According to the Pali version, the sutta was a teaching to the nuns by the V. Nandaka. According to the Samyukta-āgama discourse and the (Mūla-)Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, the Buddha taught the similes to the nuns. Once the nuns had left, the Buddha told the monks that he was getting too old to keep on giving talks and asked them to give instructions to the nuns in his stead. This gives us some clues as to when Gotami became an arahant.
Two similes that deserve top billing, if the canonical similes were to be ranked for their noteworthiness, or the impressiveness in their ability to lead to the ending of pain. According to the Pali version, sutta gives credit to Nandaka for this teaching. Yet when Nandaka begins the sutta, by saying the teaching is in the form of questions and answers, it raises some suspicion. To begin to question, one needs prior info.
In the agama versions, Nandaka was recruited merely to elaborate on Buddha's teaching. Why do compilers take liberties to change the narrative? details details, one must pay attention to details and explore further, and not trust one source completely.
Yet some Pali commentaries got it right, which means, some in the Pali tradition had access to the correct version, but perhaps not the most powerful (content of the sutta?).
Samyukta-āgama and the (Mūla-)Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, versions, appear closer to the truth.
It is a very powerful teaching, and that power could have only come from a SammaSambuddha, just as in Madhupindika MN 18, Buddha was the originator of the sutta. MahaKaccana was recruited to explain the sutta.
In the great simile, the Arahant is compared to a skilled butcher,
- an arahant butchering a cow?
It is a different kind of butchering, however.
- Butchering of the fetters
It is not a case of butchering the eye, ear, nose, etc. not about butchering sounds, odours, tastes etc, neither about blocking them.
Butchering is applied to what connects the sense organ to the object, that fetter or bondage. It is not a case of not hearing sounds, but shutting off the delight or anguish, at such contact.
The teaching is about doing away with the bond that is created between object and sense organ.The ear is connected to the sound via delight. The connection via the auditory nerve is a worldly matter.
In the case of a cow, its outer hide is connected to its inner mass of flesh via tendons, sinews and ligaments.
- Buddha's advice to Mahapajapathi Gotami, is to develop noble wisdom, like a skillful butcher might sharpen his knife.
There are some other noteworthy differences between the Pali version and the companion agama versions. I will save them for later.
The simile of the butchered cow, is worth meditating over, over an entire lifetime. Of all the teachings that Buddha offered with his awesome compassion, if only we can get this one right, the one that he gave his mother, the end of pain is guaranteed.
My thoughts on a Monday Morning.