Showing posts with label Upanisads. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Upanisads. Show all posts

15 June 2012

How Buddhist Rebirth Changes Over Time

ONE OF THE FACTS about the foundation texts of Buddhism that most people don't seem to have taken in is that rebirth is an idea with a history. The idea did not spring into being fully formed. And what's more we can discern this history in the Pāli texts themselves. It has been traced in detail by Gananath Obeyesekere in his book Imagining Karma. In this post I want to review the development of rebirth from its primitive form to the full blown received version, basing myself on Obeyesekere, along with some observations and diagrams of my own. The received tradition tends to obscure the variations in the texts, but they can be (at least partially) reconstructed. So this is a kind of archaeology in the spirit of Foucault. A caveat here is that we don't know the absolute chronology of these changes, we only know that they were all preserved, somewhat unevenly, with the fixing of the Canon.

The most basic form of rebirth eschatology is binary. It involves 'this world' (ayaṃ loko) and 'the other world' (paro loko) a way of referring to rebirth that one finds scattered throughout the Canon, and which may have been retained as an idiom long after the binary model had been augmented. In this simple model of rebirth one lives on earth; then after death one rises up to the other world (always up), where one lives for a long time; then one falls back to be reborn on earth again. For example in M 49 the movement is described by this sequence of verbs: jāyati jīyati mīyati cavati upapajjati--being born, living, dying, falling, being rebirth. Rebirth is automatic, and human.

Brahmins also began with a binary cyclic eschatology. Indeed it seems as though rebirth eschatologies were indigenous, or at least endemic, in India. The Brahmin ancestors (or fathers) live in the other world. This cycle is what is referred to as saṃsāra - which means 'going through; course; passage' (from saṃ- 'with, together, complete' √sṛ 'flow, run, move'). The cycle is believed to be endless and beginningless. At this early stage rebirth is not problematised; its just a description of the how the world is. However for the Brahmins going to the next world, like all significant life moments, required the performance of certain rituals. There is no sense of morality being a factor here, but the need for the rituals to be performed correctly had a similar effect. The arrival of morality is the next thing to discuss.

What morality does to any afterlife is divide it. If one has lived well the other world is a place of reward, and if one has not lived well the other world is a place of punishment. In Buddhist texts we find the distinction in the pair of terms 'good destination' (sugati) and and 'bad destination' (duggati. Skt durgati). Another pair of terms are 'heaven' sagga (Skt svarga) and 'hell' (niraya). The word svarga 'shining place' has a long history in the Vedic tradition. It was where the gods lived, but also where the ancestors lived, so in simple terms the other world was svarga. It was situated beyond the sky. However initially there is no clear reference to hell in Indian texts, it's not really until Buddhism that hell plays any definite role in Indian cosmology or eschatology. The word niraya means 'going down'. Because the idea of a subterranean hell appears to be absent from earlier Vedic texts, some scholars have speculated that the idea of hell comes Zoroastrianism (via the Iranian Śākya tribe - see Possible History). Like heaven, the early hell is a place where you go to live out the consequences of the actions done in life, but not a place where one does actions with consequences. We see this explicitly in the Devadūta Sutta (M 130) where one is tortured in hell, but does not die, and therefore cannot be reborn elsewhere until the wicked actions have exhausted their force. Actions carried out in hell appear to have no bearing on this fate.

Note that liberation is outside of space and time and described as "dhuva, sassata, nicca, etc." by both Brahmins and Buddhists. Because the Brahmanical diagram would look just the same I say the two are topologically identical.

At the same time a third option appears, which is liberation (mokṣa, vimokṣa) from going around the cycles. The idea is first seen in literature in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU). By re-jigging the dates of the ancient India texts and placing BU after the Buddhist texts, Johannes Bronkhorst manages to argue that this idea must have come from the śramaṇa milieu. However it's doubtful whether his revised chronology will stand up to scrutiny, and I know of no other scholar who has adopted it yet.  Even so, my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe makes it seem possible that the idea of liberation (i.e. a single destination eschatology) might have been introduced into both milieus around the same time (ca. 850 BCE) from Iran; leaving the current consensus on chronology intact. However it arose, the option of liberation from saṃsāra becomes the major preoccupation of Indian religion from about the middle of the first millennium BCE down to the present. And given how it spread in various guises it must be seen as one of the most influential ideas in the whole history of ideas.

It seems as though these early versions of rebirth eschatology are similar to Brahmanical views, but they might have been more widespread. Rebirth eschatologies are not common amongst the Indo-European speaking peoples (with some ancient Greeks as a debatable exception) but they are ubiquitous in India. So, like linguistic features such as retroflex consonants, rebirth might have been a regional feature. In any case what happens next is the incorporation of some explicitly Brahmanical elements into the Buddhist model. These are not taken on their own terms, in fact presented in distorted, rather mocking ways.

For the Brahmins we meet in the Canon going to Brahmā's realm (brahmaloka) is synonymous with mokṣa or liberation from saṃsāra. Richard Gombrich has argued that the Buddha used brahmasahāvyatā as a synonym for nibbāṇa; which in turn explains the brahmavihāra (literally "dwelling with/on/like God") meditations. Buddhists denied Brahmanical soteriology, and did two things: they brought Brahmā's realm back into saṃsāra, but placed it over the god realm (devaloka) creating a new refined level of saṃsāra (also called ārupaloka); and they multiplied the Creator God into a whole class of very refined beings called Brahmās (plural). On one hand the Brahmās are the highest beings in saṃsāra and people in the texts are very impressed when one of them visits the Buddha, and one of them, Brahmasahampati, is responsible for convincing the Buddha to teach; and on the other hand they are depicted as being deluded about their own nature, trapped in saṃsāra and therefore subject to death. The other thing that happens at this stage is the separation of the spirits of the dead from the gods. The word peta (Skt. preta) has two possible etymologies one which derives it from the word for father (pitṛ) and the other which derives it (as an action noun) from a verb meaning 'gone before' or 'departed' (pra-√ī). In any case this common word for the spirits of the dead who are in the other world becomes a pejorative. Perhaps because the Brahmins made sacrifices to the gods and to their fathers, in Buddhism the preta came to stand for a class of ghosts who were constantly hungry, but unable to ever satisfy that hunger.

At the same time, or perhaps a little later, the idea arose that one could be reborn as an animal. This idea is first seen in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad where the fate of those who do not carry out the rituals is to be reborn as an invertebrate. So at first it appears to be a somewhat chauvinistic Brahmanical idea, but it catches on and is incorporated into the Buddhist eschatology.

Click to enlarge
The final stage involves the emergence of the full-blown version of the Buddhist cosmology with the brahmaloka, devaloka and hell realms being divided into many different layers, and the layers of the first two being related to states of meditation. The devas and their counterparts the asuras undergo their separation and the asuras are sometimes (but not always) given their own realm. In some older parts of the Ṛgveda the two terms deva and asura are synonyms. Varuṇa for example is referred to as both deva and asura. However the contest between them required a winner and loser, and the asuras lost. (In Iran they won and the devas are seen as demons.) Some remnants of the early stories are preserved, often with little alteration, in the sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (the 11th chapter, beginning on p.317 in Bodhi's translation). For the purposes of diagramming the brahmaloka and devaloka are often treated as aspects of a single domain, though Brahmā is never referred to a deva. This gives us the traditional six domains of rebirth: human, deva, asura, preta, hell, animal, as seen, for example on the bhavacakra or 'Wheel of Becoming'. It is possible to go to any realm from any other realm, but liberation is only possible from the human realm.

One of the major changes from beginning to end is the likelihood of a human birth. Initially it is 100% certain. Even in a morality influenced eschatology one always returns to this world as a human being eventually. However, by the end of the process the likelihood of being born human is vanishingly small. The chance compares unfavourably with the probability that a blind turtle raising its head from the great ocean just once a century might put its head through the hole in a plough harness (yoke not yolk!) which is floating about at random on the ocean. While this is not impossible, the chances are vanishingly small. If we take this on face value we have almost 0% chance of being born human. Related to this is the possibility of multiple rebirths in hell or heaven, particularly the former. This suggests a growing concern over the waywardness of human beings and a greater desire to curb behaviour with the threat of exile from humanity in the afterlife. In other words it looks like a hint that rebirth theory changed in response to social change. This should not be surprising as a huge number of Vinaya rules, including the pāṭimokkha ceremony itself, are made in response to public pressure.

In this essay I've been looking at the development of the idea of Rebirth in the Pāli texts. Given the way that kamma changed after the Pāli Canon was closed, it is only reasonable to assume that ideas about rebirth also continued to change. I will briefly mention one other major development in rebirth theory which was the invention of the so-called Pure Land: a parallel universe with a living Buddha. The Pure Land was not simply another level in this universe, not another level of heaven, but an entirely separate and complete universe (though usually lacking the durgati). The parallel universe was not invented because the ancients had insights into the nature of the multiverse or M Theory, it was a theological necessity for those who had begun to believe that the presence a living Buddha was necessary for liberation (the same theological anxiety can be see in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra; and in Peter Masefield's Theravāda oriented book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism.). The Pure Land is a place where liberation is guaranteed by the constant living presence of a Buddha (I would argue that at this point the Buddha has become a god, theos; and that the term theology is entirely appropriate). The resident Buddha in fact creates this parallel universe through their practice of the perfections, emphasising the importance of hard work. Fantastically rococo in many other respects, each Pure Land is entirely flat for some reason. I mentioned Pure lands last week, and it is a fascinating area, but for another essay. Those interesting in how Pure Land theory developed should read this article by one of my favourite authors:
Nattier, Jan. (2000) 'The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 23 (1): 71–102. Online:
Those who oppose the idea that rebirth is implausible often fall back on simplistic arguments like: rebirth has always been accepted by Buddhists, it's been analysed and accepted as true many times. However this argument seldom takes in the subtleties of the history of the idea. Rebirth clearly changes during the period between of the inception of Buddhism and the closing of the canon. Several different versions of rebirth are, as it were, trapped in the amber of the Pāli texts. But rebirth continued to change. The received tradition, as is usual, never acknowledges the variety of the models, nor the subtle contradictions in the collection of texts. Received traditions are all about presenting an internally coherent narrative, and ironing out difficulties. So inconsistent aspects of the textual tradition are reinterpreted or simply bracketed out. This is not a new process. And confirmation bias is not a new problem.

Contrarily those who seek to deny that rebirth was part of the original teaching don't have a leg to stand on. Rebirth is prominent in the older hagiographical accounts like the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, and in the older parts of the Sutta Nipāta. Rebirth is quite obviously an important part of Buddhism in the earliest records we have. The idea that rebirth is somehow in the background, or was added later, is insupportable based on current evidence. That rebirth no longer seems plausible is an entirely different proposition. And one that creates a dilemma that I have no wish to underplay. We have yet to really work out the implications of this news, though it is the news. Understanding that our doctrines have always been quite changeable and responsive to social change, seems to me to be an important factor in loosening our grip on traditional doctrines with a view to letting them go. Everything changes. Resisting changes causes suffering. The only way forward for Buddhism is, well, forward.


23 September 2011

In My Eye

In my eyeI'VE COMMENTED BEFORE on the episode where the Buddha speaks to Bāhiya in a post entitled "In the Seen...". He begins the famous speech with: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard...". This is somewhat cryptic, but I noted that I had found another sutta which acts as a commentary on the Bahiya incident: The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72).

My translation of part of the text says:
Having seen a form with mindfulness [sati] forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance;
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that;

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form,
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.
The gist is that without mindfulness, delight in the pleasures of the senses overcomes our minds and our minds are impaired. As a result we heap up suffering and are unlikely to be liberated - we will remain in thrall to pleasure seeking. Those who are mindful, do not delight in the pleasures of the senses, do not heap up suffering, and for them nibbāna is close.

In contemporary Buddhist presentations we usually find the idea that there is something other than the "seen in the seen" attributed to Brahmins. Compare the text above with this passage from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (CU)
atha yatraitad ākāśam anuviṣaṇṇaṃ cakṣuḥ sa cākṣuṣaḥ puruṣo darśanāya cakṣuḥ | atha yo vededaṃ jighrāṇīti sa ātmā gandhāya ghrāṇam | atha yo vededam abhivyāharāṇīti sa ātmā abhivyāhārāya vāk | atha yo vededaṃ śṛṇvānīti sa ātmā śravaṇāya śrotram || CU 8.12.4 || [1]

Where the eye gazes into space, that is the puruṣa of the eye. The eye is for seeing. The one who experiences "let me smell this" is the ātman. The nose is for smelling. The one who experiences "let me say this" is the ātman. The voice is for talking. The one who experiences "let me hear this" is the ātman. The ear is for hearing.

atha yo vededaṃ manvānīti sa ātmā | mano 'sya daivaṃ cakṣuḥ | sa vā eṣa etena daivena cakṣuṣā manasaitān kāmān paśyan ramate ya ete brahmaloke || CU 8.12.5 ||

The one who experiences "let me think this" is the ātman. Mind is its divine eye. [The ātman] sees the delights and
pleasures of the world of Brahmā, with this divine eye, the mind. [2]
Here CU is proposing that there is something other than the seen in the seen. In the seen we find 'the one who sees', which here is described as both puruṣa 'person' and ātman 'self' - the two are synonymous.[3] It is this ātman which, through the divine eye, sees the pleasures of the world of Brahmā/brahman (the word could mean either the creator god, or the universal essence; a distinction entirely lost in the Buddhist Canon). Elsewhere we find that this self is to be sought within the heart (i.e. through introspective meditation) and having once identified it, it becomes one's whole world (idaṃ sarvaṃ). The analogy I use is that when one falls in love, one's lover becomes one's whole world. We might also think of a meditator absorbed in samādhi, where the samādhi itself becomes their whole world.

Buddhist critiques of this kind of material are probably familiar to Buddhist readers. CU seems to propose that there is an 'entity' behind experience, an experiencing 'person' or 'self' which has the experiences. Discovering this self within oneself is what enables the seer to be liberated. However note that there is a discrepancy. The Brahmin does not aim to see the delights of this world. This is confirmed in many passages throughout CU as well as other Upaniṣads. Ordinary desire and the delights of this world are as much an anathema in the early Upaniṣads as they are in early Buddhist texts. The Brahmin ascetic aims at union with brahman, and thereby escape from saṃsāra. However the Buddhist criticism focusses on paying attention to delights of the senses. Is it because they deny the possibility of anything behind the senses, or have they just missed the point? I think it's not out of the question that the Buddhists simply did not understand the main points of the Upaniṣads and that the beliefs being criticised were not in fact held by Brahmins. Indeed as far as I can see such beliefs are not even attributed to Brahmins in the Pāli texts.

The Buddhist critique of ātman rests on the idea that, as an immanent aspect of brahman, it is substantial, permanent and makes us happy when we find it. Although the idea does not occur in the suttas, compare this description of nibbāna from the canonical Cūḷaniddesa:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
"Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable." [4]
Such a statement is common enough in Buddhism. How is this different? The essential difference here is that Buddhists assume Brahmins to be speaking literally, and take their own almost identical statements metaphorically. This assumption goes unchallenged amongst Buddhists. Why? I suggest that it is because of deep seated prejudices against, and antipathy towards, Hinduism. Our identity as Buddhists is bound up with rejecting Hinduism - even if only nominally. However I do not believe that the Brahmins were speaking literally. Rather, I'd say they were struggling to put into words their own meditation experiences, and were themselves inventing a new metaphorical language to do so, and rejecting their own 1000 year old traditions in the process. There's no a priori reason to assume unsubtly or stupidity on the part of Brahmins. In fact Brahmanical thinking of this period is scintillating and full of subtlety. A few centuries later the Buddhists of India adopted precisely the same kind of essentialist metaphor for tathāgatagarbha! Buddhists also posit a faculty other than the six senses—with no name I've been able to discover—which can discern nibbāna or "the Unconditioned" [sic] or "things as they really are". How is this different from the 'eye' which sees the brahmaloka? Note that Buddhists also adopted this Brahmanical idea of the brahmaloka, but again they took it literally. Which suggests that they simply did not understand the idea. The Buddhist criticisms of those seeking rebirth in the brahmaloka are wide of the mark, and more or less irrelevant from the point of view of the Upaniṣads. This is not to say that criticism is not possible, only that early Buddhist texts are wholly unconvincing in their criticism.

I am not suggesting that there is no difference in the doctrinal positions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. Clearly there are differences. However Buddhists have long exaggerated and distorted these differences. Modern Buddhists, like their ancient counterparts, seem largely ignorant of the Upaniṣads or the nuances in them. And as I come to better understand them myself, I am becoming increasingly doubtful about the idea that Buddhist doctrine is a reaction against Upaniṣadic Brahmanism: one can hardly react against what one is ignorant of. This raises interesting questions which I hope to address in the future.

For an inspiring and vivid account of the Brahmanical religion I heartily recommend this book:
William K. Mahoney. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. State University of New York Press.
I must warn traditionalist Buddhists however: this book may cause you to experience sympathy and respect for Brahmins, which could be detrimental to your Buddhist faith.


  1. Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Sanskrit text from
  2. My translation follows Valerie Roebuck's which is more literal than Patrick Olivelle's.
  3. As an aside I would once again like to point out the mad way we capitalise these words when they are in a religious context. We want to say that 'Self' is somehow different from, more important than, 'self'. Capitalising suggests either something substantial (a thing), or something transcendental (beyond our ability to sense or understand). Sometimes, paradoxically, both . Neither is very helpful. The Sanskrit 'ātman' is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is part of the fun. If we try to make clear a distinction when our source text is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous we are not doing justice to the text: ātman means 'body, and self, and the immanent aspect of brahman.' And especially in the early Upaniṣads all three meanings are found. If we try to fix it as one or other we lose nuances, and we may in fact obscure the meaning.
  4. The CST version of the Pāli Canon does not include PTS page numbers for this text. It is from the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-niptāta. CST p.201.

08 October 2010

Brahmā the Cheat

The Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) has a number of interesting features. The sutta opens with the news that Baka the Brahmā has taken on a wrong view. Baka means 'crane' or 'heron', but it has figurative meaning which is according to Monier-Williams: "hypocrite, cheat, rogue, the crane being regarded as a bird of great cunning and deceit as well as circumspection)". We should immediately be alert therefore that this is a polemic. The animal with the same characteristics in Anglo-European culture is the weasel - so the character's name might be rendered God the Weasel.

The view that Baka has taken up is this:
Idañhi, mārisa, niccaṃ, idaṃ dhuvaṃ, idaṃ sassataṃ, idaṃ kevalaṃ, idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ, idañhi na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjatī’ti; santañca panaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇaṃ ‘natthaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇa’nti vakkhatīti.

This, sir, is permanent, this is enduring, this is eternal, this is everything, this is unending. This is not being born, is not aging, is not dying, is not falling, is not being reborn; and beyond this, there is no escaping.
Our first question is what does Baka mean by 'this', what is he referring to? And because the text moves swiftly on to another tack it is difficult to tell. However there is a clue in the passage I've cited, in the sequence: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. This is not a random sequence, nor are death (mīyati) and falling (cavati) simply synonyms as one might easily assume them to be, nor perhaps are birth (jāyati) and rebirth (upapajati).

I need to backtrack for a bit. In 2002 Gananath Obeyesekere published Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth, which took a broad view of the idea of rebirth. It seems that many cultures develop a theory of rebirth and in its most basic form it involves circulating between this world and another world - usually some form of heaven, often inhabited by one's own ancestors. It has been asserted for a long time that in the early Vedic period there is no evidence of a belief in rebirth, but more recently Joanna Jurewicz showed that the Ṛgvedic mantra 10.16.5 can be interpreted as a request for Agni to send the dead person back again to his descendants (this is discussed in Richard Gombrich's 2010 book What the Buddha Thought). This suggests that early Vedic people had a standard rebirth theory in which the person (actually the man) cycled between this world and the other world.

The 'other world' for the Vedic Brahmin was the world of the fathers (pitaraḥ). This idea is expressed in greater detail in the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads which both tell the story of how one precesses through the cycles. However the simple binary persisted for some time and it is referred to in the Pāli texts (in the phrase 'this world and the next world'). The simplest expression of this cycle does not allow for escape.

Let us now reconsider the Brahmanimantanika Sutta. The sequence, again, is: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. The cycle involves being born (jāyati) and living in this world (jīyati); dying (mīyati) and arising (upapajti) in the heavenly realms. Having lived a long time in the heavenly realms, one falls (cavati) back down to earth to be once again born (jāyati). And so the cycle goes round.

This cycle is called saṃsāra which is a noun from the the verb sam+√sṛ 'flow' - and means to move about continuously, to come again and again. It is this that Baka is saying is "permanent, enduring, eternal, everything, unending". This is his deceit: the view he adopts is that saṃsāra is forever, and inescapable, that we are doomed to go around and around endlessly. The ethicization of the universe that occurred amongst the samaṇa movements meant that the model had to become more sophisticated, but I will leave that thread for now. But the idea that one could escape from the rounds of rebirth (or redeath as it is sometimes called) must have seemed extremely radical. Indeed the Upaniṣads the idea is introduced to Brahmins by a King or Kṣatriya, and although there is much speculation about what this might mean, at the very least it shows that the idea was new and from outside fold.

Māra steps into the sutta at this point and his contribution at first sight is puzzling. However Māra is sometimes called Namuci, which is a contraction of na muñcati 'does not release'. His role often relates to keeping beings in saṃsāra. Māra as an archetypal figure is often associated with our own doubts, he is the inner voice of doubt. So whereas Baka seems to represent the social pressure exerted on us to doubt the possibility of liberation; Māra represents our own doubts.

One of his warnings to Buddha is:
so... mā tvaṃ brahmano vacanaṃ upātivattittho... evaṃ sampadamidam bhikkhu, tuyham bhavissati
He... do not overstep what Brahmā says... [or various evils] will befall you.
This is reminiscent of the debate scene in BU 3.6 where Gārgī is questioning Yajñavalkya on what the various aspects of the universe are made; and finally asks on what brahman is woven. Yajñavalkya replies
sa hovāca gargī mātiprākṣīḥ
mā te mūrdhā vyapaptat

Don't ask too many questions, Gārgī
your head will split apart.
Gārgī desists, but later in the text another questioner's head does split apart.

Of course Māra also plays the role of Lord of saṃsāra - he thinks of the kāmaloka as his realm, where we dwell at his mercy, which is to say we dwell suffering. Māra is afraid that if the Buddha teaches that beings will go beyond his realm (te me visayaṃ upātivattissanti).

Then the Buddha and Baka have a discussion about the elements. Baka says
Sace kho tvaṃ, bhikkhu, pathaviṃ ajjhosissasi, opasāyiko me bhavissasi vatthusāyiko, yathākāmakaraṇīyo bāhiteyyo

If indeed you, bhikkhu, will be attached to earth, you will be in my domain, in my reach, at my mercy.
This is repeated for a list of elements. Of course the Buddha is aware of this and says that he not attached to the elements. The list of elements is unusual: earth, water, fire, air, beings (bhūta), devas, Prajāpati and Brahmā. Once again I refer the reader to BU 3.6 and the discussion with Gārgī. It goes like this (I'll use Valerie Roebuck's translation, slightly modified)
"Yajñāvalkya, she said, since all this earth (idaṃ sarvaṃ pārthivaṃ) is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven?
On air.
On what is air woven?"
And so on. The list begins the same: earth, water, air. Then we get 'the middle realm' (antarikṣaloka) which may well correspond to bhūta in the Pāli list. Then in BU a list of various devalokas - gandharvaloka, adityaloka, candraloka, nakṣatraloka, devaloka, indraloka - then prajāpatiloka and finally brahmaloka. If we collapse the list from gandharva to indraloka into 'devaloka' (which they are all varieties of) then the list from Brahmanimantanika Sutta and BU are very similar indeed. What's more the list makes more sense in the context of BU than it does in a Pāli sutta, because the Buddha was hardly likely to be attached to Prajāpati or Brahmā.

There is one snafu here. And it is that one of the distinctive teachings of the BU, which we meet at the end of book 3 (3.9.28), is the idea of escape from rebirth:
jāta eva na jāyate ko nv enaṃ janayet punaḥ |
vijñānam ānandaṃ brahma rātir dātuḥ parāyaṇaṃ ||

Born, only, not born again; who could beget him?
Consciousness, bliss, Brahman, grace; the gift to the giver.
It seems that in all of these kinds of references to Vedic ideas in Pāli texts, there is always an element of over-simplification, of parody. One gets the sense that the last thing a Buddhist wanted to do was debate a Brahmin on their own terms - and yet again so many of the converts seem to have been, at least nominally Brahmin.

In Brahmanimantanika Sutta we seem to have some quite clear references to Upaniṣadic ideas. However as I noted in Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman the references are to cosmology rather than to the more central details of the Upaniṣadic thought. It seems as though the cosmologically notions had been popularised, or perhaps more likely that the cosmology recorded in the Upaniṣads represents a popular tradition rather than a specifically Upaniṣadic tradition - I would make the contrast with the identification of ātman and brahman, which is not found in the Pāli texts.

10 September 2010

Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman

It is well known that the teachings on anātman (translated variously as 'no-self', 'non-self', 'no-soul', 'not-soul' with variations particularly in capitalisation of self/soul) are important to the overall Buddhist program of transformation. Several books and many articles have been written arguing for and against various interpretations of the relevant texts - some finding an ātman affirmed, some finding it denied, and some taking a middle way between these two extremes.

It is widely accepted that the teachings on anātman must be set against the background of Brahmanical thought of the day. It is further generally accepted that the texts that have come down to us as the Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāranyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya and Aitareya Upaniṣads, reflect the Brahmanical religion at the time. In the the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) we find references to these four for instance [1]. It is often assumed that the Brahmanical faith formed the mainstream of religion at the time and place, though this is now plausibly disputed (see Rethinking Indian History), and it seems likely that Brahmins and their religion were new comers to the North-east of India, and in fact in the process of absorbing ideas from the samaṇa movements. In any case many people have pointed to passages in the Pāli Canon which show that early Buddhists were familiar with the Upaniṣads - and anatta in relation to ātman is one of the key aspects of this theme.

Just as the central uniting concept across all of the Buddhist texts is paṭicca-samuppāda, the central subject in these early Upaniṣads is the identity of brahman and ātman: the former being the universal essence, while the latter is the manifestation of that universal essence in the individual. As Signe Cohen puts it:
"An Upaniṣad can, most simply, be defined as an ancient text in Sanskrit that teaches that ātman and brahman are one and the same, and that the knowledge of this identity leads to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth." [2]
However at the same time there was a theistic tendency present in the Upaniṣads which gradually became more prominent. In its theistic guise the grammatically neutral brahman becomes the grammatically masculine brahmā, and is equated with Prajāpati 'Lord of Progeny' aka the Creator God. The two terms are often ambiguous: as the first member of a compound they are both brahma-. Additionally the two are sometimes used side by side as if to make it clear that they are not to be considered distinct. As time goes on brahman is used less, and brahmā more.

We know a certain amount about the Buddha's contemporaries from polemics and parodies directed against them in the Pāli texts, though of course such portrayals must be taken with a grain of salt. Jains, Ājivakas and Brahmins are recognisable in the texts from the way they behave and how they speak. However, and this is my main point today: nowhere in the Pāli canon, so far as I can tell, does any Brahmin so much as express an opinion on ātman, and nowhere is the ātman doctrine attributed to a Brahmin. This is a surprising situation since this doctrine is one of the most characteristic and distinctive of that group. A subsidiary point is that while the founders and important teachers of religions are mentioned, Jains for instance talk about former teachers, and while there are even lists of the seven Vedic ṛṣi - the star of the early Upaniṣads - Yajñavalkya - is not mentioned in Pāli.

In Pāli the two Sanskrit words brahman and brahmā have coalesced into the single form brahmā (a masculine noun) which sometimes stands for religious ideals in general (it is often translated as 'holy' or 'divine' for instance), but in our present context always means the creator god. [3] The coalescence may be reflected in the confusion of the declension of the noun, [4] and we do not know whether the single, if somewhat variable, grammatical form in Pāli represents the state of Buddhist knowledge of Brahmanical beliefs, or whether a mechanical process of grammatical change obscured a difference (c.f. my comments on sattva, satka, satva in Philological Odds & Ends III sv bodhisattva). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of brahma- as the first member of a compound, in the context of the beliefs put into the mouths of Brahmins (or indeed into the mouth of Brahmā) there is no clear reference to brahman in any text in the Pāli Canon. [5] I'm not the first to make this observation, but don't have references to hand.

Parodies of the creator god are some of the funniest, and most damning of the Buddhist polemical texts - the creator god is portrayed as a deluded and bombastic fool, afraid to look bad in front of the other gods. The central Brahmanical idea of the identity of brahman and ātman is completely absent and has been replaced by the idea of brahmasahavyata - companionship or union with Brahmā. The word brahmavihara 'dwelling with Brahmā' is a synonym of this. However note that I have summarised Gombrich's discovery that the Buddhist texts seem to have lost the true sense of this allusion before the fixing of the Canon - The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

The clear references to Vedic texts noted by Gombrich and others (including me) have established that the Pāli texts themselves are aware of Vedic concepts. We find the names of Vedic ṛṣi, and Vedic traditions; references to sacrifices, sacred fires, mantras (in particular the Sāvitṛ mantra); references to sacred bathing, to worship of the sun. We find a high awareness of Brahmanical class (vaṇṇa) prejudice. We also find more oblique references to the five fire wisdom, and to Vedic cosmogony (especially as found in the BU and Ṛgveda 10.90). Many of these ideas and practices are still current in India more than 2000 years later! Although sometimes Brahmins are clearly just straw-men and present an inauthentic façade to be knocked down, there are many texts were Brahmins are recognisable even if not labelled as such. What's more the texts themselves record that many Brahmins of various kinds became converts (including prominent disciples like Sāriputta and Moggallana!) so the compilers of the texts had plenty of opportunity to mix with actual Brahmins. We have evidence of increasing Brahmin participation and influence in the Buddhist Sangha - some of which I discussed in A Pāli Pun. The text which most often seems to referenced is the Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad (BU). Those scholars who have tried to determine the geographical locations of the various texts (primarily Michael Witzel) place the BU in the eastern areas of North India in the Kingdoms of Kosala and Vidheha - precisely where the Buddha was active.

A conflicting picture emerges for which I have as yet no explanation. Brahmins in the Pāli texts are either old school Brahmins focussed on the sacrifice, or they are outright monotheists which is usually considered to be a late development - associated with later Upaniṣads or even the Puraṇas. A possibility is that the jaṭila or dreadlocked ascetics (especially Uruvela Kassapa) were ascetic Brahmins - the commentarial tradition certainly considers them Brahmins, though the nikāyas are more ambiguous. They are fire worshippers, some of them show allegiance to Brahmins (c.f. Sela Sutta) and have Brahmin surnames like Kassapa. But what beliefs they espoused is not revealed to us.

The Pāli texts appear conversant with aspects of the Upaniṣads, especially those related to cosmogony; and to Brahmin culture more generally, particularly concern for social class and stratification; and ritual purity. Certainly the subjects of atta and anatta get considerable attention, but they are never linked to the source i.e. the Brahmins themselves. Although we can easily make the cognitive link between a teaching against ātman and a group which we know espoused views on ātman, in practice the Pāli texts never seem to make this link! Indeed the important point about ātman from the Brahmanical point of view is not its eternal nature, i.e. not the fact that it participates unchanged in rebirth per se which is the focus for Buddhists, but its identity with brahman, since it is this identity that allows one to escape saṃsara (with more space I would discuss the proposition that this was by no means universally accepted by Brahmins in the Buddha's day). In short early Buddhists, perhaps the Buddha, but certainly the Early Buddhist texts, seem to have missed the main point of the Upaniṣads. The apparent fact of increasing Brahmanical influence in Buddhism makes this even more difficult to understand. Ironically centuries later they adopted more or less the same idea in the form of the Tathāgatagarbha for precisely the same reasons the Brahmins adopted it - it explains how liberation is possible for someone mired in saṃsara. There are also echoes in such ideas as absolute and relative bodhicitta.

Contra my previous enthusiasm for this idea, I think, therefore, that we must be cautious in accepting the conjecture that Early Buddhists were conversant with the traditions represented by the Upaniṣads. My suspicion is that the teachings on anātman/anatta do not relate directly to the ideas on ātman found in the Upaniṣads; that this is simply a coincidence of terminology, rather than a coincidence of ideology, however this would require a major rethink about the relationship between Buddhism and Vedism. Another possibility is that Buddhists only came into contact with Brahmins at a much later date than we usually allow for. Alternatively the Brahmins in the Canon, especially those who joined the bhikkhu saṅgha, might not have accepted the Upaniṣads - perhaps they moved eastwards for the same reasons that people fled Europe for America in the 17th century.

We must do more work to establish the extent of that Buddhist conversance with Brahmanical thought. Ideally we would go back over the research on ātman in Buddhist texts to date, and try to determine if it does in fact relate to Brahmanical views at all, or whether we need to look to another source.

  1. DN13 records various types of Brahmins: addhariya, tittiriya, chandoka, chandāva and bavhārijjhā or brahmacāriya (the ms. disagree on the last, but there is a lost Brāhmaṇa text called Bahvṛca which would coincide with Pāli bavhārijjha). The chandāva brāhmaṇas are left out of some mss. and the connections are uncertain. Tittiriya and Chandoka correspond to Sanskrit Taittirīya and Chāndogya and to the Brāhmaṇa and Upaniṣad textual traditions of the same name. Although the Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa is lost it is linked to the Aitareya Upaniṣad. Lastly addhariya corresponds to Sanskrit adhvaryu and is associated with the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. These correspondences are discussed in the notes to Rhys Davids translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (p.303, n.2) and in Jayatilleke Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p.479f.
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008. p.39.
  3. A cursory look at the Mahāvastu suggests that it also only uses brahmā and not brahman, or uses brahma- as the first part of a karmadhāraya compound (i.e. as an adjective). The vast majority of uses are in the compounds brahmacariya and brahmacārin. Along with the name King Brahmadatta these account for perhaps 90% of occurrences in the Sanskrit text.
  4. The Pāli treatment of Sanskrit nouns ending in consonants is inconsistent. Our word brahmā sometimes follows the masculine -a declension, sometimes the -u declension; with other minor variations such as a vocative singular brahme and plural brahmāno perhaps drawing on the feminine -ā declension. Other -n nouns such as rājan, and attan show similar variability.
  5. I have sought to identify all nikāya texts where a Brahmin makes a profession of belief. They are:
    • DN 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 27.
    • MN 49, 50, 84, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 108.
    • SN 6.3, 4; 7.1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22; 35.132, 146, 151; 42.6; 45.38; 55.12.
    • AN 3.54, 56, 58, 59, 60; 4.23, 185; 5.191, 192, 193; 6.38; 7.62; 10.119, 167, 168, 176, 177.
    • Sn 1.7, 8; 2.7; 3.4, 6, 7, 9.
    In each case I have studied the text and translated relevant portions of it to be sure I understand it. Interestingly many of the narratives in these texts are repeated two or three times. For instance the story of Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvaja gets three closely related, but not identical tellings at DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I think this tells us that at least three narrative lineages are preserved in the Pāli texts. It may be possible with close study to identify stylistic features in common and tease out other related texts that have multiple recensions within the Canon.

20 August 2010

A Parody of Vedic Belief

Professor Richard Gombrich has been at the fore-front of pointing out that late Vedic beliefs are parodied in the Buddhist scriptures. [1] He has demonstrated in a series of erudite articles that the Buddha must have known the body of teachings that underlie the early Upaniṣads - especially the Bṛhadāranyka (BU) and Chāndogya (CU). This is not to say that these actual texts would have been known to him, because most scholars believe them to be later distillations anyway (rather like the Buddhist texts), but that the beliefs we read in them were known. What kinds of evidence do we have for this thesis? I've been researching what kinds of views we find in the mouths of Brahmins in the Pāli texts and hope at some point to publish the results. My finding so far is that no Brahmin appears to espouse the kinds of views about ātman/brahman that we would associate with the Upaniṣads. However we do find something like those views being put into the words of Brahmā (i.e. God) himself for instance in the Kevaddha Sutta. [2]

In the BU 1.4.10 we find this passage (Olivelle's translation)
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: "I am brahman." As a result it became the whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among the humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: "I was Manu, and I was the sun." This is true even now. If a man knows "I am Brahman" in this way, he becomes this whole world.
Anyone interested in the Sabba Sutta should pay close attention to this verse as this is also the context for that sutta - Olivelle's 'Whole' is a translation of Sanskrit sarvaṃ = Pāli sabbaṃ - but for this essay I want to draw attention to the phrase "I am brahman": ahaṃ brahmāsmi. This is seen by Vedic believers as a kind of credo. It sums up the path according to the sages of the Upaniṣads which is that the realisation that you are brahman is the highest realisation. In this realisation one becomes this whole world (sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati).

In the Pāli Kevaddha Sutta the householder Kevaddha approaches the Buddha to encourage him to perform some miracles and thereby attract followers. The Buddha says that not how he operates. How he does operate is spelled out in the long passage that is repeated in all 13 of the first of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas, but this segues into a story of a monk who, desiring to know where the elements cease without remainder. In order to answer the question he attains super human states of consciousness in meditation and visits the realms of the various devas, moving up the scale until me meets Brahmā himself. Posed the question Brahma can only reply:
"ahamasmi, bhikkhu, brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā vasī pitā bhūtabhabyānan" ti.

"I am, bhikkhu, Brahmā, Great Brahmā, unconquered conqueror, omnipotent, Lord over all, maker and creator, the highest, controller of the cosmic order, and father of all beings past, present and future."
Note that Brahmā doesn't answer the question. It turns out that he doesn't know the answer, but has to keep up appearances because the other gods believe it is true that Brahmā is the omnipotent creator. He takes the monk to one side to explain this and point him back in the direction of the Buddha.

But notice how he starts his answer. If we leave out the 'bhikkhu' he says: ahamasmi brahmā. Compare this to the Sanskrit: ahaṃ brahmāsmi. That the Pāli is a reference to the BU, or at least to the body of teaching recorded in that text, is clear. Although the BU was not written down for many years after the Buddhist texts, the scholarly consensus is that BU represents a body of teachings that predate the Buddha by several centuries. Given the flexibility of syntax in the two languages we are looking at the same statement. Exactly the same except that the Sanskrit has an ambiguity - brahmāsmi can be read as brahma asmi or brahmā asmi i.e. as the neuter or masculine. The first is the abstract universal essence of the cosmos that manifests as ātman in the individual; the second is the masculine creator god. The first usage in BĀU 1.4.10 is the context of a neuter pronoun 'it' (tad), while the second is in the context of a masculine pronoun 'him' (sa), so both senses could be being used here! Gombrich observes that the Buddha has selected the less abstract, and therefore less sophisticated, of the two, i.e. Brahmā as creator god, and that this helps to contribute to the overall sense of this being not just a polemic, but a parody. Johannes Bronkhorst has been very critical of Gombrich's interpretation of this kind of reference as evidence of the Buddha's sense of humour, [3] but personally I think this example is funny. On the one hand the realisation "I am Brahmā" encapsulates the highest goals of religion; and on the other the statement is just an egotistical and deluded claim with no basis.

The ideal of union with Brahmā (brahmasahavyatā) is also found in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) where we find the Buddha informing some hapless Brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvaja [4] that though there own teachers are ignorant of the way leading to this goal, that:
brahmānaṃ cāhaṃ, vāseṭṭha, pajānāmi brahmalokañca brahmalokagāminiñca paṭipadaṃ
I know Brahmā, Vāseṭṭha, and Brahmā's domain, and the way leading to Brahmā's domain.
The Buddha then teaches the meditations we have come to know as the brahmavihāra 'dwelling with Brahmā', though the name is not used here. Brahmavihāra is actually a synonym of brahmasahavyatā. It would be like walking into a Christian church and asking "How many of your priests have been face to face with God? None? I have, and I can tell you how to be in His presence. You don't have to die and go to heaven, you can dwell in heaven right now!" - and teaching the mettābhāvanā! I've often wondered what would happen if we took the Buddha's approach to theistic religion. Forget about opposition and proving that God exists, but just roll with it and teach Buddhism in Christian terms. I think most of us are too afraid of losing our religion, and perhaps lack confidence in our methods, to even try this. And, of course, it would require one to be truthfully in that state of dwelling with God (brahmavihāra). But it is what the Buddha appears to have done.

To those people who claim that Buddhism is a religion which tolerates all views this must come as a shock. Not only did the Buddha not tolerate wrong views, he actively went about subverting them and making fun of people who held them. There are times when the Buddha of the Pāli Canon makes Richard Dawkins seem like an appeaser.

  1. Professor Gombrich's contribution is summed up in his book What the Buddha Thought. References to his individual papers can be found there. The observations I make here has been observed by him previously, but I'm putting them in my own words.
  2. also Kevaṭṭa Sutta. Dīgha Nikāya 11. PTS D i.211. Translation that follows is mine. Pāli text from CST.
  3. Especially in his book Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India.
  4. These two show up in various retellings of this story at e.g. DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I haven't yet done a detailed comparison, but I'm working on it.
image: Brahmā from