The more I look at the Mahāpadesas, the less I am convinced that the obvious reading is the right one

The four mahāpadesa (“great references”) are taught in DN 16, and again in AN 4.180. They are a very well-known teaching, as they establish one of the earliest guides to what can be considered the words of the Buddha.

They say that, no matter what the source someone might claim for a text, it should be memorized, then compared with sutta and vinaya. The obvious reading is to think that sutta is the Suttapiṭaka, and vinaya is Vinayapiṭaka, or at least the earlier versions of these.

But the passage has a number of peculiar features. Before discussing these, however, a little background.

First, it should be noted that vinaya in the Suttas usually does not mean “monastic code”, but rather the “training” or practical application of the Dhamma, especially the removal of greed, hate, and delusion.

Secondly, note that the claimant of authenticity uses a different phrase, dhamma, vinaya, satthusāsana. Clearly it can’t be mapped one-to-one with sutta and vinaya. Indeed, being accomplished in these things is part of what it means to be a stream-enterer, even for a lay person (an6.16:7.2). Elsewhere these things are explained more as a principle of letting go rather than a specific set of texts (an8.53, an7.83).

Thirdly, note that by far the earliest commentary on this passage is the late canonical Netti, which explains sutta as the four noble truths, and vinaya as the removal of greed, hate, and delusion.

Fourthly, the commentary is far from settled on this point, as it offers a range of different explanations, starting with “sutta means vinaya”. It’s quite a ride! At the end, it settles on the explanation, “sutta means the word of the Buddha in the Tipitaka, and vinaya means the removal of greed, hate, and delusion”.

Fifthly, when the passage does explicitly describe texts, it uses a quite different phrasing:

bahussutā āgatāgamā dhammadharā vinayadharā mātikādharā
very learned, knowledgeable in the scriptures, who remember the teachings, the monastic law, and the outlines

This is just some background so that we’re aware that the reading is not obvious. Now to the text!

The passage uses a rather odd syntax, so most translators, including myself, have felt the need to somewhat work around it. Let’s see what happens if we keep it more literal.

There’s an oddness in the verbs, because we have a different one for sutta and vinaya. If it just meant “check” in the different texts, why not use the same verb? They’re not just synonyms, either, but have a quite different meaning.

  • otarati means something like “to set down into”, to “fit in”.
  • sandissati means “be seen, be evident”.

Now as to the nouns, it’s also perhaps relevant that sutta is in singular, but translators (such as Ven Bodhi) translate as “discourses”.

Another detail of syntax, the two phrases are connected with ca (“and”) rather than (“or”). Again, if the process was intended to check whether they appeared in the Suttas “or” the Vinaya, why use “and”? It sounds like it is a two-step process: it both fits in the sutta and is evident in the training.

What if we were to take the Netti seriously? What would it mean to “fit” a teaching in the four noble truths? Well, it sounds a lot like what Sāriputta talked about in MN 28.

The footprints of all creatures that walk can fit inside an elephant’s footprint, so an elephant’s footprint is said to be the biggest of them all. In the same way, all skillful qualities can be included in the four noble truths.

To be sure, the verb is different (samodhānaṁ gacchanti) but it has a similar sense. This is much more specific than simply “check”, it is to “place down into” the four noble truths, like you would into an elephant’s footprint.

Now, sandissati is also an interesting choice. It means to “be seen, to be evident”. Here are some typical uses.

  • an11.14:2.4: Now I will find out whether or not this mendicant Saddha exhibits the outcomes of faith.
  • an5.191:1.6: This is the first tradition of the brahmins seen these days among dogs, but not among brahmins. ( see also snp2.7:1.5)
  • dn3:2.4.2: Is this supreme knowledge and conduct seen in your own tradition?

It is normally used to speak of whether the principles and theories of one’s path are actually evident in one’s life and practice. This is, in fact, one of the fundamental properties of the Dhamma: it is sandiṭṭhika, which is just an adjectival form of sandissati. This means that the results of practice are evident in this very life.

This makes clear why there are two verbs in the formula: first one sees whether the teaching “fits in” with the four noble truths, then one sees whether it is actually “evident” in reducing greed, hate, and delusion.

So, after many years, I have come around to believe that the Netti was right after all. My revised translation:

Take a mendicant who says: ‘Reverend, I have heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’

You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, having carefully memorized those words and phrases, they should fit in the discourse and be evident in the training.

If they do not fit in the discourse and are not evident in the training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is not the word of the Buddha. It has been incorrectly memorized by that mendicant.’ And so you should reject it.

If they do fit in the discourse and are evident in the training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by that mendicant.’ You should remember it. This is the first great reference.

It’s still not entirely clear what “discourse” means here.

  • Sutta can mean the “epitome, summary, essence”, which is the most obvious reading of the Netti’s explanation.
  • It might mean the sutta, i.e. the Dhammacakka, which presents the “epitome” of the four noble truths.
  • The Buddha’s teaching is summarized as the nine angas, the first three of which are sutta, geyya, vyakarana. Again, this builds off the sense “epitome”, as the sutta here means the basic statements of doctrine rather than the discussions about them (vyākaraṇa).
  • The Dhammacakka formed the blueprint for the (proto-) Saṁyutta, which is modeled after the four noble truths, and which there is good reason to think was the original form of sutta and vyākaraṇa (geyya being the Sagāthāvagga).

In support of this, remember that the Netti’s explanation of vinaya was the removal of greed, hate, and delusion. It turns out that 80% of the occurrences of this phrase are in the Saṁyutta.

I would thus say that “discourse” in the Mahāpadesa means the core teachings of the four noble truths, as primarily embodied in the central discourses of the Saṁyutta.

In summary, the Mahāpadesas urge us to both see whether a saying fits in with the central Dhamma teaching of the four noble truths, and that it is actually effective in overcoming greed, hate, and delusion. This is in line with the general tendency of the early suttas, which emphasize both these aspects. This cautions us against judging any teaching based on comparison with marginal or specific passages, which often have a contextual sense. Rather, keep the fundamental teachings in mind, and focus on the practical outcomes.


Thanks so much for this. I have long felt uneasy about the Mahāpadesas, and this goes a long way towards resolving the issue. It is especially the verbs that have always seemed curious to me. Your solution to this problem is convincing. Although the Mahāpadesas do not occur in the Vinaya Piṭaka, I may have to make some changes to related passages.


Thank you Bhante. A somewhat related passage in DN16 is:

So Ānanda, live as your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.
Tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

This is sometimes quoted with the implication that it means “take the suttas as your refuge”, which is clearly not the case if one takes the trouble to read on:

And how does a mendicant do this?
It’s when a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world.

As in the case you discuss, it’s a application of the teachings that seems to be pointed to.


Let us know if you find anything related. I did check some Vinaya passages, but nothing seemed to have a decisive bearing on this.

Yes, exactly. The whole thrust of the suttas is that the teachings are a reality that you can observe, not just a text you can memorize.


Very good suggestion indeed. The “discourse” could refer to the sutta-anga portion of SN/SA.

The collection is mainly about knowing and seeing the four noble truths, the notion of anicca, dukkha, suñña (empty), anatta, and the middle way, which all are the core teachings of Early Buddhism.


Interesting post Bhante, thank you. This has got me thinking in relation to the many different ways of practice, interpretation etc that we see in the Buddhist world. For example some people see things in terms of the Abhidhamma, momentariness etc. Others see things from the point of view of Madhyamaka. Other’s think that dependent origination is over 3 lives, others over 2 or is momentary, others still that it’s all about phenomenological structures of experience and so on. Some people say Jhāna should be fully absorbed, others less so. Could we say though that as long as these diverse views of the Dhamma do indeed still fit within the framework of the 4NT and lead to less greed, hatred and delusion then, despite their differences, they are all valid means of practicing?


The simile of the adze handle comes to mind here:

So too, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu dwells devoted to development, even though no such wish as this might arise in him: ‘Oh, that my mind might be liberated from the taints by nonclinging! ’ yet his mind is liberated from the taints by nonclinging. For what reason? It should be said: because of development. Because of developing what? Because of developing … the Noble Eightfold Path.

“When, bhikkhus, a carpenter or a carpenter’s apprentice looks at the handle of his adze, he sees the impressions of his fingers and his thumb, but he does not know: ‘So much of the adze handle has been worn away today, so much yesterday, so much earlier.’ But when it has worn away, the knowledge occurs to him that it has worn away. -SN 22.101

A person can hope that what they have chosen is right, but that will only be confirmed when they have used it to develop the path and know that it has been developed.

It seems the four great references only to apply to determining the accuracy of information from one source as compared to what has most likely been described by the Buddha and the arahants —- as one would have no need to cross-reference their own direct knowledge.


Hi Bhante,

If I’m reading correctly, the primary objective in cross-referencing is in regards to padabyañjana (words and phrases).

As pointed out already, the otarati applies to the discourses and sandissati to vinaya, correct? Now this is just a shot in the dark, but perhaps the same verb is not used for the same reason there is a distinction between Dhamma and Discipline, and therefore each require unique measure of equivalence when cross-referencing the words and phrases.

Well, that would assume that these are primarily a textual criteria, which, according to the Netti, is not the case.

The above notwithstanding, if these are textual standards, then this would be reasonable. The problem then becomes, what difference are we talking about? I’ve not seen any meaningful attempt to explain how these different functions could apply to the different text collections.

Which is one of the reasons why the Netti seems plausible. Once the textualness of the references is backgrounded, the sense of the different verbs is clear.

I guess what also concerns me, which I alluded to in my other posts, is, why would a person who understands the four noble truths need to make such an elaborate attempt to cross-reference at all? Their knowledge is a reference. Considering suttas such as SN 56.37, this is a tremendous accomplishment, and it is highly unlikely they would need to memorize the words and phrases of another to cross-reference them at a later time.

On the contrary, if a person does not understand the four noble truths, they would be incapable of making the comparison. This seems to be the case in AN 4.180 and DN 16, as there is no reference to the listener being a noble disciple. It just seems unlikely that the Buddha would advise such a person to make a judgment call against such a crucial insight that they have not gained.

Hi Bhante,

While I agree vinaya probably doesn’t mean the Vinaya Pitaka, I feel the interpretation of vinaye sandissanti you suggest does not fit the general idea of the four references very well. The way they are put, the four references seem meant to preserve the exact words of the Buddha, not just their general intent. But if we were to judge their effectiveness in our own practice, it wouldn’t particularly matter whether we have “carefully memorized those words and phrases”. We could just remember their general idea. Certain teachings being “evident” to us also does not prove that they are “correctly memorized” and “heard and learned in the presence of the Buddha”. Words could be ill-memorized and learned from somebody else, yet still be effective.

What we personally find to be effective seems to me actually a particularly bad standard for determining what the words of the Buddha were—as we can infer from almost polar opposite interpretations of Buddhism that exist nowadays, all convinced they have it right. :slight_smile: People seem easily deluded in thinking something is the word of the Buddha just because they think it is effective.

As to the textual side of things, from the examples of sandissati you concluded that “it is normally used to speak of whether the principles and theories of one’s path are actually evident in one’s life and practice”. But the examples are all about seeing something in another, or in a tradition more generally, not in one’s own life:

  • “whether or not this mendicant Saddha [i.e. someone else] exhibits the outcomes of faith”
  • “This is the first tradition of the brahmins seen …”
  • “… knowledge and conduct seen in your own tradition”

The second case is especially clear. The Buddha judges the brahmin tradition from the outside, looking at what they are doing. He’s not looking at his own practice or even wondering whether the practices were effective at reducing the brahmins’ defilements.

For those reasons I think vinaye sandissanti means not “evident in the training” in the sense of being able to verify it in one’s own practice, but “present in the training” in the sense of somehow seeing it in “the training” external to oneself.

How exactly we are supposed to interpret that, I’m not 100% sure. Probably “the vinaya” at that time was not a fixed body of texts yet, so in that case it doesn’t mean we should compare the words with the Vinaya Pitaka. There must have been an agreed-upon set of practices, though, including the Patimokkha rules and other monastic procedures. Perhaps the idea of vinaye sandissanti was to investigate whether what one has heard was actually practiced in the Buddha’s tradition, for example by investigating whether other monastics were actually doing those things. Like, are the other monastics actually following those regulations one has heard from this one monk? If so, and it’s also found in the suttas (incl. Patimokkha Sutta), then it’s likely the word of the Buddha.

Alternatively, per the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta these four references were spoken near the end of the Buddha’s life, so perhaps the term vinaya actually had already drifted more towards how it is used nowadays, as being certain texts. Certainly the Patimokkhas would have been recited at that time already, and they are surely words that would have been important to carefully memorize in their particular phrasings. That one is said to ordain in a certain “dhamma and vinaya” implies also that the vinaya was something more structural than just the general training to remove the defilements. It would have included the monastic rules, for example, some of which were laid down for other purposes than the removal of the defilements.

The first option seems to best fit the examples of sandissati. Either way, I don’t think vinaye sandissanti should be taken to refer to one’s own personal practice.

As to sutta and it being in the singular, I have always wondered about that, and I don’t have much to say. But I can add a possibly: perhaps sutta was used in the singular as a referent to all the suttas, just as “the word of the Buddha” means all his words, and “the dhamma” means all his teachings. Again, if these four references were spoken near the Buddha’s death (and he would be logically more concerned with the correct memorization of his teachings at that time), there would have been a substantial body of texts already being recited.


Dhammavinaya is sometimes found as referring to other religions, such as the Jains (DN 29, MN 11, MN 104). The expression yasmiṃ dhammavinaya, “in which teaching and Vinaya”, implies that not just Buddhism had a Vinaya. If, as it seems, it does refer to other religions, then it does not make sense to think of it as a set of scriptures. It would then seem likely to have a more generic meaning such as “training”. I would say the obvious interpretation is to see this as the practical aspect of the Dhamma, that is, the practice. In this way dhammavinaya means something like “theory and practice”, or perhaps simply “spiritual path”. Over time this “training” narrowed down to become identified with what we now know as the Vinaya Piṭaka.


Alexander Wynne writes in The Oral Transmission of Early Buddhist Literature about the mahapadesa:

The difference between the verbs used to describe the act of comparing teachings with either ‘Sutta’ or ‘Vinaya’ is certainly of some significance. Cousins’ suggestion that otarati ought to be interpreted in the light of the Petakopadesa definition of otarana makes good sense. It probably means, as Cousins indicates, that the doctrinal content of a new teaching under considerationwas to be compared with the doctrinal content of a body of oral literature called ‘Sutta’, in one of the six categories of otarana. Of course this means that the body of literature called ‘Sutta’ is not a ‘set body of literature’, for the passage is concerned precisely with the supplementation of the existing body of literature called ‘Sutta’… In fact, if we follow the wording of the passage, the implication is that the works comprising ‘Sutta’ were transmitted word for word. We can deduce this because we are told that the ‘words and letters’ (padavyañjanani) of the teaching under consideration were to be ‘learnt correctly’ (sadhukaμuggahetva) before judgement was passed. If attention was to be paid to the words and letters of proposed teachings, it implies that the content of what was known as ‘Sutta’ was also transmitted by paying a similar attention to its words and letters, i.e. that it was transmitted word for word. The passage therefore shows that the accuracy with which a body of literature called ‘Sutta’ was meant to be transmitted was very high, down to the letter. It was not a fixed body of literature, for it could be supplemented by comparing its already established doctrinal content with the doctrinal content of new teachings, which could then be added to it. But the early Buddhists at least attempted to transmit it accurately…

it seems that the verb sandissati was used because it was the standard verb used to state that a person conforms to certain ethical or religious practices, or that certain practices are found ‘in’ a person or persons. It is understandable, therefore, that in the passage in question, it is asked if the words and letters of the teaching ‘conform’ (sandissanti) to the ‘Vinaya’, for this is the verb that was to be used when considering a thing’s conformity to religious practices. There is no implication that the Vinaya was fixed.

Is this any good?


This makes sense.

Basically, it is two separate things: As @Sunyo said too, the ‘Sutta’ part would be a body of oral literature with which things are compared. But as for the ‘Vinaya’ part, it seems that one should see if the teaching proposed conforms to the general training.

Someone could have a supposedly authentic passage that doctrinally matches the Suttas, but the practice could be against the gradual training / code of conduct. So for instance in some schools of Buddhism they have used sex and sexual practices in order to reach certain Buddhist goals. The doctrine of the goals themselves may accord with the Sutta, but the actual practice does not conform to the vinaya: having sex and using sexual indulgence are against the gradual training.

Also, I am of the opinion that ‘vinaya’ refers to the gradual training in these contexts. Every religion would have had some training regimen. It just so happens that in Buddhism, it seems that the gradual training gradually :wink: evolved into the Patimokkha and eventually to the full-fledged Vinaya Pitaka. When we look at the gradual training, sometimes its simple and straightforward. But when it’s expanded, it starts to look more and more like the Patimokkha (see e.g. DN 1). IDK if there has been research on this, but it makes perfect sense logically and textually.



Sāratthappakāsinī , ‘Revealer of the Essential Meaning’, is the title of Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Saṃyutta-nikāya.

This suggests that he recognised the practical and essential values of the Saṃyutta-nikāya suttas (dhamma) for Buddhist monks.

(All excellent responses here, I will get back to this when I have a moment!)

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Hi Bhante,

Two suttas that may be of interest are AN 4.102 and AN 4.107, each about four types of persons and what they do after memorizing (or not) the teaching, particularly in regards to the four noble truths. I think the fact that there is a clear description of certain individuals being incapable of understanding the four noble truths opposes what the Netti is suggesting about the four mahāpadesa. In short, not all listeners are capable of penetrating (with wisdom) what they have memorized, but would only be able to make a reasoned judgment based on those words and phrases. It seems only a sutavato ariyasāvaka could do so according to experiential knowledge, which would mean the four great references would only apply that degree of development. That seems unlikely, however, considering what some other suttas have to say about what to do in addition to memorizing the teachings:

These four things lead to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching. What four?

Firstly, the mendicants memorize discourses that have been learned correctly, with well placed words and phrases. When the words and phrases are well placed, the meaning is interpreted correctly. This is the first thing that leads to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching.

Furthermore, the mendicants are easy to admonish, having qualities that make them easy to admonish. They’re patient, and take instruction respectfully. This is the second thing that leads to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching.

Furthermore, the mendicants who are very learned—inheritors of the heritage, who have memorized the teachings, the monastic law, and the outlines—carefully make others recite the discourses. When they pass away, the discourses aren’t cut off at the root, and they have someone to preserve them. This is the third thing that leads to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching.

Furthermore, the senior mendicants are not indulgent or slack, nor are they backsliders; instead, they take the lead in seclusion, rousing energy for attaining the unattained, achieving the unachieved, and realizing the unrealized. Those who come after them follow their example. They too aren’t indulgent or slack … This is the fourth thing that leads to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching.

These are four things that lead to the continuation, persistence, and enduring of the true teaching.” -AN 4.160

Perhaps the four great references have more to do with preserving the foundations of the oral tradition than they do about analyzing the effectiveness of the Dhamma in practice. Even now, if we were to see something on the internet that is attributed to the Buddha we should come to a forum like this and ask or search the site. It seems “fake Buddha quotes” is the rejection pile when a great reference is used nowadays lol

Hope this is useful.

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SN/SA is likely the foundation of the oral tradition on the principal four Nikayas/Agamas (textual collections). This is because the core teachings of the four noble truths are mainly contained in the major discourses of the Samyutta.

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It’s been a while since this was discussed more. It would be interesting to hear if there have been any developments in the understanding of this passage.

Reviewing the post and discussion, I personally feel that sutta is here an equivalent to sūkta — that which is well-recited, a good saying — and vinaya is referring to the training as exemplified in the three-fold sīla, samādhi, paññā scheme for purification and liberation. This reading of sutta is supported by the observations found in A History of Mindfulness, etc. whereby ‘sutta’ seems to refer to the short sayings of the Buddha, doctrinal statements which are then wrapped up in narrative context and packaged with certain embellishments to form what we nowadays know as a full discourse.

If something ‘fits into’ the sutta, then, it would fit into that which is already considered “well said,” “well-expounded,” “well-recited,” etc. (i.e. the dhamma which is ‘svākkhāto’ as exemplfied in the earliest texts of the tradition). Others here have already raised reasons as to why this has more to do than just fitting in with the general idea of the four noble truths, and has something more to do with an oral culture.

I think the idea of something ‘fitting into’ the sutta is that it is in line with the sutta — the well-expounded Dhamma that the disciples learn and recite well — but not necessarily found word-for-word. One is told that XYZ is buddhavacana. They memorize that, and then go to those who are learned in the Dhamma, and check to see if XYZ fits in with the other things they hear in the sutta. If it’s something like “The Tathāgatagarbha is the true immutable attā which is pure, eternal bliss,” it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of that which is recited, or the “good news” of the Buddha (gospel - sūkta).

I think this would be things like the sutta-aṅga of SN/SĀ, especially the discourses on the truths and bodhipakkhiyā dhammā, etc. which are plain doctrinal things the Buddha proclaimed, taught, and were recited even during his life. Those are consistently said to comprise a body of recited literature that is well-expounded and leading to liberation; the ‘heartwood’ into which other things fit. They are also relatively short, straightforward, and few in number, so it is not unreasonable to see if things fit in line with this general body of ‘good news/good sayings.’

(Alternatively, ‘sutta’ here could be like the sutta of the Pāṭimokkha, i.e. a string of short statements that are arranged together in groups to cover essential teachings which are then discussed, analyzed, and commented on. So sutta could be the core texts of the proto-Saṁyutta in this other sense. This seems less likely given the nature of the discourses, but IDK if there has been any conclusion about the sūkta vs. sūtra issue here).

I already had another comment on vinaya which I still stand by. To add to this briefly, I can think up a hypothetical example. If someone says something is buddhavacana and is part of the sutta, we just learn it and compare it to the sutta as is passed down. But if someone recommends a particular practice for training the mind (removing greed, hate, delusion) then we might not do a ‘textual’ comparison. Rather, we would check and see if that type of practice is visible/evident/in accords with the practices that are accepted in Buddhism: the five precepts, contentment, fewness of wishes, tranquility, seclusion, etc. So is X recommended practice evident in the training that leads to and builds on the qualities of the Dhamma, or no?

This is relevant also because training is often much more specialized and personal than general doctrinal statements. To understand if something is in line with vinaya or not can be a bit more complicated. The Buddha didn’t outline every possibility of behavior or method or practice; he gave general principles and guidelines for developing certain qualities which match up with the Dhamma. So we should check if something is in agreement with and/or is evident in the training procedures as we have them.