples lives and homes. We shelter in our comfortable homes, and protect ourselves with umbrellas and coats if we venture out even for a few minutes in the rain. Yet the Buddha sat for a whole week of storm and thunder, undisturbed in his meditation. He may not have had an umbrella, but something even better appeared: the spread hood of the giant dragon-king Mucalinda. Encircling him seven times, the dragon kept him safe.

This episode evokes a deep range of mythical and symbolic connotations: a sacred serpent of astonishing power rises from the earth and coils seven times around the person as it grows towards transcendence. One of the aims is to show the proper harmonious relation of the Buddha and the pre-Buddhist religious practices of worshiping the spirits of nature. The udāna with which the episode ends is at once distantly related to the events of the narrative, yet curiously appropriate. Inspired by the experience of the “bliss of freedom”, the Buddha gives a memorable teaching on the nature of happiness. What is significant about it is that it brings happiness back to ordinary things—simplicity and kindness—showing that these more relatable forms of happiness are what grow into the Buddha’s unfathomable bliss.

The narrative frame is once more left behind as the next sutta picks up the idea of spiritual bliss as greater than that of the world. The bliss of awakening outweighs that even of kings (Ud 2.2, Ud 2.10), while the cruelty of boys highlights the desire for happiness among all creatures (Ud 2.3). The search for lower happiness corrupts ascetics (Ud 2.4), prevents people from fully committing to the Dhamma (Ud 2.5), leads inevitably to grief (Ud 2.7), and subjects one to unwanted authority (Ud 2.9).

The chapter further explores the relationship of male ascetics with women and children. In one discourse, a non-Buddhist wanderer, presumably of a non-celibate order, has to find oil to ease his pregnant wife’s difficult delivery (Ud 2.6). He can only find it at a distribution center of the king; but there, oil is only given to be consumed on the spot, not to be taken away. An early commentary, perhaps, on the dire effect of bureaucratic rigidity on social welfare programs. Desperate, he consumes too much oil and is stricken with illness, unable to help himself, much less his wife.

This tragic story gets its counterpart in the next discourse, where the proper way for mendicants to support women and children is shown (Ud 2.8). Suppavāsā the Koliyan was suffering an extended and painful pregnancy and labor. The thought of the Buddha helped her endure, and when he learned of her travails, he gave her his blessing. That was enough for her to finally give birth to a healthy child. When she had recovered, she invited the Buddha with the Sangha for a meal, and they made special arrangements so that this could happen. Suppavāsā was overjoyed to serve the Sangha and see her son with the monks, especially when Venerable Sāriputta spoke with him and gave his blessings. This discourse heightens the drama with the miraculous detail of Suppavāsā’s seven-year pregnancy, but the message is a practical one. A mendicant is not a breadwinner or a doctor; they have chosen a different path. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Their role is to offer spiritual and emotional support, and sometimes this is exactly what is needed.

Ud 3: With Nanda—a mendicant’s equanimity in the face of pleasure and pain

The third chapter complicates the theme of happiness. While it is true that the Buddha’s path is one of happiness, it is also true that so long as we are here in the world our lives are affected also by suffering. The discourses in this chapter speak of “trembling not at pleasure and pain”, and extol the peaceful state of the mendicants who remain equanimous and unflustered in the face of adversity. The narrative does not directly continue from the scene of the awakening, but it does continue in the same general direction. In the Khandhakas, we see that the idealized and pure days of the early dispensation become increasingly complicated with the influx of new recruits, not all of them exemplars of purity. This chapter follows a similar course.

It begins, however, with a reminder of the power of the awakened mind. As any meditator will know, you don’t have to sit long to realize that your body is a constant source of pain. The Buddha’s teachings don’t focus on pain in meditation, and never extol it as a particularly useful or meaningful part of the path. But they also don’t deny it. It turns out, even an enlightened mendicant endures pain in meditation (Ud 3.1). This is attributed to their deeds in past lives. It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they did something specific in the past that is causing this pain now. Rather, it is because we created kamma in the past that we have been reborn with these bodies in this life, and so long as these bodies persist, we shall experience pain.

The chapter is named after the second discourse, the famous episode of Nanda and the dove-footed nymphs (Ud 3.2). A close relative of the Buddha, Nanda, like so many of the Sakyan clan, struggled in the Sangha. Unable to stop thinking of his former sweetheart, he planned to disrobe. The Buddha dissuaded him, and Nanda was able to achieve freedom from pleasure and pain. This episode occurred after the Buddha returned to his family in the Sakyan realm, an event told in the first chapter of the Khandhakas. There too there is a tension and ambiguity in the going forth of some of the Sakyans, with the Buddha’s father lamenting the renunciation of his grandson, Rāhula. The complicated tensions created by the presence of the Buddha’s family in the Sangha comes to a head later, in the betrayal of Devadatta.

As the Sangha grew there came to be lax monks making an unseemly racket. But when the Buddha dismissed them they were genuinely ashamed. They reformed and latter rejoined the Buddha in “imperturbable” meditation (Ud 3.3). Accomplished meditators sit like mountains (Ud 3.4, Ud 3.5).

But even great monks sometimes have personality quirks; Venerable Pilindavaccha would sometimes slip into referring to his fellows as “lowlifes”. But the Buddha, seeing that this was due to conditioning from past lives, urges the monks to not get upset by that (Ud 3.6).

The austere monk Mahākassapa is revealed to wander for alms indiscriminately, refusing offerings from the gods so the poor can make merit (Ud 3.7). By contrast, monks who wander for alms in search of pleasure are admonished to remain unstirred (Ud 3.8).

The chapter ends by returning to Uruvelā for a profound meditation on the nature of the world and escape from it. Elevating the theme of poise and balance, it posits that both holding on to and getting rid of continued existence keep one trapped. The chapter ends with the word tādi, a “poised one”, one who is “such”, unaffected by likes and dislikes.

Ud 4: With Meghiya—controlling the mind

The fourth chapter deals with the harm caused by an undisciplined mind, which affects even those who follow his path. It starts with the story of the truculent Meghiya. He was the Buddha’s attendant before Ānanda, so this must still be set fairly early in the Buddha’s career. Meghiya’s impulsive personality means he is benefitted by association and friendship rather than solitary retreat (Ud 4.1). The Buddha recommends a balanced set of four meditations: the perception of ugliness in the body to give up attachment to the body, meditation on love to give up hate, mindfulness of breathing to cut off thinking, and perception of impermanence to uproot the conceit “I am”.

Restless mendicants are also taught calm and restraint in the next sutta (Ud 4.2). The danger of an unrestrained mind is further emphasized in the story of a devoted lay follower suddenly killed (Ud 4.3) while wandering in the wilds between the villages. Restlessness is also to the fore in the tragically amusing story of the wanton behavior of certain native spirits (Ud 4.4).

The misbehaving Sangha at Kosambi causes the Buddha to abandon them (Ud 4.5). This story is told in more detail in the Vinaya at the tenth Khandhaka (“At Kosambī”), and so here at the middle of the Udāna we are roughly keeping pace with the middle of the Khandhakas.

Lack of self-control also leads some non-Buddhist ascetics to launch a vile campaign against the Buddha. They manipulate a non-Buddhist nun to act so as to arouse suspicion regarding the Buddha’s intentions, only to brutally murder her and attempt to pin it on the Buddha (Ud 4.8).

Great mendicants celebrate in peace, having tamed these excesses (Ud 4.6, Ud 4.7, Ud 4.9, Ud 4.10).

Ud 5: Soṇa—all

The fifth chapter widens the scope, emphasizing the universal quality of the Dhamma with the key word sabba “all”. As the dispensation grows and matures it emphasizes the inclusivenss of the Dhamma, how its struggles affect all without limit. Thus even the greatest of kings realizes his beloved queen, like all beings, loves themselves more than him (Ud 5.1).

Likewise, even the Buddha’s own mother passed away shortly after he was born, a fate that all beings, even the Buddha, must face (Ud 5.2).

The story of Suppabuddha shows that even one shunned by society as he was for his leprosy main attain the Dhamma; he also appears several times in the Dhammapada.

Cruel boys tormenting fish are led to understand that they share a fear of pain with all creatures (Ud 5.4).

While the Sangha is universal and inclusive like the ocean, it does not tolerate bad behavior. The presence of an ill-conducted monk prompts the Buddha to establish of a formal legal proceeding, the Sabbath (uposatha) to unify the Sangha (Ud 5.5). The same development is told rather less dramatically in the second chapter of the Khandhakas, where the Sabbath is first established on the pattern of pre-existing practices, and then the Buddha decides to ask the mendicants to recite the monastic code. The primary purpose of the Sabbath is to bring together all (sabbeheva) of the mendicants living within a monastic boundary (sīmā).

The efficacy of this is tested by Devadatta (Ud 5.8), who tries to split the Sangha by performing his own Sabbath. Meanwhile, the geographical spread of the teaching highlights the question of how to organize ordination in distant lands. Soṇa from Avantī can only ordain after great efforts, a story that, once again, finds its echo in the Khandhakas (Pli Tv Kd 5, Ud 5.6).

The problem with all-inclusiveness is what to do when some members of the community do not behave well. Thus a sub-theme of the chapter is “evil”. A wise person would shun evil (Ud 5.3), which will create suffering though all you want is happiness (Ud 5.4), which is why the Buddha rejects evil (Ud 5.6), while for one used to bad deeds it is easy to continue on the paths of evil (Ud 5.8).

Ud 6: Blind From Birth—ascetics caught in views fail to see

The sixth chapter does not open by continuing the linear narrative, but skips forward to with an episode near the end of the Buddha’s life, as, knowing that the end is near, he relinquishes his life force. This passage is shared with the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16).

The remainder of the chapter is unified by the theme of losing the way, like moths in the flame of a lamp (Ud 6.9). Those who have fixed “views” (diṭṭhi) are trapped in their preconceptions and cannot see the path.

There was a pair of gangs who were fighting over a courtesan, lost in their lust for a woman they will never attain (Ud 6.8). This discourse is capped by a powerful and enigmatic udāna in prose, where the Buddha compared them to those who fall into the two extremes, of regarding the observances as the sessence, or of indulging in sensual pleasures. While there are many different expressions of the two “extremes” found in the Suttas, this one is especially reminiscent of the famous first discourse, which was given for non-Buddhist ascetics.

The failings of such “ascetics” are spelled out in many of the remaining discourses of this chapter. Sometimes they are outright frauds; spies, in fact, doing the king’s bidding (Ud 6.2). The idea that ascetics might act as spies is one with a long history. Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra recommends that monks and nuns be recruited as spies, and rumors of this practice continue to the present day in Buddhist lands. This discourse ends with the pointed reminder that one should not trade in the Dhamma. The Dhamma is not something to be bought and sold for profit in the marketplace.

Other ascetics are holders of wrong views (Ud 6.4, Ud 6.5) (Ud 6.6). They miss the point of the spiritual life (Ud 6.9), so that when the Buddha appears their glory fades away (Ud 6.10), like glow-worms when the sun rises.

Ud 7: The Lesser Chapter—the floods of the world and the clear water of the Dhamma

As if preparing for the end, the seventh chapter returns to the opening theme of Awakening, celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha and others. The chapter as a whole serves to recollect and reinforce the efficacy of the Dhamma, from the beginning to the end, showing us that despite the overwhelming strength of the world’s passions, the Dhamma can steer us to the other side. The dominant image is that of water, whether the floods crossed (Ud 7.1, Ud 7.3), the streams dried or cut (Ud 7.2, Ud 7.9), the fish trapped (Ud 7.4), or the well cleared.

It begins with the monk Bhaddiya the Dwarf, who becomes awakened (Ud 7.1), but is not recognized as such (Ud 7.2) due to his unsightly appearance (Ud 7.5).

Despite the Buddha’s long and mostly pleasant residence near Sāvatthī, a couple of discourses lament the power that attachment still holds over the minds of the people (Ud 7.3, Ud 7.4). It’s not clear what prompted this; perhaps a festival of some sort. But it reminds us of how the Buddha, at the start of his ministry, was reluctant to teach due to the power of defilements.

The Buddha, of course, changed his mind, and subsequent discourses drive home the efficacy of the path that is able to overcome even such deep-rooted defilements. We catch a rare glimpse of Venerable Añña Koṇḍañña, the first disciple to realize the four noble truths, all those years ago in Benares. Here he is sitting in meditation at Sāvatthī, having uprooted all grounds for defilements, living proof of the Dhamma’s power. Similar discourses celebrate the Buddha himself, as well as Venerable Mahākaccāna, who is praised for his mindfulness of the body.

The last couple of discourses echo, or perhaps anticipate, themes found in the Mahāparinibbānasutta. (Ud 7.9) depicts the increasingly petty attempts of non-Buddhist ascetics to obstruct him. They soil a well that the Buddha wished to drink from, only for it to become miraculously clear, a passage anticipating the incident with ox carts soiling the Kakutthā river (DN 16:4.22.1), which in fact appears in the next chapter of the Udāna (Ud 8.5).

Then the tragic deaths by fire of five hundred harem women led by Queen Sāmāvatī of Kosambi (Ud 7.10) prompts an inquiry as to their rebirth, echoing the similar questions of the lay folk at Nādika (DN 16:2.5.1).

Ud 8: Nibbāna—the final extinguishment of existence

The theme of death, and the connection with the Mahāparinibbānasutta, dominates the final chapter.

The first four discourses consist of a series of solemn declarations regarding the nature of Nibbāna. They are not directly part of the Mahāparinibbāna narrative, but they expand on the theme of what happens at the end end of life for an enlightened one.

These discourses have long exercised the Buddhist imagination, as they consist of some of the Buddha’s most explicit and evocative statements on this famously enigmatic subject. The word nibbāna refers to the extinguishment of a flame, and most of the Buddha’s staments on the matter reflect this quality of ending, of the passing away of suffering. It is naturally exciting, then, to see the Buddha so whole-heartedly affirming the reality of “that dimension” (Ud 8.1) that is “uninclined” (Ud 8.2), yet which most assuredly “is” (Ud 8.3) without being caught in “coming and going” (Ud 8.4).

It is tempting to see here a hint of Nibbāna as an eternal state of transcendence; subtle beyond subtlety, of course, but nonetheless, something. A closer look reveals, however, that the Buddha was not so swift to overturn everything else he said on the subject. The stronger the positive affirmation of Nibbāna, the clearer it becomes that what is affirmed is a series of negations: “there is an unborn, unproduced, unmade, unconditioned”. There is no affirmatiopn of a eternal transcendent state; rather, an affirmation of the end of all the cycles of worldly suffering.

In the discourses on Cunda (Ud 8.5) and the villagers of Pāṭali (Ud 8.6) we return to passages that are shared with the Mahāparinibbānasutta (DN 16:4.13.1, DN 16:1.19.1). Though his own demise was imminent, the Buddha exhibits his care for others, dispelling any remorse that Cunda may feel for serving the Buddha’s last meal, and reaffirming the power of good deeds. And in the episode at Pāṭali, the Buddha also reaffirms the value of the fundamental virtue of giving, keeping his connection with the simple good things of the world, even as he is about to “cross over”, a journey that is symbolically foreshadowed in the crossing of the Ganges.

A couple of discourses remind us of how easy it is, even for those close to the Buddha, to forget the depth of his wisdom. The monk Nāgasamāla ignores the Buddha’s directions and heads down the wrong path, to dire results. Death is also the theme of the lamentation of Visākhā (Ud 8.8), whose desire for children traps her in grief.

While these discourses again do not directly relate to the Mahāparinibbāna narrative, they echo an important theme: the crisis of faith that arises at the passing of the Buddha. Depictions of the Buddha’s passing typically contrast the serene equanimity of the fully-awakened with the grievous lament of the rest of us. When learning of the Buddha’s demise, the great disciple Mahākappasa perceived right away that some mendicants would take advantage of the absence of their Teacher to go their own way, choosing the wronmg fork in the road. Hence he set about establishing the Councils that would reaffirm the Saṅgha’s committtment to maintaining the Buddha’s teaching for the future.

The Udāna culminates with the spectacular passing of Dabba, who, knowing his life was at an end, immolated himself in the middle of the Sangha using only the power of the meditation on fire (Ud 8.9, Ud 8.10). Here the utterly remainderless nature of Nibbāna is stressed, as if to remove any ambiguity the opening discourses of the chapter may have invited.

Narrative Throughlines

We have seen how the life of the Buddha informs the structure of the Udāna, providing a firm if flexible template. We’ve also seen how the text creates unity by constantly referring back to the “inspirational” experiences of awakening by the Buddha and others. But there is yet another literary technique that is used by the redactors to create unity and a forward motion in the text.

In multiple cases we find the text refers back to the same ideas or themes. And when it does so, it rather consistently advances the theme each time. Thus by picking out two or three discourses through the Udāna on a specific theme we get a progressive learning on that topic. I’ve already pointed out how in the final chapter, the last discourses on Nibbāna seem to act as a rebalancing for the opening discourses; they are meant to be read as a whole. We have met some similar cases along the way. Here are a few examples, and there surely will be more.

  • The cruelty of boys: At first the Buddha merely observes and comments on their behavior (Ud 2.3). Later, he engages and persuades them (Ud 5.4).
  • Kings: Monks discuss kings in an envious and worldly way (Ud 2.2); then the drawbacks of a king’s power are shown (Ud 2.9); then a king renounces the throne (Ud 2.10).
  • Native spirits (yakkhas): A gross goblin wants nothing but to annoy the Buddha (Ud 1.7). Later, two spirits debate the virtue of ascetics, showing their intelligence and the diverse nature of the yakkha community (Ud 4.4).
  • Ascetics and children: An unwanted child is coldly rejected (Ud 1.8); then an ascetic unwisely attempts to act as a medical doctor to his demise (Ud 2.6); finally the Buddha and his disciples compassionately offer spiritual support for the mother and child (Ud 2.8).
  • Kassapa’s almsround: In Ud 1.6 Venerable Mahākassapa, recovering from illness, goes for alms to the poor, refusing the offerings of the deities. In Ud 3.7 we have a similar story, but raised up and exalted: here Kassapa is emerging from deep meditation; and his encounter with the deities is told in more detail, with a personal offering from Sakka himself in disguise.

In some cases, the way the themes are developed show signs of similarity to one another. Consider, for example, the discourses on boys and kings. In the second chapter, the Buddha is merely a passive observer, and we hear of these people second-hand. He doesn’t engage with them directly. Perhaps this is an early stage in the dispensation, where he has little recognition and influence. In chapter 5 we see him speaking with the boys. Similarly, in chapter 4 we seem him becoming acquainted with kings, to the extent that he had to leave society to find solitude (Ud 4.5), and got caught up in a criminal investigation (Ud 4.8). In these cases, however, we still don’t see him speaking with kings. But by chapter 5, King Pasenadi is comfortable enough with the Buddha to discuss his domestic conversation (Ud 5.1), and eventually he is trusted enough that the king would reveal state secrets (Ud 6.2).

If we take these discourses individually, seeing them as a semi-random assemblage of teachings on diverse themes, we overlook the careful and often interesting work of the redactors. They did not put everything on the surface. Just as, in life, we learn lessons gradually, from one event and then perhaps another event much later, in the Udāna we find hidden connections that create a greater whole out of the parts.

A Brief Textual History

A printed edition of the Udāna was published by the Pali Text Society in 1885. It was edited by Paul Steinthal from one Burmese and two Sinhalese manuscripts. The provenance of the manuscripts is not given in detail, beyond that one of the Sinhala-script manuscripts was gifted to the PTS by the Thera Sūriyagoda Sonuttara of Kandy, while the other was made for T.W. Rhys Davids at Kaluttara, presumably while he was staying in Sri Lanka. It’s worth remembering that all our modern Pali editions stem from manuscripts that were kindly and freely offered by Buddhists for international scholarship, despite the fact that the Buddhists were at the time under the colonial yoke.

Steinthal regards the Burmese manuscript as the most accurate of the three, and further argues that the third one—prepared at Kaluttara in Sri Lanka—appears to share a common heritage with the Burmese manuscript. The Kandy manuscript appears relatively independent.

In the forewords to their translations, both Ireland and Masefield note the poor quality of the PTS edition. I have mostly ignored it, and as usual rely on the well-edited edition of the Mahāsaṅgīti text.

As one might expect from such a short and engaging text, there have been several translations into English.

Major-General D.M. Strong holds the honor of making the first English translation, published by Luzac & Co. in 1902 under the title The Solemn Utterances of the Buddha. Described in his obituary as a “worthy old soldier” whose entire family was “interested in music, art, religion, and science”, he died only a year after publishing his translation, leaving further translations unpublished. His work, while obviously superseded by later translations, is still quite readable and remains credible.

The Pali Text Society’s first translation was that of F.L. Woodward in 1935. It was published as Udāna: Verses of Uplift together with Itivuttaka: As It Was Said under the collective title The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon Part II. It was made in Tasmania following his retirement as principal of Mahinda College in Galle, Sri Lanka. At Rowella on the Tamar River near Launceston he lived a solitary life of contemplation, scholarship, and vegetarianism. His draft translations were sent by slow boat all the way to Oxford for review by C.A.F Rhys Davids. His devotion to the decidedly unprofitable field of Pali translation cost him his career and his wealth, and this decorated Cambridge graduate would sometimes become so cold he had to line his trousers with newspaper.

The first of what one might call the modern translations is that of John Ireland, originally published by the Buddhist Publication Society in 1990, and later, following the precedent of the PTS edition, reprinted together with the Itivuttaka as “Two Classics From the Pali canon”. Ireland’s work draws strongly on the advances in Pali translation made by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoḷi and others, and employs a more rigorous and accurate treatment of terminology, while remaining readable.

Peter Masefield’s 1997 translation with the PTS, simply titled The Udāna serves primarily as a companion to his translation of the commentary, and he has by and large stuck closely to commentarial readings. His work was one of the first translations of a complete Pali commentary.

Venerables Ānandajoti and Ṭhānissaro have also both translated the text. Ānandajoti’s version, published in 2008 as Exalted Utterances, was based on the Buddha Jayanthi edition. As always it is highly literal and accurate, informed by his unsurpassed knowledge of verse forms. It was my first port of call when I needed help. Ṭhānissaro’s version Udāna: Exclamations was published soon after in 2012, relying primarily on the Thai edition.

Finally, Anagarika Mahendra has published an annotated bilingual edition Udāna: Book of Inspired Utterances in 2022 with Dhamma Publishers. This is part of his much longer series of translations, and is based on the digital text of the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāynaa Tipiṭaka (VRI). It is a literal translation, intended to help the student reading the Pali.

I respect and honor all of these editors and translators who have done so much to bring this ancient scripture to modern light, and without whose work my own would not be possible.


Thank you for yet another valuable and interesting essay—the biggest drawback of which is, as always, that it is just so looong! I mean, seen from the perspective of a person who would like to translate all these things … :see_no_evil:

Just a few minor things that I happen to see:

Isn’t Kashmir rather in the North-West?

Probably “and are collected in chapters by theme”.

… that they had remembered …


that they follow

no affirmation


Few more words and it will become a book

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