Sixteen brahman ascetics — students of a teacher named Bavari — approach the Buddha with questions on the goal of his teaching and how to attain it. From their questions, it is obvious that some of them, at least, are quite advanced in their meditation practice. Tradition tells us that the first fifteen of the ascetics attained arahantship immediately after the Buddha answered their questions. As for the sixteenth — Pingiya — the Cula Niddesa tells us that, after his questions were answered, he attained the Dhamma Eye, a term that usually means stream-entry. The commentary to the Cula Niddesa, however, interprets it as meaning that he became a non-returner.
A recurrent image in these dialogues is of life as a raging flood — a flood of birth, aging, and death; sorrow and lamentation; stress and suffering. The purpose of spiritual practice is to find a way across the flood to the safety of the far shore. This image explains the frequent reference to finding a way past entanglements — the flotsam and jetsam swept along by the flood that may prevent one's progress; and to the desire to be without acquisitions — the unnecessary baggage that could well cause one to sink midstream.
There is evidence that these sixteen dialogues were highly regarded right from the very early centuries of the Buddhist tradition. As concise statements of profound teachings particular to Buddhism, they sparked an attitude of devotion coupled with the desire to understand their more cryptic passages. Most of the Cula Niddesa, a late addition to the Pali canon, is devoted to explaining them in detail. Five discourses — one in the Samyutta Nikaya, four in the Anguttara — discuss specific verses in the set, and a sixth discourse tells of a lay woman who made a practice of rising before dawn to chant the full set of sixteen dialogues.
The notes to this translation include material drawn from the Cula Niddesa, together with extensive quotations from the five discourses mentioned above.
See also: "Atthaka Vagga (The Octet Chapter): An Introduction," by the same author.