One of the fundamental principles of language studies—and, indeed, of any form of learning—is that we must start with what is relatively concrete, material, and knowable, and move—cautiously, and always willing to step backwards—step by step towards the relatively abstract, philosophical, and unknowable.
In Buddhist studies we often fall into the unfortunate fallacy of doing the exact opposite. We know—or think we know—about jhāna, nibbāna, emptiness and the rest. But who knows the Buddha’s instructions on washing the dishes?
In MN 49 Brahmanimantanika we are dealing with one of the most difficult and abstract of all early Buddhist texts. I will not try to solve all the problems raised by the text, but will draw attention to one problematic phrase. The phrase in question is a highly abstract one, and it has not, so far as I know, been noticed that the language is very similar to another, much more concrete, sentence in another sutta.
In MN 79 Sakaludāyi the Buddha has a conversation with the wanderer Udāyin. They discuss the idea of rebirth, and the wanderer says this. I highlight the critical terms.
Ahañhi, bhante, yāvatakampi me iminā attabhāvena paccanubhūtaṃ tampi nappahomi sākāraṃ sauddesaṃ anussarituṃ, kuto panāhaṃ anekavihitaṃ pubbenivāsaṃ anussarissāmi
For, bhante, I cannot even recollect in details as far as what has been experienced by this my body, so how could I recollect my many kinds of past lives?
The text uses the term attabhāva, which is hard to render in English. It means something like “incarnation”, i.e. this specific physical manifestation.
Note the grammar: yāvatakampi, followed by me (genitive, “my”), followed by iminā attabhāvena (instrumental, “by this incarnation”), then paccanubhūtaṃ, a past participle in accusative, “experienced”.
To return to MN 49, the Buddha is putting Brahmā in his place by emphasizing how the scope of Brahmā’s knowledge is far less than that of the Buddha. He goes through a series of terms similar to those found in MN 1 Mūlapariyāya, with which this text has much in common. The Buddha is claiming to have gone beyond anything known or experienced by Brahmā, who is, of course, a surrogate for the brahmanical tradition, especially the Upanishads.
The Buddha says he has “directly known earth as earth”. This means that he has had direct meditative experience of the true nature of earth. In such contexts, while earth and the other elements can be understood simply as material elements, their special role is to represent the foundational four jhānas. The scope of the elements is the scope of what can be achieved through the rūpajjhānas.
He then claims to know what lies beyond this, and it is here that the text gets tricky.
yāvatā pathaviyā pathavattena ananubhūtaṃ tadabhiññāya
Before attempting a translation, note how close the parallel is to the previous sentence: yāvatakā, followed by pathaviya (genitive, “of earth”; note that while the case is ambiguous in the feminine, it is confirmed in the case of sabbassa), followed by pathavattena (instrumental, “by earthness”), then ananubhūtaṃ.
Most translators take the sentence in an ontological sense, as it uses ananubhūtaṃ from the root bhū. However, I believe this is a mistake. The term is anubhū-, which normally has an epistemological sense, i.e. “experienced”. Note that in our parallel sentence, paccanubhūtaṃ clearly means “experienced”. The difference in forms is not significant, as anubhūta normally means “experienced”; in fact, the PTS dictionary has no other sense.
Now let’s consider the idiomatic phrase pathaviyā pathavattena, rendered by several translators as “earthness of earth”. To which I say, it’s English, Jim, but not as we know it.
One of the reasons translators have got away with this is because the text is abbreviated. But if we expand the implicit text, we end up with the wateriness of water, the godliness of gods, the creaturality of creatures, the Brahmā-ness of Brahmā, the gods of streaming radiances’ godliness of streaming radiality, and so on ad absurdum.
Pali very frequently uses repetitive idioms, and it is almost always a mistake to try to render these literally in English. From our parallel passage we can see that the construction, which is grammatically identical, has no special meaning or philosophical significance. It’s just an idiom. Rather than invoking the “earthness of earth” it’s best to simply render the sense of the phrase.
The point is not that difficult. All experience is dependent upon certain conditions, which make the experience possible, but also limit the nature of that experience. Of all experiences made possible by the element of “earth”, the highest is the jhāna based on meditation on meditation on earth. This results in a total immersion in that property (paṭhavīkasiṇa), experienced as a blissful, radiant reflection of earth as subtle form. That’s great, but that’s all it is. Brahmā doesn’t know anything past that, but the Buddha does.
To capture this in a translation is not easy, but if it was easy it’d be boring! How about:
I have directly known that which does not fall within the scope of experience based on earth …
To add to my initial post, here is the whole sentence, which perhaps makes the context more clear.
Having directly known earth as earth, and having directly known that which does not fall within the scope of experience based on earth, I did not identify with earth, I did not identify regarding earth, I did not identify as earth, I did not identify ‘earth is mine’, I did not enjoy earth.