In a number of places in the suttas we have the following passage:
Ye hi keci, ānanda, etarahi vā mama vā accayena attadīpā viharissanti attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, tamatagge me te, ānanda, bhikkhū bhavissanti ye keci sikkhākāmā”ti.
It occurs in DN 16, SN 47.9, SN 47.13, and SN 47.14. Each of these passages occurs in the period of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Perhaps significantly, though, SN 47.13 and SN 47.14, which deal with the death of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, are not included in the Mahaparinibbana narrative, even though they are set in the same period and deal with the same theme.
The final phrase of this passage is difficult, and has proved a challenge for the best translators. TW Rhys Davids rendered it thus:
And whosoever, Ānanda, either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, and a refuge unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast as their refuge to the Truth, shall look not for refuge to any one besides themselves—it is they, Ānanda, among my bhikkhus, who shall reach the very topmost Height! —but they must be anxious to learn.
Leaving aside the unfortunate mistake of translating dīpa here as lamp, he takes tamatagge as “topmost height”. He bases this on the commentary in a long footnote. There, he notes that the commentary regards tama in the sense of “darkness”, but seems to think that it stands for uttama, highest. He also questions the integrity of the repeated Ye hi keci passage, noting:
The last words, ‘but they must be anxious to learn,’ seem to me to be an afterthought.
Ven Bodhi’s translation is not too dissimilar in intent:
Those bhikkhus, Ānanda, either now or after I am gone, who dwell with themselves as their own island, with themselves as their own refuge, with no other refuge; with the Dhamma as their island, with the Dhamma as their refuge, with no other refuge—it is these bhikkhus, Ānanda, who will be for me topmost of those keen on the training.
He too gives an extensive note, of which I will give the relevant parts:
Tamatagge has been much puzzled over in the scholarly literature on the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. Spk (which parallels Sv II 548-49) takes the term as equivalent to tama-agge, with -t- inserted as a euphonic conjunct (padasandhi). It is possible that tamatagge should be understood as equivalent to tamato agge, on the analogy of ajjatagge or daharatagge, but this would still leave the problem of meaning unsolved; “from the darkness on” hardly makes good sense here. Spk is evidently perplexed about the meaning and, without quite admitting uncertainty, wavers between taking tama as the superlative suffix (transposed by metathesis) and as “darkness”: “These are topmost (aggatamā), hence tamataggā. Thus, ‘having cut the entire stream of darkness (tamasotaṁ in both Be and Se, but tamayogaṁ, bond of darkness, in the parallel passage at Sv II 549,1), these bhikkhus of mine will be at the extreme top, in the highest place. They will be at the top of them. Among all those keen on the training, just those whose range is the four satipaṭṭhānas will be at the top.’ Thus he brings the teaching to its culmination in arahantship.” Spkpṭ explains tama-agge: “In the absence of the bond of darkness (tamayoga!), (they will be) at the top of the world with its gods.” The words are not preserved in the fragments of the Turfan Skt version, but the Tibetan and Chinese parallels, probably based on Skt texts, point to a meaning as “the highest.” I have followed suit with “topmost,” though I cannot account for the exact meaning of the original or for the use of the locative. I have also gone along with the commentaries in taking ye keci sikkhākāmā as an implicit genitive.
He refers to the Sanskrit version, the text of which contains many gaps that were filled in by the editor Waldschmidt. Now, while this is obviously a fraught procedure, Waldschmidt’s work is of the highest calibre, and the reconstructions are generally fairly reliable. The size of the gap in the manuscript gives a fairly precise number of characters that must be supplied. Then he would compare with Tibetan, Chinese, and Pali texts before postulating what the original text likely was. On SC you can see the exact characters that were added. Here is the partially reconstructed text:
ye kecid ānandaitarhi mama vātyayād ātmadvīpā ātmaśaraṇā dharmadvīpā dharmaśaraṇā ananyadvīpā ananyaśaraṇās te ’graṃ bhaviṣyanti yaduta mama śrāvakāṇāṃ śikṣākāmānāṃ
The interesting thing here is that all of the problems with the Pali have disappeared, and we have a perfectly straightforward passage:
Ānanda, all of those in the present or the future who have themselves as their island and refuge, the teaching as their island and refuge, with no other island or refuge—they shall be the highest, that is, of my disciples who want to train.
Essentially three things have changed:
- There is no repeated ye hi keci.
- tamatagge is replaced by the straightforward argam.
- śrāvakāṇāṃ śikṣākāmānāṃ is in genitive plural, as proposed for the Pali version by the commentary.
The striking thing is that these changes are essentially the same as those adopted by Ven Bodhi. I’m not sure what this implies, partly because I’m not sure how independent these versions are. Ven Bodhi must have seen the Sanskrit, and Waldschmidt may well have seen the Pali commentary.
Ven Anandajoti, in his translation of DN 16, takes a different approach, while also citing the commentary. By the way, his translation, which we have on SC, and which is part of a much larger study of the text found in full on his website, Ancient Buddhist Texts, is the only reliable one of the several published versions. (Until mine is published, of course!)
For the last passage he has:
those monks of mine, Ānanda, will go from darkness to the highest—whoever likes the training.
Thus he takes tama in its normal sense of “darkness”, and takes it as an idiomatic expression. It is a tempting idea. I can well imagine that in India, the sight of the Himalayan “peaks” rising above the “darkness” of clouds and mist would be a powerful and suggestive image. And it irresistibly calls to mind that most beautiful of the Upanishadic sayings, the pavamāna mantra:
asato mā sad gamaya, tamaso mā jyotir gamaya, mṛtyor mā amṛtaṃ gamaya
Lead me from falsehood to truth, lead me from darkness to light, lead me from death to the immortality.
Tempting as it is, though, it does not resolve the grammatical difficulties, especially the use of locative for tamatagge.
None of these scholars have noted what seems to me an important detail: the phrase tamāgra is a recognized term in Sanskrit, where it is used in the sense “the best of the foremost (saints)”. Here the root is, as with uttama, related to the superlative sense of tama, not to “darkness”.
The references mentioned in the Sanskrit dictionaries are all in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa). This text is much later than the suttas—perhaps 8th century CE—but it is, so far as I know, the only independent attestation of the term. Here are the passages, with translations from the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase.
brahmaṇya-devaḥ puruṣaḥ purātano
nityaṁ harir yac-caraṇābhivandanāt
avāpa lakṣmīm anapāyinīṁ yaśo
jagat-pavitraṁ ca mahattamāgraṇīḥ
The Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ancient, eternal Godhead, who is foremost amongst all great personalities, obtained the opulence of His staunch reputation, which purifies the entire universe, by worshiping the lotus feet of those brāhmaṇas and Vaiṣṇavas.
śrutvehitaṁ sādhu sabhā-sabhājitaṁ
yudhiṣṭhiro daitya-pater mudānvitaḥ
papraccha bhūyas tanayaṁ svayambhuvaḥ
After hearing about the activities and character of Prahlāda Mahārāja, which are adored and discussed among great personalities like Lord Brahmā and Lord Śiva, Yudhiṣṭhira Mahārāja, the most respectful king among exalted personalities, again inquired from the great saint Nārada Muni in a mood of great pleasure.
Note that both these passages could possibly be read with tama as “darkness”, i.e. “the peak amid the gloom”. However that is not the case in the next passage, which omits agra:
mat-saṅgān mām upāgatāḥ
The persons I have mentioned did not undergo serious studies of the Vedic literature, nor did they worship great saintly persons, nor did they execute severe vows or austerities. Simply by association with Me and My devotees, they achieved Me.
If we take this as a rare but persistent idiom, it would suggest a translation of the Pali passage along the lines of:
Whether now or after I have passed, any of my mendicants who shall live as their own island, their own refuge, with no other refuge; with the teaching as their island and their refuge, with no other refuge, shall be among the best of the best—any who want to train.
Here the locative tamatagge finally makes sense, although I am still not sure why it is singular. Perhaps the plural -su was lost in imitation of better known idioms like ajjatagge, etc.
Now, this reading suggests another rather interesting point. It is an odd and, so far as I know, unexplained question as to why the two suttas dealing with Sāriputta’s and Moggallāna’s deaths are absent from DN 16. But it is striking that if the basic sense of tamatagga is “great saint, the highest of the highest” it is uniquely applicable to the case of the Buddha’s two chief disciples. Equally so, it is less relevant in the DN 16 narrative, where there is no explicit holding up of great saints to emulate. A thin piece of evidence, no doubt, but it does hint that perhaps this passage belongs in the Sāriputta/Moggallāna texts and drifted from there to DN 16 and its parallel at SN 47.9. DN 16 has, of course, received far more scholarly attention, which might explain why this connection has been overlooked.