Some minor details on the Pabbajjasutta that are quite probably not worth your time

Snp 3.1 is the well-known Pabbajjasutta, the “Discourse on the Going Forth”, which sets out a narrative of the Buddha’s renunciation. It announces a shift of tone for the Sutta Nipata, from the mostly didactic poems of the first two chapters to a more elaborate and developed style. That this style is “late” is suggested by the fact that this poem is quite unembarrassed to be in the third person. The unknown narrator is retelling events in the life of the Buddha. They must be setting down the story in a literary form, presumably based on events spoken of in the community. While I don’t see any reason to doubt the overall story, it seems unlikely that such a poem would record verbatim the details of such things as the the exact words spoken between the Buddha and Bimbisāra, a meeting not recorded elsewhere.

As always in this series, I’m going to note a few translation issues as I happen upon them, in the hope that they might be useful for students of the text. Much of what I’m writing here is really just notes for my own benefit. Little details and issues that I come across, things that I find interesting or useful.

The poem opens with a declaration of intent: the poet will speak of the Buddha’s going-forth. While the grammar and terminology of the verse are straightforward, the rhetorical force is, I believe, slightly missed in the translations I have to hand. This is a similar situation to my previous essay, in the two verses dealing with a mendicant’s requisites.

Here’s the Pali:

Pabbajjaṁ kittayissāmi,
yathā pabbaji cakkhumā;
Yathā vīmaṁsamāno so,
pabbajjaṁ samarocayi.

Norman has:

I shall praise going-forth, as the one with vision went forth, as he, examining, found pleasure in going-forth.

It seems pretty clumsy: why repeat “going forth” three times? It seems like an oddly clumsy way to start such a beautifully composed poem.

Ven Bodhi has:

I will tell of the going forth,
how the One with Vision went forth,
how, while investigating,
he approved of the going forth.

It has a nicer flow, but still, it’s not really clear why the verse is structured the way it is.

Notice that one difference between the two is that Bodhi introduces the definite article in the first line, “the going forth”. In context, this specifies that the Buddha’s going forth is meant, something not determined by the text. Note also that he uses the bland “tells” for kittayissāmi while Norman has the more specific “praises”; I use “extols”.

If we omit the definite article, the sense of the verse starts to come into shape. Loosely:

I shall extol going forth using the example of how the seer went forth.

In the final line, Norman’s “found pleasure” and Bodhi’s “approved” are both a little suboptimal. Ruci has a range of senses, but in such contexts “chose” would seem the best.

“I’ll extol going forth
with the example of the seer,
the course of inquiry that led to
his choice to go forth.

In verse four we see a reference to giribbaja, a name for the Rajagaha region. Norman just has Giribbaja, while Bodhi claries by adding [the city] Giribbaja. As I have explained elsewhere, I dislike the use of square brackets in translations, as they convey a sense of false precision. If that is what it means, put it in the translation, if not, leave it out.

Now in this case it seems that we can’t just identify Giribbaja as the city Rajagaha. The word means “Mountain Fold”, and refers to the geography of Rajagaha. It was settled as a “King’s Hold”, i.e. a secure location protected by a ring of hills.

The root vaja is rare in Pali, and is sometimes used of an “enclosure” and hence a “cattle-pen”. While the PTS rather implausibly says the sense here is “a cattle run in the hills”, surely the sense on an enclosure of mountains must be correct.

The term is mostly a poetic one. It’s used both to indicate the city of Rajagaha and also the more general enclosed region. Such must be the case in verses like Thag 19.1:

On the Giribbaja, the birds with colorful wings

So I think it’s misleading to identify it with the city per se, it’s broader than that. Of course in this specific instance it does refer to the city, as the Buddha is wandering for alms. So again, it’s not wrong to specify that, it’s just that there is a broader context.

Normally we leave place names untranslated, but in this case it is a rare poetic term that conveys a meaningful sense of the geographical location. So I’m translating it as the “Mountainfold”.

Another rather odd little detail of this verse is that it refers to Siddhattha here as “buddha” even though it is before his enlightenment.

After seeing the Buddha, the king instructs some messengers to follow him home and find out where he was staying. It seems clear from the context that the Buddha had just arrived, and would go into the mountains to find a secluded place under the stars. The word used for this is vāsa, which just means “a place to stay”, but both Norman and Bodhi use “dwelling” which gives the impression that he was staying in a building. An impression that is reinforced when Bodhi describes him as “entering” the place, when upagata just means “arrived at”.

The action of the scene is also confused a little in describing what the messengers did when they saw the Buddha had arrived. Norman says the messengers “sat down” while Bodhi says they “approached”, requiring him to read tato in a temporal sense “then”. But upāvisuṁ is used in Thig 5.11 in the context of a nun who, after hearing the teaching, “retired to a discreet place”, ekamantaṁ upāvisuṁ, and surely a similar sense is meant here. The messengers saw that the Buddha had arrived at his place to stay, sitting in meditation on the side of a hill. They withdrew “from there” (tato) so as to not annoy him, while one of them returned to the king.

A similar idiom applies when the king arrives to greet the Buddha in verse 418, where again Bodhi renders upāvisi as “entered”. Norman, meanwhile, suggests that āsajja, which most commonly means “attacks”, might be read here as āpajja. But the sense of “reached” for āsajja is well established in both Pali and Sanskrit. I render this line, “reaching him, drew near.”

Verses 16 and 17 present another case where the rhetorical force or narrative flow is a little tricky to capture. In this case, I believe the verses should be treated as a single unit, with a direct flow from one to the other. The king praises the Buddha’s dignified appearance and makes him an offer.

Yuvā ca daharo cāsi,
Paṭhamuppattiko susu
Vaṇṇārohena sampanno,
Jātimā viya khattiyo.
Sobhayanto anīkaggaṁ
Dadāmi bhoge bhuñjassu,
Jātiṁ akkhāhi pucchito

Norman sticks to the literal order of the lines and joins the two verses, so that their conjunction reads:

like a khattiya of good birth

making beautiful the van of the army

The king then offers to give him wealth.

In Bodhi’s version, however, the verses are separated, and the offer is moved to the start of the second verse. That means the king is offering to make the Buddha the head of his army, shining glorious in the ranks of elephant troops. It seems a bit of a leap. That a king should offer money to an ascetic is normal, but to invite him to lead his army—who does that?

Surely the king is simply invoking a martial metaphor here. Like the messengers before him who compared the Buddha to a lion, a tiger, or a bull, he is impressed by the aura of strength and magnificence that the Buddha projects, and compares it with the most majestic thing he knows.

‘You are young, just a youth,
a lad in the prime of life.
You are endowed with beauty and stature,
like an aristocrat of good lineage
in glory at the army’s head,
surrounded by a troop of elephants.
I shall give you wealth to enjoy.
But please tell me your lineage by birth.’

Finally, there’s a curious bit of phrasing when the Buddha tells the king of his family. Clearly the Buddha is upselling his background. The political situation at the time is that the smaller nations, like the Sakyans, were in the process of being assimilated by the growing kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha, whose rivalry would lead to war many years later. Given the expansionist tendencies of the Magadhans, I almost get the sense the Buddha is hinting to the king, “Don’t even think about it.”

He refers to his country as belonging to, or idiomatically “led by”,

Kosalesu niketino

Niketa means “home, settlement”, and this is rendered by Norman as “one who is indigenous among the Kosalans” and by Bodhi as “one native to the Kosalans”.

However PTS dictionary under niketa notes that it sometimes seems in Pali to be related rather to ketu in the sense of a sign or mark, or more literally, a banner or flag. Ketu is apparently used quite a few times in the Rig Veda in the sense of either “banner” or “chief” (i.e. the one who flies the banner).

I think Kosalesu niketino here means “one who flies the flag of the Kosalans” or more idiomatically, “one loyal to the Kosalans”. The Buddha is, I think, letting the king know that his small country is under the protection of the Kosalans.

Finally, probably the most unusual rhetorical feature of this poem. Rejecting the king’s offer, the Buddha says he will “go on to strive” (padhānāya gamissāmi). It’s an emphatic declaration of intent.

But what is really remarkable is that the very next Sutta in the Sutta Nipata is the Padhānasutta, which continues the story of how he undertook the striving.

What that means is that Pabbajjasutta is probably the only discourse in the Pali canon that ends on a cliffhanger!

As to what the striving consists of, well, stay tuned till next time.


Would it be nice to reduce the number of “going forth” even further? Perhaps:

The course of inquiry
that led to this choice.



You could do, I think the emphatic ending is a bit stronger though.

There’s another detail that is too petty even for these essays, but it illustrates a point.

The messengers describe the Buddha as:

Nisinno byagghusabhova
Sīhova girigabbhare

Norman has:

is seated … like a tiger or a bull, like a lion in a mountain cave.

Bodhi has:

He sits in a mountain cavern, like a tiger, a bull, or a lion.

So is the Buddha actually in a cave? Or is he sitting as a lion in a cave sits?

Thanks to the awesomeness of Bilara, I can easily see that girigabbhare is almost always used to describe a “lion in a mountain cave” (either sīha or dāṭhī). Thus the repeated -va here is no mere decoration, there are two similes:

There he sits, like a tiger or a bull,
like a lion in a mountain cave.

Not only does this more accurately convey what we actually know about the Buddha’s physical location—he may well have been in a cave or overhang, but we don’t know that—it is, to my ear, a more powerful bit of poetry. Certainly it is one that draws on a legacy of imagery of lions in caves.

Sometimes literal precision is not the enemy of poetic expression, but helps us to discern the methods and intent of the poet.


Fyi, bhante, there are record of this first meeting of the Buddha and Bimbisara in first Skandhaka of Dharmaguptaka Vinaya here: