On relay chariots and relays of chariots and trained chariots

MN 24 Rathavinīta offers the classic simile of a series of chariots ready to convey King Pasenadi from Sāvatthī to Sāketa, paralleling the various stages of the path. In the well-known translations by Vens Bodhi and Thanissaro, it is translated as the “relay chariots”. However I think this is a mistake.

The word is a compound of two elements, both of which are well understood.

  1. ratha: chariot, cart, coach
  2. vinīta: the past participle of naya, i.e. “led”, but almost always used in the sense of “trained, educated”.

Now, obviously the sutta describes a “relay of chariots”, but the question is, is this what the word vinīta actually means? While it may be a plausible extension of the basic meaning, I can’t find any other uses of the word in this sense. And there are other words in Pali that express the idea more clearly (parampara).

The PTS dictionary says that rathavinīta means “a relay”. The early translation by Lord Chalmers has “seven carriages in relays”. The problem, as hinted in Chalmer’s rendering, is that the word appears in plural. That is to say, it is not “a relay of seven chariots”, but “seven relays of chariots” or something similar. And that is, in fact, exactly the rendering adopted by Horner in her translation. This is of course a little odd, since there is only one relay consisting of seven chariots.

Ñāṇamoḷi changed the rendering to “relay coaches”. (This raises the incidental question: if we’re happy to render ratha as “coach”, why not use the perfectly good English word for this: stagecoach. However, I think it’s unlikely that a covered, four-wheeled wagon is intended, so I’ll stick with “chariot”.) Ven Bodhi changed this to “relay chariots”, which was adopted by Ven Thanissaro as well. This is grammatically questionable, however, as it omits the plural for the “relays”.

None of this really addresses the issue of whether the word has anything to do with a “relay”. Somewhat unusually, all these translators ignore the commentary:

Sattarathavinītānīti vinītaassājāniyayutte satta rathe
“Seven rathavinītas”: seven chariots yoked with trained thoroughbreds.

Thus the commentary takes vinīta in its usual sense as “trained”. In this case the compound must be, not a tappurisa (“relay of chariots” or “chariots for relays”) but a kammadhāraya (“chariots that are well-trained”), to be resolved rathā vinītā. For those who think I always disagree with the commentaries just out of principle, here’s a case where I actually agree!

The sense is that the chariots are primed and ready to go, waiting for the king. This, of course, connects directly with the message of the sutta. The various aspects of practice are each effective and capable at doing their job, they only wait for us to actually practice them.

Using “trained” directly for the chariots is a little odd. Perhaps we could use “prepared” or something similar.

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Good posting Bhante.
I always wonder what Vinita means in relation to rely chariot.
Vinita is a common usage in Sri Lakan language. We call Vinita girl to means well behaved educated girl. My sister’s name is Vinita.
However I am quite comfortable with the translation as relay chariot. (it make more sense in sutta context)

I don’t think it’s a good policy to render something in a particular way because you think it makes more sense. The translation has to actually mean what the text means. If the commentary and my argument are right, the word vinīta actually does have a relevant meaning in this context, which is omitted if you don’t translate it.

If you think the meaning is unclear, you could say, “a relay of seven prepared chariots”. But it doesn’t need it: the meaning of the text is obvious, and there’s no point in over-determining it.

Bhante what is the real message of this Sutta?
My understanding is the practitioner has to move from one discipline to the next.
Each discipline get you closer to your goal.

Indeed, that’s pretty much it. The overall frame is that we shouldn’t mistake the path for the goal. The path is still conditioned and suffering, but it brings us to what is free of suffering.

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Dear Bhante,
I understand the meaning of this Sutta as follows. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Nibbana is the final destination and each chariot is a level of training ie Virtue, Mind, View… and Knowledge and Vision. Hence, one has to, as you put it, train himself (or discipline himself if we take the english equivalent of the sinhalese word “vinitha” as Sarath puts it) at each of these levels before reaching the next level of the path to Nibbana.

Use of “relay of chariots” I think, distorts the meaning because it is the noble disciple ie a single person who treads the path having trained at each level and not seven disciples as suggested by the seven relay chariots.

In fact, if we substitute the “relay of chariots” with “level of training” the context becomes even more comprehensible.

Therefore, if my understanding of the meaning of the sutta as given above is correct, I am not sure if it is correct to say that “chariots are primed and ready to go” because each chariot is a level of training.

These are just my thoughts please.

With Metta

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How about chariots of discipline?

To me, the context becomes clear if we take “level of training”. However, the word ratha apparently has no other meaning except chariot or something in that context. Therefore it has to be used. So I think we have a paradox here.

With Metta

here’s a conspiracy theory.
this sutta was completely fabricated, to legitimize the framework used in visuddhimagga.

no other sutta in the sutta nikaya talks about these 7 stages of purification, and there’s no explanation to be found how those 7 stages are to be practiced or used. the buddha isn’t even in the sutta.

i’ve mentally filed this in the same compartment where i keep the jataka tales.

i

Very true. But, even-though these 7 stages are not spoken of in the Nikayas using the names ie Sila Visuddhi etc as in this Sutta, the entire teaching centers around these 7 stages. To me this is like a synopsis of the entire teaching. Therefore, I would wait to hear from the Venerable Bhantes about their learned opinion/s before arriving at any decision.

With Metta

According to Ven. Analayo, the 7 stages are also found in the Dasuttara Sutta of the DN as part of a larger set of 9 stages, and that is the only other place in the Canon.

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The text has multiple parallels, so no.

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though some jataka tales are later developments there are some exceptions as well.

Atha kho āvuso rājā pasenadi kosalo sāvatthiyā nikkhamitvā antepuradvārā paṭhamaṃ rathavinītaṃ abhirūheyya paṭhamena rathavinītena dutiyaṃ rathavinītaṃ pāpuṇeyya, paṭhamaṃ rathavinītaṃ vissajjeyya, dutiyaṃ rathavinītaṃ abhirūheyya.

‘By means of the first relay chariot he would reach the second relay chariot. Getting out of the first relay chariot he would get in the second relay chariot’.

-translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Each spiritual practice can only take a practitioner so far. To progress further they must then take on a different practice (and not be ‘stuck’ doing the same practice). In the Buddha’s dhamma, these limits were known (if not, clear). An easy example would be Morality (Sila). It would form the basis of concentration but wouldn’t take the practitioner further on the path to Nibbana, directly. At the minimum, five precepts would be enough and at the most the monastic rules (Vinaya) of the ordained would determine the ‘outer’ limit (Early Vinaya?). Breathing through a face mask to prevent the death of small animals or sweeping the path before walking like Jains would, would have been considered excessive by the Buddha, and not conducive to the Path.

Considering the connotations of Vinaya (as a limit on one’s behaviour) in the word Rathavinītaṃ, and considering the limited function of each of the practices, ‘limited-range chariot’ maybe accurate as each chariot was used a limited distance to get the best from each horse. Stage-coach would be a good term but it has other more modern meanings IMO.

The original concept seems to refer to a now long past phenomenon and won’t make much sense to a modern reader. I think a more descriptive term like ‘limited-range’ chariot would serve well and adds to the meaning over the mere ‘Relay’ chariot.

Rathavinītaṃ is a material object that the King Pasenadi Kosala used and is part of the similie and not part of the spiritual process which the similie is trying to describe. Therefore Chariots of discipline might seem to be mixing the material similie with the spiritual process.

Furthermore it is not one person who is going from one stage of practice to another. There never was such a person as a ‘practitioner’ in the first place. If the ‘relay’ meaning of the similie disrupts the ‘self’ perception, all the better for it.

With metta

Matheesha

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The other matter to be remembered is in practice we never follow a particular order.
For some people Samadhi (limited) come before Sila. For some people wisdom (limited) come before Sila. So we should not take the instruction of this Sutta literally.

Can you please point out any canonical evidence.?.

With Metta

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Relay Chariots is another way to put Noble Tenfold Path.
Relay chariots start with Sila and Noble Tenfold Path start with right view.
Noble Eightfold path is practiced from lay people to Arahants.
So they practice it in different levels.
Another evidence is the summary of Noble Eightfold path. (Sila, Samdhi,Panna)
Please note it is not Panna,Sila,Samadhi.

Some Right view is required, along with basic mindfulness and little viriya to get practice off the ground. This applies to each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path (N8FP) -each step is a practice in itself.

At an intermediate level the earlier steps of the N8FP start forming a foundation for the steps which come afterwards. They help to enhance the following steps (for example Samma sankhappa Right intention must be strong enough for the practitioner’s behaviour to change and develop Sila). The Right view at an intermediate level would be mundane Right view (or a ‘humanistic’ compassionate one, I suppose).

The Seven stages of Purification (SSP) explain more about what happens in the development of Insight, and less about Sila and stages before that (which the Mahacattasarika sutta and N8FP does). Each of these suttas magnify a particular portion of the same path of practice.

The process of going from Right Concentration to Right Insight (Samma ñana or yatha-bhuta-ñana) and Right liberation (Samma Vimutti) is noted in much detail in the SSP. It’s also worth noting that the development from mundane to supramundane Right view is noted in the SSP.