31 December 2010

A General Theory of Conditionality?

IT IS VERY OFTEN POINTED OUT that the nidāna sequence is only the application of a general principle of conditionality to the specific case of rebirth or becoming (depending on how one interprets the nidānas). What if this idea, that the Buddha proposed a general theory of conditionality, is not true? I want to revisit an article by Eviatar Shulman in the Journal of Indian Philosophy [1] I've previously mentioned, and discuss one of his conclusions. He points out that what is traditionally thought of as the general principle of conditionality is:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti,
imass'uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;

imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti,
imassa nirodha nirujjhat

That being, this becomes;
with the arising of that, this arises.
That not being, this does not become
with the ceasing of that, this ceases.
This formula occurs just 14 times throughout the Nikāyas, and not at all in the Vinaya. [2] What we don't often see is that this formula is, in all but one case, followed immediately by the nidānas. So at SN 12.21 (Dasabala Sutta):
Iti imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati; imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati - yadidaṃ avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ…pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.
Note that the punctuation varies from place to place in the various Romanised versions of the Canon: sometimes the phrases are connected by hyphens or semi-colons, though of course Pāli traditionally employed no such punctuation; sometimes they are separated into separate sentences. The abbreviation "pe" occurs in the Pāli, especially in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, for well known lists such as the 12 nidānas. The phrase avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā means 'with the condition of ignorance, there are volitions'.

A great deal of exposition on the Dharma relies on paṭicca-samuppāda being a general theory of conditionality. Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary entry on paṭicca-samuppāda is broadly representative and begins:
'dependent origination', is the doctrine of the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena... (p.154)
For Buddhists all phenomena are explained by paṭicca-samuppāda. In the traditional account the twelve-fold nidāna sequence is a special case of paṭicca-samuppāda applied to becoming, or to rebirth, just as the 'Four Noble Truths' are that principle applied to suffering. Shulman's point is that this is not what the suttas say. His argument revolves around the connecting pronoun yadidaṃ (or yad idaṃ). He says:
"If yad idaṃ meant ‘for example’ or ‘such as,’ we could accept the view that the 12 links are a private case of a general principle of conditionality. But it clearly does not. What it does express is more akin to ‘that is,’ or more precisely ‘that which is’." (p.307)
This proposition is quite startling. Shulman is not just proposing that we reinterpret an obscure piece of doctrine, but that we completely re-read the Buddhist tradition. I decided to take him seriously, and explore his hypothesis more fully.

The PED has a fairly full description of the use of yadidaṃ (s.v. ya˚, p.544b)
nt. yadidaŋ lit. "as that," which is this (i. e. the following), may be translated by "viz.," that is, "i.e." in other words, so to speak, just this, "I mean"; e.g. kāmānaŋ etaŋ nissaraṇaŋ yad idaŋ nekkhammaŋ "there is an escape from the lusts, viz. lustlessness"; or: "this is the abandoning of lusts, in other words lustlessness" It 61; dve dānāni āmisa˚ dhamm˚, etad aggaŋ imesaŋ yad idaŋ dhamma˚ "this is the best of them, I mean dh -- d." It 98=100; supaṭipanno sāvaka -- sangho, y. i. cattāri purisa -- yugāni etc. M i.37.
There seems no necessity to restrict yadidaṃ to a narrow range of meaning based on etymology as in practice it is quite broad. Additionally Warder (Introduction to Pāli, p.292) suggests precisely the kinds of translations that Shulman says are not applicable: "such as, to wit, i.e., namely". So the case on this ground is not as strong as Shulman suggests.

The single exception to the imasmiṃ formula being followed by the nidānas (M ii.32 Cūḷasakuludāyi Sutta) seems to be inconclusive and Shulman dismisses it summarily. My opinion is that the 13 examples where imasmiṃ... is linked via yadidaṃ to the nidānas weigh against the singular exception. The context of the sutta - where the Buddha introduces the imasmiṃ formula but appears to be interrupted by Udāyin, who baulks at hearing the full teaching - supports the contention that this exception need not be construed as a standalone, but could equally be seen as a fragment, as an incomplete statement. In other words though I disagree with Shulman about yadidaṃ, I tend to agree that the exception does not definitely point to a different conclusion.

In search of some more conclusive evidence I looked for sentences which used the same locative absolute syntax as the 'general formula - Xlocative sati Y hoti. If we were to find the same syntax applied in different situations this would strengthen the 'general principle' case. It turns out that we do find other types of examples: for instance at D ii.276 we find a series of connected elements in the form:
kismiṃ sati issāmacchariyaṃ hoti? piyāppiye sati issāmacchariyaṃ hoti.

When what exists is there envy? When there is pleasant and unpleasant, there is envy.
The sequence runs:
papañcasaññāsaṅkhaya → vitakka → chanda → piyāppiya → issāmacchariya
There is no intersection with the nidāna sequence, but the same syntax is being used, suggesting that this syntax is not as specific as Shulman's claim would suggest. Having found a counter example we can say that Shulman's specific conjecture is refuted. The formula does have a more general, a more abstract sense.

However Shulman's wider point is this: "There is no reason to believe that dependent-origination originally discussed anything but mental conditioning" (p.307), and here I find we are in better agreement. In looking at this kind of syntax I did mostly find applications to mental process. However just one example of the Xlocative sati Y hoti construction is used as a simile which is suggestive. At S iv.172 the Buddha uses the example that "where there are hands, you get picking up and putting down" and similarly with the functions of the feet, limbs, and belly. These are cited to illustrate the application to mental processes, but they do show that the Buddha was aware of a more general application, even if it was not emphasised. As elsewhere the Buddha draws on nature for similes to illustrate his meaning, and this suggests that he saw similar processes in nature, though the similes all point one way - the mind is never a simile for what happens in nature.

The other aspect of the formula - X uppādā Y uppajjati - is much more restricted. I can find only one occurrence outside the context of the nidānas. At D ii.215 (Janavasabha Sutta) we find:
Tassa evaṃ jānato evaṃ passato avijjā pahīyati, vijjā uppajjati. Tassa avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā uppajjati sukhaṃ, sukhā bhiyyo somanassaṃ.

For one who knows and sees, ignorance wanes and knowledge arises. For that one, from the purification of ignorance and arising of knowledge, bliss and happiness arise.
The relevant part is vijjuppādā uppajjati sukhaṃ - word order is not important here, and this is equivalent to vijjā uppādā sukhaṃ uppajjati. This confirms my earlier finding that though the formula is not tied specifically to the nidānas, it applies mainly to mental processes. It seems that Shulman has over-stated the case a little, but was not completely off the mark. Indeed his idea is confirmed by Sue Hamilton's findings in Early Buddhism: a New Approach, and some of the references he himself cites, particularly Collette Cox's investigation of the development of the theory of dhammas in the Sarvastivādin tradition. It is good to see scholars continuing to challenge the status quo and traditional orthodoxy. I found Shulman's paper very stimulating and thought provoking. I've focussed here on only one aspect of it and may return to some of his other points in other blog posts.

This has clarified my thinking on paṭicca-samuppāda in a very useful way. The fact that there is even a single example of the kind - "when there are hands, there is picking up and putting down" - suggests that the Buddha did indeed see the idea of conditionality applying outside of mental processes - a hypothesis I have been arguing against for some time on this blog. That conditionality can be illustrated by similes drawn from nature tells us that the principle is more general. I don't think this changes the observation that the Buddha was concerned exclusively with mental processes as the source of disappointment; it changes the context a little, but not the focus.


  1. Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317.
  2. The imasmiṃ formula occurs at: M i.263, ii.32, iii.63; S ii.28, 65, 70, 78, 79, 95, 96, v.388; A v.184; Ud 1, 2. All of the references in S ii are in the nidāna saṃyutta.

A much longer and more involved exploration of this subject can be found in this essay: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?.

24 December 2010

Paṭicca-samuppāda - a theory of causation?

Wheel of Life: Dependent Arising
"The doctrine of Dependent Origination is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on causation
and the ontological status of phenomena."
Encyclopedia of Buddhism [1]


THIS IS THE FIRST SENTENCE from the definition of dependent-origination from the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, and it made me think "no, it isn't!" The fact is that this kind of source - a general encyclopedia - is not going to make much difference in Buddhist circles since Buddhists aren't likely to be consulting an encyclopedia on Buddhism, but it will get taken up by students, especially students of comparative religion, who will propagate the view.

I'm very doubtful about this word 'doctrine'. It leads to the phrase 'dependent-arising' being capitalised, when dependent-arising is purportedly a description of a process of 'things' arising, i.e. adjectival; it is not a thing itself, so I don't think it should be a proper noun. In any case "doctrine" sounds too fixed, too certain, and too dogmatic for my ear. So I won't use it, and will instead talk about the theory of dependent-arising.

First paṭicca-samuppāda is not a teaching on, or a theory of, causation at all. While the Buddha did use the term hetu 'cause, reason' sometimes, it was always synonymous with words like paccaya 'condition', samudaya 'origin', etc. The English translations are all synonyms as well, according to my Oxford Thesaurus. Paṭicca-samuppāda is about dependency and contingency, but it is not about causation. As far as I can tell the Buddha doesn't use hetu in its verbal form (hinati, pahiṇati), in this context. I've done a detailed analysis of the word paṭicca-samuppāda and you can consult that if need be, but the gist is that things arise on the basis of conditions. We do not say that the condition causes the thing to arise (and thereby we avoid assigning agency to them), only that something arises having depended on (paṭicca) something else. This form - 'having depended on' or 'depending on' - (a gerund) sounds awkward in English, but is a very common way of creating subordinate clauses in Pāli. The gerund refers to an action immediately preceding the main verb (here indicated by the verbal noun samuppāda arising). The arising is preceded by the condition, and arising is dependent on the condition - this is all that is being said.

When the Buddha said imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti (that being, this becomes) he used a particular grammatical form known as a locative absolute: both imasmiṃ and sati are in the locative case. Here sati is an action noun from √as 'to be', and not related to sati 'remember' (Sanskrit smṛṭi). The sense is of the locative absolute sub-clause is one of duration: 'while this exists' or 'when this exists'. Then idaṃ hoti just means 'this is'. So the sentence says: "while there is that, there is this" (imasmiṃ and idam are the same deictic pronoun and should both be 'this', but that gets confusing). There is no sense, nor any implication of causation here. We might say, following the metaphor used by Bhikkhu Ñāṇavīra, that while there are walls, the roof stays up; and when the walls are absent there can't be a roof, if the walls crumble the roof falls down. The walls do not cause the roof, nor are they in themselves sufficient to bring the roof into existence (it requires some other factors as well). To take the walls as causing the roof would be to give them agency as builders.

The most common way of explaining paṭicca-samuppāda is with reference to the nidānas:
"from the condition of ignorance [there are] volitions (avijjā-paccayā saṅkhārā)" etc.
The verb 'to be' (i.e. 'there are', 'there is') is missing because it is permissible, and idiomatically correct in Pāli. Just as above avijjā is a condition without which there can be no saṅkhārā, but it does not cause it - ignorance doesn't have agency of itself, but causes the agency I do have to go awry. Another frequent expression goes like this: with the eye and forms as conditions, eye-consciousness arises. (cakkhuṃ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhu-viññāṇaṃ). Again think of the house analogy - when the foundations and the walls are in place, you can put up a roof. As Bhikkhu Bodhi, articulating a more orthodox Theravāda view, says of the nidānas:
"The sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through a simple exercise of efficient causality. The relationship among the factors is always one of complex conditionality rather than linear causation. The conditioning function can include such diverse relationships as mutuality (when two factors mutually support each other), necessary antecedent (when one factor must be present for another to arise), distal efficiency (as when a remotely past volitional formation generates consciousness in a new life), etc." [2]
The second point is about ontology. Ontology is one of these big words I've gotten into the habit of using without ever saying much about it. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that word comes from the Greek verb einai 'to be' (present-participle: on 'being', genitive ontos.) and refers to the study of, and theories about 'being'. The primary question ontology asks is "what is there?" Similarly epistemology is the study of knowledge and asks "what can we know about what's there?" These are the basic questions of Western philosophy down the ages. And, as I have previously argued, there is a fundamental mismatch between Buddhism and Western philosophy because the Buddha had no interest in either of these questions. The domain (visaya) for Buddhist inquiry is the 'world' which arises out of the interaction between between sense faculty and sense object. The Buddha has little or nothing to say about sense faculties except to list them; and little or nothing to say about sense objects except that desire for them is unhelpful. Because he is not interested in the question "what is there?" we must conclude that the Buddha was not interested in ontology. As I pointed out in my commentary on the simile of the chariot, from the point of view of the Buddha only disappointment (dukkha) arises, and only disappointment ceases. Paṭicca-samuppāda is an insight into how dukkha arises - dukkha being a synonym for 'the world of experience' [see also What Did the Buddha Mean by World?].

I had a go at explaining the various meanings of dhamma in Oct 2009. Dhamma is often translated as 'phenomena' - with the sense that it applies to any phenomena. It can simply mean 'thing' and this may give the impression of an ontological position. The nidānas are sometimes referred to as dhammas (items in a list). However over some years now I've been arguing for the adoption of one of Sue Hamilton's key insights: that the Buddha was always talking about experience, and not about ontology. [3] Even Bhikkhu Bodhi who apparently remains convinced that the Buddha did talk about ontology from time to time, concludes:
“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.” [4]
To be fair there are some ontological implications of paṭicca-samuppāda: e.g. consciousness (viññāna) apparently precedes body (nāma-rūpa); but the teaching is not about that, it's an incidental aspect of the teaching. [5] I've confessed that these ontological implications cause me some confusion, and I have been so far unable to reconcile them. But in terms of getting on with practice it doesn't matter in the least - my focus, like the Buddha's is not on ontology, but on experience. I'm happy to practice ethics, calm down, observe my 'world' and allow insight to resolve lingering doubts and confusion when it comes - it's a work in progress.

So if I were to reframe that first sentence in the Encyclopedia I would say it this way:

The theory of dependent-arising is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on conditionality
and the nature of experience.


  1. Keown, D. and Prebish, C. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Routledge, 2007. (p.268.)
  2. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 523 (introduction to the nidāna-saṃyutta.)
  3. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 394, n.182.
  4. I note that there is a contemporary philosophical discourse about the "ontology of experience" but I don't understand it. My view is that experience has an indeterminate ontological status - the language of ontology, i.e. existence and non-existence, simply doesn't apply. This is in line with what we find the Buddha saying in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15); and later in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā (which quotes a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta at 15.7).
  5. See especially: Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317. I have some reservations regarding Shulman's assumptions about what is referred to in the nidāna chain, but over-all this is one of the most interesting articles I've read in years.

17 December 2010

Action and Intention II

diamondIn translating and commenting on the Nibbedhika Sutta a few weeks back I neglected to tie my comments in with another idea I have been working on for some time. It's not an obvious proposition that intention is the ethically significant aspect of morality, and some people struggle with this. I think it is because we are mistaken about the range or domain (visaya) in which the teachings apply, and the equation of cetanā and kamma is actually a clue in the puzzle.

I've been researching the way the Buddha talks about paṭicca-samuppāda to try to discern where he thought it applied. We Buddhists are all familiar with the idea that "everything is impermanent"; we often say "all things arise in dependence on causes" but I keep asking the question "what is meant by 'everything' or 'all things'?" I'm working through this territory in a long essay, that has been evolving over a couple of years, and questions some of the basic assumptions in these slogans.

I've already written about the question what arises in dependence on causes? The short answer is 'dhammā'. Dhamma can be translated as 'thing', and it is sometimes that general in Pāli. But in terms of 'arising' it is not talking about things generally, but about mental processes. On the whole it is mental processes that arise in dependence on causes. This raises the question of why we talk of paṭicca-samuppāda as a general theory of conditionality?

I've also talked about 'the world', and how the world for the Buddha was the world of experience. The very word 'loka' implies the visible world, the sensual world, but a series of other texts make it clear that 'the world' in this context means "one's world". Our own world is neither objective nor subjective, but it arises out of the interaction of the two poles. See for instance M i.259: ‘The consciousness that arises with forms and the eye as condition is called eye-consciousness’ (cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ cakkhuviññāṇant’eva sankhaṃ gacchati); or M i.111: ‘dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises: these three together constitute contact’ (cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso).

This world, this experiential world, is the stage upon which we play out our lives.
And, friend, it is right here in this arm-span measure of 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. (S i.62)
Not only this, but the texts make it clear that loka is synonymous with dukkha. Both are described in precisely the same terms as the product of paṭicca-samuppāda. I have not found any reference to a text saying that an external object arises in dependence on causes, and I would be very interested if any reader could turn one up.

I'm summarising 9,000 words of argument and textual citation here, but what starts to emerge is that the Buddha doesn't seem to think of paṭicca-samuppāda as applying to the world in general, only to the experiential world arising out of contact. To make the point I offer a thought experiment.
Imagine a diamond in ancient India at the dawn of the second urbanisation, say around 1500 BCE. It is polished and sparkling. We can see it, and touch it, but don't have microscopes or lens; and our theory of elements doesn't give us the kinds of insights that modern chemistry and physics do. It is handed down from generation to generation and apart from gathering a little dust, it does not change for a thousand years. This is part of the value of a gemstone: time does not diminish or tarnish it. After a thousand years no one can remember any details of its provenance. It is as it is, and always has been - unchanging. The Buddha is born 1000 years later, and meets the present owner of the diamond. He sees it, and holds it. He questions the owner about it. For all intents and purposes he establishes that the diamond has never changed (in living memory) and there is no real prospect of it ever changing.
It is not quite true to say that everything changes, or at least we can say it is not possible to know that this is true. If the Buddha was intellectually honest (and I'm assuming that he was) then there were many objects in his world that did not appear to change in the span of living memory, and to say that they did change would not be relying on experience.

What I conclude is that paṭicca-samuppāda was applied only to the experiential world; and was not intended to apply, and in fact does not apply, to the world of sense objects in the Buddha's teaching (there is no world of ideal objects inaccessible to the senses in Buddhist epistemology since we could have no knowledge of them). However it is very easy to show, and to understand, that even with reference to a hypothetical unchanging object, that the world of experience arising from contact between that object and our subject is one which is which constantly changing. Experience fully conforms to paṭicca-samuppāda under all circumstances, and this way I, incidentally, side-step the potential charge of eternalism.

No doubt there is cause and effect in the objective world, but physics is a much better description of this than Iron Age Buddhist theories. On the other hand though physics has produced many marvellous discoveries, it has liberated very few minds. In fact the European intellectual tradition has been aware of the changing nature of things as long as the Indian tradition - going back to Heraclitus at least. We all understand that things change, that everything changes.

The Buddha often says "I teach dukkha and the way to make dukkha cease". I think he was speaking quite literally; I think he was not offering an insight into The World, but only into our own world, into our relationship with experience, and how a dysfunction in that relationship causes us suffering. I believe that this is no less profound, but brings the Buddha's insight out of the realm of mystical experiences, inaccessible to the great majority of us, and into the realms of possibility. I believe that any one of us can, with some effort, have this life-changing, world changing insight. I don't discount that it might have a mystical dimension, but I don't see bodhi primarily in terms of mysticism these days.

Of course it was Buddhists themselves who developed the Buddha's initial observations and exposition in the direction of a generalised theory of conditionality. Why Buddhism developed in this metaphysical direction is an interesting question, but one that I haven't the space to pursue. If we understand conditionality in the way I've outlined, then the equation of kamma and cetanā becomes clearer. Cetanā is so vital to Buddhist ethics because Buddhist ethics applies in the realm of the dependently arisen mental processes, and it is in this realm that we have most influence. We might not be able to change the world, but we can certainly change our own minds.


image: Phillip Stoner The Jeweller. For, who could resist a diamond seller called 'Stoner'?

10 December 2010

The Third Precept

MY ESSAY ON THE FIFTH PRECEPT gained the most ever comments of any post on this blog. So I thought I might continue that theme with an analysis of the third precept.

Kāmesu micchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

I undertake the training principle of abstaining
from wrong behaviour with respect to pleasure.

This precept, like the fifth precept, excites a lot of emotion, perhaps because kāma is usually translated as 'sex' or 'sexual desire', though this is only one aspect of the word in Pāli. However PED does suggest that it is cognate with the English word whore, which originally meant 'lover', via the Gothic hōrs. In both Pāli and Sanskrit the word kāma fundamentally refers to the pleasures of the senses, to the hedonic pleasures. Of course sex is amongst the more intense sense pleasures. The use of the form kāmesu is interesting - it is a locative plural - as a literal rendering would be 'amongst pleasures'.

I wrote about micchā in one of my earlier blog posts. Contrasted with sammā (Sanskrit samyak) it means 'to go against the flow' - a metaphor drawn from the serpent-like coils of the river making it's way across the plains. It is combined with the word cāra from √car 'to move'. The IE root is *√kwel 'to roll, to move around, wheel'. In comes into Latin as colere 'to frequent, dwell in, cultivate' hence E. cultivate, colonise (L. colonus); and cult which originally meant 'tended'. The IE root also gives us the Greek polos ‘axis’, hence E. pole-star, north-pole. The Pāli cāra is an action noun meaning "walking, going, doing, behaviour". So kāmesu micchācāra is literally 'going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses', or perhaps 'running amok in pleasure'.

So why do we tend to think of kāma in terms of sex? The suttas themselves already explain the third precept in terms of sex (AN 10.176, PTS v.266)

Kāmesumicchācāraṃ pahāya, kāmesumicchācārā paṭivirato hoti yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu na cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Giving up going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses, he abstains from going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses: he has no sexual intercourse [1] [with a women] who is under the protection (rakkhita) of mother, or father, or both mother and father, or brother, or sister, or relatives, or clan, rightly protected, married, or one forbidden by law [2], nor even betrothed girls. [3]

The context is a discussion between the Buddha and Cunda on the 'ten purities' (soceyyā) - which are also called 'the ten good actions' (dasa-kusala-kamma), and in the Triratna Order 'the ten precepts'. We see Indian morality of some bygone era here - women were not (wholly) autonomous, and were usually considered to be under a man's protection. One word for 'husband' was pati, which means both 'protector' and 'provider' and is cognate with English words such as pastor, pasture, and foster; and with food, forage and pantry; but also with potent, power and posse.

Viewing the third precept in terms of sex is reinforced in the Pāli Vinaya. For instance in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22) a monk called Ariṭṭha doesn't accept the Buddha's instruction that the pursuit of pleasure (kāma) is an obstacle to the spiritual life though it is not explained how that played out in his life. In Vinaya version of this story (Vin ii.25-27) Ariṭṭha is expelled from the saṅgha for refusing to renounce his wrong view. Modern exegetes assume that this was because he was having sex, even though this is not explicit in either the Alagaddūpama Sutta or the Vinaya, presumably because few other types of behaviour warrant such a severe sanction. Where the rule is codified (Vin iv.133-6) Thanissaro comments "…although the origin story makes clear that it refers at the very least to the sexual act." The Buddhist Monastic Code (chp. 8.7 #68) [my italics].

The Buddhist tradition has been largely taught and passed on by celibate men for most of it's history, and not surprisingly, it often reflects the concerns of a community of celibates. So we have a double job here in translating the precept: on one hand we have to render the actual words, with the Pāli context in mind; and on the other we need to take into account our own social mores and lifestyles to make the precept relevant to us, here and now.

In the Triratna community when we chant the precepts we follow them with positive counterparts in English, composed by the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita. The counterpart for the third precept is:

With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.

Here we get to the nub of it. It's not so much about sex, as about our relationship to sensuous pleasures. While negatively we avoid intoxication with the sense pleasures; positively we actively seek equanimity and contentment which 'purifies' us. The point is not moralistic in the narrow sense, but aimed at preparing our minds for developing insight. A troubled or disturbed mind is not the right preparation for insight, which requires us to be still and calm, and able to stay that way for longish periods at a stretch.

The Third Precept in Practice.

In my blog post on the fifth precept I dwelt on the negative effects of alcohol from a number of different points of view. I want to look at the third precept from a different perspective. I see the precepts as attempts to make us reflect on the consequences of our actions. Often we must do this in retrospect, but as we get more experience we can usually become more pro-active. In the west we live in a glut of sensory stimulation - with the internet, the media, advertising, gross surpluses of food and ever present sexual imagery. In our world it is hard not to be intoxicated with sensory input, and in any case such intoxication is glorified - we could say that hedonism is the real religion of the West at present. So, without without attempting to be comprehensive or exhaustive, I want to look at a few ways of working with the third precept which illustrate the principle.


These days the trend in society seems to be to be to do whatever you want with no thought for the impact of your actions on others. This is evident in the ways we dress. Recently I watched a series of documentaries on young Amish people and one of the concerns expressed by the girls was not to stimulate sexual tension in the boys through dressing immodestly. I though this was quite wise, though it should work both ways. These days we are bombarded by sexual imagery, and dress codes tend towards flaunting of bodies and emphasising erogenous zones, with consequent (often intentional) stimulation of sexual desire. I find this quite difficult myself, quite counter-productive in terms of cultivating contentment. We could usefully reinvigorate modesty as a virtue for both men and women. I think this would foster contentment in society generally. It doesn't mean driving sex underground, but I do think we need to counter the prevailing trend of explicit sex everywhere you look.

However we should not confuse modesty with piety. Recently I listened to a Muslim woman on the radio claiming that wearing the hijab (a covering that leaves only the face showing) was liberating because of the gaze of men, and being judged by her looks. However in her case it meant that she, and her children, had to regularly endure verbal abuse while walking the streets. I do not for a minute condone such ignoble behaviour, but I thought she failed to see that her dress code was not modest, that on a British street a woman covered head to toe with only her face showing stands out. She was not being modest by the standards of the society she lives in, she was being ostentatious and drawing attention to her piety. It would be relatively easy to dress down and not be noticed, but in sticking to a medieval Arabian dress code she achieved precisely the opposite. I often think this of Buddhist monks. The robe was once the most humble of garments, rough cloth stained with mud to reduce it's value to nothing. But monks' robes are not modest or humble by western standards, and along with the elaborate titles that monks often adopt, seem to operate as a status symbol.

Sex in the Saṅgha

I want to say something about sex in the sangha since it's always a hot topic, and the Buddhist blogosphere has seen a lot of writing about it in the latter part of 2010. There is a disturbing tendency in the blogosphere to assume that teachers bear all of the responsibility in the relationship with their students. It's as though when we become Buddhists, when we begin to learn from a teacher, we abdicate our hard earned adult status, hand over responsibility for ourselves to these people. It seems to be assumed that the spiritual student-teacher relationship is aptly characterised in terms of unequal power. The contemporary discourse (influenced by a variety of ideologies especially the big four: Freudian, Foucauldian, Feminist, and Marxist) which characteres all relationships in terms of power goes unchallenged - the political equivalent would be an unquestioning acceptance of a Marxist doctrine that history is all about class struggle, or a Feminist argument that history is all about the oppression of women by men. These are partial views and in conflict with each other (though of course there are Marxist-Feminists as well!). Where is the critical thinking about relationships, especially teacher/pupil relationships and what they signify in Buddhist terms? Some writers have problematised seeing spiritual teachers as saints, which on one hand is useful, but on the other seems to play into a reactionary anti-authoritarian stances taken by many. The extremes are unhelpful.

Of course there are teachers who exploit their kudos to get sexual partners. But I'm also aware that students sometimes seduce teachers, or attempt to. I know that some people use sex, or the offer of it, to manipulate others. I know that people enter into sexual relationships with teachers with the expectation of receiving special status or favours. At the very least we often send out mixed signals. On the other hand I'm also aware of sexual relationships between adults students and teachers, or between sangha members, that have come entirely unproblematic. The complexity of human sexual behaviour is left out of internet discussions of sex within sanghas.

The recent responses to accusations of impropriety seem to bear none of the hallmarks of a Buddhist approach to deluded people - there is little evidence of compassion in some of the remarks being made; or at best they are strongly partisan against authority figures. On the other hand the Western values of justice are not served either - there is no day in court, no impartial weighing of the evidence, and people accused of sexual misconduct are not innocent until proven guilty. The right to a fair trial (affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Constitution) is suspended and something more like mob justice seems to dominate the proceedings.

Eating and Food

Recently I watched the film All the Presidents Men (1976), and apart from the content of the film one thing that struck me is that there were no fat people in it. I don't just mean the stars, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, I mean the supporting actors and the extras as well. I did not see one fat person. Nowadays so many of us are not just fat, but obese. I've written about the so-called 'obesity epidemic' in the UK. For the vast majority being fat means that we eat too much, and we eat the wrong kinds of foods (allowing that for some it will be a genuine medical condition). I don't advocate one meal a day or a starvation diet, but the third precept does require us to think about what we eat and why. I myself have become over-weight in the last few years and in trying to lose weight recently I have noticed a very distinct difference between hunger and craving. Eating just enough to satisfy the former is quite wholesome, responding to the latter by eating only increases dissatisfaction. It's a simple proposition, though difficult to follow through on.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

One of Sangharakshita's best known aphorisms is that Triratna Order members should "reduce input". This is related to the third precept. Constant stimulation, constant over stimulation is not good for us - and I think rising levels of mental health problems in the Western World, not to mention malaises like chronic fatigue and repetitive strain injuries, reflect this. Being ethical is it's own reward in many ways, but it also helps to prepare the mind for meditation. Over-stimulation leads to restlessness; or cycling between restlessness and torpor. By reducing the amount of input - sensory stimulation - we create a space to wind down, to allow our level of emotional arousal to return to normal. A lot of contemporary entertainment - and in this I include all forms of media including so-called 'news' - is aimed at stimulating a narrow set of emotions: fear, disgust, and anger. It's quite a pernicious influence. It's best to avoid artificially stimulating these emotions, because a mind disturbed by them is not a happy mind. I noticed after my four month ordination retreat that I could no longer stomach any movie violence. I became aware that when I watched ersatz violence, I responded as if the violence was real to some extent. On the other hand I notice that watching a wholesome comedy has a very positive effect on my mood and chronic pain.

There's a kind of story we moderns tell ourselves: that we must, through art and entertainment, confront ourselves with the most brutal and bestial side of human life. We must not flinch from depicting, and consuming the depictions of, the worst kinds of violence, the darkest side of human nature. I think this is bullshit. Art can uplift us, it can communicate a sense of positive value, it can help us to refine our sensibilities and make us more aware of others, and of virtue. Most of us don't need to wallow in the negative emotions, we need more experience of the positive emotions. I do accept that our shadow side, unacknowledged and unexamined, can be a problem, but do we go about dealing with it in the best way - aren't practices like the mindfulness of breath and mettābhavanā the way to go?


I think the main thing is to take the time to observe the cause and effect of stimuli. Does a particular kind of stimulus, or a particular activity lead to more contentment, or to less? Does it lead to a reduction in craving or an increase? We Buddhists need to address our constant intoxication with the senses. We have an imperative to approach life this way. We're simply not going to make progress without seriously asking, and soberly answering, these questions. As I always say "there are no rules in Buddhism", but what we do have is the stark realisation that every action of body, speech and mind has consequences, and that we ourselves are responsible for the consequences of our actions. We are responsible for the state of our mind, not matter what life throws at us.


  1. cārittaṃ āpajjitā 'going to meet with', a Pāli euphemism for sex!
  2. Nyanatiloka translates saparidaṇḍā as "female convict", but I follow PED "a cert. class of women, the use of whom renders a person liable to punishment". Prostitutes are not mentioned, though they certainly existed.
  3. mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi 'under the protection of a garland', where offering a garland was a proposal of marriage.
image: psyche and eros.

03 December 2010

What is Important?

THIS IS MY PARAPHRASE of the Cūḷamālunkya Sutta (M 63) in contemporary idiom and context.

Once there was a man who had been brought up a Christian but gave it up, and then later on became a Buddhist. He did his best to live the spiritual life with help from a Buddhist mentor; he became a vegetarian, gave up drinking and meditated every day. He picked up and started to using the Buddhist jargon. A couple of times a year he went on a retreat for a week. It felt good to belong, the teachings seem to make sense, and he did seem to be happier than before. But some doubts from his religious upbringing continued to plague him, and his pious Buddhism didn't seem to help. He read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, but he just could not decide if God existed or not. The Sunday supplement of his newspaper kept talking about the debate between militant atheists and Christians, not to mention Muslims; he knew he didn't believe in creationism, but wasn't it possible that there was some intelligent designer? And what if there was? He went round in circles trying to reason his way through it, and became completely distracted. Eventually he decided that he had to know the answer to this question before he could carry on with his practice of ethics and meditation.

So he went to see his Buddhist mentor and laid out the problem. Then he said: "My question is this - does God exist or does God not exist? I need to know one way or the other, else I'll never be able to be whole-hearted about my practice. You're a wise person. If you know then just say so, one way or the other. Put me out of my misery or I'll have to go off and find another mentor who does know."

His mentor asked "when you started to learn about ethics and meditation at our Buddhist Centre did we say any about God? Did we promise to say anything about God? Is there anything about God in our literature?"

"Well no," replied the man, "you didn't, and there isn't."

"And when you came to the Buddhist centre, did you originally come to learn about God?"

"No. I came because I was unhappy and a friend told me that meditation would help me. And I liked the people and the vibe, so I hung around. Actually, not talking about God was one of the attractions."

"So, why are you now asking about God?" His mentor asked. "Why is God suddenly relevant?

"Look, the mentor said, "you would wait a long time for me to have anything to say about God. You'd die long before I said anything on that subject. If you are waiting to practice ethics and meditation until you know all about God, then you're like a man who has been shot, and refuses treatment until he knows what kind of gun shot the bullet, and what kind of bullet was used; you want to know the identity of the shooter, his race and religious beliefs, before allowing a surgeon to remove the bullet and save your life. You will die before you can know the answers to your questions. Then what?"

"Whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not God actually exists, there is birth, old-age, sickness and death; there is sorrow and disappointment; there is pain and suffering. Look at how many people believe in God. Has that changed the amount of suffering in the world at all? Has it perhaps even made things worse? Whatever your opinion about God and it wouldn't change the existential situation anyway. You'll still suffer. After many centuries the fact of millions of people believing in God has not changed this. So why get all stirred up about what to believe? What you believe is not as important as how you live, because how you live really makes a difference."

"I can definitely help you with disappointment and suffering. If you want a way to deal with disappointment once and for all, to put an end to sorrow, distress and depression; and to put an end to the constant repetition of pointless lives (presuming that you believe in rebirth) then I do have something useful for you. This method is really helpful, and it leads to greater happiness without any reference to God. There seems no limit to the improvements that you can experience through this method - at least I haven't found any limit yet. This method leads to disentangling yourself from the things that cause the problem; to sobering up from being drunk on sensuous pleasures; to turning your back on that which causes you constant disappointment once and for all. Once you understand why you get disappointed, then the way ahead is fairly clear, though of course it's not always an easy path."

The mentor said all this and the man took it away and mulled things over. After a while he realised that he did not need to know about God, and he was delighted to be relieved of this burden. He got on with his practice, and made progress, and soon forgot all about God.


image of God from dumb.com.
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