Showing posts with label Renunciation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Renunciation. Show all posts

05 February 2010

Martyrs Maketh the Religion

I was not long a Buddhist when I first heard these words:

'Though only my skin, sinews and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment." [1]
Stirring stuff; or perhaps it sounds like dangerous extremism? Many Buddhists admire this sentiment. But why? In May 2009 the New Scientist published an article titled: Suffering for your beliefs makes other believe too. [2] The article, by Bob Holmes, summarises the findings of a paper published by Joseph Henrich in which he looked at the impact of the sacrifices that religious leaders make, and how these sacrifices - including martyrdom - inspire their followers and create new converts. The more extreme the sacrifice the better, with actual martyrdom being a very powerful motivator. As Holmes says, with apparent irony: '...devotees who take vows of poverty or chastity are clearly putting their money where their mouth is', and in Henrich's words: 'Individuals sticking to such vows (or appearing to) increase their potency as transmitters of the faith.' (p.257) If on the other hand, Holmes says, they are unwilling to make sacrifices, then they make very little impact: 'observers - even young children - quickly pick up on this and withhold their own commitment'. And why is this important? Because the groups that coalesce around such leaders often offer advantages in terms of 'cooperation, solidarity and group success'.

I want to look at this in the light of stories about the Buddha's asceticism, the disappearance of Buddhism from India, and the possible fate of Buddhism in the decadent west.

It is axiomatic in all forms of Buddhism that self-torture is pointless and that causing harm to a living being (including one's self) is in contradiction of the fundamental values of Buddhism. [3] In my article on suicide in Early Buddhist texts (Western Buddhist Review, no.4) I noted the doctrinal problems caused by the suicide of Channa - he is not reborn after having cut his own throat. To not be reborn means he is an arahant; but an arahant could never harm himself. The commentaries invent the idea that Channa became an arahant in the moments between severing his carotid artery and his death, but it isn't very convincing.

One of the most important aspects of the biography/hagiography of the Buddha is that he abandoned his severe austerities and announced that they were not conducive to his goal of eliminating suffering. Even in contemporary India there are people who specialise in austerities: they inflict pain, often quite severe pain, on themselves in various ways. They do this publicly in order to attract the patronage of pious people, and they do find patronage and even followers. But the Buddha rejected all this. He tried it, he took it to the extreme short of actual death, and he found that it did not liberate him. Having given up self-torture he lived a simple, basic and chaste life. He did not seek out pain for the sake of purification, but did teach that physical pain had to be endured mindfully if it could not be avoided. So why, we might wonder, is this phase of his life when he conducted austerities celebrated? Why is it depicted in art? Why is it still marvelled at by Buddhists? My accompanying image this week is a Gandhāran style emaciated Buddha. Images such as this are still produced today and still purchased by pious Buddhists. But given that it represents the Buddha-to-be in error, what is the attraction? Perhaps Joseph Henrich has a point and our faith is enhanced by the knowledge of his suffering - even though it was all for nought?

As Buddhism progressed from being a tiny minority religion, mainly confined to a group of itinerant wanderers in Magadha, to being a large organised affair with universities boasting thousands of students and monasteries accumulating untold wealth, I wonder if Buddhism ceased to inspire the kind of faith that it had done. It is interesting and salutary to consider that Jainism was around before Buddhism, and it survived all the upheavals of Indian history, and is still a presence India to this day. What did they do differently? Perhaps it was that they maintained a public display of self sacrifice in the form of groups of naked ascetics who even today still indulge in austerities, who still seek out the supposed purification that pain brings. Self-torture was, after all, most likely originally a Jain practice which other groups adopted around the time of the Buddha or perhaps a little before.

What about contemporary Buddhism? We would need to look elsewhere to explain, for example, the popularity of Pureland style Buddhism such as Nichiren or Soka Gakkai which do not pursue strategies of austerity, the opposite if anything. However, if Henrich is correct, one can see why austere (and sometimes painful) Zen might have prospered. Similarly, from the point of view being explored here, we can see the appeal of Tibetan refugees who have given up everything, often endured great hardship and narrowly avoided death, while many that remained in Tibet were actually martyred. The Dalai Lama remains cheerful in the face of the worst provocation imaginable - it is not his celibacy which stands out, but his stoically persistent goodwill in the face of the destruction of his country, his religion and his people. Many Theravādin monks also gain credibility through their austerity - and especially in the 'forest' traditions for devotion to meditation.

Perhaps there is a danger in the affluent West that Buddhism becomes a comfortable middle-class preserve. I sometimes detect a hint of 'affluenza' in myself and my peers - the technophilic types who in addition to a computer have a iPod, cellphone, digital camera, nice clothes, newish car, comfortable house, pension plan etc. What Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe". Many of us read the lives of historical characters like Milarepa and find them inspiring to a point - not enough to make us give up everything and dedicate ourselves to meditation. Renunciation beyond a certain point is seen by most Western Buddhists as impractical - we often err far towards comfort when assessing the middle way! Even monks live in relative comfort. The old term for a renunciant was paribbajjaka, which means (more or less) 'vagrant'; but to be homeless in the modern West is not an honourable thing. We look on the homeless as victims; often as hapless drug addicts. Not the kind of company the average Buddhist seeks out or wants to emulate.

Perhaps we need to think about what might be inspiring to others about our own lives as currently lived? What have we sacrificed for our practice? I draw a lot of inspiration from my brothers and sisters in the Indian Sangha. They often work full-time for poor wages, live in sub-standard conditions, but still find time to be strongly engaged in Dhamma work: leading classes, giving talks, or contributing in some other way. Indian Dharmacārins are often willing to put their own needs to one side for the benefit of the many (bahujan hitay). They in turn are inspired by Dr Ambedkar who constantly strived for the benefit of his people, and in the end gave up everything to lead them out of the oppression they experienced as outcasts from Hindu society.

Clearly there is more than one way to inspire conversion and commitment. By embodying the positive values we espouse we can also be inspiring. But there must be a few of us at least who are willing to give up everything in order to practice and teach the Dharma - to give up family, career, status, possessions etc, to go the whole hog and totally commit themselves to the three jewels without holding anything back. We have to see what that's like, to have exemplars to inspire. Dr Henrich sees the religious leader as inspiring beliefs which are often counterintuitive. Seen from the point of view of ordinary social discourse the Buddhist ideal is clearly counterintuitive, but it is far from irrational. One can generally see that the more deeply a person practices Buddhism, the happier they are.


  1. This is probably from Appativana Sutta (AN 2.5 PTS: A i 50) - thanks to Dharmacārin Viśvapāṇi for help locating the source. I'm not sure who is responsible for this translation, though it is quoted in Piyadassi's The Buddha : His Life and Teachings.
  2. This is the title of the print article. The link is to the online version which for some reason has a different title: 'Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs'.
  3. An exception to this rule is the bizarre practice of burning oneself, often at ordination, which is popular in East Asian Buddhism. I can only say that this seems to go against the stream of Buddhism generally, and the early Buddhist teachings specifically. It is interesting to note however that non-harming as an ethical principle emerged out of the same community which saw self-torture as the epitome of spiritual practice, and death by starvation as it's apotheosis: the Jains.

  • Holmes, Bon. 'Suffering for your beliefs makes others believe too.' New Scientist. Vol. 202, no.2710. 30 May 2009. Partial article online under the title Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs.
  • Henrich, Joseph (2009). 'The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.' Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005 [pdf]

05 June 2009

Keeping up Appearances

One time the Buddha was staying near the town of Āpaṇa in the country of the Angas. Anga was to the west of Magadha in what we would now most likely call Western Bengal. After taking alms in Āpaṇa, the Buddha retired to a forest grove for the day where he met an interesting character named Potaliya after whom the sutta is named* The text says that he was sampanna-nivāsana-pāvuraṇo chatta-upāhanāhi - possessed of clothing and cloak, a parasol** and sandals. That is to say he was well dressed by the standards of the day, and massively over dressed by the standards of the samaṇas. Despite his appearance Potaliya considered himself to have gone forth from the home life, and so he was miffed when the Buddha addressed him as "gahapati". This word is usually translated as 'householder' - we'll come back to this. After Potaliya complains about being called gahapati, he and the Buddha have a discussion about what going forth is really like, and the Buddha offers an intriguing definition of it. Potaliya says that he has sabbe kammantā paṭikkhittā sabbe vohārā samucchinna - stopped all work and given up all of his business interests.

So let us begin by looking more closely at this word gahapati (Sanskrit gṛhapati). I have mentioned it before in my collection of philological odds and ends. There I noted that Jan Nattier says that the term seems to have meant something rather more than householder. Gaha does mean house, but pati means "lord, master" - so it is more literally house-master. The thing is that, as in much of Western history, very few people in the Buddha's day would have owned property. Witness the fact that the word for house in Latin, domus, also gives us the words domain, dominion, and dominant. The owner of a house (dominus) was someone of considerable means, not to say power. Similarly the word pati (lord) has a Latin cognate potis meaning 'powerful, able, capable' from which we get our English word potent. So a gahapati (Latin domus-potens?) is more literally someone who has the power of, or over, a dominion. In terms of social standing the gahapati is often mentioned alongside brahmins and kṣatriyas - ie alongside, but not included in the two higher varṇas or classes. It seems as though gahapati was a kind of title for someone not from the higher varṇas, but who was none-the-less a significant person in terms of wealth and influence, most likely a successful merchant. We can note here that the Buddha thought of Potaliya as a gahapati because of his clothing and appearance - he dressed like a rich man. In these days where home ownership is the norm in the West it is a bit hard to grasp the meaning of gahapati when translated as householder. I was thinking that 'squire' (a non-aristocratic landowner) would have done nicely in T.W. Rhys Davids' day, but is a bit archaic now - I quite like the idea of the Buddha greeting Potaliya as squire. I suggest that 'landlord' might come closer than householder to capturing the meaning.

So this is the first point of the sutta - you can't walk around dressed like a rich person and claim to have gone forth (take note monks in silk robes!). Potaliya says that he's given up his work and left his money to his children. He takes a back seat in business affairs and relies on his children for food and clothing. We might say 'early retirement on a fat pension'. In contemporary times we find many of our Buddhist brethren concerned with fashion and appearance (especially the craze for having tattoos!). Many of us own property, have careers and families. The point is not so much that the lifestyle is wrong, but that we should not kid ourselves about having gone forth when we have not! If we still have a cell-phone and a computer, and CDs and DVDs; if we own a house or any other substantial property, then we are quite simply householders - we are not monks. In the FWBO we used to talk about semi-monastic lifestyles - somewhere in between. My observation is that most people are more semi than monastic - we like our little luxuries.

That said the teaching which comes next is not concerned with appearances at all. The Buddha does not ask Potaliya to give up his clothes and parasol, doesn't even talk in material terms and he latches onto this phrase "vohārā samucchinna" - giving up business. Note here that Potaliya was using vohāra in the sense of his work, but the Buddha has retained the word but is using it in a more general sense - a rhetorical technique he uses quite often. Potaliya's phrase vohārā smucchinna, then, is used as a synonym of the more familiar word pabbajana - going forth.

The Buddha begins by outlining a system of ethics, and then says that the culmination of his path is, in effect, the going forth from addiction to sensual pleasure. His disciples undertake eight practises in order to give "give up business". These are abandoning killing living beings (pāṇātipāto), taking the not given (adinnādāna), false speech (musāvāda), slander (pisuṇā vācā), greedy desires (giddhilobha), angry blame (nindārosa), consuming-rage (kodhūpāyāso), arrogance (atimāna). The noble disciple goes forth by abandoning the negative quality, and by developing the positive opposite. This set of eight precepts is similar in content and spirit to the ten kusala-kammā, the ten skilful actions which members of the Western Buddhist Order (and incidentally Shingon followers) undertake. There is nothing here about haircuts, or clothing, or meal times and the suggestion is that going forth is synonymous with practising ethics - that is going forth from unwholesome behaviour, speech and mental states.

Why begin with ethics? The text answers this on several levels. Firstly someone killing living beings etc, would blame themselves - ie experience guilt; they would be censured by the wise; and they would be destined for an unhappy rebirth after death. Furthermore killing a living being etc is itself a fetter (saṃyojana) and a hindrance (nīvaraṇa). Lastly killing living beings etc creates taints (āsāva) trouble (vighāta) and distress (pariḷāha), while abstaining does not create them. I see this list as appealing to the reader in different ways. We may not, for instance, be so motivated by rebirth, but we might care about the opinions of our kalyana mitras. Or we might be thinking in terms of trying to not create extra hurdles for ourself in life. However we relate to ethics we need to reflect on how our behaviour impacts on other beings, and how that affects us in return. This is conditionality in the gross sense.

But the Buddha cautions Potaliya by saying that going forth is not complete with ethics. Cutting off of all business affairs - really retiring from the world - is not simply a matter of ethics. Now the discussion becomes more reflective, the Buddha invites Potaliya to consider a number of metaphors for his relationship to pleasurable sensation (kāmā).

I have been making this point over and over for some time now. In order to really be free we must begin to understand the effect of sensations on our minds - especially pleasant sensations. The Buddha, for instance, compares sensual pleasure to a bone cleaned of all meat, but smeared in blood and thrown to a dog. Clearly the bone would be very attractive - would smell and taste nice, but it would not provide any sustenance. A number of similar metaphors follow reflecting the unsatisfactory nature of experiences. They are intended as subjects for reflection, intended as meditation subjects in other words. First ethics to prepare the way, and then meditation from which wisdom can arise. Wisdom is seeing that the conditioned nature of experience (yathābhūta) and results in the cutting off from 'business' entirely and in all ways (sabbena sabbaṃ sabbathā sabbaṃ vohārasamuchhedo).

Potaliya understands the Buddha's message, he sees that although he has retired from his worldly affairs, he has not renounced his addiction to sensual pleasures. Up to this point he has been quite confused in fact. He is now inspired by the example of the samaṇas and respects them, and he becomes a Buddhist by stating that he goes for refuge to the three jewels.

So the emphasis here is not on a monastic lifestyle even though the starting point is the incongruency of a wealthy man believing he has retired from the world when he still has fine clothes. The Buddha never criticises Potaliya directly about what he is wearing. He just offers him a more complete vision of vohārasamuchhedo or giving up business. It's not that Potaliya or other rich merchants like Anāthapiṇḍika could not practise the Dharma. They could, and Anāthapiṇḍika for one attains stream entry. The problem is fooling ourselves about what constitutes the path and where we are on it.

I think this is a sutta which speaks to the contemporary Western Buddhist - we are often very well off materially compared to, for example, our Indian Buddhist brethren. An amusing manifestation of this is when people justify little luxuries by invoking the middle way - meaning that though it is in fact an indulgent luxury, that in view of the massive luxury we live surrounded by it is not so much. This is not the middle way as I understand it, this is the kind of rationalisation that Potaliya was involved in. Be that as it may our first task as Buddhists is not to become homeless and give away our possessions - the real meaning of going forth is a rigorous engagement with ethics, going forth from unwholesome acts of body, speech and mind; followed by serious, prolonged and determined reflection on the nature of experience and our responses to experience. If we are honestly doing this, then we will naturally be more inclined to renunciation, and not concerned with appearances.

* Potaliya Sutta MN 54, PTS M i.359. My own translations. Translated by Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi in the Middle Length Discources p.466f, and in part by Thanissaro on Access to Insight. Pāli text from
** PED suggests that parasol for chatta would be misleading since the pole of a chatta was fixed to the circumphrance rather than centre of the circle. However the two have the same purpose.
My thanks to Joe Shier for drawing my attention to the Potaliya Sutta.