I’m looking forward to start translating the Itivuttaka. It’s a lovely little text! But when I started I realized that there are a few fundamental issues that I have not worked out. I’m posting my thoughts here in the hope that I can get some feedback.
The etymology of the word is simple enough.
- Iti = “thus, so”
- vutta = spoken
- -ka = suffix. Here it indicates a text or story, in the same manner as jātaka, “birth story”.
So the literal meaning is something like “text as it was spoken”.
The earliest usage of the word itivuttaka is probably in the list of the nine aṅgas or categories of the teaching. It is tempting to assume that as one of the nine aṅgas, Itivuttaka simply means the book of that name we have today, but this is not clear. Indeed, most of the items in that list do not correspond in a one-to-one way with modern texts. For example sutta is one of the nine, yet today it is an umbrella term for all kinds of scripture. Or Jātaka as another example, it cannot have meant to full collection in Pali today, but probably meant the early canonical jātakas.
But that leaves unclear exactly what itivuttaka means. Now, it is noteworthy that in the Pali we find similar terms such as itihāsa or itihītiha in the sense of “so it was in the past”, “tales of the past”, “legends”. I have long suspected that this was the original meaning of itivuttaka, and thus translated it as “legends”. This is supported by the fact that some Sanskritic traditions read itivṛtaka, seemingly for “events of the past”. I suspect that what was originally meant by this was the legendary tales of the past such as the Aggañña Sutta. But this is a mere suspicion, and it is not supported by the traditions or directly attested in the texts.
If, however, this is the correct sense for itivuttaka in the aṅgas, it raises the question as to whether it should be translated consistently as the title of the book. Because the book certainly doesn’t mean “legends”. Note that I didn’t translate dhammapada consistently: in the suttas it means “basic principles”, as a book it is “sayings of the Dhamma”.
If we turn to the Itivuttaka book, it uses some unique stock phrases that are reminiscent of the term itivuttaka, but not the exact word. I’m not sure whether this is just a coincidence, and the text came to be associated with the old anġa because of the similar phrasing, or whether the phrasing was deliberately formed to echo the old itivuttaka. Of course, the traditional explanation may yet be right: this is what itivuttaka was referring to all along.
At the beginning of each text we have:
Vuttañhetaṃ bhagavatā vuttamarahatāti me sutaṃ
This was spoken by the Blessed One, spoken by the Perfected One: so I have heard.
And at the end:
Ayampi attho vutto bhagavatā, iti me sutanti.
This matter too was spoken by the Blessed One: so have I heard.
The repeated vutta and iti echo the title itivuttaka.
Now, here clearly the phrase iti me sutaṁ, repeated twice, is identical to the normal evaṁ me sutaṁ and likewise functions as a tag indicating oral transmission. Perhaps we should translate as:
I have heard that this was spoken by the Blessed One, spoken by the Perfected One.
A little detail is the use of the particle pi in the second phrase. I have been puzzled by this, as normally it would only appear in the second item in a list, indicating “also”. “This happened … and also that happened”. But here it appears from the first sutta. I think what it means is, not “also” as in “as well as the previous suta”, but “also” as in “the verses as well as the prose”. hence the two “thus it was spoken” phrases have separate functions: one authorizes the initial (prose) portion, the second authorizes the concluding verses. If this is true, it suggests that the tradition from an early date recognized that the prose and verse may come from separate origins and is not always regarded as equally authentic. So they needed to make sure the reader understood that both portions are attributed to the Buddha. As a canonical example where this is not the case, consider the Lakkhaṇa Sutta, where the prose portion is attributed to the Buddha, but the verses, which are clearly later, are regarded by the tradition as having been added by Ānanda. The Bakkula Sutta is a similar case.
One detail that translators seem to miss is the sense of attha here. Often it means “meaning”, but here surely it must have the sense of “substance, matter” i.e. “text”, as is made clear in the middle of the text where another stock phrase is etamatthaṃ bhagavā avoca. Etamattha is an idiom meaning “this matter, this topic”. In any case, the sense of attha as a “meaning” implies an explanation of a basic text, and that’s not what we find.
Here is my first attempt at translating the first sutta!
So It Was Said
The First Chapter
Vuttañhetaṃ bhagavatā vuttamarahatāti me sutaṃ:
This was said by the Buddha, the Perfected One: so I heard.
“Ekadhammaṃ, bhikkhave, pajahatha;
“Mendicants, give up one thing,
ahaṃ vo pāṭibhogo anāgāmitāya.
and I guarantee you non-return.
What one thing?
Lobhaṃ, bhikkhave, ekadhammaṃ pajahatha;
Greed is the one thing. Give it up,
ahaṃ vo pāṭibhogo anāgāmitāyā”ti.
and I guarantee you non-return.”
Etamatthaṃ bhagavā avoca.
That is what the Buddha said.
Tatthetaṃ iti vuccati:
On this it is said:
“Yena lobhena luddhāse,
“Beings overcome by greed
sattā gacchanti duggatiṃ;
go to a bad place.
Taṃ lobhaṃ sammadaññāya,
Having rightly understood that greed,
the discerning give it up.
Pahāya na punāyanti,
And having given it up,
imaṃ lokaṃ kudācanan”ti.
they never return to this world.”
Ayampi attho vutto bhagavatā, iti me sutanti.
This too was said by the Blessed One: so I heard.