Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a prolific translator of the Pali canon, the earliest complete set of the Buddha’s teachings. Than Geoff, as he is known to his students and friends, has recently printed his translation of the Sutta Nipata (“The Discourse Group”). Made up of 72 suttas in total, the Sutta Nipata contains some of the most well-known canonical poems (you may have heard, for instance, of the Metta Sutta) and presents the Buddha’s thoughts on such topics as racism and classism. Despite the text’s antiquity, it is particularly pertinent to today’s sociopolitical climate.
Below, the monk answers four quick questions about the Sutta Nipata.
What are some suttas in the Sutta Nipata that are not famous, but are worth getting to know? Perhaps the most important section of the Sutta Nipata is the Atthaka Vagga, a collection of 16 poems on the topic of nonclinging. But there are some hidden gems in the rest of the collection, too. The Arrow (3.8) is a very strong statement on the need to overcome grief, and The Rod Embraced (4.15) starts with the vision of the world that led the young Buddha-to-be to seek awakening. As he says, he saw people floundering like fish competing with one another in small puddles, and there was nothing in the world that wasn’t laid claim to. Every time I read that passage I think of the time I saw salmon arriving at their spawning grounds in a stream no more than an inch deep, struggling to flop themselves over other salmon already dead, while bears were hovering around ready to strike. All that fighting, while in the end they were all just going to die.
You describe the common thread among the suttas in the Sutta Nipata as a response to the culture of ancient India, where brahmanical doctrine was the prominent religious tradition. How would you describe the Buddha’s relationship to the brahmans and their system of belief, and how does this collection illustrate that? We know from other texts that brahmans in the time of the Buddha were obsessed with the question of defining the true self, whether the true self survived death, and if so, how to make sure that it had enough to feed on. And we know from other parts of the canon that the Buddha regarded all these questions as wrong-headed because they got in the way of answering what he saw as a much more important question: how to put an end to suffering and arrive at a dimension where there’s no need to feed. The Sutta Nipata, though, touches on these topics only briefly. Instead, the brahmans presented here seem to be united only in their belief that they are better than everyone else, and the Buddha goes into great detail as to why people cannot be judged on their birth and social status, and should be judged by their actions instead.
That sounds especially pertinent to the issues of racism and classism that we still deal with today. How can we apply the Buddha’s positions from ancient India to contemporary times? Two of the Buddha’s teachings on racism and classism are especially applicable today. The first is the point I just mentioned: There’s nothing about birth or social status that makes a person good or bad. People are good or bad solely in terms of their actions, and so that’s how they should be judged—not by the color of their skin. There’s a nice passage in the Vasettha Sutta (3.9) where the Buddha notes that, with common animals, you know the animal by its coloring and markings, whereas the same standard doesn’t apply to human beings: There’s no physical mark that tells you whether a person is trustworthy or not. If you judge people as good or bad by their appearance, you’re reducing human beings—yourself and others—to animals.
The other teaching is a little less intuitive but just as important. There’s a sutta on the topic of body contemplation whose title, interestingly enough, is Victory (1.11). It gives a long catalog of the disgusting details of the human body, and then ends by saying, “Whoever would think, on the basis of a body like this, to exalt himself or disparage another: what is that if not blindness?” If you think that white skin is somehow special, imagine what a pile of white skin would look like on its own. That should be enough to subdue racial pride.
In your introduction to the collection you stress the importance of understanding historical context when reading ancient texts, especially because many of the Buddha’s verses can seem contradictory or ambiguous if one relies on surface meaning alone. What does this mean for us average Joes when we read the canon? In a Buddhist text, the full meaning is always related to how it answers this question: to what extent can these teachings help overcome suffering? When you’re faced with different interpretations of a text, the same question applies: does this interpretation help or get in the way of bringing suffering to an end? Scholars can help point out possible interpretations based on historical context or on the way one text fits in with other texts, but just because a person is a scholar doesn’t mean that he or she is in a better position than a nonscholar to answer either of these two questions. You have to remember that texts like the Pali canon were not meant to be approached on their own. Ideally, you approached them in the context of a community of teachers, the monastic sangha, who had applied the texts in their own practice and so could help give you a practical sense of what they meant and how you might apply them to your practice, too. But even then, you wouldn’t know the full meaning of a text until you had found something that worked in bringing your own suffering to an end. And that requires more than just the tools of scholarship. It requires qualities like honesty and ingenuity and very high standards for judging “what works.”
The Sutta Nipata is the fifth text in the Khuddaka Nikaya (“Short Collection”), which itself is the fifth collection in the Sutta Pitaka, one of the three main “baskets” of the Pali canon. You can read the Sutta Nipata, and all of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translations, for free at dhammatalks.org.
[This story was first published in 2016]
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