29 May 2009

Indo-European Languages

It occurs to me that I often go on about etymology and the links between Sanskrit and English words and yet I've never said much about that link. How can a Sanskrit and an English word possibly be linked, or even cognate? It's because Sanskrit and English are both members of a large family of languages known as Indo-European (IE). This includes most of the languages of Europe (the major exceptions are Basque, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian), and the languages of North India. These share many grammatical and morphological features.

We have to begin this story in the middle. During the period when Britain ruled over most of India many men were sent out to India as administrators. These men often had a classical education - that is they read Latin and Greek, and were familiar with the works of the classical authors. Sir William Jones (1746-1794) had gone much further and was a gifted linguist, having published translations from Persian and Arabic, and learned a number of other languages besides. However his livelihood was in law and he was appointed to be a Judge in Calcutta in 1783. Here he came into contact with Sanskrit and within a few years was publishing translations from Sanskrit. Jones reported to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, which he had founded, in February 1786 that there was an apparent relationship between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit: "... no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists."

Subsequently much work has been done in comparative linguistics to demonstrate that the same kind of links exist between very many other languages. The 'Euro' of Indo-European includes the groups: Celtic languages, Germanic (including English), Italic (aka Romantic), Slavic, Greek, Albanian; Armenian. The 'Indo' stands in fact for Indo-Iranian - this branch includes Persian/Iranian, Panjabi, Hindi, Gujurati, Marathi, Bihari, Bengali. Of the European exceptions Basque may well be a remnant of the languages spoken in Europe before the Indo-European ancestors moved into that area. Finnish, Estonian, and Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) are members of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family which seems to have had an ancestral homeland in and around the Ural mountains. Basque is not related to any other known language - as such it is known as a language isolate.

One of areas where Indo-European languages show similarities is in kinship nouns. Consider for example the word for father.

Sanskrit pitṛ (nominative pitā)
Greek pater
Latin pater
German vater
Hindi pitā

One can see that there are changes from /p/ to /v/; and from /t/ to /d/ and to /th/ in English. These changes are typical of the type of changes that happen from language to language. So the sounds used for the word father are either the same, or related to each other via a known process.

Another area where the links are clear is in numbers.



































































Again the similarity in some cases is striking (two, eight) and in some cases less obvious but subject to understandable variation (four, five). Of course linguists have marshalled a lot more evidence over the two centuries since "India" Jones wrote his paper. So much so that it has been possible to tentatively reconstruct what the precursor language might have sounded like and worked. This language is called Proto-Indo-European. PIE is a best guest as nothing in fact survives from that time which might indicate what language was spoken or how it was spoken. It seems likely that there were a range of related dialects some of which had more input than others - which is what we see in later India and Europe. For instance some linguists think that Pāli is not a direct descendent of the Vedic language of the Ṛgveda, but of a closely related dialect.

The word āryan is often used in this context though Indo-Aryan is being replaced by Indo-Iranian in linguistic circles. There are two reasons for this. Firstly there are the unfortunate associations with the Nazi racial purity ideas. These are alive and well if the internet is anything to go by. Racist Europeans still try to show that they are a pure race descended from the āryans. They don't seem to realise that almost every one else in Europe is as well, including that often hated group the Gypsies whose Roma language is included amongst the IE family and whose origins are likely to have been in North West Rajasthan.

The second reason is more important for linguists. If anything āryan describes a linguistic group, not a racial group. This is very important. Sometimes the IE family has nothing to do with race. When peoples migrate they often end up speaking the tongue of their neighbours. In any case race is a rather vaguely defined concept these days. Genetics are showing that where we perceive racial difference there is often little evidence of this in DNA. In fact, for instance, for some genes all people in India are similar - including speakers of IE, Dravidian, and Munda languages. Race is not a natural category, it is one we impose on people.

Using the phrase Indo-Iranian refers to a geographic area. And what we see is that languages in proximity may share features that distant, but related, languages do not. A very important case is the use of retroflex consonants. These are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled back to touch the top of the palette, and are Romanised as ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ and ṣ. Of the IE languages only the languages of India use them. This is well established by the time of the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE). The Dravidian languages, centred by not entirely confined to South India, also use retroflex consonants. It is a feature of Indian languages that transcends race or language family. Mind you, our English dentals (t th d dh n) sound retroflex to Indian speakers because we typically don't have our tongue on the teeth, but immediately behind them on the gum - the sound is less crisp than a true dental and so words like doctor, for instance, are transliterated with retroflexes: e.g. ḍaokṭor (ढॉक्टर्) in Hindi.

The earlier IE languages are heavily inflected. This means that endings are added to a word to tell us what its function in the sentence is (grammar). So in a simple sentence in Sanskrit like:
rāmo bhaginyā saha tāṃ nagarīmagacchat
Rāma went to town with his sister.
There would be no ambiguity if we change the words around (although the euphonic sandhi changes are slightly different - they don't affect the meaning)
aggacchat tāṃ nagarīṃ bhaginyā saha rāmaḥ
We always know that it is Rāma who is the agent, that his sister is with him, and that they went to town no matter the order. The trend in IE languages is away from use of inflections towards prepositions such as: to, with, his. If we mix up the word order in English then we confuse the meaning of the sentence. This trend is not inevitable, but is a characteristic of IE languages. Tamil went the other way for instance, becoming more inflected.

One thing which seems clear, although the scholarly debate rumbles on, is that the homeland of IE, or PIE, is not in India. The debate is largely kept up by Indian scholars who are keen to prove that Sanskrit was the indigenous language of North India. As sometimes happens where there are vested interests, the scholarly debate can be quite emotional with India scholars accused of Hindu Nationalism, while at the same time using terms like 'Orientalist' and 'Cultural Imperialist' for their European detractors. However one must look to the evidence which supports the view that the Indo-European languages originated from the Caspian Sea area in what is now Turkmenistan.

Another area of dispute is the Indus Valley civilisation. This is a rather large topic, so I'm only going to skim it. Basically from possibly as early as 7000 BCE up to about 1700 BCE there was a civilisation along the Indus River, and the now dried up Saraswati River. Their material remains were only discovered in the 20th century, but it seems clear that they were for a long time a successful culture - with possible trading links to the Middle East. The cities were abandoned gradually, rather than being over-run by invaders (scotching the Āryan invasion theory) probably due to a major shift in the patterns of the monsoons which caused the Saraswati to dry up. They left behind hundreds of little clay tablets with symbols on them. Too few to be a ideographic writing like Chinese, and too many to be an alphabet. They most likely do represent some form of written language - similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs which mixed words, ideas, and sounds to create about 400 symbols in all. But what that language is remains a mystery - despite many attempts to decipher it. None of the many claims to have deciphered it stand up to scrutiny, and most exploit the ambiguity of having not texts but only very short sequences of characters to work with - a maximum of 20, but an average of about 8. It would have been nice if the Indus language turned out to be Sanskrit, but this seems not to be the case. Neither is it Dravidian - there is little evidence for Dravidian people having been driven out of the North by Āryan invaders either. One possibility is that it is related to Munda - the family of languages spoken by remnant tribal populations in part of India and related to Malay.

So some mysteries remain. The exact relationship of the speakers of Indo-European languages is still not entirely clear, though the answer most likely lies in the areas of geography and sociology rather than race. But the relationships between IE languages themselves is clear, and the evidence very strong. They are all related, and probably all grew out of one language, or a very small number of closely related dialects. Some languages seem to be less changed than others. Slavic languages for instance are closer to PIE than the Germanic languages. Romantic languages, whose roots in Latin are still obvious, often show considerable similarity. But even in English one can see the relationship if one is observant.

22 May 2009

In the seen...

eye by Guhyaraja There is a very famous story regarding the ascetic Bāhiya Dārucīriya (Bāhiya of the bark garment) who travels far to find the Buddha. He repeatedly asks the Buddha for a teaching and eventually the Buddha turns and utters the now famous words: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard" - etc for all the senses. However it is quite difficult to know exactly what the Buddha meant, and although we get a general picture the details are sometimes left obscure. Indeed scholars allow that the passages which follow are not really understood any more.

I recently stumbled upon precisely the same teaching being given to another person in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Māluṅkyaputta is an elderly bhikkhu and asks the Buddha for a nice brief teaching that he can reflect on. The Buddha repeats the same words as he says to Bāhiya. Fortunately for us Māluṅkyaputta is not sure he understands either, and he asks the Buddha for clarification. He does this by spelling out his understanding and asking if that is what the Buddha meant. And since it he gets it right we can learn from this sutta.

Here is an edited version of what he said:
Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā, piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasi karoto;
Sārattacitto vedeti, tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati.

Tassa vaḍḍhanti vedanā, anekā rūpasambhavā;
Abhijjhā ca vihesā ca cittamassūpahaññati;
Evaṃ ācinato dukkhaṃ, ārā nibbānamuccati.

..sutvā ... ghatvā... bhotvā... phussa... dhammaṃ ñatvā
Having seen a form with mindfulness forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form.
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.

Similarly for sounds, smells, tastes, contact, and the knowledge of mental objects.
So let's pause here to consider what's been said so far. This is our existential situation. We see forms, hear sounds, etc and we are entranced by them. Consider that we do not have one sensory experience at the time, but live in a flood of sense impressions all giving rise to sensations and thoughts. So the problem is multiplied many times. And, because we are caught up in the delightful sensations that our senses deliver up to us, we are covetous. As I say - we seek happiness by pursuing pleasure. We worry when we don't get pleasure - either new pleasures or the same old pleasures. We are appalled when we get unpleasant sensations because we think this means we are unhappy. And all this impairs our mental functioning. We get caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and defending ourselves from worry and vexation. We accumulate material goods, we indulge in hedonism, we fight and quarrel over things. And none of this actually makes us happy! In fact the more we go on like this the less happiness we are likely to have. The more we have the less content we will be. The more pleasure we find, the less we will enjoy it. Pleasant sensations are like addictive drugs - after a while we need more to get the same effect.

So in this state nibbāna - the blowing out of the fires that torment us - is remote. It is remote because our craving is fuel for the fire. We keep the fire burning by pursuing pleasure and reacting against pain.

The sutta continues:

Na so rajjati rūpesu, rūpaṃ disvā paṭissato;
Virattacitto vedeti, tañca nājjhosa tiṭṭhati.
Yathāssa passato rūpaṃ, sevato cāpi vedanaṃ;
Khīyati nopacīyati, evaṃ so caratī sato;
Evaṃ apacinato dukkhaṃ, santike nibbānamuccati.
Having mindfully seen a form, he does not delight in forms,
He experiences dispassion and remains unattached
He sees a form and has the associated sensation,
It falls away, does not accumulate - thus he exercises mindfulness.
Thus suffering is not heaped up, and nibbāna is said to be near.
So what is the alternative to heaping fuel on the fire? Should we just give up everything and join a monastery? Well it's not quite as simple as that. Renunciation in a worldly sense can sometimes be counter productive if we remain mentally attached to the thing. Renouncing pleasure qua pleasure is not really possible. Those who try to do so end up cultivating pain, and that is quite as unhealthy as pursuing pleasure. The problem is our relationship to sensations. The key is mindfulness - which enables one to stay calm in the face of pleasure or pain, and to just experience what is happening in each moment as it happens.

This requires training. At first we don't even see that we have this kind of relationship to sensations. We have to become aware of what we are aware of, and not trundle along letting our unconscious reactions to things dictate our behaviour. This is what it means to become truly human - to rise above instinctual or habitual reactions and be conscious. By cultivating mindfulness of things, and our body and other people we generally refine our awareness. And most people find that this makes them slow down and appreciate things a little more, and it allows a measure of contentment to develop. This is preliminary to the greater work which is to begin to see more clearly that pleasure is not equal to happiness, and vice versa, and equally that pain - as in the physical sensation of pain - doesn't necessarily equate to unhappiness.

We may also pay attention to the grosser forms of impermanence and cause and effect - this helps us to tune into the spirit of the teachings. At some point our focus needs to shift to the impermanence of experience itself: to the way that experiences occur when the conditions are there (that is to say sense organ, sense object and sense consciousness) and that nothing substantial is found in the experience itself. Pleasurable experiences in particular do not last, they create no lasting happiness, and if we are very subtly attuned we begin to sense that our addiction means that as soon as we feel pleasure we begin to fear it's end - we cling to it.

So in order to be closer to extinguishing the flames that torment us we need to stop feeding the fire. When we have a sense experience we try to stay aware of it's temporary and contingent nature - we have that experience, but do not try to hold onto it, and stay open to possibility. We become 'fed up' with chasing pleasure and we turn away from the chase. This detachment brings it's own rewards - we are calmer, we are content. Life becomes simpler. Equanimity means we have more energy since we no longer waste it, and it is smoother. We are no longer rocked by the winds of change and fortune - because we stop looking for happiness in pleasant experiences.

  • The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72). Pāli text from tipitka.org. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi The Collected Discourses p. 1175-8. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  • On Nibbāna and the fire metaphor see also my essay: Everything is on fire!
  • Another take on the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta can be found in this interesting essay: theravadin.wordpress.com.

image: eye by Guhyaraja.

15 May 2009

The Simile of the Chariot

One time in Sāvatthi the bhikkhunī Vajirā went on her alms round, and then having eaten her meal she went to meditate in the Blind Man's Grove. Māra appeared to her and tried to frighten her and disrupt her meditation. He planted questions in her mind: who created this being? Where is the creator? Where does this being arise, where cease? Vajirā however knew these thoughts to be the product of Māra. She replied:

Kiṃ nu sattoti paccesi, māra diṭṭhigataṃ nu te;
Suddhasaṅkhārapuñjoyaṃ, nayidha sattupalabbhati.

Yathā hi aṅgasambhārā, hoti saddo ratho iti;
Evaṃ khandhesu santesu, hoti sattoti sammuti.

Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti

What makes you resort to belief in 'a being' Māra?
A heap of mere fabrication, a being is not found here.

Just as the combination of parts is called 'a chariot';
Thus while there are the apparatus of experience, conventionally there is 'a being'

For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.  
Māra was disappointed at not frightening Vajirā, and he disappeared. This is the famous simile of the chariot from the Vajirā Sutta, in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (5:10; PTS S i.136). It is used to illustrate the idea that we are only an assemblage of parts, that nothing really exists in the absolute sense - as the sutta says when the parts come together we conventionally say 'a being'. This collection of parts is also called a mere heap of fabrication (suddha-saṅkhāra-puñjoyaṃ). But what are these parts? They are the khandhas. Traditionally these are defined as that which conventionally makes up a being. The definition is circular: a being is made up of the things that make up a being. There's not much information in that interpretation. However Sue Hamilton has given us a better way of thinking about the khandhas: they are the apparatus of experience. That is, instead of thinking of the khandhas as what makes up a being, we can think of the khandhas as the minimal requirements for having an experience. Briefly we have the locus of experience (form/rūpa), then "having met with sensory data (vedanā) [via the physical sense organs] 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)." [The Apparatus of Experience]

To my mind the focus on experience explains why no being is found. What might be found is the experience of a being, but there is no being apart from experience. However note the third verse spoken by Vajirā. It says that it is only suffering that arises, persists and ceases. Only suffering. Without this part of the verse the received explanation works alright. But the third verse tells us something extra. Here is a confirmation that what arises in dependence on causes are experiences. In my essay on the first verse of the Dhammapada I said: "... 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". Dukkha in this view is all unenlightened experience. This sounds a bit miserable, but as I recently pointed out [proliferation] it's not that pleasure is bad, but that we mistake the pursuit of pleasant sensations as leading to happiness, which they do not.

This kind of sutta where Māra visits someone and tries to put doubts in their mind is quite common. Māra here seems to be a psychological metaphor, i.e. Māra represents our own doubts coming to the surface. The tactic of getting into dialogue with that doubting voice is something that is used by some psychologists. It also resembles the approach of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy - identifying thoughts and deciding whether to take them seriously or ignore them.

So where the apparatus of experience come together we conventionally say there is a being. But this is to mistake the experience of being, for something more substantial. We need to focus on experience and on the processes by which we have experiences, because it is experience - especially suffering - that arises in dependence on conditions. It is our failure to recognise experiences in general and suffering in particular as dependent, that causes us to suffer.

While the idea of a 'being' as made up of parts and therefore insubstantial and impermanent is far from wrong, I think the use to which the verse is put shows the weakness of taking verses out of context. Because the real import, the central point of the simile, occurs in the third verse - only suffering arises - and this is routinely left out of presentations of the Dharma. Here the context reveals once again that whatever the truth of ontology and the reality of beings, the Buddha was focussed on the problem of suffering.

The chariot simile is from the Vajirā Sutta (S 5:10; S i.136) Pāli text from CSCD Pāli Tipiṭaka; pg 230 in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation which is also available on Access to Insight; translated by Bikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

image: from Achaemenid Persia by Mark Drury. The picture is of a chariot from Afghanistan but would have been very similar to Indian war chariots.

08 May 2009

We are all going to die.

cemetery on Newmarket RdYears ago I shared a room with a man who was concerned that he didn't take the subject of his own death seriously enough. As a reminder he painted, in large black letters above his bed:

I am going to die

That man is still alive but in the intervening years a number of friends and acquaintances have died. My mother is alive and well, but my father died 19 years ago, and all of my grandparents are dead. As I write I'm absorbing the news that a colleague has died. I didn't know him very well, but I did live in his community when I first arrived in the UK seven years ago. He died of a stroke and it seems he had no time to set his affairs in order or to compose himself.

Once my preceptor gave a talk in which he said: "death is absolutely inconvenient." This has echoed down the years for me as I grieved for loved ones and friends. Death just comes and we are never ready for it. When death comes we will have plans for the future, we will leave unfinished projects, unresolved conflicts, and unrequited loves. All of those things that we have been putting off will never be done. It is a harsh and stark fact of life.

I often walk through the Mill Rd cemetery. This is a large old burial ground in which the grounds' keepers are gradually losing the battle against nature. Many of the stones are unreadable and all but a very few of the graves are untended and rely on public employees and occasional volunteers to keep the brambles and other weeds from overwhelming them. I noticed that some of the graves are not that old. Some of the people buried there probably have living grand children. It struck me that within two or three generations most people are forgotten. Even well loved people who raised a family and worked hard are just a name engraved on a crumbling piece of stone in a cemetery somewhere. If that.

None of this can be news to anyone. We all know that we are going to die. And yet we continue to live our lives, to choose our values and priorities as though death is far off. I was struck that Jade Goody - a UK star of so-called reality TV - was only 27 when she died of cancer. And yet she had achieved notoriety and celebrity if not universal public acclaim. She leaves two kids and a husband, but in all likelihood all of this will be forgotten in a generation or two. Most of us won't rate an obituary in the media, and won't have gotten around to starting that memoir that we sometimes toyed with writing. It's not that we have uninteresting lives, simply that we fall under the radar. We are unexceptional.

Have your ever played that game where someone asks you what you would do if you had only 24 hours left to live? It can be revealing, but, even if we do get notice of immanent death, we are often too sick to do anything but lie in a hospital bed in those last 24 hours. The world keeps turning, the seasons wax and wane, days and nights alternate, the tides slosh in and out, and the wind blows the fallen blossoms in autumn. All that just goes on without you. Nature doesn't shed a tear when you die - you are compost at best.

We have limited time and energy and yet we spend so much of it on things that simply don't matter in the long run. Accumulating possessions that will end up in charity shops when we're gone. Working long hours making money for share holders who don't even know our names, and who are themselves are unexceptional on the whole and achieve nothing of significance with the money we make for them. So much of our economic activity we now know unequivocally to be actively harmful to the environment. We follow the news religiously because we want to be informed - but we never learn anything of value.

It's like there is a conspiracy to keep us docile and productive, to stop us thinking about our lives. Sometimes when you do something weird like becoming a Buddhist, people almost seemed threatened that you would do anything which upsets the status quo - like not eating meat. We are conditioned with values some of which have no real value.

But given the fact of our own death, and subsequent anonymity, isn't it important to consider what we are doing with our lives? So what would it be like to just stop for a minute and consider what's really important? In some stories about the early life of the Buddha he was stopped in his tracks by the realisation that everyone he loved was just going to die no matter what he did. His response was not to go into denial or self-pity, he did not bury himself in work or in booze. His response was to face the problem directly and undertake a thorough exploration of what is truly valuable. He found a way to live in accordance with these values. Buddhists are sometimes criticised because the Buddha left his wife and child behind to do something selfish. But this could not be further from the truth. The Buddha made a very great sacrifice for his family. In those stories (which may well be apocryphal) he gave up everything for his family, and having solved the problem of suffering came back to teach them the way beyond death as well. There can be no higher fulfilment of family duty or filial piety. And yet after self-doubt and low self-esteem, family and career responsibilities are perhaps the biggest barrier to spiritual commitment that there are. Even though we accept the Buddha's teaching we cannot shake off the values absorbed from our society.

You will sometimes get blithe spirits who say something like: "never mind, I do it in my next life." I find this unlikely. If karma works at all, then it is our choices which drive it. By leaving something undone in this life you most likely create the conditions for not having the opportunity to do it in a next life. We are working against a current which will drag us down unless we make a positive effort. To put something worthy off thinking that the opportunity will present itself again is to abdicate responsibility, and this sets up conditions for the future.

We would do well to consider death, especially our own deaths. No-one ever said on their deathbed - "I wish I'd spent more time at the office!". I think death provides some perspective on how we organise our lives, and on what we seek to achieve in this life. This life is a precious opportunity. I'll finish with some words from Evans-Wenz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
O procrastinating one, who thinketh not of the coming of death,
Devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life,
Improvident art thou in dissipating thy great opportunity;
Mistaken, indeed, will thy purpose be now if thou returnest empty-handed from this life:
Since the Holy Dharma is known to be thy true need,
Wilt thou not devote thyself to the Holy Dharma even now?

Note: since writing this a few weeks ago the H5N1 flu strain has been in the news, but I don't think it changes our existential situation.

image: cemetery by Jayarava

01 May 2009

Everything is on fire!

agni2The discourse that I am going to explore today is, according to Therevāda tradition, the third spoken by the Buddha after his awakening. In it he establishes one of the fundamental metaphors of the whole Buddhist canon. The short title of the Sutta is the Āditta Sutta, but it is also known as the Āditta-pariyāya Sutta: The Discourse on the Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire, or we might say The Fire Metaphor. (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19). It is usually known in English as the Fire Sermon - a full translation is included at the end of this post. "The Fire Sermon" always makes me think of fire and brimstone, and as we will see the two are not so far apart!

The Buddha addresses the bhikkhus and says: "everything is ablaze" (sabbaṃ ādittaṃ). Although it is said to be early, this sutta is one of a series of texts (no.28 in fact) that explore sabbaṃ - 'everything, the whole, all'. There is a parallel here with a Vedic idiom. Sabbaṃ in Sanskrit is sarvam, often used in the phrase idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this'. Compare this verse from the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (RV 8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times.
One sun is all penetrating.
Dawns as one, shine on all this.
From this one, unfolds the whole.
It may be that the Buddha was consciously using a Vedic idiom in the Fire Sermon - purposefully parodying this kind of religious view, especially as it coincides with a fire metaphor. However fire is probably a universal metaphor and it's appearance in any one text may not be significant. The 'sarvam' idiom is also common in the Upaniṣads.

Returning to the Pāli we find that sabbaṃ can be used in several different ways, each of are subtlety different aspects of totality: “whole, entire, all, every". Sabbaṃ is most typically 'the whole'. When used to mean 'all' it has colonised the semantic field of the Sanskrit word viśva - a similar process seems to happen in many Indo-European Languages. This sequence of suttas dealing with sabbaṃ uses all of the definitions of sabbaṃ. However here sabbaṃ as defined by the Buddha includes only the senses, and their objects - ear, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, mental activity (dharmas). Collectively these are known as the twelve 'āyatana' - the meeting places or bases; or if we include the respective sense consciousnesses the eighteen dhātu.

This might seem a narrow definition of 'everything', but it takes into account the perceptual situation. The Buddha doesn't deny the objective world (and therefore non-dualist interpretations of Buddhism seem to me to miss the mark) but he says that all we can know about that world comes through the senses and is processed by the mind. As such he is not a pure idealist, since he doesn't deny the objective per se. 'Everything' in this sense is everything that we can know, and is also what constitutes our 'world' (loka), that is our personal subjective world.

Everything - the senses and their objects, and the mind which perceives them; and what arises in the mind as a result of perception - are ablaze. They are the fuel of the fire. And with what are they ablaze? (kiñca sabbaṃ āditto). They are ablaze firstly with the fires (aggi) of greed (rāga), hatred (dosa), and ignorance (moha). This triad, known as kilesa (Sanskrit kleśa) are universally acknowledged in Buddhism as the roots of the problems of human beings. However the Buddha continues on to say that everything is ablaze with the fires of birth, old age and death (jātiyā jarāya maraṇena), and with all forms of unhappiness: grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsā). So the fire is the causes and effects of spiritual ignorance, the rounds of rebirth (and redeath) and the unsatisfactoriness of being ignorant of the nature of experience.

It is typical of the sutta form for the Buddha to first set out a problem and then show how it can be resolved. In this case it is through seeing this (evaṃ passaṃ). Seeing it one becomes weary of it (nibbindati). Nibbindati is often translated as revulsion (by Bhikkhu Bodhi for instance). This captures the intensity of the emotion, but gives it a far too negative a cast for my taste. The word can mean "is weary of, satiated, turns away" - in my own idiom I might say "fed-up". Seeing the fire and fuel burning away, one becomes thoroughly fed-up with being burned, and turns away from it. Turning away one detaches from it (virajjhati). Virāga (detachment) is the opposite of being caught up in the passions (rāga) - passions very much in the old fashion sense of something overtaking you, and taking you over against your will. Being free of passions one is liberated (vimuccati), and one knows that one is liberated.

Now the word is not used in this text, but it's clear that the metaphor finds it's apotheosis in the term nibbāṇa. The origin of this term is clearer in Sanskrit: nirvāna. Vāna is from the root √vā 'to blow', and nir- (actually nis- but sandhi changes it to nir- when followed by v) meaning "out, forth, away": nirvāṇa, then, means "to blow out". What is blown out is the fire described here - it is clearly not the blowing out of 'being' or of the person or personality or the ego. Nirvāṇa then is not at all nihilistic - unless the absence of greed, hatred and delusion is nihilistic! The ideas being expressed here owe a great deal to the work of Richard Gombrich - who has especially pointed out the ubiquity of the fire metaphor and some of the ways it is employed. I have already written about the fire metaphor and the nidāna chain before: Playing with Fire [16.05.08].

Clearly in terms of method this sutta is short on detail. Although one could say that the Buddhist program is just this: becoming fed-up with suffering and turning away from the causes of it; in practice we have to have a little more help than this. There are lots of methods that we can employ to help us along the way. What this sutta does do quite nicely is give us an overview of the problem and the solution, of what I have been calling the Buddhist program. Perhaps for this reason it is celebrated amongst Buddhists.

The Āditta Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS S iv.19) is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2000, p.1143. Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation is available on Access to Insight. I used the Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org for my translations.

Ṛgveda quote from the online version of Thomson, Karen and Slocum, 2008. The Rigveda: Metrically Restored Text. Translation is mine.

Information on the sarvam idiom from essays by Jan Gonda
  • Gonda, J. 1955. ‘Reflections on Sarva- in Vedic Texts’. Indian Linguistics 16(Nov) : 53-71
  • Gonda, J. 1982. ‘All, Universe, and Totality in the Śatapatha-Brāhmana’. Journal of the Oriental Institute 32(1-2): 1-17

The Fire Sutta

Once the Blessed one was dwelling at Gaya, on Gaya’s Head, with one thousand monks. There the Blessed One addressed the monks:

Monks, everything is ablaze! And what is everything? The eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, those sensations that arise from eye-contact whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. All these are ablaze. Ablaze with what? They are ablaze with the fires of craving, hatred, and ignorance; with the fires of birth, old-age and death; with the fires of grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble.

Similarly the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind; and sounds, smells, tastes, contact and thoughts, etc are ablaze.

When they see things in this way, the noble disciples are fed up with the senses, and their objects, and sense consciousness, and contact, and what arises from contact - whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. And being fed-up with it all they lose interest. Losing interest they are free from those influences, and they know themselves to be free. They understand: “birth is cut off, the spiritual life has been lived, what should be done has been done, this state of being is no more”.
This is what the Blessed One said.

Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Blessed One said. Moreover, during the exposition their minds were freed from the fires [1] by removing the fuel [2].

  1. Here I am translating āsava as ‘fires’ to link it to the fires of greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha) mentioned earlier in the text. The āsavas are sensuality (kāma), becoming (bhava), ignorance (avijjā) and, sometimes, views (diṭṭha). The fires mentioned above are a different list known as the kilesā or defilements. Although the āsavas and the kilesas only partially overlap, they are clearly getting at the same kind of thing i.e. that our responses to the senses and their objects is what binds us to saṃsara.
  2. Anupādāya is more literally “not taken hold of” or “not appropriated”. With reference to the fire metaphor however upādā suggests the fuel which supports the fire. And anupādā would then be “not taking up any more fuel”. Pali-English Dictionary s.v. upādā, upādāna and upādāya.

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