MN 28 has Ven Sāriputta give one of the most detailed explanations on the elements and not-self found in the suttas. There is much of interest here; in particular, this text appears to be the direct template for many Abhidhamma passages. However here we are just concerned with one difficult sentence.
After analyzing the earth element, one is said to see this with true knowledge and vision as ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ In other words, this represents a stream-enterer.
The text then argues that such a person remains unperturbed even when the entire earth disappears, so why should they worry about this little body? While the overall sense is clear, the exact parsing of this phrase is not easy to disentangle.
Here is the Pali. While there are no variants of consequence, the Mahasangiti and PTS texts punctuate this completely differently, so I place its punctuation in (brackets). However I retain the apostrophes, which uncontroversially indicate sandhi.
tassā hi nāma āvuso bāhirāya pathavīdhātuyā tāva mahallikāya aniccatā paññāyissati khayadhammatā paññāyissati vayadhammatā paññāyissati vipariṇāmadhammatā paññāyissati(.) kiṃ panimassa mattaṭṭhakassa kāyassa taṇhupādinnassa ahan’ti vā maman’ti vā asmī’ti vā(?) atha khvāssa no’t’ev’ettha hoti.
Here are some sample translations.
Horner: The impermanence of this ancient external element of extension can be shown, your reverences, its liability to destruction can be shown, its liability to decay can be shown, its liability to change can be shown. So what of this short-lived body derived from craving? No ‘I’ is here, no ‘mine,’ no ‘I am’—nothing at all.
Nyanamoli/Bodhi: When even this external earth element, great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance, and change, what of this body, which is clung to by craving and lasts but a while? There can be no considering that as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am.’
Thanissaro: So when even in the external earth property — so vast — inconstancy will be discerned, destructibility will be discerned, a tendency to decay will be discerned, changeability will be discerned, then what in this short-lasting body, sustained by clinging, is ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘what I am’? It has here only a ‘no.’
Clearly we have quite different approaches to translating this. To start sorting this out, let’s have a few notes on terms.
- The word mahallikā usually means “old”, hence Horner’s rendering “ancient”, but the commentary explains it as “big”, which is followed by the other translators. While mahallaka can indeed mean “large” in some contexts (eg. Pc 19), this is much rarer than the sense of “old”. Given that the subject is impermanence, it seems the usual rendering fits better, contra the commentary.
- taṇhupādinna is apparently unique. Upadinna is a stock term in the Abhidhamma, but its use here and elsewhere in this sutta is unusual. It is applied to the elements as they pertain to the body, in which case “organic” is probably best. Here, however, the sense is, I believe, that this body has been “taken up” by craving, i.e. that rebirth of the body was generated by craving.
The more difficult problem is sorting out the syntax. One problem is that such a short passage uses a lot of idioms, so let’s start with these. Bear in mind that idioms are, well, idiomatic, so we have to see how it works in each context.
tassā hi nāma: Phrases with hi nāma frequently have a sense of something extreme, even outrageous, eg.
“How on earth?!”
- Kathañhi nāma
kiṁ panimassa: Such idioms are generally to be phrased “but what …”. Sometimes they express an objection:
kiṃ panimehi khuddānukhuddakehi sikkhāpadehi uddiṭṭhehi
“What’s the point in reciting these lesser and minor training rules?”
- kiṃ panimehi khuddānukhuddakehi sikkhāpadehi uddiṭṭhehi
atha khvāssa: The idiom atho kho is very common at the start of sentences in the sense of “ And then …”. It’s probably because such usage is so common that the Mahasangiti edition punctuates this as a sentence. However it is also found in the middle of sentences, where it has the sense of persistence, of sticking to one’s guns:
Kiñcāpi bhavaṃ kassapo evamāha, atha kho evaṃ me ettha hoti
“Despite the fact that Kassapa says this, I still think that …”
- Kiñcāpi bhavaṃ kassapo evamāha, atha kho evaṃ me ettha hoti
- ettha hoti: This is a common idiom having the sense of “thinks about (that) …” (Note that Horner and Thanissaro both take this in a literal sense.)
Another detail to bear in mind is that there is an echoing going on in this phrase:
ahan’ti vā maman’ti vā asmī’ti vā(?) atha khvāssa no’t’ev’ettha hoti.
The no’t(i) is harking back to the ahan’ti, etc. used earlier. This expression is clearly a condensed version of the fuller expression of not-self found earlier in the sutta:
‘Taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti
I think to translate this accurately we have to bear in mind that it is a continuation of the description of the one who has already seen this, i.e. an ariyapuggala. Given the sense of “sticking to one’s guns” we have already seen, we could paraphrase it as something like:
“Even though unenlightened people take the body to be ‘I’, ‘mine’ or ‘my self’, the enlightened person who has truly seen its impermanence sticks to their guns and still sees that it is ‘not I’, ‘not mine’, ‘not my self’.”
So perhaps we could translate it like this:
So for all its great age, the earth element will be revealed as impermanent, liable to end, vanish, and perish. What then of this short-lived body produced by craving? Rather than take it to be ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’, they still just consider it as ‘not’ any of these things.
Compare this with the only known direct parallel, in MA 30; Numata translation by William Chu, et al:
This external earth element—great though it is, pure though it is, beyond reproach though it is—is impermanent by nature, of a nature to be extinguished, of a nature to decay, changing by nature. How much more so this short-lived body that is clung to with craving! [Yet] The unlearned, deluded worldling thinks: “this is me”, “this is mine”, “I belong to this”. [On the other hand] a learned noble disciple does not think: “this is me”, “this is mine”, “I belong to this”.
The Chinese text is much more explicit and clear, although even here the translator felt the need to insert extra explanations.
It raises the question as to why this difference arises. Analayo notes the difference, but does not comment further. It’s possible that the Pali has suffered textual loss, preserved in the Chinese. On the other hand, it’s possible that the Chinese translator, or the source on which it was based, had expanded and earlier phrase that was obscure because of its compressed, idiomatic nature. My sense is that the latter is more likely to be the case. While the Pali is, indeed, obscure, it seems to me that it makes sense when embedded in its context.