“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.
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.