The Chapter of the Eights


My review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, Shambhala, Boulder, 2016, paperback £15, 180 pages.

Gil Fronsdal’s new book is a translation of and commentary on ‘The Chapter of the Eights’ (Aṭṭhakavagga), the fourth chapter of the Sutta-nipāta, itself a miscellaneous collection of Pāli Buddhist verses (including such classics as the Karaṇīya-metta sutta and the Ratana sutta). I was excited when I heard about this new translation, because The Chapter of the Eights is a fascinating work, presenting the Dharma in a form that seems to take the reader back to an unfamiliar world of ancient Indian asceticism. In this world of heated argument about beliefs and practices between professional renunciates and spiritual wanderers, the Buddha’s teaching is presented as something beyond belief, beyond views and opinions, as a lived insight that combines a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation with an attitude of careful investigation and letting go. The non-dogmatic and practical approach of The Chapter of the Eights reads like the living words of the Buddha in his teaching heyday, in contrast to the lists and repetitions of the prose nikāyas, which can often appear formulaic. This has led to speculation about the Eights poems – that perhaps they are older than the prose discourses; that perhaps they represent an early and unsystematised version of the Buddha’s teachings; that perhaps they represent ‘the Buddha before Buddhism’, as the title of Fronsdal’s book proposes.

There is good news and bad news about Fronsdal’s new translation. The good news is that he has written some useful introductions to and commentaries on the sixteen poems that make up The Book of Eights, making these old Buddhist verses more easily accessible than they have been before in English. The bad news is, unfortunately, quite bad. It is that the translations themselves generally lack precision, and are occasionally wrong. Fronsdal does not seem to know Pāli particularly well. In my view, the book can hardly be recommended as a translation, though if it encouraged readers to investigate further it could be said to have some value. In what follows I will firstly discuss the importance of The Book of Eights, and how Fronsdal presents it, before indicating some of the problems with his translation.

Fronsdal’s preface begins: ‘This book is a translation of a collection of ancient Buddhist poems often considered to be among the Buddha’s first teachings.’ It might seem that Fronsdal is here starting to elaborate the claim made by the book’s title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’. The claim is that the Aṭṭhakavagga contains some of the oldest records of the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps dating from a period early in his teaching career, before the more systematic teachings with which we are familiar. However, despite this opening sentence, Fronsdal does not particularly push this claim; and indeed in his Afterword he presents an accurate summary of the uncertainties around making any definite claim for the date or original purpose of the chapter. In this regard, I had the sense that the title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, was possibly chosen by the publisher to act as a magnet for those drawn to the idea of ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’. Alas, the whole idea of getting back to ‘the Buddha’s own words’ looks, from the scholarly point of view, increasingly like an impossible dream. Fronsdal doesn’t actually dispute this. But before I present his view of The Chapter of the Eights, I will summarise what might positively be said about the text’s historical importance.

The Sutta-nipāta as a collection was probably assembled rather later than the discourses in the four main nikāyas or collections. It is arranged in five chapters, the fourth being The Book of Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) and the fifth The Way to the Beyond (Pārāyanavagga). The reason for supposing that these two chapters contain relatively old materials is twofold. Firstly, they are both commented upon in another canonical work called the Niddesa (‘Explanation’). This early commentarial text also comments upon the Rhinoceros Discourse (Khaggavisāṇa sutta), in the first chapter of the Sutta-nipāta. The Niddesa cannot be precisely dated but the fact that it exists shows that the texts it comments upon were valued in a special way from an early point in Buddhist history. Secondly, The Chapter of the Eights is itself mentioned in the prose nikāyas. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, 22:3, the householder Hāliddakāni asks the Venerable Mahākaccāna to explain to him the meaning of a stanza from the Māgandiya in The Chapter of the Eights (Sn 844). Moreover, in the Udāna 5:6, the Venerable Soṇa is said to recite at the Buddha’s request the whole of the The Chapter of the Eights, and the Buddha compliments Soṇa on his recitation. These two stories seem to imply that The Chapter of the Eights were in existence prior to the composition of the prose nikāyas, in the time of the Buddha himself. (The Way to the Beyond and some other stanzas similarly appear to have been in existence during the Buddha’s lifetime). We should also say, in support of the idea that The Chapter of the Eights is old, that its language is archaic (which is presumably why the early Buddhists composed a commentary on it).

However, it must be emphasised that The Chapter of the Eights is relatively old, compared to other early Buddhist texts. This does not allow us to date it. Because the early Buddhist scriptures were composed and transmitted orally for hundreds of years, there is a kind of ‘event horizon’ which we cannot get behind. This horizon is about two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. The fact the early Buddhist scriptures describe The Chapter of the Eights as already in existence at the time of the Buddha in fact shows that the Buddhists of two hundred years after the Buddha’s death believed that The Chapter of the Eights was an old record of the Buddha’s teaching. But we cannot be any more certain than that about the matter. This has not stopped scholars speculating about it. The late Tilmann Vetter thought that the Eights were originally composed among non-Buddhist ascetics and then later included in the Buddhist canon.[i] Other scholars have speculated that the Eights describe an early form of Buddhism, that existed prior to organised monasticism and Buddhist doctrine.[ii] However, K.R. Norman, whose translation of the Sutta-nipāta is the most scholarly though it is very literal,[iii] has discussed the Aṭṭhakavagga in relation to early Buddhism, and concluded very convincingly that it is a mistake to suppose that the contents of The Chapter of Eights can somehow be taken to represent ‘Buddhism’ of any period. The Eights should be taken as more of a snap shot of one approach to the Dharma.[iv] While we can identify the particular characteristics of this approach, it is not possible to know what other discourses and teaching were in general circulation when the The Chapter of the Eights was composed. It is likely that The Way to the Beyond was in circulation at that time, which presents the Dharma in rather different terms, so it is likely that The Chapter of the Eights was always one approach among several, in which case it does not necessarily represent ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’.

Despite his book being titled ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, Fronsdal’s introduction and commentaries concentrates on the original content of The Book of Eights rather than on speculative questions about where the Chapter stands in relation to the Buddhism of the prose nikāyas. He identifies four distinct themes of the Chapter: (i) letting go of views; (ii) sensual craving; (iii) the description of the sage; and (iv) training. However, it must be said that the most strikingly original theme in the Chapter is the first theme, letting go of views. This theme is visible in the four discourses (2–5), each of which contains eight (aṭṭhaka) stanzas, that probably give the Chapter of the Eights its name (Aṭṭhakavagga). One can get a flavour of the argument from v.787:

One who is attached argues over doctrines –
How and with what does one argue with someone unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.[v]

Other discourses in the Chapter make the same point: that a religious practitioner seeking peace should let go of views, should not get involved in religious arguments, should practise a sceptical abstention from debate, and by contrast learn to seek peace through a different method, by understanding the relationship of views and emotional attachments, so as to abandon the former by letting go of the latter through insight.

As Fronsdal explains in his introduction, this message is not unique to The Chapter of the Eights, but is the subject of the Honeyball Discourse (Madhipiṇḍika sutta) in the Majjhima-nikāya, which explains how disagreement and debate is a result of conceptual proliferation (papañca), which itself arises from feeling, perception and thinking. Many other discourses, it might be said, present the same message from different angles, most obviously The Discourse on Brahma’s Net (Brahmajāla sutta) in the Dīgha-nikāya, which explains the arising of sixty-two kinds of wrong view on the basis of feeling and contact. The other themes of The Chapter of the Eights which Fronsdal identifies can likewise be found discussed in other discourses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the Eights is vividly focussed on the fruitlessness of religious debate. In the eighth poem, the Discourse to Pasūra (Pasūra sutta), the speaker of the discourse (presumed to be the Buddha) addresses Pasūra:

Wishing for an opponent, you roar
Like a hero nourished on royal food.
Run off, O Hero, to where the fight is;
As before, there is no fight here.[vi]

Pasūra seems to be an avid debater, and implied by the poem is a context of lively debate between ascetics (samaṇas), on topics of religious and spiritual importance. The Buddha simply refuses to participate:

Pasūra, what opponent would you get
From those who live without opponents
Who don’t counter views with views,
Who don’t grasp anything here as ultimate?[vii]

From these extracts, I hope to have given a taste both of the main theme of The Chapter of the Eights, and the accessible style of Fronsdal’s translation. Likewise, Fronsdal’s introductory comments to each of the sixteen poems open up the unfamiliar concerns and presuppositions of the ancient verses for contemporary readers. In this sense, Fronsdal’s book is not aimed at scholars, and indeed does no more than hint at the scholarly discussions on various topics. For instance, the eleventh poem, The Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes (Kalahavivāda sutta), is of great interest (at least to some of us), since it presents many of the nidānas or causal links familiar from the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent arising – but without any apparent awareness of that highly structured formula. It would seem that this poem represents an early presentation of themes that only later became the twelve links of dependent arising.[viii] Fronsdal’s introduction to the eleventh poem instead speculates on the relation of the discourse to the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, which is not an impossible hypothesis though it would need more discussion to look like more than guesswork.

Turning now to the translation issues I highlighted earlier, one could perhaps simply enjoy Fronsdal’s accessible new translation, as a way to explore a particularly interesting example of early Buddhist literature. However, any reader wishing to explore the meaning of the stanzas in detail should be aware of the many mistakes in Fronsdal’s rendering. Let me start with two general issues. First, Fronsdal translates nibbāna as ‘release’,[ix] nibbāti as ‘frees’[x] and nibbuti as ‘release’.[xi] These three words are etymologically and conceptually related; nibbāti means ‘goes out’ (of a flame) and is used metaphorically in early Indian religious thought in relation to the ending of the process of being reborn in saṃsāra. Likewise, nibbāna means ‘going out’, ‘quenching’ and is a metaphor for the summum bonum of the spiritual life and the end of rebirth; likewise nibbuti is regarded as cognate with nibbāna while also connoting ‘happiness’, ‘being at ease’.[xii] So why does Fronsdal write blandly “release is a translation of nibbuti”?[xiii] It just isn’t. ‘Release’ would be a translation of vimutti, which is a different concept. I would guess that Fronsdal wanted to maintain a this-worldly and psychological kind of tone in his translation.

The other general issues is Fronsdal’s translation of bhavābhava as ‘becoming and not-becoming’.[xiv] He does not in fact explain what he thinks he means by ‘becoming and not-becoming’, but it occurs in such contexts as:

This wise one doesn’t associate with
Becoming or not-becoming.[xv]

The Pāli here is bhavābhāya na sameti dhīro: ‘the wise person does not go to bhavābhava’. The word bhava means ‘existence’ or ‘becoming’, or ‘state of existence’, such as one of the six ‘realms’ of the wheel of life – existence as a god, animal, human, and so on. As K.R. Norman points out, the Pāli commentary explains bhavābhava as bhava-bhava ‘one or other state of existence’, saying, ‘in bhavābhava means in states of existence in the sensory realm and so on, or in bhavābhava means in one or other state of existence, in ever-renewed states of existence’.[xvi] That is to say, bhavābhava means ‘existence after existence’ or ‘various states of existence’. It does not mean ‘becoming or not-becoming’. Indeed, as the example above shows, the translation ‘becoming or not-becoming’ does not even make sense, whereas it makes perfectly good sense (in the ancient Indian context of belief in rebirth) to say, ‘the wise person does not go to various states of existence’, meaning that the wise person does not undergo rebirth into a god realm or back into the human realm and so on. Again, one might guess that Fronsdal wanted to avoid references to the rebirth cosmology of early Buddhism.

As well as these two general issues with Fronsdal’s translations, there are many specific points. In the context of this review, let me just take one, to make my point. Fronsdal translates the first two lines of v.898 as follows:

Those who say virtue is ultimate
Dedicate themselves to purity and religious observance.

The context is the statement of an opponent’s point of view – the view that it is the strict observance of a moral code that makes for spiritual purity. The Pāli here is sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ / vataṃ samādayā upaṭṭhitāse – ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate say that purity is through restraint. / Undertaking a vow they are dedicated.’ But Fronsdal writes in a note: ‘The meaning of this sentence is obscure. To translate this line most scholars look to the canonical commentary on this verse found in the Niddesa and borrow the idea that purity comes from self-restraint. I have tried to understand the sentence on its own terms, without the commentary. No English translation that I know of, including mine, translates saññā (‘concept’, ‘perception’) in the opening phrase sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ.’[xvii]

This note shows, however, that Fronsdal does not understand the Pāli and misrepresents previous translators. The word saññamena has nothing to do with saññā but is the instrumental singular of saññama, from the verb saṃ-yam, ‘restrain’.[xviii] Hence, ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate (sīluttamā) say (āhu) that purity (suddhiṃ) is through restraint (saññamena)’. This is not at all obscure, and shows that in this case previous translators did not borrow the the idea of ‘restraint’ from the commentary.[xix] I have found another fifteen specific examples of mistakes in Fronsdal’s translation, simply based on not understanding the Pāli.[xx] What to say? In his Acknowledgements on p.ix he thanks various people such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu for checking his translation. Not very thoroughly, one might think. Fortunately, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta-nipāta and its commentary will be published very soon.

[i] Tilmann Vetter, ‘Mysticism in the Aṭṭhakavagga’, in The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, Brill: Leiden, 1988.

[ii] For instance, Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: a survey with bibliographical notes, KUFS Publication: Tokyo, 1980.

[iii] K.R. Norman, The Group of Discourses (2nd ed.), Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2001.

[iv] K.R. Norman, ‘The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism’, Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, ed. Olle Qvarnström, Asian Humanities Press: Fremont, 2003.

[v] Fronsdal p.51, the last stanza from ‘The Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt’ (Duṭṭhaṭṭhakasutta).

[vi] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 831.

[vii] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 832.

[viii] See, for instance, Hajime Nakamura, ‘The Theory of “Dependent Origination” in its Incipient Stage’, in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula ed. S Balasooriya et al., Gordon Fraser: London, 1980, pp.165–72.

[ix] In v.940, 942, although in v.822 he has ‘nirvana’, without explanation.

[x] In v.915.

[xi] In vv.917, 933.

[xii] All this can be easily checked in either PED or in Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli vol.II.

[xiii] Ch.14 n.3 p.171.

[xiv] In vv.776, 786, 801, 877, 901.

[xv] Final two lines of v.877.

[xvi] Norman 2001, p.328, n.776, quoting the commentary Paramatthajotikā II p.517: bhavābhavesū ti kāmabhavādisu, atha vā bhavābhavesu ti bhava-bhavesu, punappunabhavesū ti.

[xvii] This is n.4 on p.170.

[xviii] This is perfectly obvious from the Mahāniddesa p.309 and from Pj II p.558, both of which gloss saññamena as saṃyamamattena, ‘through mere restraint’.

[xix] Hence Norman p.118 translates: ‘Those who consider virtuous conduct to be the highest thing say that purity is by means of self-restraint’.

[xx] Contact me for a full list of mistakes and issues.

The meaning of the Pāli word ‘sutta’

well said

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Pāli word sutta: it is equivalent to the Sanskrit word sūtra and it means ‘discourse’. It is used in the sense of a discourse of the Buddha, one of the many discourses which generally begin evaṃ me sutaṃ, ‘thus have I heard’, and which are traditionally regarded as having been remembered by Ānanda, the Buddha’s friend and attendant.[1] At the same time, from the point of view of the word itself, we often read that the word sutta does not literally mean ‘discourse’, but that it means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and that the meaning ‘discourse’ is an applied meaning. However, in this essay I will show how some recent as well as traditional scholarship does not support the idea that sutta means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, but that the word was always understood to mean ‘discourse’.

Let us begin with the Pali-English Dictionary (PED). There are in fact two entries for sutta, in that sutta1 means ‘asleep’, being the past participle of supati ‘sleeps’. We can leave this meaning of sutta aside. The other meaning is as follows:

sutta2 (nt.) [Vedic sūtra, fr. sīv to sew] 1. a thread, string… 2. the (discursive, narrational) part of the Buddhist Scriptures containing the suttas or dialogues, later called Sutta-piṭaka… 3. one of the divisions of the Scriptures (see navanga)… 4. a rule, a clause (of the Pātimokkha)… 5. a chapter, division, dialogue (of a Buddh. text), text, discourse… 6. an ancient verse, quotation… 7. book of rules, lore, text book…[2]

PED thus relates sutta to Sanskrit sūtra and both words to sīv ‘to sew’, and gives its primary meaning as ‘thread’ as well as other meanings including ‘discourse’. Following PED, Buddhist commentators have tried to explain why a word meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’ should also be used as the word for Buddhist discourse. Sangharakshita, for instance, explains that:

meaning literally a thread, the word [sūtra, also sutta] suggests a series of topics strung on a common thread of argument or exhortation. By implication, therefore, a sūtra is of considerable length, systematic in form and substantial in content.[3]

However, there is a puzzle associated with this kind of explanation.

There certainly is a Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and there certainly is a Pāli word sutta with the same meaning.[4] There also certainly is a genre of Sanskrit literature called sūtra. This genre, perhaps the best-known example of which is the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, consists of a number of brief aphoristic sayings in verse (each called sūtra). The genre long pre-dates Buddhism, being first used around 800 BCE in the Śrauta-sūtras, concerned with Vedic ritual, and the genre remained important in philosophy and literature for many centuries. The aphorisms of the genre can certainly be said to have been strung together or to have a common thread, and perhaps were so-called for this reason. However, neither the Pāli suttas nor the Sanskrit Buddhist sūtras are like this at all. The Buddhist discourses are not in the least aphoristic and neither do they consist in sayings of the Buddha strung together. It is therefore a puzzle to read even in an up-to-date Dictionary of Buddhism under the entry sūtra:

In Sanskrit, lit. “aphorism”, but in a Buddhist context translated as “discourse”, “sermon”, or “scripture”; a sermon said to be delivered by the Buddha or delivered with his sanction. A term probably used originally to refer to sayings of the Buddha that were preserved orally by his followers (and hence called “aphorisms”), the sūtra developed into its own genre of Buddhist literature, with a fairly standard set of literary conventions…[5]

Reading this entry, one might reasonably ask why a word meaning “aphorism” would have been used to describe the oral record of the Buddha’s teaching, and why this word later came to refer to a genre of Buddhist literature which was not in the least aphoristic.

Scholars have proposed a pleasing and elegant answer to this puzzle. It is that we have been misled by the Sanskrit word sūtra into supposing that the Pāli word sutta means ‘thread’ and therefore ‘aphorism’. The Indian Buddhists who used the Sanskrit word sūtra were incorrect to use it as an equivalent to the older Middle-Indo-Aryan word sutta, and this earlier word should actually be derived from sūkta, meaning ‘well-spoken’, hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha. As Prof. K.R. Norman puts it:

Many Buddhist Sanskrit texts are entitled sūtra. To anyone who comes to Buddhist studies from classical Sanskrit studies, this name comes as a surprise, because, in Sanskrit, sūtra literature is a specific genre of literature, composed in prose, usually of a very abbreviated and concise nature, while Buddhist sūtras have an entirely different character. This difference is due to the fact that the word sūtra in Buddhist Sanskrit is a Sanskritisation of the Middle Indo-Aryan word sutta, which is probably to be derived from Sanskrit sūkta, a compound of su and ukta, literally “well-Spoken”. It would be a synonym for subhāṣita, which is the word used of the Buddhavacana [sayings of the Buddha] by the emperor Aśoka… when he said: “All that was spoken by the Lord Buddha was well-spoken”.[6]

According to this explanation, the word sutta means ‘well-spoken’ and hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha, from the verb vac ‘to speak’ (the past participle of which is ukta) with the prefix su meaning ‘well’, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. If this is true, the early Buddhists who used the word sutta to mean ‘discourse’ did so with good reason, and did not do so thinking that sutta meant ‘string’ or ‘thread’. This meaning of sutta is to be understood as distinct from the meaning of sutta as ‘thread’, just as sutta also means ‘asleep’. Hence, sutta1 ‘asleep’ (past participle of sup), sutta2 ‘thread’ (from sīv), sutta3 ‘discourse’ (from su+ukta).

Inevitably, however, other scholars have found fault with the details of this explanation. Prof. Oscar von Hinüber thinks that this proposed etymology of sutta from sūkta is unnecessary. He writes:

In der Theravāda-Überlieferung findet die Annahme, daß sutta eigentlich sūkta- entspräche, nirgends eine Stütze, wie die lange Erörterung zu sutta-, As 19, 15–26, mit aller Deutlichkeit zeigt.[7]

In the oral tradition of the Theravāda, the assumption that sutta really corresponds to sūkta nowhere finds a support, as the long discussion on sutta in As 19, 15–26, quite distinctly shows.

Von Hinüber’s point is that, while it is theoretically possible that sutta is derived from sūkta, and that this would elegantly explain its usage, there is no traditional support for such a derivation. He cites the Atthasālinī, the Theravādin commentary on the Dhammasaṅganī, the first book of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka.[8] This commentary gives the following explanation of the word sutta:

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca ‘suttan’ti akkhātaṃ.

tañhi attatthaparatthādibhede atthe sūceti. suvuttā cettha atthā veneyyajjhāsayānulomena vuttattā. savati cetaṃ atthe, sassamiva phalaṃ, pasavatīti vuttaṃ hoti. sūdati cetaṃ, dhenu viya khīraṃ, paggharatīti vuttaṃ hoti. Suṭṭhu ca ne tāyati rakkhatīti vuttaṃ hoti. suttasabhāgañcetaṃ. yathā hi tacchakānaṃ suttaṃ pamāṇaṃ hoti evametampi viññūnaṃ. yathā ca suttena saṅgahitāni pupphāni na vikiriyanti na viddhaṃsiyanti evametena saṅgahitā atthā. tenetametassa vacanatthakosallatthaṃ vuttaṃ –

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca suttanti akkhātan’ti.[9]

From showing (sūcana) the good, from having been well spoken (suvutta), from begetting (savana) and from giving out (sūdana);

Through being an excellent shelter (suttāṇa), and from being like thread (sutta), sutta is called ‘sutta’.

For it shows the good (attha) consisting of the good for one’s self, the good for others, and so on. And meaning (attha) has been well spoken in this respect through being spoken in conformity with the dispositions of those ready for the teaching. And it begets the good (attha), like crops do fruit, so it is said that it brings forth. And it gives it [the good] out, like a cow does milk, so it is said that it flows out. And it excellently shelters and protects it [the good]. And it is similar to thread, for as the carpenter’s thread is a measure, so it is too for the wise, and as flowers tied together with thread are not scattered and damaged, so by it good things are tied together. Therefore this has been said about it for the sake of knowledge about the meaning of the word: [repeat of stanzas].’[10]

This traditional discussion of the meaning of sutta is revealing, in that although Von Hinüber is correct in saying that it does not definitively support the derivation of sutta from sūkta, neither does it support the derivation of sutta from the word sutta meaning ‘thread’. Let us look more closely at this traditional explanation.

The Atthasālinī explains the meaning of sutta (as in sutta-piṭaka, the ‘discourse collection) in six distinct ways:

  1. It means sūcana (‘showing’, ‘indicating’), as it shows the good. The word sūcana comes from sūcī (‘needle’) via the denominative root sūc. Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary (MW p.1241) links sūcī with sīv (‘to sew’), the root of sūtra, but the PED doubts this connection (p.721).
  1. It means suvutta (‘well spoken’, ‘well said’) from su (‘well’, ‘excellent’) and vac (‘to speak’). This explanation amounts to the derivation proposed by Norman, that sutta = Sanskrit sūkta. However, the commentary is not claiming that sutta is the same word as suvutta or that it derives from su+vac, only that sutta can be explained as suvutta (‘what has been well spoken’).
  1. It means savana (‘begetting’), which can be derived from the Sanskrit root su4 (= 2) (‘to generate’) (MW p.1219). This explanation gains strength from the fact that the past participle of su is suta, literally meaning ‘issue’, hence ‘son’ (PED p.717). There is hence an edifying background word-play between sutta and savana via suta.[11]
  1. It means sūdana (‘gives out’), which is cognate with the Sanskrit root sūd, which, according to MW p.1242 can have the meaning ‘eject’ (nikṣepana).
  1. It means su+(t)tāṇa (‘excellent shelter’), from the prefix su together with the word tāṇa (‘shelter’), cognative with Sanskrit trāṇa from the root trai (‘shelter’, MW p.457). This explanation is an example of explanation through edifying word-play, since the commentator would not have supposed that the word sutta was etymologically connected with suttāṇa, only that the resemblance of sounds between the words could be exploited to explain the meaning of sutta. 
  1. The final explanation is in the form of a comparison. Sutta is said to be suttasabhāga (‘like or similar to sutta’) where sutta in this case means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, which is derived from the Sanskrit root sīv (‘to sew’).

From these six explanations of the meaning of the word sutta, we can see how the commentators primarily took the word to mean ‘discourse’, and then they explained this meaning in various ways, relating sutta to other words that were either homonyms (sutta meaning ‘thread’), or were edifyingly similar in sound (suttāṇa, sūdana, sūcana), or were both similar in sound and related in meaning (suvutta), or were related in meaning (savana). The impression one gets is that the commentator does not have a single view about the derivation of sutta.

However, from a historical perspective the commentator’s explanation of the meaning of sutta is from a later period, and does not tell us much about how the early Buddhists who first used the word sutta understood it. We can also only wonder whether the commentator was familiar with the Buddhist Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘discourse’ as the equivalent of the Pāli sutta. If he was, which seems likely, then two interesting conclusions seem to follow. Firstly, the Pāli commentator does not seem to relate the words sutta or sūtra to the genre of Indian literature called sūtra or ‘aphorism’. Rather, the words sutta or sūtra are explained as comparable to a string or thread only as an edifying metaphor. Secondly, the Pāli commentarial explanation of sutta seems to allow that this word may be the equivalent either of Sanskrit sūkta or of sūtra.

In conclusion, then, the Pāli word sutta, when used to refer to Buddhist literature, need not be taken literally to mean ‘thread’. It is equally possible to derive sutta from su+ukta as from the root sīv (‘to sew’), and the former derivation would support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’, in the sense of ‘what has been well spoken (by the Buddha)’. While the Pāli commentary does not give any direct support to this derivation, it does support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’ and does not appear to support any connection of sutta to the Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘aphorism’, derived from the meaning of sūtra as ‘thread’. In short, despite our not knowing for certain the derivation of sutta, it is consistently used to mean ‘discourse’ in a way that supports its derivation from sūkta, ‘well-spoken’.

[1] The situation is in fact more complicated, in that the early Buddhist scriptures record a nine-fold analysis of Buddhist literature, the first sort being sutta, meaning ‘discourse’, the second being gāthā, ‘verse’, the third geyya, ‘mixed prose and verse’, and so on. However, this nine-fold analysis appears to have been superseded by the more now-familiar three-fold division of the scriptures into three piṭakas or collections, including the sutta-piṭaka or ‘discourse collection’.

[2] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali–English Dictionary, PTS: London, 1925, p.178.

[3] Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy, Tharpa: London, 1985, p.14. Cf. A Survey of Buddhism, 6th ed., Tharpa: London, 1987, p.17.

[4] This and the following information from Brian Levman, Linguistic Ambiguities, the Transmissional Process, and the Earliest Recoverable Language of Buddhism, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014, pp.228–30.

[5] Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2014, p.875.

[6] K.R. Norman, A Philological Approach to Buddhism, PTS: Lancaster, 2006, p.135. His explanation was first suggested by Walleser in 1914. Norman’s suggestion has been taken up by Richard Gombrich, ‘How Mahāyāna Began’, in Journal of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, 1988, 29–46, p.32; also by Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.13, n.1.

[7] Oscar von Hinüber, ‘Die neun Aṅgas: ein früher Versuch zur Einteilung buddhistischer Texte’, WZKS 38, 1994, 121–35, p.132. Von Hinüber’s view is followed by Johannes Bronkhorst in Buddhist Teaching in India, Wisdom: Boston, 2009, p.xi n.4.

[8] As is an abbreviation for Atthasālinī.

[9] Atthasālinī ed. Edward Müller, PTS: London, 1897, p.19.

[10] My translation; there is also a PTS trans. by Pe Maung Tin and Mrs Rhys Davids, The Expositor, vol.1, London: PTS, 1920, p.24. The explanation of sutta is also found in a slightly different form in the commentary to the Sutta-nipāta, the Paramatthajotika II, vol.1, ed. Helmer Smith, PTS: London, 1916, p.1.

[11] Thanks to Bryan Levman for his advice on savana. This word may be related to several different Sanskrit roots: ‘impel’, su ‘press out’ as well as su ‘generate’. It is possible that the Pāli commentators had several meanings in mind.