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The Connected Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2 volumes).  Wisdom Books 2000; 2074 pages.

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


Great Disciples of the Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker

Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi).  Wisdom Publications 1997, 411 pages.

This is a great book to read before jumping into the suttas.  In the original texts, so many people meet the Buddha, debate him, come and go, live, die, say this and that, it can be hard to keep their stories straight.  Of course, some show up repeatedly or are particularly memorable, but the suttas proper don’t always fill you in on their details.  Nor do they typically provide a coherent narrative all in one place, even of the great disciples like Ananda or Sariputta.  I don’t know of any other book that puts all these stories together to provide what approximates biographies in the modern sense.

This book started off in 1966 as a series of separate publications by Hellmuth Hecker in the German Buddhist periodical Wissen und Wandel.  Hecker singlehandedly researched and wrote the monographs that make up the bulk of the book, and when one considers the amount of material he had to go through to arrive at the reasonably comprehensive accounts offered here, the impressiveness of his achievement becomes clear.  Also in 1966 Nyanaponika, then president of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka, wrote and published a biography of the Buddha’s preeminent disciple, Sariputta.  However, it remained to Bhikkhu Bodhi to bring the work of these men together between two covers, to perform the necessary editorial tasks, and to round out the text with a biography of his own, that of Mahakaccana.  The result is an indispensable addition to the library of any Buddhist devotee.

Following is a list of the disciples whose lives are reviewed: Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakassapa, Ananda, Anuruddha, Mahakaccana, Visakha, Angulimala, Anathapindika, and fourteen other lesser known people.  Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are here, as well as laymen and laywomen.  The tone throughout is pious and uncritical, and while some people may be bothered by this, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes clear at the beginning that the purpose of the book is not to try to find the historical “truth” of these people, but to present them as the Buddhist world has known and revered them.  At times, the accumulation of legend weighs heavily, but very often too one can detect biographical truth and get the feeling for the reality of these people.  As I read, I found myself wondering how it would have been, for example, to have had Ananda as a college roommate.  I can see it even now: everybody loves him; his incredible memory means that studies are a cakewalk, women are drawn irresistibly to him and he gets voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  On other hand, if I’d had to room with Mahakasspa I think I would have been a little intimidated–he was one tough daddy.

All in all, this is a most worthy and informative book and I highly recommend it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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