The Smaller Discourse on Quarrelling (Snp4.12)


Just playing a devil’s advocate here, didn’t the Buddha himself scaled people (in few suttas) like: “Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way?"

Strongly asserting their own path,
What opponent would they take to be a fool?
They would only bring trouble on themselves
By calling an opponent a fool of impure teachings.

Convinced of their own theories,
Comparing others to oneself,
They get into more disputes with the world.
But by leaving behind all theories,
They don’t have any problems with the world.

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Well, we don’t know whether these were the exact words the Buddha used, they could be made stronger for a better didactic effect. Besides, we should differentiate between formal disputes (e.g., Buddhists vs Jains or Jains vs Ajivikas) crossing the borders of one teaching and a pedagogical situation withing a single tradition. Generally speaking, there seems to have been three kinds of dialogical philosophical communication in the Ancient India (according to the Introduction to the Russian translation of Milindpanha by Andrey V. Paribok):

  • Meer questioning not aimed at criticizing or accepting the teachings of the interviewed ascetic:

  • Pedagogical questions, asked by a student to a teacher - quite possibly, admonitions by the teacher not provoked by a student could also be included in this category:

  • Formal disputes between adherents of different teachings with a winner and a loser

I think it can be argued that strong language can be used in pedgaogical contexts, provided that the student accepted his or her teacher as knowing the Ultimate Truth. Using this language in formal disputes would be improper even in a modern setting - and it was probably the case in the Ancient India as well. Moreover, there is a strong tendency in the Early Buddhist Texts to discourage participation in purposeless formal disputes. So, I cannot think of a sutta where the Buddha or His disciples initiate such debates, but don’t quote me on that :slight_smile:

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Thanks for your explanations, they make sense IMO! Also this sutta precedes all others from the canon, so one can argue (:wink:) that it displays inconsistency/variety of the canon.

Incidentally I’m reading the book “The Buddha before Buddhism” (Aṭṭhakavagga) by Gil Fronsdal right now. Here’s his opinion

Gil Fronsdal’s view on the sutta

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Thanks for the article!

I think the concept of non-existent Truth is not necessarily opposed to the idea of the Dhamma. It also fits with what we find in Ajahn Chah’s sermons quite neatly. The Truth, especially the one debated about by ascetics and philosophers, has to be expressed in words and / or concepts, i.e. is bound to belong to a certain discourse. The exact shape of the concepts used is conditioned by the discoursive practices dominating the cultural, social and natural context of the debate and, therefore, will inevitably become subject to papanca. The ‘true’ Truth, the Dhamma, is non-discoursive, it lies beyond the discourse, beyond the words and concepts, but it can be acquired through abhinna, direct knowing. The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev succinctly summarized a similar, albeit less radical sentiment in one of his poems by writing: ‘A thought once uttered is untrue’. We can go one step further and acknowledge that every thought is a lie to some extent due to the defective nature of language and thinking. This also seems to have been the opinion of the author of Tao Te Jing: ‘The Dao [that] can be stated, is not the eternal Dao’, and the great Nagarjuna, as far as I know, had a similar view of the problem. What we then have is the pre-discoursive ‘total noise’, as Niklas Luhmann described the original state of the system-environment dychotomy, preceding their hypothetical primordial separation. The entire practice is then aimed at opening our Dhamma eye in order to be able to see the Dhamma, original pre-discoursive truth, the world ‘as it is’, as ‘total noise’, directly and unhindered. Our possible direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truth should thus, maybe, not be considered as knowledge of the characteristics pertaining to the Dhamma but rather of the characteristics pertaining to our world of discourse, its construction and self-perpetuating re-construction. In this case, pedagogical admonitions are crucial, because one’s Dhamma eye will not open if one says or does stupid things :grin:

As a disclaimer, I must add that everything I stated above is of course wildly speculative and in no way authoritative. I am ready to retract any part of these statements, should they be found to describe the reality inadequately. And since they are formulated with words in a particular discoursive context, they are bound to be inadequate :tired_face:


There are quite a few suttas that start with a bunch of monks going to the village for alms but, been too early for alms, they go to the park to talk with other wanderers of other sects not to lose their time in vain. Of course such discussions are not purposeless, because their aim is to help other people get close to right view or even convert them to buddhism.

I think it can be argued that strong language can be used in pedgaogical contexts, provided that the student accepted his or her teacher as knowing the Ultimate Truth.

Yes, that is the only context we see it used. In debates with wanderers of other sects, Buddha does his best to find points in common and not insult people in any way. The method used in such context is not “you are wrong” but rather "you are half right, but why not improve this to make it 100% right ? "

There are also cases where undecided persons go to Buddha and tell him "this famous guy said this, what do you have to say about it ? " and in such cases Buddha does his best to refute the wanderer and show his understanding is better. The emphasis is put on the wrong parts of the wanderer ideas. Pretty standard way of debating. Every human changes his style according to the situation in order to be more effective. I’ve never seen anything unusual with Buddha way of debating.

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And then again, quite often these talks with wanderers of other traditions could be no formal debates, they rather belong to the first discussion type, i.e. ‘mere questioning’. Wanderers of different traditions, especially the younger ones, didn’t have immediate access to the teachings of other masters, so talking about this or that served the purpose of merely informing each other. If the monks didn’t know the answer to a question asked, they went to their teacher and initiated a discussion of the second type, a pedagogical discourse. Quite often, this answer would seem unsatisfactory to the opposing party, so they could start critical questions or even initiate a fully fledged formal dispute, which was a very big deal: the loser would have to convert to the winner’s teaching (as Ven. Upali did), commit suicide (especially in the later time) or lead a disgraceful existence as an ill-reputed outcast. Maybe, this is why Mahavira never went to face the Buddha, the stakes were much too high. In other words, monks talking to other mendicants before their almsround could be just general chatting about their respective teachings out of boredom or indeed a skilful way to get other people interested in the Dhamma :slight_smile:

There are two discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya, Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22) and the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN38) where the Buddha is presented as using - it seems to me - uncharacteristically harsh and humiliating language in correcting wayward or deviant views.

The opening scenes of these these two discourses are cast in a nearly identical, stylized pattern: the monks discover there is another monk in the order who reputedly possesses a deviant understanding of the dhamma with regard to a particular point. They go to him in great concern and ask him whether it is true that he possesses the view in question. The monk confirms that indeed he does. The monks then quiz and interrogate the monk further, again seemingly agitated by great concern, and try to talk him out of the view. But the monk persists in holding his view. So they go to the Buddha and report what they have learned. The Buddha then calls the monk to come to him.

At this point, in both discourses, the Buddha interrogates the monk, confirms the presence of the deviant view, and then uses rather harsh language in correcting him, calling him a “worthless man” ( or is it just “misguided”?), and telling him he has heaped up a lot of demerit from holding this view, which will adversely affect him for a long time. What is very striking in both suttas is that even after the monk seems to have recognized his error, and is reduced to humiliated silence, sitting “silent, abashed, his shoulders drooping, his head down, brooding, at a loss for words,” the Buddha continued to deride him, saying “Worthless man, you will be recognized for your own pernicious viewpoint. I will cross-examine the monks on this matter.” [Access to Insight translation]

I am not sure what the point about being “recognized” is here. It might just mean “The others here will now see just how wrong you are.” But one might also take it to mean something stronger like, “Henceforth, your name will be associated with this deviant heresy.”

Anyway, I find the whole representation in these discourses disturbing and suspicious, for several reasons.

  1. For one thing, although the openings of these discourses are nearly identical, and the Buddha is portrayed as equally harsh in both cases, the gravity of the misunderstanding of the dhamma in one of the two cases does not seem commensurable with the gravity of misunderstanding in the second. In the first, the monk Arittha seems to be teaching his own doctrine according to which the things the Buddha has explicitly said are obstructions, including indulgence in sensuality, are not genuine obstructions. You might understand why the Buddha would worry about people going around teaching, in the name of his sangha, a doctrine about the possibility of worry-free indulgence in licentiousness. But in the second sutta, the monk Sati seems merely to have picked up a mistaken view of the dhamma according to which there is a single persisting consciousness that transmigrates from life to life in the wandering on. OK, but that’s a common mistake. So why the outburst?

  2. The Buddha is an excellent teacher. But this is just not the way good teachers usually behave. Every day a teacher is confronted with students who have misunderstood various lessons, or have picked up mistaken ideas in their course through life that have to be corrected. Good teachers correct these views with reason and patience. Of course, there have been other kinds of teachers throughout history, including the sadistic kind of teacher who whips students, or makes the ignorant ones sit in a corner with a dunce cap on as a warning to the others (as these two errant monks are in effect made to do.) But was the Buddha this kind of person? Little else in the suttas suggests he was.

  3. MN 22 introduces the famous similes of the raft and the water-snake, and is mainly concerned with non-attachment, especially non-attachment to various conceptions of the self and its relationship to the cosmos, and including the non-attachment to dhammas - even the true ones!

“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”

And in the water-snake simile, the Buddha seems to be saying, “Sometimes I teach things that are hard to grasp. If I teach you something that is hard to grasp, and you think you might not get it, just ask me more questions and we’ll get it straightened out!” Every teacher recognizes this experience of trying to get shy students to raise their hands and ask questions, rather than just nodding along blankly while getting the lesson mixed up.

It seems strange that teachings of these kind, which are based on developed, remembered similes and have the ring of authenticity, and are also focused on the provisional, conditioned nature of the views we have, and the harm that comes from being attached to any of them, would be prefaced by a set piece in which the Buddha angrily reams out a monk for having bad views.

4.MN 38 is mainly concerned with the conditioned origination of all phenomena, including consciousnesses, and the lack of any persisting identity in things over time. It famously features this exchange:

“Now, monks, knowing thus and seeing thus, would you run after the past, thinking, ‘Were we in the past? Were we not in the past? What were we in the past? How were we in the past? Having been what, what were we in the past’?”

“No, lord.”

“Knowing thus and seeing thus, would you run after the future, thinking, ‘Shall we be in the future? Shall we not be in the future? What shall we be in the future? How shall we be in the future? Having been what, what shall we be in the future’?”

“No, lord.”

"Knowing thus and seeing thus, would you be inwardly perplexed about the immediate present, thinking, ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound’?

Once again, it seems strange that a discourse devoted to the conditioned arising of all phenomena, and the liberating wisdom of letting go of all conceptions and anxieties about what you have been in the past and will become in the future, would be prefaced by a speech in which the Buddha harshly berates a monk for having wrong views about the nature of time and consciousness. There is nothing off about the Buddha warning the monk about the harm that attachment to these wrong views is inflicting on him, but why not just say “Let’s get this straightened out, Sati, because if you think there is a single core of consciousness that transmigrates from life to life, you are going to cause yourself a lot of misery.” Why pour humiliation on top of this kind message?

I have read various defenses of the representation of the Buddha in these suttas which run along the lines of “Well, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind”, or else, “Well, sometimes in order to be compassionate to the rest of the class, you have to use one student as a whipping boy.” But I don’t buy it. We have thousands of discourses presenting to us what is, on the whole, a very consistent representation of the Buddha’s temperament and personality. And this kind of rough, schoolmasterly harshness is just not his usual modus operandi.

So one suggestion I have about reading each of these suttas is this: Both of them contain an important core of remembered, authentic doctrine that has been more-or-less accurately transmitted. In both cases, subsequent disciples had also remembered a background fact about the context - which monk the Buddha was teaching and correcting when the teachings were given. But then, in developing the full shape of the discourse for transmission, the reciters tacked on a stylized prefatory passage to fit them into a standardized “The Buddha corrects a stupid monk” pattern. (One other possibility is that the harsh correction administered to Arittha, where it seems at least somewhat appropriate, was mistakenly mis-remembered as administered to Sati, where it seems rather inappropriate.)

The Buddha was a kind, preternaturally patient, sweet and gentle person. He taught a doctrine and path of peace, non-attachment to worldly concerns, relinquishment of everything pertaining to one’s ego, and unwavering forbearance from any harm of any kind. This teaching and way of life made a powerful impression on everyone who encountered him, disturbing only the envious and proud. Unfortunately, some of the people who were impressed, and then more importantly their students and their students’s students down through the centuries, who no longer had the living presence of the Buddha to emulate, were inclined like many of us toward varying degrees of fanaticism, bitterness, harsh and vindictive moralism, and the obstreperous and argumentative launching of verbal darts against all of our sundry doctrinal enemies and interlocutors among the brahmins and wanderers of other sects. And it seems to me that some of that antagonism and feistiness were at time projected back on the Buddha himself to vindicate various parties in emerging doctrinal disputes.


There are two discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya, Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22) and the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN38) where the Buddha is presented as using - it seems to me - uncharacteristically harsh and humiliating language in correcting wayward or deviant views.

We have to understand there are cultural differences between the most polite country in europe who even considers germans to be very rude and ancient india, where people had a different style of talking. What some from another culture might find insulting might not be seen like that at all in other countries.

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Thanks for your valuable comment, Dan, I liked it a lot! I would be very very wary of making statements like the one above, as we simply don’t know what the Buddha was like as project our culturally and socially conditioned expectations on his behaviour. It can’t be ruled out that the harsh words by the Buddha were included into these Suttas because of the cultural and social expectations of their ancient tradent if they expected the Buddha to be able to criticize someone resolutely and sternly. To them, our idea of the Buddha as an eternally smiling and ever kind man could be outlandish. At the same time, if this was not the case the problematic nature of these words speaks in favour of their authenticity. One doesn’t include new fargments in one’s holy text if they can cast a shadow to one’s revered figure, this is a well-known principle of the Biblical studies and it was also used by Ven. Brahmali and Ven. Sujato in their work about the authenticity of the EBTs. Remember this sutta where the Buddha compares a loud crowd of lay followers to fishermen and refuses to give them a sermon? That also doesn’t compute with how we think about the Buddha, but it is likely to be an auhentic accident because the ancient Buddhists were also not likely to portray the Buddha this way.

tl;dr: I am also appalled by the Buddha’s words in these Suttas, but I can’t assume they are not authentic because they contradict my idea of the Buddha.

Yes, but I think the Buddha’s personality was not English, German, Romanian or even “Indian”. He was the Buddha - a rather singular individual in history, and one whose speech is frequently attested in the suttas as being “sweet”.

Here’s one attestation from Sariputta:

Alas, we have no way of knowing, so it is all highly hypothetical :slight_smile: Besides, being a unique person doesn’t mean you cannot use these harsh words - or words we perceive as harsh. We just don’t know what the Buddha would or would not say, and any rejection of His ethically problematic utterances as non-authentic is highly conjectural. I totally share your sentiment about these suttas, it always struck me as weird too, I am just a bit more cautious here :slight_smile:

Yes, that’s possible Vstaken. Another, rather heterodox I suppose, possibility is that the Buddha, no matter how super-normally peaceful, also sometimes had some very bad days or weeks, especially as he moved away from the solitary wandering life to become a teacher of a massive community, with great responsibilities - and with people like Devadatta throwing rocks and elephants at him, and conspiring with kings to subvert his leadership of the community he created!

We don’t know the context of the Alagaddūpama sutta. Maybe Arittha didn’t just have a bad “view” about the non-obstructive nature of sensual pleasures, but was going around sleeping with the wives and daughters of the householders in the towns where he was wandering for alms, thus bringing discredit on the Buddha and the sangha.

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As far as I can remember Ven. Bodhi’s commentary on the Sutta, all the talk about ‘non-obstructive nature of sensual pleasure’ was a euphemism and what it boiled down to is that Ven. Arittha said it is okay for highly developed monks to have sex, etc.

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Thanks, appreciated! Once we get the concept of the Truth, the Way, etc. in our heads, we are ready to cling to it, argue, and papanca comes home! heh I’m guilty! :wink:

Thanks for your eloquent reply! We can only speculate on as for why the Buddha scolded people lake that! BTW. Thanissaro went for “worthless man” translation!

The only cases we see such responses are when somebody misinterprets the doctrine. When a person is not practicing well, we never see such language been used. For example one time a person was practicing mindfulness wrongly. And the Buddha responds “that is mindfulness, I do not say it is not. But… it is not Right Mindfulness”. This is how we see problems in terms of practice been dealt with.

Besides the harsh words used when somebody is misinterpreting the doctrine, we also have suttas with the expressions “those who say this are slandering the Tahagatha”. This proves Buddha knew how easy it is to misinterpret his subtle doctrine and was very careful to let people know what a big problem this is. Misinterpreting the doctrine would basically destroy his teachings, destroying the Buddha sansa, destroying the chances of escaping samsara of so many people. So strong words are used against those who spread around misinterpretations of the teachings.

But that makes little sense to me. Why would the Buddha use harsh words if someone has simply misinterpreted the doctrine? The interpretation of language is a skill, and the deeper the subject matter, the more skill that is needed in interpreting it. The interpretation a person actually arrives at will be conditioned by many factors - their prior life experiences, their educational formation, their personal dispositions. If they get it wrong, why not just say, “No I’m sorry; it appears you have misinterpreted me. Let’s try again?”

Because the person was claiming that he knows things are so. The persons in question were not like “I think it is like this”, they were like “I know the doctrine is like this, I know the Buddha taught like this”. Therefore, spreading wrong views around. And it was important to make it clear to the other monks oh how bad misinterpreting the doctrine is.

Also, as I’ve said, Buddha was not a puritan. He was in all respects like a continental european. Such words do not mean as much as an english-speaking person might think they mean.

Yes, right. But I wouldn’t call that “misinterpretation.” It’s willful misrepresentation.