Showing posts with label Metta. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Metta. Show all posts

11 June 2010

How the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta Came About

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

A pdf version of this text is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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




Notes


[1] PTS SnA i.193ff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] See my translation: Mettā Sutta Translation.

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

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

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

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


image: Himalaya's Bhutan. From www.bhutanmajestictravel.com.

19 December 2008

The Whole of the Spiritual Life

Last week I was exploring the notion of "the spiritual life" - aka brahmacarya. Today I'm going to write about a text that may well be familiar since it is often quoted in the FWBO. This is the famous incident (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2) when Ānanda, in his innocence, proclaims to the Buddha that:
upaḍḍhamidam, bhante, brahmacariyaṃ, yadidaṃ kalyānamittatā kalyānasahāyatā kalyānasampavaṅkata.

Half of this holy life, bhante, is spiritual friendship, spiritual companionship, spiritual intimacy.
To which the Buddha replies: mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ! Sakalamevidaṃ... "don't say that, Ānanda, don't say that! It is the whole of the spiritual life!" I quite like the old translation (by Woodward?) that is handed down orally in the FWBO: "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so!"

So let's just pause here to look at what these qualities are that Ānanda thinks are half, and the Buddha thinks are the whole of the brahmacariya. Firstly kalyāna is a wonderful word in Pāli which as an adjective means "beautiful, charming; auspicious, helpful, morally good" and as a noun "a good or useful thing; goodness, virtue, merit, meritorious action; kindness, good service; beauty, attraction, perfection. From the same Indo-European root comes the Greek kalos whence comes the English word 'kaleidoscope' - coined in the 19th century and meaning literally "observer of beautiful forms".

Kalyāna is prefixed to three terms in the quote above: mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata. Let's look at these one at a time.

Mitta is friend in Pāli, and mittatā is the abstract noun, friendship. But this word has a very interesting history. In Sanskrit the word is mitra, and in Avestan - the proto-Persian language - mithro. Now Mitra was the name of a Vedic god who played a particular role in the universe. Along with Varuṇa he helped to maintain the harmonious cosmic order ṛta. In particular Mitra was associated with contracts. This sense of a the bond of a contract underlies the concept of friendship in the word mitra. The Persian god Mithra had some of the same functions and this has helped to reinforce the idea that Persians and Vedic speaking Indians had a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-Europeans. So a mitra is someone who shares a common bond.

The concept of mettā is an abstraction from mittatā - that is it describes the qualities of the relationship in mittatā or friendship. In Buddhism it comes to mean the universal loving kindness of the awakened person who is described as constantly pervading the universe in all directions with mettā for all beings (see esp. the Tevijja Sutta DN 13). It occurs to me that this too could be a reference to Mitra the god, who did pervade the universe with his power. It fits the context of what Richard Gombrich considers the first discourse on mettā (ie the Tevijja Sutta) - but there-in lies another story which is too long for this post, but which I touch on in The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

Sahāya means companion or friend, and therefore sahāyatā means companionship or friendship. The base here though is saha which means "together", and the connotation is therefore "togetherness". A 'companion' in English is one with whom you share (Latin com, 'with') bread (panis). This world is known as a saha world "because we all suffer together", according to my colleague Sahānanda. In the Upaniṣads the goal of the brahmacarin is (in Sanskrit) 'brahmasahāvyata' or companionship with Brahma - it is this idea that the Buddha is critiquing in the Tevijja Sutta.

Sampavaṅka is perhaps from saṃ + pari + anka. Anka being the hollow above the hip where mothers carry their babies, so the word might literally be "together + encompassed + on the hip" with the sense of sharing the same mother, of being cradle mates. Once again the -tā suffix makes this an abstract known - perhaps 'intimateness'? In any case it is used in the sense of intimacy, or intimate friendship.

We have here, then, three synonymous terms - mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata- which give us a sense of a quality that none alone quite manages to describe: someone we are bound together with in an intimate relationship. And each term is prefixed with kalyāna emphasising that the nature of this relationship is virtuous, beautiful and helpful. Clearly this is a refined ideal and one that we are not going to meet with that often. We have friends, we have intimate friends, but there are not many people in our lives who are going to fulfil all of these criteria. In fact other texts say that the Buddha is the ideal kalyānamitta, the ideal spiritual friend.

Our text then moves on to describe in what way the whole of the spiritual life is bound up in the beautiful friend etc. Firstly the one who has these three qualities will be bound to devote themselves to, and make much of (bahulīkarissati) the Eightfold path of the Noble Ones. Another way of putting it, the text says, is that by relying on the Buddha as a spiritual mentor beings who are subject to birth, old age, death, and to all manner of suffering will be released from these. In this way one we should understand that the spiritual friend, companion, and intimate is the whole of the brahmacarya.

So a kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka is someone, like the Buddha, who is able to help you be free from suffering, someone who can help you to be liberated, to attain nibbāna. It seems to me then that the standard translation as "good friend" is hardly adequate to the job. I have been using the word "spiritual" for kalyāna but it is a bit overused, I used it also for the brahma part of brahmacarya, and generally speaking the word "spiritual" is so over used that it is almost meaningless these days. I wonder whether something like "virtuous mentor" might not give a better sense of what is meant by kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka. The word 'virtue' is etymologically linked to 'vīra', the hero. However our societies don't honour virtuousness, and sometimes see it as a sign of weakness. So even 'virtuous' has lost its punch.

Our contemporary use of the word "mentor" derives from a character in Homer's Odyssey. While Odysseus is on his way home his son Telemachus has a lot to contend with. His house is invaded by men who, thinking his father dead, would marry his mother and take Odysseus's wealth and power for their own. Telemachus is at his wit's end, and actually in danger of being killed by the suitors when the Goddess Athena appears to him in the guise of Mentor, an old family friend. As mentor Athena advises Telemachus so that he not only comes through unscathed, but smooths the way for Odysseus to return. So a mentor is one who embodies virtue or divinity, who gives us guidance and advice, and who has our best interests at heart. In contemporary terms a mentor is someone who shares their life and experience with us, and this chimes with what Sangharakshita has said is the main role of a guru. The Buddha is of course like this - he wants people to be free of suffering. Time and again he reminds people that this is the whole point of his teaching. So he is the mentor par excellence. I think this also fits with the notion of the traditional bond between a master and disciple. On a more cosmic level this relationship corresponds to the later notion of adhiṣṭhāna or in Japanese Kaji, sometimes translated as "grace". I have discussed this in my essay Buddhism as a path of gracefulness, so won't say more here.

To sum up then: the text is saying that a virtuous, even an enlightened, mentor is the whole of the brahmacarya, the spiritual life.

17 October 2008

From the beloved...

Green Eros

Green Eros by
Dhīvan Thomas Jones
published by Apus Press.

'Well, you live in hope,' she said, and a whole world suddenly broke open in front of me, like a cloud splitting and, inside an aerial city full of streets and towers - the city of those who long for love' - Dhīvan Thomas Jones, Green Eros

The Piyajātika Sutta (MN 87, PTS ii.106) is a text which appears to buck trends. The Buddha is portrayed in a way which seems to suggest that he could be quite hard headed.
In the Sutta a man is distressed because his only son has died. He cannot work or eat. He finds himself going to the cremation ground and crying out "my only son, where are you?" He goes to see the Buddha who notices that the man is out of sorts, and asks why? This is a theme that is repeated in a number of places in the canon. In this case the Buddha's response to the man is:

evametaṃ evameva... piyajātikā hi... sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā piyappabhvaika

That's it, that's just it! From the beloved comes grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble, [they] arise from the beloved.
The man is dismayed to hear this and counters that as far as he is concerned that the beloved is a cause of delight and pleasure (ānandasomanassa). He leaves the Buddha dissatisfied and finds some gamblers who confirm his views that the beloved is a source of happiness. Gamblers in these kind of stories represent the worst elements of society, they are casually and carelessly immoral.

The story eventually reaches ears of King Pasenadi of Kosala who's wife, Queen Mallika, is a Buddhist. He is disturbed by the story and his wife's acceptance of it. He accuses her of just agreeing uncritically with whatever the Buddha says. So Mallika sends a Brahmin to question the Buddha directly, and the Buddha confirms that it is his position that the beloved is a source of grief etc. Mallika explains the meaning of the teaching to the king by pointing out that he is very fond of Princess Vajirī and asks if she became ill and died, would he not be distressed. 'Of course!' he answers. Similarly with other people he loves - a son and general, another Queen, the land of Kosala itself - and it dawns on him that the Buddha is right and indeed the beloved is the source of misery.

Readers may be more familiar with the story of Kisāgotamī who has also lost her baby. In the oft told story the Buddha uses a kind and gentle strategy to bring Kisāgotamī to the realisation that her baby is not sick, but dead, that there is no medicine in the world that can cure death, and that death comes to everyone. Few people know however that this version of the story is not canonical, but commentarial - it's fullest telling occurs in the Dhammapada Atthakatha - ie it dates from many hundreds of years after the Buddha. Even so the contrast with the Buddha's response in the Piyajatika is strikingly. Here is uncompromisingly direct and unsentimental, and appears to fail to communicate successfully with the distressed man who has lost his son. This makes me think that he is a straw man - someone thrown into the story in order that the King, the real object of the story, may be seen to learn something about the beloved, that is I don't believe the Buddha was literally so unsympathetic to human grief.

The other constrast I want to draw is with the Mettā Sutta. In my translation it says:
Just as a mother would give her life to protect her only child
Likewise include all beings everywhere in your heart and mind
With loving kindness for all the world
In all directions of space, unobstructed, peaceable and without enmity
The heart embraces all.
Surely there is a contradiction here? On the one hand the love of a man for his only son is a source of misery, and the Buddha tells him that his very love is the problem; while on the other hand the Buddha recommends that we love all beings just as a mother would love her only son. Note here that the Mettā Sutta recommends universal love. Mettā is like the love for a child, but it is different because it is not exclusive. While pursuing this ideal of universal loving kindness something emerges which is not like the one-to-one love between mother and child. Mother-child love for all it's beauty and necessity, and romantic love, lead to attachment. The beloved or even love itself are treated like possessions - love can be lost for instance, or taken away. And when the object of love leaves or dies it is as though we have lost some-thing. It is the loss of something, or someone that we are attached to which is so painful. Attachment means that we persuade ourselves that we will have the beloved always, that they will be 'ours'. But of course the beloved is never ours in this sense. Our attachment is based on a misunderstanding of the way the world works. Mettā on the other hand, because of it's universality, seems not to lead to attachment. Because mettā doesn't make distinctions it is closer to the truth of becoming and ceasing. Because we, ideally, love all beings equally, no one being is special. All are important, are unique, but we don't value one person over another. We value love itself.

In romantic love, and even in the love of a child, we often look for a sense of completion - something about the other, the lover or the child - both of whom can be referred to as piya - seems to fill in the gaps in us. If we do find a lover, or have a child, then we can cease to see that we are incomplete while they are there. If they leave or die then we are suddenly thrown back on ourselves, onto our incomplete self. We feel as though part of us is missing, we grieve and mourn (sokaparideva). Sangharakshita has emphasised the need to become fully human - to, as it were, fill in our own gaps - before we can really make progress in spiritual terms. I've previously written about my own thoughts on necessity for a whole and healthy ego and also the problem of self preoccupation so I won't expand on these now.

As I say the Buddha appears to have been entirely unsentimental on this subject. The beloved will not last, will not complete us, will not make us whole, will not in the long run make us happy. There is only one way to achieve something like this and that is through spiritual evolution. If our love can encompass all beings the way we want to love, or be loved by, the beloved - if all beings become our passion, our thoughts are filled with them, we wish only their well being and good fortune - only then do we begin to experience wholeness and contentment.

It seemed appropriate to use this post to highlight my friend Dhīvan's recently published novel Green Eros. In this book he explores love from a masculine point of view, powerfully and faithfully evoking the male experience of love and relationship. Dhīvan draws on both his doctorate in the philosophy of love, and his deep knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and practice, to spice the story with wise reflections on love.

I'll finish today with a couple of verses from Sangharakshita's long poem The Veil of Stars:

LXXXVI
All the tears of desire reflect only the agony of its own frustration,
But in a single tear-drop of compassion are mirrored all the sorrows and miseries of the world.

LXXXVII
Desire seeks to possess and dominate the lives of others,
Love simply to sacrifice its own.

06 June 2008

Mettā Sutta translation

This is a new translation, not simply a paraphrase of an earlier translation. I have attempted to use contemporary idiom and reasonably sensible English syntax. The original is in verse, but I haven't tried to reproduce the meter. The Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta occurs in the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 1.8 = PTS: Sn 143-152).

I've speculated, in another post, that the sutta might once have stopped at verse nine, but an extra verse was added as a result of a lost metaphor.







The Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta.


If you know what is good for you, and what to do about it,
Having understood what true happiness is,
Then this is what you would do:

Be practical, straight forward, direct and honest
Be polite and accept advice graciously
Be tender hearted and not arrogant
Be contented, with moderate appetite, and needs easily met
Be easy going
And do not take on many responsibilities
Be grounded and in control of yourself
Be prudent and not reckless or impulsive
And don’t go chasing after status
Never do even the slightest thing that would result in a bad conscience,
Or give the Wise cause to reprove you.

May they have happiness and peace
May all beings be happy in themselves
Whatever living beings there are,
Those suffering and those released from suffering, leaving none out
All beings of whatever size or shape
Fine or coarse, refined or rustic
Seen or unseen
Beings in remote places, and those around you
Those already born, and those about to be born
May all beings be happy in themselves

Not humiliating, or despising, anyone anywhere
And never, though angry, or experiencing anger,
Never wish suffering for another
Just as a mother would give her life to protect her only child
Likewise include all beings everywhere in your heart and mind
With loving kindness for all the world
In all directions of space, unobstructed, peaceable and without enmity
The heart embraces all.

Whatever you are doing, in every activity
As far as is humanly possible sustain these reflections
To do so, it is said, is to dwell with god right here and now!

Hold your opinions lightly, and be virtuous and good
See things as they really are
And having given up addiction to sensuous pleasures
You will surely not have to suffer rebirth again.

18 April 2008

Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell

I want to start this post by giving my free rendition of a Pāli Sutta, and then follow with a little commentary.

The Conch Blower
Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.8 (iv.317)

One time when the Blessed One was staying at Nāḷandā in a mango grove he was approached by Asibandhakaputta, the head man of his village and a disciple of the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta. After exchanging greetings, the Blessed One asked, “how does your teacher explain the cosmic order?”

“Well sir”, replied Asibandhakaputta “he teaches that anyone at all who takes life, takes what is not given, indulges in sexual misconduct, or tell lies, is bound for a state of misery, bound for hell. Whatever state one is habitually in will determine one’s rebirth”.

“Well in that case, Asibandhakaputta, no one will ever be born in a state of misery or go to hell. Think about it: which is more frequent, how much of the time is one, for instance, taking life? A much greater time spent not taking life, isn’t it?”

“I see what you mean, sir”.

“In which case because they spend more time not taking life, they will not have a bad rebirth.”

“Imagine Asibandhakaputta that someone who had confidence in his teacher held this view. Haven’t we all at some time acted unskilfully and broken a precept? A person with that belief who breaks a precept will believe that they are bound for misery and hell, and holding to that view will be hellish.”

“Now imagine that a fully Awakened Buddha comes along to teach. He criticises and censures the taking of life and so on. He says: don’t do it! If someone has faith in the Blessed One they reflect on their conduct, and acknowledge that at times they have acted unskilfully. They know that this was not good or proper, and although they regret it, they know that evil deeds in the past cannot be undone. This reflection will help them to restrain themselves in the future and keep the precepts. He will abandon, and abstain from: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, covetousness, illwill, and, wrong views.”

“Then, purified in this manner, the disciple of the Noble One will practice the Brahmavihara meditations. Pervading the entire world in all directions with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, vast, exalted, and measureless, without hostility or illwill. Just as a strong conch blower can make his note heard in the four quarters when the liberation of the heart by the Brahmaviharas is developed and cultivated any action in the sensuous sphere does not remain or persist.”

“Excellent, Sir”, exclaimed Asibandhakaputta. “Please accept me as a lay follower from now on.”

The sutta feels a bit like a Socratic dialogue. The Buddha begins by asking what Asibandhakaputta's teacher says about the dhamma (which I am reading here as 'cosmic order' on the basis of the context, and on historical grounds), then points out the fallacy, and substitutes his own view. I'm pretty sure that what Asibandhakaputta describes is not a fair representation of the Jain Dharma, although it does resemble it.

My two main points are suggested by my title. The Buddhist position, as represented by this text, is that it does matter what we believe in. If we believe like Asibandhakaputta does originally that the slightest unskilfulness means we are going to hell, then most likely we will end up living in hell. I follow Chögyam Trungpa in taking this kind of statement as a psychological metaphor: believing that one is inevitably destined for hell is hellish.

I have already mentioned in a previous post that the literal meaning of Brahmavihara is dwelling with God. The Buddha took the goal of Brahminical religious life at the time and used it as a metaphor. By dwelling with unbounded, vast and measureless loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, one is effectively in heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this. In fact this is also the liberation of the heart (cetto-vimutti), or the goal of the Buddhist religious life as well.

Believe yourself destined for hell, and you will be; believe yourself destined for heaven and you will be.

The Buddha calls for a rational approach to ethical precepts. We cannot be absolutely pure of conduct until Awakening. Reflecting on our conduct can give us the motivation to make ethical progress. It is the remorse born of reflecting that makes us want to do better in the future. Although it is tacit in this particular sutta what we reflect on is: cause in the form of our motivations; and effect in the form of the consequences of our actions. Although the focus here is on unskilfulness there is no reason not to reflect on positive results coming from positive intentions, indeed I would say it is a necessary test of the theory.

The implication in this sutta is that we practice ethics, which I will gloss here as 'acting as though we had no greed, hatred and delusion', in order to more fully express loving kindness and the rest. We practice loving kindness and the rest in order to actually liberate our consciousness from what afflicts it: that is greed, hatred, and delusion.

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.