SuttaCentral

Sn44.9 conflicts with Dn2 regarding ajita the materialist

Sn44.9
This Makkhali Gosāla … Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta … Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta … Pakudha Kaccāyana … Ajita Kesakambala leads an order and a community, and teaches a community. He’s a well-known and famous religious founder, regarded as holy by many people. When a disciple passes away, he declares that this one is reborn here, while that one is reborn there. And as for a disciple who is a supreme person, highest of people, having reached the highest point, when they pass away he also declares that this one is reborn here, while that one is reborn there
SuttaCentral

This sutta states that ajita declared where one will reborn after death

Dn2
“When I had finished speaking, Ajita Kesakambala said to me: ‘Great king, there is no giving, no offering, no liberality. There is no fruit or result of good and bad actions. There is no present world, no world beyond, no mother, no father, no beings who have taken rebirth. In the world there are no recluses and brahmins of right attainment and right practice who explain this world and the world beyond on the basis of their own direct knowledge and realization. A person is composed of the four primary elements. When he dies, the earth (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of earth; the water (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of water; the fire (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of fire; the air (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of air. His sense faculties pass over into space. Four men carry the corpse along on a bier. His eulogies are sounded until they reach the charnel ground. His bones turn pigeon-coloured. His meritorious offerings end in ashes. The practice of giving is a doctrine of fools. Those who declare that there is (an afterlife) speak only false, empty prattle. With the breaking up of the body, the foolish and the wise alike are annihilated and utterly perish. They do not exist after death.’
SuttaCentral

But according to Dn2 ajita was a staunch materialist he even didn’t believe in afterlife so how could he say where one will reborn after death if he himself didn’t believe such a thing ?

1 Like

And in SN44.9 we have an account from an unreliable narrator - the perennially confused Vacchagotta. And so whereas DN2 should be taken as a factual representation of what the early sangha understood to be the six teachers’ doctrines (since it is corroborated in other suttas), the account in SN44.9 is perhaps best taken as comedy.

3 Likes

I just skimread the Chinese parallels to SN44.9 Kutuhalasala Sutta at SA190 and SA957. Couldn’t see any lists of names of sectarians.

It seems to be a unique feature of the Pali that doesn’t deserve too much overthinking…the names may have been added in later, the point is just that some sectarians do this.

So maybe not so much an unreliable narrator in SN44.9 as unreliably transmitted?

ALSO: I like that Vacchagotta is 犊子梵志 (calf brahman), how incredibly cute!

3 Likes

The “later addition” suggestion would be a way to account for why the six teachers are mentioned in the Pali but not in the Chinese. But I don’t see how it would account for words being attributed to Ajita and Sañjaya that would be at odds with what is reported of their doctrines in the DN and MN. Nor would it be at all incompatible with my own proposal that the misreporting serves as a comical device aimed at highlighting Vacchagotta’s confusion

3 Likes

…the attribution of these doctrines to Ajita Kesakambala and Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta is also absent from the Chinese.

I’m just skimreading, but in SA 190 and SA 957, Vacchagotta begins with a discussion of indeterminate (abyākata, 無記) questions. No discussion of sectarians at all. The explicit discussion of abyākata questions in the Chinese seems fair enough to me, given that SN44.9 is the abyākatavagga…that it is abyākata matters under discussion in the Pali isn’t quite so explicit, although the post-mortem fate of an enlightened person would also be abyākata, as also pointed out in MN72.

So yes, maybe we should be discussing the absence of the whole discussion of sectarians, rather than just the absence of the names.

The closest match I could find for Vacchagotta’s conversation with the sectarians in Chinese is actually in the Seniya Sutta at SA 105 SuttaCentral, where the sectarians are unable to give the location of someone after they are reborn.

3 Likes

Seems like sn44.9 is simply referring to a leader who has a doctrine for what will happen after their disciple dies. In Ajita’s case it’s a doctrine of annihilation.

When he dies, the earth (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of earth; the water (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of water; the fire (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of fire; the air (in his body) returns to and merges with the (external) body of air. His sense faculties pass over into space. Four men carry the corpse along on a bier. His eulogies are sounded until they reach the charnel ground. His bones turn pigeon-coloured. His meritorious offerings end in ashes.

Instead of later addition, why not assume that the Chinese translators just decided to leave that out as probably those sectarian doctrines were just too alien for the Chinese context?

Maybe the Chinese philosophical landscape was just too different from that of ancient India and the translators thought that bringing all that craziness in wrong views to the Chinese language could end up making things worse before making them better?

For example, do we know of any silk road transmission of Jainism, the closest cousin of Buddhism?

:thinking:

:anjal:

2 Likes

the keyword here is rebirth I assume you know what rebirth is, don’t you ?

Friend, this word used in the sutta is “upapanno”. Which isn’t strictly rebirth, upapanna can mean “coming into existence” or “entered”. For example in divine worlds beings aren’t born, they simply come into existence. Funny story I’d recommend about how it works was told this week by Ven. Canda:

Anyway, given context of these 2 awesome suttas seems like it’s not possible that in DN2 Ajita was teaching rebirth:

“Those who declare that there is (an afterlife) speak only false, empty prattle.”

But it is possible that in SN44.9 Vacchagotta was talking about community leaders who teach fixed views about what state a being enters after their body breaks up. In this case it’s a fixed view of annihilation.

I don’t think the phrase “declares with regard to the arisings/rebirths” (upapattīsu byākaroti) could be predicated of someone like Ajita who’s committed to ucchedavāda.

Moreover, the sutta even has Vacchagotta applying the same predicate to the eel-wriggler Sañjaya, who (presumably) didn’t have any sort of doctrine about the next world.

2 Likes

I wouldn’t myself be inclined to assume that, for I haven’t heard it even alleged, let alone argued, that there was any tendency for Chinese Āgama translators to omit features of the sutras that were culturally alien to China.

For me the question of whether the Pali or the Chinese version is the older one doesn’t seem of any relevance to solving the interpretive problem of why Ajita and Sañjaya are represented as saying things that they are very unlikely to have said. Even if we grant that this part of the Pali version is a complete fiction, it still leaves unanswered the question: Why did the reciters and/or scribes (who were surely aware of what the six teachers taught) represent them in this particular way?

3 Likes

Hi bhante @Dhammanando , I am with you in terms of the argument of SN44.9 having an account from an unreliable narrator.
I am more keen to understand why Chinese parallels to DN do not include these six teachers’ doctrines (that is the case, right?).

1 Like

I think bhante @sujato and @Brahmali may have other views regarding this issue

If memory serves me right, they are in fact given in full in the Chinese DA parallel to DN 2.

3 Likes

So that was a misunderstanding of mine then. Thanks bhante!
:anjal:

1 Like

The SN 44.9 documents the sayings and things that Vacchagotta understood from the teachings or traditions of the hermit leaders including Gotama Buddha. So the first paragraph of SN 44.9 should not be viewed as information on the Buddha’s teachings, but rather as a saying from Vacchagotta.

1 Like

It does, though the attributions are different than the Pali in several cases. In the case of Ajita’s view, DN 2 and DA 27 agree with each other about part of the materialist view. It’s a bit arbitrary in the different parallels who said what, but the content of the views tend to match each other better.

The full account in DN 2 appears to be a composite because SA divides the view attributed to Ajita in DN 2 into two views (documented in SA 154 and SA 156 of the Views Saṃyukta, which is parallel to SN 24).

The portion in which he denies the existence of generosity, et al that’s found in SA 154 is also missing from DA 27’s account of Ajita’s view:

  1. "He replied to me, ‘A person acquires the four elements and takes them to the end of his life. The earth element returns to earth; the water element returns to water; the fire element returns to fire; and the air element returns to air. People are all destroyed, and their faculties return to space. When a person dies, their body is placed on a palanquin and they are taken to a charnel ground. There, they are cremated until their bones are the color of pigeons, or they turn into ashes. Whether foolish or wise, people are all destroyed when their lives end. It’s the rule of annihilation.’

In another parallel to DN 2 found in the Ekôttarika Agama (EA 43.7), the view that there’s no generosity is attributed to Pūraṇa Kāśyapa. Ajita Keśakambala’s view is also different than DN 2:

  1. “I again went to Ajita Keśakambala and asked about this subject. Ajita replied to me, ‘Suppose on the left side of a river someone killed and injured sentient beings. They would create measureless misdeeds, but there’s nothing that’s blameworthy about it, and there would be no bad rewards as a result.’
  2. “Then, Bhagavān, I again had the thought, ‘Now, I asked about receiving rewards in the present life, and this man then takes up killing and injuring to answer me. It’s like someone asking about a pear and getting an answer about a mango!’ So, I gave up on him and left.

There’s a third Chinese parallel to DN 2 (a separate translation found at T 22), which I didn’t translate last summer. It makes Ajita out to be agnostic about rebirth who just answered people how they believed:

[0271c15] 「我復至阿夷耑所,問:『何謂所住處欲處?云何於是法律得至道證?』答我言:『唯,大王!他人往問,亦作是答,言:「有後世復生。」我問之,亦言:「有後世。」』『設有後世,復生世間,為有為無?』『如我意想,為有後世,或無後世。』或有人往問,言:『儻有後世、儻無後世,或有是、或無是。』譬如人問奈以瓜答,問瓜以奈答。

"I also went to Ajita and asked … He answered me: ‘Ah, great king! Others have asked about rebirth, and I gave them this answer, “There’s another world and rebirth.” When I ask them, they also say, “There’s another world.” [If they ask,] “Is there or isn’t there another world or rebirth in this world?” “In my way of thinking, there’s either another world, or there isn’t another world.” Sometimes, a person asks about rebirth, and I say, “Maybe there’s another world; maybe there isn’t. It could be, or it might not be.”’
“It was like a person asking about a plum and getting an answer about melons or asking about a melon and getting an answer about plums!”

So, yeah, the attributions are all over the place in the parallels, but the views are fairly consistent in Theravada, Sarvâstivāda, and Dharmaguptaka sources. (EA 43.7 and T22 are of unknown provenance, perhaps one of them is the Mahāsāṃghika version.) That being the case, it may be the suttas in the Theravada canon that disagree were drawn from different ancient sources.

3 Likes

My guess is that it’s stock phrase.

  1. Either Vacchagotta is lazy to distinguish clearly the doctrines of individual teachers and just want to focus on what happens after death, or

  2. The reciters themselves in just used the same recitation stock phrase, so that it’s easier to memorize, cause they know from DN 2, how to properly predict the views of some of the teachers.

1 Like