24 September 2010

The Linguistic Joys of Popular Religion

As I have a prominent website dealing with Buddhist mantra I frequently receive requests for help and advice with phrases in Sanskrit, often for tattoos. I tend not to help with tattoos, but I like to help Buddhists trying to understand what they are chanting. Recently someone wrote asking about this phrase, suggesting that it was something the Buddha had said:
yad bhavam tad bhavati
This is clearly Sanskrit, a simple relative clause sentence (yad 'what, which'; tad 'that, this'). There is some possible ambiguity because of the lack of diacritics - is it bhavam or bhāvam? The former means 'becoming, being'; the latter 'being, origin'. However there is some crossover - both can mean 'becoming, existence'. I think bhava is a primary derivation from the root bhū, and bhāva is a secondary derivative (of, or connected to, bhava). Either way the sentence appears to be a tautology:
'what becomes, that is becoming' or 'what is, is'.
One interpretation might be that bhavam is intended in its special meaning of 'truth' - 'that which is true, that is'. This relies on the double meaning of satya 'true, real', if something exists then it is both true and real. Now compare this with what it is said to mean on the internet. We begin with an article in the Huffington Post by Stacey Lawson, which is where my correspondent found the phrase:
There is a famous yogic teaching: "Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavati." The most literal translation is: "You become as you think." But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning. It can also be interpreted as, "The state of mind and the state of matter are one," or "The light of the mind coalesces as matter." Through delving into this single statement, the yogis were able to apprehend the entire structure of creation through the mind.
I'm already puzzled because of the capitalisation. People do this with mantras as well. You'll often see a mantra like 'oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ' written 'Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ'. What does capitalisation indicate in this case? Scholars will often use italics for foreign words which helps the reader take in the difference, but how does this capitalisation help? I think one need only look in the King James Bible to see why we do this:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1.1
We Buddhists do this as well. We capitalise words live nirvāṇa, enlightenment, buddha, to mark them as special, perhaps we might say 'sacred' (though I wouldn't) on the model of a 17th century English Bible, and in defiance of contemporary English conventions. This doesn't occur in Indic scripts since they lack capitals, and all words and letters are special anyway. I think it suggests an inferiority complex when we have to make sure every knows our jargon is 'special'.

What do people mean when they say things like "But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning"? Is Sanskrit any more layered than other languages? No it isn't. But vague statements in a spiritual context lend themselves to meaning whatever you want them to mean. We supply the specifics depending on what we want to believe. In effect the statement can mean almost anything we want it to. So the phrase gets translated as:

You become as you think
as you think so you become
It will transform as you wish
your feelings define your world
as is the feeling, so is the result
as is the feeling, so is the experience
what you intend, that becomes reality
The light of the mind coalesces as matter
The state of mind and the state of matter are one
what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth
Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality

Clearly many of these statements are not logically connected to each other, or meaningful in any ordinary sense, and none of them seem to derive from the actual Sanskrit words. Which is more or less the same as saying that the Sanskrit phrase can mean anything you want it to (especially if you don't know Sanskrit!). This is a form of linguistic relativism, which presumably goes nicely with the "all is one" style of popular religion. But vagueness in language usually disguises vagueness of thought. As one website translates the phrase: "what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth." Quite. The sad fact is that people simply believe what they want to believe despite what intellect and experience tell them; and that very often what we affirm as true, or True, is merely what we believe, merely our opinion. It's like a belief in a creator god: it's just an opinion.

Although my interlocutor thought this was a Buddhist saying, it clearly isn't. Though compare this fake Buddha quote:
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Buddha quotes (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)
Apart from a spelling mistake and dubious dates, the thing that stands out for me is that the Buddha is described as a Hindu! It may be that the first sentence in this quote is a garbled version of the Pāli verses which begin the Dhammapada, but the phrasing is quite different.
mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.
Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
And in any case this is an ethical teaching, not an ontological one - it is about how your mental state determines the outcomes of your actions. I've also seen a website where our phrase is associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though the artist/author also says that the statement: "is a truth that transcends religion" . The phrase - yad bhavam, tad bhavati - may simply be a fake Buddha quote. Bodhipakṣa, of Wildmind fame. has been collecting fake Buddha quotes for a while now if anyone is interested in this phenomena.

Elsewhere I have seen the phrase attributed to 'the Upaniṣads' and 'The Bhagavadgīta', but not convincingly. The context of the Sanskrit phrase (as opposed to the various translations) always seems to be Hindu, and mostly associated with Sathya Sai Baba, the controversial South Indian 'holy man', not to be confused with Sai Baba of Shirdi (the 19th century saint). Many of the web hits point to a discourse called God is the Indweller, where it is spelt it a little differently:
Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavathi
As you think so you become.
Here bhavati, has become bhavathi, and I'm unsure about what it could be except a spelling mistake. Though he also spells satya as sathya, so it could be a matter of idiosyncratic rather than mistaken spelling. Although the phrase comes in a talk peppered with Sanskrit quotes and translations for which textual sources are cited, no source is given for this particular phrase. He does however mention the story of Prahlada (a character from the Puraṇas) and one translation I found suggested that our phrase in the form - "Yad Bhavam tad Bhavati (Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality)" [sic!] - might occur in this connection. I couldn't find any confirmation of this however.

After a bit of playing around with the Devanāgarī I did find one quote in the form "यद्‌भावम्‌ तद्‌भवती" (i.e. yad bhāvam tad bhavatī) where bhavatī is a spelling mistake for bhavati. Technically in Sanskrit you'd probably write this यद्भवम्तद्भवति with sandhi and conjuncts obscuring the word breaks. But this did not shed any light on the origins of the phrase.

An email on the subject from Sanskritist Kiran Paranjape, who I often refer people to for tattoo transcriptions, makes me wonder whether Sai Baba hasn't just done a Sanskrit translation of the Spanish/Italian phrase "Que sera, sera" - "What will be, will be." The Sanskrit would be according to Kiran: yad bhāvyam tad bhavati, which is very close to our phrase. I would have gone for something like: 'yad yad bhāvyam tad tad bhaviṣyati', though it lacks the brevity of the original; or perhaps 'yad bhāvyam, bhāvyam' which captures the form but like the original is not fully grammatical.

Another possibility is that 'you become what you think' is an example of the so-called Law of Attraction - a form of magical thinking popular in Theosophical circles, and amongst New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra. It forms the basis of the book: Think and Grow Rich. It may be that the phrase has also been picked up on by Sai Baba. It sounds vaguely similar to Hindu religious ideas, so fits in with his rhetoric.

After quite a lot of searching around I did not find any traditional Indian source - Vedas, major Upaniṣads, Epics and Puraṇas; in either Roman or Devanāgarī. Perhaps I have missed something, but it doesn't seem to be obvious. I should add that the whole thing is redolent of Hindu spirituality, and may well be genuine - the fact that I can't find it may be a failing on my part. The phrase is widely quoted across the internet, and attributed to a range of people or texts. On the face of it, however, the words are a bit of meaningless cant that 'spiritual' people project their ideas onto, the linguistic equivalent of crystals.

I suppose this is how legends get started. Someone, for whatever reason, attributes some saying to the Buddha. Later generations take it seriously, but not finding a source for it, must create a plausible context for the fake quote. So we get drift from the words of the master towards the words of fakers (who may have been well intentioned, I'm not suggesting they are necessarily evil). Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference, especially if we aren't familiar with a wide range of sources. This is one of the most valuable functions of scholars: to take cant like this and explain why it is inauthentic, to slow the drift towards mumbo-jumbo.

17 September 2010

The Four Tantric Rites

FudoIn the early days of Jayarava's Raves I did a series of rather impressionistic essays on the tantric rites - though I used a set that had connections with the Five Buddha Maṇḍala. For our celebration of Padmasambhava (the great tantric yogi and magician) this weekend at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre there will be a series of talks on the set of four rites, and I will be speaking about the puṣṭīkarman or rite of prosperity. This post will provide some background about these four rites collectively, especially the associated language and some of the history of the rituals.

The word being translated as 'rite' is in fact karman, which is literally 'action, work'. However here it signifies a ritual action, hence we translate it as 'rite'. This is the first of several clear links with the Vedic sacrificial ritual.

The four rites in Sanskrit [1] are:

śāntikakarman rite of pacification
vaśyakarman rite of subjection
puṣṭikarman rite of prospering
raudrakarman fierce rite, rite of destruction

In early tantric texts such as Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra the various rites are actually forms of 'homa' (Chinese/Japanese goma) ritual. The word 'homa' means 'the act of making an oblation' and dervies from the root √hu 'sacrifice'. In Vedic ritual this function was carried out by the hotṛ priest [2]. The Buddhist homa ritual involves setting up a sacrificial alter with a fire, and making coloured offerings to the fire. In Vedic times the idea was that the similarity between the microcosm and macrocosm allowed one to be influenced by the other through the ritual (which occupied a kind of intermediate space). In particular fire (agni) transformed the offerings into smoke which then wafted to heaven and induced the deva to respond (this kind of connected thinking underpins tantric sādhana as well). In the homa ritual the correspondence is between the body, speech and mind of the devotee and the Three Mysteries (triguhya) of the Dharmakāya Buddha which also have body, speech and mind aspects: all forms are the body, all sounds the speech, and all mental activity the mind of the Dharmakāya. The ritual conceives of the fire altar as an analogue for both (the altar itself is the body, the hearth is speech, and the fire is the mind), and through the ritual the microcosm of the individual is brought into with the macrocosm of the Dharmakāya. This kind of imagery is also drawing on Vedic models, but Buddhists are always careful to insist that śūnyatā (lack of self-nature) and pratītya-samutpāda (dependent-arising) underpin all their practices - so one is not merging with God, or with a numinous universal principle, but directly realising śūnyatā.

For the early Vedic priests the desired response of the ritual was keeping the natural order by bringing the rains at the proper time and averting disasters, but it was also connected with the health and prosperity of the king. In the tantric rites it is the individual who benefits and if there is a spiritual purpose to them, then it appears to be grafted onto the mundane, rather than the other way around. That is to say that it appears to me that these rites were already being used for mundane purposes when Buddhists began to adapt them for spiritual purposes, and that the mundane, even vulgar, use has been retained. We find mention of some of the rites in Gṛhyasūtras which covered domestic rites in Brahmin households. [3]

Each of the rites is associated with a colour and here too the rites tell us of their Vedic origins because the colours are: white, red, yellow and black. These are the colours associated in the Vedic tradition with the four varṇa or classes. [4] In fact varṇa more literally means 'colour'. So the brahmaṇa was associated with white symbolising their purity and the śudra with black symbolising their impurity (as I mentioned in A Pāli Pun). The kṣatriya were symbolised by red, and vaiṣya by yellow. The functions of the rites relate to some extent to the classes as well. Brahmins were concerned with rites and rituals, and ritual purity; kṣatriyas with ruling and conquering; vaiṣyas with agriculture and commerce; and śudras were serfs forced to labour. So we get these correspondences:


Why śudra and destruction? It may be that the impurity of the śudras threatened the makers of the original system; or that the were perceived as barbarous. Rudra, from which raudra ("connected with Rudra", "destruction") derives, is the name of a Vedic god who by this time was associated with Śiva who is also known as 'the destroyer' because his role in the Hindu trinity of gods is to preside over the destruction phase at the end of each time cosmic epoch (Brahmā is the creator, and Viṣṇu the sustainer). Perhaps some of the śudras worshipped Śiva?

These rites were absorbed into the Buddhist tradition at the time of the great synthesis and renewal which we call 'Tantra'. [5] Since they appear in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra we know that they must have been incorporated near the beginning of the process since this text is the earliest systematic tantra, and is thought to have been composed sometime in the 640's CE. In this text each of the rites consists of a pūjā which involves a series of preparatory practices in which one visualises oneself as a Buddha, the creation of maṇḍala with a fire place in the middle, an invocation to the deva Agni, and then the offering of appropriated coloured offerings accompanied by mantras. Some time much later the various functions were incorporated into mantras of White Tārā and I have written about some of these on my other website: visiblemantra.org - White Tārā. See especially the section: Other forms of the mantra.

Such rituals are still regularly carried out by both Tibetan and Japanese Vajrayāna practitioners, as well as some Hindu devotees. The goals of such rituals vary. I think on the whole they are used for spiritual purposes in the present day. But Stephen Beyer notes some mundane uses of such rites: So for instance he records:

"...and within my experience [Kurukullā's rite of subjugation] has been called upon by at least one Tibetan refugee group to coerce the Indian government. Tibetan traders seeking profit and Tibetan lovers seeking satisfaction followed upon the the ritual tracks established by their Indian processors." [The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet, p. 302]

It may be this kind of behaviour which lead David Snellgrove to comment:

"So far as the verbal expression is concerned the most suitable English word for all these Sanskrit [synonyms for mantra] is undoubtedly 'spell.' One attracts by a spell, one binds by a spell, one releases by a spell... whether one likes it or not, the greater part of the tantras were concerned precisely with vulgar magic..." [Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, p.143]

So these rites began as popular adaptations of the larger and more complex Vedic fire rituals, and from there were adapted by Buddhists, and to some extent they retained their 'vulgar' purposes. Martin Willson's introductory notes on the Tārā Tantra suggest caution with respect to the rites as found in the texts:
But someone has been playing a practical joke on Tibetan would-be magicians for the last eight centuries - the mantras have been shuffled. Anyone who thought he was summoning a woman with the rite of Chapter 16 was actually driving her away... At best the arrangement of the other mantras is uncertain. [In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress, p.48]
As I say there is a living tradition, dating back to the mid 7th century, of performing these rites in a bona fide spiritual context in both Tibetan and Japanese vajrayāna circles - and while the Tārā Tantra may be muddled the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra does not appear to be. Magic they may be, but the vulgar tag doesn't apply generally, and Snellgrove appears to have overstated his case.

Later the rituals were adapted to better fit the Five Buddha Maṇḍala with colours matching them: white, blue, yellow, red, and green with a surrounding aura of a special colour known in Tibet as chenka (it is said to be indescribable, but something like amethyst). [6] The function of the rites are then modified to better fit the functions of the five Buddhas. Subjugation for instance, becomes more like 'fascination' to fit with Amitābha's pratyavekṣana-jñāna or wisdom of discrimination, and his compassion. The rite of destruction is no longer for killing people, but for overcoming hindrances to practice and so on. It was this more wholesome set that I wrote about in my original essays on the rites.

The tantric rites are a good example of the eclecticism of tantra and of Indian religion generally. I've commented on this before, but it is worth saying again that in the Indian context this is far from unusual: in fact it is the norm. It is only from the point of view of strict monotheism that such borrowings look odd. This is not quite the same thing as saying all religions are the same, or that one can put together any religious elements and have a viable spiritual path. However it does mean that practices from another faith might be employed in Buddhism, although there is usually a thorough re-contextualisation of any new material, and at the same time religion (including monotheism) can be and often is subverted for mundane and vulgar purposes.

Sangharakshita has presented tantric material to the Triratna movement in terms of it's symbolism, for instance in his book Creative Symbols of Tantric Buddhism (which discusses the four rites in the section on colour symbolism), without directly passing on tantric teachings he received from his Tibetan teachers. Although we make use of tantric symbolism - somewhat naïvely I would argue - we are not a tantric movement. A few members of our Order who take tantra more seriously - notably Vessantara and Prakaśa - have sought abhiṣekha with Tibetan teachers. On the other hand Sangharakshita has written polemically about the breakdown of the proper guru/disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism and is scathing about people who collect initiations, and teachers who give them to anyone who asks or is willing to pay the fee. (Whereas I would argue that the function of giving of initiations has naturally shifted in the displaced Tibetan community and that this hardly represents a degradation but is a cultural adaptation to very difficult circumstances, and is in any case less radical than Sangharakshita's own de-contextualisation of tantra.)

My earlier essays on the rites: white, blue, yellow, red, green.

Another good source of info relevant to the Triratna Order's approach to the Tantric rites is Subhuti's talks on Kalyana Mitrata, published by Padmaloka and still on sale for £4.50. Unfortunately when these talks were republished as Buddhism and Friendship, the Tantric Rites sections were omitted.

  1. The Tibetan equivalents are: śāntikarma: zhi-ba’i ‘phrin-las; puṣṭikarma: rgyas-pa’i phrin-las; vaiṣyakarma: dbang gi phrin-las; raudrakarma: drag-po’i phrin-las.
  2. The hotṛ was one of four types of priest: three each associated with the three vedas, and a fourth, the brāhmaṇa, who was an overseer and put right any errors. The word hotṛ is the root hu with the -tṛ suffix making it an agent noun, and so means 'the sacrificer'.
  3. The Gobhila-Gṛhyasūtra for instance mentions the puṣṭikarma. It is also found in the Kausikapaddhati which is an 11th century commentary on the Atharvaveda. The śāntikarma is mentioned in the Āśvalāyana-Gr̥hyasūtra. There are several mentions in the Mahābharata.
  4. I use class to translation varṇa even though many scholars use caste. This is because caste more properly relates to jāti (the word is the same in historic Sanskrit, and in present day North Indian languages). While there are only four varṇa, there are now thousands of jāti. The division of society in terms of jāti was well in place by the time tantra began to develop. Indeed later tantra specifically negates Brahmanical class purity boundaries by contact with and ingesting of ritual impure substances.
  5. In fact some of the rituals described in the Suvarṇabhāsottama (Golden Light) Sūtra resemble Hindu rituals to some extent as well, which indicates that some intermixing may have occurred earlier without necessarily implying that Tantric Buddhism predates the 7th century.
  6. I recall reading about this somewhere but now that I come to reference it, I cannot find a single source. So either I made it up, or my recollection of the spelling is hopelessly out.

Image: a Shingon monk performing the homa ritual.

10 September 2010

Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman

It is well known that the teachings on anātman (translated variously as 'no-self', 'non-self', 'no-soul', 'not-soul' with variations particularly in capitalisation of self/soul) are important to the overall Buddhist program of transformation. Several books and many articles have been written arguing for and against various interpretations of the relevant texts - some finding an ātman affirmed, some finding it denied, and some taking a middle way between these two extremes.

It is widely accepted that the teachings on anātman must be set against the background of Brahmanical thought of the day. It is further generally accepted that the texts that have come down to us as the Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāranyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya and Aitareya Upaniṣads, reflect the Brahmanical religion at the time. In the the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) we find references to these four for instance [1]. It is often assumed that the Brahmanical faith formed the mainstream of religion at the time and place, though this is now plausibly disputed (see Rethinking Indian History), and it seems likely that Brahmins and their religion were new comers to the North-east of India, and in fact in the process of absorbing ideas from the samaṇa movements. In any case many people have pointed to passages in the Pāli Canon which show that early Buddhists were familiar with the Upaniṣads - and anatta in relation to ātman is one of the key aspects of this theme.

Just as the central uniting concept across all of the Buddhist texts is paṭicca-samuppāda, the central subject in these early Upaniṣads is the identity of brahman and ātman: the former being the universal essence, while the latter is the manifestation of that universal essence in the individual. As Signe Cohen puts it:
"An Upaniṣad can, most simply, be defined as an ancient text in Sanskrit that teaches that ātman and brahman are one and the same, and that the knowledge of this identity leads to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth." [2]
However at the same time there was a theistic tendency present in the Upaniṣads which gradually became more prominent. In its theistic guise the grammatically neutral brahman becomes the grammatically masculine brahmā, and is equated with Prajāpati 'Lord of Progeny' aka the Creator God. The two terms are often ambiguous: as the first member of a compound they are both brahma-. Additionally the two are sometimes used side by side as if to make it clear that they are not to be considered distinct. As time goes on brahman is used less, and brahmā more.

We know a certain amount about the Buddha's contemporaries from polemics and parodies directed against them in the Pāli texts, though of course such portrayals must be taken with a grain of salt. Jains, Ājivakas and Brahmins are recognisable in the texts from the way they behave and how they speak. However, and this is my main point today: nowhere in the Pāli canon, so far as I can tell, does any Brahmin so much as express an opinion on ātman, and nowhere is the ātman doctrine attributed to a Brahmin. This is a surprising situation since this doctrine is one of the most characteristic and distinctive of that group. A subsidiary point is that while the founders and important teachers of religions are mentioned, Jains for instance talk about former teachers, and while there are even lists of the seven Vedic ṛṣi - the star of the early Upaniṣads - Yajñavalkya - is not mentioned in Pāli.

In Pāli the two Sanskrit words brahman and brahmā have coalesced into the single form brahmā (a masculine noun) which sometimes stands for religious ideals in general (it is often translated as 'holy' or 'divine' for instance), but in our present context always means the creator god. [3] The coalescence may be reflected in the confusion of the declension of the noun, [4] and we do not know whether the single, if somewhat variable, grammatical form in Pāli represents the state of Buddhist knowledge of Brahmanical beliefs, or whether a mechanical process of grammatical change obscured a difference (c.f. my comments on sattva, satka, satva in Philological Odds & Ends III sv bodhisattva). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of brahma- as the first member of a compound, in the context of the beliefs put into the mouths of Brahmins (or indeed into the mouth of Brahmā) there is no clear reference to brahman in any text in the Pāli Canon. [5] I'm not the first to make this observation, but don't have references to hand.

Parodies of the creator god are some of the funniest, and most damning of the Buddhist polemical texts - the creator god is portrayed as a deluded and bombastic fool, afraid to look bad in front of the other gods. The central Brahmanical idea of the identity of brahman and ātman is completely absent and has been replaced by the idea of brahmasahavyata - companionship or union with Brahmā. The word brahmavihara 'dwelling with Brahmā' is a synonym of this. However note that I have summarised Gombrich's discovery that the Buddhist texts seem to have lost the true sense of this allusion before the fixing of the Canon - The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

The clear references to Vedic texts noted by Gombrich and others (including me) have established that the Pāli texts themselves are aware of Vedic concepts. We find the names of Vedic ṛṣi, and Vedic traditions; references to sacrifices, sacred fires, mantras (in particular the Sāvitṛ mantra); references to sacred bathing, to worship of the sun. We find a high awareness of Brahmanical class (vaṇṇa) prejudice. We also find more oblique references to the five fire wisdom, and to Vedic cosmogony (especially as found in the BU and Ṛgveda 10.90). Many of these ideas and practices are still current in India more than 2000 years later! Although sometimes Brahmins are clearly just straw-men and present an inauthentic façade to be knocked down, there are many texts were Brahmins are recognisable even if not labelled as such. What's more the texts themselves record that many Brahmins of various kinds became converts (including prominent disciples like Sāriputta and Moggallana!) so the compilers of the texts had plenty of opportunity to mix with actual Brahmins. We have evidence of increasing Brahmin participation and influence in the Buddhist Sangha - some of which I discussed in A Pāli Pun. The text which most often seems to referenced is the Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad (BU). Those scholars who have tried to determine the geographical locations of the various texts (primarily Michael Witzel) place the BU in the eastern areas of North India in the Kingdoms of Kosala and Vidheha - precisely where the Buddha was active.

A conflicting picture emerges for which I have as yet no explanation. Brahmins in the Pāli texts are either old school Brahmins focussed on the sacrifice, or they are outright monotheists which is usually considered to be a late development - associated with later Upaniṣads or even the Puraṇas. A possibility is that the jaṭila or dreadlocked ascetics (especially Uruvela Kassapa) were ascetic Brahmins - the commentarial tradition certainly considers them Brahmins, though the nikāyas are more ambiguous. They are fire worshippers, some of them show allegiance to Brahmins (c.f. Sela Sutta) and have Brahmin surnames like Kassapa. But what beliefs they espoused is not revealed to us.

The Pāli texts appear conversant with aspects of the Upaniṣads, especially those related to cosmogony; and to Brahmin culture more generally, particularly concern for social class and stratification; and ritual purity. Certainly the subjects of atta and anatta get considerable attention, but they are never linked to the source i.e. the Brahmins themselves. Although we can easily make the cognitive link between a teaching against ātman and a group which we know espoused views on ātman, in practice the Pāli texts never seem to make this link! Indeed the important point about ātman from the Brahmanical point of view is not its eternal nature, i.e. not the fact that it participates unchanged in rebirth per se which is the focus for Buddhists, but its identity with brahman, since it is this identity that allows one to escape saṃsara (with more space I would discuss the proposition that this was by no means universally accepted by Brahmins in the Buddha's day). In short early Buddhists, perhaps the Buddha, but certainly the Early Buddhist texts, seem to have missed the main point of the Upaniṣads. The apparent fact of increasing Brahmanical influence in Buddhism makes this even more difficult to understand. Ironically centuries later they adopted more or less the same idea in the form of the Tathāgatagarbha for precisely the same reasons the Brahmins adopted it - it explains how liberation is possible for someone mired in saṃsara. There are also echoes in such ideas as absolute and relative bodhicitta.

Contra my previous enthusiasm for this idea, I think, therefore, that we must be cautious in accepting the conjecture that Early Buddhists were conversant with the traditions represented by the Upaniṣads. My suspicion is that the teachings on anātman/anatta do not relate directly to the ideas on ātman found in the Upaniṣads; that this is simply a coincidence of terminology, rather than a coincidence of ideology, however this would require a major rethink about the relationship between Buddhism and Vedism. Another possibility is that Buddhists only came into contact with Brahmins at a much later date than we usually allow for. Alternatively the Brahmins in the Canon, especially those who joined the bhikkhu saṅgha, might not have accepted the Upaniṣads - perhaps they moved eastwards for the same reasons that people fled Europe for America in the 17th century.

We must do more work to establish the extent of that Buddhist conversance with Brahmanical thought. Ideally we would go back over the research on ātman in Buddhist texts to date, and try to determine if it does in fact relate to Brahmanical views at all, or whether we need to look to another source.

  1. DN13 records various types of Brahmins: addhariya, tittiriya, chandoka, chandāva and bavhārijjhā or brahmacāriya (the ms. disagree on the last, but there is a lost Brāhmaṇa text called Bahvṛca which would coincide with Pāli bavhārijjha). The chandāva brāhmaṇas are left out of some mss. and the connections are uncertain. Tittiriya and Chandoka correspond to Sanskrit Taittirīya and Chāndogya and to the Brāhmaṇa and Upaniṣad textual traditions of the same name. Although the Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa is lost it is linked to the Aitareya Upaniṣad. Lastly addhariya corresponds to Sanskrit adhvaryu and is associated with the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. These correspondences are discussed in the notes to Rhys Davids translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (p.303, n.2) and in Jayatilleke Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p.479f.
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008. p.39.
  3. A cursory look at the Mahāvastu suggests that it also only uses brahmā and not brahman, or uses brahma- as the first part of a karmadhāraya compound (i.e. as an adjective). The vast majority of uses are in the compounds brahmacariya and brahmacārin. Along with the name King Brahmadatta these account for perhaps 90% of occurrences in the Sanskrit text.
  4. The Pāli treatment of Sanskrit nouns ending in consonants is inconsistent. Our word brahmā sometimes follows the masculine -a declension, sometimes the -u declension; with other minor variations such as a vocative singular brahme and plural brahmāno perhaps drawing on the feminine -ā declension. Other -n nouns such as rājan, and attan show similar variability.
  5. I have sought to identify all nikāya texts where a Brahmin makes a profession of belief. They are:
    • DN 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 27.
    • MN 49, 50, 84, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 108.
    • SN 6.3, 4; 7.1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22; 35.132, 146, 151; 42.6; 45.38; 55.12.
    • AN 3.54, 56, 58, 59, 60; 4.23, 185; 5.191, 192, 193; 6.38; 7.62; 10.119, 167, 168, 176, 177.
    • Sn 1.7, 8; 2.7; 3.4, 6, 7, 9.
    In each case I have studied the text and translated relevant portions of it to be sure I understand it. Interestingly many of the narratives in these texts are repeated two or three times. For instance the story of Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvaja gets three closely related, but not identical tellings at DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I think this tells us that at least three narrative lineages are preserved in the Pāli texts. It may be possible with close study to identify stylistic features in common and tease out other related texts that have multiple recensions within the Canon.

03 September 2010

Some Thoughts on Colonialism

I was born in a small town in the central North Island of New Zealand, child of 3rd and 4th generation settlers. About half my neighbourhood were Māori. New Zealand is a relatively young country, having been formally recognised as such in 1840 with the signing of a treaty between Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and several influential Māori chiefs (this is symbolised on our coat of arms, left). The Māori themselves are one arm of a vast colonising movement that settled most of the habitable islands of the Pacific Ocean, arriving in New Zealand around 1000 years ago. People in the UK like to joke about the Antipodes being populated by criminals - this is not in particularly good taste. We don't laugh about concentration camps or slavery, and the British transportation of convicts to Australia was hardly any more humane. But as any New Zealander will be quick to tell you our country was not populated convicts. However our country was founded by white-collar criminals.

At the heart of the original fraud were the two versions of the Treaty of Waitangi. In the Māori language version the locals ceded kawanatanga 'governorship' to the British, but crucially maintained tino rangatiratanga 'full chieftainship' over their people, lands and possessions. In return the British would establish a government to help protect everyone from the rapacious and violent foreign visitors who had begun arriving in the late 1700's, and to act as an intermediary in land sales. Māori gained all the rights of British subjects. The chiefs had been prompted, partly by the arrival of a French Catholic mission and a significant American presence in the form of whalers, to chose the English as the lesser of three evils. In the English version of the Treaty the chiefs ceded sovereignty to the Queen. This opened the door for exploitation because although they gained rights and protections as British subjects, the chief's right to rule their own people was effectively removed. And in any case the British were loath to treat the Māori as British subjects on a par with themselves, because they had brown skin and a non-European culture. While some attempt was made to take copies of the Treaty around the country, not all of the chiefs would sign, and not everyone had an opportunity.

The New Zealand Company, crucial to the early development of New Zealand as a colony, was the brainchild of the devious and unscrupulous Edwin Gibbon Wakefield, a convicted felon himself (having been found guilty of abduction). This company sold land to settlers before providing one-way transport out. The land they sold was not legally theirs, and indeed they sold more land than the whole surface area of the islands. Initially they could only buy land which had been purchased on their behalf by the Queen - through her representative in the form of a Governor. The first Governor, William Hobson, embezzled most of the money, then died. His temporary replacement Willoughby Shortland misappropriated the rest, leaving the fledgling country more or less bankrupt. This meant that very little land was being purchased while thousands of settlers were arriving each year. The settlers began to take land against the wishes of the Māori, which caused tension and bloodshed.

For a brief period the tragic figure of Robert Fitzroy (ex Captain of the famous HMS Beagle) became Governor and tried to be fair to both locals and settlers. But he was unpopular with the settlers because of this. The lack of income from selling land also prevented any kind of public works program. In addition New Zealand Company executives owned the local press and published stories which suited their purpose both in New Zealand and in London. Fitzroy was soon deposed and the land grab was prosecuted with increasing vigour under his replacement George Grey. By around 1860 the Māori had drawn a line in the sand and warned the settlers that no more land would be sold, or allowed to be taken. But thousands of settlers continued arrive, many of whom had already purchased land in the UK.

An excuse was invented and war was prosecuted during which some 4 million acres were seized, and many of the defenders killed, or imprisoned. Those fighting for their land were deemed by Act of Parliament to be rebels who could be detained indefinitely without trial. They were often shipped far to the south where the conditions were very poor and cold - our very own Guantánamo Bay. When I was young we called this period of conflict "the Land Wars" but the current PC term is "the New Zealand Wars". However the reason for, and the object of, the wars was taking land from Māori. Again it is possible to draw parallels with the war in Iraq and American and British concerns over the flow of oil. With the destruction of their civilisation and the introduction of European diseases, the Māori population plummeted and it was thought that they would quietly die out. Fortunately they did not.

During this period a number of great Māori leaders emerged, but one hero stands out for me. Te Whiti o Rongomai established a village called Parihaka in Taranaki. Here he preached the bible in the manner of an old testament prophet - for despite the capriciousness of the British, many Māori enthusiastically embraced Christianity. Indeed many of his followers saw Te Whiti as a prophet. After the war which saw all of the Māori land confiscated, he preached a course of non-violent resistance almost a century before Gandhi. They pulled up survey pegs and ploughed up roads to plant potatoes. When the army came for him they were met by women and children singing songs. Te Whiti was arrested and imprisoned for a year as a rebel in 1881. He never struck back. Probably because the news did not reach the rest of the world Te Whiti's struggle against injustice did not result in a loss of moral authority, as did Gandhi's.

But this is not what we learned as children. Our schooling painted the British as intrepid explorers and colonisers, heroic and noble; the Māori as backward, cowardly and savage. The truth is not quite diametrically opposed to this, but the portrayal is deeply wrong. The British were convinced of their racial and cultural superiority and determined to crush any resistance to their "civilising influence". They saw themselves as pre-ordained to rule over "the lower races", especially those who skin was not white. So while they were intrepid, their values were abhorrent by today's standards. The Māori were using stone age technology at the time of contact with Europeans. They could indeed be savage, but perhaps no more so than the British. Environmental pressures had forced them into a pattern of almost continuous small scale warfare as they competed for scarce resources. However they were quick to learn from Europeans, many converted to Christianity, and they initially prospered from their contact. But the settlers, lead by (and lead astray by) the New Zealand Company were greedy and would not settle for less than all of New Zealand. The Māori fought a successful guerrilla campaign against the invaders and usurpers. Although London had not sanctioned the war for land, and had asked the colonial government not to start it as they could ill afford to be involved in another foreign war, in the end they had to bail the colony out. Thousands of troops were sent, with the latest weaponry. The Māori were defeated by overwhelming force.

Although the first nation people dwindled they did not die out. Before my generation efforts were made to extinguish the Māori language - it was forbidden in schools for instance. By contrast I was able to formally study the language in secondary school. Now the Māori people and Māori language are having a renaissance. Children once again have Māori as a first language and receive primary and secondary education in Māori. Māori is an official language of New Zealand. In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to begin to address grievances over land seizures and other breaches of the Treaty. This has helped to reaffirm the place of the Treaty in our legislature, though the two versions continue to cause distension. Reparation payments began to be made in the 1980's, and Māori have become more confident in pursuing claims through this court.

We are left with nation founded on deceit, which one side is only now owning up to. New Zealand is also home to other immigrants. Amongst the British (mostly English and Scots), were always a few Dutch and other Europeans. Former residents of Pacific Islands such as Samoa and Tonga are free to emigrate partly because New Zealand took over the British governance of them. More recently many East Asians have begun to arrive in substantial numbers. Multiculturalism is blooming even before we have come to terms with the history and consequences of colonialism. There is no question of returning New Zealand to the Māori, though no doubt they are still owed more in compensation than they have so far received. This is not a popular sentiment amongst many New Zealanders who cannot see why the grievances of a century ago continue to haunt us. Perhaps because we benefited so much from the cheating, and now have so much to lose. People of that view who visited England in 2010 might be surprised just how much feeling the invasion of 1066 can stir up amongst the English.

Until World War I (white) New Zealanders thought of themselves as British. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign began the process of separation, New Zealanders realised that the British didn't see us as British, but as 'colonials', and as such ideal as canon fodder. However it was the British themselves who effectively ended the connection between the two countries by joining the European Common Market in 1973. Until that time 80% of New Zealand exports were to Britain. After that the French blocked most of those exports, since New Zealand was in direct competition with France (and beat them on both quality and price), and today the figure is just 5%. These days the UK is looking to limit immigration from outside the European Union and this will certainly include former colonies. Although the Queen is still nominally the head of state, this seems less and less meaningful, and it seems only a matter of time before New Zealand becomes a republic - at which point the Treaty of Waitangi must be renegotiated which may prove interesting. Kiwis need to be clear that the British don't feel sentimental about New Zealand - it is a foreign country to them. During the 2007 rugby world cup I witnessed a pub full of English people cheering for France to beat New Zealand in the quarter-finals. They cheered for France!

For the children of settlers identity is a vexed issue. We are not tangata whenua or first nation people, and yet our home has cut us off and disowned us - so we are not people of the British Isles either. To make life more complicated many of us are adding a new religion to the mix. My friend Sally McAra has written about the issue of identity amongst New Zealand Buddhists in her book: Land of Beautiful Vision: Making a Buddhist Sacred Space in New Zealand (University of Hawai'i Press, 2007). Part of coming to terms with that identity must be reviewing the nature of our relationship with the Māori, who seem now to be stuck with us, and indeed very often share ancestors with us as well.

I suppose the stories of the many indigenous people who fell under the trampling boots of the Euro crowd as they swarmed across the globe gives us some insight into what a loss of culture and sense of identity looks like. People who do not know who they are, and do not belong anywhere seldom prosper. Having grown up amongst a dispossessed people I see that the Western Buddhist discourse on identity and belonging can be glib and superficial... we discount the notion that identity has any value. But it clearly does. Paraphrasing Sangharakshita I think we can say that before transcending one's identity, one must first have an identity.
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