After ten years of painstaking work, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s long-awaited new translation of the Samyutta Nikaya has ﬁnally been released by Wisdom Publications. Following in their series of scriptures from the Pali Canon cast into contemporary English, these two weighty volumes add immensely to the rich body of Theravada texts now available to the interested practitioner and student.
The author is an American monk of twenty-seven years’ standing who has spent all of his monastic life in Sri Lanka. Currently he is editor for the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy. Along with his numerous other articles and books, he is perhaps best known as the cotranslator, with Bhikkhu Ñyanamoli, of the highly acclaimed Middle Length Discourses, published by Wisdom in 1995.
As suggested by the sequence of their publication, with the Long and Middle Length Discourses already in print, the Connected Discourses is one of the collections of shorter teachings of the Buddha. The name of this collection derives from the fact that the vast body of talks contained therein are arranged by subject matter. The ﬁrst of the ﬁve books comprising the collection includes the teachings containing verses within them. The other four books, as the author points out in his thorough and very useful introduction, are loosely arranged around the structure of the Four Noble Truths. In this they gather together numerous teachings based upon the Five Aggregates and the Six Senses (Truth 1), Dependent Origination and Causation (Truth 2), the Unconditioned (Truth 3), and ﬁnally the Path and the Attributes of Enlightenment (Truth 4).
Even though it has long been considered that the diﬀerent divisions of the Pali Canon were based largely on the mere length of the discourse, one of the most interesting suggestions—inherited from the Pali scholar Joy Mannè—contained within Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction is that each of the four main Nikayas (collections of teachings) seems to have served a particular purpose within the Buddha’s dispensation. The Connected Discourses, containing the many short but pithy suttas disclosing the Buddha’s radical insights into the nature of reality and his unique path to enlightenment, were designed, it seems, to serve two types of disciples within the monastic order. One were the doctrinal specialists, those nuns and monks who were capable of grasping the deepest dimensions of wisdom and took upon themselves the task of clarifying for others the subtle perspectives on reality opened up by the Buddha’s teachings. The second type were those who had already fulﬁlled the preliminary stages of meditative training and were intent on consummating their eﬀorts with the direct realization of ultimate truth. Because the suttas in this collection are vitally relevant to meditators bent on arriving at the undeceptive “knowledge of things as they really are,” they could well have formed the main part of a study syllabus compiled for the guidance of insight meditators.
There are many treasures here. Many of the most oft-quoted and insightful words of the Buddha are gathered in these pages: the simile of the handful of leaves; the injunction to Ananda that spiritual friendship “is the whole, not the half of the holy life”; the ﬁrst three discourses of the Buddha—the Turning of the Wheel, the Discourse on Selﬂessness, and the Fire Sermon; the silence of the Buddha on the question: “Is there a self?”; the instructions on realizing the Unconditioned through mindfulness of the body and insight meditation; and the simile of the king taking the lute to pieces in order to ﬁnd where its sound lies hidden. They are all here, and many, many more.
One of the challenges of so vast and complex a work (over 2,000 pages) is that of ﬁnding one’s way around inside it. For this purpose Bhikkhu Bodhi has provided exhaustive indices of subjects, similes and proper names; a Pali-English glossary; internal and external concordances; and a few comparative tabulations of all the diﬀerent divisions and subdivisions of the text. He has also taken great pains to provide copious and pertinent notes to help elucidate the text. He handles the cumbersome task of Pali literature’s repetitiveness here with great skill; being faithful to the source texts and sensitive to the reader’s patience is not an easy balance to strike.
In the tricky issue of how to name and number everything, he has tried to make the current text compatible with previous Pali and English editions. In such a multilayered text, this may leave the reader somewhat confused at times; however, as with most such texts, once you get used to working with it, the methodology slowly starts to make sense.
Up until now, in the English language, there have been only either small anthologies of this scripture or the well-ordered but spiritually wanting and linguistically clumsy Pali Text Society edition (Kindred Sayings, published between 1915 and 1930). It makes a categorical diﬀerence that the author of this current work is not only a practicing Buddhist but an experienced meditator as well. The breadth of his direct experience, infusing his scholarly and linguistic skills, in eﬀect makes the full richness of this vast collection of teachings available to the English-speaking world for the ﬁrst time. It is a great gift.
In his preface Bhikkhu Bodhi states that he had two ideals in mind when undertaking this gargantuan task: “First, ﬁdelity to the intended meaning of the texts themselves; and second, the expression of that meaning in clear contemporary language that speaks to the nonspecialist reader whose primary interest in the Buddha’s teaching is personal rather than professional.” It is an extraordinarily diﬃcult task to produce a book such as this—a book that is both academically rigorous and also useful for the general reader. A decade of work has clearly not been in vain; Bhikkhu Bodhi has succeeded admirably in his task.