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Thus Have I Heard

Maurice Walshe, Middle Way (Volume 69:3 p. 167) November 1994

Almost all suttas in the Pali Canon open with the words Evam me sutam ("Thus [was] heard by me"), usually rendered "Thus have I heard". These words are invariably followed by Ekam samayam ("at one time" or "on one occasion"), after which comes either Bhagava ("the Lord") or the name of a leading disciple, and a statement of where he stayed or what he did. In fact these words "Thus have I heard" are so well known as an introduction to Pali suttas that Wisdom Publications gave this title to my translation of the Digha Nikaya which they brought out in 1987. More rarely, a corresponding phrase is used in Sanskrit texts, and in 1950 John Brough suggested, on the basis of Tibetan translations, that the words "at one time" referred backwards, not forwards, so that the opening of Sanskrit-Tibetan sutras concerned should be rendered "Thus have I heard at one time" or the like. While this is doubtless correct as far as the latter texts are concerned, it is by no means clear that the same goes for the Pali suttas, and in 1968 O. von Hinüber (Studien zur Kasussyntax des Pali, 147) firmly rejected Brough's view with, I think, justification.

Now, in the new translation of the Udana by Peter Masefield, we find for each sutta the curious opening locution "So was there heard by me on one occasion when the Lord (was staying, etc.)". This rather strangulated piece of English evidently harks back to Brough's theory, which one might have thought von Hinüber had sufficiently refuted. I think there are other, and decisive, arguments in favour of von Hinüber 's contention. Here I would first interpolate a personal note. When I became a Buddhist, around 1951, I was professionally engaged in teaching medieval German literature. The first suttas I read, with their opening "Thus have I heard", at once reminded me of the Old High German Hildebrandslied, a heroic lay written down at Fulda some time after 800, and which begins with the words Ik gihorta dat seggen ("I heard that said"). This clearly means that the reciter is introducing traditional material handed down to him, and I have always assumed that the Pali formulation had a similar meaning (the commentarial idea that Ananda used these words to introduce what he had heard from the Buddha's own lips is dubious, to say the least). Be that as it may, common sense suggests that ekam samayam ("at one time" or "on one occasion") makes better sense referring forward to the Buddha's activities than backward to the speakers recollection, where it seems rather pointless. And there are two facts which support the common-sense point of view.

One of these, which is not perhaps quite decisive, is that in the Itivuttaka the solitary Pali sutta text which does not have this formula, is replaced by a more elaborate formulation. Here, each small sutta opens with the words Vuttam hetam bhagavata vuttam-arahata ti me sutam, which Woodward renders: "This was said by the Exalted One, said by the Arahant; so have I heard". This formula is followed by the direct words of the Buddha with no mention of "on one occasion". While this elaborate formulation certainly supports von Hinüber s view, it does nor perhaps wholly clinch the case. The decisive argument is provided by a passage in the Kutadanta Sutta of the Digha Nikaya (DN 5.21 = D i 143). The passage is well enough known, but its significance in this context seems not to have been noticed. The situation is this: the Buddha has just told the story of the bloodless sacrifice in olden times, and all the Brahmins present applaud (perhaps somewhat improbably!). Only Kutadanta sits in silence. He explains that he has noticed that the "ascetic Gotama" did not say "I have heard this (evam me sutam)" or "It must have been like this", but "It was like this or like that at the time" from which he correctly deduces that the events related had occurred in a past life of Gotama's. The implication is clear: "Thus have I heard" (Evam me sutam) was a standard way of opening a narrative the speaker knew by hearsay, not from personal experience. It also, I think, disposes of the commentarial idea that the phrase was Ananda's in introducing the various suttas.

As far as the Pali scriptures are concerned, let us hear no more of "Thus have I heard on one occasion" or similar renderings. John Brough was a great scholar, but on this occasion he was demonstrably wrong, and so incidentally was Edward Conze, who somewhere expressed agreement with him, even expressing pleasure that one small point had been definitely settled. It has been, but not the way he thought.

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