Making fire or collecting fire in MN28

In MN28 we have this line.

Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ kukkuṭapattenapi nhārudaddulenapi aggiṁ gavesanti.

Bhikkhu @sujato:

There comes a time when they go looking for a fire, taking just chicken feathers and strips of sinew as kindling.

Bhikkhu Bodhi:

There comes a time when they seek to make a fire even with a cock’s feather or a hide-paring.

So, is this creating fire by (I guess) some sort of friction using feathers and sinew/hide-paring, or is it getting fire from another source of fire and somehow transporting it using feathers and sinew/hide-paring?

many thanks


I would take it as attempting to create fire using those things, as the more normal fuel is unavailable. The “even with” seems to point to that.

The verb gavesati seems to have more of the meaning of ‘wish for, strive after’ here, rather than physically hunting for.


I think it should be about “creating fire”. The reason is:

it reaches a green field, a roadside, a cliff’s edge, a body of water, or cleared parkland, where it’s extinguished for lack of fuel.
Sā haritantaṁ vā panthantaṁ vā selantaṁ vā udakantaṁ vā ramaṇīyaṁ vā bhūmibhāgaṁ āgamma anāhārā nibbāyati.


It’s a tricky idiom! Literally:

Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ kukkuṭapattenapi nhārudaddulenapi aggiṁ gavesanti.
There comes a time when they search for fire with just a chicken-feather or a strip of sinew.

I used plurals to make the syntax smoother, and added “as kindling”, but maybe I shouldn’t.

The commentary says this:

Taking such a little bit of fuel (sukhumaṃ upādānaṃ), they seek fire. It is lit when they get even a tiny spark.

Compare the discussion of the air element below, which uses a similar phrasing, with vātaṁ pariyesanti, where gavesanti and pariyesanti are synonyms.

Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ gimhānaṁ pacchime māse tālavaṇṭenapi vidhūpanenapi vātaṁ pariyesanti
There comes a time, in the last month of summer, when they look for wind by using a palm-leaf or fan

Now, knowing little of such things, I wanted to check whether feathers can actually be used in this way. And lo! Survival frog says:

Bird feathers are very flammable, and when they’re dry, you can quickly build a fire with just a small spark.

Which is not far from being an actual translation of the passage with commentary.

Now, the hard part is the meaning of daddula. It occurs in a similar context in an7.49:2.4:

It’s like a chicken’s feather or a strip of sinew thrown in a fire. It shrivels up, shrinks, rolls up, and doesn’t stretch out.

Clearly the sense is the same as the previous one, and here (in this later translation) Ven Bodhi has “strip of sinew”, so it looks like he revised his MN translation.

Nhāru has a well-established meaning of “sinew, tendon, muscle”, so why did BB earlier use “hide”? It seems this was influenced by the commentary, which says the phrase refers to the parings left when making leather. Elsewhere, nhāru and camma (hide, leather) are clearly differentiated, so this seems unlikely.

So what do we know? That these are the very last and most meagre things one might use to kindle a fire from a spark; that they curl up as they burn in a fire; that they are both animal products; and that they would be available in an apocalypse.

Slightly tangential: where do they come from? The commentary suggests that nhārudaddula would be workshop parings, but that seems a little specialized, not quite fitting with the apocalyptic scenario.

I think these are the organic leftovers remaining on dried-up animal carcasses. Fire has consumed almost everything. Dead things litter the apocalyptic landscape. So you’re scraping up whatever you can: a feather from a dead bird, a scrap of sinew from a dead dog. And that’s the best you can use to try to light a fire.

I don’t know of any method for actually creating a fire using feathers and sinew. So it seems the passage is about someone who tries to find just the smallest spark, maybe in a glowing ember from a dying fire or a lightning strike, and uses a feather or sinew as kindling.


I’m not 100% sure this literally means a chicken feather.

It may be the small wick used to start a fire…

kukkuṭa=the thing you use to make a spark, a small spark (not a chicken???). If it is chicken, it may be a pun on kukkuṭa meaning “small flame”.


If you give me a few days I might be able to do better with nhārudaddula. My guess is that it’s a synonym for wick, nhāru should be the thread wick? Nahāru, & Nhāru (Sk. snāyu, Idg. *snē to sew, cp. Gr. nέw, nήqw, nhμa (thread);

Rough translation from Chinese MA 30: SuttaCentral

People look for fire, or drill wood and bamboo, or flint and beads.

The conceptual idea is just that they look for a fire starter, no mention of chickens.

I like the idea of literal chicken feathers and hide, it does sound quite apocalyptic, and Bhante has evidently thought about it in detail. But imma going to guess it’s not actually chicken feathers.

It has just never occurred to me to light a fire with a chicken feather.


Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ kukkuṭapattenapi nhārudaddulenapi aggiṁ gavesanti.

There comes a time when…they look for fire with (=from) something even as small as cloth wicks and thread wicks etc.


Thank you, Ayyā, for these interesting thoughts on a rather strange passage.

I had a look at Margaret Cone’s DOP to see if any interesting turned up…
The word kukkuṭa is defined as cock, no mention is given of kukkuṭapatta.

There is mention of a second possible meaning of kukkuṭa, given as “what is badly or inadequately done?”, or “satisfaction with a first inadequate achievement?”,
and mention is made of the strange compound, kukkuṭajhāyi(n), translated by Ñāṇamoli as “a shy meditator”.

Interestingly, nearby there is the entry for kukkuḷa/kukkula, hot embers, burning chaff.
Is it possible this is relevant?

All a bit odd.

Cone only defines nahāru as “a sinew, a tendon”, and gives for the compound nahārudaddula, “a strip or shred of sinew”. No mention of “wick”. (Although that makes sense)


Compare Monier Williams entry for kukkuṭa.

  1. [v.s. …] a whisp of lighted straw or grass, [cf. Lexicographers, esp. such as amarasiṃha, halāyudha, hemacandra, etc.]

  2. [v.s. …] a firebrand, spark of fire, [cf. Lexicographers, esp. such as amarasiṃha, halāyudha, hemacandra, etc.]


It seems to make sense to take kukkuṭa is the Sanskrit sense (Pali kukkuḷa) of “spark of fire” or “embers”, rather than something to do with chickens.

It’s not clear to me how to take the full compound kukkuṭapatta though.
A bowl of embers?

PS We can find “kukkuḷa” in SN 10.5, Sānusutta.
Kukkuḷā ubbhato tāta, kukkuḷaṃ patitumicchasi

Pulled out from the embers, my dear, you wish to drop into the embers…

(also found at SN 22.136)

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A bowl of embers wouldn’t work in the sense given in an7.49:2.4 mentioned earlier, where the kukku.tapatta shrivels up.


Yes, quite so. Very puzzling.

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, kukkuṭapattaṃ vā nhārudaddulaṃ vā aggimhi pakkhittaṃ patilīyati patikuṭati pativattati, na sampasāriyati.

“Just as a cock’s feather or strip of sinew, thrown into a fire, shrinks away from it, turns back from it, rolls away from it, and is not drawn towards it.” (Ven. Bodhi trans.)

It’s easier for me to imagine smouldering leaves or bits of cloth and threads curling up when thrown into a fire, than chicken feathers and sinew, but I’m just a city boy…


Hmm, interesting. I hadn’t checked MW for this, it seemed obvious. But I wonder; the only sources are for lexicographers. If it’s a genuine sense, then it could easily be drawn from the former, if feathers were indeed used as kindling. Otherwise, might it be the case that it is in fact just drawn from this passage? Sometimes with obscure terms I hunt them down in the Dictionaries, only to find that the passage I’m reading is the only attestation!

I don’t think so. It’s not attested in Cone.

Okay, so they normalized a difficult reading?

I mean sure, I get how the meaning could evolve, but it’s not attested in that sense in Pali.

Yes, but I don’t think that applies here.

I mean maybe, is it related to the Sanskrit sense?

I dunno folks, kukkuṭa is a common word for chicken, and patta is a common word for feather, and since a chicken feather does shrivel up in fire, and it may be used as kindling, and it is plausibly available in the context when wildfire has burned all the normal fuel, then I’m not seeing the problem here.


kukkuṭa meaning flame would have been nice, but it may have been a wild chicken chase. :chicken:

Indian languages can furnish better words for wicks any way. On reflection, I don’t think it’s likely that this was what was meant.

I guess leather and feathers are examples of inflammable substances rather than flammable substances. Feathers are keratinous, I gather that they would burn about as well as wool or hair, i.e. not great/not at all. The image may be that of an exercise in futility.

Thinking about it more, I wonder if the fan image has the same point. You can’t make a wind from a fan, it is futile.