On omniscience and prophecy

The claim to be ominiscient in a strong sense is made by a number of teachers in the EBTs, and the Buddha typically dismisses such claims as both foolish and irrelevant: what matters is knowledge that leads to the ending of suffering.

One such text is MN 90, where King Pasenadi reports of a rumor that has been circulating in the royal court, and asks the Buddha if it is true. Here’s the text, with Ven Bodhi’s translation:

natthi so samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā yo sabbaññū sabbadassāvī aparisesaṃ ñāṇadassanaṃ paṭijānissati, netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati
There is no recluse or brahmin who is omniscient and all-seeing, who can claim to have complete knowledge and vision: that is not possible.

There’s a number of problems here.

  • Normally in this stock phrase the “claim” applies to the whole construction. Nigaṇṭho, bhante, nāṭaputto sabbaññū sabbadassāvī aparisesaṃ ñāṇadassanaṃ paṭijānāti does not mean “Nigantha Nataputta is omniscient and all-seeing, and claims to have …”.
  • Next, consider the phrase “who can claim …” This would normally be optative, but here we have future, which is unique for this context, and thus presumably must be significant. Now, it’s possible that an idiomatic optative sense can be inferred if required by context, but that brings us to the next point.
  • There clearly are people who not only can make that claim, but in fact do so. They’re just wrong, is all. It’s difficult to argue that the context requires an unusual rendering, when that context itself is dubious.

Let’s try rendering it more literally:

‘There is no ascetic or brahmin who will claim to be all-knowing and all-seeing, to know and see everything without exception: that is not possible.’

It now appears to be a prophecy or prediction, which of course is not something we see the Buddha doing, except in very limited cases. It doesn’t feel entirely coherent. This kind of future tense can convey a strong sense of impossibility: not only does no-one now make this claim, but no-one ever will do.

Normally, when translating we should strive to make sense of our text, assuming that those who spoke made sense, and it is up to us to understand them correctly. However, in this case I believe it is the very garbled and implausible nature of the statement that caught Pasenadi’s attention. Retaining the oddness of the text helps convey the lack of clarity, and show how a slight change in the wording can obscure the meaning of a statement.


He clearly didn’t know everything (see those monks who committed suicide) and said if someone could they would fall into holes and stumble over bulls! But we know he had special abilities beyond those attained by jhana which were beyond mere deduction (Acinteyya sutta). I thought he said he could see it if he wanted to see it, rather than being in a constant state of visualisation. There was something about the world-element (Loka-dathu) being able to support only one Buddha at a time and therefore other current Buddha’s were at a distance, though this might be something I misunderstood. I thought this meant that omniscience in a Buddha could not be supported by the Lola-dhathu as it was too much of a ‘burden’ and perhaps unnecessary for the Buddha’s role.

With metta