On the choices that a fool makes

In MN 63 Cūḷamāluṅkya and DN 24 Pāṭika, we have a distinctive little phrase, spoken in identical contexts.

In both cases, a monk challenged the Buddha to do something he didn’t want to do; in MN 63, to make a definitive pronouncement of the undeclared points, and in DN 24, to show off his psychic powers. When the Buddha decline to do so, the monk threatened to disrobe if he didn’t get his way.

The Buddha responded by asking a pair of questions:

  1. Whether he had promised to do these things if the person ordained, or
  2. Whether the person had made this a precondition of ordaining.

Since neither of these obtained, the Buddha dismissed the challenge.

The problematic line is where the Buddha dismisses them. It is a knotty little idiom. Here with a literal translation:

Evaṃ sante, moghapurisa, ko santo kaṃ paccācikkhasi
Thus being so, foolish man, being whom, what do you abandon?

The line has been rendered in a number of different ways, but I will leave that aside for now. Let’s have a look at each part of the sentence.

Evaṃ sante is a stock idiom, a locative absolute in the sense of “this being so”, “in such a context”, “in this case”, etc. Nothing remarkable about this, but notice how the santa is repeated in the next phrase.

Ko santo would literally mean “being whom”, but it is a bit obscure. What exactly is it doing here? Many translators go with something along the lines of “who are you and what are you giving up”.

Finally, the last phrase is also a bit odd. The verb paccācikkhasi evidently refers back to the monks’ earlier claim that they will disrobe, i.e. sikkhaṃ paccakkhāya. It would seem to be obvious that what they are abandoning is the monastic training. But if so, why the question?

Most translators seem to take this as being a general phrase of dismissal, something like “Who do you think you are?” But if this is the real meaning, why is the idiom used in such a specific context?

The commentary, on the other hand, gives it a specific meaning that relates directly to the context. In both contexts the gloss is identical:

Ko santo kaṃ paccācikkhasīti yācako vā yācitakaṃ paccācikkheyya, yācitako vā yācakaṃ. Tvaṃ pana neva yācako na yācitako, evaṃ sante, moghapurisa, ko santo ko samāno kaṃ paccācikkhasīti dasseti
“Being whom, what do you abandon?” means: he explains, “The asker might abandon what they asked for, or one asked for might abandon the asker. But you neither asked nor were you asked. Since this is the case, being whom, what do you abandon?”

This clearly knits the statement back to the main context. And it raises an interesting question: did the monk ordain under false pretenses? This seems to be the implication. Now, ordaining under false pretenses is obviously not a good thing, but there are a number of such cases in the early texts, and it seems that it does not necessarily mean that you can’t be a monk. There are cases of people who ordained for the wrong reasons and then reformed. So perhaps it’s more of a rhetorical question, but I think the Buddha is hinting at whether they’ve ever really been a monk, and if that is the case, can they really disrobe?

So to paraphrase the sense as a whole, we would have something like:

So, you foolish man, since I did not ask you to become a monk by promising these things to you, nor did you ask me to reveal them to you as a condition of becoming a monk, are you really a monk at all, and do you have a training to abandon?

Like I said, I not saying that the Buddha is legally questioning their ordination, but calling into question the genuineness of their spiritual motivation, not whether they are legally a monk, but whether they are spiritually a monk.

Trying to pack this into something more akin to an actual translation is not easy, but perhaps something like:

In that case, you foolish man, are you really in a position to be abandoning anything?


Very puzzling. I wonder if there is some formal, quasi-legal idiom here that the Buddha is invoking, and that pertained to the ancient Indian traditions binding preceptors and students. It sounds like Mālunkyāputta is suggesting that he wishes to withdraw from some kind of mutual agreement or binding contractual arrangement based on a mutual understanding of certain preconditions that are not in fact being fulfilled, and the Buddha is pointing out that since no such contract was ever entered into, by either party, Malunkyaputa is attempting to withdraw from a contract that doesn’t even exist. That’s what makes him foolish.

It’s as though Malunkyaputta went to his preceptor and said, “Master, I wish to abrogate my elephant-training apprenticeship under you, because I am not making any progress with the elephants,” and received the answer, “Um … idiot … this isn’t elephant school.”

Could it mean, in a terse form, something like the following?

What standing do you have, and what training system are you forsaking?

What kind of student do you think you are, and what training system are you abandoning?

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Walpola Sri Rahula in What the Buddha Taught:

“Under these circumstances, you foolish one, who refuses whom?”