I think Bhikkhu Bodhi read and considered every criticism levelled at his previous offering, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, and determined to make darn sure he didn’t have to hear those criticisms again. The result of his enterprise is an extremely detailed and careful treatment of the second largest collection in the Sutta Pitaka, the Samyutta Nikaya. For this post I’ll first discuss briefly the place of the SN in Pali literature, and then give an overview of how BB has treated it.
Along with the Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara and parts of the Khuddhaka Nikayas, the Samyutta Nikaya comes from the oldest strand of Buddhist texts, and is thus critical if one wants to have any hope of determining what the historical Buddha actually taught. It got its name from the fact that its various parts (called vaggas) are made up of suttas that tie directly to one another in terms of their format (the particular pattern or “template” they display) and subject matter. The resulting vaggas are characterized by their focus on, for example, verse sayings, or discourses on dependent arising, the aggregates, the sense bases, the eightfold path, or some other critical doctrinal point. There are also sections devoted to talks by and with certain individuals, famous and not so famous, such as Anuruddha or Channa or Samandaka.
The Samyutta Nikaya is thus at once very heterogeneous in the range of topics it covers, but also much more systematically organized than, say, the Majjhima or Digha Nikayas, where subject matter takes a back seat to other concerns. This makes it very easy to locate suttas on specific issues one is interested in, but it also has the effect of making many of the suttas sound monotonously similar, to the point where it’s often tempting to skip ahead upon encountering–for the umpteenth time–the same iteration of terms one just read through a few pages back. As a result, BB has had to do a lot of condensing and made extensive use of ellipses, and indeed, because the suttas seem to bleed into and repeat one another, the tradition itself does not have a solid count of how many individual suttas make up the nikaya. The consensus seems to be around 2,900, give or take a couple dozen.
As noted, BB’s translation is thorough. To give you an idea how thorough, I counted about 480 pages of endnotes! Now many of these are of interest only to philologists, but many more add significantly to the text in the form of traditional commentarial materials, as well as BB’s own insights into the text. He also is careful to note which sources he is using, as the various redactions from Burma, Sri Lanka or the PTS don’t always agree with one another. This is something he was specifically criticized for not doing on the Majjhima Nikaya, so I think scholars in the audience will have fewer bones to pick this time around. In addition to the general introduction, each vagga also gets its own intro, where its particular themes are further discussed; I especially found his intro to the Khandhavagga illuminating. (I quoted from it in my essay on Christian Buddhism.) All in all Bhikkhu Bodhi has put an enormous amount of effort into this project and I’m starting to think that Buddhists all over the world owe him a medal or something.
Regarding the text proper: as I’ve said with previous reviews of translations, I am not a Pali scholar so am not in a position to critique him on specific word choices–except, perhaps, important doctrinal terms. In most cases his translations of such terms are quite standard and unexpected, though I was pleasantly surprised by his rendering of sakkaya not by the traditional “personality,” but as “identity.” I think this is an improvement and brings increased clarity and accuracy to important terms like sakkayanirodha or sakkayaditthi. The text, as a whole, is highly readable, beautifully presented, and does the best it can with the already noted copious repetitions. Any translator of Pali has to deal with this issue and there are only so many ways of doing it. I think BB has respected the text’s integrity by preserving what needed to be preserved, by artful use of ellipses, and by leaving enough so one can reconstruct any particular passage from the clues on hand. And yet, we still have two weighty volumes!
My Amazon rating: 5 stars