This series of introduction to the nikayas was originally published here as drafts for feedback. The final published versions made be read on the main SuttaCentral site. While the content is similar, I will not be updating and maintaining the draft versions here.
The Aṅguttara Nikāya is the last and longest of the four primary divisions of the Sutta Piṭaka. The word aṅguttara literally means “up by one factor”, i.e. “incremental”. It refers to the fact that the discourses are arranged by numbered sets, with the numbers increasing by one. I have translated it as Numbered Discourses, while previously it has been translated as the Numerical Discourses or the Gradual Sayings.
SuttaCentral follows Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation in counting 8122 discourses in total. The summary verse at the end of the collection, however, says there are 9,557 suttas. This scribal remark does not say how this count was arrived at; it must have been quite a process to count so many discourses when dealing only with palm-leaf manuscripts. In any case, as with the Saṁyutta Nikāya, this count is largely a product of discourses repeated according to templates. Many of these consist only of a single word; indeed, the process of abbreviation is carried to such extremes that hundreds of suttas do not, in fact, exist at all in the text; they are merely numbers to be filled out. Also, in the case of the Ones and Twos, most of the suttas are longer texts that have been divided to make the numbers. On SuttaCentral, these are treated as if one vagga was a sutta, and the abbreviated texts likewise are combined. If we count the files of the texts combined in this way, we arrive at more reasonable, but still very large, 1407 texts of substance.
The focus of the Numbered Discourses is on practical matters of everyday relevance. Guidelines of ethics and character predominate. If the Saṁyutta Nikāya gathers the chief teachings on doctrines, the Aṅguttara gathers the teachings on persons. The concerns of the lay community are a major focus, and many teachings deal with how to teach.
The use of numbered sets is found throughout the Buddhist texts, but here it becomes the main organizing principle. The typical Aṅguttara discourse consists of a statement that there a certain number of something; then an explanation of each item; then a conclusion that echoes the introduction. Sometimes a verse is added that summarizes the content. This formal pattern is highly optimized to reinforce learning and memorization. It is, in essence, exactly the same format that is used in the nightly news: begin by listing the news items for today; give the stories of each of items; and then summarize the highlights once more. The use of numbered sets remains popular today, with the “listicle” being a favorite format for internet articles.
Unlike these modern examples, however, the sets of teachings in the Aṅguttara are strongly structured. They are not merely collections of items on a theme, but make up an integrated sequence. The first item is the most fundamental; the subsequent items evolve from or build upon that; and the final item caps off the sequence.
For this reason the Aṅguttara provides an excellent entry point to the canon, especially for those with a limited amount of time. It only takes a few minutes to read a sutta, and it will contain within itself a complete and useful teaching.
The Aṅguttara Nikāya has a counterpart in the Ekottarikāgama preserved in the Chinese canon (EA). The Ekottarikāgama is a peculiar text of uncertain (possibly Mahāsaṅghika) affiliation, and it differs from the Pali text to a much greater extent than the parallels for DN, MN, and SN. In addition, there are two partial Ekottarikas in Chinese, as well as a number of independent Ekottarika-style suttas. Moreover, a substantial portion of a Sanskrit Ekottarāgama was discovered at Gilgit and has been edited and partially reconstructed by Tripāṭhi. While it is difficult to generalize, it seems as if most of these materials lie closer to the Pali text than does the main EA in Chinese.
How the Aṅguttara is Organized
The Aṅguttara Nikāya consists of major “books” (nipāta) numbered one through eleven. Each of these contains discourses consisting of the corresponding number of items. As usual, the discourses are gathered into vaggas, which sometimes have a loose theme. Each nipāta, except the first, organizes its vaggas into paṇṇāsas.
I don’t know why the Aṅguttara counts to eleven; I would expect a round number. Eleven is shared in common with the Chinese Ekottarikāgama, which suggests it was an early feature, yet it does not appear to be driven by the texts themselves, as most of the items in the Book of the Elevens consist of teachings familiar elsewhere, with the addition of an item or two.
It sometimes feels as if the Aṅguttara was assembled from leftovers. After the long suttas were gathered in the Majjhima and Dīgha, and the shorter suttas on central themes into the Saṁyutta, a large mass of texts remained that resisted easy categorization. This included many fascinating and profound teachings, as well as a large mass of stock repetitions, and it trailed off into odds and ends of increasingly obscure value. It’s as if the redactors, faced with a warehouse of leftovers and bric-à-brac, tried their best to shelve and stack the items in a logical way, but were often left with just plonking things on shelves as best they could. Since the texts usually had a distinct number in the teaching, this was taken as the organizational principle, in lieu of anything more meaningful. Even texts that don’t explicitly mention a number can often be analyzed into a set of items, so they could be included too. (See for example AN 3.31 and AN 3.32.)
To be clear, it should not be thought that the Aṅguttara lacks the standard teachings familiar from the rest of the nikāyas. On the contrary, we find the four absorptions (AN 3.58), the four noble truths and dependent origination (AN 3.61), the faculties and powers (AN 4.163; the latter in some detail at AN 5.12–16), the threefold training (AN 3.81), the divine meditations (AN 3.63), and many more. But such teachings are scattered throughout a large mass of suttas on a diverse range of topics.
In the introduction to his translation, Bhikkhu Bodhi practically abandons any attempt to make sense of the structure. He gives an example of a chapter with several seemingly unrelated discourses, remarking: “With such apparently arbitrary organization, one cannot but wonder what the compilers had in mind.” (The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, introduction, p. 22). As a result, rather than analyze the content as it occurs in the Aṅguttara, he developed an extensive and carefully-considered thematic analysis. I encourage anyone interested in a serious study of the Aṅguttara to read it.
I would like to approach the material from a different perspective, however, one that lies closer to the experience of reading the text. I find Bhikkhu Bodhi’s question an intriguing one: what were the redactors thinking?
While there is no doubt that the sequence of suttas and ideas in the Aṅguttara is to some extent chaotic, is it really plausible that the same body of people who displayed such rigorous dedication to classification in the Saṁyutta should simply abandon their efforts in the Aṅguttara? Perhaps to understand the redactors better, and through them the teachings that they worked with, we must approach the problem in a new way.
Here are three organizational principles that I have noticed while reading the Aṅguttara:
- Numerological meaning.
- Thematic clusters, segues, and arcs.
- Spaced repetition.
Below I will show how these things work out over the first three nipātas. In this way I hope to guide a reader through the wilds until they feel comfortable proceeding on their own.
It is surely not the case that these are the only organizational principles at work. Nor is it the case that they fully explain all, or even most, of the randomness. But they do, I believe, hint at a guiding understanding that shaped the collection in the form we have it today.
One general thought first. Much of how we organize and relate to the world is not through reason, but through association. If we think of it in terms of the five aggregates, a collection such as the Saṁyutta Nikāya has an overall structure that is deliberately thought through and constructed, i.e. it is based on rational choices or saṅkhārās. Perhaps what we need to look for in the Aṅguttara is a different way of thinking, one based on perception, memory, and association (saññā).
But why would such a large mass of texts be organized in such a way? The answer is not hard to find. Like so many of the principles that organize the texts, it is for memorization. For a reciter who has to keep hundreds of texts in order, any kind of connection works. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the topic, a shared word, a syntax, a rhyme, or anything else. Perception recognizes patterns. It associates one thing with the next, regardless of how significant the connecting feature is.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re organizing your personal library. You could use a rational system: alphabetical order, subject matter, or size to fit your shelves. But it’s your library, you can do what you want. Maybe on one shelf you put books with blue covers; on another, books you haven’t read; and on another, books whose smell reminds you of old friends. To anyone else it seems chaotic, but you it makes perfect sense. You can find the book you need when you want to. Perception does the heavy lifting for you, without the cognitive strain of having to work through the rational system every time.
The meaning of numbers
For the most part the use of numbers in Buddhist texts is entirely pragmatic. Once you know that a set has a certain number of items, you can tell if you’ve forgotten something.
Yet numbers have always been imbued with a significance and meaning that transcends mere accounting. They allows us to make sense of a complex cosmos through a simple set of conventions. Numbers are used in Buddhism to provoke awe, even fear, at the “astronomical” scope of transmigration. Is it possible that the symbolic meaning of numbers lends a sense of unity to the various nipātas?
Symbolic meaning is, by its very nature, impossible to pin down with precision. Unlike rational definition, it does not serve to limit the scope of meaning, but to amplify it through suggestion, hints, and connotations. The symbolic meaning of numbers has, so far as I know, mostly been ignored in Buddhist studies. A number of numerological observations were made in the number entries in the Rhys Davids’ and Stede’s Pali-English Dictionary, but I am aware of little since then. However, we can make a few general observations.
- One is the number of harmony, simplicity, and supremacy. It is specially emphasized in the context of deep meditation (jhāna or samādhi). However, unlike many spiritual contexts, in Buddhism it never has a metaphysical sense: Nibbāna is zero, not one.
- Two is used for pairs, which may be partners—hands, eyes, man and wife—or opponents—good vs. evil, light vs. dark, pain vs. pleasure. It represents the dualities of the world.
- Three is made up of 2 + 1. It adds an extra, often spiritual, dimension to the worldly dualism of two. This is quite explicit in such sets as “gratification, drawback, and escape”, and more subtly in, say, pleasant, painful, and neutral feeling. Three represents the other; and it is the other which contains the seed of transcendence.
- Four is the most characteristic number of Buddhism, and the Book of the Fours is the largest of the nipātas. Its primary metaphor is the four quarters, and thus connotes totality and balance, most obviously in the four noble truths. Multiples of four have the same meaning at a higher order. Ten is similar, in that it is derived from the four quarters, the four intermediate quarters, and above and below.
- Five stems from the hand, which is what we use to count; hence it divides into 4 + 1 (fingers and thumb) rather than 2 + 3. The most obvious example of this is the five “grasping” aggregates, where consciousness stands against the other four. Likewise in, say, the five faculties and powers, wisdom is the “thumb”.
- Six takes as its root metaphor the body: four limbs, torso, and head. The general sense is a “large whole”, and the most prominent set is the six sense fields.
- Seven is an astronomical number, derived from the lunar cycles and the heavenly bodies (sun + moon + five visible plants). It is used especially commonly in myth, and has the general sense of “the entire cycle of life and death”. It appears in this sense in the story of the Bodhisatta’s birth.
With such general meanings, and doubtless many exceptions and contradictions, it is not really possible to establish beyond doubt that the numbers of the Aṅguttara have a symbolic meaning. If you dislike any attempt at reading symbolic meaning, I cannot prove you wrong. But it does, I believe, give us an approach through which to appreciate the efforts of the redactors and the manner in which they dealt with their diverse and complex material.
Thematic clusters, segues, and arcs
Despite its chaotic impression, suttas in Aṅguttara are rarely isolated. Most of the time they appear in thematic clusters that deal with the same topic. This might be just a pair of suttas, though it’s not uncommon to find an entire vagga on a specific theme. These are often closely related suttas, simply varying a few details from one to the next. Or they may have a loose thematic thread, featuring, for example, the same person, or group of persons. In several cases, vaggas of the same name and theme appear multiple times in the collection.
Such thematic clusters are easy to recognize; but still, it often seems as if there is nothing that connects one cluster with the next. However, this is not always the case. Often the shift from one cluster to another happens by means of what might be called a thematic segue. When moving from one thematic cluster to the next, some common element is maintained. This might be a topic, or simply some formal feature—a question format, a word, a syntax, etc. Such hooks help smooth the transition from cluster to cluster.
In such cases we find that there is some element in the first cluster [A], which is combined with a second element [AB] to form a new cluster or extend the old one. Then the second element is combined with something else to make yet another cluster [BC]. And perhaps later the second element is dropped altogether leaving just the third [C], or it is recombined with something new. If you compare the first element [A] with the third [C] there’s nothing in common. Yet the progress from one to the other is clearly gradual. And the frequency with which this occurs shows that it is by no means accidental.
Similar techniques are a stock in trade of musical composition. After introducing a motif, the composer gradually transforms and develops it. Eventually they might arrive at a new motif, which shares nothing in common with the original, but from which it clearly evolved.
A thematic segue is a often a purely formal technique that says little about the subject matter. However, with careful attention we can see that thematic clusters, chained together with segues, sometimes evolve over larger spans of text to create a loosely organized thematic arc. Such arcs echo teaching frameworks that are familiar from elsewhere, such as the Gradual Training. This is used, for example, to inform the shape of the first 75 suttas on the Book of the Ones. Such arcs are by no means as clear and formally structured as the teachings on which they are based. Yet the progress from one topic to the next is undeniable.
Indeed, each nipāta can be seen as forming its own arc, as they typically begin with basic practices, and end with realizing Nibbāna. The repetition series that round out each nipāta also have their own internal arc, leading towards the highest qualities.
In the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas, a student would spend a fair period of time memorizing one specific text, rehearsing it, and—if they are a good student—inquiring and questioning about the meaning. Only when it was mastered would they move on to the next. In the Saṁyutta, a student would learn dozens, even hundreds of suttas on the same topic, sharing similar passages and ideas, and often varying little one to the other. Such suttas may be memorized quickly, and interpretive problems often arise at the level of the topic rather than the individual text.
But memorizing long texts, or many texts on the same subject, can get boring, for the mind is stimulated by variety and surprise. In the Aṅguttara, a student would learn one or two suttas on a topic, or maybe a few more, then something else, then back to the original topic, then a third. Now, as we have seen, there are various features that help them keep the sequence of texts straight. But perhaps there is something more to it: perhaps the very randomness and repetition helps them to learn.
This is a lot like the modern technique known as “spaced repetition”, commonly used for language learning. A vocabulary of words is introduced one at a time in a random sequence. After learning one word, one moves on to another. But the first word is then re-introduced a little later to reinforce learning. And so it goes, with the same words coming back again and again. In terms of the sequence from one word to the next, everything is random. But the overall pattern is carefully optimized to reinforce and speed up memorization.
Perhaps we could think of it like a school. The Saṁyutta is like a school curriculum: everything you need to know on a topic, all in one place. But the Aṅguttara is like a school day. One class follows the other, and there is no real rhyme and reason to it. Some things happen fairly regularly and predictably, while others seem to just pop up at random. Despite its more chaotic nature, it works: that’s how we learn. No-one would suggest that school subjects are best mastered by first learning the science curriculum, then the maths, then the history. Not only does the spaced repetition reinforce learning, but it provokes us to see new and unexpected connections between things.
The Book of the Ones
I have suggested that the number one carries with it a specific set of connotations, notably harmony, simplicity, and supremacy. If this is framed as an overall theme, it might be something like this: keep your spiritual practice simple and focused to help your mind attain deep immersion, and in that way you can realize the supreme Dhamma. Let us see how the Book of the Ones exemplifies these attributes.
The Book of the Ones is a rather special case in that virtually the entire nipāta is constructed from fragments and templates. The collection begins with the striking assertion that no sight occupies a man’s mind like that of a woman, or a woman’s mind like that of a man. The remainder of the exterior senses are listed for each gender binary, making ten suttas in all for the first vagga. This very much has the appearance of a single sutta divided into ten. In the Fives (AN 5.55) we find a similar set of statements given in a particular context, dealing with the masculine perspective only. And in the Chinese we find that the parallels at EA 9.7 and EA 9.8 fit the two halves of this vagga. This supports the idea that these texts were originally combined to form a single sutta, or perhaps a pair of suttas.
An even clearer example of this is provided by the three pairs of suttas at AN 1.76 to AN 1.81. Each of the pairs follows the same pattern, exemplified by the first pair. AN 1.76 says that loss of relatives is a small thing, while wisdom is the worst thing to lose. AN 1.77 presents the inverse: growth of relatives is a small thing, for wisdom is the best thing to grow. But it continues to round off the sutta by urging the mendicants to train to grow in wisdom. This conclusion is lacking in the first of the pair, and is a clear sign that the text has been divided.
One should not conclude from this that the text has been assembled haphazardly. On the contrary, we can identify a series of arcs that bind long series of suttas together. The opening chapters are designed to show the development of meditation, echoing the meditator’s progress in the Gradual Training.
- The first chapter, as we have seen already, deals with the restraint of sexuality, one of the foundations of meditation.
- The second chapter deals with the hindrances which must be abandoned before entering deep meditation. This is linked via thematic segue from the previous chapter, the link being the phrase “I do not see a single thing”.
- The third and fourth chapters deal with the advantages of the developed mind, which has been purified through the process of meditation: nothing brings greater happiness and benefit. They continue using the phrase “I do not see a single thing”.
- The fifth chapter abandons the phrase “I do not see a single thing”. Here the thematic segue is the topic of “mind” (citta) and its development.
- The fifth chapter ends with two discourses that mention the famous “radiant mind”. These are fragments, and a more complete statement is found in the following suttas that start the next chapter. It is somewhat unusual to find such closely connected suttas broken over a vagga boundary like this. Note that the “radiant mind” is not a metaphysical term, and neither here nor anywhere else in the early Buddhist texts is the mind said to be “intrinsically” or “naturally” or “originally” radiant or luminous. On the contrary, the mind is conditioned and hence is not “intrinsically” anything at all. The radiant mind is simply a way of talking about meditative absorption or jhāna.
- The sixth chapter continues on the theme of absorption. However, it changes theme at AN 1.56—though maintaining focus on “mind”—and continues by addressing the causality of good and bad qualities. In context, these can be understood as pertaining to the wisdom portion of meditation, as treated in the fourth of the satipaṭṭhānas. This series culminates at AN 1.75 with the perfection of the awakening factors, thus signifying the completion of the path.
A structure such as this is particularly telling as it reveals the intent of the redactors. This thematic arc spanning 75 fragmentary suttas does not exist in the sources at all: it is purely implied by the choices of the redactors. Their method was to reduce the statements of the Dhamma to their simplest meaningful elements, then reassemble them according to the principles of the Dhamma as they understood them.
And the redactors were even more subtle than that. For not only are these fragments assembled to form a coherent whole, but the choice of theme was quite deliberate. Of all the doctrinal contexts in Buddhism, it is samādhi or “unification of mind” where the number one is most prominent. In starting with the Ones, the redactors were sensitive to the use of numbers in the canon, and arranged their texts to bring the most important “one” to the fore.
From here, the text shifts focus. As noted above, AN 1.76–81 deals with pairs of gain and loss. Then from AN 1.82 we have a series of texts on those things that are harmful and beneficial, starting with the pair of negligence and diligence. While these teachings are of course common throughout the canon, it is fitting that they appear here to represent the Aṅguttara’s special focus on the fundamentals of a good life. Here they exemplify the aspect of simplicity, helping a student to focus on just one aspect of Dhamma at a time.
The same set of factors is treated a few times with slightly varying templates, the final of which says that each of these harmful things leads to the disappearance of Buddhism, while the good things lead to its continuation. This leads us up to AN 1.129.
From AN 1.130–169, the topic of the preservation of the Dhamma is continued, but applied to new theme, one that is quite distinctive of the Aṅguttara: teaching the Dhamma. Specifically, that those who present the Dhamma accurately make much merit and preserve Buddhism, while those who distort or misrepresent the Dhamma make bad karma and destroy Buddhism. This series of texts displays its own inner structure, as it begins with simply the “teaching” and then continues to differentiate the Dhamma more and more finely, especially with the introduction of the Vinaya and a rather extensive list of technical terms for monastic discipline. It does not take much to see that an originally simple statement could have been drawn out by adding multiple aspects of the teaching, conveniently giving the students of the Aṅguttara some Vinaya material to learn.
This series of suttas clearly grows out of the former, with the theme of preserving Buddhism as the thematic segue. Thus we have, from AN 1.82 through AN 1.169, a second thematic arc consisting of 77 suttas.
From AN 1.170 a new theme is introduced, one that also represents a key aspect of the Aṅguttara: persons. Buddhism is, of course, most famous for its teachings on not-self, and its impersonal analysis of psychological processes. But there is plenty of material throughout the suttas that deals with persons, or character types, and much of that is in the Aṅguttara. These texts were later assembled to form the Abhidhamma text the Puggalapaññatti, the “Description of Persons”.
Of all the persons in Buddhism, the incomparable one is the Buddha himself. While there are a series of Buddhas over the ages, in our age he is unique. Hence these suttas speak of the “one person” who arises in the world who is uniquely beneficial and transcendent. At AN 1.187 the Buddha’s chief disciple, Sāriputta, praised as the one who continues to roll the wheel of Dhamma after the Buddha. This segues into the next series of suttas, which single out individual followers of the Buddha for particular praise. This is a rather fascinating list, in which appear many characters from all over the canon; not only the four nikāyas, but the Vinaya and the Khuddaka as well. Prominent monks appear in AN 1.188–234; nuns from AN 1.235–247; laymen from AN 1.248–257; and laywomen, from AN 1.258–267. All of these people are “number one” in their field, exemplifying the sense of “one” as supremacy.
The next chapter continues the theme of “persons”, enumerating various things that are possible or impossible for various people. For example, it is impossible for one “attained to view”—that is, a stream-enterer—to take any condition as permanent. But from AN 1.284–295, once again we find a thematic segue; the “person” vanishes and the theme of possible and impossible is applied rather on an impersonal level: good things cannot come from bad deeds.
This makes up the third great thematic arc in the Ones, 125 suttas from AN 1.170–AN 1.295. The remainder of the Ones continues in a similar way, with fragmented suttas assembled along loose thematic lines. The themes remain similar, with one difference. As the Book draws closer to its end, the subject of Nibbāna, the final goal of Buddhism, becomes ever more prominent. The final vagga is called the “Chapter on the Deathless”, and it deals directly with the path to full awakening. Thus the sense of thematic unity that has been evident to multiple sections of the Book of the Ones is also evident in its overall structure, assembled by the redactors to culminate in awakening.
The Book of the Twos
The second nipāta is a kind of bridge between the “arcs of fragments” that characterize the first nipāta and the more complete suttas that become prominent in the remainder of the Aṅguttara. It echoes and amplifies the themes of the first nipāta, while also introducing new ideas.
It begins with a series of suttas that speak of the fundamental principles of the good life: doing good and avoiding bad (AN 2.3–4) and the results of deeds in this life and the next (AN 2.1). This, I think, announces what the redactors aimed to be the chief theme of this nipāta: the idea that there is a moral order in the world, there is good and evil, and if we comprehend this we can live our life well. The collection starts by emphasizing this fact, and the dire consequences of ignoring it.
The second chapter builds on this, speaking on the “power of reflection” to look back and understand this moral order, and the “power of development” to move on from the bad and develop the good (AN 2.11–13). A specific example of this is given in the case of a disciplinary measure within the Saṅgha (AN 2.15; cp. AN 2.21). When one mendicant accuses another of wrongdoing, both should “reflect” on what really happened and their own role in the affair, and only then can the issue be properly healed and everyone move on. This chapter also details in various respects the way that good and bad deeds lead to various results (AN 2.16, AN 2.17), spelling out a series of results that pertain both to this life and the next (AN 2.18). The Buddha then introduces the idea of a deliberate practice: one should not only recognize these things and reflect on them within oneself, but develop the good and give up the bad, for it is possible to do so (AN 2.19).
These suttas (and others) build on the teachings found in the first nipāta that deal with basic principles. They conclude the opening arc that establishes the theme of this nipāta: the worldly duality of good and bad, which creates both a responsibility and an opportunity to respond.
But it should not be thought that these chapters are fully coherent and systematic. One finds the occasional sutta that appears quite random, for example AN 2.10 on entering the rainy season retreat; or AN 2.60 on why fauns (kimpurisa) do not use human speech.
Meanwhile, distinct themes from the first nipāta are also introduced, mixed up without clear order. AN 2.14 mentions two ways of teaching Dhamma—in brief and in detail—while AN 2.20 says that the survival of Buddhism depends on getting both the meaning and the phrasing of the texts correct (also see AN 2.41). AN 2.23 reprises the theme that one who distorts the teaching misrepresents the Buddha and contributes to the ending of Buddhism. This applies to those who claim that things were spoken by the Buddha when they were not.
AN 2.24 introduces the contrast between the discourses that require interpretation (neyyattha) and those whose meaning is explicit (nītattha). In some suttas (eg. MN 133), we find that the Buddha gives a brief statement which the mendicants do not understand, so they seek advice on how to interpret it. In other cases a verse or doctrinal statement is unclear and the mendicants discuss it. These examples show that the process of discussion and analysis of the Buddha’s teaching was underway from the very beginning. This process was eventually to be formalized as the various sets of Abhidhamma texts, and spelled out in the commentaries. But these later texts did not yet exist, and should not be read back into the suttas.
AN 2.31 reintroduces another of the themes of the first nipāta: meditation. The pair of serenity (samatha) and discernment (or “insight”, vipassanā) are said to play a part in realization: serenity develops the mind, while vipassanā develops wisdom. Together they lead to the two aspects of awakening: the freedom of heart and the freedom by wisdom.
But this is, for the moment, an isolated text, for the next series of texts returns to the theme of persons. In fact this theme was briefly introduced earlier, when AN 2.2 contrasted the efforts of lay folk and renunciants (AN 2.2). AN 2.32 says that a good person knows gratitude, while the bad one does not. AN 2.33 speaks of the strongest and most emotional ties of gratitude, those of a child to their parents. The Buddha says that even by carrying your parents around for the rest of their lives, feeding and cleaning them, you cannot repay them the gift of life. Only by establishing them in the principles of the Dhamma can you repay them. The theme of respect for parents is further developed in AN 3.31.
In AN 2.35 the Buddha tells a brahmin that the traditional religious donation (dakkhiṇa) is owed to those who are purified, that is, the trainee and master on the path. These replace the sacrifice of the brahmins. Next follow some teachings by disciples, in which both Sāriputta (AN 2.36) and Mahākaccāna (AN 2.38) make a distinction between inner and outer practice, while Mahākaccāna makes a shrewd observation: householders argue about sensual pleasures, but renunciants argue over views (AN 2.37). In AN 2.39 the Buddha makes a rather biting comparison between a kingdom overrun with bandits and a Saṅgha where the good mendicants are weak, cowed into silence. The following chapter (AN 2.42–51) expands on this by contrasting good and bad assemblies.
From assemblies as groups of people, the text revisits yet another theme of the first nipāta: the Buddha as the supreme person. Here he is paired with his worldly counterpart, the wheel-turning emperor (AN 2.52–55). Continuing with the theme of kinds of people, AN 2.62 and AN 2.63 describe procedures in the Saṅgha for settling disputes and living harmoniously.
The next chapter is tightly constructed on the subject of happiness (sukha). It introduces the topic by contrasting the happiness of lay people and that of renunciants, of which the latter is better (AN 2.64). This continues the theme of persons, specifically the contrast between lay folk and renunciants, which was already stated in the second text of the nipāta. Here it is combined with the topic of happiness, which is new. A series of suttas expands on this theme; but it uses a thematic segue to move away from the focus on “persons” and speak of happiness in purely psychological terms more reminiscent of the Saṁyutta.
This chapter itself forms another segue—a nested segue if you will—to the next series of chapters, the unifying characteristic being the tight integration of short suttas on a single pattern in a vagga, returning to the kind of “vagga as sutta” that we saw in the Book of the Ones. Chapter 8 deals with the causes for good and bad qualities; Chapter 9 deals with various miscellaneous pairs of “things” (dhammā); Chapter 10 deals with the contrast between the fool and the astute; and Chapter 11, while a little more diverse, caps off this series.
AN 2.130–AN 2.133 eulogize great disciples, reminding us of the lists of the foremost disciples in the Book of the Ones. A few discourses then revisit the theme of good and bad people inheriting the results of their deeds (AN 2.134–AN 2.137). The remainder of the nipāta lists a long series of pairs of contrasted qualities. Particularly interesting is the series at AN 2.280–309 where the Buddha gives the reasons for laying down rules for monastics. Normally this is a list of ten reasons, but here they are arranged as pairs. The final series speaks of developing deep understanding and letting go by means of the pair of serenity and discernment. Thus, despite its main focus on worldly ethics and results, the second nipāta, like the first, ends with the practices leading to awakening.
The Book of the Threes
With this book we move on from the fragmentary assemblages of the Book of the Ones and partly the Book of the Twos, and find more conventionally unified suttas. Of course, this is never an absolute, as all the books of the Aṅguttara retain extensive repetition series. Still, the focus from now is clearly on the whole sutta; and as a consequence, the hand of the redactors is harder to discern.
That does not mean, however, that there is a dramatic break from the first books. On the contrary, the Book of the Threes begins with a thematic vagga that focuses on the familiar contrasting pair of the fool and the astute. The number three is represented in the qualities that are said to characterize them. The Bālavagga (Chapter on the Fool) corresponds to the similarly-named third and tenth chapters of the Twos, as well as the second chapter of the Fives.
Like the Books of the Ones and Twos, this nipāta begins by emphasizing the problematic situation that we are in, the tensions and struggles of our worldly situation. The second vagga shifts focus to what we can do about it.
Thus in AN 3.13 we first see a clear example of the number three as a worldly binary and a transcendent dimension that resolves the contradiction. This sutta speaks of one without hope—someone afflicted by poverty and misery of station, as well as illness of body—and a hopeful person, who looks to a bright future. But then there is the one who has done away with hope: since they have achieved their goal, there is nothing to look forward to.
AN 3.14 makes an important political point: even the greatest of rulers are subject to the rule of law (dhamma). Here the relevant group of three is action by body, speech, and mind. This triad—which is pre-Buddhist—expresses one of the fundamental principles of the Dhamma, the focus on ethical choices, on doing good deeds. It is found constantly throughout the Threes. Whereas a worldly philosophy might take into consideration only a person’s external acts of body and speech, for Buddhism the mind is always the most important. It is the mind that is ultimately responsible for what we do and say, and it is through the mind that freedom is found. Thus the mind here points to the transcendent dimension of escape.
The next discourse continues with the threefold division of body, speech, and mind, giving some practical advice as to how to work for their proper development. For the first time the Aṅguttara ventures into narrative. It tells the story of a chariot-maker of the past, who was commissioned by the king to make a new war chariot for a battle in six months. This is a rather striking setup: the scale of society is so small that it is unremarkable for a king to personally speak to a chariot-maker. And apparently a single chariot is an adequate military build-up for war; a war that is, politely enough, scheduled precisely six months in advance. The small scale and low stakes of this charming story are a strong contrast with the elaborate and fanciful legends of the Dīgha.
The chariot-maker completes the first wheel only six days before the battle, and is urged to rush the second one. But time matters: the first wheel is well-formed and stable, while the second wobbles and crashes. The Buddha then goes on to identify himself as the chariot-maker. This too is remarkable, as it is one of the very few Jātaka stories in the four nikāyas. The Buddha-to-be’s humble station as a lowly chariot-maker is unusual, as usually he is said to be a great king of the past. It’s also noteworthy that his commission is morally dubious: he is an arms manufacturer. Later the Aṅguttara will say that trade in arms is one of the forms of wrong livelihood (AN 5.177). One might argue that a chariot is not a weapon; but it is explicitly required as a war vehicle, and today we would not hesitate to count, say, a tank or a fighter jet as weapons platforms. In the later Jātaka collection, it is not unusual for the Bodhisatta to break precepts or commit various acts of dubious morality; after all, the whole point is that he is not yet perfect. Still, this adds to the striking impression of this little tale, so much more down to earth and realistic than the other Jātakas in the nikāyas.
AN 3.16 introduces the idea of the “guaranteed practice”, which consists of three of the elements of the Gradual Training: sense restraint, eating in moderation, and wakefulness. These implicitly call back to the very first chapter of the Aṅguttara, here presented in a more standard form.
One of the Aṅguttara’s characteristic rhetorical devices is to contrast the worldly with the sacred; remember how AN 2.2 spoke of the efforts of the lay and the renunciant. AN 3.19 expands this theme, comparing a shopkeeper who must work morning, noon, and night with a mendicant who applies themselves to their meditation morning, noon, and night. AN 2.20 applies the same metaphor in a different way. These suttas cap off the first arc, which deals with understanding the dangers of the world, and working to escape from it.
The third chapter revisits the theme of “persons”. It begins with a discussion among some senior mendicants regarding who is best out of three kinds of spiritually attained person; or in other words, who has best implemented the practice encouraged in the first two chapters (AN 3.21). An interesting comparison is made between treatment of illness and providing spiritual assistance: you can’t always help, but you should at least try (AN 3.22).
A number of suttas in the Threes share a pattern where the first item is a foundation, the second is the realization of the four noble truths, and the third is full awakening. This first appears at AN 3.12, and is applied in different ways in AN 3.24 and AN 3.25.
Returning to the theme of meditative immersion with which the entire collection started, we are introduced to an intriguing teaching that reappears multiple times in the Aṅguttara, but nowhere else in the canon (AN 3.32, AN 10.6, AN 10.7, AN 11.7, AN 11.18–AN 11.21). It begins with a question: could it be that a mendicant might attain a state of immersion that is free of all ego and conceit? Normally it is understood that the meditative absorptions are shared between ordinary people and enlightened beings on the path. The perfected ones are distinguished by having let go the cause of suffering, not because they have attained some special state of meditation. But these suttas, with their striking note of wonder, imply that there is a special meditative state attained only by the perfected ones.
This discourse is also distinguished by the fact that it finishes by quoting a verse currently included in the Sutta Nipāta, and even correctly names the chapter, the “The Way to the Beyond”. It is not at all obvious that the verse was originally intended to refer to a state of meditation. This shows that free and imaginative readings of suttas were found even in the earliest times.
The next discourse (AN 3.33) continues with the theme of going beyond ego and conceit, and it too quotes from “The Way to the Beyond”. But it starts with the Buddha in what appears to be an uncharacteristically despondent mood, saying that whether he teaches in brief or in detail—harking back to AN 2.14—it’s hard to find anyone who understands.
AN 3.35 narrates a personal encounter with a fellow by the name of Hatthaka, who came across the Buddha meditating near his home town of Āḷavī. He asks if the Buddha slept well, considering the harshness of his outdoors living. The Buddha replies that he is one of those who sleeps well in the world, as he is rid of the greed, hate, and delusion that disturb people in their sleep.
This is the second time this classic triad appears in the Threes. They first appeared in the previous sutta, AN 3.34, as the source of deeds, and will recur in this sense in multiple suttas in this nipāta. Like the triad of body, speech, and mind, they can be seen to exemplify the 2 + 1 pattern. Greed and hate are a codependent pair, the ugly opposites. Delusion underlies them both; but at the same time, the counterpart of delusion is wisdom, and it is through wisdom that transcendence is possible.
This narrative mood ventures into mythology in the next discourse, which gives the Buddhist account of the god Yama, lord of the dead. While one might expect a death god to be fearsome, here he takes a decidedly Buddhist approach to the afterlife. When the departed are brought to Yama, he neither judges nor punishes. Rather, he asks the departed whether he took heed of the messengers sent by the gods: an old person, a sick person, and a corpse. These, of course, are three of the four divine messengers seen by the Bodhisattva before he went forth (canonically found in the life of Vipassī; see DN 14). When the departed one replies that he took no heed, Yama castigates him for his negligence and then falls silent. The departed is dragged off to endure the sufferings of hell, here recounted in a briefer form than MN 129 and MN 130. Yama goes on to lament the pitiful state of mortals, including himself, and wishes he could be reborn as a human and practice Buddhism.
The mythological mood continues in the next couple of suttas (AN 3.37, AN 3.38), which introduce a new topic that will be very important for the Aṅguttara; namely, the uposatha or “sabbath”. This was a special “holy day” for religious observance observed weekly or on certain special days. Apparently the ministers of the Four Great Kings survey the earth on such days to see if people are honoring their betters and doing good. If they are, they rejoice, for they know that such people will be reborn in heaven to swell the hosts of the gods, whereas if they are not they fear the hosts of the demons will increase. This will of course have serious military implications in the ongoing war between the two.
The next couple of suttas deal with renunciation, first as the Buddha’s recollection of his own delicate upbringing (AN 3.39), then as a reflection for how a renunciate is to reflect with integrity on their choices (AN 3.41). AN 3.41 and AN 3.42 look at the other side of the coin, the qualities that make merit for a lay donor, especially faith and generosity as well as desire to learn. Learning is taken up as the theme of the next two suttas (AN 3.43 and AN 3.44). Then the themes of generosity, faith, and the worthy spiritual life that make merit fruitful are revisited (AN 3.45, AN 3.46, AN 3.48). Mendicants are then urged to be diligent (AN 3.49) and the nature of bad mendicants is disclosed (AN 3.50). Taken together, this series of 12 suttas can be read as a small thematic arc on the relation between lay folk and renunciants, the need for both to have integrity and the proper sense of values in their own sphere, and the mutual support of each other through generosity of material things and of teachings.
Next begins a new vagga, “On Brahmins”, which as one might expect, depicts the Buddha in conversation with brahmins. In AN 3.51 and AN 3.52, the Buddha is approached by two brahmins, who confess that they have not lived a good life, and now, in their dotage, seek for help. The Buddha acknowledges the brevity of life and urges restraint of body, speech, and mind. AN 3.53 has the Buddha speaking to another brahmin on how the Dhamma is to be realized in this very life. He gives a similar teaching to a wanderer (AN 3.54) and to the brahmin Jāṇussoṇi (AN 3.55). That the Buddha’s teaching may be realized in this life is a stock characteristic of the Dhamma (sandiṭṭhiko akāliko), but it is easy to overlook how directly this was a rebuke of pre-existing religious traditions. They looked forward to rewards in the future—whether a heavenly rebirth or the eventual annihilation of suffering—but the Buddha, while not denying the reality and importance of future fruits, refocused spiritual life on the present.
AN 3.56 gives a different kind of teaching to a brahmin. In a message with a special poignancy in our troubled times, the Buddha explains why civilizations collapse, namely, unbridled greed. In AN 3.57 the Buddha refutes the wanderer Vacchagotta’s accusation that he only encourages giving to his own followers. When the brahmin Tikaṇṇa (“Three-ear”) praises true brahmins, the Buddha responds with his own redefinition of a brahmin, rejecting the value of birth and Vedic learning, and giving the second part of the Gradual Training, starting with the absorptions (AN 3.58; AN 3.59 is similar). In AN 3.60, the Buddha not only rejects the value of the Vedic sacrifice, he shows that by teaching Dhamma one can benefit many more people.
The seventh vagga is titled the “Great Chapter”, and it introduces a series of discourses on a larger scale. It begins with a thematic segue; AN 3.61 continues the theme of the relation between Buddhist and non-Buddhist theories, but it does so as a straight doctrinal discourse to the mendicants, rather than as an interfaith dialogue. This magnificent discourse offers an important framing of dependent origination and it deserves detailed study. This Great Chapter is unified by length of sutta rather than by subject; however a number of other suttas deal with non-Buddhist philosophy and relations (AN 3.64, AN 3.68, AN 3.70), including the famous Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65; also AN 3.66).
Here I will end my analysis, as I think enough examples have been given to illustrate both the connectedness and the chaos of this collection. Hopefully the reader can find their own way from here, and not feel so bewildered by the sudden shifts and changes they encounter.
A Brief Textual History
The Aṅguttara Nikāya was edited by R. Morris (vols. 1 and 2) and E. Hardy (vols 3–5) on the basis of manuscripts in Sinhalese and Burmese scripts; Hardy also made use of the then recently-published royal Thai edition. It was published in Latin script by the Pali Text Society from 1885 to 1900. Indexes by M. Hunt and Mrs C.A.F. Rhys Davids were added in 1910. The first translation followed in 1932–36 by F.L. Woodward (vols. 1, 2, and 5) and E.M. Hare (vols. 3 and 4) under the title The Book of the Gradual Sayings.
As was the case with the Majjhima and Saṁyutta, a number of disparate individual suttas from the Aṅguttara were published in book form or the web. However a complete new translation had to wait for Bhikkhu Bodhi to complete his work on the Saṁyutta Nikāya. As described in the introduction to his translation, in the late 1990s Bhikkhu Bodhi collected Nyanaponika Thera’s four-part series of Wheel booklets into a single volume for the International Sacred Literature Trust as An Aṅguttara Nikāya Anthology. He then added sixty more suttas and published the total of 208 suttas as Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya with AltaMira Press in 1999. In 2012 he completed the full translation, which was published as The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha through Wisdom Publications. His Introduction was even more extensive than his previous works; less technical than the Saṁyutta introduction, the bulk of it focussed on an overview of the teachings found in the Aṅguttara. As with his previous translations, this work consituted a major leap forward in accuracy and readability and introduced the Aṅguttara to a new generation.
Where the Pali was unclear I frequently referred to the earlier work of Bodhi, and rarely to Woodward/Hare and various translations of specific texts.