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The Udana & The Itivuttaka translated by John D. Ireland

The Udana & The Itivuttaka: Two Classics from the Pali Canon translated by John D. Ireland.  Buddhist Publication Society 1997.  266 pages.

I’m not sure what it says about our world when such a beautiful collection as this is so obscure.  Nothing good, I wager.

This volume consists of two sutta collections, the Udana, or “Inspired Utterances,” and the Itivuttaka, or “So It Was Said.”  Both are part of the Sutta Pitaka’s Khuddaka Nikaya, a heterogeneous collection of works representing some of the earliest materials in the Pali Canon as well as some of the latest.

The Udana, probably the better known of the two collections, consists of eighty discourses.  The title refers to the verses at the end of each discourse where the Buddha, upon realizing the significance of some event or observation, makes a pronouncement about it.  The stock phrase used is “Then, on realizing its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance…”  The Pali word udāna means “utterance,” or “pronouncement.”

This is definitely one of my favorite Buddhist scriptures.  It is not only very readable (particularly in Ireland’s mellifluous and careful translation), but often quite profound; some of the most critical passages concerning the nature of nibbana are found here.  It also contains no small measure of humor–the story of Nanda and the pink-footed nymphs (at 3.2) is priceless!  There is also a definitely personal element to the Udana.  Such stories as Bahiya of the Bark-Cloth (1.10)–an ascetic who interrupted the Buddha on his almsround, got a terse, cryptic dharma talk from the Master and instantaneously became an arhant, only to be gored to death by a mother cow an hour later–have the ring of historical authenticity, so unique are they.  I also like the story of Visakha (8.8), who comes to the Buddha weeping and sobbing because her beloved grandchild has died.  Despite the pain this one death has inflicted upon her, she admits she would like to have as many children and grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.  The tension between normal societal standards and the Buddha’s teaching of reality are brought here into sharp relief.  Other memorable/important/profound moments in the Udana are found at 1.1, 2.4, 3.10, 4.1, 5.1, 5.3, 5.5, 6.1, 6.4 (the famous story of the blind men and the elephant), 6.6, 6.8, 7.1, 7.7, 8.1, 8.3, and 8.4.

The Itivuttaka consists of 114 mixed prose and verse discourses.  As explained in Ireland’s introduction, the commentarial tradition says the suttas here were collected by a lay woman named Khujjuttara while the Buddha was staying at Kosambi.  Each sutta therefore begins with her assertion that “This was said (vuttam) by the Lord…so (iti) I heard”–hence itivuttaka or “so was said.”

The book is organized into four sections: The Ones, The Twos, etc.  Sometimes this relates to the number of items or points discussed in an individual sutta, but this practice is not consistent.  Like the Udana, the topics vary and the arrangement does not take subject matter into account.  Verse makes up as much as half of the text.  My feeling is that while not as enjoyable to read as the Udana, there is still much to recommend the Itivuttaka.  Points of practice (e.g. asubha bhavana and loving kindness) are touched on, mental tendencies (conceit, diligence, anger, craving etc) discussed, and important doctrinal issues revisited (nibbana and the four noble truths).

The two works complement each other, and for anyone wanting to study the Buddha’s teaching from the original sources, this two-for-one volume is a must have.  Highly recommended.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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