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Transcribing the oral tradition...

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Pali Canon - Udana 1974

by Sangharakshita

Transcription of the 1974 Udana seminar

(Some days were not recorded, or the tapes are missing)
The Udana and Itivuttaka (Woodward's translation, 1935 edition)
Given early July 1974 at Millbrook in Cornwall, by Urgyen Sangharakshita
Present: Upasakas Buddhadasa, Jitari, Chintamani, Aryamitra and Upasikas Bodhishri,
Malini, Dhammadinna
Day One
S: Both these texts are from the Theravada Pali canon. In the Ancient Indian Buddhist world
there were various canons, various recensions of the scriptures, all based on oral tradition.
There were at least four independent, complete collections: one of them in Pali, that of the
Theravadins; one of them in Apabhramsa, that of the Pudgalavadins; one in Sanskrit, that of
the Sarvastivadins; and one in Prakrit of the Mahasanghikas. There were all these four, but
only one has survived complete in the original language. Of the others we've got fragments in
the original (very small fragments mostly) and translations into Chinese and Tibetan - mostly
Chinese. The Pali canon of the Theravadins, compiled originally in India, maybe 200 or 300years after the death of the Buddha, is the only one that has come down intact and it wasn't
even committed to writing until the first century CE, probably (in Ceylon, not even in India),
so that as a literary document it belongs to the beginning of the Christian era. The Pali canon,
like the other canons, is arranged in three great divisions - the Sutta, the Vinaya, and the
Abhidhamma. The Sutta-Pitaka contains mainly discourses and sayings of the Buddha (and
disciples, a few). In the Sutta-Pitaka you've got, first of all, the long discourses, the
Digha-Nikaya - translated into English as Long Discourses of the Buddha (there are 32 of
Then there is the Majjhima-Nikaya - the Middle Length Discourses, 152 of those. Then there
is the Samyutta-Nikaya, which is a sort of collection of fragments, short sayings, verses, some
of them already appearing (in either the same form or in another form) in the previous two
nikayas, as they are called - the Digha and the Majjhima, and others quite original, and all
arranged according to subject. So it's a sort of collection of anthologies. There are various
sayings and teachings and verses on, say, the gods, on stream entry, on the Buddha, on virtue,
on householders, on monks, on nuns, on trees, on the ocean etc. It's a sort of collection of
anthologies. Then there's the Anguttara-Nikaya where the topics are all arranged numerically:
the one of this, the two of that, the three of something else, right up to eleven. That in fact is
how the Itivuttaka also is arranged, though that only goes up to four. After that, there is the
Khuddaka-Nikaya, which is a vast miscellany of all sorts of things that they couldn't include
in the earlier nikayas. Some are very old and some are quite late. Among the very early ones
(or at least as far as we can see) probably the earliest is the Sutta Nipata, which is of course
very famous. Next probably come the verses of the Udana, though not the prose part. Then
possibly the Itivuttaka, the Dhammapada, and then other rather late works or composite
works (partly late, partly early) like the Jataka stories (all 550 of them). And then there are a
few works which are almost Abhidhamma - like the Patisambhidamagga and the
(?)Caryavamsa which deals with the Bodhisattva ideal. These are very late indeed; later even
than some of the earlier Mahayana sutras. All this material is [3] included in the
Khuddaka-Nikaya. You have Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara and Khuddaka all
making up the Sutta-Pitaka, or discourses and sayings of the Buddha in the Pali canon.
Then part two is the Vinaya, which is supposed to be monastic discipline, but it's almost
anything except that. There's a lot of material about the life of the Buddha; all sorts of
anecdotes, teachings, and here and there rules with the circumstances under which they were
laid down: that's the Vinaya-Pitaka. The Vinaya-Pitaka is a very important source of
knowledge about India in the day of the Buddha, as the Sutta-Pitaka also is. The
Vinaya-Pitaka is also partly quite early and partly quite late material all mixed up together in
five great divisions. Then the Abhidhamma-Pitaka is the latest of the collection, most
sophisticated intellectually: it's very dry in a way - very analytical. It arranged all the material
found in the suttas and the Vinaya in a purely abstract, personal, almost sort of mathematical
way. There's no reference to anything concrete. There are seven books and, for instance, the
first book is Dhammasangani which means enumeration of phenomena. It first of all
enumerates all the different dhammas, all the different factors of existence, and then in the
last book it enumerates all their possible combinations, and of course you've got quite a large
number of dhammas of various kinds. Here, the Abhidhamma diverges, that is, the Theravada
Abhidhamma diverges from the common tradition - you've got a Sarvastivadin Abhidhamma
and various other Abhidhammas which are [4] rather different in content, but not in spirit. It's
a very intellectual, analytical sort of approach, though not without its value. It's also very
systematic. It arranges all the teaching systematically, but it's quite airy and only for the
So this is the Tipitaka, the three Pitakas, the three collections, the three baskets of the
Theravadins in Pali, and the Udana and Itivuttaka come in that Khuddaka-Nikaya, the
miscellaneous collection of the Sutta-Pitaka.
The Udana
S: The word Udana means the upward-going breath. According to general teaching, there are
five different kinds of breath. For instance we've got the in- and out-going breath - the
anapana, on which the Ananapanasati or mindfulness of the in- and out-going breath is based.
Another breath is the upward-going breath. Another is the downward-going breath, which is
supposed to be responsible for the functions of excretion. In this way there are five different
breaths (I can't recollect the other two). The upward-going breath is the breath which sort of
comes up in a tremendous wave, when you feel very strongly and powerfully moved
emotionally, when something is really stirred up and you breathe forth an utterance; an
utterance sort of comes up and out under the tremendous stress of this feeling of [5]
inspiration and almost like possession. So Udana means that. It means that breath, and it also
means what is produced - the sort of utterance that is produced as a result of that breath, that
inspiration. It's not just breath in the literal sense. The usage becomes a bit metaphorical. An
Udana is therefore often translated as an inspired saying, or as Woodward says, a 'verse of
uplift' (which is pretty weak, though what else can he do - he's done his best). An Udana is
one particular category of literature. Quite early in the development of Buddhism, they
classified all the literature, as it was coming to be (though even at the time of the oral
tradition this was done to some extent), into different types, which cuts across the division
into books and collections. For instance one type is Jataka (birth story); another is a brief
saying, another is a lengthy discourse, another is a parable. These are all types of literature,
types of teaching; and one is the udana. So the udanas are those verses which the Buddha
breathed out under tremendous force of inspiration, either in a certain situation with his
disciples, or quite spontaneously on his own at some very important or critical stage of his
spiritual career. These are all called udanas. The Udana is a collection of these verses. Many
of the verses are obscure and very general and you can't quite see how they came to be
produced. They are associated with various stories in prose. As far as we can see, the verses
were associated with the prose at a rather later date some time after the Buddha's death. In a
few cases the prose may reflect the actual circumstances in which the udanas originated, but
in some cases we [6] can see quite clearly that an udana has been tacked on to a prose
narrative with which it has very little to do. We shall see that for ourselves, anyone can see it.
You can see it with half an eye, as it were. In some cases it's just mildly inappropriate or
irrelevant. In other cases (there seem to be a few cases) there seems to be a bit of conflict
between the content of the prose narrative portion and the content of the udana. As far as
scholars have been able to make out, the verses of this udana book represent a very archaic
stage of the tradition indeed. The language, for instance, is more archaic than the language of
the prose part, even though the prose part itself is very archaic. The language of the verses of
the Udana is very similar to that of the Sutta Nipata, or rather, to the more ancient parts of the
Sutta Nipata, which are almost certainly the oldest part of the canon. With the verses of the
Udana we get very near to the original sources of the teaching, very near to the Buddha's own
words. It may well be that the Udana verses are the Buddha's own words, or based on them.
The prose sections with which the verses are associated came not very far behind. Some of
these, though they may be in prose rather than verse, very likely do go back to original
teachings and traditions and situations and represent them quite faithfully.
In a way, ...

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