30 April 2010

"As if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended"


And thus the desire of defending liberty caused each to prevail [raise itself] in proportion as they oppressed the other. And the course of such incidents is, that while men sought not to fear, they begun to make others fear, and that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended.


Niccolò Machiavelli.[1]

Machiavelli identified this problem in the sixteenth century. His solution was that states ought to limit the power of individuals. As we will see the Buddha looked at this same problem very differently.

I'm writing these words in the middle of a UK election campaign which is characterised by character assassination attempts by members of all three parties on each other. Media pundits happily join in this schadenfreude-fest. It's not enough to shine, one has to tarnish one's opponents. Of course our elections are a zero-sum game, i.e. win-lose is the only possible solution (hung parliaments not withstanding). During the second live leader's debate I watched the live blog comments on The Times website for a while. It was almost as if the comments were being randomly generated. "Love politician X; hate him. He makes sense; he doesn't make sense. He is sincere, he is insincere." People watching the same debate, and hearing the same speeches, were coming out with radically polarised views - and given that The Times is famously right-wing the reader/viewer comments were surprisingly evenly spread across the spectrum of possible reactions. In effect the comments were incoherent and irrational. And this is how we choose our government! (One can only hope that Winston Church was right and this is less worse than other forms).

Note that Machiavelli's observation is of people concerned with "defending liberty". We so often make war for peace, don't we? The US and UK take out Saddam Hussein (unerringly referred to by politicians and the media by his first name 'Saddam' which I think reflects a kind of ongoing ritual humiliation and infantilisation) because his of (fictitious, as it turns out) weapons of mass destruction and failure to abide by UN resolutions made him a danger to world peace (meanwhile other states with nuclear weapons have become untouchable!). In our long history of defending liberty our governments have invaded countries, toppled legitimate governments and installed puppet dictators whenever it suited them and they thought they could get away with it; and ignored atrocities and injustices when that suits them; and more recently they have even knowingly tortured prisoners. Having read about history of interference by UK/USA governments in Iran recently I found myself sympathising with their pursuit of the one weapon that they see as preventing them being at the mercy of the cynical West ever again! [2] Isn't it funny that the media never seek to contextualise the hostility of Iran towards the west by pointing out why the Iranians legitimately distrust our governments?

Machiavelli observed "that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended". "AS IF IT SHOULD BE NECESSARY" Why do we think like this? I've pondered this question over many years. Scholarly debates tend to reduce this question to one of "nurture or nature". I suspect that something in our make-up as humans (especially as humans living the way we do - see Why do we Suffer?) makes us tend towards a zero-sum approach. On the other hand, whatever our make-up it is clear that conditioning plays a part in the person we become. When all of our role models behave a certain way we are apt to ape them. When they say one thing and do another we learn not to trust them (incidentally this theme is addressed brilliantly in the BBC TV sit-com Outnumbered).

So. Some combination of nature and nurture instils in us the idea that life is a zero-sum game. Or at least that in defence of ourselves it is permissible to injure another. One of the great ironies of our age is that the USA puts "in God we trust" on their money when they patently do not trust in God, but are constantly second guessing him and meting out what they think is his will (to the point where George Bush appeared to say that God spoke directly to him). So as Buddhists how can we operate in this kind of world? Human nature/nurture being what it is, nothing much has changed since the Buddha's day and he did leave some comments behind to contemplate. Compare for instance Machiavelli to this verse from the Dhammapada (v.201):
jayaṃ veraṃ pasavati dukkhaṃ seti parājito
upasanto sukhaṃ seti hitvā jaya-parājayam
Conquering gives rise to hatred, the defeated dwells in misery;
Abandoning victory and defeat, the peace-lover dwells in bliss.
The Buddha sees the same behaviour around him, but rather than seeking to limit individual power the Buddha's radical solution to the zero-sum game is simply not playing the game of conquest and defeat at all. I would venture that few of us give serious consideration to not playing. Most Buddhists, including me, flirt with it, or take it on partially. This is not intended as a criticism - the Buddha lived a lifestyle almost unimaginably different from anything we see around us now - having no family ties, no home, no possessions, no safety net other than what his good reputation provided (and we need to be clear that the Buddha and his followers were a minority and not universally admired despite what the Buddhist texts tell us). We stay in the game, I think, because we see not playing as a kind of loss, or letting other people win. As I've said before [Martyrs Maketh the Religion] being homeless, for instance, is seen as a very low fate indeed.

If we take Nietzsche's metaphor of man being a tightrope stretched between animal and übermensch (over-man) then, stretching the metaphor, most of us don't believe we can operate without a safety net. Which brings to mind the recent movie "Man on a Wire" - it's possible to operate without a safety net only with dedication, excellent preparation, intense self-awareness and focus. Which is not far from what the Buddha said about life.

It's interesting to note the declining interest in our Order for the more radical forms of living and working arrangements pursued in the 70's and 80's; and the rise of having families, developing careers and saving for pensions. I suspect that playing the win-lose game is a bit like casino gambling. The house always wins. By playing the game at all, one tends to lose to the establishment.

So if we play this game we generate hatred which will eventually come back to bite us. We cause other people to live in misery, or we ourselves live in misery. As I've already observed there is no shortage of food in the world - it's just that some of us are greedy! The Buddha's solution is to go beyond just saying it isn't necessary. He calls 'time' on the game itself. He simply does not play any more. His advice was to not get entangled in the world, in families, in careers, in politics. Focus on what's important (Dhp 183):
Sabbapāpassa akaranaṃ kusalassa upasampadā
sacitta-pariyodapanaṃ etaṃ buddhānaṃ sāsaṇaṃ

not doing any evil, doing the right thing
purifying your own mind, this is the edict of the Buddhas.

  1. Niccolò Machiavelli. The Discourses on the first Ten (Books) of Titus Livius. 1.46. www.intratext.com.
  2. See for example: Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. HarperPerennial, 2004.

image: Machiavelli, detail of an oil painting by Santi di Tito; in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Alinari.

23 April 2010

What is Buddhism?

Mahapajapati aiding at the Buddhas birth

Mahāpajāpatī (right) assists at the birth of the Buddha, seen emerging from his mothers side. Gandhāra sculpture.

This post is my response to something posted on Smiling Buddha Cabaret, which has become one of my favourite Buddhist blogs since I stumbled on it late last year. In "an open letter to the owner of Buddhism", NellaLou seeks permission to be the kind of Buddhist she wants to be, since it seems she has been criticised by other Buddhists about it (reading between the lines). The internet world is full of well-read censorious one-track fundamentalists who seem more interested in what Buddhism is not, and like nothing better to denounce ideas and attitudes as not Buddhism, and those putting forward these ideas as not Buddhist. It has always struck me as a tedious thing to do. Having fallen foul of these twits I'm in sympathy with NellaLou and thought I'd contribute to the cause in my own way.

Once when the Buddha was living in the gabled hall in the large grove outside Vaiśālī his maternal aunt and foster mother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī came to visit him. [1] She was about to set off on a solitary retreat and asked the Buddha for something pithy to reflect on. The Buddha gave her eight pairs of antonyms which he told her define what the Dhamma is and is not. These were:
  1. sarāga/virāga - passion/dispassion
  2. saṃyoga/visaṃyoga - attachment/detachment
  3. ācaya/apacaya - accumulation/divestment
  4. mahicchatā/appicchatā - ambition/satisfaction
  5. asantuṭṭhi/santuṭṭhi - discontentment/contentment
  6. saṇgaṇika/paviveka - society/solitude
  7. kosajja/vīriyārambha - idleness/invigoration
  8. dubbharatā/subbharatā - burdensomeness/helpfulness
Then he said. Gotamī: if a teaching causes you to move towards (saṃvattati; lit 'converges') the former then you can be sure that this is not the teaching, not the discipline, not the instruction of the instructor; but if the teaching causes you to move towards the latter then you can be confident that this is the teaching, it is the discipline, it is the instruction of the instructor.

While I do understand the nature of irony, allow me to give a slightly earnest answer to NellaLou. I think this kind of text shows that as well as trying to pin things down, there is a trend in Buddhism which holds the doctrines and practices loosely. Here we have the Buddha saying basically "anything that works is the Dharma". I would qualify 'works' here with the caveat that it has to definitely lead to the positive side of the equations given.

We could also see the fundamentalist cant in the light of the obvious borrowings throughout the history of Buddhism - from Vedism, from Jainism, from Hinduism, from Śaivism, from Taoism, from Shamanism, etc. We have historically been able to reform, innovate and incorporate because conservatives and fundamentalists have not always held sway. However I think it's easy to overstate the influence of online fundamentalists - I find the real Buddhists and Buddhologists I meet tend to be friendly and open. It's probably worth pointing out that our central doctrine in Buddhism is that EVERYTHING CHANGES! I think conservatives and fundamentalists lose sight of this, and perhaps even fear change.

Now although there are eight terms a number of them are synonyms - it can be quite difficult to see whether an entirely different concept is intended, or if a synonym is being used for reinforcement (a very common Pāli rhetorical strategy). Although I've gone for a single word in each case, it should not be assumed that the English precisely conveys the Pāli - far from it. Take the word rāga in sarāga/virāga 'with/without passion'. What's intended here is something like 'uncontrollable excitement'. It is not passion in the contemporary sense of 'positive enthusiasm' for something, but in the archaic sense of a strong emotion or event which overtakes us against our will - the Passion of Christ refers to his torture and horrible death on the cross for instance; and the passion of various saints refers to their martyrdom. So rāga is passion in this negative sense.

The pairs saṃyoga/visaṃyoga and saṇgaṇikā/paviveka are related: they value independence and individuality over dependence and groups. Following Sangharakshita we tend to use this word 'group' pejoratively in the Triratna Buddhist Order - it represents the lower evolution, the herd, the mob, the submerging of the individual will rather than it's sublimation. "The group is always wrong"... "the couple is a group of two" etc. The Buddha certainly valued individuality and emancipation from the herd mentality. He often encouraged his followers to leave behind family, status, career and social groups and to pursue enlightenment alone in the wilderness. There is only misery in those kinds of attachments (cf From the beloved). We can of course take this too far because the spiritual community can come together on a different basis, which I discussed in my post on the Russian term sobornost.

Similarly there are some pairs dealing with our hedonic response to sense data: mahicchatā/appicchatā; asantuṭṭhi/santuṭṭhi. The first two revolve around the word iccha 'wish, desire' as an abstract noun icchatā 'wishfulness'. The negative side has much (mahā) of this, while the positive has little (appa). Similarly the second pair revolve around the word tuṭṭha 'pleased, content'. The negative is dissatisfaction, the positive is satisfaction - both appicchatā and santuṭṭhi could be rendered as 'contentment'.

Lastly we have kosajja/vīriyārambha and dubbharatā/subbharatā. These relate to how we contribute to society. The pair of idleness (kosajja) or invigoration (vīriya-ārambha) is fairly obvious. The last pair are more difficult. The base is bharatā from the root √bhṛ 'to bear' (and related to English words ending in -fer/-pher e.g. aquifer 'water bearer'; Lucifer 'light bearer'). The word is an abstract noun that only seems to occur in these two compounds. In this context it refers to being easy (su) or difficult (du) to support, probably with reference to bhikkhus who may require little or much from their supporters. In The Life of the Buddha Ñāṇamoli renders the pair as 'luxury' and 'frugality', [2] while Thanissaro opts for 'burdensome/unburdensome'. [3] I've gone for helpful as the opposite of burdensome because it coveys an active rather than a passive value: why stop at just not being a burden and when one can do something helpful? One who is idle is a burden so these terms are to some extent synonymous.

A small point of interest about satthusāsana which I have rendered as 'the instruction of the instructor'. Both parts of the compound (satthu and sāsana) derive from √śās which has a range of senses from 'chastise, punish'; through 'control, rule, order, command'; to the more benign 'instruct, teach'. From it we also get the word śāstra 'a text for instruction' (as distinct from śruti 'what is heard, a sacred text'). So we could have rendered it 'the command of the commander', or the 'teaching of the teacher'. In the case of Aśoka's edicts (i.e. sāsanā) we might go for 'the dictates of the dictator'.

This is a strange text in some ways. It is unusual that there is no response to the teaching from Mahāpajāpatī. We would expect her to have something to say, and it would not be unusual for her to disappear for a week or two and come back and report that she had 'done what had to be done' (i.e. become an arahant), though she does later become an arahant. Indeed this is a strange meditation practice and it feels like we're missing some important piece of the story. Mahāpajāpatī asks for something concise that she might dwell on alone, secluded, vigilant, ardent and resolute (ekā vūpakaṭṭhā appamattā ātāpinī pahitattā vihareyyaṃ). And the Buddha responds in a very abstract way. It's hard to see this would be helpful unless she had a problem of being too narrow in defining the Dharma, or was struggling to interpret conflicting interpretations (and as NellaLou has pointed out these issues are endemic in Buddhism). According to the Dictionary of Pāli Names this story occurs after her ordination (and the creation of the bhikkhunī saṅgha) when she is already a stream-entrant (sotāpanna).

What ever we make of the context, the attitude displayed in the sutta is a useful antidote to narrowness, conservatism and fundamentalism. 'Buddhism' is anything that genuinely leads to positive results as defined by the Buddha, i.e. anything that leads to: dispassion, detachment, divestment, satisfaction, contentment, solitude, invigoration, helpfulness. Of course we don't really need a text to tell us this, or to justify our practice to others if we feel we are genuinely practising, but I find it useful to show that even the conservative Theravādins preserved a tradition of openness and innovation.


Notes
  1. I'm working from the Saṃkhitta Sutta, AN 8.53, PTS A iv.280. Pāli Text from www.tipitaka.org.
  2. Ñāṇamoli. The Life of the Buddha. Buddhist Publication Society, 1984. p.107-108.
  3. Access to Insight. Gotami Sutta.

16 April 2010

The Rhinoceros Sutta in Three Parallel Versions

rhinoceros
My friend Dharmacārin Dhīvan (aka Dr Thomas Jones) was recently invited to give a series of lectures at Cambridge University and he told me that he included three parallel versions of the Rhinoceros Sutta partly to demonstrate the relationship of the canonical languages, but mostly to give a feel for the early (i.e. pre-sectarian) Buddhist world. I was taken by the idea of presenting three versions of the same text and so I asked for a copy of his handout and have used it to create this blog post. These three versions of the text can be found together in Richard Salomon's book A Gāndhārī Version of the Rhinoceros Sūtra.








Pāli
(Sn v. 36, 53, 73)

nāgo va yūthāni vivajjayitvā

sañjātakhandho padumī uḷāro, 

yathābhirantaṃ vihare araññe

eko care khaggavisāṇakappo.

saṃsaggajātassa bhavati sneho
snehanvayaṃ dukkham idam pahoti
ādīnavaṃ snehajaṃ pekkhamāno
eko care khaggavisāṇakappo

mettaṃ upekhaṃ karuṇaṃ vimuttiṃ
āsevamāno muditañ ca kāle
sabbena lokena avirujjhamāno
eko care khaggavisāṇakappo
Gāndhārī:
Kharoṣṭi mss

ṇāgo vi yusaṇi vivajaita
saṃjadakaṃdho patumaṃ uraḍo
+++++vi+[ṛ]+++
+++++++++++

sa(*ṃ)s(*evamaṇasa siyati sneho)
s̄eha(*ṃ)vayaṃ dukha(*ṃ=idaṃ prabhoti)
+++++++++++
(*eko care khargaviṣaṇagapo)

metra uvekha karuṇa ya bhavae
asevamaṇa mutita e kalo
(*sarveṇa loge)ṇa a(*virujama)ṇa
eko care khargavi(*ṣaṇagapo)

Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit:
Mahāvastu

[no equivalent for this verse]




saṃsevamānasya siyātisneho
snehānvayaṃ dukham idaṃ prabhoti
saṃsevamānaṃ tu jugupsamāno
eko care khaḍgaviṣāṇakalpo

…upekṣāṃ karuṇāṃ ca bhāvya
āsevamāno muditāṃ ca kāle
maitreṇa cittena hitānukaṃpī
eko care khaḍgaviṣāṇakalpo


(+ indicates an unreadable character on the manuscript; * is a conjectured reading;)

Dhīvan also provided his students with an English translation of the Pāli (based on K.R. Norman's):
As an elephant with massive shoulder, spotted, noble, leaving the herds might live as it pleases in the forest, one should wander alone like a rhinoceros (horn).

Affection comes into being from keeping company; following on affection, this suffering arises. Seeing the danger that comes from affection, one should wander alone like a rhinoceros (horn).

Cultivating at the right time love, equanimity, compassion, liberation and gladness, unimpeded by the whole world, one should wander alone like a rhinoceros (horn).
The three versions of this text are in three important languages for the transmission of Early Buddhist texts. It is interesting to see these languages side by side. It's doubtful to me whether they would have been mutually intelligible. Unlike the Vedas which were rigidly transmitted in a single language that gradually became unintelligible too many of those involved in the transmission, the Buddha encouraged his followers to pass on the Dharma each in their own language.

We know that even among speakers of languages descended from Vedic that there must have been considerable linguistic variation. Compare the situation in Europe where we have languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian all descended from vernacular Latin. It was some time before Sanskrit was a adopted as a lingua franca, not for many centuries. Some scholars think that Pali might have been an attempt at a lingua franca.

As well is the evidence of texts in several Indian languages, there are two stories in the Pali Canon which tell us that this was more than just a drifting apart. One of these, Vin ii.139, is now somewhat infamous because of the competing interpretations of it. In this story to Brahmins attempt to persuade the Buddha to allow them to translate the Buddha's teaching into 'chandaso' The competition arises because scholars have attempted to use this passage to show what language the Buddha might have spoken, by interpreting the word chandaso in at least three different ways. My understanding is that all we can draw from this passage is the notion that the Buddha did not want everything standardised linguistically.

The other story is found in the Araṇavibhanga Sutta (MN 139). Here the Buddha explicitly says that one should not insist on using the local dialect, nor override local usage. he points out that the same vessel is called different things in different places: pāti, patta, vittha, serāva, dhāropa, poṇa, pisīla (ie the Buddha in this text possibly knows of at least seven distinct dialects). The text is an instruction on how to avoid conflict, and in this case it doesn't really matter what we call the thing we are eating from as long as it does the job it's designed for.

So although we preserve scriptures in a relatively small number of languages, as English-speaking Buddhists what we strive for is to convey the Buddha's insight, and our own to the extent that we have it, in the language of the people we are speaking to. Clearly I believe that having reference to the traditional canons is helpful. I have certainly found that learning Pāli, even to the limited extent to which I have, has enriched my practice.

One of the consequences of this translation process is that not only is the language translated, by which I mean the words; but the cultural references also change. So the Buddhism of any given culture gradually becomes distinctive as it orientates itself to that culture. This gives rise to differences that aren't necessarily easy to understand and doctrinally terms. If we only use doctrine as a frame of reference for understanding Buddhism then we may fail to understand the way that some Buddhists practice. This opens up the wider question which I hope to address in the future essay: who is a Buddhist? What is Buddhism? Specifically is Buddhism not simply what Buddhists say and do; or is Buddhism only what it says ancient texts?

~~oOo~~

Salomon, Richard with Glass, Andrew. A Gandhari Version of the Rhinoceros Sutra: British Library Kharosthi Fragment 5B. University of Washington Press, 2001.

Addition 20 May 2010. If you are interested in parallel versions of texts then there is a Comparative version of the Dhammapada compiled by Bhikkhu Anandajyoti. He compares four main texts: the Pāli Dhammapada, the Gāndārī Dhammapada, the Patna Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dharmapada, and a Sanskrit text Dhammapada style text called Udanavarga. In addition he includes parallel verses from other texts where they are known about.

7 March 2015. Dhivan has subsequently published an article on the difficult term khaggavisāṇa: 'Like the Rhinoceros, or Like Its Horn? The Problem of Khaggavisāṇa Revisited.' Buddhist Studies Review. Vol 31, No 2 (2014). 


09 April 2010

The Stream of Life

I was reading through Rune Johansson's Pāli Buddhist Texts and came across this little verse [1].
accayanti ahorattā
jīvatam uparujjhati
āyu khīyati maccānam
kunnadīnam va odakaṃ


Days and nights elapse
Vitality declines
Mortal life is exhausted
Like water in streams
We are used to using rivers as metaphors. We understand the idea of the ever changing stream of the river, flowing from head waters to the sea, especially if we come from moist temperate climates. But in North India there is another phenomena which may not be so familiar.

In Feb 2009 I was in Bodhgaya for the convention of the Triratna Buddhist Order. One day I took the time to walk a little out of town to cross the long bridge over the River Falgu (called the Nirañjana in the Buddha's day) to the little village of Senani (also called Sujata in association with the young women who is said to have offered the Bodhisatta some milk-rice after he gave up self-torture). In Senani the farmers still pull a wooden plough behind bullocks despite the fact the iron age began about three millennia ago and resulted in the original clearing of this land. However the fields looked green and productive on this side of the river, where there was only brown dry fields around Bodhgaya. On the edge of the village is a stūpa which was built to commemorate Sujata.

The accompanying image from Google earth [2] shows Bodhgaya and the Falgu/Narañjana, the Mahabodhi Temple complex, the bridge and Suajata's stūpa. Although the bridge is about 600 meters wide, as I walked accompanied by one of the ubiquitous 'school children' [3] of Bodhgaya, I saw only sand. The mighty river had completely dried up, and this was not even the hot season, this was during the coolish winter. This is what this image shows - the brown colour is sand, not water. At higher magnifications one can see the patterns and cart tracks in the sand, as well as the little hut next to the bridge that Śaiva sadhus occupy when it is dry. Pulling back even more one sees that the river peters out in both directions, though I think it probably forms a tributary of the Ganges during the monsoon. There is even a word for this phenomena in Sanskrit: vārṣikodaka 'having water only during the rainy season [varṣa]'.

Certainly I am not used to such contrasts. It occurred to me that the verse above had to be understood in this context - this cyclic flooding and then complete drying up of even substantial rivers. I could not have imagined life becoming exhausted like a small stream because I've (more or less) always lived on islands with abundant rainfall all year round. But in this region when even a large river can completely dry up, what chance does a small stream have? And the verse is saying that life is like a small stream in this region - it may flood, but soon is will disappear. The verse is much more compelling when seen in this context.

The use of the word jīvata is interesting. It begins as a past-participle of jīvati and therefore means 'lived', but comes to mean the life-span, or 'vitality' (itself from Latin vita 'life' and probably cognate with jīvata). The noun jīva is an important technical term in Jainism where it denotes a kind of soul which moves from life to life. The verse makes a contrast by choosing another word for life: ayu (Sanskrit āyus). We find this word in āyurveda which means something like the 'knowledge of life' i.e. a literal rending in English would be biology (though they do not quite mean the same thing!). Āyus is related to the Greek word æon, and to English 'eternal, always'. So buried in the history of these words is the notion of eternity, the belief or wish that life will go on and on.

The Canon records that these words were spoken to Māra in the Squirrel Sanctuary near Rājagaha in the heart land of the samaṇa movement. I've noted before that Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that the idea of rebirth came from this region from amongst the samaṇa groups of whom the Jains were pre-eminent in the Buddha's time [Rethinking Indian History]. Māra here argues that the jīvata rolls along like the chariot's wheel, he literally denies that days and nights pass and that life ends. The verse above is the Buddha's rely. The status of Māra is a long story - was he 'real', allegorical, metaphorical? One way we could take this story is as a psychodrama with Māra representing that part of our psyche which coined these words for life which has 'eternal' as a connotation. Māra is our refusal to face up to our own impending death. The refusal to face death is quite a common theme and I have dealth with it at least once before in my essay: From the Beloved.

However we read the verses I find it very helpful to have walked in that landscape when trying to get into the mindset I find in the Pāli texts.


References
  1. The reference is Saṃyutta Nikāya i.109 - pg 201-202 of the single vol ed. of Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation. [I'm tempted to offer a prize for anyone who knows what a 'felly' is without looking it up!]
  2. If you want a closer look at Bodhgaya on Google then the coordinates are: Latitude: N 24° 41.75, Longitude: E 84° 59.49
  3. The 'students' scam money out of tourists and pilgrims by asking them to buy school books for them, which they immediately sell back to the shop. This scam has a second level in which the dupe is invited to visit the school where the headmaster informs them that the child is out of school because they haven't paid their fees, which the generous dupe pays for them - 0nly to see them on the street again the next day. (It happened to a friend of mine!)

02 April 2010

A Lecture on the theme of Illness

Erasistratos examines the pulse of Antiochus I Soter, on the right side Stratonice of Syria
Erasistratos examines the pulse of Antiochus I Soter, 
on the right side Stratonice of Syria.

I first came across this story from the vinaya (Vin i.301) and Sangharakshita's book A Guide to the Buddhist Path, and then later a fuller version in his talk: "A Case of Dysentery". I've always found it extremely moving. This is no allegory, and it is not ambiguous. Quite simply the Buddha requires that members of his community care for each other, most especially when they are ill. To not do so is a wrongdoing (dukkaṭa) - wrongdoing here is quite a literal translation. The text speaks for itself, so rather than saying much more, I'll simply give you my translation and add one or two comments at the end. 

The Pāli title of this passage is Gilāna-vatthu-kathā 'A lecture on the theme of illness', hence my title.


Lecture on the Theme of Illness

Once there was a monk who was afflicted with dysentery. He lay on the ground covered in his own shit and piss. The Lord was out on walkabout with Ānanda as his sidekick, when he approached the dwelling of that monk. He saw the monk lying in his own filth and went up to him.

"Monk", he asked, "what is wrong with you".

"I have dysentery Lord".

"Is there no one to care for you?"

"There is not Lord."

"But why not?"

"I don't do anything for the other monks, so they do not care for me," he told the Lord.

Then the Lord asked Ānanda to go and fetch some water so they could bathe the monk. Ānanda agreed and soon returned with water. The Lord sprinkled water over the monk, and Ānanda washed him. Then, with the Lord at his head and Ananda at his feet, they lifted him up and put him to bed.

Then the Lord called the monks together and questioned them.

"Monks", he asked, "is there a sick monk in that dwelling there?"

"There is Lord" they replied.

"And what illness does he suffer from?" asked the Lord.

"He has dysentery, Sir."

"Is there no want to care for him?"

"No, Sir."

"Why is that?"

"Well, he is useless, Sir. He does nothing for us, so we don't care for him", the monks explained.

"Monks," said the Lord, "you have no mother and no father to care for you. If you don't care for each other, then who will care for you? If you would care for me, then tend to the sick."

He went on to say: "If a preceptor is present then they should care for you until you are well, and remain with you until you are on your feet again. Or if an instructor is present; or a fellow practitioner; or a pupil; or someone with the same preceptor, or the same instructor, they should care for you until you are well and remain with you until you are on your feet again. If none of these are present then you should be cared for by the community. If you are not cared for it is an offence of wrongdoing."

My translation is a mix this time - at times I go for modern idiom, at times I'm more conservative. The Pāli is not very fancy, and only gives the bare bones. I've tried not to elaborate on it too much, though I think it could stand a dramatic retelling.

The passage continues on to describe the ideal kind of patient and the ideal kind of nurse. There is a full translation on the Access to Insight website. Bhikkhu Thanissaro his chosen to entitle the passage in Pāli Kucchivikara-vatthu (lit 'on the theme of dysentery') and in English 'The Monk with Dysentery'. In his reference to this text Ven. Thanissaro has "Mv [i.e. Mahāvagga] 8.26.1-8; PTS: Horner vol. 4, pp. 431-34" - normally the abbreviation PTS points to the Pali Text Society's Pāli version, but in this case it refers to the Miss Horner's English translation (which mixed up the order of the texts making Mv vol 4.). The correct citation should be: PTS Vin i.301.

One small point to make here is that though there is a clear ecclesiastical hierarchy in the milieu of the vinaya, no one is exempted from caring by their status within that hierarchy. You may be a preceptor or an instructor, but you are no less responsible for caring for the members of the spiritual community than the juniors. Perhaps we may say that the preceptor or instructor has a greater responsibility, because not only must they participate in caring, they must set an example for the others. The great danger of more senior members of the spiritual community being seen not upholding the values and virtues of the community, is that it can be used as a rationalisation for laziness, or otherwise ignoble behaviour on the part of others. Of course there is no excuse for ignoble behaviour, but we are apt to find rationalisations.

Sangharakshita gave a talk on this passage in 1982 as part of a series on incidents from the Pāli Canon. It's available from freebuddhistaudio.com: A Case of Dysentry [sic]. There is also an edited transcript of the talk (with correctly spelt title). An extract from this talk forms the section entitled 'Unfailing Mutual Kindness' in Sangharakshita's excellent introduction to Buddhism: A Guide to the Buddhist Path, p.121f. Note that Sangharakshita relied on the translations from 'Some Sayings of the Buddha', translated by F.L. Woodward (Buddhist Society, London, 1973), which now seem very dated.
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