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Pali Canon - Mahaparinibbana Sutta

by Sangharakshita


STUDY SEMINAR ON THE MAHAPARINIBBANA SUTTANTA
from the 'DIGHA NIKAYA' of the PALI CANON

Held at Padmaloka, 27 August - 6 September, 1982
Present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Upasikas Anoma, Vidyasri, Sridevi, Sanghadevi, Bodhisri,
Malini, Karola Adamscyk (now Ratnamegha), Viv Bartlett (now Punyamegha), Rachel Goody
(now Vijayamala), Trish Manders (now Dayamegha), Carla Remyn (now Khemasiri), Diana
MacEwan, Judy Child, Liz Pankhurst (now Jayaprabha), Anne, Andrée( Now Karunacitta), Trisha
Robertson (now Rupachitta)

Sangharakshita: So how far have you gone this morning? Who are the two study group leaders?

Sanghadevi: Myself and Anoma.

S: So have you sort of assembled questions?

Sanghadevi: Yes. But in our group it wasn't just myself that's been writing down questions, it's
other people as well, so when we discuss something and realise we haven't understood something
we write it down.

S: Good.

Sanghadevi: We had both tried to actually do the same amount of material but it seems that our
group actually went on a bit further. Well the first one is what does 'Suttanta' actually mean?

S: Ah yes. There's no real difference between the term 'Sutta' and the term 'Suttanta'. The literal
meaning of the word is connected with the word for 'thread'. A 'Sutta' is a thread. In modern Indian
language, a 'Sutta' means 'a thread' in the ordinary sense. So the term 'sutta' implies a sort of thread
of connection - it's a discourse in the sense that a number of topics are threaded together in a
connected sort of way - you see what I mean? So 'Sutta' or 'Suttanta' comes to mean 'a connected
discourse' in which quite a number of topics, a number of subjects, are strung together as though on
a thread, one leading on to another. [Pause] 'Suttanta' literally means something like 'the end of asutta'. 'End' in the sense of 'essence of a sutta'. If you like a sort of condensed version of a
discourse, you could say. If sutta means 'discourse', suttanta means something like 'a condensed
version of a discourse, the substance of a discourse', though again the two are used quite
interchangeably.

You could say that a sutta in its most general sense of 'a discourse delivered by the Buddha' is the
standard form of Buddhist canonical literature. All the great Mahayana texts are sutras. That is to
say, they re discourses purported to be given by the Buddha. So a 'sutta', you could say, mens 'a
Buddhist scripture', a Buddhist text in the very widest sense. [Pause] Is that clear? [Pause]

So one speaks of the 'suttas' of the Digha Nikaya, this Mahaparinibbana sutta or suttanta comes
from the Digha Nikaya, the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya. One doesn't usually speak of the suttas
of say the Samyutta Nikaya because each section in the Samyutta Nikaya deals with one separate
little topic; so usually the term 'sutta' is not used for such short passages, such short texts, and one
certainly speaks of the great Mahayana sutras, because they are quite long, quite connected, with
very many topics strung together as it were, on one thread.

The Pali 'Sutta' of course in Sanskrit is 'Sutra'. And in Pali the term 'suttanta' is used, but in
Sanskrit they don't use, or don't usually use the term 'suttranta' for some reason or other. They

simply say 'Sutra'.

Vidyasri: Is this 'parinibbana', is that in Pali?

S: In Sanskrit it would be 'parinirvana'. This is from the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon - 'the
collection of long discourses', which contains some of the oldest and most important Buddhist
material. Though it isn't of course all equally old. You'll have noticed in the little introduction to
this sutta it says, 'this suttanta is a composite work, in the sense of loosely assembled material of
various dates. Because of its length only the oldest and salient features are here reproduced.' Some
of the material in this suttanta is very old indeed, no doubt going back to the time of the Buddha
perhaps to his own words actually.

Sanghadevi: So it's not that these sections are necessarily spoken in the last years of his life. I
wondered why it was called 'Maha parinibbana'....

S: Ah!

Sanghadevi: ..... whether it did mean they were connected.

S: Well if one looks at the Buddha's biography, if one looks at the traditional versions of the
Buddha's biography, one sees that there are two events of outstanding importance - one is the
Enlightenment itself, and the other is the parinirvana. So we tend, in the Buddhist scriptures and in
the traditional biographies, to have more information about the Enlightenment and what
immediately follows, and about the parinirvana than about any other events in the Buddha's life; so
it does seem that there were a number of disconnected teachings in circulation in the Buddhist
community in the early days, and that when the scriptures were compiled, usually as oral traditions,
the compiler then tried to place different sayings and discourses in particular contexts, so there was
a tendency to try to fit them into either the events just following the Enlightenment, or the events
just preceding the parinirvana. So in this way quite a lot of important teachings and traditions got
incorporated into this constantly expanding 'Mahaparinibbana Sutta', even quite late material,
which later people, later monks, wanted to sort of tack onto the Buddha's teaching - they all found
their place there, to give them a sort of authority and especially if it was about what the Buddha had
said immediately before passing away, as part of his last message, it was of special importance. In
this way, as the translator says, "this suttanta is a composite work containing loosely assembled
material of various dates." Some of the material in this sutta is very old, no doubt going back to the
Buddha himself. Other material may be a hundred, two hundred years later. So that later material
the translator has just sort of dropped. We can tell very often from the language, that is to say from
the Pali language, and we can also tell from the degree of doctrinal development involved whether
it's early or late.

So in this particular shortened version one has got something nearer what might have been the
original Mahaparinibbana sutta, though we can't be absolutely sure in that respect. Is that
reasonably clear? There are a number of different versions: this is the Pali version; there are
Sanskrit versions; there are Sanskrit Mahayana versions, which differ totally from this, they are
completely different works. But they all purport to be accounts, records, of the Buddha's last days
and his final teaching. There is a certain amount of material in common - the material that they all
have in common - all these different versions - is probably part at least of the oldest strata. [Pause]

Is that reasonably clear? It's not such a straightforward a matter studying Buddhist texts as one
might have thought! [Pause] It's like studying Shakespeare's plays and sort of puzzling between
whether the quarto or the first folio version of a particular play, except it's more complicated,
because there are many 'quartos' and many 'folios', some of them with lots of rescindings.


Sridevi: I was just looking at these three volumes of Mahayana Mahaparinirvana, and they are
completely different.

S: It contains lots of stories and it's very badly translated. It's hardly readable.

Sanghadevi: We wondered about the incident with the Vajjians; the original context in which the
Buddha gave them conditions for the stability of their society, like who approached the Buddha -
was it some of their chief leaders was one question.

S: It was Ananda, as far as I remember. Ananda was standing behind the Buddha when messengers
from Ajatasatru, the King of Magadha, came to the Buddha and asked him about the Vajjians.

Sanghadevi: Now what I meant was the original.... The Buddha had prior to that situation given
the Vajjians instructions. It was that context we were wondering about.

S: Ah. As far as I know there is no record of a previous occasion in the scriptures. No. No. That
seems to have dropped out, as far as I remember. We know of it only from this particular passage,
which would suggest, if we take it literally, that the Buddha did take very seriously this question of
the stability of societies, even in the ...

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