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Subject: Maha Parinibbana Sutta
Date: Fri, 29 Mar 2002 23:37:17 +0800
From: "David Sugiman" (National University of Singapore)

Bro Piya,

I am David, one of the participants in sutta discussion at NUS. Recently, I just finished reading Mahaparinibbana Sutta, and when I finished reading it, I found that unlike other Digha Nikaya sutta, the explanation [endnotes] mention that some of the text was added later, for example, when Pukkusa offered a cloth of gold to the Buddha, and the Buddha said, “Well, then, Pukkusa, clothe me in one set and Ananda in the other.” and the other example is at the last paragraph, 6.28 , the explanation said that it should be added much much later.

My question is: how we deal with this kind of addition, should we treat it just as another section, or not? Because, the Commentaries about the story about Pukkusa said that, "This ridiculous story is probably a late insertion," and seems to me that it is unlikely said by the Buddha.


Piya's answer


It's wonderful that you have finished reading the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in its entirety, which is the best way to appreciate early Buddhism. More than that you have read the sutta critically, which help in teasing out what is really essential for our spiritual development, and the legendary. This is not to say that the “legendary” materials are worthless. They need a separate study involving such things as their origins, how they were incorporated into the sutta, and how do we relate it in some meaningful way to the sutta in question.

The Mahaparinibbanna Sutta, many scholars agree, is a patchwork of very early texts. T.W. Rhys Davids, in “Dialogues of the Buddha” (vol. 2. 1910) gives a concordance (comparative table) of the sources of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D:RD 2:72). The “outdated” Pali Text Society translations are still very useful to Buddhists for its critical apparatus, something which only recently has been adopted by Buddhist monks and eastern Buddhist scholars themselves.

It is useful to grow out of a pietist approach to Buddhist texts and doctrines, and take a more critical (i.e. analytical and reflective) approach to Buddhist studies. This opens up our minds and helps us understand what the Buddha is really saying in the Buddhist texts. And if this discipline is coupled with a healthy understanding and practice of Buddhist meditation (especially helped by the wisdom of the forest tradition), we have a formidable “weapon of truth” to clear the forest of ignorance and defilements!

Pukkusa's offering of the golden robes is definitely a later addition from the simple fact that it is against the Vinaya for monastics to accept neither gold nor silver, nor their products, and by extension “money” (V 4:238 f = Nissaggiya 19) (a ruled which apparently was relaxed due to early Sinhalese commentarial (mis)interpretations of the Vinaya rules.

I will be discussing the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in some detail in my forthcoming 10th lecture in the series “The Buddha and his disciples” (and book). [Please see the announcements section for more details.]

Actually, we are all “adding” to the Buddhist texts and Buddhism even today. One only need to attend a Buddhist talk. The speaker interprets Buddhism according to his wisdom (and ignorance and inclinations) and people appreciate it according to their own wisdom (and ignorance and inclinations). In this sense, we have to take Dharma as “sandi.t.t.hiko” (seeing for oneself), through personal study, reflection and meditation.

Above all there must be spiritual friendship, so that we can understand the Noble Eightfold Path (the topic of Lecture 5 of “The Buddha and his disciples” series, I am currently giving at the Buddhist Fellowship Thursday classes at the Burmese Temple, Balestier Rd). Without spriritual friendship, our grasp of Buddhism is at best a very personal philosophy.

My suggestion is that we should, on the initial level, read the Buddhist texts as “literature”. In other words, suspend all judgement, just as you would read Dickens, “Harry Porter” or watch “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings”. This is not to say that the Buddhist texts are works of fiction, rather that we should leave any critical analysis after we have done the homework, as it were.

The basic guideline for Buddha Word is that it induces us to cut down “greed, hatred and delusion”. In this sense, as the famous saying goes: Whatever is well-spoken is Buddha Word. “Well-spoken” here meaning “cutting down greed, hatred and delusion”. So Buddhists are very fortunate in having more than their Pali texts to tap spirituality from.



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