27 August 2010

A Pāli Pun.

In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27.22) we find some interesting material on the Buddhist attitude to class prejudice. [1] We need to be clear that this not an objective historical record, it is a document which is meant to convince us of a particular view, or perhaps persuade against one. However the fact that the Pāli texts recall the kinds of insults that Brahmins aimed at Buddhists suggests that there is some veracity in the texts since they would probably not make up insults for themselves, nor preserve them. Some Brahmins saw the samaṇa as having taken on the status of śudra - the lowest of the four classes, though not the lowest level of Indian society since one could be outcast. Note that 'Brahmin' is an Anglicisation of the Sanskrit brāhmaṇa usually adopted to avoid confusion with the texts of the same name. Here a former Brahmin convert called Vāseṭṭha who has converted to Buddhism recounts the kinds of insults he receives from Brahmins:

brāhmaṇova seṭṭho vaṇṇo, hīno añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇova sukko vaṇṇo, kaṇho añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇāva sujjhanti, no abrāhmaṇā. Brāhmaṇāva brahmuno puttā orasā mukhato jātā brahmajā brahmanimmitā brahmadāyādā. Te tumhe seṭṭhaṃ vaṇṇaṃ hitvā hīnamattha vaṇṇaṃ ajjhupagatā, yadidaṃ muṇḍake samaṇake ibbhe kaṇhe bandhupādāpacce.

Brahmins are the best class, the other class is defective (hīna). Brahmins are the pure [white] class, the other is impure [black]. Brahmins are the offspring of Brahmā's mouth, born from Brahmā, created by Brahmā, the kin of Brahmā. Having deserted the best class you have accepted the class that fails to measure up, with these baldy, petit-ascetic, menials, blacks, offspring of Brahmā’s feet! [DN 27.3, D iii.81]
Note the use of hīna in this context to describe the śudra class, and then hīnamattha which I've rendered 'fails to measure up' and does literally mean 'lacking a full measure'. The word for both 'pure' and 'white' is sukka; while the word for 'impure' and 'black' is kaṇha. The insults muṇḍaka 'bald' and samaṇaka 'ascetic' are in a diminutive form that is hard to capture in English - elsewhere they have been rendered "shaveling little ascetics". The last three terms (which can also be read as "menial, black offspring...") are often used of śudras. Indeed the reference to "Brahmā's feet" is an allusion to Ṛgveda 10.90 The Puruṣa Sūkta. [2] However I think the idea would have been a cliché (or indeed an insult) by the Buddha's day, so it doesn't necessarily suggest familiarity with the Ṛgveda itself. These are insults that only a Brahmin could use. In looking for contemporary parallels I suggest that the language of white racist abuse is on a par with the passage above. However projecting contemporary attitudes and understandings backward onto the texts is an uncertain enterprise at best.

The Buddhist response in the Aggañña Sutta is a lengthy satire on Brahmanical cosmogony and views on the origins of the four classes that employs a series of puns. The funniest one is at DN 27.22 where the Buddha remarks that: ‘They don’t meditate’ (ajhāyaka) is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’ (ajjhāyaka).

However I want now to focus on the first of the puns in this section. It is less obvious, less amusing, but offers some interesting reflections on the history of Budddhism.
Pāpake akusale dhamme bāhentīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘brāhmaṇā, brāhmaṇā’ tveva paṭhamaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ. [D iii.93-4]
They ward off evil unwholesome things, Vāseṭṭha, [hence] they are ‘Brahmins’. This is the first pun produced.
The word akkharaṃ literally means 'constant', but also 'letter, sound'. Hence it is used as the name of the Vedic science of phonology - the sounds of the letters being the constants of language and having a greater significance, even at an early date, than we assign to our letters. It is only a guess but I think that it suggests 'pun' here - a play on words based on similar sounds. This makes more sense in view of the following discussion.

At first glance there is no pun in the passage quoted. However brāhmaṇa is a Sanskrit form. In Pāli consonant clusters like 'br' get resolved in various ways, e.g. the Sanskrit term śramaṇa becomes samaṇa in Pāli. This suggests that the form of our word should be bāhmaṇa, and indeed Richard Gombrich notes that this form is found in some of Asoka's edicts. [3]

In his work An Outline of Meters in the Pāḷi Canon Ānandajoti notes that the conjunct br in brāhmaṇa regularly fails to “make position”, i.e. it fails to cause the preceding syllable to be metrically heavy. However, it does regularly make position medially. This suggests that brā was frequently treated as , at least for the purposes of meter.

If bāhmaṇa (possibly bāhmana) was the form then we do have a pun with bāhenti 'they ward off'. [4] This kind of sound alike etymology is called nirutti (S. nirukti) and relies on verbal roots having phonetic similarity. [6] The verb bāheti is said by PED to be a causative from bahati or a denominative perhaps related to Sanskrit bahis 'outward', which is also the opinion of Edgerton in BHSD. The root of which is obscure. Though John Brough thinks it unlikely [5], the root may be √vah 'carry' - there is a regular confusion of 'b' and 'v' in Indic languages [see note 4]. This idea that Brahmins have avoided or warded off evil is consistent with Brahmins claiming to be sukka - pure/white - but it also reflects the Buddhist notion that a Brahmin is a Brahmin because of their conduct, not because of their birth.

There are a number of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit and Gāndhārī which make use of this same pun - I'll highlight the key terms in italics, and add hyphens to compounds to help clarify the connection. At MN 39.24 (M i.280) we find:
Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu brāhmaṇo hoti? Bāhitāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā...
And how is a bhikkhu a brāhmaṇa? They have warded off evil unskilful mental states…
Again, in the Dhammapada, verse 388:
bāhita-pāpo’ti brāhmaṇo, samacariyā samaṇo’ti vuccati
pabbājaya attano malaṃ, tasmā pabbajito’ti vuccati.

Brahmin means ‘evil put aside’, we call the calmly living ‘samaṇa’.
Putting aside his own impurity, he is called ‘gone forth’.
We have several versions of the Dhammapada. In the Gāndhārī language version of the Dharmapada [7] the parallel verse (DhpG 1.16) runs:

brahetva pavaṇi brammaṇo
samaïrya śramaṇo di vucadi
I refrain from attempting to translate, but these words are not so different from the Pāli (pavaṇi = pāpa). The 'r' in brahetva is probably an anomaly since it is not found in either the Pāli or Sanskrit versions. John Brough (who edited the GDhp) notes that it may have been "artificially introduced to buttress the pseudo-etymology of brāhmaṇa, if this arose originally in a dialect which assimilated br- of the latter word", but overall he is doubtful about deriving P. bāheti from √bah or √vah and links it to √brah or √barh. [8] However if we derive the verb from the same root as brahmaṇa (actually √bṛh) then the verb means 'to strengthen' and the sentence means the opposite of the parallels - i.e. that the Brahmin is one who strengthens evil. So we can probably conclude that the Gandhāran composer understood that this was a pun, and because in their dialect brāhmaṇa is spelt brammaṃa, introduced an 'r' into the verb to preserve the pun. Though it is strange that they should do this and obscure the meaning. Gāndhārī baheti is also listed as equal to P. bāhetvā in Stefan Baums and Andrew Glass (preliminary) Gāndhārī Dictionary, so we know that the 'r' is not required in that dialect.

Another version of the Dhammapada survives in a Sanskrit text which is called Udānavarga (UV 11.15)
brāhmaṇo vāhitaiḥ pāpaiḥ
śramaṇaḥ śamitāśubhaḥ
Note that UV has vāhita like the variant Pāli, and consistent with Sanskrit usage of the verb. In turn this leads us to two parallels from the Pāli Udāna:
Yo brāhmaṇo bāhita pāpadhammo (Ud 1.5)

He is a Brahmin who avoids evil states

Bāhitvā pāpake dhamme, ye caranti sadā satā;
Khīṇasaṃyojanā buddhā, te ve lokasmi brāhmaṇā 'ti (Ud 1.6)

Having avoided evil states, they always behave mindfully;
With fetters destroyed and awake, they are called brahmins in the world.
Max Müller (in his Dhp translation) notes another occurrence of our phrase in the (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit) Lalitavistara:
…trailokya-brāhmaṇaṃ bāhita-pāpakarmāṇaṃ bhikṣuṃ

...the three-worlds' Brahmin with evil deeds cast aside is a bhikṣu [LV 22.5]
Note that LV follows the Pāli in using bāhita. I've made no attempt at an exhaustive search, these are just the examples that come easily to hand. But still we have a number of passages which work together to show that at some point this pun on bāhenti/bāhmana must have been reasonably common, and have made sense - i.e. that the two words bāhetva/bāhita and bāhmaṇa shared the syllable bāh. We would have expected Pāli to preserve the pun since bāhmana is the natural form of that word in Pāli. Since it did not we have something of a mystery.

One possible conclusion is that the spelling was deliberately changed - and that this change affected not only the Pāli, but also the Buddhist Sanskrit usage. In turn this suggests that LV emerged in a milieu that spoke a dialect closely allied to Pāli, though UV did not since it uses the form vāhita. The change from bā > brā involves a Sanskritisation which suggests a Brahmin influence, since at the time Sanskrit was the sole preserve of the Brahmins, and yet it occurs precisely in the context of satires on Brahmanical beliefs. Madhav Deshpande has pointed to passages in the Lalitavistara Sūtra that indicate the "increasing prominence of Brahmanical elements within Buddhist traditions". [9] Perhaps Brahmin converts were able to live with the canonical criticisms of their former faith/culture, and in any case could not erase them because it would be noticed; but they retained enough pride in their heritage to correct the spelling of their former social class across the whole canon?

Another possibility is that though the original dialect used bāhmaṇa, Pāli had brahmaṇa as a loan word directly from Sanskrit by the time the texts were translated into Pāli. The Gandhāran translator must have had (or heard) a text in the original dialect to see the pun, and make the unusual change they did. There is some linguistic evidence to suggest more than one wave of Indo-European speaking people moving into India, and that those who wrote the Vedas and built the Brahmanical culture may not have been directly connected to the earlier (or perhaps later) wave that moved much further east more quickly. This might allow for brāhmaṇa to be a new word to those in the East. But that is a complex argument, and this is now a long post. However one important point to follow up would be to locate the Asoka use of bāhmaṇa geographically, and compare this to the most recent deliberations on the comparison of Pāli and the Asokan dialects.

~~| This is Rave no. 200 |~~

  1. There are some structural features which suggest that the text is not in it's original form, especially the sudden transition between verse 9 and v.10. My guess is that a verse has been lost which should introduce this part of the text. However some have seen it as two separate texts. It is true that the narrative stops at v.8 (v.9 is standalone and may not have originally been in this position) and is resumed at v.27. However v.23 references v.4 linking the two. A verse which introduced the cosmogonic story would have been expected (cf other similar texts such as D.3, D.26 where the change is signalled). It is not hard to skip a verse when copying a text. This sort of thing is impossible to prove however.
  2. The Puruṣa Sūkta mentions the Sāmaveda and Yajurveda written 500-600 years after the probable date of the Ṛgveda ca 1500-1200 BCE, so it must have been added to the Ṛgveda after this time. This is still well before the Buddha's days. For a discussion on sūkta/sūtra/sutta see: Philological Odds & Ends I.
  3. What the Buddha Thought, p.224, n.8. The earliest reference I have found to this theory is Müller, F. Max. The Dhammapada : A collection of verses being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Translated from pāli By F. Max müller . Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1881], p.liv (online text). However Müller himself cites a German ethnographical study published in several volumes from 1866-68 so it may go back a few more years. (Note the Pali Text Society was founded in 1881.)
  4. In the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana edition of the canon the verb is spelt vāhenti rather than bāhenti. This confusion between ba and va is widespread and partly due to phonetics, and partly because the characters have always been similar in Indic writing: cf Devanāgarī: ब व. The two verbs unusually have slightly different senses in Pāli, and the va spelling further obscures the pun.
  5. Brough, J. The Gāndhārī Dharmapada. P. 178, n. 1.
  6. For which see my Yāska and his Nirukta, and Yāska, Plato and Sound Symbolism. For sound symbolism generally see Magnus, Margaret: What's in a Word? Studies in Phonosemantics. Unpublished PhD Dissertation; and her popular website Magical Letter Page. Magnus has shown that words which share an initial phoneme are indeed more likely to have overlapping semantic fields than words which do not. A growing body of evidence is challenging the Saussurian dictum that the "sign is arbitrary" which is the paradigm from which mainstream linguists see Yāska, and dismiss the value of nirukti etymologies as "fanciful".
  7. Gandhāra was in the Northwest of India - what is now the Taliban stronghold in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several caches of texts from that region dating from the first couple of centuries common era in a language which has been called by modern scholars after the region. This and the next passage are from: Ānandajoti Bhikkhu . A Comparative Edition of the Dhammapada with parallels from Sanskritised Prakrit edited together with A Study of the Dhammapada Collection. (2nd revised edition July, 2007 - 2551). Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  8. Brough, as for note 5.
  9. Deshpande, Madhav. Sanskrit & Prakrit, sociolinguistic issues. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993, p.9.
  10. See for instance Deshpande, Madhav. 'Genesis of Ṛgvedic Retroflexion: a Historical and Sociolinguistic Investigation.' in Deshpande, Madhav M and Hook, Peter Edwin (ed.s) Aryan and Non-aryan in India. The University of Michigan, 1979. esp p.261ff.
image: Brahmin from www.kamat.com

20 August 2010

A Parody of Vedic Belief

Professor Richard Gombrich has been at the fore-front of pointing out that late Vedic beliefs are parodied in the Buddhist scriptures. [1] He has demonstrated in a series of erudite articles that the Buddha must have known the body of teachings that underlie the early Upaniṣads - especially the Bṛhadāranyka (BU) and Chāndogya (CU). This is not to say that these actual texts would have been known to him, because most scholars believe them to be later distillations anyway (rather like the Buddhist texts), but that the beliefs we read in them were known. What kinds of evidence do we have for this thesis? I've been researching what kinds of views we find in the mouths of Brahmins in the Pāli texts and hope at some point to publish the results. My finding so far is that no Brahmin appears to espouse the kinds of views about ātman/brahman that we would associate with the Upaniṣads. However we do find something like those views being put into the words of Brahmā (i.e. God) himself for instance in the Kevaddha Sutta. [2]

In the BU 1.4.10 we find this passage (Olivelle's translation)
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: "I am brahman." As a result it became the whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among the humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: "I was Manu, and I was the sun." This is true even now. If a man knows "I am Brahman" in this way, he becomes this whole world.
Anyone interested in the Sabba Sutta should pay close attention to this verse as this is also the context for that sutta - Olivelle's 'Whole' is a translation of Sanskrit sarvaṃ = Pāli sabbaṃ - but for this essay I want to draw attention to the phrase "I am brahman": ahaṃ brahmāsmi. This is seen by Vedic believers as a kind of credo. It sums up the path according to the sages of the Upaniṣads which is that the realisation that you are brahman is the highest realisation. In this realisation one becomes this whole world (sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati).

In the Pāli Kevaddha Sutta the householder Kevaddha approaches the Buddha to encourage him to perform some miracles and thereby attract followers. The Buddha says that not how he operates. How he does operate is spelled out in the long passage that is repeated in all 13 of the first of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas, but this segues into a story of a monk who, desiring to know where the elements cease without remainder. In order to answer the question he attains super human states of consciousness in meditation and visits the realms of the various devas, moving up the scale until me meets Brahmā himself. Posed the question Brahma can only reply:
"ahamasmi, bhikkhu, brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā vasī pitā bhūtabhabyānan" ti.

"I am, bhikkhu, Brahmā, Great Brahmā, unconquered conqueror, omnipotent, Lord over all, maker and creator, the highest, controller of the cosmic order, and father of all beings past, present and future."
Note that Brahmā doesn't answer the question. It turns out that he doesn't know the answer, but has to keep up appearances because the other gods believe it is true that Brahmā is the omnipotent creator. He takes the monk to one side to explain this and point him back in the direction of the Buddha.

But notice how he starts his answer. If we leave out the 'bhikkhu' he says: ahamasmi brahmā. Compare this to the Sanskrit: ahaṃ brahmāsmi. That the Pāli is a reference to the BU, or at least to the body of teaching recorded in that text, is clear. Although the BU was not written down for many years after the Buddhist texts, the scholarly consensus is that BU represents a body of teachings that predate the Buddha by several centuries. Given the flexibility of syntax in the two languages we are looking at the same statement. Exactly the same except that the Sanskrit has an ambiguity - brahmāsmi can be read as brahma asmi or brahmā asmi i.e. as the neuter or masculine. The first is the abstract universal essence of the cosmos that manifests as ātman in the individual; the second is the masculine creator god. The first usage in BĀU 1.4.10 is the context of a neuter pronoun 'it' (tad), while the second is in the context of a masculine pronoun 'him' (sa), so both senses could be being used here! Gombrich observes that the Buddha has selected the less abstract, and therefore less sophisticated, of the two, i.e. Brahmā as creator god, and that this helps to contribute to the overall sense of this being not just a polemic, but a parody. Johannes Bronkhorst has been very critical of Gombrich's interpretation of this kind of reference as evidence of the Buddha's sense of humour, [3] but personally I think this example is funny. On the one hand the realisation "I am Brahmā" encapsulates the highest goals of religion; and on the other the statement is just an egotistical and deluded claim with no basis.

The ideal of union with Brahmā (brahmasahavyatā) is also found in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) where we find the Buddha informing some hapless Brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvaja [4] that though there own teachers are ignorant of the way leading to this goal, that:
brahmānaṃ cāhaṃ, vāseṭṭha, pajānāmi brahmalokañca brahmalokagāminiñca paṭipadaṃ
I know Brahmā, Vāseṭṭha, and Brahmā's domain, and the way leading to Brahmā's domain.
The Buddha then teaches the meditations we have come to know as the brahmavihāra 'dwelling with Brahmā', though the name is not used here. Brahmavihāra is actually a synonym of brahmasahavyatā. It would be like walking into a Christian church and asking "How many of your priests have been face to face with God? None? I have, and I can tell you how to be in His presence. You don't have to die and go to heaven, you can dwell in heaven right now!" - and teaching the mettābhāvanā! I've often wondered what would happen if we took the Buddha's approach to theistic religion. Forget about opposition and proving that God exists, but just roll with it and teach Buddhism in Christian terms. I think most of us are too afraid of losing our religion, and perhaps lack confidence in our methods, to even try this. And, of course, it would require one to be truthfully in that state of dwelling with God (brahmavihāra). But it is what the Buddha appears to have done.

To those people who claim that Buddhism is a religion which tolerates all views this must come as a shock. Not only did the Buddha not tolerate wrong views, he actively went about subverting them and making fun of people who held them. There are times when the Buddha of the Pāli Canon makes Richard Dawkins seem like an appeaser.

  1. Professor Gombrich's contribution is summed up in his book What the Buddha Thought. References to his individual papers can be found there. The observations I make here has been observed by him previously, but I'm putting them in my own words.
  2. also Kevaṭṭa Sutta. Dīgha Nikāya 11. PTS D i.211. Translation that follows is mine. Pāli text from CST.
  3. Especially in his book Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India.
  4. These two show up in various retellings of this story at e.g. DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I haven't yet done a detailed comparison, but I'm working on it.
image: Brahmā from adishakti.org

13 August 2010

A Pāli Verse

Kalahavivāda Sutta - Sutta-nipāta, verse 876I've been working on Pāli texts a lot lately. Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and try something from the Sutta-nipāta - the oldest part of the canon, but also some of the most difficult grammar and syntax, and mostly in verse. After quite a bit of work, consulting first the commentaries and then K.R Norman's translation notes I managed to sort out Sn 876 which is the second to last verse of the Kalahavivāda (Quarrels & Disputes) Sutta (Sutta-nipāta iv.11). Since this was quite involved I thought my notes might give some insights into some of the difficulties one finds in translating. The Pāli is:
a|Ettāvataggampi vadanti heke,
b|yakkhassa suddhiṃ idha paṇḍitāse;
c|Tesaṃ paneke samayaṃ vadanti,
d|anupādisese kusalā vadānā.
The verse is in reply to a question from what seems to be an anonymous group of people. These 'suttas' are not introduced by Ānanda saying 'evaṃ me sutaṃ', nor do they set the scene, so the context is obscure. However the earlier part of the sutta is questions about dependent arising and desire. All of the questions on this subject are answered, then the interrogators say they have one more question. Since the answer is phrased in terms of the question, it should become clear what the question was as we proceed.

Firstly some Pāli lexiography/morphology needs to be explained
  • ettāvataggampi is most likely ettāvata aggaṃ api
  • heke is an Eastern, or Māgadhan, form of eke 'some' (nominative plural). [1] This form is not in PED.
  • paṇḍitāse is according to Norman a nominative plural "there can be no doubt that -āse is derived from the Vedic -āsas ... and -e < -as is an Eastern form, sometimes called a Māgadhism". (note 7, p.150; note 876 p.362)
  • paneke had me foxed for a while until I saw the sandhi. It is pan' eke or pana eke.
  • vadānā is a form which is in PED. It derives either from the ātmanepāda or the passive form of √vad (PED sv vadati towards the bottom of the entry). It is a present participle with the meaning 'being called, so-called). Ireland mistakes it for vadana 'says'. And Norman and Thanissaro translate 'who say they are' rather than 'are called', i.e. they give it a clearly active reflective sense of 'call themselves'. Norman references the Critical Pāli Dictionary entry on anupādisesa which says "i. e. those who pretend to be 'an-upādi-sesa' kusalavādā samānā, Pj = Nidd-a;". [2]
So note the predominance here of 'Eastern' forms which do not become standard Pāli, but fade out of use. These are not the kind of differences that would make Eastern and Western dialects mutually incomprehensible. Just minor differences like a Londoners dropping their h's (ironically pronounced haitch) or making the 'd' in London a glottal stop: Lon'on.

From here working out the cases and conjugations is relatively straight forward. However this is verse and so the syntax is more difficult to work out. I like to look for words in the same case, as these words usually go together. So clearly heke and paṇḍitāse go together: 'some of the wise'.

Putting it altogether took quite a lot of thought. In pada's a & b clearly heke paṇḍitāse vadanti is a unit 'some of the wise say'. If we ignore for the minute the indeclinables we find yakkhassa suddhiṃ aggaṃ. This could be 'the highest purity of the yakkha'. However we now bring in ettāvatta 'so far, to this extent', we find other possibilities. The sentence could be 'the highest purity of the yakkha is to this extent' (Norman adds ...[only] to this extent). The English is not very good, but the sense would seem to be that the highest purity of the yakkha only goes so far.

Perhaps it would help us to know who or what the yakkha is? Thanissaro and Ireland (see below) translate this as 'the spirit', which seems to me to give entirely the wrong connotation in English. It allows the reader to think in terms of their own 'spirit' (in a New Age sense), or in terms of 'spirits'. Yakkha could at the outside be 'a spirit' but not 'the spirit'. I think yakkha here is the Buddha, spoken of in the abstract - i.e. the ideal person. [3] In the sutta immediately previous to this (Purābheda Sutta: Sn iv.10) the subject is the uttamaṃ naraṃ 'supreme man', another synonym for the religious ideal. The one before that (Māgandiya Sutta iv.9) discusses purity and characterises the ideal man as a 'nāga'. In the Pasūra Sutta (iv.8) the ideal is dhona - a word of doubtful etymology, but meaning 'purified'. The Buddha is also called ādiccabandhu 'kinsman of the Sun' (surely a Vedic term!) and mahesi (i.e. mahā-ṛṣi) 'great seer'. The context here is people from various religious backgrounds asking the Buddha questions about religious ideals. Some of the pre-, or non-, Buddhist terminology they use is carrying over, though not all of it is retained by Buddhists. [4]

So the question could be about the extent to which purification is possible, and the Buddha in his reply is saying "yes, some people think purity is limited", i.e. that no escape from saṃsāra is possible (this was the view of some Brahmins for instance). Another way to view the phrase is to see it as being about the extent of purification of the Buddha himself. Norman translates "...that the supreme purity of the yakkha is to this extent [only]..." (p.115) So if the yakkha is the Buddha then the question might not be abstract, but concrete. They might be asking about the Buddha's own state. However the following verse is very much phrased in abstract terms. Where to slot the idha 'here' is a minor problem, though as perplexing as all the rest. I put it where it seems to make most sense in English, but this is probably the foible of an amateur!

If you look at the accompanying image you will see that I've mapped out the flow of the sentence as I understand it (I had to do this to understand it!). I think pada a& b say:
some here who are wise say that,
the purity of the yakkha is highest to this extent [only].
Pada's c & d are hardly less puzzling. But if we work through it, order emerges. We have a pronoun in the nominative plural (eke) along with a verb in the 3rd person plural (vadanti) so this means 'some say'. The pronoun tesaṃ (plural dative or genitive) seems to fit: 'some of them'. Also in the nominative plural we have kusalā vadānā giving us 'some who call themselves experts say'. Now anupādisese looks like an accusative plural and samayaṃ looks like an accusative singular, though Norman says "there is no reason we should not take [anupādisese] with samayaṃ".

I haven't mentioned these last two words before so let's do it now. Anupādisesa is a compound of a + upādi + sesa: and means not (a) having fuel (upādi) remaining (sesa). This references the fire metaphor and suggests someone who has not only extinguished the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, but who has no more fuel on which they might be reignited. Much was later made of this distinction by Theravāda exegetes, but I think it simply makes a distinction between a living Arahant (who still has the fuel of his senses, which could potentially fuel a fire) and the state of an Arahant after death when no more fire is possible. The -e ending is not explained by Norman or other authorities (so perhaps it was obvious to them, and not to me). Other translators seem in fact to take it as an accusative singular.

Samayaṃ can mean 'time' or 'condition'; or sometimes 'congregation'. Now, the commentator in the Sutta-nipāta-aṭṭhakatha (aka Paramattha-jotikā II) glosses samayaṃ by ucchedaṃ - ie. reads it as a statement of nihilism. Not even the redoubtable Mr Norman can make sense of this! It more obviously suggests that the so-called experts say there is a 'time for' or 'condition of' anupādisese, i.e. of no-fuel-remaining, or complete liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion.

The next verse is an elaboration of the Buddha's view in terms of understanding that experience is dependent on contact etc. It expands on the theme of anupādisese rather than introducing a whole new topic.

So my whole translation then is:
Some here who are wise say that:
The purity of the yakkha is the best to this extent [only].
However, some of them who call themselves experts reply
It is the condition of no-fuel-remaining.
By way of contrast here are some other translations.

"Some wise men here do say that the supreme purity of the yakkha is to this extent [only], but some of them, who say they are experts, preach that there is a time for [quenching] with no grasping remaining." [5]
John Ireland
"Some of the learned do declare purification of the spirit as the highest. But contrary to them some teach a doctrine of annihilation. Those clever ones declare this to be (final liberation) without basis of life's fuel remaining" [6]
Bhikkhu Thanissaro
"Some of the wise
say that just this much is the utmost,
the purity of the spirit is here.
But some of them,
who say they are skilled,
say it's the moment
with no clinging remaining." [7]
This is what some clever people say about it,
that the purity of the individual is best to this extent.
But some of them, who call themselves experts,
teach that there comes a time when there is no grasping left. [8]

  1. I think this is with reference to forms that appears in Aśokan and later inscriptions. These showed dialectical variations like heke/eke.
  2. Cf Sn 888: Yeneva bāloti paraṃ dahāti, tenātumānaṃ kusaloti cāha; Sayamattanā so kusalo vadāno, aññaṃ vimāneti tadeva pāva. Norman: "on account of what he considers his opponent to be a fool, on that account he calls himself a expert. Calling himself an expert, he despises the other, [and yet] he speaks in that very same way." (pg.116)
  3. Norman tacitly acknowledges that yakkha refers to the Buddha (just as Nāga often does) in his note to verse 478 (p.260) and says he prefers to leave it untranslated, though without saying why (which is a rare omission for him). An interesting question is in what culture was a Yakkha (S. Yakṣa) seen as a high status being? Certainly not in Vedic culture, and not in later Buddhist culture.
  4. I note in passing that none of these discussions are in terms of ātman or brahman. I have been wondering lately whether there are any discussions in the Pāli which directly reflect these concerns.
  5. Norman reads upādi as 'grasping', but cf PED sv upādi "= upādāna, but in more concrete meaning of "stuff of life", substratum of being, khandha; only in combn. with ˚sesa (adj.) having some fuel of life (= khandhas or substratum) left, i. e. still dependent (on existence), not free, materially determined". By contrast CPD merely has: 'attachment'.
  6. Ireland's notes point out that "The term 'spirit' (yakkha) is equivalent here to 'being' or 'man." I don't think translating "the spirit" conveys this. (see also note8) Note also that Ireland follows the commentary in taking samayaṃ as 'nihilism'.
  7. Thanissaro also opts to translate yakkha as 'the spirit' (see comments in note 6 and 8 and in the text) and upādi as 'clinging'.
  8. Dhīvan's rendering of yakkha as 'individual' is interesting here - it universalises the statement without creating the kinds of problems introduced by terms such as 'spirit'. This is supported by PED sv yakkha (7): "Exceptionally the term 'yakkha' is used as a philosophical term denoting 'individual soul'... "ettāvatā yakkhassa suddhi (purification of the heart)".


Pāli texts
All from Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipitaka Version 4.0 (CST4).
  • Kalahavādasuttaṃ. Sutta-nipāta (PTS Sn 876).
  • Kalahavivādasuttavaṇṇanā, Suttanipāta-aṭṭhakathā (PTS Pj ii.550f)
  • Kalahavivādasuttaniddeso, Mahāniddesapāḷi (PTS Nidd I i.254f)
  • Dhīvan. Kalahavivādasutta Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes (triṣṭubh). Unpublished translation.
  • Ireland, John D. (trans) "Kalaha-vivada Sutta: Further Questions"(Snp 4.11). Access to Insight, June 14, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.4.11.irel.html.
  • Norman, K.R. (trans) The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta). 2nd ed. Pali Text Society, 2001. [Norman's notes supply relevant sections from the commentaries in the Mahāniddesa (Nidd I) and the aka Paramattha-jotikā II (Pj II).]
  • Thanissaro. (trans) 'Kalaha-vivada Sutta: Quarrels & Disputes' (Snp 4.11). Access to Insight, June 8, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.4.11.than.html.

06 August 2010

What Did the Buddha Mean by 'World'?

earth in handsI have been working on a commentary to the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15, PTS Sii.16.) and considering the term loka, usually translated as 'world', and how the Buddha used it; especially in the context of the compound lokasamdaya 'origin of the world'. In my research I found a trail already followed by Bhikkhu Bodhi in the notes to his Saṃyutta Nikāya translation. I will work through these texts myself, offer my own translations and observations, but leave Bhikkhu Bodhi the last word, since he got there before me.

Our first text is the Discourse of Going to the End of the World. [1] Here an odd question is raised:
kena cāvuso lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī?
And by what, friend, in the world is one a perceiver and cogniser of the world?
The answer is that one is a perceiver and cogniser of the world by the six sense organs in the world. On one hand this is obvious - one perceives 'the world' through the senses - however the senses themselves are in the world (lokasmiṃ). Bhikkhu Bodhi points to SN 2.26 for an explanation. This is the Rohitassa Sutta. [2] Here the young deva, Rohitassa, asks the Buddha:
yatha nu kho bhante na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, sakkā nu kho so, bhante, gamanena lokassa anto ñātuṃ vā daṭṭhum vā pāpuṇituṃ vā ti?

Is there a way by travelling to know, or see, or to reach, the end of the world where one is not born, grow old, die; where is is no death and rebirth?
The answer is no. One cannot reach the goal by actually travelling. I take this to mean that the Buddha is not talking about a place, that the language of the 'path' is only a metaphor. So the world being talked about is not the physical world, not the external objective world. He then makes a statement which might be familiar:
Na kho panāhaṃ, āvuso, appatvā lokassa antaṃ dukkhassa antakiriyaṃ vadāmi. Api ca khvāhaṃ, āvuso, imasmiṃyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññapemi lokasamudayañca lokanirodhañca lokanirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti.

However, I, friend, there is no making an end of disappointment, without reaching the end of the world. And, friend, it is right here in this 'fathom long' [3] body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.
So this reinforces the idea that 'the world' is not 'the world' as we usually think about it, but the kind of world we refer to when we refer to some who "lives in a world of their own" - a subjective world. If we turn to Buddhaghosa's commentary [4] at this point (as Bhikkhu Bodhi does in his notes) we find that he links loka with dukka and associates the four truths of the noble ones with the world, the origin and cessation of the world and the way to the cessation of the world. Buddhaghosa then says:
Iti – ‘‘nāhaṃ, āvuso, imāni cattāri saccāni tiṇakaṭṭhādīsu paññapemi, imasmiṃ pana cātumahābhūtike kāyasmiṃ yeva paññapemī’’ti dasseti.

Thus he should see: ' I do not, friend, declare these four truths in grass and wood, but I declare them only in this body of the four great elements'.
Now this is presented as a quote from the Buddha, but modern databases make it easy to show that it does not occur in the Pāli texts that have come down to us. So we must be cautious in how we use it. With this caveat I may say that this the most unequivocal statement that the Buddha is unconcerned with the objective world, but only with the subjective world, that I know of. What in effect Buddhaghosa, at least, is saying is that paṭicca-sammupāda is not intended to apply to the external world, but to one's world of experience - to the processes of perception (the senses) and cognition (the mind) located within the body.

In the World Sutta [5] the Buddha asks the rhetorical question: "what is the origin of the world". His answer is a well known formula:
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā; taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ; upādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparideva-dukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Ayaṃ kho, bhikkhave, lokassa samudayo.

With the eye and forms as condition, eye-consciousness arises. The coincidence of the three is contact. On the basis of contact there are sensations, which give rise to desires. Desires are fuel which supports becoming. [6] With becoming there is birth, and from birth old-age, and death, grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble are produced. This, monks, is the origin of the world.
This is a portion of the nidāna chain (the most useful and relevant part) which we normally associate with the arising of dukkha. Here the world is more or less equivalent to dukkha. Note that 'the world' comes into being on the basis of contact between sense organ and sense object - forms. Here forms are not part of 'the world', they are part of the conditions which give rise to the world - this is a very important distinction. The nidānas do not give rise to forms, they give rise to the experience, the world of suffering.

The conclusion of this exploration is, I hope, clear and I will leave it to Bhikkhu Bodhi to articulate it:
"The world with which the Buddha's teaching is principally concerned is 'the world of experience,' and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience" [7]


  1. Lokantagamana Sutta (SN 35.116, PTS S iv.93)
  2. Rohitassa Sutta (SN 2.26, PTS S i.61; also AN 4.45, PTS A ii.47)
  3. 'fathom long carcass' is (I think) Mrs Rhys David's translation of byāmamatte kalebara which has a great ring to it: but byāma refers to 'an arm-span' which is typically somewhat less than a fathom or six feet. Kaḷevara (or kaḷebara) is 'the body'. It also means 'a corpse or carcass', but a dead body is seldom "endowed with perception and cognition"
  4. Rohitassa Sutta Vaṇṇanā (SA i.116)
  5. Loka Sutta (SN 12.43, PTS S ii.73)
  6. upādāna is typically translated as 'clinging'. This is neither bad doctrine, nor bad philology. However Richard Gombrich has shown how the word more literally means 'the thing which supports a active process' i.e. fuel. The equation that "desire fuels becoming" is part of the metaphor of fire, which characterises becoming (bhava) as like a fire which can only continue when there is fuel. In my opinion it makes more sense. I've written more on the use of the metaphor of fire in these essays: Everything is on fire! and Playing with Fire.
  7. Bodhi. Connected Discourses p. 394, n.182.

image: earth in hands from Worthington Libraries.
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