Translating 'dhamma' and 'dhammā'

Please let me know if that has been elaborated on before…

Translating dhamma and dhammā there seems to be an agreement that is very odd for me. Most translations I read agree that dhamma means ‘law’, ‘doctrine’, ‘teaching’. At the same time there seems to be a consensus that dhammā in many contexts means mental phenomena - take just the Satipaṭṭhāna (though: thanks Bh. Sujato for translating ‘principles’ in MN10).

To demonstrate how crazy this is, please read the following (fictitious) sentences:
"The wholesome teaching is brought to us by the Buddha. He recommends to investigate the teachings thoroughly"
Now please read again “teachings” but understand it as “mental phenomena”.
This is the situation of a listener in the Buddha’s time. And this is how confusing it would have been to hear such a mix-up.

There is little doubt that just before the Buddha’s time dharma was a legal or doctrinal term. See for this
Patrick Olivelle: The Semantic History of Dharma the Middle and Late Vedic Periods, 2004
Paul Horsch: From Creation Myth to World Law: the Early History of Dharma, 2004
Joel P. Brereton: Dhárman In The Rgveda, 2004

If this is accepted there are only two possibilities for a change of meaning for dhammā. Either it is a change that occured within the lifetime and long teaching of the Buddha, or it is a later commentarial change.

I would argue that this happened only later in the commentaries. Even though the Buddha taught for a long time, even in his old years he still would have come across ‘new’ people who understand the term as it was used in the legal sense and the Vedas. Focusing so much on clarity as the Buddha did, why would have he used such a confusing expression to express something that Indian languages really had no shortage of: words for ‘mind’ and ‘mental’?

So my suggestions are twofold

  • that when translating dhamma only with strong necessity would we see a translation as ‘mental phenomena’. Example: MN10. Sorry, but neither are the Truths mental phenomena, nor the Bojjhangas, nor the Khandhas. If they are, everything is.
  • that when a sutta forces us to understand it as ‘mental phenomena’ we take it as an indication that it’s a later text/compilation/edition and look for other hints for this hypothesis.

Please excuse the strong statements, I really hope for learned corrections :slight_smile:

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Hi Gabriel,

I don’t have access to the texts you mention here. Would I be able to ask you to post some examples of the use of “dharma” that they cite in the pre-Buddhist literature?

As for your two points, I agree with the first, but not the second. On the whole, the meaning in the Suttas is mostly “teachings”, with other meanings being found according to context. So I agree unless the context demands it we shouldn’t use “mental phenomena”, including, of course, the fourth satipatthana.

However the major case where dhamma is used to mean “mental phenomema” is in the six senses. This is such a fundamental and widespread teaching that I don’t believe it could be a later usage.

sure, here are some excerpts…
From Olivielle: “This somewhat brief though comprehensive survey of the use of dharma in texts roughly belonging to the middle and late vedic period (around 800–400 BCE, although some of the individual texts and passages may be from a later period), shows that in the early texts of this period, especially the Brahmanas and the early Upanisads, the term is used most frequently with reference to Varuna and the king. It is likely that dharma was part of the specialized vocabulary associated with royalty, especially because of its frequent use within the royal consecration (rajasuya). In all likelihood, dharma referred to social order and the laws of society that the king was obligated to enforce.”

From Horsch: "The basic meaning of dharman is therefore ‘prop’, ‘support’; it is suitable for all older passages, sometimes with the nuance of ‘keeping’ and ‘maintaining’; it is employed at the cosmic, ritual and ethical-social level. Early on, dharman, as an autonomous power of a numinous nature, separated itself from the mythical function of the ‘support’ of specific gods and thereby becomes a universal principle of ‘maintenance’, stability and permanence of the cosmos. This explains the semantic development of the concrete mythical notion into the abstract concept ‘law’. "

From Brereton: “The origin of the concept of dharman rests in its formation. It is a Vedic, rather than an Indo-Iranian word, and a more recent coinage than many other key religious terms of the Vedic tradition. Its meaning derives directly from dhr ‘support, uphold, give foundation to’ and therefore ‘foundation’ is a reasonable gloss in most of its attestations. Dharman can mean a physical and even a universal, cosmic foundation; a foundation created by the ritual and a foundation for the ritual; and a foundation comprising royal authority which creates material or social bases for communities.”

Bhante, could you please cite such a classic unequivocal passage for dhamma & the six senses?

Thanks so much, this is very useful.

As for references, well, there’s dozens, probably hundreds, of suttas that treat the external sense fields, eg SN 35.4.

I am still puzzled by this, with a detour over the Sutta Nipata (Norman’s translation, 2nd ed).

In Sn IV we have lots of ‘dhamma’, in the sense of doctrine, and in two passages dhammā

  • in 784 he translates ‘doctrines’
  • in 866 he translates ‘mental states’, referring to ‘anger, and lie-telling, and doubt, and also whatever dhammā are spoken of by the ascetic’. Which is curious because ‘lie-telling’ is surely not a mental state.
  • in 868 it continues 'A doubtful man should train himself in the path of knowledge. The ascetic spoke about mental states from knowledge.
    Doesn’t it make more sense here to talk about ‘aspects of the doctrine’ rather than ‘mental states’, similar to the hindrances in MN10?

Sn V is again crazy confusing to me

    1. He indeed, brahman, is a fully-enlightened one, who has gone to the far shore of all phenomena (sabbadhammāna). He has acquired all the supernormal knowledges and the powers. He is one with vision in respect of all phenomena. He has attained the destruction of all phenomena. He is released in the destruction of the acquisitions.
  1. That Buddha, the Blessed One in the world, being one with vision, teaches the doctrine (dhammaṃ).

It’s so weird that we should have these completely different meanings of dhamma/ dhammā so close-by! I can’t help but think that we’re missing something here. Is it impossible to understand it in the sense of ‘He who teaches the doctrine is beyond the doctrine’?

Regarding the senses, we don’t have the normal numeration of the six senses in Sn IV. Instead we have

  • in 790, 793, 797, 798, 802, 813, 893, 901, 914: diṭṭhaṃ, sutaṃ, mutaṃ - seen, heard, thought (in different declinations). muta would be thought, supposed, imagined, known, understood.

May I play devil’s advocate again with the hypothesis that the editors of the main nikayas copied a stock formula, derived from a new understanding of dhammā and just pasted it into passages (with the senses for example) for the purpose of homogeneity?

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to my knowledge customary translation of muta in the Nikayas is sensed encompassing all the rest of the 5 senses but not covering the mind, like for example in the Mulapariyaya sutta MN 1

Diṭṭhaṃ diṭṭhato sañjānāti; He perceives the seen as the seen

Sutaṃ sutato sañjānāti; He perceives the heard as the heared

Mutaṃ mutato sañjānāti; He perceives the sensed as the sensed

Viññātaṃ viññātato sañjānāti; He perceives the cognized as the cognized

Hi Gabriel,

Interesting points. However, it’s hard to see how to avoid translations like “things”, “phenomena”, and “qualities” in numerous places. You can refer to the suttas in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to the SN:
Unfortunately BB doesn’t use the standard Sutta Central tags… )


Rather than embark on the quest for a single English rendering that can capture all the meanings of this polyvalent Pāli word, I have settled for the more pragmatic approach of using different renderings intended to match its different applications. When the word denotes the Buddha’s teaching, I have retained the Pāli “Dhamma,” for even “teaching” fails to convey the idea that what the Buddha teaches as the Dhamma is not a system of thought original to himself but the fundamental principles of truth, virtue, and liberation discovered and taught by all Buddhas throughout beginningless time. This is the Dhamma venerated by the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, which they look upon as their own standard and guide (see 6:2). From an internal “emic” point of view, the Dhamma is thus more than a particular religious teaching that has appeared at a particular epoch of human history. It is the timeless law in which reality, truth, and righteousness are merged in a seamless unity, and also the conceptual expression of this law in a body of spiritual and ethical teachings leading to the highest goal, Nibbāna, which is likewise comprised by the Dhamma. The word “Dhamma,” however, can also signify teachings that deviate from the truth, including the erroneous doctrines of the “outside” teachers. Thus the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta is said to “teach the Dhamma to his disciples” (IV 317,25)—certainly not the Buddha’s teaching.

In one passage I render Dhamma as “righteousness” (at the Se counterpart of IV 303,21). This is in the epithet dhammarājā used for a universal monarch, where “king of righteousness” fits better than “king of the Dhamma,” the significance the epithet has relative to the Buddha. The corresponding adjective, dhammika, is “righteous.”

When dhamma occurs as a general term of reference, often in the plural, I usually render it “things.” As such, the word does not bear the narrow sense of concrete material objects but includes literally every-thing, such as qualities, practices, acts, and relationships. Thus the four factors of stream-entry are, as dhammas, things; so too are the twelve factors of dependent origination, the five aggregates, the six pairs of sense bases, and the diverse practices leading to enlightenment. Used in the plural, dhammā can also mean teachings, and so I render it at III 225,9 foll., though the exact sense there is ambiguous and the word might also mean the things that are taught rather than the teachings about them. One expression occurring in two suttas (II 58,3–4; IV 328,21–22), iminā dhammena, can be most satisfactorily rendered “by this principle,” though here dhamma points to the Dhamma as the essential teaching. Again, at I 167,9 (= I 168,25, 173,10), we have dhamme sati, “when this principle exists,” a rule of conduct followed by the Buddha.

When plural dhammā acquires a more technical nuance, in contexts with ontological overtones, I render it “phenomena.” For instance, paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā are “dependently arisen phenomena” (II 26,7), and each of the five aggregates is loke lokadhamma, “a world-phenomenon in the world” that the Buddha has penetrated and taught (III 139,22 foll.). When the word takes on a more psychological hue, I render it “states.” The most common example of this is in the familiar pair kusalā dhammā, wholesome states, and akusalā dhammā, unwholesome states (found, for example, in the formula for right effort; V 9,17–27). The enlightenment factor dhammavicaya-sambojjhaṅga is said to be nurtured by giving careful attention to pairs of contrasting mental states (among them wholesome and unwholesome states; V 66,18), and thus I render it “the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states.” But since the dhammas investigated can also be the four objective supports of mindfulness (V 331–32), dhammavicaya might have been translated “discrimination of phenomena.” Sometimes dhammā signifies traits of character more persistent than transient mental states; in this context I render it “qualities,” e.g., Mahākassapa complains that the bhikkhus “have qualities which make them difficult to admonish” (II 204,3–4).

As a sense base and element, the dhammāyatana and dhammadhātu are the counterparts of the manāyatana, the mind base, and the manoviññāṇadhātu, the mind-consciousness element. The appropriate sense here would seem to be that of ideas and mental images, but the commentaries understand dhammas in these contexts to include not only the objects of consciousness but its concomitants as well. Thus I translate it “mental phenomena,” which is wide enough to encompass both these aspects of experience. As the fourth satipaṭṭhāna, objective base of mindfulness, dhammā is often translated “mind-objects.” So I rendered it in MLDB, but in retrospect this seems to me unsatisfactory. Of course, any existent can become an object of mind, and thus all dhammas in the fourth satipaṭṭhāna are necessarily mind-objects; but the latter term puts the focus in the wrong place. I now understand dhammas to be phenomena in general, but phenomena arranged in accordance with the categories of the Dhamma, the teaching, in such a way as to lead to a realization of the essential Dhamma embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

Finally, -dhamma as a suffix has the meaning “is subject to” or “has the nature of.” Thus all dependently arisen phenomena are “subject to destruction, vanishing, fading away, and cessation” (khayadhamma, vayadhamma, virāgadhamma, nirodhadhamma; II 26,9 foll.). The five aggregates are “of impermanent nature, of painful nature, of selfless nature” (aniccadhamma, dukkhadhamma, anattadhamma; III 195–96).

There is an discussion, again with sutta references, in the introduction to the MN:

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Obviously it’s complex, and as showed the term already had a development before the Buddha’s time - from ‘foundation’ to ‘law’ / ‘rule’ / ‘doctrine’. One way for me to simplify is to leave the commentaries and the abhidhamma out of the picture and see what is left. The expression ‘mental phenomena’ unfortunately means not much and is I’m afraid altogether misleading when we apply it to a term in the Buddha’s time. What the later generations made of it is a different story. There is a difference between a complex concept that doesn’t have a good parallel in English, and to assume that the same word means totally different concepts. ‘Teaching’ and ‘mental phenomenon’ are simply too far apart.

Where is the linguistic justification in the text itself to translate dhammas as ‘things’ or ‘phenomena’? I just cannot see that in Bh. Bodhi’s introduction. I would try many more possibilities, e.g. with the etymological ‘foundations’ before going to the highest level of abstraction.

Hi Gabriel,

I’m no Pali expert, but I don’t see how to avoid something like “states” in passages such as this one pointed to by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāvāyāmo? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu anuppannānaṃ pāpakānaṃ akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ anuppādāya chandaṃ …

“And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; …

How would you translate such passages?

Sorry that I come off as stubborn. To have a hopefully older text I looked above at Sutta Nipata IV and V and not the big Nikayas. I think it is very possible that the later editions have introduced ‘updated’ vocabulary into the suttas, just reflecting the usage of words at the time of the edition. Even if that is the case I would be very conservative with using ‘states’ etc., and more leaning to older meanings whenever possible. In this very text SN45.8 for example why not use ‘support’ or ‘foundation’? The sentence would then be
"Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome foundations"
Ok, not a super improvement in terms of concrete meaning, but it is a tad less abstract than ‘state’, at least it has a connotation, a direction.
What would still speak for ‘state’ rather than e.g. ‘foundation’?

Hi Gabriel, It will be interesting to see Bhikhu Bodhi’'s forthcoming Sutta Nipata translation, and whether he has any thoughts on the translation issues there:

How would you see this playing out in your practice? Such translations would seem to reduce many of the instructions to being about views, rather than actions, thoughts, etc… I’m struggling to see how this would work.

I don’t have any big picture, and am also not qualified to do that. Translating is so hard and I am so glad that we had and have passionate and knowledgeable translators like pali scholars and bhikkhus. Just in my personal practice i came to peel off the understandings of the Vissudhimagga, the abhidhamma and commentaries. Maybe this process is in the end more important than the outcome. But on the way I hope we can choose between more traditional and more historical critical translations.

as far as linguistics are concerned dhamma is a cognate of dharati and dhāreti which according to the PST Pali - English dictionary mean among other things “to bear in mind; to know by heart” as is familiar from the phrases frequently occurring in the suttas

Upāsakaṃ maṃ bhagavā dhāretu ajjatagge pāṇupetaṃ saraṇaṃ gataṃ
From today let Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge for life.

MN 54, SN 12.46 etc

bhagavato sutvā bhikkhū dhāressantī
Having heard it from the Blessed One, the monks will remember it.

AN 9.1, MN 152 etc

and also

dhārehi tvaṃ, bhikkhu, imaṃ dhamma­pariyā­yaṃ
Remember that Dhamma exposition, bhikkhu

SN 12.45

so maybe it’s a case not of appropriation of an existing word but of two homonyms, with the second dhamma being contrived to convey another meaning to begin with

of course theoretically its authors could have selected another morphological model for a new word creation or another root altogether so as to avoid confusion with the traditional term, but if this indeed is what happened, we’ll never know why they haven’t


I am waiting for this edition actually. I’m sure it will give us interesting new perspectives!

Customary, yes, but incorrect. Muta is the past participle of maññati/munāti, to think, and it means “thought, what is thought”. It’s a perfectly simple word, and there is no basis for translating as “sensed”. I’m honestly puzzled at why we still keep reading commentaries into the translations as if we don’t know what the text actually means. It does nothing but promote confusion.

To rely on Snp as a primary source for doctrine is, in my view, a mistake. It’s poetry. There is no reason to think the Snp, even the early parts of it, are any earlier than the bulk of the prose suttas. I am well aware that there are arguments to this effect. But they’re wrong, and elsewhere I’ve shown this in some detail.

The primary source of doctrinal understanding must always be the core prose suttas, especially the passages that are often repeated and regarded as the core of the Buddha’s message. It’s just back to front to try to throw out hundreds of central teaching passages on the basis of a few lines of poetry. Apart from anything else, these few texts simply don’t contain enough information, and in order to make sense of them you will need to rely on the much clearer teachings found in prose.

Having said which, first of all, don’t get too worried about the fact that one word has different meanings. This happens all the time. When we’re learning a language we tend to be more rigid and inflexible, but for native users words are used in all kinds of different ways, and they don’t even notice it.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an issue. There is, but it is not that dhamma has multiple meanings. That’s just a fact of the language. The problem is that some of those meanings are read into the suttas based on Abhidhamma ideas, which have conditioned our modern translators and from them, our ideas about the Dhamma as a whole. This is how interpretation works. You don’t throw out an early text. You “draw out” its meaning, which often means reading ambiguous words or passages in the sense that you want. It’s something that we all do, all the time, and we simply have to be vigilant about it.

Let’s look closer at some of the specific instances you cite. (If you could cite them with the standard SC references, that would make it much easier for people to check your references and follow your arguments.)

Consider the verses that you mention as 866, etc. (The Kalahavivada Sutta, verse 875 at Snp 4.11). The context matters here. The set of verses it discussing a complex series of interrelated causal processes. So the word dhamma here has a specifically causal sense to it. In dependent origination, at SN 12.20 there is a distinction between “dependent origination” and “dependently originated phenomena”, i.e. dhammas. In Snp 4.11 the same sense of dhamma is used.

So the verse as a whole reads:

Chando nu lokasmiṃ kutonidāno,
Vinicchayā cāpi kutopahūtā
Kodho mosavajjañca kathaṃkathā ca,
Ye vāpi dhammā samaṇena vuttā
Where does desire come from in the world?
And decision-making, where does that originate?
And anger, lying, and doubt,
the things also spoken of by the ascetic.

Something like that. But the syntax is obscure; are we to think of “anger, lying, and doubt, and other things spoken of by the ascetic”, or “such things spoken of by the ascetic as anger, lying, and doubt”? The answer to the question at Snp 4.11 verse 875 clarifies this to some degree:

Kodho mosavajjañca kathaṅkathā ca,
Etepi dhammā dvayameva sante;
Kathaṅkathī ñāṇapathāya sikkhe,
Ñatvā pavuttā samaṇena dhammā
Anger, lying, and doubt:
these things are also present because of [that] duality.
A doubting person should train in the ways of knowledge.
These things were spoken of by the ascetic after knowing them.

Okay, so here it seems that the dhammas are simply “anger, lying, and doubt”, not “anger, lying doubt, etc.”

As for the basic question, this verse is unusual in that it treats emotional qualities and deeds as dhammas on the same level. Usually—by which I mean, in the prose texts—these things are conceptually distinguished; they lie at different “levels”. An emotional quality such as anger may be a motivating force for lying. The verses sometimes don’t retain this level of clarity (in which respect they share something in common with the Upanishads.)

Normally, when dhamma is used to mean “teaching”, it’s used in the singular. Here, it’s plural, and in such cases I would normal use “things” or “qualities”. In the current case, as the meaning is vague and broad, I’d stick with “things”.

Remember the principle of least meaning. Since dhamma is an extremely common word, used in a large range of settings, it would not stick out like a specialized doctrinal term. It would be a natural and normal part of language, something that would pass by without notice.

Taking some of these lines by themselves, it might be tempting to translate dhamma as “teaching”. However, remember the context. It’s about what dhammas cause other dhammas. The teachings are not part of this causal flow, they are a description of it.

As for the use of “states” for dhamma, this is simply incorrect. There is no normal English meaning of “states” that corresponds with any of the meanings of dhamma; they don’t overlap at all. The very idea of this stems from the Abhidhamma notion of dhammas as fundamental units of existence, and it has no place in the suttas. In English, as opposed to Buddhist Hybrid English, a “mental state” is the overall condition of your mind at a certain time. This corresponds with Pali citta, not dhamma.

Dhamma in this sense means “the phenomenon of which you are aware, which provides a support for consciousness”, which is a completely different concept. In this context, which is mostly limited to the six senses, I would use “phenomena”. This is a technical term in philosophy meaning “that which appears or shows”. Or more specifically, from Google’s dictionary: “the object of a person’s perception; what the senses or the mind notice”.


Thanks Bhante, for the detailed explanation. Regarding this:

I presume Bhikkhu Bodhi chose “states” here, because “phenomena” would sound clumsy in English. Perhaps there is a better word…

In Numerical Discourses Ven Bodhi has shifted towards using “qualities” more, especially in the context of development. However he still uses “states” quite a lot. I don’t see any reason not to use “qualities” consistently. Here’s a few examples from basic doctrinal contexts:

AN 4.69

  • Bodhi: for the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome qualities
  • Sujato: so that bad, unwholesome qualities don’t arise

AN 4.37

  • Bodhi: Since, if he left the eye faculty unrestrained, bad unwholesome states of longing and dejection might invade him
  • Sujato: If the faculty of sight was left unrestrained, bad unwholesome qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming

AN 4.114

  • Bodhi: a bhikkhu does not tolerate … any other bad unwholesome states that arise from time to time
  • Sujato: They don’t tolerate any bad, unwholesome qualities that have arisen

AN 4.163

  • Bodhi: secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states
  • Sujato: quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities

AN 4.183

  • Bodhi: if, when one speaks about what one has seen, unwholesome qualities increase and wholesome qualities decline
  • Sujato: When talking about certain things you’ve seen, heard, thought, or cognized, unwholesome qualities grow while wholesome qualities decline

Thanks Bhante for the detailed answer. Of course it would be mad to forget about the prose suttas. What I like about the Snp is that it wasn’t edited in the way the prose nikayas did, so different connotations are possible. And yes, I was hoping for Snp IV & V to be old (being mentioned in Asoka edicts etc; ealbeit limited in scope of course). I still need to reference better…

Could you tell me where please? “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts”, p.72 still sees them as old.
My argument for poetry is that because it has a metre, and maybe even more criteria to ‘sound well’ etc. it would be more resistant to change and to edit. Changing an expression would have to be done skillfully, otherwise the poem as art would be visibly damaged for the contemporary reader. That doesn’t say that poems are old, just that they would rather keep their age. Versus a prose text that, even if originating at the Buddha’s time, might be much easier adjusted to reflect newer understandings or a consensus at the time of the edition.


Thanks, yes qualities sounds good. If I understand correctly, you think states would be suitable in the third satipatthana, since that’s the “mood” or “state” of the mind (citta), whereas the dhammas are the specific phenomena/qualities that arise.

Do you means Rhys Davids’ list in section 3.6? We are merely quoting that. But it places these two chapters later than the main prose doctrinal passages, and earlier than the full compilation of the four nikayas, which is probably about right.

To some degree, yes, but this is just one of many factors. The prose suttas are designed from the ground up to preserve the meaning of their statements, and they are quite resilient to semantic shifting, as is shown by the similarity even when translated to Chinese.

But we don’t have to leave this in the realm of pure theory. There are thousands of parallel verses, many of which are being added to SC for the first time, and we can examine exactly what types of changes may or may not have been made. Check out the Hybrid Sanskrit version of the Ratana Sutta, which gives an interesting example of the kinds of changes that may or may not have been made. Any theory must be based on such a close examination of actual texts, not on our ideas of what seems plausible.

####From A History of Mindfulness section 2.3, the Gāthā Theory:

This theory, which includes several eminent scholars among its adherents, claims that the earliest recorded teachings that we possess today are to be found primarily among certain of the verse collections, notably the Aṭṭhaka and Pārāyana of the Sutta Nipāta.See e.g. Nakamura, Indian Buddhism, 1996, chapters 2.3 & 2.4. However, while I agree that some of the verse is early, I do not think that the reasons given suffice to establish that these verses are generally earlier than the prose. To briefly state the case for and against the gāthā theory.

  1. The language found in such texts harks back in some respects to the Vedas, and therefore is archaic.

Verse usually tends to be archaic; this could be supported in any number of cases by comparison of verse and prose passages by the same author even in modern times. This may partially be a matter of style, a preference for an archaic flavour, as in English verse one might affect ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Another factor is that, due to the constraints of metre, it is more difficult to translate verse as compared with prose from one Indian dialect into another; thus even in the later hybrid Sanskrit literature, the verse tends to retain more archaic Prakrit features, while the accompanying prose tends towards more formal Sanskrit. This tells us something about the translation process, but nothing about the relative ages of the different parts of the original text.

  1. Several of these verses are referred to in the prose Nikāyas, and therefore must be earlier than those prose discourses.

This confirms only the chronological relationship in these few cases. In many other cases, verses are tacked on to the end of prose discourses, such as in the Aṅguttara, and there it is likely that the verses were added later. Anyway, there are also prose passages that are quoted or referred to in other prose passages, notably the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is explicitly or implicitly referred to in several important discourses. The references to the gāthās, moreover, while significant, never declare such passages to be the central message of the Dhamma. The key teachings, extolled over and again in the early texts, are such things as the four noble truths, the 37 wings to awakening, the dependent origination, or the ‘aggregates, sense media, and elements’. None of these topics are prominent in the gāthās. It would be natural to assume that the earliest scriptural body consisted of teachings on just such core topics. Such references may even refer to specific texts where these doctrines are elucidated. The primary source for all these topics is the Saṁyutta.

  1. The Aṭṭhaka and Pārāyana have their own canonical commentary within the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Niddesa.

This argument has recently been repeated by Gregory Schopen, who says that these are the ‘only’ texts that have received commentaries by the time of the earliest known redaction.Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, 1997, pg. 24. This seems like a strong point, until we realize that the Niddesa really just applies Abhidhamma technique to poetry, listing synonyms in mechanical style for each word in the verses. It is very similar to the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, etc., and must stem from a similar period as a minor spin-off from the Abhidhamma project. The Vibhaṅga is clearly the more important work, and that consists largely of quotations and commentary of central prose passages of the Saṁyutta and Majjhima. In fact there is much ‘commentarial’ material even in the four Nikāyas: the Saccavibhaṅga Sutta, which we will examine further below, is an explicit commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Much of the Vinaya, too, is a commentary on the Pāṭimokkha.

  1. Technical terms and formulaic doctrines appear less often.

Again, this is simply part of the normal character of verse. Poetry is for inspiration, not information.

  1. The monks lived as hermits in the forest rather than in settled monasteries, whereas in the prose this phase of Buddhism is largely absent, the discourses being normally set in monasteries.

This shift, from the forest life to established monasteries, is depicted in the texts themselves as having already begun within the Buddha’s lifetime, and there is every reason to believe that this was so. It is difficult to live in the forest, and the Sangha must have, before very long, started taking in recruits who were elderly, or infirm, or weak, and who would have required decent accommodation. This plain common sense is confirmed in many stories in the early texts. Here we may point out the parallel with the Franciscan order, which was accused by St Francis himself of backsliding from the rigorous standards he had set. In any case, the prose does in fact constantly refer to monks living in the forest. The mistake stems in part from the failure to distinguish between the teachings themselves and the narrative cladding in which the teachings appear, which must obviously be later. The outstanding example here is the teaching on the gradual training, the main paradigm for the monastic way of life, found in tens of discourses. Although the texts as they are today are set in monasteries, the body of the teaching itself refers simply to the monk, ‘gone to the forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut…’ to meditate, with no mention of monasteries. This is a good piece of negative evidence: we know that later Buddhism was largely based in large monasteries, hence the fact that so many of the teachings extol the forest life strongly suggests these teachings must have appeared before the development of settled monasticism.