The Uttaravipatti Sutta, AN 8.8 is the only place in the Pali to support the thesis that “what is well spoken is the word of the Buddha”. Of course, saying that what is well-spoken is Dhamma is a rather different claim, a claim of principle rather than history.
Here is my translation of the sutta, with a few remarks below.
##8 Uttara on Failure
At one time Venerable Uttara was staying on the Saṅkheyyaka Mountain in the Mahisa region near Dhavajālikā. There Uttara addressed the mendicants:
“Mendicants, it’s good for a mendicant to review their own failings from time to time. It’s good for a mendicant to review the failings of others from time to time. It’s good for a mendicant to review their own successes from time to time. It’s good for a mendicant to review the successes of others from time to time.”
Now at that time the great king Vessavaṇa was on his way from the north to the south on some business. He heard Venerable Uttara teaching this to the mendicants on Saṅkheyyaka Mountain. Then Vessavaṇa vanished from Saṅkheyyaka Mountain and appeared among the gods of the Thirty Three, as easily as a strong person would extend or contract their arm.
Then he went up to Sakka, the Lord of Gods and said to him:
“Please sir, you should know this. Venerable Uttara is teaching the mendicants on Saṅkheyyaka Mountain in this way: ‘It’s good for a mendicant from time to time to review their own failings. … the failings of others … their own successes … the successes of others.’
Then, as easily as a strong person would extend or contract their arm, Sakka vanished from the gods of the Thirty Three and reappeared on Saṅkheyya Mountain in front of Venerable Uttara. Then Sakka went up to Venerable Uttara, bowed, stood to one side, and said to him:
“Is it really true, sir, that you teach the mendicants in this way: ‘It’s good for a mendicant from time to time to review their own failings. … the failings of others … their own successes … the successes of others’?”
“Indeed, Lord of Gods.”
“Sir, did this teaching come to you from your own inspiration, or was it spoken by the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha?”
“Well then, Lord of Gods, I shall give you a simile. For by means of a simile some sensible people understand the meaning of what is said. Suppose there was a large heap of grain not far from a town or village. And a large crowd were to take away grain with carrying poles, baskets, hip sacks, or their cupped hands. If someone were to go to that crowd and ask them where they got the grain from, how should that crowd rightly reply?”
“Sir, they should reply that they took it from the large heap of grain.”
yaṃ kiñci subhāsitaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ tassa bhagavato vacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa
“In the same way, Lord of Gods, whatever is well spoken is spoken by the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha.
Tato upādāyupādāya mayaṃ caññe ca bhaṇāmā
Both myself and others rely completely on that when we speak.”
“It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing! How well this was said by Venerable Uttara! ‘Whatever is well spoken is spoken by the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. Both myself and others rely completely on that when we speak.’
At one time the Buddha was staying near Rājagaha, on the Vulture’s Peak Mountain, not long after Devadatta had left. There the Buddha spoke to the mendicants about Devadatta:
‘Mendicants, it’s good for a mendicant from time to time to review their own failings … the failings of others … their own successes … the successes of others.
Overcome and overwhelmed by eight things that oppose the true teaching, Devadatta is going to a place of loss, to hell, there to remain for an eon, irredeemable. What eight? Overcome and overwhelmed by gain … loss … fame … disgrace … honor … dishonor … wicked desires … bad friendship, Devadatta is going to a place of loss, to hell, there to remain for an eon, irredeemable.
Overcome and overwhelmed by these eight things that oppose the true teaching, Devadatta is going to a place of loss, to hell, there to remain for an eon, irredeemable.
It’s good for a mendicant, whenever they encounter it, to overcome gain … loss … fame … disgrace … honor … dishonor … wicked desires … bad friendship.
What advantage does a mendicant gain by overcoming these eight things? The distressing and feverish defilements that might arise in someone who lives without overcoming these eight things do not arise when they have overcome them. This is the advantage that a mendicant gains by overcoming these eight things.
So you should train like this: “Whenever we encounter it, we will overcome gain … loss … fame … disgrace … honor … dishonor … wicked desires … bad friendship.” That’s how you should train.’
Sir, Uttara, this explanation of the teaching is not established anywhere in the four assemblies—monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
Sir, learn this explanation of the teaching! Memorize this explanation of the teaching! Remember this explanation of the teaching! Sir, this explanation of the teaching is beneficial and relates to the fundamentals of the spiritual life.”
It should be fairly obvious to anyone who has followed the lines of argument used by Ven @brahmali and myself that this is a late sutta. Let me list a few reasons.
- Parallels: no parallels have been found.
- Geography: The text is set in an unusual area somewhat outside the main region for the EBTs.
- After the Buddha: given that the setting does not mention the Buddha, and that he is absent throughout, it is very likely this is set some time after the parinibbana.
- Words of disciples: the main teaching is by a certain Uttara. Uttara is a common name, and there are several monks of this name in the EBTs. However, given the late setting, this could well be the same Uttara who appears at the time of the Second Council, a century after the Buddha. If this is the case, then by applying the principles of redaction criticism, the current sutta could be treated as part of an attempt to justify changes or additions to the texts made by monks at or subsequent to the Second Council.
- Reliance on the superhuman: Rather uniquely, the text is backed up by a quote from the Buddha delivered by a deity. The deity is quoting from AN 8.7. In the final passage, the deity claims that this sutta is unknown among the four assemblies. This claim entails that AN 8.7 was not recited earlier, presumably at the First Council, which supports the proposal that it was added at the Second Council or later.
Now, despite all this, it is obvious that the teaching content in what Uttara says is hardly a great doctrinal innovation. In fact, it is so innocuous that it raises the question as to why the gods were rushing around trying to verify the statement. Clearly something else is going on behind the scenes, but it is well hidden. The commentary and subcommentary are of no help.
Lacking any other guidance, let’s pursue the idea that this is the same Uttara who is featured in the Second Council. It’s worth quoting the passage here, as a crucial part of it has hitherto been mistranslated. As Ven Brahmali has not yet translated this section, I give Horner’s translation, correcting the last part.
Then those monks who were Vajjis of Vesālī, taking those requisites for recluses, approached the venerable Revata; having approached, they spoke thus to the venerable Revata: “Honoured sir, let the Order accept these requisites for recluses—bowls and robes and pieces of cloth to sit upon and needle-cases and waistbands and strainers and regulation water-pots.”
He said: “No, your reverences, I am complete as to the three robes” (for) he did not want to accept. Now at that time a monk named Uttara, of twenty years’ standing was the venerable Revata’s attendant. Then the monks who were Vajjis of Vesālī approached the venerable Uttara; having approached, they spoke thus to the venerable Uttara: “Let the venerable Uttara accept these requisites for recluses—bowls and … regulation water-pots.”
He said: “No, your reverences, I am complete as to the three robes,” (for) he did not want to accept. They said: “Reverend Uttara, people used to bring requisites for recluses to the Lord. If the Lord accepted them, they were glad; but if the Lord did not accept them, they brought them to the venerable Ānanda, saying: ‘Honoured sir, let the elder accept these requisites for recluses, thus will this (gift) be as though accepted by the Lord.’ Let the venerable Uttara accept these requisites of recluses, thus will this (gift) be as though accepted by the elder.”
Then the venerable Uttara, being pressed by the monks who were Vajjis of Vesālī, took one robe, saying: “Let the reverend ones tell me what they have need of.”
“Let the venerable Uttara say this much to the elder: ‘Honoured sir, let the elder say this much in the midst of the Order: Awakened Ones, Lords, arise in the Eastern districts, the monks from the East are speakers of dhamma, the monks of Pāvā are speakers of what is not dhamma’.”
“Very well, your reverences,” and the venerable Uttara, having answered the monks who were Vajjis of Vesālī in assent, approached the venerable Revata; having approached, he spoke thus to the venerable Revata: “Honoured sir, let the elder say this much in the midst of the Order: Awakened Ones, Lords, arise in the Eastern districts, the monks from the East are speakers of dhamma, the monks of Pāvā are speakers of what is not dhamma.”
Saying: “You, monk, are inciting me to what is not dhamma,” the elder dismissed the venerable Uttara. Then the monks who were Vajjis of Vesālī spoke thus to the venerable Uttara: “What, reverend Uttara, did the elder say?”
“Evil has been done to us, your reverences. Saying, ‘You, monk, are inciting me to what is not dhamma,’ the elder dismissed me.”
“Are not you, your reverence, a senior of twenty years’ standing?”
“Āmāvuso, api ca mayaṃ garunissayaṃ gaṇhāmā”ti
“Yes, your reverences. Nevertheless, I still take dependence seriously.”
For the last line, Horner has:
“Yes, your reverences.”
“Then we shall take up guidance under (you as) teacher.”
This is clearly a mistake, prompted by Uttara’s use of the plural for himself, which is quite common. The punctuation in the MS edition is correct. But i am not sure of the sense of the last line. the phrase garunissaya is not found elsewhere, and gaṇhati is used in a wide range of senses. Perhaps @brahmali can help here?
In any case, the overall sense of the passage is that, even though Uttara has been ordained for twenty years, he still lives in dependence on his teacher, and is devastated that this was compromised by his corruption, however mild it may seem to us. The Second Council narrative does not mention him again.
Assuming that these two narratives do, indeed, belong together, we can discern the outlines of a story for Uttara, if we may be forgiven for indulging in some imagination.
Uttara was far from being a significant and respected monk at the time of the Second Council. In fact he had a reputation as a turncoat, easily corrupted. Thus he had drifted to Mahisa, the periphery of the sasana. No doubt he was not blind to the irony that his message to Revata was that monks outside the middle region were not to be trusted.
His melancholy recitation, under a shell of truth, betrays a darker problem: he is still caught up in his own failings.
The sutta, echoing Devadatta at a distance, is gnawing at him. The shadow of Devadatta hung heavy over the Second Council, as neither side wanted to be the one to initiate a schism and follow his dark road.
After his support for the failing side, Uttara is still struggling to find his way back to the Dhamma.
And this is why the gods, in their travels across the country, are so concerned. They see that in this far-flung border district, where the Dhamma is just becoming established, this monk of dubious reputation is teaching. They want to double check and make sure that what he is saying is in fact spoken by the Buddha, because they don’t trust him.
When Uttara shows that he is, indeed, in line with the Buddha, they are satisfied. I am not sure exactly of the force of Uttara’s statement here. It seems a little dodgy; he is making a claim about what the Buddha’s words that is unsupported by any earlier text, while at the same time claiming, with a roundabout simile, that he is only relying on the Buddha’s words. His simile seems calculated to give the impression that he knows “heaps” of the suttas, while avoiding giving details. In fact it is the deity Sakka who supplies the specific reference.
Nevertheless, it does seem that Uttara is on the path to redemption. We cannot know what happened next, but a couple of Uttaras in the Theragatha celebrate their awakening. Hopefully our Uttara is one of them!