By Richard Daley
The Pali Canon is the textual foundation of Theravada Buddhism.
Within it there is a “minor” collection of shorter discourses, mostly verse, that were not assigned to any of the other major collections, or Nikayas—these being the Majjhima, Anguttara, Digha, Samyutta. It is known as the Khuddaka Nikaya, and I use quotes to describe this collection as minor, because over time it grew to become the largest of the Nikayas.
Inside, you will find some of the most popular texts in Theravada, such as the Dhammapada, the Sutta Nipata, and the Jatakas.
Within this collection, one of the works we find is the Itivuttaka, which is attributed to a laywomen named Khujjuttara, an attendant to one of the queens of King Udena of Kosambi—an important city in the time of the Buddha. Queen Samavati was not able to leave the palace to hear the Buddha teach, so, Khujjuttara would go in her place, memorize what the Buddha said during his teaching, and return to the palace to share his words. In turn, she was teaching his Dhamma to the Queen and her other attendants.
All in all, 112 short discourses were recorded in the Itivuttaka, and all are attributed to Khujjuttara.
For her efforts, she was named by the Buddha himself as his foremost laywoman in terms of her learning, and was considered to have reached the first stage of awakening—a sotapanna, or stream-entererer—as did the Queen and her attendants.
The name Itivuttaka is derived from the statement that we find at the beginning of each discourse. The statement is essentially “This was said by the Buddha,” or some variation of that dependent on the translation.
Relating to the content, a full spectrum of Buddhist practice is described in the pages of the Itivuttaka. The text focuses heavily on the distinction between skillful and unskillful behavior. There are even points that are quite advanced shared within the pages that are not found anywhere else in the Pali Canon. Thankfully, they were memorized by Khujjuttara, and we owe her a great amount of gratitude for this!
Let us now look to the first part of the discourse:
This was said by the Buddha, the Perfected One: that is what I heard.
“Mendicants, ignorance [of Four Noble Truths] precedes the attainment of unskillful qualities, with lack of conscience and prudence following along. Knowledge precedes the attainment of skillful qualities, with conscience and prudence following along.”
The Buddha starts out here stating that before unskillful qualities, and a lack of conscience develop, there comes ignorance. The Pali word used in these circumstances is avijja, which is not your common ignorance—lacking knowledge or skill—it is the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths (stress, its origination, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation).
As for the lack of conscience, the Pali word here is ottappa, or the fear of doing evil.
According to this section, it appears ignorance leads to unskillful qualities, that in-turn put us on a path toward lacking the fear of doing evil, as well as lacking the shame that doing evil deeds should bring to us.
Knowledge here is the forerunner of what comes before the attainment of skillful qualities. Knowledge here is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and possibly the general knowledge in regards to the Buddha’s Dhamma. The Buddha is telling us that developing this awareness will incline our habits toward skillful qualities, the development of a conscience (fear of doing evil, unskillful deeds) and prudence or compunction (feelings of guilt that prevent or follow bad actions).
The Buddha then recites a few verses, which are later spoken by Khujjuttara:
That is what the Buddha said. On this it is said:
“Bad destinies of whatever kind,
in this world or the next,
are all rooted in ignorance,
compounded of greed and desire.
Since one of wicked desires is
unconscientious, lacking regard for others,
they make much bad karma,
which sends them to a place of loss.
Therefore, dispelling desire
and greed and ignorance,
a mendicant arousing knowledge
would cast off all bad destinies.”
This too was spoken by the Blessed One: that is what I heard.
These are an excellent few verses that truly compound the Buddhist teachings. The first verse states that whatever bad current state of existence, or bad state of existence in the future (or even future lives) we may find ourselves in; they are rooted in ignorance (of Four Noble Truths) which arises through a concoction of greed and desire.
It is important to say there are numerous different situations we may find ourselves in as humans, many of which may not be a direct result of this ignorance, rather, they are a result of being in samsara, or the literal “wandering-on” through a reality rife with suffering.
The goal in Buddhist practice is to escape samsara. We do this by gaining the knowledge on how to escape, and understanding it so we can lead ourselves to liberation.
The second verse relates our unskillful behaviors and lack of conscience, to pointing us in the direction of loss through the production of bad karma. It is essential to always keep in the back of your mind that karma is not a bank account where you can deposit good actions to balance out bad ones. Primarily, karma is an intentional act in thought, word, and/or action. Secondarily, it refers to the results of past volitional acts of thought, word, and/or action.
Karma has unfolded in our past, it unfolds in the present and can also come to fruition in the future, or not at all!
As it comes to fruit, or as it appears, we are able to moderate it by how aware and sensitive we are to what behaviors reinforce good or bad karma. Obviously, lacking regard for others, and being unskillful in our behaviors reinforces bad karma, and can bring compounded bad results.
The final verse closes the discourse out by telling us we alleviate bad states of existences, or bad destinies, by banishing desire, greed and coming to understand the Four Noble Truths. Believe me, this probably will not end world hunger, or cure child cancer. But it can bring us some peace of mind or contentment as we “wander-on” through existence as a human, which can be both troubling, and confusing.
Maybe if we are lucky, it will eventually bring us to awakening.
Source Sutta: https://suttacentral.net/iti40/en/sujato
Editor: Dana Gornall
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