Showing posts with label Gombrich. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gombrich. Show all posts

20 August 2010

A Parody of Vedic Belief

Professor Richard Gombrich has been at the fore-front of pointing out that late Vedic beliefs are parodied in the Buddhist scriptures. [1] He has demonstrated in a series of erudite articles that the Buddha must have known the body of teachings that underlie the early Upaniṣads - especially the Bṛhadāranyka (BU) and Chāndogya (CU). This is not to say that these actual texts would have been known to him, because most scholars believe them to be later distillations anyway (rather like the Buddhist texts), but that the beliefs we read in them were known. What kinds of evidence do we have for this thesis? I've been researching what kinds of views we find in the mouths of Brahmins in the Pāli texts and hope at some point to publish the results. My finding so far is that no Brahmin appears to espouse the kinds of views about ātman/brahman that we would associate with the Upaniṣads. However we do find something like those views being put into the words of Brahmā (i.e. God) himself for instance in the Kevaddha Sutta. [2]

In the BU 1.4.10 we find this passage (Olivelle's translation)
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: "I am brahman." As a result it became the whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among the humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: "I was Manu, and I was the sun." This is true even now. If a man knows "I am Brahman" in this way, he becomes this whole world.
Anyone interested in the Sabba Sutta should pay close attention to this verse as this is also the context for that sutta - Olivelle's 'Whole' is a translation of Sanskrit sarvaṃ = Pāli sabbaṃ - but for this essay I want to draw attention to the phrase "I am brahman": ahaṃ brahmāsmi. This is seen by Vedic believers as a kind of credo. It sums up the path according to the sages of the Upaniṣads which is that the realisation that you are brahman is the highest realisation. In this realisation one becomes this whole world (sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati).

In the Pāli Kevaddha Sutta the householder Kevaddha approaches the Buddha to encourage him to perform some miracles and thereby attract followers. The Buddha says that not how he operates. How he does operate is spelled out in the long passage that is repeated in all 13 of the first of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas, but this segues into a story of a monk who, desiring to know where the elements cease without remainder. In order to answer the question he attains super human states of consciousness in meditation and visits the realms of the various devas, moving up the scale until me meets Brahmā himself. Posed the question Brahma can only reply:
"ahamasmi, bhikkhu, brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā vasī pitā bhūtabhabyānan" ti.

"I am, bhikkhu, Brahmā, Great Brahmā, unconquered conqueror, omnipotent, Lord over all, maker and creator, the highest, controller of the cosmic order, and father of all beings past, present and future."
Note that Brahmā doesn't answer the question. It turns out that he doesn't know the answer, but has to keep up appearances because the other gods believe it is true that Brahmā is the omnipotent creator. He takes the monk to one side to explain this and point him back in the direction of the Buddha.

But notice how he starts his answer. If we leave out the 'bhikkhu' he says: ahamasmi brahmā. Compare this to the Sanskrit: ahaṃ brahmāsmi. That the Pāli is a reference to the BU, or at least to the body of teaching recorded in that text, is clear. Although the BU was not written down for many years after the Buddhist texts, the scholarly consensus is that BU represents a body of teachings that predate the Buddha by several centuries. Given the flexibility of syntax in the two languages we are looking at the same statement. Exactly the same except that the Sanskrit has an ambiguity - brahmāsmi can be read as brahma asmi or brahmā asmi i.e. as the neuter or masculine. The first is the abstract universal essence of the cosmos that manifests as ātman in the individual; the second is the masculine creator god. The first usage in BĀU 1.4.10 is the context of a neuter pronoun 'it' (tad), while the second is in the context of a masculine pronoun 'him' (sa), so both senses could be being used here! Gombrich observes that the Buddha has selected the less abstract, and therefore less sophisticated, of the two, i.e. Brahmā as creator god, and that this helps to contribute to the overall sense of this being not just a polemic, but a parody. Johannes Bronkhorst has been very critical of Gombrich's interpretation of this kind of reference as evidence of the Buddha's sense of humour, [3] but personally I think this example is funny. On the one hand the realisation "I am Brahmā" encapsulates the highest goals of religion; and on the other the statement is just an egotistical and deluded claim with no basis.

The ideal of union with Brahmā (brahmasahavyatā) is also found in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) where we find the Buddha informing some hapless Brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvaja [4] that though there own teachers are ignorant of the way leading to this goal, that:
brahmānaṃ cāhaṃ, vāseṭṭha, pajānāmi brahmalokañca brahmalokagāminiñca paṭipadaṃ
I know Brahmā, Vāseṭṭha, and Brahmā's domain, and the way leading to Brahmā's domain.
The Buddha then teaches the meditations we have come to know as the brahmavihāra 'dwelling with Brahmā', though the name is not used here. Brahmavihāra is actually a synonym of brahmasahavyatā. It would be like walking into a Christian church and asking "How many of your priests have been face to face with God? None? I have, and I can tell you how to be in His presence. You don't have to die and go to heaven, you can dwell in heaven right now!" - and teaching the mettābhāvanā! I've often wondered what would happen if we took the Buddha's approach to theistic religion. Forget about opposition and proving that God exists, but just roll with it and teach Buddhism in Christian terms. I think most of us are too afraid of losing our religion, and perhaps lack confidence in our methods, to even try this. And, of course, it would require one to be truthfully in that state of dwelling with God (brahmavihāra). But it is what the Buddha appears to have done.

To those people who claim that Buddhism is a religion which tolerates all views this must come as a shock. Not only did the Buddha not tolerate wrong views, he actively went about subverting them and making fun of people who held them. There are times when the Buddha of the Pāli Canon makes Richard Dawkins seem like an appeaser.

  1. Professor Gombrich's contribution is summed up in his book What the Buddha Thought. References to his individual papers can be found there. The observations I make here has been observed by him previously, but I'm putting them in my own words.
  2. also Kevaṭṭa Sutta. Dīgha Nikāya 11. PTS D i.211. Translation that follows is mine. Pāli text from CST.
  3. Especially in his book Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India.
  4. These two show up in various retellings of this story at e.g. DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I haven't yet done a detailed comparison, but I'm working on it.
image: Brahmā from

27 February 2009

Philological odds and ends I

philologyRegular readers will know that I find words and the way they communicate meaning to us a fascinating subject. So I am always on the look out for interesting etymologies and derivations. In other posts I have mentioned alternate ways of understanding: yathābhūta, brahmacarya, dharaṇī, upādāna, ariyasacca, brahmavihara, and hīnayāna. There are one or two stories about words, that don't quite rate a post on their own, but that I would like to share.


This is how the Buddha most often refers to himself. So you'd think that it would be clear and well understood, in fact the PED notes that in Pāli texts even non-Buddhists were supposed to understand it. However Buddhaghosa gives as many as eight possible derivations, of which two are most common. Firstly it is analysed as tathā + gata. Tathā is an adverb meaning "thus, so, in that way, likewise". Gata is a past-participle formed on the verbal root gam - gam if you don't know is wildly irregular, as a first person singular it is gacchāmi, as in "buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi". So this interpretation tells us that the noun means "thus-gone". This is not very helpful. Sometimes we are told that it means that the Tathāgata has gone to nibbāna, but this assumes that nibbāna is somewhere you can go, and this is not sustainable. PED notes that Mrs Rhys Davids suggested "he who has won through to the truth", but this is quite a leap from thus-gone.

A second, even less likely explanation analyses the word as tathā + āgata. This rests on a sandhi rule which says that ā + ā = ā, so it's not impossible. Āgata is again a past-participle, and means "come" (the ā- prefix indicates motion towards). In this case tathāgata is said to mean "thus-come", presumably a reference to the fact that a Tathāgata has manifested in the world (which has a Mahāyāna ring to it).

Prof. Richard Gombrich offers a way out. He points out (in the 2006 Numata lectures soon to be published as What the Buddha Thought by Equinox Publications) that as the second member of this kind of compound -gata loses its usual meaning and means simply 'being'. He gives an example from Coulson's Teach Yourself Sanskrit citragatā nārī means not "the woman has gone into the picture, but "the woman in the picture". On this model Gombrich suggests that tathāgata means something like "one like that". The fact the Buddha referred to himself as "one like that" is indicative of the impossibility of fully explaining his enlightened experience. Gombrich also notes that the term can apply to any enlightened person, for example at MN 1.140 :
Bhikkhus, when the gods... seek a bhikkhu who is liberated in mind, they cannot find anything... One thus gone (i.e. tathāgata) is untraceable here and now. (Alagaddūpama Sutta = MN 22, Ñāṇamoli, p.233)
On the same model we might say that another common epithet for the Buddha, sugata, probably means "one who is good or well".


I'm not sure who first realised that sūtra is a hyper-sanskritisation. I have seen it in a book by K.R. Norman who is an expert philologist and has published many detailed etymologies, but it seems to have become common knowledge. The story here is that the Buddhist use of the Sanskrit word sūtra is based on the mistaken notion that the Prakrit (especially Pāli) word sutta derives from the Sanskrit word sūtra. This is understandable since Pāli resolves almost all conjunct consonants to double consonants. But if you ever look at a Brahminical sūtra you can easily see that they are an entirely different genre of texts, with more in common with abhidhamma style texts - they are terse, almost like bullet points. There is none of the narrative style of the Buddhist sūtras. It is far more likely that sutta derives from another Sanskrit word, sūkta. Both sūkta and sūtra resolve to sutta in Pāli. Sūkta means well spoken from su + ukta. Su, as above, means "good or well". Ukta is a past participle formed (irregularly) on the verbal root vāc - speech or words. Sūkta is a name for the verses of the Vedas and it seems likely that this is another case of conscious imitation of Brahmins by Buddhists - other examples include Tevijja the Buddha's three kinds of special knowledge vs the three Vedas; and the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion vs the three sacred fires of the Vedic sacrificial enclosure. So the use sūtra by Buddhists derives from the early Prakrit traditions, and is called a hyper-sanskritisation because it seems like an over compensation - picking a familiar word and using that to make it sound pukka.


A śramaṇa (Pali samaṇa) was an ascetic practitioner in ancient India. In Buddhists texts they are very frequently contrasted with brāhmaṇa, the Brahmins, both ascetic and householders. The Buddha practised with śramaṇa teachers before his enlightenment and learnt meditation techniques from them. The root of the word is śrām meaning "to exert oneself, to labour, toil", but also "weariness". Incidentally it is the 'r' in the Sanskrit that forces the 'n' to become retroflex 'ṇ' and this is retained in the Pāli 'samaṇa'. Śrāma then, is toil, and a śramaṇa (short 'a' in this case) is one who toils, i.e. 'a toiler'. It can be used in various contexts so that Vedic texts for instance sometimes talk about exerting oneself in sexual intercourse, but most relevant to Buddhism is the exertion at tapas or the generation of heat, an ancient Vedic metaphor for ascetic practice. We also find it in the word āśrama (Anglicized to "asharam") - meaning a place of striving. What makes the word śramaṇa particularly interesting is that it found its way into English via quite a tortuous route.

Probably in its Prakrit form ṣamaṇa it was introduced into central Asia, where for instance in Tocharian it became ṣamāne. From where it made it's way to Chinese as sha men ( 沙门 or perhaps 沙弥 ) - a general term for Buddhist monks. Siberians then seem to have borrowed the word to describe their "shamans". It survives in the Evenki language, a member of the Tungus group of languages in Siberia as šamān. From here it entered the Russian vocabulary as shamán. In German this became schamane and then finally it was adopted in English in the familiar spelling, shaman, in 1698. The route is somewhat speculative, but plausible and makes for a good tale! This etymology is assembled from many sources, which contain a variety of spellings!


Loka is a word that gets quite a workout in Buddhist Pāli and Sanskrit. It is usually translated simply as 'world' but this can disguise its the background and connotations. The Sanskrit grammarians like to derive words as far as possible from notional verb roots. Loka is derived from the root lok. It means to see behold or perceive. It may be familiar to you in another form. In the name Avalokiteśvara it occurs in the word "avaloka" meaning 'look upon', hence the name in this form means "the Lord (īśvara) who looks upon [suffering beings with compassion]." Because of a fluidity around the syllables 'ra' and 'la' it is also related to the root rok meaning "light, lustre, brightness". The earliest uses, in the Ṛgveda, give the suggestion of a clear space in which one can see - perhaps a forest clearing. So the word has always had the connotation of perception and perceptual range - the world is just what one can see or percieve. It may be that this is an old Indo-European metaphor because we use world in this sense as well: e.g. "a world of his own". One of the Buddha's epithets in the Buddha Vandana is "lokavidhu" - knower of the world, ie one who knows his 'own world', or the 'perceptual world. In English the word comes to us, via Latin, in terms like location, local, and locus.


This is a term that is typically translated as house-holder but Jan Nattier points out that the implications of it are hidden by that translation. The term literally means house (gṛha) lord (pati) and she notes that there is a general consensus on translating it. However the context of use reveals that it indicates considerable financial means - Edgerton actually suggested "capitalist" in his dictionary of Buddhist Sanskrit. The term is also mentioned in lists of castes alongside brahmaṇa and kṣatriya, and the people to whom it is applied are usually merchants or guild leaders - Anathapiṇḍika's brother-in-law for instance is called gahapati. Nattier concludes that it most likely applies to someone of considerable influence and power, perhaps a "leading citizen" but who is not a member of the two higher castes. (Nattier, p.22ff.)

  • Ñāṇamoli. 1995. The Middle Length discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Nattier, Jan. 2003. A few good men : the bodhisattva path according to 'The inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press.

See also:

08 August 2008

The Apparatus of Experience

Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism a New Approach is not an easy read, but it is very rewarding. I found in it a doctrinal confirmation and clarification of my intuitions about the Dharma. I had been asking myself - what is it that arises in dependence on causes? (Jayarava Rave 8 April 2008) My answer had shifted from "things" to "experiences". This is reflected also in my translation of the Buddha's last words: "all experiences are disappointing..."

Central to Hamilton's book, and building on her earlier published work is a re-examination of the canonical references to the khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). These are typically described as encompassing the whole human being - there is nothing outside of the khandhas. Hamilton demonstrates that actually the khandhas are not meant to literally encompass the whole being, but do make up the minimum required apparatus for experience: hence "apparatus of experience". I like this little phrase and its implications very much.

A quick digression here to a suggestion by Prof. Gombrich about the translation of khandha - again from the Numata Lectures and appearing in his forthcoming "What the Buddha Thought". Khandha is most often translated by words such as aggregate, group or category, or (by Conze) as 'heap'. Gombrich points to the Pāli term aggikhandha meaning "a blazing mass". Khandha often occurs in the compound upādānakhandha where it is frequently translated as "aggregates of clinging". Gombrich links it to the extended fire metaphor used by the Buddha and suggests "blazing mass of fuel" (upādāna meaning literally fuel.) The khandhas, then, are a mass of fuel which, as the Fire Sermon ( Ādittapariyāya Sutta literally: The way of putting things as being on fire) tells us are on fire with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

The khandhas then are part of the mechanism keeping us in saṃsara, they are the "mass of fuel" that burns, and Nibbāna is the extinguishing of that fire - though the fuel itself can remain at this point as the term upādi-sesa-nibbāna "extinguishing with a remainder" suggests. It is rather a squeeze to fit every facit of the human being into just these five categories, and Hamilton manages to make a lot more sense of them as a kind of minimal requirement for experience - she takes the idea of nothing existing outside the khandhas as a metaphorical reference to the fact of experience: that everything we can know comes to us through the senses.

To have experience at all we must have a living body (rūpa). This is the vehicle for consciousness and the locus of experience. Without a living sensing body we would not receive sensory data - recall that the sense organ must be involved for contact to take place.

Having met with sensory data (vedanā) we process it: we become aware of and identify the sensation (saññā), we categorise it and name it (viññāṇā), and we respond affectively to it (saṅhkāra). This is a very cut down psychology, a minimalist account of consciousness, but it contains all that is necessary for continued experience, that is to say for continuation in samsara. And this is the process, this continuation in samsara which the Buddha constantly tells people is the focus of his teachings. Asked about all manner of metaphysical and philosophical teachings, the Buddha replies that he only teaches about the process of experience and how to end it.

Hamilton is saying, in effect, that later Buddhist tradition have taken this teaching a little to literally when they say things like: "These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence". [Nyanatiloka : 98] Everything is not literally summed up, it is just that this is the necessary apparatus (to use Hamilton's terms) for all experience. All of experience - of whatever kind - is sensed, processed and acted upon through the khandhas. It is in this sense that the set is a complete description of the human being, not literally. It makes the assumption that we are what we experience, and as I have discovered, any attempt to get behind experience to confirm it involves some other sensory experience. One image that occurs to me for this is that we cannot get behind the mirror to see if anything is there because we always see a new mirror.

All this is not to say that some kind of objective world does not exist. I think the level of consensus that is possible on what is being experienced suggests very strongly that there is some kind of objective world. However I would argue that since we must always rely on our senses in any attempt to establish the status of the objective world, that such attempts are meaningless - they cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other. I've come to believe that it was this that the Buddha was trying to get people to understand. Take for example the short Sabbaṃ Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In this text the Buddha says that "the all" (sabbaṃ) is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and the felt, the mind and dhammas. (SN 35.23 = Bodhi : 1140). There is nothing outside of this "all". This is an explicit confirmation of what I've been saying. To take this to be an ontological statement - that outside of this "all" there is nothing - is to miss the point. It does not make sense as ontology, but as an epistemology it is very useful. All that we can know are 'objects' of the senses (including the mental sense), that is to say all we can know is what we experience - and the khandhas are the apparatus of experience.

I think this has profound implications for how we practice and teach the Dharma. For one thing I think we should abandon talking about dependent arising in terms of "things arising in dependence on causes" - there are no things only experiences. It would be more accurate to say that "experiences of things arise in dependence on causes". This then allows us to focus on the experience of dependent arising, rather than trying to locate some object which is arising. So many of our metaphors for dependent arising involve "things". But because of the way we function - through and only through experience - there are in effect no things arising.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary : manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. (4th ed). Kandy, Sri Lanka : Buddhist Publication Society (2004 reprint).

image: JAKIMOWICZ Fabien - belfry clock mechanism

16 May 2008

Playing with Fire

I've made several references over the last year and a half to the Numata lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich in 2006. These are in the process of being published as a book. I have been re-reading the notes from those lectures and wanted to highlight lecture seven which discussed the use of fire as a metaphor by the Buddha.

Anyone familiar with the discourses of the Buddha will most likely have clocked that the Buddha uses fire as a metaphor in several different ways. Most notably there is the fire sermon (Āditta-pariyāya, Vin i.34-5) in which the Buddha tells the monks that "everything is on fire". What the Buddha means by "everything" is the five sense faculties and the mind, the objects of our senses, and the whole psychological process of experience. What he means by "on fire" is that we our experience is burning with desire, with hatred, and with spiritual ignorance. The goal of the Buddhist path is nibbāna (Sanskrit nirvāṇa) which means quite literally the blowing out of a flame, or ceasing to burn.

This much is consonant with the received tradition. However Prof. Gombrich has investigated other aspects of this fire metaphor. One of the most interesting related to the nidāna chain - the 12 membered list of factors which condition each other and are said to describe the process of repeated becoming in saṃsara. As part of this list we find that desire (taṇhā) gives rise to "clinging" (upādāna), which in turn is what gives rise to becoming (bhavanā). Gombrich suggests that the word upādāna might well have originally been used in it's more concrete sense of "fuel". In this view clinging would be fuel for becoming, and in my opinion this works much better as an explanation of process. Thus the nidāna chain is a continuation of the fire metaphor into the process of dependent arising.

Upādāna is also used in describing the whole of our psycho-physical experience. The khandhas (Sanskrit skandha) are referred to at times as the five aggregates of clinging (pañca-upādāna-kkhandhā). This is an awkward phrase. It makes no more sense, apparently, in Pāli than the translation does in English. Gombrich notes that there is a common Pāli expression for a blazing fire: aggi-khandha. He suggests that upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha and be translated as blazing masses of fuel. The khandas in other words are an extension of the Buddha's use of the fire metaphor. They are the fuel for the burning desire that prolongs our existence.

The Vedic religion was one in which fire played a central role. There is evidence that fire worship goes back well beyond the entry of the Vedic speaking peoples into India. Fire was very much part of the religious imagination of India by the time of the Buddha, and Gombrich argues that it is from this source that the Buddha draws for his fire metaphor. The key evidence here is a difficult paper by Polish academic Joanna Jurewicz which draws parallels between the terms used in the nidāna chain and certain concepts central to the Vedic religion. Professor Jurewicz argues that the Pāli nidāna model can be seen as a polemic against the Vedic cosmogony. The paper is a not easy to follow: ideally one would be well versed in Vedic language and religion as well as Pāli, but it is very interesting, and Professor Gombrich considers the case to have been demonstrated for some kind of influence.

The primary metaphor for consciousness in the Vedic tradition is fire, hence the Buddha framed his understanding of consciousness in similar terms. But whereas the late Vedic tradition contained a notion of absolute consciousness, the Buddha claimed that there is only consciousness of something: like fire consciousness requires fuel to continue, but also crucially despite being a non-random process (i.e. without fuel there can be no fire) fire operates with no guiding "person" behind it.

This is a brief overview of a more technical and thorough discussion by Professor Gombrich. It continues the theme of looking at the way the Buddha drew on the traditions surrounding him, especially the Vedic tradition, of images and concepts with which to communicate his Insight. It also reassesses the way the received tradition explains some technical terms. What Professor Gombrich has shown on more than one occasion is that the received tradition is confused on some points of doctrine or linguistics. This is important for contemporary Buddhists. It emphasises that the Buddhist texts are not divine revelation, they are no infallible and we must be wary of an over literal interpretation of them. In particular where the Buddha used metaphors drawn from the Vedic traditions, there have often be misunderstood by later Buddhists, even in some cases before the canon was written down. Doctrines must be tested against experience.


29 March 2007

The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 January 2007

Women and Buddhist Ordination

Women in India - photo by DhammaratiIn the last couple of months I attended a series of lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich. These were very stimulating lectures and gave rise to many interesting discussions subsequently with the friends who also attended them. I have several raves to write as a result.

What I want to write about today is women. Specifically I want to take a bit of a look at the Buddhist ordination of women. I practice in a tradition, if it can be called that, in which men and women receive ordination on an equal basis - no extra rules or precepts for women, no extra conditions. It is an explicit acknowledgement that men and women are equally capable of going for refuge to the three jewels. Now in our spiritual community it is sometimes said that despite the equivalence of the ordinations, women have not always been treated as equals. Indeed one of our senior order members wrote a book which dwelt on the traditional Buddhist view that women are spiritually inferior, and sought to justify that view - which is not a line of argument I wish to pursue!

Professor Gombrich was exploring the origins and greatness of the Buddha's ideas and mentioned the case I'm about to explore in passing in an early lecture. Women, so the story goes, were admitted into the Buddhist Order reluctantly and then only with special pleading from Ananda on behalf of the Buddha's aunt Mahāpajapati. The admission of women, it says in the 10th chapter of the Cullavagga book of the vinaya, would be contingent on a number of conditions: they must accept a number of extra rules; have a status lower than the lowest male bhikkhu; and show all bhikkhus respect. Even so the admission of women to the Sangha is said to have shortened the lifespan of the Dharma!*

This is, or should be, fairly familiar ground to students of Buddhism. It does not sit well with us westerners though, especially in this post-modern, post-feminist era. We accept in theory, if not always in practice, that men and women are equal. I think this has been a serious sticking point for many women and not a few men approaching the Dharma! So I was intrigued when Professor Gombrich drew my attention to the verses of Bhaddā Kundalakesa in the Therigatha (107-111). These verses, he says, show that the idea that the Buddha was reluctant to admit women to the order was a later falsification. I will mostly use the translations of K. R. Norman because although C.A.F. Rhys Davids includes portions of the commentaries in hers, Norman's is more clear - fortunately both are printed together in my copy**.

Bhadda was a Jain ascetic, who was drawn to the Buddha after losing a debate with Sariputta. The verses begin:
With hair cut off, wearing dust, formerly I wandered, having only one robe... (107)
This much is enough to identify her as a Jain - dust is a primary Jain metaphor for karma, and clearly she is a wandering ascetic very similar in description to other samaṇas in the the Canon. One of the arguments offered for the Buddha's reluctance to ordain women was that it might have created a dangerous precedent at a time when only men were ascetics. Not so according to this text - there were women Jain ascetics. The commentary suggests that her hair was not so much cut, as pulled out by the roots.

Verse 110 begins:
Having bent the knee, having paid homage to him, I stood with cupped hands face to face with him (110a)
The key second half of the verse runs in Pali:
ehi bhadde'ti maṃ avaca, sā me āsūpasampadā (110b)
Which I translate as
Come Bhadda, he said to me; that was my ordination.
Now this is very interesting indeed. Bhadda goes to see the Buddha, and on the spot he confers on her the higher ordination!

I want to point out a few salient features of this passage. Firstly the formula "ehi bhikkhu" (= "come bhikkhu") is usually considered to place a text very early, before the whole rigmarole of lower and higher ordinations, or even formal vinaya rules came into being. In the beginning the Buddha would just say to you "come", and that was it, you were a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. I've taken the trouble to include the Pali because the word for ordination in the text is a variant of upasampadā which stands to the higher or full ordination - this by the way, is what it means when someone refers to themselves as a "fully ordained Buddhist monk or nun".

By the time that the story of Mahāpajapati things were a lot more complex. Ascetics from other traditions had a two year stand down period before they could take the lower ordination. They then had to make satisfactory progress as a samanera, or novice monk, before being granted the higher ordination. And as I have already pointed out women had a series of additional rules imposed upon them.

So the instant higher ordination of Bhadda is remarkable in several ways: it is clearly early, there is no hesitation, and there are no extra rules or conditions, and the Dharma is not cut short by 500 years! This story is apparently a one off, but often a one off can be very telling, especially in this case since the Canon has been edited to conform to orthodox Theravada belief at the time it was written down. Bhadda it seems slipped through the net! Having looked at the text, and knowing a bit about the background I find myself agreeing with Professor Gombrich that the whole set up for women with it's low status and extra rules is a late addition, and probably reflects the prejudice of a time after the Buddha.

* Ute Husken. 2000. The Legend of the Establishment of the Buddhist Order of Nuns in the Theravada Vinaya-Pitaka. Journal of the Pali Text Society. (Vol XXVI, pp.43-69).
** C.A.F Rhys Davids and K.R. Norman. 1997.
Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns : Theriigaathaa. (Oxford : Pali Text Society).

see also Bhadda Kundalakesa at Access to Insight

image: dhammarati