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MN 22/MĀ 200 The Simile of the Snake: Parallels of a Patchwork Sutta

One of the observations that supports the dating of suttas as early or later is whether or not they appear to be composites assembled from material found in smaller and simpler suttas. The Parable of the Snake as its found in both the Majjhima Nikāya and Madhyama Āgama makes a good case study. While both of these texts match each other’s contents closely, we can find several sources for their material, which was apparently stitched together to make a larger discourse.

The sutta begins with the story of Ariṭṭha claiming that the Buddha teaches that sensual desire isn’t really an obstruction to practice. This story appears in the Pācittiya rules of all the vinayas that we have in Pali and Chinese. Clearly, it was a well-known story throughout the Buddhist community that went back to the early saṃgha.

The next part of the sutta is the famous snake parable in which the Buddha likens a person who grasps the teaching wrongly to someone who doesn’t know how to safely catch a snake. This parable appears in the Ekôttarika Āgama, which is presumably from the Mahāsāṃghika tradition.

In EĀ 50.8, the parable is deployed to the same effect as it is in MN 22 and MĀ 200, except that it’s in a simpler sutra with a different lead story. In fact, the story of Phagguna found in MN 21 and MĀ 193 appears to be the one in EĀ 50.8, but it’s told a little different. Like the story of Ariṭṭha, Phagguna is depicted as making the mistake of thinking sexual liaisons are okay as long as they are kept secret. It raises some interesting questions. The Phagguna story appears reworked (by comparison) in the Theravāda and Sarvâstivāda versions and the snake parable is attached to the Ariṭṭha story, instead. It’s possible that these later versions (MN 21 and 22) have been edited, or there was confusion about which story was which from the start.

The next section of MN 22 is the parable of the raft. This is another famous parable that appears in different places throughout Buddhist literature, even getting mentioned in the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutra. It also appears in EĀ in a different sutra and context. In EĀ 43.5, it’s brought up to explain how a monk should maintain equanimity even when in mortal danger, such as when waylaid by bandits on a road. The same sutra notably veers into telling the story of the Buddha defeating Māra at the bodhi tree to explain a reference to destroying the seven conceits.

After the parable of the raft, the Buddha explains six grounds or bases for views. A parallel passage, I discovered, occurs in the first sutra in the Views Saṃyukta of SĀ. So, it apparently existed as a separate text in the Sarvâstivāda tradition.

While I haven’t found parallels elsewhere for the material after the Six Grounds section, I would be surprised if they didn’t exist at one time (or still exist undiscovered thus far) because they have a modular “stitched together” appearance. For example, the section on fear is like an interlude in which a certain monk comes forward and asks questions. Many Saṃyutta suttas have this format as independent texts. The five metaphors for the Arhat is also a good candidate for a deeper search for parallels.

Below is a table of parallels that I’ve discovered so far for MN 22 and MĀ 200:

MN 22 MĀ 200 Other Parallels
Ariṭṭha’s Mistake MĀ 200.1-15 Vin.: Mahīśāsaka T1421.56c12, Mahāsāṃghika T1425.427c23,
Dharmaguptaka T1428.682a9, Sarvâstivāda T1435.106a3,
Mūlasarvâstivāda T1442.840b21, Theravāda Vin iv 134
The Snake Parable MĀ 200.16-21 EĀ 50.8
Parable of the Raft MĀ 200.21-29 EĀ 43.5
Six Grounds of Views MĀ 200.30-33 SĀ 35.1
Internal and External Fear MĀ 200.34-45
There’s Nothing That’s Self MĀ 200.49-55
The Arhat MĀ 200.56-60
Misrepresenting the Tathāgata MĀ 200.61-66
The Well-Expressed Teaching MĀ 200.67-71

Another clue that these texts are later compositions is that MN 22 and MĀ 200 match each other exactly in their outline, but the details don’t match in some important ways. The sections that are well-known, like the story of Ariṭṭha and the Snake and Raft Parables, match each other quite well, but the less known sections depart from each other. It’s as though someone in one tradition composed the sutta and then someone in the other tradition heard about its outline but filled in the details as best as they could remember them.

So, for example, we have a section in both MN 22 and MĀ 200 with a list of metaphors for an arhat. It’s in same place in both texts, but the details are different. First off, MN 22 is describing an arhat, but MĀ 200 is describing the monk who attained liberation at the end of the prior section. He’s an arhat, but the term doesn’t come up. The list of metaphors are different, as well:

MN 22 Metaphor Meaning MĀ 200 Metaphor Meaning
1. Lifted the Cross-Bar Given up ignorance Crossed the Moat Ended ignorance
2. Filled In the Trench Given up transmigration Gone Beyond the Moat Ended craving for existence
3. Pulled Up the Pillar Given up craving Breached the City Wall Ended endless birth and death
4. Unbarred Given up five lower fetters Has No Gate Ended five lower fetters
5. Banner and Burden Put Down Given up self-conceit Mirror of Noble Wisdom Ended self-conceit

As we can see, the metaphors are different, but the meanings are almost identical. It’s like someone remembered the important bits but veered off on a different tangent on the less important bits.

The section on fears shows a more significant departure, but the difference is only a word or two. MN 22 and MĀ 200 both have four permutations:

MN 22 MĀ 200
Anxiety about what doesn’t exist externally Cause for having internal fear
No anxiety about what doesn’t exist externally Cause for having no internal fear
Anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally Cause for having external fear
no anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally Cause for having no external fear

A key difference that sets up this difference is that MN 22 introduces the section with the segue “seeing in this way they’re not anxious about what doesn’t exist” at the end of the six grounds for views section. That line that seems to be the basis for the questions about anxiety in MN 22 doesn’t exist in MĀ 200.

But how do the answers for these questions compare?

MN 22 Question Answer MĀ 200 Question Answer
External anxiety Someone thinks, ‘Oh, but it used to be mine, and it is mine no more. Oh, but it could be mine, and I will get it no more.’ They sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion. Internal fear A monk thus sees and thus speaks, ‘Perhaps in the past there was nothing, and maybe I won’t obtain [anything].’
No external anxiety someone doesn’t think that. No internal fear A monk doesn’t thus see and doesn’t thus speak.
Internal anxiety Someone has such a view: ‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’ They hear the Realized One or their disciple teaching Dhamma for the uprooting of all grounds, fixations, obsessions, insistences, and underlying tendencies regarding views; for the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment. They think, ‘Whoa, I’m going to be annihilated and destroyed! I won’t exist any more!’ External fear A monk thus sees and thus speaks, ‘This is the soul, this is the world, and this is me. I will have a later existence.’ He thus sees and thus speaks. Perhaps he meets the Tathāgata, or maybe he meets a disciple of the Tathāgata who’s intelligent, wise, speaks well, and has accomplished wisdom. Whether it’s the Tathāgata or the Tathāgata’s disciple, he explains the teaching in order to cease all identity: ‘Abandon all contaminants, all that’s self, and what’s made by self.’ … He says, ‘I’ll be annihilated and never exist again!’
No internal anxiety Someone doesn’t have such a view No external fear A monk doesn’t have the above view

Ignoring the questions being different, the important content in this section in MN 22 and MĀ 200 match each other, indicating that the differences are probably errors on the part of one tradition or the other.

When these issues are taken altogether, it’s seems likely that texts like MN 22 were later compositions. Parts of them may be original, created to cement together the more well-known teachings, but it’s also clear to me that we still have work to do looking for parallels. Neither Akanuma nor Yinshun had recognized the parallel between MN 22 and SĀ 35.1, nor is it in SuttaCentral’s data. I just happened to discover it searching for the Chinese for “six abodes of views” while translating MĀ 200.

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After looking at Analayo’s brief commentary on the questions about fear/anxiety in A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikaya Volume 1 (pg. 154), I realized it’s a good example of how confusing it can be reading Chinese translations of Indic texts, and also the importance of the whole context of passages.

Analayo seems to assume the Chinese text must be a literal rendering of a very similar Indic passage to Pali, and usually that’s not a bad assumption. The Chinese translator often forces passive-voice grammar onto his Chinese readers. However, Analayo only mentions the two positive questions of the four, which could be read like the Pali, where the term 內有 might mean “an internal existent” rather than being an adjective modifying 恐怖 (fear, anxiety). The problem is that this analysis falls apart for the corollary questions. We would end up with a nonsensical Q&A. Paraphrased, it would go:

“Is there cause for fear about something internally or externally not existent?”
“There is.”
“What is it?”
“A monk doesn’t have that view, so he has no fear.”

So, clearly, something is different about the passage in Chinese. It’s difficult to read 內有 and 內無 the way the Pali reads bahiddhā asati and ajjhattaṃ asati as a result. The difference is the way the questions are begun.

Let’s looks at the Pali and Chinese for the four questions:

MN 22 MA 200
siyā nu kho, bhante, bahiddhā asati paritassanā”ti? 「世尊!頗有因內有恐怖耶?」
“Sir, can there be anxiety about what doesn’t exist externally?” “Bhagavān, isn’t there a cause for having internal fear?”
Siyā pana, bhante, bahiddhā asati aparitassanā”ti? 「世尊!頗有因內無恐怖耶?」
“But can there be no anxiety about what doesn’t exist externally?” “Bhagavān, isn’t there a cause for having no internal fear?”
Siyā nu kho, bhante, ajjhattaṃ asati paritassanā”ti? 「世尊!頗有因外有恐怖也?」
“But can there be anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally?” “Bhagavān, isn’t there a cause for having external fear?”
Siyā pana, bhante, ajjhattaṃ asati aparitassanā”ti? 「世尊!頗有因外無恐怖耶?」
“But can there be no anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally?” “Bhagavān, isn’t there a cause for having no external fear?”

頗 very much matches the meaning of siyā. It expresses a question where there’s doubt like “could it be?” or “isn’t there?” However, the Chinese doesn’t have equivalents of nu kho or pana. As a result, the intro doesn’t negate the fear in the corollaries. The only way to make sense of the answers about not having fear, then, is to read 有 and 無 as modifying 恐怖.

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「世尊! 頗有因內 有恐怖耶?」

頗 = 是否 (whether / is it)

Lord , is it because of internal (non existent) there is such fear ?

Out of context, I could definitely read it that way, especially since the Pali does. But let’s look at the entire passage for the second question:

[0765a05] 比丘歎世尊已,復問曰:「世尊!頗有因內無恐怖也。」

世尊答曰:「有也。」

比丘復問曰:「世尊!云何因內無恐怖也?」

世尊答曰:「比丘者,不如是見、不如是說,彼或昔時無,設有我不得。彼不如是見、不如是說,不憂慼,不煩勞,不啼哭,不椎胸,不發狂癡。比丘!如是因內無恐怖也。」

Given that the Buddha is telling us the monk has no fear because he doesn’t have this wrong view, it doesn’t make sense to me to read the question like the Pali. The Buddha even repeats it after his answer.

The fourth question is the same situation. Fear isn’t negated in the question unless we read 內無恐怖 as “internally no fear.”

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