Book Review: The Anguttara Nikaya

This book review was written by Robin

The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha:
A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Teachings of the Buddha)
Bhikkhu Bodhi (Translator)


The Anguttara Niikaya — Numerical Discourses of the Buddha – is an integral text in the Pali Canon which constitutes the Scripture of Theravada Buddhism. The work is part of a series of four Nikayas or collections of discourses or suttas. The first three volumes, known as the Long Discourses, the Middle Length Discourses, and the Connected Discourses are available in companion translations from Wisdom Publications in a series called “Teachings of the Buddha”. The American scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi translated and prepared this volume of the Numerical Discourses. Bhikkhu Bodhi also translated the Connected Discourses in this series and edited and revised Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of the Middle Length Discourses.

The Numerical Discourses consist of almost 1600 pages of text together with an extended Introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi, nearly 300 pages of endnotes, and several glossaries and indexes. The work can be daunting by its length and by its arrangement. It includes eleven books, each of which group and present the teachings on the basis of number, one thing for the ones, up to eleven for the elevens. There appears to be no other organizing principle for the work in its entirety. For those readers unfamiliar with how the numerical presentation works, here is an example. A key concept of Buddhism is the practice of metta, or loving-kindness and it is discussed in what follows late in the collection, in a sutta from the Book of the Elevens.

“Bhikkhus, when the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness has been pursued, developed, and cultivated, made a vehicle and basis, carried out, consolidated, and properly undertaken, eleven benefits are to be expected. What eleven?”

(1) One sleeps well; (2) one awakens happily; (3) one does not have bad dreams; (4) one is pleasing to human beings; (5) one is pleasing to spirits; (6)deities protect one; (7) fire, poison, and weapons do not injure one; (8) one’s mind quickly becomes concentrated; (9) one’s facial complexion is serene; (10)one dies unconfused; and (11)if one does not penetrate further, one fares on to the brahma world.”

In some parts of the volume, a short discussion such as the above is followed by an expansion and elucidation of the component parts. That is not the case in this particular passage from the Elevens. (The quotation omits a short concluding paragraph.)

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Introduction to the volume is a guide to the reader and helps bring a sense of order to the collection. The three companion volumes of discourses have relatively clear audiences to whom they were directed and a clearer overriding theme than does the Numerical Discourses. Bhikkhu Bodhi finds that this collection is directed primarily to practice, with many suttas directed to those who have gone forth with a lesser but still substantial number directed towards families and individuals in the lay life. The texts, again, move without any obvious pattern from one to the other. Within each book, there frequently are substantial blocks of text where a theme is developed and expanded. Some of the discourses, such as the section I quoted, are short while others are lengthy and involved. Many of the teachings are presented in the form of stories, parables, or similes and Bhikkhu Bodhi has provided a helpful index to them.
The volume includes Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Thematic Guide to the Anguttara Nikaya” to help navigate the text. He has grouped the work into 13 broad themes beginning with “The Buddha” and concluding with “Types of Persons”. Each category gets an exposition in the introduction. Bhikkhu Bodhi prepared a detailed table showing the passages in the volume that primarily address one of the thirteen themes. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that the new reader approach the book thematically before attempting to read the volume through.

There are many ways for different readers to approach a difficult text. I am fortunate to have some prior background in the suttas and to have time to devote to reading. I read the volume through from cover to cover. There were times, of course, when the reading flagged or slowed. And I felt first-hand the apparent random presentation of the text. For all that, the Numerical Discourses almost has a sense of unity. Working through the volume, I found myself in the presence of those who had followed the Buddha in the search for the spiritual life centuries ago. I felt primarily in the presence of the monks and nuns in the Buddha’s Sangha. But the text also includes laypeople and followers of other teachers. A sense of removal from the character of everyday life, when lived without spiritual purpose, comes through, as the protagonists learn from the Buddha about the nature of suffering and the manner of its removal. There is much subtlety in the volume as people with disparate backgrounds and paths of life explore the teachings. Reading the book through gave me a feel for life in ancient India. Even the apparent randomness of the book, with many chapters introduced by the simple word “then” seems to me to capture the flowing way in which people and spiritual issues may have arisen in day to day life among the Buddha’s followers.

The book is mixed in including some famous, proverbial texts, such as the Kalama Sutta, together with much that most readers will find unfamiliar. Sensuality and sexuality are ever-present in the book. The tone of the work, including its sense of spiritual removal and its treatment of sensuality and sexuality is established at the outset in the first ten short suttas from the Ones. The book begins with the Buddha addressing the monks:

“Bhikkhus, I do not see even one other form that so obsesses the mind of a man as the form of a woman. The form of a woman obsesses the mind of a man.”

Five short suttas discuss the obsessive impact of female sexuality on men, followed by five parallel suttas on the obsessive impact of male sexuality on women. With these ten verses, the reader is already deep in the heart of the volume.

Within the four volumes of the Nikaya’s, the Long and the Middle Length Discourses are more accessible to most readers than the Numerical Discourses. I had the good fortune of studying both these texts with a study group and devoted teacher for many years. The Numerical Discourses will appeal most to readers with at least some prior background in sutta study. It is a gift to have this volume available in English with Bhikkhu Bodhi as a teacher and guide.

 

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