04 September 2015

The Trackless One?

In two well known verses from the Buddhavaggo of the Dhammapada, the Buddha is referred to as apada. Many translations read apada "the trackless one". The great philologist of Middle-Indic, K. R. Norman, translates "leaving no track, by what track will you lead him?" The translation of these verses has long puzzled me. Why would one who "leaves no track" be difficult (or impossible) to lead somewhere? And isn't the image messed up? A track can lead somewhere, but do we lead someone by a track? What about the translation "trackless". What could this possibly mean? So when someone wrote to me recently with a question about these verses, I spent some time working on the verses and I think I came to a better understanding of apada. The two verses in Pāḷi read:
yassa jitaṃ nāvajīyati jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
yassa jālinī visattikā taṇhā n'atthi kuhiñci netave
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |180|
The key word is pada. It is a tricky word with many meanings. It literally means "foot" and comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ped- "foot". Some cognates, all meaning "foot" include Greek pod; Latin ped; Proto-Germanic *fot; and English foot. In Pāli, living creatures are characterised as sattā apadā vā dvipadā vā catuppadā vā bahuppadā  "beings with no feet, with two feet, with four feet or with many feet" or "footless, bipeds, quadrupeds, and creepy-crawlies" (SN v.41, AN ii.34).

In Sanskrit and Pāḷi pada can, by association, also mean "footprint". For example, in the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta (MN 27) an elephant's footprint (hatthipada) is used a metaphor for the experience of the stages of liberation - a tathāgatapada "a footprint of the Tathāgata" or a sign by which one can know the Tathāgata. The other types of sign that elephants leave help to fill out the image: uccā nisevita "a high-up scratching place" and dantehi ārañjitāni "furrows made by tusks". In the simile of the text one must see the foot that made the footprints, in order to fully comprehend the elephant.

Abstractly, the image of the footprint as a sign of the passing animal can become "a sign" more generally. This led to the sense of pada as a "word" (a linguistic sign). Sometimes pada can mean "a track" as in a series of footprints left behind by an animal's feet or the track created by many passing feet. Metaphorically, a verse has "feet" of a fixed number of syllables: siloka meter has four feet of eight syllables, for example. So when we see this word pada in a text, we always have to pause to carefully consider what sense is intended. Ironically, one of the more difficult words to translate is dhammapada. Partly because pada here is singular and the text is an anthology of verses. Does pada here mean, 'foot', 'sign', 'word', or 'track'? 

The majority of translators have opted to translate pada/apada in these Dhammapada verses with some variation on "track" and "trackless". One leaves a track as one goes. One follows a track; one follows where the track leads. The verb in these verse is √nī 'lead'. We have the English idiom of a track "leading somewhere". So "track/trackless" may fit the context. However, why would one who leaves no track be difficult to lead? What is the logic of this image? By taking the two verses together I first argue that pada must mean something like "sign" here, because it is strongly implied by the verses. However, as I dig deeper into the word apada and how it is used, I uncover another more fundamental metaphor which seems to inform the passage. 


yassa jitaṃ nāvajīyati |179a|
What he has won cannot be lost
Jita is the past tense of jayati 'he wins, he conquers' < √. It can mean that which was conquered (yad jitaṃ), or "it was conquered by him" (tena jitaṃ), the "one who has conquered" (jito), or simply "a victory". It's combined here with avajīyati, the passive of ava√jī, 'diminished, lost, undone.' So the sense of the sentence is that what has been won by him cannot be lost. His transformation cannot be undone. His victory cannot be diminished

jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke |179b|
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world
Metrically jitaṃ seems to belong with 179a, but semantically it is part of this sentence (179b). Word order is much less important in Pāḷi, especially in verse, so yassa jitaṃ or jitaṃ yassa both mean the same thing: "his victory, what he has won". And it "does not go (no yāti) anywhere (koci) in the world (loke)." This sentence is a bit esoteric. But consider it in the light of the Rohitassa Sutta (S 2.26, PTS S i.61; also A 4.45, PTS A ii.47), in which the eponymous young deva asks the Buddha:
yatha nu kho bhante na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, sakkā nu kho so, bhante, gamanena lokassa anto ñātuṃ vā daṭṭhum vā pāpuṇituṃ vā ti?
Is there a way to know, or see, or to reach, the end of the world – where there is no birth, no ageing, no death; no dying and being reborn – by travelling?
The answer is that one cannot reach the goal by physically travelling. He also says:
na kho panāhaṃ, āvuso, appatvā lokassa antaṃ dukkhassa antakiriyaṃ vadāmi. Api ca khvāhaṃ, āvuso, imasmiṃyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññapemi lokasamudayañca lokanirodhañca lokanirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti. (S i.62)
However, friend, I say there is no making an end of disappointment, without reaching the end of the world. And, friend, it is right here in this arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.
These passages help to define what we mean by 'the world'. As Bodhi says, 
"The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience" (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182).
So "the world" referred to in the verse is most likely the world of experience, the world contained in the body endowed with mental faculties, the end of which can be reached without travelling. And perhaps this is why the tathāgata's victory does not go anywhere in the world?

taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ |179c|
Awakened, with limitless perception, signless
Anantagocaram is also a compound meaning one whose sphere or field of sense perception (gocara - literally 'pasture' or the 'range of a cow') is without ends (an-anta). Compare Dhp 22 where the ones who enjoy sobriety with respect to the senses (appamāde pamodanti) are ariyānaṃ gocare ratā "those who delight in the range of the nobles (i.e., the enlightened)." 
We've already introduced the words pada and apada, and until we have translated 180 we just need to say that apadaṃ is something predicated of the Buddha. Metrically apadam is part of 179d, but syntactically goes with buddhaṃ.

kena padena nessatha? |179d|
By what sign will you lead him?
The verb is neti 'to lead', from √. The form nessatha is the second person plural future tense, "you (plural) will lead". The future can also be used to convey a hypothetical proposition. However, while 'lead' is the primary meaning and goes well with pada as "track", we need to consider that √has a range of other meanings. It can also mean 'takes, takes away, especially to take away in marriage, carries off.' In Sanskrit the verb can also mean 'to bring to subjection, subdue.' So we must consider that the sentence could read: "By what pada could you take him away?" or "By what pada could you subdue him?" And in each case "you" plural. 
We'll take 180a and b together, and 180cd is the same as 179cd.

yassa jālinī visattikā taṇhā n'atthi kuhiñci netave |180ab|
He has no lust, clinging, or craving to lead [him] anywhere.
Now the verb here is also from √., here a rare form of the infinitive 'to lead'. Although the sentence is phrased in the negative (n'atthi "there is not") let's first consider it in the positive. If we ignore the negative particle na for a minute the sentence would say that he is led by desire for sense experience, i.e., lust (jālinī), clinging (visattikā) or craving (taṇhā). Such a person would be padaṃ, which must mean they are characterised by a sign. And that sign is craving itself. By contrast, the Buddha is apadaṃ and thus he has no craving to lead him anywhere. Padaṃ and craving play the same role in the sentence. Ergo, what this verse means by padaṃ is craving. It's a little odd, but not as odd as the standard translations. 

Our finished translation is:
What he has won cannot be lost,
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world.
That awakened one, with limitless perception, who is himself signless,
By what sign will you lead him? (179) 
He has no lust, clinging, or craving,
To lead him anywhere.
That awakened one, with limitless perception, who is himself signless,
By what sign will you lead him? (180)


As already mentioned, apada is used in it's most obvious sense of "without a foot" in many places. Snakes are the most obvious example of apada. The form apadaṃ only occurs in a very few suttas. For example in the Nivāpa Sutta (MN 25) we find out that a bhikkhu in the state of first jhāna cannot be followed by Māra or his retinue. I'm going to give Ñānamoḷi & Bodhi's (Ñ&B) translation to begin with.
Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, bhikkhu andhamakāsi māraṃ, apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ adassanaṃ gato pāpimato. (MN i.159)
This bhikkhu is said to have blindfold Māra, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Māra's eye of its opportunity. (Ñ&B 2001: 250-1)
The passage is repeated at AN iv.434. Now, on face value this translation is incomprehensible, because there is no word that means "opportunity". "To have become invisible to the Evil One" must translate adassanaṃ gato pāpimato.  So, "by depriving Māra's eye of its opportunity" therefore translates apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ. Mara's eye is māracakkhuṃ; vadhitvā is a gerund meaning 'having stuck, having killed' which must therefore correspond to Ñ&B's "depriving" (translating gerunds as English present participles is fine). So here apadaṃ must correspond to "of its opportunity", though it's not clear how this could work.

In these cases we usually suspect that the translators have bowed to Buddhaghosa, so the next step in following this thread is to look at the commentary. The corresponding passage in the Papañcasūdani is:
"Apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhun" ti teneva pariyāyena yathā mārassa cakkhu apadaṃ hoti nippadaṃ, appatiṭṭhaṃ, nirārammaṇaṃ, evaṃ vadhitvāti attho.  (MA 2.163)
Apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhun is a way of saying (pariyāya) that the eye of Māra is without a sign, signless, unsupported, without any basis, this is what "destroying" means.
Having pondered this for a time, I don't think it makes any more sense than the sutta passage it is commenting on. The commentary on AN iv.434 (AA 4.201) is shorter but similar:
"Apadaṃ vadhitvā"ti nippadaṃ niravasesaṃ vadhitvā.
Apadaṃ vadhitvā [means] having destroyed [Māra's eyes] completely, signlessly.  (Bodhi 2012: 1832, n.1940)
In his comparative study of the Majjhima Nikāya and Madhyamāgama, Anālayo (2011) notes another similar passage in AN 9.39. Here a monk who has attained the 8 vimokkhas (the four rūpa jhānas and four arupa āyatanas) is:
antamakāsi māraṃ, apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ, adassanaṃ  gato pāpimato
One who has blinded Māra, put out Māra's eyes without a trace, and gone beyond the sight of the Evil One. (Bodhi 2012: 1306)
Where antamakasi is almost certainly meant to be andhamakāsi "blinded" and is translated accordingly (cf. Bodhi 2012: 1831, n.1939). So, in fact, the Ñ&B translation is not based on the commentary this time, and Bodhi has opted for a completely different translation in his solo work (which is quite unusual). Here Bodhi translates apadaṃ as "without a trace" which implies completeness. I'm not convinced that this is a possible connotation of apada, however. It seems more likely that having destroyed Māra's eye, he becomes apada; he cannot see a sign.

It's quite unusual for the patient of the gerund to come after the gerund in prose. The two phrases apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ and adassanaṃ gato pāpimato both have 10 syllables so may have originally come from verse, though I cannot locate this verse. 

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 as 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". Remember also that in Dhp 179b jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke "What he has won does not go anywhere in the world." It does not go anywhere (no yāti koci) because it cannot go, because the Buddha's victory (jita) has deprived it of propulsion, in this metaphor it is now apada or footless. MN 25 asks Kathañca, bhikkhave, agati mārassa ca māraparisāya ca? "Where is it that Māra and his retinue are unable to go?" Māra cannot go where he cannot see. By blinding him we render him "footless", and cannot go anywhere.

With this in mind, we can also reconsider the translation of 179c in which the Buddha is described as anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ. I followed the herd here in translating anantagocara as 'limitless perception', but I noted that gocara literally means  'range of a cow' from cara 'walking' and go 'cow'. But what's interesting here is the juxtaposition of the 'range of a cow' being limitless and a being who is footless. When Māra is footless he cannot go anywhere. When the Buddha is footless he can go anywhere. Māra represents the world "out there", the Buddha represents the world "in here", in this arm-span length of body. Being footless in the physical world is crippling. Being footless in the sense of without craving to propel us into motion opens up the "inner" world completely. Mental "feet" like craving and hatred tend to propel us away from present experience, to lead us outwards towards the object of desire, or away from the object of aversion. Cut off those feet and we stay immersed in experience.

We can also point to another reading of 179cd/180cd
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
I suggested above that apadaṃ should be read as part of pada c. But. in fact. we could read it as part of pada d.
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
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".


Having worked through the translation, we are now in a position to deal with the question of what a "trackless one" is. He is, shall we say, a misunderstanding. However, K. R. Norman is not easily mislead, so why does "trackless one" seem like a good translations here? Pada is a complex word and often difficult to translate. There isn't really a wholly satisfactory translation of "dhammapada."  When presented with an image using pada we tend to think of the figurative uses. We are so used to taking it abstractly or figuratively that we only translate pada as "foot" only when the situation demands it. I think the combination of the word pada and the verb √ are quite persuasive. We have a combination of tracks and leading, and the link between certain beings, the Buddha, and Māra all being apada is very obscure. 

On the other hand, taking Dhp 179 and 180 together it's more obvious, though still fairly obscure, that apada refers to the Buddha's lack of craving, but we do not know why it does. One of K R Norman's observations about the philologer is that they don't simply say what a text means, they say why it means that. So the job is only half complete. The key insight emerges out of following the thread a little further and looking at the handful of other times that the word apada is used. It is only used to describe: an animal without feet; the Buddha without craving; and Māra without sight. What the last two have in common is that they do not "go" anywhere. The footless animal, i.e.. a snake, ought not to go anywhere, but somehow does. So the link is locomotion. We can extend the comparison between the snake and the Buddha. Just as a snake is able to move about without any feet, the Buddha relates to other beings without any craving and, thus, without creating any karma that must ripen. Māra, on the other hand, is crippled when made footless/blind.

Now one of the traps for translators is to slavishly translate a word with the same English word each time it occurs. As in all languages, Pāḷi words have denotations and connotations. And just as in English a Pāḷi word may have multiple denotations and multiple connotations. People with very orderly minds like to think that language should restrict one word to one meaning so as to avoid ambiguity. But, in practice, such an ideal language has probably never existed. Language always involves ambiguity. And just as well, since almost all comedy depends on it, and communal laughter is an important evolutionary adaptation to living in large groups; and a good deal of poetry also depends on it. And in the case of these verses, I think that "path" is probably the best translation of padaṃ in 179d and 180d. This suggests that the poet was aware of the all the ambiguity and was exploiting it for effect. And, in fact, if someone is footless (and in this imagery unable to physically go anywhere) then where could you lead them? Political correctness had no place in the worldview of the people who composed and preserved these verses.

My final translation, then is:
What he has won cannot be lost,
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world.
The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless? (179)
He has no lust, clinging, or craving,
To lead him anywhere.
The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless? (180)
Pāḷi texts are seldom purposefully esoteric. On the whole we can take the suttas on face value. Of course, some of the metaphors have become reified or are obscure to us, but the feeling is that the author was not trying to misdirect us, they were trying to communicate in a fairly direct manner. Sometimes verses in the Dhammapada that use obscure metaphors can seem as though they are esoteric. Considering the huge popularity of the text, it is surprisingly difficult at times. It's a text to be quite wary of, especially in translation. Even the best translations sometimes fail to plumb the depths of the Dhammapada.



Anālayo (2011) A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Vol. 1 (Introduction, Studies of Discourses 1 to 90). Dharma Drum.

Bodhi (2012) The Numerical Discourses. Wisdom.

Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. (2001) The Middle Length Discourses. Wisdom.

Norman, K. R. (2000) The Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada). Pali Text Society.
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