Suttas are discourses or Teachings delivered by the Buddha on various occasions, during His forty-five years of ministry, and a few discourses delivered by His disciples such as Venerable Sariputta, Maha Moggallana, Arahant Ananda, Maha Kaccana, female Venerable Dhammadina and others. (Great Disciples of the Buddha by Nyanaponika & Hellmuth Hecker).
It was in the Fourth Buddhist Council held in Sri Lanka in 80 B.C. under the patronage of the pious King Vattagamini Abhaya that the Tipitaka (the three baskets) was committed in writing for the first time on ola leaves. All the texts were recorded in Pali and known as Pali Canon or Scriptures. The Suttas are contained in one of the three baskets known as the Sutta Pitaka. They are divided into five separate collections known as Nikayas, namely: Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya and Khuddaka Nikaya, However, the four Nikayas that are regularly referred, but not limited to, are Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya and Anguttara Nikaya. (‘Guide to Tipitaka’ by U Ko Lay and ‘An Analysis of the Pali Canon’ by Russell Webb).
Teachings and Methods
In the course of His Teachings, the Buddha never used a single word that the disciples would not understand. The Buddha taught his disciples mostly in the open air. His classrooms were public parks, cemeteries, rock-slabs, sand stretches, shade of trees, fields, pasture land, poor hovels, the public roads and the forest. These were places that had an uncluttered environment. A special characteristic in the Buddha’s Teachings was His method of driving home a point using similes, metaphors, examples and instances derived from daily life and from His environment, right before their eyes. (The Greatest Man Who Ever Live, The Supreme Buddha by Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thero).
Why so many Suttas?
There are about 11,813 suttas [The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People by John L. Kelly (Equinox Publishing Ltd, UK)] from the five Nikayas and the discourses were expounded at different places to suit the occasions and for various people with different abilities and temperaments. The Buddha was a skilful preacher, thus a single subject or topic was expounded in many ways to suit the audience, and all these pertinent and ancillary suttas are found in five different Nikayas. Although there are about 400 suttas that are directly or indirectly related to lay people, there are also many suttas for the monks are also relevant to the lay people. (John L. Kelly).
Learning Suttas in the First Dimension …
While reading a sutta on a particular subject will give a basic understanding and that is in the first dimension. When reading it together with the other pertinent and ancillary suttas selected from the other Nikayas in conjunction with it will give a better understanding and a clearer picture and perspective. That is moving into the second dimension.
A good everyday life illustration is the issue on food: “They always take delight in food, both devas and human beings. So what sort of spirit could it be that does not take delight in food?” (SN 1:43).
Then, the perennial question arises: Does a Buddhist need to adopt a vegetarian diet?
The Buddha allowed meat eating under the three fold rule: “Jivaka, … I say that there three instances in which meat can been eaten: when it is not seen, heard and not suspected (that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself). I say that meat may be eaten in these three instances.” (MN 55). Reading the Jivaka Sutta alone tells that meat consumption is permissible under the three conditions that only give a straight and basic understanding in the first dimension. A question may arise: Why Buddha himself did not subscribe to a non-meat dietary? As the Mahayana denomination forms a larger section of the Buddhist community subscribes to vegetarianism it has an influence and impact on the Theravada practice. So to understand the practice better is to discover what other Teachings the Buddha preached on permissible meat eating for whatever reasons and practice. So we go into the …
… Second Dimension
“When the Bodhisatta Prince Siddhatta renounced the world to be a recluse Ghatrikara Brahama brought the eight requisites for his old friend, the Bodhisatta Prince, an alms bowl among them. He went round and collected food just enough for his sustenance. The food, which he received, included all kinds of eatables, course and fine of various colours mixed up together.
“When Lord Buddha after His enlightenment visited his home town of Kapilavatthu went on alms round, and when King Suddhodana learnt of it, he rushed out of the palace to see Lord Buddha and stood in front of Him and made this remarks: “Most Exalted One, why do you put us to shame by going around for alms-food? Do you think that enough food for such a large number as twenty thousand arahats cannot be provided by your royal father?” The Buddha said in reply: “Royal father, such a practice of receiving alms from door to door is the precedence set by an unbroken line of we, Buddhas. This very practice of receiving alms from one door to the next had always been our means of livelihood.” (The Great Chronicle of Buddhas – Mahabuddhavansa being the Myanmar exposition on the lives of the Buddhas as related mainly in the Buddhavamsa – Pali text of the Khuddaka Nikaya).
So, when Buddha went on alms round whatever food was offered, be it be meat or not had to be accepted without any exception. A monk on alms round “is content with any sort of alms food and speaks in praise of such content. For the sake of getting alms food he resorts not to what is unseemly and unbecoming. If he gets not alms food he is not dismayed threat; and if he does get it he is free from bond of selfishness, of greed, of craving for it.” (AN 4:28).
It is stated that Kassapa Buddha, the immediate Buddha preceding Gotama Buddha who had meat in his diet, refuted the ascetic Tissa’s notions that not eating meat was pure and eating meat was impure. Abstinence from eating meat does not make one pure as expounded in the Amagandha Sutta … “on millet, cingula beans and peas, edible leaves and roots, the fruits of any creepers, is pure when combined with other virtues such as obtaining the food justly and do not tell lies our of sensuous delight”.
“O Kassapa, you who eat any food given by others, which is well-prepared, nicely arranged, pure and appealing; he who enjoys such food made with rice, eats [rotting flesh that emits a] stench.
“O brahmin, although you say that the charge of stench does not apply to you whilst
eating rice with well-prepared fowl, yet I inquire the meaning of this from you: of what
kind is your stench?
“The Buddha Kassapa: Taking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat.”
(The Suta-Nipita, 239 to 242)
Where meat is procured from the market place or bazaar, that is slaughtered for the general consumers at large and not purposely for offering to the Buddha or His disciples; and knowingly consumed to sustain another life it appeared to be acceptable and thus this expounded in the story of ‘Siha the General’:
Siha had invited the Buddha and his retinue to his home for a meal and had instructed someone to bring fresh meat from the marketplace. At the appointed time, the Exalted One, taking his bowl and cloak, went to Siha’s house with the Order of monks.
The Niganthas who had come to hear about the occasion immediately spread words: ‘Today huge beasts has been slain by Siha the general, and a meal has been prepared for the recluse Gotama; and the recluse Gotama is going to eat the meat, knowing that is was meant for him, that deed was done on his account.
Even before the meal was even served to the Buddha, the words spread by the Niganthas had come to Siha’s ears. Knowing the vileness of the Niganthas to find every opportunity to disparage the Buddha, Dhamma and the Order, Buddha saw through their wickedness, lies and untruthful slanders. He remarked that “Not for the sake of sustaining life would we intentionally deprive any being of life.” (AN 8.12)
Also, in the Vinaya Pitaka, Section VII Cullavagga recounts the episode of “Devadatta who decided to create a schism in the order demanded that the Buddha accede to the following rules for the monks: they should dwell all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of a tree and abstain completely from fish and meat. The Buddha allowed the monastics to follow all of these except the last if they so wished, but refused to make them compulsory.”
In the foregoing suttas, Lord Buddha did not encourage or prohibit the consumption of meat but leaving it an open option for the individual to decide. Also names like Tissa and Niganthas are mentioned but not elaborated and without any background knowledge many readers are left in wonderment of the scenario happened 2500 years ago during the Buddha’s time. Fortunately, there are commentaries to elucidate them, come to rescue. We look towards the commentaries and move on to …
… the Third Dimension – the Commentaries
What is Commentary or ‘athakatha’? According to Buddhist tradition, the Tipitaka and its commentary, the Athakatha, were transmitted to Sri Lanka in writing by Indian Buddhist monks during the 3rd century BC. The extant version of the Athakatha is most likely a translation by Venerable Buddhaghosa of the old commentaries from Sinhala into Pali language.
During the 5th century BC, Venerable Buddhaghosa composed a handbook of orthodox regulations for Theravada monks called the Visuddhi Magga. Four other commentaries on the four Nikayas namely Digha, Majjima, Samyutta and Anguttara by Venerable Buddhaghosa, when combined with the text, are often thought to comprise a full explanation of the Buddha’s original teachings. Other commentaries exist on the Vinaya Pitaka are the Abhidhamma Pitaka and part of the Khuddaka Nikaya. These commentaries are anonymous, but the Theravada tradition ascribes these also to Venerable Bhhadaghosa. Another commentary, attributed to a monk named Dhammapala on seven sections of the Khuddaka Nikaya is also extant. The text likely dated between 450 and 600 CE.
Sub-commentaries – that is, commentaries re-clarified on commentaries – form another part of the Pali textual tradition. Several sub-commentaries exist, most notably those written on Venerable Buddhaghosa’s original commentaries, while others were written during the 12th century. Many sub-commentaries put a great deal of weight on the explanation of the Vinaya Pitaka.
The commentaries and sub-commentaries rendered full explanations to the original Teachings of the Buddha, are available in Pali and full version in Burmese, Sinhala and Thai editions. Alas the English translation of the commentaries is incomplete. About 55 per cent are rendered in English; and the most popular and demanding commentaries on the four Nikayas are not among them.
Sutta Study Class to the Rescue
In Sutta Study Class conducted by Bhante Cakkapala, who is conversant in Pali, Burmese and English language, his method of teaching is to select a sutta pertinent to the subject and supplement it with other suttas selected from the other Nikayas to give breadth and depth and gloss over with commentaries to elucidate and illuminate to give a precise and authentic interpretation. Commentaries are basically explanations to the suttas and citations from commentaries would invariable give a precise and authentic interpretation to the Teachings.
Many contemporary writers in their texts used citations from the commentaries instead of suttas in order to be precise in the interpretations. Venerable Sharavasti Dhammika, a prolific writer in his book “The Buddha and His Disciples,” is an example. Ekacco Bhikkhu in his “Modern Truths” is another. As all these writers are conversant in Pali, the language of the commentaries, it is only naturally for them to use these precision tools to craft the texts.
Unfortunately the English text is incomplete and the four popular Nikayas are among them. Nevertheless, there are a few selected suttas in English that come with commentaries like “Turning the Wheel of Truth, Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching” by Venerable Ajahn Succitto; “The Samannaphala Sutta and its Commentaries” and “The Mahanidana Sutta and its Commentaries”, both translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. They are infinitesimal and paled in comparison to the number from the Nikayas in the Sutta Pitaka.
Therefore, in order to learn the suttas as true Teachings, authentic and precise interpretations as elucidated in the commentaries under a competent teacher I would encourage readers to enrol for the Sutta Study Class starting 5th February 2015. You may register with firstname.lastname@example.org providing name, telephone number and email address not later than 31st January 2015.
Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!
Contributor: Chin Kee Thou
Date: 24th December 2014