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Some Thoughts on Theravāda Exegetical Literature

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 7, March 2008. 


The Exegetical (Commentarial) Literature or A??hakath?, which serves as the encyclopedia of Therav?da[1] Buddhism, provides the most complete and accurate information on the contents of the P?liCanon (Tipi?aka). Almost all the Three Pi?akas (Collections) have their own Commentaries. The Suttapi?aka (Collection of Discourses) contains altogether Nineteen Books, the Vinayapi?aka (Collection of Disciplinary Rules) contains Five Books and lastly, the Abhidhammapi?aka(Collection of Higher Doctrines) contains Seven Books.[2] To my understanding, the Commentaries have the best possible explanations of these Thirty One Books of the Canon. For, if I should give a teaching on a particular doctrinal matter in the Canon, without suggesting referral to the Commentaries (Exegesis), you would be easily taken away by my own dogmatism. They, therefore, protect the Buddha’s teachings from misinterpretation.

Recent funding has allowed a number of scholars to make several independent studies in this extensive field of literature. One that immediately came to my attention is Dr. E. W. Adikaram who has made a major contribution to the examination of the P?liA??hakath?(commentaries) in their original sources. When using them, he attempted to reconstruct the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There has also been extensive and comprehensive research by Dr. Friedgard Lotternmoser, Dr. Sodo Mori and Dr. T. Endo who have thrown much light on the development of Therav?da Buddhism reflected in the Canon (Tipi?aka).[3] Here I shall give some thoughts on the Therav?da Exegetical Literature.

Buddha statue in Liberation Park, from

Its Origin and Development

The A??hakath?s of the present day are recorded to have been composed in the 5th Century AD by some distinguished Commentators like Buddhaghosa, Dhammap?la, Buddhadatta and a few more. In India, the original P?li Commentaries were lost. So these great monks were assigned by their respective ?chariyas to travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to translate the then existing Sinhalese Commentaries back to the original P?li. It is believed that the origin and development of A??hakath?s was even much earlier. To make any sort of claim of the earlier origin of this Exegetical Literature would be quite speculative. However, considering the available canonical and exegetical sources with sound references, the factors that must have led to such literature can be traceable.

Firstly, we know that in the First Council, only the Dhamma and Vinaya were recited by 500 Arhants. There is no mention of the Abhidhammapi?aka or the A??hakath?s (Commentaries). However, between the Second and Third Council many things happened in the history of the S?sana. The first schism occurred and with that many schools arose. With the help of Emperor Asoka[4] (273-232 B.C.), Buddhism was popularized and expanded. While it witnessed an important development, there were some serious side effects as well. Due to the many privileges given to those adhering to the Buddhist faith, heretics joined the Sa?gha and pretended to be real Buddhist monks. We know, realizing such exploitative behavior, the Third Council was convened, so that the heretics wouldn’t spoil the True Teachings.

Here it is reasonable to say that the A??hakath?s (Commentaries) might have been composed in the Second and Third Councils as a means to protect the purity of the teachings of the Buddha. To support this idea, we can take Arhant Mahinda into our account. When he came to Sri Lanka, he brought along the Commentaries (Exegeses) with him. So it is clear that the Commentaries were available in India at that time and must have been composed between the Second and Third Councils.

Secondly, it was the traditional trend of the religious schools in India to have commentaries to their own canon. For example the Vedas have their own commentaries known as “Br?hmanas”. In the Upanishad as well, they have “Bh?shya” as their own commentary. In the same way, even in the Buddhist Canon, the disciples felt that Commentaries should be composed following this tradition.

Thirdly, another reason that might have led to the origin and development of the exegetical tradition is that the language used in the time of the Buddha cannot be understood in later periods. It must have changed in usage. So in order to make those words understandable, commentaries were composed.

The Canonical and Exegetical Difference

If we consider the scope of the broad canonical literature of the Pali Canon, the first characteristic that quickly appears is that the discourses are mostly given by Buddha and then there are also a handful of discourses given by his immediate disciples. The Buddha taught the Dhamma in different ways in the Canon. Pariy?ya-desan? is a form of discourse that is given, explaining in different ways. Nippariy?ya-desan? is explaining the Dhamma to a point. Sankhitta-desan? is explaining in brief which is subsequently continued by some expert disciples who are capable of further analyzing those brief discourses of the Buddha. N?t?rtha-desan? is a teaching in which the meanings are already drawn out and explicit and there no need of further explanation. And lastly there is Ney?rtha-desan? in which the meanings are not drawn neither out nor implicit. The meanings need to be further drawn out. So such teaching methods were used by Buddha in the Canon.

In the Cullavedallasutta, Bhikkhun? Dhammadinn? has given a discourse on the Noble Eight-fold Path and their connection with the Tisikkh?. There is also Ven. S?riputta in the Samm?dittisutta giving a discourse explaining broadly about the Right View. There are many such discourses given by the immediate disciples of the Buddha found in the canonical literature.

In the exegetical literature however, the presentation of the Dhamma is not usually by the Buddha, but by some well-versed monks. Taking one Sutta, these Commentators comment word by word. For example one that is very common in the Canonical Literature is the beginning remark by Ven. ?nanda: “Eva? me suta?”. The Commentators will comment in details on who, where, when, what, why, to whom was this particular Suttadelivered. If the Commentators came across concepts like atta (self), kamma and so on, they would give the opinions of the Buddha and also opinions of others.

In the canon, there are same words appearing in many discourses like the word kamma, so the Commentators would combine all those descriptive meanings of the term and explain systematically. However, the Commentators do not give their own opinions. Instead they would explain that on such and such an occasion and place, Buddha had explained like this and like that.

Exegetical Characteristics of the Canon

If we look into the many discourses found in the Canon, we can find that there are many explanations, clarifications and interpretations given to the teachings of the Buddha. Some of the immediate disciples of the Buddha like Ven. S?riputta, Anuruddha, Mah?kaccayana and so on wanted to highlight the exact meanings of those words uttered by the Buddha. Therefore, sometimes we see those prominent disciples giving discourses highlighting those meanings, explaining in detail and clarifying those terms that appeared in the original discourses of the Buddha. Saccavibha?gasuttadh?tuvibha?gasuttasamm?ditthisutta and kammavibha?gasutta are some of them.

Saccavibha?gasutta was delivered in a way to give a detailed explanation of the Dhammacakkhapavattanasutta. In this particular discourse, the disciple has added some additional parts to the original teaching of the Buddha.Satipa??h?nasutta is another example. The same sutta we find in two different Nik?yas is not exactly same. TheSatipa??h?nasutta in Majjhimanik?ya is different from the Satipa??h?nasutta in Samyuttanik?ya. TheSatipa??h?nasutta of the Majjhimanik?ya is an addition to the Satipa??h?nasutta of the Samyuttanik?ya. So if we consider the commentarial characteristics, we can see that even the original discourses of the Buddha found in the Canon have their own Commentaries.

Another example of commentarial character in the early discourses is the Cullavedallasutta of Majjhimanik?yagiven by Bhikkhun? Dhammadinn?, in which she explains how the Noble Eight-fold Path is connected to the Three Sikkhas (Disciplines). The explanation provided by her is not available in the discourses of the Buddha. There she not only explains the wider scope of the Three Sikkhas (Disciplines), but also the Phalas (fruits).

So all these are examples of exegetical characteristics found in the early discourses. Some have complete commentarial features. Mah?niddesa of Khuddakanik?ya is a commentary to the P?rayanavagga of Suttanip?ta.Patisa?vidamagga also is an exposition added to the textual literature.

It is not only in the Sutta-pitaka, but also in the Vinaya-pi?aka and the Abhidhamma-pi?aka, that many exegetical characteristics are clearly seen. Abhidhamma-pi?aka as a whole is a kind of commentary. The contents of the first two books Dhammasangan? and Vibhanga can even be found in the Dasuttarasutta and Sang?tisutta ofD?gha-nik?ya. So even in the Abhidhamma-pi?aka, which was not directly expounded by the Buddha, we can find all terms used in the Suttas.

The importance of the Exegetical Literature

The importance of the commentaries reflects the very construction of the history of Therav?da Buddhism in a concise manner. For, the commentaries touch upon many social aspects, not only the teachings of the Buddha. Yes, they definitely are meant for explaining the difficult terms and teachings that appeared in the Canonical Literature. However, as a whole, the commentaries are a great means to access the Buddha’s biography, the history of Buddhist dispensation, geographical expansion in India, the political history of India from the 5th century BC to 3rd Century BC in particular, and then also the religious, cultural, social and economical history of Sri Lanka. In the Canonical literature, we have Cullavagga which gives information on the 1st and 2nd Councils. Parinibb?nasutta also gives some details about the Buddha’s passing away, the cremation and the distribution of the relics to the neighboring states. Apart from these, we have no other sources, except the Commentarial Literature. Samantap?s?dika and Sumangalavil?sin? contain much of the details about the important incidents which took place after the 2nd Buddhist Council up to the first Century AD.

Among the many Commentarial works, one that cannot be ignored is Visuddhimagga by commentator Buddhaghosa, which holds an important place more than the others. This is because the Visuddhimagga is a Commentary to all the Texts. Choosing one verse from a discourse of the Buddha as the subject topic, Buddhaghosa explains all the doctrinal aspects, related to both the theory and practice. For example:

S?le Patitth?ya naro sappañño,
Citta? pañña? ca bh
?t?pi nipako bhikkhu 
So ima? vijataye ja?a?

(When a wise man, established well in Virtue,
Develops Consciousness and Understanding,
Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle)[5]

In this particular verse, Buddhaghosa has incorporated all the teachings of the Buddha. In defining S?la(morality), he mentions almost all the Suttas that talks about S?la. The same thing also applies with regard toCitta, Pañña, and so on. In explaining Paticca-samupp?da (Dependent Co-arising), we can easily understand the admirable knowledge of Buddhaghosa with regard to the Canonical Literature. He never missed a single discourse relating to the discourses on Paticca-samupp?da (Dependent Co-arising) in Sutta-pitaka. The wholenid?navagga of Samyutta-nik?ya is full of discourses on Paticca-samupp?da. Buddhaghosa has consulted not only the Suttas available in the Samyutta-nik?ya but also the discourses that deal with the theory of Dependent Co-arising in the other Nik?ya as well, for example: Mah?nid?nasutta

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