Showing posts with label Buddhas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddhas. Show all posts

27 May 2011

Gautama Buddha : Book Review

Gautama Buddha - VishvapaniI WAS VERY PLEASED to receive a review copy of Vishvapani's (i.e. Viśvapāṇi) new book on the life of of the Buddha. I was involved in several email exchanges with the author during the writing of the book, earning me a mention in the acknowledgements as making "perceptive comments". I also provided a detailed critique of the map provided in the front of the book (more on this below). Vishvapani, a long time member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, is known to listeners of BBC Radio 4 as the Buddhist contributor to Thought for the Day; and edited a previous book: Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough. He has played important roles within the Triratna Movement in publishing, and in communicating change. Vishvapani is an excellent communicator, and so I dived into this book with interest.

An enormous amount of research and effort has gone into this book, as the huge range of texts cited shows. Vishvapani has made himself thoroughly familiar with translations of the Pāli biographical literature, which is no easy thing given how large and yet fragmentary that literature is, and how variable are the translations. The book combines narrative and commentary, if not seamlessly, then at least appropriately and often to good effect, pausing to consider the historicity of various legends. The story is so well known and almost tells itself, though Vishvapani does highlight many details that may have escaped others - particularly in the area of conflicting versions of the story.

This book can be seen as an update of biographies like Ñāṇamoli's The Life of the Buddha which focus on the Pāli Canon as an historical source, but which are almost entirely uncritical. What Vishvapani has tried to do is retell this story for Buddhists, but to inform his retelling with the historical insights of scholars such as Professors Richard Gombrich and Johannes Bronkhorst. For most readers, with little or no access to this kind of scholarship, the book provides valuable perspectives on ancient India. We see that the Buddha's biography is a composed narrative, as opposed to an historical record, and Vishvapani is a Buddhist who is retelling the story for other Buddhists. As such the book retains an element of hagiography; the Buddha is not reduced to a mere human being - human, but not too human - but retains his mystique. I imagine most contemporary Western Buddhists will find the balance between Reason and Romance appealing.

The audience for this book is most likely the average practising Buddhist - someone with a passion for the Buddhist religion, but without much access to Buddhological scholarship. Although Gombrich's most recent book was published at a reasonable price, Bronkhorst's books often exceed £100 and are bought only by University libraries. Barriers to the scholarly literature are many: it requires knowledge of multiple languages (ancient and modern); those who lack training in the various disciplines struggle with the jargon and conceptual frameworks; physical access to primary and secondary sources is often very limited - though Pāli texts and resources are a happy exception with a great deal being available online and for free. The average Buddhist relies on people like Vishvapani to open a window into this world for them. Unfortunately Vishvapani, though highly intelligent, well read, and articulate is not entirely at home in this world - he does not know Pali or Sanskrit for instance - and this has hampered him and lead him into difficulties at times.

The following criticisms are from a point of view which I do not imagine many of Vishvapani's readers will share - but they made considerable impact as I read the book. I was very disappointed to see that, despite my opinion being asked on the subject, that Vishvapani and his publisher had settled on not using diacritics when transliterating Sanskrit (saṃskṛta!) and Pāli. For me this creates an ongoing dissonance and distraction while reading. It certainly detracts from the credibility of the book as a work of scholarship - no bona fide scholar deliberately spells badly! I've published my own books, and I know that it is in fact very easy to include diacritics these days - there really is no excuse any more.

Sometimes Vishvapani's lack of linguistic knowledge shows, for example, when he says of Nirvana [sic] that "it is a verb, not a noun: a way of being rather than a fixed state, and certainly not a place to which one might travel." (p.89) and "...'Nirvana' which is the 'act of blowing out'" (p.94). Nirvāṇa is a past-participle, indicating an action already completed: it literally means 'blown out'; and it can, in fact, be used as a noun or an adjective just the way that another past participle, buddha, is. The act of blowing out - the present indicative - in Sanskrit would be nirvāti; though the causative nirvāpayati might also be used - the root is √ 'to blow' but there is some overlap with words from √vṛ 'to cover'. C.f. PED sv nibbāna, nibbāti, nibbāpeti, nibbāyati and nibbuta. The metaphor, therefore, is of a state achieved rather than a process in the present: in nirvāṇa the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are 'blown out, extinguished, quenched, snuffed out'; and suffering is eradicated. I can see what Vishvapani was getting at, but if one is going to make doctrinal points through grammar in a serious way, then one needs to know what one is talking about, or consult someone who does. There are a few examples of this type scattered throughout the book.

A further dissonance I experienced was the use of Sanskrit translations of Pāli names throughout. This was made worse by being inconsistent, and by several consistent mis-spellings. So, for instance, despite referring almost exclusively to Pāli sources, the biography is of Gautama (Sanskrit), rather than Gotama (Pāli). And it features characters such as Kashyapa [sic] and Shariputra [sic]. When I encountered the names Adara Kalama and Udraka Reamaputra [sic!] I was initially puzzled until I realised he meant Aḷara Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. Note that Rāmaputta is not Sanskritised Reamaputra, as Vishvapani has done throughout, but Rāmaputra - ea is not found in any Sanskrit transliteration scheme. Similarly the names of the Buddha's five companions are Sanskritised except Bhaddiya (Sanskrit: Bhadrika) who retains the Pāli form (p.105). Place names were mainly Sanskritised (e.g. Uruvilva for Uruvela, and Rajagriha [sic] for Rājagaha) except Sarnath (Hindi) and Isipatana (Pāli = Sanskrit ṛṣipatana) - though to be fair Sarnath is a modern town without an ancient name.

Other language oddities include using shravaka (i.e. śravaka) and savaka in the same sentence (p.120) and the spelling of the word puthujjana as patthajana which is neither Sanskrit (pṛthagjana) nor Pāli. There is a glossary in the back of the book which enables the reader to find bowdlerised versions of the Pāli names - i.e. without diacritics - but otherwise the reader consulting the sources cited will be confused because the names simply do not match and there is no discussion in the book, anywhere as far as I could see, explaining why. For me this was all very distracting.

The problem here, for the scholar, is that we get no insight into the process or deliberation that has gone on behind the scenes - we get the result of weighing things up, but not enough sense of the measures against which facts are weighed. Although citations to the Pāli sources are frequent (though some are not referenced, bottom of p.123) there are no footnotes which tell us why something has been interpreted one way or another. And although Vishvapani does bring in some of the insights of scholars in the text, we don't really get a sense of the controversy and argumentation that surrounds and suffuses the scholarly discourse. For instance any sense of the intellectual batterings that Bronkhorst has given Gombrich, and Gombrich's elegant ripostes, are absent. Many of these issues are not settled by any means. and Bronkhorst's revisions of Indian history have yet to be tested (though Geoffrey Samuel has independently confirmed many of Bronkhorst's conclusions). I would have expected, at the very least, a justification for translating into Sanskrit when the sources used were overwhelmingly Pāli, and a justification for the lack of diacritics. A separate discussion of the problems of treating Buddhist texts as historical documents would have been a real advantage.

I noticed another, more subtle, problem which plagues Sangharakshita's followers. Early on Sangharaksita, like many other Buddhists of his day, adopted the language of German Idealist philosophy: e.g. 'Transcendental', 'Reality', even 'Absolute Reality', etc., These terms don't really have Pāli or Sanskrit equivalents but came to dominate the way we talk about Buddhism. We are familiar, for instance, with the idea that the Buddha's awakening "transcended language" (p.99), even though almost every sutta speaks of the result of that experience being some form of knowledge, which of course does not transcend language and makes up the content of the scriptures (e.g. at AN 11.2 vimutti is the condition for the arising of vimuttiñāṇa). However more recently Sangharakshita has moved away from that kind of language, and begun talking more in terms of 'experience'. Vishvapani tends to alternate between writing about "the true nature of reality" (p.94) and Gautama's knowledge being a "revelation, not a cool acquisition of knowledge" (p.91); and a more phenomenological language: "Directly confronting his experience was a different kind of challenge from that of attaining mystical states..." (p.73).

Vishvapani is also sometimes ambivalent about aspects of the story when there are variations in the texts: the forest, for example, is both a frightening and dangerous place (p.73ff) and a peaceful retreat (p. 100). Perhaps it was both, but the two ideas need sorting out and some commentary to resolve what seemed to me to be an obvious contradiction.

There were one or two instances of Buddhist-speak. When Vishvapani writes that Bahiya was instructed "to focus on direct, unmediated perception" (p.12), I found myself wondering what that could possibly mean. It's the sort of statement that used to go under my radar, but now I realise that I don't understand such language, and never have. What's worse is that, as I understand the processes of perception, there could be no such thing as 'unmediated perception' - perception is mediation. My own exploration of the Bahiya Sutta goes in an entirely different conceptual direction (In the Seen. 22 May 2009).

I mentioned the map in the beginning of the book, and this also has problems. Sarnath and Vāraṇāsi are, contra the picture the map gives, very close together and on the same side of the Gomati River. The Ganges River does not cease at the confluence with the Yamuna! Perhaps I would not be complaining, but I was specifically consulted on this matter. For instance I said:
"Bodhgayā is on the western bank of the Falgu/Narañjanā. And these days is just a little south of the fork in the river (and on the western fork). Took me a while to figure out Uruvilva (aka Uruvela!) - is there a reason to think it is not Bodhgayā? My impression is of two names for one place (since the name Bodhgayā is not mentioned in Pāli AFAIK). "
The map is probably intended to give a broad overview, but some of these problems - like the 200 mile gap in the Ganges River caused no doubt by an opaque background for the word 'Varanasi' - could easily have been corrected. Such things matter to me.

I'm quite aware that these criticisms will be seen as nit-picking by most of Vishvapani's readers, and perhaps by the author himself. But nitpicking of this type is what I do - these are the kinds of comments I was making in my emails to Vishvapani during the writing process. I'm not a style guru, or a literary critic - I'm a philologist. I'm very much concerned with accurately conveying what's in the early sources, in light of contemporary scholarship, in order to show how these sources contribute to a modern understanding of Buddhism. My perception is that Vishvapani was engaged in something similar with this book, so I do think my criticisms are relevant and valid. I wanted very much to like this book, Vishvapani is a friend and colleague. But in the end if found the constant pricking of the kinds of difficulties outlined above left me feeling more frustrated than pleased. This has not been an easy review to write!

I imagine that for those who know no Pali or Sanskrit, and who have no access to the recent Buddhological scholarship, that this book will be very well received. The reviews on Amazon UK, one by a fellow order member, are so far glowing. It fills a gap in the market for a considered retelling of the life of the Buddha in a modern idiom, concerned to communicate to a relatively sophisticated contemporary Buddhist readership. I think Vishvapani knows his audience pretty well, and speaks to them. And to be fair I'm not really a member of the intended audience. Despite my criticisms I respect the care and thought that has gone into the book over a period of years. As far as I can judge, and apart from the negative points I have made, the book is well written - Vishvapani's 'voice' is serious and thoughtful, though never pedantic (more's the pity!). The many citations will allow readers to consult the translations themselves (allowing for the confusions caused by the sometimes inconsistent Sanskritization), and since he mainly sticks to recent, currently in-print translations these should be easily accessible to those who care to go looking (all of them are on my bookshelf). I think the price of £25 for the hardback, handsome though it is, will have put off many of his target audience, but once a more affordable paperback edition comes out I expect that it will become a popular and widely read book.

Vishvapani Blomfield.
Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One.
Quercus, 2011.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 409 2.
388 p.
RRP £25.


31/5/11 I note that my 'frank' review has provoked a response from Elisa Freschi on reviews more generally (see also the comments).

30 July 2010

Some Additional Notes

Here are two follow up notes to previous essays, one on the -e ending in mantras, another on the name Gotama; and lastly a brief note on dating the Canon.

1. The -e Ending in Mantras.

In March 2009 I wrote Words in Mantras That End in -e. In that essay I revisited some of the ideas about what the -e ending might signify, especially with respect to the Heart Sūtra mantra. Kern, Conze and other Sanskritists have seen it as a feminine vocative singular, though of course there are other grammatical possibilities. [1] I speculated that the -e ending was simply a masculine nominative singular, and that the mantras were composed in a region of India which employed that ending as opposed to Classical Sanskrit -as/-aḥ or Pāli -o. Recently I stumbled on an article by Signe Cohen which adds something to the picture. I know Cohen from her excellent linguistic analysis of the Upaniṣads: Text and Authority in the Older Upaniṣads. This book is particularly important for the understanding it brings of the internal struggles apparent especially in the Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad which has Yajurveda sages in direct competition and victorious over Ṛgveda sages. However in 2002 Cohen published a short article on the -e ending:
On the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit/Middle Indic Ending "-e" as a 'Magadhism', Acta Orientalia Vol. 63 (2002), p.67-9.
This article points out that although the -e form for the masculine nominative singular does indeed occur in the North East of India, it is in fact far more widespread. This has partly been obscured as editors of Sanskrit texts have 'corrected' the text for critical editions. Patrick Olivelle complains of the same problem with the Upaniṣads in his article:
'Unfaithful transmitters: philological criticism and critical editions of the Upaniṣads,' in Language Texts and Society, Firenze University Press, 2005. (p. 285f) [originally published in Journal of Indian Philosophy 26, 1998: 173f.]
Western Editors, believing Indian pandits to be incompetent, silently emended unusual spellings. However as Olivelle points out, those pandits were far from incompetent, likely to be well versed in Pāṇini, and to know a 'wrong' form when they saw one. Indian scholars tended to preserve dialectical and archaic variants, being inherently more conservative in relation to texts they saw as sacred. To the European scholar of a certain era nothing but their own objectivity was sacred. While we may not accept the pandits explanations of such variant forms (which are frequently ascribed to the peculiarities of Vedic or given mystical significance) they were at least not so over-confident as to 'correct' them. As such, modern critical and printed editions of the Upaniṣads often obscure the history of the text by removing evidence, and reproducing previously corrected texts without question.

Cohen notes that in fact the -e form is found all over North India, and especially in Sanskrit loan words in Tocharian. She concludes:
"The common assumption that the -e ending is an Eastern Dialect form must be seriously questioned. Rather than being a specifically Eastern Dialectical feature found sporadically in other parts of India due to eastern influence, it appears that the -e ending was widespread, especially in Buddhist Sanskrit, that it must be considered a standard form, next to the -o ending." [p. 68; my italics]
My conjecture is that Buddhist mantras were composed in Prakrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit rather than Classical Sanskrit, and that words ending in -e in mantras are simply nominative singular forms, the gender of the words in the mantra having no relationship to the gender of the deity - and in the case of the Heart Sūtra there is no deity anyway.


2. The Name Gautama

In my essay What Was the Buddha's Name? I drew attention to the quirk of history which left the Buddha, a kṣatriya by tradition but possibly a non-āryan, with an ostentatiously Brahmin gotra-, or clan-name: Gautama (meaning 'descended from Gotama, the one with the most cows go'). However more than half a century ago D.D. Kosambi offered a different take on this subject in a review published in 1953:
D.D. Kosambi. 'Brahmin Clans'. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1953), pp. 202-208.
He points to two brief Pāli passages which suggest that Gautama (Pāli: Gotama) is not the Buddha's gotra name. The first is from the Therīgāthā verses of the Buddha's maternal aunt and foster mother. She says (Th 2 162)
Bahūnaṃ vata atthāya, māyā janayi gotamaṃ;

Truly for the many, Māyā gave birth to Gotama
Kosambi's point here is that the names Māyā and Gotama are on the same level - i.e. they are both first names. This is to read the text quite literally, and I'm a bit doubtful about doing that. Compare for instance the case of the Brahmin boy Uppatissa, son of Rūpasārī, better known as Sāriputta 'son of (Rūpa)sārī'.[2] However Kosambi points out that neither does the Buddha's wife become known as Gotamī in any tradition. The fact that Mahāpajāpati, his mother's sister, is called Gotamī also suggests that it is not the Buddha's clan-name since the names pass pass down patrilineally (though I think Kosambi here is thinking in terms of Brahminical social rules which required Brahmins to marry outside their gotra). Kosambi also notes that bhikkhus are sakiyaputta not gotamaputta. He does not attempt to explain why the future Buddha might be named after Vedic sages however, which still strikes me as odd.

Kosambi's other text is the Pabbajjā Sutta [Sn 3.1] in which King Bimbisāra asks the Buddha where he is from. The Buddha replies that he comes from the country of Kosala, and:
Ādiccā nāma gottena, sākiyā nāma jātiyā;
Tamhā kulā pabbajitomhi, na kāme abhipatthayaṃ.

Called Ādiccā by clan, called Sākiya by caste [jāti]
I went forth from that family, not longing for pleasures.
The phrase only occurs once in the canon, but elsewhere the Buddha says that the Sākiya consider rājā okkāka their ancestor [Ambaṭṭha Sutta, DN 3, PTS D i.92-3] and Pāli okkāka is Sanskrit ikṣvāku a king of the ādityā [P. ādiccā] gotra. The suggestion then is that the Buddha's name was in Sanskrit Gautama Ādityā; and Pāli Gotama Ādiccā. The Buddha is also sometimes called Āṅgirasa which according to the Dictionary of Pāli Names was a tribe which included the Gautama gotra. My reading of some of the DOPN references suggests that āṅgirasa was being used as an adjective (e.g. 'shiny like the sun') rather than a name. Against the passage above Kosambi also cites the Mahāpadāna Sutta [Dn 14, PTS ii.3]
Ahaṃ, bhikkhave, etarahi arahaṃ sammāsambuddho gotamo gottena ahosiṃ.

I bhikkhus, now worthy, fully awakened, was of the Gotama gotra. [3]
This phrase occurs 3 times in the suttas, all in the Mahapadāna. Kosambi refers to this as "the first interpretation of Gotama as the Buddha's gotra name... obviously a late formation under Brahmin influence". Indeed it is so obvious that Kosambi provides no evidence for his conjecture, nor does he consider the possibility that both statements about gotra are "late formations". Contrarily we find the name Gotama being used in the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta which are generally considered to be the oldest layers of the Pāli Canon.

It is still a puzzle as to why the Buddha even has a gotra name, let alone a Brahmin one (which both Gautama and Ādityā are). He was not a Brahmin. I don't think Kosambi solved the mystery, but he provided an interesting additional view point. One last observation of my own is that though the Buddha meets Brahmins from many other gotra lineages, he never seems to meet a Gautama Brahmin. This is despite the fact that the two ancestors Gotama and Bharadvāja are mentioned together in Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad 2.2.4, and Gautama the Buddha meets more than a dozen Brahmins from the Bhāradvāja lineage, who mostly seem to live in Kosala (see e.g. DN 3, 13, 27, 32, but throughout the nikāyas).

18 Aug 2011
I've been looking at Brahmins in the Canon and thinking about the Buddha's Brahmin surname. No other males with the gotra name "Gautama" are found in the Pāli Canon, though there are several women. I think the facts we have might be explained if the Buddha's mother and her sister were of the Gautama clan, and married Sudhodana who was a Śākya. Gautama in other words is actually Gautamaputra, Son of Gautamī; on the same model as Śāriputra is the Son of (his mother) Śārī.

6 Sept. Extra note

Snodgrass, vol.2 p. 471
In the Garbhadhātu Maṇḍala of the Shingon school, associated with the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT), there is a figure called Gautama (or Gotama; Japanese: Kudonsen 瞿曇仙). This is the Vedic Gautama and he attends on the god Agni. Adrian Snodgrass suggests that he is the subject of many hymns in the Ṛgveda, though this is not correct as far as I know. He is, however, credited as the author of some of them. Snodgrass translates from Dainichikyōsho (Śubhakarasiṃha's commentary on the MAT):
"The hermit-ascetic Gotama [sic], flying in the sky at well, let fall two drops of sweat upon the earth, and the earth gave birth to sugar cane. Warmed by the sun, the sugar cane gave birth to two children, who became Śākya kings"*
These two are the progenitors of the clan which 'Siddhartha' was born into. Gautama has a consort called Gautamī. I have not yet found the connection between the 'sugar cane' clan (Kansho) and the Śākya clan, though it may rest on a Chinese (mis)translation. In any case it that MAT includes the Vedic Gautama alongside the many other Vedic gods and important figures. Note that this story glosses over the fact that Gautama is a brahmaṇa, while the Buddha is usually referred to as a kṣatriya.

* see Snodgrass, Adrian. The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism, vol. 2, p. 470.


3. Dating the Canon.

The Assalāyana (MN 93) is a lengthy discussion between the eponymous Brahmin and the Buddha about the claim by Brahmins to be the best class (brāhmaṇo'va seṭṭho vaṇṇo). [4] Amongst the various arguments the Buddha puts forward is the relativist argument that some countries only have two classes, viz. ayyo and dāsa, i.e. noble and slave. [MN 93.5] These two countries (janapada) referred to are Yona and Kamboja. Various maps put Kamboja in different places, but it was supposedly north and west of Gandhāra. Shrimali centres it on the Kabul River (which flows through the Hindu Kush mountains from what is now Afghanistan to join the Indus) [5] Yona is thought to refer to Bactrian Greeks even further west. As the DOPN says:
The name is probably the Pāli equivalent for Ionians, the Baktrian Greeks. The Yonas are mentioned with the Kambojas in Rock Edicts v. and xii of Asoka, as a subject people, forming a frontier district of his empire.
These Greeks are thought to have been descendants of garrisons left by Alexander of Macedon. And this gives us our date. [6] At the time of the Buddha the Persian Achaemanids ruled as far east as the Indus River - i.e. including Gandhāra. We can confidently date Alexander's Indian campaign as part of his assault on and destruction of the Achaemanid Empire, to 327-326 BCE. If yona means 'Greek', then MN 93.6 cannot have been written before this date. Dates of the Buddha are less certain but the most recent research points to his death being circa 400 BCE, some 70 odd years before Alexander. Greek cultural influence remained for some time with post-Mauryan Dynasty Gandhāra being ruled by what is termed an 'Indo-Greek' dynasty from ca. 180 BCE - 10 CE. Greek aesthetic ideals heavily influenced Gandhāra art for some centuries, so that the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha, produced in that region during the Kushan period (ca. 75-241 CE) showing obvious Hellenistic features.

Note 7 May 2017 - to the best of my knowledge the Greeks never used Ionian as a general label. It was always a specific reference to Greeks who lived in Ionia - modern day Turkey. Moreover, the Greeks in question were Macedonians from Macedonia and that is probably how they referred to themselves. However, the Persians may have used Ionian as a general term for Greeks. If the Pāḷi Canon is using a Persian term for Greeks then this suggests that it was incorporated before Alexander. In which case the date goes back to being very vague indeed. 


  1. for instance -e can signify a masculine or neuter locative singular of a noun or past-participle in -a, such as gata (past-participle of gacchati).
  2. I don't want to multiply examples needlessly but Moggallana's given name was Kotila (after his village, just as Upatissa was called after his village). Kassapa (tortoise) is a very common name in Pāli perhaps because it was a gotra name as well. It seems that calling people by clan or family names, or epithets was a common practice.
  3. Note that Walsh translates this as a present (I am) when the verb is clearly past-tense; the Buddha left his clan, class, and caste behind when he went forth.
  4. D ii.148. Note that he continues "the other class is defective" (sometimes in this pericope the plural is used 'the other classes'). The Pāli being: hīno añño vaṇṇo. Here the term hīna is clearly being used pejoratively in a caste context. See also my Hīnayāna Reprise.
  5. Shrimali, Krishna Mohan. The Age of Iron and the Religious Revolution : c.700-c.350 BC. (A People's History of India: 3A). New Dehli, Tulika Books. 2007. Map p.85.
  6. I haven't found any reference to this fact, but I presume someone else has already noticed this.

20 November 2009

What was the Buddha's name?

In the Pāli texts his followers called him Bhagavan. Other people tended to call him Gotama or 'sāmaṇa' depending on whether they were being polite or impolite. Later is was established that his name was Siddhartha Gautama. In this essay I want to take a brief look at the evidence we have for what the Buddha's name was, or as we shall see, what it probably wasn't.

The name Siddhartha occurs in the Pāli texts, in the form Siddhattha, only in the Jātakas and later commentarial works. It is not used in the Nikāyas or Vinaya as the name of the Buddha, though it is used for other people. The Jātakas are legendary material which we can't take seriously as historical accounts. Siddhartha is used in the Sanskrit Mahāvastu - technically a vinaya text of the Mahāsaṅghika sect but actually an extended and much elaborated biography, really a hagiography of the Buddha. The fact is that the more strictly biographical accounts of the Buddha, such as the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, make no mention of his given name at all! The best we can say is that apart from the name Siddhartha there is no other name mentioned as a contender.

Gautama (P. Gotama) is something of a puzzle because it is a distinctively Brahmin name. There are several well known Brahmin philosophers called Gautama, and even a Brahminical Gautama Sūtra. Gautama is a traditional Brahmin gotra (P. gotta) name. The gotra is like a clan name, and indicates people descended from a particular ancestor. While the Vedic Brahmins did not worship their ancestors, whom they referred to as the pitaraḥ 'the fathers', they did revere them and in earlier versions of rebirth theories the good Brahmin would leave this world and go to the world of his fathers (women were not included in this scheme) for a time before coming back to this world. A hint into the original use of this term is that it also means a cow (go) shed (tra, 'protection') - the image is of the herd of cows enclosed and protected, similar to the relationship of the individual to the clan group. Only a few dozen traditional gotra names are recorded (there are lists in the pre-Buddhist Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad for instance). Monier-Williams' Dictionary suggests there are 49, and gives Gautama as one of his examples in his Sanskrit dictionary.

It is mentioned many times through the Buddhist canon that the Buddha was a kṣatriya - that is of the class (varṇa) [1] which is associated with rulers and secular leadership - sometimes kṣatriya and rāja 'king, ruler' are treated as synonyms. The other three classes were priests (brāhmaṇa) merchants (vaiṣya) and peasants (śudra). Although the Buddha's father was referred to as a 'rāja' at that time the Śākya nation was more like an oligarchy or republic. Rāja cannot really mean king or royalty in this context, and probably just means 'leader' and even then one leader amongst many. In the commentarial traditions we find that the Śākyas did not follow Vedic, but Dravidian marriage customs, suggesting that perhaps they were not Āryans [2] at all (though this is a late tradition it must have had the ring of truth to survive since it contradicts his being a kṣatriya, which is a more convenient appellation in caste conscious India). There are pockets of Dravidian speaking peoples in North India still and it is usually assumed that they were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Ganges plain and were displaced by the encroaching Vedic/Sanskrit speaking peoples. There is some doubt about this theory now, and of course it tends to ignore the other major language group in India - Muṇḍa - traces of which can be found in the Ṛgveda (see my discussion of the Dhp 1 and 2 for an example of a Muṇḍa loan word in Sanskrit and Pāli). In any case politically and it seems socially the Śākyas were distinct from the Brahmins - making the fact of the Buddha's Brahmin surname even more odd.

There is evidence that Brahmins were not above adopting clans into the Āryan class/caste system - sometimes making their priests honorary Brahmins. It has been suggested that perhaps the Śākyans employed a Brahmin purohita (a priest) and adopted his gotra name. If this is true it shows how very powerful the influence of the Brahmins was on the culture of Greater Magadha even at this early stage when it was dominated by the various śramaṇa groups. The Vedic languages were a powerful means of cultural imperialism.

To summarise then: while there is no other contender the name Siddhartha is not associated with the Buddha in the earliest texts, though Gautama is. Gautama however is a distinctive traditional Brahmin name which does not fit the general picture of the Buddha's non-Brahmin, probably non-Āryan background.

Such uncertainty does not sit well with religious sentiments, and so the legends which filled the gaps in our knowledge gained the status of facts: the Buddha's name simply is Siddhartha Gautama and we 'know' many details of his parentage and life. Of course it is possible that the legend is based on a fact not recorded in the suttas, however unlikely this seems. Perhaps the Buddha deliberately obscured aspects of his pre-enlightenment existence. I've noticed that occasionally when people wish to belittle me they will insist on using my birth name instead of my Buddhist name - particularly when denying the validity of my ordination. Perhaps the Buddha wished to create a bit of distance between that old identity and 'the Tathāgata'. Other details of his life are equally vague, and even more elaborately filled in by Buddhists. Indeed the further we get from the actual life the more elaborate the stories become until they leave behind any sense of historicity.

Does it matter? I think not. The Buddha is a symbol of our potential - every human being if they pursue the dhamma can become 'like that' (tathāgata), i.e. we can all have that experience which the Buddha had. The fact is that people have been having that experience ever since the Buddha's first disciples and right down to the present. Buddhists do not rely on the divinity of the Buddha. We have the dhamma - the ways and means of following the Buddha. We have the Saṅgha - each other, but more especially those with experience, with the experience, to support and guide us. The main reason for pointing out the problems with the hagiographic narratives is to prevent us from deifying that version of the Buddha who is more a product of human imagination than of history. Such a figure must remain a symbol and not become an idol if we are to retain the spirit of the Buddha's teaching.

30.7.10 Update:
See also Some Additional Notes which looks again at the issue of the name Gautama.
18.5.2011 Update:
The word śākyamuni is used in the Lalitavisatara and the Mahāvastu, two of the earliest Mahāyāna texts. It also occurs in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā [Sūtra] where several times we find the phrase:
śākyamunirnāma tathāgato 'rhan samyaksaṃbuddho vidyācaraṇasaṃpannaḥ sugato lokavid anuttaraḥ puruṣadamyasārathiḥ śāstā devānāṃ ca manuṣyānāṃ ca buddho bhagavāniti 

The tathāgata named Śākyamuni: the worthy, the fully and perfectly awoken, endowed with knowledge and conduct, in a good state, excelled in understanding the world, a trainer of people, a charioteer for gods and humans, awakened, fortunate.
More or less this same phrase is found in the Ajitasenavyākaraṇa which Williams discusses as a Mahāyāna sūtra that originally belonged to a pre-mahāyāna tradition (Mahāyāna Buddhism, p.26). The phrase śākyamuniṃ tathāgataṃ appears to occur only once in both the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras.

However the name Śākyamuni appears not to occur at all in the Śālistambasūtram, nor in the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (though 'śakya' does).

This is a brief and far from comprehensive survey of the Mahāyāna sūtras generally acknowledged to be early, and which can be found online and searched electronically. While not universal, nor always prominent, the name does seem to be established by the time these texts were composed - by perhaps the first century before the common era or a little before, but probably post Aśoka (to take him as a reference point).

  1. Class' better captures the higher level fourfold division of Indian society. 'Caste' is a translation of jāti 'birth' which is also used this way in Pāli - see e.g. the Pūraḷāsa Sutta in the Suttanipāta. Jāti often referred to one's specific occupation.
  2. 'Āryan' as a cultural description is falling out of favour because it is seen as politically incorrect. The people in question probably spoke a range of dialects all related very closely to Vedic or Sanskrit and to Iranian languages of the same period - I've seen it said for instance that Pāli is not descended directly from the Vedic of the Vedas, but from a near relative. Anyway I'm now uncertain how to refer to the people (if they were a people) or this family of languages. Vedic is not quite right, and Sanskrit has only limited applicability.

21 November 2008

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?Sometimes Buddhism and Buddhists can seem a bit dour - a half smile is permissible, but a belly laugh might be out of place - which can be problematic for me! And yet there are some definite examples of the Buddha displaying his quick wit and sense of humour in the Pāli texts. One of my favourites - partly because I discovered it for myself, and partly because it really is witty - occurs in the Sutta Nipātta.

In the Pūraḷāsa Sutta the Brahmin Sundarika-Bhāradvāja is wandering about with the leftovers from his ritual sacrifice to the gods looking for someone to give them to. He is concerned to give the offering to a Brahmin and thereby make the maximum amount of merit from his generosity. If this sounds a bit venial recall that this is exactly what modern lay Buddhists do except their offerings are to bhikkhus not Brahmins.

Sundarika-Bhāradvāja meets the Buddha, who as an ascetic is a likely recipient of the offering, however he is cautious and enquires what caste the Buddha is, or more specifically: "is he a brahmin?" The Buddha answers that caste is irrelevant to a renunciant, but Sundarika-Bhāradvāja insists that it isn’t, and that Brahmins always enquire about caste. The Buddha is not playing that game however, and he says:
Brāhmaṇo hi ce tvaṃ brūsi, mañca brūsi abrāhmaṇaṃ;
Taṃ taṃ sāvittiṃ pucchāmi, tipadaṃ catuvīsatakkharaṃ.
If you call yourself a Brahmin, and say that I am not a Brahmin;
I ask about that Sāvitrī (mantra, of) three lines and twenty-four syllables?
I use the Anglicized 'Brahmin' for brāhamaṃa because there are also texts called brāhmaṇa and because it is more familiar. The Sāvitrī (Pāli Sāvitti) mantra is also called Gāyatrī because it is in the gāyatrī metre which has three lines and twenty-four syllables. It comes from the Ṛgveda, and in Sanskrit goes:
Tat savitur vareṭyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (2)
Which Saddhatissa translates as:
May we attain that excellent glory of Sāvitrī the god, that he may stimulate our thoughts. (3)
The Sāvitrī mantra is pronounced at dawn and dusk in daily Brahminical rituals - and this is as true today as it was in the Buddha's day when it was a centuries old practice!

Fausböll comments in the introduction to his translation that “The commentator understands by Sâvatti the Buddhistic [going for refuge] formula, which like the Sâvitti, contains twenty-four syllables”. (4) This seems an unlikely interpretation. For a start the refuge formula is definitely prose and not verse, (5) but the Buddha is talking here to someone who has not gone for refuge to the Three Jewels. The Buddhist refuge formula may have had little or no meaning to him. He was a Brahmin, practising Brahminical rituals, and the reference to the Sāvatrī mantra would be completely in context, whereas the going for refuge formula would not. By mentioning the number of lines and syllables the Buddha may well be emphasising that though he is not a hereditary Brahmin he knows a lot about the practices of the Brahmins.

Actually it seems as though the Buddha is gently ribbing the Brahmin by saying that if he thinks that he is superior because he was born a Brahmin then his thoughts need ‘stimulating’ (pracud). "Brahmin” was one of the words that the Buddha tried, but ultimately failed, to adopt and reform. He equated the terms 'Brahmin' and 'Arahant', and told people that one became a Brahmin through striving for Awakening, not through birth.(6)

Now this joke was probably quite quickly lost on later Buddhists as they seem to disconnect from the culture around them, and to be unaware of Brahminical practice - you have to know what the Sāvitrī mantra says for it to be funny. But the Buddha himself is well versed in Brahminical ideas and he uses this knowledge to poke fun at and parody not only Brahmins, but Jains, and other sects. Interesting that these things were preserved even though the sense of them was lost. There will be a chapter on this in Richard Gombrich's forthcoming book What the Buddha Thought (Equinox Publications, due Spring 2009).

So the answer is yes, the Buddha did have a sense of humour! He was a great satirist!

  1. Saddhatissa translates: “if you can say that you are a Brahmin and that I am not / then I must remind you of Sāvitrī’s mantra of three lines and twenty-four letters”. Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipātta. Surrey : Curzon Press, p.51 (Sn 457; 459 in the VRI version). However the verb is pucchāmi "I ask", and akkhara are syllables rather than letters.
  2. Sanskrit text from Padoux, A. 2003. Mantra. in Flood, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, M.A. : Blackwell Publishing. p.481
  3. Saddhatissa ibid. p.55, note 2 (my emphasis)
  4. Fausböll, V. 1881 The Sutta-nipâtta : a collection of discourses, being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Delhi, Motilal Barnadidass, 1968. (Sacred Books of the East Vol. 10). p.xiii, note 2.
  5. Richard Gombrich, personal communication.
  6. see Sutta Nipātta 650, and the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) for instance

image: Maitreya/Laughing Buddha

25 July 2008

Dating the Buddha

Almost two years ago now I attended a series of lectures by Prof. Richard Gombrich which I find still resonating around in my psyche. One of the things Prof. Gombrich talked about was his disappointment that his article in which he had discovered the 'true' dates of the Buddha had not attracted any attention from the scholarly community. That oversight has now been corrected in a recent article by Charles Prebish in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which he co-founded with Damien Keown.

Prebish reviews the many contributions, including his own, over the years and spells out the conclusions to date which are not unanimous. In fact there are four chronologies:

The long chronology
This puts the death of the Buddha at 544/43 BCE and is accepted only by the Theravada tradition and not by scholars. The main reason for doubting it is that it gives dates for Aśoka that conflict with the evidence from his rock edicts - he was evidently crowned in 268 BCE give or take a year, and therefore a gap of 60 years remains unaccounted for.

The corrected long chronology
Prebish glosses over this date which appears to simply subtract the 60 years and give dates of 484/483 BCE. It seems as though this date became widely accepted

The short chronology
This date relies on texts which state that the coronation of Aśoka was exactly 100 years after the parinibbana, meaning that the Buddha died in 368 BCE. However the problem here is that all ancient texts are not in agreement over the elapsed time. One says 116 years, another 160 years. It is however supported by archaeological evidence and gained some heavy weight supporters.

The Dotted Chronology
The idea here is that when Upāli finished collected the Vinaya immediately after the Buddha's death he placed a dot on the manuscript. Each subsequent year a further dot was added to keep track of the years. The obvious flaw in this theory is that the vinaya was initially memorised and not written down until some centuries later. For at least 300 years there was no manuscript to place dots on.
Gombrich's answer to the problem of dating the Buddha came from a reassessment of the dates conveyed in records of Upāli successors as vinayadharas. The age at which each pupil was ordained, memorised the vinaya and died is recorded in a number of texts. Traditionally ages of monks are counted from their ordination, but Gombrich argues that in this case the ages where counted from birth. For one thing if the traditional chronology is used most of the monks would have lived into their 90's and one to 105. By counting the years from birth Gombrich is able to construct a plausible time frame for the lineage that does not contradict other known dates such as the coronation of Aśoka. This process yields a date of 404 BCE for the parinibbana with a margin of error of plus seven years or minus 5 years. Prebish seems happy to accept 404 BCE as the date.

Though Prebish accepts Gombrich's date for the parinibbana he believes that Gombirch was in error in his dating of the councils which rests on much shakier ground. In fact it involves making an assumption about the traditional date of 100 years between the first and second Buddhist councils that is not supported but only makes sense in the light of traditional historical narratives. After having dealt with the precise lifespans of the vinayadharas Gombrich makes the assumption that the 100 years is a round figure and suggests that it was in fact more like 60 years since that produces a better fit.

Prebish argues for letting the new chronology stand without altering the span between the councils. One of the consequences of this new chronology is that it places Aśoka front and centre in the first major split amongst the Sangha. The historical king is likely to have presided over the unofficial "non-canonical" council (recorded in some texts as occuring between the 2nd and 3rd councils) which resulted in the first Sanghabheda or schism. 18 years later Aśoka may well have convened the 3rd council at Pāṭaliputra (the Aśokan capital city) in order to try to "reaffirm Buddhist orthodoxy" in his new role as Dharmarājā.

An earlier article by Prebish and Jan Nattier makes it seem likely that it was the Sthaviravādins who split first, and the Mahāsaṃghikas who represented the conservative mainstream. The issue seems to have been the number of rules which the Sthaviravādins were seeking to increase. Evidence for this is the number of rules in the various surviving Pratimokṣa Sūtras with the Mahāsaṃghikas having the least.

This is a brief gloss of Prebish's article which is available on the internet (link below) and is recommended if you have an interest in Buddhist history. The original Gombrich article is less easy to get hold of - try an interlibrary loan if you don't have access to a major University library.

  • Gombrich, Richard. 1992. "Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed." In Die Daiterung des Historischen Buddha Volume 2, edited by Heinz Bechert, Vanden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 237-259.
  • Nattier, J and Prebish, C. "Mahāsāṃghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism." History of Religions, 16, 3 (February, 1977), 237-272.
  • Prebish, Charles. 2008. "Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol.15,

22 February 2008

Recollecting the Buddha

I have been doing a lot of reading around the practice of recollecting the Buddha and making the links between this practice and the development of Buddhist mantra. The practice generally revolves around the Buddha Vandana - the list of epithets for the Buddha - which occurs in many places throughout the Pali Canon and is explained in detail by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. The verses containing the epithets are also known as the "iti pi so gatha". My usual experience with the Visuddhimagga is that I find it turgid and confusing, however in summing up the benefits of practising the recollection of the Buddha, Buddhaghosa says:
And his body [sarīrampi], when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities [Buddhaguṇānussatiyā] dwells in it [ajjhāvutthañcassa], becomes [hoti] worthy of veneration [pūjārahaṃ] as a shrine room [cetiyagharamiva] - Vism VII,67.
I've been reading the scholarly literature on this subject and surprisingly none of the writers have made much of this passage. It is only one sentence but this seems to have enormous ramifications. It seems a rather remarkable thing for the usually dusty Commentator to say.

By cetiyaghara, translated as “shrine room” by Ñanamoli, we should probably understand a meditation hall with a stupa at one end, rather like the Caitya-hall at the Bhājā caves in Maharasthra. Although the dictionary definition of cetiya (Sanskrit: caitya) is "a sacred mound, cairn or monument", the term is virtuously synonymous with stupa. Allow me to labour the point here: the body of the one who is recollecting the Buddha can be treated as though it were stupa, or monument worthy of worship. The subjective imagined presence of the Buddha is worthy of the respect which was traditionally paid to stupas and relics of the Buddha. The stupa cult continues to this day and has even been transplanted in the West. It relies on the ability to imaginatively connect with the Buddha - to see the abstract shape of the monument in stone or concrete as something more than it's material form.

Even before the death of the Buddha his presence was invoked. The classic description of this comes at the end of the Sutta Nipatta where the new disciple Pingiya sings the Buddha's praises. He says:
“You see, Sir, said Pingiya, with constant and careful vigilance it is possible for me to see him with my mind as clearly as with my eyes, in night as well as day. And since I spend my nights revering him, there is not, to my mind, a single moment spent away from him" - Suttanipātta 1142
The practice of recollecting the Buddha must have been formalised quite quickly as it's representation in the Canon is rather formulaic, ie it always uses the verses from the Buddha Vandana. But in "Pingiya praises" we get a sense of the spirit behind the formulas. Once the Buddha died these kinds of practices would have taken on a new significance, the more so when everyone who had met him has also died. Within 50 or 60 years probably there would have been no one alive who had met the Buddha in person. So the person who could maintain the kind of imaginative contact with the Buddha that Pingiya could may well have been considered worthy of veneration. Some have argued that without direct contact with a Buddha that no Awakening would have been possible, but the canon itself shows that many people were liberated without having met the Blessed One. The texts I've been looking at show why this is so - given the inspiration and the method anyone can make progress in the Dhamma and be freed. Pingiya is freed by faith (saddha-vimutta) as are several of his companions.

We clearly see here the roots of the Pure Land traditions, and of Buddhist visualisation meditations. In Mahayana texts recollection of the Buddha continues to be important - Śantideva devotes a chapter of his Compendium or Śikṣasamuccaya to it. However the hearing or recollection of the name of the Buddha (or a Buddha) starts to emerge - in the Sukhavativyūha Sūtras for instance. A key moment in the history of mantra comes in the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or White Lotus Sutra (the earliest reference I have found) when the practice of recollecting the name of the Buddha, is supplemented by calling the name (of Avalokiteśvara in this case). Of course the easiest way to hear a name is to say it yourself. Then a few centuries later in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra the chanting of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara is equated with recollection of his name, thus setting the scene for the Tantric revolution.

If we want to experience the presence of the Buddha in these difficult and testing times, we can. Like Pingiya there is no need for you to ever feel out of contact with the Buddha - simply bring him (or even her) to mind. There is a whole vast corpus of Buddhist art which has the precise function of helping us to make imaginative contact with the Buddha. In doing so you find your meeting, and according to Buddhaghosa you become like a holy shrine in the process and perhaps will inspire other people.

Ñaṇamoli. 1997. The path of purification. Visuddhimagga. (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre) p.230. (=Vism VII,67.). The Pali reads: Buddhaguṇānussatiyā ajjhāvutthañcassa sarīrampi cetiyagharamiva pūjārahaṃ hoti

Suttanipātta 1142. trans. Saddhatissa 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. (Surrey : Curzon Press), p.132.

image: votive stupa in the windhorse : evolution warehouse.

01 March 2007

Ratnasambhava quest que cest?

Five Buddha Mandala by Aloka, from Padmaloka websiteLately I have been pondering the mandala of the five Jinas. Something was puzzling me. Amitabha and Akshobhya represent a set: compassion and wisdom. Vairocana clearly is a development of the Buddha. Early tantras have a trinity of Amitabha, Shakyamuni, and Akshobhya. Wisdom and compassion are clearly the two most salient features of a Buddha and it makes sense to represent them as individual Buddhas. However the tantras introduced a set of five Buddhas, which by about the 7th or 8th century CE had settled down into Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairocana in the centre. Clockwise from the east which is at the bottom in the image.

So where did Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi come from? This is something of a mystery. The standard texts such as Snellgrove's Indo-Tibetan Buddhism note the appearance of the pair, describe them and then move on. There is nothing about the process, nor about why they make a pair. Do they make a pair? Ratnasambhava is in the south, is golden yellow, is lotus throne is supported by horses, his mudra is the varada or giving mudra, and his emblem is the jewel - his name means Jewel Born. He is associated with the sun at midday. Ratnasmabhava's wisdom is the wisdom of equality which sees the that everything has the same nature, which is the nature of Shunyata.

Amoghasiddhi is in the north, is dark green, and his lotus throne is supported by shang-shang birds (these are garuda birds with human torsos and heads who play cymbals.) His mudra is the mudra of fearlessness and his emblem is the crossed vajra. In Sanskrit it is vishva-vajra, where vishva means something like "on all sides". Amoghasiddhi's wisdom is the wisdom of fearlessness. The Buddha kula that he presides over is known as the action family and his name means Unobstructed Success.

The breakthrough in understanding this pair came while attending a communication course with Locana. Over simplifying a bit, the model of communication and connection that Locana was describing begins with observation. Feelings arise from these observations. These feelings connect us with, and flag up, our values or needs. And out of this we move into action, or we make a request. The details are not important, but what struck me was that three of the steps in the model - observation, feelings, and actions - could relate to three of the Buddhas in the mandala. Obervation is intellect, but also brings to mind the mirrorlike wisdom which sees things just as they are. Feelings are obviously connected with red Amitabha's compassion. Action as I just mentioned were the concern of Amoghasiddhi. What was left out was values. The values, or sometimes needs, that are referred to are universal human values that we can all understand and connect with. They are the key to understanding conflict and connection. And it struck me that values is what Ratnasambhava corresponds to.

The jewel that Ratnasambhava holds is the cintamani, a symbol for the Bodhicitta. This is surely the highest value of Buddhists. We value Awakening as the most value thing. Generosity is the most fundamental virtue in Buddhism, which is to say that we value it highly. Generosity is sometimes seen as the best practice for lay people, whereas Awakening is the goal of serious practitioners. Generosity builds us merit which will a lay person to be born in fortunate circumstances, i.e. in circumstances where they can practice seriously and Awaken. In a mundane sense Ratnasambhava represents wealth. One of the main Bodhisattvas of his kula is Jambhala who holds a mongoose which spews forth jewels when squeezed. So yes, this does seem to fit. Sangharakshita has associated Ratnasmabhava with beauty and art. I think this is covered by the idea of value. Beauty is the object of aesthetic appreciation, and paying attention to beauty, according to Sangharakshita, helps to refine our senses. Refining our senses can help us to make progress towards experiencing more refined states of mind. Finally great art can help to transform our lives by inducing in us a reflection of the inspired state of the artist.

I suspect that Amoghasiddhi came first however. In the early tantra there were three Buddha kulas. At around the same time a group of three Bodhisattvas appeared in Buddhist art. Avalokiteshvara, Manjusri and Vajrapani represented compassion, wisdom and energy. The word translated as energy is virya. Virya is energy in pursuit of the good, ethical energy. It is energy directed towards Awakening. Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha of action, and this action is motivated by, and directed towards, the good. And the good is represented by the jewel held by Ratnasmabhava. So yes Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi do represent a pair.

Another observation has occurred to me in the last few days. Ratnasmabhava is a solar deity, he is associated with horses, is associated with giving, and is associated with art, beauty, and inspiration. Now there is another Indian deity who shares these characteristics and that is Agni. Agni is one of the old Vedic gods whose worship is outlined in the Rigveda. The word agni is cognate with ignite, and he was associated with the sacrificial fire, but also anything which burned including digestion, and the sun! So Agni is synonymous with the sun. The largest and most elaborate sacrifice in the Vedic calendar was the horse sacrifice - which is described in the first book in the Rigveda. Finally it was through possession by Agni that the Vedic sages were able to give voice to the ecstatic inspired hymns which make up the Rigveda. He is the source, the spark, of imagination and poetry - the highest art of the Vedic period.

This kind of absorption, if I am right, should come as no surprise. This is what the history of Indian religion is like. Buddhism adopted and absorbed deities from the earliest times, so that Indra is a frequent character in the Pali Canon for instance. The five Buddha mandala is a feature of esoteric Buddhism, which is itself a grand synthesis of seventh century Indian religion.

image by Aloka from the Padmaloka website.

13 May 2006


The full-moon this month marks the 2550th anniversary of the most crucial moment in the biography of the Buddha - his Awakening to the true nature of things. For some Buddhists the Wesak festival marks not only this, but also his birth and death. All over the world under the full-moon there will be solemn ceremonies, lively pujas, silent meditation, a huge variety of celebrations.

While every aspect of the Buddha's biography has some significance, his Awakening is the reason that we remember him at all. Buddha is often translated as "Enlightened" but this English word, with all it's baggage from the intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, is not at all related to the original word. Buddha, and the related word bodhi, come from a root which means awake. So a Buddha is one who has awakened, and bodhi is to be awake.

'Awakened' is a metaphor which hints at the nature of the Buddha's experience on the full-moon day in may 2550 years ago. It suggests that before this experience he was asleep. The experience of going from sleep to awakening, in the ordinary sense, is significant. In sleep we are not conscious of the world around us, the world of the senses. We alternate between deep sleep in which we are barely conscious at all, and dream sleep in which we experience a different level of reality. In dreams the usual rules of our world, rules of physics or chemistry etc do not apply. In dreams we can meet the past or the future. When we awaken there is a definite sense of crossing a threshold. The transition from sleep to waking can leave us disoriented for a time. Then when we are awake we are aware of the data of our senses, and we experience the world as being more or less sequential and ordered. We, generally speaking, do not meet the past or the future, and the laws of physics hold true. The details are moot, of course, but the experience of going from sleep to waking is one that is common to everyone, and one that is marked and distinct.

So waking is a metaphor for what happened to the Buddha. One of the ways the Buddhist tradition speaks of this difference is the three marks or lakkhanas. When we are asleep we see the world as substantial, permanent, and a source of pleasure. However when we wake up we see that things are impermanent, insubstantial, and are a source of suffering.

We do tend to see things as permanent. We can catch the view that things are permanent in, for instance, our shock at the death of a friend or relative. We have always known that they would die, and yet we are shocked and surprised when they die. This sense of surprise is a result of having an unconscious expectation that they would not die. We resist change, and this again exposes the view that things ought not to change. Change is the fundamental condition of the universe. And because everything whatsoever changes, there can be no unchanging thing - no essence which transcends form and function. This is particularly important in the case of people. We are often said to have an eternal soul or essence which transcends our physical life and death, even our repeated life and death. But if there was one thing in the universe which did not change then the whole universe would freeze solid. This is because everything in the universe is dependent on the other things to create the conditions for existence. This means that if one thing is changing, then everything is forced to change. And if one thing did not change the whole universe would freeze solid because it would inhibit the changing of other things.

It is not that phenomena are inherently or fundamentally a source of suffering. They are a source of suffering because of the false expectations that we have of them. If we expect phenomena to be permanent, transcending form and a source of pleasure, then we are constantly disappointed. If however if we align our expectations with the true nature of things - impermanent and insubstantial - then phenomena may still cause us pain (if we stub our tow on them for instance), but it's not inevitable.

So this is one way of talking about the way in which the Buddha woke up under the full-moon in May 2550 years ago. Happy Wesak.

Sabbe satta sukhi hontu

25 February 2006

The Last Words of the Buddha

Image of a group of FWBO and TBMSG people on pilgrimage in front of the Parinibbana Stupa and Temple in Kushnigar
This blog post summarises a longer
essay on the Buddha's Last Words.
Last week we celebrated the Buddha's Parinibbana - his final death. The tradition tells us that nothing can be said about the existence or non-existence of the Blessed One after death. The cycle of birth and death, of suffering, has stopped for him. An account of the last days of the Buddha is contained in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Towards the end of the sutta the Buddha brings together any disciples in the area, and asks them if they have any doubts. None do. Then the Buddha gives them, and us, a final message:
vayadhammā sankhārā appamādena sampādethā
all things are perishable, through vigilance Awaken!
The full explanation of my translation is too long for this article, but I would like to look at one part of it: the word 'appamaadena'. This word is in the instrumental case so indicates the means by which an action is to be accomplished. It is by appamāda that sampādethā (from a verb, sampādeti, meaning firstly ‘to procure, to obtain’, and secondarily 'to strive'). Appamāda is translated in various ways but 'vigilance' seems to have become standard. However vigilance is not a perfect fit.

Appamāda has three parts: a + (p)p + mada.

The Pali English Dictionary gives two senses for mada: 1. intoxication, sensual excess; 2. pride, conceit. I'm going to focus on the first sense in this article.

Pa is a prefix which indicates forward motion in applied sense often emphasising the action as carried on to a marked degree or even beyond it’s mark. So if mada is drunk, then pamāda is blind-drunk! (the extra p is a common artefact in Pali compound words)

A is a prefix which makes a word mean the opposite.

So appamāda is not-blind-drunk. If you look through the Pali suttas you will see that appamada is used in connection with the objects of the senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, and thoughts. So in practice appamāda means not-blind-drunk on the objects of the senses. Isn't it true that we are easily intoxicated by the objects of our experience? Aren't we in fact mostly caught up in this world of our senses? Or a lot of the time aren't we caught up in the world of our thoughts? So the Buddha's final message was, sober up with regard to the senses and thoughts - don't let yourself get carried away. That's the way to strive, to obtain the goal, to Awaken!

Before we have much familiarity with spiritual practice it can hard to grasp that there is experience which is not centred on the senses. If we eliminate the five physical senses, and the mental sense which comprehends thoughts: then what is left? Nothing? We live in hedonistic times when it can seem that the pleasures of the senses is what makes life meaningful. Or we might spend our time avoiding sensations which we don't enjoy. The Buddha's final message is pointing away from the senses, but towards what?

In meditation we can take two basic approaches to the senses. We can just sit and watch the play of experience, and try not to get get caught up in it. This approach is sometimes likened to watching clouds drifting about the sky. One just sits and watches them coming and going, and doesn't invest any energy in them. Another approach is to actively withdraw from sensual experience through concentration on an object - frequently the breath. Doing this we find that in withdrawing from sense data our experience is blissful, and more satisfying. We may lose the sense of having a body, even lose the sense of having thoughts. The experience of meditation shows us that there is an alternative to being drunk on sensual data.

Both of these approaches to the senses open up all kinds of new possibilities to us. This is not easy to put into words, especially in English because we simply don't have the vocabulary. Pali and Sanskrit terms can help, but they are unfamiliar to people outside Buddhist circles. The Pali word jhana (sanskrit dhyana), for instance, is one that has been used for these states which go beyond the world of the senses. There are texts which describe the experience - often using similes. But the experiences are quite accessible, to some extent at least, for most people who are willing to meditate regularly.

So there is experience which is not mediated by our senses. But why does the Buddha use his last words to direct our attention towards this experience? Bliss is all very well, but is that really all that spiritual practice is about? The answer comes from the first part of his statement. It is because the nature of all things perceived by the senses (sankhārā) is to perish (vaya). Another possible translation of vayadhamma might be 'guaranteed to disappoint'. The objects of the senses as fascinating as they are, do not satisfy us. They are transient. By being focused on them we are constantly being disappointed, constantly let down, and it's a real drag isn't it?

So to sum up: if we want happiness (and we all do), then we need to free ourselves of addiction to intoxication with the objects of the senses, including thoughts, which are guaranteed to disappoint us. The reality of spiritual practice for most of us is that we can only slowly untangle ourselves from the senses, from thoughts. It's not easy because from the first we are totally immersed in this experience. But it is possible, and definitely worth it.

See also: my calligraphy of the Buddha's last words on