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Pali Canon - Parabhava Sutta

by Sangharakshita

The Parabhava Sutta

Cassette One, Side One
Present: Sangharakshita, Dharmananda, Kulananda, Pranjananda, Sumitra, Chris Harper,
Mike Howes.
Sangharakshita: So what we're going to be doing is a few suttas, perhaps a few suttas, from
the Sutta Nipata. I say perhaps a few because it depends how quickly we get through them.
We're going to start off with one, but it may well be that we spend four whole sessions on that
one. We shall see. I don't have any extra copies, but I'll dictate the few verses that we'll be
going through. Maybe by tomorrow we could have some copies; that may be useful. We're
going to start off with a short sutta of fourteen verses, which is called Parabhava Sutta. I'll
spell that for you: PARABHAVA SUTTA. The second 'a' is a long 'a'. This sutta is generally
considered to be complementary to, or perhaps even antithetical to, the Mangala Sutta. You
may remember the Mangala Sutta is one of the best known of the shorter suttas of the Pali
canon. Mangala is usually translated as 'blessing' or 'auspicious sign'; and the characteristic of
this sutta is that it describes, in a sort of cumulative manner, an ascending series of blessings,
or auspicious signs, from very ordinary, humble, simple ones, right up to quite advanced,
even quite rarefied, quite spiritual, even quite transcendental, blessings or auspicious signs.
So as you follow through this sutta you find yourself, so to speak, going up and up the spiral,
stage by stage, step by step. You go up a little bit with every single verse, and you end up in
nirvana, or the state of Enlightenment. The Parabhava Sutta is complementary or antithetical
in the sense that it represents the reverse process. We'll go in a minute into the meaning of
this word parabhava more literally considered. But it's significant that of the three translations
that we have here, the three translators all render this word parabhava quite differently. In
Hare it is rendered as 'suffering'; then Chalmers renders it as 'failures'; and Sadhatissa
translates it as 'downfall'. So: 'suffering', 'failure', or 'downfall'. But these translations don't
really do justice to the term. Bhava means something like 'becoming'.
Prajnananda: As in bhavana?
S: It's related. There's bhava long 'a' and bhava short 'a'. Bhavana is connected with bhava
with long 'a'. But their ultimate root is the same, a root meaning to 'grow' or 'develop' or
'become'; to undergo a process of transformation. So one has got in Pali an antithesis between
bhava in the most general sense, and parabhava in the sense of the opposite of bhava. Now,
one can distinguish in Pali literature two strata of the usage of this particular term bhava. It's
as though the term itself undergoes a degradation. Mrs Rhys Davids in some of her writings
has dealt with this.
Bhava originally seems to have meant simply 'growth', [2] 'development'. But inasmuch as
existence itself is a growth and a development, it came to mean 'existence' in a somewhat
broader, even philosophical, sense; even existence as viewed negatively, as tantamount to
conditioned existence, the samsara. So that original and more positive connotation seems to
have been lost. You'll find that we do get it - the original and more positive connotation in
this sutta, as well as the opposite, which is of course parabhava.
So you've got bhava and parabhava: bhava representing growth, and parabhava representing
the opposite of growth: decline, deterioration. 'Downfall' isn't very good because it suggests
change of place. It doesn't suggest a counterprocess of decline or involution to the process of
growth or development or evolution. So perhaps one could say that 'evolution' and 'involution'
are pretty faithful translations. It's the reverse process, the counterprocess, the spiral down as
distinct from the spiral up; parabhava is essentially that. So in the background of the sutta as
in the background to the thought of the sutta you have this sort of concept of a spiralling up
and a spiralling down. But by studying the spiralling down you can also get some indirect
insight into the process of spiralling up, because the things which cause you to spiral
downwards will, properly understood and overcome - surpassed - become as it were means of
spiralling upwards.
So to understand how you evolve and how you involve how you develop and how you
deteriorate these are different aspects of one and the same process, one and the same thing,
one and the same insight. So when you're studying parabhava and the factors of parabhava,
the factors of deterioration, you are at the same time indirectly studying the factors of growth
and progress. There's no need to emphasize the negative aspect exclusively, though it can be
very salutary as a warning because it shows you how you will decline if you don't develop. It
does this step by step, just as the Mangala Sutta does. It traces a process of well, it's a
contradiction to say 'progressive deterioration', but you know what I mean a process of ever
increasing deterioration; which, as I've said, indirectly can remind you of the counterprocess
of development: 'becoming' in that more positive, original sense.
So this little sutta starts off much as the Mangala Sutta starts, as I'm sure you'll recognize.
What I think I'll do is: to begin with I'll read you the three translations straight through, one by
one. You'll see how different they are. As we study the text verse by verse we'll be able to
refer to the original Pali text and I hope get really close to the meaning.
So first of all, Hare, who translates parabhava as 'suffering'. Well, parabhava certainly
involves suffering, but you cannot possibly really translate the word parabhava itself as
'suffering'. I think that's clear already. Anyway:
Thus have I heard: Once, when the Master was dwelling near Savatthi in Anathapindika's
Park at Jeta Grove, a devi of surpassing beauty, lighting up the whole of Jeta Grove,
approached him as night waned; and drawing near, she saluted him and stood at one side.
Thus standing, she spoke this verse to the Master:
Devi About man's suffering We question Gotama;
We ask the Master now
The source of suffering. [1/91]
The Master Plain is the weal in life,
Plain is the suffering:
Prospers who Dharma loves,
Suffers who Dharma hates. [2/92]
Devi 'Tis truly so we know
Firstly of suffering:
Sir, tell us secondly
The source of suffering. [3/93]
The Master Who hath bad men as friends,
Nor maketh friends with good,
Who chooses bad men's ways:
A source of suffering that. [4/94]
I won't repeat the devi's verse each time. The Buddha continues:
When man loves company
And sleep, when he is lax
And slack, and known for wrath:
A source of suffering that. [6/96]
Who being rich, supports
Not parents in their age,
When gone is all their youth:
A source of suffering that. [8/98]
Who with false words deceives
A brahman or recluse
Or other mendicant:
A source of suffering that. [10/100]
When man of wealth and means,
Of gold and property,
Enjoys its sweets alone:
A source of suffering that. [12/102]
When man is proud of birth
And purse and family,
And yet ashamed of kin:
A source of suffering that. [14/104]
When man or woman dotes,
On drink and dice alike,
And all his savings wastes:
A source of suffering that. [16/106]
Who not content with his,
Is seen with others' wives,
Is seen with harlots too:
A source of suffering that. [18/108]
When man, passed youth, doth wed
A maid with rounded breasts,
Nor sleeps for jealousy:
A source of suffering that. [20/110]
When woman or when man
A spendthrift or a sot,
Is placed in sovran power:
A source of suffering that. [22/112]
When born of noble clan,
A man is poor and craves
For much and longs to rule:
A source of suffering that. [24/114]
These sufferings in the world
The wise discern, and blest
With vision Ariyan,
They seek the world of bliss. [25/115]
So that, no doubt, gives one a general idea of these 'sufferings', as Hare calls them. Now for
Chalmers, which is rather different; he calls it 'Failures':
Thus have I heard: Once while the Lord was staying at Sravasti in Jeta's Grove in
Anathapindika's pleasance, as night was passing away, a deity of surpassing beauty came to
the Lord, flooding the whole grove with radiance. And after salutation meet, stood to one
side, addressing the Lord in these stanzas:
'Concerning him who fails, I come to ask of Gotama from what that failure springs.' [1/91]
The Lord: 'Both worth and failure can be quickly seen: worth still aspires, but failure hates the
light. [2/92]
'The second failure's he who loves the bad, courts not the good, and favours bad men's creeds.
Third comes the critic, lazy, indolent and sleek; his constant carping marks him out. [6/96]
'Fourth failure's he who, well-to-do himself, supports not aged parents past their prime. [8/98]
Fifth failure's he who brahmins guides astray, or anchorites, or other wayfarers. [10/100]
'Sixth comes the wealthy man, with pelf and gear, who keeps his dainties strictly to
He seventh comes whom birth or wealth or clan inflates, till he looks down on kith and
The eighth's the rake who squanders all he gets, fast as it comes, on women, drink, ...

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