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The name given to a being who aspires to Bodhi or Enlightenment.¹ The word can therefore be used in reference to all those who seek nibbāna, including Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas, and the disciples of Buddhas (sāvakā), but is commonly used only of those beings who seek to become Buddhas. The word may have been used originally only in connection with the last life of a Buddha, in such contexts as “in the days before my Enlightenment, when as yet I was only a Bodhisatta.” ² However, already in the Kathāvatthu  ³ the previous lives of Gotama Buddha and other saints had begun to excite interest and speculation.


The Noblest Aspiration

The Bodhisatta’s Career

Penultimate Life

Taking Rebirth


Practising Austerities

The Enlightenment

Receiving Predictions of Buddhahood

Other Births of the Bodhisatta

Various Stations in Life

Animal Rebirths


The Noblest Aspiration

In the developed form of the ideas regarding Bodhisattas, a Bodhisatta’s career started with his making a resolution before a Buddha (abhinīhārakaraṇa or mūlapanidhāna) to become a Buddha for the welfare and liberation of all creatures. In later literature, the Noblest Aspiration (abhinīhāra) is preceded by a period during which the Bodhisatta practises manopanidhi, when he resolves in his mind to desire to become a Buddha without declaring this intention to others. For the aspiration to be effective, eight conditions should be fulfilled,⁴ the aspirant should be:

  1. a human being,
  2. a male,
  3. sufficiently developed to become an Arahant in that very birth,
  4. a recluse at the time of the declaration,
  5. he should declare his resolve before a Buddha,
  6. should be possessed of attainments such as the jhānas,
  7. be prepared to sacrifice all, even life, and
  8. his resolution should be absolutely firm and unwavering.

In the case of Gotama Buddha, his Noblest Aspiration was made at Amaravātī in the presence of Dīpaṅkara Buddha. His name at that time was Sumedha (q.v.) The Buddha, before whom the Noblest Aspiration is made, looks into the future and, if satisfied, declares the fulfilment of the resolve, mentioning the particulars of such fulfilment. This declaration is called “vyākaraṇa,” and is made also by all subsequent Buddhas whom the Bodhisatta may meet during his career. Having received his first declaration, the Bodhisatta proceeds to investigate the qualities that should be acquired by him for the purposes of Buddhahood (buddhakārakadhammā), in accordance with the custom of previous Bodhisattas. These he discovers to be ten in number, the Ten Perfection, (dasapārami):

  1. generosity (dāna),
  2. morality (sīla),
  3. renunciation (nekkhamma),
  4. wisdom (paññā),
  5. effort (viriya),
  6. patience (khantī),
  7. truthfulness (saccā),
  8. determination (adhiṭṭhāna),
  9. loving-kindness (mettā), and
  10. equanimity (upekkhā).⁵

He also develops the four Buddhabhūmi (catasso buddhabhūmiyo):

  1. zealousness (ussāha or viriya),
  2. wisdom (ummagga or paññā),
  3. resolution (avaṭṭhāna or adhiṭṭhāna),
  4. compassion (hitacariyā or mettābhāvanā).

He cultivates the six natural inclinations (ajjhāsaya) which conduce to the maturing of Enlightenment (bodhiparipākiyā saṃvattanti):

  1. an inclination to renunciation (nekkhammajjhāsaya),
  2. an inclination to seclusion (pavivekajjhāsaya),
  3. an inclination to non-greed (alobhajjhāsaya) or generosity,
  4. an inclination to non ill-will (adosajjhāsaya) or loving-kindness,
  5. an inclination to non-delusion (amohajjhāsaya) or wisdom, and
  6. an inclination to escape from the cycle of existence (nissaraṇajjhāsaya).⁶

The Bodhisatta’s Career

A Bodhisatta, during his career, escapes from being born in eighteen inauspicious states (aṭṭhārasa abhabbaṭṭhānāni). He is never born blind, deaf, insane, slobbery (eḷamūga) or crippled, or among savages (milakkkesu), in the womb of a slave, or as a heretic. He never changes his sex, is never guilty of any of the five immediately effective (ānantarika) kammas, and never becomes a leper. If born as an animal, he never becomes less than a quail or more than an elephant. He is never born either among various classes of hungry ghosts (petas) nor among the Kālakañjakas, neither in Avīci nor in the Lokantaraka hells, neither as Māra, nor in worlds where there is no perception (asaññibhava), nor in the Pure Abodes (Suddhāvāsa), nor in the formless realms (arūpaloka), nor ever in another Cakkavāḷa.⁷

Besides practising the (thirty) perfections, all Bodhisattas must make the five great sacrifices (mahāpariccāgā) — giving up wife, children, kingdom, limbs, and life  ⁸ and must fulfil the three kinds of conduct (cariyā): for the sake of relatives (ñātatthacariyā), for the sake of the world (lokatthacariyā), and for the sake of Enlightenement (buddhi-atthacariyā), and give the seven Great Charities (mahādana) as practised by Vessantara, which caused the earth to quake seven times.⁹

The length of a Bodhisatta’s career varies; some practice the perfections for at least four immeasurable aeons (asaṅkheyya) and one hundred thousand world-cycles, others for at least eight immeasurable aeons and one hundred thousand world-cycles, and yet others for sixteen immeasurable aeons and one hundred thousand world-cycles. The first of these periods is the very least that is required and is intended for those who excel in wisdom (paññā). The middle is for those who excel in faith (saddhā); and the last and highest for those whose chief feature is perseverance (viriya).¹⁰

Penultimate Life

In their penultimate life all Bodhisattas are born in Tusita,¹¹ where life lasts for five hundred and seventy-six million years, but most Bodhisattas leave Tusita before completing their life-span.¹²

As the time for the announcement of their last birth approaches, all is excitement because of various signs appearing in the ten thousand world systems. The devas of all the worlds assemble in Tusita and request the Bodhisatta to seek birth as a human being, that he may become the Buddha. The Bodhisatta withholds his reply until he has made the Five Great Investigations (pañcamahāvilokanā) regarding time, continent, place of birth, his mother and the life span left to her. Buddhas do not appear in the world when men live to more than one hundred thousand years or to less than one hundred. They are born only in Jambudīpa and in the Majjhimadesa, and only of a khattiya or brahmin clan. The Bodhisatta’s mother in his last birth must not be passionate or given to drink; she should have practised the perfections for one hundred thousand world-cycles, have kept the precepts inviolate from birth, and should not be destined to live more than ten months and seven days after the conception of the Bodhisatta.

Taking Rebirth

Having satisfied himself as to these particulars, the Bodhisatta goes with the other devas to Nandanavana in Tusita, where he announces his departure from their midst and disappears from among them while playing. On the day of his conception, the Bodhisatta’s mother takes the vows of fasting and celibacy at the conclusion of a great festival, and when she has retired to rest, she dreams that the Four Regent Gods take her with her bed, bathe her in the Anotatta Lake, clad her in divine garments, and place her in a golden palace surrounded by all kinds of luxury. As she lies there the Bodhisatta in the form of a white elephant enters her womb through her right side. The earth trembles and all the ten thousand world systems are filled with radiance. Immediately the Four Regent Gods assume guard over mother and child. Throughout the period of pregnancy, which lasts for ten months; exactly, the mother remains free from ailment and sees the child in her womb sitting crossed-legged.¹³ At the end of the ten months; she gives birth to the child, standing in a grove, never indoors. Suddhāvāsa brahmins, free from all passion, first receive the child in a golden net, and from them the Four Regent Gods take him on an antelope skin and present him to his mother. Though the Bodhisatta is born free of the mucous otherwise present at birth, two showers of water — one hot, the other cold — fall from the sky and bathe mother and child. The child then takes seven strides to the north, standing firmly on his feet, looks on all sides, and seeing no one anywhere to equal him, announces his supremacy over the whole world and the fact that this is his last birth.¹⁴ Seven days after birth his mother dies. She dies because she must bear no other being. The Bodhisatta’s time of conception is so calculated that the mother’s destined life span completes itself seven days after his birth. From the Commentarial account ¹⁵ it would appear that the age of the Bodhisatta’s mother at the time of his birth is between fifty and sixty (majjhimavayassa pana dve koṭṭhāsε atikkamma tatiye koṭṭhāse).


The Bodhisatta’s last birth is attended by various miracles.¹⁶ Soothsayers, being summoned, see on the child’s body the thirty-two marks of a Great Man (mahāpurisa),¹⁷ and declare that the child will become either a Cakkavatti or a Buddha. His father, desiring that his child shall be a Cakkavatti rather than a Buddha, brings him up in great luxury, hiding from him all the sin and ugliness of the world. However, the destiny of a Bodhisatta asserts itself, and he becomes aware of the presence in the world of old age, disease, death and the freedom of mind to be found in the life of a Recluse.¹⁸ Urged by the desire to discover the cause of suffering in the world and the way out of it, the Bodhisatta leaves the world on the day of his son’s birth. Some Bodhisattas leave the world riding on an elephant (e.g., Dīpaṅkara, Sumana, Sumedha, Phussa, Sikhī, and Koṇāgamana), some on a chariot (e.g., Koṇḍañña, Revata, Paduma, Piyadassī, and Kakusandha), some on a horse (e.g., Maṅgala, Sujāta, Atthadassī, Tissa, Gotama), and some in a palanquin (e.g., Anomadassī, Siddhattha and Vessabhū). Some, like Nārada, go on foot, while Sobhita, Dhammadassī, and Kassapa travelled in the palaces of their lay life.

Practising Austerities

Having left the world, the Bodhisatta practises the austerities, the period of such practices varying. In the case of Dīpaṅkara, Koṇḍañña, Sumana, Anomadassī, Sujāta, Siddhattha, and Kakusandha it was ten months; for Maṅgala, Sumedha, Tissa and Sikhī it was eight; for Revata seven; for Piyadassī, Phussa, Vessabhū, and Koṇāgamana six; for Sobhita four; for Paduma, Atthadassī, and Vipassī two weeks; for Nārada, Padumuttara, Dhammadassī, and Kassapa one week; and for Gotama six years.¹⁹ On the day the Bodhisatta attains to Buddhahood, he receives a meal of milk-rice (pāyāsa) from a woman and a gift of kusagrass, generally from an Ājīvīka, which he spreads under the Bodhi-tree  ²⁰ for his seat. The size of this seat varies; the seats of Dīpaṅkara, Revata, Piyadassī, Atthadassī, Dhammadassī, and Vipassī were fifty-three hands in length; those of Koṇḍañña, Maṅgala, Nārada, and Sumedha fifty-seven hands; that of Sumaṇa sixty hands; those of Sobhita, Anomadassī, Paduma, Padumuttara, and Phussa thirty-eight; of Sujāta thirty-two; of Kakusandha twenty-six; of Koṇāgamana twenty; of Kassapa fifteen; of Gotama fourteen.²¹ Before the Enlightenment the Bodhisatta has five great dreams: (1) that the world is his couch with the Himavā as his pillow, his left hand resting on the eastern sea, his right on the western, and his feet on the southern; (2) that a blade of kusa (tiriyā) grass growing from his navel touches the clouds; (3) that white worms with black heads creep up from his feet, covering his knees; (4) that four birds of varied hues from the four quarters of the world fall at his feet and become white; (5) that he walks to and fro on a heap of dung, by which he remains unsoiled.²²

The Enlightenment

The next day the Bodhisatta sits cross-legged on his seat facing the east, determined not to rise until he has attained his goal. The gods of all the worlds assemble to do him honour, but Māra (q.v.) comes with his mighty hosts and the gods flee. All day, the fight continues between Māra and the Bodhisatta; the perfections alone are present to lend their aid to the Bodhisatta, and when the moment comes, the Goddess of the Earth bears witness to his great sacrifices, while Māra and his armies retire discomfited at the hour of sunset, the gods then returning and singing a paean of victory. Meanwhile the Bodhisatta spends the night in deep concentration; during the first watch he requires knowledge of past lives, during the second watch he develops the divine-eye, while during the last watch he ponders over and comprehends the Law of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). Backwards and forwards his mind travels over the chain of causation and twelve times the earth trembles. With sunrise, omniscience dawns on him, and he becomes the Supremely Awakened Buddha, uttering his exultation (udānā) of victory, while the whole world rejoices with him.²³

Receiving Predictions of Buddhahood

The above is a brief account, as given in the books, of certain features common to all Bodhisattas. In addition to these, particulars of the personal career of the Bodhisatta who became Gotama, are found, chiefly in the Buddhavaṃsa and the Jātakaṭṭhakathā. It has already been stated that each Bodhisatta receives the prediction (vyākaraṇa) from every Buddha whom he meets, and Gotama was no exception. He received his first as the ascetic Sumedha, from Dīpaṅkara; and then, as a Cakkavatti, from Koṇḍañña; as the brahmin Suruci, from Maṅgala; as the Nāga king Atula, from Sumana; as the brahmin Atideva, from Revata; as the brahmin Ajita, from Sobhita; as a yakkha chief, from Anomadassī; as a lion, from Paduma; as an ascetic (isi) from Nārada; as a governor (Mahāraṭṭhiya) Jaṭila, from Padumuttara; as the youth Uttara, from Sumedha; as a Cakkavatti, from Sujāta; as the youth Kassapa, from Piyadassī; as the ascetic Susīma, from Atthadassī; as Sakka, from Dhammadassī; as the ascetic Maṅgala, from Siddhattha; as Sujāta, from Tissa; as King Vijitāvī, from Phussa; as the Nāga king Atula, from Vipassī; as King Arindama, from Sikhī; as King Sudassana, from Vessabhū; as King Khema, from Kakusandha; as King Pabbata, from Koṇāgamana; and as the youth Jotipāla, from Kassapa.

Other Births of the Bodhisatta

The Jātakaṭṭhakathā gives particulars of other births of the Bodhisatta ²⁴ e.g., as Akitti, Ajjuna, Aṭṭhisena, Anitthigandha, Ayoghara, Araka, Arindama, Alīnacitta, Alīnasattu, Asadisa, Ādāsamukha, Udaya, Udayabhadda, Kaṭṭhavāhana, Kaṇhadīpāyana, Kaṇhapaṇḍita, Kapila, Kappa, Kassapa, Kāraṇḍiya, Kāliṅgabhāradvāja, Kuṇāla, Kuṇḍakumāra, Kuddālaka, Kusa, Komāyaputta, Khadiravaniya, Guttila, Ghata, Canda, Candakumāra, Campeyya, Cittapaṇḍita, Cullaka seṭṭhi, Culladhanuggaha, Chaddanta, Chaḷaṅgakumāra, Janasandha. Juṇa, Jotipāla (= Sarabhaṅga), Takkapaṇḍita, Takkāriya, Tirīṭavaccha, Temiya (=Mūgapakkha), Dīghāvu, Duyyodhana, Dhanañjaya, Dhamma, Dhammaddhaja, Dhammapāla (prince and brahmin), Nārada, Nigrodha, Nimi, Pañcālacanda, Pañcāvudha, Pandita, Padumakumāra, Baka, Bodhikumāra, Brahmadatta (in several births), Bhaddasāla, Bharata, Bhallātiya, Bhūridatta, Bhojanasuddhika, Makhādeva, Magha, Mandhātu, Mahākañcana, Mahājanaka, Mahādhana, Mahābodhi (= Bodhi), Mahāsīlava, Mahāsudassana, Mahiṃsāsa, Mahosadha, Māṭaṅga, Mūgapakkh (= Temiya,) Yuvañjaya, Rakkhita, Rāma, Lomasakassapa, Vacchanakha, Vidhura, Visayha, Vessantara, Saṅkicca, Saṅkha, Santusita, Sambhava, Sarabhaṅga, Sādhīna, Siri, Suciparivāra, Sujāta, Sutana, Sutasoma, Suppāraka, Suvaṇṇasāma, Susīma, Senaka, Seruva, Sona, Soma, Somadatta, Somanassa, Hatthipāla, and Hārita.

Various Stations in Life

In these and other births the Bodhisatta occupied various stations in life, such as that of an acrobat (Dubbaca Jātaka); naked-ascetic (Lomahaṃsa Jātaka); ascetic (numerous births); barber (Illīsa Jātaka); caravan leader (Kimpakka and Mahāvāṇija Jātakas); carpenter (Samuddavānija Jātaka); chaplain (various births); conch blower (Saṅkhadhamana Jātaka); councillor (Kacchapa, Kalāyamuṭṭhi, Kukku, Giridanta, Dhūmakāri, Pabbatūpatthara, Pādañjali, Puṭabhatta, Vālodaka Jātakas); courtier (Bāhayi, Sālittaka, etc., Jātakas); dice player (Litta Jātaka); drummer (Bherivāda Jātaka); elephant trainer (Saṅgāmāvacara Jātaka); farmer (Kañcanakkhandha, Kummāsapiṇḍa, Sīhacamma, Suvaṇṇakakkata Jātakas); forester (Khurappa Jātaka); gardener (Kuddālaka Jātaka); goldsmith (Kuṇāla Jātaka); hawker (Seriva Jātaka); horse-dealer (Kuṇḍakakucchisindhava Jātaka); householder (Gahapati and Jāgara Jātaka, also as Kuṇḍaka, Sutana and Hārita); judge (Kūṭavāṇija, Rathalatthi Jātakas); king (numerous births, e.g. Arindama, Ādasamukha, etc.); mariner (Suppāraka Jātaka); merchant (several births, e.g. as Paṇḍita, etc.); minisiter (numerous births, e.g., as Senaka, Vidhura); musician (Guttila); physician (Kāma, and Visavanta Jātakas); potter, (Kacchapa, Kumbhakāra Jātakas); robber ²⁵ (Kaṇavera, Satapatta Jātakas); smith (Sūnci Jātaka); squire (e.g., Nanda Jātaka); stonecutter (Babbu Jātaka); teacher (numerous births, e.g. Anabhirati, Durājāna, Losaka Jātakas); treasurer (e.g. as Cullaka, Visayha, Saṅkha and Suciparivāra); tumbler (Ucchiṭṭhabhatta Jātaka); and valuer (Taṇḍulanāli Jātaka). The Bodhisatta was born as an outcaste (caṇḍāla) in several births (e.g., as Citta and Mātaṅga); in several instances as Sakka, (e.g. in the Kāmanīta, Keḷisīla, Mahāpanāda and Vaka Jātakas;). He was born several times in the deva world (e.g. as Dhamma and Bhaddasāla, also in the Kakkāru, Kāmavilāpa and Mittavinda Jātakas.) He was a Brahmā of the Ābhassara world (Candābha and Janasodhana Jātakas); and a Mahābrahmā (Parosahassa and Mahānārada Kassapa), in the latter his name was Nārada. He was an air sprite (Puppharatta Jātaka) and a mountain sprite (e.g. Kāka and Samudda Jātakas); a tree-sprite in numerous births (e.g. Āyācitabhatta, Baka, Matakabhatta, Rukkhadhamma Jātakas); and a forest sprite (Kaṇḍina and Gūthapāna Jātakas).

Animal Rebirths

Many Jātaka stories mention the birth of the Bodhisatta among animals — e.g., as buffalo (Mahisia Jātaka); bull (as Ayyakāḷaka, Nandivisāla, Mahālohita, Sārambha); cock (in the two Kukkuṭa Jātakas, Nos. 383, 448); crow (as Vīraka and Supatta and in Kāka Jātaka); dog (Kukkura Jātaka); elephant (e.g., Chaddanta and Sīlava Jātakas); fish (Mitacintī); frog (Haritamāta Jātaka); garuḷa (e.g., Sussoṇḍi Jātaka); goose (e.g. Ulūka, Cakkavāka, Neru, Palāsa Jātakas); hare (Sasa Jātaka); horse (Ājañña, Bhogājānīya Jātakas and as Vātaggasindhava); iguana (Godha Jātaka); jackal (Sigāla Jātakas); kinnara (as Canda); lion (e.g., Guna, Sigāla Jātaka (No.152), Sūkara Jātakas); mallard (Nacca Jātaka); monkey (Kapi, Nalapāna, Mahākapi, Suṃsumāra Jātakas and as Nandyia); parrot (e.g. as Jambuka, Pupphaka, Poṭṭhapāda, and Rādha); peacock (Nos. 42, 375, Mora, Bāveru, and Mahāmora Jātakas); pig (Mahātundila Jātakas); pigeon (Kapota, Kāka No.395, Romaka, Lola Jātakas); quail (the three Vaṭṭaka, and Sammodamāna Jātakas); rat (Aggika and Biḷāra Jātakas); snake (nāga) as Cāmpeyya, Bhuridatta, Mahādaddara, Saṅkhapāla; vulture (as Aparaṇṇa and in the three Gijjha Jātakas, Nos. 164, 399, 427), and woodpecker (as Khadiravaniya and in Javasakuna Jātaka). See the Jātaka Index

The Bodhisatta was born several times in the purgatories.²⁶ The wishes of Bodhisattas are generally fulfilled,²⁷ chiefly because of their great wisdom ²⁸ and zeal.²⁹ The wisdom of a Bodhisatta is greater than that of a Pacceka Buddha.³⁰

See also Buddha.


¹ The Commentaries (e.g., DA.ii.427) define the word thus: “Bodhisatto ti paṇḍitasatto bujjhanakasatto; bodhisaṅkhātesu vā catusu maggesu āsatto laggamānaso ti Bodhisatto.” See also AA.i.453. For a discussion of the meaning of the word see Har Dayal: The Bodhisativa Doctrine, pp.4 ff.

² E.g., M.i.17, 114, 163; so also in the Mahāpadāna Sutta (D.ii.13) and the Acchariya-abbhutadhamma Sutta (M.iii.119).

³ E.g., 283‑90, 623.

Bu.ii.59; explained at BuA.75 f. and SNA.i.48 f.

Bu.ii.116 ff. Sometimes thirty perfections are spoken of, each of the ten being divided into three, varying in kind and degree. Thus, in the case of generosity (dāna): 1) the ordinary degree of generosity  (dāna-pāramī) consists in giving away one’s external possessions, 2) the higher degree of generosity (dāna-upapārami) consists in giving one’s limbs, and 3) the highest degree of generosity (dāna-paramattha-pāramī) in giving one’s life, this last being the most excellent. (original has 1 and 2 reversed, ed.),

In the case of Gotama Buddha, examples of births in which the ten perfections were practised to the highest degree are as follows: the Ekarāja, Khantivādī, Saṅkhapāla, Mahājanaka, Mahāsutasoma, Mūgapakkha, Lomahaṃsa, Sattubhattaka, Sasapaṇḍita, and Cūḷa-Sutasoma Jātakas (BuA. 50; J.i.44 f).

SNA.i.50 (translations added by ed.) SNA.i.50 f. J.vi.552.

DA.ii.427; DhA.iii.441; the BuA. (116 f) gives a story about Maṅgala Buddha, which corresponds to that of Vessantara in regard to Gotama Buddha. See Kharadāṭhika.

¹⁰ SNA.i.47 f. ¹¹ See Buddha.

¹² Vipassī, e.g., was among the exceptions. DA.ii.427.

¹³ Like a teacher on a dais, says the Commentary (DA.ii.436).

¹⁴ Gotama Buddha as the Bodhisatta, spoke, in three different births, as soon as born — as Mahosadha, as Vessantara, and in his last birth, (J.i.53).

¹⁵ DA.ii.437; UdA.278.

¹⁶ The Commentaries see, in the various incidents connected with the Bodhisatta’s last birth, signs of various features, which came, later, to be associated with the Buddha and his doctrine; for details see DA.ii.439 ff.

¹⁷ For details of these see D.ii.17 ff; M.ii.136 f. The reasons for these marks are given at D.iii.145 ff.

¹⁸ In the case of some Bodhisattas (e.g., Vipassī) these four signs (nimittāni as they are called) are seen by them at different times, but in the case of others on one and the same day (DA.ii.457).

¹⁹ For the reason for this great length in the last case, see Gotama.

²⁰ The Bodhi tree is different for each Bodhisatta.

²¹ BuA. 247.

²² For the explanations of these dreams see A.iii.240 f; these dreams are referred to at J.i.69.

²³ For the Law of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) see D.ii.31 ff; for the other details see J.i.56 ff., where the story of Gotama is given. DA.ii.462 ff gives similar details regarding Vipassī; BuA.248 says it is the same for all Bodhisattas.

²⁴ To the births given below and taken from the Jātakaṭṭhakathā should be added those given in the Pubbapilotikhaṇḍa of the Apadāna (Ap.i.299 ff; also UdA), and given s.v. Gotama.

²⁵ The scholiast (J.ii.389) explains that when a Bodhisatta is born as a wicked man it is due to a fault in his horoscope!

²⁶ Ap.i.299 ff. ²⁷ J.iii.283; v.282, 291; vi. 401, 405, etc.

²⁸ J.iii.282. ²⁹ J.iii.425. ³⁰ J.iv.341.