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This subsection of Wikipedia's Two Truths article says that the "two truths" distinction is not made in the suttas, but that there are some "suttas of indirect meaning".

Two Truths > Origin and development > Early Indian Buddhism > Pali Canon

In the Pali canon, the distinction is not made between a lower truth and a higher truth, but rather between two kinds of expressions of the same truth, which must be interpreted differently. Thus a phrase or passage, or a whole sutta, might be classed as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra, but it is not regarded at this stage as expressing or conveying a different level of truth.

Nītattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: nītārtha), "of plain or clear meaning" and neyyattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: neyartha), "[a word or sentence] having a sense that can only be guessed". These terms were used to identify texts or statements that either did or did not require additional interpretation. A nītattha text required no explanation, while a neyyattha one might mislead some people unless properly explained:

There are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. Which two? He who represents a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning and he who represents a Sutta of direct meaning as a Sutta of indirect meaning.

If you diagree with these statements, please say so.

Or if you agree with these statements, then please explain again: what is "a sutta of indirect meaning" (either in your own words or by referencing someone else's explanation); and cite some illustrative example[s] of "a sutta of indirect meaning".

Also is there a specific, official, or famous commentary on the suttas where they're "classed" like that (i.e. classified or described as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra)?

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From Neyyattha Sutta (A 2.3):

Bhikshus, there are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. What are the two? Those who explain a sutta whose sense is direct as indirect. Those who explain a sutta whose sense is indirect as direct. These, bhikshus, are the two who misrepresent the Tathagata.

Examples of provisional teachings from Dharmafarer's analysis of Neyyattha Nītattha Sutta:

  • Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyyattha), as they do not directly refer to true reality.

  • Certain passages in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (D 16) and related texts, for example, refer to a post-Buddha non-Buddhist situation, reminiscent of strategic placement or geomancy.

  • "offering to the devas" as mentioned in the Ādiya Sutta (A 5.41)

  • The Nandamātā Sutta (A 7.50) gives an account of dedication of merit to the deva Vessavaṇa.

  • "Dedicating merit" is a provisional teaching. The point is clear that merit is non-negotiable and non-transferable, as stated in the Nidhikaṇḍa Sutta (Khp 8).

From interview with Ven. Bhikkhu K. Ñānananda ("comments on the Neyyattha Sutta, which seems to have been the seed out of which the Two Truths doctrine has been developed"):

  • The traditional interpretation, as you get in the commentaries, is very simple: it says neyyattha would be such suttas where the ordinary concepts of beings etc. come in, but nītattha is where you get anicca, dukkha, anattā. That’s a very simple definition of it.

  • There’s just a flux of life, a functioning, but no agent in it. But the language requires both. That is why we have to say ‘it rains’, leaving the room for someone to ask ‘what is this ‘it’?’. The fire goes out: where has it ‘gone’? The Buddha from time to time had to show the absurdity of such questions. In such contexts you come across the nītattha.

  • For all practical purposes, the Buddha’s words are enough. But for those who do not practice, but who are armchair critics, there is so much contradiction in the Buddha’s words. Sometimes He says there is dukkha only, and sometimes He says you are suffering. This is also the reason why there is such a mess...

From Early Buddhist Teaching and Abhidhamma by ven. Tezaniya

  • neyyattha suttas are, for example: „O monk, there is one individual, there are two individuals, there are three individuals" etc.

  • nītattha sutta is „this is impermanent, this is sorrowful, this is soulless.“

From Wikipedia:

  • According to Vasumitra, the Bahuśrutīyas considered the Buddha's teachings of impermanence, suffering, emptiness, anātman, and Nirvāṇa to be supramundane, while his expositions on other subjects were to be considered mundane.

From Maha-cattarisaka Sutta:

"And what is right view? Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? 'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are contemplatives & brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.

"And what is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment, the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities [in terms of the four noble truths].

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This idea of indirect and direct sutras is itself misleading. I found a book, "Nāgārjuna and the Philosophy of Openness" which claims that the buddha himself never made exactly such a distinction but that such distinctions seem valid on the basis that the Buddha said that there were some words and phrases which he used without being led astray by them. But as far as I can tell these indirect and direct phrases are present consistently throughout all sutras. The diamond sutra for example, is full of direct meaning like there is really no object that is why it is called "object", but references "I" many times. At the beginning Thus I have heard, taken literally would contradict the later assertion that there is no I.

I think some people are reading too seriously, mostly the sutras are intended to be a helpful expedient to enlightenment.

Everything that is read whether it is from a sutra or not will be interpreted by the reader which will cast a different shadow on the meaning. It is often that the original intent of the author is lost to the readers especially after a lot of time has passed and the language has changed. So it is no surprise that the texts contain expedients that look like they are literal, which led to a schism where some people interpreted sections literally while others did not. And then people started categorising sections of text into direct and indirect or higher and lower.

I highly doubt that there really is a sutra "of indirect meaning" in that all of it is intended to be further analysed nor a sutra "of direct meaning".

  • The subject of that subsection of Wikipedia was "Early Indian Buddhism" i.e. the "Pali Canon", perhaps pre-dating Theravada. – ChrisW Sep 19 '15 at 18:49
  • I just thought of an example of an indirect sutta, the jatakas might well be completely devoid of any "direct" language. Sorry if my answer missed the point. I couldn't answer the last one, and I think that "indirect" and "direct" are subject to interpretation. – Sam Reeve Sep 19 '15 at 19:49
  • Sorry that my question wasn't clearer. I did just ask a different question about "two truths". In this question I was especially interested in learning what I might about (specifically) the Pali suttas. I've thought that a sutta like Simsapa Sutta implies the suttas are meant be as straightforward as possible; but if there are well-known exceptions to that, it could be better for me to know that, than to "represent a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning". – ChrisW Sep 19 '15 at 20:12
  • I thought they were all straightforward too, but I now understand that actually I was having to interpret some areas more than others. But IMHO it does not warrant labelling them direct and indirect. Certainly I wouldn't want anyone to take the statement "There is no x" literally lest they become nihilistic. – Sam Reeve Sep 19 '15 at 20:53
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The suttas appear to state there are no 'indirect meanings', as follows:

Monks, this Teaching that is so well proclaimed by me...is plain, open, explicit and free of patchwork...MN 22

~~~

I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back....DN 16

The matter of 'neyyattha' is touched upon in the following commentary:

The Awakened One, best of speakers, Spoke two kinds of truths: The conventional and the ultimate. A third truth does not obtain. Therein:

The speech wherewith the world converses is true, on account of its being agreed upon by the world. The speech which describes what is ultimate is also true, characterizing dhammas as they really are.

Therefore, being skilled in common usage, False speech does not arise in the Teacher, Who is Lord of the World, When he speaks according to conventions.

Mn. i. 95

In my opinion, the inferred "conventional truth" referred to above is not really a complete "truth" because, as stated, it is not "characterizing dhammas as they really are." Instead, it is a worldly interpretation that maintains the worldly (moral & kammic) efficacy or truth of those teachings.

Here, the 'neyyattha' appears to particularly refer to the 'rebirth' teachings. Ordinary people read words such as 'birth' ('jati'); 'death' ('marana'); 'worlds' ('loka') & 'kaya' ('body'; 'collection'; 'group') & immediately 'infer' a physical meaning (instead of examining how these words are actually defined & used in the supramundane suttas).

However, as stated, when ordinary people use 'neyyattha', the karmic efficacy or reality (truth) is retained, namely, it is correctly understood kamma (intentional action) made in the present has a future consequence or result. That ordinary people believe there will be consequences after the termination of life does not change the efficacy of those teachings because those teachings were given, not for the purpose of enlightenment, but for the purpose of nurturing non-harming, morality or 'merit' (as stated in MN 117).

And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? 'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the other worlds. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously born beings; there are contemplatives & brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the others after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.

MN 117

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