MN69 Translation Question

My favorite idiosyncratic German translation of the MN by Karl Eugen Neumann once again leads me to an interesting question. I hope you don’t mind me putting the spotlight on him again. I know that most of you would not be terribly in love with him.

My question is on the passage in MN69 translated by the Ven. Sujato as follows:

A wilderness monk should practice meditation to realize the superhuman state. There are those who will question a wilderness monk about the superhuman state. If he is stumped, there’ll be some who say: ‘What’s the point of this wilderness venerable’s staying alone and autonomous in the wilderness, since he doesn’t know the goal for which he went forth?’ That’s why a wilderness monk should practice meditation to realize the superhuman state.

The same passage by Neumann (my translation) reads:

A forest hermit, brothers, has to think seriously about the things that lie beyond human comprehension. It happens, brothers, that one asks a forest hermit questions about things that lie beyond human comprehension. When, brothers, a forest hermit is questioned about things that lie beyond human comprehension and cannot answer, it is said of him: “What good is it for this venerable forest hermit that he lives alone in the forest for himself? He doesn’t even know the goal for which he set out!”: so they talk about him. That’s why a forest hermit has to think seriously about things that lie beyond human comprehension.

Note that the two translations allow for completely different interpretations.

I understand that the Ven. Sujato translated this to be in line with common understanding of the Dhamma and synchronicity with other Suttas.

But my question is this: Which of the two translations is more literal? If one had no understanding of the Dhamma and its concepts, which of the two translations would more likely result?

Thank you.

(Ein Waldeinsiedler, ihr Brüder, hat über die Dinge, die jenseit menschlichen Ermessens liegen, ernstlich nachzudenken. Es kommt vor, ihr Brüder, dass man einem Waldeinsiedler über die Dinge, die jenseit menschlichen Ermessens liegen, Fragen stellt. Wenn, ihr Brüder, ein Waldeinsiedler, über die Dinge, die jenseit menschlichen Ermessens liegen, befragt, nicht zu antworten weiss, so sagt man von ihm: “Was taugt es wohl diesem ehrwürdigen Waldeinsiedler, dass er allein im Walde für sich lebt, da er ja das Ziel, warum er hinausgezogen ist, nicht einmal kennt!”: also spricht man von ihm. Darum hat ein Waldeinsiedler über die Dinge, die jenseit menschlichen Ermessens liegen, ernstlich nachzudenken.)


A wilderness monk should practice meditation to realize the superhuman state.
Āraññikenāvuso, bhikkhunā uttari manussadhamme yogo karaṇīyo.

Should just go back to the Pāli to look at the text. This is the only relevant line.

yogo karaṇīyo. means effort should be made. There are many meanings to yoga but effort seems appropriate here. Or next best is meditation, so meditation should be done.

uttari manussadhamme likely the loc sg here has the meaning of dative. So it’s effort should be made for the super human state.

Or alternative translation is meditation on (loc sg) the superhuman state should be done.

This is possibly why the german has think seriously as a possible corruption of meditation.

But you yourself said that “effort” was the closest translation for “yoga”, and that “meditation” was “next best”. So these translations both have alternatives, and the right translation would be “effort” ?

I think it doesn’t matter either way. We know the noble 8fold path contains effort and meditation.

It’s up to the individual translator’s choice in it. Or you just learn Pāli.

It seems to me the main difference between the two versions is the translation of “practice meditation” versus “ernstlich nachdenken” (think seriously). The Pali term is yogo karaṇīyo which means “devote oneself to”.

What one devotes oneself to is uttari manussadhamme, translated by Bhante Sujato as “superhuman state”, by Neumann as “Dinge, die jenseit menschlichen Ermessens liegen” (things that lie beyond human comprehension; while “Ermessen” is actually “discretion”, “judgement”, rather than “comprehension”—but it’s also possible that the nuances of meaning have changed since Neumann’s time).

Uttari manussadhamma does literally mean “things beyond the human”.

I think at Neumann’s time meditation wasn’t widely practiced in the West, and as far as I have heard, Neumann himself didn’t practice it. He was a philologist who studied Indic languages. So he probably didn’t have meditation in his focus so much.


Thank you Sabamitta. But does the Pali text now speak about meditation or not? If it is unclear, on what grounds do you translate as meditation?

You are right about “comprehension”, I used google translate and this is what came up. I am not a professional translator, as you will be able to tell.

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I think this would be a problematic statement for the EBT community …

When we look at dictionary for the words, that’s when one has to choose based on context. Here’s the words from Digital pāli dictionary.

yogo karaṇīyo: idiom. meditation should be practised (to understand); effort should be made (to understand); lit. yoking to be done

yoga 1: masc. yoke; bond; attachment; (comm) which bind one to the round of cyclical existence [√yuj + *e + a]
✓yoga 2: masc. effort; exertion; undertaking; task; lit. yoking [√yuj + *e + a]
✓yoga 3: masc. meditation; contemplation; lit. yoking [√yuj + *e + a]
✓yoga 4: adj. (gram) syntactically dependent on; ruled by; governed by; lit. yoking [√yuj + *e + a]
✓yoga 5: adj. medical remedy; lit. yoking [√yuj + *e + a] ~•
yoga 6: masc. grammatical rule; sutta; lit. yoking [√yuj] ✗
yoga 7: adj. devoted (to); attached (to); making an effort (to); lit. yoking [√yuj + *e + a] ✓

karaṇīya 2: ptp. should be done; must be done; ought to be made; to be observed; lit. to be done [√kar + aṇīya]
✓karaṇīya 3: ptp. should be; must be; should be had; lit. to be done [√kar + aṇīya] ✓

Seems to me to be an awful lot of interpretation going on there Venerable ! This can IMO only be classified as a dynamic, not literal translation.

Look at the context. I haven’t translated MN69 yet, but I just read it now (in Bhante Sujato’s translation).

The sutta speaks about bad behavior of a wilderness monk who usually lives alone in the wilderness and on a certain occasion comes to the village and stays with the other mendicants.

Sariputta lists various forms of behavior, starting with basic manners of politeness and respect, which this monk doesn’t fulfill.

Then it continues by the pattern of the gradual training, as described for example in DN2: guard the sense doors, eat in moderation, be committed to wakefulness, be energetic, be mindful—these are all preparatory practices that lead up to meditation. Mindfulness is actually the place where in the gradual training one sits down under a tree and establishes exactly this mindfulness, starting the actual meditation practice.

Consequently, the next point is that this wilderness monk should have immersion. Then he should be wise, and then he should “make an effort to learn the teaching and training”. Here we find for the first time yogo karaṇīyo, this time translated as “make an effort”, which fits the context.

Then he should “practice meditation to realize the peaceful liberations that are formless, transcending form” (again yogo karaṇīyo)—this is clearly a state of meditation, so yogo karaṇīyo is translated respectively.

And then, as the very last of all, comes that he should “practice meditation to realize the superhuman state”. That makes sense according to the gradual training, where at the end of the process, we have the realization. Basically, perfection, arahantship.

That’s how I understand it.


Okay, but does this understanding come exclusively from the text in front of you?

Another possible problem I see has to do with this line:

since he doesn’t know the goal for which he went forth

da er ja das Ziel, warum er hinausgezogen ist, nicht einmal kennt

Historically I believe it is said that the goal of the Hauslose or Sramana was to find a way to end being reborn in Samsara. But we have two translations here from which one would have to infer that the reason for leaving home was either to practice meditation to realize the superhuman state or pondering supramundane questions.

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That is a term for Nibbana here. You always have to consider the context in order to understand an individual line. Elsewhere, “superhuman states” can also be jhanas, or recollection of past lives, etc., but here it is the consummation of the path.

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But then it is a dynamic translation (Übertragung), not a literal translation (Übersetzung)

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I don’t think Bhante Sujato ever claimed to make a “literal” translation. Considering the context is still part of a “real” translation (Übersetzung). Scopes of meaning vary in different languages, and which nuance applies in a specific case is very much dependent on context.

So where does the correct context come from? Sujato and Neumann both take scripture as their only reference, one as an EBT Bhikkhu, the other as an academic philologist. Still they seem to end up with entirely different context. Who is right?

Anyway, Sabbamitta. We both know what time it is :wink:

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This may be part of your “synchronicity” reference…I had noted a few years ago, studying SN 56 in Bhikkhu Bodi’s Reading the Discourses in Pali, that Bhante Sujato translates yogo karaṇīyo throughout as:

…you should practice meditation (to)…

He also does it in AN 10 and 4.93, which the SuttaCentral search engine cites as the only other occurrences of the exact phrase yogo karaṇīyo in the Suttapiṭaka (along with MN 69).

And I just noted where Bhikkhu Sekha, in SN 56.1, translates it into French as:

…le travail (de contemplation) est à faire…

where the paranthetical seems to be hedging their bets?

Thank you for this beautiful teaching.

:pray:t3: :elephant:

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Neumann has a foreword in his 1895 translation of the MN saying that he believes that knowing Pali is not possible without knowing Sanskrit and that most people underestimate the delicacy of the Pali language. He thinks that one cannot just “melt” (sic.) passages into roughly consistent content.

From his translation it does eg. not even become clear that the states in MN1 and the stories of the Buddha’s enlightement refer to meditative absorptions.

I am not a critic of Sujato or any other translator. My fear is that there could be a time stamp on human language in general. After a certain amount of time has elapsed, it seems that more and more guesswork and historical interpretation is necessary to still correctly understand a text, so that at a certain point following tradition, even if likely corrupted, becomes a closer bet than attempting new translations.

To me both Sujato’s translation and Neumann’s translation of the passage in MN69 appear incorrect. I offer my suggested translation below:

Āraññikenāvuso, bhikkhunā uttari manussadhamme yogo karaṇīyo.
A monk who lives in a forest should practice to attain the higher human-attainment.

Santāvuso, āraññikaṁ bhikkhuṁ uttari manussadhamme pañhaṁ pucchitāro.
(because) There may be people who might pose questions to him about the higher human-attainment.

Sace, āvuso, āraññiko bhikkhu uttari manussadhamme pañhaṁ puṭṭho na sampāyati, tassa bhavanti vattāro.
If the forest-dwelling bhikṣu, when questioned about the higher human-attainment, isn’t able to explain them, then those people may say this…

‘Kiṁ panimassāyasmato āraññikassa ekassāraññe serivihārena yo ayamāyasmā yassatthāya pabbajito tamatthaṁ na jānātī’ti
What is the point of this forest-dwelling monk who living by himself in the forest, hasnt achieved what he became a monk for (i.e. to achieve the higher human-attainment)?

Tasmā āraññikena bhikkhunā uttari manussadhamme yogo karaṇīyo”ti.
Therefore a monk who lives in a forest should practice to attain the higher human-attainment.

There is no hint of any “superhuman state” or “beyond human comprehension” involved here.

The passage is talking about manussadhamma (human-attainment), and the word uttari (higher) is an adjective qualifying the manussadhamma.

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This is a commonly known code for either Jhānas or the path and fruits. In this contexts, it’s the path and fruits. And superhuman states is a commonly accepted translation for this.

As I have said above - the passage is talking about manussadhamma (human-attainment), and the word uttari (higher) is an adjective qualifying the manussadhamma. It doesnt mean superhuman. The word ‘uttari’ is a comparative and not a superlative.