Showing posts with label Spiral Path. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spiral Path. Show all posts

05 June 2015

Nirvāṇa Sūtra, Madhyāgama 55.

This blog post is an old one I've held in reserve for a week when I can't make the Friday morning deadline The Pali counterpart to this text, the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23), is a very important text for the Triratna Buddhist Order. Sangharakshita, following pointers provided by Mrs Rhys Davids, found this sutta and from as early as the 1950s made it a core text for his teaching. The main idea he called the Spiral Path. An account of the doctrine of the Spiral Path was included in the first edition of his A Survey of Buddhism in 1954. Later, other teachers, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ayya Khemma also took an interest in this text, though the true significance of the Spiral Path is seldom seen outside of the Triratna Movement. 

The Chinese counterpart, translated into English by me for the first time (back in 2012), is very similar in many ways to the Upanisā Sutta. It shows an element of standardisation with the other Spiral Path texts which are compiled in the 5th section of the Chinese Madhyāgama (MĀ) translation. The MĀ is different from its Pāḷi counterpart in that it collects many Spiral Path texts that are scattered about the Nikāyas together. I've prepared draft translations of all of these texts (MĀ 42-55), though these have now been superseded by the Numata Foundation translation of the Madhyāgama under the editorship of Bhikkhu Anālayo. However, though the first volume has been published, it is very expensive and thus unlikely to be accessible to ordinary Buddhists. Hence, my translations remain useful for now. At some point, it would be useful to produce a comparative study of the Pāli and Chinese versions of the Spiral Path texts. 

A reminder that I have already completed a comprehensive survey of the Pāḷi Spiral Path texts which was published in the Western Buddhist Review

Nirvāṇa Sūtra

Madhyāgama 55 [1] Corresponding Preconditions Section. Taisho Vol. 1 no.26.

Chinese Translation by Gautama Saṅghadeva between 397-398 CE. [2]
English Translation by Jayarava Aug 2012

English Translation

Thus have I heard, one time the Buddha was staying in Śravāsti ( 舍衛國 shěwèiguó ), at the Jeta Grove 勝林 of Anāthapiṇḍika’s park 孤獨園. Then the Bhagavan addressed the monks: "nirvāṇa (涅槃 nièpán) has a precondition (習xí [3] Skt. upaniṣad) and does not lack a precondition. The precondition for nirvāṇa is liberation (解脫 jiětuō Skt. vimokṣa).

Liberation also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of liberation? Cessation of desire (無欲; Skt. virāga) is the precondition of liberation.

Cessation of desire also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of cessation of desire? Disillusionment (厭 yàn; Skt. nirveda) is the precondition.

Disillusionment also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of disillusionment? To see reality and know things as they are (見如實 知如真. jiànrúshí zhīrúzhēn; Skt yathābhūta-jñānadarśana [4] ) is the precondition.

To see reality and know things as they are has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of seeing reality, and knowing things as they are? Samādhi (定 dìng) is the precondition.

Samādhi also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of samādhi? Bliss (樂 lè; Skt. sukha) is the precondition.

Bliss also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of bliss?
Calming down (止 zhǐ; Skt. praśrabdha) is the precondition.

Calming down also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of calming down? Rapture (喜 xǐ ; Skt. pīti) is the precondition.

Rapture also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of calming down? Joy (歡悅 huānyuè; Skt. prāmodya) is the precondition.

Joy also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of joy?
Non-regret (不悔 bù huǐ; Skt. avipratisāra) is the precondition.

Non-regret also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of non-regret? Morality (護戒 Hù jiè; Skt. śila) is the precondition.

Morality also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of morality? Guarding the sense faculties (護諸根 Hù zhūgēn; Skt. gupta indriya? [5] ) is the precondition.

Guarding the sense faculties also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Right mindfulness (正念 zhèng niàn Skt. samyak-smṛti), attentiveness (正智 zhèngzhì; Skt. saṃprajāna) [i.e., the eightfold path] is the precondition.

Mindfulness and attentiveness also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Wise attention (正思惟 zhèng sīwéi; Skt. yoniśo manasikāra) [6] is the precondition.

Wise attention also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition?
Faith (信 xìn; Skt. śraddhā) is the precondition.

Faith also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Suffering (苦 kǔ; Skt. duḥkha) is the precondition.

Suffering also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of duḥkha? Old age and Death (老死 lǎosǐ; Skt. jarāmaraṇa) are the precondition.

Old age and death also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of old age and death?  Birth (生 shēng; Skt. jāti) is the precondition.

Birth also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of birth?
Becoming (有 yǒu; Skt. bhava) is the precondition.

Becoming also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of birth?
Sensation (受 shòu; Skt. vedanā) is the precondition.

Sensation also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of sensation? [7] Desire (愛 ài; Skt. kānti; cf. 貪欲 tānyù; Skt. tṛṣṇā) is the precondition.

Desire also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of desire?
Contact (覺 jué; Skt. sprśati) is the precondition.

Contact also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of Contact?
Contact food [8] (更樂 gènglè; Skt. sparśo āhāra) is the precondition.

Contact food also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of contact food? The six sense faculties (六處 liù chù; Skt. sadāyatana) are the precondition.

The six sense faculties also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of six sense faculties? Name & form (名色 míng sè; Skt nāmarūpa) are the precondition.

Name & form also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of name & form? Awareness (識 shi; Skt. vijñāna) is the precondition.

Awareness also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of awareness? Constructs (行 xíng; Skt. saṃskāra) are the precondition.

Constructs also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of
constructs? Ignorance (無明 wúmíng; Skt. avidyā) is the precondition.

Ignorance is the cause (緣 yuán; Skt. pratyaya) of constructs; constructs cause awareness; awareness causes name & form; name & form causes the six sense faculties; the six sense faculties cause contact food; contact food causes contact; contact causes desire; desire causes sensation; sensation causes becoming; becoming causes birth; birth causes old age and death; old age and death cause suffering;
With suffering as a precondition there will be faith. With faith as a precondition, there will be wise attention. With wise attention as a precondition, there will be mindfulness & attentiveness. With mindfulness & attentiveness as a precondition there will be guarding the senses; morality; non-regret; joy; rapture; calming down; bliss; integration (samādhi); knowing and seeing things as they are; disgust; cessation of desire; liberation. With liberation as cause there will be nirvāna.

This is what the Buddha said. The bhikkhus heard and they all rejoiced.

[1] T01n0026_p0490c01(00)- T01n0026_p0491a13(00). "*Nirvāṇa Sūtra, the 55th sutra of T.99 中阿含經 *Madhyāgamasūtra" Note from  my friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair , henceforth [MO’C]

[2] This sūtra is the counterpart of the Pāli Upanisā Sutta (S 12.23). "Most of the other Sutras in this section deal with the same topic but they don't all give the the same chain. Sutras 42, 43, 47, and 50 give the chain from observing the precepts to nirvāṇa. Sutras 45 and 46 give a similar chain that starts with hrī and apatrāpya. Sutra 44 gives a chain starting with *saṃyagjñāna, saṃyaksaṃkalpa. Most of them are very short and give little more than lists of the links in the chain. Sutra 55 is probably the most detailed." [MO’C]

[3] 習 xí "usually means ‘to practice or become accustomed to’ and the only place I've seen it used to mean ‘cause or condition’ is in this sutra and the other sutras in this section of T.99." [MO’C] Here is stands for upaniṣad (Pāli upanisā) in the sense of underlying condition, or precondition. Bodhi uses the phrase ‘proximate condition’ in his translation of the Upanisā Sutta.

[4] Cf. 見 ‘see; darśana’; 如實 ‘reality, truth’, yathābhūta;jñāna; 如真 yathābhūta, tathatā; hence "to see reality, and know things as they are".

[5] 諸根 zhūgēn = indriya; 護 = ‘protect, guard’ and used to translate Skt. gupta as well as rakṣita, pāla and pālita. Perhaps Skt. indriyagupta? Cf. 守護根門 Shǒu hùgēn mén ‘guarding the sense gates’.

[6] This combination of characters is also used for samyak-samkalpa right-intention.

[7] Note that sensation and desire are given in reverse order in the Chinese text. This would seem to be a scribal error.

[8] I can’t find 更樂, per se, but Digital Dictionary of Buddhism has  "更樂食 (simplified 更乐食) [gēnglè shí] ‘sensory food’". In Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Translated Chapters)  By Maitreya Bodhisattva.  Buddha Education Foundation, 2012.  "Sensory food 觸食/樂食: the nourishment that one takes through the contacts of the six senses". (p.47) The collective term for the four kinds of food is catvāra āhārāḥ. In the Yogacarabhumi [manobhūmidvitīyā], itself, we find "| te punaścatvāra āhārāḥ | kavaḍaṅkāra āhāraḥ sparśo manaḥsañcetanā vijñānañ ca |ūmidvitīyā. The idea of contact as food occurs in the Pāli (See Nyanaponika 1981. ‘The Four Nutriments of Life: An Anthology of Buddhist Texts.’ Wheel Publication. No. 105/106 Buddhist Publication Society). But it is used very differently. In Pāli contact is nourishment; here contact-nourishment is a precondition for contact.


17 October 2014

Anicca, Dukkha, Anattā

This essay discusses the Aniccavaggo (the Section on Impermanence) in Saṃyutta 35 (Saḷāyatanā the six sense bases) in the fourth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN iv.1ff). The key words nibbindati, virajjati and vimuccati mark these passages as relating to the third stage of the Spiral Path, the stage of paññā (Skt prajñā) which I will translate here as "understanding". These texts lay out, in a very accessible way, some important ideas with regard to what Buddhists are seeking to understand. At least for the early Buddhists, understanding has a specific domain and content. 

I'll present my translation the first text of the section (with notes on the 2nd and third which differ only by substituting dukkha and anattan for anicca) and then discuss the texts afterwards. There are 12 texts in this section, but we can easily summarise them because there is considerable repetition with minor variation. Each text is presented with more or less identical wording focussing first on impermanence (anicca), then on disappointment (dukkha), and finally on insubstantiality (anattan); and each of these is repeated from the "subjective" (ajjhatta) and "objective" (bāhira) points of view; and finally with respect to the past, present and future giving twelve variations on the basic text. Only the first text in the section has a tradition nidāna or framing narrative.

1. Ajjhattāniccasuttaṃ ~ 2. Ajjhattadukkhasuttaṃ ~ 3. Ajjhattānattasuttaṃ
The Suttas on Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification. (SN 35: 1-3)
1. Evaṃ me sutaṃ. Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. Tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi – ‘‘bhikkhavo’’ti. ‘‘Bhadante’’ti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṃ. Bhagavā etadavoca –
Thus I heard. One time the Bhagavan was staying in Sāvatthī in the Jeta Grove or Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Right there the Bhagavan addressed the bhikkhus: "bhikkhus!"
"Sir?", the bhikkhus replied.
This is what the Bhagavan said:
‘‘Cakkhuṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Sotaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… ghānaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… jivhā aniccā. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Kāyo anicco. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… mano anicco. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. 
The eye is impermanent [2. disappointing; 3. Insubstantial]. What is impermanent is disappointing. What is disappointing cannot be identified with a Self. Of that which cannot be identified with [we say] "It is not mine; I am not this; this is not my Self." Just this is to be seen as it is, with perfect understanding (samma-paññā). The ear is impermanent, etc The nose, etc, The tongue, etc. The body, etc
Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako cakkhusmimpi nibbindati, sotasmimpi nibbindati, ghānasmimpi nibbindati, jivhāyapi nibbindati, kāyasmimpi nibbindati, manasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati; vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti. 
Seeing this way, bhikkhus, the educated insightful disciple, is disenchanted with the eye; disenchanted with the ear, disenchanted with the nose, disenchanted with the tongue, disenchanted with the mind. Being disenchanted they can disentangle themselves. Having disentangled themselves, they are freed. Being free there is the knowledge "I am free". They know: "birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn."

The other texts in the section are:

4. Bāhirāniccasuttaṃ ~ 5. Bāhiradukkhasutta ~ 6. Bāhirānattasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

7. Ajjhattāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 8. Ajjhattadukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 9. Ajjhattānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Past and Future Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

10. Bāhirāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 11. Bāhiradukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 12. Bāhirānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ.

The Suttas on Past and Future Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.


I've made the point about the domain of application for paṭiccasamuppāda many times, but not for a while. So to reiterate, these texts confirm the summary found in the Sabba Sutta. The domain of application of paṭiccasamuppāda is the sensory world; that is to say the domain of experience.

Here we focus on the two aspects of sense experience: the "subjective" (internal = ajjhatta) aspect in terms of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; and the "objective" (external = bāhira) in the sense of forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile sensations and mental-activity. This is a relatively unsophisticated view of sensory perception in which the eye does the action of seeing as well as all the processing that we now associate with the brain. The eye passes on the seen to the manas which carries out the other functions, such as naming (saññā) and attraction/repulsion (saṅkhārā), etc. Both subjective and objective aspects of experience are treated identically.

I'm usually wary of the terms subjective and objective for reasons I've spelled out in previous essays (See esp. Subjective & Objective). The term here is purely epistemological. The experience of seeing a form has two aspects: the seen and the seeing. No ontological conclusions can be drawn from this. From the mere experience of seeing a form we cannot know the nature of the form nor of the eye. Where form is defined, it is defined in experiential terms: colour, resistance, shape, texture. In the Buddhist description of experience both form and eye—i.e. both sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) —are necessary for the arising of sense cognition (viññāna) and the three together give rise to a sensory experience (vedanā "a known", "a datum"). There are no pure forms or ideas as in Plato's account of phenomena and noumena. Indeed noumena are implicitly denied here and elsewhere. 

Later Buddhism insists that the subject/object distinction is just something we impose on experience, an argument which is itself based on deep meditative experience. But even when the distinction is acknowledged, as it is here, there is no difference in treatment, no suggestion of ontological speculation or position taking. Even in form etc., there is nothing in experience to identify with. 

The object of knowing and seeing (ñānadassana), then, is the process of sensory perception. It is not "reality". When we say that we see "things" as they really are (yathābhūta), we do not mean "things" in the the general sense of "everything" (reality) but specifically we mean the things experience. We may choose to generalise this into a Theory of Everything, but this generalisation creates many philosophical problems of the kind that Buddhist philosophers are still arguing about. As a theory of why experience is disappointing the traditional account is still quite workable and based on sound foundations that will make it relevant for the foreseeable future. The rest, the arguments about the nature of reality and all that (all ontological arguments), are already anachronistic and irrelevant. 

It is evametaṃ 'just this' relation to sense experience that is to be seen with perfect understanding (samma-paññā; Skt. samyak-prajñā). In Buddhist jargon, right-view consists in correctly seeing experience as it is. To take this statement in context, we know that a similar analysis is carried out with regard to the khandhas (the factors of experience). So neither the factors of experience, nor the content of experience, nor any aspect of experience, is permanent. And what is impermanent is disappointing; and what is disappointing cannot be our Self. This logic is almost certainly drawn from the Brahmanical sphere. It represents a direct contradiction of the Vedantic ideal of saccidānanda. These are the three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa) of brahman/ātman: being (sat < √as), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). But we know that the early Buddhists denied that experience has being. In fact neither existence (astitā < √as) nor non-existence (na-astitā) apply to the domain of experience. And because experience is anicca it is dukkha rather than sukkha; sukkha being a synonym for ānanda. Nothing that is dukkha can possibly ātman or brahman. This parallel between Buddhist and Vedantic thought was established by K R Norman (1981). 

The Buddhist analysis blocks identification with any aspect of experience as our essence, self, soul or any enduring entity - which is why I'm suggesting "non-identification" as a translation of anattan (Skt. anātman). If ātman means 'myself' (reflexive pronoun) then an-ātman can be seen as a bahuvrīhi compound: "without a myself", "non-self-referential". Since absolutely every experience is impermanent, disappointing and non-self-referential even if we did have a soul, we'd never have access to knowledge of it, since knowledge is mental and thus an aspect of the experiential domain. If we can know something permanent, then if we do not presently know it, we'll never know it; or if we presently know it, we've always known it and always will. Ignorance of a soul is either impossible or absolute, precisely because the soul is defined as permanent. Thus if we don't know now, we never will. This is the essence of the argument that Nāgārjuna went on to make about dharmas having svabhāva (See Emptiness for Beginners). 

Note also that, though many Buddhists claim that bodhi has no intellectual content, this text and countless others like it, ascribe a very specific content to the experience of vimutti. Firstly one knows that having become disenchanted with the sensory world and losing interest in the froth of the play of thoughts and emotions one has disentangled oneself from it all. We cease to suspend our disbelief in the play of senses and see sense experience as it is (yathābhūta). There is nothing here about seeing reality. And being free from entanglement, free from the automatic moving towards attractive sensations and automatic moving away from repulsive sensations, we know that we are free. Interestingly this is expressed in the first person: vimuttami (i.e. vimuttaṃ asmi) 'I am freed'. But then there are a series of realisations related to the ending of rebirth. Being free from automatic responses one cannot carry out the kind of actions that contribute to rebirth. One is free in the precise sense of being free from rebirth

Those who do not believe in rebirth have yet to propose an alternative understanding of this process of disenchantment and what it signifies. This maybe because so few of the proponents of a no-rebirth (apunabhava) Buddhism have experienced liberation for themselves. We won't have a truly modern Buddhism until we have a number of credible first-hand accounts of liberation in rationalist terms. As far as I know most people who have insight still resort to traditional narratives to describe their experience. This may be because the traditionalists are more motivated to practice with sufficient intensity. 


Norman, K. R.  (1981) 'A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy LD Series, 84 – 1981

12 July 2013

How is Liberation Possible?

Snake in Water
How is liberation possible? This is a frequently asked question and one that has evidently puzzled Buddhists down the ages since there are many different answers to it. How can we who are deluded, greedy and hateful free ourselves from delusion, craving and aversion? Some - for example Shinran - have concluded that there is nothing we can do, we just have to rely on the Buddha to save us, which Amitābha (the Buddha of a parallel universe) promises to do in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras.

Early Buddhism had its own answers to this question, but not all of them seem to have been passed on, or preserved in the Mahāyāna. In the Pāli texts there are two kinds of paṭicca-samuppāda: one which is described in the Pāli commentarial tradition as lokiya (this is the familiar 12 nidāna sequence) and one which is described as lokuttara (which I sometimes call the upanisā sequence). The result of the nidāna sequence is cycling through saṃsāra - i.e. through life after life. The result of the upanisā sequence however is liberation from saṃsāra.

I have already blogged about one of the upanisā sequence texts from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (see Progress is Natural), and published a much broader survey (The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.) In this post I want to look more at the relationships between the members of the sequence. In AN 10.2 this relationship is described as dhammatā 'natural'. No act of will (cetanā karaṇa) is required. So for example someone who is virtuous does not need to for an intention to have a clear conscience, it is a natural consequence of virtue because there is nothing to regret, no need for remorse. Each step occurs as a natural consequence, and one thing leads to another with liberation as the natural consequence of practice.

This conceptual way of getting across the process of how getting free of saṃsāra happens is all well and good. However some people are better able to understand things through the use of images and symbols, and indeed there is a layer of meaning that seems only to be brought out in this mode of communication. Several images for this process are preserved in the Pāli texts. The one most likely to be familiar occurs right at the end of the Upanisā Sutta and involver water falling on mountains, gradually accumulating into larger streams and rovers as it flows down to the sea. Sangharakshita has used this image in A Survey of Buddhism (p.137) for instance. [1] So hopefully it will already be familiar. Another, rather less felicitous simile occurs at AN 6.50 (PTS A iii.359) involving a tree. I have discovered a third simile, that I do not believe has been remarked upon before, in the Himavanta Sutta SN 46.1, PTS S v.63:
Once at Sāvtthī. Monks the nāgas depend on the king of snowy mountains to increase their substance, and account for their power. Increased and empowered they descend into small pools, then into large pools; then they descend into small rivers, and then into large rivers; and finally they descend into the great gathered waters of the ocean. Thus their body becomes great and full. Just like that, monks, the monk depending on virtue, supported by virtue, seriously takes up the practice of, and produces, the seven factors of awakening and attains the greatness and fullness of them.
The simile is somewhat similar to the one in the Upanisā Sutta, but here the mythic nāgas are the ones making the progress. In Pāli nāga frequently means elephant, but can also mean any large or particularly impressive animal. And it is in this sense that it is usually applied to the Buddha. However the nāgas were also local animistic deities, often associated with water, but sometimes also with trees. In many ways they personify the water and the life giving properties of it, as well as the fertility it engenders. Nāgas often take the form of serpents - the symbolic connection with serpentine rivers sees obvious. Since snakes often live in burrows under the earth, the nāga also has chthonic resonances - they are creatures of the underworld. [2]

In this simile the nāgas seem to represent the water itself - the nāgas enter (otarati -literally 'go down to, descend') each body of water in turn, and come to the collected waters of the ocean (mahāsamuddasāgara) where they achieve greatness (mahantatta) and fullness (vepullatta). The water depends on the king of snowy mountains (himavantaṃ pabbatarāja) because spring thaws fill the lakes and rivers.

The message here, as in some of the upanisā sequences in the Aṅguttara Nikāya is that virtue is the basis (nissāya) for the way of life leading to liberation. With virtue as a basis then the other steps follow naturally. I think it's important to be clear that this is not a general statement. I see the context for this simile, and the other upanisā suttas, as being a reassurance to those who are practising Buddhism assiduously. Virtue on its own is in fact not enough, but I need to make another point before I can properly address this.

Here the simile likens the water/nāgas flowing down from the snowy mountains to the ocean to the monk who practices bojjhaṅgas 'the limbs (aṅga) of awakening (bodhi)'. These are mindfulness (sati), investigation of mental states (dhammavicaya), energy (viriya), rapture (pīti), serenity (passadhi), concentration (samādhi) and equanimity (upekkhā). Pursuing and attaining these states (dhammas) leads to liberation.

Note that at SN 45.151 the path is described in terms of the aṭṭhāṅgamagga 'eightfold path'. The conclusion is that the progressive nature of the path is not limited to one doctrinal formulation but is a general feature of Buddhist methods. That said, however, it is clear that the bojjhaṅgas and the upanisās share several terms, specifically:
bojjhaṅga... pīti - passadhi - samādhi ...
upanisā...... pīti - passadhi - sukha - samādhi ...
These terms are clearly related to meditation. In fact I suggest that they imply an active engagement with meditation. The Buddhist tradition is clear that generally speaking virtue is necessary but not sufficient for liberation. It is only implied in the upanisā sequence, but the implication is clear: virtue feeds into success in practising meditation which in turn finds its fruition in liberating wisdom.

It is intriguing that this teaching appears to have been lost at some point. As far as I know the teaching is not found in any Mahāyāna text, and though there is an upanisā sequence in the Visuddhimagga it plays no prominent role there, being mentioned only once and then only in passing. As a result other doctrines had to be developed which showed how liberation is possible: ideas like Buddha seeds, Buddha nature, and interpenetration all seem to address this issue. As Carolyn Rhys Davids remarked in 1922,
"How might it not have altered the whole face of Buddhism to the West if that [upanisā] sequence has been made the illustration of the causal law!" [3]
And not just the West! How different the face of Buddhism might have been if this doctrine had gained or perhaps retained prominence. If it had been clear from the beginning that progress to liberation is a natural outcome of virtue and practice, then how many of the doctrinal innovations that now seem distinctive would have been composed? I think it is one of Sangharakshita's great contributions that he recognised this long lost doctrine and made it a central plank of his teaching, correcting perhaps 15 or 20 centuries of neglect.



  1. Sangharakshita. (1993) A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Windhorse. Sangharakshita cites Carolyn Rhys Davids translation from Book of Kindred Sayings, vol.II, p.25-6.
  2. Sutherland, Gail Hinich. (1991) The Disguises of the Demon: the Development of the Yakṣa in Hinduism and Buddhism. State University of New York Press. (esp p.38-43)
  3. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. and Woodward, F. L. (1922) The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Saṃyutta-nikāya) or Grouped Suttas. (7 vol.) Oxford : Pali Text Society [1990]. Part II, ‘The Nidāna Book’ p.viii.

04 December 2012


Another article of mine has been published. This time in the newly revamped Western Buddhist Review. BTW I am now a member of the editorial board of the WBR. Finishing these more in-depth articles was one of the main reasons for giving up blogging.

The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭicca-samuppāda. Western Buddhist Review. 6, Dec 2012.

This article surveys the Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭicca-samuppāda in the Pāli Nikāyas, with some reference to Chinese parallels, exploring the similarities and differences between the presentations to further elucidate the doctrine which has been at the forefront of the teaching of Sangharakshita and the Triratna Buddhist Order. English language sources are also surveyed and critiqued. Most writing to date has focussed on a single text, the Upanisā Sutta, which is shown to be unrepresentative of the class as a whole, and a new locus classicus is suggested in the Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta. The Spiral Path is seen to conform to the general outline of the Buddhist path as consisting of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

My friend Maitiu and I are working on a  study of the Chinese Spiral Path texts which can be found in section 5 of the Chinese Madhyāgama. Representatives of the main themes can be found in this block of 14 sūtras. As with other parallels the differences are relatively minor.

15 April 2011

Another Version of the Spiral Path

jacobs ladder as illustration of the Spiral PathI have now identified more than two dozen texts which describe the Spiral Path. [1] Two more recently came to my attention. AN 10.61 and 10.62 are the same except that AN 10.62 adds 'craving for becoming' at the bottom of the spiral. These two texts are significantly different from all other Spiral Path texts. For one thing there is a downward spiral and an upward one, which both seem to operate on the same principle. The nodes on the path are distinctive, though reminiscent of the path outlined in the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2). The central sequence from pamojja to samādhi, a feature of virtually all the other Spiral variations is entirely missing. From the morality related nodes we go into a meditation phase of a different sort. The wisdom phase is collapsed into one node and does not highlight the distinction between the experience of liberation and the knowledge of liberation. What makes this a Spiral Path is the syntax, and the presence of the rain simile. Below is a condensation of the two texts combined. [2]

Spiral path at 10.61 & 10.62
The beginning of craving-for-becoming isn’t clear. And yet craving-for-becoming has a specific condition (idappaccaya).

Craving-for-becoming is fed, and fulfilled by ignorance,
Ignorance is fed, and fulfilled by the five hindrances,
The five hindrances are fed, and fulfilled by the three bad courses,
The three bad courses fed, and fulfilled by the non-restraint of the senses,
Non-restraint of senses is fed, and fulfilled by the unmindfulness and inattentiveness,
Unmindfulness and inattentiveness are fed, and fulfilled by unwise attention,
Unwise attention is fed, and fulfilled by lack of faith,
Lack of faith is fed, and fulfilled by not hearing the good teaching,
Not hearing the good teaching is fed and fulfilled by not associating with good people.

Association with good people feeds and fulfils hearing the true teaching,
Hearing the true teaching feeds and fulfils faith,
Faith feeds and fulfils wise attention,
Wise attention feeds and fulfils mindfulness and attentiveness,
Mindfulness and attentiveness feeds and fulfils sense restraint,
Sense restraint feeds and fulfils the three good courses,
The three good courses feed and fulfil the fours foundations of mindfulness,
The four foundations of mindfulness feed and fulfil the seven bodhi factors,
The seven bodhi factors feed and fulfil liberation through knowledge.

Just as, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains, water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies; having filled the crevices and gullies, small lakes, and the great lakes are filled; the great lakes being filled the small rivers fill up; the small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
In Pāli the terms for the second, upward path are:
  • sappurisa-saṃseva - association with good people.
  • saddhammassavana - hearing the true dhamma
  • saddhā -faith
  • yoniso-manasikāra - wise attention
  • sati-sampajañña - mindfulness and attentiveness
  • indriya-saṃvara - restraint of the sense faculties
  • tīṇi sucaritāni - three good courses (i.e. good actions of body, speech and mind)
  • cattāro satipaṭṭhānā - four foundations of mindfulness
  • satta bojjhaṅgā - seven factors of bodhi.
  • vijjāvimutti - liberation through wisdom
What we have here is a collation of other lists into a coherent spiritual path according to the Spiral Path paradigm. There are some interesting features of these lists. Both suttas begin by invoking idappaccaya 'specific condition'. This is an important aspect of paṭiccasamuppāda. The literally meaning is 'grounded on this' where ida is short for idaṃ 'this' the deictic (or pointing) pronoun. Idaṃ refers to something immediately present to, perhaps even within the grasp of, the speaker in Pāli. The term conveys the idea that what's being talked about has a specific condition (paccaya). Both paccaya and paṭicca come from the verb pati+√i which means 'resting on, foundation'. Although some commentators describe the relation of paṭicca/paccaya as causal, it is incorrect to think in terms of 'this causes that'. The words indicate a conditional relationship: 'with this condition in place, that arises'.

Note that the specific condition for faith is hearing the dhamma. Faith here does not arise on the basis of practice or personal experience, but either through the intellectual understanding, the intuitive grasp of what is heard; or the charisma of the speaker. This seems to contradict the usual modern narratives about faith being based on personal experience (hence the cliché that Buddhism doesn't require blind faith). From experience, as we see in complimentary texts like AN 6.10 or AN 11.12, arises 'confirmed confidence' or 'definite clarity' (aveccapasāda) not faith. I've not seen this distinction made before, and plan to return to this theme in a future post.

In the upward spiral to the restraint of senses the nodes are very similar to other Spiral Path texts (e.g. DN2, SN 55.40, MN 7 etc). Then we have three sub-lists. The three good courses, the four foundations, and the seven bodhi-factors. This is similar to the list found in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) where ānāpānasati fulfils (paripūri) the four foundations and seven bodhi-factors as well, and leads to vijjāvimutti. Note the use of the same verb.

The prefix in sappurisa and saddhamma is a contraction of sant (or Sanskrit sat). This is a present participle of the verb √as 'to be' (related to English is) and means 'being; true, real, actual; good'. The related word sacca (Skt. satya) is 'truth, reality'. So a sap-purisa is a true or good man, in the moral sense (a 'good' Buddhist). Similarly the sad-dhamma is the 'true or correct teaching'.

Vijjāvimutti seems like an unusual term to me. As PED notes vijjā is usually only secondary when it comes to bodhi. The opposite of avijjā is more often ñāṇa 'knowledge'. Vijjā is often associated with mundane, worldly knowledge on the one hand; and with esoteric or occult knowledge on the other. Later in tantric Buddhism vidyā is used as a synonym for mantra. Of course there are the tevijjā, the three types of knowledge which constitute the intellectual content of the Buddha's awakening, though this formulation seems to be a conscious parody of the Brahmanical triveda, the three books of sacred revelations. In his Saṃyutta translation Bodhi translates vijjāvimutti as a dvandva compound "true knowledge & liberation". The latter is justified in a note (p.1904, n68) which points to the phrase vijjā ca vimutti ca at SN 45.159 (PTS S v.52) and (PTS v.329) which says the bodhi-factors fulfil two things, i.e. vijjāvimutti. So vijjā here may well signify seeing through (vipassana) or knowledge & vision of things as they are (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) which results in liberation (vimutti).

Another interesting feature of these two texts is way the nodes are linked. Each sutta gives two sequences, both linked in two ways. Firstly the nodes are the food (āhāra) for next node. Secondly each node fulfils (paripūri) the next. The former, āhara, is possibly interesting because it is a typically Vedic expression - the sacrifice becomes food for the devas for instance, or it can refer to Soma which both feeds the devas, and inspires the ṛṣi. However we must temper this suspicion by reading it along with SN 46.2 which compares the way the five hindrances are sustained by the 'food' of e.g. careless attention (ayoniso manisikāra) to 'signs' (nimitta), with the way that the body is sustained by food: i.e. the metaphor is simply a reference to eating, and probably not a reference to Vedic metaphysics in this case. The latter is the verb used in the rain simile which is found in many other places, but notably in the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23) taken by all commentators to date as the locus classicus of the Spiral Path (though I would say it should be AN 11.2!). The root is √pṛ 'to fill' used in the causative form pūreti 'to cause to be filled' and with the prefix pari- here most likely indicating 'completeness' so that paripūreti means 'to fulfil, to complete, to perfect'. We also have the action noun paripūri 'filled up, fulfilled'. So these two metaphors - feeding and fulfilling - give an insight into the nature of idappaccaya, and into paṭiccasamuppāda.

The kind of progression here, though linked to the more typical Spiral Path imagery, is also typical of some texts which talk about the bojjhaṅgas - the bodhi-factors - particularly the suttas of the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta (SN 46). Indeed we can see the bojjhaṅgas in this context as another distinct formulation of progressive conditionality.

So these two suttas are drawing together material from a number of different formulations of the path: Spiral Path, ānāpānasati, and the bodhi-factors. And presenting them as a sequence to be followed. This kind of progressive path seems to be typical of Buddhism even beyond the early Buddhist texts - Buddhism is a path. Later in the development of Buddhist thought the path metaphor is replaced by other metaphors which emphasise being rather than doing. These constellate around the notion of the tathāgata-garbha which itself draws on Brahmanical ātman 'contained within the cave of the heart'. My (untested) opinion is that doctrines like tathāgata-garbha (and aspects of Yogacāra) had to be innovated partly because the Spiral Path teaching was lost. The loss of the Spiral Path left Buddhists wondering how liberation could be possible for the deluded, grasping and hating individual.

  1. My current list of Spiral path texts includes:
    • Samaññāphala Sutta (DN 2; repeated at DN 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )
    • Dasuttara Sutta (DN 34)
    • Vatthūpama Sutta (MN 7; repeated at MN 40)
    • Kandaraka Sutta (MN 51)
    • Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23)
    • Pamādavihārī Sutta (SN 35.97)
    • Pāṭaliya Sutta (SN 42.13)
    • Nandiya Sutta (SN 55.40)
    • Parisā Sutta (AN 3.96) – partial to samādhi only.
    • Vimuttāyatana Sutta (AN 5.26)
    • Mahānāma Sutta (AN 6.10)
    • Satisampajañña Sutta (AN 8.81; truncated at AN 7.65, AN 6.50, AN 5.24 & 5.168)
    • Kimatthiya Sutta (AN 10.1 = AN 11.1)
    • Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta (AN 10.2 = AN 11.2)
    • Paṭhama-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.3 = AN 11.3)
    • Dutiya- & Tatiya-upanisā Suttas (AN 10.4 & 10.5; = AN 11.4 & 11.5)
    • Avijjā Sutta (AN 10.61)
    • Bhavataṇha (AN 10.62)
    • Dutiyamahānāma Sutta (AN 11.12)
    • Visuddhimagga (Vism i.32)
  2. craving for becoming in AN 10.62 only.

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).