V : The To-the-Far-Shore Chapter  (Pārāyana Vagga)


Sixteen brahman ascetics—students of a teacher named Bāvarī—approach the Buddha with questions on the goal of his teaching and how to attain it. From their questions, it is obvious that some of them, at least, are quite advanced in their meditation practice. Tradition tells us that the first fifteen of the ascetics attained arahantship immediately after the Buddha answered their questions. As for the sixteenth—Piṅgiya—Nd II tells us that after his questions were answered he attained the Dhamma Eye, a term that usually means stream-entry. The commentary to Nd II, however, interprets it as meaning that he became a non-returner.

A recurrent image in these dialogues is of life as a flood—a flood of birth, aging, and death; sorrow and lamentation; stress and suffering. The purpose of spiritual practice is to find a way across the flood to the safety of the far shore. This image explains the frequent reference to finding a way past entanglements—the flotsam and jetsam swept along by the flood that may prevent one’s progress; and to the desire to be without acquisitions—the unnecessary baggage that could well cause one to sink midstream.

There is evidence that these sixteen dialogues were highly regarded right from the very early centuries of the Buddhist tradition. As concise statements of profound teachings particular to Buddhism, they sparked an attitude of devotion coupled with the desire to understand their more cryptic passages. Most of Nd II, a late addition to the Pali Canon, is devoted to explaining them in detail. Five suttas—one in the Saṁyutta Nikāya, four in the Aṅguttara—discuss specific verses in the set, and a sixth sutta (AN 7:53) tells of a lay woman who made a practice of rising before dawn to chant the Pārāyana—apparently the full set of sixteen dialogues. Whether the Prologue and Epilogue had been added to the sixteen dialogues by her time or were added later, no one knows.

Unlike the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, there is no extant version of the Pārāyana Vagga in any other Buddhist Canon. However, several Sanskrit Buddhist texts quote passages from the individual suttas it contains; and the Chinese Canon contains at least thirteen passages that refer to the Pārāyana Vagga and/or quote passages from it.

So the Pārāyana is characterized by many of the same features that are used to argue for the antiquity of the Aṭṭhaka. However, the case for its antiquity is rarely pressed, perhaps because 5:3–4, 5:7, 5:10–11, and 5:16 center on the issue of how to avoid rebirth. If the Aṭṭhaka and Pārāyana are indeed early records of the Buddha’s teachings, the Pārāyana would thus act as a necessary supplement to the Aṭṭhaka in that, unlike the Aṭṭhaka, it explains why clinging and becoming are dangerous: They lead to the suffering of rebirth.

The discussions offered by the five suttas that quote the Pārāyana Vagga show that even in cases where the meaning of a verse seems, on first reading, fairly straightforward, the culture in which they were composed encouraged looking for meanings that were not at all obvious on the surface. For example, the last verse in 5:3 does not explicitly mention concentration practice, and only hints at it in using the phrase “nothing perturbing,” but the interpretations that the Buddha himself offers in AN 3:32 and AN 4:41 state that the verse was actually referring to very advanced states of concentration practiced together with discernment. These explanations should serve as warning that the culture of the time gave a framework for understanding the verses that at present we can only guess at—a chastening thought. To help bridge the cultural gap, the notes to this translation offer extensive quotations from the five suttas mentioned above, along with explanations from Nd II and the commentaries both to Sn and to Nd II where these seem useful.