26 December 2008

Communicating the Dharma

The experience of bodhi was always going to be difficult to describe and explain. This is dramatised in the well known story from the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the Buddha wondering whether it would be possible at all, and then being begged by Brahmā Sahampati to teach the Dharma. Of course any experience is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't had the same experience, especially if it is something entire new. A simile would be explaining the colour red to someone blind from birth.

Sometimes it seems as though traditional Buddhism considers that the Buddha had a single decisive experience that he then set about teaching about it for 45 years. Clearly this is an over simplification. But what was it like for the Buddha? What kind of process did he go through in order to assimilate his insight? Two suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya give a small window into this process. I suppose them to reflect a very early period of the Buddha's career.

The two suttas (SN 45.11 and 45.12) are identical except for a minor detail - the period of seclusion. In each the Buddha tells his companions that he wishes to go into seclusion for either half a month, or for three months, and that no one should approach him except to bring him alms food. When the Buddha returns he announces to the bhkkkhus:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening.
Now this is really very interesting. The Buddha is here shown to go back to dwell in the region (padesa) of his insight. Note that the metaphor is spacial - he was going back to the same 'space' as we might say. Now this phrase, as far as I can determine only occurs in these two texts, but is quoted from these texts in the Visuddhimagga (XVII,9 : p.594). Buddhaghosa uses the content of these suttas to argue against simple dependent origination and I don't plan to deal with that here. He does gloss padesa as "one part" suggesting that the Buddha dwelt in or on only some aspect of his immediate post-awakening experience.

The Buddha then attempts to convey something of what he has understood in the process. He begins: So evaṃ pajānāmi - "thus I have understood it", or "I know thus". The Sanskrit verbal root of pajānāmi is one that should be familiar to all Buddhists: jñā, which is related to our words 'know' and 'gnosis' and has much the same sense as the these English words.

In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā). He says that there are sensations associated with the various aspects of the Eightfold path: wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi), and right or perfect view (sammādiṭṭhi) - up to wrong concentration (micchāsamādhi) and perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi). Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.

So what can we make of this. Firstly let me say that it is not immediately obvious. There are some inconsistencies here if this text is describing an early period in the Buddha's career. One of the things that happens with texts is that over time they start to become formulaic. Things start to be quoted as lists, and further on when there is an obvious progression the list can be, as it is here, abbreviated by the word 'pe'. Many examples of less formulaic, more spontaneous sounding suttas can be found for example in the Sutta Nipātta, which for that reason, amongst others, is considered to be an earlier strata of the canon. Now, if this was some new insight that the Buddha was bringing back from his revisiting of the immediate post-enlightenment space, I hardly think he'd skip over the details of it. So both the presence of the eight-fold path, and the fact that it is abbreviated suggest that the sutta was composed rather late in the process of the creation of the Canon. Perhaps this passage was inserted at a later time; perhaps it was edited at a later time; perhaps the conjecture that the sutta relates to the Buddha's early career is just wrong.

The linking of "desire, thinking, and perceptions" is a collocation that I am unfamiliar with. In fact it doesn't seem to form a natural list at all. And this may be a sign again, of a poor job of later editing, or of a much less systematic presentation of the Buddha's insights. Notice also that the text says that even in the absence of these three that there is vedanā - sensation.

I begin to suspect that words are being used in way with which I am unfamiliar, so let's check a few definitions. Vedanā is built on the root vid "to know" from which we get many familiar words such as veda, and vidya. The verb form vedeti actually has a two-fold meaning according to the PED: in the intellectual sphere it can mean "to know", and more generally "to experience". I am so used to seeing vedanā used in a technical sense, that it can be easy to forget that it has other connotations! I think vedanā is being used in a more general sense of experience because if we use it in the more traditional sense we find logical inconsistencies.

Vitakka is an interesting choice here. Again it is more familiar as a technical term relating to meditation and the establishment of concentration. More generally it means "reflection, thought, thinking" - the vi- prefix can mean divided or expanding, and in the latter sense is used as an intensifier, and takka means "twisting or turning", and in an applied sense "doubt, a doubtful view, hair-splitting". I think we can take vitakka here as "turning something over in the mind", we might translate this as "reflection" (from Latin: reflex-, pp. stem of reflectere, from re- "back" + flectere "to bend." Online Etymological Dictionary).

Saññā is saṃ- + jñā so means literally "complete knowing". It is used in the senses of: "sense, consciousness, perception; discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness; conception, notion, idea; sign, gesture, token, mark". Technically it means the recognition of a vedanā, but it must be being used in a different sense here because it functions as a condition for vedanā, not the other way around! I think its being used in the sense of consciousness or awareness generally.

The Buddha is saying that in the absence of affective responses to experience; the absence of intellectual responses to experience; and the absence of being aware in it's more fundamental sense: there is still experience! Were on the home straight now. I think the Buddha is saying that there is an experience beyond normal everyday experiences, which causes one to stretch out to something as yet unattained. There are a couple of synonyms in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya no. 2) where it talks about the Buddha stretching and reaching out (abhinīharati abhininnāmeti) with his mind (citta) towards knowledge of other peoples minds, his own previous existences, and of the passing away and arising of beings; and in the culmination of the Awakening experience his mind stretches out towards knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavas) (D.i 79-84).

This may sound quite jejune to the contemporary Buddhist. But I go back to my original conjecture that this is likely to be an early discourse - edited perhaps but at least based on an actual early occasion. The Buddha is trying to explain something entirely new to his followers, to his new followers. And perhaps they, like us, are caught up in the magic show of sensory experience. The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. There is an air of mystery in this text. I find it a little difficult to believe that this will have been all the Buddha said on such an occasion. The Buddha usually also set out a method for his disciples to follow, but this is all that has been recorded by the tradition.

I think we may have here a somewhat fragmentary edited version of what it might have been like for the Buddha in the early days of his mission. He dwelt in states that had never been attained before, and therefore never described. He did not set out to create a new vāda or religious dogma, but tried to base his teaching in experience; and tried to devise methods for his disciples to achieve the same thing, and to motivate them to try it. This meant in part that he had to use language in new and interesting ways, and fortunately for us he had some genius in this area!

image: www.travexnet.com

19 December 2008

The Whole of the Spiritual Life

Last week I was exploring the notion of "the spiritual life" - aka brahmacarya. Today I'm going to write about a text that may well be familiar since it is often quoted in the FWBO. This is the famous incident (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2) when Ānanda, in his innocence, proclaims to the Buddha that:
upaḍḍhamidam, bhante, brahmacariyaṃ, yadidaṃ kalyānamittatā kalyānasahāyatā kalyānasampavaṅkata.

Half of this holy life, bhante, is spiritual friendship, spiritual companionship, spiritual intimacy.
To which the Buddha replies: mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ! Sakalamevidaṃ... "don't say that, Ānanda, don't say that! It is the whole of the spiritual life!" I quite like the old translation (by Woodward?) that is handed down orally in the FWBO: "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so!"

So let's just pause here to look at what these qualities are that Ānanda thinks are half, and the Buddha thinks are the whole of the brahmacariya. Firstly kalyāna is a wonderful word in Pāli which as an adjective means "beautiful, charming; auspicious, helpful, morally good" and as a noun "a good or useful thing; goodness, virtue, merit, meritorious action; kindness, good service; beauty, attraction, perfection. From the same Indo-European root comes the Greek kalos whence comes the English word 'kaleidoscope' - coined in the 19th century and meaning literally "observer of beautiful forms".

Kalyāna is prefixed to three terms in the quote above: mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata. Let's look at these one at a time.

Mitta is friend in Pāli, and mittatā is the abstract noun, friendship. But this word has a very interesting history. In Sanskrit the word is mitra, and in Avestan - the proto-Persian language - mithro. Now Mitra was the name of a Vedic god who played a particular role in the universe. Along with Varuṇa he helped to maintain the harmonious cosmic order ṛta. In particular Mitra was associated with contracts. This sense of a the bond of a contract underlies the concept of friendship in the word mitra. The Persian god Mithra had some of the same functions and this has helped to reinforce the idea that Persians and Vedic speaking Indians had a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-Europeans. So a mitra is someone who shares a common bond.

The concept of mettā is an abstraction from mittatā - that is it describes the qualities of the relationship in mittatā or friendship. In Buddhism it comes to mean the universal loving kindness of the awakened person who is described as constantly pervading the universe in all directions with mettā for all beings (see esp. the Tevijja Sutta DN 13). It occurs to me that this too could be a reference to Mitra the god, who did pervade the universe with his power. It fits the context of what Richard Gombrich considers the first discourse on mettā (ie the Tevijja Sutta) - but there-in lies another story which is too long for this post, but which I touch on in The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

Sahāya means companion or friend, and therefore sahāyatā means companionship or friendship. The base here though is saha which means "together", and the connotation is therefore "togetherness". A 'companion' in English is one with whom you share (Latin com, 'with') bread (panis). This world is known as a saha world "because we all suffer together", according to my colleague Sahānanda. In the Upaniṣads the goal of the brahmacarin is (in Sanskrit) 'brahmasahāvyata' or companionship with Brahma - it is this idea that the Buddha is critiquing in the Tevijja Sutta.

Sampavaṅka is perhaps from saṃ + pari + anka. Anka being the hollow above the hip where mothers carry their babies, so the word might literally be "together + encompassed + on the hip" with the sense of sharing the same mother, of being cradle mates. Once again the -tā suffix makes this an abstract known - perhaps 'intimateness'? In any case it is used in the sense of intimacy, or intimate friendship.

We have here, then, three synonymous terms - mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata- which give us a sense of a quality that none alone quite manages to describe: someone we are bound together with in an intimate relationship. And each term is prefixed with kalyāna emphasising that the nature of this relationship is virtuous, beautiful and helpful. Clearly this is a refined ideal and one that we are not going to meet with that often. We have friends, we have intimate friends, but there are not many people in our lives who are going to fulfil all of these criteria. In fact other texts say that the Buddha is the ideal kalyānamitta, the ideal spiritual friend.

Our text then moves on to describe in what way the whole of the spiritual life is bound up in the beautiful friend etc. Firstly the one who has these three qualities will be bound to devote themselves to, and make much of (bahulīkarissati) the Eightfold path of the Noble Ones. Another way of putting it, the text says, is that by relying on the Buddha as a spiritual mentor beings who are subject to birth, old age, death, and to all manner of suffering will be released from these. In this way one we should understand that the spiritual friend, companion, and intimate is the whole of the brahmacarya.

So a kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka is someone, like the Buddha, who is able to help you be free from suffering, someone who can help you to be liberated, to attain nibbāna. It seems to me then that the standard translation as "good friend" is hardly adequate to the job. I have been using the word "spiritual" for kalyāna but it is a bit overused, I used it also for the brahma part of brahmacarya, and generally speaking the word "spiritual" is so over used that it is almost meaningless these days. I wonder whether something like "virtuous mentor" might not give a better sense of what is meant by kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka. The word 'virtue' is etymologically linked to 'vīra', the hero. However our societies don't honour virtuousness, and sometimes see it as a sign of weakness. So even 'virtuous' has lost its punch.

Our contemporary use of the word "mentor" derives from a character in Homer's Odyssey. While Odysseus is on his way home his son Telemachus has a lot to contend with. His house is invaded by men who, thinking his father dead, would marry his mother and take Odysseus's wealth and power for their own. Telemachus is at his wit's end, and actually in danger of being killed by the suitors when the Goddess Athena appears to him in the guise of Mentor, an old family friend. As mentor Athena advises Telemachus so that he not only comes through unscathed, but smooths the way for Odysseus to return. So a mentor is one who embodies virtue or divinity, who gives us guidance and advice, and who has our best interests at heart. In contemporary terms a mentor is someone who shares their life and experience with us, and this chimes with what Sangharakshita has said is the main role of a guru. The Buddha is of course like this - he wants people to be free of suffering. Time and again he reminds people that this is the whole point of his teaching. So he is the mentor par excellence. I think this also fits with the notion of the traditional bond between a master and disciple. On a more cosmic level this relationship corresponds to the later notion of adhiṣṭhāna or in Japanese Kaji, sometimes translated as "grace". I have discussed this in my essay Buddhism as a path of gracefulness, so won't say more here.

To sum up then: the text is saying that a virtuous, even an enlightened, mentor is the whole of the brahmacarya, the spiritual life.

12 December 2008

The spiritual life or Brahmacarya

Linguists study language in one of two basic ways. They look at language through time, how it changes, and the processes that drive and inform that change. This is called a diachronic approach - 'dia-' meaning 'across'. When applied to what a particular word means we usually refer to this kind of study as etymology. The etymology of the word 'etymology' tells us that the two parts mean: true (eteos) word (logia) and the sense of it is that it reveals the true meaning of the word. [Note the parallel with the Japanese word for mantra: shingon = true word] Or linguists study what language does now, what things mean in the context of the present and in a particular place. This approach is called synchronic - 'syn-' meaning 'together'. Ironically the history of a word can be entirely irrelevant to what it means now. Consider the contemporary meaning of the word 'terrific' which originally meant terrifying!

Just as one can study what a word means these way, we can study what an idea means. In this post I plan to do a potted history of an idea which I am representing by the phrase "spiritual life" in English which equates with the Sanskrit word brahmacarya (it is the same in Pāli). We can begin with an etymology. Brahmacarya is a compound combining the elements brahma and carya. 'Brahma' is the uninflected form of the noun, as we expect in a Sanskrit compound. So it can mean either the transcendent principle of the universe, brahman (neuter tense), or the more concrete manifestation of the creator God, Brahmā (masculine tense). It's important to realise that these two are not necessarily synonymous. Carya more literally means "going about, wandering, walking or roaming, visiting, driving", and in its applied sense means "behaviour, conduct; practising, performing, occupation with, engaging in". The word brahmacarya is used in relation to a number of ideas, and how we understand it depends to a large extent on what time and place we are talking about.

In the early days of the Vedic religion the sages often were faced with, or posed each other, puzzles of a metaphysical nature: for instance they wondered on what did the creator stand when he created the world? Answers to these puzzles were known as brahmans. The Ṛgveda contains many puzzles, and many brahmans. The ancient Vedic world view was one in which the world was wondrous and ordered by a mysterious cosmic principle that they called ṛta. Everything in the world was interconnected and participated in this cosmic order, and maintenance of the cosmic order was a joint project between the gods and the priests. So a brahman was like an insight into the cosmic order. The Vedics also believed that such insights, especially insights into the connections (bandhu) between this world and heaven were important for understanding, and therefore maintaining ṛta. The functional aspect of the Vedic religion was the act of sacrifice, with the sacrificial fire (agni) being the medium of exchange between this world and heaven - such commerce being essential for maintaining ṛta.

Perhaps due to the changing social circumstances - for instance the discovery and use of iron that helped to transform the Ganges plain from forest to farmland - priests began to reflect on their function. In particular they began to believe that it was possible to abstract the sacrificial ritual and perform it in imagination. The texts in which these ideas were first composed were commentaries on the Saṃhita portions of the Vedas and were called brāhmaṇa. Confusingly the priests themselves were now also called brāhmaṇas - I use the Anglacized Brahmin to talk about the priests. It was perhaps at this time that the cosmic order ṛta was reconceptualised as dharma - which can mean both 'nature' and 'duty' thus incorporating similar concepts, but moving in a new direction.

Not long before the Buddha this movement to think about things, to create abstractions, and to work in the imagination, took form in the Upaniṣadic or Vedantic traditions (although the latter terms seems to have come along much later). It is in the Upaniṣads that we meet with the two conceptions I mentioned above: brahman the abstract transcendental principle; and Brahmā the creator god. Of course at this time there are also recorded many other religious traditions, indeed if we read history right there was an explosion of new ideas around this time that coincided with similar processes in other parts of the world. The period has been called the Axial Age. The non-Brahmin sectarians were called śramaṇas - from the root śram meaning to work or toil. Incidentally some linguists think this word śramaṇa comes into English, via Asian and Russian intermediaries, as the word shaman (more on this in a future post).

In this early Upaniṣadic period (also known as the "Late Vedic period") a Brahmin man is described as going through several stages in life or āśramas (incidental from the same root śram). Women are not part of this picture. Different texts describe different numbers of stages, and some see them not as a sequence but as different possible lifestyles, however all seem to include brahmacarya. Taken as a sequence in the early stage of life one was unmarried and this, even today in Indian, is synonymous with being celibate. However celibacy was probably initially incidental for unmarried men, and the importance of this phase of life was that it involved learning and study. The ideal was for a son to study with his father. However some students went to live and study with teachers, and some even wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. The object of study was still considered to be the Vedas and their associated rituals, but may have included the śastric branches of knowledge as well such as grammar, mathematics and astrology. Conformation of this basic set up are found in early Buddhist texts which frequently refer to Brahmins as well versed in the Vedas and other Brahminical studies. After this period of learning the Brahmin youth might stay with his teacher, but more usually was expected to return home and marry, produce more sons and in turn educate them in the Brahminical lore and procedures.

The Buddha was to some extent limited in how he got his ideas across by the language of the day. Sometimes he simply used existing terms unchanged (eg. tapas asceticism) and sometimes he attempted to redefine a word as in the case of dharma and in this case of brahmacarya. In fact the Buddha attempted to totally redefine the concept of what a Brahmin is - linking it to behaviour rather than birthright. Clearly this latter project failed, but we have inherited this word brahmacarya.

In the early Buddhist texts brahmacarya keeps virtually the same reference, but loses the any sense of sequence. Anyone who is undertaking some kind of spiritual or religious training could be referred to as a brahmacarin. It's quite a common usage in the canon. All bhikkhus were undertaking brahmacarya because they undertake religious vows, study sacred texts, and undertake various religious and ascetic practices. However at some point - and I'm not sure when this happened - the word came to have the much narrower meaning of 'chastity' that is the abstention from any kind of sexual activity (and the vinaya is explicit and exhaustive in proscribing forms of sex!). It's ironic that what was originally a mere coincidence because of the rigid social structures which required that there be no sex before marriage, is not the most important feature of the lifestyle.

To some extent the WBO has revalorised the word, broadening it our again to mean one who doesn't indulge the pleasures of the senses. Someone who undertakes a vow of brahmacarya does refrain from sexual activity, but also undertakes to avoid over stimulating themselves in other ways as well. They may also express this by trying to let go of personal preferences. Someone who takes a life vow of brahmacarya is known in our order an an anagarika. This means one (-ka) who does not have (an-) a home (agara). So another feature of their lives is that they try to minimise possessions and this is usually interpreted especially as including not owning real-estate.

image: from a post on celibacy by Shravasti Dhammika on his blog Dhamma Musings.

05 December 2008

Yāska and his 'Nirukta'

In an earlier post on sound symbolism I made reference to the Indian grammarian Yāska, and I thought it would be a good idea to flesh out the picture of his method and why it should still be of interest to those interested in mantra.

Despite his subsequent influence, we do not know very much about Yāska. His dates are uncertain but most scholars place him between 700 - 300 BCE. His single surviving work is the Nirukta. The early grammarians were responding to a particular problem which was that the spoken language of the day had drifted substantially away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language of the sacred Vedas. This meant that passages of the sacred Vedas had become obscure or even unintelligible. Many passages in the Ṛgveda remain obscure. This is a natural consequence of language change and I have previously noted the example of the noun vahatu which occurs in the first verse of the Dhammapada, but whose meaning was apparently obscure to the commentators, and does not appear in traditional dictionaries. The response of the ancient Indians was to study and systematise their language - the contemporary studies of phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology owe much to the Sanskrit grammarians. The result was Classical Sanskrit - saṃskṛta means something like "crafted". Yāska was particularly interested in some of the words that had become obscure and systematised a set of principles for determining what they might mean.

The Nirukta, following an existing tradition, treats all words as deriving from verbal roots - these are the notional abstracts which underlie words. So from the root √budh, we get via a regular process the verb bodhati (to know). Similarly the past-participle buddha (one who knows), and nouns buddhi (intelligence) and bodhi (awakening) are treated analytically as deriving from the verbal root through a series of logical transformations. For instance in first class verbs the vowel in the root undergoes guṇa or "strengthening" with √budh become bodh; active present tense stems are formed by adding the vowel 'a', and then suffixes indicate person and number: 1st person singular bodhāmi, 3rd person plural bodhanti. the verbal noun. Historically the process must have worked the other way - through analysing a group of related word. An entire language was subjected to a detailed analysis without the aid of writing! It is a work of collective genius.

Some words are more difficult to trace. The verb tiṣṭhati (to stand) for instance is thought to come from the root √sthā. Other strange examples are √gam > gacchati (to go) > gata (gone), √dṛś > paśyati (to see) > dṛṣṭi (a view). So it is possible to come across a word and find that identifying the underlying concept is quite difficult.

As described in Eivind Kahrs 1998 book Indian semantic analysis, the Nirukta proposes three levels of analysis. Firstly there are obvious examples like √budh where the root and it's transformations are known. Secondly there are examples where the meaning is not obvious but one can use grammatical paradigms to work out what sense of it is - such as √gam. Thirdly there are very obscure examples which defy logical analysis. It is in these extreme cases that one must apply what has become known as a nirukta or nirvacana analysis. (Sadly I don't have a definite example of one of these).

This kind of analysis has been liken to etymology - the contemporary study of the way a word changes its meaning over time. So the word "know" comes into modern English from Old English cnawan, and is related to Greek gno- (as in the word 'gnosis'); and the Sanskrit. jña- "know" and comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European base *gno- "to know". This approach has allowed scholars to speculate on the existence of a language which must underlie all Indo-European languages - which they call "Proto-Indo-European" - and to specify what some of it's features must have been in order to give rise to the variations we see.

Yāska's procedure was somewhat different. Where the root of a word could be determined and was still obscure in meaning, Yāska employed a system of sound symbolism. That is to say that he employed the knowledge that words which share phonemes, especially initial phonemes, have a much higher likelihood of overlapping in meaning, than two words which do not share phonemes. If one approaches this systematically then it is possible to make fairly accurate guesses as to what a word might mean. Having narrowed the field, one can then use context get closer to the meaning.

Contemporary linguists are loath to accept that a phoneme can carry meaning, but there is no a priori reason to think this, and there is evidence to suggest that it is true. Meaning is of course a vague term - what does meaning mean? It seems to me that there is always a level of ambiguity in verbal communication - the higher the level of structure the more clearly defined the meaning being conveyed. An idea might be conveyed with a word, but then words can be ambiguous, and individual words can related in different ways to themselves and to their referents. A sentence relieves some of this ambiguity, but a complex idea may take a paragraph to express, and a book or even a series of books to fully explicate. At the other end of the scale as we break down words into their component parts we lose clarity - prefixes, suffixes and roots for instance are less clear on their own. Individual phonemes then represent a level below this and carry information with considerable ambiguity, but are not absolutely arbitrary.

So there is every reason for Yāska to resort to this feature of language when other more sure methods have failed him. Remember that he was highly motivated to find the meaning of words because they occurred in the Vedas and had the status of revealed and eternal truths. The loss of meaning in this context is disastrous! Just leaving the meaning obscure was not an option.

Despite the fact that his Nirukta is the earliest surviving text of this type Yāska was not the originator of this method, he was a systematiser. Evidence for the method emerges in the Brāhmaṇa literature - beginning perhaps 1200-1000 BCE. Eivind Kahrs notes example from thr Ṛgveda: uṣā ucchati - "the dawn dawns", which indicates a perception of the underlying connection between the two words despite being spelled somewhat differently. This search for connections - bandhu - is characteristic of the Brāhmaṇa literature and of the Vedic religion generally (see my Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness). Perhaps given the central important of bandhu in the Vedic religion it is no surprise that it should have been the approach to revealing linguistic mysteries.

Johannes Bronkhorst has drawn attention to parallels between the Nirukta and Plato's Cratylus. The two may well have lived at the same time, although it seems unlikely that they could have known each other. The main parallel of course is that both Yāska and Plato consider that phonemes can and do carry meaning, and can given clues as to what a word means. I covered this in my Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism although there I illustrated Yāska's method with an example I found in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. I think now that Buddhaghosa is working at some remove to Yāska, although the sound symbolic aspect is still present and prominent. Buddhaghosa is of course applying the method to very familiar words which would have needed no explanation to Buddhaghosa's audience. Similarly T.P. Kasulis has drawn parallels between the Cratylus and Kūkai's Shōji jissō gi (The Meaning Sound, word reality - see Hakeda, Y. Major Works p. 234 f.).

The reason I think that Yāska is worth knowing about is that the ideas that he helped to systematise and popularise seem related to the way in which words have power in India. We say for instance that mantras are 'sound symbols'. This idea is underpinned by Yāska's theory. The use of sounds which have no apparent semantic content - such as oṃ or hūṃ - may make more sense when we recall that the milieu in which they were used was one in which a systematic study had been made of the way that words that sound alike are frequently related in meaning. I firmly believe that Buddhism is best understood against the background of Indian thought generally, and that to study the history of Buddhist ideas in isolation (which is typical) gives a false impression.

Note: 22 Dec
I didn't say this at the time, but in Yāska's day there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised. Coming upon an unfamiliar form one had very limited resources - probably only one's guru - to consult. It's important to keep this in mind when thinking about this subject.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2001. "Etymology and Magic: Yāska's Nirukta, Plato's Cratylus, and The Riddle of Semantic Etymologies." Numen, Volume 48, Number 2, 2001 , pp. 47-203(57)
  • Hakeda, Y. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
  • Kahrs, Eivind. 1998 Indian semantic analysis : the nirvacana tradition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online: http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/kasulis3.htm

Next Week: brahmacarya - the spiritual life.

image: Vedic text from probedeep.blogspot.com

28 November 2008

The Unconditioned

I was discussing a previous post on the unborn, unmade, etc. with my friend Dhīvan the other day, and he mentioned that there are a series of suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya which are devoted to explaining the term unconditioned - asaṅkhata. The Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta chapter begins with a representative sutta (SN 43.1) and is short enough to quote in full.
At Sāvatthi: Bhihhkus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path going to the unconditioned. Hear this. And what is the unconditioned? The destruction of craving, aversion, and confusion: this is called unconditioned. And what is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness of the body. That is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

So, bhikkhus, I have taught you about the unconditioned, and the path leading to the unconditioned. I have done that which should be done by an empathetic teacher, out of empathy, desiring the welfare of his disciples. There are the feet of trees; there are the empty shelters: meditate bhikkhus, don't be intoxicated with the senses. Don't be regretful afterwards! This is our advice to you. (1)
Let's start by exploring the word asaṅkhata. It is a compound of a + saṃ + khata. Khata comes from the root kṛ which means "to do, make, perform". It is a past-participle which indicates something already done: "done, made, performed". The saṃ- prefix means "together" or "complete" - so the base meaning is "put together" and the applied meaning is "conditioned". It is contrasted to some extent by the word saṃkhārā which is more typically translated as compounded, or even confected. The a- prefix is a negative "un-, non-" so the word is unconditioned. Nyanatiloka defines saṅkhata as: 'the formed', i.e. anything originated or conditioned, comprises all phenomena of existence. (2)

There is a tendency amongst Western Buddhists to talk about "the unconditioned" as a state or a place - which inadvertently leads to it seeming like a place you can arrive, or a state you can achieve. I prefer to treat it as a function of experience, i.e. I am repeating my mantra that "it is experiences which arise in dependence on causes". One way of looking at it is that they arise in dependence on contact between a sense organ, a sense object, and a sense consciousness.

Here however the Buddha defines the unconditioned in terms of the kilesas: craving, aversion, confusion. Craving is craving for the continuance of experiences; aversion is the desire not to have an experience; and confusion is confusion about the nature of experiences. So what we are calling the unconditioned is an experience in which there is no attachment to, or attempt to hold onto the experience; nor is there any pushing away or denial of the experience; and one is clear that this is simply an experience not something more (i.e. real) or less (i.e. illusion, or unreal).

This reading is supported by what the Buddha says about the path leading to the unconditioned: it is mindfulness towards the body: kāyagatāsati. This word is used in two ways: as a general reference to body based meditation practices, and to the specific practice in which one analyses the body into its parts. However we know that the Buddha taught many ways to meditate, and in particular several other kinds of sati or anusati meditation, (3) we shouldn't read this too literally. If we allow for a general reading of this the Buddha is saying that it is sati that leads to the unconditioned. Sati comes from a root - smṛ - which means "to remember" or call to mind. In Vedic the equivalent word smṛti refers to commentaries on the the sacred texts as distinct from the Vedas themselves which are śruti or heard as divine revelations. So sati really means to bring to mind and reflect on - its not a concentration practice, but a reflection or insight practice. Specifically in this case one reflects on ones the experience of the body, sometimes by considering it as being made up of many different kinds of substances. So there is an additional metaphor here of the body being compounded (i.e. saṅkhata) from various substances. Personally I think this metaphor is secondary to reflecting on the experience, whereas it tends to be foregrounded in the received tradition - to me this reflects a somewhat materialistic attitude towards the notion of dhammas.

So this is all that an empathetic teacher would do for his disciple. I'm translating as empathy the wonderful Pāli word anukampa which is literally to shake or tremble with. There are a number of possible translations, Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as "compassion" although this word is more often used to translate karuṇā. Compassion is "to suffer with"; empathy is "feeling in(side)"; and sympathy is "feeling (together) with". The sense of this word relates to another Pāli idiom which is found in the Mettā Sutta: tasā vā thāvara meaning "fearful or fearless." Actually tasā can mean "trembling" as in trembling with fear, and the Buddha is one who is fearless, ie does not tremble (kampa). So one who trembles is unenlightened, but one who is enlightened, though not fearful themselves, is able to empathise with those who still do.

Note my translation of mā pamādattha - "don't be intoxicated with the senses", which I explain in my earlier post on the Buddha's Last Words. An examination of how appamāda (the opposite of pamāda) is used in the Canon reveals that it is always associated with the objects of the sense, and the root here is mada - intoxication. Translating as "mindfulness", or even "heedfulness" or "vigilance" miss this important connection. A contrast is being drawn here between our usual mode of experience and that in meditation. Usually we are swamped with huge amounts of sensory information (i.e. dhammas), and we are intoxicated and obsessed with it, lost in the play of the senses just as we might be if we suspended disbelief and became engrossed in a movie. In meditation though we attempt to extract ourself from this situation, we stay collected, or recollected, and we watch the play of dhammas without getting caught up. In samatha meditation we are developing the skills of staying focussed and calm; and in vipassanā or insight meditation we bring these skills to bear on our experience, usually through focus on a subject. One can do this with no subject, just watching the play of whatever experience one is having at the time, and this kind of meditation goes by many names: just sitting, Zazen, formless practice, and (if I understand correctly) also Dzogchen and Mahamudra.

I like the pragmatic tone of this text. The roots of trees and shelters (agāra) are the places where monks would have meditated, and having told them how to meditate, the Buddha points to the meditation seats and says "ok, I've told you what to do, now get on with it!". One gets the feeling that the audience were not novices or lay people. These were some serious, and probably quite experienced meditators, perhaps about to embark on a rainy season 3 month retreat. If I had the time I'd look up the commentary which often gives such details, but sadly I must leave it here. Note here too the simplicity: a single practice is taught in this case, probably to a single person or small group. Often in the Canon, under similar circumstances, monks are freed from the defilements in a very short period of time and become arahants. He also reminds them that opportunities are not infinite and if they don't take this one they may live to regret it (vippaṭisāra).

  1. My translation. Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation is on p.1372 of the single volume edition of Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom. Not available on Access to Insight.
  2. Nyanatiloka. 2004. Buddhist Dictionary. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society, 4th ed. (1980) p.194
  3. eg. in AN 6.10 the Mahānāma Sutta there is a six-fold list: buddhānussati, dhammānussati, saṅghānussati, sīlānussati , cāgānussati , devatānussati - recollection respectively of the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha, virtue, generosity, and the gods. Buddhaghosa (Vsm iii.105) adds maraṇasati, kāyagatāsati, ānāpānasati, upasamānussati - recollection of death, the body, the breath, and peace (aka nibbana). The recollection of the gods (devatānussati) focusses on the virtuous lives they must have lead for such a fortunate rebirth.
image: shortie66

21 November 2008

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?Sometimes Buddhism and Buddhists can seem a bit dour - a half smile is permissible, but a belly laugh might be out of place - which can be problematic for me! And yet there are some definite examples of the Buddha displaying his quick wit and sense of humour in the Pāli texts. One of my favourites - partly because I discovered it for myself, and partly because it really is witty - occurs in the Sutta Nipātta.

In the Pūraḷāsa Sutta the Brahmin Sundarika-Bhāradvāja is wandering about with the leftovers from his ritual sacrifice to the gods looking for someone to give them to. He is concerned to give the offering to a Brahmin and thereby make the maximum amount of merit from his generosity. If this sounds a bit venial recall that this is exactly what modern lay Buddhists do except their offerings are to bhikkhus not Brahmins.

Sundarika-Bhāradvāja meets the Buddha, who as an ascetic is a likely recipient of the offering, however he is cautious and enquires what caste the Buddha is, or more specifically: "is he a brahmin?" The Buddha answers that caste is irrelevant to a renunciant, but Sundarika-Bhāradvāja insists that it isn’t, and that Brahmins always enquire about caste. The Buddha is not playing that game however, and he says:
Brāhmaṇo hi ce tvaṃ brūsi, mañca brūsi abrāhmaṇaṃ;
Taṃ taṃ sāvittiṃ pucchāmi, tipadaṃ catuvīsatakkharaṃ.
If you call yourself a Brahmin, and say that I am not a Brahmin;
I ask about that Sāvitrī (mantra, of) three lines and twenty-four syllables?
I use the Anglicized 'Brahmin' for brāhamaṃa because there are also texts called brāhmaṇa and because it is more familiar. The Sāvitrī (Pāli Sāvitti) mantra is also called Gāyatrī because it is in the gāyatrī metre which has three lines and twenty-four syllables. It comes from the Ṛgveda, and in Sanskrit goes:
Tat savitur vareṭyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (2)
Which Saddhatissa translates as:
May we attain that excellent glory of Sāvitrī the god, that he may stimulate our thoughts. (3)
The Sāvitrī mantra is pronounced at dawn and dusk in daily Brahminical rituals - and this is as true today as it was in the Buddha's day when it was a centuries old practice!

Fausböll comments in the introduction to his translation that “The commentator understands by Sâvatti the Buddhistic [going for refuge] formula, which like the Sâvitti, contains twenty-four syllables”. (4) This seems an unlikely interpretation. For a start the refuge formula is definitely prose and not verse, (5) but the Buddha is talking here to someone who has not gone for refuge to the Three Jewels. The Buddhist refuge formula may have had little or no meaning to him. He was a Brahmin, practising Brahminical rituals, and the reference to the Sāvatrī mantra would be completely in context, whereas the going for refuge formula would not. By mentioning the number of lines and syllables the Buddha may well be emphasising that though he is not a hereditary Brahmin he knows a lot about the practices of the Brahmins.

Actually it seems as though the Buddha is gently ribbing the Brahmin by saying that if he thinks that he is superior because he was born a Brahmin then his thoughts need ‘stimulating’ (pracud). "Brahmin” was one of the words that the Buddha tried, but ultimately failed, to adopt and reform. He equated the terms 'Brahmin' and 'Arahant', and told people that one became a Brahmin through striving for Awakening, not through birth.(6)

Now this joke was probably quite quickly lost on later Buddhists as they seem to disconnect from the culture around them, and to be unaware of Brahminical practice - you have to know what the Sāvitrī mantra says for it to be funny. But the Buddha himself is well versed in Brahminical ideas and he uses this knowledge to poke fun at and parody not only Brahmins, but Jains, and other sects. Interesting that these things were preserved even though the sense of them was lost. There will be a chapter on this in Richard Gombrich's forthcoming book What the Buddha Thought (Equinox Publications, due Spring 2009).

So the answer is yes, the Buddha did have a sense of humour! He was a great satirist!

  1. Saddhatissa translates: “if you can say that you are a Brahmin and that I am not / then I must remind you of Sāvitrī’s mantra of three lines and twenty-four letters”. Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipātta. Surrey : Curzon Press, p.51 (Sn 457; 459 in the VRI version). However the verb is pucchāmi "I ask", and akkhara are syllables rather than letters.
  2. Sanskrit text from Padoux, A. 2003. Mantra. in Flood, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, M.A. : Blackwell Publishing. p.481
  3. Saddhatissa ibid. p.55, note 2 (my emphasis)
  4. Fausböll, V. 1881 The Sutta-nipâtta : a collection of discourses, being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Delhi, Motilal Barnadidass, 1968. (Sacred Books of the East Vol. 10). p.xiii, note 2.
  5. Richard Gombrich, personal communication.
  6. see Sutta Nipātta 650, and the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) for instance

image: Maitreya/Laughing Buddha

14 November 2008

Unborn, unbecome, not-made, uncompounded

This well known quote came up in a WBO eforum discussion recently and I have been giving it some thought.
"There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.
Translated from the Pali by John D. Ireland
This is Udana 8.3, p.103 in the Edition cited. An alternative translation is available on Access to Insight. The heart of the Pāli, the 'udāna' itself, goes:
Atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. No cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī’’ti.
In the first sentence the form of the Pāli allows for any article: the, a, an - ie "the unborn", "an unborn" are equally possible, however the verb is atthi which is 3rd person singular - "there is" - so we deduce that the unborn etc are not distinct terms but synonyms, and as we will see they are in fact synonymous in this context. The terms are all based on past-participles - things that have already happened. Jātaṃ would be "has been born", and ajātaṃ is literally "not- has been born" so could be rendered as unborn, not-born, non-born, or perhaps will not be born.

The middle sentence of the texts tells us that there would be no knowing of escape (nissaraṇaṃ) from the born, become, made, compounded. The verb here, abhavissa, from the root bhū - 'to become' or 'to be' - is in the rarely used conditional tense which is used to state "false or impossible hypothesis" - so it means something like "if there were not". The idea that there might not be an unborn etc. is a stating a false hypothesis (so don't panic). The last sentence says that arising from unborn etc, there is an escape - I will unpack this below.

I was thinking about what this text means and the question I began to ask was: what is it that is unborn (ajātaṃ) unbecome (abhūtaṃ), unmade (akataṃ), uncompounded (asaṅkhataṃ)?

The usual answer is something like "nibbana" or "enlightenment" is unborn, unbecome, not-made, and uncompounded. Unborn might typically be thought to mean that a post-parinibbana Buddha does not undergo birth, or that after enlightenment there is no rebirth. My answer to the question would be experiences and/or dhammas - dhammas being the elements of experience. It is dhammas then that are unborn, unbecome, un-made, and uncompounded. This suggests that ajātaṃ means that nothing substantial is 'born' during the process of experience, a common axiom in Perfection of Wisdom texts but one that fits this context quite well. Abhūtaṃ (unbecome) might conventionally be a synonym for ajātaṃ - meaning no becoming, as in no again-becoming or rebirth. It might be thought perhaps to be a reference to the becoming (bhāva) being fuelled (upādāna) by desire (taṇha) in the twelve nidanas. (see my Playing with Fire). I would point again to the process of experience in which no "thing" comes into existence. Jāta and Bhūtaṃ in this context are direct equivalents.

The term kata is a synonym of saṅkhārā, both coming from the Sanskrit root kṛ - "to make, do, produce". The last term confirms that what is being referred to here is dhammas, because experiences that are saṅkhārā - compounded - are compounded from dhammas. And saṃkhata is also synonymous with saṃkhārā. So akata and asaṃkhata can be seen as saying much the same thing, that in experience no "thing" comes into being. No-thing is made, and no-thing is compounded. The purpose here is not paradoxical, although without the appropriate reference points it is difficult to understand, the text is pointing to the consequence of being aware in the way that we are.

So we're out of the area of mysticism and metaphysics and into the existential situation - which is a good thing in my book. We have experiences that consist only of sense data and mental events - 'citta arising in dependence on contact' in the jargon. Because of the perceptual situation we can only process experience via the apparatus of experience - the five blazing masses of fuel (pañca-upādāna-aggi-khandhā) aka the five khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). There is no way around our perceptual apparatus to get behind experience - such attempts merely generate more sense data and mental events. There is never a naked object without any subject. However we believe that our experiences indicate actual things which are independent of our perception of them. So, though we believe we experience "objects" the set-up means that we only have experiences. To experiences no definite ontological status can be assigned - they neither exist, nor non-exist. The ontological status of objects, which are strongly suggested by our common perceptions of them, is indeterminate and not relevant to the Buddhist project.

Now we must ask what hope the Buddha is holding out here? He is offering nissaraṇaṃ paññāyati. Nissaraṇa is complex so let's quote the whole entry in the PTSD: "going out, departing; issue, outcome, result; giving up, leaving behind, being freed, escape, salvation". The translator clearly has some latitude here, but let's keep that in mind while sticking to "escape". It's neuter so nissaraṇaṃ could be the agent or the patient of the verb, I'm reading it as the patient (i.e. as an accusative; the verb happens to this). Pāli and Sanskrit allow for implicit agents - the verb being 3rd person singular implies the agent is "he".

Paññāyati is a verb meaning "to be (well) known, to be perceived, seen, or taken for, to appear" - it's a passive form of pajānāti "to know, find out etc". So I'm reading this as "he comes to know the escape", or perhaps "the result is perceived by him". We need not settle on a single rendering as that would tend to make us exclude other possibilities - keep in mind that this sentence can be read in multiple ways!

I notice that in the last sentence our familiar list of un-s are all given this time in the genitive case. This is typically used to indicate possession. However Pāniṇi apparently says that there are 100 uses of the genitive and I don't know them all. I'm not convinced that Ireland's interpretation (that "since there is an unborn etc") is the right one. What the verse seems to suggest to me (and this is a tentative and naive reading) is that out of the unborn etc, that is to say on the basis of a quality of them, comes the knowledge or perception of escape (from saṃsara).

So what the text would be saying in this case is that by observing one's experience one becomes aware that actually all that happens is that there are experiences; and by seeing, to the fullest extent, that nothing substantial arises during this process one sees that escape from saṃsara is possible. Contrarily if something really did come into being in the way we interpret it, if our experience was real, then we would be stuck. It's only because of experience is ephemeral that we are able to radically change the way we relate to it. The parallel with King Midas comes to mind. He was granted his wish that everything he touched turned to gold. And he could not eat or drink gold; and his family (daughter?) was turned to gold - his fondest wish became a curse. We too are better off not wishing for things to be real, or unreal. Things are just what they are.

Clearly there is some ambiguity in this text, and it could be translated in a number of different ways. Thanissaro's translation is similar enough to mine to make it likely that I have not strayed too far from the plausible.

Of course I'm fond of this line of argument because it makes the whole Buddhist project less mystical and makes it seem a whole lot more possible! But I would say that in my better moments I believe I have seen into this with some depth, enough to give me confidence that it is a fruitful theme to pursue. I also believe that this theme was taken up by, and further expanded in, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and is quite powerfully represented in the alphabetical meditation on aspects of śūnyatā as we find it in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (which I have written about quite a bit both on Jayarava Rave and on my Mantra website).

As an aside there is an interesting parallel here with the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BṛU) 4.4.24-5:
"There is this great unborn (aja) self (ātman), eater of food, giver of wealth. The one who knows this finds wealth

This is the great unborn self, unaging (ajaro), undying (amara), immortal (amṛta), fearless (abhaya), Brahman. Brahman is fearless: the one who knows this becomes fearless Brahman."(Roebuck p.76)
The BṛU is usually considered to be pre-Buddhist because the Buddha specifically parodies it in some suttas (see for instance the Tevijja Sutta, DN 13). The construction between this and the Udāna verses is quite close I think. Certainly the theme of birth (ja or jati), old age (jara) and death (mara) should be familiar to Buddhists as the subjects of the first of the three sights, and from the Nidana chain. It may well be that Udāna 8.3 is another case of the Buddha consciously parodying an Upaniṣadic theme. Next week's post is going to be on the Buddha as satirist. This BṛU verse reads like a description of tathāgatagarbha doesn't it? Which is Jayarava as satirist ;-)

The questions "what is liberation, is it possible, and how is it possible?" are
major concerns for Buddhism. The answer here is that liberation is possible precisely because of the nature of experience, because in the process of experiencing nothing substantial comes into being. It is not that in saṃsara things are born, become, are made and conditioned; and that in nibbāna things are not born, do not become, are not made and conditioned. The condition of ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ always applies! What changes is whether or not we are drunk on (pamada), or obsessed (pariyādāya) or infatuated with (madanīyesu), objects of the senses: if we are, that is saṃsara; if we are not, that is nibbāna (more or less).

There is a possibility of confusion here with other things I've been writing lately. Previously I have written about recognition and noticing according to what has become (yathābhūta) for instance which says that experiences or dhammas can be seen to have 'become'; that is that some 'thing' is actually becoming. (Trying to stick with the past tense of the original texts is a bit awkward I know). The contradiction is more apparent than real: experiences become; but no verifiably real object has become. I believe that if we keep in mind that dhammas are elements of experience, that both statements remain true.

  • Pāli texts in Unicode Roman from www.tipitaka.org/romn/. (Nice one Mr Goenka!)
  • Roebuck, Valerie. (trs., ed). 2003. The Upaniṣads. London : Penguin.
  • Udana 8.3. Access to Insight. Trans. Bhikkhu Thanissaro : John Ireland. Also Ireland, J. 1997. The Udāna : inspired utterances of the Buddha, and the Itivuttaka : the Buddha's sayins. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society.

image: Ikea assembly instructions from Don't Call Me Tina.

07 November 2008


image: Project Gutenberg:
Elements of Structural and Systematic Botany
In discussions on the place of the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine in Buddhism there is often considerable division. Some scholars defend it as a central Buddhist idea, while others deny that it is Buddhist at all. In the Western Buddhist Order there has been, despite frank and outspoken scepticism from Sangharakshita, a growing interest in Tathāgatagarbha amongst serious meditators, and especially so amongst people who favour formless meditation practices. (see eg Kamalasila below). I sometimes like to tease them about Tathāgatagarbha not being Buddhist and this has lead to some interesting discussions. Recently on a WBO forum I suggested that Tathāgatagarbha was "crypto-Vedantic eternalism" and the response I got was a quote from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN), supposedly showing that the idea pre-existed in the Pāli Canon. Leaving aside issues of the authority of texts (see The Cult of the Book and Western Ideas of Canonicity) I decided it might be interesting to look at what it actually says, and at the context of it, to see if it supported the contention.

The passage as quoted to me goes:
This mind [citta], monks, is luminous [pabhassara], but is defiled by taints that come from without.’ (Pabhassara Sutta AN 1.49-52 Translated by Bhikkhu Nanananda). A ‘worldling’ is one who doesn’t see this, an ‘Ariyan disciple’ is one who does.
This "luminous mind" is said by proponents of this theory to represent the idea of Tathāgatagarbha in nascent form. As my interlocutor said: "this is not in any way different from what Dzogchen and Mahamudra are getting at, often using exactly the same term."

The citation is to a group of four verses that span two sections of the first chapter of the AN. I decided to do my own translation of 1.51-2 to see what I could make of them. The Pāli goes:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.
(Pāli text from the www.tipitaka.org)
The grammar here is not too tricky and the vocab is also straightforward. My admittedly rough translation goes:
This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is soiled by incidental defilements. That one who has not heard, the worldling, does not know it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has not heard, the worldling, there is no production of this mind”.

This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is released from incidental defilements. That one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, he knows it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, there is production of this mind”.

[On the translation of yathābhūta please see Knowledge and Vision, 3 Oct 2008]
Verses 1.49 and 50 leave off the second part beginning with "That one who has heard..." So taken as stand-alone verses one can see that something like the intrinsicly pure mind associated with Tathāgatagarbha might be implied here.

My first observation is that the verses are referring to "this mind" - idaṃ cittaṃ - and that since the 30 or so preceding verses have for some time been referring to citta we can take this as a continuation of that discussion. And what do these preceding verses have to say about this mind? They say that the effect of citta depends on what we do with it. For instance untamed (adanta) it leads to great loss. In fact the Buddha says that no other thing, untamed, unguarded (agutta), unprotected (arakkhita), unrestrained (asaṃvuta) brings so much disadvantage (anattho)! So this mind seems not to be something intrinsically pure, as we would expect of an equivalent of the Tathāgatagarbha. The context reveals that this mind is potentially disastrous if not properly disciplined.

My second observation is that this mind is to be produced or developed or cultivated, i.e. bhāvanā - derived from the verbal root bhū meaning "to become", or "to be". Now in WBO circles a bhāvanā approach to meditation where one pursues concentration (e.g. The mindfulness of breathing) is frequently contrasted with the Tathāgatagarbha based approach in which one simply sits and allows the mind to reveal itself (or something like that). So it is important here that the citta in question is combined in a tappurisa compound with bhāvanā - "the production of mind", or as the context makes clear "the development of this mind". I'm assuming that the citta being spoken of here is the same as in the first sentence - i.e. still this mind. Clearly the Pāli text has something different in mind to the contemporary WBO exegetes of Tathāgatagarbha. This mind is something we must develop or produce or cultivate, which does not suggests something intrinsic but extrinsic.

I will mention in passing that both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Thanissaro note that the commentary to this passage take citta to mean bhavaṅga-citta or the kind of consciousness that links one life to the next. Clearly this would be very difficult to reconcile with the text and seems very unlikely indeed - Thanissaro concurs. Indeed Thanissaro suggests that a more reasonable interpretation would be that "the luminous mind is the mind that the meditator is trying to develop", (AN 1.49, note 1, emphasis added) and draws parallels with descriptions of the fourth jhana.

So if the link here is not as clear as all that, then why is it quoted? I'm in no position to comment on the usage of such terms in Dzogchen and Mahamudra, but I think there may be a link through the idiosyncratic but highly influential LaṅkāvatāraSūtra. In this text the Tathāgatagarbha is equated with the alaya-vijñāna from the Yogacāra model of the human psyche. This Tathāgatagarbha is described by the text as prakṛti-prabhāsvara-viṣuddha [Suzuki p.77] which we can translate as "original, clear, and pure" (taking this to be a dvanda compound - i.e. a list linked by "and"). Prabhāsvara is a similar word to the Pāli pabhassara, but seems not to be the exact counterpart - the underlying metaphor in the former is of a sound (svara) or voice which is clear, while the latter is using a light metaphor. Still there is a possible link here with later ideas of the Tathāgatagarbha as a pure and luminous mind. It is interesting to note that the Laṅkā itself is aware of how much like an ātmavāda (or theory of immanent godhood) this sounds, and is quick to defend itself.

The Laṅkā claims that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is taught in order to "eliminate anxiety on the part of the ignorant toward a theory of non-substantiality (nairātmya)" [Suzuki p. 78] - more precisely a theory of "non-immanent godhood". In fact the idea of the Tathāgatagarbha seems to me to be a way of addressing a vital question which we might phrase - "how do we unredeemed sinners get enlightened?" By the time the Tathāgatagarbha theory was invented the idea that one got enlightened on the basis of dependent arising seems to have been lost along with many other early Buddhist ideas. This left the Mahāyāna Buddhists with a very distinct problem and one of the ways they solved it was by adapting the ātman theory of the Vedanta - one can be enlightened because one already has a seed of the Buddha inside one (as it were), or, to put it another way, one is already enlightened but obscured by defilements. This sounds so similar to the Pāli verse above that you can see why the wrong correlation was made. In effect as in the Upaniṣads: you are that - tat tvam asi - except that "that" is not God or Brahman, but a Tathāgata - "one [already] in that state".

So what have we learned? Firstly we must be cautious of translated sentences taken out of context. Secondly there may not be a link between early Buddhist doctrine and later doctrines even when they use similar wording. Thirdly that the Mahāyāna threw the baby out with the bath water as far as early Buddhist doctrines are concerned, and left itself in a philosophical tangle - advocating what amounts to an ātmavāda, and finding itself immediately on the back foot defending the obvious flaws in such an approach. Fourthly and perhaps most importantly we have learned that despite the fact that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is flawed, it was and is enormously popular and influential, and the people who advocate are in many ways admirable people some of whom deeply embody the values of Buddhism despite being doctrinally challenged - which is to say that practice and realisation is far more important than winning arguments and saying the right thing in Buddhism! 


  • Access to Insight:AN 1.31-40; 1.45-46; 1.47; 1.48; 1.49-52.
  • Kamalasila Tathatā & Garbha : Wesak Talk UK National Order Weekend and West London Buddhist Centre, May 2004. (I think Kamalasila errs in this talk when he suggests that the Pāli canon usage of the word suñña equates to anything like the Mahāyāna usage of śūnya)
  • Suzuki, D.T. (trans) 1966. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. London : Routledge.

See Also

In Action and Intention III (2011) I noticed something else about this passage:
Pāli citta is further confused with Sanskrit citra 'to shine'. So when the Buddha says Pabhassaramidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ (AN 1.51) what most people miss is the pun. Citta means both 'thought' and 'shine' and the phrase could equally be read - 'this thought is radiant', or 'this shiny-thing is radiant'. The context does incline towards reading 'mind', but the ambiguity and pun are obvious to a Pāli speaker.

29 Oct 2014
Sujato has done a much better job of essaying this passage on his blog: On the radiant mind.
"[The mind] is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. 
"This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them." 

31 October 2008

To be or not to be : the problem with ontology.

To be or not to be : the problem with ontologyWhen Hamlet was pondering the question of "to be or not to be" he was contemplating ending his sea of troubles by taking his own life. This nicely delineates the Western attitude to 'being': despite the fact that 'to be' is a verb something either is or is not. One of the fundamental religious questions of our time is: "does God exist?" This question is regularly covered by the UK media, and has recently been the subject of heated and vituperous public debate. The study of what exists is known as ontology. Etymologists tell us that onto is from a present participle, ōn, of the Greek verb eimi 'be'. In the West the question of the nature of being is one that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

The question of ontology is at the forefront of the western mind, however for Buddhists it seems to me that ontology - questions of being - present a translation problem on the one hand, and a methodological problem on the other.

The translation problem emerges when we begin to examine ancient Indian equivalents of the verb "to be". These have roots in as-, bhū, or hū - although actually is really a dialectical variant on bhū. When you want to assert something definite and concrete - "there is a something" in Pāli you tend to use the root as. The form atthi is common - for instance atthi ajāti - "there is the unborn". Bhū is also frequently translated as "he is, there exists" and yet PED also says about bhū that it means "to become". The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary gives a much wider sense for bhū: "to become, be, arise, come into being, exist, be found, live, stay, abide, happen, occur" and so on. In Sanskrit bhāvanā can also mean "the saturation of any powder with a fluid, steeping, infusion". Bhū is the root of words meaning "beings" (as in human beings; bhūt in Hindi are ghosts!) and is also used in the part-participle to indicate the content of insight: yathābhūta-ñāṇādassana which I have suggested might be translated as the knowledge from seeing the process of becoming.

Clearly the ancient India notion of 'being' is far more fluid than our contemporary Western notion (the slight influence of Quantum theory notwithstanding). We see being as a state which is stable and fixed, while the ancient Indian saw being as a process, a cyclic process even. The same root gives us bhāva which in Buddhism carries the connotation of returning again and again to this world over many life times. So where we read verbs from "to be" in a Buddhist text we are apt to misunderstand what is intended. So this is the first caveat: that existence in a Buddhist context is always a coming into being, not an either or. However note that the Sanskrit word satya (Pāli sacca) can mean both real, existing; and true.

The other problem emerges when we take a look at the Buddha's method. The idea of dependent origination is famously summed up by Assaji as:

Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo
A standard translation being:
Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse
We tend to translate "dhammā" as "things" which takes us into the realm of ontology. Now clearly Buddhists down the ages have been at pains to explain that "things" are impermanent and disappointing and lack any immanent noumenal essence (the latter being more relevant to Brahmins - see Anatta in Context). We use examples of "things" being impermanent - cups which break, rivers that flow, and people who die for instance. It is true that "things" are on the whole impermanent. But careful observation tells us that actually many things are quite stable, and some objects may well not change noticeably in our lifetimes - geological time-frames in particular stretch to hundreds of millions of years, with changes noticeable only on the scale of millions of years - something which would not have been knowable in the time of the Buddha. To the ancients geological features would have appeared unchanging and timeless. However what can and does change all the time is our relationship to, and experience of, objects of the mind and the senses. It is this subjective aspect of experience which constantly changes even when the object does not!

In any case as a technical term dhammā does not indicate "things" as such, that is dhammas are not external independently existing objects, but the objects of manas, the mental sense. Dhammas are mental phenomena. As such their ontological status becomes difficult to define - is a thought or a sensation existent or non-existent? Or perhaps neither existent nor non-existent, or perhaps both? Or none of the above? The Buddha's stellar successor Nāgārjuna made it clear that the terms existent and non-existent do not apply to dhammas. This is sometimes seen as paradoxical, but the difficulty can usually be found in a wrong understanding of what a dhamma is. The statement has profound implications, but is not at all mystical, in fact is it quite pragmatic.

Sangharakshita has pointed out the methodological advantages of basing the teaching of Dependent Arising on an experience - especially the experience of suffering (Sangharakshita p.142 ff). It is because we are intimately acquainted with experience, we all suffer to some extent, and experience is less likely to throw up a lot of arguments about definitions. I take this a little bit further and suggest that the Buddha fully intended that his principle be applied to experience rather than the objective pole of experience. Early Buddhism tacitly acknowledges a distinction between the mind and it's objects, but this is not the same as a separation. In fact the one cannot be experienced without the other. So I am arguing for a distinction with a methodological benefit, not for a physical and metaphysical absolute.

Now if we take dhammas as having a firm ontological status, one way or the other, or even if we get caught up in trying to define that status, a number of problems emerge. If dhammas are considered real in any concrete sense then that suggests that we are experiencing a sort of stable external reality when we have an experience. We become concerned with questions about the nature of that external reality: like establishing once and for all "does god exist?"; or the allied question "how did the universe begin?" These have no bearing on what we should do now about suffering. Look at the resources in terms of time and energy that goes into these enterprises - how many books and lecture tours recently have been devoted to this stupid argument that no one can win. You can't prove that God doesn't exists even when God is plainly irrelevant. You can't prove that God does exist - at best you have an experience that you might label an experience of divinity. And yet quite intelligent people try to convince each other they are right - right and wrong become absolutes when you believe in really existent "things" behind experience. Belief in reality leads to fixed ideas about anything - canons of literature or law for instance. It also leads to follies such as the millions spent on trying to work out how the universe started. There may be some minor spin-off technologies that filter down to the us regular folk, but how does it help us to deal with our own suffering to know if the Higg's Boson is "real" or just a convenient mathematical fiction?

If dhammas are considered as absolutely un-real then all experience is just an illusion. Nothing really matters, nothing really happens. It opens the way to nihilism and to amoralism. If everything is illusion then there is no reason to favour moral action over immoral. This view is less common in the West. Our nihilism seems to emerge as a reaction against the failure of our belief in reality, that is through disillusionment rather than a positive belief in unreality or illusion. We want to believe in reality, but experience the disappointment this belief brings.

The many philosophies that are critiqued by the Buddha in the old texts (which we assume to have existed amongst his contemporaries) were not the result of things being real or unreal, existent or non-existent - they were the result of someone believing they were real or unreal. Eternalism and nihilism are views about experience. We frame the debate in terms of the nature of reality because that is our Western bias - we believe in reality, and we haven't fully taken on board the Buddhist teaching. But whatever reality might be like, our working ground is experience. If we want to go beyond experience then we need to examine experience itself, need to focus our attention on the process of experiencing - this is what the texts and the more genuine traditions indicate again and again. Then through knowing directly for ourselves the nature of experience we can give up on views about the world, because our theories cease to be relevant to the task at hand.

The "to be or not to be" habit is a difficult one for us to break. We think that things exist or not, and this spins us off into other either/or oppositions. We think there is right and wrong for instance that is distinct from our experience of positive and negative results. We find it hard not to think in these terms, and in terms of definite "things". Because we hardly even see that we layer our experience with these concepts, it is difficult to see that we are doing it. It's really only through disciplined meditation and reflection that we can break the habit. Once we let go of the "to be or not to be" habit a whole range of new possibilities open up to us.

  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : it's Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications.

image: Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Alternate Film Guide
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