In the Dhammapada, within the Buddhavagga section, the Buddha is described as being trackless.

By what track can you trace that trackless Buddha of limitless range, whose victory nothing can undo, whom none of the vanquished defilements can ever pursue?

By what track can you trace that trackless Buddha of limitless range, in whom exists no longer, the entangling and embroiling craving that perpetuates becoming?

I find the notion of the Buddha being trackless very evocative. But at the same time I'm not sure exactly what it points to. Can someone help me unpack that a little. What qualities of the Buddha does trackless point to?

  • I've updated my answer to this question - and referenced the essay I published this morning on the source of the epithet "trackless". – Jayarava Sep 4 '15 at 9:59
up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is actually a mistranslation of the verse; Buddhist Legends by Burlingame is a bit better:

The Buddha, unlimited in power, the trackless.
By what track can you lead him?

In order to understand this verse, it might help to see the context; the Buddha is using poetry and imagery. Here's the Pali leading up to the verses in the commentary (it's about Mara's daughters):

puna māradhītaro “uccāvacā kho purisānaṃ adhippāyā, kesañci kumārikāsu pemaṃ hoti, kesañci paṭhamavaye ṭhitāsu, kesañci majjhimavaye ṭhitāsu, kesañci pacchimavaye ṭhitāsu, nānappakārehi taṃ palobhessāmā”ti ekekā kumārikavaṇṇādivasena sataṃ sataṃ attabhāve abhinimminitvā kumāriyo, avijātā, sakiṃ vijātā, duvijātā, majjhimitthiyo, mahallakitthiyo ca hutvā chakkhattuṃ bhagavantaṃ upasaṅkamitvā “pāde te, samaṇa, paricāremā”ti āhaṃsu.

tampi bhagavā na manasākāsi yathā taṃ anuttare upadhisaṅkhaye vimuttoti. atha satthā ettakenapi tā anugacchantiyo “apetha, kiṃ disvā evaṃ vāyamatha, evarūpaṃ nāma vītarāgānaṃ purato kātuṃ na vaṭṭati. tathāgatassa pana rāgādayo pahīnā. kena taṃ kāraṇena attano vasaṃ nessathā”ti vatvā imā gāthā abhāsi —

Burlingame translates this as follows:

Said the daughters of Māra again, “Many and various are the tastes of men. Some like maidens, others like women in the prime of life, others like women who have reached middle life, while still others like women who have passed middle life. We will tempt him in various forms.” So one after another, they assumed the forms of women of various ages, creating by supernatural power each a hundred female forms. And in the guise of maidens, women who had not yet given birth to a child, women who had given birth to one child, women who had given birth to two children, women who had reached middle life, and women who had reached old age, they approached the Exalted One six times and said to him, “Monk, we would be your humble slaves.”

But neither did the Exalted One pay any attention to that, but remained free, even as though the elements of being had been utterly destroyed. [197] But when, after that, they did not retire, the Teacher said to them, “Depart; what do you see, that you strive thus? Such actions as these should be performed before those who have not rid themselves of the lusts and other evil passions. The Tathāgata, however, has rid himself of the lusts and other evil passions. Why will ye try to bring me into your control?” So saying, he pronounced the following Stanzas,

The Buddha's answer in the verses includes the following statement:

taṃ buddhamanantagocaraṃ,
apadaṃ kena padena nessatha.

The actual literal translation is:

That Buddha whose pasture is limitless;
pathless, by which path will you lead?

The line is in regards to the imagery of a creature not limited by fences, thus with unlimited gocara (lit. pasture). Such a creature cannot be led anywhere, since it is not possible to contain them.

So, the mistranslations are as follows:

gocara should be "pasture", not "range" (it loses the imagery, if nothing else) and certainly not "power"

nessatha should be "lead", not "trace"

So, what is the actual meaning?

The commentary says:

kena padenāti yassa hi rāgapadādīsu ekapadampi atthi, taṃ tumhe tena padena nessatha. buddhassa pana ekapadampi natthi, taṃ apadaṃ buddhaṃ tumhe kena padena nessatha.

By what path - whereas those for whom there is even one path out of [all path] starting with the path of lust, them you may lead by that path. But for the Buddha there is not even one path; that pathless Buddha - by what path will you lead?

The meaning is clear; while it is possible to lead ordinary worldlings on by means of the carrot or the stick of defilements, there is no leading on of enlightened beings who have no such defilements.

A creature with a defined pasture can be led because of fences and ropes. A creature with a limitless pasture (like the Buddha) cannot be so led. The idea is then of not being drawn by defilements and thus with no definable path that mara can limit or goad one down.

Ultimately, it's just poetry (ancient poetry at that), and should not be taken literally. A proper understanding of the use of the word pada might require a knowledge of Maghadese colloquialisms 2500 years ago.

  • That's a tremendous answer. Thank you. Can i ask - what is the commentary that you are talking about. Is there one canonical commentary for the dhammapada or is it one in particular? – Crab Bucket Jul 8 '14 at 18:15
  • @CrabBucket The Dhammapada has one official Pali commentary, the Dhammapada Atthakatha. It and the vast majority of official Pali commentaries were written by the Sri Lankan monk Buddhagosa in the 5th century. See A Field Guide to Post Canonical Pali Literature. – InvalidBrainException Jul 8 '14 at 21:05
  • ^^ the Buddhist Legends translation doesn't actually contain the word commentaries, just the stories. – yuttadhammo Jul 8 '14 at 21:40
  • Oh, I made a big mistake in my answer - I confused pada with pāda :P There isn't likely the wordplay I suggested. Answer edited. – yuttadhammo Jul 8 '14 at 21:45

What qualities of the Buddha does trackless point to?

The answer to this question seems to require extrapolation, so here goes my take on it.

I would say that, as the second verse mentions, the quality is the absence of craving. The full absence of craving implies the absence of the conceit "I am". With this in mind, if the Buddha himself doesn't identify with anything ("I am this, that, better, worse, equal, etc."), how can one find him? One can't, hence he is trackless. If something isn't there, then it's impossible to find it or it's tracks.

In this case apada ("stationless") means the same thing as animitta ("groundless", "unconditioned", "motiveless") and aniketa ("homeless"). This refers to what some modern practitioners like your faithful call "losing the form".

What it means exactly is that Buddha has no footing in any single standpoint or position. So you can't pinpoint Buddha and Buddha's realization, nor can Buddha ever get stuck. This is because anuttara-samyak-sambodhi involves going beyond the belief in silver bullet.

Trackless is a translation of apada. It's an adjective for the Buddha, but literally means "foot, foot-print" and thus a "sign" or "word" and by association "a path or track". A verse like Dhp 179 is said to consist of four feet (catu padāni) which is to say four measures of 9 or 11 syllables in a particular rhythmic pattern - I label the four a,b,c, & d.

The verbs used with it here are from the root √ which does mean "lead" but also "take away".

However in verse 180 we see the following

yassa jālinī visattikā taṇhā n'atthi kuhiñci netave |180ab|
He has no lust, clinging, or craving to take [him] anywhere.


jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke |179b|
"his victory does not go anywhere in the world"

And the verses ask:

kena padena nessatha? |179d = 180d|
By what pada could he be taken?

The upshot is that taken together the verses seem to equate pada with craving for sense experience. An the Buddha is someone who does not have craving so he is apada. Craving is the agent that does the leading or taking away. The agent is not the path itself, though of course we have the English idiom of a path "leading" somewhere.

In these two verses, pada refers to the presence and apada to the absence of craving for sense experience. The Buddha is characterised by a lack of craving, he is apada.

And thus "trackless" as a translation obscures the connection between pada and craving. It's a rather obscure metaphor, but when the two verses are taken together it's clear enough what it means.

Update 4 Sept. I've now completed and published the essay I was working on for my blog when I wrote this answer. The Trackless One?

In this essay I show that "trackless" is probably not the correct translation of apada in this context. I establish this by examining every occurrence of the word in the Pāḷi suttas. It is used in precisely three contexts:

This is a very difficult idiom to understand. The idea that it is explained by "tracks" or "leaving tracks" seems a bit far-fetched. There are three apparently unrelated uses:

  1. When an animal has no feet, it is apada.
  2. When the Buddha is without craving he is apada.
  3. When Māra is without sight, blinded, he is also apada.

I think all three are in fact connected by an obscure metaphor which relies not on the "track" sense of pada, but on "foot". The arising of craving is what propels people towards the object of desire. If craving is the "foot" that propels people around, then the Buddha is "footless".

So I suggest the following reading:

The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless?

I think this is a superior reading. It nicely exploits the ambiguity of pada in a play on words. We get something of the flavour of it by using "footpath" to juxtapose with "footless".

Yuttadhammo's explanation of this text, though extensive and highly rated, is wrong on many counts. He has not understood the metaphors at work in this text, nor clocked the word play involved.

  • I hope you don't mind, but I replaced some of your answer with a direct/block quote from the article you referenced (I thought this part of the article which I quoted explained the import of apada more clearly, for example without mentioning a snake). Please feel free to roll back (or improve on) this edit if you think it made the answer less clear. – ChrisW Sep 4 '15 at 17:17

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