Part I: The Premise
MN 117 “The Great Forty” is a sutta that states it is about concentration and its supports and requisite conditions; it starts with right view and goes on to resolve, speech, action, and livelihood, and in each of these describes right view as the forerunner; it again puts an emphasis on right view when it includes it in a special mix at the end of each section, where it says that the quality it focuses on is at the center of a circle of right view, effort and mindfulness; it ends by explaining the title “The Great Forty” as a score in a sort of point system in debating, and closes with mention of some teachers and three views they held that have now been well refuted, and the usual delight of the monks. In each section there are actually three aspects of the qualities discussed: Wrong, Right with Taints, and Supramundane.
My premise is that in the initial section on Views, which is clearly the most heavily emphasized in the sutta, the views listed in their negative and positives in “Wrong View” and “Right View with Taints” have been misinterpreted in the past. The popular understanding these days is that the list in “Right View with Taints” is the mundane path that the Buddha taught, and that all those items listed are things we who are new to the path should believe. What I see in the list from “Wrong View” is three separate negative views, and in the “Right View with Taints” is a minimum of three views (with the last actually encapsulating a larger list).
The list of negative/positive as drawn from the Wisdom Publications edition of the Majjhima Nikaya is:
(1) (a) There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed / (b) There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed
(2) (a) [There is] no fruit or result of good and bad actions / (b) there is fruit and result of good and bad actions
(3) (a) [There is] no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have realized for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. / (b) there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are in the world god and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realized for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.
The problem with these phrases is, of course, that they are not using what we think of as “plain English” but are using the idioms of the day, and much of the context for these lines has been lost along the way, so we need to remember that the Buddha was not talking in our language to our culture and times, but in his language (and this is at minimum a translation of a translation) and was shortcutting in just the way we'd say “24/7” these days and know what that meant, but it might be incomprehensible 2,500 years from now when the 7-day week was no longer in effect, and clocks kept time that matched the rotation of Mars.
Listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi's talk, he translates (1)(a) as stated above, then hesitates and changes “sacrificed” to “no practice of charity” which is a stretch. If the Buddha is using phrasing common in his day, the context for giving could be gifts to ascetics as well as for Brahmins who perform rituals; but what is offered is understood to be what is done in a ritual – offerings of ghee and soma, for example; sacrifice is what is done in rituals with (most notoriously) animals. When regular folk of the day heard “What is given, offered, sacrificed” they will think of Brahmins, they would not equate “sacrifice” with “acts of charity” especially since the word “sacrificed” used here in the Pali is “hutam”, is a form of the word “huta” a past participle of “juhati” which has the primary meaning of “to pour (into the fire), to sacrifice, offer”. (Using Rhys Davids and Stede's Pali English Dictionary aka “PED” as the source here.)
Using Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation of (1) “There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed” is the one that would be known to all listeners in the Buddha's day, which is not a denial that sacrificing through acts of charity to the monks of the sangha has merit, but a denial of the Brahmin's worldview, that their rituals and sacrifices had an effect, and that giving gifts to Brahmins so that they will perform rituals for you will be to your benefit. This was a common view in the day.
Section (2) does seem clearly to be about karma, and is understood that way.
Section (3) is filled with equally vague (to us) references that would have been quite clear in the Buddha's day, each a specific reference. Apparently the first phrase “There is no this world” is still problematic in translation. Because to us the language is vague (though it will have been specific to the Buddha's listeners) it is easy to bend these phrases to suit our particular understanding of what we think the Buddha is saying. To Bhikkhu Bodhi these are references to rebirth (“this world and the next”), duty to parents (“mother, father”), devas and gods (“beings spontaneously reborn”), and enlightened ascetics and Brahmins (“who have realized for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world”). Whereas I see quite clear references to nihilistic views denying a wide variety of doctrines, including the Brahmin's view of “this world and the next” (at this point in time the Brahmin view of life after death was pretty simple); denial of the point of ancestor worship (which ran throughout society, concurrently with both Brahmin views and heretical views) in “mother, father”; I haven't got a context yet for “spontaneously reborn beings” but that may be because I haven't studied the folk religions as much as I've concentrated on Brahminism and the heretical views – there were lots of native spirits in trees, rivers, rocks and snakes this could reference; and finally a denial that anyone travels in this life to other worlds and returns from them to teach about them in “who have realized for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world”.
Again the simplest explanation of what's being said is that the Buddha is using phrases common in his time to short-hand a wide variety of doctrines common in his time.