On the name Itivuttaka and some stock phrases

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!

Itivuttaka 1
So It Was Said

The First Chapter

1.1. Greed

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.

Katamaṃ ekadhammaṃ?
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,
pajahanti vipassino;
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.


Is there an origin story about how the Ittivuttaka came about in the Theravada tradition? I believe in Chinese sources, I’ve seen the story that it was the teachings that a particular nun had heard from the Buddha and then went about converting women among the nobility where she lived. Something along those lines. So, the collection was codified by someone other than Ananda.


Yes, the Itivuttaka Commentary relates a similar story to the Chinese one you describe. From the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names’ entry for Upāsikā Khujjuttarā

It is said that the discourses in the Itivuttaka are those that Khujjuttarā learned from the Buddha and later repeated to Sāmāvatī and her attendant women. Because these discourses were all taught at Kosambī and repeated there by her, there was no need to specify the place of their teaching; hence the formula “Ekaṃ samayaṃ Bhagavā Kosambiyaṃ viharati” is omitted, and instead is found “vuttaṃ h’etaṃ Bhagavatā arahatā.” (ItvA.32).


Perhaps itivuttaka are singularly attested as opposed to multiply attested by an assembly of arahants who corroborated each other? If that is the case then perhaps the weakness of attestation would perhaps be translatable as “one has heard” vs. “I have heard”.

Dear Bhante,
Glad you are working on Itivuttaka now.

On the title, I feel it comes from this phrase which occurs before the verse portion:

atthetaṃ iti vuccati

I think it probable that “iti vuccati” got converted to title form as “iti vuttaka”
If this were true, it may not be insignificant that this phrase occurs as a preface to the verse portion and not the prose portion.

I had also assumed “pi” in ‘ayampi’ as referring to the prose immediately before the verses; Seems the most natural assumption, both from the wording and the form/structure of the itivuttakas…

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.

Great point and I wonder about the wording at the end of the verses : “ayampi attho vutto” instead of “ayampi vutto” ; This gives the impression that Buddha only spoke the “subject/topic/matter-attha” and not the actual verses; I speculate that is the reason for choosing the title also based on the verses;

It is possible that the text form was created by someone (bhikkhuni sangha?) adding verses to the the prose teachings - perhaps for easy memorisation and transmission;
Once this form was created, it was named “iti vuttaka” especially because of the verses appended;

Some questions I have in my mind:

  1. why instead of tatthetam vuccati, the wording is tatthetam iti vuccati?
  2. my speculation is perhaps contradicted by the phrase "etam attham"at the end of the prose section;
  3. How this all fits with/is connected to the nine anga scheme?

Looking forward to reading your translations!


Something that occured to me, bhante, and please don’t take this as disagreement on that -ka can indicate a text or story – just take it as presented musings that hopefully aren’t half-baked. These notions aren’t mutually exclusive, these two senses of -ka, it just occurred to me anyways.

In the Westerly Church in the middle ages, a tradition of interspersing poetical bible-derived lines in between chanted lines of Psalms began. These lines that would be sung between chanted lines of Psalms were called “antiphons,” and the liturgical book where all the antiphons were stored was called either the “Antiphonary” or the “Antiphoner” (i.e. “that which Antiphons”).

When I saw the -ka suffix on Itivuttaka, I immediately thought of the “as-heard-er,” a la “antiphoner” or “troper,” which is a book wherein there would be kept tropes to the antiphons. Similarly, “Jātaka” reminds me of “birther,” but without the Donald Trump associations!

*the word “trope” here refers to pieces of religious poetry in the context of medieval Christian plainchant.

The thinking being: antiphon --> antiphoner, trope --> troper, referring to liturgical books, but also like Madhyama --> Madhyamaka, but this time referring to a movement/person, and gupta --> guptaka in the sense of “Dharmaguptaka,” “Dharma-preserv-er.”

I wonder if the sense of -ka as referring to books, texts, stories, etc., could come from the sense of it being something like an -er suffix.

For instance, we could imagine the story of “The Jungle Book” as being referred to as “The Moglier,” speculation suggests, or Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” as “The Hunchbacker.”


Just a small detail on the verse translation above. As often, the Pali in verses is quite syntactically complex, and relies on the easy coordination of relative/demonstrative pronouns, which swiftly becomes clumsy in English.

Rather than:

Beings overcome by greed go to a bad place. Having rightly understood that greed, the discerning give it up.

A more syntactically literal translation would be:

Having rightly understood that greed, made greedy by which beings go to a bad place, the discerning give it up.

Also, just a note, the -āse ending in luddhāse is a rare form of the nominative plural.

No, subject is identical, me, “by me”.

Maybe, although it seems to me the fraework, which is very distinct, and which echoes phrases throughout, was likely conceived all-of-a-piece.

Oh good, I’m not alone!

Hmm, not really, in this kind of context attha would just mean any “substance”.

In translation I have usually just left it out, as I haven’t found a rendering that I like. “This thing was spoken by the Buddha”? “This matter was spoken by the Buddha”?

I’m not sure. It does resonate with the idiom of the text, so perhaps it is purely stylistic. Or maybe it is meant to emphasize that it is a direct quote?

Maybe. The suffixes have a very general meaning, and I am not entirely sure how much we are justified to infer here. Perhaps the usage maps on to a wider Indic tradition?

If we look at later texts, this sense is clearly justified: Samantapāsādikā means “all-round pleaser”. But it’s a bit different.


Dear Bhante,
Thanks for the replies and for sharing your views!
What is your take on the supposed/seeming discrepancy between what the Prose portion says vs what the verse says?
I’m thinking of saupadisesa and anupadisesa nibbana teaching here… If indeed it is a discrepancy, that would indicate the versification was not from Buddha though he taught the topic…
Link to the pali version:

In fact, here the verse says : duve imā cakkhumatā pakāsitā - These two have been shed light on(were made known) by the one with eyes(vision);
This refers to Buddha in third person and though it is possible Buddha referred to himself in third person this way, I wonder if it isn’t more probable that the verse portion was added by someone else…Someone, who conceived this structure by including verse summaries.

With Metta,

I wonder if the text was codified in such a way to support the Pali reading of itivuttaka. The Chinese doesn’t have the double statement in the opening line, nor a closing line like the Pali does. Xuanzang starts each sutra with

“I heard thus said from the Bhagavan”

The verses are introduced with

“At that time, the Bhagavan rephrased this meaning and spoke in verse”

Other than the different opening line by the narrator, it’s pretty standard for sutras.

His version of the collection is organized the same way, with a chapter for ones, twos, and threes (but no fours). He doesn’t provide titles for the individual sutras. The only indication a new one begins is the opening line. It seems simpler than the Pali in that respect, but the texts themselves are more verbose, and there’s more of them than the Pali.

I decided to search Xuanzang’s translation for the title “Past Events” ( 本事) inside his translation to see if it’s ever glossed. It isn’t, but I discovered that it has a list of the angas in a couple sutras, and there’s only nine instead of the twelve usually found in the Agamas. It differs from the Pali only in transposing the last two items.

sutra, geya, vyakarana, gatha, udana, itivrttaka, jataka, vaipulya, adbhuta-dharma.


I haven’t got that far yet!

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It seems reasonable. I suspect that after the Angas were superseded by the nikayas/agamas, the meaning of some of the more obscure Angas faded, or perhaps were consciously reinterpreted. The brute fact remains that they are there in the texts, yet they did not obviously reflect the state of the evolved canon. It thus becomes almost inevitable that later developments take pains to include texts in the Angas. This would explain why all the tales get assigned as jatakas, whereas in many cases they would do just fine as independent stories.

This doesn’t affect the authenticity of the content though: it’s quite possible that an early itivuttaka collection was simply embellished with a more explicit framework. Of course the other way around is also possible: as the itivuttaka and the Angas became forgotten, the original framework in the Pali was eroded to what we see in Chinese.


Yes. On the face of it, it seems like Xuanzang’s content is more embellished, but not the framework, and the Pali is the reverse. The Pali’s addition of a closing line certainly makes sense just to keep things straight. There’s actually a lengthy note at the end of one of Xuanzang’s fascicles explaining that at some point someone forgot to write out the opening lines for a bunch of sutras, so it was added back in as seemed appropriate.