Showing posts with label Sangharakshita. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sangharakshita. Show all posts

02 November 2018

Buddhism, Bodhisatvas, and the End of Rebirth

This essay is dedicated to the memory of
Urgyen Sangharakshita (1925-2018)
There is a pernicious trend in Buddhist historiography. It is the attempt to smooth out inconsistencies and present Buddhism as far more coherent and unified than it ever was in practice. A prominent manifestation of this is the idea that there really is no difference between the so-called "arahant ideal" and the so-called "bodhisatva ideal". While I'm sure that those who take this approach are sincere in their belief that playing down the differences is a worthy cause, it obscures the reasons the new idea emerged in the first place. Those reasons are intrinsically interesting.

In the last 20 years we have discovered a great deal more about the early Mahāyāna than was previously known. A great summary and assessment can be found in a pair of articles by David Drewes (2010a and 2010b). We now know, for example, that what we call Mahāyāna was actually a rather disparate group of ideas that took centuries to converge. It emerged in monasteries, in all likelihood alongside mainstream Buddhism (though, of course, Mahāyāna became the mainstream, eventually).

By about 200 BCE all Buddhists were starting to reject the early Buddhist  doctrines and to quietly rewrite or replace them. In my article on karma (Attwood 2014), for example, I traced the rejection of the idea that karma is inescapable. Later Indian Buddhists did not accept this constraint (niyāma) and modified the doctrine of karma to allow for the consequences of actions to be avoided. One mostly did this using religious practices, especially ritualised confession, though later simply chanting a mantra was thought to literally eliminate all evil karma.

I've shown in previous blog essays that all Buddhists found the sutta version of dependent arising wanting and rewrote it, especially where it appeared to interfere with the working of karma; i.e., where dependent arising says that consequences cannot outlive the conditions for their existence. When this ceases, that ceases.

Awakening as the End of Rebirth

It is repeatedly and frequently stated across the Pāli texts, that awakening is tantamount to the cessation of or the liberation from rebirth. "I will not be born again" is something that arahants frequently exclaim upon awakening. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), often referred to as "the first sermon", the Buddha concludes his account of his awakening by saying:
ñāṇañca pana me dassanaṃ udapādi akuppā me cetovimutti. ayam antimā jāti. natthi 'dāni punabbhavo ti. (SN v.423)
This knowledge and vision arose for me: "My liberation of mind is unshakeable. This is my last birth. Now rebirth doesn't exist."
A more common refrain, heard across the Nikāyas is this one:
khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā ti
Birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn.
No doubt there are variations on these as well, but there is no need to search them out. It is clearly understood that awakening is synonymous with the end of rebirth. So whatever else happens to a tathāgata after death, they are not reborn. And the reason for this is found in the nidāna formulation of dependent arising. For example, in Dasabala Sutta (SN 12:21), “from ignorance as a condition, there is volition” (avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā), from volition as a condition, there is discrimination (saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ)” and so on, up to, “from the condition of birth, there is aging and death” (jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ), which is said, in this case, to be the origin of the whole mass of suffering (evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti)” (SN ii.28). In the suttas (re-)birth is synonymous with dukkha. To be born, even as a deva, is to suffer. To end suffering one must be completely extinguished (pari-nibbāṇa). Thus the tathāgata is never coming back and that is the way it must be or awakening is not an escape from suffering.

This escape was cause for celebration in the early days of Buddhism. The Buddha was the first man to escape suffering, by escaping rebirth. And in this myth the Buddha shares some features with Yama. We think of Yama as the King of Hell (naraya), but as I showed in my essay on him, he is not a god, but rather a Brahmanical culture hero. Yama's claim to fame is that he was the first man to find his way to the ancestors in the sky (svarga) after death, i.e., to the pitṛloka or "world of the fathers". Yama opened the door to a cyclic afterlife. This is significant, because no other Indo-European culture has a cyclic eschatology (Plato's speculations aside, the Athenian afterlife was not generally cyclic). A cyclic afterlife appears to be a regional feature of cultures in the sub-continent. 

The myth of Yama shows the Vedic speaking people adopting this eschatology into their mythos. To be more precise, it shows the Vedic patriarchy adopting the myth - we have no idea how women were placed in this scheme because they are not mentioned. The Vedas are the literature of a group of men who barely gave a thought to women. The Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad is antinomian for many reasons, not least because it shows some women claiming and receiving equal status with the leading male protagonist.

The Buddha is hailed in Buddhist mythology as opening the doors to the deathless by none other than Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins of the late Vedic period. The doors to the deathless are open and the Buddha left hundreds, if not thousands of followers behind who were also liberated from rebirth. Many of them had their own students numbering in the thousands. The presence of the Buddha was not necessary while living arahants were able to teach those with "but a little dust in their eyes". Buddhism ought to have prospered on this model. But it did not. And we have no good accounts of why.

The Collapse of Early Buddhism

What is seldom if ever acknowledged is that the Buddhism of the Pāli suttas did not last. It did not do what was needed for the societies in which it persisted. It was once thought that the Mahāyāna was a radical departure from monasticism introduced by lay Buddhists. But this has been put to rest. Mahāyāna grew out of the the monastery. In the early Mahāyāna sūtras the term bodhisatva is applied to full-time, hardcore meditation practitioners aiming at awakening. And this shows that awakening was still seen as a potential, if hard won goal. Amongst the mainstream sects the interest was in the analysis of mental events and theorising about how they contributed to bondage or liberation. Many schools were primarily focussed on śāstras or commentaries which attempted to make something coherent from the dog's breakfast of the Nikāyas. Before the advent of Protestant Buddhism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, all Buddhist sects were primarily focussed on śāstra rather than sūtra; even those sects which advertised themselves as being focussed on sūtras (like the Lotus Sutra sects) still relied on commentaries.

The received tradition was sometimes simply rejected, but more often than not the commentaries present themselves as essentializing the Dharma. By this I mean they present a coherent, and therefore highly partial, account as the whole of the Dharma. What the Buddha (is reported to have) said becomes less important than what he meant,  and many people were happy to tell the world what he meant. The rise of the śāstra literature meant that the confusion, incoherent, contradictions, and conflicts of the early Buddhist texts were set aside in favour of a unified view. The problem was that there were at least a dozen different unified views by the beginning of the Common Era.

The Theravāda often collude with naive scholars in pretending to represent early Buddhism. They don't. Modern Theravāda is just that, modern. As with all the other sects, Theravādin monks for many centuries mostly studied Abhidhamma commentaries when they studied at all - even when they spent their lives copying out Pāli texts. They had given up on meditation and they have given up on awakening. As Peter Masefield outlines in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (1995), the view had arisen (despite considerable literary evidence to the contrary) that the presence of a Buddha was required for people to awaken. A Buddha was special in being self-awakened (so to speak), but everyone else needed the physical presence of a Buddha. After the Buddha's death, Masefield argues, no more arahants were liberated. Monks did memorise suttas, but they were chanted as magic spells at ceremonies and rites.

Against this we have to weigh the fact that many of the prominent modern Western Theravādin bhikkhus are connected to Thai and Burmese traditions that re-invented meditation in the 18th and 19th Centuries. These monks have long believed that their reinvented tradition maps onto what is found in the suttas preserved in Sri Lanka (though the bhikkhu lineage of that country died out and had to be re-established from Burma twice).

This situation of revised and essentialised teachings was still apparently unsatisfactory to Mahāyānists. There is no normative account of why this was so. However, I can offer my own explanation for this. I think it all begins with the absence of the Buddha. 

The Absent Buddha

The arguments I outline below derive from reverse engineering. By looking at the form that innovations take we can get an idea of what problem they were trying to solve. And there is a common thread to many of these innovations. And it is the problem of the absence of the Buddha. It was in this context that new figures began to emerge in the Buddhist imagination as replacement Buddhas, but designed without his "flaws" in mind. Because when Mahāyāna sūtras disparage the arahants, the real target is the father-figure who left and never returned. 

Pure Land

Consider the Pure Land schools. The earliest Pure Land Sūtra featured Buddha Akṣobhya in his Pure Land Abhirati. As Jan Nattier (2000) has shown, getting into Abhirati was hard work. Then came Amitābha living in Sukhāvati and he made it easy. The two Sukhāvativyūha Sūtras introduced the idea that one only need call his name in devotion and he'll meet you at death and guide you to Sukhāvati where everything was arranged to perfection (according the patriarchy of the day).

Take a step back and consider the form of this doctrinal innovation. It is predicated on the idea that Śākyamuni is dead and not coming back, and that the next Buddha Maitreya is not going to arrive for some billions of years. We are on our own. Part of the problem is that early Buddhists instituted a rule that there could only be one Buddha in any world at a time. The cultural evolution of the world followed a set pattern. The Buddhadharma had to flourish and die out before a new Buddha could be born to rediscover the Buddhadharma from scratch, since this is a defining feature of a Buddha. The main effect of this invented doctrine is that it raises the prestige of the so-called historical Buddha to its zenith. 

I showed, in my article on karma, that raising the prestige of the Buddha was a central concern for Buddhists. Over time, the Buddha became more magical and powerful until he was effectively a god. The prototypical event for this observation was the meeting with Ajatasattu. In the Pāli versions the king is doomed by his patricide. But in the later Mahāyāna retelling, the king is saved from his own evil karma by meeting the Buddha. The mere presence of the Buddha purifies him of patricide - one of the five unforgivable karmas that result in immediate rebirth in Hell.

The unforeseen consequence of gradually raising the prestige of the Buddha is that it began to appear to make awakening in his absence impossible. And his absence was an established fact. The authors of the Pure Land texts, some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, simply invented parallel universes with immortal Buddhas who could arrange for us to jump the tracks and be reborn in this alternate universe - the apotheosis of the Buddha. While Akṣobhya was a task-master, Amitābha was a soft touch. He only required your devotion. We know the metaphysics of this set up. Amitābha is a god, pure and simple. Sukhāvati is Heaven. We are sinners who can only be saved via the intervention of an external agency (or "other power") not touched by the sin of the world. 

Pure Land became one of the leading forms of Buddhism in the world and remains in that position some 2000 years later. The reasons for its popularity are not hard to fathom. It is an undemanding form of Buddhism, most of the work is done for you by an magical immortal father figure, in the afterlife. He just wants you to love him and most of us love our Daddy (or want to). 

The Evolution of the Bodhisatva

It's too early I think to have a proper history of the bodhisatva since we are really just getting used to the new information about their true relevance in early Mahāyāna. But we can take a similar reverse engineering approach to the mature concept of bodhisatvas like Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, or Avaklokiteśvara. The most important feature of the mature concept of the bodhisatva is that they are enlightened but take rebirth.

Why do we need the awakened to come back? On one hand the answer is obvious. We want our loved ones to come back to us. The Vedic speakers were entranced by the aboriginal Indian idea that after death one would be reborn amongst one's ancestors just as many Westerners are in love with the idea of people "coming back". We have an incurable nostalgia for the dead. We want to see them alive and well again. Belief in an afterlife has been linked to burying bodies with grave goods, the practice of which is arguably as old as modern humans, if not older (though the first undisputed evidence dates from around 40,000 years ago).

On the other hand, it speaks to a deep seated insecurity. Living teachers simply did not create the required confidence in the Buddhist population of India. And this can have two main causes. Firstly, the standard of teaching may have declined, leaving students doubting the efficacy of their practice regimes. Secondly, and I think more likely, is that the placing the Buddha on a pedestal to raise his prestige had a detrimental effect on Buddhist communities. The higher the Buddha got, the lower human teachers were and the closer relatively to their human students.

This problem is not particular to India or Buddhism. When you raise the goal of religion to the zenith and talk about it in absolutist terms; when the goal is perfection, then no human being can ever come close. In fact, even if most teachers are fantastic, the one who goes bad seems to taint all of them. In this process, the goal becomes unreachable and any attainments that humans do achieve are down played by comparison to perfection; while imperfects that show up confirm suspicions.

So yes, we do see arahants being talked down to and mocked in degrading fashion in some Mahāyāna sūtras. Perhaps this is not because they are not awakened; they are arahants, after all, and thus very much awakened. Perhaps it is because they fall short of some imaginary perfection that has been set up in opposition to mere human awakening. That is to say, it is not because people were falsely claiming to be arahants as is sometimes suggested, but that Mahāyānists allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that perfection was attainable on some level, just not by human beings. Mahāyāna is delusional in the way that all theology is delusional. It sets up an impossibly high standard, insists on judging people (harshly) by that standard, and in the absence of any human exemplars, transfers its devotional feelings onto imaginary magical beings.

The result is the classic matter/spirit duality.  I have discussed this in some detail in the past, analysing the metaphors involved and showing how they form an interlocking set of ideas that self-reinforce (like a cybernetic feedback loop). I also extended this in a series of essays on the idea of "spiritual" looking at the language and power relations involved in organisations which frame themselves as "spiritual" (see Bibliography). This duality has powerfully shaped all religions which tend to favour the (imaginary) spirit side of the equation. 

In some forms of Buddhism, this duality contrasts the bodhisatvas as pure beings made of light with dirty humans made of shit. For example, Śāntideva goes on an extended rage about the disgusting human body in his celebrated work on Mahāyāna, the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It covers two pages in the definitive translation by Skilton and Crosby. The language is harsh and hate-filled. Buddhists attempt to excuse the tirade as a skilful means (upaya) but to me it is inexcusable; the epitome of unskillfulness. It is born out of a deep-seated hatred based on a matter-spirit duality.

Other Approaches

I think these two examples demonstrate the principle. We might also cite tathāgatagarbha doctrine, as a way of making the Buddha present in his absence. Or the passage from early on in the Golden Light Sutra in which the Buddha is proclaimed to be immortal (he only appeared to die). Or the idea of everything being interpenetrated by the dharmakāya, the true form of the Buddha, magically above change and decay (i.e., permanent). Or the idea that one can imagine oneself to be a Buddha already and magically transform oneself into a Buddha in reality (while avoiding delusions of grandeur and other mental problems).

We also know that around the same time the first images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara and Mathura. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Gandhara had been conquered by a group of pastoralists known by their Chinese ethnonym 月氏 Yuèzhī. They appear to have had caucasian features (judging by portraits on coins) and to have spoken an Iranian language. However they also adopted many local norms as well, including, possibly, the Buddhist religion. The resulting Kushan Empire was a melting post of Persian, Greek, Yuezhi, and Indian ideas, attitudes, and practices. Perhaps it was coming into contact with theism (Zoroastrianism) that made the Buddhists in that region aware that the absence of the Buddha was problematic? In any case it was amidst this milieu that images of the Buddha as a man were first made. 

Having identified the pattern we can see how it makes sense of a range of innovations over time.


Everywhere Buddhists demand the presence of the Buddha or they resign themselves to despair and give up on awakening (as the Theravādins did before they reinvented meditation). And this is no accident. Where do we find a principle of required presence in Buddhism? We find it precisely in the doctrine of dependent arising. The idea was initially to describe the arising of suffering in the presence of sense experience. And it does an OK job of this for an Iron Age idea. But before long Buddhists began to treat it as a theory of everything. It is as though a Freudian were to argue that the world is structured into world-ego, world-id, and world-super ego, and that cosmic sex is the driving force of every process in the universe. For all I know there are Freudians who think like this, but I bet they have never tried to rewrite the equations of classical mechanics to show how sex is the basic force in the universe.

Once you take dependent arising to be a theory of everything then it is only logical that awakening requires the presence of an awakened teacher. Because without the necessary condition, the effect cannot arise. But the underlying condition for all awakening in Buddhist mythology is the Buddha. If this is so then the presence of a Buddha is a requirement for a world in which there is awakening.

We don't know how the argument went because the Mahāyānists did not show their working. They might have reasoned that since there are awakened people then a Buddha must be present somehow, and since that Buddha is not physically present he must be present in some other form: corporeal in a parallel universe, or incorporeal in ours. Or they might have reasoned from the physical absence of the universe combined with a desire that awakening were possible again, believing that it currently was not.

However, this way of thinking also misunderstands awakening. No matter how many different ways we say it, Buddhists always end up thinking of extinction as something; or as arising. Cessation is the right word. The point is that sensory experience stops when we withdraw from attention from it. Trivially, if I am focussed on writing, the outside world fades from my mind. And, more profoundly, when we use concentration techniques to bring about the complete cessation of sensory experience, aka emptiness. The use of emptiness as a metaphor was about the worst road Buddhists could have taken. It was a disastrous philosophical blunder because it led to Buddhists thinking of emptiness in metaphysical terms rather than as the simple absence of sense experience. 

Absence of sense experience is essential to awakening. And yet we made Buddhism all about the presence of the Buddha. The former is Buddhadharma, the second is mere religion (and no better than any other religion which invokes the presence of a father figure). 


Arguments, scholarly, religious, or increasingly both, that seek to minimize the distinction between arahant and bodhisatva, however sincere in their motivation, damage our understanding of the history of ideas in Buddhism. Such approaches actively prevent us from asking interesting questions about why Buddhism changed and if we never ask the questions, we never answer them. Whether or not the new ideas were totally novel or evolutions is of course interesting. And yes, we can often find precursors in the Pāli texts; texts that were composed and edited over centuries that overlapped with the emergence of the new doctrines. 

We scholars, especially, have to resist the urge to bowdlerise our presentations of the history of ideas in Buddhism. However, Buddhists can also benefit from an interest in the actual history of our religion. We cannot understand a cultural phenomenon (or really a set of phenomena) if we refuse to see anything that sits outside normative accounts. To be sure, the real story is complex and convoluted. It does not fit neatly into a six week university teaching block. But it is worth telling nonetheless.

Let's face it, what makes history interesting is conflict. Without it, history is boring. Pretending that there was no conflict in Buddhist history is a gross mistake. Sure, religions all present significant figures as saints, but so what? This is not interesting at all, because people are not saints. The fact that all Buddhists repudiated the teachings that had been ascribed to the Buddha is perhaps the most interesting fact about Buddhism. But no one ever says that this is what happened. The least interesting story—the hagiographical version—dominates both academy and temple. Yawn. The story is trite, tedious, and simply untrue. The telling of it tendentious and smacks of insecurity. All too often it is the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the rhetoric of truth.

We have to be willing to see change ("everything changes") and to ask why things change. Cultures and doctrines change for reasons and it only seems reasonable to enquire as to those reasons. Buddhism is not special in this regard. We need to be willing to face up to the fact that the Buddha died and is not coming back. 

Sadly, my teacher Sangharakshita died this week, aged 93. He had a good life, all things considered: he was a good friend to hundreds of people and he inspired hundreds of thousands of people to practice the Buddhadharma (our movement operates in India where social movements happen on vast scales). I'm not suggesting that he was a saint, but on balance he did a great deal of good and most people who met him were glad of it. He was loved. But he's gone and he's not coming back. As I loved him, so I mourn, but I'm not interested in fantasies of his reincarnation and return. I don't want false comfort. The Triratna Buddhist Order is well placed to carry on providing a context for practising the Buddhadharma that combines a good deal of tradition with some conscious modernism. We could do better, but Sangharakshita gave us a robust organisation. Succession is long settled and nothing much will change now that his suffering is ended. Now is the time for practice. 

vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā
All experience is perishable; sensual sobriety is the way to succeed.
(the supposed last words of the Buddha. DN ii.156) 



Attwood, Jayarava. 2014. Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

David Drewes. 2010a. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x

David Drewes. 2010b. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x

Masefield, Peter. 1995. Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Paul & Co Pub

Nattier, Jan. 2000. "The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23 (1), 71–102.

Skilton, A and Crosby, K. 2008. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford University Press

14 May 2010

Progress is Natural

SangharakshitaOne of Sangharakshita's great contributions to the Dharma has been his exegesis on what he called 'the spiral path'. This is a teaching that was lost to the Buddhist world, despite being preserved in the texts, until it was brought to light by Mrs Rhys Davids in the introduction of her translation to the Saṃyutta Nikāya. It is a vital counterpart to the application of paṭicca-samuppāda found in the twelve-fold nidāna chain. In this long lost twin we find an answer to the question of how enlightenment is possible for unenlightened people. Having lost what seems like the Buddha's original answer to this question, the Buddhist tradition came up with many and varied answers of its own, some more successful than others. But for me none has the simplicity or the raw intensity of this Pāli text. When Sangharakshita wrote about this teaching [1] he was only aware of the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23, PTS S ii.29) however myself and other scholars in the Triratna Buddhist Order have subsequently discovered a number of other texts which explore the second form of paṭicca-samuppāda. [2] This one from the chapter of tens from the Aṅguttara Nikāya is my personal favourite.

The Discourse on Forming an intention [3]

The virtuous one, endowed with virtue [sīlavant sīlasampanna] need not form an intention 'may my conscience be clear'. It is natural for the virtuous one endowed with virtue to have a clear conscience. Having a clear conscience [avippaṭisāra] there is no need to will 'may I feel joy'. Joy naturally arises in those who have a clear conscience. The joyful [pāmojja] need not decide 'may I be filled with rapture'. Joyfulness naturally produces rapture. There is no need for the enraptured [pītimana] to resolve 'may my body calm down'. It is natural in the enraptured for the body to calm down. With a body at rest [passaddhakāya] there is no need to form the intention 'may I experience bliss'. With the body at rest they naturally experience bliss. The blissful [sukhina] don't need to will 'may my mind become composed'. The mind of the blissful is naturally composed. When the mind is composed [samādhiyatu] there is no need to think 'may I have knowledge and vision of experience as it is'. With the mind composed one naturally sees and knows experience as it is. Knowing and seeing experience as it is there is no need to form an intention 'May I become weary [of experience], may I become dispassionate [towards it]. It is natural when seeing experience as it is [yathābhuta jāna passa] that one becomes fed up and turns away from experience. Weary of experience and disinterested in it [ nibiddāvirāga] there is no need to wish 'may I experience for myself the knowledge and vision of liberation'. For, weary of experience and disinterested in it one naturally experiences knowledge and vision of liberation [vimuttiñāṇadassana].

Thus knowledge & vision of liberation is the benefit [attha] and blessing [ānisaṃsa] of being fed up and turning away. Being fed up and turning away is the benefit and blessing of knowledge & vision of experience as it is. Knowledge & vision of experience as it is, is the benefit and blessing of absorption. Absorption is the benefit and blessing of bliss. Bliss is the benefit and blessing of serenity. Serenity is the benefit and blessing of rapture. Rapture is the benefit and blessing of joy. Joy is the benefit and blessing of a clear conscience. A clear conscience is the benefit and blessing of moral competence..

Thus each one fills up the next, each one is fulfilled by the next, and goes from the near bank to the far bank.
This sutta seems to require very little in the way of commentary. however I do need to say a little about the word I have translated as 'naturally' or 'it is natural'. The word in Pāli is dhammatā. this is an abstract noun formed by adding be abstract suffix - to the familiar word dhamma. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders this as 'natural law'. The meaning relies on that sense of the word dhamma corresponding to the English 'nature', and is more literally 'nature-ness' i.e. natural.

The sequence of states (dhammā) mentioned in Pāli is:
sīlavant sīlasampanna > avippaṭisāra > pāmojja > pīti(mana) > passaddhakāya > samāhita/samādhi > yathābhūta jānata passata > nibbinna riratta > vimuttiñāṇadassa sacchikaroti.
The message of the text is very simple. Enlightenment is a natural process. One thing leads to another, each one 'filling up' (abhisandeti) the next, and becoming its fulfilment (paripūreti). I think it's a very interesting reflection for us moderns who are wont to say "I just want to be happy". In this way of looking at things there is no need to form an intention to be happy. If one wants to be happy than one needs to look at the conditions that bring about happiness, especially by being virtuous.

The text is saying that if only we practice virtue in the Buddhist sense of that word, then all else follows quite naturally. There is a compelling logic to this. But it is also pragmatic, and very much in the spirit of 'come and see' (ehi passiko). It is not that no effort is required, far from it. But if we pay attention to the fundamentals, then the rest will take care of itself. Accepting this scheme as a possibility is the beginning of the spiritual life. Finding it to be true in one's own experience is the beginning of faith. Giving oneself up to it is the beginning of insight.

  1. See: A Survey of Buddhism. 7th Ed. 1993, p.135ff [Chp 1, sect. 14 'Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa']; and The Three Jewels. 3rd Ed. 1991, p.108ff [chp 13 'The stages of the path'].
  2. I discuss the examples that I have located at the end of my essay: A Footnote To Sangharakshita's 'A Survey of Buddhism'. This is in need of a rewrite, but my friend Dhīvan is the expert and his book on the subject, This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha's Teaching on Conditionality, is due out soon.
  3. Cetanākaraṅīya Sutta AN 10.2, PTS A v.2. My translation based on the Pāli text as Also translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his AN anthology 'The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha', p.238-9 as 'The Lawfulness of Progress'.
image: Sangharakshita, from Manchester Triratna Buddhist Centre.

The main sources are for the Spiral Path:
  • Upanisā Sutta - SN 23.15
  • Pamādavihārī Sutta - SN 35.97
  • AN 10 1-5 and 11 1-5
  • AN 8.81; which recurs with fewer steps as AN 7.65, 6.50, 5.24, 5.168.
  • Samaññāphala Sutta - D2, repeated in D 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.
  • Dasuttara Sutta - DN 34
  • Vatthūpama Sutta MN 7
  • Kandaraka Sutta - MN 51
  • Visuddhimagga: I.32 (p.13 in Ñāṇamoli's translation).

15 January 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order

On the 6th of January I received an email from the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita, [1] explaining that he was changing the name of the Order from the Western Buddhist Order to the Triratna Buddhist Order.

There were a number of factors behind this momentous decision. It was increasingly anachronistic to call us 'Western' when about a quarter of the order live in India, and we have groups and centres in Eastern Europe and other places which might not think of themselves as 'Western': Turkey for instance! When we started off in 1968 'Western' was quite appropriate, but now we are a global order. In India we had even more problems because the Order there was called Trailokya Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha (the Great Buddhist Order of the Triple-World). Having two different names for the Order was always problematic as we only have one ordination, and was a bit confusing at times - I noticed this at the Order Convention in India for instance. Also the word trailokya was not understood outside Buddhist circles in India - I doubt whether many westerners knew what it meant either. It seemed that we really needed a single name for the whole Order and that it was one that would be widely comprehensible.

The Order itself has been aware of these problems for many years - Viśvapāṇi wrote about it in 1995 for instance: Finding a Name for the FWBO (interestingly he suggested Triratna Buddhist Order way back then!) However because we aim to operate by consensus, and this was a difficult issue to find a consensus on, the discussion bogged down. We did almost change the name of the Order to 'Buddhayāna' about ten years ago until it was pointed out that there was already a Buddhist group with this name. Towards the end of 2009 some members of the Order in India asked Sangharakshita to step in and make a decision for us as the founder of the Order because they felt the situation in India was urgent. And that is what he did. Now that he has made the change, my sense is that most people are happy to put this issue behind us and look to the future.

So now there is just one name for the Order, though it will, of course, be translated into various languages - for instance in Hindi it will be Triratna Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha. Triratna is usually translated as 'three jewels' (more on this shortly). It solves the problem with trailokya in India as it is the same in Hindi, and is also reasonably well know in the Buddhist world. Also because Triratna is Sanskrit, that part will be the same all over the world - it will be the part of the name that is not translated and therefore universal.

I can immediately see the appeal of the name. As an Order we emphasise going for refuge to the three jewels above any particular beliefs or practices. The three jewels are, of course, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These represent the ideal of enlightenment, the foundations on which enlightenment is attained, and the guides and companions on the path. [2] On our kesa, or symbolic robe, [3] we have an emblem of three jewels on a lotus, wreathed in flames which symbolise transformation (see accompanying image).

Triratna (Pāli tiratana) is a type of compound known as dvigu (literally 'two-cow') where the stem form of the number is affixed to the item being counted. This avoids having to work out the appropriate inflection for the number, though the inflection of the compound must reflect the number (Sanskrit retains a dual number as well as singular and plural). So 'tri-' just means three - both the Sanskrit and English words are some of the least changed from their Indo-European roots. [4] Ratna probably stems from a verbal root √rā 'to give'. A ratna was originally a 'precious gift'. In some Pāli texts there are lists of seven ratana: suvaṇṇa, rajata, muttā, maṇi, veḷuriya, vajira, and pavāla - that is: gold, silver, pearls, crystal, lapis lazuli, diamond, and coral. Other precious substances such as ruby, beryl, and cat's eye were also known, and maṇi can be used as a general term for a gem-stone. It's clear from this list that 'jewels' is only a part of what ratna refers to. The three jewels, then, can be thought of as 'the three precious gifts', which appeals to me very much!

We formalise our relationship to these precious gifts by reciting the ancient Pāli formula:

buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
dhammaṃ saraṇaṇ gacchāmi

saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

I go to the Buddha who is a refuge
I go to the Dhamma which is a refuge
I go to the Sangha which is refuge

Note that the verb is √gam (stem gaccha), and the conjugation is 1st person singular present indicative - 'I go' or 'I am going' (not 'I take'). Going for refuge is an individual act of will, it can't be done for you, and the refuges can't be 'given' to you, except perhaps by a Buddha. The standard translation is 'I go to the Buddha for refuge', but because both buddha and saraṇa are in the same case (accusative) it would be usual to read one as an attribute of the other as I have done here. Saṅgha is also in the singular - our refuge is the ārya-saṅgha as a whole, not any individual member of it.

With the name Triratna Buddhist Order we are saying three things. First, that we are an order, i.e. an ordained collective who share spiritual ideals and disciplines. [5] Second, that we are Buddhists - we go for refuge to the three jewels. We broadly share our values and methods with other Buddhists, and see our selves as belonging to that broad and sometimes contradictory range of traditions stemming from the Buddha. Third, that we identify more with the three precious gifts themselves than with any sectarian expression of Buddhism - i.e. with any particular lineage, philosophy, practice, or national and/or cultural expression of Buddhism. The three precious gifts themselves are the most important things to us.

Personally I hope that we do not slip into our old habit of using initials for our name. The name reminds us of who we are and what we are about, and using an acronym hides that. Also because the name is translated the initials are different in different countries. In his 1995 article Viśvapāṇi (somewhat prophetically) suggested we refer to ourselves as 'Triratna Buddhists', and I hope that this might catch on. Another thing about acronyms is that they suggest haste - we are in a hurry to say the name and move on, so we abbreviate it, thereby rendering it meaningless like some mere marketing slogan, rather than an expression of our highest ideals and values. It would be more consistent with our vision to linger over names, and revel in long descriptive names. This is one of the advantages to having awkward sounding Sanskrit names for Order Members - one has to slow down, to linger over them, to explain, to practice patience and contentment. Attention to pronunciation also encourages mindfulness. So let us be the Triratna Buddhist Order, not the TBO, please!

As far as I am aware nothing except the name of the Order has changed. The ordination itself remains the same, and no one need be re-ordained. We call our ordination a (or 'the') Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī Ordination. [6] Dharmacārin is an adjective - 'he who walks the path'. Perhaps we will come to think of ourselves as Triratna Dharmacārins. In Sanskrit I think this would be a single compound triratnadharmacārin 'a walker of the path of the three precious gifts'. Though it is grammatically masculine, gender is not predicated on natural gender in Pāli and Sanskrit - saṅgha, for instance, is also grammatically masculine.

Lastly, but not leastly, I must mention that the Order has an auxiliary movement historically called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, or sometimes simply 'The Friends' or 'The Movement'. Sangharakshita originally expressed a wish that we change the name of The Friends to '...of the Triratna Buddhist Order'. Then as a result of a suggestion from some Centre Chairs he opted for Triratna Buddhist Community. Each centre of The Friends is legally and organisationally autonomous so they needed to decide for themselves how to respond to this. The suggestion has been taken up and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order will officially become the Triratna Buddhist Community on Buddha Day, 28 May 2010. Personally I could see a time when our centre names also reflect the change - the Cambridge Triratna Buddhist Centre for instance.

I written a blog post about the relationship between the Triratna Order and Community, how each functions and some of the main institutions of each: Triratna Buddhist Order and Community.

(This post has been edited several times, most recently on 7 July 2010)

  1. The Anglicised Sanskrit spelling of Sangharakshita's name is firmly established (though he got it in Pāli). A more accurate spelling would be Saṅgharakṣita i.e सङ्घरक्षित, though Saṃgharakṣita would also be acceptable. The name means 'protected by the saṅgha' (rakṣita being a past-participle from √rakṣ 'to protect').
  2. We do not go for refuge to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha and I would argue that to do so is a mistake. It's clear in Pāli texts that the Saṅgha Refuge is the Ariya-saṅgha, i.e. those people who have already attained the fruits of stream entry whether or not they are ordained - the focus is on practice rather than lifestyle!
  3. kesa (Japanese) 'a robe'. Our kesa is modelled on those worn in Zen schools and is a strip of cloth worn over the neck. The word comes (via Chinese chia-sha) from kaṣāya 'red/orange/yellow' which referred to the robes Buddhist bhikṣus wore - the colour came not from expensive saffron, but from dirt, and was to make the white cloth not worth stealing! The Sanskrit word for robe is cīvara. Order members wear a white kesa, unless they have taken the brahmacarya precept when they wear a gold kesa.
  4. There is a tendency for English speakers to pronounce 'tri' as 'chri'. The 't' is a true dental, pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the tip of the teeth; the 'r' is tapped (the motion is very like pronouncing 'l' but the tongue makes contact after the vocalisation has started). Opinions vary on the quality of the vowel. my suggestion is to pronounce it like 'tree' (but again not chree) - but not as long. The next syllable 'ra' is stressed so don't emphasise the 'tri'.
  5. I've written at some length about the word 'order' and why the Triratna Buddhist Order is an order, and the ceremony by which we join it is an ordination. See my essay - Ordination : A Contested Term.
  6. Dharmacārin is the stem form, though in the Order we still regularly use the nominative singular- Dharmacārī and Dharmacāriṇī. The stem is in fact masculine or neuter in gender rather than genderless as I have previously suggested.

Other Resources

namapada : a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist OrderNāmapada. A guide to Sanskrit and Pali names used in the Triratna Buddhist Order. Definitions and etymologies for almost 500 words and affixes. Background on the Sanskrit and Pali languages and relevant points of grammar and morphology.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

main image: the
Triratna emblem from a Triratnadharmacārin's kesa.

12 June 2009

The Group and the Individual

One of the distinctive teachings of Sangharakshita has been his exploration of the dynamics of groups and individuals in relationship to them. I've always found it helpful to keep in mind. My thinking in this area is also influenced by Colin Wilson's seminal book The Outsider, and by the first spiritual influence in my life: the Richard Bach story Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. I'm also a fan of Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man about her time studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream which I think provides many insights into our social nature. From these disparate sources and personal experience I have strung together a kind of personal narrative about groups.

We humans are social animals. This is the first thing to understand, and remember. We are social by biology and psychology. We do not have any choice in this matter - as humans we are defined by our relationship to social groups. The average person will participate in a number of groups over their lifetime. Family is the most important in early life, but as soon as we start to socialise outside the family our peers have a massive influence as well. We have school groups - classes, years, school - sports groups, interest groups, political groups, etc. Generally speaking, and genuine loners not withstanding, we operate best in groups - it is natural, and beneficial.

The key quality of a group is that it provides support and stability - of various kinds. As social animals we are psychologically attuned to groups and feel lonely without one. Loneliness can become a pathology. Groups fulfil, or help to fulfil, our biological needs - the lower end of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Groups conserve - they preserve culture, and custom and keep it alive. Again, we don't fair well without these. So groups are necessary and beneficial, but there is a dark side to the group. Groups can become riots or mobs, or can perpetrate larger more heinous corporate acts like slavery and genocide. Groups seem to have the capacity to act in ways that are not simply the sum of their parts, that is not individual behaviour writ large.

Now spiritual growth or progress is, at least as far as Buddhism is concerned, an individual matter. Each individual is responsible for their own conscious acts and the consequences of them. Each one can choose to be moral or immoral, to pursue higher states of consciousness or not. Groups are what Sangharakshita has called the lower evolution - progress is collective, very very slow and limited to the cultural or material sphere. The individual undertakes the higher evolution which is an evolution of consciousness. This focus on the individual consciousness is a relatively new thing in human evolution - dating from only about 2500 years ago. It was the Buddha and his contemporaries in India, Asia, and Europe who began to promote the individual, to examine the individual and to conceive of the individual as the unit of progress rather than the tribe or family or nation. The period when this began to happen is sometimes called the Axial Age - and is broadly speaking the eight centuries centred on the fourth century before the common era.

Now the group generally speaking has two responses to an individual who - for what ever reason - stands apart: assimilation, or anihilation. In the former case the group seeks to coop the member back in, to lull them back to sleep, to coerce them to conform. If this doesn't work, or the group is oriented to the other strategy then the individual is cast out - whether figuratively or literally - or in extreme cases killed. Shunning is a practice common to the Christian and Buddhist traditions for instance! There is a very rare exception to these in the case of the powerful leader. Sometimes someone has such charisma that they single-handedly change the group to their way. But even then things can still turn nasty as many martyrs have discovered.

So any person who sets out on a spiritual journey is likely to experience turbulence in their relationships with groups. This is a given because they are trying to be different. Sometimes old relationships simply break down under the strain. This is something that has to be born by each individual, they don't necessarily set our to break bonds or upset the status quo, but it is almost inevitable at some point. The group values the group per se, over any one individual, and this is why groups persist and are supportive. It is natural for a group to react this way!

A lot of this will be familiar to most people in the FWBO - it's a core Sangharakshita teaching. One of his aphorisms is "the group is always wrong!" However, as is the way with these things the teaching is taken too literally. A manifestation of this is knee-jerk anti-establishment attitudes and behaviour. Sometimes people are simply critical of any group activity or any form of collectivity. This can be seen as a reaction against groups. The person still defines themselves in terms of the group, rather than membership they focus on opposition. Some of this is down to disappointing experiences of organised religions, some to unresolved psychological conflicts, and any number of other reasons. But it ignores our fundamental needs, and is impractical.

One of the first things the Buddha did on becoming enlightened was to set out to tell people what he had discovered. He sought out the most receptive people he knew and they soon saw for themselves the breakthrough. Thus a collective was created that continues to exist in many forms around the globe that we call sangha. As Jamie Lee Curtis's character says in A Fish Called Wanda - "the central philosophy of Buddhism is not 'everyman for himself'". Jump to the future and we find that the sangha needs structures to facilitate communication, it is helpful to have people organising events, and to create venues for practising and teaching. We need these institutions, else we do not create the best conditions for our own practice, and for helping other people to find the Dharma and take up the practice as well.

Like most religious people Buddhists believe that everyone could benefit from doing what we do - I am a fervent believer of this in relation to Buddhist practice, though doubtful about taking on religious beliefs. Although we need to be a true individual, evolving our own consciousness, in practice this is difficult. Supportive conditions, including a positive social network of like minded people, are essential. This means that there is always likely to be a tension between the group and the individual.

27 December 2005

The Unity of Buddhism

Shakyamuni Buddha Sangharakshita wrote his magnum opus, A Survey of Buddhism, in 1954. In the second chapter he explained how the Bodhisattva Ideal represents a unifying ideal for Buddhism. However as time went on Sangharakshita's thinking on this subject developed. In the History of My Going for Refuge he describes how he came to see the act of Going for Refuge as constituting the fundament Buddhist act. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels - the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - is common to every school and sect of Buddhism. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, then, is not only fundament it is also universal and hence is more clearly the unifying factor in Buddhism. Sangharakshita sees the Bodhisattva Ideal as the altruistic dimension of Going for Refuge.

The language of Going for Refuge is not Buddhist in origin. Like many things in Indian religion it has a Vedic origin. The Chāndogya is one of the oldest upaniṣads and almost certainly pre-Buddhist. In Chapter four it instructs the one carrying out a sacrifice to go for refuge to the verses (i.e. mantra) and the way they are chanted, to the direction one is chanting in, and in Atman. [verses 8-12]. However it was adopted by the Buddhists very early. Right from the first the people who met the Buddha told him that they would go for refuge to him and his Dharma.

It's important to note that we do not take refuge, we go to it. That is to say that Going for Refuge is an active seeking, not a passive hiding. Neither can an unenlightened being 'give' us refuge. When we go for refuge to the Sangha, it is not simply to other Buddhists, or to monks, that we Go for Refuge, but to the Awakened Sangha, to the ones who have directly seen the Truth for themselves.

Over the centuries Buddhism has become very diverse. Schools of Buddhism struggle to recognise each other as Buddhist. Buddhism, like other India religions, is inherently syncretistic - rather than suppress heterodoxy, it embraces it. Buddhists have never hesitated to borrow from other traditions. As Buddhism was exported from India it interacted vigorously with the other cultures and languages it met. Most of Asia was transformed by Buddhism, but from place to place that transformation took radically different forms.

As a result we now have a bewildering variety of Buddhisms (plural) each with their own set of practices, their own jargon, mother tongue, scriptures, and cultural expressions. There have been many misunderstandings, and some reactions against fellow Buddhists, sometimes from unexpected quarters.

Sangharakshita treats Going for Refuge as a hermeneutic which we can apply to any person in order to relate to them as fellow Buddhists. Because Going for Refuge is fundamental and universal we have a key to understanding what other Buddhists are doing. One of the examples that Sangharakshita uses is the case of Pure Land Buddhists who do not believe that any self power will avail them in Awakening, and that they must rely on other power in the form of the vows of Amitabha. To attitude stands in something of a contrast to most forms of Buddhism which exhort us to generosity, ethical behaviour and meditation - i.e. to a vigorous application of self-power. At first sight we might not see how simply chanting the name of Amitabha can really be considered a Buddhist practice. Surely it is just a form of theism? If we apply Sangharakshita's key then we first look to see whether the Pure Land Buddhist is going for refuge and to what. In this case they are clearly going for refuge to the Buddha in his Amitabha form. Their practice is to develop faith in the vows of Amitabha to save beings from suffering. This makes sense in the light of their Going for Refuge to Amitabha.

Over the years many different texts and interpretations piled up. Earlier versions of the Dharma were not discarded, but placed on a lower level. The typical response to this was to create a hierarchy of teachings - this tendency was present even in early Buddhism. By the second millennium CE the hierarchies had become very elaborate and unwieldy. But how else were Buddhists to make sense of texts which contradicted themselves and were polemical against earlier forms of Buddhism? Again Sangharakshita's hermeneutic can help us, especially if we combine it with an historical over-view of the development of Buddhism. If we view all practices as motivated by Going for Refuge, and aimed at Awakening, and then we take account of the historical development of texts and exegesis, then we need not stack forms of Buddhism vertically, preferring one over another.

Sangharakshita recently said to a group of new Dharmacaris, that he sees nothing in the Vajrayana which goes beyond the Theravada or Mahayana at their own pinnacles. What I think he means by this is that later practices are not more effective than earlier ones. Some practices may be better suited to some people than others, but all practices will only be effective to the extent that they are whole heartedly practised. To put it another way, the practice will be as effective as the Going for Refuge of the practitioner. There is a strong tendency amongst Buddhists to see their own school, or sect, or group, as being the best, the highest form of Buddhism. This kind of thinking obscures the unity of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a highly diverse and heterogeneous religion. The unity of Buddhism is in the act of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. By seeing all Buddhists and their practices in terms of Going for Refuge that we can see how they relate to us and our practice. This also enables us to avoid the false conceit that we are on a better path, or that we are doing more powerful practices.

image: Śakyamuni Buddha, by Jayarava.