29 March 2007

The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor

BrahmaAt the end of 2006 I attended a series of lectures by Richard Gombrich and I promised to try to use my blog to pass on some of what he said. In this entry I want to look at a metaphor used by the Buddha, but which had already become obscure by the time the Pali Canon was written down. The metaphor is "dwelling (or staying) with Brahma" - brahmaa vihaara in Pali. Obviously this is an important metaphor for Buddhists and well known to practitioners in the FWBO through the Mettabhavana meditation practice, which is said to be one of the four "Brahma Viharas" - along with the karuna, mudita and upekkha-viharas. So where did this metaphor come from?

Even a passing familiarity with the Upanishads will show you that 'dwelling with Brahma' is a paraphrase of the goal of spiritual practice in those texts. There is it usually presented as union with Brahma, but this is not significantly different from the Buddhist usage. So what is going on here? Is the Buddha suggesting that we literally seek union with Brahma? We need not take the phrase literally, and in fact there is much to suggest that the Buddha did not mean it so.

Gombrich has analysed the occurrences of this way of speaking, and has come to see the Tevijja Sutta in the Digha Nikaya as the first usage. In most texts the metaphor is used awkwardly, or interpreted literally, but in the Tevijja Sutta, although the actual words Brahma vihara are not used, the idea is present and fits the context. In the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha is using the idea of the way to Brahma (where one would subsequently dwell) as a metaphor for the goal of the spiritual life, and the audience are Brahmins who would have been well versed in this kind of talk. The Tevijja Sutta is part parody because it criticises those Brahmins who purport to teach the way to Brahma when most of them have never even laid eyes on Brahma. The Buddha tells them that he has seen Brahma face to face - this is the subject of another parody in the Digha Nikaya - and that he can teach them the way to Brahma which is to practice a meditation on loving kindness. This is clearly an early example of the Buddha's "skill in means", a quality that came to the fore in the White Lotus Sutra.

Now by the time the Canon was written down the sense of this metaphor had been lost. Gombrich argues, and I think we must agree, that the Buddha was cognizant of the early Upanishads. We know this because he names, quotes from, and satirises them! But the scribes of three or four centuries later who wrote the Canon down in Sri Lanka were not familiar with the Upanishads, and so they struggled to know what to make of the Buddha teaching the "way to Brahma". One of the consequences of taking the Buddha literally was that a new set of "realms" had to be added to Buddhist cosmology - the Brahmalokas. Also to "dwell with Brahma" meant being reborn in a loka or realm, which meant that one was not freed from rebirth, and therefore not Awakened! So the scribes had to do quite a lot of work to fit all this in.

Independently I have found a striking confirmation of this conjecture in the Karaniya Metta Sutta. This is one of the most familiar suttas in the Pali Canon. It asks the question: what should one do who seeks the path of peace? And then it gives a well structured account of practice: one should be ethical it says, morally and ethically good. And then one should practice a meditation, which we would now recognise as a species of Mettabhavana, in which one cultivates boundless loving kindness to all creatures - just as, the sutta says, a mother loves and protects her only child, so should we regard all that lives, leaving none out. To do this, to keep this reflection in mind at all times, is, the text says, to dwell with Brahma. But then comes a little coda, the tenth verse, which goes back to the beginning and in a completely different style admonishers us to be ethical and avoid falling into wrong views, and if we practice well we will "never again lie in a womb".

I'd like to suggest that the last verse was added later. It is clearly different in tone than the preceding nine verses, and it does not fit the structure. I suggest that the line (below with my rough translation) at the end of the ninth verse is the original ending of the sutta:
etaṃ satiṃ adhiṭṭeyya brahmaṃ etaṃ vihāraṃ idha-m-ahu
This mindfulness should be undertaken, this is dwelling with Brahma here and now they say.
The tenth verse was probably added by an assiduous monk who, in ignorance of the metaphor, thought that "dwelling with Brahma" could not be the end of the sutta since at best it meant taking rebirth in a Brahmaloka, and at worst was non-Buddhist! Perhaps he thought that a verse had been lost which revealed the true intent of the sutta and so added one that fit his worldview. This fits with Gombrich's hypothesis, and helps to make sense of an awkwardness in the text. I've run this past a number of fans of the sutta and they agree that it is at least plausible. Of course we can never prove such a thing, and the ten verse Karaniya Metta Sutta is still the canonical version. But it does show that we need to be alert when dealing with texts, even canonical texts. It is all to easy for metaphors to become lost over time, or in different cultures.

- image : Chola bronze of Brahma
29-03-08 fixed typos, added diacritics.

26-8-12 The website Chant Pāli has some references which confirm my supposition about the 10th verse. The metre of the verse is inconsistent with the other nine, either a different metre or a "very irregular".
Warder (1970), p. 228, n. 1, suggests that this last verse is "a later addition." Warder, A.K. (1970, 2004). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN: 81-208-1741-9.
 Ānandajoti (2007), n. 11, writes: "Metre: it may be we should take the first half of the pādayuga as a Siloka line showing the savipula. If it is Old Gīti it is very irregular."
The inconsistent metre further reinforces the perception that the verse was written by another person than the original composer. My conjecture that the editor was concerned about ending on the note about dwelling with Brahma seems more likely in this light. It might be simple prejudice but it seems to me that a lesser intellect and lesser poet, a blockhead fundamentalist, has tampered with the poem.

21 March 2007

When Awareness is too much to bear

There's an image from near the beginning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Chögyam Trungpa that has stayed with me. In the bardo we are confronted with Reality in it's pure form, but it is too intense and we flinch away, and then we are presented with Reality in a slightly less straightforward, but still pure, form, but it also is too intense and we flinch. We keep chunking down until we find a level of Reality we can deal with. In every moment Reality is staring us in the face but often it's too intense and we have to look away. And so we are bound to Samsara. It seems that all of us can only bear a little Reality at a time.

I love the phrase consensual reality! Most of the time it just means 'the level of reality which most of the community, or the collective, can handle over a sustained period of time'. What is meant, I'm sure, is not the mob, not the unthinking riot that can spontaneously break about amongst groups, but the more everyday conspiracy that we generally do tacitly consent to. This can be interesting for Buddhists because we are interested in consensus and we are interested in Reality. Buddhist practices aim to raise our level of awareness and to get us to consent to a higher level of reality. So we often don't consent to consensual reality, and that can be a interesting position to be in as anti-war protesters in Sri Lanka found last year when they were attacked by a mob of hardline pro-war bhikkhus! (which must be the acme of Buddhist oxymorons)

It's hard when one is depressed, to put on a good show as a Buddhist. If we hang around with other Buddhists a lot, and I do, then we can get these subtle hints, and sometimes not so subtle, that it is not OK that we are suffering quite so much and quite so publicly. Almost like we're letting the side down somehow. Everyone suffers of course, but some people suffering much more acutely, and witnessing this can make us very uncomfortable. Buddhists are meant to be happy, yeah?

Sometimes when ordinary reality is too much to bear things can escalate way off the scale and you end up in a realm of intense mental suffering, the Hell Realms. This is not an unfamiliar experience for me, and I know a number of people who when confronted with reality have, for instance, tried to take their own lives, or to harm themselves in any number of ways. Remember that everyone is flinching from reality all the time. If we flinch away from an experience that is incredibly painful then we are not behaving in a way that is different to our fellow humans.

The difference is merely one of the strength of the reaction. The more painful the experience the more we flinch, and that can take us into the Hell Realms. It's also important to remember that this is not a punishment. Not facing Reality is in itself painful. But for some reality is so painful that they will attempt suicide, or cut themselves, or numb themselves with strong drugs, or whatever. Sometimes the pain spills over into unskilful behaviour - anger, shouting, attacking - frequently the sufferer blames and punishes themselves which just makes things worse.

Now some people will immediately be able to relate to this - they will have their own experience of harming themselves in some drastic way in order to avoid experiencing reality. But the majority will not get what I am saying. You feel confused by extreme responses to suffering, you feel uncomfortable, you feel threatened, you feel afraid. Try this (with caution): imagine that you are a small, defenceless child, and that someone larger, or a group of people, is physically attacking you. How long does the attack last? Are you badly hurt, or just terrified? Was it a stranger, or someone you know and love? Were there witnesses and how did they respond: with kindness, with mockery, did they join in? Now imagine it all over again. And again. Do this at several times a day for several years. Imagine that you have almost perfect recall of the violent events so that the memories of being attacked and abused are, after decades even, capable of propelling your body into a fight or flight response - your heart races, your muscles tense, your breathing is shallow! Would you be willing to try this thought experiment? How far would you take it and what effect would it have on your mind? Would you chose to do it? Would you be able to? For some people, some times there isn't really a choice - those are our memories, that is our experience.

Sangharakshita points out that in the Tibetan Wheel of Life the Buddha who appears in the Hell Realms offers the beings there Amrita which has a double connotation. Amrita means "deathless" so it stands for the goal. Sometimes when you at rock bottom there is nothing to do but go for refuge. Amrita is also like ambrosia though, like a soothing balm. And this is something that beings in Hell need: they need to be soothed and cooled, they need a little relief. This may seem like a contradiction but sometimes what people who are suffering need is a little distraction. When you suffer intensely it is all too easy to be caught up in that, to feel like all there is is suffering. A little soothing distraction can create enough space around the hurt, enough perspective to allow a more creative response. It is said that the human realm is so special because it is only from there that Awakening is possible. Sometimes a little relief allows a being in Hell to approach a more human state from where anything is possible.

I don't think there's any way around the fact that we need to cultivate awareness, that we need to pay attention to what is going on. But compassion dictates that we allow for human weakness in ourselves and others, that we allow for flinching away from pain. Each person is the best judge of how much pain they can stand, and we need to let them make that decision for themselves. And maybe stand by with amrita.

image - detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgement.

13 March 2007

Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue

Since the beginning Buddhism been in a constant dialogue with other religious traditions, which has been tolerant to some extent, but also critical and polemical. Buddhists have used parody, satire, re-contextulisation, as well as outright condemnation when the need arose. There is some really very biting parody of Brahmins in the Pali Canon, some very funny jokes at their expense! Sangharakshita is sometimes criticised, in a kind of weird reversal, for being critical of other Buddhists and expecially of Christians. It's as though we Buddhists have forgotten our own history and are buying into a modern myth which is telling us that all religion is ok, and not to rock the boat. However our own scriptures give the lie to that naive notion. Buddhism is and always has been quite a militant critic of unbelievers, and even of lax believers.

However Buddhism also has the interesting tactic of syncretising with indigenous beliefs. In China it bred with Taoism especially. Confucianists remained quite hostile because Buddhism appeared to deny filial piety - no family values for us! In Japan Buddhism formed an interesting syncretism with Shinto resulting in the identification of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, with the Great Sun Buddha, Vairocana. In Tibet there was Bon and the synthesis of Buddhism and Bon has been a very dynamic hybrid indeed. However in India there were a number of major faiths with which Buddhism interacted and syncretised. Firstly there was the Vedic religion which gave us such concepts as Brahma Vihara, and Going for Refuge. More crucially there was the later interaction with Puranic Hinduism - and especially with the worship of Siva. Siva had gone through a long process of being absorbed into mainstream Indian faith through being identified with the Vedic Rudra. This was a bit of a stretch to be honest, but the Brahmins were very good at this sort of thing, offering to make the preists of competing cults into honorary Brahmins for instance. In the Mahayana Karandavyuha Sutra we see Siva being gently converted into a Buddhist, just as Brahma and Indra were in the Pali Texts. But in the Sarvatathagata-tattvasamgraha Tantra the action has been stepped up a notch. This time Siva refuses to submit, and Vajrapani kills him and tramples on his body (which is what we see in the depictions of Vajrapani). He brings him back to life however and converts him to Buddhism - both the killing and ressurection are accomplished with mantras.

But here's something interesting: I was searching around for a pic of Vajrapani doing a two-step on old Siva and his wife, and it took some time. In a lot of images they are left out and Vajrapani is just dancing around on his own - which doesn't make a lot of sense and ignores the context for him being wrathful and stomping in the first place. An important function of Vajrapani was (right back in the Pali texts) and is (in the Tantras) the thumping of people who fail to pay homage to the Buddha. Has Vajrapani been sanitised for public consumption I wonder?

We will probably never see a depiction Jesus being trampled by Vajrapani the way that Siva is because, at the time and place the Vajrayana was emerging, Siva worship was the prevailing religion, and it was a vigorous living force and a threat to Buddhism. Christianity has been in a slow decline for centuries now, and although western culture is nominally Christian, the evidence is that it is dying. The Pope (take your pick) will occasionally say something along the lines that although Buddhism has some good points it really is a failure because it is humanist, but it's like being savaged by rabbit. And the Dalai Lama is also titled His Holiness these days. In any case Christianity is fighting on many fronts. With militant Islam constantly in the news, basic Christian values being undermined, not to mention in-fighting and schism over the status of women and homosexuals; the Christian clergy really don't see Buddhism as a problem - we smile a lot and so they think we're harmless. Tee hee.

I don't see much on offer from theology generally which which to syncretise in the West. Philosophy does seem to have some promise, but I'm not well versed enough to know how things might mix and match. I think the '-ology' which provides the richest pickings for a syncretism in the west is not theology, but psychology - especially depth psychology which had its beginnings with Carl Jung, and which sees psychology as a manifestation of archetypes of a deeper layer of reality. It is said that Jung was strongly influenced by Eastern religion, and by Tibetan Buddhism in particular. So perhaps the syncretism has already begun. Perhaps we will see Freud and Jung being trampled by Vajrapani sometime soon in a Tantra near you. Now that might be interesting.

01 March 2007

Ratnasambhava quest que cest?

Five Buddha Mandala by Aloka, from Padmaloka websiteLately I have been pondering the mandala of the five Jinas. Something was puzzling me. Amitabha and Akshobhya represent a set: compassion and wisdom. Vairocana clearly is a development of the Buddha. Early tantras have a trinity of Amitabha, Shakyamuni, and Akshobhya. Wisdom and compassion are clearly the two most salient features of a Buddha and it makes sense to represent them as individual Buddhas. However the tantras introduced a set of five Buddhas, which by about the 7th or 8th century CE had settled down into Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairocana in the centre. Clockwise from the east which is at the bottom in the image.

So where did Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi come from? This is something of a mystery. The standard texts such as Snellgrove's Indo-Tibetan Buddhism note the appearance of the pair, describe them and then move on. There is nothing about the process, nor about why they make a pair. Do they make a pair? Ratnasambhava is in the south, is golden yellow, is lotus throne is supported by horses, his mudra is the varada or giving mudra, and his emblem is the jewel - his name means Jewel Born. He is associated with the sun at midday. Ratnasmabhava's wisdom is the wisdom of equality which sees the that everything has the same nature, which is the nature of Shunyata.

Amoghasiddhi is in the north, is dark green, and his lotus throne is supported by shang-shang birds (these are garuda birds with human torsos and heads who play cymbals.) His mudra is the mudra of fearlessness and his emblem is the crossed vajra. In Sanskrit it is vishva-vajra, where vishva means something like "on all sides". Amoghasiddhi's wisdom is the wisdom of fearlessness. The Buddha kula that he presides over is known as the action family and his name means Unobstructed Success.

The breakthrough in understanding this pair came while attending a communication course with Locana. Over simplifying a bit, the model of communication and connection that Locana was describing begins with observation. Feelings arise from these observations. These feelings connect us with, and flag up, our values or needs. And out of this we move into action, or we make a request. The details are not important, but what struck me was that three of the steps in the model - observation, feelings, and actions - could relate to three of the Buddhas in the mandala. Obervation is intellect, but also brings to mind the mirrorlike wisdom which sees things just as they are. Feelings are obviously connected with red Amitabha's compassion. Action as I just mentioned were the concern of Amoghasiddhi. What was left out was values. The values, or sometimes needs, that are referred to are universal human values that we can all understand and connect with. They are the key to understanding conflict and connection. And it struck me that values is what Ratnasambhava corresponds to.

The jewel that Ratnasambhava holds is the cintamani, a symbol for the Bodhicitta. This is surely the highest value of Buddhists. We value Awakening as the most value thing. Generosity is the most fundamental virtue in Buddhism, which is to say that we value it highly. Generosity is sometimes seen as the best practice for lay people, whereas Awakening is the goal of serious practitioners. Generosity builds us merit which will a lay person to be born in fortunate circumstances, i.e. in circumstances where they can practice seriously and Awaken. In a mundane sense Ratnasambhava represents wealth. One of the main Bodhisattvas of his kula is Jambhala who holds a mongoose which spews forth jewels when squeezed. So yes, this does seem to fit. Sangharakshita has associated Ratnasmabhava with beauty and art. I think this is covered by the idea of value. Beauty is the object of aesthetic appreciation, and paying attention to beauty, according to Sangharakshita, helps to refine our senses. Refining our senses can help us to make progress towards experiencing more refined states of mind. Finally great art can help to transform our lives by inducing in us a reflection of the inspired state of the artist.

I suspect that Amoghasiddhi came first however. In the early tantra there were three Buddha kulas. At around the same time a group of three Bodhisattvas appeared in Buddhist art. Avalokiteshvara, Manjusri and Vajrapani represented compassion, wisdom and energy. The word translated as energy is virya. Virya is energy in pursuit of the good, ethical energy. It is energy directed towards Awakening. Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha of action, and this action is motivated by, and directed towards, the good. And the good is represented by the jewel held by Ratnasmabhava. So yes Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi do represent a pair.

Another observation has occurred to me in the last few days. Ratnasmabhava is a solar deity, he is associated with horses, is associated with giving, and is associated with art, beauty, and inspiration. Now there is another Indian deity who shares these characteristics and that is Agni. Agni is one of the old Vedic gods whose worship is outlined in the Rigveda. The word agni is cognate with ignite, and he was associated with the sacrificial fire, but also anything which burned including digestion, and the sun! So Agni is synonymous with the sun. The largest and most elaborate sacrifice in the Vedic calendar was the horse sacrifice - which is described in the first book in the Rigveda. Finally it was through possession by Agni that the Vedic sages were able to give voice to the ecstatic inspired hymns which make up the Rigveda. He is the source, the spark, of imagination and poetry - the highest art of the Vedic period.

This kind of absorption, if I am right, should come as no surprise. This is what the history of Indian religion is like. Buddhism adopted and absorbed deities from the earliest times, so that Indra is a frequent character in the Pali Canon for instance. The five Buddha mandala is a feature of esoteric Buddhism, which is itself a grand synthesis of seventh century Indian religion.

image by Aloka from the Padmaloka website.
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