Sakāya niruttiyā with my own interpretation

The Vinaya (Kd 15:33) presents us with the scenario of a couple of otherwise unknown brahmin brothers who proposed making some sort of change in the way the Dhamma was recited, which the Buddha did not accept. The exact details have attracted much scholarly attention, to which I will add my own tuppence. The language of this passage offers a number of notable features, so let us look at the background first.

some background on the passage

The Buddha’s teaching is referred to as buddhavacana, a term so common that it excites little interest. But it is rare in early Pali. In fact we only find it in Snp 1.11, usually regarded as somewhat late; in SN 41.7, which is set after the Buddha’s passing; and in Thag 6.5, spoken by a monk. Nowhere else is it said by the Buddha, who used rather tathāgatabhāsita. It became common in later canonical Pali such as the Niddesa (buddhavacanaṁ pariyāputaṁ hoti suttaṁ geyyaṁ …), the Milinda (eg. tepiṭakaṁ buddhavacanaṁ, or navaṅge buddhavacane suttāgataṁ), and the Apadāna (navaṅgaṁ buddhavacanaṁ). It seems safe to say that buddhavacana is a term that rose to prominence only after the Buddha’s passing. It is also clear that it is associated with the literal texts that we know, which were recited orally from the start.

The reference to “two brothers” appears innocuous, but it is found in only one other place (Kd 8:24.5.1). This is also in the Vinaya, and also features names unknown elsewhere, Isidāso and Isibhaṭo. This passage is noteworthy as it goes on to feature the famous monk Sāṇavāsī. He was a leader of the Sangha at the Second Council, so this reference is definitively dated around that time, a century after the Buddha.

The connection with the Second Council also illuminates another rare expression. The brothers encourage the Buddha to change the phrasing of the Dhamma with the expression, handa mayaṁ bhante. It seems an oddly forward way to make a suggestion. Normally a polite request to the Buddha would be framed with sādhu bhante, “It would be good if …”. In fact the only other occurrence of handa mayaṁ bhante is in the Second Council, where the one addressed is not the Buddha, but a senior monk.

It is noteworthy that the brothers are concerned not with regional nationalities (as in MN 139, which deals with regional dialects) but with social standing.

etarahi, bhante, bhikkhū nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā
These days, sir, mendicants of different names, clans, lineages, and families have gone forth.

The phrase they use (nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā) is found in one specially revealing passage in the Vinaya (Parajika 1:3.2.5).

This key passage is in the Introduction to the entire Vinaya, when Sāriputta asks the Buddha about why the dispensation sometimes lasts long, and other times does not. The Buddha replies that the dispensation does not last long in the time of some Buddhas who do not teach many Suttas—literally the ninefold aṅgas later referred to as buddhavacana—and do not lay down training rules or enforce the recital of the patimokkha. In later years, after those Buddhas and their direct disciples died, those who followed were of “different names, clans, lineages, and families”, and it was they who made the dispensation disappear. The Buddha compared this to a bunch of flowers not tied up with string.

On the other hand, when a Buddha taught many Suttas and laid down the patimokkha, the later disciples of diverse names, etc., made the dispensation last.

The phrase also occurs in an interesting Sutta passage (DN 27), where the brahmin students Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja, who are said to be brahmins “by lineage and family” (brāhmaṇajaccā brāhmaṇakulīnā), having gone forth, suffer harassment from other brahmins because of it. The Buddha says that, despite the fact that they are both brahmins, they are of “different names, clans, lineages, and families”, yet they both refer to themselves as followers of the Sakyan, having relinquished their caste. So it seems that the phrase is not necessarily speaking of people from different castes, since even two brahmins are different. Why then does the Buddha speak to them like this?

Now, the four terms in this phrase are defined in detail under Pacittiya 2, where they are forbidden to be used as a basis for abuse (as the brahmins did to Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja). There, among the “high families” we find the Vāseṭṭhas, and among the low families the Bhāradvājas. This would explain how the Buddha could distinguish them as of different families. Another interesting detail in the Vinaya passage is that the differences are said to pertain to different countries, acknowledging that such social prestige varies from place to place.

DN 27 uses the term brāhmaṇajaccā to mean “of brahmin birth”, while the sakāya niruttiyā passage uses brāhmaṇajātika. That term occurs in a Ud 1.5:2.5, Ja 179:1.3, and Kd 18:9.1.1, all of which may be suspected to be somewhat late.

One phrase that is not unusual is kalyāṇavācā kalyāṇavākkaraṇā, which is a standard phrase praising eloquent speech, including that of the Buddha. Since it is the editorial voice that describes them that way, we should assume that it is meant to show that they were well-spoken, like the Buddha is well-spoken. In other words, the phrase is meant sincerely, not ironically.

the structure and meaning of the central passage

The main portion appears in three phrases that are largely parallel.

  • sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ dūsenti
  • buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropema
  • sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ pariyāpuṇituṁ

Ven Brahmali suggests we read the two occurences of sakāya niruttiyā in two different ways: the first means “in (the monks’) own expression”, while the second means “in (the Buddha’s) own expression”. But it seems to me unlikely that such a parallel phhrase has two different senses. The grammatical argument (following Gieger and Levman) is that the sense of saka must refer back to the most recent subject, namely “they” in the first case and “I” in the second. But I find this unconvincing. Normally Pali would make such shifts explicit, and there seems to me no reason why it shouldn’t retain the same referent, especially since the “I” is not even stated but left implicit. Surely the Buddha would have said mama (“my”) here. The commentary supports this, as it explains it only once, which implies that there is no need for two different explanations.

Let us look more closely and see if we can resolve this.

First consider the meaning of nirutti. In Pj 2:7.6.9, niruttipatha means “a way of speaking”, a “manner of expression”, and normally the word refers to “terminology”.

But let us not forget that this term is introduced here not by the Buddha, but by two brahmins, and we should consider how they understood it. In Sanskrit, nirukti means an interpretation, especially using the classic Indian method of defining terms using (real or playful) etymology. We find such edifying etymologies commonly in the Suttas, as when the Buddha says a brahmin is one who “has banished bad qualities” (bāhitapāpadhammo). This is what it means to be niruttipadakovido, “expert in the interpretation of terms” (Thag 17.3:15.2).

So this suggests that sakāya niruttiyā means “with their own interpretation” or “with their own explanation”. In other words, the mendicants were reciting the suttas, then explaining the meanings of the words and terms used as they understood them.

As for chandaso, it has has two meanings in Pali, both rare. The root for “desire” sometimes has the -as ending. We find the instrumental form chandasā (“willingly”, AN 5.44:8.2; cf. chandasā vā dhanena vā at Ja 262:3.2 etc.), while chandaso, though formally dative, has a similar sense “willingly”, “with consent” in the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. See below for a more detailed discussion of the grammar.

The other meaning is “prosody”, stemming from the sense of “Vedic metre”, used for metrical compositions. This is used only in one phrase, Sāvittī chandaso mukhaṁ, “The Sāvitri is the foremost of metres”.

Again, we should consider what this word meant to the people who used it, namely the two brahmins. We have a couple of early Sanskrit texts that offer us an explanation—a nirukti if you will—for the word chandas.

They (the metres) pleased him, and inasmuch as they pleased (chand) him they are (called) metres (chandas). (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 8.5.2)

This suggests the two meanings are related, as the original sense of chandas as “metre” was “pleasing”, i.e. the art of creating literary works that are pleasing both to listeners and, of course, the gods.

This aligns with why the two brahmins wanted to “elevate” (āropema) the Buddhavacana. Again I feel the sense has been lost, as āropema doesn’t have the sense of “revise” or “redact”, but “uplift”. Note that they say that they want to elevate it; but how could two brahmins undertake a wholesale redaction of the entire canon? It seems unlikely. The passage is, after all, included in a chapter called “Minor Matters”, where the preceding section dealt with monks climbing trees, and the following section with some bad monks who wanted to learn cosmology. Surely this is an odd place for a major proposal. I think what they wanted to do was in the classic Indian style of adding some decoration, some flourish, to make it fancy.

Another explanation, however, connects chandas with channa in the sense of “covered”.

The gods, being afraid of death, entered the threefold knowledge (veda). They covered themselves with metres (chandas), because of which the metres are called chandas. (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 1.4.2)

This seems unlikely philologically, but that is the nature of nirukti. What is interesting, though, is that the gods’ fear of death suggests that one of the roles of chandas was to “wrap up”, to cover and protect, the teachings so that they would last a long time. This reminds us of the idea that the Dhamma would become scattered if it were not tied up with string.

Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 9.5.7 emphasizes that the study of the Vedic chandas leads to growth in happiness and wisdom, and one who recites daily is furnished by the gods with every enjoyment.

The discussion on this point has often contrasted the Vedic idea of chandas with the supposedly non-Vedic idea of nirutti. But that is a false contradiction, as the Vedic literary tradition includes both chandas and nirukti.

Sikṣā (phonetics), Kalpa (ceremonial injunctions), Vyākaraṇa (grammar), Nirukta (glossarial explanation of obscure Vedic terms), Chandas (prosody), and Jyotiṣa (astronomy) form the Aṅgas (Kauṭilya-Arthaśāstra 1.3).

The contrast, rather, is between analytical texts that focus on the definitions of terms, and flowery texts that elevate through literary pleasure. The brahmins were well aware that their own tradition had flourished not merely because of the intellectual precision, but because of the joy and pleasure found in the words.

Thus we should perhaps render chandas as “pleasing poetry”. This echoes the chief quality of the brahmins, that their speech was delightful.

The final term to consider is much easier. Pariyāpuṇituṁ is a common verb that means “to memorize”. I think the significance of this has been lost somehow. The whole purpose is to memorize the texts, word for word, letter for letter. That is not in question. Of course they would continue to memorize them just as they have always been doing. The phrases sakāya niruttiyā and chandaso should be read as auxiliary qualifiers, something extra to the memorization, as I explain in the next section.

on the cases of niruttiyā and chandaso

As a feminine noun, the case of niruttiyā is ambiguous. Formally it could be instrumental, ablative, genitive, dative, or locative. The commentary does not clear this up.

Chandaso, on the other hand, would seem to require a dative or genitive form. The commentary glosses with sakkatabhāsāya, which must be dative, “into a prestigious language”.

Now, ordinarily we would assume that, since the two passages are mostly parallel, the forms are the same if possible. Assuming a dative that would yield:

  • They degrade Buddhavacana into their own interpretation.
  • Let us elevate Buddhavacana into pleasing poetry.
  • I allow you to memorize Buddhavacana into your own interpretation.

But that seems unlikely.

Another possibility is that the dative/genitive form of chandaso here has an instrumental sense. This is supported by the use of chandaso in Bhikkhuni Parajika 1, where the commentary glosses chandaso with chandena. In this case we can, contra the commentary, read both passages as instrumental.

  • They degrade Buddhavacana with their own interpretation.
  • Let us elevate Buddhavacana with pleasing poetry.
  • I allow you to memorize Buddhavacana with your own interpretation.

This seems to me to yield a satisfying meaning. The assumption that the terms are instrumental gives them an auxilliary or accompanying role. This means that the request is not really about a wholesale redaction of the Dhamma into a new form. Rather, it is about the role played by adding extra explanations of terms, or else by adding verse flourishes that decorate and aim for enjoyment. We know that the Buddha encouraged mendicants to explain things their own way (pariyāyena), and did not insist on only one interpretation of things. So long as the explanation is in line with the Dhamma it is fine.

Of course, the tradition ended up doing both these things. All Buddhist traditions have a massive amount of texts, the entire Abhidhamma tradition, whose primary concern is the precise definition and explanation of terms. But they also include versified and elevated retellings of events, especially the life of the Buddha. Verses are added as decorative flourishes, for example, at a Dhamma talk when reciting uplifting verses at the start or end.

As noted above, this passage seems to be connected with the Second Council, a time when monks from all over India gathered, highlighting the diversity in the Sangha. The chief conflict to be resolved was between the “rigorist” monks exemplified by Bakkula, who had a hard-core, unrelenting attitude, with the “laxist” monks of Vesali, who wanted to carry money. I’m guessing they might have enjoyed a little poetry now and then. So this passage should be read as a “rigorist” position, arguing that the Sangha should focus on analytical definitions rather than fancy poetry.


I agree with your initial observation that this is very likely not an issue from the time of the historical person known as the Buddha but from a later point of time when this issue may have arosen in the Sangha and necessitated a Vinaya rule to be founded and attributed to the late Buddha.

But the rest of your interpretation doesnt make complete sense logically or linguistically.

Elevating the Buddhavacana with pleasing poetry is not going to solve the issue of degrading the buddhavacana with their own interpretation - so that is not the likely suggestion made by the brothers.

The Buddha of this rule doesnt deny the core observation that monks from various social backgrounds were misinterpreting the Buddhavacana. He accepts the charge implicitly by not denying it.

However if some bhikkhus were misinterpreting the buddhavacana, it wouldnt be primarily a problem of 2 random brahmins to resolve, it would be a problem for the Buddha and a problem for Buddhism to resolve it internally. In case of misinterpretations of his teachings, thr Buddha would normally call the people misinterpreting him, and question them about it, admonish them, and explain the right interpretation, which is what he is found to do whenever he was misquoted or misinterpreted by some of his own followers.

Here he doesnt do that as it is likely he wasnt alive at the time this vinaya rule came into existence, hence they had to remove him from the picture and put in a rule as a solution.

So why do there need to be 2 Brahmins in the picture at all? Clearly they had something to do with the solution proposed.

What the passage mentions is:

  1. The monks were spoiling (dusenti) the Buddhavacana itself, their misinterpretation if any was an outcome of the “buddhavacanam dusenti”. There is no indication that they were wholesale translating or restating the Buddhavacana into their own (different) language or dialect.
  2. The social diversity of the monks (monks bearing different names, gotras, kulas and jātis) i.e. meaning their prior education and linguistic comprehension could not be taken for granted, unlike that of the Buddha and themselves (the Brahmins). It seems the Brahmins (as per their own estimation) could understand the Buddha better than the monks who are accused of spoiling the Buddhavacana.
  3. The Buddhavacana was already available in a specific core language. The monks were reinterpreting and misinterpreting the texts based on their linguistic understanding.
  4. The solution being proposed is not to make it pleasing poetry or anything of that sort, but to elevate the Buddhavacana linguistically by reformulating it in versified Vedic, as that would make it as linguistically rigorous and unchageable as the Vedic hymns, which had been preserved exactly for centuries by the Brahmins. It is in this connection that the Brahmins suggest to the Buddha that they could collectively (including the Buddha himself here) “elevate” the Buddhavacana (which was in the common language and subject to misinterpretations and mispronounciations) to versified Vedic as it would enable Buddhists to pass the Buddhavacana down for thousands of years like the Brahmins had done for the Vedas uttered by their ancestors.
  5. The Buddha in the rule doesnt accept this solution and allows the monks of different social backgrounds to learn the buddhavacana in “his”/“their” own dialect. The Buddha’s language is also the language of the monks, and also the language of the brahmins. So there is no difference between the first sakāya niruttiyā and the final sakāya niruttiyā.
  6. If there was no difference in the language spoken by the buddha, the brahmins and the monks,‌ and if they were still spoiling the buddhavacana, it can only mean they were mispronouncing it unmindful of its grammatical and phonetic accuracy. That would be something brahmins might be interested to fix, as they took linguistic purity very seriously.

It’s not about language or dialect: nirutti doesn’t mean that in either Buddhism or Vedism.

Nor is their any evidence that anyone was actually degrading the Buddhavacana: just that two brahmins, otherwise unknown, said people were. The fact that the Buddha (or the Theravada rigorists) rejected the suggestion confirms this.

Right, but that’s not what I am suggesting. The idea that there was a wholesale recasting of the Dhamma at stake gets more absurd the more you think about it. That’s why it’s important to establish the instrumental sense, which here has the sense “accompanying”, not “reformulating”.

I spent a long time considering this sense, but it simply is too crazy. No-one, let alone two unknowns, has ever had the capacity to turn the entire Tipitaka into “versified Vedic”. That’s why I reject the dative sense of chandaso, which as I explained, is glossed as an instrumental in early Pali.

Perhaps I should have given examples of what I mean.

The practice of “elevating” texts with verse is common in Buddhism. In early texts it is found a lot in the Anguttara Fours, eg. AN 4.3. There the prose text is followed by a short verse that does little but restate the prose. Such verses are rather loosely attributed to the Buddha, but in fact mostly are probably later.

A more dramatic example would be something like DN 30, where a series of prose sections is each adorned with a set of verses, in rather elaborate metres. A similar form is employed in Snp 3.12.

In later Pali a prose text is typically embellished with the addition of a set of verses at the start, offering a pleasing and uplifting introduction. Good examples are the Milindapanha or the Netti.

Previous interpreters, by not recognizing that this event is associated with the Second Council, assumed that since the Buddha forbade it, it didn’t happen. But the very premise of the Second Council was that monks were doing things that the Buddha forbade, and history tells us that they kept doing so. This is, of course, also the case if we read sakāya niruttiyā as “the Buddha’s own language”, for we know that the Sangha did, in fact, go on to render texts in different dialects, and later even in completely different languages.

For those unfamiliar with what nirutti means, here is the classic text nirukta, which is referred to as nighaṇḍu in Pali. Obviously this style of explanation was very influential on later Pali Abhidhamma and commentarial traditions.


Yes that is true. Nirukta is a past-participle form of nir+√vac (which means “to interpret”). The charge therefore is that they were (mis)interpreting it according to their idiosyncratic understanding. The solution proposed is to put it in early-Vedic poetry which would be less capable of being misinterpreted (as linguistic rigor and semantic, phonetic and grammatical standardization was the brahmin forte of that time). The nirukta of Yāska (that you have linked above) is from the 5th/4th century BCE fl. (very close to the time of Pāṇini and the Buddha), and it “explains and interprets” the etymology of some obscure vedic words, but not always correctly.

Yes, but obviously they were saying something meaningful to the Buddha - and what they were saying is core to the rest of the understanding. If they were not saying that the monks were spoiling (dūsenti) the buddhavacana, which was already in a pre-existing linguistic form, in what way could that observation mean anything? How would your interpretation of “chandaso āropema” be a meaningful solution to “buddhavacanam dūsenti”?

The Buddha does not reject the charge, however he rejects the solution proposed. He doesnt refute the charge, he implicitly recognizes it by staying silent about it.

But why should we assume the existence of an entire Tripiṭaka at that point of time? In the time of the Buddha, the Dharma may have meant a few key early (mostly verse) suttas that monks could/did memorize and interpret. There is no indication that by spoiling the buddhavacana, spoiling the entire tripiṭaka was meant. The vast majority of them (who are described as bearing multiple social backgrounds and identities, i.e. their educational attainments & ability to interpret the buddhavacana correctly are being questioned here), could not have been memorizing or even reading the entire tripiṭaka nor even understand most of it. Just as in ud5.6 where upon being exhorted by the Buddha to recollect and recite the dharma (“paṭibhātu taṁ, bhikkhu, dhammo bhāsitun”) the monk recites the Aṭṭhakavagga, that or a few other allied core texts are what were probably meant by buddhavacana.

Besides ‘chandas’ in that time meant early-vedic metric poetry (and because it was the earliest and most prominent surviving example of metric poetry, typified all metric poetry of that period in India). Panini, not separated from the Buddha’s lifetime by more than a century, refers to early-vedic hundreds of times by that very name (while explaining early-vedic grammar).

So most definitely, at least in my understanding, the suggestion was to set the buddhavacana in early-vedic - and by that they were obviously not talking of the tripiṭaka as a whole as it may not have existed in the Buddha’s lifetime.

The Buddha may have known the Nirukta or something like it, and must have felt that putting his message in versified early-vedic for posterity would be more prone to misinterpretation than to keep it as-is.

1 Like

Very good speculation indeed! But, what was “a specific core language”?

A single early-Indo-Aryan language like Sanskrit or Pali.
It was not that the buddhavacana was a floating mass of texts in multiple vernacular dialects or languages to start with, that is for sure.
The brahmins were claiming that they were better interpreters of this text (or set of texts) that is called the buddhavacana, than the monks of various unknown social and educational backgrounds whose interpretations they say were faulty. The Buddha doesnt dispute their (the brahmins’) claim to a superior understanding of the buddhavacana either.

A single language?

This is also good speculation.

Your point being? There is no suggestion here that the Buddhavacana was being misinterpreted in multiple dialects or languages. So assuming that the charge of misinterpretation was being applied (by the brahmin brothers) to pre-existing texts in multiple dialects or languages or linguistic registers is simply not in evidence. I dont see how this amounts to speculation. In fact assuming multidialectal buddhavacana here would be unsubstantiated speculation.

No, it is certainly not unsubstantiated speculation at all. There were four different languages used by four different early Buddhist schools for buddhavacana. See the discussion in DhammaWheel:

Those were not early, those were more than 500 years after the Buddha’s time, the quote of those 4 languages itself is from someone who lived in the 12th century CE. I am talking of pre-sectarian Buddhism from the lifetime of the Buddha.

Besides the sakāya niruttiyā passage in question doesnt evidence any multidialectalism at all (beyond the language of the buddhavacana and early-vedic verse), so it would be unsubstantiated speculation.

I see. A single early-Indo-Aryan language used from the lifetime of the Buddha for the buddhavacana is not an unsubstantiated speculation!

Except I don’t think they were: they were speaking to other monks a hundred years later.

Let me paraphrase it, giving an imaginative recreation based on the dynamics of the Sangha at the Second Council.

You see, all these different monks from different backgrounds are explaining Buddhavacana in their own ways. It’s confusing and just makes everything unclear. Buddhavacana is perfectly clear as it is. What we don’t need is lots of pettifoggery, we need to uplift and inspire people. You know what inspires people? Poetry! Let’s write some beautiful verses that make people’s hearts sing!

By the time of the Second Council, most of the Suttas and Vinaya, and some Abhidhamma existed. In fact, it’s likely that sakāya niruttiyā means the early Abhidhamma/Abhivinaya movement. If you look at say the Vibhanga of the Vinaya, the rules are basically the same, but the explanations of those rules vary greatly from one school to another. That’s what I think it’s talking about.

But let’s say I’m wrong and it really did refer to the time of the Buddha. What could it possibly mean? That these two monks, who no-one has ever mentioned anywhere, would sit beside the Buddha when he taught, memorize it, then recast it into Vedic verse—no mean feat!—then tell the Sangha to ignore what the Buddha actually said and memorize their version instead?

You can’t really just take detailed, analytical prose and make it into metrical verse. I mean, you can retell the stories, and express the same ideas, but even within the Pali itself, as in the examples I gave above, when they restate the teaching in verse it has to be completely rewritten. Prose and verse are different modes, you can’t just substitute them; which is why the explanations of Vedic verses and rituals and philosophies are in prose. Not even the Vedists wanted to versify the Brahmanas or Upanishads.

I think the scholarly discussions have focused on the words, forgetting that there is an actual community and culture involved.

Right, we agree that’s clearly what is meant in this passage.

He actually refers to the nighaṇḍu as one of the standard Vedic texts.

While I have you here, I wonder if you have any thoughts about the names of the brahmins? I can’t identify anything about them, and they vary a lot in the Pali.

  • yameḷakekuṭā (Burmese)
  • yameḷutekulā (bj, pts1ed, i.e. Sinhala);
  • meṭṭhakokuṭṭhā (Thai)

As names, it doesnt appear to make much sense yet to me.

But the two of them may have been royal time-keepers yamelukā-kuṭṭā (Sanskrit: yamerukā-kuṭṭana = beating/striking a gong, called yamerukā, every hour to signal the passage of time).

1 Like

Even if it was a novel issue that came up among monks a hundred years later, they had to make it sound plausible enough to be put in the time and mouth of the Buddha. In which case, the brothers (as per the quotation) could not have been viably suggesting putting it ‘to pleasing verses’ as a solution for monks misinterpreting the buddhavacana, because that doesnt resolve the issue of misinterpretation.

The monks 100 years after the Buddha would have known that those later texts were more recent as most of them wouldnt have inherited it in their traditions. They wouldnt have all had accepted that they were from the buddha’s mouth. So even if the rule was introduced in the second council, it had to sound plausible enough to be put in the time and mouth of the buddha, and it must have been introduced to solve a real issue. If it was not to solve a real and persistent issue, the need to introduce the rule into the vinaya would not have arisen. The reason why it is in the vinaya is that there were evidently persisting charges being made about the Buddhavacana being spoiled by monks who didnt understand it. There are other reports as well of such misinterpretations of the buddhavacana, so this vinaya rule pertains to a real issue, and not to an imaginary problem. The pali canon itself has one such misinterpretation embedded in this sutta (i.e. ‘vyaya’ misinterpreted as ‘baka’).

Correct, however I do not believe the teachings that were passed on as ‘Buddhavacana’ in the earliest century were in prose to start with. Prose explanations must have been secondary to and dependent on pre-existing verse texts (to explain the meaning and situation in which the verses were uttered). In other words, the canonical effort initially was to preserve the inspired utterings of the Buddha in verse, and only secondarily to preserve the doctrine of the Buddha. Abhidhamma and the prose-suttas were two traditions that sought to preserve the doctrine of the Buddha without and with historical context respectively. Sometimes the contextual prose story of several suttas was invented later to make its doctrinal points sound plausibly authentic.

Not everyone could compose verses, and the metric poetry ensured preservation of the words that could not thereafter be changed by others, so metric poetry was regarded as an authentic mode of preserving utterances for posterity (and this was the case even in Vedic traditions).

Eventually the prose explanations/suttas (most of which are narrated like stories by one or more third parties i.e. by unnamed monks, rather than the Buddha himself) came to be embedded into the suttas as the first one or two generations of early Buddhists passed away and there was a risk of the explanations getting forgotten. Eventually the dīgha and majjhima suttas were composed entirely in prose and the canon as we know it took shape. But there would have been no canon in the time of the Buddha and the early Buddhists even at the second council would have known that to be the case.

As to how putting pali/classical-sanskrit verse into vedic verse would help with the problem of resolving misinterpretations, in Vedic the svaras (pitch accent) were applied invariably (while accents were optional in classical sanskrit, and not used at all in pali), and the pitch accent was important to convey the right meaning. The compound indraśatru, for example, could be interpreted in two ways – “destroyer of Indra” (tatpuruṣa compond) or “destroyed by Indra” (bahuvrīhi compound). In early-Vedic Sanskrit (or Vedic in general), the use of vowel-accents would have disambiguated the two meanings, but in (unaccented) Classical Sanskrit, and in Pali, it is only the context that can inform us what the meaning is. So having it in early-Vedic did/could make word meanings less ambiguous, thereby reducing the need-for or possibility-of (mis)interpretations. But while early-vedic would have made it less ambiguous (than both classical sanskrit and pali) to brahmins and the Buddha who were educated in the Vedas, it would have not made it less ambiguous to those who were not educated in early-Vedic - as early-vedic had ceased to remain a spoken language in the Buddha’s time i.e. it had evolved into classical sanskrit (and thereafter with the advent of writing, evolved further into prākrits).

Interesting discussion. :slight_smile: Amazing work as always, Bhante @sujato. Thank you @srkris for inquiring into the details of this.

Imagine two scenarios. In the first case, you have a poem that is memorized and passed down. The meaning is explained off-the-cuff in conversational prose by whatever monk is teaching. This means you could get a variety of commentaries on the same text, which is still a “problem” today, in that people will give misinformed commentaries on texts they don’t really understand.

In the second scenario, the explanation of texts is passed down in verse which is memorized and held together by particular meter and poetic structure. This means that the commentary and explanation of the original poem is fixed in time, so people will be expected to explain and pass the poems on. Of course, this lends to a more fanciful and acculturated tradition, where beautiful verse rather than plain commentary accompany the teachings.

Do you not see how versified explanations would be more stable and aesthetically pleasing than unstable prose commentary?

But they could have been convinced that he would have said it and that it was implied. This is the thing with buddhavacana: the early Buddhists considered whatever was well-spoken and in accordance with the Buddha’s message to be buddhavacana. There is even a (later) sutta claiming this within the canon itself. Think about the very fact that there is a Vinaya rule that is supposedly an interaction between the Buddha and other monastics, but which is very likely not ana accurate representation. It seems likely that many, many minor Vinaya rules and narratives are like this.

If people could be convinced that the Buddha would have wanted, agreed with, and more-or-less said X, then they would consider it equivalent to the words of the Buddha.

So even schools like the Sarvastivada, who held that their Abhidhamma books were composed by monks and not the Buddha, agreed it was buddhavacana and that they were simply drawing out what was implied. Later, I’ve read/heard that some even speculated that the suttas which said what was in their Abhidhamma had simply been lost.

The Abhidhamma quotes and relies on the suttas to offer a detailed explanation and then develop new philosophical ideas. Have you read any canonical Abhidharma texts from the early schools? They aren’t from the same generation, excepting some minor overlap towards the end of the major sutta period. It’d be like saying the Brāhmanas are just alternative versions of the Upanisads to pass down the same idea.

To say that nidānas, i.e. introductory narratives, were added later and sometimes mixed between commentary and discourse is reasonable and generally accepted. But to then say that all prose discourses were developed in a similar manner is an unfounded stretch as far as I can tell. The first discourse of the Dīgha Nikāya (DN 1) is in prose and is mostly spoken from the perspective of the Buddha himself, minus the introductory and closing nidāna material more or less. The same is true of e.g. MN 1.

Do you have any empirical reasons beyond speculation for suggesting that the early material even up to the second council would have been verse-and-commentary?

That need to adopt doubtful teachings as valid Buddhavacana would have been in early Buddhism well after the Buddha’s lifetime, not the early Buddhism when the Buddha was living as a single source of true Buddhavacana.

So the issue reported in the Sakāya Niruttiyā episode is not about the authenticity of the Buddhavacana but about how the authentic Buddhavacana was (mis)understood / (mis)interpreted by people who didnt have a background either in Buddhism or in textual/scholastic studies. There is no doubt expressed in this episode about the authenticity of the buddhavacana, but the charge against those monks is that they were spoiling/misinterpreting it through their own idiosyncratic explanations.

If the issue was first reported 100 years after the Buddha’s life so as to necessitate a vinaya rule (to be put in the Buddha’s mouth), it should still have been plausibly an issue that prevailed in the Buddha’s own lifetime. Questions about what was authentic Buddhavacana (or a vinaya rule to solve a problem that didnt exist in the Buddha’s time) wouldnt have cut it.

There is no possibility of oral transmission of a significant volume of prose texts without major changes across even one generation (leave alone multiple generations). It has no precedence anywhere in India or anywhere else. A wholesale oral transmission tradition of the whole prose sutta pitaka (as we have it today) would have meant lexical variatons in every word and every line of the whole tipitaka. You can test this - make a small speech, say 10000 words long (25 A4-sized pages) in your own language, and memorize it exactly as long and hard as you want, and try reciting it 10 times exactly as uttered by you originally and see if you get it right each time. Now extrapolate this to generations of people and to texts containing millions of words - and you begin to realize the scale of problems you get when you try to orally transmit the prose tipitaka. The lexical variants and interpolated content would keep increasing exponentially.

The prose parts of the canon (at least most of the first four Nikayas) well and truly could have come into existence only when the canon was first written down - which would be sometime slightly before or during the 3rd century BCE (the lifetime of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka). Even in the case of poetry, most of it is not from the Buddha’s time. However the earliest parts of the canon that originate from his own time (and the parts which were recited by the earliest sangha in sangiti) could have been only the early verse suttas.

I haven’t seen Abhidhamma quoting prose suttas (I dont read the Abhidhamma much) - but even if that is the case, it would only show relatively that the prose suttas were already in existence when the Abhidhamma project began - not that there were prose suttas at the same time or before the earliest known verse suttas.

Many of the elaborate prose suttas must have heavily relied on abhidhamma systematization as well, as prior to this a comprehensive early-Buddhist philosophy would not have existed. So I see a mutual interdependence between abhidhamma and the prose suttas.

The early verse suttas however stand on their own wthout dependence on abhidhamma.

But nirutti (as used in the compound janapada-nirutti, see mn139) could also mean (regional) words/expressions - this isnt an evidence of wholesale regional dialects or languages, but merely certain words being used more often than others in certain places, i.e. divergence of vocabulary by region.

Sakāya niruttiyā on the other hand, while not referring to wholesale dialects or languages either, doesnt also refer to janapada-nirutti i.e. usage of different words by region - it is talking about “their own idiosyncratic explanation/interpretation” (due to misunderstanding the original import of the Buddhavacana text).

Perhaps the very incredulous nature of this suggestion makes this a minor matter, precisely because it’s such a grandiose and ultimately futile suggestion. People have been delusional with far greater things. :slight_smile:

Yes, I never claimed otherwise. The point is that to claim Abhidhamma and Vinaya material were not buddhavacana is simply false. They were believed to be buddhavacana, and still are to this day by most Buddhists. To distort or misinterpret buddhavacana then could include now canonical commentaries on Tipitaka texts. This isn’t to say there wasn’t nuance and perhaps disagreement about what specifically was authentic. But as a general rule, if a text was later but agreed with what the Buddha taught (in the minds of the audience), then the Buddha had retroactively approved of it.

The Buddhists at this time presumably believed that authentic buddhavacana included what was spoken by disciples that fit with the Buddha’s message, and that this rule applied to all times. That is, to expect that they would try and elaborately fake a rule by no longer treating buddhavacana as what disciples say is just not realistic in my mind. Nobody would have questioned this fact or thought it anachronistic. Or those who would wouldn’t be the majority. It goes back to quotes like “those who see the Dhamma see me,” which can be read as the Buddha saying that the authentic Buddha’s teaching need not be from his person, but vice versa.

We can agree to disagree, as it also seems we have gone off on a tangent from the main topic at this point. But the main point here I believe is that “distorting buddhavacana” includes material that people at the time believed was authentic buddhavacana, and this would apply even if it was considered authoritative after the Buddha’s life, because of the belief that the Buddha had retroactively included later, proper material as authentic. This means that versified interpretations of later texts considered accurate Dhamma would be included in versified nirutti on Buddhavacana.

Well for one, I don’t think the whole prose tipitaka was necessarily transmitted sheerly by memory. The Tipitaka is of course composed of three major collections. It’s reasonable to believe that a large amount of material in the Abhidhamma-Pitaka was influenced by writing. The core of the Vibhanga was probably before writing, but that is only one small section of the whole. It’s also possible that writing influenced Abhidhamma texts a bit later in time, but that the authors were not concerned with editing them because they were not considered records of events.

Likewise, large portions of the Vinaya Pitaka evolved over time, and much of the internal commentary differs from school to school. This has been studied by e.g. Ven. Anālayo, and it seems that Vinaya narratives and commentaries were more fluid due to their purpose: entertaining and specific instruction to remember the rules and important lessons about them. It’s possible that some of the Vinaya was also expanded and edited with the advent of writing, at least in some schools.

Now, keep in mind that there are monks in the world — individual monks — who have memorized huge amounts of the Tipitaka. There are national exams for this in Myanmar. Tipitakadhāra and expanded titles are given to monks who have memorized at least 20 books of ~40 I believe. I think the 20 books are 3 DN (the whole DN), 5 Vinaya books, and 12 Abhidhamma books. There has been some discussion of this on the forum, and some of these monks are said to have also memorized the other nikayas with separate exams. Then there is the title for people who memorize all 40.

So saying it’s impossible to be done in groups is not ambitious enough. Even individuals have reportedly done so. Keeping in mind, again, that if we dropped Abhidhamma and Vinaya memorization minus the Patimokkha, which are arguably more difficult to memorize and retain, then there would be monks who have memorized the amount of content for all the nikāyas.

It was also common, as we see by reading the commentaries, for people to specialize in one nikāya. The Dīgha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara reciters would have their own internal explanations. Take 1 monk per nikāya, and it takes 4 people. Even 2 monks per nikāya, and 8 is quite low. As was mentioned here recently, even a couple centuries or more into the CE and there are still reports of translation being done with a reciter who memorized a collection.

I recommend you read academic literature that compares recensions of these texts with the Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc. parallels. Bhikkhu Anālayo has done extensive research on these and written a book on the oral tradition. There it becomes much more clear that the way to account for the evolution, similarities, and differences in these texts is via an oral tradition of transmission. The fact that Buddhists understood the material is a contributing factor for some of the unique techniques in the texts, such as the repetition of formulas, syllable structure, repeated synonyms, and so on.

I also think it’s worth looking at the Buddhist literature that we know was influenced by writing and transmitted with the aid of writing. Then comparing with the earlier agama literature which the authors would have been familiar with.

So to consider the example you offer:

This is not at all representative of the prose literature of the āgamas. Again: How much of them have you actually read? They are not at all the genre of “a speech” in 10.000 words. What you’re describing is a writing-centric image of memorization. With writing, you can have every sentence be completely unique and full of unnecessary details, with almost no repetitive structure of mnemonics embedded within it. Because you write it down and read it. The Āgamas do not read like a speech.

I actually knew a layman who had memorized basically the entire Anguttara Nikāya in English translation and could recite it from memory if you told him the sutta number.

It doesn’t take much effort to memorize Pali prose. It’s very structured. You shouldn’t doubt others (and yourself) so much. You should test it yourself if you have so little faith in human memory! I think you’ll be surprised of your capacity. Considering your familiarity with the Sanskrit tradition, can I ask if you’ve memorized bodies of literature in prose/verse? I recall you may have memorized Pānini (a very nice feat!); anything more ‘substantial’ in terms of fluid content rather than sūtra material?

The Pāli Abhidhamma tends to have less conversational exegesis, but it uses sutta definitions as the basis of discussion in e.g. the Vibhanga and perhaps Puggalapaññatti. The Abhidhamma of other schools tend to be more ‘conversational.’ Outside the Vibhanga books it is a bit of a different story though. There they are elaborating a philosophical project which almost entirely post-dates the suttas.

Yes, I think this is a good observation by Bhante Sujato. I don’t disagree with it.

All the best!

In the context of the sakāya niruttiyā passage (which speaks about people living in the Buddha’s time spoiling the Buddha’s “own words”) - in the limited context of this passage - buddhavacana only means the buddha’s own words, not any other buddhavacana-template later texts that people living after the Buddha’s time equated with the buddha’s own words - that excludes most of the narrative parts of the canon that start with “evam me sutam” (i.e. most of the prose & later verse suttas, most of the vinaya and most of the abhidhamma).

I had to mention it only to say that regardless of what anyone considers buddhavacana, there was no “whole Tripiṭaka” in existence during the Buddha’s lifetime. There may have been about a few hundred suttas, grouped into vaggas, so no more than a few thousand verses at the very maximum. That woud still have been smaller than the Rgveda (composed by hundreds of early-Vedic poets, which contains about 1050 Sūktas grouped into vargas, and containing about just under 11000 individual verses in total). So putting them into vedic verse would be like how I translate Pali texts into Sanskrit, it would still have been the same words but with the Vedic accents and a comparatively more archaic grammar. No big deal even for an educated man like the Buddha himself to utter his words in Vedic verse, leave alone for the Brahmins. But the Buddha wanted his teachings to be interpreted and practiced by people and to be spread more widely, he wasnt interested to make it a new Veda.

The monks living in the Buddha’s time could not be misinterpreting texts that did not exist until then and which were going to be created in future (whether by the Buddha himself or by others) - as simple as that.

Not quite the same thing.

You are talking about repetitive rehearsing from a written (foreign-language) frozen text that you can check against each time until you memorize the complete text verbatim.

I am talking about an oral transmission tradition (passing a live speech orally and aurally from mind to mind across hundreds or thousands of listeners and reciters in each generation) with no durable copy to check against; where the unrehearsed/impromptu speech does not exist verbatim anywhere after it is spoken for the first time by the Buddha. Even the Buddha himself would not have been able to make the same speech verbatim after he had once spoken it. What’s more, the prose suttas are predominantly third-person narratives, not just the buddha’s speech.

A foreign language frozen text being rehearsed and memorized verbatim isnt processed by the brain in the same way as an impromptu speech that is heard and at-once understood. When the language you need to memorize is the language you normally speak, your mind processes the speech into its meaning and you no longer remember the exact phonemes/words after the speech is finished, you just remember the meaning of what you heard. Trying to transmit prose speech exactly in your mother tongue after having heard it once (with pauses, diversions, interruptions etc that normally happen in daily speech), is not like Myanmarese monks performing feats of memory after reading a written text aloud in a foreign language verbatim over and over again hundreds of times. So what the Myanmarese monks do is not an oral-transmission of the tripiṭaka.

As I said in my last post, an oral transmission does not exist anywhere and has not existed anywhere in the world for huge prose texts written in one’s own native language. So your belief that there was an oral transmission of the prose tripiṭaka remains just a personal belief. I’m saying this because I know how the Vedic oral transmission works, and the Vedas are almost entirely verse texts. That method would never work for the prose Tripiṭaka.

Most of the prose suttas, being third-person narratives of what happened once upon a time in the Buddha’s life, didn’t exist during the Buddha’s life, they are post-mortem creations. So there was no prose canon to convert to Vedic-verse in the ‘Sakāya niruttiyā’ incident.

The contrast between memorizing a fixed written text one can use for reference, and a completely oral tradition where no absolute reference exists is a very interesting one.
Thank you.