The conversation at Verañja

There’s a well known discussion between the Buddha and a brahmin at Verañja. The text is found in the Suttas at AN 8.11 and in the Vinaya, where it introduces the whole Pitaka as the prologue to the first Parajika. It offers another example of a text composite nature is readily discernable.

The brahmin, who is named after the town, criticizes the Buddha for not showing sufficient respect for brahmins. He makes a number of skillful statements, which the Buddha skilfully twists into something quite different: a very annoying rhetorical trick!

He accuses the Buddha of being arasarūpa or “tasteless”, so the Buddha says he has no taste for sights, sounds, and so on.

Next he says the Buddha is nibbhoga. This is less easy to translate. It’s always used in the sense of “useless”, as in a dead body that lies useless (Pv 12, Ja 354: Evaṃ sarīre nibbhoge, pete kālaṅkate sati) or an old horse that’s cast out (SN 7.14 Assova jiṇṇo nibbhogo). The latter context is very appropriate, for it occurs in the context of an old brahmin complaining that his sons don’t show him proper respect. I think the word is an idiom meaning “has no use (for standards of polite behavior)”, and can be translated as “indelicate”. Then the Buddha says he has no “delight” for sights, sounds, and so on.

The brahmin goes on to accuse the Buddha of being akiriyavāda, “a teacher of the doctrine of inaction”. This is a decisive shift in tone, from unusual idioms apparently referring to norms of polite behavior, to a standard doctrinal term. The remainder of the section follows suit, employing ucchedavāda and other familiar doctrinal terms.

The commentary, however, forces each of these into the original context, saying that the brahmin was in fact referring to polite behavior, while the Buddha twisted them into their doctrinal meaning. But this is absurd. The words have nothing to do with polite behavior, they are recognized philosophical terms.

Many of those terms, in addition, are better fitted for a Jain context than a brahmanical one, referring to tapssī, jegucchī and so on, rather than vedagū, sottiya, and so on, as you’d expect in a brahmanical context.

What’s interesting is that at exactly the same point as the doctrinal terms are introduced, the text makes a number of other changes. Instead of referring to himself in the third person as “the Realized One”, the Buddha starts using ahaṁ, the normal first person pronoun. And the doctrinal framework shifts from the six sense objects to the performing of good and bad deeds.

This combination of unrelated changes all happening at the same time is a clear sign that the text is a composite one, and the sections from akiriyavada on have been added later.

Now, these passages are found in virtually identical form in the following sutta, AN 8.12 Sīha. The Sīha Sutta is a conversation with a Jain disciple, where the specific doctrinal terms make perfect sense.

The original text at Verañja probably included the two terms relating to polite behavior. The remaining six items were lifted from AN 8.12, with two dropped, the doctrine of action, and the final item.

The new text was probably created following a standard requirement: that each nikaya, and the Vinaya, should include standard doctrinal teachings. While the students of the Vinaya were obviously expected to specialize in their field, they should still have some knowledge of doctrinal ideas, so these are included, often by creating artificial texts (the Mahasatipatthana, DN 22, is another example of this). There’s no particular need for it in the Anguttara, but extra duplication was never an obstacle.

In the Vinaya, the text follows another pattern characteristic of the Theravada. The Digha begins with the Brahmajala, on views. The Majjhima likewise begins with the Mulapariyaya. It seems that the Vinaya originally began with a text dealing with norms of behavior. But now it introduces the topic of views, as a gateway to the whole Vinaya. Thus the tendency was to form collections that echo the structure of the eightfold path, with right view at the start.

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The idea that nibbhoga means “useless” is presumably derived from the more literal meaning of the word, “without enjoyment”, in the sense that anything which cannot be enjoyed is useless. It is also the case that “without enjoyment” fits the context of this sutta very well, since the Buddha says he has given up enjoyment of sense pleasures. On the basis of these considerations I prefer to stick to my present translation (“without enjoyment”) in the opening section of the Vinaya. Have I missed something?

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It’s just used quite specifically in an idiomatic sense. Of course bhoga, use, and enjoyment overlap in many cases. But not in this one. You’d never say, a departed one no longer enjoys their body. You say, they have no use for it.

But that’s inferring back from the Buddha’s reinterpreted doctrinal meaning. It’s not how the brahmin was using the word.

I don’t even really know what it is supposed to mean if the Brahmin says, “you have no enjoyment.” How does it relate to the topic under consideration, the proper treatment of elder brahmins? I don’t think it does, it’s just an over-literal rendering, not a meaningful translation.

I think the situation has been confused by the fact that the remaining items in the text discuss different matters dealing with philosophy. But when we set these aside as coming from a different source, the first two items hang together as a much more coherent discussion of a specific question, the Buddha’s lack of respect for brahmins. And in this context, “indelicate” works as a synonym for “tasteless”, whereas “lacks enjoyment” has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

The English word “indelicate” is, if this helps, etymologically just as sound as “enjoyment”. It comes from the same latin root (delicere) as “delight”: something which is delicate is something that is delightful. But regardless of the etymology, we can keep the words associated by chiming “delicate” with “delight”.

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Yeah, “without enjoyment” does not quite work, but perhaps “unenjoyable” will do: “Sir Gotama is unenjoyable.” This fits with how the brahmin uses the word: he does not enjoy the presence of the Buddha since the Buddha does offer him the respect he thinks he deserves. The Buddha then says he has given up the enjoyment of the five senses.

My problem is with your suggestion that nibbhoga is an idiom meaning “has no use (for standards of polite behavior)”, since I feel the leap from “useless” is too great. Being “useless” and “having no use of” are quite different things.

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