This book consists of the text of the Samannaphala Sutta translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk, and a commentary on the text by the late Ayya Khema, a German nun. The Samannaphala Sutta is part of the "Long Discourses of the Buddha" of the Pali Canon, the oldest series of buddhist texts. In addition to the translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Sutta may be found in the translation of the entire "Long Discourses of the Buddha" by Maurice Walshe.
For the past several years, I have had the good fortune to participate in a Sutta Study Group in which we study the Pali texts. Recently, we devoted three sessions to study of the Samannaphala Sutta using both Walshe's and Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation. We proceeded by reading the Sutta aloud, in small sections, and then pausing for group discussion and comments. The members of our group take turns in leading the discussions. I was favored with the opportunity to lead the discussion of this complex and profound text.
The Samannaphala Sutta tells the story of an encounter beteen King Ajasattu and the Buddha. With all his power and wealth, and 500 wives, the King feels something is missing in his life. (Indeed, the King is understandably troubled because he has just killed his father to assume the throne.) He goes to the Buddha, and other ancient teachers, in search for peace of mind and for an understanding of the benefits of what Ayya Khema's book characterizes as a 'Spiritual" way of life.
The Buddha explains the Buddhist ethical path to the King and further develops 14 fruits of the spiritual life. These fruits begin with the most mundane consideration of benefits of the life of the seeker and end with the attainment of the highest, most rarified wisdom. Each of the fruits is illustrated by metaphors of increasing power. The Sutta ends with King Ajasattu becoming a lay follower of the Buddha. The suggestion is that the King cannot proceed further than this due to the grave evil he has committed in murdering his father.
It is a great value of this book that it presents this ancient Sutta in a form accessible to many readers.
Following the Sutta, the remainder of the book consists of a lengthy commentary by Ayya Khema. Although this is not explicitly stated, the commentary appears derived from a series of lectures, as witnessed by the questions and answers at the end of several of the chapters. Her commentary is not a line-by-line exposition of the Sutta. Bhikku Bodhi, in his translation of the Sutta, offered as well a selection of commentaries from Pali sources which discuss the text in great detail. This is not the only way, or possibly even the best way, for a modern reader to approach this Sutta. It does have the advantage, however, of forcing the reader to pay close attention to the text itself.
Although Ayya Khema's commentary has many interesting and valuable things to teach, it strays rather far from the text of the Samannaphala Sutta. After the opening in which she nicely sets the stage by discussing the encounter between the King and the Buddha, she wanders further and further from the text of the discourse. In many cases, she elaborates upon its teachings well. Much of the time, I thought the reader would be better served by looking more closely at the text and at the literary structure of the Sutta. After the beginning few pages, the commentary loses sight of the dramatic form of the Sutta. It also, in its free-wheeling character loses the opportunity to comment on the metaphors by which the Buddha explains his teachings to the King. These metaphors are revealing and are basically unique to this Sutta.
There is little discussion in the commentary of textual issues going to the meaning of the Sutta. There are places where such a discussion would have been useful. Most basically, I am not comfortable with the translation of the Sutta as a discourse on the fruits of a "Spiritual" life. To me this is too broad and too vague. There is much to be said for Bhikku Bodhi's translation of the title -- the fruits of "Recluseship" or for Walshe's -- the fruits of the "homeless" life. The word "Spiritual" does not indicate, to me the radical character of the life at issue.
In some instances, the fruits of the spiritual life that are described in the commentary do not appear in the Sutta. The commentary describes the higher Jhanas, for example, as a fruit of the Spiritual life. (Jhana's are progressively more rarified meditative states.) While the Sutta does describe the first four Jhanas, it does not even mention the fifth through eighth Jhanas which Ayya Khema in her commentary describes as a fruit of spirituality in the Sutta. Conversely, much of the Sutta is given to a description of certain supernatural states. This book's commentary passes over these states in silence. Although I agree that these suprernatural descriptions are difficult to understand for the contemporary reader, it would be better, I think to acknowledge them as part of the text rather than to simply ignore them. While the commentary very properly emphasizes egolessness and nonself as fundamental to the Buddha's teaching in this Sutta, there are portions of the discussion in the commentary which seem to speak of a universal consciousness which all people share. I do not think I find such a teaching in the Buddha or in this Sutta.
The reader would be well -served, I think, by using the commentary as a springboard to read and reread the Sutta itself. There are many books on Buddhism and its teachings currently available, but there is surprisingly little attention paid to the original texts. This book should ideally provide an opportunity to the reader to study the text of an important Buddhist teaching, the Samannaphala Sutta, for him or herself. The modern commentary here is useful, but it cannot replace the attempt to grapple with and learn from the ancient text.