The Suttanipata - Preface

An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries

This landmark volume in the Teachings of the Buddha series translates the Suttanipāta, a text that matches the Dhammapada in its concise power of expression and its centrality to the Buddhist tradition. Celebrated translator Bhikkhu Bodhi illuminates this text and its classical commentaries with elegant renderings and authoritative annotations.



1,616 pages, 5.375 x 8.5 inches


ISBN 9781614294290

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ISBN 9781614294542

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This volume offers a new translation of the Suttanipāta together with its commentarial apparatus. The Suttanipāta is an anthology of discourses ascribed to the Buddha, included in the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Minor or Miscellaneous Collection, the fifth of the five nikāyas that constitute the Sutta Piṭaka (or Compilation of Discourses) of the Pāli Canon. The Suttanipāta sits in this collection alongside such popular works as the Dhammapada, the Udāna, and the Itivuttaka, and is itself a perennial favorite among followers of Theravāda Buddhism. Most of the discourses in the Suttanipāta are in verse, some in mixed prose and verse. None is entirely in prose. Several discourses in the Suttanipāta are found in the main collections—specifically in the Majjhima, Saṃyutta, and Aṅguttara Nikāyas—though most are unique to this anthology.

Linguistic and doctrinal evidence suggests that the Suttanipāta took shape through a gradual process of accretion spread out over three or four centuries. The anthology is unique to the Pāli Canon, though it contains discourses with parallels in other transmission lines among the schools of Early Buddhism. This implies that the Suttanipāta itself was compiled within the Pāli school from preexisting material. Several of its texts are considered to be among the most ancient specimens of Buddhist literature. Among these are two chapters, the Aṭṭhakavagga (chap. IV) and the Pārāyanavagga (chap. V), that are quoted in the Saṃyutta and Aṅguttara Nikāyas. These two chapters are, moreover, the subjects of a two-part expository text, the Niddesa, so old that it was included in the Khuddaka Nikāya. The Suttanipāta also contains discourses that have been absorbed into the common Theravāda monastic liturgy, among them the Metta Sutta and the Ratana Sutta, and popular discourses like the Parābhava Sutta and the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta that serve as the basis for Buddhist lay ethics. These suttas are often drawn upon by preachers of the Dhamma for their sermons to the laity.

The Suttanipāta has been previously translated into English at least six times: by Robert Chalmers, Viggo Fausbøll, E. M. Hare, Ven. H. Saddhātissa, K.R. Norman, and N.A. Jayawickrama. A German translation by Nyanaponika Thera is also available. A translation of the Aṭṭhakavagga by Bhikkhu Paññobhāsa has been published in a small printed edition, inclusive of the Pāli text. Several chapters and individual suttas are posted on the website Access to Insight, most translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. Another translation of the Aṭṭhakavagga, this one by Gil Fronsdal (2016), was published too late for me to consult when preparing the present work.

My intention, in preparing this work, was not to offer still another translation that would improve on the work of my predecessors and shake up the world of Buddhist scholarship with bold, innovative renderings. Rather, it was to make the Suttanipāta available in an accurate and readable version along with its commentaries as preserved in the Pāli Buddhist tradition. This is, I believe, the first time that the entire Suttanipāta Commentary and substantial excerpts from the Niddesa have been published in translation.

I based my translation of the Suttanipāta on three editions. I relied primarily on the excellent Roman-script edition by Dines Anderson and Helmer Smith, published by the Pali Text Society (PTS), but I also consulted two other versions. One is the electronic edition of the Burmese Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka, the Sixth Council compilation, published by the Vipassana Research Institute and available online (designated CST4). The other is the Sinhala-script Buddha Jayanti edition published in Sri Lanka, now available online as a PDF. Occasionally I preferred a reading in one or another (or both) of these editions to that in the PTS edition. When I do so, I have usually mentioned my preference in a note. My numbering scheme follows that of the PTS edition.

In preparing my translation of the Suttanipāta I regularly consulted the careful and precise translations by Norman and Jayawickrama and often refer to them in my notes. I also found Norman’s endnotes (which take up 300 pages of his 430-page volume, The Group of Discourses) particularly helpful in understanding the text from a philological perspective. Jayawickrama’s monograph, “A Critical Analysis of the Suttanipāta,” gave me insights into the work’s historical and linguistic development. The two translations I consulted most often occasionally differ due to their divergent approaches. Norman’s aim, as he expresses it in his preface, is “to give the meaning of the text as it was intended to be understood by the original speakers, or as it was accepted by the first hearers” (GD x). This is a tall order for one living so far from the culture and environment in which the Suttanipāta took shape, but Norman brought to the task his consummate knowledge of Middle Indo-Aryan languages. Jayawickrama, in contrast, leans heavily on the commentary and thus follows more closely traditional Theravādin exegesis.

In my translation I have tried to steer a middle course between the two. I sought to remain faithful to the words of the text when it is clear, simple, and straightforward. Since this is not always the case, I relied on the commentary to understand more difficult verses and obscure words and expressions. There were, however, places where I had to differ from the commentary, even when doing so created a dissonance between my rendering of the root text and the commentary. I have noted these discrepancies in the introduction (pp. 78–81), where I refer to the notes that explain my disagreements. Also, unlike Norman and Jayawickrama, I have composed my translation in free verse. Since I am not a poet, I did not aim at poetic elegance but simply at rendering the verses in a style that is more uplifting and less pedantic than a bare prose translation.
To keep the translation of the canonical text as trim as possible, I have relegated virtually all my notes dealing with matters of substance to the commentarial section, with verse and commentarial numbers correlated. The citation of lines in these notes refer to the Pāli text, not the translation. Thus, for example, 189 c means verse 189, third line of the Pāli. Because of the differences in syntax between the two languages, the line number of a Pāli verse is not always the same as that of the English rendering. The notes to the root text deal primarily with my choices among the readings in the three editions I consulted and with other minor linguistic matters. Occasionally too I cite the commentary in a note to clarify a reading. I have recorded parallels to the discourses in the Suttanipāta in two places: under the summary of each sutta in the Guide to the Suttas and in Appendix 1. I also refer to parallels when I discuss them in the notes to the commentarial section.
The commentary on the Suttanipāta is named Paramatthajotikā. Since the commentary on the Khuddakapāṭha, a short work in the Khuddaka Nikāya, is also named Paramatthajotikā, modern editors designate the Khuddakapāṭha Commentary “Paramatthajotikā I” and the Suttanipāta Commentary “Paramatthajotikā II.” Paramattha means “supreme meaning” and jotikā “illuminator” or “elucidator.” Thus I render the title “Elucidator of the Supreme Meaning.” This commentary is traditionally ascribed to cariya Buddhaghosa, the Indian monk who came to Sri Lanka in the fifth century c.e., where he composed the Visuddhimagga (“Path of Purification”), a comprehensive treatise on Buddhist doctrine and meditation, and commentaries on the four main Nikāyas; he may also have been the author of still other commentaries as well. These commentaries—known as aṭṭhakathā —were based largely on older commentaries preserved in the ancient Sinhala language, which in turn, it is said, were translated from still older Indian originals brought to the island centuries earlier.
Buddhaghosa’s authorship of the commentary to the Suttanipāta is disputed, and it is virtually impossible to settle the issue with certainty. What is clear, however, is that the author of the Suttanipāta Commentary, whoever it may have been, draws upon the same system of exegesis that Buddhaghosa used, the system that had evolved over the centuries at the Mahāvihāra, the Great Monastery in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Paramatthajotikā II thus belongs to the same body of aṭṭhakathā considered authoritative by the Theravāda school of Buddhism. These commentaries look at the canonical texts through the lens of exegetical analysis maintained by the elders of the Mahāvihāra, which often draws upon ideas and schemes of categories unique to the Pāli school.
I have translated the entire commentary, with a few minor omissions. I omitted portions of the “term explanations” (padavaṇṇanā) that merely define particular Pāli words in the canonical text by way of synonyms more familiar to readers in the age of the commentaries. To have translated these passages into intelligible English, I would have had to define common English words with other common English words, which would be redundant if my translation of the root text is sufficiently clear. I have omitted, too, translations of individual sentences here and there that deal with technical grammatical issues and other matters of protocol.
My translation of the commentary is based primarily on the PTS edition of Paramatthajotikā II, edited by Helmer Smith. I also consulted the Vipassana Research Institute’s electronic version of the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana edition and the Sinhala-script Simon Hewavitarne Bequest edition. Smith omitted from his edition of Pj II the commentaries on three suttas that the Suttanipāta shares with the Khuddakapāṭha—the Metta, Ratana, and Mahāmaṅgala Suttas. He had already edited Paramatthajotikā I, and since the explanations of these discourses are almost identical in the two commentaries, he decided to avoid the repetition. I therefore translated the commentaries on these suttas from the PTS edition of Pj I, again while also consulting the Burmese and Sri Lankan editions of Pj II, which include them.
While the style of the aṭṭhakathā can be dense and ponderous, I believe it is important to have the commentaries on the canonical text available in English translation as a safeguard against arbitrary interpretations. Since the Suttanipāta is composed mostly in verse, and the stanzas are sometimes obscure and suggestive, it is tempting for writers on Early Buddhism to seize upon single suttas and even a few enigmatic stanzas as the building blocks for erecting their own personal theories about “Original Buddhism just as the Buddha intended it.” Thus, based mainly on the Suttanipāta, claims are sometimes put forth that Buddhism was originally a premonastic movement made up of individualistic wandering hermits, or that the Buddha was a radical skeptic whose teaching had no room for such ideas as kamma, rebirth, saṃsāra, and transcendent liberation, but was aimed solely at inner tranquility through the relinquishment of all views and attachments. Such theories depend largely on selective citation in defiance of the weight of evidence bearing down from the great mass of Early Buddhist literature and stubborn facts about the history of Buddhism.
Reading the Suttanipāta in the light of the main Nikāyas and their commentaries should serve to correct such speculative theories. While the commentaries certainly represent the views of later generations of exegetes and may not capture the original intent of the work in all respects, to ignore or reject them is to dismiss the cumulative efforts of the early doctrinal masters to understand and explain the Word of the Buddha.
As mentioned above, two chapters of the Suttanipāta, the Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyanavagga, along with the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta, were taken as the subjects of an expository work included in the Khuddaka Nikāya. This work, known as the Niddesa or “Exposition,” is divided into two parts. The larger part, the Mahāniddesa or “Great Exposition,” comments on the Aṭṭhakavagga; the Cūḷaniddesa or “Minor Exposition” comments on the Pārāyanavagga and the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta.
By necessity I have included only excerpts from the Niddesa. Given that the Mahāniddesa comes to 385 pages in the Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana edition, and the Cūḷaniddesa to 275 pages, full translations of these texts would have swelled this volume far beyond serviceable size. I have selected what I consider the most illuminating passages of both parts of the Niddesa and interlaced them with the translation of Pj II. I have sometimes simplified my renderings of the Niddesa (for example, by shortening the chains of synonyms it typically employs) and have tried to avoid excessive repetition, which is hard to do with a work as repetitive as the Niddesa. Only occasionally did I include translations of the suttas from other sources that the Niddesa quotes to reinforce its explanations.
William Stede, in editing the PTS edition of the Cūḷaniddesa, reorganized the work in accordance with his own conception of it as “an aggregate of disconnected pieces or atoms.” He arranges, in Pāli alphabetical order, the terms commented on by the Cūḷaniddesa and for each term provides the verse numbers where the terms occur and the relevant explanations. For this reason his edition was not suitable for my purpose, which requires that I follow the sequence of the verses. I have therefore used as my text the Vipassana Research Institute’s electronic version of both parts of the Niddesa, the Mahā and the Cūḷa portions, included in their edition of the Pāli Tipiṭaka (CST4). Each complete excerpt from the Niddesa is marked off with (*) at the beginning and (*) at the end. The source for each excerpt is set in bold preceding the passage. Those who read Pāli can find the passage in the electronic version by comparing these numbers with the VRI page numbers at the bottom edge of the window.
The serious non-academic student of Early Buddhism might feel daunted by the amount of material presented in this volume and not know where or how to proceed. As a practical approach, I suggest initially reading the introduction and the Guide to the Suttas, and then the translation of the Suttanipāta itself. Read it slowly and reflectively, without being anxious to understand every verse and line on a first reading. After reading and digesting the root text to the best of one’s ability, return to the text again, this time reading each sutta individually—or perhaps even each verse—along with the commentary on it. Skip over those parts of the commentary one finds dense, tedious, pedantic, or irrelevant to one’s concerns, and focus on those parts that actually explain the text. Connections between the root text and the corresponding portion of the commentary are easy to make because both use the same numbering scheme. Thus, for instance, the commentarial explanation of stanza 18 can be located by finding the bold number 18 in the commentarial section. Lines and phrases from the root text being commented on, known as the lemma, are set in bold (as thus illustrated). This makes them easy to identify. Occasionally, when there are gaps in the numbering of the commentary sections, this is either because the commentary does not comment on the verse (since all the terms are already clear) or because it merely offers routine word glosses that I thought need not be translated.
By any merit I have acquired through this work, may the Three Gems of the Ratana Sutta long flourish in the world and may the peoples of the world live together in peace, guided by the ethics of the Parābhava Sutta, the values of the Mahāmaṅ-gala Sutta, and the sublime attitudes of the Metta Sutta. May seekers of liberation discard erroneous views and deviant practices, as advised by the Aṭṭhakavagga, and set their feet on the path to the goal pointed to by the Pārāyanavagga, the Chapter on the Way to the Beyond.
Bhikkhu Anālayo and John Kelly read the entire translation of the Suttanipāta alongside the Pāli text, as well as the translation of the commentary, and both made helpful recommendations. Ven. Anālayo also suggested additions to my concordance of parallels (Appendix 1). Bhikkhu Khemaratana read the translation of the Suttanipāta and made several suggestions regarding my terminology, drawing me back to the use of simple ordinary words rather than more elevated literary words.
At several points, when questions arose in my mind about terms and passages in the commentary, I posted them on the Yahoo Pāli Discussion Group and received quick replies from group members. I found particularly helpful the replies from Petra Kieffer-Pülz, Bryan Levman, and the late Lance Cousins.
I am thankful to the residents and staff of Chuang Yen Monastery, who allowed me the leisure to undertake this translation with minimal disturbances. I am also grateful to my lay students for their support.
As with their earlier volumes in the Teachings of the Buddha series, Wisdom Publications has done an excellent job of production. I am thankful to the editor, David Kittelstrom, for his editorial suggestions, to Megan Anderson for meticulous proofing, to the production team, and to the publisher, Timothy McNeill.
Bhikkhu Bodhi
Chuang Yen Monastery
Carmel, New York