On the nuances of vohāra

In MN 54 we have a dialogue between the Buddha and the householder Potaliya. Potaliya takes offence when the Buddha addresses him as “householder”, at which the Buddha, reasonably enough, points out that he dresses and looks like a householder. Potaliya responds by making two claims. First, that he has given up working for a living (sabbe kammantā paṭikkhittā), and second, that he has cut off all vohārā (sabbe vohārā samucchinnā). As usual in these essays, I will leave the term in question untranslated for now.

The Buddha asks him what he means by this. Then, passing over the first comment, he takes up the second and subjects it to a lengthy rebuttal. This consists essentially of two presentations. The first gives and ethical interpretation of cutting off vohārā, which consists of fairly regular teachings for lay people, although the phrasing is unique. This section is presented in brief and in detail. The second section presents teachings more normally associated with renunciants—the dangers of sensual pleasures, jhanas, and awakening.

Here the Buddha is, as so often, taking a normal term and extending it with a spiritual meaning. It seems reasonable to suppose that the first section, intended as a direct teaching to Potaliya, remains closer to the basic meaning of the word, while the second section, whose purpose seems to be to humble Potaliya and give him faith in the Saṅgha, presents more stereotypical teachings, less closely connected with the basic metaphor.

Now, the Pali term vohārā corresponds to two distinct Sanskrit terms, with somewhat overlapping meanings. Normally in Pali vohārā means “communication”, corresponding to Sanskrit vyāhāra. Occasionally, however, we find it in the sense of “trade, business, legal proceedings, affairs” where it corresponds with the Sanskrit vyavahāra.

Ven Bodhi translates vohārā here as “affairs”, which is certainly preferable to Horner’s “avocations”. The Chinese parallel at MA 203 has 俗事, which has a similar meaning. As pointed out by Analayo in his Comparative Studies (vol 1, p 314, note 25), this harks back to vyavahāra, as opposed to vyāhāra.

Nevertheless, I am still not entirely convinced. The first problem is that vohārā in the sense of “communications” is very well established in early Pali, while the sense of “affairs” is not. In fact I am only aware of a couple of passages where it corresponds to vyavahāra in the sense of “trade”, and a couple where it means “judge”.

The second problem is that this reading is not clearly supported by the commentary. The commentary says there are four senses of vohārā, which it defines as follows:

  1. byavahāravohāro: trade
  2. paṇṇattivohāro: designation
  3. vacanavohāro: speech
  4. cetanāvohāro: intention (with reference to AN 8.67, AN 8.68, where, however, “expression” is better, but the idea is that it deals with the intention underlying speech.)

This shows that the commentary was well aware of the different senses in Sanskrit. However, the commentary continues by explaining that all four senses are relevant here, which does not help all that much. In any case, it is not clear that the sense “affairs” is really covered here. Remember, Potaliya has already stated that he has given up working for a living, so it is superfluous to have the meaning “trade”.

Finally, the meaning “affairs” has only a loose connection with the themes of the sutta. Sure, you can take the Dhamma teachings as referring to cutting off affairs, but it is pretty slim. If this really was the point, why not mention, say, the opening of the gradual training, which does in fact speak of the cutting off of affairs, leaving behind family, wealth, and so on?

Let’s look a little more closely at what the text actually says.

When describing how he has refused to work and cut off vohārā, Potaliya says:

Idha me, bho gotama, yaṃ ahosi dhanaṃ vā dhaññaṃ vā rajataṃ vā jātarūpaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ puttānaṃ dāyajjaṃ niyyātaṃ, tatthāhaṃ anovādī anupavādī ghāsacchādanaparamo viharāmi.
Master Gotama, all the money, grain, gold, and silver I used to have has been handed over to my children as their inheritance. And in this matter I do not advise or reprimand them, but live provided with food and clothes at best.

The interesting part here is the bit about “not advising or reprimanding” (anovādī anupavādī). Evidently Potaliya, as a wealthy patrician used to telling everyone what to do, is very pleased with himself for not bossing around his children, even though, as he acknowledges himself, the money is theirs now, not his. And it is this aspect that is picked up in the Buddha’s response.

As mentioned above, the Buddha’s initial response is to mention some fairly typical qualities, in fact a list of eight things. These begin with ethical practices (killing, stealing, lying, or divisive speech), then psychological qualities (greed, abuse, anger, arrogance), each of which is to be overcome by its opposite. While the things themselves are standard, the selection of these eight is not, and is clearly a personal teaching for Potaliya. It is not clear, however, in what sense this constitutes a “cutting off of affairs”. Again, sure, we can stretch the metaphor to cover this, but it has pretty much lost all meaning.

After presenting these in brief, the Buddha goes on to analyze them in detail, and here he presents how a noble disciple would reflect on the fact that if they were to indulge in these bad practices, it would have these results:

  1. They’d reprimand themselves
  2. Wise people would criticize them
  3. After death they go to a bad destiny.
  4. The things are intrinsically bad.

Now, in the first case, the text reads attāpi maṃ upavadeyya “I would reprimand myself”. The term here is identical with that used above, when Potaliya says he does not “reprimand” his children. The next line uses the word garahati, which has a similar meaning, but tends to be used in a more positive sense, i.e. justified criticism.

Maybe this is just a coincidence. But given that the thematic connections within the text are tenuous, surely we should not ignore the explicit linguistic links that the text offers us.

I mentioned in passing earlier that one of the sense of vohāra is “judge”. The Sanskrit form is in fact a regular legal term. We find vohārika used in the specific sense of judge in Pārājika 2, where the Buddha seeks legal advice from a former judge. It also appears in this sense at Snp 2.2, which refers to a corrupt judge. So at least this sense is better attested in the EBTs than “affairs”. Of course, if this was to apply in our current text it would not be in a strictly legal sense, just the ordinary arrogance of a rich patrician who believes he knows best for everyone else.

This detail is of considerable psychological interest. One of the hypotheses of some schools of psychology is that an important source of moral sensitivity—whether sage reflection or obsessive guilt—is internalized admonitions, especially from the father, received as a child. And here we have an explicit example where such “judgments” are described with the same word, whether they are one’s own inner voice of guilt and self-doubt, or the admonitions expressed by the father.

If we are right in connecting this sense of “reprimanding” (upavadati) with the use of vohāra as the overarching theme of the text, the point is not about cutting off “affairs” in the sense of ending involvement with worldly activities, but the cutting off of “judgments”, since one is no longer doing anything that might incur blame.

And this is the difference between the two levels of cutting off described in the text. The basic level—the eight things—avoids blameworthy behavior, but the higher level—arahantship—ends forever the possibility of doing anything that might be blameworthy.


Just two quick context-remarks…

Psychologically Lacan worked out how the function of ‘the father’ is to introduce the process of Law into family life and into society in general. This is meant in the sense of the superego in the traditional psychoanalytical way, but for him it was much more about being a signifier, a major knot or reference point in the possibilities to communicate. Meaning: The restrictions of ‘the father’/the Law determine how we can communicate at all. This is true for the actual physical fathers, but as we can see nicely, also for the Dhamma, or for monastics the Patimokkha.

Which leads to my second point or suggestion. We can assume a strict system of seniority and patriarchy in old Magadha. Just a few quotes below from Manu’s Law, Ch.2 to back up the obvious. I just mean to say that I don’t necessarily think that Potaliya was particularly bossy. It would have been enough if he was just a traditional elderly family head and assumed it a big renunciation to abstain from ruling his childrens’ life.

The tribulations that a mother and a father undergo when humans are born cannot be repaid even in hundreds of years.

When these three (mather, father, teacher) are gratified, he (the student) obtains the fullness of ascetic toil. Obedient service to these three is said to be the highest form of ascetic toil.

Without their consent, he should not follow any other rule of conduct. For they alone are the three worlds; they alone are the three orders of life; they alone are the three Vedas; and they alone are called the three sacred fires.
A householder who does not neglect these three will win the three worlds; and, shining with his own body, he will rejoice in heaven like a god. He obtains this world by devotion to his mother, and the middle world by devotion to his father; but he obtains the world of Brahman only by obedient service to his teacher.

So long as these three are alive, he should not follow another rule of conduct; taking delight in what is pleasing and beneficial to them, he should always render them obedient service.

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It seems the extended teachings about the second level of vohara all deal with sensual pleasures and the difficulty in giving them up. And the sutta begins with a description of Potaliya in full dress with sandals and parasol, in sharp contrast with the austerity of the bhikkhus. So I’m having trouble seeing a strong connection with judgment. What comes through more clearly is that Potaliya thinks he has given up much of the world by relinquishing his fiduciary responsibilities for the management of his former wealth, but he is actually still holding on to quite a bit of indulgent extra pleasure in possessions beyond what is merely requisite.

One word that is used to refer to both business dealings and communications of a more general sort is “commerce”. But “dealings” or “worldly dealings” comes close too.

I also don’t think we should underrate what Potaliya has already given up, which explains why he gets so angry. Apparently he has given his entire store of wealth to his children, leaving no reserve for himself nor maintaining any decision-making role in the management of that wealth, and so is now entirely dependent on them for the maintenance of his life. But because he still has excessive wants - for parasols and sandals for example - wants that are not likely to be satisfied by almsgivers, he has with his children the kind of “dependence on families” the Buddha warned about so often.


Very interesting analysis Bhante. It is indeed a record of a curious dialogue and I appreciate the more subtle practical meaning you see implied in the warning the Buddha is offering Potaliya - I know of few contemporary Potaliyas who could benefit from reflecting further on this sutta!

My favorite website for in context translations, www.Linguee.com seems to confirm that understanding.


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Interesting idea. It certainly shapes the kinds of conversations that can be had, in a profound way.

Just FYI, the discourse is in Campā, not Magadha, although this doesn’t change your argument. And while the Manu is much later, it’s certainly the case that the society was very patriarchal.

Yes, I have similar doubts. I will give it some more thought, although for now I still think the approach I outlined works.

Sorry, didn’t pay attention to the location, or rather assumed the ‘greater Magadha’.
Yes, Manu is later, in the earlier dharma sutras the proper behavior towards parents / the father is simply not mentioned, but I think we can safely assume the patriarchy.

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What I think is interesting about the dialogue is that it shows that the teachings to householders were not all of the same kind. Potaliya has already made efforts to renounce much of his previous householder life, so he doesn’t get a beginner’s speech about following the five precepts, managing his affairs prudently, taking care of parents, etc. By pointedly calling him “householder”, the Buddha is able to irritate Potaliya on the score of the aspiration that he knows is there, and is saying, “There is more to be done Potaliya; consider taking the next steps.”

Some of the Buddha’s words here are about anger and arrogance. Because Potaliya has renounced somewhat, he thinks “I am a renouncer; I am better that other mere householders.” That kind of self-status ranking - which causes feelings of anger offense when it is challenged - is something the Buddha warned against in his earliest teachings.


Yes, it’s a very personal discourse. It’s nice how the Buddha lists eight things, but he waits until the last item to list Potaliya’s cardinal sin, arrogance. As he did in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he begins by finding common ground.

Also interesting is how, in this conversation where terms of address are so important, Potaliya slips unannounced into calling the Buddha bhante half-way through the discourse.


Hello all,

Vohārā is used in vohārā sacca meaning conventional truth, as opposed to paramatta sacca (ultimate truth). Vohārā, in this sutta could mean worldly as Potaliya identifies himself with the spiritual now.

Also, seats prepared for householders are smaller than those of monks, in traditional temples. This would have offended Potaliya as well, as he seems to be clinging to his newfound ‘spiritual’ status.

This sutta also shows how morality (Sila) is arrived at in the Buddha’s dhamma: by contemplation (manasikara), rather than strict enforcement. This means that it is a well reasoned morality, not requiring ‘forced fabrications’ (sankhara) to maintain. This approach to morality is less conflicting and conducive to samadhi.

The term Householder I think meant more than merely living in a house. It may have been quite well defined: “We are lay people enjoying sensuality; living crowded with spouses & children; using Kasi fabrics & sandalwood; wearing garlands, scents, & creams; handling gold & silver. May the Blessed One teach the Dhamma for those like us,”. Dhigajanu sutta. AN 8.54. Retirement (karmantha nimawa?), as a result of this kind of lifestyle, would be a very significant change. Mahamangala sutta also seems to suggest living a wholesome lay life and then practicing deeply later in life once duties, obligations and appetites are no more.

With metta


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