One statement popularly ascribed to the Buddha is quoted so often that it has become virtually an axiom of modern Buddhism. The statement appears in several formulations, the broadest of which runs: “I teach only suffering and the cessation of suffering.” A variant reads: “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” And another variant makes the point even more sharply: “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”
Surprise, surprise! Nowhere in the Pali canon does the Buddha himself actually say this. The statement ascribed to him is not altogether without a basis in the canon, but the way the original is commonly expressed represents a translation error rooted in a grammatical misunderstanding. The sentence we do find reads in Pali: pubbe c’aham bhikkhave etarahi ca dukkhan c’eva pannapemi, dukkhassa ca nirodham. Before I get to the grammatical error, I should point out that, contrary to what we might expect, the sentence in no way serves as a hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching in its entirety. An online search through the thousands of pages of Buddhist scriptures turns up the sentence only twice. And the two places in which it occurs make it plain that the Buddha did not mean to say he teaches only suffering and its cessation and nothing else. Rather, he was saying something quite different, which on each occasion is determined by the context.
To see how the error arose requires a short excursion into the field of Pali syntax. To construct a conjunction in Pali, the word ca, meaning “and,” normally follows each noun or phrase that it links. This, of course, is different from English, where “and” occurs between the terms being joined. Thus while in English we would say “The cat and the dog are playing on the mat,” in Pali one would say, “The cat and the dog and on the mat are playing.”
Often, though not always, the first ca in a conjunction is followed by the emphatic particle eva. By the Pali rules of liaison (sandhi), whereby sounds in close proximity affect each other, ca eva turns into c’eva. In some contexts, eva has an exclusionary sense, meaning “only, solely.” Taking eva in this sense seems to explain how the famous dictum of the Buddha came to be interpreted to mean that he teaches only suffering and its cessation. In conjunctions, however, eva does not have this exclusionary sense. It simply adds a slight emphasis to the initial ca of the conjunction. Thus, going back to our English example, the construction in Pali syntax would be as follows: “The cat and indeed the dog and on the mat are playing.”
With a proper understanding of the c’eva . . . ca construction, the sentence about the Buddha’s teaching is more correctly translated: “In the past, monks, and also now, I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.” There is no “only” in the sentence, and thus the purport of the words is not categorically exclusive. In each of the passages in which the statement is made, it occurs in a specific context that brings out the intended meaning. In Majjhima Nikaya 22 it is a rejoinder to the charge, raised by hostile ascetics and brahmins, that the Buddha teaches the annihilation of a truly existent being. In Samyutta Nikaya 22.86 it explains the Buddha’s refusal to take a stand in the debates concerning the fate of an enlightened person after death. In both instances, the sentence shifts attention away from speculative hypotheses toward a practical project, but in neither case does it tie the teaching down to an exclusive area of concern.
In thousands of suttas the Buddha teaches other things besides “suffering and its cessation.” For instance, in a series of dialogues in the Samyutta Nikaya monks ask him how one can be reborn as a naga, a garuda, or a gan-dhabba—that is, as a celestial dragon, a celestial eagle, or a fragrance deity—and the Buddha doesn’t wave the questions aside because they aren’t concerned with suffering and its cessation; rather, he gives straightforward answers based on the law of karma. The Anguttara Nikaya is particularly rich in suttas touching on a wide range of practical topics, from types of marriages to planning the household budget. When the Buddha speaks, it is said, he always intends his words to lead to the welfare and happiness of the hearers. But his words are not always tied to the theme of “suffering and its cessation.” To insist on confining them to this topic is to drastically narrow the range of the dharma.
I have to confess that I am one of the perpetrators of this literary faux pas, for in several of my own past writings I authoritatively cited the wrongly rendered version of the statement as proof that the Buddha’s entire teaching was only about suffering and the end of suffering. But I’ve since learned otherwise. This experience has enabled me to see how linguistic misreadings of Buddhist texts can give rise to wrong doctrinal interpretations and even promulgate modern myths about the meaning of Buddhism. Our contemporary environment of thought, which relishes reducing complex systems of ideas to simple catchphrases and slogans, has also contributed to the distortion.
I can’t help wondering how many other myths there are about Buddhism that owe their origins to flawed translations and selective quotations. No doubt quite a few favorites would turn up on the casualty list. It’s become a current fashion for people to ascribe any adage they like to the Buddha without entertaining second thoughts about sources. I’ve already met my share of such sayings on blogs and bumper stickers, and as time goes by I expect I’ll meet many more. But if the dharma is to be presented accurately, the example discussed above shows that we should be careful when quoting the Buddha’s words. To ensure that the dharma is understood and transmitted correctly, we cannot escape the need for serious study of the texts, with an understanding of the classical languages in which they have been preserved.