On the oddly consequential implications of the rare term sasakka

While the nature of the Dhamma would seem to suggest that a nuanced and relativistic approach to ethics is essential, it is also true that the suttas are full of statements which, on the surface at least, seem to imply a rather more absolutist ethical stance. It seems to me that the general tendency of the tradition is to harden and rigidify ethical principles, with the unfortunate result that they become extreme, unworkable, and observed more in the breach than the letter.

An example of this is the term sasakka, which occurs in just three passages in the Pali canon (MN 61, MN 76, and MN 139). The basic meaning is straightforward. It’s from the root sak, to be able. It thus means “as much as one can”, which is the only sense given in the PTS dictionary. On the result page for this on SuttaCentral, note that the Concise dictionary gives a quite different sense: “surely, certainly”. This is from the commentary, which gives ekaṁsena in both passages.

The rather curious problem is that, of the two cases in which the word appears, one context definitively rules out the sense “certainly”. In MN 76 there is a discussion of four wrong ways of living the spiritual life. According to this, in such cases a sensible person would sasakkaṁ not live the spiritual life, or if they did do it they would not be successful. The translators render this as “assuredly” (Chalmers) or “certainly” (Bodhi, Horner). But this cannot be right—you can’t say something is certain, then immediately say, well otherwise there’s this other option.

Why does the commentary insist on this reading? I think the answer lies in the other context, at MN 61. There the Buddha tells Rāhula that if an act is unskillful, then that act should sasakkaṃ not be done. Again, our translators all use some version of “certainly”, reinforcing the idea that the ethical injunction is absolute. However, if we use the root sense of the word, we end up with a rather more flexible approach: “to the best of your ability”. I think the commentators wished to adopt a more absolutist ethical stance and rule out the possibility that ethical principles should be flexible.

In MN 139, sasakka appears in a similar context, but as part of a sequence of three stages. The topic is speech. If one knows speech is untrue, one should sasakka not say it. If it’s true but unbeneficial, one should train oneself not to say it. And if it’s true and beneficial, one should say it at the right time. Ven Bodhi has “on no account” for sasakka, while Horner has “if possible”. The commentary is silent on this point. Here, “on no account” is plausible, and it is hard to imagine the Buddha giving an opening for a deliberate lie, not after his strong words to Rahula that open MN 61. Still, we might render it “if at all possible”.

Given that the sense “certainly” is unjustified by etymology, and that it is impossible in one of the three contexts, I think we are justified in rejecting it completely. In all cases, we should render, “to the best of your ability, as far as possible”. Still, I have to admit that the reading in MN 139 troubles me.

And remember: the Buddha only ever asked us to do what was possible.

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Great essay. It always gives me comfort to reflect that teachings like kamma are underpinned by intention, and that the Buddha’s ethics are framed by a positive sense of using one’s best efforts, cultivating wisdom, and then putting that into appropriate action. If we fail then we cultivate a sense of mindfulness of the failure, and endeavor to act more skillfully the next time, using the Dhamma as our foundation. This is what, for me, divorces the beauty of the Dhamma from the kind of rigid punitive religion I was brought up with (R. Catholic). I think sometimes even unintentionally there is a tendency to see behavioral issues, such as precepts, as a form of rigid commandments. Perhaps the monks involved in the commentaries sought to impose this same kind of rigidity. But I’ve always felt that the Buddha calls us to be free of these ‘dukkhad’ strictures, and to cultivate healthier approaches to our actions. That in turn, frees us to act more wisely and compassionately, both to ourselves and others.

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In MN 61, the context seems to support the absolutist stance in the case of lying, saying that for one who lies, there is no evil that they would rule out doing.

The simile given to illustrate that is this: an elephant trained for war, to the extent that its given up all fear of weapons, noise, risk of its own life in battle, and is willing to give up his life in battle.

Earlier it also used the simile of overturning the bowl of water, symbolizing destroying the essence of the holy life.

I suppose this is still coherent if we use your revised understanding of sasakka, in “trying ones best”. I’ll have to think on it for a while.

It always bothered me that the Buddha sometimes told jokes, in suttas, which would violate the absolutist stance on not lying even in jest. For example, in AN 4 somewhere, with Kesi the horse trainer, explained to the Buddha that the horses who were completely irredeemable and beyond training, he would kill them. The buddha said he also killed the Bhikkhus who were iredeemable, and a shocked Kesi responds something like, “did I hear you right? Did you say you kill them?” The Buddha then explains by “killing”, is punishing them by ordering everyone not to talk to the offender for a period of time, or forcing them to disrobe. All this is from memory so I could be off.

“But it’s not proper for our Blessed One to take life! And yet the Blessed One just said, ‘I kill him, Kesi.’”

“It is true, Kesi, that it’s not proper for a Tathagata to take life. But if a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then the Tathagata doesn’t regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing.

Yes, this is AN 4.111 But in what way does that bother you? This does not to seem to be a case of ethical principles being held flexibly, more a rethoric expedient. Similar to when the Buddha admits to being a destroyer - but only of greed, hatred and delusion (the actual place does not come to mind right now).

In the case of MN 61 the new reading of sasakka would lead to something like: “If an act is unskilful, then you should do your best to refrain from it” - which is, after all, all one can do anyway, regardless of how unnegotiable the principle may be.
So it seems to me Bhante’s point only adds to the clarity of the translation and the message, rather than substantially changing the Buddha’s instruction.

In lying there must be the deliberate intention to create a false belief in the other. If I say, “a monk, a rabbi, and a priest walked into a bar,” no belief is created, as it’s just a setup for a story. In the cases you mention, the Buddha’s purpose was evidently not to make the person believe he was actually killing his students, etc., but to get a reaction, to prompt interest and wonder. That can be a very skillful mindset: when the mind is challenged by a riddle, it is open to new understanding.

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Because in MN 61 the instruction to Rahula is (b.bodhi trans)

‘This royal tusker elephant with tusks as long as chariot poles…performs his task in battle with his forefeet and his hindfeet…and also with his trunk. He has given up his life. Now there is nothing this royal tusker elephant would not do.’ So too, Rāhula, when one is not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I say, that one would not do. Therefore, Rāhula, you should train thus: ‘I will not utter a falsehood even as a joke.

I haven’t looked at the pali yet to see where exactly the word in question is and how Bhante Sujato’s new interpretation would alter the meaning of the injunction.

But getting back to Kesi, I interpret that as the buddha deliberately telling a little lie as a joke to get a rise out of him. Yes, he explains the meaning of it immediately, and it is I agree with B. Sujato a more effective way to make the message stick, but if it’s not a lie, at least it sure feels grey enough and close enough to what he instructed Rahula, "I will not utter a falsehood even as a joke.’ "

From a vinaya perspective it would be hard to enforce a rule if it was just “you need to try your best not to do [something].” There has to be a clear cut criteria.

How about the simile of the saw? If one is not doing metta to a thug who’s sawing off your limb, you are not a proper disciple of the Buddha. So giving a strict injunction to never lie doesn’t seem too extreme compared to that. I’m not saying Bhante S.'s new translation can’t and won’t work.

I really don’t know how the Buddha would react. I personally love those kind of lessons with a funny story, but I wonder if he would prefer a more conservative approach, in case people might hear these jests out of context and start criticizing the triple gem for being frivolous. For the same reason you really don’t want monastics hanging around disreputable places and disreputable people casually or frequently. Even if nothing improper is happening, people suspect.

There is an important distinction between lying/deceiving while intending it as joke and telling a joke without deliberately deceiving. Almost all jokes contain aspects that are not literally true, but this does not mean that the teller is intending to deceive. Their intention, rather, is make merry, which in most circumstances would be wholesome. As I understand it, the Buddha is only referring to the former.

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I always think of the Vinaya rule about hiding a monk’s possessions, anamaso hāsapekkho (even as a joke). In that case, the monk who plays the prank genuinely intends to convince the other monk that his stuff has vanished. As long as the prank lasts, he believes it, even if it’s only for a short time. But in telling a joke—or any kind of fictional story—there is no expectation that it is a fact. It’s a meaningful distinction, and I often find myself checking what I write to see if I have crossed that line.

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Yes, I see your point now. This conversation is interesting, because it shows (if proof were needed) how agreeing on principle upon an ethical standard (“telling a lie even in jest won’t do”), or a definition of what constitues a lie, is not enough for people to “see eye to eye” :relaxed: (or maybe :confused: or sometimes :confounded:

Here, for me the Buddha is not really ‘joking’, for the Venerables he is not technically ‘lying’, for you he was (possibly?) doing both or there’s a sphynxy element to the scene requiring further thought (maybe that’s how Kasi felt!)

I am fascinated by how Bh Sujato construes the scene (sort of zenlike teaching) while I was sensing perhaps a soft irony, yes, but I thought of killing as a hyperbole as a rethoric device in the context of a simile, rather than a joke (definitely not a lie). So the emotional quality of a scene, and even its ethical import, may vary according to the observer. I suspect this is true even when the ‘observer’ is directly involved in the scene. Which is why, I think, ethics has to be coupled with mind training and purification, and cannot stand on legalistics alone.

Somehow, lying as a joke puts me in mind of the kind of pranks they used to play on me as a junior member on the softball team, or the kind of teasing, boasting or exagerating that implies aggressive, or attention seeking feelings made acceptable in a social context. Obviously something that feeds defilement and does not help becoming aware of your heart and intentions. Surely unbecoming to a disciple of the Buddha. Perhaps Rahula being young and lively, that reminder was not purely doctrinal …

Now I think of it, perhaps I did not ‘do my best’ to avoid social frivolity in the past, and I do like a joke … so now I will bring renewed attention and effort to the matter, thanks to you :slight_smile:

I never really seriously thought the Buddha broke a rule in the Kesi sutta, but it was murky enough I had to really think about it for some time carefully. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights on this Bhantes.

We [quote=“Letizia, post:10, topic:4217”]
Now I think of it, perhaps I did not ‘do my best’ to avoid social frivolity in the past, and I do like a joke … so now I will bring renewed attention and effort to the matter, thanks to you :slight_smile:
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One of my favorite stories of Mahaa Kassapa is when he was older but still following austerities strictly, the Buddha suggested to him, (paraphrasing) “Hey, why don’t you ease up a little on the austerities a little? You’ve been an Arahant for a long time, there’s no need for it, you can ease up and be a little more gentle on your aging body.”

Mahakassapa responded, (paraphrasing from inaccurate memory) “It’s not for myself that I do these austerities. It’s so the disciples can see my personal example for the proper way to practice.” (implication being who would follow a leader who only says but doesn’t do? But you see an arahant with a body breaking down still doing the tough guy routine, how can you not follow?)

Similarly, Ajahn Mun kept up as many dhutanga practices as he could up to his dying breath. It brings tears to my eyes visualizing the description of him in his final days before death, he couldn’t even walk, but he still insisted on standing up, taking a few assisted steps to observe the dhutanga of eating only once a day, from almsround that he personally collected from walking, only eating food that was put into a bowl he was carrying.

How can a serious disciple even think of eating food in an improper way when your teacher demonstrates the proper the way to eat like that?

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Thank you for this article, Bhante.

When tuning into the emotional content of these two options, “to the best of your ability” or “certainly”, I am feeling this:

When I am told “try to get it right to the best of your ability” this would inspire me and arouse my enthusiasm in order to really give it all I’ve got, and it would be associated with a feeling of joy.

Whereas when I am told “do certainly not get it wrong”, that would rather create an atmosphere of fear and faultfinding which is basically not in line with the overall message of the Buddha’s teaching. Unfortunately this is what I (and so many others) have been brought up with - and it took me a long time to understand what the Buddha’s approach to ethics really means. Such a relief!

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I think the meaning of the suttas is that if the contemplation is adequate the person would certainly not perform unwholesome deeds.

Commandments are useful for children. Adults on the other hand keep away from the unwholesome because they have seen the damage and suffering caused by unwholesome acts.

Sometimes good people have not done anything wrong in a long time and don’t know the negative consequences of unwholesome acts. Straying into the unwholesome they will see the damage first hand and with that memory strong (with strong mindfulness) the tendency will be to naturally avoid unwholesome acts. For some if they believe in karma and rebirth, consideration of karmic consequences (Vipaka) will play part of it too.

With metta

M