MN 93 Assalāyana contains some fascinating details, and one in particular seems to have escaped understanding—until now!
The overall narrative concerns a brahmin Assalāyana who somewhat reluctantly agrees to take on the Buddha in debate about caste and geneology, though he knows he will lose. And that he does. The Buddha completes his evisceration with an anecdote of the “seven seers” of the past. These are the sons of Brahmā who founded the Brahmanical gotras, thus the origins of the whole thing, and even they found the account of geneology to be indefensible.
The sutta finishes with the Buddha making a very obscure allusion to puṇṇo dabbigāho. Ven Bodhi (and other translators) render according to the commentary,
“You, who rely on the teachers’ doctrines, are not [even fit to be] their spoon-holder Puṇṇa”.
The commentarial explanation is:
Puṇṇa was the name of a servant of the seven seers; he would take a spoon, cook leaves, and serve them.
This is wildly implausible, yet so far as I have been able to track, every translator follows it. Previously I avoided the issue by giving a somewhat vague translation of the sense.
In fact puṇṇo dabbigāho is a highly specific reference to a detail of the Sākamedha ritual that marks the beginning of winter. From the rice offering on the first day, a pot is set aside until the next morning, when the very last “full spoon” (pūrṇā darvi) is scraped up, with the invocation, “Full, O spoon, fly off, and fly back to us well filled!” (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 220.127.116.11–17, Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa 5.6.20; invocation found at Atharva Veda 3.10.7c, Maitrāyaṇī Saṁhitā 1.10.2).
This sacrifice of the last spoonful ensures that present prosperity will be renewed after the barren cold season (just as life is renewed after death, or as last season’s grain is sown on the field). The implication is that present-day brahmins don’t even fulfill the rites of continuity in their own tradition, so how can they assert the continuity of caste over generations?
Thus the reference is to a specific detail of the sacrifice, which fits precisely within the overall argument of the sutta, and speaks directly to Assalāyana’s hesitancy from the beginning.
This in-house reference shows a detailed understanding of Vedic ritual, one that has been lost on subsequent generations in Buddhism. Since the reference is obscure in-context and would only be recognized by domain experts, it justifies a rendering that retains the obscurity.
Given that even those seven brahmin seers could not prevail when pursued, pressed, and grilled by the seer Devala on their own genealogy, how could you prevail now being grilled by me on your own genealogy when your tradition does not so much as pick up their last spoonful?”