Commentary on the Udana


NOTE: this commentary was drawn together during a period in the Sutra Study group in which we were reading through the Khuddaka Nikaya ("miscellaneous" suttas). We used the John Ireland translation--here's a link to it. There's also a partial translation on the Access to Insight website, here.


1:1       Both this and 1:2 – 1:3 emphasize that dependent origination was an important part of the Buddha’s enlightenment. However, it wasn’t immediately at the point of enlightenment that the Nidanas were discovered, but at the end of the seven days following the moment of enlightenment.


I’m also keeping in mind that the Nidanas are but a single aspect—one particular application—of dependent origination. Thus paticcasamuppada could very well be the essential component of enlightenment, while the Nidanas would arise with further contemplation.


1:4       That a brahmin is made, not born, is an early element in the Buddha’s teachings.


1:5       Similar to 1:4 in that a brahmin is made. The question is in fact asked by a monk who was brahmin by birth, but now would not be considered a brahmin unless he had reached at least the first stage of awakening (stream-entry.)


1:6       This one seems odd on the surface—why shouldn’t Kassapa accept the offerings of the devas? But for a monk it is critical that he not be supported by anyone, that he live completely free from services. Therefore he went on his alms-round.


1:7       The ‘goblin’ (yakka) attempts to frighten the Buddha but cannot. The brahmin who has gone beyond the five aggregates cannot be bothered by the yakka.


This reminds me of the Metta Sutta:


By not holding to fixed views,

The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,

Being freed from all sense-desires,

Is not born again into this world.


Remember that the Metta sutta was spoken by the Buddha in response to a group of monks who were afraid of the sounds of the forest at night.


1:8       This is another sutta like 1:6 that emphasizes the solitary, unencumbered nature of the monk (as opposed to the householder.) The former wife of Sangamaji was being thoughtless and rude by shoving the child at him. Sangamaji is neither joyful nor sad regarding her: he is freed from ties (including, one gathers, those regarding family.)1:11


1:9       Direction reaction against brahmanic and vedic practices. There is nothing gained by plunging into cold water or doing fire worship or sacrifice.


            Contrast: Christian practice of baptism. It is the ceremony that has meaning, but not the actual water itself per se. How does this bear with this? Is the water truly significant?


            Note that some Christian schools say that during Communion the bread and wine actually become Christ’s flesh and blood. (Typically Catholic, in fact.) This gives it particular significance—almost fetishistic from the Buddhist point of view.


            At any rate, the Udana itself is as clear a rejection of the notion of baptism to be found. In the Ireland translation:


            Not by water is one cleansed,

            Many people bathe in this.

            In whom is truth and Dhamma,

            He is cleansed, he is a brahmin.


1:10     This one is extremely important. This is a teaching on pure mindfulness:


In the seen will be merely what is seen;

In the heard will be merely what is heard;

In the sensed will be merely what is sensed;

In the cognized will be merely what is cognized.” (Ireland)


            Presumably “in the sensed” stands for smell, taste, touch, so we’re covering all six of the sense bases here.


            The Woodward translation garbles the critical paragraph that follows this. Ireland is a little better, but it is Thanissaro Bhikkhu who is clear:


            “When for you there will be only the seen…then there is no ‘you’ in terms of that. When there is no ‘you’ in terms of that, there is no ‘you’ there. When there is no ‘you’ there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”


            Note: the monk Bahiya was not killed by a young calf, but by a cow with a young calf. (Woodward mistranslated it.)


2:1       Mucalinda is a naga; they have the form of cobras. However, this cobra (giant!) is protecting a human rather than harming. The Buddha says:


            “Blissful is non-affliction in the world,

            Restraint towards living creatures;” (Ireland)


            Or in Woodward:


            “Happy is that benignity towards

            The world which one no creature worketh harm.”


            The first precept here of non-harming is so beautifully expressed, even if that’s not the main point of the sutta.


2:2       There are many suttas which address the Right Speech issue. This one seems quite particular in its focus on not talking about the wealth of rulers. It’s clear enough that for monks at least, the only Right Speech is talk on Dhamma. Otherwise, maintain Noble Silence.


            Note: on retreat this is pretty much the case—with the sole exception of community-service talk as necessary. (Asking a question during work periods, that sort of thing.)


            Noble silence: sitting quietly at the DMV following a length retreat period, I was struck how very little of the talk I heard was even helpful. A lot of it was expressions of impatience or just attempts to fill the time, which could be done much more profitably by silence and a meditative, calm mind.


2:3       Another excellent non-harming sutta. Seems to be quoted fairly often. Hitting a snake with a stick—even though snakes are thought to be icky, scary and dangerous things. Our attitude towards non-harming must extend to all creatures, not only those which we happen to like.


            I think the key line is: “beings desiring happiness” (Ireland) or in Woodward: “creatures fain for happiness.” All beings wish to be happy and to avoid suffering.


2:4       This sutta tells us that if we are freed from clinging to the aggregates (i.e., relative existence) then one is neither pleased by good things nor upset by unfortunate. It’s almost a sophisticated version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me” – adding that words need not please, either.


            Obviously this must not be taken to an extreme. Words are, after all, a prime medium for the conveyance of the Dhamma—although they are by no means the only medium. The sutta is not advocating apathy. There remains contact—the ear (organ) hears (act) the sound of the word (object) and from this arises contact, then feeling of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral. Sense base -> contact -> feeling is neither suffering nor liberation; it’s just what happens. Only at the next link, “clinging” does one have problems.


            So: in the heard there is only the heard…in the thought only the thought. (Udana 1:10).


2:5       Here we address the basic difficulty of living in a householder’s life while practicing dhamma. “…being involved with various affairs of business that had to be done…”


            These bondings are not necessarily bad per se. However, in order to practice at the very deep level, it seems that we really have to deal with worldly commitments at some level or another.


            A full-tilt dot-com kind of career isn’t going to be very compatible with practice. There needs to be some give-and-take with career and family issues.


            Sangharakshita talks about this at some length—not only does Right Livelihood mean that which is non-harming, but it also implies some form of livelihood which allows us the time and energy to practice.


            The degree to which one can direct one’s life to Dhamma will repay. This does not mean monasticism: we can use our lives as practice, allowing the more formalized parts of our Dhamma practice blend and complement our working lives, and vice-versa.


2:6       This is similar to the previous sutta, but by way of a rather bizarre example.


            I can imagine the wife being marginally OK with using oil that her husband has vomited up, but I’m not so sure about passing through the other end.


            Weird little sutta.


2:7       Again a somewhat odd example along the same lines as 2:5 and 2:6. The “problem” here is that people came to see the Buddha during the time of the midday meal—visiting time would have been later—and they were still wet from the ritual bathing which was common after a funeral.


2:8       There’s a lot in this sutta—some of it pretty strange.


1)         Suppavasa has been pregnant for seven years and in labor seven days.


            Sometimes this is a device to show the relative importance of the being to be born. (Ex: in the West, Richard III of England was said to be in gestation for two years, although he was mythically a monster of sorts. In reality probably not.)


2)         Upon expressing her faith in Buddha, Sangha, and Nibbana, to the Buddha, she gives birth to a healthy son and is herself made healthy.


            Woodward mentions a Jataka in which her long pregnancy was a kind of karmic punishment. However the Buddha seems able to absolve such karma, at least to some limited degree. In fact, there is a line:


            “It is indeed wonderful, it is indeed marvelous, the great supernormal potency and power of the Tathagata!”


            There is more of this in the later Mahayana suttas, but there’s more than one might think in the Pali Canon—even in a collection which is considered to be pretty early.


3)         There’s an exchange between Mahamoggallana and one of his lay followers; he agrees to give food to the Sangha after Suppavisa has given hers. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with this, but I catch a connection here at the line from Mahamoggallana:


            “For two of these things, friend, I will be your surety, for wealth and life; but as for faith, you are your own surety.”


            This all revolves around faith—Suppavisa’s and the lay follower’s.


4)         The child can not only talk, but he says he isn’t well or healthy, having just spent seven years in the womb.


            So both mother and son suffered over his long birth process—but both realize the joy of faith that it comes out well. The child is to become a great elder and the mother can wish for seven such sons.


            For those who are heedful, neither suffering nor bliss really exist.


2:9       Another sutta on the 2:5 tradition—i.e., the problems of being bound to worldly work and responsibilities.


2:10     This stands as a kind of punch line to the set of suttas about not being bound to the world. Bhaddhiya was wealthy, but he found the true happiness in total renunciation. “Free from fear, blissful and sorrowless…”


3:1       Pain as “the ripening of former action”—the Dhamma pain (or karma pain) encountered in meditation. The verse says that the one truly liberated “Has no need to address people.”


            Thus you don’t have to ask for help or a solution. It’s just pain—a state like any other. In mindfulness ‘pain’ becomes something very different, really a bunch f somethings—all manner of experience. It’s just experience.


            Western Buddhists in particular are apt to make far more of pain. We live in a pleasure-and-ease culture and thus there’s something wrong about pain. Yet pain is every bit as much part of living in a body as any other feeling.


            Dhamma pain is a terrific teacher.


3:2       Here the Buddha uses a kind of modern psychology in drenching him with his own desires to cure a monk of lust. The monk wants one young woman; the Buddha gives him 500 and in the excess of the desire (and its subsequent embarrassment) the monk is moved to deep practice leading to his arahantship.


3:3       The first part of this sutta displays a kind of “tough love” towards a group of undisciplined monks. They are banished and in their shame and remorse they reach a level of liberation.


            The second part once again shows us Ananda not quite “getting it” due to his lack of psychic powers.


3:4       Magnificent image of Sariputta sitting in his calm and beautiful majesty. “Just as a mountain made of solid rock/Stands firm and unshakeable…”


3:5       An equally fine image of Mahamoggallana sitting. “A bhikkhu who is always concentrated/Can know Nibbana for himself.”


3:6       A good treatment of what it means to be a “brahmin” in the Sangha. Pilindavaccha had been a birth brahmin for 500 lives, but in this live is but a monk. It is the one freed of the taints, “his mind quenched”, who is the brahmin.


3:7       An extended treatment of the idea that devas are just as enmired in samsara as the rest of us, and need merit just as we do. Here, even Sakka—lord of the devas—wants merit by giving alms to Kassapa.


3:8       Right Speech! Talk about Dhamma or maintain noble silence.


3:9       Like 3:8; you talk Dhamma or maintain silence.


3:10     The Buddha truly seeing the suffering of this world, much like the Fire Sermon.


            This sutta is quite a fine min-exposition of the teachings. Especially important I think is the care with which the annihilationist thinking is avoided:


“The craving for being is abandoned,

Yet one does not delight in non-being.

Nibbana is total dispassion and cessation

(Attained) with the complete destruction of cravings.”


            Previous to this, the Buddha very specifically says that neither eternalism nor annihilationism have the means for liberation.


            It’s the ending of grasping (clinging) that is the end of suffering.


4:1       This sutta is found elsewhere—or at least the setting is found. Meghiya sits under the tree and is assailed by thoughts of lust, ill-will, and of doing harm. He is as yet not mature in his practice.


            He is taught that there are five qualities which bring the practice to maturity:


1)         Association with good friends—those on the path and serious in their practice. Note the many sutras in which the Buddha says that good companionship is the whole of the spiritual life, not even part of it.


2)         The observance of sila. Undertaking the precepts, seeing danger in the slightest fault.


3)         Hearing talk that is conducive to awareness and sobering—few wants, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, and so forth.


4)         Persistence is aroused (i.e., energy) for abandoning unwholesome qualities and taking on skillful ones.


5)         Discerning to observe arising and passing away.


            Note that if 1) has been fulfilled, those admirable people will aid greatly—if not ensure—the remaining four.


            The next four qualities are kinds of meditation practices that are specific to certain unwholesome states—or perhaps we can also see these for various personality types. (Bhante G talks about these in his pamphlet on the jhanas.)


Meditation on







Distraction & restlessness


Conceit of self


4:2       When one is filled with lethargy and torpor, other very unwholesome qualities can easily follow—which are duly listed here.


4:3       The story itself is touching—a cowherd who hears Dhamma, serves the Sangha, but is then murdered. The verse is from the Dhammapada—no matter what an enemy may do to you, your mind hurts you even more.


4:4       This one is both funny and touching. The yakkha hits Sariputta hard enough to fell an elephant but Sariputta hardly feels it, while the yakkha is hurled down screaming to hell.


4:5       This one keeps up and expands the metaphor of the Buddha as great bull elephant.


4:6       Another list of attributes of the awakened mind:


Not insulting

Not injuring

Restraint in the precepts

Moderation in eating

Living secluded

Intent on the higher mind


4:7       Slightly shorter version of 4:6, with Sariputta instead of Pindola Bharadvaja.


4:8       Elaborate story about other sect’s wanderers attempting to discredit the Sangha by murdering an innocent woman, burying her, and spreading a rumor that she was raped and murdered by the Sangha.


            The Buddha’s advice to the Sangha is simple enough: the false accuser is punished in time as the karma of the deed ripens.


            The final udana is another example of not being affected by harsh words.


4:9       The udana has a great line:


            “Whose life causes no remorse

            And who sorrows not at death.”


4:10     Like 4:6 and 4:7, the assurance of the arahant’s having cut the cord of being.


5:1       This sutta ties in well with some discussions we’ve had about the importance of compassion for the self as being integral to the cultivation of compassion for others.


            “…one who loves himself should not harm another.”


5:2       A good illustration of the differing meaning of “bodhisatta” within the Theravada context—here meaning “buddha-to-be.”


5:3       Perhaps the most important message here is that even a leper can become enlightened—or at least well on the way.


            Note that the Woodward translation has the same problem with “cow with young calf” as before, mistranslating it as “calf” only.


            The karmic consequence of being cold to a leper is many hundred thousands of years in hell, then being born into this world as a leper. But he came upon the Dhamma, received the teachings fully—and in his rebirth was born as a deva in the Tavatimsa heaven.


            “…a wise man in the world of the living

            Should avoid demeritorious deeds.”


5:4       Two good teachings. First is that all beings dislike and fear pain—thus we should not inflict it.


            The second is critical as well: “If you have done a bad deed or do one now,/You will not escape pain, though you try to flee.”


5:5       This story of the unclean monk in the Sangha—and the Buddha’s refusal to recite the Patimokkha as a result—has been encountered elsewhere.


            There are eight qualities of the Dhamma and Discipline which are listed, each as a metaphor with the ocean:


1)         The training is gradual, not sudden.

2)         No training rule is ever broken by the practicing monk

3)         The Sangha will eject an immoral, impure member

4)         The four castes are absorbed in the Sangha, cease to exist

5)         There is no end to the possibility of enlightenment

6)         The ocean has one taste (salt); the Dhamma of liberation

7)         The Dhamma contains precious things—the 37 constituents

8)         The Dhamma is the abode of the stream-enterers through arahants.


5:6       Charming story describing how one particular bhikkhu became ordained. It shows that the going-forth and the higher ordination are available at any age.


5:7       Abandoning doubts—“as to here or beyond/In one’s own or another’s experience.” Overcoming doubt is one of the purifications.


5:8       Beginning of Devadatta’s schism. “For the noble to do what is bad is difficult” seems to imply that Devadatta is not, therefore, noble.


5:9       Youths who stand around speaking abusively. They think they are being so cool, when in reality they look only as foolish children. The udana addresses this beautifully.


5:10     “successive distinctions”—up through eight jhanas, into insight and release.


6:1       This sutta—the Buddha at the Capala Shrine being tempted by Mara to relinquish life early—occurs both in S and D—in the Parinibbana Sutta in D. However, there is a different verse in S.


6:2       This appears in the Kosalasamyutta of S. However, the verse is different. An interesting line: “One should not make a business of Dhamma.”


            How does this jibe with the current marketplace for Buddhist stuff? Are companies like DharmaCrafts owned and operated by practitioners?


            Certainly it removes the possibility of the Christian evangelical big-business type. But there is Right Livelihood—obviously we need to support ourselves.


6:4       This is a classic story—the group of blind men and the elephant. The udana:


            “People who see only one side of things

            Engage in quarrels and disputes.”


6:5       Adds well to 6:4:


            “Not finding a firm foothold

            They sink in the middle of the stream.”


6:8       Extremes are what cause cemeteries to grow—the extremes here being asceticism and sensualism.


6:9       Excellent metaphor here of flying insects being drawn towards the candle and then burned in it.


            “Like insects falling into the flame

            Some are intent only on what is seen and heard.”


6:10     Excellent metaphor of various teachings. The glow-worms seem bright enough in the dark, but then the sun rises. The Buddhas are the suns.


7:1       Even a dwarf can be liberated.


7:2       More about Bhaddiya the dwarf.


7:3       Clear statement: if you’re tied up with sensual desires, you will not cross over


7:5       The bhikkhus didn’t like to hang around Bhaddiya the dwarf—but the Buddha pointed out to them that he (Bhaddiya) was of tremendous attainment.


7:9       Good metaphor here: the abusive can’t really harm you if you don’t accept their abuse.


8:1       I suppose this is an ultimate statement on the nature of Nibbana to be found anywhere. What there is “no” of:


1.         Elements: earth, water, fire, air

2.         Jhanas: infinity of space, infinity of consciousness, nothingness, neither-perception-nor-non-perception

3.         Physical world: this world, another world, both, sun, moon

4.         Movement and conditions of being: coming, going, staying, deceasing, uprising

5.         Not fixed, not moveable, has no support.


8:2       That Nibbana isn’t easy to understand is witnessed here by the udana:


The uninclined is hard to see,

The truth is not easy to see…


8:3       This is I think the most famous statement about Nibbana that there is. It states clearly that there is a “not-born, a not-brought-into-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned.” If there weren’t, there would be no escape from the “born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.” But there is the ‘not’ of this, and therefore escape is possible.


8:4       Here’s an interesting ‘chain’ like the Nidanas, although different:



No instability


No inclination

No coming-and-going

No decease-and-uprising

Neither “here” nor “beyond” nor “in between the two.” (This is the end of suffering.)


8:5       Also found in the Parinibbana Sutta, here we have the problem of sukaramaddava, the “pig’s delight” that was served to the Buddha as his last meal. Was it pork? Or was it truffles?


Woodward: translates it as ‘truffles’ but mentions that there is controversy about it. Thanissaro Bhikkhu didn’t translate this sutta at all.


8:6       This sutta is also largely found in the Parinibbana Sutta, with events that happen before those described in 8:5. However, there is a terrific lesson in the concluding udana:


While people are binding a raft

The wise are already across.


            This tells a lot about those who haven’t decided to do or are looking for solutions and discussing them, so forth—like those who can’t quite decide how they’re going to practice but keep looking around for a way to do it. The wise just get on with it, and do it.


8:7       It would seem that Nagasamala, the Buddha’s attendant in the early years, was a bit on the stubborn side, to put it mildly. He was so convinced that his direction was the right direction to walk on the road that he even put down the Buddha’s robe and bowl and went on in his own way—this seems awfully irresponsible to me.


8:8       If you have a lot of children, you’re going to go to a lot of funerals.


8:9       Rather spectacular vision of achieving final Nibbana, as Dabba goes into deep samadhi on the fire element, rises up in the air, and burns up!


8:10     Another version of the same image—really quite a spectacular conclusion to the Udana.