Showing posts with label Superstition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Superstition. Show all posts

20 May 2011


swastika or svastika
THE URBAN MYTH that the Nazi swastika goes one way, but the sacred symbol of India goes the other way seems to still be current. Sadly, this is not true. The official National Socialist Worker's Party emblem, adopted in 1932, was the clockwise swastika, and this is often seen on Buddhist images as well. Jains even use the rotated svastika. Both clockwise and anticlockwise are used in Indian religious iconography, and both are found, for instance, in the Tibetan Unicode block: U+0FD5 (right-facing/clockwise), U+0FD6 (left-facing/anti-clockwise). The svastika is also a Chinese character, and is pronounced wàn. If you look at Google maps of Japan you'll see temples marked with the 卍.

In the Western world the swastika - the lucky symbol of India - seems indelibly associated with Nazism. Articles entitled "The Swastika and X" continue to be produced, and all of them examine aspects of Nazi Germany. There's some irony here as the Germans did not call it a swastika but a hakenkreuz 'hook cross' and elsewhere it is referred to as a Greek Cross. In China the association of the symbol with the Falungong movement has caused the Chinese government to react against it as well. [1]

Perhaps because of the Nazi connection in the early 20th century, it seems that Victorian Era sources are largely responsible for forming our views of the symbol. Most sources seem to recycle opinions first articulated in the mid to late 19th Century. In researching the subject I turned up a reference to Cunningham (1854) in The Migration of Symbols, by the wonderfully named Eugène Goblet d'Alviella (1894, but still in print) which also refers to a letter Max Müller wrote to Henry Schliemann and was published in Schliemann's book Ilios (1880). [2] These sources, with Monier-Williams's Sanskrit English Dictionary, seem to account for most of what's on the Internet in English. Note that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it came into use in English only in 1871, but Cunningham (1854) trumps this, and this is a rare case of the OED being wrong!

Despite the negative association in modern times the bent cross symbol appears in many disparate cultures around the world, and throughout history. The symbol is found in Indus Valley seals for instance (pre 1700 BCE), and has been used by Indigenous North Americans, and pre-Christian Europeans including Greeks and Celts. Goblet d'Alviella (1894) seems to see the ubiquity of the symbol as evidence of a single ur-culture that migrated around the world. Many explanations are found for the symbol - that it is a solar symbol, perhaps via a wheel symbol; that it originates in weaving societies, etc. In India, by the time we have good records for it, the svastika is simply a superstitious lucky symbol with no definite underlying symbolism.

The Wikipedia swastika page perpetuates another urban myth about the svastika that can be traced to General Sir Alexander Cunningham via the Monier-Williams Dictionary (1899). MW says s.v. svastika (p.1283a):
"...according to the late Sir A. Cunningham it has no connexion with sun-worship but its shape represents a monogram or interlacing of the letters of the auspicious words in the Aśoka characters."
MW supplies no reference for this claim, but it is repeated across the Internet, and in a variety of otherwise reputable sources. A bit of detective work shows that Cunningham, later the first director of the Archaeological Survey of India, makes the claim in: The Bhilsa Topes (1854). Cunningham, surveyed the great stupa complex at Sanchi in 1851, where he famously found caskets of relics labelled 'Sāriputta' and 'Mahā Mogallāna'. [3] The Bhilsa Topes records the features, contents, artwork and inscriptions found in and around these stupas. All of the inscriptions he records are in Brāhmī script. What he says, in a note on p.18, is:
"The swasti of Sanskrit is the suti of Pali; the mystic cross, or swastika is only a monogrammatic symbol formed by the combination of the two syllables, su + ti = suti."
There are two problems with this.
  1. While there is a word suti in Pali it is equivalent to Sanskrit śruti 'hearing'. The Pali equivalent of svasti is sotthi; and svastika is either sotthiya or sotthika. Cunningham is simply mistaken about this.
  2. The two letters su + ti in Brāhmī script are not much like the svastika. This can easily been seen in the accompanying image on the right, where I have written the word in the Brāhmī script. I've included the Sanskrit and Pali words for comparison. Cunningham's imagination has run away with him.
Below are two examples of donation inscriptions from the south gate of the Sanchi stupa complex taken from Cunningham's book (plate XLX, p.449). Note that both begin with a lucky svastika.

The top line reads vīrasu bhikhuno dānaṃ - i.e. "the donation of Bhikkhu Vīrasu." The lower inscription also ends with dānaṃ, and the name in this case is perhaps pānajāla (I'm unsure about ). Professor Greg Schopen has noted that these inscriptions recording donations from bhikkhus and bhikkhunis seem to contradict the traditional narratives of monks and nuns not owning property or handling money. The last symbol on line 2 apparently represents the three jewels, and frequently accompanies such inscriptions.

The word svasti (स्वस्ति) is a feminine noun probably deriving from su- + asti: where su- is a prefix cognate with the European eu- meaning 'good, well, excellent' and asti is from the verb √as 'to be'. Perhaps through constant use the word asti, originally the 3rd person singular present of √as, came be an indeclinable particle meaning 'existent, being'. Sandhi rules mean that su+asti becomes svasti which means 'well-being', and is used in the sense of 'auspicious, good fortune, luck, success, and prosperity'. In other words svasti is rooted in ancient Indian superstition. Note that in all modern transliterations of Sanskrit व is written va. So how do we come to spell our word swastika with a 'w'? There could be for two reasons: firstly modern Hindi and other North India IE languages transliterate व as wa, and we could be taking the word not from Sanskrit, but from Hindi; secondly Cunningham (back in 1854) was transliterating Sanskrit व as wa as well and other Victorians might have followed suit. The suffix -ka is adjectival and so svastika (स्वस्तिक) should mean something like 'related to well-being'. However in this form we would normally expect the root vowel to change to its strongest (vṛddhi) grade svāstika, and this does not happen in this case.

Müller (in Schliemann, p.346-7) notes that svasti occurs throughout 'the Veda' [sic; presumably he means the Ṛgveda where it appears a few dozen times]. It occurs both as a noun meaning 'happiness', and an adverb meaning 'well' or 'hail'. Müller suggests it would correspond to Greek εὐστική (eustikē) from εὐστώ (eustō), however neither form occurs in my Greek Dictionaries. Though svasti occurs in the Ṛgveda, svastika does not. Müller traces the earliest occurrence of svastika to Pāṇini's grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī, in the context of ear markers for cows to show who their owner was. Pāṇini discusses a point of grammar when making a compound using svastika and karṇa, the word for ear. I've seen no earlier reference to the word svastika, though the symbol itself was in use in the Indus Valley civilisation.

Müller says that the svastika only refers to the right-facing cross , while the left-facing cross is called sauvastika, and incidentally does not believe that the symbol is a monogram (Schliemann p.347). [4] The form sauvastika doesn't make sense to me. If the root vowel underwent vṛddhi (a > ā) then the word would be svāstika; but there are a number of words in MW which have this change: sva > sauva. If it is su undergoing vṛddhi (prior to combining with asti) then the form ought to be sāvasti (su > sau and au + a > āva). If sauvasti is the vṛddhi form, then we'd expect the weakest grade to be suvasti, but it is not. Others also insist on this difference between the two forms, but my impression of looking at Buddhist art is that no differentiation is made by artists. The BBC h2g2 webpage on svastika suggests that the distinction between svastika and sauvastika only dates from the 19th century, though the claim is not referenced. Sauvastika occurs in Sanskrit dictionaries, but not in relation to the symbol - a sauvastika according to Boehtlingk is a Hauspriester eines Fürsten 'The house priest of a prince'. MW suggests 'benedictive, salutary; family Brahmin'.

I would end by saying that the svastika is an element of pan-Indian superstition - a lucky sign. As such we should probably not mourn too much that it was taken over by the Nazis and given an indelibly negative connotation in the West. As modern, Western Buddhists we don't need lucky symbols, and we don't rely on luck. We practice. The svastika is really of historical interest only and there is no pressing need to rehabilitate it. 


  1. Craig S. Smith, "In China's Religious Crackdown, An Ancient Symbol Gets the Boot," Wall Street Journal 8 September 1999, p. B1;
  2. The relevant page references in the online version of Goblet d'Alviella (1894) are incorrect. I have located printed copies in the Cambridge University Library, and supplied correct references in this article.
  3. This story is well recounted in Allen (2002) - see esp. p.214f. I recommend this book. I gather from a brief conversation I had with Charles, last year at a lecture by Prof. Gombrich, that his next book will be on King Aśoka which I'm eager to read.
  4. Goblet d'Alviella (1894, p. 46) appears to use Müller's remarks to contradict Cunningham, but in Schliemann (1880) Müller specifically refers to the Sanskrit spelling, not the supposed Pali of Cunningham. So the two statements are not really connected.

  • Allen, Charles. (2002) The Buddha and the Sahibs. London : John Murray.
  • Cunningham, Alexander. (1854) The Bhilsa topes, or, Buddhist monuments of central India : comprising a brief historical sketch of the rise, progress, and decline of Buddhism; with an account of the opening and examination of the various groups of topes around Bhilsa. London : Smith, Elder. [possibly the earliest recorded use of the word swastika in English].
  • Goblet d'Alviella, E. (1894) The Migration of Symbols. London: A. Constable and Co. Online:
  • Monier-Williams, Monier. (1899) A Sanskrit-English dictionary : etymologically and philologically arranged with special reference to cognate Indo-European languages. [New ed. greatly enlarged and improved with the collaboration of E. Leumann, C. Cappeller and other scholars.] Asian Education Services : New Delhi, 2008.
  • Schliemann, Henry. (1880). Ilios : the city and country of the Trojans : the results of researches and discoveries on the site of Troy and through the Troad in the years 1871-72-73-78-79. London : John Murray.

See Also

Gary A. David. The Four Arms of Destiny: Swastikas in the Hopi World & Beyond.

13 May 2011

Buddha Day

IN THE TRIRATNA MOVEMENT, like many other Buddhist groups, we celebrate the Buddha's awakening about now, to coincide with the 2nd full moon after the Vernal Equinox. We call this festival Buddha Day, and it is trined with Dharma Day, two full moons later in July, and Sangha Day in November (a non-traditional date I think). I note that my local centre is celebrating Wesak this year instead of Buddha Day, and that Wesak has been creeping into our vocabulary. To my consternation I note that our main website has Wesak as the name of this festival as well.

The word buddha is, of course, the past-participle of the verbal root √budh 'to understand, to wake up'. It's often said that Buddha is a title, but in fact it is a description. In calling Gautama 'the Buddha' we are saying that he is someone who has woken up or understood. On Buddha Day we celebrate the fact of his having woken up.

Wesak, usually pronounced with wes to rhyme with 'mess' by English speakers, is the Sinhalese (corrupt) pronunciation of the Pali name of the 2nd lunar month of the ancient Indian calendar. In Sanskrit it is vaiśākha, and in Pali vesākha. The full title should be in Sanskrit vaiśākha-pūrṇimā and in Pali vesākha-puṇṇamī. The name itself has little spiritual significance. Vaiśākha means 'connected with visākha' and visākha means 'branched or forked' from vi- (divided, originally from dvi 'two') and sākha (a branch). And pūrṇimā means 'full moon.' So it just means the full moon day of the second lunar month, in an archaic calender that called the Spring Equinox New Year.

Most South-East Asian countries follow the Sinhalese by calling the festival some phonetic variant of the Pali vesākha. Burma, apparently, uses their own name for the same lunar month: Kason. The rest of the Buddhist world which celebrates the festival usually opt for a local name. In Japan it is hanamatsuri (花祭), literally 'flower festival'. In Tibet they say sagé dawa (sa ga'i zla ba ས་གའི་ཟླ་བ) which is also just the name of the lunar month in which the festival occurs, though their calendar is a bit different. And so on.

So there's nothing special or particularly significant about the name Wesak. The direct equivalent would be calling our festival "May Full Moon"or just "May", and mispronouncing the words slightly.

In India two different Sanskrit terms are used. 1. buddha-pūrṇimā 'Buddha full moon' - where pūrṇimā, again, means 'full moon'; and 2. buddha-jayantī 'the Buddha's victory', where jayantī means 'victorious'. I'm not sure why the feminine is used, but it clearly comes from the present participle jayanta 'victorious' of the verb √ji 'to conquer'. These two at least have the advantage of stating explicitly that they celebrate Gautama having awakened, and jayantī is really quite descriptive. The festival celebrates the Buddha's victory over dukkha ( or death, or Māra, etc.), and it just happens to be on the full moon day of the second lunar month of the old Indian calendar because that's the traditional date.

Calling the festival Buddha Day, as opposed to one or other of the Asian Buddhist terms, was doubtless part of Sangharakshita's conscious break with traditional Buddhism in the late 1960s. In a recent communique to the Triratna Movement he said:
The Triratna Buddhist Order and Community is not a continuation of the Tibetan tradition, or of any other particular Buddhist tradition. The particular iconographic, theoretical, and ritual frameworks of Tibetan or other traditions are not our reference point. This should be plain from the imagery, ceremonies, and rhetoric in common use in the Triratna Buddhist Community.
When I asked him what he though about this creep towards using Wesak he replied:
"So far as I am concerned, it is Buddha Day, to correspond with Dharma Day and Sangha Day. I don’t know how the term Wesak has crept in. It was, however, in common use among English Buddhists, mainly Theravadins, many years ago. I think the Buddhist Society still uses the term."
It's been suggested to me, in a discussion about this issue on Facebook, that one of reasons for using Wesak is that everyone is doing it. And yet for four decades we have been critical of this kind of group-think, of doing things just to fit in. I don't find this reasoning very convincing. It's clear that we are celebrating the Buddha's enlightenment, and not any particular traditional observance.

I've given some thought to this matter and have wondered whether the drift into using a traditional title for the festival is symptomatic of the commodification and commoditization of Buddhism. Commodification is the process of assigning monetary value to something that has previously been priceless: a move from social value to market value. This is one of the most potent forces in Western society at present - so that we truly are in a position these days to know 'the price of everything and the value of nothing' (Oscar Wilde. Lord Darlington, Act III). Commoditization on the other hand is when a different brands of a product become indistinguishable to the consumer. This tends to cancel out decisions based on features and causes consumers to decide on price - often leading to price wars.

If you go to a good book store they will have several dozen books on Buddhism, not to mention CDs and DVDs. Old classics go out of print and an endless stream of new books come out each year. Few of them add much to the gene pool. Most recycle what are becoming clichés. At the same time Buddhism is repackaged as lifestyle advice and sold under various guises. Although some centres operate on a donation basis, most of us have mortgages to pay, so our classes cost money. Of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing. But there is little in the popular imagination to distinguish what we do, from what the local Yoga centre, or the local Mindfulness centre do. The market for meditation and wisdom teachings is becoming commodified. This is fuelled by monism - the belief that all spiritual traditions aim at one truth, that beneath the surface "all is one", and all religions are essentially the same. I don't think price, more than distinctive teachings, drives choices about which tradition we get involved with, but I do think things like physical proximity and convenient opening hours do.

On one hand perhaps some of us buy into the 'all is one' meme, and just want to get along with everyone? Perhaps we don't feel so confident these days and seek safety in numbers? Perhaps we ourselves have lost a sense of our distinctiveness, or perhaps we are afraid that in asserting our distinctiveness we risk rejection by traditional Buddhists (with more accusations of arrogance)? Perhaps we just are not really individuals in the full sense, and are too easily swayed by the popular.

On the other hand the best response to a commoditized market place is to increase the value of the product - so most of our centres offer a range of services. In addition to more or less secular meditation courses, as well as basic classes on Buddhism, and more in-depth and explicitly Buddhist instruction, we teach Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. You also get access to a community of like minded individuals. And of course part of community life is collective practice and celebrations.

So the response and the situation are both complex. And I don't mean to suggest or imply that Triratna Buddhists knowingly or willingly pursue commodification and commoditization - I think the opposite is true, we generally resist it. It's happening around us though, and because it is the mindset of the wider society, we can't help but be influenced to some extent. Most of the people we interact with tacitly support this kind of change because it means that they are materially better off, at least in the short term. We probably unconsciously participate simply by being members of a particular kind of society and culture. I think it's important that we be aware of this trend and resist it. But we also need to resist the blending in and settling down tendency. Our movement began as an explicit break with tradition. We need to be wary of treating tradition as a fall back. Falling back on tradition would be a disaster for us.

And I think adopting the name Wesak is a bit like this. It's not the result of a conscious consensus to change. There's been no discussion about it. We're expressing a sense of lack, or even, from what some people say, a sense of discomfort or even dislike. I'm playing this up a bit to make a point. But also I happen to be in contact with a number of people, almost none of whom are part of our movement, who are very excited about breaking with tradition. They call themselves 'secular Buddhists', or even 'non-Buddhists', and they write wonderful searing polemics of tradition. Forty years ago what Sangharakshita did was radical and caused a stir in the establishment; and yes, even some hatred. His polemics made him very unpopular in some circles (e.g. Forty-Three Years Ago, and Was the Buddha a Bhikkhu?) Right now that same attitude is becoming hot. Once we were the world leaders in this, now we appear to be choosing to fit in. I was attracted to the Triratna Community for many reasons, not least of which was that it was and is a community. But I also liked the zeitgeist, the zeal and zest, as well as the idealism and ideals. I wanted to believe. 18 years on I'm older and more cynical, and perhaps a little wiser.

I hope I'm not merely being cynical in criticising the use of Wesak. It's not a name that speaks to me the way that Buddha Day does. Some of my friends feel differently and it occurred to me that public holidays here in the UK are rather prosaically named. In New Zealand we have Waitangi Day, ANZAC Day, The Queen's Birthday, Labour Day which are full of meaning and history for us. "The May Bank Holiday" doesn't ring any bells for me, while Buddha Day is familiar territory. For Brits it's the other way around.

If I thought anyone would take any notice, I would suggest we have it on the same date each year, the way that Shingon Buddhists celebrate Kūkai's birth on the 15th of June (15th day of the 6th month in the Japanese lunar calendar); or, say, on the second Sunday of May each year. Make a clean break of it. However we seem to be sentimental about the archaic Indian lunar calendar, even when we have almost no comprehension of it. I have to confess that every fact I cite about it here is recently looked up for the purposes of writing this.

The second full moon after the Vernal Equinox of 2011 is on Tuesday 17th May, and that is when I will be celebrating Buddha Day - the Triratna Movement festival celebrating the the Awakening of the Awakened One.


25 February 2011

Gesundheit! Making Accommodations with Custom.

One of the main critiques of traditional Buddhism put forward by Western Buddhists is against superstition. Western Buddhists promote such ideas as: Buddhism is a rational religion; there is coherence between science and Buddhism; Buddhists are naturally atheist; and Buddhism does not require blind faith. That is we say that Buddhism doesn't have the same problems with science that Christianity does, but still offers a solution to the question of 'what is a good life?', and an alternative approach to death which is not nihilistic.

The rebranding of Buddhism in the English speaking world began in Britain in the 1830s. It was helped along by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Edwin Arnold's best selling humanist retelling of the Buddha's life, The Light of Asia, was published in 1879. [1] It's no coincidence that bodhi (literally 'understanding, awakening') is translated as Enlightenment (upper-case E), since the Victorian translators of Buddhism were the intellectual descendants of the European Enlightenment and wanted to explicitly align the two movements. Of course we also have a fair number of Romantics who were appalled at the idea of explaining everything (or anything), and took flight into the realms of the sentiment and imagination where science could not, and would not, then follow. (It can now, but that is another story!)

One consequence of this has been a certain amount of confusion when confronted by traditional Buddhism which appears to be a lot more superstitious and, frankly, theistic than one has been lead to believe it ought to be. Some of us Westerners have been prompted to wonder out loud, with no apparent irony, how traditional Buddhists could be getting Buddhism so wrong. There has been a tendency to see any cultural form which is less than austerely rational as a 'corruption' of the original supremely rational Buddhism. For some reason Theravāda scholastic orthodoxy became the poster child for this rationality, despite a pre-scientific worldview, and well into the 20th century the entire edifice of Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism was seen as a 'later corruption'. The irony is that while we are contemptuous of Asians who have allowed Buddhism to change to meet their changing needs, we are engaged in exactly the same project.

This attitude is a complex stew including ingredients such as Imperialist and Colonialist superiority delusions (aka orientalism; or racism); generalisations from the Protestant critiques of the Roman Catholic Church (and in particular Protestant historical narratives based on the rise, corruption and fall of the Roman Empire); and the fear that with the death of God (pronounced by Nietzsche in 1882) that everything would be permitted, and morality would collapse. Most of these Victorian themes are still unresolved and active, often unconsciously, in British public discourse about religion. Again, there is also an important and influential Romantic trend in Western Buddhism which positively glories in the irrational and superstition, but I won't deal with that now.

A passage from the Vinaya (Vin ii.139) shows that this confrontation with superstition is not a new concern for Buddhists. However the Vinaya seems to have allowed quite a lot of latitude to bhikkhus when dealing with ordinary people. The passage involves "the group of six bhikkhus", a gang of miscreants whose (mis)behaviour leads to many new rules being laid down. At the time they were apparently learning and teaching metaphysics (lokāyata) and worldly knowledge (tiracchānavijjā). The PED suggests that lokāyata means: "what pertains to the ordinary view (of the world), common or popular philosophy", or as Rhys Davids puts it elsewhere: "name of a branch of Brahman learning, probably nature-lore'; later worked into a quasi system of casuistry, sophistry." [2] The word also occurs in Sanskrit and Monier-Williams defines it as 'materialism'. Tiracchānavijjā is literally 'animal knowledge', a tiracchāna is something which 'goes horizontally' i.e. an animal; but the dictionary suggests that tiracchānavijjā means "a low art, a pseudo-science". I take the general drift of the passage to be saying that the 'group of six' monks had become interested in the popular beliefs and practices of the local people, or perhaps had not abandoned their ancestral religion.

The important event in this text comes when the Buddha sneezes while delivering a discourse, and is then loudly interrupted by a number of monks calling out:
jīvatu, bhante, bhagavā; jīvatu sugato

May the Bhagavan live, Sir; may the Sugata live!
This - jīvatu: the verb √jīv 'to live' in the third person imperative - is the Pāli equivalent of saying bless you or gesundheit (= good health). The Buddha asks the bhikkhus: "When 'life' (jīva) is said to one who has sneezed, is that a this reason he might live or die?" They answer "no". He then forbids the monks from saying jīvatu. However this causes the bhikkhus problems because the householders continue saying jīvatu when the bhikkhus sneeze, and are angry when the bhikkhus do not respond in the traditional way. So the Buddha tells them:
Gihī, bhikkhave, maṅgalikā. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, gihīnaṃ ‘jīvatha bhante’ti vuccamānena ‘ciraṃ jīvā’ti vattu’nti

Monks, householders are superstitious. When a householder says 'live Sir' (jivatha bhante) to you, I allow you to respond with 'long life' (ciraṃ jīvā). [3]
Here the Pāli word maṅgalika means 'superstitious, looking out for lucky signs', from maṅgala 'lucky, auspicious, prosperous' (c.f. the word omen). The text seems to suggest that lokāyata and tiracchānavijja are synonymous with maṅgalika. Also in this vein is a short sutta in the Aṅguttara-nikāya where the Buddha makes a distinction between householders generally, and lay disciples (upasaka/uapsikā), saying that an exemplary lay disciple "is not eager for protective charms & ceremonies". [4] We see here the concern, visible throughout the Vinaya, to keep the behaviour of the bhikkhus distinct from householders (gihī).

This superstitious attitude also seems to be addressed by the Buddha in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta, a very well known text from the Sutta-nipāta collection. Although this sutta is spoken to a deva, it includes supporting one's parents, cherishing one's wife and children, and having a peaceful occupation as examples of mahāmaṅgalaṃ (literally 'big luck') 'the highest blessings' or perhaps 'highest performance, great happiness or blessing' (following Saddhatissa's translation notes). Clearly the concerns of the text are those of householders. In the light of Vinaya reading above, we might see the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta as saying these things are 'good luck' rather than 'highest blessing', i.e as a re-contextualisation of the idea of what constitutes luck.

I think this demonstrates one way that the Buddha, or at least the early Buddhists, handled superstition. Direct opposition was unlikely to be very effective, since it was deeply embedded in the culture. For those of us who commit ourselves to Buddhism, it is vital that we examine our beliefs; the conditioning that we have received from family, peers and society, and begin to unravel it in order to free our minds from those limitations. But there's not much mileage in demanding this from people who do not share our commitment. We could rail against superstition, and where we see it as definitely harmful we probably should speak out against it, but on the whole the main thing for Buddhists is dealing with our own belief structures. Buddhism is something we take on for ourselves - e.g. upasampadā the word often translated as 'higher ordination' really just means 'undertaken, taken on'.

Sometimes it's more important to be polite than to be right.



  1. On this subject see: Almond, Philip C. (1988) The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Dialogues of the Buddha, p.166f. Online:
  3. Vin ii.139. ('Live long and prosper' would be ciraṃ jivatu vaḍḍhatu ca)
  4. AN 5.175. See also Thanissaro Access to Insight.

Since writing this I discovered the following in The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan:
"Buddhist studies pioneer Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1834-1922) first translated bodhi as "Enlightenment" and explicitly compared the Buddha with the philosophers of the European Enlightenment" (1882. Lectures of the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by some Points in the History of Buddhism. Hibbert Lectures. New York: Putnam. p.30)

02 January 2009

The Body in Buddhism

The body in buddhism
While on my ordination retreat we studied the Bodhicāryāvatara by Śantideva. This is a core text for the Western Buddhist Order, and also a favourite of the Dalai Lama. It is a Mahāyāna work from probably the 8th century, written according to legend at the great monastery at Nalanda. The theme is the path or conduct (carya) of the bodhisattva and the text is structured around the six perfections. The text is celebrated for the anuttara pūja incorporated into the first few chapters which contains beautiful and elaborate evocations and offerings, but also for the relentless deconstructive arguments of Śantideva. In many ways it is the epitome of late Indian Mahāyāna.

At the same time as studying the Bodhicāryāvatara we were reciting verses from it in our evening puja, and during those pujas we had readings from the text as translated by Andrew Skilton (aka Dharmacari Sthiramati) and Kate Crosby. The readings were very evocative. However at one point I was struck by a series of images which seemed quite out of place. In the chapter on Meditation we find a number of references to the body, and particularly to the bodies of women (the audience for the text having been monastic men). It goes on at some length, and the translators assure us that the language is quite as coarse as they portray it in the translation. Let me quote you a few passages to give an idea:
50. Taking no pleasure from silky pillows stuffed with cotton because they do not ooze a dreadful stench, those in love are entranced by filth.

52. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh

53. You have plenty of filth of your own. Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her that pouch of filth!

59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?

60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount.

61 Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!

(pages 92-93 of Skilton and Crosby)
Hearing these words I found myself reeling. My first reaction was that this kind of sentiment did not belong in our puja, that this kind of language did not belong in our devotions; that in fact this was not the kind of Buddhism I signed up for. Several years have done nothing to change this opinion. In fact I have become more clear that hatred of this type, hatred towards the body, has nothing to do with the Buddhism I practice.

Sue Hamilton follows the development of Buddhist attitudes to the body in his book Identity and Experience. The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. She shows that the earliest texts were in fact quite neutral towards the body. The attitude was analytical - one examined the experience of being embodied dispassionately to see that this was a conditioned experience like any other. There is none of the harping on impurity that we find later. Hamilton associates the subject of purity with Buddhaghosa, but I don't think the great commentator could have been an influence on Śantideva. It had to have been a more general movement.

I have already written about my concerns over ritual purity manifesting as superstition in Buddhism. Where these ideas operate in Buddhism I think we have to see them as having infiltrated from surrounding Hindu culture. In a paper I've had accepted for publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics I argue that the Buddha rejects notions of ritual purity and substitutes instead the idea of ethical purity. Concern with ritual purity was quite general during the Buddha's time with Brahmins and Jains finding it a concern. Everyone has technical terms indicating a 'return to purity' for instance - pratikramana, paṭikaroti etc. It is therefore possible to see Buddhism as a path of purity (visuddhimagga) but only in the ethical sense. Brahminical purity was intrinsic to people by birth, and to actions and substances by their nature. Ethical purity on the other hand depends largely on intention (cetana) - the motivation behind actions of body, speech, and mind are what make an action pure or impure. However it would be unusual to find this particular distinction - the usual one would be kusala/akusala i.e. competent/incompetent.

So there is no justification for seeing the body or it's substances as intrinsically impure or foul. Śantideva describes the body as for instance a "pouch of filth", or as "born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth". The fact is that the religion in which human bodily fluids (including here even mother's milk! ) are seen as polluting is Hinduism. I think the contrast here between western attitudes and caste Hindu Indian attitudes is made very stark by the reference to milk. In Indian the milk of the cow, even bovine shit and piss, are seen by caste Hindus as intrinsically pure and holy, whereas the milk of a woman is foul. If there was ever a traditional idea that we needed to reject this is it. Shit is a disease vector and we rightly avoid handling it, but mother's milk? We see mother's milk as a highly beneficial substance because it bestows health and vitality on the infant. There is no better nutriment for a human infant than its own mother's milk. Mother's milk is a symbol of virtue and vitality in the West. The full breasts of a lactating woman are ancient symbols for fertility and prosperity in our culture.

So on the retreat I took a little stand and made my point to everyone there. I don't think I argued the case well back then, it was a heartfelt reaction rather than a thought out position. I'm hoping that this more thought out essay will make the point more effectively. It's important in the WBO because we have a large number of people from backgrounds in Indian which are these days called Dalit (perhaps a third of our order). I can understand why they want to distance themselves from the former label applied to them and their peers. Fifty years ago they would have been called untouchable because caste Hindu considered their mere touch to be ritually pollutting. People were untouchable on the whole because of the family/community they were born into. Widows also became untouchable on the death of their husbands as is poignantly portrayed in the film Water by Deepa Mehta.

The practice of untouchability was outlawed when India became independent largely due to the efforts of the great leader Dr B R Ambedkar, although it has not disappeared from India where Dalits are regularly persecuted and sometimes killed. Dr Ambedkar along with hundreds of thousands of his followers became Buddhists, and these people make up the bulk of the Indian wing of the WBO (although I think the WBO is quite a small part of the greater Ambedkarite movement). As such I think we contemporary Buddhists, especially we FWBO Buddhists, have a special duty to identify and root out ancient prejudices, and especially any notions of ritual impurity.

A person and their body is as only pure or impure as their actions, they cannot be born impure, nor be made impure by contact with supposedly impure substances. There is no reason for describing the body as impure: it runs counter not only to the spirit of Buddhism, but to the politics of fighting oppression in India. I hope that this essay generates some interest and discussion amongst my colleagues.


Further reading:

26 January 2008

Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?

Many Indian ideas about ritual purity, especially with respect to the body, have made their way into contemporary Buddhism. I want to look at a few examples of this. An examination of the origins of these ideas in Brahminical thought may be cause to re-assess the relevance in contemporary Buddhism.

A couple of years ago I was showing a friend of a friend (a follower of Tibetan Buddhism) some of my thangka paintings. One of these hung at the foot of my bed so I could see it first/last thing. "You don't sleep with your feet pointed at that do you?" - there was a note of shock in the question. "It's very bad karma" she said. I pondered this for some time before coming to any understanding of it. I knew already that Buddhists were not supposed to point their feet at shrines. But why? Because in India the feet are considered ritual impure. But again why? The feet are ritually impure partly because they are in contact with the earth, and the dirt and shit that cover it. But again why the ritual impurity? I think it goes back to the famous Purisa hymn in the Rig Veda. In this cosmogonic myth the four social groups - Brahmins, Ksatreyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras - are born from the various parts of Brahma's body. It later versions it is Prajapati's body. The Shudras, serfs, are born from Brahma's feet. The Shudras are not the lowest rung on the Hindu scale, but they are the lowest rung of the people who are not considered outcasts or untouchable. Shudras are not permitted to enter temples, nor to hear the sacred mantras. This is so much a part of Indian culture - one touches the feat of a respected elder in greeting for instance - that even the new Buddhists honour it though they are frequently from backgrounds which high caste Hindus consider beyond the pale, so ritually polluting that their touch requires elaborate purification rituals involving ironically cow shit and piss. When in 1923 Dr Ambedkar drank from a tank in a Brahmin village, they tipped a load of cow shit into it to "purify" it!

But feet are not ritually polluting in Western cultures. Although foot odour is universally considered uncool at best, it is the odour not the foot itself that offends. The foot is by contrast sometimes even an object of desire in the west! Where I come from it is de-rigour, and completely natural, to go about in bare feet in summer. So why am I adopting this Brahminical value into my practice of Buddhism, which if anything denies the validity of notions of ritual purity?

Right shoulder to stupa
In the centre of the warehouse I worked in two years ago is a 7m high stupa which is both beautiful and impressive. Buddhists traditionally keep a stupa, or any revered object or person, to their right-hand side. Some people who work in the warehouse go to elaborate lengths to go around the stupa clockwise, to keep right shoulder to the stupa. Some go about it quietly, while others are (at times) vocally critical of people who dare to go anti-clockwise, showing their left-side to the stupa. But why I asked? What is the point? Because, I was told, it is traditional. I am not superstition person and I found this puzzling. Again I think this goes back to Brahminical ideas of ritual purity. Even today in India the left hand is impure because it is used for cleaning the anus after taking a dump. The Indians use water and not toilet paper for this. So the left hand is unclean, often quite literally, and one eats with the right. Hence if you revere someone you keep your left hand away from them. Additionally the outcastes were required to dress with their left shoulder uncovered, while the higher castes uncovered their right shoulder - this uncovering the right shoulder is a constant, if entirely incidental, theme of the Pali Canon.

Now I'm right handed and I wipe my arse with my right hand. So by the logic of ancient India my right side is impure and I should either go clockwise around the stupa, but walk backwards; or go the other way. But after I wipe my bum I wash my hands and consider them clean at that point. No literal or ritual pollution! My own belief that it is the quality of awareness of the significance of the stupa which is important - and I can go any way around the thing if I have the right attitude.

Tantra and ritual impurity.
My other example emerges out of the antinomian practices of the Tantra. Antinomian means "released from moral obligations". It originates in a Christian context, but with reference to Indian religion it relates to actions which are ritually impure. So the tantric yogin chooses a consort from the untouchable castes, frequents a cremations ground and messes about with bones and skulls, and consumes meat, alcohol and sexual fluids. These are some of the most polluting things a caste Hindu could do. The point is that the Buddha does not make distinctions like pure/impure . So the yogin experiences these intensely polluting activities with a view to maintaining their equanimity in the face of very strong provocation, to overcome their cultural conditioning around the notion of pollution. For the first time there is a sense of cross-over with western culture. We too have taboos around death that mean human remains are disposed of very purposefully, and according to laws and special customs. However contact with death is not ritually polluting as it is for the Brahmin - it does not require lengthy ritual cleansing for instance. Meat eating, drinking liquour, and even the odd mouthful of sexual fluid, are not particularly taboo in western society. Having sex with a low class person might be seen as tacky in some circles, but again not ritually polluting in a way that requires ritual cleansing.

So it would seem that adopting Indian antinomian practices which are entirely "nomian" (if there is such a word) in the west is a bit pointless. And yet the shrines of Westerners, and Westerners themselves, are adorned with skulls, and bones, and other reminders of death - although I think the significance is lost on most people who simply see them as reminders of impermanence. We make a big deal about the "left handed" tantra, which once again invokes the Indian left-hand-bum-wiping thing and involves acting out polluting actions, and contrast it with right-handed tantra in which one only imagines doing the dirty thing. But to us those things aren't dirty, we aren't ritually polluted by them. Some things we may find unethical, and in that case we may feel remorse if we eat meat or drink liquor, it is not the same thing as ritual pollution.

I doubt that traditional Buddhists reading this are going to want to change the tradition. Some of these things go very deep - are embedded in our canons of scripture for instance. But the Buddha was quite critical of superstition (mangalikā) and we can read for instance the Mangala Sutta as a critique of superstition and a call to just practice the Dharma - i.e. to make yourself pure by good behaviour, not through rituals; have good fortune (also mangala) through reaping the benefits of good behaviour, not through omens, divination, or other superstitions and/or rituals. Let us not turn back the clock on the age of reason in adopting this ancient religion, let us investigate the origins of superstitions and decide whether they are still relevant, and move on if they are not.