29 August 2008

Dhammapada 5 - 6

na hi verena verāni, sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
averena ca sammanti, esa dhammo sanantano

pere ca na vijānanti, mayamettha yamāmase
ye ca tattha tato sammanti medhagā

Not by hatred are hatreds calmed at any time
By non-hatred they cease, this teaching is primeval

And others don't realise that we should be restrained.
But if they do realise this, then they will settle quarrels.
Verse 5 is one of the most famous Buddhist aphorisms. Hatred is like fuel on the fire, it only leads to more hatred. These two verse continue the theme established in verses 3 and 4: that we are never justified in holding a grudge. Vera, translated here as hatred can also mean "revenge, hostile action." It's actually related to the term vīra which usually translates as "hero" but can also mean something like "mighty". Avera then is the absence of hatred: "friendliness, friendly, peaceable".

The verses tell us that this idea is sanantano or "primeval, or "of old, for ever, eternal", the word being related to the Latin senex, and the English senile. So it could mean that the teaching is old, or that it will always apply.

Either way it is an important principle. And those who know this principle restrain their hatred (line 6a). Actually the first line of verse 6 is difficult to translate because the word yamāmase seems only to occur once (a hapax legomenon), and is of unclear etymology. I have followed K.R. Norman in reading it as an optative of √yam a verbal root meaning 'restraint'. Others relate it to the god of death Yama, and make the line say something like: Others do not know that we must all face death. There is good and useful Dharma in this approach. It reminds us that our future destination depends on our conduct in this life. If we indulge in hatred the traditions suggests that we are destined for the hell-realms. I would say that being angry has a hellish quality anyway. [see also Jayarava Rave. 08-02-2008: The Anger Eating Yakkha] That said however, the idea of restraint seems to fit the context a little better I think.

Although it is clear that the text is saying not to hold grudges, and that when one feels anger one should restrain oneself, it's not entirely clear how one might do that from these verses. There is such a plan in the Aṅguttara Nikāya however (sutta V.161). Here we find five methods for dealing with grudges:
  • Practice the brahma-vihāra meditations. If you feel hatred towards someone then try to cultivate the opposite: ie love, compassion, equanimity. (the text suggests mettā, karuṇā, and upekkhā but leaves out muditā and so counts this as three methods). We could call this 'cultivating the opposite'.
  • Pay the person no attention, give no thought to them. This is sometimes called the "blue sky mind" approach - don't feed the feelings and they will subside.
  • Reflect on the consequences. Particularly reflect that whatever bad thing that person has done to you, they will have to experience the fruit of that action which will be painful for them!
There is an obvious link between non-hatred (avera) and loving-kindness (mettā), so cultivating mettā could well have been what the Buddha meant in this case. When we cultivate love, the opposite of hate, then hate cannot find a purchase in our hearts. I suspect that muditā or sympathetic joy was left off the list because it would be difficult to cultivate towards someone to whom you grudge happiness. Best to start with simply not hating them, build towards love, and then perhaps we can take joy in their joys.

A more active form of the blue sky approach which I find quite useful is to think about something else. Many of my raves for this blog have resulted from me taking up a subject to reflect on precisely to stop my attention wandering onto less helpful subjects.

Reflecting on the consequences is also, effectively, reflecting on the Dharma. This is inherently positive. In Dhammapada 3-4 we saw that hatred is never a good thing - that the effects on us of entertaining anger are always negative. So reflect on the consequences of that person shouting at you, or bashing you. As I noted last week, our culture is one in which we seek to punish (ie inflict harm upon) anyone who breaks the law. But since some one who abuses us will suffer anyway, is there really a need to inflict more suffering on them. The question is: "would seeing another person suffer make us happy?" If we see that other person as a human being, then we will not feel joy at their suffering. We know what suffering feels like. We know how unbearable it can be. We know that if we inflict pain because we are angry, that person will become angry and inflict pain also. This has to stop. We must try to stop the cycle of anger and harming. Really reflecting on the causes and consequences of anger and hatred is quite sobering. If we reflect on what might have led a person to want to harm us, we will find fear and anger at the root of it. If we wonder why are they experiencing fear and anger, then we will see that they too have been victims of other people's fear and anger. They have learned this wrong lesson that we seem to teach everyone - that despite what we may say, anger and lashing out are legitimate responses some times.

I recall in Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, Mike was interviewing a PR man at Lockheed-Martin the massive weapons manufacturing business. They were standing in front of a very large missile, one that could only be used to strike at many people a very long way away (i.e. a weapon of mass destruction). He held his arms wide and his hands open, in the classic gesture of honesty, and said that he did not understand why these boys, who had gunned down many of their school mates, would resort to violence to resolve their problems. Why indeed? A very large missile, designed to deliver weapons of mass destruction is just the result of coordinated hatred, and of course our leaders do often resort to violence to solve their problems with the help of weapons manufacturers like Lockheed-Martin. And we often allow the emotions like hatred to persist in our minds. Of course we might take our revenge by something as simple as withdrawing our affection, or by doing something we know to be annoying. We might not be using a missile to kill thousands of people, or a handgun to kill our classmates. But it is only the scale that is different. If we were angry enough, and someone put a gun in our hand... well sometimes perhaps it doesn't pay to dwell on the consequences for too long. Just enough get the message and move on.

There is a definite sense in these early texts of working to eliminate negative or harmful mental states. There is none of the psycho-babble about allowing your anger to have expression or find an outlet. This is because from the Buddhist point of view the angry thought harms you, and any action undertaken with anger in mind will cause harm (viz my post on Dhammapada 1 - 2). Hatred is harmful so do what you can, whatever you have to, in order for it to subside. There is also no sense in early Buddhist texts of just thinking of anger as 'energy' as some Tantric traditions might do. Sure, there is energy: but are we alert enough, aware enough, Awake enough to refrain from hurting when we are angry? Not in most cases I think. Not without a great deal of training, and a great deal of mettā. Better to err on the side of caution with anger. It can be insidious. We can find ourselves justifying little cruelties to ourselves and others on the basis that "it's just energy", or "it's for their own good". Better to just nip it in the bud.

Bearing grudges only makes you miserable, and you are probably holding onto the possibility of harming someone in return for the harm they caused you. Hatred is never pacified by hatred - it never has been and it never will be. It is only by the opposite, by avera - non-hatred, that hatred is pacified. The good news is that by not bearing grudges, by not holding out for revenge, the hate will subside in you. When hate subsides it makes room for other more positive emotions. Dwelling in mettā all the time is equated with nibbāna in many texts.


See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.1-2, and v.3-4

22 August 2008

Dhammapada verses 3 - 4

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ upanayhanti veraṃ tesaṃ na sammati

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ n'upanayhanti veraṃ tesaūpasammati

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who bear these grudges hatred is not stilled

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who don't bear these grudges hatred settles and ceases.

akkocchi is verbal abuse, while avadhi is physical abuse. ajini comes from the root ji which means "to have power" or "to conquer" and so can mean overpowered, conquered, vanquished. Āhara is the past tense of hara "to take" and me is probably the genitive, so āhara me literally means "he took mine" - it is most often translated as "robbed me" or "stole from me". Sangharakshita has pointed out that the second precept against "taking the not given" has a broader frame of reference - it is not just stealing material things, but taking from someone anything which they have not willingly given you - their time or energy for instance.

These verses are said to have been spoken by the Buddha approximately 25 centuries ago. What this immediately tells us is that some things have not changed. Back then people shouted abuse at each other, they physically attacked each other. Some people tried to dominate their fellows. Some people took things that weren't theirs or that they were not entitled to. I find this quite a thing to reflect on. In 2500 years the human species as a whole has not evolved at all in the ethical sphere. So much for progress. Fortunately some individuals have evolved, and as individuals we all have the potential to evolve ethically and spiritually.

These two verses are only the bear bones of a manifesto for an ethical evolution, even perhaps a revolution. What they are fundamentally saying is that bearing hatred (vera) towards someone is never justified, no matter what they have done to you. This is not what we have learnt in our lives, not what we do on the whole, and seems almost shocking on first contact. Hatred in all it's manifestations is never justified. There is no righteous anger in Buddhism, no room for righteous indignation. Both terms are oxymoronic according to the Buddha. Most of us feel justified in being angry about something or someone, and about cultivating that anger, keeping it alive, feeding it, allowing it to fester. But the Buddha says no to all of this. Never allow anger to persist.

Because we are human our first response to being shouted at, or hit, or if someone tries to overpower us, or take our stuff, may be fear; but anger is usually not far behind. This is understandable. We can see anger is helpful for survival: it marshals our energy reserves (by preparing the body for action) and moves us away from danger, or prepares us to fight for survival. Most often there is nothing we can do about our physiological response to a threat - the reaction is instinctive, and most of us might not be alive today if that response had not kicked in at some appropriate moment in the past.

It is important not to beat yourself up for getting angry. Angry is instinctual. The verb in the second line of each verse is upanayhati which means: 1. to come into touch with; 2. to bear enmity towards, grudge, scorn. I've translated as "bear a grudge" because this seems the most useful way to approach it. For most of us it's not the initial reaction that is problematic, it is the ongoing anger, the grudge, the holding onto hurt, the contemplation or seeking of revenge.

When we hold on to hateful thoughts what happens? One thing is that while we replay the images or the conversation in our head we continue to re-experience the physical responses associated with the event. Say someone shouts at us, and there is an altercation. Our body prepares for action: the adrenal glands release adrenaline into our blood; our heart rate jumps and blood pressure rises; muscles tense ready for action. This can all happen in a moment, and yet it takes quite a few minutes to allow everything to settle back to a resting state. If we constantly replay the events in our minds, then we stir our bodies up, we may even vividly re-experience the the upset or even trauma of an event. Our bodies may continue to maintain a state of alertness for danger, of readiness for action, without ever fully relaxing. Over a long period of time this can be quite damaging to our body and our mind: one thinks of heart problems for instance, or of clinical depression. So holding onto hateful thoughts might be bad for our health in the long term.

Another possibility is that we become "an angry person". When we are constantly stimulating anger in ourselves, we feel angry, and we look angry: we scowl, we frown and grimace. We SOUND angry! Our body language communicates anger as well. Other people will be aware of this incipient hatred and experience it as a threat. It is quite clear to us when someone is angry, and we all know from experience that angry people are the ones who shout and hit, who try to overpower us, and so what do we do? We avoid them. It's only logical to avoid angry people - it is self preservation. Compare for instance the Rev. Iain Paisley with the Dalai Lama. Who would you rather spend time with? One very angry man (though admittedly much less so these days) and one who despite provocation does not express anger (in public at least). What's more people who are angry find it hard to communicate: even if you have something reasonable to say, you'll find that people are much less willing to listen if you are angry (unless perhaps they are angry about the same thing). So if you're angry a lot you're likely also to be lonely.

Holding grudges and exacting revenge prolongs conflicts and creates the conditions for more and more people to be harmed. We've all of us been harmed by someone, and probably all done harm even if only inadvertently. As the proverb goes: if an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth were really the rule; we would all be blind and toothless. The cycle has to stop somewhere. Why not with you, in you, right now?

On a deeper level there is the underlying tendency to refuse painful experiences. We can't avoid some unpleasant sensations. It makes sense to avoid pain if it is avoidable, but sometimes we must simply have a painful experience. At the very least we are all going to die, and then we must be prepared to hold that pain in our awareness just as we would a pleasurable sensation. Holding of grudges suggests that somewhere in our being we are saying "it's not fair", and we are holding back from experiencing the pain of that injustice. This is a wrong view of the world. Such a view causes us constant disappointment. Of course it isn't fair if someone shouts at us or bashes us. But life isn't fair. Experiences arise in dependence on causes, and we must constantly be trying to see this process in action whether we enjoy the experience or not.

So I think it's clear that bearing grudges is counter-productive by any rational criteria - whether or not you believe in rebirth, or Awakening, or other traditional Buddhist beliefs. What these verses do not tell us is the "how". How can we possibly not hate the person who has inflicted harm on us? The next two verses go into this little, and I'll deal with them in my next post along with some help from another text.

See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.1-2.

15 August 2008

Dhammapada verses 1 - 2

mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā
manasa ce paduṭṭhena bhāsati vā karoti vā
tato naṃ dukkham anveti cakkaṃ va vahato padam

mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā mansoeṭṭhā manomayā
manasa ce pasannena bhāsati vā karoti vā
tato naṃ sukham anveti chāyā va anapāyinī

Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
If, with a corrupt mind one speaks or acts:
From this disappointment and suffering follow as the wheel, the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
If, with a clear mind one speaks or acts:
From this happiness and well-being follow like an inseparable shadow.
This is a fairly literal translation which largely retains the structure of the Pāli. Two interesting philological features are pointed out by K.R. Norman and John Brough with regard to these verses. Firstly the word anveti appears to be a Sanskritisation. Norman suggests that Pāli would usually resolve the consonant cluster nv to nuv, but here it doesn't. Secondly Brough (p.243) points out in his notes to the Gāndārī Dhammapada that vahatu (vahato being the genitive case) is an archaic word not in the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary. The word means ox, and vahato padam is “foot of the ox”, where pada is also used in it’s archaic sense of "foot", as opposed to it's later more abstract meaning "word" as in the title of the Dhammapada: "the word of the doctrine".

The archaic forms suggest age, but the Sanskritisation may also indicate later editing or composition. Perhaps an old image re-used? Interestingly the Pāli commentators (Sri Lanka, ca 5th century) seem to have understood the sense of “vahato padam” but not the words, so come to the right conclusion by some tortuous arguments. This is evident in many Dhammapada translations which treat vahato as a present-participle meaning something like "bearer".

In these verses the terms mano and dhammā (nominative plural) are twinned, as are sukha and dukkha, and paduṭṭha and pasanna. Mano and dhammā in this context are the mind which senses mental "objects", and those "objects" or dhammas. This is the more specific meaning of mano, which is sometimes also used synonymously with other words for "mind" such as citta and viññana. Dhamma has such a wide range of meanings that it can be misleading to settle on one in particular, but here does seem to indicate the mental phenomena which the mind senses - in these cases it is usually written in lower-case. Note also that mind here includes the emotions, and other subjective experiences. Mano also coordinates the mental responses to the information coming in from the five physical senses. I have chosen the word "experience" as a translation of dhamma in this case because it covers both the mental and physical aspects. I have justified using "experience" to translate dhamma in other contexts as well, particularly in my essay on the Buddha's Last Words.

Mano is that part of us that cognizes experience, that part of us that knows we are experiencing. And these verses are saying that mano comes first. But why? Other Buddhist models of the psyche suggest that mind, in the sense of citta, arises in dependence on contact of sense organ with sense object. It is important not to get caught up in the various models here. This is a pragmatic teaching. Mind comes first in these verses because mental states determine actions, and therefore consequences. The Buddha famously said: Cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - I say, monks, that intention is action [A vi.63]. This is why we must focus on the mind.

Actions arising from a mind which is paduṭṭha (spoiled, rotten, corrupt, literally "made bad") lead to dukkha - which I translate as "disappointment". However actions which are directed by a mind which is passana (clear, bright, good) result in sukha or bliss. The latter term is one which was in use before the Buddha. Brahman, the universal absolute has three characteristics: being, consciousness, and bliss (sukha). Brahman is also nitya (Pali nicca) or eternal. So in a Brahminical context sukha has a connotation of the goal of the spiritual life: union with Brahman. I think the Buddha may well have been employing sukha as a synonym for nibbāna - drawing on the Brahminical imagery as we know him to have done in many other cases. Despite this I have translated sukha as happiness and well-being. References to underlying Brahminical metaphors are often confusing to modern Buddhists who are frequently ignorant of the Brahminical context of some of the Buddha's sermons. Happiness here though does mean true happiness, the highest happiness, the bliss of nibbāna.

Dukkha, then, is the opposite of nibbāna. This gives it a much broader scope than is usually suggested by translations such as "suffering". When we read "suffering" we tend to think of physical pain or injury. But dukkha characterises all unenlightened experience. At this point you may be thinking "aha! Jayarava has fallen into that old trap of stating, contra the Dharma itself, that everything is suffering". However I am making a more subtle point. Not every experience is physically painful, but we the unenlightened have habitual tendencies which make even pleasure a disappointment. This operates at the level of immediate responses to vedana or sensations. Typically when we experience a pleasant sensation we want it to last, and when we have an unpleasant sensation we want it to stop now. We seek out pleasure, and avoid pain. I have argued at length in my essay on the Buddha's Last words that it is at this level of experience that dependent arising is really important. It is experiences (sensations including mental sensations and our responses to physical sensations) that are impermanent (anicca). The disappointment (dukkha) comes because we fail to grasp the nature of experience - we think of it as, or desire it to be, lasting (nicca). Because experiences (dhammā) are impermanent (anicca) they are disappointing (dukkha). The argument showing how this ties in with the doctrine of anattā would take a bit long to spell out, but it relates to the Brahminical idea about ātman being Brahman in the microcosm, and therefore necessarily having sukha as a characteristic - anything which has dukkha as a characteristic cannot be the ātman. A purely psychological understanding of ātman as simply 'ego' is, I think, a bit limited.

The verses are saying that we experience dukkha if our mind is corrupt. That is, if we fail to see and understand the nature of experience (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana), then suffering follows, just as the wheel follows the ox which draws the cart - as the wheel follows the foot in the simile of the verses. The image for sukha is subtly different. If our mind is clear and bright (pasanna) then we see things as they are, and bliss cleaves to us. For dukkha the sense is that one thing follows another, and the two are distinct. A shadow however is simply an extension of our body - the shadow moves with us, moves as we move, instantaneously. Our shadow is inseparable (anapāyinī literally not-going-away). Apāyinī can also connote "a falling away (in conduct)" or "transient state of loss or woe after death" [PED sv apāya] so that anapāyinī (not-apāya), like sukha, suggests the goal of the Buddhist life: not falling away from good conduct, not falling into state of loss or woe.

So mind is first, mind is foremost, and things are said to be mind-made because mind determines the results of our actions. Those results are experienced as vedana (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations) and it is our response to vedana that determines whether we experience 'being' as dukkha or sukha, ie saṃsāra or nibbāna. If we fail to understand our existential situation we can expect only dukkha. Of course Buddhism offers us a plethora of tools for the job of waking up, and tells us that everyone can wake up. So while unawakened experience is disappointing, it is not the only possibility. There is every reason for optimism.


~~oOo~~

References
  • Brough, John, ed. The Gandhari Dharmapada (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).
  • Norman, K.R., trans. The Word of the Doctrine (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1997).
See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.3-4

See Also:

Agostini, Giulio. (2010). 'Preceded by Thought Are the Dhammas': The Ancient Exegesis on Dhp 1-2. Buddhist Asia 2. Papers from the Second Conference of Buddhist Studies Held in Naples in June 2004. Edited by Giacomella Orofino and Silvio Vita. Italian School of East Asian Studies, Kyoto 2010. https://www.academia.edu/4084875/Preceded_by_Thought_Are_the_Dhammas_The_Ancient_Exegesis_on_Dhp_1-2

08 August 2008

The Apparatus of Experience

Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism a New Approach is not an easy read, but it is very rewarding. I found in it a doctrinal confirmation and clarification of my intuitions about the Dharma. I had been asking myself - what is it that arises in dependence on causes? (Jayarava Rave 8 April 2008) My answer had shifted from "things" to "experiences". This is reflected also in my translation of the Buddha's last words: "all experiences are disappointing..."

Central to Hamilton's book, and building on her earlier published work is a re-examination of the canonical references to the khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). These are typically described as encompassing the whole human being - there is nothing outside of the khandhas. Hamilton demonstrates that actually the khandhas are not meant to literally encompass the whole being, but do make up the minimum required apparatus for experience: hence "apparatus of experience". I like this little phrase and its implications very much.

A quick digression here to a suggestion by Prof. Gombrich about the translation of khandha - again from the Numata Lectures and appearing in his forthcoming "What the Buddha Thought". Khandha is most often translated by words such as aggregate, group or category, or (by Conze) as 'heap'. Gombrich points to the Pāli term aggikhandha meaning "a blazing mass". Khandha often occurs in the compound upādānakhandha where it is frequently translated as "aggregates of clinging". Gombrich links it to the extended fire metaphor used by the Buddha and suggests "blazing mass of fuel" (upādāna meaning literally fuel.) The khandhas, then, are a mass of fuel which, as the Fire Sermon ( Ādittapariyāya Sutta literally: The way of putting things as being on fire) tells us are on fire with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

The khandhas then are part of the mechanism keeping us in saṃsara, they are the "mass of fuel" that burns, and Nibbāna is the extinguishing of that fire - though the fuel itself can remain at this point as the term upādi-sesa-nibbāna "extinguishing with a remainder" suggests. It is rather a squeeze to fit every facit of the human being into just these five categories, and Hamilton manages to make a lot more sense of them as a kind of minimal requirement for experience - she takes the idea of nothing existing outside the khandhas as a metaphorical reference to the fact of experience: that everything we can know comes to us through the senses.

To have experience at all we must have a living body (rūpa). This is the vehicle for consciousness and the locus of experience. Without a living sensing body we would not receive sensory data - recall that the sense organ must be involved for contact to take place.

Having met with sensory data (vedanā) we process it: we become aware of and identify the sensation (saññā), we categorise it and name it (viññāṇā), and we respond affectively to it (saṅhkāra). This is a very cut down psychology, a minimalist account of consciousness, but it contains all that is necessary for continued experience, that is to say for continuation in samsara. And this is the process, this continuation in samsara which the Buddha constantly tells people is the focus of his teachings. Asked about all manner of metaphysical and philosophical teachings, the Buddha replies that he only teaches about the process of experience and how to end it.

Hamilton is saying, in effect, that later Buddhist tradition have taken this teaching a little to literally when they say things like: "These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence". [Nyanatiloka : 98] Everything is not literally summed up, it is just that this is the necessary apparatus (to use Hamilton's terms) for all experience. All of experience - of whatever kind - is sensed, processed and acted upon through the khandhas. It is in this sense that the set is a complete description of the human being, not literally. It makes the assumption that we are what we experience, and as I have discovered, any attempt to get behind experience to confirm it involves some other sensory experience. One image that occurs to me for this is that we cannot get behind the mirror to see if anything is there because we always see a new mirror.

All this is not to say that some kind of objective world does not exist. I think the level of consensus that is possible on what is being experienced suggests very strongly that there is some kind of objective world. However I would argue that since we must always rely on our senses in any attempt to establish the status of the objective world, that such attempts are meaningless - they cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other. I've come to believe that it was this that the Buddha was trying to get people to understand. Take for example the short Sabbaṃ Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In this text the Buddha says that "the all" (sabbaṃ) is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and the felt, the mind and dhammas. (SN 35.23 = Bodhi : 1140). There is nothing outside of this "all". This is an explicit confirmation of what I've been saying. To take this to be an ontological statement - that outside of this "all" there is nothing - is to miss the point. It does not make sense as ontology, but as an epistemology it is very useful. All that we can know are 'objects' of the senses (including the mental sense), that is to say all we can know is what we experience - and the khandhas are the apparatus of experience.

I think this has profound implications for how we practice and teach the Dharma. For one thing I think we should abandon talking about dependent arising in terms of "things arising in dependence on causes" - there are no things only experiences. It would be more accurate to say that "experiences of things arise in dependence on causes". This then allows us to focus on the experience of dependent arising, rather than trying to locate some object which is arising. So many of our metaphors for dependent arising involve "things". But because of the way we function - through and only through experience - there are in effect no things arising.


References
  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary : manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. (4th ed). Kandy, Sri Lanka : Buddhist Publication Society (2004 reprint).

image: JAKIMOWICZ Fabien - belfry clock mechanism

01 August 2008

Which script?

Indian languages, and in particular Sanskrit, may be unique in that there is a distinct separation between the language and the scripts used to write it. Over the centuries a number of scripts and variation have been particularly important in preserving Buddhist texts. Buddhists were, like their Brahmin counterparts, initially reluctant to employ writing for the preservation of texts that were composed and transmitted orally. But eventually in several places, notably Sri Lanka and Gāndhāra, the sūtras were committed to writing. Here are the broad outlines of the development of Indian writing as it relates to Buddhist texts in roughly chronological order.


The first script to be used for writing Indian languages was Kharoṣṭhī beginning in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. It was used for several hundred years to write the local dialects, but also Sanskrit. Kharoṣṭhī was used in Gāndhāra in North West India (what is now the Pakistan shading into Afghanistan - i.e. Taliban country) and in central Asia. It shares many features with the Aramaic used by Persian administrators at the time when they were influential in that region, and most scholars accept that Aramaic was probably the model for Kharoṣṭhī. It was both carved in rock and written with pen and ink on birch bark. Quite a number of early Buddhist texts survive in Sanskrit and in the Gāndhārī Prakrit (roughly the vernacular dialect of Gāndhāra). A Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada survives for instance, and several other texts which parallel the Pāli but with interesting mostly minor differences. These texts have helped to flesh out our knowledge of the different early schools of Buddhism.


Brahmī was the first truly indigenous Indian script. The name means simply "God" - Brahmā having been adopted as a creator god by this point. It was a definite improvement on Kharoṣṭhī in having individual signs for initial vowels, and greater variation between characters which made it more readable. My guess however is that it was designed for carving rather than writing per se. The signs are simple, geometric and quite linear. Aśoka (mid to late 3rd century BCE) used this script for most of his rock edicts - a few were in Kharoṣṭhī or Aramaic, and one was in Greek reflecting the local usage in the far West of his imperium. Probably most Buddhist texts were written in this script in Eastern and Central India until the 3rd century CE.

An early south Indian variety of Brahmī became very important. The Sinhala script emerges around the 2nd or 3rd centuries BCE and was used to commit the Pāli Canon to writing. It shows the rounded letter forms characteristic of writing designed for palm leaves with their pronounced grain that could be easily punctured.

In the North the Gupta script (so-called because it emerged during the Gupta Era, ca 3rd - 6th centuries) also derives from Brahmī. It shows the influence of pen and ink writing (probably still on birch bark). Versions of the Gupta script were used throughout North Indian and central Asia to transmit Buddhist texts. Many of the early Buddhist texts going to China would have used this script or one of its Central Asian variants. Some use of decorative writing - what we might call calligraphy - began to appear at this time.


Siddhaṃ was initially a word written in the top left hand corner of any piece of writing in the Gupta period, meaning perfection or accomplishment. However as the script changed and the letters became more elaborate Siddhaṃ (or more fully siddhamātṛka) began to be the name of the script. By the collapse of the Gupta Empire (under attack by Huns) in the 6th century the script had become distinct. However it continued to undergo development for several centuries. Two forms are commonly seen nowadays that I call "Chinese brush style", and "Japanese pen style". The latter appears to be a further refinement of the Indian script, while the former is influenced in it's form by the demands of writing with a brush. This script was important in the East as the medium of the early Tantric texts. What's more Tantric Buddhism initially inherited Vedic injunctions to preserved accurate pronunciation of letters and so the Indic script was preserved especially in the case of mantras - they can still be seen in the modern Taisho version of the Chinese Tripitaka for instance. Siddhaṃ calligraphy was elevated to a fine art by the Japanese. While Kūkai introduced Siddhaṃ to Japan and produced some fine works, the modern popularity derives from an 18th century revival. Siddhaṃ is mainly used for writing mantras and bījas these days, although shakyo or sutra copying has not completely died out - the Heart Sūtra being a favourite text.

An early variant of Siddhaṃ formed the model for the Tibetan Uchen (dbu-can) script which is now the main script used in printing Tibetan works. It further developed into many variants more suited to hand-writing for instance. We can deduce from it's description of the vowel 'e' (which is an inverted triangle representing the yoni) that the Hevajra Tantra still looked to the Siddhaṃ script as its model of writing.

The earliest appearance of Devanāgarī (देवनागरी literally "City of God") is about the 8th century but it did not supplant Siddhaṃ as the main script for writing Sanskrit in North India until about the 10th or 11th century. Many late Buddhist texts, such as later Tantras would have been written in Devanāgarī. Sadly the fluidity of the relationship is lost on most people and the Devanāgarī script is often referred to by the uninitiated as "Sanskrit" - as in "can you right this in Sanskrit for me". Devanāgarī has proved to be remarkably stable - with only minor changes occurring since it was adopted. It has been adapted for writing Hindi and as Hindi is the most prominent of the official languages of India, it is widely used through the sub-continent. Pakistan has adapted the Arabic script fro writing Urdu though it is very similar to Hindi.


Two other scripts which are frequently used in Buddhist contexts are the closely related Lantsa and Ranjana, from Tibet and Nepal respectively. These are often assumed to be identical but this is not true. They emerged in about the 11th century and are both are still in use for ceremonial or decorative purposes. Tibetan texts will often have the Sanskrit title in Lantsa as well as dbu-can at their head.

Although these scripts are all related and all descend from Brahmī originally, knowing one does not always afford insights into reading the others. Some letters such as ṭa stayed remarkably stable, whereas others such as ja changed quite radically over time. Tibetan Uchen retains an archaic form of na which disappeared from India, while other letters are similar to more modern forms, and some appear only loosely based on an Indian precursor. Since conjunct consonants (such as jña or ṣṭha) are written combined into a single glyph and each script does this in slightly different, and sometimes idiosyncratic ways (for instance in Devanāgarī श + री = श्री).

Writing was probably introduced to India by Persian invaders who had themselves absorbed the techniques from other conquered peoples, especially the Aramaeans who were a semitic race that has since disappeared but left a huge legacy. It is thought that parts of the Old Testament of the Bible were composed in Aramaic and that it may have been Jesus's mother tongue. The Aramaic roots of Indian writing are most clear in Kharoṣṭhī. However it was not long before Indians adapted the art of writing to their own languages, and subsequently Indian Buddhists helped to establish the written word in vast swathes of the East including Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, and most of South East Asia. Indian scripts influenced the development of the Kana scripts in Japan and the Hangul script of Korea.

Images from Visible Mantra scripts page.
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