Sunday, April 12, 2020

Commentarial Illumination on the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta

[13/4/20: Expanded the final comments with a bit more reflection]


The Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta is a cherished teaching of the Buddha on loving-kindness, always worth reflecting on, but perhaps more so than ever in the present coronavirus situation.  It's usually recited in translation at meetings of a local Dhamma group.  We use the version produced by the Sangha at Wat Amaravati, but have been aware for some while that there are alternative translations.  So in this post I shall explore a few of the differences and make reference to commentarial literature to see if this can elucidate.

Canonical references 

This teaching appears in the Sutta Nipāta of the Khuddaka Nikāya, the fifth nikāya of the Pali canon.  The Sutta Nipāta has five chapters; the Mettā Sutta appears in the first, the Uragavagga (Chapter on the Serpent).  My main reference source for the Pali original is the Pali Text Society (PTS) edition.  Hence the reference is Sn 1.8 PTS: Sn 143-152.  However, note that there are variants among other editions.

Role or Purpose of the Sutta

Karaṇīya means ‘that ought to be done’; hence ‘Karaṇīya Mettā’ is the mettā that needs to be cultivated.   The sutta is one of several parittas (others include the Mahamangala Sutta and the Ratana Sutta) chanted as a protection – here the cultivation of mettā, a universal virtue, attracts the outward protection of devas.  However, it’s also, perhaps primarily, aimed at being an inner protection – of one’s practice.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has given lectures on these and other teachings in the Sutta Nipata, available from Bodhi monastery.

Sutta Translations

Wat Amaravati’s translation into English on Access To Insight sits alongside others offered by Ven. Ñanamoli, Ven. Buddharakkhita, Ven. Piyadassi and Ven. Thanissaro. Many others have been collated by Leigh Brasington, including Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation (need to scroll to the right to view many of them).

Seeing some significant differences in the translations, we may look to the Paramatthajotikā, the Commentary to the Sutta Nipāta, to see what light it may shed.  Hence I have used as my main reference Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation and analysis, The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries.  (Other translations are available.)

To help clarify further, I look at some particular phrases of the original Pali and make use of the Pali Text Society (PTS) Pali-English dictionary, which I have in a single printed volume, but it’s also conveniently available as a searchable index from the University of Chicago's Digital Dictionaries of Asia  and as part of the Digital Pali Reader.

Notes on the Sutta Nipāta

Just a few notes, with reference mainly to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to his translation of the commnetary. First, what is the significance of this division of material in the canon? 

The PTS Pali-English dictionary states the definition of nipāta as ‘falling (down)’ – as in udabindunipātena, a drop of water falling down, Dh. 121; when prefixed by diṭṭhi it means ' a glance'  (as in another commentarial reference, VvA 279, the Vimanavatthu Atthakatha being Dhammapala’s commentary on stories of the Vimāna, the Sixth Book of the Sutta Pitaka).  It makes me think of the expression, ‘at a glance’, as in “the Buddha’s teachings at a glance…”, which suggests a flavour, a sample.  The Paramatthajotikā seems to indicate that; it opens by saying that “it is so designated because it was recited by compiling suitable suttas from here and there.”  So the suttanipāta is simply a ‘section’ (compilation) of suttas and because it's not arranged in the same deliberate way as other books, I think of ‘cross section’ as in a cross section of society. 

The contents appear to be a mixture of old and new – Bhikkhu Bodhi relates that of the five chapters, the Atthakavagga and the pucchās of the Parayanavagga are extremely old because they are quoted in the Samyutta Nikāya and the Anguttara Nikāya “and evidently existed as collections in their own right before they were integrated into the Sutta Nipāta.”  He further considers that it’s an anthology that “spans several phases of Buddhist literary activity”, reflecting that its eventual form shows systematic re-arrangement from its original smaller core.  Bodhi cites N.A. Jayawickrama for the most thorough attempt to explain the formation of the Sutta Nipāta; Jayawickrama indicates that the Mahamangala Sutta and the Mettā Sutta are younger than the Atthakavagga and the Parayanavagga, but still predate Emperor Asoka. (Among the youngest he takes the Ratana Sutta.)
Furthermore, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that the Sutta Nipāta appears to be unique to the Theravāda school, which I find surprising.

Commentarial Background

There is much to be learnt in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s discussion of the commentary – its sources, purpose and other useful contextualisation.  For now, I only glean some basic facets.

The commentary to the Khuddaka Nikāya (‘Collection of smaller texts’), the Fifth Book of the Pali Canon is called Paramatthajotikā (paramattha means ‘ultimate sense’, whilst jotikā means ‘explanation, commentary’ derived from jotaka, which means ‘illuminating, making light; explaining’).  It is non-canonical and was probably compiled in the fifth century CE by Buddhaghosa.  Somewhat confusingly, the commentary of the Sutta Nipāta specifically is also called Paramatthajotikā, so in this context it has the suffix ‘II’ and abbreviated as Pj II.   Here, as we are only interested in the one sutta, when we refer to Paramatthajotikā we mean this latter commentary.

The Paramatthajotikā provides background context to the suttas as well as detailed explanations of the texts.  To give some indication of their extent, Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta Nipāta occupies fewer than 200 pages, whereas that of the commentary amounts to just under 1000 pages.  Likewise, the Mettā Sutta is quite short, but its commentary runs in translation to 20 pages,.

It starts with the following background story: it is said that a group of monks, each having received some instruction from the Buddha, had requested venturing elsewhere for the rains retreat.  The request granted, they arrived in unfamiliar territory at the foot of the Himalayas and were welcomed by local villagers, who made kuṭīs (meditation huts) for them, including beds and chairs.  

So the monks prepared themselves to settle.  However, their arrival (and radiance from practice) had displaced the local tree sprites [rukkha devata (‘Earth-bound devas’)?], who were displeased and attacked the bhikkhus through various senses with fearsome visions, sounds, and bad odours until they were so disturbed they had to leave.  Frightened, the monks went to the Buddha for help, seeking somewhere else to stay.  The Buddha indicated they should go back, instructing them in the Mettā Sutta as an antidote for their fear, but also as a meditation subject, indicating that it could help them eliminate the ‘influxes’ (āsavas, I assume). The monks duly returned, recited the sutta, developed the practice, and the sprites, feeling the mettā, were won over and became benevolent to them.

Incidentally, the area is described as blue-green, so it could be in a region known for Tibetan Turquoise Gemstone.

Brief Observations on the Commentary

Here I make reference to Bodhi’s translation, pp. 565 -584.

It’s the first time I recall having read a sutta commentary from start to finish; previously I had looked up occasional references, but never read a commentary in its entirety.  

Bodhi informs us that the first two and a half verses are aimed at the conduct of the forest dwellers (i.e. monks).  The commentary expands on the text to show how it includes instructions on the upholding of the Pāṭimokkha, the monastic rules of training – hence what should be done and what should not be done.

However, Bodhi comments “under the heading of the forest dweller, he has also spoken for all those who have learned a meditation subject and wish to dwell thus."  The Buddha instructs on the development of advanced meditation practice – which is the arguably the real import of the verses – exhorting the practitioners to keep mettā in mind in all four standard postures.  With the words “May all beings be happy and secure”, he begins to discuss loving-kindness both as a protective device for dispelling the peril from those deities and as a meditative subject for attaining jhāna to be used as the basis for insight.

The commentary concludes:
Having developed loving-kindness as they were taught, those bhikkhus took it as a basis, aroused insight, and within that three-month period all attained arahantship, the foremost fruit.  They then held the great Pavarana ceremony in purity…

In terms of style, I note:
  • The commentary is exegesis, i.e. a scholarly critical analysis of the text drawing on various sources and looking at the structure of the text and then its meaning.  So, I imagine Buddhaghosa in a large library with various accounts at his disposal, mainly provided by monastic colleagues.  
  • So this is not a definitive account, but rather one than reads like: “One account says, whilst another says…” Likewise, in terms of the text, a number of alternative explanations are offered, some with extensive details 

Some Phrases

Now we examine a few points of difference or refinements in translation between Bhikkhu Bodhi and Amaravati (abbreviated by ‘B’ and ‘A’ respectively) and ask: What light do the commentaries shed on the meaning of these particular phrases?  As this is a very popular sutta, there is much discussion, even on how to do the translation; there’s an interesting thread on Sutta Central.)

143. yaṃ taṃ santaṃ padaṃ abhisamecca
A: And who knows the path of peace
[later versions replace ‘knows’ by ‘seeks’]
B: [One] Having made the breakthrough to that peaceful state

abhisamecca comes from abhisamāgacchati, which the PTS dictionary defines as ‘to come to (understand) completely, to grasp fully, to master’.

The commentary explains that this is concerning one who wishes to really know that breakthrough to that peaceful state which is nibbāna – whether they have only an aspiration or already possess some mundane understanding and not yet achieved it.  So Bodhi’s translation appears to be correct, but it  sounds less elegant, but substituting ‘seeks’ for ‘knows’ loses the sense of knowing that is in the text.  

Given that the recitation is for those who have yet to reach nibbāna and as I like the rhythm of the first, I think it may suffice to insert a few words: 

>> ‘And who would [come to] fully know that state of peace:’

143. sūvaco cassa
A: “Straightforward and gentle in speech”
B: “Amenable to advice”

[PTS offers for suvaca: 'gentle speech', but also 'obedient; meek; compliant' (see subbaca); the ū is just an alternative to u]

The commentary explains that this means they welcome and encourage criticism based on observation from the wise, so Bodhi’s interpretation again appears correct, especially as the commentary makes clear that this revolves around monastic instruction.

But it’s simpler and more generally appealing to say: “easy to speak to” 

144. appagabbho kul-esva-nanu-giddho
A: “Not proud or demanding in nature”
B: “courteous, without greed when among families”

The commentary explains that this instruction concerns the monks' almsrounds, specifically when they enter people’s homes.  It means not becoming attached to their concerns, nor being covetous for requisites.  It makes sense in the monastic context, but for the general reader it’s cumbersome and potentially confusing for householders.  In coming up with some alternative, we need to convey the sense that the monastics mustn’t become lax or allow themselves to become spoilt by enthusiastic lay supporters, but try to come up with some other expression.  I like the word 'demanding', so wonder about:

>>  Not demanding of hospitality.

146.  Ye keci pāṇa bhūtatthi 
tasā vā thāvarā vā ...

Whatever living beings … 
A: Whether they are weak or strong...
B: Whether frail or firm...

The translations are comparable, but I wasn't sure of the meanings.  The commentary explains:
  • Frail: those that tremble (or thirst), i.e. those with craving and fear – arahants are those who stand firm
A bit further down we have the terms .
  • avidūre (‘near’): those beings dwelling within one’s body / vicinity / monastery … world sphere
  • dūre (‘far’): those beings dwelling outside one’s body …
Those are relatively straightforward alternative explanations.  More complex ones are offered for bhūta (‘born’) and sambhavesī (‘to be born’).  One interpretation is:
  • ‘those born’ = “those who have come to be”, but won’t be reborn, i.e. arahats
  • ‘those to be born’ = those who will be reborn, i.e. not arahats; 
Another one reads:
  • ‘those born’ = “those who have emerged" (and similarly for 3 other modes of birth such as spontaneously arising beings
  • ‘those to be born' = those who have yet to emerge from womb or shell.

146. Dīghā vā ye mahantā vā
majjhamā rassakāṇukathūlā,

A: The great or the mighty, medium, short or small
B: Those that are long or those that are large, middling, short, fine or gross

The commentary indicates that the last characteristic ('small' or 'fine') mean too subtle to be discerned with the physical eye.  Small conveys a sense of dimension, but some beings may be quite voluminous, but may have subtle bodies, so escape detection, so Bodhi is again more accurate with what he writes.  As I like the rhythm of Amaravati's translation, I suggest:

>>  The great or the mighty, medium, short, fine or gross 

149. niyaṃ puttaṃ āyusā ekaputtam
A: “Her child, her only child”
B: “Her son, her only son.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi generally gives a more literal translation, reflecting the views of the society, but Amaravati's still valid according to the Pali and makes perfect sense.

150. asambādhaṃ a-veraṃ-asapattaṃ.
A: “Freed from hatred and ill-will”
B: “without enmity, without adversaries”

The commentary explains ‘without adversaries’ as “the absence of hostile persons; for a person who dwells in loving-kindness is dear to humans, dear to non-humans and there is no one hostile to him.”

There is wonderful ambiguity; it seems that asapattaṃ has both meanings, i.e. by being friendly, one harbours no ill feelings and at the same time receives none.  'Free from ill-will' covers both senses and could stand alone.  The first translation sounds natural, so I choose to stick to it.

152. Diṭṭhiñ ca anupagamma ... nahi jātu gabbhaseyyaṃ punaretīti
A: “By not holding to fixed views… [one] is not born again into this world”
B: “Not taking up any views …one never comes back into the bed of a womb.”

The Pali for anupagamma breaks down to an-upa-gamma, hence not resting (or holding) on views. I''m not sure about the insertion of 'fixed', but the qualification makes sense from the commentary, which explains that it means to have a proper detached view of nāmarūpa (name and form, i.e. the khandas).  For the last clause, Bodhi's translation is again the literally correct one and I think it may be better to follow this, hence:

>>   [one] is not born again into the womb.”

The Sutta Central discussion thread raises a further issue concerning lines where there seems to be agreement, but the translation is actually wrong.

One case that I’m persuaded by is to change:

148. Na paro paraṃ nikubbetha
“Let none deceive another”
“Let none put down another”

The nikubbetha is from nikaroti [Sk. nikaroti, ni+karoti] and the PTS defines this as “to bring down, humiliate, to deceive, cheat”.  

Just by reasoning that when not practising mettā, there is separative tendencies come to the fore; there is usually comparison that leads to differentiation and dislike, hence people put down (and look down on) others.  The sense of deception doesn’t make sense in the context of the story.

Final Comments

I've found the commentary provided by the Paramatthajotikā on the Metta Suttā informative; knowing the background to a teaching certainly helps to draw out some of the meaning.  In his translation, Bhikkhu Bodhi has been once again exceedingly helpful to make this more accessible and I start to get a feel for how the commentarial tradition has become firmly established in Buddhist lands.

Buddhaghosa’s ability to analyse and categorise, epitomised in the Abhidhamma, is evident here.  Yet one may cultivate mettā very simply and describe it simply too: like the sun emerging from a cloud it radiates brightly in every direction.

The Buddha taught that our object of meditation must be kept within "this fathom-long body".  If we, as it were, put the sun inside ourselves and it becomes our sun, then we should know its centre and hence our centre.  Furthermore, we might imagine that for it to shine to maximum effect, the body should become transparent, crystalline. 

One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to practice.  In my walks in the locality, I’ve often come across a man called Felix, whom I regard as a modern day sramana (wanderer).  Appearing calm and content within himself, he is articulate about his own spiritual outlook on life developed over the years.  He said to me that if one radiates happiness and friendliness, people will almost invariably respond positively.  It’s mettā that he is describing and he practices well.

Whilst I've learnt from the accuracy of Bhikkhu Bodhi's more literal translation, it's the rhythm and quality of naturalness that I especially appreciate in the Amaravati Sangha's rendering, so I think I will stick with that version for now.

Finally, as a wonderful manifestation of the sutta's universality, Ven. Dhammarakkhita has provided a translation into Arabic