"I declare ONLY suffering and its cessation." — The Buddha, indeed

“In the past and also now, I declare only suffering and a cessation of suffering.” This brief statement by the Buddha has become a famous axiom, even though it only occurs in two discourses (MN22 & SN22.86, repeated verbatim at SN44.2). It is widely interpreted to reflect the Buddha’s pragmatism. He only taught suffering and it’s cessation, the thinking goes, not being concerned with teaching anything else.

In a brief article published in 2013 in Tricycle, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi argued this is a wrong interpretation, stating that “in thousands of suttas the Buddha teaches other things besides suffering and its cessation”. I do agree with this. The Buddha did teach more than just these two things. However, I think Venerable Bodhi’s general conclusion and the way he arrives at it are incorrect. He concludes that the statement is about what the Buddha teaches, but that the word ‘only’ should be dropped from the translation. I think the statement is not about what the Buddha teaches but about what constitutes reality (to use that vague term), and that the word ‘only’ can, and probably should, be included to reflect this.

The relevant part of the Pāli sentence is dukkhaṃ c’eva paññapemi, dukkhassa ca nirodhaṃ, “I declare only (eva) suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Venerable Bodhi argues the inclusion of ‘only’ is a grammatical error. He explains that eva in c’eva does not have an exclusive sense but serves as a mild emphasis of ca (‘and’). But while this is the case in general, it does not seem to be a fixed rule, for there are instances where c’eva is best interpreted to mean ‘only’:

  • DN5 says no animals were killed in a Brahmin sacrifice, concluding: “And the sacrifice was executed only with ghee, oil, butter, curds, honey, and molasses.” (Sappitelanavanītadadhimadhuphāṇitena c’eva so yañño niṭṭhānamagamāsi.)
  • MN76 states: “And they disparage others and declare only three liberators.” (Pare ca vambhenti tayo c’eva niyyātāro paññapenti.) The order of ca and c’eva also indicates eva isn’t an emphasis of ca here, because in that case c’eva always comes first.
  • MN102 states: “Eat only suitable food—do not eat unsuitable food […]—and from time to time wash the wound.” (Sappāyāni c’eva bhojanāni bhuñjeyyāsi—mā te asappāyāni bhojanāni bhuñjato—[…] kālena kālañca vaṇaṁ dhoveyyāsi.)
  • The Asilakkhaṇa Jātaka states: “The king of Bārāṇasi had no son; he only had a daughter and a nephew.” (Bārāṇasirañño pana putto natthi; ekā dhītā c’eva bhāgineyyo ca ahesuṃ.)
  • There is also the reoccurring line diṭṭhe c’eva dhamme abhisamparāyañca (DN27, AN2.11, AN4.55), where eva may not have an exclusive sense but also isn’t an emphasis of ca, because the standard phrase is diṭṭh’eva dhamme, where it emphasizes diṭṭhe.

So, as so often in translation, we can’t come to a blanket conclusion on what c’eva means. There seems to be room for ambiguity, and hence the translation of c’eva has to be based on context.

But what is this context in our case? First off, the statement isn’t about what the Buddha taught. He didn’t teach just two truths but four: not just suffering and its cessation, but also its origin and the path leading to its cessation. When he once specifically stated he only teaches what is relevant, he said he taught these four truths, famously comparing them to a handful of leaves, opposing them to all leaves in the forest he left untouched. (SN56.31) It is unlikely that elsewhere he would condense this even further, to just suffering and its cessation, let alone in the texts we’re concerned with, where a pragmatic statement on what he teaches would be quite out of place.

In MN22 the Buddha’s statement is a reply to him being accused of teaching the annihilation of an actually existing being (i.e. a self). In SN22.86 it is a reply to Anurādha’s assumption that the Buddha taught there is a real Tathāgata-entity (i.e. a self). These are ontological statements—meaning they are concerned with what exists—and the Buddha’s reply should be interpreted in this light. It too is ontological.

We can derive this also from the word ‘I declare’ (paññapemi). In MN22 the Buddha is accused of declaring (paññāpeti) the annihilation of a truly existing being, and in SN22.86 Anurādha thinks the Buddha declares (paññāpeti) there to be a real Tathāgata. When the Buddha says, “in the past and also now, I declare …”, he isn’t indicating what he pragmatically teaches. Instead, he is replying directly to these very specific assertions. Whatever his accusers and Anurādha may have heard him to have declared “in the past”, he actually didn’t declare back then, and is not declaring currently either. His statement doesn’t mean, “I teach (only) on suffering and its cessation”, but “what I declare is [not a truly existing being or Tathāgata but] that there is only suffering and a cessation of suffering”. That is to say, there is only suffering, not a self, so what ceases is also only suffering, not a self. This disproves both the accusation of annihilationism and Anurādha’s assertion, as both assume there is something more than just suffering, namely some kind of entity.

If the Buddha’s statement was on what he teaches, it is also more likely he would have used a term such as akkhāta, as is the case when he compares the four truths to the leaves in his hand.

The statement should also be compared with the famous Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN12.15) and Vajirā’s almost equally famous statement about the non-existence of a true being (SN5.10), both of which unmistakably use eva in a restrictive sense. The former says:

“They don’t assume to have a self. They know without question or doubt that it is only suffering which arises and suffering which ceases.” (nādhiṭṭhāti, ‘attā me’ti, ‘dukkhameva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī’ti na kaṅkhati na vicikicchati)

The latter says:

"This is just a bunch of created things. There exists no being as such. […] It is only suffering that comes to be, suffering that exists and vanishes. Nothing but suffering comes to be. Nothing but suffering ceases.”(Suddhasankhārapuñjoyaṁ, nayidha sattupalabbhati. […] Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṁ tiṭṭhati veti ca; Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṁ dukkhā nirujjhatī”ti.)

This is exactly what the Buddha’s statement about suffering and its cessation is about as well. Hence it is justified—and probably even necessary in order for it to be interpreted properly—to translate eva as ‘only’ in this statement too.

The Kaccānagotta Sutta teaches the middle way between annihilationism and eternalism (cf. SN15.17). I will not expand upon this dense discourse here, but these two extremes are exactly what the statement denies: annihilationism in MN22, some form of eternalism, it appears, in SN22.86. Venerable Bodhi mentions both these discourses in the article, but concludes the Buddha’s reply in both cases “shifts attention away from speculative hypotheses toward a practical project”. But this isn’t the case. Instead of completely changing the topic into some rather unrelated pragmatic matter, the Buddha shifts from hypotheses to actual knowledge. He directly refutes the speculation by declaring his insights into reality.

Also, if it were the case that the Buddha replied to the accusation of annihilationism by saying he was only concerned with a practical project, with teaching about suffering and its cessation, it is hard to imagine why others would abuse, revile, scold, and harass him for that, as he says happens. This abuse refers to the slander of the accusation, and therefore the declaration for which he says he is abused—that there only is suffering and its cessation—must have been mistaken to be annihilationism as well. This again indicates that it must have been an ontological statement.

Likewise, at the end of Anurādha Sutta, Anurādha changes his mind. He realizes there is no Tathāgata-entity. The Buddha replies: “Good, good, Anurādha. Both formerly and now, I declare there is only suffering and a cessation of suffering.” It again makes no contextual sense for this to be a pragmatic statement on what he taught. Instead, it is a rephrasing of Anurādha’s newfound insight into the absence of a self. Otherwise, why say Anurādha’s response was “good”?

Venerable Bodhi actually had similar thoughts, at least at one point. At the translation of MN22 he noted:

The import of this statement [on suffering and its cessation] is deeper than appears on the surface. In the context of the false accusations [of annihilationism], the Buddha is stating that he teaches that a living being is not a self but a mere conglomeration of factors, material and mental events, linked together in a process that is inherently dukkha, and that Nibbāna, the cessation of suffering, is not the annihilation of a being but the termination of that same unsatisfactory process. This statement should be read in conjunction with [the Kaccānagotta Sutta], where the Buddha says that one with right view, who has discarded all doctrines of a self, sees that whatever arises is only dukkha arising, and whatever ceases is only dukkha ceasing.

And at the Kaccānagotta Sutta he noted:

What the noble disciple sees, when he reflects upon his personal existence, is not a self or a substantially existent person but a mere [i.e. only an] assemblage of conditioned phenomena arising and passing away through the conditioning process governed by dependent origination.

At SN22.86:

This oft-quoted dictum can be interpreted at two levels. At the more superficial level the Buddha can be read as saying that he does not make any declaration about such metaphysical questions as an afterlife but teaches only a practical path for reaching the end of suffering here and now. This interpretation, however, does not connect the dictum with the Buddha’s previous statement that the Tathagata is not apprehended in this very life. To make this connection we have to bring in the second interpretation, according to which the "Tathagata” is a mere term of conventional usage referring to a compound of impermanent formations, which are "suffering” because they contain no permanent essence. It is just these that stand while the Tathagata lives, and just these that cease with his passing away. The context in which the dictum occurs at [MN22] also supports this interpretation.

These thoughts I believe are much more on point than the general observations of the article.

Venerable Bodhi concludes with wise advice: we should not take any of the Buddha’s statements as separate adages, but have to put them in context. However, this is only helpful if we also interpret that context correctly.


:christmas_tree: :christmas_tree: :christmas_tree:

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Venerable Sunyo, I think that the interpretation you have presented here is a consistent reading of the suttas you have selected. However, I do have questions which I think are important to answer before the post can be really grounded in referents. In other words, if we are discussing the Buddha’s ontology, then we need to be clear about the implications and assumptions of that ontology.

The questions:

  1. What definition(s) of “self” are you using in your post?
  2. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions which are present which indicate that a speaker has a belief in such as self as defined in (1)?
  3. Did the Buddha ever deal in “useful fictions?”

Merry Christmas!
:christmas_tree: :santa:

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Excellent post! I was never happy with Ven. Bodhi’s conclusions in that Tricycle article, but never got around to have a proper look at it, let alone challenge it. And so I am really happy that you have done so. As usual, you have done an excellent job of it!

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From what I can tell, the general thrust of your critique is that the word “only” is important to aid in the understanding of the Teachers rebuke in these suttas. That to omit this word is to err by making the the project of understanding the Teacher that much harder. Further, that it is not grammatically supportable.

While I do not know enough to speak about the Pali grammar, your objection to omitting this word seems in concordance with how I understand these suttas. Although I fear you might overreach in ascribing positive affirmations of total non existence to the Tathagata, Vajira and Sariputta.

I take it you do not object to the point of the article in the sense you agree that the Teacher taught more than the ending of suffering. This is what leads you to contextualize “only” and the work it is put to. Is this an accurate reading?

:pray:

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Hi @Sunyo as ever your detailed and comprehensive grasp of Pali and matters grammatical leaves me in awe :slight_smile:

I still have a general confusion about your argument tho, and it is to do with MN72

you say

but by that logic MN72 doesn’t make any sense:

“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you:
“Sace pana taṁ, vaccha, evaṁ puccheyya:

‘This fire in front of you that is extinguished: in what direction did it go—
‘yo te ayaṁ purato aggi nibbuto so aggi ito katamaṁ disaṁ gato—

east, south, west, or north?’ How would you answer?”
puratthimaṁ vā dakkhiṇaṁ vā pacchimaṁ vā uttaraṁ vā’ti, evaṁ puṭṭho tvaṁ, vaccha, kinti byākareyyāsī”ti?

“It doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. The fire depended on grass and logs as fuel. When that runs out, and no more fuel is added, the fire is reckoned to have become extinguished due to lack of fuel.”
“Na upeti, bho gotama, yañhi so, bho gotama, aggi tiṇakaṭṭhupādānaṁ paṭicca ajali tassa ca pariyādānā aññassa ca anupahārā anāhāro nibbutotveva saṅkhyaṁ gacchatī”ti.

“In the same way, Vaccha, any form by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future.
“Evameva kho, vaccha, yena rūpena tathāgataṁ paññāpayamāno paññāpeyya taṁ rūpaṁ tathāgatassa pahīnaṁ ucchinnamūlaṁ tālāvatthukataṁ anabhāvaṅkataṁ āyatiṁ anuppādadhammaṁ.

A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom,
Rūpasaṅkhayavimutto kho, vaccha, tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho—

like the ocean.
seyyathāpi mahāsamuddo.

‘They’re reborn’, ‘they’re not reborn’, ‘they’re both reborn and not reborn’, ‘they’re neither reborn nor not reborn’—none of these apply.
Upapajjatīti na upeti, na upapajjatīti na upeti, upapajjati ca na ca upapajjatīti na upeti, neva upapajjati na na upapajjatīti na upeti.

So in this simile, the undeclared are compared to the cardinal directions, and the buddha to the extinguished fire, the argument given is that the directions don’t apply to the extinguished fire, not that the fire isn’t real. similarly there seems to be no way to take the example as indicating that the undeclared are inapplicable because the buddha wasn’t real, rather that once the buddha awakened, they no longer apply.

If there was no entity, i.e no fire, then it would equally not be true to say of it that it depended on logs as fuel, in fact, if there was no entity, then nothing said of it would be true.

How do you reconcile your thesis with this sutta? is it that the fire wasn’t a real fire? or that no thing can be a real thing? or that the sutta is just a false teaching and should be jettisoned? or that there is some reading of the simile that I am missing?

I also don’t understand what could be meant by

A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom,
Rūpasaṅkhayavimutto kho, vaccha, tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho—

If there is no Realized One, then they are not hard to fathom, they are just not at all, why, if the purpose of saying

was in fact to (esoterically) say

or

Is the Tathāgata then Rūpasaṅkhayavimutto kho, vaccha, tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho—??

What I am trying to get at is that if the Tathāgata is a fiction, not a real entity, etc, then ALL statments about such an entity are “undeclared”.

On your theory what restricts the undeclared to postmortem survival but allows the declaration “they are deep like the ocean”?

I look forward to your thoughts on this issue.

Metta

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I don’t know if it helps, but I think that the idea is that a fire isn’t a real entity, it’s a process. While a process (such as a fire) is still ongoing, there is lots you can say about it, but all you can say about it when it has ended is that it has ended

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sorry @stu but that doesn’t help me at all. First of all, in contemporary metaphysics and ontology, entity is used very generally, and includes processes, and that is the way I am using it here, kind of like ‘thing’. Secondly, even if we restrict entity to a static thing in distinction to a process thing, and claim that the fire is a process thing not an entity thing, the simile still relies on the fire being a real such process thing, about which the real cardinal directions really don’t apply to the question “when it went out, which direction did it go?”

Also what you say about what we can say about processes makes no sense, I can say anything at all about the process of fire regardless of whether or not there is a fire going, its status has no relation to the epistemology about it.

Also if we apply this argument to the buddha and the undeclared we again get a broken simile; if the buddha was a process before, then it woud be true to say that after death, the process does not continue, and this is the second of the undeclared positions, so your idea doesn’t just contradict MN72, it contradicts @Sunyo 's argument as well.

claiming that a person is a process does not succeed in resolving either the abyakata or the anatta in the ebt. sorry.

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No worries, maybe it will help someone else

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Buddha knew from experience, i believe, that all those ideas and perceptions about ‘this is my self, this I am, this is mine’, hinder the process of lettting go. They hinder detachment. That is the context, i feel.

This process of letting go is for us fearful. Because all these khandha’s circle around our notion of ‘I am’…‘I exist’…and also vice versa, we cannot let go of them. We keep them alive. We feed them all the time. All these identity issues are in fact only nutrition for the khandha’s and vice versa.

But, the Buddha says…do not fear Friends…only suffering gets lost. Not you get lost. This is our fear. For example, if you would have no bodily sense at all at a certain moment, most likely panic, fear would arise. This is because your sense of ‘I exist’ is so closely related to experiencing a body and vice versa.

The Khandhas uphold in this way our notion of ’ I am’ and vice versa. Like mirroring. That is why this notion lies at the root of feeding the khandha’s day in day out. For example, excessive thinking is only a way to feel alive as I am. What is unconsciously going on: “I think, so i exist. I exist because I think”
Such schema’s are present in the mind also in regard to passion, emotions, feelings, perceptions.

Compare this with seeing in a mirror and suddenly seeing no face. You would probably be really shocked and maybe in panic. When your face again manifests you think…all is oke…
The same is happening internaly. If the mind does not feel or perceive this or that, it, most likely, can also be shocked and in panic because such a long time it is identified with all this.
This is why all doctrines of self are blocking the Path.

So we have to develop an experiential understanding that we do not cease when for example thoughts cease, or passions, desires, anger, sounds, smells, plans, ideas etc. If this becomes more real for us, we also do loose the need and desire to uphold these khandha’s, and feed them.

Identity issues keep us trapped in this world of attachment, feeding khandha’s, fear, anxiety, limitations. We have to solve this to see and realise the mind without limits (AN10.81)

So, i understanding it as a comforting and inspiring statement. An inspiration to let go, be brave.

Hi all, thanks for thinking along.

These questions are good and worth answering, but I think they take us a bit too far off track in this topic, sorry.

Accurate enough. My main objection is that the saying is not a pragmatic statement about what the Buddha teaches, which doesn’t fit the contexts, but a statement on what exists. The translation issue (the inclusion of ‘only’) is secondary to this. But this inclusion does help to get the point across and is supported by other passages that teach the same principles, because they do use eva in the restrictive (‘only’) sense.

Instead of arguing along Stu’s lines (with which I do agree), let’s take a different route.

The Buddha actually does take one of the four positions on whether enlightened beings are reborn, namely the second. In MN120 he says: "And, mendicants, that mendicant is not reborn anywhere.” (na katthaci upapajjati) This is the exact same wording that in MN72 he says doesn’t apply: "‘They’re not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.” (“Na upapajjatīti kho, vaccha, na upeti”.)

Unless the Buddha was being inconsistent, this can only be reconciled if the statement is true in one way but false in another. It’s true because enlightened beings exist in some form (as the five aggregates), and these aggregates are not reborn. On the other hand, it’s not true because “THEY are not reborn” is easily taken to refer to some solid entity, a self, a they that does not get reborn. This assumption of a self is where Vacchagotta comes from, because in the discourses again and again he has trouble understanding anatta.

Likewise, in many instances the Buddha uses the term “Tathāgata” in a conventional sense, some of which you’ve quoted. But when the discussion is on anatta he makes clear that there is no real essence behind the Tathāgata, that it is just a label people use for the five aggregates. For instance, SN44.8 says the views about the tathāgata after death arise when one has a sense of self with regards to the aggregates. If one doesn’t, then such views don’t arise. In DN15 it is said:

This whole passage falls under the section header “regarding as self”, so that’s what the statements about the Realized One after death are about as well. Without a concept of self, there is also no concept of a “Realized One” as being some solid, fixed entity.

The issue is largely one of language. Elsewhere (DN9) the Buddha also says he uses the term ‘self’ conventionally. SN1.25 is of relevance as well, where it is said enlightened ones still say “they speak to me”, following worldly convention. The Buddha did so too. However, sometimes he spoke from the higher point of view of anatta, such as when he refuses to say, “they don’t get reborn”.

I think a large part of why you do not understand my posts on these matters, is that you aren’t keeping these two ways of speaking apart.

Of interest to you may also be Selfless Persons by Stephen Collins. I haven’t read the whole thing, but the issue of the Tathāgata after death he treats quite well, I think. He isn’t the only one by far to interpret these statements as such, though. As I’ve already quoted Bhikkhu Bodhi: "the “Tathagata” is a mere term of conventional usage referring to a compound of impermanent formations”

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Its corresponding Chinese counterpart SA 106 does not have such a statement “I declare ONLY suffering and its cessation”.

I think, it is correct to say the word ‘only’ is not correct in the Pali text. The Buddha also did teach more than just these two things according to SN/SA suttas regarding the notion of “seeing things as they really are”:

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Thank you for the interesting and informed analysis.

I would largely agree, but think there is a nuance here that is extremely important. The Buddha is not saying what he declares to be the only thing to exist. He is saying that the only thing he does declare is dukkha and its cessation. In other words, he doesn’t talk in terms of self, or no self, or both, or neither. It’s the same as the ‘declared’ vs ‘undeclared points’ in my opinion.

The Buddha does not declare that a Tathāgata exists after death, nor that a Tathāgata does not exist after death, nor both, nor neither. Rather, he declares *only suffering and the cessation of suffering as the limit of phenomenological reality one can experience, describe, and designate with language (as in DN 15). That is his concern, rather than ontological or metaphysical doctrines of noumena or no-noumenon behind the ‘curtain’ of phenomena. He simply doesn’t go there, as he recognizes that speculating in those ways is simply based on contact (phassa), leads to grasping, and therefore to further existence in such and such a way (see DN 1).

I hope what I’m proposing is clear. In one sense, we may say “there is only suffering.” But if we take that statement in a more absolute, ontological sense, we instead need to talk about the limits of language, knowledge, and the structure or conditionality of experience (again, as in DN 1 or DN 15).

I’m grateful for the connections you made between this statement and other suttas which helps contextualize and understand it much better than a random maxim removed from particular teachings. Sadhu!

All the best.

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The Buddha taught a system of liberation, not a system of beliefs. Beliefs are a honey trap.

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One thing seems clear- the Buddha did not only declare suffering and its cessation!

(The sutta pitaka would be a lot shorter if this was the case…)

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You assume that the whole of the canon is homogeneous. That is something that has to be proven. I think the evidence suggests otherwise.

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This statement is not about the only content of his teaching, but about the only context of not only his teaching, but of all his actions as a teacher, as the Buddha. To understand this, we need to look not at what exactly he was talking about in particular circumstances, but first and foremost at why he decided to teach at all, and for what purpose.

It is like visiting a doctor when the doctor has already understood the essence of the patient’s illness. From the patient’s point of view, the doctor’s questions and explanations may seem completely unrelated to the problem, but the patient, at least the thoughtful one, understands that the doctor is not just teaching him life on various distant topics, but is specifically trying to explain the essence of the disease and its solution to the patient himself. The difference here is that everybody knows who the doctor is, what is the purpose of his actions, but not everybody understands who the Buddha is.

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Yes! Thanks from me too.
It’s never a good idea to reduce such deep thinking to mere soundbites or ‘refrigerator-magnet’ sayings.

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If dukkhañceva paññāpemi, dukkhassa ca nirodhaṁ (MN22) meant “what I declare is that there is only suffering and a cessation of suffering,” should we not expect:

Nirodha to be in the nominative case, not the accusative?

• The “is” to be explicitly expressed by some copula as it is in the Vaijira and Kaccānagotta suttas?

• Some device (e.g., an iti particle) to show that (contrary to appearances) the sentence actually comprises two clauses, not one, and to distinguish the supposed independent clause (paññapemi) from the supposed declarative content clause (dukkhañceva … dukkhassa ca nirodhaṁ)?

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Bhante, would that have to look something like,

*dukkhañceva paññāpemi, ‘dukkhassa nirodho’ti hoti.

Or perhaps,
dukkhañceva paññāpemi, dukkhameva hi sambhoti…

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Namo Buddhaya!

I don’t think that this is a reasonable way to interpret it.

If i was to teach you about infectious disease and it’s eradication i would teach

  1. The disease; symptomology etc
  2. The origin of disease; pathogen etc
  3. The cure for the disease; eg antibiotics
  4. The treatment protocol; dosage etc

I could say i teach only the infectious disease & it’s eradication. A comprehensive teaching about infectious disease & it’s eradication would include many things.

I didn’t bother reading the rest of the essay and so i only comment on this.

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