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Mysterious Brahma Passage in AN 3.70 Uposatha (Sabbath) Sutta: Lost Teachings?

In AN 3.70, about the Uposatha (Sabbath) Day, there is a passage referencing Brahma that seems somewhat out of place and that perhaps suggests parts of the original teachings are lost. This passage occurs in the first section of the recollections involving the Buddha and the Buddha’s qualities. These recollections seem to be taught as a means to cleans the mind of defilements on Sabbath Days.

At the end of the section on recollecting the Buddha, the text reads:

And how is a corrupt mind cleaned by applying effort? It’s when a noble disciple recollects the Realized One: ‘That Blessed One is perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed.’ As they recollect the Realized One, their mind becomes clear, joy arises, and mental corruptions are given up. This is called: ‘A noble disciple who observes the sabbath of Brahmā, living together with Brahmā. And because they think of Brahmā their mind becomes clear, joy arises, and mental corruptions are given up.’ That’s how a corrupt mind is cleaned by applying effort.

Why would the Buddha seem to be called Brahma? Is it possible that this is the remnants of a separate recollection that we’re only left with part of? In other words, perhaps the mention of Brahma should go to a separate section involving the recollection of Brahma and his qualities, but we’re missing parts of the original teachings?

Additional evidence supporting this hypothesis is that this sutta does include a section on recollecting devas and the qualities of devas to help cleanse the mind.

Does anyone have any other ideas about the meaning of this passage appearing to link Buddha to Brahma? Perhaps Chinese parallels could shed some light – are you familiar with any of them Charles @cdpatton?

As a side note, Bhante @sujato’s translation of Uposatha as Sabbath helps shed new light on the meaning of the word, similarities between between different cultures, and the universality of perhaps the need for recurring holy days.

with metta,

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As I understand it, “Brahmā” is occasionally used as an epithet for the Buddha. It can mean “perfected one”. Perhaps another example of the early Buddhists redefining brahmanical terms.

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Hi, Brooks,

There are a handful of Chinese texts that are parallel with AN 3.70 to varying degrees.

MA 202 is pretty close to the Pali. It’s starts with Visākhā visiting the Buddha. The Buddha defines the same three types of Uposatha, and it has the same passage mentioning Brahma in a second recollection of the Tathāgata. It’s strange that there’s two recollections of the Buddha, isn’t it?

EA 24.6, on the other hand, is in the Ekôttarika’s Book of Threes, but it instead covers three different Uposatha days (8th, 14th, and 15th). It’s not the same text as AN 3.70. It presents the eight precepts and stories about the devas paying close attention to the spiritual progress of people on earth. It doesn’t have the recollections in AN 3.70 and MA 202.

SA 861-863 are only parallel to the passages about the dilation of time that passes in the heavens compared to here on Earth.

T87 is an older translation by Zhi Qian dated ~223-253 CE, about 100-150 years before MA. It’s clearly based on the same sutra as AN 3.70 and MA 202. Visākhā is the interlocutor, and the same three different Uposatha practices are described. The Buddha first details the eight precepts and then five recollections. There’s only one recollection of the Buddha, not two, and Brahma isn’t mentioned. The remaining four recollections are the Dharma, Saṃgha, precepts, and devas.

T88 is another alternate translation by an anonymous translator. This sutra looks like it descends from the same original sutra. Again, Visākhā pays the Buddha a visit and he gives her a discourse on the eight precepts. This sutra has metaphors about cleaning parts of the body like AN 3.70. What is doesn’t have are the recollections, and Brahma isn’t mentioned.

T89 is a third alternate translation. This sutra is the simplest one. The Buddha just details the eight precepts for an assembly of monks and caps it off with a conclusion about the merits gain by it. It doesn’t have the recollections or mention of any devas.

So, it looks like the recollections were added later in the evolution of this sutra, and what we find in the Pali and MA is the most fully embellished version.

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Thanks for such a thorough response, Charles. It sounds like there are no Chinese parallels that contain a separate recollection for Brahma.

What leads you to the conclusion that the recollections were added later to the Buddha’s original teaching?

Yes, that’s another reason I wondered if the passage about Brahma was out of place and perhaps was once a separate recollection. It seems like there’s no way to be sure what the Buddha’s original words were. The good news is, at least in my experience, these recollections are effective at cleansing the mind, like the sutta says they are.

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That seems plausible. There are also some suttas where the Buddha refers to parents as Brahma.

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It’s speculative, of course, because we don’t know which canons the alternate translations came from, but there’s a version without the recollections (T88), one with the standard recollections of the triratna plus precepts and devas (T87), and then this version in Pali and MA 202 that adds a second recollection of the Buddha. It’s the sort of thing I see in Chinese translations that span different eras of history. Things are gradually added over time to arrive at the versions that are fully drawn out.

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One thing that stood out to me in your recent translations of the Agamas is that they seem to contain quite a bit more detail than the Pali Nikayas. It sounds like one likely explanation is that details get added over time. On the other hand, it seems like, at least in the Nikayas, we’re almost certain to be missing some of the details of what was actually said by the Buddha or whoever else was speaking.

In other words, as one scholar I think put it, the Nikayas are like a telegram of what was actually said: Shortened, to the point snippets. In contrast the Agamas seem to have a lot more detail.

So, it sounds like most versions have some variations of the recollections and only one doesn’t? And only the Pali version mentions Brahma in the recollection of the Buddha?

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AN 3.70 is unusual in several respects, also for its Brahma reference. Because the context is not defining it we can’t say what it means here. Brahma can sometimes mean ‘supreme’ or ‘highest’. A meaning that it sometimes has in the suttas is ‘transformative speech’, coming from the older ‘magical formula’. Here, again, it’s not clear what is meant, but probably some attempt to appropriate brahmanic veneration. Especially seeing together with @cdpatton’s references I don’t see much significance in it.

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Based on the above, Charles’s references, and the sutta itself, that does seem likely. Initially, I wondered if the use of “Brahma” in the first recollection was a reference to an actual Brahma. It seems likely not. However, the fifth recollection in this sutta of Gods/Devas and their qualities would seem to include Brahma/Brahmas anyway.

Thanks everyone for their responses!

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“‘Ascetic’ is a term for the Realized One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha.
“‘Samaṇo’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Brahmin’,
‘Brāhmaṇo’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Knowledge Master’,
‘Vedagū’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Healer’,
‘Bhisakko’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Unstained’,
‘Nimmalo’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Immaculate’,
‘Vimalo’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
‘Knower’,
‘Ñāṇī’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
and ‘Freed’ are terms for the Realized One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha.
‘Vimutto’ti, bhikkhave, tathāgatassetaṃ adhivacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassāti.

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It depends on the Agama, honestly. The Dirgha represents the same level of literary development that we see in the Digha Nikaya. The Madhyama does seem like overall it has been expanded a bit more than the Pali texts, but remember that many of MA’s sutras were left in the Anguttara Nikaya by the Theravada tradition. So, they may have not received the same attention in those cases. Plus, the Chinese translators didn’t abbreviate the MA sutras much, whereas the Theravada MN is abbreviated more, and translators like Sujato abbreviate their translations even more than the canonical texts. So, the Pali will feel simpler when you read my literal translations of MA just for that reason sometimes.

The Ekottarika on the other hand reads simpler than Pali sometimes, but it’s also clearly a different canonical tradition than the Theravada. Many of the sutras just don’t match up that well. The Samyukta also reads simpler or the same as the Pali texts, too. In some ways it feels more primitive: For example, it lacked any divisions or headings, and only the first samyukta had uddanas.

No, the Madhyama (MA 202) version has the same mysterious passage that sounds like a Brahmanic practice. So, the expansion isn’t specific to the Theravada. The Sarvastivadins had it too.

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Thanks again Charles for your thoughtful response. Interesting!

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Although it’s true that in the nikayas Brahmā is used meaning the highest. The evidence above is exactly what I noticed. I really think there was Brahmin influence once in India and Sri Lanka. There where forced probably to add verses like these by Kings during the Hindu empire. But different times. Sri Lanka itself had to rewrite most part of the canon. Original lost or burned (?) Like the library of Nalanda University burned.

What are the sources for your opinion on this? Does it come from any particular research that you have done, or from some other basis like study of history etc?

Metta :slight_smile:

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Reading a lot. But I don’t remember some sources. But the Nalanda University library being burned is history. But alot kings against some Religion did the same. I think the Greeks in history went threw the same. But almost all what I said of course is history. There is somewhere on the internet explain the rewriting of Tripitaka in Sri Lanka. A lot was lost. During invasions etc. which I think happened before it was written down the second time. And actually after that it was kinda lost again. That’s why there is no complete Tripitaka from 5 century or earlier. But about the force change you can find in the book, how the Brahmins won. Everyone had to change because Hindu king forced them. Or else death.

I think by the time Mahayana started to become the norm. The sangha probably splitted. It’s during this time that Some suttas against others is different. Because they probably didn’t agree. As you see the above suttas, it’s confusing. It’s probably related to what I say about Hindu kings. I think originally Buddhism was taught to have nondelight in the world. So actually things like the above had be empty. Meaning illusion. Like knowing kids imagine stuff. :rofl: