Teaching from compassion and attachment

In SN 10.2, a yakkha criticizes the Buddha for getting involved in teaching others. The Buddha responds with a couple of verses. The first of the Buddha’s verses is not easy to construe.

Yena kenaci vaṇṇena,
saṃvāso sakka jāyati;
Na taṃ arahati sappañño,
manasā anukampituṃ

As mentioned in a previous post, vaṇṇa here means either “evidence” or “class, social strata”. The word samvāsa usually means “living together”, sometimes in the euphemistic sense of “having sex”, and the sense can be stretched to “intimacy”.

Ven Bodhi renders it:

If, O Sakka, for some reason
intimacy with anyone should arise,
the wise man ought not to stir his mind
with compassion towards such a person.

This sounds more than a little, well, Hinayanist. Ven Bodhi interprets the verses as saying that a wise man should not teach if he’s at risk of becoming attached, but may do so out compassion if his mind is pure. If this was taken literally, it would mean that there’d be very little Dhamma teaching in the world!

There are a number of Chinese parallels, and they teach a quite different message. Rod Bucknell offered a rough rendering of SA 557 for me:

All living beings are in bondage.
Would a Wise One not have pity on them?
The Sugata, out of compassion, always teaches living beings.
Compassion for living beings is in keeping with the Dhamma.

The other parallels at SA2 299 and SA2 162 are similar, although instead of beings in bondage, they speak of many reasons for beings to suffer. It’s not clear why the Chinese verses diverge so far from the Pali.

If we accept Ven Bodhi’s reading, it certainly seems to reflect the classic Mahayana/Hinayana split, but this is very unlikely. The root texts pre-date this split. In principle, it’s conceivable that a Chinese translator, put off by the “hinayanist” message of the text, found another way to render it; although, to be clear, such interpolations are highly uncharacteristic of the Chinese translators. But it’s impossible, I think, that the same re-interpretation would find its way into three distinct translated texts.

The older translation by CAF Rhys Davids seems to offer a more satisfactory sense:

Whate’er the apparent cause, Sakka, whereby
Men come to dwell together, none doth fit
The Wise Man’s case. Compassion moves his mind.

This takes the third line together with the first part of the verse, with the final phrase standing alone. Grammatically, I can’t justify the use of the infinitive in this case. I can only say that the Rhys Davids rendering seems to agree with the Chinese texts in saying that the wise person should have compassion, so perhaps there has been some transmission error.

I also like her use of “apparent reason” for vaṇṇa, which connects with my suggestion in a previous post that vaṇṇa in this sense means something like “evidence”; in this case, “what it evidently seems like”. Rather than a simple, literal sense of cause, it means what appears on the surface to be the reason.

This is, it seems, the only occurrence of the infinitive of anukampati in the canon, and it only occurs in later texts in glosses on this verse (at least so far as the texts on tipitaka.org cover). The oldest of these later texts is the Sasanapatthana of the Nettippakarana. The Netti is a guide to sutta interpretation, roughly dated in the post-Ashokan period, and controversially included in the Pali canon in the Burmese, but not Sinhala, tradition. The Sasanapatthana quotes our verse, with a variant reading that supplies the double negative:

manasā ananukampitaṃ
his heart does [not] lack compassion.

The Sāsanapaṭṭhānavāravaṇṇanā, a commentary on this passage, says:

Tanti tathā samāgataṃ anukampitabbaṃ purisaṃ
“That [person]” means: that person worthy of empathy who has entered such a relationship.

The subcommentary to this, the Sāsanapaṭṭhānavibhāvanā, adds:

taṃ anukampitabbaṃ sahavāsagataṃ purisaṃ
“That [person]” means: that person worthy of empathy who is living in that relationship.
sappañño manasā anukampituṃ na arahati anukampituṃyeva arahati
“A wise person with thought to empathize [is] not worthy” means: it is worthy just to empathize.

The latter explanation doesn’t make sense, unless the variant reading with a double-negative is implied, in which case the gloss makes good sense: it is clarifying that the double negative is to be read simply as a positive.

It would thus seem that there may be a difference between the commentarial line of the Samyutta and that of the Netti. The commentary as such doesn’t comment directly on these terms, but the subcommentary says this:

Taṃ kāraṇantaraṃ samāgataṃ purisaṃ
“that [person]” means: the person included in the relationship for a reason.
anukampituṃ nārahati visesādhigamābhāvā, sati pana tasmiṃ savisesaṃ pasādo hotīti

I don’t really understand what that second passage is trying to say, so I supply no translation. Any suggestions are welcome!

In any case, the Netti tradition, both in the textual variants and the commentary, repeatedly indicates that the person is worthy of compassion, and this is absent in the Samyutta tradition. Since the Netti tradition agrees with the Chinese translations, it would seem that it is preferable.

The usual caveat applies; it’s possible that these readings came from the same desire to explain away a difficult passage. But I think this is unlikely.

I don’t want to get too caught up in the details of these interpretations, not least because of my limited facility with late Pali and my even more limited facility with Chinese. However I think we have more than enough reason to reject the explanation that the first verse is a justification for not having compassion.

With trepidation, I suggest the following rendering:

No matter what the apparent reason
why people are together, Sakka,
it’s unworthy for a wise person
to not think of the other with compassion.


This is another interesting essay, Bhante, and another door opened to discover aspects of Sutta study that I’d otherwise not be exposed to. Thanks!

My sense, from limited understanding, is that Sakka seems to be sometimes employed as a “set up man” to pose a compelling question, which then allows the Buddha to articulate an important point of understanding. Here, Sakka suggests that the Buddha has released all attachments, and yet, still seems willing to teach others, the suggestion being that the teaching of Dhamma to others cultivates attachments. Yet, the Buddha offers the contrary, that a teaching offered to another (and a bond thus created) out of compassion is not a form of attachment or fetter. So, without benefit of being able to parse the Pali myself, I like your final interpretation and perhaps suggest that it might also intimate the quality of teaching (the SC translation uses “advised” ) (?) vs. thinking (?) Much of what I’m saying here, on reflection, is a rehash of your essay…

I offer the above as I wanted to provide some response to this interesting essay. Feel free, Bhante, and others, to punt this ball into the next field if it is too far off…