Showing posts with label Linguistics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Linguistics. Show all posts

27 April 2018

Through the Looking Glass: How we define and translated Buddhist technical terms

In Feb 2018 I was invited to contribute an article to a special issue of the journal Contemporary Buddhism. The issue would mainly contain papers delivered at the Vedana Symposium, July 13-16, 2017, Barre Centre For Buddhist Studies. The subject was vedanā and I could write anything I wanted to. This is now published as:

Attwood, Jayarava (2018). 'Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass.' Contemporary Buddhism, 18(3).

The published abstract describes the article this way:
The Buddhist technical term vedanā continues to elude just the right translation. Using semantic methods, scholars have argued both for and against the usual choices: “feelings” and “sensations”; as well as suggesting that phrases borrowed from psychology offer more semantic precision. In an attempt to break the deadlock and arrest the continuing search for the perfect translation, I argue that the term vedanā was not defined semantically. Instead, it was defined in the way that Humpty Dumpty defines words in Through the Looking Glass. Vedanā means what Buddhist say it means, neither more nor less, only because we say it does and not for any reason deriving from etymology or semantics. This observation leads me to conclude that methods from pragmatics, speech act theory, and cognitive linguistics offer better tools for analysing the term and settling on a translation. 

As I began writing, it soon became clear that another contributor had already gone over the semantic meaning of the term quite thoroughly, looking at the etymology and how the word is defined and used in texts. Since this was my usual modus operandi, I would have to be creative and I had just two weeks to come up with something. 

I began with some observations I had made about discontinuities between my modern worldview and the Iron Age worldview of the Pāli authors. I focussed especially on issues that have made translation of psychological terms difficult. This section stayed in the paper that I eventually submitted. However, it did not fill out a full-length article and most of it was not directly related to the problem of vedanā.

So I had to think more about the problem of vedanā. The problem seems to be that although we Buddhists are all clear about what it means in practice (agreeable, disagreeable, and neutral feelings related to sense experience), we could not agree on how to translate it, which has been disagreeable. A number of suggestions have been adopted by different experts, but each is subject to criticism and debunking by different experts. This suggests that despite agreeing in practice, we somehow disagree in principle.

This is a strange situation. No one is waiting around thinking,  "If only the experts would agree on how to translate this word and we could get on with our Buddhist practice". Buddhist practice continues without hesitation, though, of course, we must all take time out to explain what we mean by vedanā.

How to Define Words

I began to think about other ways of approaching language: pragmatics, speech act theory, and cognitive linguistics. It soon dawned on me that there was a disconnect between how the word vedanā is defined in our texts and how we seek to translate it. It is defined using the Humpty Dumpty method. To illustrate what this means, I will cite a section of the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Through the Looking Glass:

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!” 
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said. 
 Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ 
 “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. 
 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” 
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things–that’s all.” 
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all” (Carroll 1872: 112).
In my article I noted that Alice represents a conservative semantics view. In this view, words mean what they mean and we cannot change that. In his book on the search for the perfect language, Umberto Eco shows that Europeans saw the perfect language as fixed and unchanging and that this idea was very influential. In this view, language has one and only one word per concept, and that relationship can never change. Meaning is relatively fixed. The problem is that this is not how languages work in practice. Synonyms and homonyms abound (and make poetry interesting). And words are constantly changing their meaning.

Humpty Dumpty, in contrast to Alice, is more of a linguistic pragmatist (albeit an anarchic one). He argues that means is not fixed and can be changed to suit the speaker. Alice can't know what he means until he tells her. It's quite likely that Lewis Carroll meant Humpty Dumpty to be a figure of fun and Alice to be the voice of reason. However, in use language is more like Humpty Dumpty's approach.

In particular, if you look at the Pāḷi passages which define vedanā, they specify precisely that what it means. And, if we look closely, we can see that the Pāli authors are doing the same as Humpty Dumpty. Consider this passage from the Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43). A bhikkhu called Koṭṭhika is asking Sāriputta a series of questions about Buddhist jargon. It is important to note that Koṭṭika is a bhikkhu who seems unsure about the meaning of these common jargon terms. Apparently being conversant with Buddhist jargon was not always a criterion for ordination. 
Koṭṭhika: Vedanā vedanā’ti, āvuso, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, vedanāti vuccatī ti?
Sāriputta: Vedeti vedetī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā vedanāti vuccati. Kiñca vedeti? Sukhampi vedeti, dukkhampi vedeti, adukkhamasukhampi vedeti. (MN I.293)
K: "Feeling. Feeling" is said, friend. For what reason, friend, is the term "feeling" used? 
S: "It feels. It feels", friend, for that reason the term "feeling" is used. And what does it feel? It feels agreeable feelings, disagreeable feelings, and neutral feelings. 
This is not an exhaustive list of feelings that we have about sense experience, by any means. It is partial and pragmatically focussed on the aspects most relevant to the Buddhist approach to liberation from rebirth. 

Definitions as Speech Acts

More formally, what Humpty Dumpty and Sāriputta both do is perform a speech act. They make something happen using speech. In both cases, it is defining a word. In speech act theory we define locution (what is said), illocution (what is meant), and perlocution (what is heard). 

One of the classic performative speech acts used to occur in weddings. Before modern law changes, the marriage was sealed by the words "I pronounce you man and wife". Nowadays, of course, marriage is seen as a legal contract and it is not binding until both parties sign the written contract. Fairytales and other fictions often put the emphasis on the words "I do", but this is merely the consent for the priest to perform the final speech act. It was the priest who sealed the deal with "I pronounce you man and wife". Incidentally, "wife" is simply an Old English word (wif) meaning "woman" (it retains this sense in words like midwife and housewife).  

The word vedanā is a feminine noun derived from the past participle vedana. Contra the PED, the word is clearly used in the causative sense of, "made known". We can see this in the Sanskrit definitions of vedana as "announcement, proclamation". So we say vedanā, but in the Iron Age, even a bhikkhu (such as Koṭṭhika) might not know what we mean until we told them. 

Vedanā is the locution, but the illocution is far less broad. The illocution of the word is precisely: sukha, dukkha, and adukkhamasukha. The perlocution depends on whether or not one is familiar with Buddhist usage. Even if one spoke Pāḷi fluently, to hear vedanā would not be to think of sukhadukkha, and adukkhamasukha. The etymology and use of related words both point to a meaning like "made known, a kind of announcement". 

So just as with Humpty Dumpty, no one knows what we mean by vedanā until we tell them. And once we tell them we expect them to adopt our definition. 

Semantic approaches to language do not cope well with this situation. In semantics, words have meanings and we can define those meanings through some relation to the world. In the Classical Pāṇinian Sanskrit worldview, most words can be defined as deriving from verbal roots (dhātu). The root, in this case, is √vid "to know, to find". It is being used in the causative voice, and the noun derives from the past participle. But this only gets us to the sense of, "announcement". We cannot reason semantically from vedanā to the meaning of sukhadukkha, and adukkhamasukha.

Things go from bad to worse when we argue about how to translate vedanā. Experts argue that this or that term is a better or worse semantic fit; i.e., that it conveys the sense of the word vedanā more or less accurately. Candidates include: feeling, sensation, feeling tone, hedonic tone, etc. Different experts argue that one or another term comes closest to the meaning of vedanā, and that the other terms all have serious drawbacks. And this is why, after more than a century of sustained interest in the Pāḷi language, we are no closer to an agreed translation of a basic technical term like vedanā.

But think about it. None of these words comes remotely close to the sense of "agreeable, disagreeable, and neutral feelings related to sense experience". We don't have such a concept in Pāli, let alone in English. The candidate words do not convey this sense semantically because there is no relevant semantic field. If they do convey it at all, it is because we have performed a speech act to make it so. We still have to explain what we mean by "feeling", or "hedonic tone", or whatever.

Beyond Vedanā

And vedanā is only one word amongst many in the Buddhist lexicon defined by the Humpty Dumpty method. The names of the other khandhas, for example. Saññā is a word that in general usage means "an agreement" or "a name". For a Brahmin of the Iron Age, a saṃskāra was a rite of passage. These rites involved karma or ritual acts of sacrifice. Doing the correct karma ensured that men got to Brahman after death. The early Buddhists redefined karma as cetanā—“an act of will” [that contributes to rebirth] (Cf. AN 6.63). But they retained the term saṃskāra (P. saṅkhāra) for a mental process that creates karma; i.e., a volitional or habitual response to sense contact. In other words, a saṅkhāra is an action that sets karma in motion. 

Khandha, itself, means "a branch", but is defined as a "heap" by Buddhists (See Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics).

I suspect that the vast majority of Buddhist technical vocabulary is defined this way. Thus, seeking to translate it semantically is no help. We just need to get close, pick a term, and declare this to be the translation. 

However, this also raises the kinds of issues that John Searle dealt with in his later work, especially The Construction of Social Reality. For example, defining words is a function carried out only by qualified individuals. A function is not an intrinsic feature of an object. Some of us are qualified to define terms and others are not. Of those who are qualified, some have the authority, and some do not. A whole raft of contextual elements contributes to creating a situation in which everyone agrees that one person may function as a definer of words.

I'm quite aware, for example, that few people consider me qualified to say the things I say. I do not have sufficient authority in their eyes to carry out the function I do. I'm merely impersonating an authority on Buddhism. So my opinions often count for little in the wider Buddhist world, whereas some obviously inferior minds do have the authority and control the opinions of thousands or even millions of people. Even when I have shown such people to be guilty of egregious errors, people do not switch their allegiance -- because, in the context of their lives, the function of Buddhist leader is vested in the person who fulfils particular criteria of which thinking straight is not one. 


I'll finish this essay with the final words from the published article: 

A word like vedanā was defined according to the Humpty Dumpty method: by performative speech act. Vedanā means what it means because Buddhists tell us that is what it means. When words are defined according to the Humpty Dumpty method in the source language, there are no better or worse translations in the target language. Whatever word we choose means what it means because we say it does. No matter which word we settle on a translation, if we ever do settle, we will still have to explain what it means. And by explaining, we make it so. We are the masters of our vocabulary; our vocabulary is not the master of us. 

Therefore, “feeling” in the context of the khandhas means neither more nor less than, the agreeable, disagreeable, or neutral sensations arising from contact with a sense object. It means this because I—as an ordained Buddhist and published scholar—say it does; or it will if other Buddhists and/or scholars also say so. There’s glory for you! 


Attwood, Jayarava (2018). 'Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass.' Contemporary Buddhism, 18(3).

29 August 2014

Placing the Heart in Indo-European

In Sanskrit the main word for 'heart' is hṛd or the suffixed form hṛdaya. However most of us are also familiar with the word for faith, śraddhā, which we think means 'placing the heart'. Here the word for heart is śrad. Most sources suggest that the two words hṛd and śrad are in fact two forms of a single word that has undergone a series of phonetic transformations. However some sources suggest that there are two distinct roots. This word makes for an interesting case study in comparative linguistics and shows the kind of evidence that is used to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. In this case the reconstructed root is written different ways: k̑ered- : k̑erd-, k̑ērd-, k̑r̥d-, k̑red-.

We need to note some conventions. Where a form is reconstructed and/or not actually attested it is frequently suffixed with an asterix: *kred. In order to distinguish phonemes or sounds from letters they are written between two forward slashes. Thus come has initial c but is pronounced /k/. Similarly c can be pronounced also as /s/. Linguists make a distinction between /ḱ/ or /k̑/ the palato-velar and /k/ the plain velar. The difference is the k sound in "scum" and "come". If you pay close attention to where your tongue is in your mouth as you pronounce these words you'll notice the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth further forward in the word "scum" and is the /ḱ/ sound. In English the two are allophones, meaning we don't hear the difference and don't notate it differently. This seems to be true of other Indo-European languages also, though the distinction is important in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) the putative mother language of all the present day and dead IE languages.

I'll begin with a survey of the various cognates in other Indo-European languages by family grouping. In Indo-Iranian we have several related forms:

Vedic: śradśraddhā

It's quite regular for Avesta to have /z/ where Sanskrit has /ś/. In Sanskrit dhā is plain root meaning 'place/put'. Perhaps because of the conservative nature of religion we can see this form throughout the Indo-European language family. We need to ask about the two distinct forms in Vedic. There are two possible explanations for this situation.
  1. There was a progressive change /ḱ/ > /ś/ > /h/
  2. The word came into Vedic twice: PIE /ḱ/ > /ś/ and /ḱ/ > /h/.
There is a regular change from PIE /k/ to Vedic /ś/ so we can quite easily explain kred > śrad. What we need to explain then is either  /ś/ > /h/  or /ḱ/ > /h/.


As we move from west we find three other language family has the change from palatal stop to sibilant. The Armenian form is sirt. It's very easy for a voiced consonant /d/ to change to an unvoiced consonant /t/ with the same articulation (compare Latin pater - German fader - English father). Slavic languages follow a similar pattern: heart = Church Slavonic srĭdĭce; Russian serdtse; Polish serce; Slovak srdce. And finally the Baltic languages: Old Prussian seyr; Lithuanian šerdìs; Latvian ser̃de. We can see that in most of these words a vowel is interposed between the initial /s/ and /r/. Here, then, the initial consonant change is /ḱ/ > /s/ 

The Anatolian, Helenic and Italic families preserved the /k/ though this is often spelled 'c'. Thus we see Hittite kar-ti-ya-aš 'heart'; Greek kardia (καρδία); Latin cordis (and credo 'trust, believe'). The Latin gives rise to Romance Language forms: French cœur; Italian cuore; Spanish corazón; Portuguese coração; Romanian cord. Note the dropping of the final stop in French and Italian. In Spain /d/ becomes /z/ and in Portuguese /d/ > /sh/. One can see how this might have come about in the sequence: /d/ > /dz/ > /z/ > /sh/. Initial /ḱ/ is preserved, though it may become the plain velar /k/. The notation is ambiguous.

Celtic similarly preserved initial /k/: Old Irish cretim; Cornish créz; Welsh craidd. Though the more common word for 'heart' in Welsh seems to be the unrelated calon.

Germanic languages change initial /k/ to /h/ which is interesting because this is just the change that we are looking for. There's no question of any communication between Germanic and Sanskrit, it's just a case of parallel evolution, but it's helpful to know that one of the transformations that an initial /ḱ/ can undergo is change to /h/. The Proto-Germanic form is *herton- (OEtD) The Germanic family is divided geographically. West Germany covers what's now Germany and Holland. East is represented by a single dead language, i.e. Gothic. North is all of the Scandinavian languages. Usually English has been considered to be part of the West Germanic sub-family, related to Old Saxon. However more recently a case has been made to consider it part of the Northern sub-family along with Scandinavia. The Germanic speakers—Saxons, Angles and Jutes—who settled in Britain did come from what is now the state of Schleswig-Holstein in the North of Germany, which abuts Denmark. And of course there was a significant overlay of Danish onto Old English as well.

West North
Old Frisian herte/hirteOld Icelandichjarta
Dutch hart Swedish hjärta
Old Saxon herta Danish hjerte
Old High German  herza Old English heorte
German herz Mid. English hert
English heart

With the Norman Invasion English picked up the Latin derived words for heart as well, as can be seen in words such as accord, cordial, courage, credible, credit, creed, grant, miscreant, and quarry (i.e. prey). 

What comparative linguistics does is to look at all the forms and look for logical transformations that might account for all the forms. Such changes much be checked against a range of words with the same sounds. It's only when patterns emerge across a wide range of words that one can describe regular changes (what we might once have called formulating laws). The more obvious examples help to explain the less obvious.

*kred vs *kerd

I recently read that treating kred and kerd as the same root might be incorrect.
Outside of the verbal system we find another word that curiously seems to display such a gradation and that is *ḱerd- 'heart', while in Sanskrit we find hṛd- and in Avestan we find zərəd- which both seem to go back to *ǵʰrd-, and then there's the Sanskrit śrad- (notice the schwebe ablaut!) which in combination with dhā- 'to give' give a lovely indo-european expression also found in Latin Credere 'to believe'. This form seems to go back to *ḱred-.
A schwebe ablaut is a full-grade vowel that is not always in the same position within the root. We don't really talk about vowel grades in English though we use them, e.g. in the verb sing sung sang and the related noun song the changed vowel gives us grammatical information. Ablaut is a very important part of Sanskrit morphology, for example those derived from √dṛś exhibit the various vowel strengths: dṛṣti, darśana, draṣṭṛ, adrākṣit. But note that darśana and draṣṭṛ invert the order of the vowels in the stronger grades (what the Sanskrit grammarians called guṇa and vṛddhi). Modern grammarians make guṇa the normal grade and talk about a weaker () and a stronger (ār/rā) grade. So in √dṛś the vowel grades from weakest to strongest are: , ar/ra, and ār/rā. With one sees that strengthening in Sanskrit is like adding ă (short a) before the root vowel and applying the rules of sandhi. With other vowels the changes are a bit less obvious.

Another example is √bhū 'to be'. The vowel grades for ū are: ū, o, & au, where o ≈ ă+u; and au ≈ ā+u. [note au is a diphthong]. √bhū forms a present stem by strengthening the root and adding a.
  • root:  bhū
  • guṇa: bh[ăū] (= bho)
  • + a:    bhă-ūa (which sandhi resolves to) bhava-
  • conjugations: bhavāmi, bhavasi, bhavati etc.
In the past particle, the root stays in the weaker grade so: bhūta. And in the strongest grade we find the noun bhauta 'related to living beings'. These processes were first described by Pāṇini in perhaps the 4th century BCE. Through study of Sanskrit grammar the principles were rediscovered by the first European comparative linguists. The term ablaut (German 'off sound') for this phenomenon was coined by Jacob Grimm of "the Brothers Grimm" in the late 19th century.

Edward Sapir notes a difference in the Tocharian word for heart:
The Tocharian word [käryā] does not represent IE *ḱṛd-yā́ (i.e. *erd-yā́) but *ḱred-yā́ (reduced from the basic *ḱred- seen in Sanskrit śrad and Latin crēdō < * krede-dō).
Selected Writings of Edward Sapir. University of California Press, 1968 p.227

So Sapir is also distinguishing *kred and *kṛd (> kerd). Jonathan Slocum's PIE Etyma List records two roots: kered- and kred-, but they both mean heart and the list of cognates or reflexes does not distinguish between them.

Sanskrit roots with initial /h/ are very often degraded from /dh/ or /gh/. Sometimes this becomes obvious. For example in the root √han 'to strike' The present tense 3rd person singular is hanti, but the 3rd person plural is ghnanti. Similarly we find the perfect jaghāna, a past participle ghāta (also hata). (cf my comments on the word saṅgha). So we can deduce from this that √han must originally be from *√ghan. In other roots the archaic forms don't survive. So on face value the idea that hṛd might represent an archaic *ǵʰrd- is not outrageous. However I can't find a root *ǵʰrd- in any PIE etyma list I have access to. Nor does any root that I can find seem to fit the bill.

Words related to either hṛd or śrad are few and far between in Sanskrit. If hṛd were a separate root we might expect a word hrada, and we do find such a word, but it means "a deep pool" and it seems to be connected to the root √hlād or √hlad 'refresh', which has only sporadic use. In India there is a regular confusion of l and r. In fact on the Asoka pillars the word for king is lāja not rāja. Both words have a specific domain beyond which they have little use: hṛd, hṛdaya 'heart'; hṛdya 'in or of the heart; charming etc'. Versus śraddhā 'faith', śrāddha 'faithful, funeral rite'. We do see some variants on √dhā used with śradśrad-dadhānaśrad-dhayitaśrad-dhitaśrad-dheya but the sense stays the same. 


Sound changes cannot happen at random. And yet the change from /k/ to /s/ is counter intuitive. It is logical however. The steps to get the other sounds look like this (as best I can tell):

/k̑/ > /k/ involves a moving the tongue back slightly in the mouth. Allowing some air past the tongue gives /kh/ and dropping the stop altogether leaves us with /h/. The same change starting from /k̑/ > /h/ > /ś/. Voicing /ś/ gives /z/ and moving the tongue a little forward and dropping the aspiration gives /s/. 

We've already seen how ar can alternate with ra with no change in sense. And lastly we have to allow for a vowel to interpose between two consonants. Describing all the vowel changes would extend this essay too much, but one can work through the logic of that as well. We've now described how one root with a weakest grade *kṛd and strong grades kred or kerd, could produce all the many variants by the application of simple rules that are anchored in how the tongue moves in the mouth to produce vocal sounds. With this particular word the sense of it has remained remarkably stable - all the different languages understand this word to mean "heart".

So can we now say any more about Sanskrit hṛd/śrad? Looking at the IE cognates it seems that only Sanskrit exhibits this alternation of ar and ra. So my suspicion is that Sanskrit has retained this feature of PIE rather more prominently than other languages. Since getting from /h/ to /ś/ is a complex process I conclude that it is less likely than the other option: that either hṛd or śrad is a loan word from another branch of the Indo-European family. Since the expected change is /k̑/ > /ś/ and the Avestan has /z/ it looks like hṛd is a loan word from a closely related language that favoured the change /k̑/ > /h/. This doesn't eliminate the possibility that hṛd comes from a root *ǵʰrd-, just that with the resources at my disposal I cannot find such a root. Since the sense of the word changes so little across time and space, however, it seems less likely that there were two roots.

The point here is not to draw strong conclusions, but to think about how language sounds change over time, and how that change tends to be systematic: e.g. all initial /k̑/ change to /ś/. It is interesting that some of the main distinctions between say Vedic and Avestan, or between Vedic and Pāḷi are just these systemic changes in pronunciation.


Note 7 Sept 2014

According to a chart on wikipedia (I know) Avestan /z/ is a reflex of PIE /ǵ/ and the corresponding Sanskrit reflex is /h/. Thus Skt. hṛd and Av zrad might well come from *ǵʰrd-. And śrad < *ḱred is another root. What is the relationship between *ǵʰrd- and *ḱred? How to square this with cognates in other languages that clearly point to heart < *ḱred?

*ḱm̥tóm, 'hundred' > Vedic Sanskrit: śatám & Later Avestan: satəm 
*ǵʰasto- 'hand' > Skt. hástas & Av. zasta, 

Note 13 Sept 2014
Still looking into this in a desultory way. As well as ablaut (the change in vowel strength) we also see changes in the strength of consonants. The change from unvoiced stop // to voiced stop /ǵ/, as well as the change from stop to fricative /ś/ is an example of lenition or "weakening". *gʰan > han is another example of this phenomenon. The opposite process is fortition. Another type of lenition, called debuccalization is the weakening of final /s/ to /ḥ/ (as in manas > manaḥ).

9 Apr 2017

In a recent discussion on this issue on, German Dziebel wrote:

We know that Lat cre:do, OIr cretid go back to *k'red- attested in Skrt śraddha- and, with an original root shape and a syllabic r, in Lith sirdis, etc. So, we don't need extra proof that there was a palatovelar there. We know it already. We  also have a voiced variant of it attested in hrd/zered, so we only need to understand how this voiced palatovelar got devoiced. We know that *s+D can give *sT in any IE dialect [Siebs's Law], and in Skrt ś can go back to sk- (śardha next to Lith (s)kerdzius). This is what Lubotsky shows. If Skrt ś can go back to sk-, then it can go back to sk'-, too, if comparanda warrants a PIE palatovelar after s-. This is simple logic. For us, to link hrd and śraddha- we just need to postulate 1) *g'herd- > InIr *j'hrd; and 2) *(s)g'herd-/*(s)g'hred- > *sk'red- > *śrad-, and both hrd and śraddha- receive a systematic explanation. I think where I got you confused is in bringing up Lubotsky who described how sk- > ś- in Skrt before a front vowel. He didn't tackle a situation such as śraddha where k' is inherited from PIE and what we need to prove is not the emergence of palatovelar from *sk- but the presence of s- before a palatovelar because it is that s-mobile that we're attributing the devoicing of the palatovelar to.

24 September 2010

The Linguistic Joys of Popular Religion

As I have a prominent website dealing with Buddhist mantra, I frequently receive requests for help and advice with phrases in Sanskrit, often for tattoos. I tend not to help with tattoos, but I like to help Buddhists trying to understand what they are chanting. Recently, someone wrote asking about this phrase, suggesting that it was something the Buddha had said:
yad bhavam tad bhavati
This is clearly Sanskrit, a simple relative clause sentence (yad 'what, which'; tad 'that, this'). There is some possible ambiguity because of the lack of diacritics - is it bhavam or bhāvam? The former means 'becoming, being'; the latter 'being, origin'. However, there is some crossover - both can mean 'becoming, existence'. I think bhava is a primary derivation from the root bhū, and bhāva is a secondary derivative (of, or connected to, bhava). Either way, the sentence appears to be a tautology:
'what becomes, that is becoming' or 'what is, is'.
One interpretation might be that bhavam is intended in its special meaning of 'truth' - 'that which is true, that is'. This relies on the double meaning of satya 'true, real'; if something exists then it is both true and real. Now compare this with what it is said to mean on the internet. We begin with an article in the Huffington Post by Stacey Lawson, which is where my correspondent found the phrase:
There is a famous yogic teaching: "Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavati." The most literal translation is: "You become as you think." But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning. It can also be interpreted as, "The state of mind and the state of matter are one," or "The light of the mind coalesces as matter." Through delving into this single statement, the yogis were able to apprehend the entire structure of creation through the mind.
I'm already puzzled because of the capitalisation. People do this with mantras as well. You'll often see a mantra like 'oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ' written 'Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ'. What does capitalisation indicate in this case? Scholars will often use italics for foreign words, which helps the reader take in the difference, but how does this capitalisation help? I think one need only look in the King James Bible to see why we do this:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1.1
We Buddhists do this as well. We capitalise words live nirvāṇa, enlightenment, buddha, to mark them as special, perhaps we might say 'sacred' (though I wouldn't) on the model of a 17th century English Bible, and in defiance of contemporary English conventions. This doesn't occur in Indic scripts since they lack capitals, and all words and letters are special anyway. I think it suggests an inferiority complex when we have to make sure everyone knows our jargon is 'special'.

What do people mean when they say things like, "But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning"? Is Sanskrit any more layered than other languages? No it isn't. But vague statements in a spiritual context lend themselves to meaning whatever you want them to mean. We supply the specifics depending on what we want to believe. In effect, the statement can mean almost anything we want it to. So the phrase gets translated as:

You become as you think
as you think so you become
It will transform as you wish
your feelings define your world
as is the feeling, so is the result
as is the feeling, so is the experience
what you intend, that becomes reality
The light of the mind coalesces as matter
The state of mind and the state of matter are one
what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth
Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality

Clearly, many of these statements are not logically connected to each other, or meaningful in any ordinary sense, and none of them seem to derive from the actual Sanskrit words. Which is more or less the same as saying that the Sanskrit phrase can mean anything you want it to (especially if you don't know Sanskrit!). This is a form of linguistic relativism, which presumably goes nicely with the "all is one" style of popular religion. But vagueness in language usually disguises vagueness of thought. As one website translates the phrase: "what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth." Quite. The sad fact is that people simply believe what they want to believe despite what intellect and experience tell them; and that, very often, what we affirm as true, or True, is merely what we believe, merely our opinion. It's like a belief in a creator god: it's just an opinion.

Although my interlocutor thought this was a Buddhist saying, it clearly isn't. Though compare this fake Buddha quote:
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Buddha quotes (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)
Apart from a spelling mistake and dubious dates, the thing that stands out for me is that the Buddha is described as a Hindu! It may be that the first sentence in this quote is a garbled version of the Pāli verses which begin the Dhammapada, but the phrasing is quite different.
mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.
Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
And, in any case, this is an ethical teaching, not an ontological one - it is about how your mental state determines the outcomes of your actions. I've also seen a website where our phrase is associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though the artist/author also says that the statement: "is a truth that transcends religion" . The phrase - yad bhavam, tad bhavati - may simply be a fake Buddha quote. Bodhipakṣa, of Wildmind fame. has been collecting fake Buddha quotes for a while now if anyone is interested in this phenomenon.

Elsewhere, I have seen the phrase attributed to 'the Upaniṣads' and 'The Bhagavadgīta', but not convincingly. The context of the Sanskrit phrase (as opposed to the various translations) always seems to be Hindu, and mostly associated with Sathya Sai Baba, the controversial South Indian 'holy man', not to be confused with Sai Baba of Shirdi (the 19th century saint). Many of the web hits point to a discourse called God is the Indweller, where it is spelt it a little differently:
Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavathi
As you think so you become.
Here bhavati, has become bhavathi, and I'm unsure about what it could be except a spelling mistake. Though he also spells satya as sathya, so it could be a matter of idiosyncratic rather than mistaken spelling. Although the phrase comes in a talk peppered with Sanskrit quotes and translations for which textual sources are cited, no source is given for this particular phrase. He does, however, mention the story of Prahlada (a character from the Puraṇas) and one translation I found suggested that our phrase in the form - "Yad Bhavam tad Bhavati (Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality)" [sic!] - might occur in this connection. I couldn't find any confirmation of this, however.

After a bit of playing around with the Devanāgarī I did find one quote in the form "यद्‌भावम्‌ तद्‌भवती" (i.e., yad bhāvam tad bhavatī) where bhavatī is a spelling mistake for bhavati. Technically, in Sanskrit you'd probably write this यद्भवम्तद्भवति with sandhi and conjuncts obscuring the word breaks. But this did not shed any light on the origins of the phrase.

An email on the subject from Sanskritist Kiran Paranjape, who I often refer people to for tattoo transcriptions, makes me wonder whether Sai Baba hasn't just done a Sanskrit translation of the Spanish/Italian phrase "Que sera, sera" - "What will be, will be." The Sanskrit would be according to Kiran: yad bhāvyam tad bhavati, which is very close to our phrase. I would have gone for something like: 'yad yad bhāvyam tad tad bhaviṣyati', though it lacks the brevity of the original; or perhaps 'yad bhāvyam, bhāvyam' which captures the form but, like the original, is not fully grammatical.

Another possibility is that 'you become what you think' is an example of the so-called Law of Attraction - a form of magical thinking popular in Theosophical circles, and amongst New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra. It forms the basis of the book: Think and Grow Rich. It may be that the phrase has also been picked up on by Sai Baba. It sounds vaguely similar to Hindu religious ideas, so fits in with his rhetoric.

After quite a lot of searching around, I did not find any traditional Indian source - Vedas, major Upaniṣads, Epics and Puraṇas; in either Roman or Devanāgarī. Perhaps I have missed something, but it doesn't seem to be obvious. I should add that the whole thing is redolent of Hindu spirituality, and may well be genuine - the fact that I can't find it may be a failing on my part. The phrase is widely quoted across the internet, and attributed to a range of people or texts. On the face of it, however, the words are a bit of meaningless cant that 'spiritual' people project their ideas onto, the linguistic equivalent of crystals.

I suppose this is how legends get started. Someone, for whatever reason, attributes some saying to the Buddha. Later generations take it seriously, but not finding a source for it, must create a plausible context for the fake quote. So we get drift from the words of the master towards the words of fakers (who may have been well intentioned, I'm not suggesting they are necessarily evil). Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference, especially if we aren't familiar with a wide range of sources. This is one of the most valuable functions of scholars: to take cant like this and explain why it is inauthentic, to slow the drift towards mumbo-jumbo.

08 January 2010

Mystical Grammar - oṃ & auṃ

oṃ in the Siddhaṃ script
oṃ in the
Siddhaṃ script
For the ancient Indians grammar was one of the major paradigms for understanding how the universe functioned. One product of this is in the understanding of the seed syllable (bījākṣara) oṃ in the Vedic and then the Hindu traditions.[1] The earliest references to oṃ are in the Yajur Veda. This Veda was composed sometime after 1000 BC but before the Buddha. In some rituals the hotṛ Brahmin shouts oṃ at the end of the invocation to the god being sacrificed to (anuvākya) as an invitation to partake of the sacrifice.

The analysis of oṃ as being made up of three parts (a + u + ṃ) originates in the Sanskrit grammarian tradition but is given ritual or religious significance in the post-Buddhist early Upaniṣads, especially the Māṇḍūkya and Praśna Upaniṣads. Let's look at how this works.

Vowels may be monophthong or diphthong - made up on a single sound (short or long), or made up of two sounds (short or long). Linguists might describe a diphthong as beginning on one vowel sound and ending on another. The vowels of Sanskrit can divided up like this:

monophthongsa i u ṛ ḷ
अ इ उ ऋ ऌ
ā ī ū ṝ
आ ई ऊ ॠ
diphthongse o
ए ओ
ai au
ऐ औ

Note that the anusvāra (ṃ) and visarga (ḥ) are often counted as vowels, but practically they are modifications of existing vowels: nasalisation and aspiration respectively. They can be applied to any of the vowels. The long vowel ḹ (ॡ) is a theoretical possibility but in practice is never used.

The vowel o is a diphthong which is made up of two sounds: a + u. However note that the vowel au is a long diphthong which is analysed as ā + u. The two vowels o and au sound quite different: o sounds like o in hope; au sounds like ou in sound. Similarly e can be thought of as a + i: and ai as ā + i. Technically (and metrically) e and o are long vowels. In Sanskrit the Proto-Indo-European short vowels e and o converged with a (which helps to explain why a is far more common than other vowels). Since there is no short e or short o in Sanskrit there is no need to write the long vowels as ē and ō, though this would be more consistent.

It is necessary to understand these distinctions in order to understand some sandhi phenomena, because in some cases o actually behaves as a+u. The conjugations of the verbal root √bhū 'to be' offer a good example. This is a class 1 verb and forms a stem in -a with guṇā (strengthening) of the root vowel: so bhū (with guṇā) > bho; and when we add the stem vowel -a we get the stem form bhava; and the 3rd person singular is bhavati. What happens here is that the o in bho is treated as a + u, and the addition of -a invokes sandhi rules governing when two vowels meet - in this case u + a > va: ie bha+u+a > bhava. (This kind of thing is what makes learning Sanskrit difficult).

auṃ written in the Siddhaṃ script

in the
Siddhaṃ script
From a purely technical point of view we can see that the analysis of o as a + u does not justify writing oṃ as auṃ using the long diphthong. Note that the syllable auṃ written in Siddhaṃ (left) looks like the modern Hindu ॐ which is frequently transliterated as auṃ, and suggests that some confusion about this crept into Hindu discourse. Buddhist texts did not adopt the practice of writing oṃ as auṃ as far as I have been able to discover.

Another purely technical point is that the notation oṃ indicates a nasalised o vowel. This should rhyme with the French 'bon', not with the English 'bomb'. In fact this distinction seems to have been lost for some time, and oṃ (ओं) is regularly pronounced as om (ओम् ) even in India (i.e. with the bilabial rather than the pure nasal). Note also that au is the vowel sound in the English word 'sound'. So auṃ should not sound like oṃ and vice verse.

These jejune distinctions were important to the Indian grammarians because it was thought that the Vedas were divinely inspired, eternally unchanging and true, texts. They were transmitted orally, and after some centuries the vernacular Sanskrit language was significantly different from Vedic [2] which lead to scholars making a thorough investigation of the language - both canonical and vernacular at around the time of the Buddha. It was important to get the pronunciation right if the meaning was to be preserved. Changing the pronunciation was unthinkable.

By the time the early Upaniṣads were being composed (beginning ca 800 BCE) there was quite a lot of interest in the relationship between words and reality. The existence of eternal, true words gave this a particular flavour. Also note that the word for 'true' and 'real' was the same: sat. It was the authors of the Upaniṣads, especially the Chāndogya (CU), who began to make the connections between syllables and aspects of the cosmos, though this seems to have been a natural development of the idea of correspondences (bandhu) between the macrocosm and the microcosm which was also a preoccupation in the Vedas. Oṃ in CU text is seen as a single syllable and equated with the udgītha, that is with the chanting of the sāman or hymns of the Sāma Veda. In other texts oṃ is associated with brahman. Then later, in the last century BCE, the technical breakdown of o into a+u was given esoteric significance. A key passage from the Māṇḍūkya reads:
so 'yamātmādhyakṣaramoṅkāraḥ | adhimātra pādā mātrā mātrāś ca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti || ManU 1.8

On the subject of syllables, this syllable 'oṃ' is the ātman; on the subject of metre, the feet are the metre, and the feet are the syllables a, u, and ma. (my translation)
Here oṃ, the ātman, is likened to 'śloka' the poetic metre (mātra [3]) consisting of four lines or 'feet' (pādā) of eight syllables, with each of the lines likened to a constituent phoneme. The Māṇḍūkya then spells out the esoteric correspondences of the constituent phonemes. The fourth foot (pādā) is said to be without a phoneme (amātra) and ineffable (avyavahāraya).

I'm not aware of any canonical Buddhist text which restates the Vedic breakdown of oṃ into a+u+ṃ, though Kūkai does break hūṃ into ha+a+ū+m suggesting that the technique was not unknown to him. [4] For Buddhists the esoteric significance is typically based on the Arapacana acrostic which was originally a mnemonic for remembering aspects of an extended reflection on śūnyatā, for example: akāra (the syllable a) is the first syllable; which reminds us of the key word anutpanna (non-arising); and the full reflection subject is akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt (the syllable 'a' is an opening because of the primal quality of non-arising of all mental phenomena). Various versions of the Arapacana exist, the earliest date from around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

This method of analysing mantras is far more significant in understanding the function of a mantra than the words in the mantra. For instance Kūkai always seems to have broken down words (even sūtra titles) into syllables in order to understand their esoteric significant. In Tibetan Buddhism the fact that the Avalokiteśvara mantra has six syllables which enables it to match up with the six realms of conditioned existence is probably more important than the understanding of the word maṇipadme (which has been central to Western exegesis of the mantra).



  1. This distinction is a bit vague. I call the religion Vedic which is primarily based directly on the three Vedas (Ṛg, Sāma, Yajur) excluding the Atharva (which is a distinct tradition I think) and which is focussed on the sacrifice: it's main gods were Indra, Agni, and Soma - though several dozen deities were propitiated. Hinduism is a complex of various religious ideas and practices where the Vedas have faded into the background and practice is focussed on devotion (bhakti) or with Tantric rites (śakti): prominent Gods are Śiva, Viṣṇu, Brahmā and the mother goddess in many forms especially Lakṣmi and Kāli. This is of course a massive over-simplification. What seems important is to mark that there have been tectonic shifts in India religions over the millennia.
  2. Vedic is the most common name for the language of the Vedas. It has a number of differences from Classical Sanskrit which was codified by Pānini in the 5th or 4th century BCE.
  3. Note the phonetic similarity with the English word - both come from the same Indo-European root meaning 'to measure'.
  4. see Ungi gi in Hakeda Major Works p.246ff

Further Reading

23 October 2009

Dharma as mental event

Dharma in various scriptsThe earliest strands of Buddhism seem to avoid any ontological speculation, and dharma - in the sense of the object of manas - has no particular status viz a viz reality. Indeed I'm not convinced that they even thought in terms of 'reality'. However over the years dharma did take on an ontological cast. So much so that Nāgārjuna spends much of his important work the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā (MMK) demolishing the idea. In this essay I attempt to show the progress of this change. Dharma as mental object is the most important and characteristically Buddhist use of the word dharma, but it perhaps the most difficult to translate. Some of the definitions of the philosophical term 'qualia' might fit, and 'noeta' has been suggested though choosing Latin terms is not always helpful to an English speaker. To render it 'things' is misleading in my view, and 'mental objects' is inelegant. In fact many authors leave dharma untranslated in this case.

Why should the word find an application in this sense? To answer this we need to take a step back and reconsider the Buddhist view of consciousness (Sanskrit vijñāna; Pāli viññāṇa). Consciousness is always 'consciousness of ', the Buddha did not allow for a free floating entity called consciousness that was waiting to be aware of something (see JR: What is Consciousness?) - consciousness is dependently arisen, and this is the most important application of the principle of conditionality. In particular consciousness arises in dependence on contact between a sense organ and a sense object. Particularly with reference to the mental sense (manas) the object is called 'a dharma' - and this specifically includes the information garnered from the other five senses. So a sight object gives rise to sight consciousness, but this sight consciousness in turns becomes the object of the mind sense, it is itself a dharma. As we've seen over the past two weeks the primary meaning of dharma is foundation. Here the dharma acts as a 'foundation' to vijñāna since vijñāna arises in dependence (in part at least) on sense objects. We can see, then, that dharma in this sense is related to words for cause (hetu, paccaya) and condition (nidāna, upanisa, bandhu).

Now the main interest in the early suttas is on vijñāṇa not on dharmas; that is, on the subjective pole of experience rather than the objective. So for instance the processes which enable us to have experiences - the five skandha (P. khandha) - are mentioned frequently and treated quite exhaustively. The nature of dharmas is only given cursory attention if any. The reasons for focusing on the mind are pragmatic because it is the insights into the functioning of mind that are liberate us.

However, the lack of definite statements about dharmas in the suttas left a lacuna that became very attractive to a certain type of mind - and unfortunately they were frequently the same people who preserved the texts and were the chief textual authorities and exegetes.

The first step was the abhidharma. Abhidharma is an interesting word. PED gives 'special dhamma' as it's chief sense, but under abhi- they say the primary meaning is "that of taking possession and mastering" which suggests that its meaning would be impossible to guess from the etymology (which is not uncommon). What the abhidhamma is, is an analysis of the Buddhadharma and in particular of the dharmas themselves in the sense I am exploring now. The abhidharmikas were concerned with identifying the types and categories of dharmas both mental and physical, and the interactions between them in creating consciousness. I must confess at this point that I have never really studied abhidharma, and don't have much interest in it. Presumably the original intent grew out of injunctions in meditation texts such as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta to observe the arising and passing and away of dharmas. However the subtle shift of the attention from the moon to the finger meant that the dharmas themselves, rather than their contingency per se moved into focus, and this seems to me to be a fundamental error.

Another issue which has plagued Buddhism presumably from the moment the Buddha died is whether it is possible for any of us to have the experience he had. While he was alive to say yes he seems to have inspired huge confidence. I presume that the shift to the view (exemplified in Peter Masefield's flawed work Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism [1]) which says that without the physical presence of a Buddha awakening is not possible was a gradual giving way to pessimism, rather than a sudden collapse of confidence. However one of the motivations, as I understand it, behind the abhidharmika's efforts was to understand awakening - to intellectually keep the possibility of liberation alive.

In the abhidharma the idea of what a dharma is begins to take on form. Scholars are quick to point out that they do not see a definite ontology here. [2] It is not that the abhidharmika's set out to establish the nature of a dhamma, but in creating their lists of dharmas they provided an opening for those with a more ontological bent. What they do is create finite lists which they present as exhaustive - there are these kinds of dharmas and no more. That the different abhidharmikas came up with overlapping but often quite different list tells us much in retrospect. The definiteness of these lists was problematic. By the time of the commentarial tradition in 5th century Sri Lanka a dharma has become a thing - which may well be why this is the favoured translation of dhamma in contemporary times.

The various early schools of Buddhism (the tradition records eighteen names) each had their own collections of suttas, their own vinaya, and their own abhidharma. Since the sutta collections vary mostly in how they are arranged it is presumed that these stem from a common stock [3]. Each surviving vinaya shows a little more variation - especially in the number of pratimokṣa rules and in how elaborated is their account of the Buddha's life. Each abhidharma however has a significantly different take on the subject - though of course all shared a method and aimed at the same goal.

The Sarvāstivādin abhidharmikas seem to have gone further down the ontological road than any other Buddhist groups. Their very name means 'everything exists' (sarva asti). They held dharmas to be substantially existing elements of reality. Just how far they gave strayed from the Buddha's teaching is brought into focus when one considers that Nāgārjuna is thought by some scholars to have written his stark and decisive polemic, Mālamadhyamika Kārikā (MMK), in response to the Sarvāstivādins. [4] Amongst other aims Nāgārjuna comprehensively dismantles the twin notions of existence and non-existence. Neither apply. If Nāgārjuna appears nihilistic it is perhaps because he was writing against a pernicious form of eternalism. In any case we can read MMK as an attempt to wrestle Buddhism back on track - away from any interest in the nature of reality, and back to an interest in the nature of experience. It is terms of experience, not in terms of mysticism or paradox, that we need to understand that 'things' neither exist nor non-exist, because those 'things' are our mental processes which have no ontological status, no substantial being. Indeed in what sense can any process be said to 'exist'?

  1. In my unpublished essay 'Did the Dhamma Die with the Buddha' I critique Masefield's method which seems to have ignored or obscured any evidence which contradicted his thesis. By demonstrating that counter examples are readily available in his source - the Pali texts - for all of his major claims, I show that his over all thesis that no-one could attain enlightenment after the Buddha died is wrong.
  2. To some extent I am relying on Noa Ronkin's Early Buddhist Metaphysics as a survey of attitudes of other scholars to this issue, particularly chapter 2 (p.34ff).
  3. However the variation in the organisation of the collections argues for a late date for the collections themselves, ie there was no 'canon' until quite some time after the Buddha - which seems to contradict traditional narratives of the canon being settled at a council held immediately after the Buddha's death.
  4. I think some scholars argue that what the Sarvāstivādins meant by 'svabhāva' was not inherent existence, but something more like individual characteristic. Buddhist texts are seldom fair to the ideas of their opponents, nor to the people who hold different ideas (who are regularly portrayed as fools). So if Nāgārjuna was misrepresenting the Sarvāstivādins this was consistent with the tradition, though it seems to me that in writing polemics one is usually motivated by an actual perceived error. In any case the points he makes about existence/non-existence seem to me to be important and useful.


  • Cox, Collett. 2004. 'From Category to Ontology: the Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 543-597.
  • Gethin, Rupert. 2004. 'He Who sees Dhamma sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Early Buddhism.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 513-542.
  • Ronkin, Noa. 2005. Early Buddhist Metaphysics : The Making of a Philosophical Tradition. London: Routledge Curzon.

16 October 2009

Dharma - Buddhist Terminology

Dharma in various scriptsIn this essay I want to try to get across the breadth of the word dharma (Pāli dhamma) as used in early Buddhism. Last week I took a diachronic (across time) approach, this week will be synchronic (looking at one point in time - more or less). Various different schemes have been proposed which divide the semantic field of dharma into various sectors some find more than a dozen 'meanings' of dharma. Almost every introductory Buddhism book will have something to say about this. However since my starting point was the 2004 issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy dedicated to 'dharma' I'll use the scheme from there. In the JIP Rupert Gethin describes six categories in which the word dharma is used in early Buddhism.
  1. Teaching
  2. Good conduct
  3. Truth
  4. Nature or Quality
  5. Natural Law
  6. Mental or Physical State
I adopt his categories but I am not entirely convinced by Gethin's approach to the content discussed under each heading and will say more in context. Though I've adopted his headings most of these glosses are my own.


As I mentioned last week (Dharma - Early History), it has been argued that the Buddha might have been reluctant to adopt the term 'dhamma' to describe his teaching. However, this does not seem to have lasted long. In fact along with sāsana, dharma is probably the most common noun for it - for teaching the usual verb is deseti (which more literally means 'to point out'). Dharma as teaching refers both the content of the teaching and to the form of it (i.e. the texts).

Gethin here cites (p.516) the nine aṅgas or limbs of the teaching, that is the nine kinds of text which are spelt out in the texts themselves: suttaṃ, geyyaṃ, veyyākaraṇaṃ, gāthaṃ, udānaṃ, itivuttakaṃ, jātakaṃ, abhutadhammaṃ, vedallaṃ which he translates as "discourses, chants, analyses, verses, utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and dialogues". (at e.g. M i.133ff).

Good Conduct.

Here the word is used as an adjective. In my research on confession I showed that confessing a wrong-doing restores a person to the ethical path so that they behave yathādhamma or dharmically. (see Attwood Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha). Gethin cites examples of dharma in the instrumental case (indicating how an action is carried out) which seem to mean something like conforming to the norm. For instance kings must rule dhammena or by the dharma, which we take to mean ethically. [1]

Another use of dharma in this sense comes in the word dharacārin (this is the neuter form of the word: m. dharmacārī/ f. dharmacāriṇī). Carin means 'one who fares', or 'one who behaves', and dharma is used here in an adjectival sense 'dharmically'. I avoid common renderings such as 'righteously' because of the heavy Christian overtones (it always makes me thing of righteous indignation, which is not dharmic). The implication is that a dharmacārin conforms to the ethical precepts and to right view. (Of course in the sense of a member of the Western Buddhist Order we must qualify this: we undertake to conform ethically - including the precept to abstain from micchādassanā or confused views - and we do our best to repair breaches, but we don't claim to be perfect!)


This for me is the most problematic category. Gethin seeks to show that this is different from the category of 'natural law', but in fact his examples make better sense if we do not translate dharma as 'truth'. Gethin suggests that there is some truth about "the world or reality" which is taught by the Buddha, but I've become wary of this kind of approach which I associate with Western philosophy. What the Buddha taught about, from my point of view, is the processes of experience, not about some external reality. You could argue that by reality we mean the processes of experience, but this invites confusion because by 'reality' we almost always mean the substantial or ideal world beyond and underlying experience. The truth about experience, if there is such a thing, is simply that it is governed by pratītya-samutpāda. This is not a (metaphysical) Truth as I understand it. In fact far from being a dogma, it is the insight that we Buddhists seek, rather than the knowledge we already possess. That we believe it to be true, does not make it Truth.

Nature or Quality

When the Buddha is about to die he says: vayadhammā saṅkhārā, appamādena sampādetha. I have commented on these words at length in my essay the The Last Words of the Buddha. Vayadhammā is a compound vaya + dhammā (plural). 'Vaya' (Sanskrit: vyaya) means both 'decay' and 'death', so I have translated it as 'perish' since this has almost exactly the same connotations (and similar etymology, both being from a verb i 'to go'). Dhamma here denotes 'nature' and I translate it by adding the suffix -able to give 'perishable' - by which we understand that something perishable has perishability as a characteristic, or is of a nature to perish. The translation is then: all experiences are perishable. Dharma is routinely used in this kind of way to indicate the nature or quality of something. This probably relates to the more basic meaning of foundation. Gethin quotes the phrase
yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhammaṃ ti [2]
Very literally we might translate this as: "All those somethings which have the nature to arise, have the nature to cease". Or better: everything that can arise, will cease.

The characteristic of something is the foundation (dharma) on which our knowledge of it rests.

Natural Law

By natural law we mean the natural law: pratītyasamutpāda (Pāli paṭiccasamuppāda). The idea that the universe was a harmonious interconnected whole goes back to the earliest Indian religious texts. It is apparent in the Ṛg Veda. For Buddhists it was 'only natural' to take up this idea and give a Buddhist account of it. [3] The simplest expression of paṭiccasamuppāda is:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
While that exists, this exists. When that does not exist, neither does this.
Confusingly the pronoun in every case is idaṃ [4] meaning 'this' (something present to the speaker) - the Pāli is not making a this/that distinction though it is always present in English translations. It is more like the sort of syntax you see in computer programming languages: "while this, this; when not this, not this."

However the strongest association is with the twelve-fold chain of nidānas (source, cause, origin). In this formulation each preceding link is the cause of the succeeding one. Later Buddhists interpreted the links as spreading over three life-times, though this is not present in the earliest texts, nor are the twelve links clearly a circle - they more naturally are a chain except that the last two links are birth and old-age/death which, according to virtually all Indian religions, follow each other repeatedly. Other version of the chain exist with different numbers of links - significantly the chain in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) has ten links. [5]

Sangharakshita, drawing on work by C.A.F Rhys Davids and Dr B. Barua has given prominence to another kind of conditionality - which he calls spiral as opposed to the other kind which is cyclic - the locus classicus is the Upanisa Sutta (SN 12.23; PTS: S ii 29) (see especially Sangharakshita 1993 and 1967). It has been argued that upanisa, which is used in this sutta as a synonym of nidāna, is the same word as the Sanskrit upaniṣad with virtually the same meaning: secret connection (See for instance: Jones 2009). In this version of conditionality one link in the chain leads to another in a progressive and cumulative manner so that one reaches the state of knowledge and vision of reality (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) and continues on to the destruction of the āsavas (aka awakening). Bikkhu Bodhi (1995), writing in response to Sangharakshita, follows the Nettipakarana, a Pāli exegetical treatise, in calling this type of conditionality 'transcendental dependent arising' (lokuttara-paṭiccasamuppāda).

Another relevant term here is dhamma-niyāmatā which we can translate as "the lawfulness of reality" (cf Jones 2007). Jones says that this is, in effect, a way of referring to paṭiccasamuppāda and that it is synonymous with "cosmic order in all its forms". An aspect of this is the Buddha's life story. It is said that every Buddha's life story follows exactly the same pattern and that this is dhammatā - the rule, or natural order.

Mental or Physical State

While many uses of dhamma are important, in some ways this is the most significant use of dhamma. Here dhamma is the 'foundation' for consciousness - recall that for Buddhists consciousness is always consciousness of something. Dhammas are the objects of the mind (mano; Sanskrit. manas), which includes the information from the five physical senses as well as purely mental phenomena as memory, abstractions, and imagination. This use will be the subject of my next post. I will try to show how the way Buddhists understood dhamma in this sense subtly changed over the years creating splits and resulting in some brilliant polemics which have themselves become canonical.


From the relatively humble Vedic origins which I outlined last week (Dharma - early history) the term dharma became one of the most important in the Indian religious lexicon. My initial impression was that the Buddhist usage was so varied as to defy understanding - however my conclusion having written this essay is that almost all uses of dharma are comprehensible in terms of the basic meaning of 'foundation' in some applied or abstract manner. Perhaps it is appropriate therefore to found Buddhism on dharma? [Note since writing this I have re-read the latter part of Gethin's paper and he comes to more or less the same conclusion - I have therefore not entirely done justice to his views]

Though my approach this week has been synchronic we need to be aware that even within Buddhism the definitions and usage of words changed over time as well - I follow one thread of this change in next week's post. Despite being able to see the origins of usage, the many different ways dharma is used has resulted in considerable ambiguity and at times confusion. I believe, for instance, that the first section of the Diamond Sūtra (up to the first ending) is best understood if one holds the many definitions of dharma in mind almost simultaneously - because the text relentlessly plays on the ambiguity in a way which might otherwise be see as paradoxical. To my mind this section seems very close in spirit to the Pāli texts and the product of a mind which, like many ancient Indians and modern Westerners, enjoys punning very much.

  1. The phrase here (p.516) is dhammena rajjaṃ kāreti - though PED suggests kāreti is 'build, construct' (kāreti is a causative of karoti 'to do, make'. Presumably the text is talking about building his kingdom?
  2. Gethin doesn't cite the origin of the passage and I cannot locate it. Gethin translates (p.518): "the nature of everything whose nature it is to arise, is to cease".
  3. I would make a distinction here: early Buddhism sees things as connected through conditionality. The idea of interconnectedness - that all things condition all other things - is in my view missing from early Buddhism and is supplied in the Mahāyāna from Vedic precedents. One of the most important metaphors for interconnectedness is Indra's net (indrajāla) and I suggest that it is no coincidence that the net belongs to the chief god of the Vedas.
  4. imasmiṃ is the locative of idaṃ used in a temporal sense: to give the sense of "while this".
  5. The different numbers of links has given rise to the theory that there were originally two different nidāna chains - one beginning with taṇha, to which was added one beginning with avijjā. Joanna Jurewicz has theorised that especially the early part of the chain was intended as a parody of Vedic cosmogny - Jurewicz's papers are difficult to get hold of, and even more difficult to read (a knowledge of Sanskrit is an advantage) but the details are summarised and discussed in Richard Gombrich What the Buddha Thought (esp Chapter 9). Note that, in his MA dissertation, Jones (Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext) has cast some doubt on Jurewicz's thesis - hopefully he will publish before long.

  • Attwood, Jayarava Michael. 2008. 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15.
  • Bodhi. 1995. 'Transcendental Dependent Arising : A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.' Access to Insight, June 7, 2009,
  • Gethin, Rupert. 2004. 'He Who sees Dhamma sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Early Buddhism. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 513-542.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2009. Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext : the Buddha in Debate with Brahminical Thinking. MA Dissertation, Cambridge University, unpublished.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2007. The 'Five Niyamas', Sangharakshita, and the Problem of Karma. [See also another shorter version of this essay and some commentary on Dhīvan's website]
  • Sangharakshita. 1967. The Three Jewels : an introduction to Buddhism. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. (esp. chapter 13 : The stages of the Path)
  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : its doctrines and methods through the ages. [7th ed]. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. [1st published 1957]. (esp Chapter 1.14 Samsāra and Nirvaṇa)

image: dharma in various scripts: Devanāgarī, dbu can, Ranjana, Sinhala.