Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya

An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya (Sacred Literature Series)

translated and edited by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi
Publisher: AltaMira Press (June 25, 2000)

The Pali Text Society’s translations of the four main Nikayas, or divisions of the oldest Buddhist scriptures, began in 1899 with TW Rhys Davids’ translation of the Digha Nikaya. These works have performed a great service to Buddhists around the world, but they are now in need of replacement. This began in 1978 with Maurice Walshe’s translation of the Digha Nikaya, entitled Thus Have I Heard, and published by Wisdom Publications. Wisdom has continued its excellent work with further translations of the Majjhima Nikaya, or The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, published in 1995, and the Samyutta Nikaya, or The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, published last year.

The key figure in both these recent translations is the American monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha is Bodhi’s extensively revised edition of a hand-written draft translation of the Majjhima Nikaya left behind by the late English monk, Bhikkhu Nanamoli, and includes 198 pages of valuable notes. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha is Bodhi’s own translation, an enormous undertaking presented in two fat volumes of 2,074 pages, including 449 pages of extensive notes drawn mainly from the commentaries. For this alone, Bodhi deserves at least 20 aeons in some Brahma heaven!

All that is missing now is a new translation of the Anguttara Nikaya or The Book of Gradual Sayings as it is called in the PTS translation. When I heard there was indeed a new translation of the Anguttara by Bodhi, entitled Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, my response was disbelief. As The Connected Discourses of the Buddha has only just been published, how could anyone complete a translation of the whole Anguttara Nikaya in such a short time? But the subtitle provides the explanation: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. This anthology is an edition by Bodhi of translations previously published by his ‘personal mentor’, the late ’eminent German scholar-monk Venerable Nyanaponika’. These were published by the Buddhist Publication Society in three short volumes from 1970-76.

The original BPS editions contained translations of 153 suttas. Bodhi has deleted five of these and added 60 new translations of his own, making a total of 208 suttas. This may not seem much considering the Anguttara contains some 2,344 suttas, but as ‘several topically related suttas have been joined into a single text’, what we in fact have is a ‘selection [that] includes about a fifth of the whole’. A numbering system is provided that facilitates cross-referencing with the PTS translations, but not directly to their Pali edition. As well as a 30-page two-part introduction, Pali-English Glossary, Index and Bibliography, we are also provided with 41 pages of very useful notes.

Whereas the chapters in the Samyutta Nikaya are divided according to subject matter, for example the ‘Uncompounded’, or the ‘Aggregates’, the Anguttara is divided into chapters according to number, from one to eleven. For example, in ‘The Chapter of the Ones’, we find: ‘No other form do I know, O monks, that so persists in obsessing the mind of a man as the form of a woman’. With the Chapter on the Fives we have: ‘There are, O monks, these five powers: the power of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom’. If one knows a numbered list, this is the place to look.

Sometimes, however, the notes drawn from the commentaries are far from illuminating. For example, commenting on the phrase ‘based on that craving, he abandons craving’, the commentary states: ‘Based on the present craving (to become an arahant), he gives up the previous craving that was the root-cause of the cycle of rebirth’. But in Nyanaponika’s original note, the commentary goes on: ‘Now (it may be asked) whether such present craving (for arahantship) is wholesome or unwholesome? – It is unwholesome. – Should it be pursued or not? – It should be pursued. – Does it drag one into rebirth or not? – It does not drag one into rebirth’. That something classed as ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) is to be pursued, does not lead to rebirth, and ends in arahantship is clearly in more need of an explanation than is the original phrase! Could this be the reason Bodhi edited these comments out?

One of the most frequently quoted and doctrinally problematic statements from the Anguttara is that: ‘This mind O monks, is luminous, but is defiled by adventitious defilements’. The note from the commentary states that this luminous mind ‘refers to the bhavanga-citta, the ‘life-continuum’ or underlying stream of consciousness which supervenes whenever active consciousness lapses, most notably in deep sleep’. The bhavanga-citta is a late Theravada Abhidharmic conception, introduced to account for individual continuity – especially karmic continuity – over lifetimes, without any notion of an unchanging ‘continuer’. But how this luminous mind is ‘illuminated’ by a conception of mind akin to the state of deep sleep is indeed a puzzle.

These comments aside, the only worthwhile reward for Bhikkhu Bodhi’s efforts to bring the reported word of the historical Buddha to a confused world is for all intelligent persons to rush out and buy a copy of this excellent translation.


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