Showing posts with label Dharma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dharma. Show all posts

27 November 2015


It was ten years ago yesterday that I started this blog. This is essay no.447. I was going to write a review and reminiscence of the years, but frankly this turned out to be a boring task that did not interest me. So here instead is another essay exploring Buddhist doctrines. It seems more relevant to celebrate ten years of writing by more writing in the inquisitive and skeptical mode that I hope characterises my project/object. 

We all have "Ah ha" moments. I enjoy it when some new piece of information lights up my mind and makes me reassess what I know. I'm lucky enough to have experienced this many times. There is a process of reorganising that goes on. In some cases, it can go on for years. One of these occurred for me in 2006. I was newly ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and went to attend some lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich at SOAS, in London. These later became a book, but hearing the professor talk us through the various arguments that he was making and having the opportunity to ask him questions at the end of each lecture was invaluable. I wish every non-fiction book I read came with 10 hours of the author talking about it and available to answer questions.

Now I realise that I was ignorant at the time and it is slightly embarrassing to admit this, but during one of the lectures Professor Gombrich said something about dharmas being the object of the manas or mind sense. As we know the early Buddhists saw cognition (vijñāna) as a function of this mind sense, as just as the eye sense (cakṣu-indriya) has form (rūpa) as its object (alambana), so the manas has dharmas as its object. I must have heard this at some stage, but for some reason it hadn't registered. When I heard Prof. Gombrich say it a light-bulb came on. To repeat: dharmas are the object of the manas. This is perhaps the single most important axiom of Buddhist doctrine that I know. It is vital to keep this in mind. 

Dharmas are the object of the manasIt is dharmas that arise in dependence on conditions. Conditionality, first and foremost, refers to this.
One of the first insights that came to me on the basis of gaining this understanding was that when we say "things arise in dependence on conditions", by "things" we actually mean dharmas. It is dharmas that arise and cease. Later, I realised that dharmas don't arise in the mind because Buddhist texts lack the metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER. Dharmas are cognized by the manas, but not in the manas. Dharmas arise in the experiential world, loka. This is a subtle point, but quite important when we are trying to understand the Buddhadharma from the point of view of early Buddhists.

The fact that it is dharmas qua mental objects that arise in dependence on conditions, rather than anything more substantial, is central to making sense of many other Buddhist teachings. For example, the trilakṣana or "three marks" apply to dharmas. In other words, when we say "All conditioned things are impermanent", again by "things" we mean dharmas. And dharmas are conditioned because they only arise when a sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) meet giving rise to sense cognition (vijñāna). And this brings us to the so-called unconditioned dharmas.

There is an experience one can have, relatively easily I gather, in which all sense experience and all mental experience stops. By cultivating the meditations known as arūpāyatana (sometimes called the higher- or arūpa- dhyānas) one comes to experience emptiness (suññatā) as it is defined in the Pāḷi Canon (see especially MN 121, 122). Compare also the Buddha's experience described in my 2008 essay Communicating the Dharma. As I understand it, if there is no sense or mental experience then technically no dharmas are arising or ceasing in this state. Mental activity (and therefore karma) has ceased while one is in this state. It is also sometimes called a "temporary liberation of the mind" (sāmāyika cetovimutti) to distinguish it from states of liberation that are thought to be permanent (I'll return to the issue of permance shortly). It may also be called nirodha-samāpatti "attainment of cessation", or  saññā-vedayita-nirodha "cessation of sensations and perceptions".

This experience of cessation threw up a major problem with Theravāda solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance. Linking actions to temporally distance consequences required an unbroken stream of mental events. But the most obvious interpretation of the experience of cessation is that dharmas stop arising. This would interrupt the connection and destroy the mechanism of karma. When they thought about it, sleep also posed the same problem. In order to preserve karma the Theravādins had to invent a whole new type of dharma called the bhavaṅgacitta that arose to fill the gap in mental events during cessation or sleep, but remained unconscious so as not to spoil cessation (by arising into awareness). Compare my description of this problem in Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda. Yogācārins, who also accepted the Doctrine of Momentariness as a solution to Action at a Temporal Distance also had to bridge this discontinuity. They did this with an invented entity called ālayavijñāna. Unlike the bhavaṅgcitta this new entity is constantly present in all mental events as a kind of background to awareness, a solution that brings its own problems because the ālayavijñāna starts to look eternal. Both bhavaṅgacitta and ālayavijñāna are ad hoc solutions solely designed to maintain continuity and neither really achieves their aim.

It seems to be this experience of cessation that unlocks the insights sought by Buddhists. Vedantins also cultivate these kinds of states and what seems to distinguish them from Buddhists is that Vedantins take the experience of emptiness to be an absolute. Or, they might say, that in a state of emptiness one is in contact with the absolute, with Brahman. By contrast, Buddhists, on the whole, reject absolutes except in one interesting case: asaṃskṛta-dharma.

Asaṃskṛta Dharma

In an almost hackneyed passage from the Udāna, the Buddha says:
atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. no cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha.
There is [something that is] unborn, unreal, unmade, unconditioned. If there were not, it would not be possible to understand escape from [something that is] born, real, made, conditioned. 
In Pāḷi the words jāta, bhūta, kata, and saṅkhata (born, real, made, conditioned) are all past participles acting as adjectives of something unspecified. The ambiguous nature of the sentence makes it perfect for Romantic projections, but very difficult to actually understand. Another related adjective is amata 'deathless' which is equivalent to ajāta, only focussing on the other aspect of repeated death and rebirth. Buddhists appear to have decided that the unspecified something being described here was a dharma, and that this dharma was nirvāna. But nirvāna cannot simply arise and pass away like other dharmas. So Buddhists said that nirvāṇa is not conditioned, i.e. asaṃskṛta (Pali asaṅkhata), which means that it does not, it cannot, arise and pass away. Clearly if nirvāna could cease, that would be a major problem for the mythology of Buddhism as it would make nirvāṇa a temporary experience like any other experience. Having attained, or obtained, nirvāṇa, a Buddha must always have it. In fact as my last essay points out this permanence itself became a problem for the Mahāyānist religion. 

But an asaṃskṛta dharma is really very deeply problematic. If there are no conditions for the arising of the dharma and we argue that it has been cognized by the Buddha, then it must always be present which in the Buddhist worldview means that it exists as a permanent entity. So already we have something eternal. However, eternality is forbidden by axiom. It is also logically inconsistent for any dharma to be eternal. That is simply not how our minds work. The importance of the insights into dharmas qua mental events, is that they are constantly arising and passing away. The Kaccānagotta Sutta points out that "real" or "unreal" (astitā or nāstitā) in this context are meaningless terms, precisely because a dharma that arises cannot be permanently non-existent and a dharma that ceases cannot be permanently existent. Neither permanent existence (i.e. realness) nor permanent non-existence can possibly apply to dharmas. And yet, here we are, with a permanently existing dharma at the heart of Buddhist doctrine in a glaring apparent contradiction. Worse, if we do not have a permanently existing dharma then the entire mythology of Buddhism collapses.

Another way of looking at the problem is that dharmas are the objects of the manas. Another axiom of Buddhist psychology is that mental events occur one at a time: one citta follows another citta. So if a dharma is asaṃskṛta it must always be present or always be absent from our experiential world. But if we allow the existence of a mental event which is always present, then it constantly takes up that single slot in the manas. An asaṃskṛta dharma can neither arise nor cease. Thus if it exists, then it must always exist. If it exists we must be aware of it to the exclusion of all else. If it doesn't exist it is irrelevant. If there were an asaṃskṛta dharma only two possibilities exist: we would only ever be aware of that one dharma to the exclusion of everything else; or we would never be aware of it. This same logic pervades the writing of Nāgārjuna with respect to svabhāva.

If we argue that we might not be aware of the existence of an asaṃskṛta dharma, then this is a simple contradiction. To be unaware of a dharma (mental event) is the same as it not being cognized and this is tantamount to saying that it has ceased and been replaced by another mental event arising; or that it has not arisen. A dharma is a dharma because it is cognized. According to the universally accepted model of the mind, without cognition nothing arises. This is also an argument against the possibility of the bhavaṅgacitta - a mental even that is not cognized is a contradiction in terms. 

This means also that any kind of argument along the lines of nirvāṇa being obscured by adventitious defilements is also a logical contradiction. Obscured here, with reference to dharmas means did not arise. And if tathāgatagarbha is not a dharma then what is it? So the ideology of Tathāgatagarbha is caught in a logical inconsistency, which leads to this kind of circular logic: If there is a tathāgatagarbha and we are not aware of it right now and always, then there is not a tathāgatagarbha

We might argue that it can work if the dharma has a permanent existence that is independent of any mind. But this contradicts the very definition of dharmas as the objects of the manas. Additionally an unchanging permanently existing real object independent of the mind would create problems for the universe. How would an unchanging entity interact with a constantly changing world? Interaction is change, so interaction would be impossible. This may be why some modern Vedantins, perhaps under the influence of Sāṃkhyadarśana, deny freewill. If you believe in absolute being in any sense, then the logical conclusion is that all change is mere illusion. Under these conditions there can be no freewill because it would contradict the fundamental assumptions the worldview is based on. we begin to see why the early Buddhists were right to reject any kind of absolute being. It's a philosophical disaster. Absolute being wrecks everything and results in a kind of nonsense world, where everything interesting is just a trick of perception. 

But if an asaṃskṛta dharma is a wrecking ball in Buddhist metaphysics, why on earth would they have adopted one (or three in the Vaibhāṣikavāda)? I'm not sure I understand this, but I have some preliminary thoughts. Firstly, of course, they were trying to use their simple philosophy to explain the experience of cessation. But as well as temporary cessation some early Buddhists experienced a seemingly permanent transformation of their minds. In mythic terms they wanted to see the Buddha , the anthropomorphic face of this transformation, as having crossed a threshold from which there was no coming back. And since their goal, in common with most, if not all, North Indians at the time was to end rebirth. If the Buddha had succeeded in his goal that would involve, at the very least, the end of rebirth. This quality the Buddha attained was at first hailed as his greatest success, though for Mahāyānists it was his greatest failure, because it left them without a saviour. 

In an experiential world in which everything changes, there is no possibility of a irreversible change. If everything changes, then reversibility is always a possibility. Thus if nirvāṇa were to involve an irreversible change, then necessarily something non-changing had to be introduced into the mix. That doing so broke Buddhist metaphysics was probably a consideration, but I imagine it seemed like the lesser of two weevils. By introducing an asaṃkṛta dharma, the early Buddhists opened up the possibility of a permanent change. This enabled them to have an afterlife which mimicked some features of the Brahmanical afterlife, i.e. ending rebirth, without explicitly committing them to absolute being. 

To get around absolute being, the early Buddhists argued that questions about the afterlife of someone who had experienced nirvāṇa, i.e. "someone in that state" (tathā-gata), had to remain unanswered or undifferentiated (avyākṛta). The early Buddhist position was that there was no way to know something that was absolute - for the reasons outlined above. Later Buddhists also rejected this axiom. When Kūkai returned from China with Tantric teachings one of the roadblocks he struck was his claim that the teachings came from the dharmakāya, personified as Mahāvairocana. At that time, in line with Mahāyāna orthodoxy, the Japanese mainstream considered the dharmakāya to be "formless, imageless, voiceless, and totally beyond conceptualisation" (Hakeda 1972: 82). They saw the dharmakāya as an absolutely transcendent state of being (rather like the Brahmanical brahman in fact). Because of this, they understood that no direct communication was possible. Kūkai set about undermining this by pointing to existing scriptural passages in which the dharmakāya Buddha does communicate and eventually won over the majority and went on to hold the highest post in the imperial government's ecclesiastical hierarchy. Absolutes are poison to Buddhist philosophy and practice.


So this idea of asaṃskṛta dharmas, although in some ways essential to Buddhism, is actually illogical and unworkable. It creates more problems than it solves. In our times the idea of unconditioned dharmas almost inevitably comes to be treated as an absolute: The Unconditioned (with definite article and capital letters). We have the same problem in the Triratna Community now with Sangharakshita's new take on dhammaniyāma, it has quickly replaced The Unconditioned to become The Dhammaniyāma. Lord, help us. 

As convert Buddhists we are expected to take up certain articles of faith. We have to accept, first and foremost, that  Buddhism does not require us to take up articles of faith (!); that karma creates a just world; that the afterlife in which this justice is enacted involves rebirth; that the sequence of lives is supposedly like one thought arising after another (or at least that the same model applies in both domains); that the Buddha achieved a kind of permanent transformation not reproduced by anyone we'll ever meet; and that certain nonsense propositions such as asaṃskṛta-dharmas are in fact sense. The first article makes it almost impossible to talk about the others because they are not really acknowledged for what they are. To give up or reject these articles of faith is to risk being expelled from the friendly and compassionate embrace of the religious community. Many converts are assiduous in learning the rhetoric with which these articles of faith are defended (I know I was). Some quite sophisticated arguments have been developed over the years and these can be deftly wielded by adepts to win arguments. But winning arguments about Buddhist doctrine is a pyrrhic victory.

It's a bit like the emperors new clothes. No one wants to be thought an idiot, so they go along with saying that they can see the fine new garments the emperor is wearing. To even admit that we don't understand something like asaṃskṛta-dharmas is to risk being looked down on by those who pretend to understand. To actively say that a central doctrine of Buddhism does not make sense sets off a whole new layer of defences in those who believe Buddhism makes sense of everything. Sceptics learn the meaning of peer-pressure. It has taken me many years of research and writing to get to a position where I feel confident about expressing my doubts and the consequences of doing so. I'm fortunate to have a small group of like-minded friends I can talk openly with about these issues.

I would like to say that I believe these articles of faith are being unravelled, but I don't think this is the case yet. Those who are questioning the traditional articles of faith are often merely replacing them with more acceptable articles of faith. Most are silenced by direct or indirect peer pressure. Apologists for traditional Buddhism are stepping up their efforts to preserve the faith and these śraddhāpālas are often able to exploit positions of power and influence within organisations to ensure that their followers fall into line. And underneath it all we want Buddhism to be right. Just like religieux everywhere, like human beings everywhere, we want certainty, absolute certainty.

What I'm saying is that we won't find it in the doctrines of Buddhism, which were broken from the start. I'm truly sorry about this, it was a wonderful dream while it lasted. And it's clear that the Buddhists of ca 200 BCE - 400 CE knew this and were scrambling to salvage Buddhism from its own incoherence. They patched something together, but it's not the raft that will take across the ocean.



Hakeda, Y.S. (1972) Kūkai, Major works: Translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York: Columbia University Press.

14 June 2013

Using the Dhamma to Win Arguments

At the risk of gross hypocrisy I'm posting this translation of a text about two wayward bhikkhus who like to win arguments more than anything. I suppose this text makes it clear that this is not new problem (c.f. the text on disputes between meditators and scholars).

One of the reasons I (largely) gave up participating in online forums and contentious Wikipedia pages and the like, is that I felt a profound sense of dissatisfaction with it all. I felt that if I could write in a more considered way, and invite considered comments and discussion then it might be more worthwhile. For the same reason I've gradually stopped reading Buddhist blogs and started reading blogs informed by research: on Indology, language, evolution and neuroscience. If anyone knows any (other) Buddhist blogs informed by research I'd be interested to hear about them.

As time has gone on the rigour of my blog posts has steadily increased, and what I'm writing here is often the result of long periods of research and reflection. So the writing itself is quite satisfying. I've clarified a number of knotty issues for myself, and perhaps more importantly clarified for myself where I continue to be confused or superficial. A few regular readers seem to really appreciate this approach to Dhamma study, and to be on something like the same wavelength, and I get the sense that we are exploring something together. I very much appreciate this kind of interaction.

However, when I've spent several weeks (sometimes months!) researching and writing a long blog post and someone who spends a few minutes skim reading it, not checking any of the references or the previous blogs that have led up to the one they are reading, writes a few lines of ill-considered disagreement, I find this pretty tedious. Just having an opinion is not enough to make the discussion interesting. Just opposing your opinion to mine is unhelpful and experience shows that nobody learns anything. And it seems this same problem was recognised in the bhikkhu saṅhga early enough to be included in the Canon.

For what it is worth, here is my translation of this somewhat obscure text, with some notes on the text, but no further comment. I can't see it translated anywhere else online, so at least it's a contribution to making the Canon available.

Ovāda Sutta S 16.6; PTS S ii.203

In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place (in the Bamboo Grove). The Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As he sat, the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma."

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus are rude and unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions." [1] I saw a bhikkhu named Bhaṇḍa, a student of Ānanda, and a bhikkhu named Abhijika, a student of Anuruddha, arguing with one another about their learning (sutena accāvadante): [in this way] 'come bhikkhu, who will speak more, who will speak better, who will speak longer?'"

The Bhagavan said to a bhikkhu, "go and tell Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika that I wish to speak to them."

The bhikkhu assented and went to find Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika to pass on the message. Summoned, they approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As they say there the Bhagavan asked: "Is it true that you two have been arguing over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

"It is Bhante."

"Have you ever heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose?"

"Certainly not, Bhante."

"So if you have not heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose then why are you acting like that, you idiots [2] ? By what understanding or knowledge [3] have you gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline in order to argue over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

The two bhikkhus falling with their heads [4] on the Bhagavan's feet, said to him: "we were overcome by a transgression, Bhante, like fools, confused and unskilful, when having gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline we argued with each other about our knowledge.

Bhante, may the Bhagavan accept this fault of ours as a fault, for [our]
restraint in the future."



[1]  Slow to take on = appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina literally 'not right handed'  (c.f. padakkhina 'to the right'). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture (the Latin word for left-handed was sinister). In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect (see also Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?)

[2]  Moghapurisā 'stupid or confused men'.

[3]  kim jānantā, kim passantā 'knowing what, seeing what?'

[4]  sirasā is an instrumental form that derives from the Sanskrit śiras.

02 September 2011


A diagram of the traditional 12 nidānas and
explanations from Pāli and Chinese Āgama texts.
Click for a larger image.
TODAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the rather mysterious term 'nāmarūpa' in a Buddhist context. The word has a history pre-dating its use in Buddhist texts, but I don't have space for a fully fledged archaeology. Most of us will only be familiar with the received tradition which defines what this word means, but there are problems with this tradition, and when we begin to explore it things are less than clear.

The word is most often translated as 'name and form', though one also sees such variants as 'sentient-body'. It is the fourth of the 12 nidānas. However nāmarūpa is a difficult term to pin down precisely. For instance it does occur in the truncated nidāna sequence in the Mahānidāna Sutta, but unlike the other terms it is not defined in that text.

Elsewhere in the canon the nāma in nāmarūpa is defined in terms of: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, phassa, and mansikāra. However saṅkhārā precedes nāmarūpa in the nidāna sequence, and both phassa and vedanā follow it. So this does not make sense. Another fairly well know definition , found in the Chinese Āgama texts according to Roderick Bucknell (1999) and in the Pāli (S ii.3) equates nāmarūpa with the five khandhā: rūpa is the four elements (catumahābhūta: paṭhavī, āpo, tejo, vāyo; earth, water, fire, wind) while nāma is the remaining khandhas, i.e. vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāna. This is no better. Again, vedanā comes later; and both saṅkhārā and viññāṇa come before. I'm left wondering why the tradition would explain things this way. I find that the simplified popular presentations of this material make a certain kind of sense, but in reading the Pāli Canon and examining the texts that sense drops away, and I'm left feeling puzzled. There is no coherence.

I'm aware of a few modern attempts to rationalise this term and will gloss some of them.

Eric Frauwallner (1973) observed that a sequence beginning with taṇha was quite common and concluded that the nidāna sequence was originally two shorter sequences. This has become a popular notion. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to solve the problem of cross-over in the definitions. The shorter versions of the sequence may equally be an abbreviation as an elaboration. Even so this only places the confusing aspects of the sequence together into the second group. Frauwallner's hypothesis doesn't help us solve the problems of interpreting nāmarūpa.

Dhīvan Thomas Jones, in his 2009 M.Phil thesis, has taken a slightly different approach. He notes that the Suttanipāta contains another (better) candidate for a primitive nidāna sequence in the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Sn 168-170) with synonymous but different terms to the standard model. This sequence begins with nāmarūpa, and leaves out viññāṇa which helps, but includes sāta-asāta (pleasant and unpleasant) as an equivalent of vedanā which still leaves us with a contradiction if this is part of the definition of nāmarūpa.

One of the most interesting developments of recent times is the attempt by Joanna Jurewicz to show that the terms in the nidānas were deliberately chosen as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. Richard Gombrich (2009, esp. ch.9) has taken this idea and wedded it to Frauwallner's 'two sequence' explanation to suggest that the original list was the short sequence from taṇha onwards, and that this was extended using terms from the Vedic lexicon to form a deliberate parody of Vedic cosmogony. Dhīvan Thomas Jones has shown that this not unproblematic, mainly because there is no evidence to show that Frauwallner's sequence is primitive. The same kind of process might have occurred with the Kalahavivāda Sutta (or something like it) as the nucleus of a teaching on becoming, that was given an ironic twist so that it could also serve as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. This is reasonably plausible, though of course there is no sign of cognizance of such a strategy in the Buddhist tradition itself, so if this is what happened it was almost immediately forgotten by the tradition which adopted it. Such forgetfulness is not easily explained with reference to teachings of such central importance, especially in the face of open and explicit criticism of Brahmins elsewhere. However, the context shows that the commentarial tradition (including those suttas which comment on the sequence) is not internally consistent, so something has gone wrong somewhere.

Bucknell (1999) summarises Reat who sees nāmarūpa as referring to objects of consciousness: nāma refers to conceptual (adhivacana) and rūpa to sensory (paṭigha). As Bucknell points out this view is criticised by both Peter Harvey and Sue Hamilton. However Reat's suggestion would fit nicely with Dhīvan's model of the development from a nucleus - the primitive nāmarūpa qua objects of consciousness giving rise to 'contact' (phassa) makes some sense. Hamilton's view is that nāma "should be taken to refer to abstract identity and [rūpa] to physically (though not necessarily visibly) recognisable identity." (p.151) For Hamilton nāmarūpa is closely tied to viññāṇa as is shown by the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) that links the two of them in a mutually conditioning relationship. Reat and Hamilton's positions are subtly different, but not incompatible I think.

What is clear is that once we move away from simplified popular presentations of Buddhist doctrine, there is no single and coherent understanding of what this term means or represents. And this is a continuing quandary because it suggests that we have lost touch with the spirit of the texts. If we no longer understand key terms (and I would suggest that saṃkhārā is another candidate for this category) then there is a discontinuity. Being stuck with the term we have come up with different and mutually incompatible explanations, but this only adds to the sense of confusion (rather like commentaries on the Heart Sūtra which are all from incompatible sectarian points of view).

I have no better explanation to offer. No theory, and no sense that any one of the existing theories has recover the lost meaning of the term.

Another issue with nāmarūpa and its place in the 12 nidāna chain is that it suggests that viññāna is a precondition for form, which the received tradition usually treats as the physical body. Although Buddhists complain when they perceive consciousness being treated as an epiphenomenon of the brain, they apparently have no problem believing that the body is an epiphenomenon of the mind. Not even the Three Lifetimes Interpretation can save us from this conclusion. The Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna are mutually conditioning, but this doesn't really help us. However elsewhere we find viññāna arising in dependence on the āyatanas (the six sense faculties and the six sense objects). This suggests we can have sense faculties, which includes the eyes, before we have a body. It seems to me that the received tradition has lost the thread somewhere along the line. Buddhists usually gloss over these kinds of inconsistencies and do their best to make sense of them. And unfortunately there is no scholarly consensus on what nāmarūpa might have originally meant in a Buddhist context. Perhaps it's time to rethink this strategy of papering over the cracks?


[I'll be away from 2-9 Sept]

  • Bucknell, Roderick S. (1999) Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 22 (2), 312-342,
  • Frauwallner, E. (1973). History of Indian Philosophy. (Vol. 1). (V. Bedekar, trans.) Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Curzon.
  • Hamilton Early Buddhism a New Approach.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. Paṭiccasamuppāda in Context: The Buddha in Debate with Brahmanical Thinking. M.Phil Dissertation. Cambridge University [unpublished]
  • Jurewicz, J. Playing with Fire: the pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic Thought. Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26, p.77-103

12 August 2011

Five Facts to Continuously Reflect on.

This is the 250th post on this blog. That's 250 raves in a little less than six years, one per week since the beginning of 2008. I started out limiting myself to 1000 words, though that has gone by the board. So I've written perhaps 300,000 words, mostly on the Buddhadharma. Thanks to all my readers and commenters over the years. And thanks to my friend Ann (Pema) Palomo for inspiring the first raves. I'd like to dedicate this one to all practitioners everywhere.

THESE LINES FROM THE Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57 PTS A iii.71f) [1] are fairly commonly cited, and the kind of thing I would expect every Buddhist to be familiar with. If not in this form, then something very like it. Still... I get a shudder each time I read them. How often do we really give time to contemplating the facts (ṭhānāni) presented here?
Five facts should be continuously reflected on by men and women, at home and on retreat. Which five?
  1. I am subject to ageing, ageing isn't overcome (yet),
  2. I am subject to illness, illness isn't overcome (yet),
  3. I am subject to death, death isn't overcome (yet),
  4. I will be separated and cut off from everyone I love, and everything I hold dear.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, the heir of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, and find refuge in my actions. Whatever actions I do - beautiful or evil - I will be the heir of them.
These should be reflected on continuously.
These are reflections for every one. Men and women. In its essence Buddhism is not gender specific, though of course different cultures have imposed gender based restrictions on practitioners.

My translation "at home and on retreat" does not exactly follow the Pāli: gahaṭṭena vā pabbajitena vā. More literally this says 'by householders and those gone forth'. Since in the Triratna Order we don't necessarily make this distinction I wanted a translation that reflected our approach more accurately. We are all householders, all settled monastics, and all forest renunciants, some of the time. We may spend the majority of our time in one or other mode—and in our movement we have all three—but we are free to move between lifestyles because we have rejected the formalism associated with each. This point, based on Reginald Ray's tripartite model of Buddhist society in his book Buddhist Saints in India, was made by Dharmacārī Subhūti some years ago. Not so long ago I might have said this was unique to the Triratna Community, but lifestyle mobility is a feature of contemporary Buddhism generally, and any serious Buddhist is unlikely to have just one lifestyle all the time. Householders go on retreats of varying lengths. I've been on many retreats from single days up to four months. I have literally been a forest dweller during some of that time. I've lived for months at a time like a cenobitical monk, and may well do again. Even my home life is not exactly classic nuclear family because I live in a Buddhist community with other single men for instance. So in this translation I wanted to suggest something of the modern spirit of Buddhism, especially as the Triratna Community conceives it. I leave readers to judge whether I have succeeded.

These five phrases are 'facts' (ṭhānāni) to be reflected on (paccavekkhitabbāni) constantly (abhiṇhaṃ). The translation of thāna as 'fact' is also used by both Nyanaponika & Bodhi, and by Thanissaro. The word ṭhāna more literally means 'place', or 'state'. It derives from the verbal root √sthā which is cognate with the English 'standing'. In Sanskrit and Pāli the verb means 'to stand, to remain' and hence 'to be located'.[2] It has a number of abstract or applied meanings one of which is 'standpoint' i.e. ground for, reason, principle. A ṭhāna is the valid ground for a logical conclusion: i.e. a fact.

Each of the first three phrases is in the form: jarā-dhammomhi, jaraṃ anatīto'ti. The final ti means this is something one says or thinks. The morphology of jarādhammomhi foxed me for a little while, and eventually my friend Dhīvan pointed out the correct reading for me. It is a phrase: jarā-dhammo (a)mhi.[3] Here amhi is the first-person singular of the verb 'to be', i.e. 'I am'; while jarā is 'ageing' and dhamma (in this case) means 'nature': jarādhamma 'subject to ageing' or 'of a nature to age'. Dhamma as a suffix can sometimes be translated as the English suffix -able in this context, though it doesn't work in this case, nor with byādhi (disease) or maraṇa (death), c.f. vayadhamma which I translate as 'perishable' relying on the double meaning of perish: 'to die, to decay' to capture the same double meaning of vaya. 'Subject to ageing, disease and death' is a serviceable enough translation. As an aside it occurs to me that the contemporary interest in the "living dead" could be seen as a morbid rejection of these facts about old age, sickness and death.

The word atīta has two senses. In terms of time it means 'past'. Modally it means 'having overcome or surmounted', or even 'free from'. It combines the prefix ati- (beyond, past) with the past participle of the verb √i 'to go' so it literally means 'gone beyond', or 'gone past'. Here it has the negative prefix a(n)- added, so jaraṃ anatīta means 'ageing is not overcome', or 'I have not gone beyond death', or perhaps 'I am still subject to ageing'. I've added yet in parentheses because these are not the morose deliberations of a fatalist waiting to grow old and die. They are a clarion call for those who seek to go beyond. And it must be said that these statements make a lot more sense in a milieu where rebirth is an accepted fact.

At death I will be cut off (vinābhāva) and separated (nānābhāva) from everyone I love (piya) and everything I hold dear (manāpa). Piya is 'love' in the ordinary sense, including familial and romantic love.[4] Manāpa means 'pleasant, pleasing'. All the people and things we are attached to we leave behind at death. Everything. We may have the misfortune to be reborn—and for Buddhists rebirth is a disaster—but we won't come back to what we know and love. Each time we start over, except for underlying tendencies. We have to find new friends and loved ones, accumulate new possessions and memories, only to lose them all over again. For those who believe in rebirth what stronger motivation could there be to practice? For those who don't, what strong motivation to practice can replace it?

In the fifth reflection 'actions' translates kamma, which occurs in a series of compounds: kamma-ssaka, kamma-dāyāda, kamma-yoni, kamma-bandhu, kamma-paṭisaraṇa: owner of actions, heir to actions, born from actions, bound to actions, with a refuge in action.[5] The last is particularly interesting. The word is paṭisaraṇa which has more or less the same meaning as saraṇa 'refuge, protection, shelter' - we are not only the victims of our own misdeeds, but actually the authors of our own salvation as well. The message of these terse statements of the idea of kamma is that morally significant actions have consequences. It's useful to think of kamma in terms of how we treat people. It is our actions in relationship to other people that are morally significant, or should I say that that our actions find their moral significance when considered in terms of our relationships with other people. I think this is why the traditional precepts are phrased the way they are. But also it is in relationship to people that we experience the moral effects of our actions. We see the way patterns develop, habits and characters are formed, and harmony preserved or destroyed. This is not the only way to see kamma, but it is useful.

Note that the second part of the fifth reflection, beginning with "Whatever actions I do..." juxtaposes the words kalyāṇa 'beautiful' and pāpa 'evil'. So morality here is linked to aesthetics. Kalyāṇa 'beautiful, auspicious, helpful' is from the root √kal. It is cognate with the Greek κάλλος (kallos) that we find in English words such as calligraphy (beautiful writing), calliope (beautiful voice) and kaleidoscope (beautiful shape observer). Evil (pāpa), then, could be seen as 'ugly' in the sense of a quality of relating to people which is ugly.

Finally we should reflect on these five facts continuously (abhiṇhaṃ). This could also be translated as 'repeatedly'. The word is a contraction of abhikkhaṇaṃ. It is thought to derive from the verbal root √īkṣ 'to see', with the suffix abhi-, which according to PED has the primary meaning of 'taking possession and mastering'. One of the figurative senses (PED I.2) is "intensifying the action implied by the verb". Thus the sense of abhiṇham is to look at these facts closely and repeatedly, to reflect on them over and over again. We can always gain perspective by placing whatever is happening within the context of these five facts. Whatever else is true about our situation, these five facts are also part of the existential situation. Reflecting on these facts helps us to orient ourselves to the world, and to assess our priorities.

All of this could be seen as quite pessimistic and depressing on its own. But behind it is the idea that ageing, illness and death can be overcome. Through our own actions we can find ourselves no longer subject to suffering, and suffering (as distinct from pain [6]) is a result of choices we make. We can develop equanimity in relationship to the people and things that give us pleasure or pain, and that we think make us happy or unhappy. We can find a happiness that is not dependent on sense objects (i.e. which is 'unconditioned'). And as I have already said we can be the authors of our own liberation through choosing our actions carefully. The point is not to deflate, but to inspire—we may still have much left to do, but it can be done! We can all be liberated from the oppression of craving and aversion, especially in relation to other people. I have no doubt about this, though I am not yet liberated from them myself.


  1. Also known (particularly in CST) as Abhiṇhapaccavekkhitabbaṭhāna Sutta. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Hence place names like Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The -stan ending comes from the same verbal root.
  3. In other words we have a compound and an external sandhi which joins two words. External sandhi is relatively rare in Pāli: we'd expect to see jarādhammo amhi as two separate words in Roman script.
  4. C.f. my comments on the Piyajātika Sutta: From the Beloved.
  5. I read the first four compounds as tatpuruṣa of various kinds, and the last as bahuvrīhi.
  6. I've written about the distinction between Pain & Suffering.

05 August 2011

Not Two Truths

alchemy pictureFOR SOME TIME I have wanted to write a critique of the Doctrine of the Two Truths. The task is potentially a large and difficult one because there is no single version of the idea that is universally accepted, and the history of its development is complex. Some version of the idea of Two Truths is accepted by most schools of Buddhist thought, but they do not agree on the details. An in-depth exposition on the subject would be a long book project.[1] However, I think a single wrong step begins the path that leads to all versions of this theory. Therefore, I may be able to head them all off by identifying that step and suggesting reasons why we should not take it.

In broad outline, the idea of Two Truths says that there are two ways of understanding the world. In the conventional (samvṛti) sense the world is just as it appears to the unawakened. So, for instance, we find the world to be a relatively reliable place where the laws of physics and chemistry apply; where we are born and die; where we interact with people. And yet, according to this theory, this conventional world is not real. Taking the world to be real is why we suffer. Buddhist theorists came up with the idea of an ultimate (paramārtha) truth, the perception of which is liberating, and the understanding of which is liberation—those who see things this way see things as they really are, i.e., they see Reality (with a capital R). Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong. So, I'm probably mad, or deluded, but bear with me.

Let's begin at the beginning, or as close to it as we'll ever get. We do not find the idea of Two Truths in the Pāli suttas, nor, so far as I am aware, in the early Buddhist texts preserved in other languages. So, we cannot cite any Pāli sutta in defence of this idea. And this is, unsurprisingly, my first point. The idea is a later development. If the early Buddhists did not feel the need for such a theory why did later Buddhists invent it? (This is a question worth asking for many other ideas as well!).

I have argued for some time now that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a Theory of Everything.[2] Not only does paṭicca-samuppāda not explain the universe and everything in it, it was never intended to be applied beyond the arising of experiences in the mind, i.e., dukkha (literally: disappointment, dissatisfaction; suffering)—dukkha is our experience. The 'things' that arise in dependence on conditions are none other than dhammas, and these are the objects of the mind sense. The early texts have little or nothing to say about the ontological status of these dhammas. Indeed, the early Buddhist texts explicitly argue that ontological terms like 'existence' and 'non-existence' do not even apply (especially the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S ii.16). This is not to say that non-mental phenomena are not conditioned, or that cause and effect are not observed. They are. But this was not, so far as we can tell, the Buddha's insight, nor his teaching. So much should be familiar to readers of this blog. [and if this is not familiar then please read the essay referred to in footnote 2.]

Perhaps because their non-Buddhist contemporaries were deeply interested in ontology, such issues also came to occupy the minds of Buddhists. Not content to leave the dhamma as an indeterminate 'mental thing', what I refer to deliberately vaguely as 'an experience', they began to speculate on the nature of dhammas. Were they real? Were they ultimate? How long did they last? The answers to these questions were, from the beginning, irrelevant to the Buddhist program of practice. But, in some cases, they came to occupy centre stage of Buddhist discourse—so much so that many people today talk about the goal of Buddhism as "insight into the nature of Reality". [Google that phrase] The trouble with asking such questions is that people are rarely satisfied with not coming to a conclusion. I suspect that one only asks such questions when one already considers there to be a definite and preferable answer. A lot of time and energy is then wasted over competing opinions about something that is simply not relevant.

I understand the early Buddhist response to the question of whether dhammas are real or unreal to be that the question was neither answerable nor relevant, so even attempting to answer it is pointless. By extension I take the appearance of answers to this question to be one of the limits of what we I think of as early Buddhism.

It is a relatively straightforward proposition to argue that the external world is not dependent on my seeing it, for it to have form. It is harder to believe that the entire universe blinks out of existence and back into existence each time my eyelids close and open than that the Buddha was talking about was the world of 'subjective' experience. In fact, even the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are out of place here, since the 'world' the Buddha was talking about arises from the condition of both sense object and sense faculty—that world is neither subjective nor objective. In any case, I have found no reference in any early Buddhist text to the reality or unreality of sense objects, nor any mention of it in secondary literature which discusses the early Buddhist world-view. Sense objects are always part of the process of unenlightened consciousness, but there is no speculation on their nature.

However, if I close my eyes then my mode of perception has changed, and my experience of 'the world' has radically changed. This probably leaves the world itself unchanged. I say 'probably', because I do not know and I do not believe I can know the world except through my senses. This leaves me uncertain, and unable to come to any firm conclusion. So neither materialism or idealism in the strict senses are intellectually honest. All I know for certain is that I have experience of something; I find the experiences I have problematic; and early Buddhism tells me that the something is not the source of the problem.

This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse, that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.

If we begin to apply the paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory to everything, if we apply it not only to the arising of experiences in our minds, but to the arising of what we suppose to be objects in the putative world, then we create a problem. I have discussed this problem with respect to the simile of the chariot. In this case we lose sight of the fact that the chariot is a metaphor for how our 'world'—that is the world that we experience, not the world as ontological reality—is conditioned by the meeting of sense faculty (indriya) and sense object (dhamma) in the present of sense awareness (viññāna). The chariot is not the point of this story and neither is the world of sense objects. The main point is made in the seldom quoted statements that follow the simile:
"apart from dukkha nothing arises, and apart from dukkha nothing ceases".
When we focus on the chariot and its parts we start asking questions like: is the chariot real or not? Is there a chariot apart from the parts? Is there some essence of chariot? And we come to strange and speculative conclusions. In effect we must invent something like the Two Truths to account for the paradoxes that arise. Plainly, the chariot exists and is, in a sense, 'real', since we perceive it; but it can't be really 'real', or solidly existent because we know it to be merely a conglomeration of parts. Clearly, it cannot be both real and unreal, both exist and not-exist at the same time, so... there must be two distinct truths about reality: at one level it is real and at another unreal.[3]

If we reframe the question in terms of experience, then we already know that our mental states are neither real nor unreal—these kinds of dichotomies don't apply to experience. If we remove the sense object, the sense faculty or awareness from the equation our experiential world ceases or fails to arise (that being, this becomes, etc.). While the three factors are present, then there is both the experience and the experiencer. The khandhas are just another way of breaking up the experience and making the same point. [See The Apparatus of Experience] When we limit our domain to experience, then dualities like real/unreal or existence/non-existence simply and straightforwardly do not apply, and we do not create paradoxes.

All experiences, including the experience of self-hood, are formed this way: from an interaction of our mind, sense faculties and sense objects. And all experiences are characterised as impermanent, disappointing and insubstantial. We may think that a pleasant experience equates with happiness, but we find the experience is fleeting, and it isn't repeatable, which we take to mean that we are unhappy. We grasp after pleasure, but can never be satisfied, and the harder we pursue pleasure the less pleasure we experience. It is not that there is no experience, just that we fail to understand the nature of experience. And experience has only this nature. Awakening, I would say, is awakening to the nature of experience.

It's not that conventionally something exists, but ultimately it doesn't—if we are using words like exist, true or real then we're applying the theory in the wrong way and/or in the wrong domain. Because we are, or should be, talking about experience of things rather than the things in themselves, we have no need of two different truths. Only those who attempt to stretch the application of the paṭicca-samuppāda beyond it's intended domain require two truths.

The other aspect of the Two Truths that is insisted upon is that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to words: "Reality is ineffable". Words do a fair job of communicating about objects and ideas. But when it comes to experiences... no experience can be communicated in words. We can say that we have had an experience; we can say how we explain and/or interpret that experience; we can say how we feel about having had that experience; we can say how the experience changed us: but with mere words we cannot communicate the experience we've had. This is true of every single experience. So experience, all experience, is ineffable. And in fact probably all of us have had life changing experiences after which we have never been the same. We shouldn't make a big deal out of that in the case of bodhi. The ineffability of experience is a simple truism, not a profound Truth. I think the tendency is to emphasise the mystical aspects of bodhi, and for someone like me it makes it seem impossible.

So this is my mad thesis—that all Buddhist philosophers (including the modern Theravāda) are barking up the wrong tree with this business of Two Truths. If we take paṭicca-samuppāda in its natural domain there is no need to go down the route of inventing this dichotomy, because we do not meet the paradoxes that arise from the misapplication of the theory. The early Buddhists had no need of a Two Truths theory because they understood the domain in which paṭicca-samuppāda applies. We have no need of it either; in fact, it is probably a hindrance.


  1. A good overview of the subject is: Thakchoe, Sonam, 'The Theory of Two Truths in India,' The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online: [though of course the theory developed outside India as well!]. See also Ñāṇavīra. 'Paramattha Sacca.' Notes on Dhamma. p. 27-33. Online:
  2. For an extended treatment of this topic see my long essay: Is Pāṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? This is based on a close reading of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16). I've covered some of the same ground in this blog:
  3. If you are at all tempted to invoke Quantum Mechanics at this point then I suggest that you read my essay: Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. I don't think QM has anything helpful to say to us about this issue because conclusions about the nature of single sub-atomic particles do not apply when several septillion of them conglomerate at room temperature.

22 July 2011

What is the Dhamma, and what isn't it?

Solitary Retreat Hut at Danakoṣa

Solitary retreat hut
Danakoṣa Retreat Centre

MY TEXT TODAY is quite well known. The version usually cited is in the Vinaya, but I've opted for the Aṅguttara Nikāya version because it will be easier for people to find other translations to compare mind with. [1] If one is stuck with having to read translations, one should never be satisfied with only one, but consult several. The different Pāli versions agree perfectly with regard to the essential teachings. As I often do I'm opting for a slightly different reading to what I have seen others give.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Jñānagarbha for asking the question which sparked this post.

Saṃkhitta Sutta
(A 8.53; iv.279 = Cv 406; Vin ii.258)

One time the Bhagavan was staying at Vesāli in the gabled hall of great forest. The Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. Then standing at one side she addressed him: "it would be excellent, Sir, if you could give me a brief teaching, and I, having heard that teaching will dwell on it alone, secluded, vigilant, active and resolute.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to passion, not to dispassion; conduce to bondage, not to freedom; conduce to accumulation, not to decrease; conduce to much desire, not to few desires; conduce to discontent, not to contentment; conduce to socialising, not to solitude; conduce to idleness, not to vigour; conduce to delighting in the ugly, not to delight in the beautiful -- you should definitely remember "this is not the teaching, this is not the discipline, this is not the edict of the teacher.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to dispassion, not to passion; conduce to freedom, not to bondage; conduce to decrease, not to accumulation; conduce to few desires, not to much desire; conduce to contentment, not to discontent; conduce to solitude not to socialising, ; conduce to vigour, not to idleness; conduce to delighting in the beautiful, not to delight in the ugly -- you should definitely remember "this is the teaching, this is the discipline, this is the edict of the teacher.
In contemporary language Gotamī is going on a solitary retreat and she asks her teacher to give her a subject to reflect on. So my approach is not to take this as a doctrinal teaching, but as a methodological one, that is to treat the content of the discourse primarily as a subject for reflection rather than as a definition of the Dhamma.[2]

The teaching is given in response to a request, to a particular person at a particular time and place. One imagines it tailored to that person and their particular needs. However it has more general implications as well. Meditation subjects in early Buddhism, by which I mean subjects for reflection designed to stimulate insight rather than concentration techniques, could often be quite specific. A more general subject like this sets up a different dynamic though. It seems to me that the idea here is to undermine attempts to intellectualise and rationalise, to prevent the student becoming too literalistic. The effect is to throw Gotamī back into her own experience, and to assessing the consequences of her own actions.

Human activity is driven by various motivating factors - what we call the emotions (from Latin ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'). To break it down to it's most fundamental level we are usually seeking pleasure or avoiding displeasure. There's a rational level to this. We find pleasure in food, because if we didn't -- as in anorexia -- then we'd probably die of malnutrition. Pleasure stimulates the behaviour that keeps us alive. Similarly if my finger is in a flame, it is only rational to remove it, rather than to try to ignore the pain. But a lot of the time we're not simply responding to things in this way. Because of the view that happiness consists of pleasant sensations for instance, we tend to equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. It's not an overwhelming and over-riding urge, more of an underlying tendency, and it affects some more than others, though one can see the effect quite clearly on a societal level.

If we take this teaching seriously what we have to do is ask ourselves before we act: does this emotion conduce to passion, to bondage, etc., or not. If it does, then it's not the Dhamma, it's not helpful. If it is conducive to dispassion, to freedom, et., then that is the Dhamma, it is helpful. If we continue on a course of action motivated by these unskilful emotions then we may be harmed, and we may harm others. And this restrains us from acting harmfully. The teaching draws our attention to feedback loops between emotions, actions, and outcomes. I would think that an intense retreat situation is the only place where you could really take on this kind of practice. One needs to be leading a very slow paced, and very simple and undemanding, and probably solitary life to pursue this kind of practice successfully. It's only with substantial progress that one can bring the practice to bear in more lively situations.

I won't say much more, but I do want to look at some of the terms more closely. Passion (rāga) is the old fashioned sense of the word: as in the passion of martyrs. The PIE root is *√pēi 'to hurt; to scold', and from this same root we get the word fiend.[3] It refers here to emotions that rise up and overwhelm us, against our will. The Pāli (and Sanskrit) word rāga literally means 'red' and seems to refer to the flushed face of the person in the grip of hot emotions like anger and sexual arousal. These strong emotions tend to carry us away, and cause us to act on impulse without considering the consequences. A lot of time in Western society we seem quite pleased to be caught up in emotions like this, even though we are also frequently horrified by the consequences. The Romantic movement idolised emotions and emotionality - which may account for why we think of passion in a positive sense nowadays. Buddhism asks us to adopt a more cool approach to life, so that we don't act without reflection and cause harm.

Bondage (saṃyoga) seems fairly straight forward in this context. The next word (ācaya) is less clear however. The pair here is ācaya and apacāya: and ācaya means 'increase, accumulation', whereas PED has for apacaya 'falling off, decrease; unmaking'. If we turn to the commentary it glosses ācaya as vaṭṭassa vaḍḍhanatta, which I take to mean 'gaining and fostering of alms donations'. So Buddhaghosa, as he often does, sees this from the point of view of a settled monastic. I think more generally it may well mean the accumulation of material possessions. However PED also hints that it might mean the accumulation of kamma leading to rebirth (sv. apacaya). The latter would also fit the context quite well.

The pair mahicchata and appicchata are literally - big-wished and small-wished, where icchata is the past-participle of icchati 'to wish, to desire, to long for'. The meaning is clear enough, though rendering this into good English requires translating the meaning, not the words themselves. The next term, contentment (saṇtuṭṭhi), is also reasonably straight-forward.

Where I imagine we struggle is with the pair: saṅgaṇika and paviveka. The first term saṅganika is from saṃ- + gaṇa + -ika. And gaṇa is used for collections of people: so it can mean 'a meeting or chapter of two or three bhikkhus', or on a larger scale: 'society, a crowd'; and with non-human items 'a suite or collection'. I think these exhortations to solitude are the ones that many people find difficult. People often say that they don't want to cut themselves off from the world, they want to live and practice in the world. Of course such a lifestyle was known in ancient India as well. We tend to call it 'lay Buddhism', though I don't think the monk/lay divide is a useful one any longer (given that many monks don't really practice, and many lay people really do!). But while Buddhism can accommodate this less intense approach to practice, the recommendation is to seek out solitude (paviveka). I think this goes back to what I said earlier about a slow and simple lifestyle. There is nothing evil about living a busy and full life. It's just not conducive to insight. And while I know that saying so will get some people's back's up, I think we need to be honest about the level of intensity and direction of our practice. I have one friend who for the last 12 years has spent 3 or 4 months on solitary retreat each year. If anyone I know is likely to be insightful then I expect it to be him, rather than my other friends who've married, got careers and had kids. Realistically most of us aren't able to sustain intense practice, and we play other roles in our Buddhist communities. I for instance do not expect to become enlightened. But I actively participate in a community in which it seems reasonable that someone will, and there's every indication that people are having insight experiences. It's all about creating the conditions for awakening, and it doesn't have to be me. So the Buddha recommends solitude to better pursue our practice. One reasonable compromise to full-time solitude is to spend regular time alone, preferably on retreat. In the past my teacher has suggested one month in the year on solitary retreat as a guideline. The more progress we make, the better able we are to take the fruits of our practice into relations with other people.

The last two pairs are kosajja (idleness, sloth) & viriyāmbha (making an effort); and dubbharata (delighting in the harmful or ugly) & subharata (delighting in the beautiful or wholesome). I don't think I need say much about these.

I think anyone who has been on a meditation retreat of more than a few days duration will have some inkling of what I'm saying about the conditions which would be conducive to sustaining, and acting on the kind of reflection practice given to Gotamī. On retreat, with the simplicity of it, the intensity of practice, and the space to pause and reflect, one comes alive in a way that is simply not possible in a busy urban life. Those people who think that having more and more stimulation and excitement is living life to the full are fooling themselves. To be fully alive to one's experience requires quiet, space, stillness, and simplicity. This is a life lived to it's full potential.

There is another, perhaps more usual, way to interpret this text. I have read it as primarily a methodological text, one which is advising on a way of living. But we might also read it as doctrinal and definitional. The different readings turn on the ambiguous use of the word dhamma. So here ime dhamme could mean: "these things", "these teachings" or "these mental objects". My interpretation emerges from taking dhamma here to simply mean "thing", or "mental object", or perhaps even "mental state". If however we take it to mean '"teaching" then the emphasis shifts. In this case we might see the pairs of antonyms as definitional. In this reading anything which conduces to liberation is the Teaching. This has interesting implications as well. It points away from dogmatism, sectarianism, and conservatism, towards a more open, ecumenical, and progressive attitude to what it means to be a Buddhist. It moves us away from prescriptive definitions of the type 'you have to believe X, or do practice Y'. I believe that most commentators have seen the text this way, though my opinion is that my methodological interpretation is the more likely. Mahāpajāpati asks for, and is given, a meditation subject; she aims to dwell on it in solitude; and though it is unstated her aim appears to be liberation from dukkha, and her verses in the Therīgāthā (Th2, v.157-162) tell us that she did achieve this aim.


  1. Access to Insight refer to this as the Gotamī Sutta.
  2. Having written this, and in a slightly surreal moment while checking for other translations, I find that I myself have already commented on this text on my blog, but had no memory of doing so (and it wasn't that long ago). It is quite interesting to see that I have taken a very different approach this time. See What is Buddhism? (23 Apr 2010).
  3. PIE /p/ changes to /f/ in Germanic -- c.f. Sanskrit: pitṛ; Greek/Latin: pater; Proto-Germanic: *fader; German vater; Old English: fæder; English: father. 'Fiend' is from the Old English foend, which also devolved to foe. Compassion comes from the Latin which combines this same word in the form pati 'to suffer' with the prefix com- 'together'. Compassion is cognate with the Greek derived word sympathy 'to feel with'; while the closest Sanskrit term is anukampa 'to tremble with'.

23 July 2010

The Buddha's Refuge

DharmacakraA lot of the Buddha's biography seems to be in the form of psycho-drama. His internal processes get acted out, and the 'players' are a variety of archetypal characters including Māra ['the killer'] and Brahma-sahampati [God] and the Earth Goddess [Pṛthvī]. Often the Buddha is shown as considering a dead end before coming up with a brilliant but previously unforeseen solution. In a brief episode found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Gārava Sutta, [1] the Buddha is faced with a dilemma in the aftermath of his breakthrough to awakening:

dukkhaṃ kho agāravo viharati appatisso, kaṃ nu khvāhaṃ samaṇaṃ vā brāhmaṇaṃ vā sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti?

Miserable indeed the disrespectful and rebellious dwell. Which ascetic or priest should I reverence, respect, and dwell in subordination to?
The Buddha then considers whether there is anyone more developed than himself to which he could subordinate himself to. But he sees no-one more accomplished than himself in virtue, meditation, wisdom (i.e. the three-fold path); nor in liberation or the knowledge and vision of liberation. In short he sees no one in any realm to whom he could be a subordinate - not even amongst the gods. Then he decides:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti.

I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very thing to which I have fully-awakened.
At this point Brahma-sahampati turns up to praise the Buddha for his decision. He reveals that this is what all the Buddhas of the past have done, and all the Buddhas of the future will do.

This is a pretty literal account and partial translation of the text. I wanted to convey the raw experience of reading the text in Pāli. But in taking this approach I must then retrace my steps and say more about the context. Indian society, like most societies, was and is hierarchical. We are probably familiar with the ideas of class (varṇa) and caste (jāti). Each person was embedded in a web of social links and obligations. The Chinese called awareness of, and obedience to, this aspect of life: filial piety (; xiào). One had obligations to one's parents for instance, to one's spouse and children, and to the king. Another hierarchy existed in religious circles which may have been modelled on social norms. A student lived, as they say, at the feet of their teacher. In taking a teacher one became their disciple, their servant, and one obeyed without question every instruction. Compare this passage from the Visuddhimagga:
Ācariyassa niyyātentenāpi ‘‘imāhaṃ, bhante, attabhāvaṃ tumhākaṃ pariccajāmī’’ti vattabbaṃ.

Dedicating himself to a teacher he should say: "I give up this personality [attabhāva] to you, Sir." (Vism iii.126)
Regarding the word attabhāva PED says it can mean "one's own nature; person, personality, individuality... life, rebirth". So the interpretation could be "I give up my life to you". The point is that without a total commitment from the student, the teacher will not teach them. In the Gārava Sutta three words are used to express this teacher/pupil relationship: gārava, paṭissa, and upanissāya. These more or less correspond to the body, speech and mind aspects of the person.

The word gārava (Sanskrit gaurava) is related to 'guru'. The verbal root is not very clear in either Pāli or Sanskrit, but the Indo-European root appears to be *gu̯er-. The basic meaning is 'heavy', and cognate words in English are: from Latin 'gravis', gravity, grave; from Greek 'barus' baritone, barium. So the 'guru' is someone who is weighty, who has gravitas. The form of Sanskrit gaurava is a taddhita compound which lengthens the root vowel to au, and has the sense of 'related to or connected with what is weighty', which is to say that the student experiences the gravitas of the teacher, how they live their lives, and responds appropriately (gau devolves to in Pāli). The attitude of the disciple is 'gārava' respectful. [2]

The word paṭissa (also patissa) evokes another aspect of India spiritual life. The root here is √śru 'to listen, to hear'. It is one of the oldest spiritual traditions that the way to learn from a teacher is to pay attention to what they say. Older still is the belief that the sages who composed the Vedic hymns first 'heard' them in ecstatic trances brought on by the drug soma. [3] Truth/reality (both sat) and speech (vac) have always been very closely linked in India, even after the introduction of writing. Unlike contemporary Western society where, except in specialised situations, the word of any person counts for less than a published source, Indian spiritual tradition required personal communication, often under conditions of strict secrecy. The prefix paṭi- (Sk prati-) suggests 'towards'. So paṭissa means 'listening to', 'paying attention'. PED highlights the nature of the guru/disciple relationship when it defines this word as: "deference, obedience."

In the first passage of Pāli I quoted, the Buddha associated the lack of these qualities - appatisso and agārava - with dukkha 'misery, disappointment'. I think he must mean having no one to respect, no one to pay heed to, in other words having no teacher, is a miserable state to be because one cannot make further progress without a guide. So then he ponders under whom he might subordinate himself. Which brings us to the third word: upanissāya. This is a gerund from upanissayati 'to depend or rely on' (from the root śri 'resort'), and means 'in dependence on, protected by; near to'. In the ancient Indian religions, the religious student dwelt with their teacher, in their house, and learned everything at their feet. Of course once teachers started to become itinerant this lifestyle was modified, but the description stuck. It was rather like the old apprentice system in England. One of my Great-great-grandfathers was apprenticed for seven years. For the first 4 years he got no pay, but only board and lodgings (ie. food and a bed). Years 5 and 6 saw him receive a small allowance, and then in his 7th year he started to be paid for his work. He learnt his trade from his master, living and working under his roof and under his authority. In Sanskrit this relationship of subordination to the authority and will of the master is sometimes referred to as upaniṣad 'sitting down near' or 'sitting at the feet of the guru', though the word also came to mean 'a secret or esoteric teaching', or 'the mystery upon which something rests'; and it is the collective title of late Vedic esoteric books 'The Upaniṣads'. The Buddha is clearly concerned to find a teacher. He means to subordinate himself to a teacher, to sit at someone else's feet, as is the custom of his time and place.

So the proper attitude of the disciple, in this traditional view, is total commitment of body, speech and mind; characterised by respect for the teacher's gravitas, paying attention and obedience to the teacher's words, and subordination to the will of the teacher.

The Buddha is portrayed as being quite humble even in the face of his amazing breakthrough. However this humility is replaced by some other emotion (we're not quite sure what) when he realises that he is in no way inferior to any being in the universe (human or divine), and that it would not be right for him to subordinate himself to anyone under those conditions. This speaks to the ancient Indian feeling for order. The universe is an ordered and lawful (dhammatā, niyamatā, or even dhamma-niyamatā) place. The Buddha could not take a teacher of lesser virtue, or lesser wisdom. This would be unnatural. Lacking a being to pay his respects to, he realises that he can direct those emotions towards the dhamma itself. I think dhamma here is slightly ambiguous. I suspect it is deliberately so - the Buddha will respect the thing (dhamma) which he awakened to - whatever that might be! It could mean any or all of: 'thing, teaching, truth, nature, order'. There is an emphasis in the Pāli: tam'eva dhamma 'that very thing' or 'only that thing'. That thing, that very thing, is what we call "The Dhamma", i.e. the Dhamma as a refuge, or as one of the three precious gifts (aka the three jewels) which though singular has many aspects and facets.

  1. Gārava Sutta. SN 6.2 PTS S i.139. My translations. Also translated in Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.233-4; online translation by Thanissaro @ Access to Insight.
  2. Various theories have been put forward regarding the identity of the original soma - since the contemporary soma is not a drug. Since the sages had visions it has often been assumed to be an hallucinogen. However a good case has been made for it be ephedra - If you watch Michael Wood's excellent documentary on Indian history you can see him procuring and taking ephedra in episode one. For more scholarly (less empirical) approaches see The Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies: especially Vol. 9 (2003), Issue 1 (May).
  3. Those with some Sanskrit may enjoy this little exercise from Deshpande's Saṃkṛtasubohini textbook (chp 14, exercise १.५).
    गुरुः कथं गुरुर्भवति? यतो गुरोः ज्ञानं गुरु भवति । ततस्स गुरुर्भवतीति गुरवो वदन्ति । केषाञ्चित् तु लघु भवति । ततस्ते गुरवो एव न वर्तन्त इति सर्वे कुशलाश्सिष्या मन्यन्ते ॥