27 February 2009

Philological odds and ends I

philologyRegular readers will know that I find words and the way they communicate meaning to us a fascinating subject. So I am always on the look out for interesting etymologies and derivations. In other posts I have mentioned alternate ways of understanding: yathābhūta, brahmacarya, dharaṇī, upādāna, ariyasacca, brahmavihara, and hīnayāna. There are one or two stories about words, that don't quite rate a post on their own, but that I would like to share.


This is how the Buddha most often refers to himself. So you'd think that it would be clear and well understood, in fact the PED notes that in Pāli texts even non-Buddhists were supposed to understand it. However Buddhaghosa gives as many as eight possible derivations, of which two are most common. Firstly it is analysed as tathā + gata. Tathā is an adverb meaning "thus, so, in that way, likewise". Gata is a past-participle formed on the verbal root gam - gam if you don't know is wildly irregular, as a first person singular it is gacchāmi, as in "buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi". So this interpretation tells us that the noun means "thus-gone". This is not very helpful. Sometimes we are told that it means that the Tathāgata has gone to nibbāna, but this assumes that nibbāna is somewhere you can go, and this is not sustainable. PED notes that Mrs Rhys Davids suggested "he who has won through to the truth", but this is quite a leap from thus-gone.

A second, even less likely explanation analyses the word as tathā + āgata. This rests on a sandhi rule which says that ā + ā = ā, so it's not impossible. Āgata is again a past-participle, and means "come" (the ā- prefix indicates motion towards). In this case tathāgata is said to mean "thus-come", presumably a reference to the fact that a Tathāgata has manifested in the world (which has a Mahāyāna ring to it).

Prof. Richard Gombrich offers a way out. He points out (in the 2006 Numata lectures soon to be published as What the Buddha Thought by Equinox Publications) that as the second member of this kind of compound -gata loses its usual meaning and means simply 'being'. He gives an example from Coulson's Teach Yourself Sanskrit citragatā nārī means not "the woman has gone into the picture, but "the woman in the picture". On this model Gombrich suggests that tathāgata means something like "one like that". The fact the Buddha referred to himself as "one like that" is indicative of the impossibility of fully explaining his enlightened experience. Gombrich also notes that the term can apply to any enlightened person, for example at MN 1.140 :
Bhikkhus, when the gods... seek a bhikkhu who is liberated in mind, they cannot find anything... One thus gone (i.e. tathāgata) is untraceable here and now. (Alagaddūpama Sutta = MN 22, Ñāṇamoli, p.233)
On the same model we might say that another common epithet for the Buddha, sugata, probably means "one who is good or well".


I'm not sure who first realised that sūtra is a hyper-sanskritisation. I have seen it in a book by K.R. Norman who is an expert philologist and has published many detailed etymologies, but it seems to have become common knowledge. The story here is that the Buddhist use of the Sanskrit word sūtra is based on the mistaken notion that the Prakrit (especially Pāli) word sutta derives from the Sanskrit word sūtra. This is understandable since Pāli resolves almost all conjunct consonants to double consonants. But if you ever look at a Brahminical sūtra you can easily see that they are an entirely different genre of texts, with more in common with abhidhamma style texts - they are terse, almost like bullet points. There is none of the narrative style of the Buddhist sūtras. It is far more likely that sutta derives from another Sanskrit word, sūkta. Both sūkta and sūtra resolve to sutta in Pāli. Sūkta means well spoken from su + ukta. Su, as above, means "good or well". Ukta is a past participle formed (irregularly) on the verbal root vāc - speech or words. Sūkta is a name for the verses of the Vedas and it seems likely that this is another case of conscious imitation of Brahmins by Buddhists - other examples include Tevijja the Buddha's three kinds of special knowledge vs the three Vedas; and the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion vs the three sacred fires of the Vedic sacrificial enclosure. So the use sūtra by Buddhists derives from the early Prakrit traditions, and is called a hyper-sanskritisation because it seems like an over compensation - picking a familiar word and using that to make it sound pukka.


A śramaṇa (Pali samaṇa) was an ascetic practitioner in ancient India. In Buddhists texts they are very frequently contrasted with brāhmaṇa, the Brahmins, both ascetic and householders. The Buddha practised with śramaṇa teachers before his enlightenment and learnt meditation techniques from them. The root of the word is śrām meaning "to exert oneself, to labour, toil", but also "weariness". Incidentally it is the 'r' in the Sanskrit that forces the 'n' to become retroflex 'ṇ' and this is retained in the Pāli 'samaṇa'. Śrāma then, is toil, and a śramaṇa (short 'a' in this case) is one who toils, i.e. 'a toiler'. It can be used in various contexts so that Vedic texts for instance sometimes talk about exerting oneself in sexual intercourse, but most relevant to Buddhism is the exertion at tapas or the generation of heat, an ancient Vedic metaphor for ascetic practice. We also find it in the word āśrama (Anglicized to "asharam") - meaning a place of striving. What makes the word śramaṇa particularly interesting is that it found its way into English via quite a tortuous route.

Probably in its Prakrit form ṣamaṇa it was introduced into central Asia, where for instance in Tocharian it became ṣamāne. From where it made it's way to Chinese as sha men ( 沙门 or perhaps 沙弥 ) - a general term for Buddhist monks. Siberians then seem to have borrowed the word to describe their "shamans". It survives in the Evenki language, a member of the Tungus group of languages in Siberia as šamān. From here it entered the Russian vocabulary as shamán. In German this became schamane and then finally it was adopted in English in the familiar spelling, shaman, in 1698. The route is somewhat speculative, but plausible and makes for a good tale! This etymology is assembled from many sources, which contain a variety of spellings!


Loka is a word that gets quite a workout in Buddhist Pāli and Sanskrit. It is usually translated simply as 'world' but this can disguise its the background and connotations. The Sanskrit grammarians like to derive words as far as possible from notional verb roots. Loka is derived from the root lok. It means to see behold or perceive. It may be familiar to you in another form. In the name Avalokiteśvara it occurs in the word "avaloka" meaning 'look upon', hence the name in this form means "the Lord (īśvara) who looks upon [suffering beings with compassion]." Because of a fluidity around the syllables 'ra' and 'la' it is also related to the root rok meaning "light, lustre, brightness". The earliest uses, in the Ṛgveda, give the suggestion of a clear space in which one can see - perhaps a forest clearing. So the word has always had the connotation of perception and perceptual range - the world is just what one can see or percieve. It may be that this is an old Indo-European metaphor because we use world in this sense as well: e.g. "a world of his own". One of the Buddha's epithets in the Buddha Vandana is "lokavidhu" - knower of the world, ie one who knows his 'own world', or the 'perceptual world. In English the word comes to us, via Latin, in terms like location, local, and locus.


This is a term that is typically translated as house-holder but Jan Nattier points out that the implications of it are hidden by that translation. The term literally means house (gṛha) lord (pati) and she notes that there is a general consensus on translating it. However the context of use reveals that it indicates considerable financial means - Edgerton actually suggested "capitalist" in his dictionary of Buddhist Sanskrit. The term is also mentioned in lists of castes alongside brahmaṇa and kṣatriya, and the people to whom it is applied are usually merchants or guild leaders - Anathapiṇḍika's brother-in-law for instance is called gahapati. Nattier concludes that it most likely applies to someone of considerable influence and power, perhaps a "leading citizen" but who is not a member of the two higher castes. (Nattier, p.22ff.)

  • Ñāṇamoli. 1995. The Middle Length discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Nattier, Jan. 2003. A few good men : the bodhisattva path according to 'The inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press.

See also:

20 February 2009

Ego... Again

narcissus archetype of egoI have written a number of times on the subject of 'ego' (Ego in the Spiritual Life, The Problem of Self-preoccupation, Anatta in Context). On the whole I seem to take a different line to mainstream Buddhist teachers. After a discussion recently I wanted to revisit this subject. Regular readers will know that for the past year or so I have been developing a particular take on the Dharma. My approach stems from my answer the the question: "What is it that arises in dependence in causes?" My answer is that the emphasis in the early Buddhist texts is that it is dharmas that arise in dependence on causes, and that in this context dharmas should be understood as mental objects, that is the mental equivalent of the objects of the physical senses. And having pursued this line of enquiry through my practice I have some faith that it is a very useful approach.

Today I was talking with a friend today who was insistent that it is "egotism, and self absorption" that causes us to make the kinds of errors that cause us suffering. I want to explore this idea again in the light of my recent thinking. I believe that this idea has it's origins in the refrain:
yad anattā taṃ netaṃ mama neso ‘haṃ asmi na meso attāti

That which is non-self, this is not mine, it is not 'I', it is not my self.
We find this phrase again and again in the suttas, but it doesn't stand alone. It is said in reference to the process of cognition or experience: the khandhas, i.e. the apparatus of experience; or about the objects of the senses, i.e. the contents of sensory experience. Sue Hamilton points out that although the lists are enumerated separately the overall emphasis is the identification with experience as a whole. It should be noted that in the Pāli texts the Buddha never categorically denies the existence of a self. So, rehearsing the argument: the Buddha explained that the apparatus and contents of experience are impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory, and therefore non-self, and thus we are mistaken if we identify ourselves with them. I have already explained (Anatta in Context) that in my view this can, and perhaps should, be linked to the search for the Absolute (brahman) through the Self (ātman) which was a feature of many śramaṇa sects as well as most brāhmaṇa sects. The Buddha seems to have eschewed the search for absolutes of either existence or knowledge, although some later Buddhist philosophers went down the road of looking for them.

So how would I characterise the problem of egotism? Firstly we could say that egotism is self absorption; and secondly it is tied up with seeing the self as a manifestation of the Absolute. My earlier post on selflessness deals with the problem of self absorption, and I have dealt with absolutist thinking as well. Here I want to look at the perception of selfhood in relation to dharmas.

Why do we experience a self? This is a very vexed and difficult question, and one that has been addressed in many different ways with many different results depending on starting assumptions and method of argument. I like the idea put forward by Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens. Damasio proposes that the mental map of the body and it's processes underlies the sense of self. The process of maintaining the body in an optimum state requires us to be aware of how the body is now, and how it is changing. The basic question the system must answer "is the current state better or worse for survival?" When we add to this awareness of mental states, and awareness of being aware, then something like a sense of being a self contained, self aware 'being' emerges. Continuity is important in keeping the body in it's optimum state. Note that sentience or even consciousness is not required for this because even a single celled organism is capable of maintaining it's internal state as close to optimum as the environment will allow. And this is part of the reason I like Damasio. No extra entity - no homunculus or 'little person in the head' as he calls it - is necessary for this maintenance, but a sense of continuity emerges from the complexity of the task in the case of higher animals. An awareness over time, and under different conditions, gives us survival fitness. The fact that we are aware of being in relation to the past, and with reference to possible futures is what gives us a sense of personal continuity. Damasio points out that the state of awareness that underlies this is not in fact continuous itself, but is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. The upshot is that we are capable of very complex and long term behaviour in order to maximise our wellbeing. We need not go to the extreme of logical positivist inspired behaviouralism and claim that there is no such thing as mind and that there is only behaviour. We may not fully understand consciousness as we experience it, but we need not dismiss it, or dismiss those aspects which we don't understand as non-existent! My point is that self-awareness helps us survive, and gives us choices. Damasio's theory doesn't take into account our social nature for instance, and the extent to which identity and behaviour are influenced by social factors.

It's important to be clear that anyone who abandons concern for their own wellbeing, and/or acts to harm themselves is not admirable. Selflessness has it's limits - we must be concerned for our wellbeing at some level. Although there may be times when one might sacrifice one's life for another, on the whole we need to care for ourselves. Someone who does not maintain a positive sense of self may allow others to manipulate them, or to exploit them. We have to make decisions about how we behave under various circumstances. To do this we must have a sense of what is important to ourselves, a sense of personal values. There are all too many horrific examples of what happens when we abdicate moral responsibility to others. In short we must be a self, must be a strong and positive self, in order to function well as an individual and in society. Selfishness on the other hand is a lack of awareness of others. The counterpoint between self and other, and how we impact on one another is addressed in the first three of the six perfections.

Where the Buddha helps is in identifying the mistaken conclusions we come to on the basis of our self-awareness. Self awareness comes from bodily sensations, and from mental experiences and representations of sensations. The problem of egotism then boils down to coming to wrong conclusions about the nature of experience. We might seek to re-experience previous pleasures, or to experience new pleasures. I suppose we have all done this and so we know the answer to the question of whether or not it works. Pleasure can't be sustained, no experience can be. Similarly we go to extraordinary links to insulate ourselves from suffering - we may even cut ourselves off from society and community in order to do this. And again, having tried to escape suffering we know that it doesn't work. The Buddha asks us to pay attention to those doubts that come up when our attempts to organise the universe to our satisfaction fail to pay off. Rather than coming up with a yet more elaborate plan for happiness we need to stop, as far as we can, and pay attention to how experience actually works. One of the things that I've noticed is how little control I have over what goes on around me - I can't stop myself from having experiences. Some are pleasant, some are not, most are kind of neutral, but the flow of experience is never ending, except perhaps in the deepest stages of sleep. Even in the very attenuated and refined experience of meditation there is experience - which was the subject of my post on Communicating the Dharma.

So for me it is not that helpful to characterise our fundamental problem in terms of ego, or egotism. Egotism is an effect not a cause. It is an effect of a mistaken relationship to our moment to moment experience. And to my mind the place to attack the problem is at the root. Indeed this is a common Buddhist metaphor - don't muck about pruning the tree of craving, pull out the roots of it! I don't think we address being self-referential if we don't address the nature of the experience of self, and this draws ironically us away from the personal. I'm not likely to enjoy having someone trying to undermine my sense of self, or tell me that my self is bad. However I can see the logic of the error in judgement with relation to the senses, and I'm drawn to trying to deal with this problem.

In fact although the rhetoric is quite different the methods are more or less the same: ethics and meditation. But so often an attack on ego has a ring of unkindness about it. It's as though we are being blamed for causing the problem in the first place. I recall a well known Zen Roshi who wrote about suicide that it is fundamentally a selfish and egotistical act! I was struck by the insensitivity of this so-called 'master'! I believe that if they really understood the choice that no one would choose suffering, or that in good circumstances anyone would see suicide as a solution to their problems. We suffer through ignorance not through informed choice, and sometimes that suffering can feel unbearable. So blame is hardly appropriate.

Similarly I don't think that examining cause and effect in the world is necessarily going to help much, although more than one of my colleagues have argued against me on this point. Sure, gravity makes things fall, for instance, and erosion will eventually wear away a mountain. The objects of experience do change if we wait long enough. But if the problem at it's root is our moment to moment relationship to experience, and if our experience is changing in each moment, then oughtn't we to look at the experience rather than the object of experience for insight? Another way of saying it might be to examine statements like "no thing arises" - this is common in Mahāyāna circles and is recorded in the first line of the Arapacana acrostic. In which sphere is this true? I think this is a straightforward proposition if we are talking about the realm of experience; but it is nonsensical if we are focussing on the objects of experience. And unfortunately many Buddhists end up saying nonsensical things about the objective pole of experience!

The problem is not ego in relation to the objects of experience, not even ego per se, it is the very nature of experience itself that is the root of our problems. This is where we can make a real difference.

13 February 2009

Asoka, Pāli, and some red herrings.

A few weeks ago I read a reference to a book on Indo-Aryan languages. I found the book in the University library and was immediately struck by the entry on Pāli. Pāli, the book says, is essentially a western Middle Ind0-Aryan dialect. This raised a number of questions for me if only because the Buddha lived in the East of India. So what was going on?

The Indo-Aryan languages are divided roughly into three periods. Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) is represented by the Vedic language of the Ṛgveda, but includes Classical Sanskrit. The Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) languages began to appear in inscriptions around the time of the Buddha - circa the 5th century BCE. These are often referred to as Prakrits and include Pāli. Although it's often assumed that all Indo-Aryan languages can be traced to Vedic, this is unlikely. Pāli and other Prakrits have antecedents in archaic OIA languages which existed in parallel to Vedic, but which are no longer extant. New Indo-Aryan (NIA) languages are the modern North Indian languages such as Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali.

The claim that Pāli is a western MIA dialect rests on its similarity to an Aśokan rock edict in Girnar (in modern day Gujurat). Girnar incidently was originally Girinagar or "Hill Town". This similarity between the Girnar edict and Pāli seems to have been originally noticed by Ettiene Lamotte. King Aśoka (c 272-231 BCE), whose empire centred on the town of Pāṭaliputra (present day Patna) had a number of these edicts carved into rocks around India, and also made some impressive stone pillars which carried inscriptions. The inscriptions cover a range of subjects including Aśoka's renunciation of violence, and his desire that everyone should live by the "dhamma". History tells us that Aśoka's grandfather, Chandragupta, had become a Jain ascetic late in life and it seems as though Aśoka might have emulated him in becoming a Buddhist.

The edicts are carved in a number of languages. In Bactria and Afghanistan they are in Greek or Aramaic because these were the local languages - legend says that Chandragupta Maurya was inspired in part by glimpsing Alexander on his rampage through Asia and into India, and it was Alexander who left Greek speaking people behind in that region. Aramaic was a relic of the Persians whom Alexander defeated. The other edicts are in forms of MIA. In Gāndhāra, the north-west of what is now Pakistan, the local dialect is now known as Gāndhārī. In the west another unnamed dialect was used. Finally in the east and south edicts were carved in what has come to be called Māgadhī - the language of Māgadha, and presumably of Aśoka himself.

It is usually said that Aśoka himself sent missions to far flung places to spread Buddhism, and especially that he sent one of his sons, Mahinda, down to Sri Lanka. The connection with Sri Lanka is very important because it was there that the texts were written down in Pāli. So at first glimpse it seemed that there was a puzzle here: why would Aśoka send missionaries bearing a collection of texts in a strange dialect? Why weren't the texts in Māgadhī? Theravāda legend says that Pāli is Māgadhī, but this idea has not been taken seriously by scholars for some decades.

In 1978 the great philologist K. R. Norman wrote:
"One thing is certain. The Pāli canon is not in the language of Aśoka's own capital; for the basic features of Māgadhī (s for all three sibilants, la for ra, and nominative singular in -e) are either lacking completely, or merely sporadic. (p.30)
The view finds authoritative support in Salomon's Indian Epigraphy where he reviews the writing in the Aśokan edicts. So until quite recently there seemed to be a consensus that Pāli was not Māgadhī and that it most closely resembles the language of the Girnar edict which is in the west, in what is present day Gujarat. So I began to construct a scenario which would account for this. Firstly I wondered whether the texts were in Pāli when they arrived in Sri Lanka - there is no account of their having been translated however. Next I discovered the traditional account in the Mahāvaṃsa, chapter thirteen of which tells that Asoka spent time in Avanti - a western province - where he was governor before taking up the throne in Māgadha. Here he had his son Mahinda with a local woman. Could this account for the language? I later discovered that Mahinda's origins in Avanti had already been considered as an answer to the language problem by Ettiene Lamotte (this is cited in one of K.R. Norman's many articles on the subject).

I also began to explore the history of the time. Asoka was not the last emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, but it did not long survive his death. And inscriptions in Māgadhī cease around this time. The Mauryan dynasty continued for a few decades until the last Mauryan king was assassinated by one of his generals who then founded the Śunga Dynasty. The Śungas are obscure but thought to be Brahmins who came from none other than the Avanti area in western India. It began to seem likely that the Śungas might have spread a western dialect into the East, and helped it to become the lingua franca in the last two centuries BCE. In fact the western dialect is found as far afield as Orissa and Amarāvati.

This seemed quite a likely answer to the question until I received replies to queries which I had sent to Dr Lance Cousins, and Prof. Richard Gombrich. Both said that the scholarly consensus is that Pāli is in fact Māgadhī, albeit heavily Sanskritised, and that Girnar also is best explained as a Sanskritised and partially localised version of Māgadhī. They both recommended reading more of K. R. Norman's recent work on this subject. This is no great hardship as Norman is a fascinating writer.

What Prof. Norman did was to compare in minute detail the language, spelling and writing of the edicts and construct a scenario which could account for the similarities and differences. Norman points out that the features of the Girnar inscription were not confined to the west, and that in fact there are many differences between the Girnar inscription and Pāli. In spoken language there was a general movement away from Sanskrit, with each local dialect or Prakrit changing at different paces. Different features of dialects could change at different rates as well. But at the same time Sanskrit was a powerful literary influence so that written texts were Sanskritised, or made to conform more to Classical Sanskrit. Asoka's edicts were written texts. Most likely they were dictated to a scribe who then made copies to be sent out to the regions to be carved into stone. Some edicts are clearly made from the same original, but show considerable variation in the skill and attention to spelling of the scribe or stone mason. Sometimes a local scribe has modified the original to be more Sanskrit, or more like the local dialect, and sometimes both. Sometimes he was just kak-handed, and sometimes working in a confined space that distorted the letters.

So by 1994 Norman's opinion had changed:
"It is clear that any conclusions about the origin of Pāli which are based upon the regional geography of the Aśokan inscriptions must be examined very carefully, and can be disregarded is they conflict with other evidence." and "If we disregard the evidence of the Aśokan inscriptions and assume that the situation in the second century reflects the pattern of dialect distribution in the third century, then it would be open to us to conclude that the dialect upon which Pāli was based had its home much nearer Magadha. " (p.8)
So it seems that the mystery is solved and ironically that the Theravāda legends were right all the time. Pāli is Māgadhī. Although over the years the written form of Pāli has been Sanskritised. This was partly under the influence of Sanskrit inspired Pāli grammar texts from Burma. We do know that Pāli continued to evolve because Buddhaghosa's Pāli is noticeably different from the language of the suttas.

A further red herring is revealed in Norman's 2004 paper on the Aśokan envoys. It's generally stated that Aśoka sent missionaries to convert people to Buddhism. Norman shows however that although Aśoka did send missions, they were not Buddhist missions but political missions. Aśoka was trying to convince people to give up war, not convert to Buddhism. Buddhist missions were sent, but these mainly went to different places, and sent different kinds of people, namely bhikkhus. And they were sent by Moggaliputta Tissa, not by Aśoka. Norman says:
There is every reason for thinking that the Buddhists did not even know of Aśoka's dhamma and his dūtas [envoys], otherwise we might have expected them to mention Aśoka in connection with the thera [ie religious] missions, in the same way that they mention him in connection with the third saṅgitī [i.e. council]." (2004: p.196)
We seem to have conflated two stories here which when one reads the evidence closely are distinct. Why? Norman speculates that it is because scholars have not read the edicts themselves and so are lead by other writers (who themselves may not have read them). Unless we make the effort to learn the languages then there is no way for us to know for ourselves!

This whole subject is a fascinating case study in the dynamics of scholarship of this type. This has all happened within my lifetime. It shows that just because something is in a book, even what appears to be an authoritative book (such as an impressive university text on languages), and backed up by other authoritative sources, it must still be evaluated. It is possible even for careful and talented scholars, familiar with the languages of the texts, to be in error - how much more so for those with no Pāli, Sanskrit or Prakrit (etc) relying on others to interpret texts for them. It shows how difficult it can be to be well informed on a subject, although writing in 2003 I wonder if Cardona and Jain can really be excused for not being cognisant of Norman's articles. The Pali Text Society have conveniently collected Norman's articles into eight hard bound volumes but these are not likely to be in your local library. Many of the articles are quite readable, but it's better to have some background in Indian history, geography, and languages. Not many of us have the time or inclination to do what needs to be done, so we have a tendency to propagate urban myths and hearsay.

  • Cardona , George and Jain, Dhanesh (eds). 2003. The Indo-Aryan Languages. London : Routledge.
  • Norman, K. R. - in Collected Works (dates are the original publication date):
    • Aśokan envoys and Buddhist Missionaries. 2004. (Vol VIII, p.183)
    • The Aśokan inscriptions and the Prakrit dialect geography. 1994. (Vol. VI, p.1)
    • The Language in which the Buddha taught. (vol.II, p.84):
    • The Role of Pāli in early Sinhalese Buddhism. 1978. (Vol II, p.30)
    • The Dialects in which the Buddha preached. 1991. (vol.II, p.128):
    • The Origin of Pali and its place among the Indo-European Languages. 1992. (vol.III, p.225):
  • Salomon, Richard. 1998. Indian epigraphy : a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. Oxford University Press.

06 February 2009

Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?

In lieu of a blog post this week I would like to draw your attention to my recent publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics: Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him? In this article I explore a passage from the Sāmaññphala Sutta (DN 2). This is the well known account of the meeting between King Ajātasattu and the Buddha. At the end of the discourse the king becomes a lay disciple and then confesses to the Buddha that he has killed his father, King Bimbisāra. The article begins with a translation problem. Although the action clearly describes a confession, the word often translated as confession - paṭikaroti - means no such thing. In trying to establish what the word does mean I looked at every occurrence in the suttas, and the Pāli commentaries on them, showing that the text uses a stock phrase (or pericope) which is employed in many different settings. This highlighted a feature of Buddhist confession which is distinct from religious confession in the west - that it does not involve reparation or making amends (despite what the translators say!).

In order to better understand what is happening I locate the action in the context of the early Buddhist theory of karma, and in the broader religious context of the day. The latter was deeply concerned with ritual purity, and, having been polluted with the return to ritual purity. The Buddha reinterpreted ritual purity as ethical purity, and confession in early Buddhism is a way of returning to ethical purity. The results of karma cannot be avoided, hence there is no reparation, no requirement to make amends in the confession. However through spiritual practice - including ethical purity - one can avoid creating new karmic results (kamma-vipaka), but crucially one can also reduce the impact of karmic consequences. I believe this is because we become more emotionally robust through spiritual practice, and that we are more able to contain painful vedanā (experience, sensation, feeling). To put it another way we are less likely to be blown off course by the worldly winds. The king however is doomed to rebirth in hell because patricide is an "unforgivable" offence. In fact this fate is undone in later version of the story which are preserved in Chinese translations of the sutta and a Sanskrit frgament. Here the charisma of the Buddha is such that it help Ajātasattu escape his fate. This change is one that deserves more attention but I don't speak Chinese!

Having established what the story is telling us I revisit the phrase 'yathadhamma paṭikaroti' around which the action hinges. I have shown by this point that previous translators (T W R Rhys Davids, Maurice Walsh) have misunderstood this term, and that the Pali-English Dictionary has also misunderstood it. There is no sense of "making amends" in any of the suttas which use this phrase, only of returning to ethical purity. In fact the phrase is difficult to translate into English and I have tentatively suggested that "Dharmically counteract" at least accurately renders the sense of the Pāli. Being an unattractive phrase it is unlikely to catch on, but I couldn't think of anything better.

A subsidiary issue arises in that some translators (Piya Tan, Ñāṇamoli) have understood Ajātasattu to be asking forgiveness and the Buddha to be offering forgiveness. I show that this does not make sense in the context, and it does not make sense in terms of Buddhist doctrine. The king is merely asking the Buddha to acknowledge his resolution to be ethical in the future, and the Buddha acknowledges the intention as an intention. Nothing more.

In early Buddhism confession is mostly associated with the bhikkhu sangha, but as my article shows confession clearly was part of a more general religious landscape with laypeople and even non-Buddhists confessing evil actions. One minor point which I make is that it is the actions which are done foolishly, in confusion, and unskillfully (yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathā-akusalaṃ). Most translators change the adverb into an adjective describing the person rather than the action. This is consistent with Judeo-Christian ideas of culpability, but not with Buddhist views.

I hope this little precis will encourage people to read the whole article. Those with no Pāli at all may find the first couple of pages a bit daunting, but it soon settles down to discussing the implications, so don't be discouraged!

P.S. some of the ideas that emerged while researching this article have already appeared in blog posts: follow the link to other blog posts on confession.
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