So It Was Said: summary teachings of the Buddha

I am continuing my series of Guides to my translations of the Pali, and here offer a draft for the Itivuttaka. I intended to write one for each of the translations from the Khuddaka. As always, your suggestions, comments, and corrections are most welcome.

The Itivuttaka or “So it Was Said” is the fourth book of the Pali Khuddhaka Nikāya, the “Minor Collection”. It is a short book, with 112 discourses in mixed prose and verse. The teachings in the Itivuttaka are by and large simple and straightforward, as is the style of both prose and verse.

The text is arranged in the Aṅguttara style of incremental numbering, which here goes from the Ones through Fours. Within each of these major sections the texts are rather arbitrarily divided into chapters (vagga) of ten. The exceptions are the concluding chapters of the Ones, Twos, and Fours, which contain 7, 12, and 13 discourses respectively.

The Chinese Collection of Itivuttakas

As with most of the early texts in the Pali Canon, there exists a corresponding Chinese version: 本事經 (Taishō vol. 17, sutra 765), which was translated by Xuanzang in CE 650. This was studied by K. Watanabe in his A Chinese Collection of Itivuttakas (Journal of the Pali Text Society V, 1906–7, pp. 44–49).

The Chinese text contains framing statements that are similar to the Pali, except the final statement is omitted. This is, I think, a significant detail, to which I will return below.

While the first two sections are similar to the Pali, three-fifths of the third and all of the fourth sections are missing. That this is the result of an incomplete text, rather than a shorter recension, is supported by two details. The text lacks a concluding uddāna, the summary verse or “resumé” that is normally found at the end of every section. And the content of the Suttas, while still remaining within the scope of the early Buddhist teachings, is somewhat developed compared to the Pali. It seems, then, that the Chinese text represents an incomplete text of a somewhat later version of an Itivuttaka.

It is not clear why a scholar as able as Xuanzang would leave the work incomplete. Perhaps he had only a partial manuscript to work with, or perhaps it was simply that other demands took his time. In the introduction to his translation of the Itivuttaka, Ven. Ṭhanissaro remarks that Xuanzang’s translation “dates from the last months of his life”. This is mistaken, and apparently caused by a misreading of Watanabe’s article. Xuanzang did not die until fourteen years later, in 664.

The Formation of the Itivuttaka

Each Sutta is introduced with a distinct phrase saying the text was “said” (vutta) by the Buddha, and it appears that this tag is what gives the collection its name. The tag is more than just an introduction; it is a full template that frames each discourse.

  • Start the prose — This was said by the Buddha, the Perfected One: that is what I heard.
  • End the prose — The Buddha spoke this matter.
  • Start the verse — On this it is said:
  • End the verse — This too is a matter that was spoken by the Blessed One: that is what I heard.

This framework, more formalized and consistent than the standard forms, is adhered to rigorously throughout without variation.

Note that the tag lines assume that the verse comments on the prose (tattha). Note too that here, as in the Udāna, attha has the sense “matter, substance, content” rather than “meaning”.

The opening compound, vuttañhetaṁ contains the particle hi, which most translators ignore, but which Masefield perhaps over-renders as “unquestionably”. This exact idiom is not used elsewhere in the early texts, but it is quite common in the Niddesa, where it seems to act as a logical connection. A doctrine is stated, and it is supported with additional quotations. Perhaps then we should translate, “For this was said by the Buddha …”.

Unusually, there is no mention of the setting or other background details. Additionally, there are few personal names in the text. Apart from the Buddha, who is referred to by many epithets, only the Buddha’s antagonists Devadatta (Iti 89) and Māra (Iti 58, Iti 68, Iti 82, Iti 83, Iti 93) are mentioned by name. As for places, only the Vulture’s Peak in Rāgaha is mentioned (Iti 24). All this adds up to an oddly abstracted and spare text, almost Abhidhammic in style. It suggests that the collection was compiled from reports of what the Buddha said rather than from first-hand recollections.

This is, in fact, the position of the commentary, which explains that the Itivuttaka, alone among the texts of the Pali canon, was not compiled primarily by the monks, but by the laywoman Khujjuttarā. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya she was extolled by the Buddha as the foremost in learning among the laywomen, and is frequently held up as an exemplary laywoman. While the Suttas do not say how she earned that title, the commentary tells of how, as handmaid to Queen Sāmāvatī of Kosambi, she became the respected teacher of Dhamma for the ladies of the court. This story is only part of a much longer and very dramatic series of events known as the Kosambi Cycle.

It seems that the Queen entrusted her with procuring flowers for the court, but she would save some of the money each day. One day, she overheard the Buddha teaching the Dhamma to the gardener Sumana, and right away entered the stream. In celebration, she spent her saved money on flowers, prompting the queen to ask where they all came from. And when Khujjuttarā told her, the queen showered her with honors, bathed her in perfumed water, and became her student. Khujjuttarā continued to listen and memorize the Dhamma from the Buddha and would convey it for all the court ladies, who became stream-enterers in turn. These teachings were compiled into the Itivuttaka, which is why they do not have the usual prose opening formula.

It is difficult to reconcile this story with the Itivuttaka as it stands. The texts are clearly organized in a pattern of numbers from one to four, and it seems improbable that Khujjuttarā just happened to hear texts that would be amenable to such an arrangement. It could be that she did hear many more teachings, but selected certain texts and arranged them for the ladies of the court. However there is no special emphasis on teachings suitable for court ladies, and a number of quite difficult texts that would be hard to make sense of without a broader context.

On the other hand, there seems no reason why the monks would invent such a story, which sidelines their own role in the creation of this text, and ascribes it instead to the elevated slave of a doomed dynasty. As so often in such matters, we are left without definite conclusions. The absence of certainty does not, however, imply the presence of ignorance. In such matters, it is usually the case that there is something to the stories; they are rarely fabricated out of thin air. We should not reject knowledge simply because it is unconfirmed or hard to understand. The truth is surely more complicated than we know. Yet if we were to abandon our few clues because they are not as certain as we would like, we would be like someone who, lost in the darkness with only a candle to light the way, blows out the candle because it is not a torch.

A text called Itivuttaka is mentioned in the list of the nine aṅgas (sections) of the Dhamma that is found throughout the early texts. And as with so many of the aṅgas, it is not easy to determine the extent to which the Itivuttaka as it exists today is the same text referred to as an aṅga.

Normally the aṅgas define a genre of text with an identifiable style. If, however, we accept the Theravadin account, the Itivuttaka is unusual in that there is no intrinsic relationship between the name of the aṅga and the style of text. The discourses are, leaving the unique framing aside, essentially no different from those found in the Aṅguttara. Perhaps, like most aṅgas, itivuttaka originally referred to a distinct genre of early Buddhist literature.

The name itself is perhaps misleadingly malleable. By that I mean that it compounds two very common words (iti “thus” and vutta “spoke”) and hence may be applied very generally. However in idiomatic usage, the terms have a more specific and stronger sense: something that is quoted or passed down from the past. The name is reminiscent of the class of Vedic literature called itihāsa, “Thus It Was”, i.e. “stories of the past, legendary histories”, which is sometimes equated with the Mahābhārata and the Ramāyana. Similarly, itikirā “So It Seems”, though sometimes translated as “hearsay”, is grouped with words referring to the transmission of texts, and must mean something like “testament”. We also find itihītiha “So and So It Was” used of knowledge that has been passed down from the past.

By analogy, itivuttaka would mean “sayings of the past”, which could refer to the legendary histories that are found in the Nikāyas, such as the Aggaññasutta (DN 27) and the Cakkavattisīhanādasutta (DN 26), as well as legendary lore such as the 32 marks of the great man, or the occasional sayings reported to have been passed down from teachers of old (eg. MN 75:19.11). This theory finds support from the great Mahāyāna commentator Asaṅga, who in his Abhidharmasamuccaya says itivuttaka “narrates the former existences of the noble disciples”, while in the Śrāvakabhūmi of the Yogacārabhūmiśāstra he says it refers to “whatever is connected with previous practice”.

Still further support may be adduced in that part of the framing tags of the Itivuttaka—specifically, those that connect the prose and verse—are found in one other text of the Pali canon in nearly identical form (lacking only a connecting iti: tatthetaṁ vuccati rather than tatthetaṁ iti vuccati). This is in DN 30 Mahāpurisalakkhaṇasutta, an extended elaboration of the so-called “marks of the great man”, which are consistently said in the Suttas to be a traditional lore handed down among the brahmins. The verses especially are among the latest additions to the four Nikāyas, and in this case it is clear that that the tag line serves to add verses on to a pre-existing prose text. The commentary, in fact, says that some “elders of old” explain tatthetaṁ vuccati as indicating that the verses were added by Ānanda.

If this reasoning is cogent, then it seems that itivuttaka originally referred to the various legendary accounts that are currently scattered in the four Nikāyas. At some point—the First Council, perhaps—the material organized in the nine aṅgas was rearranged for the convenience of memorization into the Nikāyas. With the legendary texts absorbed in the Nikāyas, the name itivuttaka was floating unused, and was adopted to frame this small selection of Aṅguttara style texts.

If this is true it may be easily reconciled with the traditional account. There is no reason why, if the collection the collection as we have it is due to Khujjuttarā, it should not have been titled Itivuttaka at a later date. All this is, of course, speculative.

The Purpose of the Itivuttaka

Given its minor position within the Pali Canon, it is probably safe to assume that most modern readers will pick up the Itivuttaka when already familiar with the Suttas from the Nikāyas. It may be that this is the wrong approach.

The text begins with a series of teachings on the “one thing” that must be given up. To read a series of multiple “one things” is a bit odd. Are they all “one thing”? What is the relation between them? Does any one of these imply all the rest? The text begins by speaking of realizing “non-return”, assuming the audience already knows what this is and wants to attain it.

Take the first discourse: the one thing to be given up is greed. As a reader, this discourse can be skimmed in a couple of minutes, and it provides no new information or perspective. But perhaps that is not its purpose. Perhaps the text was meant to be approached as a meditation structured for those who are familiar with the basics, and are undertaking the process of internalizing the theory.

One could learn just this one discourse and take it as a theme for meditation. Focus only on greed, and how it drags the mind to unworthy places. The idea is simple, but to truly digest it can be a long and complex work. By giving only the simplest of outlines, the text leaves the details to the individual, who is left to explore their own relation to greed.

Such a process might take days, weeks, or months. But conservatively, one might take such a short discourse as the theme of contemplation for a day. The next day it is not greed, but hate. The details, differences, and relations between greed and hate are not spelled out; they are realized by the meditator, informed by their prior study and experience.

And so on through the different qualities. Then the round repeats with a slight variation. Then new topics are introduced, each one a self-contained reflection.

I can’t prove that this is why the Itivuttaka is that way it is, but I do think this would be a fruitful way of approaching the text.

Relation Between Prose and Verse

Unlike the Udāna, where the verse is the culminating purpose of the narrative, here the verses serve to repeat and amplify the prose teachings, again in a style similar to certain portions of the Aṅguttara. In line with the systematic tendency of the Itivuttaka, this pattern occurs in all Suttas.

The framing text asserts that both prose and verse portions were spoken by the Buddha. However it is careful to qualify this by saying “so I have heard”, indicating that the speaker was not present when the teachings were given, but rather is passing down an oral tradition. It is quite possible that this is correct, and that both prose and verse were spoken in this form by the Buddha. However there are a number of indications that this is not always the case.

It is quite common for Buddhist texts to have verse and prose portions that are loosely coupled. Sometimes the same verse has a different prose background. Sometimes the connection between the two seems distant or arbitrary. Sometimes the texts attribute the different portions to different authors. So it would be no great surprise for the Itivuttaka to follow a similar pattern.

A fruitful approach is to look at the implicit speaker in the text, rather than the speaker assigned by the framework. Now, the framing portions must have been added by redactors at some point, possibly the First Council. They are in third person, reporting what the Buddha said.

In the prose teaching portions, by contrast, the Buddha refers to himself in the first person (eg. Iti 14 ahaṁ; Iti 103 na me te). Appropriately, he addresses the mendicants in the second person (eg. Iti 22 mā, bhikkhave, puññānaṁ bhāyittha; Iti 38 tumhepi abyāpajjhārāmā viharatha; Iti 111 sampannasīlā, bhikkhave, viharatha). I’m setting aside here the vocative form of direct address found in every Sutta (bhikkhave), as this could be regarded as a mere convention.

In the verses, however, we typically find the third person used for both the Buddha and the mendicants, in a manner that is more similar to the framing portions.

For example, in Iti 26 the prose is in first person “as I understand” yathāhaṁ jānāmi, while the verse reports the words of the Buddha, “as taught by the great hermit” (yathāvuttaṁ mahesinā). Not only is this in third person, but the passive instrumental construction is identical with that used in the frame (vutto bhagavatā). The Buddha is also referred to in third person in a similar way in Iti 36 (adesayi so bhagavā, yathā buddhena desitaṁ).

In Iti 85 the mendicants are addressed in second person in the prose (viharatha), but the third person is used in the verse (vimuccati).

In Iti 70, Iti 71, and Iti 81 the Buddha speaks of how good and bad kamma results in good or bad rebirths, insisting that this is something that he has seen for himself (diṭṭhā mayā), and has not learned from any other ascetic or brahmin. The verses again are in third person.

Iti 92 has one of the Itivuttaka’s rare moments of intimacy. The Buddha speaks of a poorly-behaved mendicant who might follow him around holding the corner of his robe, yet they remain “far from me, and I from them” (ārakāva mayhaṁ, ahañca tassa). This is unlike one who has well-practiced the Dhamma, to whom the Buddha is always close. The verses once more avoid the personal touch here. The same pattern holds true for Iti 100, where the Buddha says to his students that “you are my children” (me tumhe puttā); and in Iti 107 where the mendicants are enjoined to be grateful for the things that the lay folk offer “to you”, while in both cases the verses shift to the more distant third person.

Rarely in analysis of ancient texts do we find that a pattern admits of no exceptions. It is true, admittedly, that the prose text sometimes has the Buddha referring to himself in third person as the “Realized One” (eg. Iti 38, Iti 39, Iti 84). But this is a common feature of prose Suttas. The Buddha speaks in this way when evoking the profound nature of his state of transcendent realization (Iti 112).

In Iti 47 the verses are in a direct second person. This, however, turns out to be the exception that proves the rule, for the subject here is wakefulness. The text is designed to jolt awake the sleepy, so the direct address of the second person is called for. Amid the almost brutalist plainness of the Itivuttaka, this qualifies as a flourish of literary style.

A further exception is in Iti 99, where both the prose and verse employ the first person. The verses are not unique to this Sutta, however, for they are found in a similar context in AN 3.58 and AN 3.59. There, the Buddha is responding to a brahmin who challenges him on the true meaning of a “brahmin who is master of the three knowledges”. The brahmin defines this in terms of knowing the Vedic literary tradition, while the Buddha redefines it, as always, in terms of the gradual training and the realization of the three higher knowledges. The text of the Itivuttaka reads like the Aṅguttara texts with narrative removed, and has probably been adapted from there. This is an interesting case, because it agrees very nicely with the traditional origin story of the Itivuttaka. A text with a narrative context has been repeated in a slightly adapted and stripped-down form, taking a step towards an almost Abhidhammic plainness.

Finally, in two further Suttas we find the first person brūmi “I say” used in verse (Iti 38:7.5, Iti 46:3.4). These lines are unique to the Itivuttaka, so they constitute a genuine exception to the rule.

In sum, there is a strong tendency for the prose sections to be presented as the Buddha speaking directly to the monks, while the verses read as a third-hand rephrasing of the same teachings, sometimes summarizing or expanding. The few occasions where this pattern does not hold are mostly explained by the specific context. This pattern suggests that, on the whole, the prose portions are relatively direct reports of the Buddha’s words, while the verses were added by redactors.

I noted above that the Chinese version, though otherwise appearing somewhat more developed than the Pali, lacks the final tag phrase of the frame (ayampi attho vutto bhagavatā). It is in this line that the Pali text asserts that the verses were spoken by the Buddha. The tag phrase that starts the verses says simply “on this it is said” (tatthetaṁ iti vuccati), which might easily refer to an addition made by redactors. Recall that a nearly-identical tag is used in DN 30 where it clearly indicates a later addition.

This provides, I think, concrete support for the conclusion that the verses are for the most part a later addition to the prose. Originally they were simply presented as such, but at some point the redactors claimed that, like the prose, the verses were “also” (pi) spoken by the Buddha. As we have seen, they were not entirely wrong, for some of the verses do present as the direct words of the Buddha. And in many other cases there is no real evidence either way.

A case like this is not so much an attempt to misrepresent the material as it is an outcome of a process of systematization. Material of diverse sources is flattened and simplified, and certain nuances get lost along the way. The Theravada tradition is usually very scrupulous about such details, and less inclined to adapt older texts to later needs. Yet this case proves the exception, as the northern—possibly Sarvāstivādin—text retains a clue to an earlier form.


Moore, in the introduction to his 1908 translation, counts a round fifty similes in the Itivuttaka, and the following is based on his analysis. Nature provides most of the similes, starting with water in its many forms.

Water is a decidedly ambiguous element in the Itivuttaka. It often figures in powerfully negative ways. The realm of desire and suffering is called a flood (ogha, Iti 107), an ocean (samudda, Iti 69), a river (nadī) or a stream, (sota, Iti 109), or even a treacherous whirlpool (āvaṭṭa, Iti 109:7.1). A perfected one crosses (tarati, occurring about a dozen times) beyond all these, going to the far side (pāra, Iti 69:2.4).

On the other hand, the bursting of a rain cloud is like one whose generosity covers all quarters (Iti 75), while one who understands the Dhamma is like a still lake unruffled by the winds (Iti 92).

Metaphors based upon light are almost as numerous as the aqueous metaphors, but unlike the water’s ambiguity, they are invariably positive, contrasting with the darkness of ignorance. The awakened mendicants are the “torch-bearers” for those still in darkness (Iti 104:2.9). Of the heavenly bodies, we find the sun (Iti 59:3.4, Iti 88:11.4), the moon (Iti 27:9.3, Iti 74:7.5), and the morning-star, (osadhitaraka, Iti 27:5.1) as images of wisdom and freedom.

Fire, like water, is often negative. The impressive and relatively modern technology of smelting iron, based on the capcity to focus and amplify heat beyond anything experienced in nature, provides a suitable metaphor for the fate awaiting evildoers in hell (Iti 48:5.1, Iti 91:5.1).

The highest goal of Nibbāna, of course, is the quenching or extinguishment of a flame, the fundamental image of all Buddhism. One who has attained such is far from those who are still burning (Iti 92:4.4).

Ambiguously, Devadatta before his fall had glory that shone forth like the crest of a flame (Iti 89:4.3).

Despite its rather austere style, at times the Itivuttaka builds images in way that accumulate beauty. A gentle series of similes describes one who is able to let go of greed, like the water that rolls off a lotus leaf; hate, like a palm-leaf falling from its stem; and delusion, like the rising sun banishing the dark (Iti 88).

Few animals are mentioned in the Itivuttaka, but of those that are we find the Buddha compared to a lion, sīha (Iti 112:10.2); and a man who wraps stinky fish maccha (Iti 76:7.1).

One who enters the water is at risk of being devoured by the saltwater crocodile (gaha, Iti 69:2.2, Iti 109:2.3). Science tells us that seven species of crocodile flourished in ancient India, sadly reduced to three in the present day. Pali offers us at least five words for these: suṁsumārā, susukā, nakka, gaha (gāha, gahaka), and kumbhīlā. It is not clear which words apply to which species, or even if they correlate to different species at all. Only the gaha appears in the Itivuttaka, and it notably is a denizen of both oceans and large lakes, so I think it must be a saltwater crocodile. Since the kumbhīlā and susukā do not appear to inhabit the ocean, I call them “marsh crocodiles” and “gharials” respectivelly, while suṁsumārā is generically a “crocodile”.

There is, I believe, an implicit metaphor in the term siṅgī, “fraud”, that is applied to a bad monk in Iti 108. This is a word for either “horn” or “gold”. I believe the latter is meant here, for there are hints that the kind of gold meant is adulterated, perhaps a form of rose gold admixed with copper to form jewellery. The robes accepted by the Buddha shortly before his Parinibbāna are this color, where they are meant to contrast palely with the true gold of the Buddha’s skin. I think siṅgī became an idiomatic term for “false gold” and hence a bad monk.

A few miscellaneous similes are worthy of note. The poisoned arrow that contaminates its quiver (Iti 76) is like a bad person who infects those around them. The striking image occurs of the conduit to rebirth (netti, Iti 43:4.1), psychologically explained as craving, but metaphorically evocative of a line or a link that leads from one life to the next. Finally, the piling up of a person’s bones in their countless rebirths would reach higher than the great mountain of Vulture Peak (Iti 24).

A Few Remarks on the Discourses

The Ones

The first chapter begins with a series of teachings on the “one thing”. This follows the pattern of the Aṅguttara, although the specifics are different. Rather than opening with the overcoming of sensual desire, here we begin with what must be given up in order to guarantee non-return. This is the third of the four stages of awakening commonly taught in the Buddhist texts:

  • Stream-entry (sotāpatti)
  • Once-return (sakadāgāmitā)
  • Non-return (anāgāmitā)
  • Perfection (arahattā)

The qualities spoken of, however, don’t always sit easily with this ideal. A non-returner has given up greed (Iti 1) and hate (Iti 2), but they have not given up delusion (Iti 3) or conceit (Iti 6). Perhaps the text has been overly-systematized, since these details are repeated in the next section where they fit better. But this is the kind of detail that the Pali texts are normally very careful with.

The next series graduates from non-return to speak of ending suffering through complete understanding, which implies arahantship. This pattern crosses over the boundary of the second chapter, which suggests that the texts were grouped together prior to being somewhat arbitrarily organized in groups of ten. Likewise, the pair on the “corrupted mind” (Iti 20) and “pure mind” (Iti 21) also cross the chapter boundary. Again, we find a similar phenomenon in the Aṅguttara, where for example the discourses on the radiant or corrupted mind (1.49–52) cross the boundary of the fifth and sixth chapters.

These details are not very important in themselves, but they do indicate the struggles of the redactors to formalize the organization of texts. If we are alert to these issues, we guard against reading undue significance into mere editorial choices.

The benefits of the meditation on love are extolled in (Iti 22), which details some of the Buddha’s own past life practices, and (Iti 27), which is adorned by a series of glorious metaphors. This relatively extended and exalted text forms a suitable conclusion to the first part of the book. This pattern repeats throughout the Itivuttaka, as the final discourse of each of the numbers deals with deep matters in a solemn and serious tone.

The Twos

Continuing a similar approach, the second chapter speaks of sets of “two things” that lead to happiness or suffering, or else practices that lead to one of two good results.

In a break from the practical ethics of most of the Itivuttaka, Iti 43 speaks of Nibbāna as the “unborn”, in a passage shared with Ud 8.3. Here an extra set of verses is added, adding to the impression that the Itivuttaka is compiled from earlier texts, sometimes with additions.

In Iti 44 we find one of the few distinct doctrinal contributions of the Itivuttaka. It introduces the distinction between “the element of extinguishment with something left over” (saupādisesā ca nibbānadhātu) and “the element of extinguishment with nothing left over” (anupādisesā ca nibbānadhātu). The first refers to an arahant who has abandoned all defilements, yet who continues to live and experience pleasure and pain. The second refers to an arahant for whom “everything that’s felt, being no longer relished, will become cool right here”. This presumably refers to the time of death, an inference that is confirmed in the verses. The idea of the “element of extinguishment with nothing left over” is found elsewhere in the Suttas in the same sense, but here it is more clearly defined. And while the contrast with what “has something left over” is found elsewhere in the Suttas, nowhere is this said to be an “element of exitinguishment”. A fine distinction to be sure, but it indicates that the Itivuttaka is not solely a remix of teachings from elsewhere in the canon. This distinction went on to become a fundamental aspect of the Theravadin teachings on Nibbāna.

The Threes

Rather than contrasting pairs, the Threes begins with the enumeration of various sets of three principles, such as greed, hate, and delusion, or the three feelings.

While most of the teachings are familiar from elsewhere in the Suttas, we find a few unique presentations. For example, in Iti 74 a child is said to better, equal, or fail their birth, while the famous simile of the generous giver who is like a rainstorm over all quarters is found in Iti 75. One who wisely wishes for even the worldly aims of wealth, praise, and heaven should guard their morality Iti 76.

At Iti 77 we find a rather blunt assessment of the fragility of the body, consciousness, and all attachments. And while it is commonly said that a heavenly rebirth is a reward for good deeds, the aspiration to heaven is put to question by the fact that even the gods celebrate a mendicant going forth (Iti 82), and the end of their all-too-temporary lives is foreshadowed by five signs (Iti 83).

Among the straightforward, didactic texts of the Itivuttaka, we find an occasional passage of a more subtle philosophical nature. Such is Iti 63 on the three “periods” of the past, future, and present. According to Buddhist philosophy, the use of language embeds notions of time in the very pathways of thought. Thus those who are still trapped in the “communicable” (akkheyya) do not find the peace that is beyond time and reckoning (saṅkhyaṁ nopeti).

The Fours

The discourses of the Fours are often held to be later than the other numbers; I don’t know that I am completely persuaded by this, but certainly the section is notable for its brevity. While the exact forms of the discourses are sometimes unique to the Itivuttaka, there is nothing in the teachings that would not be familiar to a student of the four Nikāyas.

A Brief Textual History

A latin-script edition of the Itivuttaka was published in 1889 by the Pali Text Society. It was edited by the handsomely-bearded Ernst Windisch, who was a professor of Sanskrit and comparative linguistics at the University of Leipzig. He made use of three manuscripts in Sinhalese script and four in Burmese, as well as a copy of the commentary. He notes that the Sinhalese manuscripts appear to have been influenced by Burmese script, an indication that they were copied from Burmese sources. His primary source was a Burmese manuscript held in the India Office Library, which he describes as “beautifully written”, and which almost always held the more correct reading. Windisch gave each Sutta a number in simple sequence, a numbering system that is still used by SuttaCentral. His discussion of the manuscripts is exemplary, and well worth a read to see the process by which modern editions are created. The edition is extensively footnoted, and is praised by Ireland and by Moore, who calls it “admirable”. Masefield, however, draws attention to the “poor quality of many readings” in this edition, for which he supplies emendations.

The first English translation was published by Columbia University Press in 1908 by Justin Hartley Moore under the title Sayings of Buddha. Moore undertook the translation for his Phd program at Columbia University, a task he described as “a dive into unfathomed waters”. Moore’s introductory essay remains one of the more complete surveys of the text. And in addition, he published Metrical Analysis of the Pāli Iti-vuttaka, a Collection of Discourses of Buddha (Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 28 1907), which was an early contribution to the difficult and still understudied field of Pali metre. On the question of authorship, Moore suggests that the verses may be older, while the prose portions “bear all the ear-marks of a short commentary on the succeeding verses”. I find his argumentation here curiously unpersuasive; he presents a couple of examples in support, but I fail to see how they relate to his argument. As I mentioned above, I think it is more likely that to the extent that the prose and verse have separate origins, the verses were added to the prose.

F.L. Woodward was the next to translate the text into English, under the title As It Was Said. It was published by the Pali Text Society in 1935 together with his translation of the Udāna with the collective title, Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part II. Woodward endorses Moore’s view that the prose is a commentary on the verses. His translation is unfortunately marred by the then-fashionable tendency to render religious text with deliberate archaisms. Time has not been kind to these stylings.

As usual with English translations from the Pali, there is a marked leap from the first or second-generation translations done up to the mid-20th century, and those completed later. The work of Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoḷi influenced all later translators, who aspired to his consistency, clarity, and straight-forwardness of diction. The first modern translation of the Itivuttaka was that of John Ireland, originally published through the Buddhist Publications Society in 1991, and subsequently reprinted together with his equally readable translation of the Udāna. It contains a brief introduction and notes.

Peter Masefield published a highly literal translation in 2000 with the Pali Text Society. This was a companion to his translation of the commentary, and is intended to present the text as understood by the commentator. It was completed while the translator was at the University of Sydney, which makes my translation the second to be done in Sydney. And since Woodward made his while in Tasmania, mine is the third translation of the Itivuttaka to be completed in Australia.

Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro published a translation in 2001 under the title This Was Said by the Buddha, revised with a new introduction in 2013. In 2018 Anagarika Mahendra (AKA Sāmaṇera Mahinda) published a “contemporary” translation with both Pali and English under the title Book of This Was Said through Dhamma Publishers. And a simple English version is made available by Ven. Gnanananda Thero on his Sutta Friends website.


Thank you Bhante!

For anyone interested, there is an ebook version of John Ireland’s translation here:

And audio book here:

And of course Bhante Sujato’s translation in an ebook (unofficial version from 2021):

I think it may be worth noting that the translation by John Ireland was greatly improved, imho, by the editing done by Bhante Bodhi when he was at BPS.

Although it may not be noteworthy in the history of translation, there is also a translation by Ven. Gnanananda Thera at An attempt was made with this translation to have simplified English allowing it to be more useful to younger people and English as a second language readers. It is also available in print and ebook form on


I hope you’ll incorporate the reading guide as an introduction some day! :slightly_smiling_face::pray:


Indeed, yes, I am writing the intros for the book publications, but of course they will appear on the sit as well.


Excellent, thanks, I’ll add this to the summary! Hah, I notice that they introduce it with exactly the idea that I had: it’s a great collection to meditate on one sutta per day! And the Sutta Friends website is looking really nice, such a friendly and open design.

I’m looking for any date or other publication details?


Well, you know what they say about great minds :grin:

One of the reasons I think it is good for this is because the suttas kind of have a uniform length. Of course as you go on in the collection they get longer. But nothing like what we see in the Udāna. Although that’s not bad at all for a one-a-day either. You just may have to shuffle what you read if you come to the Meghiya sutta on a day without much time.


Thanks for this essay Bhante!

His name is Ernst, not Ernest.


Thanks. But we can agree, he was handsomely-bearded!


Thank you for another most interesting essay.

And again, a few minor typos and errors:

One “she” is enough.

… where they all came from

The mendicants are the torch-bearers?

I think it should just be “a heavenly rebirth”, no “the”.

Perhaps “notions of time as the very pathways of thought”?

This sentence has no verb.

“More likely” is somehow duplicated.

Perhaps “as understood by the commentator”.

… in which case they may also appear in other languages. :wink:


Thanks, I have updated the article with the various emendations, and also some minor changes, mostly stylistic.

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