Uttara on Failure: the first lost text?

At AN 8.8 we have a little sutta which shows a range of late features. It is perhaps the first text to hint at some very influential developments in the Buddhist community in the years after the Buddha’s demise.

It’s given by a certain venerable Uttara. Uttara is a common name, and it’s not clear if this is the same person as any of the other monks of this name.

The setting is unusual. It’s on a Saṅkheyyaka Mountain in Mahisavatthu, which presumably stands for “the Mahisa country”. This is somewhat outside the normal distribution of early texts. The town is spelled either as Dhavajālikā or Vaṭajālikā, neither of which is otherwise known. Dhava and vaṭa are both the names of trees, and the commentary situates the monastery in a grove of such trees.

The text begins with Uttara repeating a simple passage saying that a mendicant should from time to time reflect on their own successes and failings, and the success and failings of others. This is repeated verbatim from the previous text, where the Buddha teaches it with respect to Devadatta.

There’s nothing unusual about the teaching, but apparently Vessavaṇa, one of the Four Great Kings, overheard it and thought it was important enough to immediately rush to the heaven of the Thirty Three, where he informed Sakka, the Lord of Gods. Sakka immediately went to see Uttara, where he asked whether the teachings his own idea, or if it was learned from the Buddha.

Uttara gives a rather elaborate answer that appears to be intended to emphasize that all the teachings come from the Buddha. But to my ear he sounds a little evasive.

Regardless, it is here that a radically new idea is introduced. Uttara says:

yaṃ kiñci subhāsitaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ tassa bhagavato vacanaṃ arahato sammā­sambud­dhassa
Whatever is well spoken is the word of the Blessed One, the Perfected One, the fully awakened Buddha.

This is a crucial inversion. Rather than saying that all that Buddha says is well-spoken, now all that is well-spoken is spoken by the Buddha. Like I said, it seems to me a little evasive on Uttara’s part. Perhaps he was repeating a teaching without being clearly aware where it came from—which is not at all unusual—and when challenged responds with a bit of bluster. Maybe that’s a harsh reading, but I do find it all a little odd.

Whatever the original intent may have been, the twist of the saying says something crucial about the community at the time. Now, some time after the Buddha’s death, the grasp on what was and was not spoken by the Buddha is fading. The road is being opened to authorizing any and all late texts as the “word of the Buddha”, as long as they are deemed to be in line with the early teachings.

Sakka approves what Uttara said, and goes on to repeat the entirety of the previous sutta, AN 8.7, dealing with Devadatta’s downfall. The text is not explicit, but it seems to me that he’s hinting that Uttara was remiss in presenting only part of a sutta without the full context.

The text finishes with an unusually strong exhortation by Sakka, begging Uttara to learn the text well, and saying that it is not found anywhere in the four assemblies.

If this is taken on face value, Sakka is saying that this is a lost text, and he is re-teaching the full text to Uttara, of which he had only known a small part. If this is indeed the case, it is probably the first example of a text being preserved in the heavens and brought back to earth. This trope became, of course, famously used to authorize late texts, both the Abhidhamma and the Mahayana sutras.

Sakka must have a large degree of confidence in Uttara, if he thinks this obscure monk in an obscure place can make this teaching known, though the Buddha teaching at the height of his career in Rājagaha failed.

Given the location outside the normal region for EBTs, the fact that the Buddha is not mentioned as living at the time, the fantastic narrative framework—especially for such a prosaic teaching—the belabored repetition, the doctrinal innovations, and the incongruous last paragraph, this is clearly a late sutta.

As Ven Brahmali and I argued in The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, such late texts are readily identifiable, not from any one feature, but from the appearance of multiple features, none decisive in themselves, but each suggestive of lateness.

In this case, the text itself is somewhat meta. While itself it is inauthentic, is paving the way for the acceptance of inauthentic texts. This invites comparison with a number of other late texts, notably the Lotus Sutra, which introduce doctrinal innovations specifically to authorize themselves.

I wonder whether this Uttara should be identified with the Uttara who was Revata’s student at the Second Council. That Uttara is not connected with Mahisa, and it may well be simply a different person. Still, it would make sense to smear the opposition monks by implying a connection with Devadatta. It would certainly make sense for such new suttas with innovative doctrines to be composed around this time, as the forces leading to sectarian divisions were starting to be felt in the Saṅgha.

8 Likes

Whatever is well spoken is the word of the Blessed One, the Perfected One, the fully awakened Buddha.

to me it sounds like a progression of a concept represented in the Buddha’s response to Mahapajapati in AN 8.53

“Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”

and in the 4 great references of the Mahaparinibbana sutta (DN 16)

If when these are laid alongside the Discourses, compared with the Discipline they do fit in with the Discourses, they do compare well with the Discipline, you may here come to this conclusion: ‘Certainly this is the Gracious One’s word, it is well-learned by those elders.’

and is in the vein of Mahavagga’s 4 great references

Now at that time uncertainty arose in the monks with regard to this and that item: “Now what is allowed by the Blessed One? What is not allowed?” They told this matter to the Blessed One, (who said):

"Bhikkhus, whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it fits in with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, this is not allowable for you.
"Whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it fits in with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, this is allowable for you.
"And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it fits in with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, this is not allowable for you.
“And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it fits in with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, this is allowable for you.”

if the Word of the Buddha is understood not in a literal sense as what was uttered by the Buddha himself, but as his Dhamma, then anything which accords with it can also be regarded as his Word figuratively
just like the modern day Dhamma talks, while not being spoken by the Buddha they certainly are exposition of the Dhamma or purported to be that

1 Like

In AN 8.53 the word dhamma refers to mental qualities and not teachings. This is the standard meaning of dhamma in the plural.

As for the great standards of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, these all refer to the word of the Buddha, and not to any teaching that is supposed to be well-spoken.

What about the simile devised by Uttara? It concerns a great pile of grain from which one takes away a certain amount, and this presumably being similar to remembering certain teachings of the Buddha. From this it would expect the meaning of yaṃ kiñci subhāsitaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ tassa bhagavato vacanaṃ arahato sammā­sambud­dhassa to be that everything the Buddha said was well-spoken. But as you point out this is not a natural reading of the Pali. At the very least one would have to conclude that Uttara was not very good at devising similes. Just adding ammunition to your thesis …

1 Like

Good point; if the readings are correct, his answer is even slipperier …

but in the conclusive phrases it’s in singular isn’t it?

‘neso dhammo, neso vinayo, netaṃ satthusāsanan’”ti

‘eso dhammo, eso vinayo, etaṃ satthusāsanan’”ti

it’s specifically this phrase which is translated as referring to the Dhamma the teaching, and of course the pairing with Vinaya gives weight to this reading

my point has been misunderstood as this is not what i tried to show, the subject here is not the word of the Buddha as it’s been passed down, but anything heard elsewhere, which being in accord with the Sutta and the Vinaya, the known word of the Buddha, IS TOO the word of the Buddha

and is there certainty that during the composition of the Canon Buddhavacana was understood literally as the words and phrases of the discourses and not also anything which is in agreement with them, that is in agreement with the Dhamma in the broad sense?

1 Like

I wouldn’t say that this is certain. It seems to me rather that in earlier times it was taken for granted that the 'words of the Buddha" were the real thing. But this was always somewhat loose; the suttas aren’t word-for-word reproductions of what the Buddha said.

Over time, the connection with what the Buddha actually said grew looser, and we gradually arrived at the situation we have today. I think this sutta marks an important step in this direction.

Speaking of meta texts and authenticity… This really reminds me of some of the early Prajñāpāramitā literature. The oldest dated PP text is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (first century or older). Conze, translating from a later Sanskrit version, gives the following on the very first page:

The Lord said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings go forth into perfect wisdom!

Thereupon the Venerable Sariputra thought to himself: Will the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder, expound perfect wisdom of himself, through the force of his own power and revealing wisdom, or through the Buddha’s might?

The Venerable Subhuti, who knew, through the Buddha’s might, that the Venerable Sariputra was in such wise discoursing in his heart, said to the Venerable Sariputra: Whatever, Venerable Sariputra, the Lord’s Disciples teach, all that is known as the Tathagata’s work. For in the dharma demonstrated by the Tathagata they train themselves, they realise its true nature, they hold it in mind. Thereafter nothing that they teach contradicts the true nature of dharma. Whatever those sons of good family may expound as the nature of dharma, that they do not bring into contradiction with the actual nature of dharma.

I think the Mahāsāṃghikas were the ones who liked to described everything as being done “through the power of the Buddha.” The verse form of the same text, Prajñāpāramitā Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya Gāthā, gives a more poetic explanation in the beginning (translated from Chinese):

All the rivers flowing forth from Jambudvīpa
Which nourish and moisten the flowers, fruits, and herbs
Are caused by the Nāga King dwelling in the cooled lake.
It is the power of the nāgas which causes these rivers to flow.

It is also such as this for the buddha-sons, the śrāvakas, etc.,
And when the Dharma teaching is expounded with skillful means,
They delight in the most noble practice and seek its fruition.
This is all due to the supreme power of the tathāgatas.

What the Buddha speaks with this Dharma Eye
Thus causes the buddha-sons to study from the Buddha,
And they have self-realization of the teachings and skillful means.
This is also the power of the buddhas and not their own power.

Both are maybe broader, generalized, and more sophisticated versions of what Uttara was saying.

sure, and I tried to show that this is not an isolated and unexpected case, but one which could have been forestalled by some earlier developments in the notion of the Dhamma traceable in a few other discourses, even though their expression is ascribed to the Buddha himself
whether this speculation has a chance of being valid depends of course on the relative chronology of the quoted texts

There has been some work in this area; IIRC Lamotte had an essay on it. It’d be interesting to check if he included this text.

You are right about this. Whether this can be interpreted to mean that anything well-spoken can be considered the word of the Buddha is another matter. You need to look at the bigger picture, including the statement from the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta that “what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher.”

As for the four standards from the Mahāvagga that you refer to, these are not meant to be used to decide on what is the word of the Buddha. The standards mentioned here are part of the chapter on medicines, and the word used is kappiya, which means “allowable”. This then refers to what is allowable for monks and nuns from a Vinaya perspective, especially regarding food. To decide on what should be included as the word of the Buddha, the four great standards given in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta are the right ones to use.

True, but just to note that it’s not always the case. Eg AN 8.25:

attanāva sutānaṃ dhammānaṃ dhāraṇajātiko hoti, no paraṃ dhamma­dhāra­ṇāya samādapeti;
They memorize the teachings they’ve heard, but don’t encourage others to do the same.

"Bhikkhus, whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it fits in with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, this is not allowable for you.

bhante, i’m afraid my point eludes you, the key phrase in the Mahavagga’s references is
if it fits in
meaning the Buddha doesn’t always have to, especially after his death, spell out what is and is not allowable and permits it to be inferred on the basis of what does have been said by him as 'This is not allowable’
this lays down a principle according to which inference is recognized as a valid tool in establishing what Dhamma and/or Vinaya is without Buddha having to explicitly point out and give provision for every minute thing

Sure, we get that. The point is that the context that this particular passage is given in is very limited, and only directly applies to the specific question of what things may be taken as allowable for monks and nuns in the afternoon. A very important question to be sure!

But it is commonly invoked without discretion as a catchall justification for inferring in any area. It’s not to say that this, and other principles, have no scope at all outside their original context, just that we should be aware of what that is and how we’re using it. You’re not just making an inference, but making an inference based on an inference …

yes, i agree with that, i only tried to trace some possible precursors to and buds of the principle expressed by Uttara in other parts of the Canon, show that it may have implicitly been already contained there undeveloped