Showing posts with label Brahma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brahma. Show all posts

08 October 2010

Brahmā the Cheat

The Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) has a number of interesting features. The sutta opens with the news that Baka the Brahmā has taken on a wrong view. Baka means 'crane' or 'heron', but it has figurative meaning which is according to Monier-Williams: "hypocrite, cheat, rogue, the crane being regarded as a bird of great cunning and deceit as well as circumspection)". We should immediately be alert therefore that this is a polemic. The animal with the same characteristics in Anglo-European culture is the weasel - so the character's name might be rendered God the Weasel.

The view that Baka has taken up is this:
Idañhi, mārisa, niccaṃ, idaṃ dhuvaṃ, idaṃ sassataṃ, idaṃ kevalaṃ, idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ, idañhi na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjatī’ti; santañca panaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇaṃ ‘natthaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇa’nti vakkhatīti.

This, sir, is permanent, this is enduring, this is eternal, this is everything, this is unending. This is not being born, is not aging, is not dying, is not falling, is not being reborn; and beyond this, there is no escaping.
Our first question is what does Baka mean by 'this', what is he referring to? And because the text moves swiftly on to another tack it is difficult to tell. However there is a clue in the passage I've cited, in the sequence: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. This is not a random sequence, nor are death (mīyati) and falling (cavati) simply synonyms as one might easily assume them to be, nor perhaps are birth (jāyati) and rebirth (upapajati).

I need to backtrack for a bit. In 2002 Gananath Obeyesekere published Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth, which took a broad view of the idea of rebirth. It seems that many cultures develop a theory of rebirth and in its most basic form it involves circulating between this world and another world - usually some form of heaven, often inhabited by one's own ancestors. It has been asserted for a long time that in the early Vedic period there is no evidence of a belief in rebirth, but more recently Joanna Jurewicz showed that the Ṛgvedic mantra 10.16.5 can be interpreted as a request for Agni to send the dead person back again to his descendants (this is discussed in Richard Gombrich's 2010 book What the Buddha Thought). This suggests that early Vedic people had a standard rebirth theory in which the person (actually the man) cycled between this world and the other world.

The 'other world' for the Vedic Brahmin was the world of the fathers (pitaraḥ). This idea is expressed in greater detail in the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads which both tell the story of how one precesses through the cycles. However the simple binary persisted for some time and it is referred to in the Pāli texts (in the phrase 'this world and the next world'). The simplest expression of this cycle does not allow for escape.

Let us now reconsider the Brahmanimantanika Sutta. The sequence, again, is: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. The cycle involves being born (jāyati) and living in this world (jīyati); dying (mīyati) and arising (upapajti) in the heavenly realms. Having lived a long time in the heavenly realms, one falls (cavati) back down to earth to be once again born (jāyati). And so the cycle goes round.

This cycle is called saṃsāra which is a noun from the the verb sam+√sṛ 'flow' - and means to move about continuously, to come again and again. It is this that Baka is saying is "permanent, enduring, eternal, everything, unending". This is his deceit: the view he adopts is that saṃsāra is forever, and inescapable, that we are doomed to go around and around endlessly. The ethicization of the universe that occurred amongst the samaṇa movements meant that the model had to become more sophisticated, but I will leave that thread for now. But the idea that one could escape from the rounds of rebirth (or redeath as it is sometimes called) must have seemed extremely radical. Indeed the Upaniṣads the idea is introduced to Brahmins by a King or Kṣatriya, and although there is much speculation about what this might mean, at the very least it shows that the idea was new and from outside fold.

Māra steps into the sutta at this point and his contribution at first sight is puzzling. However Māra is sometimes called Namuci, which is a contraction of na muñcati 'does not release'. His role often relates to keeping beings in saṃsāra. Māra as an archetypal figure is often associated with our own doubts, he is the inner voice of doubt. So whereas Baka seems to represent the social pressure exerted on us to doubt the possibility of liberation; Māra represents our own doubts.

One of his warnings to Buddha is:
so... mā tvaṃ brahmano vacanaṃ upātivattittho... evaṃ sampadamidam bhikkhu, tuyham bhavissati
He... do not overstep what Brahmā says... [or various evils] will befall you.
This is reminiscent of the debate scene in BU 3.6 where Gārgī is questioning Yajñavalkya on what the various aspects of the universe are made; and finally asks on what brahman is woven. Yajñavalkya replies
sa hovāca gargī mātiprākṣīḥ
mā te mūrdhā vyapaptat

Don't ask too many questions, Gārgī
your head will split apart.
Gārgī desists, but later in the text another questioner's head does split apart.

Of course Māra also plays the role of Lord of saṃsāra - he thinks of the kāmaloka as his realm, where we dwell at his mercy, which is to say we dwell suffering. Māra is afraid that if the Buddha teaches that beings will go beyond his realm (te me visayaṃ upātivattissanti).

Then the Buddha and Baka have a discussion about the elements. Baka says
Sace kho tvaṃ, bhikkhu, pathaviṃ ajjhosissasi, opasāyiko me bhavissasi vatthusāyiko, yathākāmakaraṇīyo bāhiteyyo

If indeed you, bhikkhu, will be attached to earth, you will be in my domain, in my reach, at my mercy.
This is repeated for a list of elements. Of course the Buddha is aware of this and says that he not attached to the elements. The list of elements is unusual: earth, water, fire, air, beings (bhūta), devas, Prajāpati and Brahmā. Once again I refer the reader to BU 3.6 and the discussion with Gārgī. It goes like this (I'll use Valerie Roebuck's translation, slightly modified)
"Yajñāvalkya, she said, since all this earth (idaṃ sarvaṃ pārthivaṃ) is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven?
On air.
On what is air woven?"
And so on. The list begins the same: earth, water, air. Then we get 'the middle realm' (antarikṣaloka) which may well correspond to bhūta in the Pāli list. Then in BU a list of various devalokas - gandharvaloka, adityaloka, candraloka, nakṣatraloka, devaloka, indraloka - then prajāpatiloka and finally brahmaloka. If we collapse the list from gandharva to indraloka into 'devaloka' (which they are all varieties of) then the list from Brahmanimantanika Sutta and BU are very similar indeed. What's more the list makes more sense in the context of BU than it does in a Pāli sutta, because the Buddha was hardly likely to be attached to Prajāpati or Brahmā.

There is one snafu here. And it is that one of the distinctive teachings of the BU, which we meet at the end of book 3 (3.9.28), is the idea of escape from rebirth:
jāta eva na jāyate ko nv enaṃ janayet punaḥ |
vijñānam ānandaṃ brahma rātir dātuḥ parāyaṇaṃ ||

Born, only, not born again; who could beget him?
Consciousness, bliss, Brahman, grace; the gift to the giver.
It seems that in all of these kinds of references to Vedic ideas in Pāli texts, there is always an element of over-simplification, of parody. One gets the sense that the last thing a Buddhist wanted to do was debate a Brahmin on their own terms - and yet again so many of the converts seem to have been, at least nominally Brahmin.

In Brahmanimantanika Sutta we seem to have some quite clear references to Upaniṣadic ideas. However as I noted in Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman the references are to cosmology rather than to the more central details of the Upaniṣadic thought. It seems as though the cosmologically notions had been popularised, or perhaps more likely that the cosmology recorded in the Upaniṣads represents a popular tradition rather than a specifically Upaniṣadic tradition - I would make the contrast with the identification of ātman and brahman, which is not found in the Pāli texts.

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.


Notes
  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.

12 December 2008

The spiritual life or Brahmacarya

Linguists study language in one of two basic ways. They look at language through time, how it changes, and the processes that drive and inform that change. This is called a diachronic approach - 'dia-' meaning 'across'. When applied to what a particular word means we usually refer to this kind of study as etymology. The etymology of the word 'etymology' tells us that the two parts mean: true (eteos) word (logia) and the sense of it is that it reveals the true meaning of the word. [Note the parallel with the Japanese word for mantra: shingon = true word] Or linguists study what language does now, what things mean in the context of the present and in a particular place. This approach is called synchronic - 'syn-' meaning 'together'. Ironically the history of a word can be entirely irrelevant to what it means now. Consider the contemporary meaning of the word 'terrific' which originally meant terrifying!

Just as one can study what a word means these way, we can study what an idea means. In this post I plan to do a potted history of an idea which I am representing by the phrase "spiritual life" in English which equates with the Sanskrit word brahmacarya (it is the same in Pāli). We can begin with an etymology. Brahmacarya is a compound combining the elements brahma and carya. 'Brahma' is the uninflected form of the noun, as we expect in a Sanskrit compound. So it can mean either the transcendent principle of the universe, brahman (neuter tense), or the more concrete manifestation of the creator God, Brahmā (masculine tense). It's important to realise that these two are not necessarily synonymous. Carya more literally means "going about, wandering, walking or roaming, visiting, driving", and in its applied sense means "behaviour, conduct; practising, performing, occupation with, engaging in". The word brahmacarya is used in relation to a number of ideas, and how we understand it depends to a large extent on what time and place we are talking about.

In the early days of the Vedic religion the sages often were faced with, or posed each other, puzzles of a metaphysical nature: for instance they wondered on what did the creator stand when he created the world? Answers to these puzzles were known as brahmans. The Ṛgveda contains many puzzles, and many brahmans. The ancient Vedic world view was one in which the world was wondrous and ordered by a mysterious cosmic principle that they called ṛta. Everything in the world was interconnected and participated in this cosmic order, and maintenance of the cosmic order was a joint project between the gods and the priests. So a brahman was like an insight into the cosmic order. The Vedics also believed that such insights, especially insights into the connections (bandhu) between this world and heaven were important for understanding, and therefore maintaining ṛta. The functional aspect of the Vedic religion was the act of sacrifice, with the sacrificial fire (agni) being the medium of exchange between this world and heaven - such commerce being essential for maintaining ṛta.

Perhaps due to the changing social circumstances - for instance the discovery and use of iron that helped to transform the Ganges plain from forest to farmland - priests began to reflect on their function. In particular they began to believe that it was possible to abstract the sacrificial ritual and perform it in imagination. The texts in which these ideas were first composed were commentaries on the Saṃhita portions of the Vedas and were called brāhmaṇa. Confusingly the priests themselves were now also called brāhmaṇas - I use the Anglacized Brahmin to talk about the priests. It was perhaps at this time that the cosmic order ṛta was reconceptualised as dharma - which can mean both 'nature' and 'duty' thus incorporating similar concepts, but moving in a new direction.

Not long before the Buddha this movement to think about things, to create abstractions, and to work in the imagination, took form in the Upaniṣadic or Vedantic traditions (although the latter terms seems to have come along much later). It is in the Upaniṣads that we meet with the two conceptions I mentioned above: brahman the abstract transcendental principle; and Brahmā the creator god. Of course at this time there are also recorded many other religious traditions, indeed if we read history right there was an explosion of new ideas around this time that coincided with similar processes in other parts of the world. The period has been called the Axial Age. The non-Brahmin sectarians were called śramaṇas - from the root śram meaning to work or toil. Incidentally some linguists think this word śramaṇa comes into English, via Asian and Russian intermediaries, as the word shaman (more on this in a future post).

In this early Upaniṣadic period (also known as the "Late Vedic period") a Brahmin man is described as going through several stages in life or āśramas (incidental from the same root śram). Women are not part of this picture. Different texts describe different numbers of stages, and some see them not as a sequence but as different possible lifestyles, however all seem to include brahmacarya. Taken as a sequence in the early stage of life one was unmarried and this, even today in Indian, is synonymous with being celibate. However celibacy was probably initially incidental for unmarried men, and the importance of this phase of life was that it involved learning and study. The ideal was for a son to study with his father. However some students went to live and study with teachers, and some even wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. The object of study was still considered to be the Vedas and their associated rituals, but may have included the śastric branches of knowledge as well such as grammar, mathematics and astrology. Conformation of this basic set up are found in early Buddhist texts which frequently refer to Brahmins as well versed in the Vedas and other Brahminical studies. After this period of learning the Brahmin youth might stay with his teacher, but more usually was expected to return home and marry, produce more sons and in turn educate them in the Brahminical lore and procedures.

The Buddha was to some extent limited in how he got his ideas across by the language of the day. Sometimes he simply used existing terms unchanged (eg. tapas asceticism) and sometimes he attempted to redefine a word as in the case of dharma and in this case of brahmacarya. In fact the Buddha attempted to totally redefine the concept of what a Brahmin is - linking it to behaviour rather than birthright. Clearly this latter project failed, but we have inherited this word brahmacarya.

In the early Buddhist texts brahmacarya keeps virtually the same reference, but loses the any sense of sequence. Anyone who is undertaking some kind of spiritual or religious training could be referred to as a brahmacarin. It's quite a common usage in the canon. All bhikkhus were undertaking brahmacarya because they undertake religious vows, study sacred texts, and undertake various religious and ascetic practices. However at some point - and I'm not sure when this happened - the word came to have the much narrower meaning of 'chastity' that is the abstention from any kind of sexual activity (and the vinaya is explicit and exhaustive in proscribing forms of sex!). It's ironic that what was originally a mere coincidence because of the rigid social structures which required that there be no sex before marriage, is not the most important feature of the lifestyle.

To some extent the WBO has revalorised the word, broadening it our again to mean one who doesn't indulge the pleasures of the senses. Someone who undertakes a vow of brahmacarya does refrain from sexual activity, but also undertakes to avoid over stimulating themselves in other ways as well. They may also express this by trying to let go of personal preferences. Someone who takes a life vow of brahmacarya is known in our order an an anagarika. This means one (-ka) who does not have (an-) a home (agara). So another feature of their lives is that they try to minimise possessions and this is usually interpreted especially as including not owning real-estate.


image: from a post on celibacy by Shravasti Dhammika on his blog Dhamma Musings.

29 March 2007

The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor

BrahmaAt the end of 2006 I attended a series of lectures by Richard Gombrich and I promised to try to use my blog to pass on some of what he said. In this entry I want to look at a metaphor used by the Buddha, but which had already become obscure by the time the Pali Canon was written down. The metaphor is "dwelling (or staying) with Brahma" - brahmaa vihaara in Pali. Obviously this is an important metaphor for Buddhists and well known to practitioners in the FWBO through the Mettabhavana meditation practice, which is said to be one of the four "Brahma Viharas" - along with the karuna, mudita and upekkha-viharas. So where did this metaphor come from?

Even a passing familiarity with the Upanishads will show you that 'dwelling with Brahma' is a paraphrase of the goal of spiritual practice in those texts. There is it usually presented as union with Brahma, but this is not significantly different from the Buddhist usage. So what is going on here? Is the Buddha suggesting that we literally seek union with Brahma? We need not take the phrase literally, and in fact there is much to suggest that the Buddha did not mean it so.

Gombrich has analysed the occurrences of this way of speaking, and has come to see the Tevijja Sutta in the Digha Nikaya as the first usage. In most texts the metaphor is used awkwardly, or interpreted literally, but in the Tevijja Sutta, although the actual words Brahma vihara are not used, the idea is present and fits the context. In the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha is using the idea of the way to Brahma (where one would subsequently dwell) as a metaphor for the goal of the spiritual life, and the audience are Brahmins who would have been well versed in this kind of talk. The Tevijja Sutta is part parody because it criticises those Brahmins who purport to teach the way to Brahma when most of them have never even laid eyes on Brahma. The Buddha tells them that he has seen Brahma face to face - this is the subject of another parody in the Digha Nikaya - and that he can teach them the way to Brahma which is to practice a meditation on loving kindness. This is clearly an early example of the Buddha's "skill in means", a quality that came to the fore in the White Lotus Sutra.

Now by the time the Canon was written down the sense of this metaphor had been lost. Gombrich argues, and I think we must agree, that the Buddha was cognizant of the early Upanishads. We know this because he names, quotes from, and satirises them! But the scribes of three or four centuries later who wrote the Canon down in Sri Lanka were not familiar with the Upanishads, and so they struggled to know what to make of the Buddha teaching the "way to Brahma". One of the consequences of taking the Buddha literally was that a new set of "realms" had to be added to Buddhist cosmology - the Brahmalokas. Also to "dwell with Brahma" meant being reborn in a loka or realm, which meant that one was not freed from rebirth, and therefore not Awakened! So the scribes had to do quite a lot of work to fit all this in.

Independently I have found a striking confirmation of this conjecture in the Karaniya Metta Sutta. This is one of the most familiar suttas in the Pali Canon. It asks the question: what should one do who seeks the path of peace? And then it gives a well structured account of practice: one should be ethical it says, morally and ethically good. And then one should practice a meditation, which we would now recognise as a species of Mettabhavana, in which one cultivates boundless loving kindness to all creatures - just as, the sutta says, a mother loves and protects her only child, so should we regard all that lives, leaving none out. To do this, to keep this reflection in mind at all times, is, the text says, to dwell with Brahma. But then comes a little coda, the tenth verse, which goes back to the beginning and in a completely different style admonishers us to be ethical and avoid falling into wrong views, and if we practice well we will "never again lie in a womb".

I'd like to suggest that the last verse was added later. It is clearly different in tone than the preceding nine verses, and it does not fit the structure. I suggest that the line (below with my rough translation) at the end of the ninth verse is the original ending of the sutta:
etaṃ satiṃ adhiṭṭeyya brahmaṃ etaṃ vihāraṃ idha-m-ahu
This mindfulness should be undertaken, this is dwelling with Brahma here and now they say.
The tenth verse was probably added by an assiduous monk who, in ignorance of the metaphor, thought that "dwelling with Brahma" could not be the end of the sutta since at best it meant taking rebirth in a Brahmaloka, and at worst was non-Buddhist! Perhaps he thought that a verse had been lost which revealed the true intent of the sutta and so added one that fit his worldview. This fits with Gombrich's hypothesis, and helps to make sense of an awkwardness in the text. I've run this past a number of fans of the sutta and they agree that it is at least plausible. Of course we can never prove such a thing, and the ten verse Karaniya Metta Sutta is still the canonical version. But it does show that we need to be alert when dealing with texts, even canonical texts. It is all to easy for metaphors to become lost over time, or in different cultures.


- image : Chola bronze of Brahma
29-03-08 fixed typos, added diacritics.

26-8-12 The website Chant Pāli has some references which confirm my supposition about the 10th verse. The metre of the verse is inconsistent with the other nine, either a different metre or a "very irregular".
Warder (1970), p. 228, n. 1, suggests that this last verse is "a later addition." Warder, A.K. (1970, 2004). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN: 81-208-1741-9.
 Ānandajoti (2007), n. 11, writes: "Metre: it may be we should take the first half of the pādayuga as a Siloka line showing the savipula. If it is Old Gīti it is very irregular."
The inconsistent metre further reinforces the perception that the verse was written by another person than the original composer. My conjecture that the editor was concerned about ending on the note about dwelling with Brahma seems more likely in this light. It might be simple prejudice but it seems to me that a lesser intellect and lesser poet, a blockhead fundamentalist, has tampered with the poem.