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 vā (“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.