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THE PALI SUTTAS
The Pali Suttas have their beginning in the Deer Park at Sarnath, not far from Benares (present-day Varanasi), where the Buddha first taught to others that which he had himself already realized through proper attention and right effort. The five monks who heard that first discourse would have had to pay close attention in order for understanding to arise. Thus, when they were thereby led to see for themselves that which the Buddha had already seen -- "whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease" -- they would not forget the words which had so stirred them. Having now overcome -- at last! -- that aversion to seeing as it actually is, rather than -- mistakenly -- as something else, what had always been there to be seen, they would naturally delight in those words which had led them to this release from the inner tension of that aversion and, delighting therein, they would remember them well. They might for their own pleasure call to mind what they had heard; they might for their mutual pleasure repeat it to each other -- as we ourselves might often recall and recount something which has given us delight -- but they would not yet be doing so in order to instruct; for there was as yet but one teacher: the Buddha. All that was taught was what he taught; and there was therefore as yet no variance in the expression of that Teaching.
There came a time -- probably a few weeks later -- when as many as sixty, having been instructed, had come to full realization and now lived the holy life (brahmacariya) fulfilled as monks in the Buddha's Order. It was at this time that the Buddha spoke his oft-quoted instructions:
Thus the monks dispersed, to teach according to their individual abilities and proclivities. At first they may have repeated, for the most part, what they remembered. Surely they would differ in what they recalled. Surely they would differ in what they chose to repeat. Here a discourse would be repeated only in summary; there it would be given in full; elsewhere it would be expanded and expounded upon. As the monks gained in communicative skills, as they learned to recognize which facets of the Teaching best suited various auditors, they would -- at least some of them -- have supplemented or supplanted the remembered words of the Buddha with their own descriptions of "the way things are", and many discourses by disciples have been preserved for us. The insight would be the same, but the descriptions would differ, depending on both the occasion and the individuals. And thus as the Teaching spread there would have been, unavoidably, a growing diversity in what was taught and remembered.
It could not have been long before there came to be monks in the Order who, though earnest, had not yet seen the Teaching for themselves. These would not have taken the same delight in the discourses as those whose insight had penetrated the Teaching thoroughly. Nor would they have had the same faculties for remembering them, for knowing the essentials, and for avoiding mis-remembering them. And hence there arose the need not only for listening but for learning. For unless the talks were memorized -- in those days there was neither paper nor ink -- those new monks might have, between themselves, exchanged naught but misconceptions and, in solitude foundered in confusion. Thus we find throughout the Suttas dozens of passages in which the need for learning, repeating and committing to memory is stressed and praise is given those with such learning, usually with the warning that mere learning, without application is inadequate.
There were some who excelled at teaching, who were particularly inclined to do so, and who possessed those outward qualities which attract followings. Thus there arose large companies of monks each of which became separated from the others both by geography and by lifestyle. Some were forest dwellers, others lived near a town; some were sedentary, others roamed about; and so according to the preferences of each teacher, each company would have developed its own body of memorized discourses, with its own framework of summations and expansions, each group of teachings possessed of its own set phrases, conventions, and methods of exposition. Certain aspects of this variance and diversity would have been, among the as-yet-unenlightened, a source for confusion and disagreements. Indeed, some of these differences have been recorded. See, for example, the Bahuvedaniya Sutta, M. 59 (i,396-400) = S. XXXVI,19 (iv,223-28), wherein the Buddha settles a doctrinal dispute by explaining how it is that the various teachings he has set forth about feelings are, though different, not contradictory.
Within the first year after the Buddha's enlightenment, there entered the Order that individual who, apart from the Buddha himself, was best equipped to influence the development of the Suttas as an organized body of teachings, and to whom we therefore owe an immense debt. Without Venerable Ananda it is possible that we would not have the Suttas today at all.
Venerable Ananda, cousin of the Buddha, went forth from the lay life not long after the Buddha had visited his kinsmen, the Sakyans, at Kapilavatthu, where both had grown up; and from the time of his going forth it would seem that Venerable Ananda spent most of his time near the Buddha. Indeed, for the last twenty-five years of the Buddha's ministry Venerable Ananda served as the Buddha's devoted personal attendant, following him "like a shadow" -- Thag. 1041-1043. He did many services for the Buddha, and he also did one for us: he listened.
At that time many people called on the Buddha: monks and nuns, lay followers, kings and ministers, even adherents of other teachers. Some asked for guidance or explanations, some made conversation or put to him prepared questions just to hear what the Buddha might say, and some even challenged and debated with him. To all, the Buddha taught about suffering and about the way to put an end to suffering. Some of these people became enlightened right then and there, while listening to the Buddha: M. 140 (iii,247), etc. Others would bear in mind what had been said and, thinking it over and applying it, would achieve enlightenment at some later time: A. VIII,30 (iv,228-35), etc. Still others never succeeded to this extent but improved themselves and obtained a bright rebirth: S. XL,10 (iv,269-80), etc. And some, of course, went away without having benefited at all by their meeting: M. 18 (i,109), etc.
To all these people the Buddha spoke only about suffering and the path leading to the end of suffering, but he did so in many different ways, explaining himself using various approaches. We must all begin from where we are; but we are not all in the same place, spiritually, when we begin. Different people will respond to different forms of expression. It is important to remember, when reading these Suttas, that they were not spoken in a vacuum: there was an actual person, or people, sitting before the Buddha, and what the Buddha said was spoken with the aim of resolving a particular conflict, usually internal. If we forget this point, we leave ourselves open to the danger of misconceiving the Teaching in mechanistic terms as an impersonal explanation rather than as good advice on how to live, and on how to develop a view of things that is free from attachment and unhappiness.
Among the monks the custom arose of teaching each other their favourite discourses through the techniques of sequential and simultaneous recitation, practices still found today. Venerable Ananda took a particular interest in talks worthy of preservation, and with his great capacity for recall he learned many discourses delivered by his fellow monks, as well as those given by the Buddha, thereby increasing his value as a repository of the Teaching. Since, further, he was well known as a monk who had heard much, learned much, and was approachable, willing to help whenever he could, there can be no doubt that he was often asked by others to teach them discourses or just to recite them so that they might be heard. So he taught others -- e.g. S. XXII,90 (iii,133-4); A. IX,42 (iv,449) -- and helped to spread the Teaching among both his contemporaries and those who followed after. This is a third service by which we are indebted to Venerable Ananda.
The question had to arise: in what form should these discourses be taught? Clearly they could not include every word that had been spoken -- at least not in the case of every single Sutta -- lest the learning become so cumbersome as to be self-defeating. Although mindfulness is central to the practice of the Buddha's Teaching (S. XLVI,53 (v,115)), monks were not all equally gifted in the ability to memorize: the discourses had to be put into a format conducive to their being accurately remembered, while at the same time preserving their essence as teachings.
The solution that was chosen was to remove superfluous matters, to condense what had been said, to crystallize those aspects of the Teaching which are found repeatedly -- the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the method of right conduct, restraint of the faculties, mindfulness, the various levels of meditation, the five aggregates, dependent origination, and so on -- into the most concise descriptions possible, to couch the whole of this into a set pattern conducive to memorization, and to introduce as much repetition and re-iteration as possible. A typical Sutta, then, will begin by telling where the discourse took place, it will introduce the person or persons concerned and provide us with any other information necessary; then the theme will be stated concisely; each aspect of the theme will then be brought forward in its turn, repeated, developed with a copious use of synonyms, expanded, summarized and re-iterated. Similes may be introduced, in which case by means of parallel construction with the subject matter their relevance will be unmistakable. Each possible permutation will be dealt with in turn, the opening thematic statement will be recapitulated, and the Sutta will then conclude with remarks usually of approval and pleasure. The purpose is clear: to make absolutely certain that the matter at hand is stated so clearly that an intelligent person, open-minded, willing to listen, not bent on his own views, could not possibly misunderstand. Thus the arising of stock material and techniques, and also their spread, as they came into usage among the various companies of monks that flourished, took place during and not only after the Buddha's ministry, although, as we shall see, their influence was with limitations: there were those companies that kept to their own forms.
Some find the Suttas, with all of their re-iteration, excruciatingly boring. "This," they suggest, "could hardly be the message of a Fully Enlightened One." They suppose that because they themselves are not enthralled that therefore the message cannot be that of a Buddha. Not only do they fault the method, but the message as well; for were the message -- renunciation -- delightful to them, its repetition would hardly be objectionable. But when the idea of non-attachment is appreciated and approved of, then in both their message and their method the Suttas will be found to be both memorable and rememberable.
Each company had its own core of favourite Suttas, which newcomers would learn at least in part. Some of these discourses would be derived from talks by the company's own teacher or stories of local monastic history; others would be drawn from the stock common to all groups. Thus we would expect few companies -- probably none -- not to have within their ranks those who could recite one version or another of such standard texts as deal in full or in brief with "the gradual teaching," "the foundations of mindfulness," and so on. However, we would also expect that from the common pool each company would choose largely not only those discourses whose subject matter appealed to them but also the type of discourse that appealed to them. Thus some groups would learn brief and pithy sayings while others would prefer discourses which developed their subject matter in detail. Still others would gravitate towards texts in which subject matter was intertwined with character and event, resulting in a story-form. This latter sort of text would have particularly appealed to monks living near villages or towns on two grounds. First, such monks would have had the leisure to learn these generally longer Suttas, for life near the towns is easier than life in remote jungle thickets; and second, when the laity would assemble on the new- and full-moon observance days, they would find such Suttas more interesting to listen to than those with little characterization and story. Hence it is the case that the collection of discourses which are long, called the Digha Nikaya, does, in fact, address itself to matters of concern to the laity far more frequently than any of the other collections. Indeed, nearly half the discourses in this collection are addressed to laypeople, and in most others layfolk play a significant role.
Life in the forest is not as easy as life near a town. Aside from time devoted to meditation, there are many time-consuming chores. Forest monks would have less time for the learning of long discourses and perhaps, less inclination: not only are forest monks often more given to meditation than are village monks, they are also less frequently visited by laypeople, and therefore have less need to accommodate lay interests. Many of them, however, would wish to know discourses which dealt instructively in detail with a subject. Thus, one who is practising perception of emptiness would likely find it worthwhile to learn at least one of the discourses which develops this theme. Many forest monks would wish to have at hand, for reference in their practice as well as for the joy of associating with the Good Teaching (saddhamma), discourses that consisted of something more than a pithy saying, but which yet were more concerned with instruction than with story and characterization. They would learn Suttas of a moderate length, and they would choose subject matter in accordance with the interests they were pursuing. Hence there is a collection of discourses which are of middle length (Majjhima Nikaya), rich in variety of subject matter, but of less immediate relevance to the concerns of the laity than the longer discourses, and in which the laity play a much smaller role, less than a quarter of these talks are addressed to laypeople.
Naturally many teachers taught by way of a particular subject, such as the practice of reflection in regard to the sense faculties, or the holding aggregates, or feelings, etc. As today, then, too, the followers of each teacher would of course take particular interest in learning discourses that pertained to the subject that concerned them or to some other point of interest: nuns would learn discourses involving nuns; the monks living in the forest of Kosala would remember events and talks which took place there, and so on. Hence there tended to coalesce, with no planning necessary, collections of discourses grouped according to subject matter, and today these exist as the Samyutta Nikaya.
We see, as we inquire into the Buddha's Teaching, that it is much given to enumeration: three kinds of feeling, four right efforts, five powers, six senses, seven factors of enlightenment, the eightfold path, and so on. This may be regarded as a device to serve both mnemonic and pedagogical purposes. Thus, the meditation levels known as jhanas are almost always enumerated as four and almost always described in accordance with a set pattern. That they need not be so enumerated and described is suggested by the Upakkilesa Sutta, M. 188 (iii,162) (among others), wherein the same range of concentrative attainments is described in six stages. Again, the usual description of those who have seen truth but not yet achieved full purification (i.e. the sekha, trainee, or ariyasavaka, noble disciple) is three-fold (viz, Stream-enterer, Once-returner, Non-returner); but at A. IX,12 (iv,380-1) we are given a nine-fold division. That these categories are in fact not invariably described according to their usual formulations is strong evidence that they need not be. (Again, higher than actuality stands possibility.) Since the purpose of the Buddha's Teaching is neither to classify nor to analyze but to lead one to see something about oneself, classification is used only for its mnemonic and pedagogical value, though herein its value is great. There are discourses which teach non-attachment to feeling and other aspects of experience without making any enumerations: S. XII,12 (ii,13); XXXVI,4 (iv,206-7); 21 (iv,230-1), etc. The stock descriptions are commonly given because it was found to be generally easier, to use them both as an aid to memory and in the service of one's own practice. It would be expected, then, that some monks would avail themselves of this numerical device, which is an Indian literary style also found in non-Buddhist texts: Jaina Thananga is an example, and so would learn discourses according to the number of items discussed. Hence today there exists a collection of discourses arranged numerically, up to eleven: the Anguttara Nikaya.
We can see, then, that even during the life of the Buddha these discourses were not distributed randomly: already they must have been organized, in an embryonic form, along the lines in which we now have them. Indeed, the texts themselves refer -- A. III,20 (i,117) etc. -- to dhammadhara, vinayadhara, matikadhara, or those who keep (= learn) the Teaching, those who keep the Discipline, and those who keep the Summaries, i.e. the Patimokkha. Their formal organization would not have been a radical and innovative leap, but the logical next step in a process that had already developed to some extent.
However, the Suttas were probably not formally organized into Nikayas during the Buddha's lifetime. During that time the Canon was still decidedly open and growing. When they became unwieldy in volume, then no doubt some loose organization was evolved -- "Let this company learn these discourses; let that company learn those discourses" -- but any formal structure would have been continuously interrupted, requiring recomposition in order to accommodate popular and important new discourses. Thus the Suttas never refer to themselves in terms of the Nikayas that we now have. Rather, we find fairly often a nine-fold division of the texts: discourses, mixed prose and verse, expositions, verses, solemn utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels, catechisms (sutta, geyya, veyyakarana, gatha, udana, itivuttaka, jataka, abbhutadhamma, vedalla -- M. 22 (i,133), etc. This is not to suggest that the texts were ever organized along this nine-fold division The classification is probably taken from the broad tradition of monasticism existent at that time. This tradition no doubt included criteria according to which teachings could be judged, and the texts sometimes demonstrate (often to non-Buddhist ascetics, e.g. the wanderer, later the Venerable Vacchagotta at M. 73 (i,489-97)) that the Teaching was complete in all its parts as judged by these standards (see also A. VII,55 (iv,82-84)). But the use of this nine-fold classification shows that the texts do, in fact, describe themselves. Therefore their failure to do so in terms of Nikayas demonstrates that such a division did not come into existence until after the Canon was no longer fully open, i.e. after the Buddha's decease.
6. "...while being taught the Teaching for the ceasing of personality (sakkayanirodha) he whose heart neither springs forward nor is made serene nor is composed, he is not freed..." -- M. 64 (i,435) [Back to text]
7. This discourse and that by which the five achieved full liberation have been preserved for us. The intervening discourses, by which they grew in the Teaching, though referred to, have not been preserved. [Back to text]
8. "...and those monks who are worthy ones with cankers destroyed, endowed with perfection, having done what should be done, laid down the burden, achieved the goal, fully destroyed the fetters of being, freed by right comprehension -- they, on hearing the Teaching, dwell pleasantly here and now." -- A. IX,4 (iv,362-3) [Back to text]
9. Mahavagga I,11 (i,20-21) -- S. IV,5 (i,105-6) [Back to text]
10. It is worth noting that the ability to teach does not follow automatically upon perception of truth, nor are all enlightened ones equally skilled in communication. See A. I,14 (i,23-5). Worldly or social skills have no particular relevance to achievement of that which transcends society and the world except insofar as a talent for such skills may hamper one's perception of the need to surpass them. [Back to text]
11. See S. XXXV,204 (iv,91-95), wherein four monks give four different answers, all commendable by the wise, to the question, "To what extent is vision well-purified?" See also the Maha Gosinga Sutta, M. 32 (i,212-29). [Back to text]
12. E.g. Venerable Ananda: "Here, friend Sariputta, a monk has mastered the Teaching...; the Teaching thus heard, thus mastered, he teaches to others in detail, he makes others recite in detail, he makes them repeat in detail. The Teaching thus heard, thus mastered he thinks and ponders upon in his heart and considers by mind. In whatever lodgings dwell monks who are learned, going by the rule, keepers of the Teaching, of the Discipline, of the Summaries, he comes to those lodgings (to stay) for the rainy-season (retreat). Approaching them from time to time he inquires and questions (of those monks): 'Sir, what is the purpose of this talk?' Those venerable ones disclose to him the undisclosed make clear the unclear, dispel doubt regarding multifarious doubtful things. In this way, friend Sariputta, a monk may hear a Teaching he has not heard; and Teachings he has (already) heard will become unconfused; and those earlier Teachings which had formerly touched his heart re-occur to him; and he recognizes what was unrecognized." -- A. VI,51 (iii,361-2). See also M. 32 (i,213). [Back to text]
14. At A. I,14 (i,24) is recorded the Buddha's declaration of Venerable Ananda as being foremost, among all monks, both in wide knowledge and in retentive memory, as well as in good conduct, resoluteness, and personal service. [Back to text]
15. In the Theragatha (v. 1024) Venerable Ananda says that he knew 82,000 of the Buddha's discourses as well as 2,000 by the monks. This works out, over a vigorous forty-five year ministry, to nearly five discourses a day. This is sizable, but many of them are but a few lines, so it is not impossible. However, we should bear in mind that the numerical precision so highly valued in Western culture has been and still is of little importance in Indian culture: these figures are best understood as "a very great many". In India a different sort of precision -- Ananda's -- was valued. (See A. X,95 (v,193-5).) [Back to text]
16. And, clearly, they do not. For example, in the Cula Saccaka Sutta, M. 35 (i,227-37) we are given the account of a talk between the Buddha and Saccaka, who had previously boasted that in debate he would make the Buddha shake, shiver, tremble and sweat. We expect that in the face of such superior wisdom Saccaka will be reduced to silence and dismay; but in the text it requires but four pages of print to accomplish this. Surely Saccaka was a worthier opponent, with sufficient experience and skills at "eel-wriggling" (amaravikkhepa) to last longer than that! We must suppose that the actual talk was of greater length, and that the text gives us but the gist of what was said. [Back to text]
17. As to how it was chosen we are given no hint: the Suttas say nothing in this regard. Our information is derived entirely from the results: the Suttas are in fact constructed in the way described. [Back to text]
18. "Monks, these five things lead to the stability, to the non-confusion, to the non-disappearance of the Good Teaching. Which five? Here, monks, the monks master a well-grasped discourse, well laid down by word and line. Monks, of what is well laid down, the purpose is well followed. This, monks, is the first thing that leads to the stability, to the non-confusion, to the non-disappearance of the Good Teaching..." -- A. V,156 (iii,179). [Back to text]
19. This, however, is in no way an objection to condensations of printed translations -- intended for readers rather than listeners -- for the sake of economy of space. [Back to text]
20. "... Because, Ananda, it is empty of self or of what pertains to self, therefore it is said, 'The world is empty.' ..." -- S. XXXV,85 (iv,54) [Back to text]
21. In addition to the four Nikayas described above, there is a fifth collection, the Khuddaka Nikaya. However, it will be convenient to discuss its growth later, inasmuch as it is of later growth. For now we will consider only the four great Nikayas. [Back to text]
22. As are certain other
Canonical technical terms: jhana, for instance, which was certainly known to the
Jains -- see S. XLI,8 (iv,298) -- and to such outside teachers as Alara Kalama
and Uddaka Ramaputta -- M. 26 (i,164-5). Convincing evidence could be cited for a
number of other terms as well. [Back to text]
Source: Nanavira Thera Dhamma Page, by Jakub Bartovsky
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