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As a follow-on from Dhammadhatu's answer here, if it's alright to ask this, do we know, how do we know that the suttas talk about "past lives"?

Here is a translation of the formula which Ahmed quoted from MN 36 and which also appears in MN 4:

Pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa

— Knowledge of the recollection of former living places —
[pubbe+nivāsa+anussati+ñāṇa]
This is the stock formula describing the first of the three vijjās attainable on the basis of the fourth jhāna, which consists in remembering one's past lives

So aneka·vihitaṃ pubbe·nivāsaṃ anussarati,
He recollects many former living places,

seyyathidaṃ: ekam·pi jātiṃ dve·pi jātiyo
that is to say: one birth, two births,

Translations of nivāsa

The buddha-vacana.org dictionary translates nivāsa as:

nivāsa: residence, dwelling, abode, place of residence (w. ref. to past lives)

The PTS dictionary translates it as:

Nivāsa [fr. nivasati2] stopping, dwelling, resting -- place, abode; living, sheltering J i.115 (˚ŋ kappeti to put up); ii.110; PvA 76, 78. Usually in phrase pubbe -- nivāsaŋ anussarati "to remember one's former abode or place of existence (in a former life)," characterising the faculty of remembering one's former birth

Translations of jāti

The buddha-vacana.org dictionary translates jāti as:

jāti: birth, i.e. the entire process from conception to parturition. Jāti is defined by the Buddha at SN 12.2. For some beings, the birth is not immediate and requires a maturation in the mother's body, as it is the case for humans and animals; for some other beings, the birth is immediate: those are called opapātiko.

Jāti is the eleventh link of paṭicca-samuppāda, conditioned by bhava and giving rise to jarā-maraṇa.

If I look at its translation of SN 12.2 it says,

And what, bhikkhus, is jāti? For the various beings in the various classes of beings, jāti, the birth, the descent [into the womb], the arising [in the world], the appearance, the apparition of the khandhas, the acquisition of the āyatanas. This, bhikkhus, is called jāti.

The PTS dictionary quotes the same passage from SN 12.2 as the definition of jāti. I note that sañjāti (translated as "birth" in that translation of SN 12.2) is alternatively translated as "origin" or "outcome".


Questions

Dhammadhatu's theory/answer was that "birth" meant "a time in the Buddha's life when he believed something to be 'him' or 'his'".

If I look at the Pali (beware that I'm not even a novice, let alone a scholar) I don't see anything to necessarily contradict that. So my questions are:

  • When people translate nivāsa why do they translate that as "former lives" instead of as, for example, "former living places" or "former homes", or maybe "former conditions" or something?

    For example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of MN 36 says,

    I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two, etc.

  • When people translate jāti why do they translate that as "birth" instead of as, "appearing", "coming into being", "consolidation", "becoming aware of the khandhas"?

Supplementary questions:

  • Is the Pali is more ambiguous, perhaps deliberately more ambiguous, than the English?

    There seems to be two views among Buddhists: one that Buddhist doctrine is literally about "previous lives", and the other that Buddhist doctrine is about a non-continuity of oneself within this/one life. Does the Pali support either or both these views; and does it require either or both these views, i.e. would it contradict the scripture to not subscribe to one of these views?

  • Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) within the Pali text?

  • Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) outside the text, e.g. is there a separate commentary where it's stated unambiguously? I guess it's part of the teacher-to-student lineage.

  • To the extent that there is ambiguity or uncertainty, is the ambiguity or uncertainty known and even accepted by scholars and monks? Or are 'they' sure that it's supposed to mean one or the other?


It's true to say, isn't it, that a belief in "rebirth" was a feature of the beliefs of non-Buddhists at the time. For example, Wikipedia says,

Reincarnation is the philosophical or religious concept that a living being can begin a new life in a different body after biological death. This is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The idea of reincarnation is found in many ancient cultures, and a belief in rebirth that was held by such historic figures as Pythagoras, Plato, and Socrates.

Is it possible that Buddhist doctrine is expressed in a way which doesn't contradict these beliefs (i.e. it would be understood as "not annihilationist" by an audience which already held that belief), yet also doesn't require such a belief?

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‘Past life’ would be translated in Pali as ‘pubbe-jīv(it)am’ and ’re-birth’ would be ‘punna-jāti’, but I have not found either of these terms in a digital search of the whole Pali Tipitaka. The Buddha could have easily used those terms, if that's the meaning he wanted to give. So, to me, translating words with those meanings, is only interpretation and I think one should be concerned with putting words into the Buddha's mouth that were not there - i.e. misrepresenting him will have vey negative consequence to both the interpreter and those who have faith in him. The passage about the first of the three vijjā includes the word 'birth', but not the word 'life'.

For me the important questions are: 1. ‘do we believe the Buddha’s teaching is FOR THIS VERY LIFE? If so, which of the two possibilities: past lives and past births, best help us live a truly happy life here and now? Even ‘past life/lives’ itself would seem to be against the idea of ‘this very life’. 2. I understand the qualities of the Dhamma: akāliko and ehipassiko as: timeless and verifiable. So, which of the two possibilities: past lives and past births, can be seen and tested immediately?

Now we could assume the Buddha used words such as 'birth' 'aging' and 'death' as the common person does, but I think that would be very dangerous. To me one of the main evidences that he did not, is that he often said "in this Dhamma-Vinaya, this means x'. Or for example the well-known quote: 'I call intention action' (misquoted/translated as 'I tell you, intention is action' which implies word and deed are NOT action).

That the Buddha did not use 'birth' the common way, or that he meant something quite different when he said it, seems evident to me from the story of a conversation between him and Monk Aṅgulimāla. See: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html.

When I read the story, I do not assume that the Buddha did not know who he was talking to, as the Buddha had personally converted Aṅgulimāla. So he knew that the monk had killed many people before conversion. I do not assume the Buddha was testing the monk either, but rather that the Buddha used 'birth' with a psychological meaning and he only had to change it to 'noble birth' because Aṅgulimāla did not yet understand the Buddha's usage of such terms.

For me it is only with understanding 'birth aging and death' in with psychological meanings (birth, aging and death of ego/the five CLINGING aggregates) that the two parts of the First Noble Truth can be understood together and that the whole of the Buddha's teaching (the Dhamma) is FOR THIS VERY LIFE, akāliko and ehipassiko: timeless and verifiable.

In the passage about the first of the three vijjā, I believe the Buddha spoke of recalling his past life and seeing numerous births (NOT lives) and these were births of ego (the five CLINGING aggregates). This happens each time we cling to one of the five aggregates, which then become the aggregates of CLINGING and suffering. The First Noble Truth summarises 'the five aggregates OF CLINING are suffering', NOT 'the five aggregates are suffering'. Most 'summaries' of the First Noble Truth are 'life is suffering' but that would be 'the five aggregates are suffering'. That leaves out the very important idea of CLINGING.

re: suttas explaining jāti as birth into the womb: I remember reading in a sutta, the Buddha called 'mother' 'craving' and 'father' 'ignorance',; so ‘womb’ could also be understood in such a way, that is, figuratively, not physically.

best wishes

  • Clinging to an aggregate takes the form of 'identity view' and involves the 'I am conceit'. Thus, we tend to think and say: I am fat (not my body/form is fat); I am hot (not I feel hot); I am Buddhist (not I believe the Buddha is fully enlightened); I am angry (not I feel angry); I am one with the universe (not I perceive unlimited space). – dhamma-daasa Feb 20 '17 at 2:17
  • Hello Dhamma-Daasa. I have started a study thread about language & 'rebirth' at buddhismwithoutboundaries.com/… . Maybe you would like to join in & contribute. Regards – Dhammadhatu Feb 20 '17 at 12:37
  • Hello Dhammadhatu. Thanks for the invite, but I do not want to join more internet discussion groups. Your study of the words seems quite good and I would agree with you conclusions. I just don't translate 'attaa' as self and 'anattaa' as not-self or non-self any more. The Buddha could easily have used the term an-aham for not self. It seems to me, the Buddha was focussing on the impermanent aspect and self can be believed in as impermanent as the atheists and possibly agnositcs do. Soul on the other hand cannot be believed in as impermanent as that would go against the essential meaning of it. – dhamma-daasa Feb 24 '17 at 13:03
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Before coming to the subject proper – rebirth – let me give you an introductory note on the first couple of links to rebirth (rebirth is part of the continuous process of change.)

According to the Scriptures, tanha is craving. It is the chief root of suffering and of ever continuing cycle of rebirths. Dependant on tanha arises upadana (tanha paccaya upadanam). Upadana is a three-dimensional term which represent attachment, clinging and grasping. If one does not grasp things as one’s own and eradicate “I” concept (upadana) completely, one can achieve liberation.

The Buddha presented and explained the teaching of Paticcasamuppada (Dependent origination ) in the Maha Nidana Sutta (The Great Causes Discourse) of the Digha Nikaya (DN15). It is a deep and complex doctrine. By not understanding, and not penetrating this doctrine beings have become entangled like in a knotted ball of thread, unable to pass beyond the woeful states of existence, and Samsara, the cycle of existence.

We should realize that according to the Paticcasamuppada (Dependent origination ), “dependent on becoming arises birth” (bhava paccaya jati). That is kamma-process, or actions and the kamma-resultant rebirth process is the condition of the birth. In this way life continues from one existence to another.

Of the many numerous suttas that talk about past lives, the way life continues from one existence to another, the most intriguing examples are given in fifteen suttas that are found in the Anamataggasamyutta (Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning). You may not find it on internet. The best translation of it is THE CONNECTED DISCOURSES OF THE BUDDHA - A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (pages 651 – 661). In one of the 15 suttas Buddha confirms rebirth and that every creature has been reborn so many times that all are related to each other, every creature was either mother, father, brother, sister , son or daughter in past.

A short description of it given in:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/

  1. Anamatagga-samyutta — The unimaginable beginnings of samsara

• SN 15.3: Assu Sutta — Tears {S ii 179; CDB i 652} [Thanissaro]. "Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating and wandering this long, long time... or the water in the four great oceans?"

• SN 15.9: Danda Sutta — The Stick {S ii 184; CDB i 656} [Thanissaro]. We bounce from one birth to the next, as a thrown stick bounces along the ground.

• SN 15.11: Duggata Sutta — Fallen on Hard Times {S ii 186; CDB i 657} [Thanissaro]. When you encounter an unfortunate person, remember: you've been there, too.

• SN 15.12: Sukhita Sutta — Happy {S ii 186; CDB i 658} [Thanissaro]. When you encounter a fortunate person, remember: you've been there, too.

• SN 15.13: Timsa Sutta — Thirty {S ii 187; CDB i 658} [Thanissaro]. Which is greater, the blood you have shed in your long journey in samsara, or the water in the four great oceans?

• SN 15.14-19: Mata Sutta — Mother {S ii 189; CDB i 659} [Thanissaro]. It's hard to meet someone who has not been, at some time in the distant past, your mother, father, son, daughter, sister, or brother.

  • The Buddha obviously did not speak DN15, since it contradicts the other suttas on dependent origination. Also, the translations & your interpretations of the Anamatagga-samyutta may not be accurate since the Anamatagga-samyutta is making you PASSIONATE about rebirth where as the intention of the Anamatagga-samyutta is the make the mind DISPASSIONATE. Also, it is a Dhamma principle to only accept what can be VERIFIED and your personal opinions cannot be verified. If you are interested in enlightenment, follow my posts. If you have craving for rebirth, follow yours. – Dhammadhatu Jun 16 '16 at 2:37
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    I do not get into arguments @Dhammadhatu, when it come to Dhamma. No two people see the Dhamma the same way. The advice that I live by is "Listening to what other people say, looking things up in the texts, can't resolve your doubts. You have to put effort into the practice to give rise to clear insight knowledge. That's when doubt will be totally resolved on its own." with metta.. – Saptha Visuddhi Jun 16 '16 at 3:03
  • What you have said cannot be "seen" nor can it resolve "doubts" nor can it be the object of "insight". It is not possible to follow your advice. All the best. – Dhammadhatu Jun 16 '16 at 3:35
  • Dhammadhatu are you an annihilationist? Rebirth and other realms are real. You can't deny them if you have never reached the fourth jhana and see it. Furthermore, we need faith or conviction in the Buddha not on outsiders like scientists. – TheDBSGuy Nov 14 '18 at 18:58
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Three other translations of SN 12.2 are below:

And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, & acquisition of [sense] media of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth. Thanisssaro

~~

What is birth? It is being born, arising, coming to be among the various groups of sentient beings, the appearance of the various aggregates, the arising of a particular sense door. This is birth. Birth conditions the arising of old age and death. Buddhadasa

~~~

The birth of the various beings into the various orders of beings....etc..Bodhi

Each of the translations above emphasises the birth of a 'being' or 'beings' ('satta').

In the suttas, a 'being' ('satta') is not a biological organism. A 'being' is a state of 'attachment', a 'child's play thing', a 'view', a 'convention', a 'verbal designation' & a 'social & self identity'. The suttas state Mara believes a 'being' arises from parturition. To quote:

‘A being,’ lord. ‘A being,’ it’s said. To what extent is one said to be ‘a being’? Any desire, passion, delight or craving for form, feeling, perception, mental formations &/or consciousness Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being....Just as when boys or girls are playing with little sand castles...you too should smash, scatter & demolish...and make it unfit for play. SN 23.2

~~~

Why now do you assume ‘a being’? Mara, have you grasped a view? This is a heap of sheer constructions: Here no being is found. Just as, with an assemblage of parts, the word ‘chariot’ is used, so, when the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a being.’ SN 5.10

~~~

In human bodies in themselves, nothing distinctive can be found. Distinction among human beings is purely verbal designation….For name & clan are assigned, originating in conventions…Whoever makes his living among men by agriculture is called a ‘farmer’…Whoever makes his living among men by merchandise is called a ‘merchant’…that is how the wise truly see…seers of dependent origination. MN 98

~~~

Angulimala, say to that woman: “Sister, since I was born with a noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life”. MN 86

~~~

Wikipedia: Jāti (in Devanagari: जाति, Telugu:జాతి, Kannada:ಜಾತಿ, Malayalam: ജാതി, Tamil:ஜாதி, literally “birth”) is a group of clans, tribes, communities and sub-communities and religions in India. Each jāti typically has an association with a traditional job function or tribe.

~~~

There is the case where an uninstructed person assumes form, feeling, perception, mental formations &/or consciousness to be a ‘self’. That assumption is a mental formation. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That mental formation of ‘self’ is born from that. And that mental formation is impermanent, fabricated, dependently arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That ignorance is impermanent, fabricated, dependently arisen. SN 22.81

  • This is a neat answer. I see in this translation that okkanti and nibbatti too have alternative translations (so they don't necessarily help to disambiguate). In this answer you're saying that even if jati does mean "born" it's explained as "born as a being" rather than "born as a baby" (and there is a lot of scripture explaining a 'being'). – ChrisW Jun 16 '16 at 4:50
  • When you wrote, "it is only Mara that believes a 'being' arises from parturition", which sutta[s] were you referring to? – ChrisW Jun 16 '16 at 4:51
  • SN 5.10 has Mara. – Dhammadhatu Jun 16 '16 at 5:58
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    'Okkanti ' is used in the SN (Okkanta-samyutta) for 'entry', as in 'stream-entry', which is something mental. I think one can only guess what it means in the definition of 'jati'. – Dhammadhatu Jun 16 '16 at 6:00
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    The 1600 year old Visuddhimagga contains 7 meanings of 'jati': Now, this word birth (játi) has many meanings. For in the passage “[He recollects … ] one birth (játi), two births” (D I 81) it is becoming.... monastic order....whatever is formed....(Vin I 93) it is rebirth-linking...(M III 123) it is parturition.... (A III 152) it is clan.... (M II 103) it is the Noble One’s virtue. – Dhammadhatu Jun 16 '16 at 6:03
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Knowledge of the recollection of former living places [pubbe+nivāsa+anussati+ñāṇa]

The word 'nivāsa' is interesting because it is very similar to the word 'nivesa', which is found in this stock phrase as something mental:

And how does one not live at home? Any desire, passion, delight, craving, any attachments, clingings, fixations of mind ['adherences': nivesa], biases or obsessions with regard to the property of form: these the Tathagata has abandoned, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Therefore the Tathagata is said to be not dwelling at home. Haliddakani Sutta

~~~

By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of mind ['adherences': nivesa], biases or obsessions; nor is he resolved on 'my self.' He has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his knowledge is independent of others. It's to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view. Kaccayanagotta Sutta

Note: the word 'home' above is not 'nivāsa' but its metaphor is very interesting, just like when the Buddha referred to the 'House-Builder' in his 1st words.

Note: I do not know the difference between nivāsa & nivesa however based on the PTS, there is no difference:

Nivesa [Vedic niveśa, fr. ni+viś] 1. entering, stopping, settling down; house, abode Vv 82 (=nivesanāni kacchantarāni VvA 50). -- 2.=nivesana 2, in diṭṭhi˚ Sn 785 (=idaŋ -- sacchâbhinivesa -- sankhātāni diṭṭhi -- nivesanāni SnA 522).

Abhinivesa [abhi + nivesa, see nivesa2 & cp. nivesana] "settling in", i. e. wishing for, tendency towards ( -- ˚), inclination, adherence; as adj. liking, loving, being given or inclined to D iii.230; M i.136, 251; S ii.17; iii.10, 13, 135, 161, 186 (saŋyojana˚ iv.50; A iii.363 (paṭhavī˚, adj.); Nd2 227 (gāha parāmasa +); Pug 22; Vbh 145; Dhs 381, 1003, 1099; Nett 28; PvA 252 (micchā˚), 267 (taṇhā˚); Sdhp 71. -- Often combd. with adhiṭṭhāna e. g. S ii.17; Nd2 176, and in phrase idaŋ -- saccɔ âbhinivesa adherence to one's dogmas, as one of the 4 Ties: see kāyagantha and cp. Cpd. 171 n. 5.

In the Khajjaniya Sutta, it is unambiguous that what is recollected in pubbe+nivāsa+anussati+ñāṇa is not a 'self' but merely the five aggregates formerly mistaken to be 'myself'.

At Savatthi. "Monks, any brahmans or contemplatives who recollect their manifold past lives all recollect the five clinging-aggregates, or one among them. Which five? When recollecting, 'I was one with such a form in the past,' one is recollecting just form. Or when recollecting, 'I was one with such a feeling in the past,' one is recollecting just feeling. Or when recollecting, 'I was one with such a perception in the past,' one is recollecting just perception. Or when recollecting, 'I was one with such mental fabrications in the past,' one is recollecting just mental fabrications. Or when recollecting, 'I was one with such a consciousness in the past,' one is recollecting just consciousness. ...is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: 'This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.' This, monks, is called a disciple of the noble ones who tears down and does not build up; who abandons and does not cling; who discards and does not pull in; who scatters and does not pile up.

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Questions asked:

When people translate jāti why do they translate that as "birth" instead of as, "appearing", "coming into being", "consolidation", "becoming aware of the khandhas"?

Generally, ancient languages first began describing physical things, then moved on to mental things & borrowed words from the physical.

In India, historically, the word 'jati' generally means 'caste'. The word 'birth' meaning 'social-identity' or 'social-status' does not only occur in India. For example, definition of 'noble born' in English: 'Belonging by birth to the aristocracy'. While 'birth' here means physically born into nobility, it also has a social class connotation.

The same as the word 'house'. In my parents Middle-Eastern culture, your family is called 'house'. When people know your name, they say 'House of XXXX", just as in England, they refer to the 'House of Windsor'.

Thus in The Parable of the Great Ocean, the Buddha states: "Just as the great rivers lose their names when they flow into the great ocean, so do those of the various castes lose their names when the enter into the Sangha".

Is the Pali is more ambiguous, perhaps deliberately more ambiguous, than the English?

Imo, no one knows Pali exactly. There are myriad words in the PTS dictionary that get translated with the same meaning. I guess understanding of the subtleties has been lost.

The translators are sometimes like a line of 'blind men'.

There seems to be two views among Buddhists: one that Buddhist doctrine is literally about "previous lives", and the other that Buddhist doctrine is about a non-continuity of oneself within this/one life. Does the Pali support either or both these views; and does it require either or both these views, i.e. would it contradict the scripture to not subscribe to one of these views?

If we ignore the dozen or so suttas (from 1000s) about literal reincarnation, the language of the Pali can give to two different views because words used in the teachings, such as kaya ('body'; 'collection'), birth (jati) & death (marana) have dual meanings, i.e., a physical meaning & a mental meaning. Thus we can only do our best to investigate the suttas because most words are officially defined in the suttas (such as 'jati').

Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) within the Pali text? Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) outside the text, e.g. is there a separate commentary where it's stated unambiguously? I guess it's part of the teacher-to-student lineage.

Definitely not. MN 22 and DN 16 are explicitly clear that the Dhamma taught by the Buddha is open, straightforward, free from patchwork, with nothing hidden or secret. It is simply a matter of understanding the Pali words used.

To the extent that there is ambiguity or uncertainty, is the ambiguity or uncertainty known and even accepted by scholars and monks? Or are 'they' sure that it's supposed to mean one or the other?

There is no ambiguity or uncertainty because this is against the essence of the teachings. All that is exists is either genuine different interpretations of the teachings or, otherwise, ulterior agendas.

It appears quite obvious, particularly under King Ashoka, that as efforts were made to increase the social popularity of Buddhism, suttas were introduced (particularly the DN; Jataka Tales, a few in the MN & AN) to expand the scope of the teachings.

Mahayana is a perfect example. Mahayana literally took various Hindu deities and transformed them into Mahayana Bodhisatva (such as Tara, Jambhala, etc).

Is it possible that Buddhist doctrine is expressed in a way which doesn't contradict these beliefs (i.e. it would be understood as "not annihilationist" by an audience which already held that belief), yet also doesn't require such a belief?

It is quite obvious to me that the teaching of Dependent Origination was hijacked & doctored to form the basis of a Buddhist reincarnation doctrine because terms such as "kamma-formations" & "re-linking consciousness" are not found in the suttas. The three-lifetimes version of Dependent Origination simply makes little sense plus it contradicts suttas such as MN 38, which state birth & death arise or cease while "the eye sees a form, ear hears a sound, etc".

The suttas show the Buddha generally did not teach higher dhamma (such as the 4 noble truths, dependent origination, not-self) to lay people. Howevever, over time, as lay people became more aware of the teachings, it is obvious many of the main teachings were doctored so fulfil the wants of those lay people who were not interested in Nibbana but had faith in the goodness of Buddhism.

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