Some remarks on the Hirisutta that might make reading this little sutta a bit more satisfying

The Hirisutta (Snp 2.3) is a minor sutta in a minor chapter. While it undoubtably has some lovely imagery, it has not received a lot of commentary or analysis.

Unusually for the Suttanipata, the entire set of verses is repeated as a Jataka (Ja 363). The commentary for that Jataka, however, directs the reader to the story for Ja 90 for the full details.

The verses are a little hard to piece together in a coherent form. The first three are straightforward enough; they deal with good friendship, specially emphasizing friendship through action. A bad friend is:

saying “I’m on your side”,
but not following up in deeds…

The wise will recognize
one who talks without doing.

The last two verses appear somewhat disconnected. Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

This sutta consists of five verses that apparently lack a unifying theme. The sutta derives its name from the word hiri occurring in the first line, but otherwise no further mention is made of this topic.

The unity of the verses is, according to the commentary, due to the fact that they are the responses to a series of questions, which do not appear in the text itself. Yet the commentary ascribes the same verses to two different origins—one in the Suttanipāta and one in the Jātaka—and the Jataka origin moreover is shared with another.

Now it’s no great surprise to find that a set of verses is only loosely attached to its origin story. What makes this case unusual is that the story is relied upon to make sense of the verses. Once you see it in this light, there’s no real need to seek for a deeper unity; it’s just a series of answers to different questions. Bhikkhu Bodhi again:

The commentary explains the verses with reference to a background story in which a hermit comes to the Buddha and tries to test him by mentally asking four questions: “What kind of friend should one not associate with? What kind of friend should one associate with? To what kind of exertion should one apply oneself? What is the foremost of tastes?”

It’s a bit unsatisfactory. It was, oddly enough, the earliest and least linguistically precise translation, that of Francis in the Jataka, that suggests something more. He begins the final verse with “But one …”, suggesting that the final pair of verses contrast with each other. The text doesn’t actually say “but”, but it made me wonder whether it might be justified by context.

The second-last verse is a hard one to parse out; even for Pali verse standards, the sequence of ideas doesn’t map very easily onto English. But one word caught my eye: porisa. This is an abstractive from purisa “person”, and commonly means “servant” (compare archaic English “man” in the sense of “my man” i.e. “my servant”). Norman just has “human”, Bodhi has “personal”, but Francis has the more interpretive “human friendship”, which suggests a connection with the previous verses.

I suspect that it is indeed referring back to the previous verses. One who is a good friend is one who acts as a good friend; in other words, one who serves the needs of their friend. The sense of this verse is then, “one who bears the burden of serving their friend can expect the happiness and praise that this brings.”

The final verse offers the “transcendental twist”: the worldly goodness of companionship leads to wordly happiness, but in seclusion lies the deeper bliss of the Dhamma.

Now the sutta as a whole takes shape. A friend does not make empty promises, but shows their friendship in service, which makes them happy. But even such happiness pales in comparison with the bliss of seclusion and meditation.

I’ve been revising my translation as I go, so expect an update in the SC version. Here’s the updated version so far.

Flouting conscience, loathing it,
saying “I’m on your side”,
but not following up in deeds:
know they’re not on your side.

Some say nice things to their friends
without following it up.
The wise will recognize
one who talks without doing.

No true friend relentlessly
suspects betrayal, looking for fault.
One on whom you rest, like a child on the breast,
is a true friend, not split from you by others.

One whose reward is the fruit
of bearing the burden of service
develops a happy state,
producing joy and attracting praise.

One who has drunk the nectar of seclusion
and the nectar of peace,
free of stress, free of evil,
drinks the joyous nectar of Dhamma.


That’s beautiful Bhante, I especially like the last four verses :anjal:

There’s five verses in whole, so … you don’t like the first one?

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Oh not at all Bhante, it’s a nice little sutta. Actually your question made me realize that what I actually meant was the last 4 lines, which is the last verse. I just realized that a verse is composed of 4 lines just from reading your question.

I like the idea of the Dhamma as joyous nectar :slight_smile:

Thanks Bhante, always nice to be corrected by you :slight_smile: :anjal:

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