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Pali Canon - Udana 1975

by Sangharakshita

The Udana Seminar 1975

Sangharakshita: Before we begin the actual text, let me say a few general words about the
body of literature of which this particular text is a part. As I expect most of you know, this
work, the Udana, is part of the Pali Canon, which has been handed down in the Theravada
school. I don't know how familiar you are with the history of Buddhist literature or how the
Canon was formed and developed, but perhaps I should say a few words about that first and
then give a brief summary of the Pali Canon and indicate the place of the Udana in that
To begin with, as probably everybody does know, the Buddha taught simply orally. The
Buddha didn't write anything. His immediate disciples didn't write anything. The teaching -
the Dharma - was an oral tradition for four or five hundred years. It is important that we
should remember that, because when we read through some of the Buddhist Scriptures,
especially parts of the Pali Canon, sometimes they have a rather unattractive literary form.
But this is because they are not literature. They were not written. They are records of oral
tradition and, since the Dharma had to be handed down by oral means, the oral tradition was
given a form which made it easy to remember - for instance, lists: one of this, two of these,
three of those, and so on; and lists of lists. This made the teaching easy to remember. But,
when it was written down eventually in that orally transmitted form, it did not always make
very attractive or readable literature. Very often it did not add up to literature at all.
That was the position for some hundreds of years: the Dharma was handed down entirely by
oral means, and the oral tradition used to be preserved by numbers of full-timers, who by that
time were called bhikkhus or even monks, getting together periodically and reciting together
what they remembered, so that you would add what you had learned orally to the pool. You
would hear other people reciting and you would join in, and eventually there would be a
number of monks - dozens, even hundreds of monks - all reciting, all chanting, the oral
tradition. These collective chants, which were known as samgiti - usually the word is
translated as council, but it means a collective chanting of the oral tradition by the bhikkhus -
became the basis for the literary Canon.
Meanwhile, of course, different schools and different traditions had developed and the
chantings had been going on in several different languages, because the Buddha had
permitted that, not to say encouraged it. So, as the Dharma spread from its original home in
north-eastern India all over northern India then down into the south, dialectal differences
started developing, so that the monks of eastern, western and southern India, for example,
were chanting together the same tradition and substantially the same material, but with
differences of accent, pronunciation and grammar, and then even differences of dialect crept
in. In that way, there were even a number of different oral traditions, and this was reflected in
the Canon when it came to be written down. Eventually there were recensions of the literary
version of the Canon in several different languages: mainly in Sanskrit, which was the Canon
of the Sarvastivadins; what afterwards came to be known as Pali, which was the Canon of the
Theravadins; and also chantings and recensions in Apabramsa and in Paisaci - mainly those
four. But only one of all those has survived in the original language in its entirety and that is
the Pali recension, handed down in the Theravada school. We have quite a bit of [2] the
Sanskrit recension of the Sarvastivadins in the original and a lot more in translation, but we
have nothing, to the best of my recollection, of the Paisaci or the Apabramsa original
traditions, though there is something in Chinese translation.
So the Pali Canon is important as the only surviving complete recension of the Canon - the
pre-Mahayanistic Canon - in the language in which it was originally handed down, though
that is not to say that it was the language of the Buddha. It is dialectally somewhat different
from that. Sometimes over-enthusiastic Theravadins will claim that, in the Pali Canon, you
have the actual words of the Buddha, just as though they had been taken down in shorthand or
as though there was a tape recorder under the Bodhi-tree. But it isn't really like that. I am not
going to go into the details of the exact dialectal development; this is a matter of some dispute
among scholars, anyway, but it is broadly agreed that the Pali Canon is based upon a
recension of the Dharma that was circulating in north-western India about the time of Asoka.
We can't really say that it is the language of the Buddha and the teaching exactly as he gave it.
The Pali Canon exists in three great collections called Pitakas - the Three Baskets: the Vinaya
Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka and the Adbhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka is generally said to
be the Pitaka or collection of monastic rules. This is only partly correct. It contains a lot of
other material, too, about the history of the Sangha, about the Dharma, about the life of the
Buddha and, incidentally, also, the rules for the monks are laid down by the Buddha, and
often the occasion or incident leading to the laying down of those rules is described. There are
five bulky volumes in Miss Horner's English translation of the Vinaya Pitaka.
Then you have the Sutta Pitaka, which is the most important of the Pitakas. This consists of
five Nikayas or divisions. First of all, there is the Digha-Nikaya, which is a collection of long
- Digha means long - discourses by, or attributed to, the Buddha. There are thirty-two of
these. They are very important and ancient, or reflect ancient traditions, though they are not
all equally ancient. Then you have the Majjhima-Nikaya, the collection of approximately 150medium-length discourses. Many of these are also quite ancient. After that, there is the
Samyutta-Nikaya, which is a collection of a very large number of short sayings or discourses,
arranged subject-wise. Samyutta means simply a collection. In this particular Nikaya, the
sayings and short discourses of the Buddha are collected together according to subject matter.
There is a series of little talks or verses and so on, on trees, another on Stream Entry, another
on the gods, another on Sariputra, another on the fetters, and so on. This Nikaya has some
material original to itself and some which is also found in the two preceding Nikayas, that is
to say the Digha and the Majjhima.
Then there is the Anguttara-Nikaya. Anga-uttara is quite difficult to translate. Anga is limb or
factor; uttara is one higher. So it's going one higher each time, from one to two, from two to
three, from three to four. In the first section you've got all the ones: for instance, food, the one
support. In the next section, there are all the twos - name and form, and so on. Then, in the
next, all the threes - the Three Jewels, and so on. It goes, as far as I recollect, up to eleven. So
that's the Anguttara-Nikaya. This also duplicates some of the material in other Nikayas.
Lastly, you have the Khuddhaka-Nikaya, which means miscellaneous. That is a real rag-bag.
It contains some of the most ancient material in the whole Pali Canon, like the Sutta-Nipata,
and it also contains some [3] of the latest. It contains the Jataka books. It contains, even,
quasi-Abhidhamma works like the Patisambhida-magga. So it is a very miscellaneous
collection indeed - fourteen different works, including also the Dhammapada. And our Udana
is found there. We'll come back to that in a minute.
So those are the five Nikayas or divisions which make up the Sutta-Pitaka, the collection of
Then we have the Abhidhamma-Pitaka, which is very much later than the other two Pitakas,
divided into seven books. The first and the last of the seven books are the most important.
The first is the Dhammasangani, enumeration of phenomena. I am not going into that now.
The last is the Patthana or the book of relations. Those are, as I said, the most important of the
seven, but the material in between is quite interesting and important, too. All the seven books
are somewhat later than the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas.
So here we have the existing Pali Canon. It is important, because it is a collection of Buddhist
traditions coming down to us in an early Indian language which we now know as Pali. In
addition to information about the Buddha and his teaching and his Order, there is a lot of
miscellaneous information about the condition of India in those days - political, economic,
social; information about anthropology and sociology and information about manners and
customs, arts and crafts; so we get a rich and vivid picture of the life of ancient India in those
days, about 500 BC, and against this vivid background we see the life of the Buddha
unfolding, his teaching being given and his movement developing.
So, even from a human, historical and literary point of view, the literature, as it is now
represented by the Pali Canon is very important. It is our most important source of
information about India in those days. There is nothing like it in the whole range of Indian
literature. Sanskrit literature, on the whole, apart from the Vedic and Upanishad literature, is
very much later and we don't get such a vivid picture of the ...

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