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Pali Canon - Sutta Nipata - Great Chapter part 1

by Sangharakshita

Transcription of a seminar on

The Great Chapter (Mahavagga) of the Sutta Nipata
(trans. E. M. Hare as "Woven Cadences", OUP London 1945; also using trans. Lord
Chalmers as "Buddha's Teachings", OUP 1932) held at Padmaloka in July 1976.
Present: Urgyen Sangharakshita, Aloka, Devamitra, Chintamani, Ratnapani, Vimalamitra,
Phil Shrivell, Dick Meyers, Dave Living, Andy Friends.
Day one
S: All right, so there's the Great Chapter, the Mahavagga of the Sutta Nipata, so before we
begin I'm just wondering if people have got any idea at all about Buddhist literature, that is to
say Buddhist scriptures, and about the place of the Sutta Nipata in that literature, or any idea
about what sort of text the Sutta Nipata is. Has anyone got any idea at all on any of these
topics?
Devamitra: It is one of the oldest sections of the Sutta Pitaka.
S: That's true, yes. But maybe we'd better go back a bit and consider a few points which are
even more fundamental than that - first of all about Buddhist scriptures in general. I use the
term scriptures - although it isn't a very good one - just because of its religious connotations.
But how do we come to have these scripture? What are these scriptures basically? Has
anybody got any ideas about that?
Dave: It is what the monks have remembered. They have passed them on.
S: What monks have remembered. Only monks?
Devamitra: Disciples of the Buddha.
S: Disciples of the Buddha, yes. I think it is important to bear in mind that the Buddha taught
orally, that in the Buddha's day all teaching was oral. Apparently writing was known and
reading was known, but it seems to have been used mainly for commercial purposes, so
anything that was really important was not committed to writing. If something was of real
importance you learned it, you heard it from a teacher and you committed it to memory. You
memorized it, you learned it by heart in the full sense of the term and turned it over in your
mind. You didn't think in terms of writing it down; that would suggest that you might forget
it, and if it was a really important teaching how could you possibly forget it? So you bore it in
mind. So all teaching was oral teaching and the Buddha taught orally, sometimes teaching
individuals, sometimes teaching groups of disciples, sometimes teaching quite large numbers
of people, and they all remembered what he had said, they bore in mind what he had said. [2]
And especially Ananda, we are told, according to tradition, bore in mind what the Buddha
had said, not only to himself but to other people as well when Ananda was present. Ananda
was the constant companion of the Buddha for the last twenty or twenty-five years of his life.
He accompanied the Buddha everywhere, heard virtually everything that the Buddha said
during that period, and he seems to have had a very, very retentive memory. So after the
Buddha's death, after the Buddha's parinirvana, the community of the disciples relied very,
very heavily in fact on Ananda for his recollections of what the Buddha had said, and these
were passed on. Not only Ananda's but the recollection of other disciples too were passed on.
In a sense they were pooled, and later generations of disciples tried to learn as much as
possible of what had been remembered by heart and then passed it on to their disciples. And it
was only written down some four or five hundred years after the Buddha's own time. So for
four or five hundred years there was purely oral tradition. And of course they weren't simply
remembered, they were also - still orally - analysing and classifying and arranging the
teachings so that when they did come to be written down they were already arranged and
organized. For instance, there were a number of, as it were, formal discourses given by the
Buddha and some of these were rather long discourses, others were of medium length, so by
the time the oral tradition came to be written down the disciples had already sorted out, for
instance, long discourses from short discourses. So there was a whole collection, an oral
collection, of long discourses which we now call the Digha Nikaya, the "long collection" in
Pali, and another collection of medium length discourses which we now call the Majjhima
Nikaya in Pali, and in the same way some short teachings were collected and arranged under
different headings according to subject, giving us eventually what is called the Samyutta
Nikaya, translated as the "kindred sayings", kindred sayings on a particular topic, sayings on
the same topic. So in this way, during that period of oral transmission, teachings were being
arranged, classified, sifted, organized into what eventually became books when they were
written down. So there was an immense amount of activity of this sort going on, and monks
were constantly, apparently, meeting together and comparing what they knew, what they
remembered, and tried to pool their resources, pool their recollections, generation by
generation. And of course there were differences. People didn't always remember things in
quite the same way. In fact the Buddha himself might have given a slightly different version
or presentation of the teaching to different people at different times, so they also had to
compare these differences. Sometimes teachings might have been dropped, or particular
versions might have bean dropped. We do have different versions of the same teaching, in
some cases several different versions of the same teaching, all surviving in the existing
Buddhist scriptures. And some scholars of course believe that the monks added little bits of
[3] their own, sometimes explanatory to make the Buddha's own words clearer, but
sometimes it may be the monks or the disciples thought "Well, the Buddha must have said
this or he must have made that particular point," so they included it. This is of course what
modern Western scholars believe. In the East of course, traditionally, every word of the
scriptures that is attributed to the Buddha is believed to have been uttered by the Buddha
himself. But notwithstanding that, we can see that, to take for instance the Pali canon, this
particular collection - or this particular version does contain material which seems closer to
the original sources, closer to the Buddha's own day, closer to the Buddha himself, than other
material. And the Sutta Nipata is one of those books which as far as we can tell is very close
indeed to the Buddha's own teaching, to the Buddha's own words.
This is not to say that the Sutta Nipata itself is completely uniform. Some parts even of the
Sutta Nipata seem older than others. One part, in fact - not the part we are going to study this
week - is so old that it is actually quoted from and referred to by other parts of the scriptures
themselves, and there is even a commentary on it also included in the scriptures, which is
rather interesting. As for where the Sutta Nipata comes in the scriptures, it is part of the Pali
canon. Perhaps I should explain that the Buddha had encouraged people to learn his teaching
in their own language or their own dialect. He was once asked whether his teaching should
not be translated into Sanskrit - this was during his own lifetime - and he said, "No. Let
everyone learn the teaching in his or her own dialect." So he himself seems to have spoken in
different dialects according to where he was in India where he was teaching. And after his
death there were different traditions, different linguistic traditions, of the teaching. There was
one in the language which we now call Pali - though strictly speaking there is no such thing as
the Pali language. There was another tradition in Sanskrit, another in Apabhramsa, another
one in a language called Pisacha. And different schools transmitted the teachings - first of all
orally than as literary traditions - in these different dialects. Now the only complete collection
of these early teachings which we have is the one which has come down in Pali. We only
have fragments of the Sanskrit one. I'm leaving aside the Mahayana sutras, which came later.
We have only fragments of the Sanskrit version of the early teaching, in Sanskrit together
with some translations in Tibetan and Chinese. We have very, very little either in the original
languages or in translation of either the Pisacha or the Apabhramsa linguistic traditions.
So it is important to remember that the Pali canon, which has been edited and translated into
English by the Pali Text Society, represents only a section of that whole vast literature which
was of course originally purely oral tradition. So the Sutta Nipata belongs to that, to the Pali
canon. The Pali canon consists of three great collections. I don't know if you know all this,
you probably do. [4] There was the collection of Vinaya, which is roughly speaking rules for
the monks. We will talk about expressions like monks in a minute. Rules for the monks,
though it is very much more than that. It also contains quite a lot of information about the
Buddha and the history of his whole movement and gives various teachings. So there is the
Vinaya Pitaka, the Collection of Discipline or Basket of Discipline. Then there is the Sutta
Pitaka, or the Collection of Discourses. Sutta means simply a thread. So it is the thread which
goes through a whole sort of talk making it as it were a single uniform lecture if you like. So
this ...

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