On sages and silence and weighing, and thinking

Tags: #<Tag:0x00007f788cdcdbb8>


Dhammapada verses 268–269 are knotty and not easy to parse. They are one of those passages that relies on multiple puns and allusions to illustrate a meaning. It’s always difficult to capture such passages in translation, but in this case the obscurity is found in the texts itself.

The verses concern the one who is a muni (“sage”), and contrasts one who is “silent” (mona) with one who, having taken up a set of scales, measures or weighs (munāti in the sense of mināti, “to measure”) good and bad.

Na monena munī hoti,
mūḷharūpo aviddasu;
Yo ca tulaṃva paggayha,
varamādāya paṇḍito.

Pāpāni parivajjeti,
sa munī tena so muni;
Yo munāti ubho loke,
“muni” tena pavuccati.

I won’t go into too much detail here, as I am still considering the question, but it seems to me that the translations I have consulted do not quite capture the force of the comparison. here, as an example, is Anandajoti’s translation:

Not through silence is a deluded fool considered to be a seer,
the wise one, like one holding the balance, takes up what is noble.

The seer who rejects wicked deeds through that is considered a seer,
whoever understands both worlds because of that is said to be a seer.

One thing to bear in mind is the sheer number of terms starting with mu- or mo-:

  • mona: “silence”?, “wisdom”?
  • muni: sage
  • mūḷha: confused
  • munāti: measure? think?

To this, we might add some terms from the vinaya. In Kd 4, some monks decide to spend the vassa without talking, and the Buddha scolds them for taking up a vow of silence, the practice of other sects.

  • mūgabbata: vow of silence (“dumbness”)

In all this there is evidently a rather promiscuous mix of terms and ideas from different roots. Some of those roots are well-known, but the forms are complex. In other cases, especially muni itself the root meaning is obscure; in the earliest sense found in the Rg Veda, it refers to people who are excited and noisy, not silent.

I think the verses are playing on these different senses, contrasting the “dumb” silence of supposed sages, who have no true discernment, with a more active form of wisdom, gained by the practice of actually measuring and evaluating good and bad. It seems clear from the image of the scales that the sense of “measure” must be intended.

In addition, I agree with KR Norman that ubho “both” refers not to “both worlds” but to “both good and bad”.

I am not sure that I am able to successfully render the grammar meaningfully, but the sense is, I believe:

You don’t become a sage by silence,
while still confused and ignorant.
The astute one holds up the scales,
taking only the best,
and rejecting the bad;
a sage becomes a sage by measuring.
One who measures good and bad in the world,
is thereby said to be a sage.


It seems to me the hardest part of this verse is that the last lines hint at a very profound piece of dhamma, but the backstory gives pretty much no hint as to the correct interpretation. Some people interpret it as “inner and outer worlds” and you’ve interpreted it as “good and bad in the world”. Here’s my somewhat coarsely-worded rendering, chosen because it alludes to the sort of double-entendres sometimes used by Big B.

Silence alone makes not a sage;
Any dumb *ss is still just that.
A sage is one who weighs
Acceptable good and rejectable bad
And sees the balance.
A sage measures good and bad in the context of all worlds.

Here, by “in the context of all worlds” I mean the truth that sometimes things are bad for some people and good for others. The backstory is about the question of whether it is good or bad to offer blessings when given almsfood. In some ways it seems good, in some ways it looks bad, but the balance seems to be net positive for the giver and the receiver (we’re still doing it 2600 years later, right?) so those judgy, pearl-clutching ascetics can go mind their own beeswax.

My interpretation is also affected by my interpretation of Anuruddha’s power to observe the “thousand-world system”. That is, I think, he’s not seeing planets; he’s seeing the interactions of thousands of sets of interpretations of sensory input, a world in the body of every living being and how all those images of the world interact and evolve. So, to see good and bad in “both worlds” in this verse is to see the effects of issuing a blessing at meals on both a monk and a donor.

I could be wrong. Anyway, it’s a thought-provoking verse.



Not questioning the translation, but it does make me wonder, How does this square with the “immeasurable” quality of sagely mind-states? Isn’t measuring up “conceited” in the sense of the higher fetter?


‘Immeasurable’ or ‘boundless’, is how that mind state is felt - we must know what is wholesome or unwholesome (dvedhavitakka sutta), good or bad, what is conducive to samadhi or what is not or what is ignorance and what is wisdom or insight.


Perhaps one of the renditions of measuring could be rendered as ‘discriminating’ (maybe even differentiating), as in perceiving the differences between good and bad… I’m taking it that , that is the purpose of the measuring, and also given that



Interesting idea, and there is definitely something to the notion that loke provides context. Normally it simply means “here”, “in this life” or something like that. But it does rather emphasize the relativity and contextuality of morals, which is an important point.

Well indeed, yes. I think the verse is pun-driven, so perhaps best to not over-determine it. But I wonder whether the idea is to counter the whole guru thing: “My guru is so holy he’s beyond right and wrong. All his concubines say so!” But that too might be over-determining it.

Indeed, yes.