The Cariyapitaka is an odd book

I just finished translating the Cariyapitaka, one of the latest books in the Pali canon, and I’m just going to quickly jot down a few thoughts before I go off on retreat. I’ve only got less than an hour so please forgive the rushedness!

I translated this mostly on a whim, just to see what it would be like. It’s a short book. I knew it wouldn’t have the most exciting content, but it’s been a long time since I read it and I was surprised at just how odd it is.

Odd how? Well, the basic idea is pretty straightforward. It selects a number of Jataka stories and retells them in a consistent verse style. The aim is to illustrate the Bodhisatta’s practice of the pāramīs “perfections”, i.e. good qualities that he built up over many lives.

Now, the doctrine of the pāramīs is not found in the early texts, and in fact the whole idea contradicts what the Buddha said about his own practice. He explicitly says that it was not the practice in past lives that led to awakening, and attributes it solely to his development of the eightfold path in this life. But I’m not going to do a history of this change here.

The first odd thing is that the Cariyapitaka relies on the Jataka stories, not the verses. Why is this odd? because in the Pali tradition, the stories are regarded as commentary. That means that in principle they should date 500 years after the close of the canon. Yet a canonical book takes them as source material. Now, TW Rhys Davids long ago showed that the canonical Jataka verses often make no sense without the stories. And he showed that the stories are sometimes depicted in early architecture at Sanchi, which dates from a similar period as the Cariyapitaka. So this isn’t a revolutionary thing, but it is still striking how the canonical text relies on the commentary. The stories must have been handed down in the tradition long before they were redacted in the form we have them today.

I haven’t studied the details, but it seems that generally the Cariyapitaka always agrees with the Jataka stories, implying they had changed little. I think there was one case I noticed a different detail.

More odd than this, it is quite common that the Cariyapitaka omits details of the stories that are required for them to make sense. For example, in one story it says, “then I paid the brahmin”. But no brahmin has been mentioned or any reason for paying him. Only in the Jataka do we learn that prior to these events, the Bodhisatta had met a brahmin on the road who had sung some verses for him, and he promised to pay him when he could.

Such incidents—and they are not few—call into question the purpose of the book. It can’t be to replace the Jataka, because it is incomplete without it. It must have been told to people who were already assumed to know the Jatakas; or perhaps it was meant to be spoken by a teacher who would explain the details.

In one case, the story is so attenuated that it is difficult to even identify the Jataka properly.

Still odder, it doesn’t even illustrate all of the paramis. Missing are the perfections of patience (or acceptance, khanti), wisdom, and energy. And it’s not that they were added later to the list, for they are included in the concluding verses: there’s just no stories for them. Nor were the stories misplaced, for the uddāna at the end lists only the extant characters. It seems odd, especially since there is no shortage of Jatakas to use.

I kind of feel like it’s an unfinished work. It feels careless. The language is uninspired and uninteresting, lacking the variety in form, imagery and meter you find in say the Suttanipāta. And the teachings are plodding and preachy, lacking the weirdness and charm of the Jatakas. I often felt bored when translating, and I know it’s projection, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the author felt the same way. Again, purely speculating, but it feels to me like the work of an old monk, so used to lecturing and moralizing that the spark of creativity was long gone. Maybe he wanted to summarize some stories, but age was encroaching and duties were calling. And in the end, the work adds little to what is elsewhere anyway. Perhaps he set it aside, but his students rescued it. The same thing happened with Laurence Mill’s translation of the Suttanipāta: it was begun in old age and contained sparks of his old fire, but ultimately was unfinished and uneven.

In some cases the ethics are problematic, too. I was especially struck when the King of Fish didn’t want to just escape from the crows that were eating the fish: he wanted the crows to suffer like they had. Seem gratuitous. Of course the Jataka stories are often pre- or non-Buddhist, and they are meant to depict the progress of an imperfect being. So there’s no problem with them including some dodgy things; it’s just when they are eulogized as the path the awakening.

As one final point of oddness, the text concludes by saying that it is called the Buddapadāna (“Legends of the Buddha”) which makes it a counterpart to the Therapadāna and Therī-apadāna. I wonder why they didn’t just use that name?

I kept my eye out for interesting details of mythology, which are often hidden in the background of Jataka stories. There were a few instances of Frazerian substitute sacrifice and the like.

But one thing I did notice was the text has two “dark hermits”, Kaṇhadīpayana (Dark Light) (cp31) and Suvaṇṇasāma (Gold Black) (cp33). Both their names echo the dark/light dichotomy also found in Kaṇhasiri of snp3.11. They are both hermits with exotic and mystical powers. I should look more into the Jatakas for these!

There are those who take such books as the word of the Buddha. I think this is a mistake: the Buddha was much more interesting than this. Clearly the book dates from several centuries after the Buddha.

In modern times, there are others who say we shouldn’t judge ancient works, that we are just imposing our prejudices if we speak of the decline of Buddhism. I wonder if such folks have studied this work? It seems so obvious: everything about it is just … not great. It’s not that it adds to what the Buddha taught that bothers me. It’s that it does so artlessly.


But that’s not true, is it? Couldn’t the story parts (the information, not the form we have them now) have been contemporaneous with the parts that became “canonical”? If we take these things as they are presented, everything happened at the same time, it’s just that parts were officially codified and the rest was left up to people to recount on their own. Only later did the left out part become official commentary.

I guess, though, I should ask, when you say relies on, do you mean it’s a copy paste thing? or just the ideas?

It would be interesting to explore this further. After all, the job of the texts is in part to preach to us about moral values in a way that inspires us to follow them. Most of the stories in the commentaries are about morality and practical things, not fine doctrinal points. It’s the context of judgemental, self righteous Christians where “preachy” takes on a negative connotation.

I was introduced to Mahayana texts before I read cariyapitaka. Maybe it was my bias because I had read some great Bodhisattva path texts before, but Cariyapitaka feels like cheap imitation of other books in the same genre.

I am not sure about the timeline, but could it be that it was the period when “Bodhisattva pitaka” started to arise in Buddhist sects?

When other sects fashioned their “how to become perfect Buddha” manual, maybe there was a demand to show that their sect also had the same thing.

It is just my impression. Because when I read Mahayana texts, I feel that the author genuinely believed that Bodhisattva path is the true path and everyone should follow. While Cariyapitaka author, I get the impression that the author does not follow Bodhisattva path and just preaching the theory.

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Just the ideas.

My impression also. It’s adopting some of the ideas of the Mahayana, or at least sharing ideas, but without the creativity and overflowing exuberance and confidence.

For sure, it’s part of the same general movement.

  • There’s the Kaṇhajātaka Ja 440 with a dark hermit.
  • Another one is the Kaṇhadīpāyanajātaka Ja 444, where the ascetic becomes black from drops of blood.
  • Ghaṭapaṇḍitajātaka Ja 454 also features a Kaṇhadīpāyana; a rather horrible story where really gruesome people are classified as “wise”—among them the Bodhisatta.
  • Mahākaṇhajātaka Ja 469, where it’s a black dog.

Probably there’s more.

Ah and the Suvaṇṇasāmajātaka is Ja 540. The protagonist of this name, the Bodhisatta, is the son of a couple of blind ascetics.


With reference to “dark”, I just come across an interesting phrase in Ja 512 Kumbhajātaka, where the Buddha emits a ray of light from his forehead and thereby causes darkness. This aligns with the dark hermits that have a term associated with light in their name.

The English translator makes it a temporal sequence:

The Master, in order to give them a shock, emitted a ray of light from his eyebrow; and this was followed by blinding darkness.

whereas the German has:

Um sie zu erschüttern, entsandte nun der Meister aus den Haaren seiner Augenbrauen einen Lichtstrahl und es entstand tiefe Finsternis.

“In order to shock them the master emitted a ray of light from the hairs of his eyebrows and a deep darkness came about.”

It’s almost as if the light causes the darkness.

It has perhaps to be a bit spectacular, as this is the Jātaka on how alcohol came into the world.

What is boring about the Cariyapitaka is all the more interesting in the underlying texts, the Jātakas. So who knows, you might still end up translating them, Bhante?

I understand about not wanting to go into the entire history, but, if this is a sutta quotation you’re referring to, can I trouble you for a reference or references that I may look up on my own? I’m not aware of any such statement.


My impression is that in the expansion of myths about buddhas and bodhisattvas, the perfections were meant to account for how the Bodhisattva accrued the merit required to finally discover the path without a buddha to directly teach it. Some of the Sarvastivadin teachers in Kashmir held there were only four perfections, but others generally held to a system of six perfections. And the framework of six perfections became the basic presumption of early Mahayana texts, regardless of where they were produced in India.

The Mahavastu had a system of ten stages of bodhisattva development, and there was also a trend for some time in southern India of putting everything into “tens”. This is seen in the Mahayana Dasabhumika Sutra, which matches the Mahavastu system of ten bodhisattva stages with a system of ten perfections. The last four perfections were further developments of the perfection of wisdom. My guess is that the Pali tradition of ten perfections is a system meant to compete with, or parallel, the Mahayana system of ten perfections.

If that were true, then it would mean the Pali system of ten perfections would probably be after the 3rd century CE, which was when a version of the Dasabhumika Sutra was first translated into Chinese by Dharmaraksa. I wonder if the Cariyapitaka would make more sense in terms of an attempt to extract instructions for the Pali system of ten perfections, based on existing Pali Jataka materials, but it was never completed?


This is interesting and makes a lot of sense; very well could be the case!

Do you know what these 4 were, and what the ten were (which expanded on the prajñāpāramī)?

The main question I see arise with this that needs explaining is how that would work chronologically with the Sri Lankan literature. AFAIK the ten pāramī are set in stone in the time of Buddhaghosa, and thus they must predate him in some sense to be established in the tradition he documented. I suppose they certainly could have been influenced by competing Mahayanists on the island and things, but we have to account for what texts there are that reference these and how we can date them and so on.


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Perhaps this quote taken from MN 83:

Ānanda, you might think, ‘Surely King Makhādeva, by whom that good practice was founded, must have been someone else at that time?’ But you should not see it like this. I myself was King Makhādeva at that time. I was the one who founded that good practice, which was kept up by those who came after.

But that good practice doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. It only leads as far as rebirth in the Brahmā realm. But now I have founded a good practice that does lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

And what is that good practice? It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is the good practice I have now founded that leads to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

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Thank you. I know this sutta: as I recall, we had to translate it for Pāli class. But I never noticed the final section.

And, yes, how the tradition got from point A to point B would appear to be a very convoluted discussion.

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I was looking for some more information on the perfections in the Cariyapitaka, and came across the point that the Cariyapitaka is said to include the concept of a bodhisattva pursuing the perfections for the sake of omniscience / all-knowledge. However, according to the Pali suttas, the Buddha does not possess omniscience / all-knowledge…

MN 71: To Vacchagotta on the Three Knowledges

The concept of a bodhisattva pursuing the perfections for the sake of omniscience / all-knowledge, is found many times throughout the (Mahayana) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. A brief scan of the Chinese Buddhist canon for some common translations of omniscience / all-knowledge, results in a long list of Mahayana sutras, jataka type texts, and biographies of the Buddha.

Sure, the Wikipedia page for paramita has lists of the perfections covering most traditions. For the four perfections, those were the same as the six perfections, but did not include forbearance and meditative absorption, which were said to be included in the other perfections. Guang Xing summarizes this in, The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory. The author’s source is the Abhidharma Mahavibhasa Sastra of the Vaibasika Sarvastivadins.

That would work, because the earliest translations of the Dasabhumika Sutra was done in 297 CE, by Dharmaraksa. Several translations were made in subsequent centuries, and there was a commentary by Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century CE). Since Buddhaghosa is 5th century CE, the chronology would work fine. Buddhaghosa himself was from India, where these types of texts were circulating.

Continuing here:


I have also seen a Gandhari text which references three perfections (perhaps as a kind of short hand?), from memory, the equivalent of Pali dana nekkhama khanti/(or was it sila?). But I would have to do a trawl to find it again in the manuscripts, I think in Bajaur collection somewhere.