Showing posts with label Pāli. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pāli. Show all posts

27 July 2018

Is Karma Inconceivable? You'd Better Hope Not.

A colleague recently cited the famous passage in which the Buddha seems to say you'll go mad if you try to figure out the workings of karma. I was aware of this text, since it is very often quoted by anti-intellectuals who wish me to stop talking about the details of karma. Because, of course, when you look at it in detail, karma is nonsense. However, I had never scienced the passage before and decided to do so and report back.

Reading the text, especially in the light of a partial Chinese parallel, I find the Pāli quite strange and peculiar. It doesn't say what most people take it to say, and what it does say is really rather daft.

Here is the Acinteyyasuttaṃ (AN AN 4.77 ) in Pāli alongside my rough translation. Note the Buddha is only the implied protagonist and is not named here. I present the entire sutta as recorded in the 6th Council Edition. The point about karma is in red.

Cattārimāni, bhikkhave, acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa.

Katamāni cattāri?

Buddhānaṃ, bhikkhave, buddhavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Jhāyissa, bhikkhave, jhānavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Lokacintā, bhikkhave, acinteyyā, na cintetabbā; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Imāni kho, bhikkhave, cattāri acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assā. (AN ii.80)
Bhikkhus, four things are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation.

What four?

Bhikkhus, the buddha-domain of a buddha is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The range of jhāna-domain of a meditator is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The consequence of an action (kammavipāka) is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The lokacintā is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. These four things bhikkhus are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation

The point here is that some things are being defined as acinteyya. I'm not going to look at all of them, because there seems little point. I just want to look at the word itself and how it might apply to karma-vipāka.

This is the only discourse in which the word acinteyya is used in the entire Sutta-piṭaka. Grammatically, it is a future passive participle and thus indicates something to be done, something desirable to do, something able to be done. The root is √cint, which is used for all kinds of cognitive activity, such as "thinking", "reflecting", and so on. So cinteyya would mean "something (able) to be thought about, considered, reflected upon" and with the addition of the negative prefix, acinteyya "something not to be thought about, considered, reflected upon". However, this participle is being used as an adjective: some things are being described as "not to be thought about" or "not able to be reflected on". Or some such. Many translators take it to mean the latter and substitute and English compound like "inconceivable".

So, the text is saying the consequence of action (kamma-vipāka) is something not to be thought about or reflected on. And we have to hold this alongside the idea that "actions have consequences" is often used as an English language summary of Buddhist ethics.

Sometimes translators try to tell us that it is the "exact workings" of karma, the complex processes involved that are the problem. It's all so complex and fiddly that we shouldn't worry our little heads over it. So, for example, Thanissaro translates kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo as "The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about." But this is not what the text says, so where is he getting "precise working out of the" from? It turns out not to be the commentary, which is the usual source of these kinds of divergent translations. The commentary makes a veiled reference to the Theravāda doctrine of the different times at which karma may be experienced and that's it.
Kammavipākoti diṭṭhadhammavedanīyādīnaṃ kammānaṃ vipāko (ANA 3.107)
"Consequences of actions" refers to the consequences of actions that are to be experienced during this life time, etc. [where "etc." means upapajjavedanīya "to be experienced at rebirth, and aparāpariyavedanīya "to be experienced in later births"]
I think "precise working out" is the kind of gloss that I would call a fig leaf. Something that we don't want to see is protruding and we want to cover it up. Because for a Buddhist to be told not to think about the consequence of actions is nonsensical - at some level, thinking about the consequences of our actions actually is Buddhism. So we fiddle with the translation without reference to the original text or the traditional commentary until what it says does make sense. This is putting the ideological cart before the scriptural horse.

By the way, in this translation Thanissaro uses one of his trademark bizarre neologisms—unconjecturable—for acinteyya. We can see what he is getting at. Sometimes a future passive participle will express potential: √kṛ "do" → kāranīya "that which should be done; doable". But would it mean to describe something as "conjecturable"? The language around conjecture is awkward. We can use the word as a noun, "a conjecture"; i.e., a proposition about something that is in need of evidence. But we can also use it as a verb, "Einstein conjectured that mass would bend the path of massless photons, because gravity bends space rather attracting mass". What Thanissaro means is "something about which we should not makes conjectures". Clearly karma is conjecturable in the sense that we can and should make conjectures about the consequences of our actions.

Now, we can boil down this sentiment to this statement about karma-vipāka: We should not  make conjectures about the consequences of actions, for fear of the consequences (i.e., if we do we might go mad). It is asking us to think about the consequences of thinking about the consequences! So whatever else is wrong with the sutta, it is blatantly self contradictory. And this is what passes for wisdom amongst us.

Furthermore, of course, the precise working out of the consequences of actions is a very frequent subject for conjecture or even for the confident assertion of knowledge elsewhere in this same literature. This is exactly the premise of the jātaka, for example, including the several hundred such stories in the official Jātaka collection, and the dozens more scattered throughout the Nikāyas and the Vinaya. And it is at the very heart of Buddhist ethics.

Chinese Parallel

There is a Chinese parallel, or at least a partial parallel, in the Ekottarāgama 增壹阿含經 (29.6). This version doesn’t include a warning about going mad. And kamma-vipāka is not one of the four items we are warned not to think about.

云何為四?眾生不可思議;世界不可 思議;龍國不可思議;佛國境界不可思議。 所以然者,不由此處得至滅盡涅槃。(T 2.657.a.19)
What four? The arising of people (眾生) should not be thought about; the worldly realm (世界 = lokadhātu) should not be thought about. The land of the dragon (龍國) should not be thought about, the objects of cognition in the Buddha-land (佛國境界) should not be thought about. Why is this? Because they are not conducive to cessation and extinction. (My translation).
When we talk about this text being a "parallel" what we mean is that it is a version of a text that shares some features with the Acinteyya Sutta. Here, the Chinese 不可思議 means the same as na cintetabbo. So this much is held in common. And remembering that the word is only used in one Pāḷi sutta, the use of it here definitely suggests some kind of connection.

But there the similarities end. The Chinese text doesn't mention karma and the reason for not thinking about things is more comprehensible - it doesn't go anywhere. When aiming for cessation the more things you have to think about, the longer it takes. Cessation is approached by not thinking about things. Although this contradicts what I said above at one level, it is because they are on different levels that there is no absolute contradiction. Ethics involves, amongst other things, paying attention to consequences of actions. In meditation we try to leave all such concerns behind to explore the mind in the absence of sensory stimulus. The two methods are complementary, not exclusive.

Note, not that it really matters, but I haven't been able to figure out what 龍國 means. I've given a literal translation for what it is worth. But I can't see how it would affect my argument unless it turned out to mean karma-vipāka and even then it wouldn't affect my conclusions.

Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
So this is a strange little sutta. It's quoted quite often, but apparently almost no one thinks about what it means. In other words, some Buddhists don't think about what it would mean to not think about the consequences of actions. This is partly because most people are reading fig leaf translations that opt to say something other than what the text does, so the fact that is it nonsense is obscured. Mostly the text is used in apologetics for traditional beliefs to combat people who do think about karma and come up with unanswered problems. Labelling karma-vipāka as acinteyya is the polite Buddhist way of saying "we can't explain it, so just shut the fuck up and do what you are told."

But the sutta is arguing from consequences to a conclusion about not thinking about consequences resulting in a bald-faced contradiction, which is why most translators pad it out till it says something less batshit.

Learning Pāli is empowering because it allows you to see when translators are going off piste. It is disappointing, in the sense that you realise how crap many translations are, and how much translators are interpreting for you so you don't see inconsistencies. But it is empowering to be able to think about it for yourself, I find. If one is only willing to read.

The problem with defining the outcome of action (kamma-vipāka) as unthinkable or inconceivable (acinteyya) and saying that we should not think about it (na cintetabbo) is that the basis for morality disappears. If we truly believe that the consequences of actions are unknowable then we have no basis for saying “Actions have consequences”. Our slogan should rather be “Actions may well have consequences, but we have no idea what they might be and we avoid thinking about them for fear of going mad.” Which would force us into being moral relativists, at best. In fact, most Buddhists take a decisive stand on morality because we believe that actions do have knowable consequences, and this seems to be entirely rational (and not mad or ummāda).

This idea that kamma-vipāka is acinteyya, that we should not think about the consequences of actions, seems like a classic example of an incoherent idea in Pāli that nobody ever really thinks about carefully just because it is in Pāli. Or if they do notice that the sutta cannot be taken on face value they simply add a fig leaf. The axiom is that the Pāli Canon always makes sense and therefore one is free to tweak any translation, without reference to the source text, until it does make sense.

I keep saying to my colleagues that we need to be more discerning in our use of these texts. We really do need to think about the consequences of our actions as users of religious texts.

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
—William Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice. Act 1, Scene 3.


27 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Define Words

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

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

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

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

Definitions as Speech Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Vedanā

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

07 March 2013

All Experiences Are Ephemeral

This "verse" occurs several times in the Nikāyas. It sums up a great deal in the space of just a handful of syllables. Like other celebrated verses it was no doubt composed as a short text to memorise and reflect on. It seems to be the same style of verse that we find at the end of Udāna texts, or in the Dhammapada. This particular verse occurs in two variations which I analyse below.

One version is found in two places in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (S i.6 & S i.200):
1. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti,  tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.
All experiences are ephemeral; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.

The metre is old vatta. ( . = short,  _ = long )

. _ _ _ | _ _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _

This is a fairly flexible metre of eight syllables in two lots (padas) of four syllables (a & b). In this case two lines are combined into lines of 16 syllables (four padas), with both lines ending with short-long-short-long (in fact there is an introductory line in the same metre at S i.6 that I have not included in this post). This is similar to the "epic" styles that doesn't organise lines into verses (thus this is not actually a verse, just two lines of metrical writing). Lines in this metre need not rhyme, but here the final syllable of the final padas do.

The variant is found at DN ii.257, S i.158; Ap i.64, 274, ii.385, & J 1.95 (Mahāsudassana)
1. Aniccā vata saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Ephemeral indeed are experiences; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.
Again the metre is old vatta.
_ _ _ . | . _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _
My studies of Pāli metre are cursory to date, so I cannot comment on the comparitive aspects of the two versions. However we can say that this metre is associated with the early days of Pāli composition. Vatta metre went out of fashion by the later parts of the Canon. So these lines are old compared to the rest of the Canon. (See: Pāli Prosody)

Most of the terminology in the lines is familiar, but it's worth revisiting it. It makes a useful frame work for restating the view that the Buddha was talking about experience, and shows how we can apply this hermeneutic to an unfamiliar text.

Line 1a. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā

Aniccā (Skt. anitya) means 'impermanent'. The word appears to derive from the preposition ni 'downwards, inwards'. The route to the meaning of 'constant, continuous, permanent' is not clear, but the usage is consistent. Here it is in the nominative plural and thus goes with (and is predicated of) saṅkhārā.

The difference between the two version is in this second word either: sabbe or vata. The version with sabbe may well be related to the Dhammapada verse 277, which has a similar metrical pattern:
sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā
_ _ _ _ | _ . _ _
Sabbe means 'all'; while vata is an exclamtion suggesting emphasis or certainty 'indeed, surely, certainly'. Here sabbe is declined as a pronoun in the masculine plural and vata is indeclinable.

Lastly saṅkhārā means 'contructs' (nominative plural - the 'subject' of the sentence). The etymology is sam- 'together, complete' + khāra (Skt. skāra) an action noun from √kṛ 'to make'. Literally it means 'putting together', hence 'construct'. I take this word to refer to a particular model of knowing - sense organ meets sense object in the light of sense awareness which is called phassa (Skt sparśa) 'contact'. From contact we get 'data' or 'knowns' (vedana). Vedanā is a passive past participle from the causative form of the verb √vid 'to know, to find'. Thus vedanā means 'caused to know, making known'. It is through vedanā that we known our world (loka). So saṅkhārā are what are put together for us to know, or have an experience of, the world. Or to put it another way our experience is a construct. The English word 'experience' conveys the meaning, while highlighting my way of reading the texts (my hermeneutic).

So this pada reads 'all experiences [i.e. 'all knowledge arising from contact' or 'all that results from putting together sense object, organ and awareness'] are impermanent. And we understand this to apply to the domain of experience, not to the domain of 'what is'. It is a statement about the ontology of experience, not the ontology of objects. Experience is empheral even when objects are not.

Line 1b. uppādavayadhammino

This pada consists of a single long compound uppādavayadhammino. We can analyse this in the following way: it is made up of three words: uppāda + vaya + dhammino and would scan as uppādāya ca vayāya ca dhammī or uppādāya dhammī vayāya ca dhammī. "whose nature (dhammin) is to arise (uppāda) and perish (vaya)." Dhammino is a nominative plural because it qualifies saṅkhārā which is in the same. 

This simply expands on the first point about impermanence. The nature of experience is that it constantly arises and passes away. It does this because our attention is always on a single aspect of the very broad range of input from our senses. We live in sensory information like a fish lives in water. So much of it that we hardly notice most of it. The Buddhist view is that we process this information one bit at a time. But we constantly scan our senses at such a rate that our experience seems to broadly take in our surroundings and proivides the illusion of smooth continuity. In fact our experience is grainy or lumpy in the same way that a film is made up of a series of still images. Projected onto a screen rapidly enough so that we cannot see them individually, but cognitively blur them into motion. 

It's worth reminding ourselves at this point that the sense of selfhood or first person perspective is subject to these same limitations. It is something that arises and passes away depending on where the attention is. In deep sleep and deep meditation there is no sense of self. In waking we can sometimes catch the sense of self being assembled. Some practitioners report that it is possible to operate without any overt sense of self or a first person perspective. Though I recall Sangharakshita's quip that before you can transcend the self, you have to have one. 

Line 2a Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, 

These are two verbs, the first a gerund and the second a finite verb in the 3rd person plural. The gerund forms a subordinate clause indicating an action which precedes the main verb. Here the plural number of the main verb makes it clear that we are still talking about experiences (saṅkhārā).

The verb uppajjitvā comes from uppajjati (Skt utpadyati). The root is √pad 'to go'; with the preverb ut- 'up' it means 'to go up' i.e. 'to arise, to come forth or out, to be born.'  There are two strategies for translating gerunds. We can either says 'having arisen...' or allow the order of the words to imply the order of the action and say 'arising...'

The vern nirujjhanti (Skt. nirundhati) comes from the preverb ni 'down' with the root √rudh 'to stop'. So it is literally 'to shut down, to cease, to be destroyed.'.

So this phrase says 'having arisen, they are destroyed' or 'arising, they cease'. All that can happen when a saṅkhārā arises is that it ceases. The duration of any particular sensation is a fraction of a second. The number of 25 frames per second for a film to fool our eye into seeing smooth motion may be a clue to the duration of any particular experience. However the early Buddhists did not have films!

Line 2b tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Having established the facts of the matter the verse gives us the punch line: happiness (sukho) is the quenching (vūpasamo) of them (tesaṃ); i.e. in the quenching of saṅkhārā. The word sukha is familiar enough not to need much comment: it is the opposite of disappointment and misery, i.e. contentment, happiness, and/or bliss. Sometimes, as I discussed some time ago in commenting on the Dhammapada, sukho seems to be a synonym for nibbāna.

The word vūpasama (Skt vyupaśama) combines the two preverbs vi 'apart' and upa 'up' with the verbal root √śam 'to labour or toil'. On its own upaśam means 'calm, quiet' and is not not predictable from the combination of preverb and root (this is very often the case). Here the vi preverb is being used in its sense of intensifying the verb. Thus vūpasama means 'allaying, calming, supression, quenching (especially of thirst).'


Where nibbāna means 'blown out or extinguished' using the metaphor of fire; vūpasama references the metaphor of thirst (taṇha Skt tṛṣṇa). And the thirst metaphor is familiar stuff for Buddhists. We thirst for experience because we think that pleasurable experiences amount to happiness. That this is not so was apparently obvious 2500 years ago in India, but this knowledge of the basic falseness of the idea has not quashed it. Indeed I would say that this idea is more prevalent, more powerful than ever and driving industrialised, first-world, 'Western' societies close to madness and destruction. The pursuit of pleasure through sensory stimulation or through appropriation of objects or wealth has damaged not only us humans, but many other species and the very biosphere itself. And our pursuit appears to show no signs of slowing down.

And here is this text telling us that happiness is the quenching of experience - the very opposite of what we believe. Happiness is found through quenching our thirst for experience, not by trying to satiate it. Because the thirst for experience can never be satiated. We'll never get so much pleasure that we don't want any more. And though the Buddha could not have known this, it is also the conclusion of people who study the brain and to some psychologists.

And even in these few syllables we find the key to quenching that thirst. It comes about through examining the transient nature of experience. Our practice consists in various techniques to produce various experiences. Firstly we try to calm down - the take the edge off the restlessness of our thirst. Then we turn our attention to experience itself - watching it arise and pass away. Noting the speed and duration of change. Noticing how there is never stability. The continuity that we experience on an every day level is grainy. And in the still depths of samādhi we can see the dynamics of experience arising and passing away. We can come to understand right to the core of our being the utter pointlessness of pursuing pleasure. Which is not so say we ought not to enjoy our food or sex or whatever. We enjoy whatever pleasurable experience that comes along. But we know it as it is (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). even our cherished self is just another experience arising and passing away. There is nothing in experience that can be grasped. Forms are like soap bubbles - an outline of something which when we take it in our hands simply vanishes.


30 March 2012

Papañca 2: Understanding Papañca

LAST WEEK WE SETTLED on a serviceable translation of the term papañca, but it's clear that in a Buddhist context simple translation is far from the whole story. Papañca is clearly a negative term in Buddhist texts, in contrast to the usually positive sense more generally. We have to keep in mind that, in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā (whatever they are) are said to assail, beset, or befall (samudāsarati) a man.[1] The word papañca shares this negative connotation with words that also draw on the metaphor of separating out: e.g., vikappa (Skt. vikalpa) where the vi– suffix indicates separation and it means to mentally separate things out, to discriminate, or distinguish. In general this process is seen as having a negative impact on us.

In the texts and commentaries there seem to be four distinct ways of talking about papañca:

  1. papañca as result, perhaps the sum total, of the perceptual process: e.g. in M 18, S 35.94 A 3.294, Sn 4.11, Sn 3.6.
  2. papañca as metaphysical speculation: e.g. in A 4.173
  3. papañca in relation to 'I am': e.g. in S 35.248, Sn 4.14.
  4. papañca = kilesas e.g. S 35.248, SA 2.381 (commenting on S 35.94). UdA (commenting on Ud 7.7)

The Perceptual Process

These texts are variations on the process by which contact with sensory perceptions is the basis for the process of perception and leads to cognition of the attractiveness or repulsiveness of sensations, and behaviour in response to this cognition. Here papañca can be the end product of the perceptual process (M 18) arising particularly from thinking (vitakka), or it can more general apply to the whole perceptual process (Sn 3.6, 4.11, S 35.94). Some of the references in which it's not clear what papañca refers to (M 11, Ud 7.7, Dhp v.195, 254) seem to draw on this sense. This approach seems to have the most weight in the suttas because it is the most common, and these references are relatively clear and unequivocal.

However, there is a serious problem with these texts as they flatly contradict each other as to the order of the process, particularly M 18, Sn 4.11, and D 21. M 18 has become the standard Theravāda model of perception, and perhaps the best organised of the three. Sn 4.11, by contrast, is poorly organised, and uses terminology which becomes superseded (such as sāta/asāta instead of sukha/dukkha). Sn 4.11 also places saññā at the root of the perceptual process, preceding phassa; whereas, M 18 has the more familiar sequence phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti. D 21 appears to reverse the order of parts of M 18 so that we have these three sequences:

Sn 4.11
saññā > nāma & rūpa > phassa > sāta & asāta > canda > piya > macchara etc.
M 18
rūpa + cakkhu + cakkhu-viññāna > phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti > vitakka > papañca.

D 21
papañcasaññāsaṅkhā > vitakka > chanda > piyāppiya > issā-macchariya > verā etc.
There is no easy way to reconcile these different models. If one is right, then the other two are wrong, and no two agree on all particulars. Is phassa the condition for saññā, or vice versa? Similarly with papañca and vitakka. However, both the commentary and sub-commentary on D 21 ignore the reversed order and treat the subject as vitakka being the basis of papañca as in M 18. So perhaps it is no surprise that only one of these models survived to become orthodox: M 18. However, in terms of a model it is very much overshadowed by the twelve nidānas, which became the standard way of describing how dukkha arises.

In any case, the meaning here seems to be that the complexity of our human responses arises from sense experience. The role played by vitakka (Skt. vitarka) in the M 18 model might help to elucidate this process. The word literally means to 'twist apart'; takka is cognate with English torque, turn and distort; from PIE *terk or *tork, 'to turn, twist'. Figuratively applied to the actions of the mind, it comes to mean 'thought' itself in Pāli, though MW definition of the Sanskrit vitarka gives a broader sense in that it specifies: 'conjecture, suppositions, imagination, opinion; reasoning, deliberation; and doubt, uncertainty.' Pāli gives vitakka a special sense as one of the factors of absorption (jhānaṅga), that of mental attention which is directed towards its object. In this sense vitakka is a positive factor in our awareness. In the production of papañca one applies vitakka to the products of sensing (vedeti) and perception (sañjānāti). Since those products are already distinguished according to their desirability and identity, perhaps vitakka here means that we apply our attention to what is desirable and thereby sustain the production of dukkha? In the long run, we can see that papañca and dukkha must be closely related, if not synonymous.

Metaphysical Speculation

A 4.173 = 4.174 seems to stand alone in defining papañca in terms of speculation. Here the term is used to refer to the asking of questions which speculate on what happens after the "remainderless cessation and fading away of the six spheres of contact." Since contact and proliferation operate in the same domain—i.e. are aspects of the perceptual process—then answering a question about what happens after contact ceases is proliferating the unproliferated. Clearly this application depends on the notion that papañca refers to the perceptual process, but the phrase "proliferating the unproliferated" suggests that speculation about the afterlife might be intended as a specific application.


This is the aspect of papañca which seems to fascinate modern Theravādin commentators, and yet it rests on a less sure foundation than the first, and one of the two key texts also seems to rely, in part, on papañca as the perceptual process.

Much is made of the somewhat cryptic passage in Sn 4.14 which appears to say that 'I am' (asmi) is the root of papañca. Modern commentators, especially Bhikkhu Thanissaro, have taken this to mean that the 'I am' conceit is, in fact, the cause of papañca. However, this not the conclusion of the traditional commentators, nor the obvious conclusion to draw from those texts, which happen to be in a majority, that see proliferation in terms of the perceptual process, either as a product or a general description. Indeed, it would be more conventional, and more in keeping with the majority of texts, to see 'I am' as a result of the perceptual process, and therefore as a result, rather than a cause, of papañca. This is supported by S 35.248, which labels asmīti as papañcita 'proliferated' (past tense) and also an opinion 'maññita' which has the added implication of being the product of mental activity.

Thanissaro, as he often does, comes out of left-field with his rendering of papañca as 'objectification', but he highlights an important facet of papañca. From his notes on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta his translation seems to be strongly influenced by his reading of the Tuvaṭaka Sutta (Sn 4.14; Sn 915ff). There is some merit in his approach. He translates Sn 916 as:
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'
He should train, always mindful,
to subdue any craving inside him."[2]
Compare Norman's translation:
"Being a thinker, he would put a stop to the whole root of what is called "diversification" (i.e. the thought) 'I am'," said the Blessed One. "Whatever internal cravings there are, he would train himself to dispel them, always being mindful." (p. 151)
Despite the differences of interpretation, it is apparent that Sn 916 takes "I am" (asmi) as the root (mūla) of papañca, and Thanissaro sees "I am" as an objectification of experience. Clearly, "objectification" is a way of conveying how Thanissaro sees the psychological process under consideration; it is not a translation of the word papañca. It is quite legitimate to approach a text in this way, especially if the individual words do not directly communicate the sense of the text, but to my mind it obscures too much when we merge the two stage process I'm describing in this post and the last one.

Piya Tan attempts to take the equation of papañca and asmi further by drawing attention to the Yakalāpi Sutta (S 35.248) which lists a series of propositions regarding selfhood, beginning with the statement amsīti 'I am' or 'I exist', followed by variations on asmi 'I am' or bhavissāmi 'I will be'. Each statement is to be understood as is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita),[3] a state of conceit (mānagata and all of these are to be regarded as "a disease, a boil, an arrow".

The explanation rests on the past participle papañcita. The commentary at this point relates these qualities to the presence of the kilesas (i.e., lobha, dosa, moha). But it does not define papañca and, in fact, if we did not already have an opinion about papañca it would be very difficult to form it from this text. Of the qualities, maññita and mānagata are obviously mental activity, and iñjita and phandita are, on face value at least, bodily (though they probably refer to states of anxiety). It's not very clear how papañcita fits into this list of terms. The text clearly says that asmi is an example of papañcita, and undesirable. The formula is: asmīti papañcitametaṃ; i.e. ,"'I am:' this is proliferated." or perhaps "this is a proliferation", since the participle can act as a substantive. Perhaps the sense of this text is how concerns about 'I' proliferate once the thought 'I am' occurs. If we hypostasize our first person perspective then it generates a great deal of 'I' centred thoughts and anxieties.

Does 'I am' constitute objectification in the sense that Thanissaro suggests? Can we objectify ourselves? When we think 'I am' do we really convert ourselves into a thing? Self-objectification seems typically to refer to seeing oneself from another's point of view as an object. It is implicated in body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders for instance – and therefore is concerned more with the identification of the self with the body. I can't really make an object of my self; the thought 'I am' does not make me an object, it makes me a subject. I think what Thanissaro means when he treats proliferation as objectification is the split into subject ('I am') and object ('that is'). The Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) points out that is usual for people to think of the world (loka) in terms of 'it is' (atthi) and 'it is not' (natthi)--the fact of arising and passing away of experience shows that neither of these concepts apply. On the other hand, the Buddhist model of cognition depends on objects of perception as its foundation: As the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta itself says: on the basis of form and eye, eye-consciousness arises and the three together constitute contact.

Thanissaro notes that M18 uses verbs which may indicate an agent. The key phrase being:
Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti

"Eye-consciousness arises on the basis (paccaya) of the eye and form, and the three together constitute contact (phassa); from the condition of contact there is a sensation of experience (vedanā). Where there is experiencing (vedeti) there is awareness (sañjānāti); with awareness there is thinking (vitakka); where there is thinking there is proliferation (papañceti).
Ingenious as Thanissaro's interpretation is, there is no reason to assume an agent here. The verbs indicate, as in my translation, that a process is occurring. In his translation choices Thanissaro emphasises the agent:
What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one "papañcizes."[4]
However, if we compare the same terms in the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta all of these terms, with the addition of vedanā, are defined in terms of verbs which undermines Thanissaro's conclusion because he specifically excludes vedanā from having an agent, whereas the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta suggests it, too, must have an agent if the others do.

In fact, there is no agent in Buddhist psychology. There is no "one" however much we feel as though we are an agent: "what one feels" assumes "I am". Thanissaro's interpretation is somewhat paradoxical: for if an agent is required for the process to continue, and there is no agent, then how does it continue? If we commit to the implications of the Buddhist model, we cannot posit an agent. No one perceives, there is just perceiving; no one thinks, there is only thinking; and no one papañcizes, there is just papañcizing. Each active process, as indicated by the locative absolute construction, forms the basis for the next active process. Perceiving is an emergent property experiencing sensations. Convention almost requires us to posit a metaphorical container for this process, for instance we might say that perception takes place in the mind. But in the Buddha's psychology there is no container for this process, because the container is, effective, a manifestation of the thought "I am".

The objectification that goes on is a mistaken perception: what Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has called naïve realism, or in colloquial terms: WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). That naïve realism is unjustified is neither intuitive nor easy to prove. It only becomes apparent with the highly detailed and focused study that characterises Buddhist meditation, and (just) in the last few decades through studying the way that our perceptual processes can go wrong and lead us astray.

If we go back to the Tuvaṭaka Sutta, we may need to reconsider the idea that the text is saying that "I am" is the root cause of all papañca, and see that "I am" is the root product of prapañca. In any case, Thanissaro has strained a little too hard to make papañca fit into his program, and the translation as 'objectification' is misleading and infelicitous

Taint or Obsession

The commentarial tradition, including texts attributed to both Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla consider papañca to be synonymous with the kilesas. For instance, the commentary on S 35.248 says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ', etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are proliferate (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness." Similarly, the commentary on Ud 7.7 says "Passion is a proliferation, aversion is a proliferation, confusion is a proliferation, craving is a proliferation, view is a proliferation, and conceit is a proliferation."

This is presumably the origin of the idea that papañca might be translated as hindrance or obstacle, since greed, aversion and confusion are the three main obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. Early English translators followed the Pāli commentarial tradition in translating papañca as obstacle: c.f. Woodward, Buddharakkhita, Horner.


What my study seems to say is that the ambiguity of papañca allows it to be co-opted to suit the agenda of the commentator. Despite the relative importance of papañca in Buddhist doctrine, reconstructing it from the Pāli suttas is really very difficult because papañca and related terms are not used very often. On the face of it, I think the best explanation is still that papañca is primarily the perceptual process which gives rise to unskilful behaviour based on the pull and push of our affective reactions to pleasant and unpleasant sensory perceptions. As such, the traditional commentators are correct to relate papañca to the taints which underlie unskillfulness. We can also see that the modern Theravāda commentators, from Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda on, are not wrong about the role played in this by seeing oneself as a subject and objects of perception as real objects, because this is all part of the process of creating dukkha. However, Thanissaro, in particular, has over-emphasised the ego, and his translation of objectification is confusing since ‘I am’ represents a subject rather than an object.

It is puzzling, but perhaps not so unusual, to find so little foundation for such a well-known doctrinal category, and such poor recognition of the flimsiness of that foundation in modern writers. Papañca occurs so few times in the canon that it does not take very long to read and consider all occurrences. It once again reinforces the adage that any one commentary is never the whole story.



[1] In the text the verb is in the plural so we must assume that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā is also plural.
[2] Sn 916 pada a & b: Mūlaṃ papañcasaṅkhāya, (iti bhagavā); Mantā asmīti abbamuparundhe

[3] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear.

[4] However one feels about neologisms Thanissaro has highlighted an important point here which is that papañceti is a denominative verb; i.e., it is a verb derived from the noun papañca, and so literally does mean 'to papañcize".