MN 123 Of course, my dear Watson: "Late afternoon" is "after the meal"

While reading MN 123, acchariyaabbhuttasutta, I have noticed something odd regarding the timing of the sutta that has made me doubt:

The conversation between the bhikkhus at the beginning of the sutta starts “after the meal, on return from alms-round”. Taken into the account that the bhikkhus don’t eat after noon, this means that the conversation starts at 12:00 pm at the earliest, and, let’s say, 3 to 4 pm at the latest.

Now, after a few exchanges, it is said that the conversation “was left unfinished”. Let’s call this moment “TIME 1”.

“Then, in the late afternoon the Buddha came out of retreat” and joined the group of monks in the pavilion. Late afternoon, I guess, goes from 4 pm to 5 pm approx. (Ñanamoli & Bodhi even translate “evening.”) Then the Buddha says: “Mendicants, what were you sitting talking about just now? What conversation was unfinished?” Let’s call this moment “TIME 2”.

If we assume that TIME 1 (“after the meal”) and TIME 2 (“late afternoon”) were quite separate in time, then why did the Buddha say “just now”? And how did he know a conversation was let unfinished some time ago?

If we instead assume that TIME 1 and TIME 2 were very close from each other --possibly, consecutive-- because, OK, the conversation could still take place sometime around the border time of 4 pm… then why does the sutta call the first time “after the meal, on return from alms-round”, and the second time “late afternoon”?

Furthermore, it seems as if the conversation were interrupted by the very entrance of the Buddha himself. So, at least it is assumed in both the translations by Ñanamoli-Bodhi and Thanissaro and, I would also add, Sujato’s. This would mean that TIME 1 and TIME 2 are closely consecutive.

So, maybe, “after meal” is just a vague way of referring to the afternoon or even to the evening… and TIME 1 and TIME 2 are indeed consecutive. Any feedback? Thanks.


Why do you think that? For all we know they might have finished the meal at 8:00 am.

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Dear Dhammanando:

Thanks for your insight and interest. Yes, you’re right. The meal could have finished at any time before noon.

I was just trying to bring TIME 1 (the moment the conversation was left unfinished) and TIME 2 (the moment the Buddha ask the mendicants about the unfinished conversation) the closest possible, as the different translations suggest or, better said, as I did suppose it myself.

Your suggestion fits then in the second alternative proposed, that is, TIME 1 and TIME 2 being quite separate in time one from the other.

So, how are we to explain then the Buddha’s words “what were you sitting talking about just now [etarahi]?”

OK, ruling out the possibility that the monks stayed talking from noon --or before noon-- to afternoon, which in principle would seem a pretty idle day, so to say, I can speculate about a possible explanation in two parts:

  1. The sutta presents the monks gathered at two different moments of the day, first, “after their meal, on return from all-round” and, second, “in the late afternoon” when the Buddha came out of his retreat.

  2. The monks were then about resuming the conversation left unfinished in the noon, when the Buddha arrived, heard something about the unfinished conversation to be resumed and asked the mendicants about it.

Occam says that it makes sense… :wink: Why I didn’t see that way from the beginning! I suppose it is because of working with several translations at the same time and my mind merging them somehow…

Thank you very much for helping me trying to figure it out.


I would not discard that possibility! If you are stuck in a monastery in the middle of the rainy season there’s a good chance you can spend a lot of time chatting about all things! :sweat_smile:

This sutta indicates that it was the case even when the Buddha was around!