Showing posts with label Buddhaghosa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddhaghosa. Show all posts

12 June 2015

Alternate Karma Theory?

Revised 15 June 2015.

Many modern Buddhists find themselves struggling with the doctrines of Buddhism that rely on metaphysical speculation even though Buddhists regularly warn each other against speculating about metaphysics. The doctrine of rebirth is the one that usually heads the list. Literal rebirth seems very implausible in the light of other fields of knowledge. The doctrine of karma is allied to rebirth in the sense that if one is reborn it is because of karma. One of the main applications of pratītyasamutpāda has been to try to explain karma and historically this effort led to changes in the ways that Buddhists understood pratītyasamutpāda.

In my examination of the history of the idea of karma, in many blog essays and one published article (2014), I have noted that Buddhists themselves were often in dispute over the details of how karma could work. The idea of pratītyasamutpāda underwent significant change to try to accommodate karma. My 2014 article explained how the doctrine of karma itself undergoes a fundamental shift in the Mahāyāna that effectively decouples actions from consequences. The issue of whether there is or is not an interval between death and rebirth depends on how one interprets the karma doctrine to begin with. Despite an almost universal attempt by authors who write about Buddhism to present smoothed over accounts of these doctrines, what we find in the texts is a long history of dispute and alteration in search of coherence.

By now we know that no two Buddhist sects applied pratītyasamutpāda to the karma doctrine in the quite the same way. This knowledge may take some pressure off modern Buddhists who struggle to integrate Iron Age and medieval Buddhist ideas into their worldview. Even most Iron Age and medieval Buddhists could not quite believe it!

Although the archaeology of the karma is not complete, many of the main features have been exposed. Some details remain to be picked out. In this essay I will present a translation of a partial sutta from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. It lacks a nidāna, a framing story, and a proper ending. It's the middle of a text without a beginning or end. None-the-less it is interesting because the view of karma it presents is not in tune with the orthodox Theravāda doctrine, or with the other presentations of karma in the Nikāyas.

There is a counterpart sutra in the Chinese translation of the Madhyāgama (Taishō 26, no. 15; translated in Bingenheimer 2013). It is a more complete text, with a proper sutra opening and all that. I'll begin with my translation from the Pāḷi and then make a few comments. Where the Pali is tricky or unusual, I'll compare with the Chinese to see if it sheds any light.

Karajakāyasuttaṃ (AN 10.219; v.299-301)

“I do not say that intentional actions done (kata) and accumulated (upacita) are eliminated without having first experienced [the fruits], either arising in this life, or in the next, or some other. Nor however do I say that one makes an end to suffering without having first experienced the fruits of intentional actions done and accumulated.”  
[The Chinese text inserts a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha here and it is precisely the one who cultivates this path who is able to radiate mettā etc] 
“Monks, this noble disciple, being without craving or aversion, unconfused, attentive, fully mindful (paṭisata), dwells suffusing one direction with feelings of loving kindness, with feelings of compassion, with feelings of sympathetic joy, and with feelings of equanimity. Similarly with the second, third, and fourth directions. Thus, they dwell suffusing above, below, across, and in all directions, everywhere, the entire world with feelings of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity that are extensive, lofty, immeasurable, without hatred or illwill.” 
“[The noble disciple] knows ‘formerly my mind (citta) was limited and undeveloped, but now my mind is unlimited and well developed. No measurable kamma dwells or lingers there now.’” 
“What do you think, monks, if a youth were to cultivate the liberation of the mind which is love from an early age, would they do an evil action?” 
“Indeed not, Sir.” 
“Not doing an evil action would they be touched by suffering?” 
“Indeed not, Sir. Not doing an evil action, how could they be  touched by suffering?” 
“In that case a man or woman should cultivate liberation of the mind through love. Monks, a man or a woman cannot take this body when they go. This internal mind is mortal, monks.”  
“They understand, ‘All that evil done through this action-born body in some past time is to be experienced here. It will not follow.” 
“Developed in this way, monks, liberation of the mind through love for a knowledgeable monk results in being a non-returner (anāgāmin) here, if they do not attain a higher liberation.”

I've noted the lack of framing story. We do not even get a city where it was preached. By contrast in the Madhyāgama version (MĀ 15) the passage is joined with a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha or ten courses of right action. This might explain why the Karajakāya Sutta is in the chapter of tens (dasa aṅguttara). The previous two suttas (10.217-218) discuss how the practice of the right/wrong actions interact with the theory of kamma to produce different kinds of rebirth.

But if this is true, then we must also conclude it was classified with the tens before losing the parts concerned with the dasakusalakammapatha. In turn this is evidence that the Pāli Canon is not a complete and faithful record of Buddhist teachings as it is sometimes portrayed. Bits of the Aṅguttara Nikāya are missing!

I've compressed the sutta by combining the four brahmavihāras together. The CST edition has mettā and upekkhā spelt out in full, with abbreviated passages for kāruṇa and muditā. The gist of the story is that by dwelling in the fully developed brahmavihāras a practitioner may become a once returner. That one who practises the brahmavihāras will not be touched by disappointment (dukkha). And that karma all ripens in this life, it does not follow on. It is this last part which is the most interesting.

Before we compare this karma theory, a few remarks about the other aspects of the text. It is well known that mettā and the other brahmavihāras have been down played in the modern Theravāda. Richard Gombrich has made the case, based on his reading of the Tevijjā Sutta that brahmavihāra literally 'staying with Brahman' was originally a synonym for nirvāṇa (see Gombrich 2009: 80-84). This text seems to be somewhere in the middle on the issue of the value of practising the brahmavihāras, saying that at the very least one will become a non-returner (anāgāmin) The non-returner is a strange creature. They are not yet liberated from birth and death, but they are not required to be reborn in one of the five realms. After death, they exist in a definite sense, unlike a tathāgata about whom nothing may be said. As we saw earlier in the year, the anāgāmin is at the centre of the dispute over the antarābhava.

The other point is a moral one. If we take this text literally then it is saying that by radiating the brahmavihāras out to the four directions no dukkha will ever arise. In talking about this issue of dukkha in the Karajakāya with my Pāḷi reading group, I mentioned that following Sue Hamilton I take dukkha to refer to all unenlightened experience. I suggested that the focus on unpleasant experience was somewhat misleading, because from this point of view pleasant experience is also dukkha. The problem is in the translation of dukkha as 'suffering'. I have long argued for 'disappointment' as a serviceable translation. Our experience is dukkha because it does not conform to our expectation. Our expectation is that we will not suffer any undeserved pain or misery; and that we will experience all the pleasure and happiness we do deserve (based on what we believe we deserve of course). And that this is what constitutes a good life. So my reading is that the text is not saying that one radiating mettā etc. will never experience pain or suffering, but that they will never suffer disappointment, that whatever happens to them will be in line with their expectations. One cannot realistically be born a human being and expect not to suffer. The Pāli texts record a number of occasions when even the Buddha suffered physical pain (particularly the story of the stone sliver, Sakalika Sutta. SN 1.3).

Elsewhere, some early texts say that only dukkha arises and only dukkha ceases (See The Simile of the Chariot, 2009). Thus there is a conflict between those texts and this. If everything that arises is only dukkha, the idea that a person will not experience dukkha by radiating the brahmavihāras is a contradiction. The two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Now we return to the karma theory presented in the Karajakāya. The opening passage of the Karajakāya is a classic Pāli text account of the inescapability of karma. It insists that all the fruits of all the actions must be experienced, and all of them must be experienced before there is an end to suffering. This sentiment is repeated throughout the Nikāyas and is taken up by Buddhaghosa as Theravāda orthodoxy. Later Buddhists deprecate this original requirement of karma (see Attwood 2014).

Now part of the reason I wanted to translate this text and write about it stems from Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation in his Numerical Discourses (2012). The Pāli passage in question follows on from the revelation that one who suffuses the directions with love etc, will not experience dukkha. Next the Pāli reads:
"Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
"So evaṃ pajānāti – ‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti."
Compared to my translation above, Bodhi renders this:
"​A woman or man should develop this liberation of mind by loving kindness. A woman or man cannot take this body with them when ​they go. Mortals have mind as their core." 
"[The  noble disciple] understands: 'whatever bad deed I did here in the past with this deed-born body is all to be experienced here. It will not follow along." (p.1542; emphasis added)
The first part of this is fine, but when I read "Mortals have mind as their core." (translating cittantaro ayaṃ macco) my eyebrows shot up. What on earth could this mean? 

Cittantaro ayaṃ macco

"Cittantaro ayaṃ macco." is a common sentence structure in Pali and typically taken to read "this X is Y" though the word order is flexible. So it could be as Bodhi reads it "this mortal has an interior [which is] mind" or it might be read along the lines of "this internal mind is mortal". The compound cittantaro is a little unexpected. Antara is cognate with our word "interior", and of course the inside of something might be considered its 'core'. However, do mortals have a "core"? The usual idea in Buddhist metaphysics is to deny that anyone has a core, especially a mental core. Macco means 'one subject to death, a mortal', but note that it is in the singular,  'a mortal' (Cf Skt martya 'having death, dying, subject to death'; there is no connection to the English 'martyr'), rather than Bodhi's plural "mortals" but the statement does seem to be a generalisation. 

The compound cittantaro only occurs in this text. In this case Bodhi appears to be reading the compound as a bahuvrīhi 'has an inside which is citta'. As I have said this raises metaphysical objections. How else might we read the compound? If we look at other similar compounds we find
  • Buddh'antara - the time between the death of one Buddha and the appearance of another
  • eḷakam-antara - on the threshold or across a threshold (eḷaka),
  • daṇḍam-antara - amongst the firewood or across a stick (daṇḍa).
This suggests that Bodhi has misunderstood this compound. Margaret Cone is non-commital in her dictionary. In relation to this passage she ventures "having the interval of a thought-moment;" with a question mark to indicate she is unsure (DOP sv citta). That Cone is unsure is reassuring to me as I struggle to make sense of this passage. If she is unsure then I am not embarrassed about my confusion. Cone has picked up what similar compounds imply, i.e. that antara might mean in the 'space' between two moments in time. So that we would read the sentence as "a mortal has the interval of a thought moment". But again we have to ask, "What does this mean?" It has the advantage of not obviously violating Buddhist doctrine, but can we take it literally? A mortal typically lives many years and a thought moment is as long as the snap of one's fingers. The words make sense, but the sentence does not. 

Turning to Buddhaghosa, on this passage he says:
Cittantaroti cittakāraṇo, atha vā citteneva antariko. Ekasseva hi cuticittassa anantarā dutiye paṭisandhicitte devo nāma hoti, nerayiko nāma hoti, tiracchānagato nāma hoti. Purimanayepi cittena kāraṇabhūtena devo nerayiko vā hotīti attho. 
Bodhi translates most of this passage in note 2189 (p.1859), I finish it in square brackets:
“They have mind as their cause, or their interior is due to mind. For with the mind at rebirth that follows without interval the mind at death, one becomes a deva, a hell-being, or an animal.” [It means they were formerly a deva or hell-being though the cause or condition of mind (citta) also.] 
So Bodhi has translated in line with Buddhaghosa, as he usually does in these cases where the text is obscure. However, I once more have to quibble with how Bodhi is translating here. Cittakāraṇo must mean 'having a cause which is citta', though this is no help because the meaning of the sentence is still not clear. Antara and kāraṇa are by no means synonyms, so Buddhaghosa's logic is opaque. To say that a mortal has citta as their cause is possibly true from a Buddhist point of view, but it doesn't really make sense of the sutta. Again the words make sense, but the sentence does not. Bodhi then reads antariko as 'interior', which is allowed but also doubtful. What does it means to say that our interior is due to mind. As opposed to our exterior?

A lot depends on how we parse atha vā citteneva antariko. We can read citteneva as citte na eva or cittena eva (Bodhi adopts the latter). The former would mean that the whole sentence says something like "there is no interval for a thought event". I like this reading because it is followed by an insistence that the relinking mental event (paṭisandhicitta) follows immediately from the death mental event (cuticitta) with no interval. This is standard Theravāda metaphysics which requires that there never be an interruption of the stream of cittas. This makes sense, but is this really what the sutta is saying? I'm not sure.

My friend and Pāḷi guru, Dhīvan, has pointed out that in my first version of this essay I mistook a gerundive (grd) for a gerund (ger) in the PED entry. Gerundive is anther name for a future passive participle (fpp). The verb marati means 'he dies' and as an fpp takes the sense of 'one who must die', hence 'a mortal'. Dhīvan suggests that macco might represent a future passive participle (Skt martavyaḥ), and work in apposition to gamanīyo which is also a fpp. Then cittantaro and kāyo are in apposition also. Thus we could read the sutta as saying
nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo, cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco 
there is no going taking the body [with you], there is dying with the mind as interval. 
Dhīvan takes cittantaro as related to the measurelessness of the mind in the brahmavihāra state. One whose citta is limited (paritta) will be reborn, but one whose citta is immeasurable (appamāṇa) is not reborn, but becomes an anāgāmin (at least). This is an interesting solution to a difficult problem, but I still not convinced.

So, from the Pāli sources we have several alternative readings, none of them entirely satisfying. The Chinese text of MĀ 15 is somewhat different here (T 1.438.a19-20) :
若彼男女 在家、出家, 修慈心解脫者,不持此身往至彼世,但隨心去此。 
When those male or female 男女 laypeople 在家 or renunciates 出家 repeatedly practice (修...者)  the loving-kindness mind-liberation 慈心解脫, [they] do not carry 持 this body 身 towards 往至 the other world 彼世, [but] go there 去此 according to 但隨 the citta 心.
Cf "Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
The first part of this passage is similar. It applies to men and women for example, itthiyā vā purisena vā = 男女 ; they cultivate mettācetovimutti  = 慈心解脫. When they go to the other world they do not take their body nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya  = 不持此身往至彼世. However, just where we wish the Chinese might shed some light on our text it is very different! Where the Pāḷi is weird, the Chinese is conventional, one goes to the next world according to one's citta (但隨心去此). Is this because the translator has smoothed out the text? Or is it because the Gāndhārī text was already different. And if the Gāndhārī text was different, why was it? Was one or other text corrupted? Or was it edited by sectarian interests? 

Of course Bodhi was obliged to settle on a translation, and he had 1500 pages of text to translate. But to my mind "Mortals have mind as their core" is unfortunate. It's not at all clear that this is what the text says, or even how Buddhaghosa understood the text. It's a very strange thing to find a Pāli text saying. On the other hand I don't see a way to resolve the quandary. 


Another curious feature in this text is the use of the indeclinable particle idha, meaning 'here, in this place', and especially 'in this world or present existence' (PED). To remind us, the one who is radiating the brahmavihāras knows:
‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti.
I read:
All of that evil action done by me by this action-made body at sometime in the past must be experienced here (idha). It does not follow along. 
It's possible that Bodhi's Pali text has idha for idaṃ (4th word), I haven't checked the PTS edition, but otherwise his translation again seems slightly off when he refers to "Whatever bad deed I did here...", because in the CST text "here" is not specified. In any case we have a very intriguing statement about karma in this passage. Apparently the consequences of actions performed in the past do not follow one from life to life. They are to be experienced here (idha vedanīya). In fact this contradicts the opening lines of the Pāli sutta which say that the fruits of actions may arise to be experienced here and now (diṭṭheva dhamme upapajje), in the after-life (apare), or in due course (pariyāye). So again we are left wondering. If this an error or does it represent a minority report on karma? The trouble is that the idea is stated twice:  sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ 'all that is to be experienced here' and then na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissati 'it will not follow along'. It is not accidental.

This last part is phrased curiously. "That", i.e. the evil action done formerly through the action-born-body (pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ), "will not become anuga." Anuga is an adjective from anu√gam a verb meaning 'to follow [along, after]'. So rather than saying the action will not follow (anugamissati) the Pāḷi says that it does not become (bhavissati) something which is anuga 'following or followed by'. The obvious interpretation is that the action determines one's rebirth, but does not follow one beyond death. This is interesting because it may well constitute a version of karma which is easier for some people to swallow. 

Buddhaghosa fudges this by defining the phrase as diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya-koṭṭhāsavan "possessing a share to be experienced here and now".  This brings it into line with Theravāda orthodoxy, but the text very specifically says all (sabba) not just a share (koṭṭhāsa).

Again the Madhyāgama text is different (T 1.438.a21-22):
Bhikṣus 比丘 you should 應作是 think 念, “I 我 was formerly 本 heedless 放逸, I did 作 unskilful deeds 不善業, may 可 all 一切 retribution 報  be 是 suffered 受 now 今 and not in the other world 終不後世."
Rather than insisting that results must be experienced now, MĀ has a more plausible (i.e more orthodox) plea that it all be experienced now rather than later so as not to draw out the process across lifetimes. The wording is very different, so it cannot be a simple misreading. Is AN the sentiment of a heterodox sect whose views were included in the Pāḷi Canon. And MĀ a more orthodox rendering of the story? Is one text garbled, or the other edited for clarity? We just don't know. 


This is certainly an intriguing text. On face value it is a heterodox view on karma and rebirth. But it does not quite make sense on its own terms. Buddhaghosa shoehorns it into his orthodox Theravāda worldview in a way that is not entirely convincing. The Madhyāgama version of the story contradicts the Pāḷi precisely where it departs from orthodoxy. Though as we saw in relation to antarābhava the different Nikāya/Āgama recensions do reflect sectarian concerns.

The Madhyāgama text seems to be based on the same story, but records the details differently. The titles of the text are different and MĀ does not have an equivalent of the key Pāli term karajakāya 'action-born-body'. The MĀ text is titled 思經 The Sutra on Intention (cetanā). Note that the Karajakāya appears to be part of a set of suttas, and the previous two suttas in AN are called the Paṭhama and Dutiya Sañcetanika Sutta, where sañcetika could well be translated as 思. Overall the MĀ text is less problematic than the Pāḷi, but this may be because the Gāndhārī had more time to be edited than the Pāḷi before being committed to writing, or because the Chinese translators further smoothed out difficulties. On the other hand we can deduce that a large part of the Pāḷi text was lost after it was included in the Aṅguttara collection. So who knows what other changes it went through.

This is precisely the kind of wrinkle that scholars have overlooked or smoothed over in their accounts of Buddhist karma to date. It does not fit the view that the Canon is all the work of one mind, or the assertion that variations can be traced to a single source. All too often we see a plurality of Buddhist views, which are frequently incompatible and do not point to a single point of origin. As I have said previously, the early Buddhist texts represent the event horizon of an historical black hole. No information can ever come out of that black hole and it will always remain dark. All we can do is look at what we do see and conjecture about how it might have come about.

A fundamental problem I have identified is the overwhelming bias towards seeing history in terms of singular origin as represented in the tree as a metaphor for evolution. So engrained is this metaphor that it is very difficult to even think of other possibilities in evolution (particularly of recombination and synthesis). So we expect that Pāḷi and Chinese sources point to a common origin. Some aspects of the two texts are similar enough to suggest some common ancestry. Had the Pāḷi not become fragmented after being collected, then perhaps this similarity would be more striking. But there is no way, for example, to construct an ur-text from what we have. There is no obvious single underlying text that would give rise to the variants we have. The history is complex and now hidden from us. 

For me the idea that our history does not converge in the past has only emerged from years of studying early Buddhist texts and paying attention to inconsistencies. And there are far more inconsistencies than any Buddhist teacher and almost all scholars would have us believe. Inconsistency is a feature of the early Buddhist texts. That the Pali Canon preserves views which are not consistent with Theravāda orthodoxy is both interesting and useful. It suggests that the Theravādins preserved these texts, but that other unknown factors were at work in the collection process. Perhaps the Theravāda sect was once more diverse than it presently is with respect to doctrine. Buddhaghosa, as we see in his commentary on this sutta, had an homogenizing effect. At the very least we must think of the Pāḷi texts as a much more heterogeneous body of literature than we have previously.


Thanks to Dhīvan and Sarah from our Pāḷi reading group for input on the tricky passages. It is so great to have people to talk to about these things. 

My essays on karma & rebirth are collected under the afterlife tab at the top of the page.
Pāḷi texts from CST. Chinese texts from CBETA. 
Attwood, Jayarava. (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol. 21.
Bingenheimer, Marcus [Ed.] (2013) The Madhyama Āgama: Middle Length Discourses, Taishō Vol. 2, No.26 (BDK English Tripiṭaka Series). Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America. 
Bodhi. (2012). The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications. 
Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Equinox.

14 February 2014

Niyama in the Sāṅkhyakārikā and Buddhaghosa's Commentaries.

Rice Plant
via Wikimedia
This essay will briefly outline some ideas from the Sāṅkhyakārikā, the oldest extant Sāṅkhya text, and compare this with ideas expressed by Buddhaghosa in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī,  and his Atthasālinī a commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an Abhidhamma text. My translations of both of these texts can be found in Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma. We've seen that the word niyama means 'restriction' in śāstric Sanskrit (see Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya) and here I will reinforce this by showing how the Sāṅkhyakārikā uses the word, with a few notes on how this was taken up in the Yogasūtras attributed to Patañjali. In addition I will note certain similarities between the Sāṅkhya notion of causality and the way that Buddhaghosa uses the word niyama to highlight restrictions on the processes of causality.

The Sāṅkhyakārikā  (SK) is a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. In Indian literature sūtra style generally means it is aphoristic, terse, and generally requiring a good deal of unpacking. It is partly this general meaning of the word that makes scholars consider the Buddhist use of sūtra to translation Pāli sutta to be a hyper-Sanskritisation for sukta. In any case the SK outlines the darśana or philosophy of the Sāṅkhya school of Indian thought. It is non-Vedic (indeed it is critical of the Vedas) and concerned with soteriology. The basic Sāṅkhya view was adapted by Yoga schools (they added Īśvara or god to this originally nāstika darśana for example).

The characteristic idea of Sāṅkhya is a doctrine known as satkārya which states that the product of causation already exists in the cause. The Sāṅkhya world is analysed into a hierarchy of 24 elements or tattvas which are produced when unmanifest nature is disrupted by puruṣa (literally 'man' but here meaning something like 'soul'). What results is the manifest world (vyaktam). The 24 elements result from the interactions of three qualities: sattva 'purity', rajas 'passion', and tamas 'darkness'. Kārikā 12 of the SK gives us an outline of the three guṇas that uses the word niyama.

Here the three guṇas or qualities are each said to have a particular essence (ātmaka) and a purpose (artha).
prītyapṛitiviṣādātmakāḥ prakāśapravṛttiniyamārthāḥ |
anyo’anyābhibhavāśrayajananamithunavṛttiyaśca gunāḥ ||12||
The guṇas have the essence of pleasure, pain, and apathy; and the purpose of illumination, activity, and restriction;
And their functions with respect to each other are suppressing, supporting, producing, and forming pairs.
In particular the guṇa tamas or darkness has the purpose of niyama or restriction. Kārikā 13 adds that tamas is heavy (guru) and enveloping or enclosing (varaṇaka). The weight and restriction of tamas is implicitly contrasted in kārikā 12 with the pravṛtti 'activity, energy, restlessness' of rajas. In the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, which draw on Sāṅkhya thought, niyama takes on an applied meaning of a vow to be observed. Here I want to focus on how Īśvarakṛṣṇa uses niyama alongside adjectives like "heavy" and "enveloping". Incidentally one of the more popular commentaries on SK, by Gaudapada, comments here that "Tamas is adapted to restrain, i.e. is competent at fixation." (niyamārthaṃ tamaḥ sthitau samartham ity artha). Here sthiti 'fixing, stopping, halting' (from √sthā 'to stand, to remain') is offered as a word with a similar sense (not quite a synonym): that which restricts the movement of X, causes X to stand still or be fixed. And this is the role of tamas which helps us to zero in on how the word niyama is used in śāstric Sanskrit.

This way of thinking may well have influenced Buddhaghosa when he composed the fivefold niyama not just in the sense of the word itself. Buddhaghosa seems to have some of the same concerns over the limitations of causality that we see in SK 9.
asad akaraṇād upādānagrahaṇāt sarvasambhavābhāvāt;
śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt kāraṇabhāvāc ca sat kāryam. ||9||
Because the non-existent cannot be made, because of the grasping of the material basis, and because not all possibilities exist;
Because the making is possible [only] of what is capable [to be made]; and because of existence in a cause, the product exists. 
This is the fundamental statement of the Sāṅkhya idea of causality, satkāryavāda, i.e. that the effects already exist in the cause. No causation ex nihilo is possible, a substrate (upādāna) is necessary, things cannot arise haphazardly, things can only be produced by what is capable of producing them. Whether these reasons necessitate satkāryavāda is moot, but these are the supporting arguments given in SK. 

How does this relate to Buddhaghosa? SK says sarvasambhavābhāvāt "because not all possibilities exist" which means that things cannot arise haphazardly; also śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt "because the making is possible [only] of what [the cause] is capable of" which means that a cause is only capable of producing that which it is capable of producing. The same restrictions apply in Buddhaghosa's schema of conditionality, which insists on a non-random and more-or-less inevitable relationship between cause and effect. For Buddhaghosa this restriction in a non-random process has the flavour of inevitability.

In his use of the word niyama, Buddhaghosa was most at pains to emphasise the inevitability of karmic retribution. The inevitable production of vedanā by karma is mirrored in the natural processes of plants coming to fruition and the arrival of the monsoon rains in season. For Buddhaghosa, the production of cognitions from sense contact was a perfectly analogous process. In his commentarial texts which employ the fivefold niyama, Buddhaghosa spends most time illuminating the process of karma and insisting on the inevitability of it. This is the focus of his use of the concept of niyama, it is what the commentaries insist on. The restriction on karma is that the fruits of actions must inevitably ripen. Later commentators using the fivefold niyama schema focus more on the production of cognitions. 

We can see then that restriction and inevitability are two sides of the same coin. If a process can only unfold in a restricted way, then there is a certain inevitability to it. If one plants a rice seed then the restriction on cause and effect says that one a rice plant can grow from it. In other words it is inevitable that a rice plant comes from a rice seed. Buddhaghosa calls this bījaniyama - the restriction on seeds, or the inevitability of seeds. Of course elsewhere in the Buddhist world they began to treat actions as more literally creating seeds that are held in a receptacle (ālaya) in some part of the mind (vijñāna), but that is another story. 

Buddhaghosa adds that the miracles accompanying the main events of the life of a Buddha are said to be of the same type of inevitability as these natural processes (dhammatā). They are things that inevitably happen when a Buddha is conceived, born, becomes awakened and dies. This he calls dhammaniyama

So when Buddhaghosa reads: imasmin sati idaṃ hoti he does not see this an optional or contingent on any other fact. For Buddhaghosa there is a restriction on the way causation happens: when the condition is present (imasmin sati) then it is inevitable (niyama) that the conditioned must exist (idam hoti). This is particularly so in the case of the restriction on karma (kammaniyama). Having acted the results of the act follow one unerringly. To illustrate this point in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī Buddhaghosa uses the Dhammapada verse 127.
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action.
Furthermore in the Atthasālinī niyama passage he expands on this using the commentarial back story to this same verse. In this text about one half is given over to the discussion of restrictions on karma, about one quarter to the restrictions on the processes of the mind, and one quarter to the rest. In both cases dhammaniyama solely refers to the miraculous events during the life of a Buddha.

At the very least, Īśvarakṛṣṇa, the author of the Sāṅkhyakārikā, and Buddhaghosa, author of the pañcavidha niyama, shared an interest in the limitations or restrictions which were observed in relation to causation. Neither man accepted that causation is random or completely unpredictable. On the contrary both see the universe as having an order to it that places limitations on how change occurs. Buddhaghosa's notion of utuniyama and bījaniyama would have been obvious to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. We too can see that if we plant rice we must get a rice plant and not an oak tree; and that the monsoon does not come at random, but at roughly the same time each year. The use of such analogies is widespread in Indian literature.

So if the universe has an order, and that order imposes restrictions on the functioning of causation, then is it not acceptable to speak of "orders of conditionality"? I still think this is not the case. Primarily because Buddhaghosa is at pains to describe a single type of restriction than manifests in five different ways. This is why Buddhaghosa, unlike modern exegetes, uses the singular "fivefold niyama" and not the plural "five niyamas". This is in contrast to the Yogasūtras of Patañjali (though the attribution is disputed and the date uncertain) which speak of pañca niyamāḥ 'five niyamas'. (Sūtra 32). In the YS niyama is often translated as 'observance', but it means 'a restriction on behaviour'. The five restrictions are: cleanliness (śauca), contentment (santoṣa), austerity (tapas), study (svādhyāya), and devotion (praṇidhāna).

So, there are not five restrictions on causality, but only one. This one restriction can be observed in five different areas of experience (if we count the supernatural aspects of dhamma-niyama as experiential, which is moot). Because of this there is in fact no implied hierarchy in Buddhaghosa's fivefold schema and the number five is arbitrary. The schema is neither systematic nor comprehensive. Though Buddhaghosa himself placed differing emphasis on each of the five aspects, we can see that this emphasis was purely rhetorical. Buddhaghosa was addressing a particular set of problems when he employed this schema, not speculating about causation more generally. Later Pāli commentaries placed a different emphasis.

Of the five aspects of restricted causation the seed (bīja) and seasonal (utu) restrictions are obvious to anyone (the same restrictions occur to Īśvarakṛṣṇa). The action (karma) and mental (citta) restrictions are obvious enough to a person who is well versed in the metaphysics of karma and rebirth, and in the Buddhist account of cognition. Or perhaps one might argue that they become obvious to anyone willing to examine their experience using Buddhist practices. The dharmic restriction is just something we have to take Buddhaghosa's word for. It is a supernatural belief, and thus not amenable to empirical study. Though it might make an interesting foil to these people who pop up from time to time claiming to be "the second Buddha."* If the "10,000 world system" did not shake when you were born, then you are not a Buddha, because this is what inevitably happens. And maybe that was Buddhaghosa's point too?


* As a little aside, Liverpuddlian musical comedian Mitch Benn is currently touring a show called Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle. An edited version is on BBC iPlayer [UK only] until 21 Feb. He counted up all the "5th Beatle" candidates and got to 36. Then added himself. I wonder how many "second Buddhas" there might have been so far? 

20 April 2012

The Fivefold Niyāma

Music of the SpheresTHIS TEXT IS ALMOST CERTAINLY one that you have never read before because it comes from the traditional Pāli commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya ascribed to Buddhaghosa (ca. 5th century CE) and as far as I know there is no published translation.

It is interesting to me, and others familiar with Sangharakshita's Dharma teaching, because it is one of the source texts for the five niyāmas, or, more correctly, the fivefold niyāma. Using this list, which is not canonical, but first appears in the commentaries (probably in this commentary), Sangharakshita has painted a picture of conditionality as multi-layered. This is particularly important because it shows how kamma is not the only form of conditionality, and that events may have causes that are nothing to do with our actions. This has become particularly important in the literalistic West, especially under the influence of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who claim, in accordance with their tradition, that everything that happens to us is a result of our actions. This is certainly not the view of the Pāli texts (as discussed in my earlier essay Is Karma Responsible for Everything?). However the lack of translations has made it difficult for people to follow up the sources, and so I offer this one as a start.

Dīgha Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā (2.431)
Commenting on Mahāpadāna Sutta (D 14; PTS D ii.12) [1]: "It is natural [2], bhikkhus, that when a bodhisatta falls [3] from his Tusita (Heaven) form, he enters his mother's belly… this is natural." [4]
BUDDHAGHOSA [5]: says: 'ayamettha dhammatā'—here entering the mothers belly is natural (dhammatā) and is called 'this nature (sabhāva [6]), this certainty (niyāma [7]).' And the five-fold certainty [8] has these names: certainty of actions (kamma-niyāma); certainty of seasons (utu-niyāma); certainty of seeds (bīja-niyāma); certainty of thoughts (citta-niyāma); and the certainty of natures (dhamma-niyāma [9]).

This, 'the giving of pleasant consequences for skilfulness, and unpleasant results for unskilfulness', this is the certainty of actions. There is an illustration. The grounds for this are in the [Dhammapada] verse:
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action. [10]
Moreover once a woman quarrelled with her husband and strangled him. Then wanting to die herself she put a noose around her neck. A certain man was sharpening a knife and saw her about to hang herself. Wanting to cut the rope, he ran up to relieve her [calling] 'don't be afraid, don't be afraid.' The rope having become a snake he froze. Frightened he ran. Shortly after the woman died. Thus the danger should be obvious. [11] 
The trees in all the provinces acquire fruit and flowers etc. all at the same time [12]; the wind blowing or not blowing; the quickness or slowness of the sun's heat; the devas sending rain or not; [13] day blossoming lotuses whithering at night; this and similar things are the certainty of seasons. [14] 
From rice seed comes only the rice fruit; from a sweet fruit comes only sweet flavour, and from a bitter fruit comes only bitter taste. This is the certainty of seeds.
From the first aspects of mind and mental events (citta-cetasikā dhammā), to the last, each is conditioned by a condition or precondition (upanissaya-paccayena). Thus that which comes forth from eye-cognition etc. [15] is immediately in agreement [with that cognition]. [16] 
The shaking of the 10,000 world system when the bodhisatta enters his mother's belly and other such phenomena [associated with the life story of the Buddha as told in the Mahāpadāna Sutta], this is called the certainty of natures (dhammaniyāma). Certainty of natures is understood as consisting in this. This was primarily said, bhikkhus, because just this meaning explains dhammatā.



[1] dhammatā, esā, bhikkhave, yadā bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkamati… Ayamettha dhammatā.
[2] Walsh "it is a rule"; or 'it is lawful'. The word dhammatā is an abstract noun from dhamma; so a first parsing suggests it means dhamma-ness. However which meaning of dhamma is being referred to. Translators and commentators agree that it is dhamma as 'nature' (i.e. having a particular nature) as when the Buddha says at his death vayadhamma saṅkhārā 'all constructs are perishable'; i.e. they are of a nature (dhamma) to decay or die (vaya). The text is saying that it is in the nature of things, the nature of the universe that the life events of the Buddha happen as they do. I have no wish to get into the theological debate that necessarily ensues from this statement, I merely wish to establish what the text says, and, following K. R. Norman's dictum, why it says that. If something is in the state of having a nature (dhamma-tā), then that nature (dhamma), is natural (dhammatā) to it. Hence we may translate ayamettha dhammatā as 'this here is natural'.
[3] Men die, but devas living in a devaloka (like Tusita) fall (cavati).
[4] The term dhammatā is then used to describe all the miraculous events of the Buddha's hagiography.
[5] Buddhaghosa is the 5th Century CE author of this commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya. He was born in Indian but worked in Sri Lanka.
[6] The word sabhāva later becomes a technical term in Mahāyāna Buddhism in its Sanskrit guise svabhāva. Here it just means 'state (of mind), nature, condition.' (PED)
[7] Niyama or niyāma the two are confused in Pāli, can be translated several ways. Obviously here it refers to something which just happens, something which always happens in the life of a Buddha, and which must happen. I focus on the last aspect here.
[8] pañca-vidha niyāmaniyāma 'certainty' is singular, and pañcavidha 'five-fold'.
[9] As we will see the term dhammaniyāma is itself defined in terms of the events described above as dhammatā.
[10] Dhammapada v.127 cited by number only in the text. This is the so-called 'law of kamma' or as here 'the certainty of actions' (see also Attwood 2008). This certainty was eroded as time went on, and eventually the Vajrasattva mantra became a way to circumvent any evil kamma, even the atekiccha: "incurable" or "unpardonable" actions (see also example A iii.146).
[11] As best as I can make out this is a magical allegorical story – the rope turns into a snake to prevent the man from saving the woman from being rescued and therefore rescued from the fate she deserves after having strangled her husband. That is to say that the results of actions are inescapable! See also note 10. above. Presumably the idea of a rope turning into a snake did not seem wholly improbable to the bhikkhu saṅgha.
[12] ekappahāreneva 'with just one blow'
[13] It is curious that modern translators often leave out the notion that it is devas who send the rain – they silently remove this supernatural cause and only allow that it rains.
[14] Sayadaw's (1978) 'caloric order' is clearly wrong in this case. What is intended is cyclic seasonal phenomena: the flowering and fruiting of trees in the same season throughout the land, winds, the heat of the sun at different times of the year, and the day night cycles. Indeed utu (Skt. ṛtu) means 'season, time' and can also refer, for example, to the menstrual cycle. I suppose one must concede that from the modern point of view the phenomena mentioned in the text are all related to the heat gradient in the earth's atmosphere caused by its movement around the sun and the tilt of its axis (which might therefore warrant the term caloric (from the Latin calor 'heat'); however the ancient Indians (even the medieval Sri Lankans) did not think in these terms in the 5th century. As I note above they see rain as being sent by devas!
[15] Meaning ear, nose, tongue, body and mind cognition.
[16] The point here seems to be the one made in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38), i.e. from whatever condition cognition arises it is named after that. The cognition that arises on condition of eye and form is eye-cognition: (yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ thena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. cakkuñca paṭicca rūpe uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇan-t-eva saṅkhaṃ gacchati - M i.259). So a contact between eye and form does not give rise to ear cognition (the formula takes no account of synaesthesia). In a sense the point here is the same as the certainty of seeds: you can't have ear cognition from eye contact.

Attwood, Jayarava. 2008. ‘Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?’ Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol. 15.

Ledi Sayadaw 1978. The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order.’ in The Manuals of Buddhism, trans. Barua, B. M., Rhys Davids, C. A. F., & Nyana. Bangkok: Magamakut Press. Online:

Subhuti. 2011. Revering and Relying upon the Dharma: Sangharakshita's approach to Right View. [A glimpse of Sangharakshita's recent thinking on the niyāmas as discussed with and recorded by Dharmacārī Subhuti.]
For more on the niyāmas in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Order see my friend Dhīvan's website.
For my work-in-progress on translating all the texts which mention the niyāmas see : The Fivefold Niyāma. [pdf]

13 May 2011

Buddha Day

IN THE TRIRATNA MOVEMENT, like many other Buddhist groups, we celebrate the Buddha's awakening about now, to coincide with the 2nd full moon after the Vernal Equinox. We call this festival Buddha Day, and it is trined with Dharma Day, two full moons later in July, and Sangha Day in November (a non-traditional date I think). I note that my local centre is celebrating Wesak this year instead of Buddha Day, and that Wesak has been creeping into our vocabulary. To my consternation I note that our main website has Wesak as the name of this festival as well.

The word buddha is, of course, the past-participle of the verbal root √budh 'to understand, to wake up'. It's often said that Buddha is a title, but in fact it is a description. In calling Gautama 'the Buddha' we are saying that he is someone who has woken up or understood. On Buddha Day we celebrate the fact of his having woken up.

Wesak, usually pronounced with wes to rhyme with 'mess' by English speakers, is the Sinhalese (corrupt) pronunciation of the Pali name of the 2nd lunar month of the ancient Indian calendar. In Sanskrit it is vaiśākha, and in Pali vesākha. The full title should be in Sanskrit vaiśākha-pūrṇimā and in Pali vesākha-puṇṇamī. The name itself has little spiritual significance. Vaiśākha means 'connected with visākha' and visākha means 'branched or forked' from vi- (divided, originally from dvi 'two') and sākha (a branch). And pūrṇimā means 'full moon.' So it just means the full moon day of the second lunar month, in an archaic calender that called the Spring Equinox New Year.

Most South-East Asian countries follow the Sinhalese by calling the festival some phonetic variant of the Pali vesākha. Burma, apparently, uses their own name for the same lunar month: Kason. The rest of the Buddhist world which celebrates the festival usually opt for a local name. In Japan it is hanamatsuri (花祭), literally 'flower festival'. In Tibet they say sagé dawa (sa ga'i zla ba ས་གའི་ཟླ་བ) which is also just the name of the lunar month in which the festival occurs, though their calendar is a bit different. And so on.

So there's nothing special or particularly significant about the name Wesak. The direct equivalent would be calling our festival "May Full Moon"or just "May", and mispronouncing the words slightly.

In India two different Sanskrit terms are used. 1. buddha-pūrṇimā 'Buddha full moon' - where pūrṇimā, again, means 'full moon'; and 2. buddha-jayantī 'the Buddha's victory', where jayantī means 'victorious'. I'm not sure why the feminine is used, but it clearly comes from the present participle jayanta 'victorious' of the verb √ji 'to conquer'. These two at least have the advantage of stating explicitly that they celebrate Gautama having awakened, and jayantī is really quite descriptive. The festival celebrates the Buddha's victory over dukkha ( or death, or Māra, etc.), and it just happens to be on the full moon day of the second lunar month of the old Indian calendar because that's the traditional date.

Calling the festival Buddha Day, as opposed to one or other of the Asian Buddhist terms, was doubtless part of Sangharakshita's conscious break with traditional Buddhism in the late 1960s. In a recent communique to the Triratna Movement he said:
The Triratna Buddhist Order and Community is not a continuation of the Tibetan tradition, or of any other particular Buddhist tradition. The particular iconographic, theoretical, and ritual frameworks of Tibetan or other traditions are not our reference point. This should be plain from the imagery, ceremonies, and rhetoric in common use in the Triratna Buddhist Community.
When I asked him what he though about this creep towards using Wesak he replied:
"So far as I am concerned, it is Buddha Day, to correspond with Dharma Day and Sangha Day. I don’t know how the term Wesak has crept in. It was, however, in common use among English Buddhists, mainly Theravadins, many years ago. I think the Buddhist Society still uses the term."
It's been suggested to me, in a discussion about this issue on Facebook, that one of reasons for using Wesak is that everyone is doing it. And yet for four decades we have been critical of this kind of group-think, of doing things just to fit in. I don't find this reasoning very convincing. It's clear that we are celebrating the Buddha's enlightenment, and not any particular traditional observance.

I've given some thought to this matter and have wondered whether the drift into using a traditional title for the festival is symptomatic of the commodification and commoditization of Buddhism. Commodification is the process of assigning monetary value to something that has previously been priceless: a move from social value to market value. This is one of the most potent forces in Western society at present - so that we truly are in a position these days to know 'the price of everything and the value of nothing' (Oscar Wilde. Lord Darlington, Act III). Commoditization on the other hand is when a different brands of a product become indistinguishable to the consumer. This tends to cancel out decisions based on features and causes consumers to decide on price - often leading to price wars.

If you go to a good book store they will have several dozen books on Buddhism, not to mention CDs and DVDs. Old classics go out of print and an endless stream of new books come out each year. Few of them add much to the gene pool. Most recycle what are becoming clichés. At the same time Buddhism is repackaged as lifestyle advice and sold under various guises. Although some centres operate on a donation basis, most of us have mortgages to pay, so our classes cost money. Of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing. But there is little in the popular imagination to distinguish what we do, from what the local Yoga centre, or the local Mindfulness centre do. The market for meditation and wisdom teachings is becoming commodified. This is fuelled by monism - the belief that all spiritual traditions aim at one truth, that beneath the surface "all is one", and all religions are essentially the same. I don't think price, more than distinctive teachings, drives choices about which tradition we get involved with, but I do think things like physical proximity and convenient opening hours do.

On one hand perhaps some of us buy into the 'all is one' meme, and just want to get along with everyone? Perhaps we don't feel so confident these days and seek safety in numbers? Perhaps we ourselves have lost a sense of our distinctiveness, or perhaps we are afraid that in asserting our distinctiveness we risk rejection by traditional Buddhists (with more accusations of arrogance)? Perhaps we just are not really individuals in the full sense, and are too easily swayed by the popular.

On the other hand the best response to a commoditized market place is to increase the value of the product - so most of our centres offer a range of services. In addition to more or less secular meditation courses, as well as basic classes on Buddhism, and more in-depth and explicitly Buddhist instruction, we teach Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. You also get access to a community of like minded individuals. And of course part of community life is collective practice and celebrations.

So the response and the situation are both complex. And I don't mean to suggest or imply that Triratna Buddhists knowingly or willingly pursue commodification and commoditization - I think the opposite is true, we generally resist it. It's happening around us though, and because it is the mindset of the wider society, we can't help but be influenced to some extent. Most of the people we interact with tacitly support this kind of change because it means that they are materially better off, at least in the short term. We probably unconsciously participate simply by being members of a particular kind of society and culture. I think it's important that we be aware of this trend and resist it. But we also need to resist the blending in and settling down tendency. Our movement began as an explicit break with tradition. We need to be wary of treating tradition as a fall back. Falling back on tradition would be a disaster for us.

And I think adopting the name Wesak is a bit like this. It's not the result of a conscious consensus to change. There's been no discussion about it. We're expressing a sense of lack, or even, from what some people say, a sense of discomfort or even dislike. I'm playing this up a bit to make a point. But also I happen to be in contact with a number of people, almost none of whom are part of our movement, who are very excited about breaking with tradition. They call themselves 'secular Buddhists', or even 'non-Buddhists', and they write wonderful searing polemics of tradition. Forty years ago what Sangharakshita did was radical and caused a stir in the establishment; and yes, even some hatred. His polemics made him very unpopular in some circles (e.g. Forty-Three Years Ago, and Was the Buddha a Bhikkhu?) Right now that same attitude is becoming hot. Once we were the world leaders in this, now we appear to be choosing to fit in. I was attracted to the Triratna Community for many reasons, not least of which was that it was and is a community. But I also liked the zeitgeist, the zeal and zest, as well as the idealism and ideals. I wanted to believe. 18 years on I'm older and more cynical, and perhaps a little wiser.

I hope I'm not merely being cynical in criticising the use of Wesak. It's not a name that speaks to me the way that Buddha Day does. Some of my friends feel differently and it occurred to me that public holidays here in the UK are rather prosaically named. In New Zealand we have Waitangi Day, ANZAC Day, The Queen's Birthday, Labour Day which are full of meaning and history for us. "The May Bank Holiday" doesn't ring any bells for me, while Buddha Day is familiar territory. For Brits it's the other way around.

If I thought anyone would take any notice, I would suggest we have it on the same date each year, the way that Shingon Buddhists celebrate Kūkai's birth on the 15th of June (15th day of the 6th month in the Japanese lunar calendar); or, say, on the second Sunday of May each year. Make a clean break of it. However we seem to be sentimental about the archaic Indian lunar calendar, even when we have almost no comprehension of it. I have to confess that every fact I cite about it here is recently looked up for the purposes of writing this.

The second full moon after the Vernal Equinox of 2011 is on Tuesday 17th May, and that is when I will be celebrating Buddha Day - the Triratna Movement festival celebrating the the Awakening of the Awakened One.


11 June 2010

How the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta Came About

An Exert From the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta Commentary (Suttanipāta-Aṭṭhakathā) by Buddhaghosa. [1]

A pdf version of this text is available here.

How did it come about? The brief version is that some beggar-monks [2] in sight of the Himalayas were troubled by spirits and sought out the Blessed One in Sāvatthī. The Blessed One spoke of this thread for the purpose of protection and as a meditation practice.

The long version of the story goes like this: one-time the Blessed One was staying in Sāvatthī with the rainy season approaching. At that time a great number of beggar-monks from different nations desiring to begin their rainy season retreat came into the Buddha's presence to get a meditation subject. To the passionate types he gave the eleven-fold reflection on unloveliness; to the hot heads he gave the four-fold meditation on loving-kindness; for the deluded types he prescribed mindfulness of death; to people up 'in their heads' he gave the mindfulness of breathing practice; recollection of the Buddha was recommended for faith types; and analysis of the four elements for the intelligent types; and thus he taught the 84,000 meditation subjects to those that suited them.

And then five hundred beggar-monks [3] having received their meditation practice in the presence of the Blessed One set off seeking suitable accommodation [sappāya-senāsanaṃ] and villages for alms gathering. In the hinterlands they saw a mountain in the Himalayas with flat rocks like blue rock-crystal, adorned by a forest grove with cool dense dark shadows, with sand strewn about like pearls on a silver platter, and surrounded by a cool pleasant pure river. [4] They stayed the night there and in the morning after attending to their bodies, they entered a nearby village for alms. The village was a dense settling of a thousand people full of faith and confidence. In those border regions the sight of religious wanderers was rare and the delighted villagers having fed the beggar-monks implored them "Good sirs, why not dwell here for the three months of the rainy season?" They built five hundred meditation huts, and provided a platform and seat, bowls of water for drinking and water for washing, and all means of support.

On the second day the beggar-monks entered another village for alms. There also the people, having waited on the monks, implored them to stay for the rainy season. Not seeing any obstacles the beggar-monks assented. They entered the forest grove sat at the foot of trees resolutely all night and day, beating the block to mark the watches of the night, [5] dwelling full of wise attention. The brightness [teja] of the virtuous beggar-monks interfered with the brightness of the spirits of the trees, [6] who one by one took their children down from their magic palaces [vimānā] and wandered here and there. They looked on from a distance, and just as when a king or his prime-minister might commandeer a house and the people might ask "when will they leave?" the tree-spirits asked "when are these good men going to leave?". They thought "it looks like they will stay the whole three months of the rainy season. We won't be able to survive down here with our children having had to descend from our magic palaces. We must try to frighten them away." That night while the monks were engaged in their practices the tree spirits appeared before them in the terrifying forms of yakkhas, making frightful noises. Seeing those forms and hearing those sounds the hearts of the beggar-monks pounded, and they turned pale. They could not find any calm in their minds, and upset again and again by fear they were shocked and bewildered. The tree spirits also made a pungent stink that caused the beggar monks splitting headaches, but they did not tell each other about these incidents.

Then one day the senior monk asked the monks to assemble for a meeting. He said "friends when we entered this forest grove a few days ago we had good complexion, we were accomplished, and had clear senses. However now we are haggard and pale. Is this not a good place to stay?" One monk spoke up about his terrifying experiences. Then everyone confirmed that is was the same for them. The elder said "friends, the Blessed One has decreed two possible starting times for the retreat. Since this accommodation is unsuitable we will go and ask the Blessed One for better accommodation and start our retreat again." The monks all said "sādhu" [7] to that, and without further discussion, leaving all their bedding but taking bowl and robe, they embarked on the journey back to Sāvatthī. By and by they came to the city and met the Blessed One. Seeing them he asked why they had broken the rule about not travelling during the rains retreat, and they related to him all that had happened. [8] The Blessed One then cast his mind over the whole of India [9], even considering the places and seats of animals [10] but did not see suitable accommodation. He said to the beggar monks: "there is no other place you might go to in order to attain the destruction of theinfluxes [āsava]. [11] Go monks, and stay depending on those lodgings. However if you wish to be unafraid of the spirits then learn this protective spell and let this be both your protection and your meditation subject. And he taught them the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta. [12]

Then having completed the teaching the Buddha said to the monks: "go, monks, and dwell in that very forest grove. On the eight days in the month for listening to the Dhamma [13] you should repeatedly recite [14] this sutta having beaten the wooden block [of the watches]. [15] Give dhamma discourses [on the sutta], talk it over and rejoice in it. Devote yourselves to cultivation and pursuit of this meditation. Those spirits will not cause you to see frightful hallucinations, and they will only wish you well and be friendly. The bhikkhus assented, saying "sadhu", then rose from their seats and respectfully [16] went there. And [this time] the spirits were pleased and joyful to see them, and said "good sirs, we wish you health and happiness". They personally swept out the cabins, prepared hot water, gave the monks foot and back rubs, and settled down to watch over them. Having cultivated loving kindness and made a good foundation the monks began seeking insight. At the end of the three months all of them had attained the highest fruit and become Arahants, and they celebrated the full and pure end of rains ceremony [pavāranā].


[1] PTS SnA i.193ff.

[2] bhikkhu means 'beggar'. Monk literally means 'alone' from Greek monos. Neither beggar nor monk quite capture the sense, but together they get closer.

[3] pañcamattāni bhikkhusatāni – literally 'five measures of a hundred beggar-monks'.

[4] The description of the place shows a distinct influence of Sanskrit compositions with the use of very long compound adjectives: "… nīla-kācamaṇi-sannibha-silā-talaṃ sītala-ghana-cchāya-nīla-vana-saṇḍa-maṇḍitaṃ muttā-tala-rajata-paṭṭa-sadisa-vālukā-kiṇṇa-bhūmi-bhāgaṃ suci-sāta-sītala-jalāsaya-parivāritaṃ pabbatam-addasaṃsu."

[5] I'm guessing here from yāmagaṇḍikaṃ koṭṭetvā: yāma could also be 'restraint'; gaṇḍikaṃ is a block of wood, and koṭṭetvā is a gerund from koṭṭeti 'to beat'. PED sv. yāma has a doubtful reading 'to beat the block of restraint'; or allow relating it to Yāma, king of the underworld. However, organised monks on retreat would have marked the periods of the day and night, and banging on a wooden block is an excellent way of doing this, and is in fact used today, i.e. I read PED yāma2 'a watch of the night'.

[6] 'tree spirits' translates rukkhadevatā – these seem to be nature spirits, rather than celestial devas.

[7] Sādhu means 'good, virtuous; approval, ascent.

[8] In the suttas the events would have been repeated verbatim, but by contrast here we just get "they told the Blessed one all about it" te bhagavato sabbaṃ ārocesuṃ.

[9] sakala-jambudīpa literally 'all of the rose-apple island.'

[10] catuppādapīṭhakaṭṭhānamattampi – I'm not entirely certain of this reading.

[11] The āsavas 'influxes, cankers, taints' are kāmāsava 'sense desire', bhavāsava 'existence', diṭṭhāsava 'views', avijjāsava 'ignorance'. A list of three āsava leaves out diṭṭhāsava.

[12] See my translation: Mettā Sutta Translation.

[13] Sayadaw says these are the waxing and waning days of the 5th, 8th, 14th and 15th days in the month. The monks were mostly practicing alone in cabins during this time, but came together for these periods of teaching. See Sayadaw, Mahasi. Brahmavihara Dhamma. [ca. 1983, trans. Min Swe (Min Kyaw Thu)]

[14] ussāretha literally 'pile up', i.e. chant repeatedly

[15] see also note 5. This is a very awkward sentence to translate: "Imañca suttaṃ māsassa aṭṭhasu dhammassavanadivasesu gaṇḍiṃ ākoṭetvā ussāretha, dhammakathaṃ karotha, sākacchatha, anumodatha, idameva kammaṭṭhānaṃ āsevatha, bhāvetha, bahulīkarotha."

[16] padakkhinaṃ katvā is literally 'making the right hand', i.e. keeping the ritually pure right hand towards the object of veneration rather than the impure left hand. The left hand is impure because it is used to clean the anus after defecating. See also: Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition.

image: Himalaya's Bhutan. From