Obscure optatives in the Saṅkhitta Sutta AN 8.63

The grammatical index of Warder’s Introduction to Pali lists ten references for the optative tense. It’s first mentioned in Lesson #14 of 30:

The optative (or “potential”) (sattamī) tense is used for any hypothetical action. It may be translated by “should”, “would”, “may”, etc. …
p 86, beginning of sub-lesson

The range of meaning of the optative includes a mild form of command or a strong injunction, as well as requests, invitations, wishes, possibilities, suppositions, and hypotheses.

The hypothetical meaning is by far the most usual (cf. meanings of future, Lesson 10). …
p 87, 4th & 5th paragraphs

In the Saṅkhitta Sutta of the Aṅguttara’s eights, we find the optative tense employed in the context of eight training injunctions that follow (qv. yato) some degree of sammā samādhi.

What is particularly interesting here I think is that what appears to be a conservative rendering we have here on SuttaCentral obscures a difference in conjugation between the verbs “to train” and “to develop”:

Then you should train yourself thus: ‘Good-will, as my awareness-release, will be developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken.’ That’s how you should train yourself. When you have developed this concentration in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & no evaluation, you should develop it accompanied by rapture… not accompanied by rapture… endowed with a sense of enjoyment; you should develop it endowed with equanimity.

The root text has sikkhitabbaṃ for “you should train” and bhāveyyāsi for “you should develop”.

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Indeed, this kind of ambiguity happens frequently. Not just Ven Thanissaro, but also Ven Bodhi and myself have chosen a similar approach here.

Each grammatical case functions with a somewhat vague range of meanings, which more or less overlaps with a similarly vague range of forms in English. Sometimes the same thing is rendered differently, or a different thing is rendered the same. The purpose of a translation is not to mimic every syntactical nuance, but to express the meaning.

In this particular case, for the optative we could say something like “You may develop this samadhi …”, but surely the teaching intends something stronger than this: you should develop it.

Similarly, for the future passive participle, we could say, “That’s how training is to be done by you”, but that’s just plain ugly.

If it was an important point, we could use a synonym such as “you ought to train”, but I’m not sure that this achieves anything.

Oh, well, what can I say? Translation, like verbs, is often imperfect!



Certainly Bhante, not meant as a criticism of the translations, merely that discovering the optatives relative to the injunctives instilled for me a sense of flexibility in the training that I found quite compelling. But inspecting, for one, Acariya Tan’s commentaries, I’m reminded of some of the difficulties with this text.