Revisiting Dona the Brahmin

July 10th, 2011

Gandharan birchbark scroll
In 1994, the British Library obtained several decaying birch-bark scrolls with writing in an ancient Gandharan script. They contained a variety of Buddhist texts, and were dated back to the middle of the first century — to about the year 50 C.E. Though no one knows exactly where and how they were found, the evidence points to these texts having been buried in clay pots, probably in lieu of throwing them away, after they had been recopied for a library in what is now far eastern Afghanistan, somewhere around the area between Jalalabad and Peshawar, in what was a thriving and cultured area known as Gandhara. The texts are still partly readable, and cover a range of Buddhist works, and include a sutta (AN 4.36) recently discussed, in the post “I Am Not A Man.

The story as laid out on the Gandharan scrolls is not letter-for-letter the same, or word-for-word, or even phrase-for-phrase. The vocabulary is quite similar, spelling is somewhat modified — and there are small bits missing, as well as the traditional opening lines. The book Three Gāndhārī Ekottarikāgama-type sūtras: British Library Kharoṣṭhī” has a thorough reconstruction that can be examined through Google Books, but below I offer a somewhat smoothed version that should be enough to let us look at the differences between the readily-available Pali version, and the older Gandharan.


The Bhagavat, traveling between cities, stepped off the road. Seating himself near the root of a tree, he spent the day.

At about the same time a brahmin named Dhona had started out on the same road. Dhona noticed the wheel-marks on the footprints of the Bhagavat on the road before him, thousand-spoked, with all parts complete, sharp, resplendent. Following the footprints of the Bhagavat, he saw him who had traveled on the road. He had stepped off the road and sat near the root of a tree. His appearance was fair, pleasing, his faculties calm, his mind calm, having attained the highest training and calm. . . a protector, trained, controlled, with faculties restrained, like a clear, translucent, serene pond.

Having seen him, he approached the Bhagavat. Having approached, he said this to the Bhagavat.

“Venerable sir, will you be (bhaviśasi) a deva?”

“Brahmin, I will not be (bhaviśe) a deva.”

“Venerable sir, will you be a gandharva?”

“Brahmin, I will not be a gandharva.”

“Venerable sir, will you be a yaksa?”

“Brahmin, I will not be a yaksa.”

“Sir, will you be (bhaviśasi) a human (maosu)?”

“Brahmin, I will not be (bhaviśe) a human.”

“Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a deva?’ you say this, ‘Brahmin, I will not be a deva.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a gandharva?’ you say this, ‘Brahman, I will not be a gandharva.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a yaksa?’ you say this, ‘Brahmin, I will not be a yaksa.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a human?’ you say this, ‘Brahman, I will not be a human.’ Who, then, sir, will you be?” (ku re bhu bhaviśasi)

“Brahmin, I am the Awakened One. I am the Awakened One.” (budho mi brahmaa budho mi)


The core story is very much the same as the Pali version. The opening lines and the ending of the sutta, however, are quite different. Read the rest of this entry »

Where One Becomes One’s Natural Self

June 14th, 2011

In chasing down the suttas in which the phrase upapajja vā apare vā pariyāye appears, I’ve come across a sutta (AN 3.34 The Nidana Sutta) in which the Buddha talks about the results of kamma using a phrase I have not encountered before, “yatthassa attabhāvo nibbattati“:

  • yatthassa - reality, true nature
  • attabhāvo – personality; individuality (literally self-becoming)
  • nibbattati – is born; results; arises

so we find him speaking of the consequences of actions that are inspired by greed, aversion, and delusion coming to fruition where there is the arising of our natural self, that self being “attabhāvo” — the sense-of-self that arises out of the process described in Dependent Arising as “becoming”. It isn’t surprising to hear the Buddha saying that the results of actions are experienced where there is the arising of that sense of a lasting self — since it’s quite clear that the opposite is true, that when we are rid of that sense of a lasting self, we stop doing those sorts of actions, and so there will be no new “results” created — but I have never found it stated more clearly.

This turn of phrase in this context could almost (but I think not quite) be read as saying that the arising of attabhāvo *is* the result of those actions.

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Diṭṭheva Dhamme As The Way We See Things For Ourselves

May 27th, 2011

I have often said that words are tricky, but I have never come across as clear an example of this as I found in the phrase diṭṭheva dhamme which appears more than four hundred times in the suttas compiled in the Pali canon. I first encountered it in AN 10.208 where it is used to describe the first possible experience of the results of kamma as being (in traditional translations) in the “here & now”. That seems to be its most popular translation in the suttas, along with “immediately” and “in this present life” though I have also seen it translated as “realized” (DN 6.13 by Walshe) — which is closer to the truth of the Pali — and even in a compromise: “realized in this very life” (DN 8.15 also by Walshe).

The Pali at its most literal means “having definitely seen into the truth” with the emphatic “definitely” being provided by the “eva” that is blended onto the end of the word “diṭṭhe“. “Diṭṭhe” is a past participle, a word formed from a verb by using its past tense, but which can be applied to the past, present, or future in the shape of an adjective or an adverb. That it is a past participle makes it a very flexible word in use, so for example we might have:

  • has seen
  • has been seen
  • having been seen
  • is seen
  • can be seen
  • will be seen
  • should be seen
  • could be seen

as possibilities, depending on the needs of the speaker.

The word “dhamme“, on the other hand, being locative, is something we are putting something into — apparently putting our vision into reality; Read the rest of this entry »

The Causes Of Three Kinds of Results of Karma

May 7th, 2011

((This post is actually about diṭṭheva dhamme upapajje vā apare vā pariyāye though it won’t look that way when you head into it because it’s in disguise.))

In MN 136(1) the Buddha spends a fair amount of time trying to make one thing very clear to us: that when it comes to karma, it is not the action that bears fruit, it is the type of action that bears fruit. This is a very fine distinction, and to me it seems like a bit of circular logic, but it is of enough importance to him that he got quite annoyed at a couple of his disciples for not grasping the point and at one fellow in particular who gave a bad answer to a question on the subject to a wanderer who was misrepresenting the Buddha’s views.

First let’s take a look at the circular logic and why it matters, and then we can look at the sutta.

The Buddha says that when we are speaking of sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ, “intentional actions”, whether they are performed by body, speech, or mind, they are of three types.

There is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ sukhavedanīyaṃ sukhaṃvedayati

intentional action to be felt as pleasant that is to be felt as pleasant

There is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ dukkhavedanīyaṃ dukkhaṃ vedayati

intentional action to be felt as painful that is to be felt as painful

And there is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ adukkhamasukhavedanīyaṃ adukkhamasukhaṃ vedayatī

intentional action to be felt as neither that is to be felt as neither

You can probably see that defining “intentional action that is of the type that results in X” as “that which results in X” is pretty darned circular, but here’s his point: We can’t, ourselves, tell by looking at an action what type it is. We can’t put actions in set categories and say “All generous acts will result in sukha (pleasure).” Doing that, making sweeping, dogmatic statements that particular acts are in and of themselves the sort of evil that lands one in hell or kindness that gets one to heaven (1) misses the point of suññata “emptiness” Read the rest of this entry »

No Escape

April 23rd, 2011

And speaking of bad translations by Woodward (which I was, in the comments two posts back) and how they sometimes lead me to see things I wouldn’t otherwise, I was out looking for some fresh insight into the Brahma Vihara, when I came across one in the Angutarra Nikaya’s “Tens” (AN 10.208) that I read in the old Pali Text Society version first published in 1936, translated by R.L. Woodward, which led me to discover something I think is quite interesting.

The first few lines were what caught my attention because they were so muddy that I couldn’t understand what was being said:

Monks, I declare that of intentional deeds done and accumulated there can be no wiping out without experiencing the result thereof, and that too whenever arising, either in this same visible state or in some other state hereafter.

I declare, monks, that there is no ending of Ill as regards intentional deeds done and accumulated without experiencing the results thereof.

and in comparing that to two other translations, I found none of them quite agreed on what was being said. Here is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s:

“Monks, I don’t speak of the wiping out of intentional acts that have been done & accumulated without [their results] having been experienced, either in the here & now or in a further state hereafter. Nor do I speak of the act of putting an end to suffering and stress without having experienced [the results of] intentional acts that have been done & accumulated.”

and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s:

“I declare, monks, that actions willed, performed and accumulated will not become extinct as long as their results have not been experienced, be it in this life, in the next life or in subsequent future lives. As long as these results of actions willed, performed and accumulated have not been experienced, there will be no making an end to suffering, I declare.


What we have here are three pieces:

  1. A first phrase in which the Buddha says something about kamma (“actions”) and their results
  2. A second phrase referring back to the first (muddled in Woodward’s version; mistranslated and misunderstood, I believe, in all three)
  3. A third phrase that is an almost exact duplication of the first, with the only differences being that this last sentence opens with an emphatic negation (“na tvevāhaṃ“) instead of the original mild one, and the word translated as “extinct” or “wiped out” in the first sentence is replaced with “dukkhassantakiriyaṃ” (“ending of Ill” or “end to suffering”) in this third.

The problems I found are in the middle phrase, which traditionally is being interpreted as talking about when one will experience suffering, which, if you think about it, isn’t a particularly significant thing to talk about: of course if we are going to experience the fruits of kamma it will either be experienced now or in the future — what would be the significance of pointing this out? Bhikkhu Bodhi’s answer seems to be that it’s telling us it will either be in our lives now or in a future life, but the Pali has nothing about lives in it at all.

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Addendum to “I am not a man,” the Buddha said.

April 14th, 2011

In his comments on the Dona Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu supports the contention that Dona’s questions to the Buddha, though grammatically in a future tense, have the intention of asking, in a wondering tone, about the present (“Would you be a deva, then?” being the sense of it) with the statement that:

His earlier statement — “These are not the footprints of a human being” — is also phrased in the future tense, and the mood of wonder extends throughout his conversation with the Buddha.

This would be a fine explanation, if what Dona said in wonderment as he followed those footprints, and when he questioned the Buddha, were as simple as the translations make it appear. The Pali and translations are:

“… na vatimāni manussabhūtassa padāni bhavissantī”ti!

“… These are not the footprints of a human being!”

“… devo no bhavaṃ bhavissatī”ti?

“…are you a deva?”

The problem with these translations is that both of the Pali questions have two words derived from “bhu” in them. The first has “bhūtassa” and “bhavissantī” and the second has “bhavaṃ” and “bhavissatī” and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation doesn’t account for these. Both are about becoming.

To take a quick look at the first sentence, there is a becoming for the footprints (“What will I discover when I get to the end of them?”) and a becoming of a man.

In my rough word-for-word translation

“Surely these will not turn out to be the footprints of the becoming of a human being”

we can see that Dona is not only concerned with what the footprints will lead to (“become”), but whether they were left by someone who will “become” a human. If he were simply concerned with whether those were a human’s footprints, there would be no need for the “bhūtassa” (becoming) in the “manussabhūtassa” (human-becoming).

This is made even clearer in the following phrases, where there is a “bhu” noun representing a “state of existence”.

I cannot work out a way in which a question framed as

“Will you not come to be a deva?”

can have the wondering lilt provided by the future tense, but meaning the present, that Thanissaro Bhikkhu says it does. “Would you not be a deva?” might have worked, but “Will you not come to be a deva?” is pretty clear.

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“I am not a man,” the Buddha said.

April 13th, 2011

One of my favorite places to hang out online lately is on The Secular Buddhist’s fan page on Facebook, where there was a recent discussion that began with The Secular Buddhist’s post:

We have an idea that enlightenment is a fundamental change in the person – but there is no externally measurable criteria. This results in not so nice folks making claims that can’t be disputed, and good people giving up because some magic hasn’t happened instead of continuing with this ongoing development practice.

Various points were made, leading up to a comment that:

The Buddha boldly and unabashedly claimed he was awake (e.g. “enlightened”). He even said he was not a man (!) but was awake!”

I was intrigued to hear that the Buddha had said he was not a man, so I asked for a citation; it appears this derives from AN 4.36, the Dona Sutta. We can find the translation that generates the sense that the Buddha said he was not a man right here on where, sure enough, it has the Buddha answering questions about who he is:

“Master, are you a deva?”

“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”

“Are you a gandhabba?”


“… a yakkha?”


“… a human being?”

“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”

The first thing I did was look the sutta up in my PTS version from 1933, and find a note that says that this is a commonly mistranslated sutta:

“This passage has hitherto been mistranslated. The brahmin does not ask ‘Are you…?’ but uses the future tense common to the verbs ‘be’ and ‘become’. The Buddha replies, not ‘I am not (these things),’ but ‘shall not become,’ also using the future. The gathas clearly imply that he will not again ‘become’ any one of these creatures.” [F.L.Woodward]

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Dependent Arising Is Not A Wheel

March 25th, 2011

In a mostly excellent article called Transcendental Dependent Arising on an extended version of Dependent Arising found in the Upanisa Sutta (SN 12.23) Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

The mundane version, with its twelve links, describes the movement of samsara, which revolves in a perpetually self-regenerating circle leading from beginning to end only to find the end lead back to the beginning.

The article discusses a series that takes Dependent Arising past “becoming” and “birth”, substitutes “dukkha” for “aging-and-death” and then goes on to describe the process of liberation — which is quite instructive.  But the quote, above, is describing the usual versions, the 12-step process that creates dukkha and it remains beyond me how anyone who has read as many suttas as Bhikkhu Bodhi has can say that Dependent Arising describes movement *revolving* in a *circle* “leading from beginning to end only to find the end lead back to the beginning.”

Please, can someone point out any sutta in the Pali canon in which the Buddha has Dependent Arising leading from the end back to the beginning? Or has someone presented a good working theory as to why the Buddha does not describe these 12 steps as doing as the bhikkhu says here that they do, going back around, yet that is what he meant? Is there a well-known theory that explains why the Buddha did not take that obvious step, of making it a circle if it was one?

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What Is Birth?

March 15th, 2011


“And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, & acquisition of [sense] spheres of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth. [MN 141.11 translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

On a sleepless night, not long ago, I went out to visit my old friends at Buddhism Without Boundaries and came across a topic called “Learning Pali” in which one poster asked why the person who started the thread would learn Pali. The suggestion was that in order to do a better translation than those we already have, one would have to understand Pali better than the scholars themselves.

I puzzled over the objection I felt for a while, turning various possibilities over: What if the scholar was great with grammar but had no grace or style in English, but the one seeking a “better translation” wrote beautifully and concisely? And is the assumption that when one does a translation, there’s no peeking at anyone else’s versions allowed, so that our newcomer couldn’t try to locate problems in the new translation by looking at the expert’s old translations? And how do we ever come up with a great new translator if we are too intimidated by scholarship to even start down that road?

But it turns out that my strongest argument for having a go at it is that it may just be that the translations we look at are made with one specific understanding of what the words should be saying in mind, and there is a possibility that this isn’t accurate. The only way we can ever know if this is so is to do what the Buddha suggests we do — go for direct experience: take a closer look.

With any language — never mind one from more than two millennia ago — there is lots of wiggle room, lots of flexibility in word meanings, so we aren’t likely to get to absolute certainty on any particular point, but there is really very little to gain (except preservation of the status quo) from not even taking the time to look.

Because a particular set of phrases gets brought up repeatedly by the people I encounter in conversations about “what the Buddha taught” — and because I could almost interpret the existing translations in terms of my understanding, but not quite — I decided to have a closer look at the Pali that underlay the words.

It turns out it was worth doing.

The translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that appears above is somewhat different than the one I worked with, which is the one by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha:

And what, friends, is birth? The birth of beings into the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation [in a womb], generation, the manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases for contact — this is called birth.

It was that “precipitation [in a womb]” that pushed at my awareness, a catalyst to inspire me to have a closer look. What, I wondered, was in the Pali that suggested that this was specifically a birth in a womb? That and the “obtaining the bases for contact” nailed the meaning as a physical birth.

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Maiden, Mother, Crone

March 8th, 2011

Last month, at Darwin’s Birthday Party, I sat next to a long-time friend and talked a bit about how the Buddha’s teaching addresses three moral levels, here listed from lowest to highest: (3) lack of regard for others, aka “Wrong View” (2) concern for others and striving to do the right thing aka “Right View, With Taints” and (1) doing the right things out of selflessness, aka “Supramunane View” — and not your usual sort of selflessness, either, but a very special kind.

My friend’s response was to say that this had parallels in the earth-based religions’ considerations around “Maiden, Mother, Crone” — which at the time simply gave me pause. I said, “I can see that,” and set it aside.

Almost a month later it arises again in my thinking (sincere thanks to Matt) so that on one level I can see definite parallels, and on yet another I also see that what the Buddha was saying was truly timeless but the examples he used were deeply embedded in his time, place, culture. I had been trying to understand why he was so hard on those he perceived as being all about “atta” (self) — after all these were the folks who went off into the forest and minded their own business; the worst I can find them doing in the canon is denying the view of others — while he was far kinder to those who were all about karma — yet they were the ones slaughtering animals on the behalf of high officials and rajas. But in stepping back and seeing it in terms of Maiden, Mother, Crone there may be an answer.

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