Showing posts with label Niyamas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Niyamas. Show all posts

04 April 2014

Experience and Free Will in Early Buddhism

The Four Humours
image via Musings on the 18th C
In a recent exchange in comments on Dhīvan's blog, Two Meanings of Karma, he drew my attention to the Sīvaka Sutta. This sutta says that kamma is only one of eight causes of experience and introduces the term pubbe-kata-hetu "caused by former actions", which is discussed below. Related suttas help to flesh out what is meant by the term and place important limits on the doctrine of karma.

The early Buddhists were critical of the view that everything we experience is a result of past actions because it is a form of determinism that eliminates meaningful moral choices. As such this teaching touches on the subject so dear to Western moral philosophers, i.e. free will. I begin with my translation of the Sīvaka Sutta and a discussion of the main terms and ideas and then contrast it with the Titthāyatanādi Sutta (AN 3.61) with passing reference to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101).

Sīvaka Sutta SN 36.21 (iv.230)
One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir in the Squirrel Sanctuary Bamboo Grove. Then the ascetic Moḷiya-Sīvako approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. When they have exchanged pleasentaries he sat to one side. And sitting on one side he asked:
Mr Gotama, what would you say to the toilers and priests whose ideology is "whatever a person experiences (paṭisamvedeti), whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, is all caused by past actions (pubbekatahetu)"?
[The Bhagavan replied], Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of bile (pitta); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of phlegm (semha)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of winds (vāta)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from interactions of the humours (sannipātika)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by changes in the season (utu-pariṇāma)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by adverse circumstances (visama-parihāra)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from physical injury (opakkamikānipi)...  
Sīvaka, some experiences are also produced by the ripening of actions (kammavipāka); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
That said, Moḷiya Sāika said this to the Bhagavan: "Awesome, Mr Gotama, that's awesome. Please remember me as an upāsaka who has gone for refuge for life. 
Bile, phlegm, and wind.
The humours, and the seasons,
Adversity, injury,
And ripening of actions as eighth.

Comments on Sīvaka Sutta

Firstly for enthusiasts of the punctuation problem related to the standard Buddhist sutta opening "evaṃ mayā sutaṃ..." note the opening of this sutta "One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir" (Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā rājagahe viharati). If we care about such things this shows that "evaṃ mayā sutam" is one syntactic unit and "ekaṃ samayam... viharati" is another. In fact to my mind this is the obvious way to read the Pāḷi. A qualifier like ekaṃ samayaṃ is far more likely to appear before a verb or participle than after it. Reading ekaṃ samayaṃ as going with sutaṃ looks like special pleading. If we were going to punctuate evaṃ mayā sutaṃ ekaṃ samayaṃ... we'd mark a new clause with a punctuation mark after sutaṃ. Which is to say that it is not:
"Thus I heard at one time, the Buddha was staying in Rajgir";
"Thus I heard, at one the Buddha was staying in Rajgir".
Secondly the name Moḷiya-Sīvaka is quite interesting. In How Buddhism Began (p.135-164; esp. 151-4) Richard Gombrich proposed that we take Aṅgulimala to be a Śaiva doing extreme antinomian practices. Now the name Sīvaka is probably from siva 'auspicious, fortunate' with the suffix -ka (causing the lengthening of the initial vowel) and thus on face value means 'one who is auspicious'. In which case the name would be synonymous with svāstika. The Pāli is equivalent to Sanskrit śivawhich is also the name of a god: Śiva. Pāli sīvaka might well be Sanskrit śaivaka, "one who belongs to Śiva". Thus we might read Moḷiya-Sīvaka as 'a top-knotted Śiva devotee'. The Dictionary of Pāli Names has nothing to settle it either way, though the name is not common: in addition to our Sīvaka we find just one yakkha (DN iii.205; SN i.211); one physician who was Ānanda in a previous life (J iv.412); and two theras (Thag vs.14 & vss.183-4), one of whom lives in Rajgir

"Experiences" (present participle, not nominal plural) translates paṭisaṃvedeti. Here what one experiences is obviously vedanā and is characterised (as vedanā always is) as sukha, dukkha, or adukkhamasukha. Both paṭisaṃvedeti and vedanā come from the root √vid 'to know'. From this root we also get veda 'the knowledge'; vedanā 'the known', i.e. what becomes known to us, what we actually experience. Also in this passage: vedayita 'felt, experienced'; in the plural 'experiences'; such events are veditabba is 'to be known; knowable'. This cluster of terms is part of what makes "feelings" an unsatisfactory translation of vedanā. What we are talking about is that which we become aware of due to the activity of all our senses, including the mind. "Feelings" is far too narrow. 

Pubbekatahetu is a three-part compound: hetu = cause, kata = past participle of √kṛ 'to do, to make' and pubbe 'before, formerly'. The compound is a bahuvrīhi meaning 'whose cause is what was done before'. There is a related term pubbekatakāraṇa which we find in a commentarial passage on AN 3.61 where it is also glossed as "Experiencing with actions formerly performed as the only condition" (pubbekatakammapaccayeneva paṭisaṃvedeti). 

Visama-parihāra is an odd word. Bodhi translates 'careless behaviour', Thanissaro "adverse behavior", though PED suggests 'being attacked by adversities'. Parihāra is from pari√hṛ 'to attend, shelter, protect; carry about; move around; conceal; set out, take up, propose'. PED takes it to mean 'surrounding' in the figurative sense. Visama is literally 'uneven, unequal, unharmonious'. Figuratively in a moral sense, 'lawless, wrong'; and 'odd, peculiar.' Buddhaghosa glosses: "Produced by adverse circumstances" means carrying a heavy load, pounding cement etc, or snakes, mosquitoes or falling in a pit, etc for one wandering at the wrong time. "Visamaparihārajānīti mahābhāravahanasudhākoṭṭanādito vā avelāya carantassa sappaḍaṃsakūpapātādito vā visamaparihārato jātāni." (SA iii.81) Thanks to Dhīvan for helping me with this passage. I think his translation of visama-parihāra as 'adverse circumstances' is better than either Bodhi or Thanissaro and I have adopted it.

The main point is that the view that everything we experience is a result of past karma is in fact wrong (micchā). I've pointed this out before and drawn attention to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101) as another text which refutes this view. There it is attributed to Nigaṇṭhas who we usually take to be the Jains.

Titthāyatanādi Sutta

The idea of pubbekatahetu is also criticised in the Titthāyatanādi Sutta AN 3.61 (i.173) where it is one of three sectarian heresies (tīṇimāni titthāyatanāni). Faced with such a claim as "everything that one experiences is due to past actions" the Buddha questions his opponent about the reasons for unethical behaviour (the dasa kusala-kammapatha; known in the Triratna Order as that "the ten precepts").

In some sense this is a question of free will. The idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a form of determinism. The Buddha's critique points out that if we accept a form of determinism then we have no motivation in regard to moral moral choices in the present, and thus the possibility of liberation is lost.
Pubbekataṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sārato paccāgacchataṃ na hoti chando vā vāyāmo vā idaṃ vā karaṇīyaṃ idaṃ vā akaraṇīyanti. Iti karaṇīyākaraṇīye kho pana saccato thetato anupalabbhiyamāne muṭṭhassatīnaṃ anārakkhānaṃ viharataṃ na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo
However, bhikkus, for those falling back on former action (pubbekata) as the essence it is not a motivation for, not an effort towards, distinguishing between right and wrong. As a result of right and wrong not being truly and reliably ascertained, there is  dwelling forgetfully and vulnerably. [Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist.
Of the three other translations I consulted (Bodhi, Thanissaro, and Piya Tan) I disagree with all of them as to how to render the last sentence. All translate samaṇavādo in the sense of 'call oneself a samaṇa'.

Samaṇa-vāda is a nominal compound in the nominative. PED sv. vāda has "2. what is said, reputation, attribute, characteristic." PED cites Sn 859 for this reading, and one Jātaka reference. The final pāda of Sn 859 reads tasmā vādesu nejati. The Niddesa glosses vādesu here as ‘criticisms, blame, reproaches, not getting any renown, not being praised’. Though the SnA has "On that account he is not cowed because of criticisms" (taṃ kāraṇā nindāvacanesu na kampati) and K R Norman seems to follow this interpretation in his translation : "therefore he is not agitated in [the midst of] their accusations". (p 107 & 338-9). But the this also fits with the context. It seems to me that PED is probably correct to include this second sense of vāda in SnA, since that is how the commentator understood it, but wrong to attribute it to Sn. It's a commentarial usage not a sutta usage. As far as I can see there is no parallel usage in Sanskrit.

I had some discussion with Dhīvan on this and he pointed out: "Looking at the comm., it’s clear that the translators are following what it says but putting it into clearer English.
na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo: for you beings or other beings thinking, ‘I am an ascetic’, individually the reasonable characteristic of an ascetic isn’t, doesn’t succeed. For though there are ascetics whose reason is only past action, also there are non-ascetics whose reason is only past action. ‘Reasonable’ (sakāraṇa) means having a reason. (AA ii.272)
So Buddhaghosa’s argument is that the ascetics who claim that what is experienced is caused by past action are not really ascetics because non-ascetics also believe this, it’s not a right view that will get you anywhere, so it’s hardly a good view for a so-called ascetic.
Thus we can see where the other translations are coming from. My feeling, however, is that we should always make a strenuous effort to translate the text and at the very least include it as a footnote, before adopting the commentarial gloss. Buddhaghosa's view is not that of early Buddhism, but that of 5th century Theravāda scholasticism. Sometimes it's helpful and sometimes not. Here I disagree with him. His reading is one that requires us to treat rather too many words as meaning something other than their obvious meaning.

Na hoti samaṇavādo would be an entirely straight forward sentence meaning, 'It is not the doctrine of a samaṇa' [with an emphasis by putting the verb first]. Sahadhammiko is in the same case as, and thus goes with, samaṇavādo. Piya Tan says it is an adverb 'with justice' and Bodhi also translates as an adverb, 'legitimately'. This appears to be based on the commentarial gloss: sakāraṇa (above). However as an adverb it ought to be in the accusative, not the nominative. By contrast paccattaṃ is a neuter accusative used adverbially (individually). So, sahadhammiko simply cannot be an adverb, it can only be in apposition with samaṇavādo. The commentarial gloss is mistaken and misleads those who follow it. Here I take sahadhammiko in the obvious (and dictionary) meaning of 'one who shares a dhamma' or a 'co-religionist', i.e. from our point of view, another Buddhist. And the idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a not the doctrine of a samaṇa who is Buddhist. Indeed, as above, it is the doctrine of a samaṇa who is a follower of Nigaṇṭha Nāgaputta, which is to say, a Jain. So sahadhammiko samaṇavādo must mean 'the samaṇa doctrine which is co-religionist' (as I understand it sahadhammiko specifically qualifies vādo). In more elegant English, "the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

One of the problems here is the switch from plural to singular. Bodhi, for example, translates as though the whole as plural. But I think in "na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo" we have a completely separate sentence in the singular with an implied 'it' as agent. And the obvious candidate for 'it' is pubbekata 'former action'. Thus the sentence means "[Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

The problem here then, is saying, as the Jains do, that experience is based on former actions alone. Notwithstanding this, as I pointed out in my 2009 essay, many Tibetans insist on a pubbekatahetu doctrine. For example Tai Situpa has said :
"Now, this way, everything is karma. Only one thing that is not karma that is the Buddha nature and the enlightenment."
Or Ringu Tulku Rinpoche cited on the Rigpa Wiki:
Strictly speaking, therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, you cannot say that there is anything in our ordinary experience that is not somehow a result of our karma.
These same teachers argue that their view is not deterministic and that a particular calamity cannot be viewed as a punishment for some particular act. However, the Dalai Lama, for example (and I have heard Robina Courtin of the FPMT say the same), believes that the Chinese invasion of Tibet was because the present occupants of Tibet had accumulated bad karma in past lives (See this personal account of a discussion the DL for example).

I happen to think that the early Buddhist view is more coherent and less a result of blind faith in a supernatural force, but the really interesting thing is that once again we see that the metaphysics of a basic Buddhist doctrine changed. I say once again because I have already written about another way that karma changes from being inevitable, if mitigable, to being entirely avoidable through the use of mantras. Over the centuries the doctrine of karma has been modified to suit the needs of Buddhists. Perhaps the two changes are related. After all a hardening of views towards everything being a result of karma would probably make the ability to avoid the consequences of karma seem more attractive. Perhaps the change to everything being the result of karma required a let out so that it was not absolutely deterministic?

Niyama & Naturalism.

The commentarial teaching of the "fivefold restriction" (pañcavidha niyama) is sometimes cited as another example of how karma is not the only type of causation in our lives. This is mainly due to a modernist interpretation promulgated by Ledi Sayadaw and Mrs Rhys Davids in the 1930s, and Sangharakshita's development of their ideas in the 1960s and 2010s. (For the history of the idea see Dhīvan's essays and published article).

In Pāli, we don't have "five niyamas" but one fivefold niyama which is five applications of one principle of conditionality. The doctrine seems to aim at naturalising Buddhists ideas about three subjective or supernatural processes: cognition (citta); the functioning of karma; and the miracles associated with a buddha (dhamma-niyama). This done by likening them to observable processes in nature. So we have bījaniyama which describes rice seeds becoming rice plants and producing rice grains; and utuniyama, the fact that trees flower and fruit together in the appropriate season. These are limitations or restrictions (niyama) on how natural events unfold that can be observed by everyone in nature and they form the model of understanding unseen processes.

To some extent the Buddhist model of cognition is a result of introspection by yogis, but we can only ever observe our own cognitive process and never someone else's (at least this limitation clearly applies in Iron Age India). However Buddhists felt confident in providing a generalised description of cognition all the same. Similarly the process of karma is unseen and supernatural - it operates behind the scenes and cannot be understood in it's specifics. Karma, the idea that good and evil deeds have appropriate consequences for the appropriate person, is an article of faith. The various miracles accompanying the life history of a Buddha are also supernatural and by the time the niyama doctrine is composed they occurred centuries in the past.

The argument is that the limitations on the natural, seen processes of seeds and seasons, apply also to the unseen and supernatural. Clearly the analogy of karma with the process of planting seeds and reaping grain was one that appealed to the Indian mind, because a more literal version of this same analogy became the main Mahāyāna view of karma. The seeds were even provided with a storage pit in the from of the alayavijñāna.

The point about karma here is not that it is only one of many types of conditionality, but another example of the one type. It is a "natural" process characterised by inevitability, by results which are appropriate to the cause, and by ripening in due season.The idea that not everything is a result of karma is fine. As above it is definitely part of the early Buddhist view on karma. It's just that this is not the point of the niyama.


So the basic Buddhist teaching is that experiences are not all dictated by karma. A variety of causes and conditions including health, seasonal changes, and just plain luck can be invoked. The view that everything we experience being the result of karma is specifically criticised as deterministic. Such a view leaves us unable to make moral choices which is why early Buddhism rejects it. Buddhist soteriology requires that we have a measure of freedom to choose between right and wrong. However, according to this basic teaching, karma does determine which realm we will be born in. And one of the characteristics of the manussaloka or human realm, is that humans have sense objects, sense organs, and the potential for sense consciousness. Thus as human beings we experience vedanā every moment of our waking lives. And how we respond to vedanā is karma.


See also previous essays:
See also 'Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will.' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. [This article, along with its predecessors, explores various attempts to define Buddhist morality as in/compatible with Western ideas of free will. On the whole I think the attempt tells us much more about Western Philosophy and its preoccupations that it does about Buddhism.]

Dhīvan's Essays on Karma

Norman, K R. (2006) The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta). PTS.

14 February 2014

Niyama in the Sāṅkhyakārikā and Buddhaghosa's Commentaries.

Rice Plant
via Wikimedia
This essay will briefly outline some ideas from the Sāṅkhyakārikā, the oldest extant Sāṅkhya text, and compare this with ideas expressed by Buddhaghosa in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī,  and his Atthasālinī a commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an Abhidhamma text. My translations of both of these texts can be found in Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma. We've seen that the word niyama means 'restriction' in śāstric Sanskrit (see Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya) and here I will reinforce this by showing how the Sāṅkhyakārikā uses the word, with a few notes on how this was taken up in the Yogasūtras attributed to Patañjali. In addition I will note certain similarities between the Sāṅkhya notion of causality and the way that Buddhaghosa uses the word niyama to highlight restrictions on the processes of causality.

The Sāṅkhyakārikā  (SK) is a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. In Indian literature sūtra style generally means it is aphoristic, terse, and generally requiring a good deal of unpacking. It is partly this general meaning of the word that makes scholars consider the Buddhist use of sūtra to translation Pāli sutta to be a hyper-Sanskritisation for sukta. In any case the SK outlines the darśana or philosophy of the Sāṅkhya school of Indian thought. It is non-Vedic (indeed it is critical of the Vedas) and concerned with soteriology. The basic Sāṅkhya view was adapted by Yoga schools (they added Īśvara or god to this originally nāstika darśana for example).

The characteristic idea of Sāṅkhya is a doctrine known as satkārya which states that the product of causation already exists in the cause. The Sāṅkhya world is analysed into a hierarchy of 24 elements or tattvas which are produced when unmanifest nature is disrupted by puruṣa (literally 'man' but here meaning something like 'soul'). What results is the manifest world (vyaktam). The 24 elements result from the interactions of three qualities: sattva 'purity', rajas 'passion', and tamas 'darkness'. Kārikā 12 of the SK gives us an outline of the three guṇas that uses the word niyama.

Here the three guṇas or qualities are each said to have a particular essence (ātmaka) and a purpose (artha).
prītyapṛitiviṣādātmakāḥ prakāśapravṛttiniyamārthāḥ |
anyo’anyābhibhavāśrayajananamithunavṛttiyaśca gunāḥ ||12||
The guṇas have the essence of pleasure, pain, and apathy; and the purpose of illumination, activity, and restriction;
And their functions with respect to each other are suppressing, supporting, producing, and forming pairs.
In particular the guṇa tamas or darkness has the purpose of niyama or restriction. Kārikā 13 adds that tamas is heavy (guru) and enveloping or enclosing (varaṇaka). The weight and restriction of tamas is implicitly contrasted in kārikā 12 with the pravṛtti 'activity, energy, restlessness' of rajas. In the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, which draw on Sāṅkhya thought, niyama takes on an applied meaning of a vow to be observed. Here I want to focus on how Īśvarakṛṣṇa uses niyama alongside adjectives like "heavy" and "enveloping". Incidentally one of the more popular commentaries on SK, by Gaudapada, comments here that "Tamas is adapted to restrain, i.e. is competent at fixation." (niyamārthaṃ tamaḥ sthitau samartham ity artha). Here sthiti 'fixing, stopping, halting' (from √sthā 'to stand, to remain') is offered as a word with a similar sense (not quite a synonym): that which restricts the movement of X, causes X to stand still or be fixed. And this is the role of tamas which helps us to zero in on how the word niyama is used in śāstric Sanskrit.

This way of thinking may well have influenced Buddhaghosa when he composed the fivefold niyama not just in the sense of the word itself. Buddhaghosa seems to have some of the same concerns over the limitations of causality that we see in SK 9.
asad akaraṇād upādānagrahaṇāt sarvasambhavābhāvāt;
śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt kāraṇabhāvāc ca sat kāryam. ||9||
Because the non-existent cannot be made, because of the grasping of the material basis, and because not all possibilities exist;
Because the making is possible [only] of what is capable [to be made]; and because of existence in a cause, the product exists. 
This is the fundamental statement of the Sāṅkhya idea of causality, satkāryavāda, i.e. that the effects already exist in the cause. No causation ex nihilo is possible, a substrate (upādāna) is necessary, things cannot arise haphazardly, things can only be produced by what is capable of producing them. Whether these reasons necessitate satkāryavāda is moot, but these are the supporting arguments given in SK. 

How does this relate to Buddhaghosa? SK says sarvasambhavābhāvāt "because not all possibilities exist" which means that things cannot arise haphazardly; also śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt "because the making is possible [only] of what [the cause] is capable of" which means that a cause is only capable of producing that which it is capable of producing. The same restrictions apply in Buddhaghosa's schema of conditionality, which insists on a non-random and more-or-less inevitable relationship between cause and effect. For Buddhaghosa this restriction in a non-random process has the flavour of inevitability.

In his use of the word niyama, Buddhaghosa was most at pains to emphasise the inevitability of karmic retribution. The inevitable production of vedanā by karma is mirrored in the natural processes of plants coming to fruition and the arrival of the monsoon rains in season. For Buddhaghosa, the production of cognitions from sense contact was a perfectly analogous process. In his commentarial texts which employ the fivefold niyama, Buddhaghosa spends most time illuminating the process of karma and insisting on the inevitability of it. This is the focus of his use of the concept of niyama, it is what the commentaries insist on. The restriction on karma is that the fruits of actions must inevitably ripen. Later commentators using the fivefold niyama schema focus more on the production of cognitions. 

We can see then that restriction and inevitability are two sides of the same coin. If a process can only unfold in a restricted way, then there is a certain inevitability to it. If one plants a rice seed then the restriction on cause and effect says that one a rice plant can grow from it. In other words it is inevitable that a rice plant comes from a rice seed. Buddhaghosa calls this bījaniyama - the restriction on seeds, or the inevitability of seeds. Of course elsewhere in the Buddhist world they began to treat actions as more literally creating seeds that are held in a receptacle (ālaya) in some part of the mind (vijñāna), but that is another story. 

Buddhaghosa adds that the miracles accompanying the main events of the life of a Buddha are said to be of the same type of inevitability as these natural processes (dhammatā). They are things that inevitably happen when a Buddha is conceived, born, becomes awakened and dies. This he calls dhammaniyama

So when Buddhaghosa reads: imasmin sati idaṃ hoti he does not see this an optional or contingent on any other fact. For Buddhaghosa there is a restriction on the way causation happens: when the condition is present (imasmin sati) then it is inevitable (niyama) that the conditioned must exist (idam hoti). This is particularly so in the case of the restriction on karma (kammaniyama). Having acted the results of the act follow one unerringly. To illustrate this point in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī Buddhaghosa uses the Dhammapada verse 127.
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action.
Furthermore in the Atthasālinī niyama passage he expands on this using the commentarial back story to this same verse. In this text about one half is given over to the discussion of restrictions on karma, about one quarter to the restrictions on the processes of the mind, and one quarter to the rest. In both cases dhammaniyama solely refers to the miraculous events during the life of a Buddha.

At the very least, Īśvarakṛṣṇa, the author of the Sāṅkhyakārikā, and Buddhaghosa, author of the pañcavidha niyama, shared an interest in the limitations or restrictions which were observed in relation to causation. Neither man accepted that causation is random or completely unpredictable. On the contrary both see the universe as having an order to it that places limitations on how change occurs. Buddhaghosa's notion of utuniyama and bījaniyama would have been obvious to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. We too can see that if we plant rice we must get a rice plant and not an oak tree; and that the monsoon does not come at random, but at roughly the same time each year. The use of such analogies is widespread in Indian literature.

So if the universe has an order, and that order imposes restrictions on the functioning of causation, then is it not acceptable to speak of "orders of conditionality"? I still think this is not the case. Primarily because Buddhaghosa is at pains to describe a single type of restriction than manifests in five different ways. This is why Buddhaghosa, unlike modern exegetes, uses the singular "fivefold niyama" and not the plural "five niyamas". This is in contrast to the Yogasūtras of Patañjali (though the attribution is disputed and the date uncertain) which speak of pañca niyamāḥ 'five niyamas'. (Sūtra 32). In the YS niyama is often translated as 'observance', but it means 'a restriction on behaviour'. The five restrictions are: cleanliness (śauca), contentment (santoṣa), austerity (tapas), study (svādhyāya), and devotion (praṇidhāna).

So, there are not five restrictions on causality, but only one. This one restriction can be observed in five different areas of experience (if we count the supernatural aspects of dhamma-niyama as experiential, which is moot). Because of this there is in fact no implied hierarchy in Buddhaghosa's fivefold schema and the number five is arbitrary. The schema is neither systematic nor comprehensive. Though Buddhaghosa himself placed differing emphasis on each of the five aspects, we can see that this emphasis was purely rhetorical. Buddhaghosa was addressing a particular set of problems when he employed this schema, not speculating about causation more generally. Later Pāli commentaries placed a different emphasis.

Of the five aspects of restricted causation the seed (bīja) and seasonal (utu) restrictions are obvious to anyone (the same restrictions occur to Īśvarakṛṣṇa). The action (karma) and mental (citta) restrictions are obvious enough to a person who is well versed in the metaphysics of karma and rebirth, and in the Buddhist account of cognition. Or perhaps one might argue that they become obvious to anyone willing to examine their experience using Buddhist practices. The dharmic restriction is just something we have to take Buddhaghosa's word for. It is a supernatural belief, and thus not amenable to empirical study. Though it might make an interesting foil to these people who pop up from time to time claiming to be "the second Buddha."* If the "10,000 world system" did not shake when you were born, then you are not a Buddha, because this is what inevitably happens. And maybe that was Buddhaghosa's point too?


* As a little aside, Liverpuddlian musical comedian Mitch Benn is currently touring a show called Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle. An edited version is on BBC iPlayer [UK only] until 21 Feb. He counted up all the "5th Beatle" candidates and got to 36. Then added himself. I wonder how many "second Buddhas" there might have been so far? 

31 January 2014

Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya

The term dhamma-niyama (Sanskrit Dharma-niyama) has taken on increased significance in the Triratna movement over the last few years since Saṃgharakṣita, through Dharmacārī Subhūti, informally published his more recent thoughts on the five niyamas (pañcavidha niyama) as an intellectual framework for understanding Buddhist practice and doctrine (See Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma July 2010).

In our discourse one now frequently hears reference to "the dhamma-niyama" in the place that used to be occupied by phrases drawn from German Idealism, such as "the Transcendental" and "the Absolute". Saṃgharakṣita himself has backed away from use of these phrases and suggests that his use of them was misunderstood. In which case it seems that in reifying the term dhamma-niyama (indicated by the use of the definite article) we have once again misunderstood him.

Just before Saṃgharakṣita published his new ideas on the niyamas, however, a side discussion was started up in the order by my friend and colleague Dharmacārī Dhīvan. Dhīvan circulated a long essay "Sangharakshita, the Five Niyamas and the Problem of Karma" (2009), which argued that Saṃgharakṣita's use of the term niyama was in fact an innovation and not based, as was claimed, on a traditional interpretation. He showed how the idea of the niyamas developed from the 5th century commentarial literature where it first occurred, through the interpretative lenses of Ledi Sayadaw and particularly C. A. F. Rhys Davids. The latter was an influence on Saṃgharakṣita in many ways. Dhīvan argued that though Saṃgharakṣita was largely drawing on Rhys Davids, his doctrinal innovation was both justified and necessary, and indeed successful, in responding to the concerns of his followers. The niyamas teaching is authentically Dharmic, just not traditional. One of the main differences of opinion was the meaning of the word niyama.
"However, according to my understanding of the Pāli language and the Theravādin commentarial tradition, the word niyama does not mean what Sangharakshita or Subhuti take it to mean, and Sangharakshita’s list of five niyamas is a creative re-interpretation of Mrs Rhys-Davids’ creative mis-interpretation of what the commentators say." Dhīvan 2013.
Saṃgharakṣita, following Sayadaw and/or Rhys Davids takes niyama to mean 'order of conditionality'. The set of five niyamas are said to outline five "orders of conditionality" i.e. five hierarchical domains in which conditionality operates. But niyama simply does not and cannot mean 'order', it means 'limit, restriction, inevitability'.

I joined this discussion in 2012 when I began circulating my samizdat translation of all of the Pali texts that mention niyama, particularly the previous untranslated commentarial literature on the pañcavidham niyamam or fivefold niyama. See also my blog: The Fivefold Niyama. In producing these translations it became clear that Dhīvan's comments regarding the relation to the tradition were spot on. I believe he and I are still the only two members of our Order to have read the source texts in Pāli (and only a handful of others would even be capable). My translations made most of the texts available in English for the first time, save one which was translated by Sayadaw. In The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order Sayadaw translates in such a way as to support his modern reinterpretation of the niyamas and often with no reference to the actual Pāli usage. Problems with Sayadaw's translation are dealt with in my translation notes and in Dhīvan's essay and article (see bibliography). Unfortunately Subhūti is uncritical of Sayadaw - referring to this work as "the translation of the Atthasālinī" (p.15). Far from being "the" translation, it is "a" translation and a highly idiosyncratic, not to say tendentious, translation.

While the word niyama (or niyāma, the two spellings are interchangeable in Pāli despite deriving differently) occurs in sutta texts it is not until the 5th century CE that Buddhaghosa takes up the word to produce the five categories of restriction on change. The translation that follows shows how the word dharma-niyama was used in Classical Sanskrit by the grammarian Patañjali commenting on Pāṇini's descriptive grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī. The Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya or Major Commentary on Grammar is usually dated to ca. 150 BCE, though this date is somewhat uncertain. In the passage concerned Patañjali is in fact commenting on some glosses on the Aṣṭādhyāyī found in the Vārttika by Kātyāyana. This whole section from the introduction to the Mahābhāṣya concerns the relationship between meaning (artha) and words (śabda).

This translation is really intended for my own use and ought to be treated with some suspicion, and at least read in conjunction with the published translation by Joshi and Roodbergen. My translation relies on the published translation and comments made during our class reading of the text. It must be emphasised that this is my translation and all errors and infelicities are due to my limitations.

  • Numbers in square brackets refer to the page numbers of the Sanskrit edition by Keilhorn (3rd ed. 1962).
  • Numbers in curly brackets refer to section and page numbers in the translation by Joshi & Roodbergen.
  • Passages in bold are Patñjali's citations from the Vārttika by Kātyāyana.

Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya, Paspaśāhnika (p.7-8)
[7] {80} But how is it known that the connection between a meaning and a word is established (siddha)?
From the world (lokataḥ) [i.e. from people in the world].
{81: 198} In the world, having acquired [in the mind] a thing meant (artha) the words (śabdān) are uttered. They make no effort in accomplishing this. However, an effort is required to accomplish a thing that needs to be made. For example: wanting to do a job with [or requiring] a pot, he goes to the house of a potter as says “Make a pot (kuru ghaṭaṃ), I require it for a job” . On the contrary one who will be using words doesn't go to the house of a grammarian and say [8] “Make words, I will utter them.” Right away having acquired the thing meant, he utters the words.
{82} If, then, the world is an authority (pramāṇa) in this [matter] what is the use of grammar (śāstra).
Where the use of a word is connected to the meaning from the world [as authority] grammar provides a restriction for the sake of religious merit (dharmaniyama).
{83: 200} Where the use of a word is connected to the meaning from the world [as authority] grammar provides a restriction for the sake of religious merit. What is dharma-niyama? It is a restriction for Dharma (dharmāya niyamaḥ); or, a restriction for the purpose of Dharma (dharmārthaḥ vā niyamaḥ); or a restriction aiming at Dharma (dharmaprayojanaḥ vā niyamaḥ)
Just as [in the case of] secular and Vedic [precepts].
{84: 202} The southerners have preference for taddhita compounds. So they say ‘laukikeṣu’ and ‘vaidikeṣu’ [in what is related to the world and what is related to the Vedas] instead of ‘loke’ and ‘vede’ [in the world and in the Vedas].
Or rather, the meaning of the taddhita is appropriate, i.e. just as the precepts (kṛtānta) found in secular and Vedic texts. So far as the world is concerned it is said “a domestic rooster is not to be eaten; a domestic pig is not to be eaten.” And that which is to be eaten is taken for the purpose of removing hunger. And one is also able to remove hunger by eating dog meat. In this case a restriction (niyama) is made: this is to be eaten; this is not to be eaten.
In the same way there is desire for women because of sexual arousal. And satisfaction of sexual arousal may be gained equally from available and unavailable [women]. In this case a restriction is made: she is available; she is unavailable.
{85: 207} Indeed in the Vedas also it is said “a Brahmin takes the vow (vrata) of milk (payo), a king the vow of gruel (yavāgū) and the merchant the vow of curds (āmikṣā)” And that “vow” is taken for the purpose of taking food (abhyavahāra). It is possible to take a rice (śāli) or meat (māṃsa) vow etc, as well. In this case a restriction is made.
Similarly it is said “The sacrificial post (yūpa) should be made of bilva or khādira wood. “Sacrificial post” is taken to mean what the [sacrificial] animal is tied to. And by this an animal might be tied to any bit of timber, erected or not erected. In this case a restriction is made.
Similarly the potsherds (kapālāni) are placed by the fire and the mantra is chanted “bhṛgūṇām aṅgirasām gharmasya tapasā tapyadhvam” [be heated by the heat of Bhṛgu and Aṅgirasa]. Even without the mantra, fire whose action is to burn would heat those potsherds. In this case a restriction is made: “done this way it leads to bliss (abhyudaya) [i.e. to heaven].”

{86:208} Thus here also the understanding of meaning may equally be expressed by correct words (śabda) and incorrect words (apaśabda) a restriction for the purposes of religious merit is made. “The meaning is only to be expressed by corrects words not by incorrect words. Done this way it leads to bliss.”


Now in this text it seems most likely, according to the commentaries ancient and modern, that dharma is being used in the sense of puṇya 'religious merit'. The idea that doing things in the way constrained by the injunctions or precepts (kṛtānta) will be a "causer of bliss" (abhyudayakārin) confirms this. Artha may have the sense of 'referent' (thing referred to by a word) or 'meaning' (the definition of a word) and it's not always clear if Patañjali makes this distinction.

The audience for this text lived their lives according to many religious and secular constraints. From the text we can see that some of them make sense on face value and some of them don't. Under most circumstances it is clear, for example, who is an available sexual partner and who isn't, even in our rather wanton society. In ancient India it was probably even more obvious since a person's spouse was the only sanctioned sexual partner (though that said prostitutes also plied their trade).

It might not be so obvious why a domestic pig was not appropriate food. The precepts allows for wild pigs to be eaten. And this is partly the point. A negative precept that says 'don't eat domestic pigs' is specific. We might be tempted to take the generally corollary that everything else is OK to eat. We might for example decide that dog meat was OK. But in India, as in the modern west, there was an unspoken understanding that dog meat was not for human consumption. There is no natural reason that this is so. Dog meat is consumed in some parts of the world and is presumably no more prone to disease or no less nourishing that any other kind of meat. But we just don't eat dog, and may even feel a sense of disgust at the thought. There is an implied restriction in the background to the specific restriction.

As mentioned above, one of the points of controversy in Dhīvan's initial essays on the niyamas was over the meaning of niyama. In this text there is no doubt that it simply means 'restriction'. One might eat anything, but there are various kinds of restrictions on what one may eat. One might have sex with anyone, but in practice one has a limited choice of partners. However the specific term dharma-niyama means a restriction for the sake of religious merit. That is to say that it is an injunction whose authority stems from the Vedas and is ultimately aimed at a good rebirth or at liberation through the correct performance of religious rituals. 

Fundamentally this argument is about restrictions on what is a correct word (plain śabda) and what is an incorrect word (apaśabda). Pragmatically Patañjali has to admit that many non-standard words are in common use. He is arguing that despite the many choices of words, that some are better than others. In particular he is arguing for what we call the Classical Sanskrit forms sanctioned by Pāṇini as correct and dialectical variations as incorrect. Here he points out even though we always have many choices of how to behave, that various kinds of restrictions apply: secular or worldly restrictions (laukikā) and religious restrictions (vaidkikā) found in the Vedic texts. So too words are restricted by secular and religious usage.

This is not so different to our time and place. Most people would use a different mode of speech when having fun with their friends than they might at a job interview. For English speakers in Britain the issue of local dialect words and expressions is a common one - and at present the mood seems to be going against allowing children to use dialect at school for fear that they won't be able to distinguish different contexts as adults and might use the wrong mode of speech. Or in other words that those with dialects that differ from standard (i.e. receive pronunciation, English as it is spoken in the South East) will be socially disadvantaged.

For the Buddhist who is interested in the idea of the niyamas the import is clear. Niyama means "constraint, restriction, limitation or inevitability". It is about restricted choices, vows made, and precepts imposed. In the Pali texts it refers to the restrictions on how change occurs. Thus is cannot mean a kind of "order" or "level" of conditionality, but only a constraint on how conditionality plays out. Things change, but not randomly. Plant a rice grain and it can only grow into a rice plant (and no other kind of plant). Perform an evil action and it must inevitably ripen as a painful vedanā.

In the case of dhamma-niyama it is used by the Buddhist tradition to explain the series of miraculous events that accompany the birth of a Buddha. There is a restriction on the universe related to the life history of a Buddha. As it says in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī (DA 2.431)
"The shaking of the 10,000 world system when the bodhisatta enters his mother’s belly and other such phenomena [associated with the life story of the Buddha as told in the Mahāpadāna Sutta], this is called the inevitability of natures (dhamma-niyāma). Inevitability of natures is understood as consisting in this."
Such miracles as occur are bound to occur; they are what is required for the life story of a Buddha. I might well have translated dhamma-niyama here as "a restriction imposed by religion". In other words this is simply something that Buddhists believe, and, like the audience for Patañjali, they believe it because it is said in a sacred text. 



Dhīvan. Sangharakshita, the Five Niyamas and the Problem of Karma. 2009. (See also Dhīvan's website for some other related bits and pieces)
Dhīvan. 'The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature: an Assessment of Modern Western Interpretations of Theravāda Buddhist Doctrine.' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Volume 19, 2012
Dhīvan. 'The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order.' [Blog Post] 5 June 2013.
Jayarava. Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma (pañcavidhaṃ niyāma). 2012
Joshi, S.D. & Roodbergen, J. (Ed. Tr) Patanjali's Vyakarana-Mahabhashya. Paspasha-Ahnika. Poona, 1986. Online:
Kielhorn, F. (Ed) The Vyākarṇa-mahābhāṣya of Patañjali. 3rd Ed. rev. by K. V. Abhyankar. Vol 1. 1962.
Ledi Sayadaw. (1978). ‘ The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order,’ in The Manuals of Buddhism, trans. Barua, B.M, Rhys Davids, C.A.F., & Nyana. Bangkok: Mahamakut Press (orig. publ. 1965). Online: [includes Sayadaw's correspondence with Rhys Davids showing how her interpretation is dependent on his]
Subhūti. Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma: Sangharakshita's approach to Right View. 1st Published in Shabda. July, 2010. Online:

20 April 2012

The Fivefold Niyāma

Music of the SpheresTHIS TEXT IS ALMOST CERTAINLY one that you have never read before because it comes from the traditional Pāli commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya ascribed to Buddhaghosa (ca. 5th century CE) and as far as I know there is no published translation.

It is interesting to me, and others familiar with Sangharakshita's Dharma teaching, because it is one of the source texts for the five niyāmas, or, more correctly, the fivefold niyāma. Using this list, which is not canonical, but first appears in the commentaries (probably in this commentary), Sangharakshita has painted a picture of conditionality as multi-layered. This is particularly important because it shows how kamma is not the only form of conditionality, and that events may have causes that are nothing to do with our actions. This has become particularly important in the literalistic West, especially under the influence of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who claim, in accordance with their tradition, that everything that happens to us is a result of our actions. This is certainly not the view of the Pāli texts (as discussed in my earlier essay Is Karma Responsible for Everything?). However the lack of translations has made it difficult for people to follow up the sources, and so I offer this one as a start.

Dīgha Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā (2.431)
Commenting on Mahāpadāna Sutta (D 14; PTS D ii.12) [1]: "It is natural [2], bhikkhus, that when a bodhisatta falls [3] from his Tusita (Heaven) form, he enters his mother's belly… this is natural." [4]
BUDDHAGHOSA [5]: says: 'ayamettha dhammatā'—here entering the mothers belly is natural (dhammatā) and is called 'this nature (sabhāva [6]), this certainty (niyāma [7]).' And the five-fold certainty [8] has these names: certainty of actions (kamma-niyāma); certainty of seasons (utu-niyāma); certainty of seeds (bīja-niyāma); certainty of thoughts (citta-niyāma); and the certainty of natures (dhamma-niyāma [9]).

This, 'the giving of pleasant consequences for skilfulness, and unpleasant results for unskilfulness', this is the certainty of actions. There is an illustration. The grounds for this are in the [Dhammapada] verse:
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action. [10]
Moreover once a woman quarrelled with her husband and strangled him. Then wanting to die herself she put a noose around her neck. A certain man was sharpening a knife and saw her about to hang herself. Wanting to cut the rope, he ran up to relieve her [calling] 'don't be afraid, don't be afraid.' The rope having become a snake he froze. Frightened he ran. Shortly after the woman died. Thus the danger should be obvious. [11] 
The trees in all the provinces acquire fruit and flowers etc. all at the same time [12]; the wind blowing or not blowing; the quickness or slowness of the sun's heat; the devas sending rain or not; [13] day blossoming lotuses whithering at night; this and similar things are the certainty of seasons. [14] 
From rice seed comes only the rice fruit; from a sweet fruit comes only sweet flavour, and from a bitter fruit comes only bitter taste. This is the certainty of seeds.
From the first aspects of mind and mental events (citta-cetasikā dhammā), to the last, each is conditioned by a condition or precondition (upanissaya-paccayena). Thus that which comes forth from eye-cognition etc. [15] is immediately in agreement [with that cognition]. [16] 
The shaking of the 10,000 world system when the bodhisatta enters his mother's belly and other such phenomena [associated with the life story of the Buddha as told in the Mahāpadāna Sutta], this is called the certainty of natures (dhammaniyāma). Certainty of natures is understood as consisting in this. This was primarily said, bhikkhus, because just this meaning explains dhammatā.



[1] dhammatā, esā, bhikkhave, yadā bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkamati… Ayamettha dhammatā.
[2] Walsh "it is a rule"; or 'it is lawful'. The word dhammatā is an abstract noun from dhamma; so a first parsing suggests it means dhamma-ness. However which meaning of dhamma is being referred to. Translators and commentators agree that it is dhamma as 'nature' (i.e. having a particular nature) as when the Buddha says at his death vayadhamma saṅkhārā 'all constructs are perishable'; i.e. they are of a nature (dhamma) to decay or die (vaya). The text is saying that it is in the nature of things, the nature of the universe that the life events of the Buddha happen as they do. I have no wish to get into the theological debate that necessarily ensues from this statement, I merely wish to establish what the text says, and, following K. R. Norman's dictum, why it says that. If something is in the state of having a nature (dhamma-tā), then that nature (dhamma), is natural (dhammatā) to it. Hence we may translate ayamettha dhammatā as 'this here is natural'.
[3] Men die, but devas living in a devaloka (like Tusita) fall (cavati).
[4] The term dhammatā is then used to describe all the miraculous events of the Buddha's hagiography.
[5] Buddhaghosa is the 5th Century CE author of this commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya. He was born in Indian but worked in Sri Lanka.
[6] The word sabhāva later becomes a technical term in Mahāyāna Buddhism in its Sanskrit guise svabhāva. Here it just means 'state (of mind), nature, condition.' (PED)
[7] Niyama or niyāma the two are confused in Pāli, can be translated several ways. Obviously here it refers to something which just happens, something which always happens in the life of a Buddha, and which must happen. I focus on the last aspect here.
[8] pañca-vidha niyāmaniyāma 'certainty' is singular, and pañcavidha 'five-fold'.
[9] As we will see the term dhammaniyāma is itself defined in terms of the events described above as dhammatā.
[10] Dhammapada v.127 cited by number only in the text. This is the so-called 'law of kamma' or as here 'the certainty of actions' (see also Attwood 2008). This certainty was eroded as time went on, and eventually the Vajrasattva mantra became a way to circumvent any evil kamma, even the atekiccha: "incurable" or "unpardonable" actions (see also example A iii.146).
[11] As best as I can make out this is a magical allegorical story – the rope turns into a snake to prevent the man from saving the woman from being rescued and therefore rescued from the fate she deserves after having strangled her husband. That is to say that the results of actions are inescapable! See also note 10. above. Presumably the idea of a rope turning into a snake did not seem wholly improbable to the bhikkhu saṅgha.
[12] ekappahāreneva 'with just one blow'
[13] It is curious that modern translators often leave out the notion that it is devas who send the rain – they silently remove this supernatural cause and only allow that it rains.
[14] Sayadaw's (1978) 'caloric order' is clearly wrong in this case. What is intended is cyclic seasonal phenomena: the flowering and fruiting of trees in the same season throughout the land, winds, the heat of the sun at different times of the year, and the day night cycles. Indeed utu (Skt. ṛtu) means 'season, time' and can also refer, for example, to the menstrual cycle. I suppose one must concede that from the modern point of view the phenomena mentioned in the text are all related to the heat gradient in the earth's atmosphere caused by its movement around the sun and the tilt of its axis (which might therefore warrant the term caloric (from the Latin calor 'heat'); however the ancient Indians (even the medieval Sri Lankans) did not think in these terms in the 5th century. As I note above they see rain as being sent by devas!
[15] Meaning ear, nose, tongue, body and mind cognition.
[16] The point here seems to be the one made in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38), i.e. from whatever condition cognition arises it is named after that. The cognition that arises on condition of eye and form is eye-cognition: (yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ thena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. cakkuñca paṭicca rūpe uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇan-t-eva saṅkhaṃ gacchati - M i.259). So a contact between eye and form does not give rise to ear cognition (the formula takes no account of synaesthesia). In a sense the point here is the same as the certainty of seeds: you can't have ear cognition from eye contact.

Attwood, Jayarava. 2008. ‘Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?’ Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol. 15.

Ledi Sayadaw 1978. The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order.’ in The Manuals of Buddhism, trans. Barua, B. M., Rhys Davids, C. A. F., & Nyana. Bangkok: Magamakut Press. Online:

Subhuti. 2011. Revering and Relying upon the Dharma: Sangharakshita's approach to Right View. [A glimpse of Sangharakshita's recent thinking on the niyāmas as discussed with and recorded by Dharmacārī Subhuti.]
For more on the niyāmas in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Order see my friend Dhīvan's website.
For my work-in-progress on translating all the texts which mention the niyāmas see : The Fivefold Niyāma. [pdf]