"Too ascetic" or "too indulgent"

A seeming paradox of the “middle way” is that the deeds of those on either extreme are similar in their results. Neither lead to a good outcome.

Normally it is clear enough which we are speaking of, but in one verse of the Dhammapada, this ambiguity makes the rendering of one unique word quite problematic.

In Dhammapada 240 we find the following:

Ayasāva malaṃ samuṭṭhitaṃ,
It is the rust born on the iron
Tatuṭṭhāya tameva khādati;
that eats away the place it arose.
Evaṃ atidhonacārinaṃ,
And so it is their own deeds
Sāni kammāni nayanti duggatiṃ.
that lead the [overly-ascetic/overindulgent] to a bad place.

The dubious term here is dhona, which would appear to be from a root meaning either “cleanse” or “shake off”. However the commentary says that here it refers to the four requisites of a monastic, and the term means one who is excessive and overindulgent in asking for material requisites.

Ven Ānandajoti evidently agrees with commentary, having “overindulgent”. Ven Buddharakkhita, followed by Fronsdal, reads "transgressor; this appears to ignore dhona entirely, as aticāri by itself means “transgressor”. Thanissaro meanwhile has “one who lives slovenly”; I am not sure why.

KR Norman, on the other hand, rejects the commentary and says that the term should be derived from the same root as dhūta i.e. ascetic practices, from the sense “shaking off”.

Either reading makes sense in the verse, although I feel this reading makes it a little more pointed: those who rely on ascetic practices, such as the Jains, say they are “shaking off” the kamma of past lives, but the verse asserts it is the kamma you are making now that matters. The strong emphasis on “your own deeds” acts as a sharp rejoinder here, but is less necessary in the case of someone who is simply overindulgent.

We luckily have a few other Indic texts to help us. As so often in these cases, it is on the exact point where the Pali is problematic that we find the other texts vary or have problematic readings; evidently such difficulties affected those in the past as they do us today. Nonetheless, in this case, there is at least some help.

Gandhari and Sanskrit texts share a reading aniśāmya, “blind”, or peraps “those who will not listen”. Clearly this derives from a different reading than the Pali.

Gandhāri: eva aṇiśamaca///rino
Udānavarga: evaṁ hy aniśāmyacāriṇaṁ

The Prakrit text on the other hand is closer to the Pali:

Prakrit: em eva vidhūnacāriyaṁ

Here the root is clearly dhū in the sense of “shaking off”. While not decisive, this does support the idea that the root text was about ascetic practices rather than overindulgence.

It is the rust born on the iron
that eats away the place it arose.
And so it is their own deeds
that lead the overly-ascetic to a bad place.


In the commentary dhonā doesn’t refer to the requisites themselves but to the mode of paññā that consists in reflection on their proper use.

Atidhonacārinan ti ‘dhonā’ vuccati cattāro paccaye ‘idamatthaṃ ete’ ti paccavekkhitvā paribhuñjanapaññā, taṃ atikkamitvā caranto atidhonacārī nāma.

“In the phrase atidhonacārinaṃ, ‘dhonā’ means the paññā that after reflecting on the four requisites: “These [requisites are] for this purpose” then makes use of it. One who fares having neglected this is called an atidhonacārī.”

I would guess this might be the source of Ajahn Thanissaro’s ‘slovenly’.

Dhonā in the sense of paññā first appears in the Niddesa to the Jarāsutta:

Dhono na hi tena maññati, yadidaṃ diṭṭhasutamutesu vā ti. Dhono ti ‘dhonā’ vuccati paññā.

Yā paññā pajānanā vicayo pavicayo dhammavicayo sallakkhaṇā upalakkhaṇā paccupalakkhaṇā paṇḍiccaṃ kosallaṃ nepuññaṃ vebhabyā cintā upaparikkhā bhūri medhā pariṇāyikā vipassanā sampajaññaṃ patodo paññā paññindriyaṃ paññābalaṃ paññāsatthaṃ paññāpāsādo paññāāloko paññāobhāso paññāpajjoto paññāratanaṃ amoho dhammavicayo sammādiṭṭhi. Kiṃkāraṇā dhonā vuccati paññā? tāya paññāya kāyaduccaritaṃ dhutañca dhota ca sandhotañca niddhotañca, vacīduccaritaṃ …pe… manoduccaritaṃ dhutañca dhotañca sandhotañca niddhotañca, rāgo dhuto ca dhoto ca sandhoto ca niddhoto ca, doso … moho … kodho … upanāho … makkho … paḷāso … issā … macchariyaṃ … māyā … sāṭheyyaṃ … thambho … sārambho … māno … atimāno … mado … pamādo … sabbe kilesā … sabbe duccaritā … sabbe darathā … sabbe pariḷāhā … sabbe santāpā … sabbākusalābhisaṅkhārā dhutā ca dhotā ca sandhotā ca niddhotā ca. Taṃkāraṇā dhonā vuccati paññā.