Should monks beware of living with novices?

In AN 5.80, one of the “Future Peril” suttas, the Buddha warns monks against living too intimately with certain people:

Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhavissanti bhikkhū anāgatamaddhānaṃ bhikkhunīsikkhamānāsamaṇuddesehi saṃsaṭṭhā viharissanti.

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as:

Again, in the future there will be bhikkhus who bond closely with bhikkhunis, female probationers, and novices.

I have always felt the inclusion of “novices” (implying male novices) in this passage was odd, and looking more closely it seems likely that samaṇuddesa refers to female novices.

That meaning should be obvious from the context. While the commentary and subcommentary don’t provide a gloss for the terms here, text and commentary are clearly referring to the risk of intimacy if monks live too closely with female renunciants.

Male novices are referred to in the next section of the sutta. The risk of too much intimacy with them is not sexual, but that of getting too much stored-up food, and asking for too many “allowables”, in both material stuff and acts that monks can’t perform, like digging the soil and so on.

As far as the Pali goes, the ending samaṇuddesehi—the same in both cases—is masculine, which is presumably why it gets simply translated as “novices”. However Pali compounds are normally declined in the masculine, so the masculine ending to samaṇuddesa doesn’t imply anything as to the gender of the term.

More significant is the fact that the term samaṇuddesa is only used of male novices in the early texts. But this is not a very powerful objection, as female novices (sāmaṇerī) don’t figure largely in the early canon anyway, except in stock phrases. For the men, sāmaṇera and samaṇuddesa are used interchangeably (at least in meaning, although there may be textual differences to explain the two terms), and there’s no reason samaṇuddesā should not be used in the same way for female novices.

Moreover, this usage is actually found in the quasi-canonical Bhikkhuni Patimokkha text. A little digression on this text is necessary. It’s unclear what the exact origins of this text are. It appears to be the text on which the Bhikkhuni Vinaya is based. However, many sections are not found in the Vinaya Pitaka, since they are assumed to be identical with the parallel passages for monks. It is possible, then, that the text as we have it today was retroactively created by changing the relevant monks rules to a feminine form, in which case it would not stand as an independent witness. However, I have shown that at least in one case—pārājika 1—the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha preserves a genuine ancient form that cannot be derived from the canon. Of course, it is quite possible that the text is a mixture of authentic and later portions, although I don’t see any reason why this should be.

When it adapts a monks’ rule that mentions the samaṇuddesa, it uses samaṇuddesā, not sāmaṇerī.

Samaṇuddesāpi ce evaṃ vadeyya

At the very least this shows that the tradition was happy to use samaṇuddesā in a feminine form.

All in all, I think it’s very likely the text means to refer to female novices, and I translate accordingly:

In a future time there will be monks who live closely with nuns, female probationers, and female novices.

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Ven Thanissaro too translates this as female novices

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I didn’t notice that, thanks for pointing it out!

This makes excellent sense, bhante. I am glad you are not in such a hurry that you don’t have time for this sort of in-depth analysis.

Another word which may need a new translation (compared to that of Ven. Bodhi’s) is sabbatt(h)atāya, found in the standard sutta description on how to practice the four brahmavihāras. Ven. Analayo has recently released a study of this word, in which he argues persuasively that it is a synonym for the words sabbadhi and sabbāvantam. (This, of course, would be natural since synonyms are often clustered in this way in the suttas.) In brief, he argues that the form sabbatthatāya is correct, not sabbattatāya, which is the form preferred by the commentaries and therefore the form which has influenced how the brahmavihāra practice is described in places like the Visuddhimagga.

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I try, but I just can’t help myself! If you come up with anything that you think is useful, it’d be great if you could post it here, then it could be of benefir for both myself and others.

As I do the translations, I’ve been making rough notes intended to help subsequent translators who may be working with my text. Most of these are very minor, but some are perhaps interesting enough to warrant posting on here. There’s a very small number of cases where I disagree with BB’s interpretation, and a rather larger number where I prefer a different approach to rendering.

Sounds plausible. It’s always been a slightly dubious term, although the meaning is nice! What’s the name of the essay? I’ve probably got it somewhere.

I’ve been doing a little reading in Bible translations, and there’s an interesting principle which can be summarized as “the less meaning the better”. We tend to overinterpret old religious texts, and it is generally safer to assume that the plainer, more ordinary meaning is correct. It’s kind of like the Occam’s razor of translations. Another way of saying this is that the Buddha wasn’t encoding his message in allusions and ambiguities: he was stating it plainly and was should translate the plain meaning.

In this case, adding “to each as to themself” is to add another meaning to the passage, whereas “everywhere” is merely confirming what is already present. So while we are tempted to use the richer interpretation, the plainer one is probably more accurate. This is, of course, independent of the linguistic and textual arguments.

One of the things I’ve been a little surprised at is the extent to which BB’s translation (of AN) still relies on the commentaries. Of course, there are some passages where you can’t avoid it. But he seems to translate following the commentaries wherever possible. So much so that sometimes the English is more of a translation of the commentary than the text. This is rare, but there are plenty of cases where there’s a commentarial influence in the text that is, I think unnecessary. Mostly, of course, these are not doctrinally significant. But sometimes well-known Abhidhamma doctrines creep in. For example, the sabhāva concept influenced his translation of AN 4.66 and AN 4.234. Surely in cases where it is so obvious that the commentary is imposing a late Abhidhamma interpretation it is best to ignore this in the translation.

So in addition to being free, consistent, simple, and idiomatic, I hope to add “less dependent on commentaries” to the list of descriptors for my translation!

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Can you give us a taste of how you would translate some of the passages from these? For example: “Yathā dhammā tathā santā”.

Well, that’s not very fair; it’s much easier to criticize someone else than to expose your own work to criticism!

Anyway, here’s Pali, Ven Bodhi’s translation, and mine, together with the comment I made in the text. First I give the couple of verses around it, which are necessary for context:

Rāgajaṃ dosajañcāpi,
mohajaṃ cāpaviddasū;
Karontākusalaṃ kammaṃ,
savighātaṃ dukhudrayaṃ.
Avijjānivutā posā,
andhabhūtā acakkhukā;
Yathā dhammā tathā santā,
na tassevanti maññare”ti

Bodhi
The ignorant go about
creating unwholesome kamma
born of lust, hatred, and delusion:
distressful deeds productive of suffering.
People hindered by ignorance,
blind, lacking eyes to see,
in accordance with their own nature,
do not think of it in such a way.

Sujato
The ignorant make bad karma
that afflicts and causes pain,
born of greed, born of hate,
and born of delusion.

If you act out these qualities, that’s what you become.
But men hindered by ignorance
are blind, with no eyes to see,
and they never imagine that this could be so.

A knotty couplet. BB follows the comms here, but I’m not convinced. His use of “nature” follows the comm “sabhāva”, which is the gloss for santa. But the idea of an essential “own nature” is alien to the suttas, and I think it is the opposite of what’s intended. It’s not that they somehow “are” like this, it’s that when they act out these “dhammas” (correctly, I think, identified in the comms as “lust and so on”) they become the person that they’ve created.

It’s not an easy verse, and not really possible to translate line by line, so both Ven Bodhi and I ignore the line order in favor of a more natural English syntax (this is common in translating verse). The relevant line is:

Yathā dhammā tathā santā

Which rendered word by word would be something like

As qualities (are), so being (is or becomes)

So whatever you do, an overly literal translation won’t work. This is poetry, and it’s a very Pali-ish idiom.

BB renders:

in accordance with their own nature,

Compare the commentary:

Yathā dhammā tathā santāti yathā rāgādayo dhammā ṭhitā, tathā sabhāvāva hutvā
"in accordance with their own nature" means: as lust, etc. have remained, just so their own nature has been.

While I have

If you act out these qualities, that’s what you become.

Perhaps I could have had something like:

If one acts in accordance with these qualities, one becomes like that.

But I tried to make it a little less clumsy.

The commentary here is not explicitly using the Abhidhamma notion of sabhava in the sense of the underlying ontological substrata of phenomena. Rather it is a looser idiom, which Ven Bodhi captures well as “one’s own nature”.

However it still contains the seed of the problem with the Abhidhamma idea, that is, that there is some kind of essential nature that either people or phenomena have.

The suttas are very careful to avoid this kind of language, and always come back to the language of causality and relation. Clearly that’s what our current text means, as well. But essentialist thought often read into the suttas, in such texts as the famous “radiant mind” passage. Since there is an overwhelming tendency in spiritual circles, today as much as in the Buddha’s day, to essentialize the person or the self, it’s crucial to be sensitive to such readings.

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@sujato
Thanks Bhante. I appreciate you sharing this. A bonus for me is that reading your detailed explanation also helps me with my Pali studies :slight_smile:

I like your translation; it’s direct, clean & simple. I have somewhat mixed feelings about mixing the 2nd and 3rd person voices in the same verse, but then again, using the the 2nd person for that one line is partly what makes it so immediate, powerful & relevant. And, as you said, less clumsy. BTW, I do like that BB uses ‘people’ instead of ‘men’. Any reason why you didn’t use it?

Re: BB’s rendering:

in accordance with their own nature

I didn’t think he was trying to imply some sort of essential self/nature in line with the Abhidhamma notion of sabhāva. However I agree that anything that can be done in translation to minimize the possibility of suggesting this type of idea and/or it being read into the suttas or understood in this way is great.

Since there is an overwhelming tendency in spiritual circles, today as much as in the Buddha’s day, to essentialize the person or the self, it’s crucial to be sensitive to such readings.

Totally agree. It’s actually staggering to what degree this idea seems to pervade and persist in ‘western’ Dhamma circles (eg lay ‘vipassana’ sanghas) in the US (in my experience). Seems partly due to how the Dhamma is taught by many of the teachers here–little or no emphasis on conditionality, usually no differentiation between the different historical layers, often all jumbled up in Dhamma talks as “this is what the Buddha taught”, not much interest in reading/teaching from the actual suttas (and/or not much familiarity with them), the profound influence of the Mahasi and other commentarial-based systems on the teaching/growth of the Dhamma here, etc– and partly how students ‘hear’ what is being taught.

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First of all the name of Ven. Analayo’s paper: Compassion in the Āgamas and Nikāyas (2015). If you haven’t got it, it’s available here.

I think it is really important that you substantiate and justify your translations with notes, otherwise much of the work you do will be lost on readers and especially future translators. It is much easier to dismiss someone else’s translation than to take the time to understand where they are coming from. Notes will reduce the threshold for those who wish to understand your approach. In fact, I think the translations should be annotated as they appear on Suttcentral. You should be able to hide the notes, just as you can with the other textual information, but it should be possible to access them for anyone who is interested. I also intend to annotate my Vinaya translation. (By the way, I have finished the Mahāvibhaṅga.)

I like the idea of “the less meaning is better”. Of course, it takes some of the fun out sutta discussions, but that is probably a good thing. Too much fun = too much time wasted!

Yes, Ven. Bodhi does rely on the commentaries. I thought I would avoid this with my Vinaya translation, but alas, I now realise the value of this literature. There are just too many ambiguities in the Pali. Some of these could probably be resolved by careful study of the Canon, but this is often very time consuming and turning to the commentaries is the easy solution. Time, as always, it the primary constraint. Another constraint is my own judgement, or lack thereof. I have come to realise that my first intuition is often wrong, and the commentaries act as a useful correctives. This does not mean that I accept them uncritically, but that their value has become more apparent to me. I eventually had to download all the commentaries and sub-commentaries from the VRI site.

Still, I certainly do sympathise with your view that the commentaries sometimes interpret the suttas according to ideas that are alien to them. This happens in the Vinaya too, and it is definitely the right approach to ignore them in such situations. Whether the later ideas are in fact right or wrong is actually quite irrelevant. We are trying to present the word of the Buddha, not the word of interpreters.

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:pray:

Dear Bhante,

Really appreciate the simplicity of your translations :heart_eyes: . Thank you for sharing.

with añjali and mettā,
russ

:pray:

:pray:

Dear Bhante,

I look forward to your translation of the Vinaya :heart_eyes: Thank you for putting time in re-translating :joy:

with añjali and mettā,
russ

:pray:

It’s an inverse gender-equity accident. Pali has lots of terms for “human beings”. I use “person” or “people” or “human” for most of the common terms found in Pali. Here, in poetry, we have a more unusual form, posa, and for the sake of variety I rendered it as “man”. Like purisa, posa does, I think, have a masculine feeling to it, and as it occurs so rarely I thought it was okay to just use the gendered form here.

Of course not! It’s just a matter of tendencies and influences. In this case I think the sabhava doctrine is a well-known example of a late Abhidhamma doctrine that it not found in the Suttas, and we should treat with suspicion cases where the commentary tries to read it into the suttas.

Can you give some example of the kinds of things they say? I’m out of touch, I don’t read much of that material.

A post was split to a new topic: Why Suttacentral doesn’t have footnotes

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let’s keep it secret, bhante :slight_smile:

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Gee, you’re really passionate about this. I’ll grant you that the annotations of others may be a waste of time, but my annotations are important! You forgot to take into account that the universe revolves around me.

More to the point, it may be the case that the more legalistic character of Vinaya literature demands more annotation. The text needs to be meaningful in a fairly definite sense to be useful. For example, I feel I need to take a stance on the various kinds of measure found in the Vinaya. If someone is simply told they cannot make a sitting-cloth which is larger than 2x1.5 sugata-vidatthis + a border of 1 vidatthi, the information is completely useless. And this requires annotation, so far as I can see. (I definitely do not want to burden the translation with bracketed explanations.)

I don’t have any problems with what you’re saying, and I think a text can be made useful for people at many different levels. This is precisely why you already have the textual information available behind the scenes. Not many people are going to be interested in this either, and that too would clutter the text and take away from the pure message if it was always visible. Yet, for some people it is very useful. If you can cater to different needs in this way, great! So I can’t really see any problem here.

The idea of having readers add their own annotations sounds good. There is often a lot of knowledge and understanding in the broader community. But to be honest, in the end I think I’d rather read the Buddha according to Sujato than the Buddha according to an anonymous committee!

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to explain your thinking. It’s very helpful.

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Thanks for noticing! The tl;dr version is: ultimately all things will be possible in digital text, but it will take some time.