On fearlessness and abstention

In MN 47, a sutta with a range of difficult problems, we have an unusual instance where a passage is quoted as if it were a Sutta. With Ven Bodhi’s translation:

Sammukhā kho pana metaṃ bhagavato sutaṃ sammukhā paṭiggahitaṃ—abha­yūpa­rato­hamasmi, nāhamasmi bhayūparato, vītarāgattā kāme na sevāmi khayā rāgassā’ti
And I have heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips:
“I am restrained without fear, not restrained by fear, and I avoid indulging in sensual pleasures because I am without lust through the destruction of lust.”

While it certainly sounds like something the Buddha might have said, it’s not attested elsewhere in the EBTs. Note that in this example, the Buddha is describing a hypothetical monk who is quoting something from the Buddha. But the source of the quote is not found. Does this make it the words of the Buddha? I’m confused!

However, in the Puggalapaññatti—an early Abhidhamma text that mostly consists of slightly modified quotes from the Suttas—we have:

Katamo ca puggalo bhayūparato? Satta sekkhā bhayūparatā, ye ca puthujjanā sīlavanto. Arahā abhayūparato.

So the Abhidhamma text explains the sutta passage. But is it quoting from the same place, or from the now-lost source? Notice that the Puggalapaññatti version omits the second part of the sutta passage, raising the question whether that was in the ur-text or not. On the other hand, the parallel at MA 186 has similar phrasing:


I have not translated the passages so far, as I am not sure how. My hope is that by the time I have written this I will have figured it out!

Let’s start by clarifying terms. Uparata, rendered as “restrained” by Ven Bodhi, is from the same root ram as the well-known veramaṇi, and has a similar meaning of “abstain from”. It’s used in three main contexts in the EBTs:

  1. The reflection on eating (eg. MN 2), where it is usually rendered as “avoiding harm” (vihiṃsūparatiyā). I am embarrassed to say that I have not paid much attention to this. Normally it’s interpreted as implying that you don’t harm yourself by overeating, etc., and this may well be correct. However it is possible to see it as saying your act of eating should not harm others, in which case it is very relevant in the discussion on vegetarianism. However, I will leave this aside for now.
  2. Also in the context of food, we have the stock phrase rattūparato, which from its context means “abstain from eating at night”. (DN 1, etc.)
  3. In verse, we have, a number of times, an epithet of an arahant, upasanto uparato. (Thag 1.2, Thag 17.2) The verses do not give any further indication as to the meaning, but the same terms are used together in Mil 5.1.1 of a fire or a wind that has died down and ceased. So evidently in such contexts we should read “settled, stilled”, which is in fact the primary meaning in Sanskrit.

It’s doubtful our text is meant in a narrow sense such as eating, so the sense of “abstain” may not apply. It could mean to abstain in a more general sense, especially from sensual pleasures, but the text doesn’t really say that. In any case, it’s not clear how this could apply to the trainees. A non-returner abstains from sensual pleasures because, like an arahant, they have no sensual desire. On the other hand, stream enterers and one returners don’t necessarily abstain at all, except for harmful forms.

The latter context feels better, as it is a description of an arahant, but it’s not easy to parse. Let’s leave it for a minute and focus on bhaya.

In earlier translations this has almost universally been translated as “fear”. However, this is a little misleading. Fear is mostly about the inner, emotional response, while bhaya is most commonly used of the thing one is or should be afraid of, the threat or peril, whether internal or external. Hence in more recent translations Ven Bodhi more commonly uses “peril”, while I use “danger”.

The commentary adopts this perspective. It gives a long explanation of this point, which I will loosely summarize, except for the initial comment, which is important:

Abhayūparatoti abhayo hutvā uparato
Abhayūparato means having become without danger, one is stilled.

It further explains this to mean that one is stilled continuously and uninterruptedly (accantūparato satatūparatoti attho). I think it means something like “safely, securely stilled”.

But it also gives another explanation:

Na vā bhayena uparatotipi abhayūparato
Or it was not because of danger that one was stilled, is what abhayūparato means.

It goes on to list four kinds of bhaya: dangers from defilements, samsara, bad rebirth, and being criticized. Ordinary people have all four of these, trainees have three—having given up the danger of bad rebirth—while an arahant has none. (In this it is clearly drawing from the Puggalapaññatti). It then goes on to raise the problem of whether or not an arahant is really free from the danger of being criticized, illustrating the issue with a lengthy story.

Anyway, the main point here is that the commentary treats bhaya in terms of things one should be afraid of, not the emotional quality of fear. Obviously these things are closely related, but it is a matter of emphasis.

The point is relevant, because if we are thinking purely of emotions, it seems hard to explain how a non-returner would have fear. Normally, fear is considered to be an emotion on the side of hate, which they have eliminated. So it is, at the least, problematic. On the other hand, it is clear that the non-returner still has the “dangers” of defilements and future rebirth.

So, given that the commentary is based on an early Abhidhamma text, and the general usage of bhaya is similar to that found in the EBTs, I am inclined to accept the general argument here (though not necessarily every detail, of course.)

It occurs to me that we might use “stopped” to cover the various uses of uparata.

  1. vihiṃsūparatiyā: stopped harming
  2. rattūparato: stopped eating at night
  3. upasanto uparato: calmed, stopped

To return to the original passage, perhaps we could translate thusly:

abha­yūpa­rato­hamasmi, nāhamasmi bhayūparato, vītarāgattā kāme na sevāmi khayā rāgassā’ti
I am securely stopped, not insecurely stopped. The reason I don’t indulge in sensual pleasures is that I’m free of greed because greed has ended.


I’m wondering if there might be an implicit reply or rejoinder here to some other sect. The most obvious candidate would be the Cārvākas, who apparently believed that only the ignorant were restrained from enjoying sensory pleasure, because they feared future harms in future lives, but that the wise simply enjoyed sensual pleasure and avoided pain to the greatest practical extent possible in this world, without fear of these future dangers.

There might also have been some attempt by thinkers following this line to trap the Buddhists in an implicit contradiction about their own teacher. If the Tathagatha has indeed achieved a state that has gone beyond all danger from conditioned states in this world or some next world, and if the Tathagata simply cannot fall back into an unliberated state, and is certain he bears his last body, then what reason does he have any more to refrain from sensual pleasures? Why is the Buddha not now enjoying himself, given that he can’t destroy his own release? So the charge would be that the Buddha is not really certain he has escaped the round of rebirth, despite his claims, because he still practices the kinds of austerities and disciplines practiced by those who fear bad rebirths.

And so here the Buddha is saying something like, “I am not restrained because of dangers that I am still subject to, but restrained despite the complete absence of such dangers for me, because I have entirely vanquished the disturbing and distressing feelings of lust and other kinds of craving that arise in others.”