One of the most famous suttas, and justly so, is the Kaccāna (or Kaccāyana ) sutta of the Samyutta. It concerns a discussion between the Buddha and monk Kaccāna on right view. The Buddha defines this in terms of avoiding the extremes of “existence” and “non-existence”. The sutta, while short, has many profound and evocative aspects. It’s one of my favorites, and I memorized the Pali many years ago.
Evidently it was well regarded from an early time, for it is quoted by Ānanda in a teaching to another monk, Channa. But its historical significance wasn’t fully felt until much later, when it became the core textual basis for Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamikakarika, and hence the whole of the Madhyamika school, which dominates the Buddhism of Central Asia, and is influential in East Asian Buddhism too.
Much has been written on this text, and alas I haven’t caught up on all this. But while translating I found that, while most of the sutta is pretty straightforward, one sentence is very knotty. Fortunately there are several versions of the text, and while they don’t solve all the problems, they do point to some solutions.
The basic text appears at SN 12.15, with a Sanskrit version from Turfan, numbered SF 168 in SuttaCentral’s system. There is a Chinese translation of this at SA 301. This teaching is quoted by Ānanda at SN 22.90, which in turn has a Chinese parallel at SA 262. The Pali passage is quoted verbatim, so it merely repeats SN 12.15 and can be disregarded. SA 262, however, has a number of differences from SA 301, so should be considered as an independent parallel. These differences may have been present in the Sanskrit original, or be a result of the translation.
Of these variants, the Sanskrit and Chinese stem from the same or very closely related textual lineages, so they form one group, while the Pali is somewhat distinct.
All these texts are available in English translation on SuttaCentral. I won’t discuss these translations, as it is all too complicated already! But a simple survey of them would show that they all approach the relevant passage in different ways.
Here’s the difficult passage in Pali.
Tañcāyaṃ upayupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti: ‘attā me’ti
There are many problems associated with this, so I will follow my usual method of working out what we can know with a reasonable degree of confidence first, then gradually stepping into less clear waters.
First of all, each version does in fact have a different take on this passage, and none of them are obviously correct. In fact it seems likely that all versions have suffered some degree of corruption. This means that any translation will have to take this into account, and cannot be too tightly bound to any one reading.
A more significant point is that the corruption has quite likely emerged from, or at least been influenced by, the shift in meaning of two of the terms here.
- Upaya: This is a term for the defilements. However it is often confused with the famous term upāya, which in later Buddhism means “skillful means”. There are a few passages where it has a similar meaning in the EBTs, but it has yet to become a clearly defined or prominent term.
- Adhiṭṭhāna: In later Buddhism this means “resolution”, and is one of the ten paramis. However in the suttas it occurs rarely, and is a neutral term . It does occur in the sense of “determining” the ownership of robes and such in the Vinaya. It also appears as a group of four adhiṭṭhānas in DN 33, although the exact sense there is unclear.
I think it’s also relevant to note that the Sanskritic texts all stem from the northern schools associated with the Sarvastivada. Now, this school either originated in, or was closely associated with, the school of Upagupta at Mathura. And, while the idea of upāya is nowadays associated with Mahayana, in fact it is very likely to have originated with Upagupta. For this reason, it is understandable that the Sanskritic texts should replace upāya when used in a negative sense, either from confusion or from a desire for doctrinal clarity.
Thus where the Pali has upaya the Sanskrit has upadhi. Now, upadhi is another term for defilements, and is not obviously out of place here. However, these terms appear as both noun and verb. And since upadhi doesn’t have a convenient verb form, the Sanskrit leaves the verb as upaiti. Oops! Looks like the Sanskrit has been caught with its pants down. It tried to make a doctrinally meaningful change, but did it sloppily.
So this is a second thing we can say with fair confidence: upaya is preferred over upadhi.
Next, we can, relying in part on this, say something about the structure of the list as a whole. In a previous post I mentioned that such lists in Pali are usually of two sorts: either progressive lists, where one factor leads on to the other, or identical lists, where each factor is a mere synonym. I believe that this list is a subtle variation on this rule: it’s both. The terms are, on the one hand, all terms for the defilements and as such can be regarded as synonyms. At the same time, they express a gradually increasing level of engagement, an ongoing process of deepening attachment. But this structure can only be discerned by looking closely at the terms and rejecting later meanings.
- upaya: Has the basic meaning of “approaching”, “drawing near”.
- upādāna: Means “taking hold”, “grasping”. It is often translated as “clinging”, but I believe this is incorrect, as clinging means a refusal to let go of what one already has, whereas upādāna normally (for example in dependent origination) means grabbing hold of something new.
- adhiṭṭhāna: Has a sense of “resolve”, “fix”, “make sure”. In the Vinaya we find it used in an external sense as “determining” by body or speech the ownership of a robe, etc (Pvr 7). Perhaps it was to clarify that it is used here in a psychological sense that the adjective cetaso is used here. But in the suttas the most common sense is that of “fixing” the mind on a place to be reborn: taṃ cittaṃ dahati, taṃ cittaṃ adhiṭṭhāti, taṃ cittaṃ bhāveti (One places, fixes, and develops that thought).
- abhinivesa: This is used most commonly in the context of the “insistence that this alone is the truth”, “Only this is true, all else is dumb”.
- anusaya: Translated as “underlying tendencies”, this is when the defilements have become entrenched at a fundamental level.
So we can make out a clear progressive sense here, with the help of our favorite tormented ex-hobbit. Gollum draws near the Ring (upaya). Fascinated, he picks it up (upādāna). Then he clenches it in his fist, determining that it is his and committing to that (adhiṭṭhāna). He develops justifications for why he alone owns it, and fiercely fights off any challenges, insisting that it is “My precious!” (abhinivesa). Finally, it becomes part of who he is; even when he’s not wearing it or thinking about it, it’s gnawing away in the back of his mind, shaping his choices and actions without his awareness (anusaya).
In the context of this pattern, our former conclusion is reinforced, since upaya makes much better sense as an initial factor in this sequence than upadhi. So this is the third thing we can say with some confidence.
Next, the passage is clearly structured around the echoing of verbs and nouns. Such structures are very common in Pali. It regularly provides reinforcement by pairing nouns and verbs that are synonyms (saddham adhimuccati) or even using the same word in both forms (paññāya pajānāti). We do the same thing in English when we tell a tale or sing a song or weave a web. It’s not so common to find the nouns and verbs separated as they are here, but the parallels are too close to ignore.
This leads to our next confident conclusion: we shouldn’t read too much meaning into how these nouns and verbs relate to each other. It’s difficult to parse out the exact grammar of such a complex sentence, and tempting to read into the passage a way of dealing with defilements that is not found elsewhere. But very likely the repetition is just that, a repetition, and is intended to reinforce, not complicate.
Given that, a translator has a choice. In some cases, it is justifiable to simply ignore such repetitions, if they merely clog up the text. If they are to be included, however, they must be set in some kind of oblique case that doesn’t invite forced interpretations.
It is still not really clear exactly how to deal with this passage. This is because the terms vary in the different versions. But we are once again, I think, justified in reaching at least some conclusions. The verb forms in the different editions are easiest to deal with, as they are separated and preceded with a “na”, so let’s list them:
SA 301 不取 不住 不計我 SA 262 若不受 不取 不住 不計於我 SF 168 nopaiti nopādatte nādhitiṣṭhati nābhiniviśaty ātmā me'ti SN 12.15 na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti attā me'ti
As you can see, the terms generally match up, and clearly stem from a similar root. SA 301 omits the first term, which appears to be a mere accident. The verb form for abhinivesa is only attested in the Sanskrit.
The final term is the most troublesome. It’s not immediately obvious how to parse out the Chinese forms, which moreover differ between each other, although that difference is probably negligible. And it’s not clear whether they are meant to stand for nābhiniviśaty or ātmā me’ti, or perhaps both combined.
However, in SA we find such forms regularly used to stand for the reflexive iti when applied to contemplation of the self. At SA 261 = SN 22.83, asmīti = 計是我, and similarly at SA 63 = SN 22.47 asmīti = 計我. The DDB, therefore, appears to be correct in that it does not list abhinivesa as a source for 計, but it does have iti.
But if this is the case, why is the negative included, thought it’s absent from both Pali and Sanskrit? In Pali, we actually have a variant, attā na me’ti, which is the accepted reading in the PTS edition (though typeset incorrectly). This includes the negative, and hence aligns it with the two Chinese variants. Whether this is the original form, however, is not clear; it seems to me a bit odd to include the negative in the middle of the phrase like this. It’s standard to put it at the beginning: neso me attā. Given the liberal sprinkling of negatives throughout this passage, it’s probably unwise to make too much of this, as the sense is clear enough.
We are still left with a question mark, because the verbs and nouns don’t match exactly. The list of nouns ends with abhinivesa and anusaya, but as we’ve seen, abhinivesa is attested only in one source as a verb, and poor old anuseti is not found anywhere. That this represents a decay in the text is, I think, possible, but impossible to say with any certainty. On it’s own, I thought it more likely that nābhiniviśaty was original, but since it is absent from both Chinese versions, I have come to think it is more likely a later standardization.
Next, we deal with another problem, the initial tañcāyaṃ. The commentary says that tam refers back to the “noble disciple” who has already become a stream enterer, while ayam points forward to the list of defilements. Ven Bodhi follows this interpretation, but I find it very implausible. There’s no clear referent for the tam to be pointing back to, for a start, so Ven Bodhi has to insert the commentarial gloss into the text. More to the point, such constructions are found constantly in Pali, and they are invariably simple redundancies. There’s no reason to think otherwise here. The Sanskrit text etāni ced confirms this, as it has just one pronoun, and it is plural so must agree with the following list of defilements (which are declined in plural in Sanskrit, but in singular in Pali).
More importantly, the Sanskrit introduces the particle ce, meaning “if”. In fact the Sanskrit has it twice, at the beginning of this passage, and before the next passage on not doubting: “if one doesn’t doubt …” The if is also included in the text of SA 262. In SA 301 the phrase that contains the if is missing, so it may well have been there as well.
But the Pali may well also have “if”. The “c” in tañcāyaṃ is most obviously read as a trunctated ca, but could just as well stand for ce. Given it seems to be a constant in the Sanskritic passages, I think we should accept it here.
The dropping of the ce and the commentaries subsequent forced explanation of this opening—something that should really be too trivial to warrant attention—is indicative of a wider problem. There is no real organic sense of progress in the text. Normally a sutta might begin with a statement of the problem, propose a solution, then implement it. The internal logic is easy to follow. But here it seems to jump from being enmeshed in suffering to being a stream enterer. The important passage on the origination and cessation of the world is also found in a different position in the Pali and Sanskrit texts, so however you resolve this there is clearly a problem with sequence.
Adopting the reading “if” suggests a solution to this: here’s the problem; if you do this, the problem is solved. The overall structure of the text flows as expected.
Finally, we a problem with the application of the series of verbs. The Pali commentary, which as usual is followed by Ven Bodhi, says that nādhiṭṭhāti, the final verb, is distinct from the others in the list, in that it refers directly to the statement attā me, whereas the other verbs presumably refer back to the noun structure from earlier. Once again, I find this implausible. In all versions, the sequence of verbs is clearly cumulative, and shouldn’t be broken up. Doing so tortures the sytnax. Worse, it creates a fatal doctrinal flaw. Here is Ven Bodhi’s translation:
But this one with right view does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’
Note that “one with right view” does not occur in the text and has been inserted from the commentary; see my previous discussion of the opening phrase. The sentence as a whole has become so convoluted that it’s hard to parse in English. But one thing is clear. When we separate the final phrase off from the rest, we are saying, or at least suggesting, that the stream enterer has no grasping or underlying tendencies. This is of course not the case. They specifically have no defilements related to a theory of self, and the passage must mean that. But in order to do so, all the verbs, not just nādhiṭṭhāti, must indicate the final phrase, ‘my self’.
Finally, I’d like to present my translation. I’ll include a little bit before and after the passage we’ve been discussing, so the context is clear. (Note there here, as a stylistic choice, I use the generic you, as I cordially loathe the cold and archaic overuse of “one” in Buddhist translations. The Pali text, of course, has neither, it just has the verbs.)
The world is for the most part shackled to approaching, grasping, and insisting. But if—when it comes to this approaching, grasping, mental commitment, insistence, and underlying tendency—you don’t approach, grasp, and commit to the notion of ‘my self’; and if you have no doubt or uncertainty that what arises is just suffering arising, and what ceases is just suffering ceasing, your knowledge regarding this is independent of others.
See the discussion for further modification of this.
If anyone is interested in a further discussion of this, there’s a long discussion on Dhamma Wheel, which has valuable links to many references. I haven’t read all these, so please correct me if I have made any mistakes. I have read Jayarava’s essays on this sutta here and here. I learned a lot from both these essays, but I wanted to mention that in a couple of details I had arrived at the same conclusion independently. Namely, that upaya should be preferred over upadhi, and that the sequence of nouns and verbs should be considered together. Just yesterday I mentioned a case where independent inquiry came up with similar results from different directions, and this is another instance. It’s useful to bear this in mind, as it’s easy to think that scholars disagree about everything, so their methods must be a waste of time!