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  • Psychological solutions to Metaphysical problems in the Pārāyaṇa-vagga
  • Eviatar Shulman (bio)

The understanding of early Buddhist philosophy oscillates between two binary opposed interpretations. On the one hand we find a metaphysical system that hinges on the doctrine of karma and the attempt to exit saṃsāra. Here the Buddha is thought to attain a transcendence that takes place in some indescribable existential or ontological realm. On the other hand we encounter an empirical approach that sees the Buddha as a thinker who denied the credibility of metaphysical speculation and who advocated the relinquishing of philosophical positions, which is grounded in a concrete perception of impermanence and conditionality. There are also many intermediary positions between these two extremes and various formulations of their interaction or interpenetration, which become especially compelling when they are connected to contemplative theory and practice.

Interestingly, these two paradigmatic approaches to early Buddhist thought find relatively distinct expression in the two earliest textual collections that exist in the Pāli canon. The second position is voiced by the Aṭṭhaka-vagga (AV), "The Chapter of Eights," a text that has naturally received a fair amount of attention since it corresponds to the ideological vectors of Buddhist modernism. The first, more metaphysical interpretation is articulated in the Pārāyaṇa-vagga (PV), "The Chapter on Going Beyond," a text that has quite interestingly remained outside the limelight of scholarly inspection, even though it is acknowledged as being just as old as the Aṭṭhaka, if not older. These two collections are the fourth and fifth books of the Sutta-Nipāta (SN), a rich collection of poems that is placed in the Khuddaka Nikāya. Together with "The Rhinoceros Horn Discourse" (Khaggavisāṇa-sutta) from the first book of the SN, these are accepted as the earliest surviving textual records of Buddhism, since (1) they are characterized by archaic poetry, (2) are mentioned by name and quoted in the prose suttas of the major four Nikāyas, and (3) are the only texts to have a commentary on them included within the Sutta-Piṭaka (the Mahā- and Cūḷa-Niddesa of the Khuddaka Nikāya).1

The goal of the present essay is to fill in this large scholarly lacuna and to conceptualize the philosophical position of the PV. In a subsequent essay in the following edition of Philosophy East and West, titled "The Polyvalent Philosophy and Soteriology of Early Buddhism," I will consider the significance of the PV and the relations between it and the AV and the Khaggavisāṇa-sutta for the broader understanding of the philosophical and contemplative culture of early Buddhism in its historical context. [End Page 506]

A short word about the text itself is in order. Although I treat the main body of the PV as a coherent whole, this does not mean that I see it as univocal and as necessarily having been composed by a single author. The heart of the text is a series of sixteen sets of questions and answers between the Buddha and his students. As it exists today, this part of the text is preceded by an introduction (vatthu-gāthā) that provides a narrative framework for the sixteen poems. It is commonly accepted that this opening section was not part of the original version of the text, since the old Cūḷa-Niddesa commentary does not include it. There are other considerations that would support this understanding, mainly that the questions posed to the Buddha by Bhadravuddha and Mogharāja assume a different setting than the one introduced in the opening section.2 Without the organizing narrative framework, it is difficult to decide what the true relation between the sixteen sets of questions and answers is and whether they were collected from different sources. Whatever the origin of the poems, I will demonstrate that they share a thematic unity; this will support the idea that the text is more than an assembly of poems that originally circulated independently.

The Message of the Pārāyaṇa-vagga

The PV defines one main problem with the human condition: humanity is continuously attacked by a "flood" (ogha). This is a...


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