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Questioning the translation of AN 8.15, "Misconduct is a woman’s stain"

taints
sutta
sujato-trans
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#1

Looking at the translation of the Malasutta (AN 8.15)

It says,

Not reciting is the stain of hymns.
Asajjhāyamalā, bhikkhave, mantā;

Neglect is the stain of houses.
anuṭṭhānamalā, bhikkhave, gharā;

Laziness is the stain of beauty.
malaṃ, bhikkhave, vaṇṇassa kosajjaṃ;

Negligence is a guard’s stain.
pamādo, bhikkhave, rakkhato malaṃ;

Misconduct is a woman’s stain.
malaṃ, bhikkhave, itthiyā duccaritaṃ;

Stinginess is a giver’s stain.
maccheraṃ, bhikkhave, dadato malaṃ;

Is it correct to imply that the woman is stained, that the stain belongs to the woman? If so, why?

Other people’s translations are similar.

But it seems to me that a better, more likely, message is something like,

  • You may be stained by not reciting the hymns
  • You may be stained by neglecting a house
  • You may be stained by laziness when you perceive beauty
  • You may be stained by negligence when you should be guarding
  • You may be stained by misconduct when you’re with a woman
  • You may be stained by stinginess when you’re giving

In other words, I think the potential stain is yours (i.e. the audience’s, the reader’s) … and not “a woman’s” (and people shouldn’t read/use this passage as censuring women for their misconduct).

Isn’t my suggested interpretation more likely? Is there a reason why it’s wrong?

What would you infer from the grammar of the Pali?

There’s similar text in verse 242 of the Dhammapada.


(Or, instead of “stained by neglecting a house”, it might be something like, “you may be stained by neglect of your spiritual duties because you have a house”.)

(And “Not reciting is the stain of hymns” seems questionable to me too. More likely, “hymns or incantations are associated with the stain of no-studying”, i.e. maybe something in the “rites and rituals” category, hymns instead of actually studying)


#2

I think the message here is that misconduct particularly those of sexual nature on the part of a woman is considered a black mark, so to say, on her. This is specially so in Asian societies even today. But in the West, with equal right movements and so on, women are not treated, IMO, that way.
With Metta


#3

Yes I think that’s what the translations imply, but I don’t think that’s what was intended (which is why I’m questioning it).

Other verses from that chapter of the Dhammapada include:

  1. One by one, little by little, moment by moment, a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes his dross from silver.

and:

  1. Easily seen is the fault of others, but one’s own fault is difficult to see. Like chaff one winnows another’s faults, but hides one’s own, even as a crafty fowler hides behind sham branches.

  2. He who seeks another’s faults, who is ever censorious — his cankers grow. He is far from destruction of the cankers.

Surely the intention must have been to warn the audience against tainting themselves in various circumstances, through their own (various types of) misconduct.

The other items (hymn, house, beauty) are inanimate objects. I think “woman” is listed as a possible object of misconduct, more than as an agent.

And “a stain” might be occasioned by contact with “a woman”, however I don’t think that means that the stain is the woman’s (and I say that even though the background story or commentary to verse 242 of the Dhammapada talks about “her adultery”).


#4

I think the Buddha’s intention in the AN 8.15 is to show that ignorance is the most harmful in comparison to all other stains he has cited. This is clear from;

"Worse than any of these is ignorance, the worst stain of all. AN 8.15"

Those individual stains are simply metaphors and I would take them only as such.

Again, I do not see any connection of the three Dhammapada verses with AN 8.15.
With Metta


#5

The connection with the Dhammapada is that verse 242 there more-or-less repeats the description of “stain” and “woman” – and IMO the three other verses that I quoted from that Chapter of the Dhammapada show that cannot be meant as a censure of anyone but the audience.

Anyway I posted here to ask whether the present translation, that it’s “a woman’s stain”, is misleading? I think so, from the contexts; but all the other translations I’ve seen translate it that way too, more-or-less like Ven. Sujato’s. Is there something in the Pali (the grammar or syntax, perhaps) that would suggest one interpretation of the other?


#6

I do not know Pali but from the context I think translations are correct. As I said before, we should try to understand various stains in relation to ignorance which is the most harmful. Therefore, our endeavor must be to understand what ignorance is and do everything possible to get rid of that.
With Metta


#7

A speculative thought: what if “misconduct is a stain of seeing gender”? For monastics, the “opposite” gender is potentially a source of misconduct, if that gender is what one sees, in reference to craving or aversion… Seeing gender as a distinguishing distracting attribute is perhaps like seeing caste; a hinderance…

I would not be able to tell if the pali might say anything like that (in AN 8.15 or elsewhere). But identity, identification, “self” etc have gotten mind’s attention recently.


#8

This is pretty much so for both monastics and the lay people. That is why meditations such as meditation on repulsiveness of the body etc have been devised by the Buddha. He said that the four Satipattanas - the four establishings of mindfulness, if practiced diligently along with the dependently arisen nature of craving or aversion etc lead to liberation.
With Metta


#9

Yes it does seem consistent; but is translating AN 8.15 perhaps as “Misconduct is gender perception’s stain” or “Gender preoccupation’s stain is misconduct” fair? In other words, not about women or woman at all, but about the hazard of humans looking at/perceiving/being preoccupied with gender.


#10

Not at all. Such translations will IMO add personal biases to what the Buddha has meant thereby distorting the message. The eight stains are totally unrelated to each other and they have been used metaphorically to emphasize the fact that ignorance is the foremost. Perhaps, stain on a woman’s character was something which the society during the time of the Buddha considered very grave, and therefore The Buddha included it among the eight to say ignorance is even worse.
With Metta


#11

I agree re : translation; but that one just is quite odd in the list; seems misusable, or archaic, in some ways.

:slight_smile: Thank you for this discussion.


#12

Well the word used in the Pali is itthiyā (the whole phrase is “malaṃ, bhikkhave, itthiyā duccaritaṃ”).

Here are dictionary entries:

I don’t know what may be implied by the “–yā” suffix. (?)

I don’t doubt there are people who see this as a censure of women (so perhaps it is important to revisit the translation).

I don’t see why it’s translated like that; I don’t see what’s in the Pali that requires it, and the message seems to me antagonistic to what I’d expect (which was that you should avoid the stain of your own misconduct).

Why is it translated like that?

  • The case of itthiyā is nominative, is it? Does that imply one translation or the other, given there’s no verb?

  • Is it because other translations are like that, and translators copy each other?

  • Is it because of the commentary or origin story associated with verse 242 of the Dhammapada, which mentions a husband ashamed by his wife’s misbehaviour?

  • Is there something in a commentary, associated with AN 8.15?

  • Or some other reason? Or is it just mistranslated?

The translation isn’t wrong, exactly, but too easy to misinterpret, IMO.


This dictionary of Suffixes & Derivation suggests the suffix denotes a quality or an abstract idea – so “womanhood”, or “female gender” as you suggest … not “a woman” in particular.


That Suffixes & Derivation above says of the “ya” suffix that it

forms a very large class of nouns, mostly Neuter abstract

If it’s neuter then itthiyā is not nominative – the nominative would be itthiyaṃ.

Instead this Appendix:Pali declension implies that a “ā” ending is the ablative case.

And Syntax of the Cases in the Pali Nikayas says,

The abl. in Pāli is on the whole an adverbal case, there being hardly any adnominal uses. Even the few to be met with in the Nikāyas presuppose some verb which has come to be omitted, probably for reasons of idiom, but still can be understood. As regards syntactical categories, 78 we have placed the abl. [148] of starting point first and treated those of origin and cause as developments of the former. The second is the abl. of separation, third the abl. of distance, i.e. the abl. denoting the point from which distance is reckoned, and finally as fourth the abl. of viewpoint, under which heading have been discussed the abl. of comparison and the abl. implying ‘on what side’. Those ablatives which appear as pure adverbs and are, therefore, classed by local grammarians as ‘indeclinables’ have been dealt with separately though they could still be placed under one (or more) of the above headings according to their specific meanings. In all these categories, however, the unity of the fundamental conception is evident, and sometimes we may account for the same abl. in more than one way.

So is that Q.E.D.?

I think it’s saying literally that “the misconduct originates in association with womanhood” – and it doesn’t assign the stain to the woman.


#13

I wonder why the word-order of the Pali keeps changing.

The translation gives an identical word order for each item, e.g. …

[something] is the stain of [something]

… but in the Pali the word “stain” (malaṃ) is sometimes in the first part (on the left side), and sometimes in the second (on the right).

A literal translation may be something like:

  1. Stain-of-not-studying – [is] originated in hymns
  2. Stain-of-neglect – [is] originated in houses
  3. Stain – laziness originated in beauty
  4. Negligence – stain associated with guarding (I don’t know which declension that is of rakkhanta)
  5. Stain – misconduct originating in association with womanhood
  6. Miserliness – stain associated with giving (dadato is the same declension as rakkhato above, I suppose)
  7. etc.

#14

Here’s a translation of verse 242 of the Dhammapada by the way:

Malitthiya duccaritam
maccheram dadato malam
mala ve papaka dhamma
asmim loke paramhi ca.

Verse 242: Sexual misconduct is the taint of a woman; stinginess is the taint of a giver; evil ways are indeed taints in this world as well as in the next.

Its Preface says they tried to translate close to the text, and (or but) rely on commentary too.

Anyway, there the phrase is shorted to Malitthiya duccaritam – I can see that, translated literally, that Pali may be closer to (i.e. more easily misunderstood as) associating the stain with the womanhood – and the origin story (or commentary) does the same.

I think that (ambiguity in the text) is an artefact of abbreviating it to verse form – the other verses from that chapter of the Dhammapada tell me it’s not intended to find fault in others (e.g. in women).


#15

I am not so sure about that. See:

Consider that the Buddha is talking to bhikkhus. And consider that bhikkhus don’t have houses, so they can’t neglect houses.

But The house itself can be ‘stained’ by neglect - that is to say, if a house is neglected, it gets messy, and we consider it ‘stained’. Oral hyms get stained from not being recited (not sure if that means because eventually they will be forgotten or acquire errors, if it is means ‘not recited [properly]’, but either way.)

Beauty is stained by laziness, perhaps meaning that a beautiful lady for example, becomes less appealing when it is found out that she is lazy!

A guard is stained by being negligent, fairly clear, because if the guard is negligent, they are not a good guard! And a woman who does misconduct, is seen as not a very good woman!

Makes sense to me.
And these were probably well known things. Like perhaps common sayings. So it is putting all these together - look, we have all these things that we consider ‘stains’ in society. All these bad qualities to avoid. But, there is one which is so much worse than all these ones we are so familiar with! And that, is ignorance. As the sutta concludes:

Worse than any of these is ignorance, the worst stain of all.

And that’s why this is the one which is the most important.
It’s basically saying, look, there are all these wordly stains. And they’re bad enough. But put them out of your mind now, they’re bad but we have something far more serious to deal with. So, now, focus on the one stain which is really the worst of all. Let’s uproot ignorance.


#16

Yes … yes, I do get what you’re saying – you’re saying that it’s the “object” that becomes stained – it’s just that I don’t agree with that.

There are passages like this in MN 101:

‘Living in a house is cramped and dirty, but the life of one gone forth is wide open.
‘sambādho gharāvāso rajāpatho, abbhokāso pabbajjā.

Or this, from MN 36:

‘Living in a house is cramped and dirty, but the life of one gone forth is wide open.
‘sambādho gharāvāso rajāpatho, abbhokāso pabbajjā.

It’s not easy for someone living at home to lead the spiritual life utterly full and pure, like a polished shell.
Nayidaṃ sukaraṃ agāraṃ ajjhāvasatā ekantaparipuṇṇaṃ ekantaparisuddhaṃ saṅkhalikhitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ carituṃ.

(On Access to Insight, Thanissaro Bhikkhu tended to translate this as “dusty” – “a dusty life”).

The Buddha himself said that, about his going forth.

I don’t think it’s the house that’s dusty there, stained – it’s the living.

And yes of course the bhikkhus don’t have a house (nor a woman), but they were presumably aware of being (and of avoiding becoming) tainted themselves.


Makes sense to me.

Yes you can make sense of it: that’s plausible given the translation.

However, one of Confucius’ Analects says that “plausible men are dangerous”; and so I wish it were a clearer translation.

Pending any further evidence to the contrary, I think the translation may be wrong, given that’s the sense it makes.


#17

That statement is not consistent with:

Then you say:

In which case your translation does not seem to make sense in this context.

Not by neglecting a house. They don’t have one to neglect.

Bodhi also agrees with Sujato. Are both of these men ‘dangerous’?

Is it greater clarity you are wishing for, or a different meaning? Because yours does not seem to be merely clearer than their’s. Rather, it seems to represent a different meaning, implying that they are wrong. That’s fine if they are. But so far, as I have explained above, yours does not seem to make sense in the context. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong, but it would perhaps be unusual for the Buddha to give a teaching which doesn’t make sense.

What is the precise grammatical reasoning for your view of the meaning of the Pāli? If your grammatical reasoning is valid, then that would be the only reason to consider the possibility of your translation being correct. And then we could only be sure it that theirs is wrong if you can clearly establish that the Pāli grammar does not allow for their translation, making your meaning the only possible one out of the two.

If we are without any clear grammatical argument for an alternative translation, there should be no reason to consider it. So I think we should start there. Sorry if you have already discussed your grammatical reasons and I did not see them.


#18

In which case your translation does not seem to make sense in this context.

Yes I think “You may be stained by neglecting a house” might be a mistranslation too. Later (at the end of the first post) I guessed that might be more like, “the stain of a lack of (spiritual) energy is associated being a householder”.

Bodhi also agrees with Sujato. Are both of these men ‘dangerous’?

I was questioning the translation, not vilifying the translators – a translation might be misleading but still plausible, which (the translation) would be “dangerous” if you believed it.

Sorry if you have already discussed your grammatical reasons and I did not see them.

I think I found (and wrote, above) that:

  1. itthiya might mean something more like “womanhood” or “female gender” – i.e. it’s an abstract noun – it’s not a concrete noun like “person” or “a woman”
  2. The word-order implies that it’s the misconduct, not the stain, that’s associated with the “womanhood”
  3. itthiya is in the ablative case, not the nominative case – so the womanhood isn’t the agent of the misconduct … the ablative case denotes origin, so I guess that’s describing the type of misconduct, e.g. “misconduct that originates from [contact with] womanhood”

Is it greater clarity you are wishing for, or a different meaning?

I was asking a question, i.e. why is it translated that way? For example is it because of the Pali, because of other translators, because of commentary?

I thought it better not to assume I’m right, given that I seem to be disagreeing with experienced translators: I wanted to check, to ask for a second opinion, more expert than mine.


#19

How do you know that? The case ending would be the same also for instrumental; genitive; or locative, right? Would both instrumental and genitive not fit Sujato and Bodhi’s translations?

That sounds good.


#20

I tried to explain that earlier, i.e. my guess was that:

  • itthiyā is “Itthi & Itthī”, plus a “-” suffix
  • “-” is this suffix, which “forms a very large class of nouns, mostly Neuter abstract”, and whose nominative form ends “-aṃ”.
  • If that declines like the neuter “yānaṁon this page, then “-” could only be the ablative.