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How walks the Sangha?

You know, I’ve been practicing Dhamma for over twenty years, and studying Pali almost as long. One of the very first passages anyone learns is the recollection of the Triple Gem, including the Sangha:

suppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, ujuppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, ñāyappaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, sāmīcippaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho

And yet it is only today that I realized a basic fact about this passage: these phrases almost all describe a kind of motion. Of course, the key term paṭipanna, “practicing”, or “entered the way”, etc. is based on a motion metaphor. But I never noticed that this is reinforced by the prefixes.

This is not the impression conveyed by most translations. Here, for example, is Ven Bodhi’s latest rendering, from Numerical Discourses:

The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practicing the good way, practicing the straight way, practicing the true way, practicing the proper way

Apart from “straight”, none of these terms really relate to motion.

But let’s look at the Pali prefixes:

  • Su- = good: this is the only generic one. It can of course refer to motion, but is not specific.
  • Uju = straight: Obviously this is based on a motion metaphor, in the sense “direct, straightforward”. Usually this comes through in translations.
  • Ñāya = procedure: As I discussed in a previous post, this is from ni = i where i means “to go”. It means “procedure, process, method”, i.e. progressing step by step.
  • Sāmīci = go together: This is from sam + i where sam means “together” and i means “go”. While etymology is a poor guide to meaning, this sense is in fact attested in the Vedas. It is very similar to ñāya.

Normally in a Buddhist context sāmīci is translated more vaguely as “proper, fitting”. However there is at least one passage that shows this cannot be correct. In DN 29 the student of a bad teacher is spoken to. It is said that this student, although their teacher was no good, did not in fact practice according to what their teacher taught, so they’re lucky.

Tvañca tasmiṃ dhamme na dhammānudhammappaṭipanno viharasi, na sāmīcippaṭipanno, na anudhammacārī, vokkamma ca tamhā dhammā vattasī
But you don’t practice in line with those teachings, you don’t practice following that procedure, you don’t live in line with the teaching. You turn away from that teaching.

Here sāmīci cannot mean “fitting, proper”. It must be a synonym for anudhammacāri, i.e. “practice in line with the teaching”. Probably the most precise phrase for this in English would be “pursuant to”, although we’d like to use something less formal.

This then harks back more directly to the basic sense of the word: it means “go along together (with the teaching)”. Since it’s a similar context, and since it fits with the overall metaphor of motion, it seems that the same meaning should apply in the recollection of the Sangha.

The Saṅgha of the Buddha’s disciples is practicing the way that’s good and straightforward, following the method and the procedure.

I’m not sure if this should be a final rendering, but I think I’m getting closer to the meaning. These things take time!

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Bhante, as far as I can see you got it right.
All four words are still in usage in Sri Lanka and I am familiar with those words.