Some passably interesting remarks on the Sabhiya Sutta

I have remarked before how translating is like opening the box that contains Schrödinger’s cat: with each word you kill a million possibilities. How much more painful, then, is translating poetry.

Pali verse is, like most verse, hard. It contains a multitude of unusual grammatical forms, archaic or obscure vocabulary, and syntax determined by meter rather than convention or common sense. And though one tries to maintain in all this some semblance of “poetic” diction, all the while it seems the verses are actively undercutting any such attempt. Much Pali verse, indeed, is purely functional, merely a listing of doctrinal terms as a mnemonic device; until you encounter a turn of phrase of astonishing grace and beauty.

In the Sabhiyasutta (Suttanipāta 3.6), the wanderer Sabhiya is given a mysterious question by a deity and presents them to the Buddha, who is the only one who can satisfy him. The questions for the most part concern various qualities or epithets of an enlightened person: what is a true ‘mendicant’, how is one a ‘scholar’, and so on. The Buddha redefines or uplifts the terms to point to the highest freedom.

Such discussions are found quite commonly in the Suttas, and one of the difficulties they present is that the answers often depend on puns that are impossible to replicate in English, and which are often obscure in the Pali; in some cases they may only work in non-Pali dialects. As usual, I encountered a number of issues when translating, so here we go.

At Snp 3.6:16.1 we find the term kappa:

Kappāni viceyya kevalāni

As I have previously discussed, I think it means “aeons” here, not “thought formations”.

At Snp 3.6:24.1 Norman suggests, with some support from Sanskrit, that we read khettajina as derived from the root ñā “know” rather than the obvious ji “victory”; Ven Bodhi follows him. But I find this unpersuasive: what’s wrong with “field-victor”? It is more metaphorically apt to “win” a field rather than to ‘know” it.

In the answer to this question at Snp 3.6:25.1 the verb is read by the commentary as either viceyya “having examined”or vijeyya “having defeated” Viceyya relates to ñā in meaning but not sound; vijeyya relates to ji both in meaning and sound.

So I think this is a martial metaphor, the Buddha is victorious on the field.

Snp 3.6:27.1 poses an interesting little puzzle. There is a reference to examining “both whitenesses” (dubhayāni viceyya paṇḍarāni). Paṇḍara normally just means “white, pale” like a goose’s wings. It the commentaries it is used to explain seta and sukka. Here it is employed as a pun on the word paṇḍita “astute, wise, a scholar or learned person”.

In this verse I find the translations all to be borderline incomprehensible, and the sense of the verse is obscure. It seems they have relied too swiftly on the commentary, which is reading a later sense into paṇḍara. It says paṇḍara is the “senses” (āyatana). Not only is there no support for this in the EBTs, the commentary oddly describes the senses as having “natural purification” pakatiparisuddhattā, a notion that seems wildly at odds with the Buddha’s teachings on conditionality and the nature of defilements.

It is reminiscent of the commentarial description of the “radiant mind” of AN 1.49 as being “naturally pure” (pakatiparisuddhampi). The commentary to this same passage, indeed, gives paṇḍara as a gloss on pabhassara “radiant”. All this, it seems, draws on the rather curious habit of the Abhidhamma (eg. ds2.1.1:18.2) to include paṇḍara in its list of terms for the mind. There it occurs right after hadaya (“heart”); and this connection is nuanced in the Visuddhimagga, which describes the (physical) heart of a wise person as paṇḍara.

As to why the Abhidhamma lists paṇḍara as a synomym for mind, I cannot say, for it occurs right across the canonical Abnhidhamma, as well as the quasi-Abhidhamma texts Paṭisambhidāmagga and Niddesas. It’s hard to know which among these is the first to use it. In the Thera-apadāna (tha-ap423:6.2) we find the speaker describing their mind (citta) as visuddhaṁ paṇḍaraṁ “pure and white”; here paṇḍaraṁ retains its adjectival and metaphorical force and is not yet a term for the mind itself.

I don’t have any solutions at hand, but it does seem as if there is a strand of quasi-eternalist thought in certain commentaries that sees the mind as possessing a sort of “natural purity”, and this leans on the much earlier appearance of paṇḍara.

Norman, eschewing any attempt to capture the imagery, simply translates the commentary:

Having considered both sense-fields, inside and out, having both wisdom and purity, gone beyond black and white, such a one is rightly called “wise”.

The recurring notion of “purity” (visuddhi) and “black & white” (kaṇhaṁ sukkaṁ) should, however, be a sign that the metaphorical play of dark/bright is central to this verse. This is clear from the verse itself, but even more so when we notice that the commentary in various points explains both visuddhi and sukka in terms of paṇḍara (Eg. DN-a 27 sukkoti paṇḍaro, MN-a 91 visuddhanti paṇḍaraṃ). In other words, we have here three words all having similar or related meanings of “pure, clean, bright”. Paṇḍara is chosen not because it has anything to do with the senses, but because the Buddha saw a chance to slip in a pun on pundit about purity.

And look, let’s be clear, I am fully aware that punning pundit is sitting right there. It’s just beneath me, okay?

Ven Bodhi has the first two lines thus:

Having examined both translucencies,
internal and external, wise about purity

There’s nowhere in the EBTs that support the idea that paṇḍara means translucent, and this translation is incomprehensible to me. Ven Bodhi does, however, improve Norman’s in one respect: he points out that the compound suddhipañño means “one who understands purity”, not Norman’s “one of wisdom and purity” or Thanissaro’s “one of pure wisdom”.

Ven Thanissaro’s rendering is even less comprehensible:

Having examined all white flowers
within & without,
one of pure discernment

There’s no note explaining his odd choice of “white flower” and while paṇḍara can indeed be used of jasmine in Sanskrit, there’s no example of such in the EBTs. Thanissaro attempts to connect this with various discussions on meditation and the like, however none of the passages he cites actually use paṇḍara or have any other meaningful connection with our verse. He appears to endorse the commentarial idea of the senses as “naturally pure”, remarking that “they are normally pure and yet can grow”, once again citing a text that neither relates to this one nor supports his thesis.

Let’s leave all this behind and focus back on one good insight from Ven Bodhi: that suddhipañño means “wise about purity”. Now, it is very common in the EBTs that sentences and phrases will repeat or echo each other, saying the same thing in different ways. Could that be what’s happening here?

Pañña clearly parallels viceyya, they are both terms for wisdom. And as we have seen, suddhi and paṇḍara are also synonyms. So it seems likely that the first line and a half simply express in more detail what suddhipañño sums up in brief.

Remember the context: Sabhiya is a non-Buddhist wanderer, and his questions are replete with references to concepts in Brahmanism. The Buddha is subtly calling out the Brahmanical so-called “pundits” who boast of their external purity and learning, but are impure inside. A true scholar is pure inside and out.

Dubhayāni viceyya paṇḍarāni,
They have examined whiteness
Ajjhattaṁ bahiddhā ca suddhipañño;
both inside and out; understanding purity,
Kaṇhaṁ sukkaṁ upātivatto,
they have left dark and bright behind:
Paṇḍito tādi pavuccate tathattā.
such an one is rightly called ‘a wise scholar’.

Here I use “wise scholar” rather than my normal “astute” to capture, albeit lamely, a pun with paṇḍara.

Moving on, at Snp 3.6:33.2 we find a description of a person as viriyavāso, rendered by most translators as “an abode of energy”. This seems like a weird construction, surely we should read viriyavā so “he is energetic”.

Another verse that seems that earlier translations have misconstrued is Snp 3.6:33. Bhikkhu Bodhi follows the commentary closely:

“Having learned and directly known all phenomena in the world,
(Sabhiya,” said the Blessed One),
“whatever there is, blameworthy and blameless,
a conqueror, rid of perplexity, liberated,
untroubled everywhere: they call him ‘a learned scholar.’”

The sense of this verse is well captured by the commentary:

Now those whom the grammarians praise as a learned scholar merely because of his ability to recite metrical compositions is a learned scholar merely in a conventional sense. A noble one, however, from whom evil has been washed off by learning, is a learned scholar in the supreme sense.

The sense, then, is similar to the verse on the pundit that we discussed above.

However the commentary, having got the overall sense right, treats dhamma here as “phenomena” realizable by insight, whereas it surely must mean “teachings”, as it follows right after sutvā “having heard/learned”. This is a good example of a fact that I have observed widely across the EBTs: dhamma normally means “teaching” and it is prudent to render it as such unless there is reason otherwise.

The problem here is that lines contain a pair of verbs (sutvā, abhiññāya) in absolutive form, and translators (including Bodhi, Norman, Thanissaro) have treated them as if they are parallel and apply to “all dhammas”.

But the two verbs are not sysnonyms and have a clear progressive sense. Sutvā means “having learned and studied according to the texts”, while abhiññāya means “ having realized in one’s own personal experience”.

This is, I believe, a mistake caused by the separation of the sentence over several lines, further exacerbated by the insertion of the editorial attribution of speaker. Let’s remove that and format the Pali according to natural syntax:

Sutvā sabbadhammaṁ
abhiññāya sāvajjānavajjaṁ

In other words, the absolutives should each apply to their following accusatives. The first line speaks of learning texts, the second, of understanding right and wrong.

Having learned all teachings,
having known for oneself

Thanissaro attempts to get this sense, but having misconstrued the syntax, he gets back to the sense by translating abhiññāya twice, once in a dative sense that is I believe unattested anywhere.

Having heard, having directly known
every Dhamma
for the sake of direct knowing
in the world,
whatever is blameworthy or blameless,

This is all convoluted and unnecessary. If we translate dhamma as “teaching” and distribute the verbs properly the sense comes through well:

“One who has learned every teaching,”
said the Buddha to Sabhiya,
“and has known for themselves whatever is blameworthy and blameless in the world;
a champion, decided, liberated,
untroubled everywhere: they call them ‘scholar’.

Moving on once more, at Snp 3.6:38.3 we have the phrase:

Saññaṁ tividhaṁ panujja paṅkaṁ

Norman and Bodhi both render as something like having removed “the three perceptions and the bog”. The three perceptions are kāmasaññā, byāpādasaññā, vihiṁsāsaññā , i.e. perceptions of sensuality, malice, and cruelty. Now, paṅka (“bog”) is explicitly defined as sensuality (an6.23:1.6: ‘paṅko’ti, bhikkhave, kāmānametaṁ adhivacanaṁ). Thus it seems the sense here is “the bog of the three perceptions”.

Snp 3.6:40.5 gives us another interesting problem to solve. Let’s see Ven Bodhi’s translation:

Whatever kamma there is that ripens in suffering,
above, below, or across in the middle,
having avoided it, a practitioner of full understanding,
one terminates hypocrisy and conceit,
greed and anger, and name-and-form:
they call that accomplished one a wanderer.

The renderings by Norman and Thanissaro are similar in the relevant respects, so I’ll just discuss Bodhi’s here. There are a number of related mistakes here in vocabulary, doctrine, and syntax.

As to vocabulary, the word translated as “terminated” is pariyantamakāsi. Elsewhere, however, pariyanta is never used in the sense of “terminating, destroying” but rather of “limiting”. One who speaks constantly, for example, is said to be apariyantavācā, “speaking non-stop”. The dictionaries, in fact, list this passage as the only exception, and in this I believe they are mistaken.

As to doctrine, it is a basic principle of Buddhism that for an enlightened being certain things cease in this very life: namely, the defilements and the kamma that they create. What has not ceased for a living sage is the body and its consciousness. So it makes sense to speak of “hypocrisy and conceit, greed and anger” as having ceased, but “name and form” doesn’t belong there: it continues until the parinibbana of the arahant. It would seem, then, that we should split these terms up.

Which brings us to syntax. And as we have noted several times above, there is a tendency for translators to overly render according to the lines of verse, whereas we should be guided by the sense. We know this, it is not a new insight, but still, the pull of the linguistic form seems to catch even the best translators from time to time.

Looking at the verse as a whole, we have two main operative verbs: paribbājayitvā (itself a controversial one, but here I follow Norman and Bodhi, see their notes for discussion) and pariyantamakāsi. What if each of these verbs applied to different terms? A perfected one has avoided or got rid of completely the defilements; but as for name and form, this is not ceased, but limited, i.e. the body and mind will continue until death.

If we construe the syntax this way, we make sense of the vocabulary and doctrine. I think the meaning comes through better.

Dukkhavepakkaṁ yadatthi kammaṁ,
Avoiding any deed that results in suffering—
Uddhamadho tiriyaṁ vāpi majjhe;
above, below, all round between:
Paribbājayitvā pariññacārī,
deceit and conceit, as well as greed and anger,
Māyaṁ mānamathopi lobhakodhaṁ;
they live full of wisdom.
Pariyantamakāsi nāmarūpaṁ,
They have made a limit on name & form;
Taṁ paribbājakamāhu pattipattan”ti.
the one they call a ‘wanderer’ has reached their destination.”

Finally, in the praise by Sabhiya at Snp 3.6:47.4 we find a rather curious mention of the deities Nārada and Pabbata. The verse is a eulogy of the Buddha, saying how the gods pay homage to him. Why these two deities are mentioned is a bit of a mystery. They appear nowhere else in the EBTs, although in Ja 457 they occur in a similar context alongside some better-known divinities.

The commentaries say that this refers to two groups of deities, and this reading is followed by Thanissaro and Norman, but not by Bodhi, and I think he’s right.

Nārada and Parvata are in fact two deities or sages known in the Brahmanical tradition, where they are not merely uncle and nephew but also close friends who journey and adventure together. They were estranged due to Parvata’s jealousy when Nārada fell in love. Parvata cursed Nārada with the face of a monkey, while Nārada in turn banished his nephew from heaven. Thankfully they were later reconciled and the curses lifted.

What is curious about this is that, so far as I can see, this pair is only mentioned in Brahmanical texts dating from many centuries after the Suttas. I don’t know enough about it to say for sure, and the dates of all these texts are anyway uncertain, but I’d guess the Buddhist source is around 500 years earlier than the Brahmanical mentions. This is not a unique situation; there is a case to be be made that the earliest extant forms of the Mahābharata and Rāmāyana, or at least parts of them, are found in the Jātakas. But still, it’s interesting to see that, while the Brahmanical sources were fixed in their current forms much later, they do draw on earlier material, at least some of which is shared with Buddhism.

Alright, that’s it, I think. It seems like a lot! I wonder why? Are there more issues with translating this text, or did I just feel like writing more about it? I do feel that it’s a deceptively difficult text, so I’m satisfied that I’ve finally completed it. As always, most of the work has been done by the excellent translators who have preceded me, and I merely hope to have clarified the sense in one or two instances.


Hi, Bhante @sujato — sorry if you’ve answered this before, but are you working on your own complete Sutta Nipata translation? I’ve noticed you’ve been giving a lot of thought to certain passages in it lately.

Yes I am! I’m about half way through. :pray:


Awesome! I love the Sutta Nipata. Good luck with the the rest of the project.


Excellent work, Bhante! :pray:

It’s interesting that you note how the line splits are tripping people up. This is a common problem for readers of modern poetry, where a line break
rarely means
a syntactic break. Many English speakers learned poetry from nursery rhymes when they were young and carry around its form in their subconscious whenever they read poetry. I wonder if this is happening here? Perhaps you can see through it in part thanks to your musical training. :slightly_smiling_face::pray::musical_score::notes: Just some thoughts…


Bhante @sujato, the current translations of the Sutta Nipata does suggest that the language is dissimilar to the other Nikayas and more archaic. Have you ever been able to interest Pali academics to be involved in these unique translations? There’s Mark Allon in Sydney, who I’d imagine would be thrilled to be involved in an endeavor like this…
When do you expect to do done with the translation, Bhante? Looking forward to seeing it!

I’m not sure the exact reason, but I do think we lack a certain sensitivity to poetics. Not that I am any better, I’ve just noticed a few points. Ven Nyanamoli had the best eye for verse of any translator. It seems to me that it engages with the mind in a slightly different way than prose.

I do think that translation of poetry is rather ill-served by a comprehensive project like mine, and better suited to a selective work: choose certain poems to translate from a certain perspective. My translations, with some exceptions, are pretty utilitarian.

This is often said, but no, not really. Nor is there a consistent “language of the Sutta Nipata”, because it is not a unified work. Of course, it’s in Pali like all the suttas, but there are clearly differences between some early and later parts. But there’s no really detailed difference between the early verses of the Sutta Nipata and early verses elsewhere. I mean, maybe some idioms or constructions are used in slightly different ways, but that’s true of any different form of literature: that’s why it’s different. Same applies to the 4 nikayas, of course: the language of DN 30 Lakkhana is quite different to the Dhammacakka. A long sutta like DN 16 includes lots of different linguistic strata.

He’s a friend of mine, and we are working together on a project for transliterating the oldest Pali manuscript.

Sooner rather than later!