Showing posts with label khandhas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label khandhas. Show all posts

21 March 2014

Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas.

image via theconsciousprocess
Back in January 2014 I wrote an essay exploring the idea that there were irreconcilable pluralities in Buddhist metaphysics. In that essay I focussed on the poor fit between Buddhist ethics and the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda. And I said that "On the face of it this problem ought to have produced a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, though to the best of my knowledge it never has." I no longer believe that it did not create a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, in fact on further reflection we can see a number of high profile responses to just this problem.

One example is found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakā Kārikā where he has noticed the problem of what I call "action at a temporal distance".
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK 17.6 //
If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?
Nagarjuna's answer insists on the metaphysics of emptiness which has the same disconnect from moral imperatives that I've already described.

Having finished my essay on the disconnect between ethics and dependent arising I serendipitously found a passage in the Majjhima Nikāya which asks almost the same question as I had been asking. In the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (The Great Discourse on a Fullmoon) a certain monk asks a serious of question about the pañc'upānānakhandha or five masses of fuel (aka the five aggregates of clinging).

The answers add up to an exposition on how to meditate on the khandhas. We learn that the khandhas are rooted in desire. And that the desires take many forms related to how the khandhas might be arranged in the future. The khandhas are defined in a circularity: any kind of form is rūpakhandha, etc. Then we discover that the four elements (mahābhūta) are the condition for rūpakhandha; that contact is the condition for vedanākhandha, saññākhandha and saṅkhārākhandha; and that nāmarūpa is the condition for viññānakhandha.

Crucially sakkāyadiṭṭhi, literally the view that there is a true (sat) substance (kāya), though more often translated as 'personality view', comes about when we relate to the khandhas in terms of attā or 'myself'. With respect to each of the khandhas we may experience pleasure and joy; but we must remember that each khandhas is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial; and "escaping" from each comes about when we do not feel desire in relation to it, which in this context seems to relate to anxieties about future existence. In order to remove all tendencies towards thinking in terms of a substantial self, including "I making" (ahaṃkāra), "mine making" (mamaṃkāra) and "the tendency to opinions" (mānānusayā), one must not relate to the khandha in terms of etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā 'this is mine, I am this, this is my self'.

Although the order does not match up we can deduce that the two sets of three are related:
  • ahaṁkāra leads to the thought eso ahaṃ asmi 'I am this'.
  • mamaṁkāra leads to the thought etaṁ mama 'this is mine'.
  • mānānusayā leads to the thought eso me attā 'this is my self'.
Now having heard this it occurs to a certain monk (presumably the same certain monk though the pronouns are unclear) who says:
iti kira, bho, rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā; anattakatāni kammāni katham attānaṃ phusissantī'ti? (MN iii.19 = SN iii.82)
It has been said, Sir, that form is without self, sensation is without self, apperception is without self, volition is without self, discernment is without self: which self will be affected by actions performed by a non-self?
We don't know the background of this monk, but we do know that he can't be a Brahmin, because it is explicit in Brahmanical beliefs about the ātman that it is not affected in any way by worldly actions and such a question would not occur to a Brahmin. More likely he is a Jain. In any case this question is similar to the one I raised about morality. If there is no self, then who is affected by actions? Although it breaks protocol to ask this, it's important to see that it rests on an understanding of moral imperatives. The question suggests that the whole system is too abstract to be a motivation to good behaviour.

Unfortunately the answer supplied in the text does not address the question directly, though it does give us an indirect hint about the author of the text. The Buddha is (apparently) concerned that some idiot (or perhaps the monk himself; again the pronouns here are quite confusing) might see the question as a conceited attempt by a contemptible man to usurp his place as teacher (the terms are quite gross). It seems to me that such a paranoid response is far from characteristic of Gotama in the Pāli literature. He is usually supremely confident of his place in the world. Next he has the monks rehearse the same teaching in a slightly different way. It is simply emphasised that what is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial cannot be one's self, and that the khandhas are all characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality.

There is a tautology involved in the last of these because although I'm translating it as "insubstantial" the word is anattā. Of course what is anattā is not attā, this is simply what the word anattā means. The Buddha simply says that what is not the self cannot be the self. Which is clumsy of the author.

While the bhikkhus were delighted and satisfied by these words, we have reason for dissatisfaction. It's clear enough what is intended here. We have the the outline of a meditation practice involving reflection on the khandhas. If one is thinking in terms of khandhas, then this is how one ought to think about them. But how does this translate into other areas of Buddhist thought? Particularly ethics? And why is ethics so often taught in terms of a sense of self that is substantial and stable over lifetimes (as in Jātaka stories)? Even if it is a metaphor, why is it a helpful metaphor? Why is there no answer?

What our interlocutor was doing was trying to shift the discussion. He was saying that if this is what the sense of self is about, then how does karma work? If there is no self then who experiences the consequences of actions? We've already see that the question of "who suffers" (ko vediyati) is an "unsuitable" or even "unhealthy" question (no kallo pañho SN ii.13). The Buddha simply emphasises phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā 'sensations arise from the condition of contact; contact from the condition of greed.' This is how we teach metaphysics, but it's not how we teach ethics. 

The Buddha's answer suggests that whoever composed this discourse felt quite uncomfortable about the shift and was unable to answer it. He could only repeat himself. In the Pali texts people who ask the kinds of question I'm asking here are given a hard time. They are rebuked and chided. So far I've found no patient explanation of how everything fits together, just the answer that it's an unsuitable question. This appears to be the approach of modern writers on Buddhism as well. But if we are at all interested in the notion of Buddhism as a single system of thought stemming from a single mind then a major disconnect like this ought to be important and interesting.

One solution I proposed was that the attempts to see or outline unity in these teachings might be a cultural artefact for us. We have a predisposition to see everything in big bang terms, i.e. in terms of a singularity from which all the diversity we currently see must have developed from zero diversity in the past. It's a kind of parallax error, like the illusion of train-tracks converging in the distance. We have embodied this conceptual error in the tree metaphor which depicts evolution as a linear process with binary branches that always diverge and never converge. Except that everywhere we look at evolution we do see convergences. Our very cells are the result of the convergence of at least three kinds of bacteria that all contributed to the structure of eukaryote cells in varying ways and some of which, like mitochondria, retain their identity billions of years later. This process is now known as Symbiogenesis and was established by Lynn Margulis.

Similarly there is clear evidence that Buddhism is not the result of a single man having thoughts over the course of his lifetime, but is instead the result of a culture or even a complex of interrelated cultures imperfectly assimilating and syncretising a variety of elements. This does not rule out an historical Buddha, but it does mean that we must attempt to see him in context. 

In discussing this disconnection between theory and practice with my friend Śākyakumāra he came up with an interesting analogy. We might think about the distinction between describing what someone does when they drive a car, and the idealised instruction we give to new drivers. There is a single goal, a single activity, but two view points. What we are describing above is the practice one does after cultivating samādhi or at least samatha, while the basic teaching on ethics focusses on mechanics. When we are driving and turn a corner, we do not think, now I'm turning the steering wheel which transmits a rotary action through a rack & pinion and causes the wheels to turn in a different plane (rolling the steering wheel causes the vehicle to yaw), or about braking and shifting gears and the other mechanical tasks involved. One simply does the action, and very often one's attention is elsewhere watching the road, ensuring we are on the correct route, scanning for dangers, etc. But when learning to drive one's attention is divided between coordinating limbs, consciously working the machinery, and scanning the environment (which is why most of us first drive a car in an empty car-park). It is essential to be clear which is the brake and which the accelerator and when to use each, and at first this must be done consciously.

In this view the teaching on ethics is purely pragmatic. It need not be perfectly philosophically integrated with other aspects of the Buddhist worldview because the intention is merely to get a practitioner up to speed on how to approach practice. Once they are practising effectively the question of how to behave is less of an issue since mindfulness and empathy become the best guides to how we treat other people. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mystify these qualities and put them on a pedestal where they seem out of reach. But every human being has mindfulness and empathy in abundance. Being social animals we are evolved to treat our peers and colleagues well under most circumstances. One of the main reasons we might not is that we are brutalised by living unnatural lifestyles in large, over-crowded, industrialised, urban societies. Evolution works over 10,000s of generations, whereas we have utterly changed our living environments in a matter of 10,000 years resulting in a certain amount of confusion.

We are usually taught that Buddhism is a smoothly integrated whole, but that is an illusion created by pedagogues. Once one moves out of the spotlight of ideas that teachers wish to highlight (for whatever reason) one almost immediately encounters matter which does not fit whatever paradigm one is working with. I suggest that ethics remained a separate department that was never fully integrated into Buddhism. This statement may elicit surprise from many who see ethics as central to Buddhism, but in Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics I tried to show why this might be so. In that essay I concluded:
"In the face of the plurality of doctrine, usually the best we can do is select a subset of the teachings that hang together and gloss over the discontinuities. A dense and complex jargon combined with an anti-intellectual discourse helps us to obfuscate such problems. Even those who study the texts more directly are doing so through cultural and historical lens that predispose them to see unity and continuity and to gloss over evidence of the opposite."
I find it difficult to take in the vast sweep of Buddhist ideas across time and space. It's a vast and complex field of study. Most of us can only take in a small part of it. Most Buddhists are probably happy with their little subset of comfort and/or inspiration. Exploration is within strict limits defined by confirmation bias (which recall is a feature of reason and not a bug). Texts are authoritative to the extent they confirm our views and are myth/legend/metaphor/interpolations to the extent that they disconfirm our views. We're easily disconcerted, much like the author of the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta and all too willing to plaster over any cracks that appear. But to me the cracks are the interesting part.

One of the advantages of study is that it helps to identify where we are comfortable and where we are uncomfortable. It can help identify assumptions and presumptions. The kinds of disconnects I'm identifying are hard to see because they are cracks that previous generations have plastered over. They're mostly unwelcome because they force us to consider that our religion is less than perfect and that is an uncomfortable feeling. But the truth is important if sometimes unpalatable and discomfort is the starting point of the Buddhist religion.


22 March 2013

Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics

SKANDHA in the Sanskrit Dictionary (Comparing MW and Apte) primarily means 'bough, branch; shoulder bone (scapular); break, fracture.'  It also means 'a branch of knowledge', 'a chapter in a book', and 'a division of an army' which are obvious metaphorical extensions. Added to this the word apparently means 'a troop or multitude', which is not obvious from the etymology. The supposed root is skandh 'to collect'; sometimes confused with skand 'spring, jump, spurt'  from PIE *skand (AHD) or related to Latin scandare 'to climb, ascend, descend'. Frankly it would seem that the dictionary definition and etymology are inconsistent, except, funnily enough in the Buddhist sense of a 'collection'. However in point of fact the skandhas are not collections at all, and I can't help but wonder if 'collections' have been tacked on here precisely to accommodate Buddhist usage, thus fouling the trail.

Clearly the main meaning of 'branch' (or a tree or a line) is not related semantically to 'collect', but etymologists also draw attention to semantic similarities with Greek κλάδος (klados) 'branch, shoot, an offshoot' (CSED); from PIE *kldo- from *kel 'to cut' and giving rise to English 'calamity, clade, clast, gladiator' etc. The problem here is that, while the semantic field is very similar, the phonetics don't seem to be related.

Another possibility is that skandha comes from a PIE root *(s)k(h)ed or *sked (AHD). It has a form  nasalised form *skend and partly covers the semantic field 'to split' - which would connect it semantically with *kel 'to cut' This root is not well represented in Sanskrit, but is the root behind English words such as 'scatter, shatter and shingle'. If this is the PIE root then it is not well represented in Sanskrit either. I think we have skandha < *skand 'to split off, to branch' and that skandhayati is a denominative. I don't see any other related forms. This rarity of form may have led to confusion with Sanskrit skandh and (homonymous) skand 'to jump'. However I can't be sure of this without a lot more research.

Thus the etymology of the word is obscure. However I think we can agree that 'aggregate' as a translation is madness, and that other modern translations of Buddhist usage (group, mass, heap) are almost equally unhelpful. If indeed skandha were related to Greek klados, at least semantically, then we might translate skandha as 'branch'. The skandhas, then, might be thought of as the five 'branches of experience'. This might be interesting in light of the word prapañca (On the origin of the word prapañca from the branching of the hand into five fingers see: Translating Prapañca). We might postulate that prapañca (becoming fivefold) is related to the five branches of experience, though clearly some work would be required to establish this speculation. Since this is a blog rather than an academic publication I can take liberties and so for this essay I translate skandha as 'branch'; as one of five branches (pañcaskandha) of experience; it's justified by the dictionary and, as we will see, it works pretty well here. I would note that the branching of the end of limbs into five digits is universal amongst animals. What appear to be exceptions (horse hooves etc) turn out to have have fused two or more of the five digits and embryonic forms often begin with five distinct digits. This ought to be a very common basis for metaphors and we should not be surprised to find it.

Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought, 2009) has suggested with reference to the term pañc'upādāna-kkhandhā, that Pāli upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha where aggi-kkhandha means 'a blazing mass' but c.f. Sanskrit skandhāgni 'fire made with thick logs'. (MW) I now wonder whether aggi-kkhandha just means 'a burning bough'. The phrase pañca upādānakkhandha is often rendered 'five aggregates of clinging', where we might read it as 'five branches which are fuel [for the fire]'; where upādāna means 'fuel' and 'the fire' is 'the fire of being'. I find the connection with the extended fire metaphor entirely plausible (see Playing with Fire; and Everything is on Fire!) and I suggest that it works even better when khandha is understood as 'branch'.

Having looked, somewhat inconclusively, at the meaning of skandha, let us now examine a passage from the Pāli Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (M 109; iii.15ff ) which tells us something about the relationships of the skandhas:
The four elements are the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of form. 
Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of sensations. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of recognition. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of volitions. 
Name & form is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of cognition.
Here someone has tried to show the dynamics of the skandhas. The form branch (rūpa-kkhandha) of experience is made up from the four elements: earth, water, fire and wind (catur mahādhātupaṭhavīāpotejovāyo;); or in experiential terms: resistance, cohesion, heat and movement. There's every reason to believe that just as cakkhu 'the eye' stands for the visual faculty; that paṭhavī stands for the experience  of resistance. Before looking at the other branches let us look at an interesting passage (SN 35.93) which sheds further light on this. 
The production of cognition is conditioned by a pair. Visual-cognition arises conditioned by the eye and forms. The eye is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Forms are impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So this pair is transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.

Visual-cognition is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason (hetu) or condition (paccaya) for the arising of visual-cognition, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-cognition ever be permanent?

These three things [i.e. forms, eye, & visual-cognition] coming together, encountered and co-occurring are called visual-contact (cakkhu-samphassa). Visual contact is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason or condition for the arising of visual-contact, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-contact ever be permanent?

The contacted (phuṭṭha) is sensed (vedeti); the contacted is willed (ceteti); the contacted is recognised (sañjānāti). So these things (dhammā) are transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.
[The other senses are outlined in identical terms.]
So now our model has rūpa being made up of the elements (dhātus); and contact (phassa) is the condition for the next three branches. S 35.93 fills in a gap here. Contact comes about when rūpa, cakkhu (the eye, or visual faculty) and cakkhuviññāna 'visual cognition' come together; the latter in fact being conditioned by the former pair. And then contact is sensed, willed, and recognised. 

The last three mental actions are equivalent to the three middle branches. We can match up the verbal and nominal forms: vedanā vedeti 'he senses sensations'; saṅkhārā ceteti 'he wills volitions'; and saññā sañjānāti 'he recognises names' or 'he recognises recognitions'. However note that the three verbal forms are in a different order than the nominal forms. And this is unusual. Sue Hamilton's comprehensive survey of the skandhas in Pāli finds that they always occur in the same order (Early Buddhism, p.72). 

Next we add the three branches of vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā to rūpa to make up nāmarūpa; and nāmarūpa is the condition for the arising of viññāna.

The astute reader will have already spotted a problem here: viññāna (associated with the six kinds of senses) is the condition for the arising of vedanāsaññā and saṅkhārā and thus indirectly the condition for  nāmarūpa. Thus we have two models in which the direction of the relationship between nāmarūpa and viññāna goes in opposite directions. How can we have two mutually exclusive models which are both  canonical? In the  Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna condition each other? If this was the original idea it might have survived in two fragmentary and contradictory forms with unidirectional conditionality. Or perhaps the Mahānidāna Sutta sought to harmonise the two different models by combining them. Certainly the Mahānidāna Sutta says that nāmarūpa is root, cause, origin and condition for contact (tasmāt iha ānanda, eseva hetu etaṃ nidānaṃ esa samudayo esa paccayo phassassa, yadidaṃ nāmarūpaṃ). Nāmarūpa is quite a problematic term in its own right: see Nāmarūpa. And in another model we find "nāma is 'sensation, recognition, impulse, contact and attention'." (vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro – idaṃ vuccati nāmaṃ. S ii.3). And this in a model where phassa is a stage in its own right that comes after nāmarūpa

It must be the case that viññāna is being used in at least two different senses: cakkhuviññāna (and the other sense-viññānas) and viññāna (as a standalone) cannot be referring to the same process or even the same kind of process. The standard explanation is that viññāna 'furnishes bare cognition of the object' (Nyanatiloka. Buddhist Dictionary) but this is still contradictory. In the model of the five branches we're looking at viññāna simply cannot amount to 'bare cognition' since it is preceded by vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā. Without 'bare cognition of the object' how could these three exist? Is the problem with the phrase 'bare cognition'? 

Elsewhere I have pointed out that viññāna is said in Pāli to be always related to the sensory stimulus that conditioned it. For example in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. (MN 38. PTS M i.259):
Bhikkhus from whatever condition viññāṇa arises, it is called that kind of viññāṇa. Viññāṇa arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-viññāna (i.e. visual cognition).
From the same sutta we know what viññāna is not: "that which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad." (yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī ti) This is cited as an example of a wrong view. We also know that Buddhists do not posit a 'theatre of consciousness', a metaphorical container in which experiences happen, since viññāna is seldom if ever used in the locative case, and where it is the text is usually arguing against a wrong view.

Idiosyncratic, but none the less insightful, bhikkhu Ñānavīra, says
Consciousness (viññāṇa) can be thought of as the presence of a phenomenon, which consists of nāma and rūpa. Nāmarūpa and viññāṇa together constitute the phenomenon 'in person'--i.e. an experience. The phenomenon is the support (ārammaṇa) of consciousness, and all consciousness is consciousness of something (viz, of a phenomenon). [Notes on Dhamma, p.81]
I don't think Ñāṇvīra has solved the problem I have identified here, i.e. the role of viññāṇa in the khandhas.  Since nāma depends on sense-viññāṇa. However he does add an interesting caveat to this discussion.
Consciousness, it must be noted, is emphatically no more 'subjective' than are the other four upādānakkhandha (i.e. than nāmarūpa)... It is quite wrong to regard viññāṇa as the subject to whom the phenomenon (nāmarūpa), now regarded as object, is present. [Notes on Dhamma, p.82]
Back in April 2012 I argued that Westerner terms like subjective and objective only obscure the discussion. In the Buddhist model of consciousness, subject and object are not relevant. This is a corollary of the idea that existence and non-existence don't apply to experience. We only get confused trying to marry the two modes of thinking about our experience of being aware. Indeed to think of viññāṇa as 'consciousness' is demonstrably wrong (see  The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor.) Nāṇavīra himself implies this, but doesn't not make the leap to rejecting the translation outright. We have our discussions as if Western concepts like consciousness, subject, object, etc., are givens. But they are not. The early Buddhists don't seem to have thought in these terms. Where they encounter this style of thinking, they tend to treat it as irrelevant to the task at hand. Ontological questions that fascinate Westerners, are just a distraction to early Buddhists. We are not trying to understand our self or our consciousness in the abstract, we are trying to understand why we suffer. Of course early Buddhists had a raft of assumptions about their experience of the world and we need to tease these assumptions out in order to understand their worldview. But imposing modern philosophical jargon often obscures more than it reveals.

This essay has at least shown how translating skandha as 'branch' and pañcaskandha as 'the five branches [of experience]' might work, and might be more comprehensible than present alternatives. It is intrinsically interesting that at least one of the strands that made up the Pāli Canon attempted to give the five branches of experience a temporal sequence, though whether it works is moot. My previous understanding, based on reading Sue Hamilton was that the skandhas did not form a sequence, but were to be taken collectively as the "apparatus of experience". That this attempt breaks down with the inclusion of viññāṇa is a puzzle that I'm sure I will come back to.

We have considerable work to do still to untangle early Buddhist ideas about why we suffer from Western ideas about our existence and the ontology of the self with which they seem to have been snarled. The first step in any comparative philosophy will be to understand early Buddhism on it's own terms and I don't think we have done this yet.


Note 5/5/13

In article by Collete Cox I found this the re the *Mahāvibhāṣā "In a discussion of the implications of the various meanings of the term "aggregate," or skandha, as a heap (rāśi), a bundle, an assemblage, or as a collection..." Thus the usage 'heap' predates Conze!
Cox, Collett. (2004) 'From Category To Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 543-597.

09 March 2012

Types of Knowledge

IT'S BEEN A WHILE since I drew directly on the Pāli texts so I thought I would share some observations from my recent Pāli studies. The Mahā-Vedalla Sutta is from the Majjhima Nikāya and features a series of questions put to Sāriputta by Elder Mahākoṭṭhika, and the answers.

The title of the sutta includes the word vedalla which is unusual (there is also a Cūḷa-Vedalla Sutta). PED thinks that it might be similar in form to mahalla 'old, venerable' which seems to be a (dialectical?) mutation from mahā-ariya via mahā-ayya. Veda-ariya doesn't really work as a compound. Another possibility raised by PED is that it derives from vedaṅga. This would give us the sense of 'types of knowledge' which does describe the content of the sutta, especially the paragraphs below. Since this seems the most sensible option I have adopted it.

What follows is a condensed translation of the first seven of Sāriputta's answers and some commentary.
The Great Discourse on Types of Knowledge - condensed translation.
Mahā-Vedalla Sutta (MN 43; M i.292ff.)

Ignorance (dupañña ) is not-understanding (nappajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Intelligence (paññavā ) is understanding (pajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Discrimination (viññāṇa) is discriminating (vijānāti ) between pleasure (sukha) and pain (dukkha) and neither (adukkhasukkha).

Understanding and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What one understands, one discriminates; what one discriminates, one understands. The difference is that understanding should be cultivated (bhāvetabba), and discrimination should be fully understood (pariññeyya).

‘Knowns’ (vedanā) are called ‘knowns’ because they cause [things] to be known, they produce knowledge (vedeti ) They cause pleasure to be known; they cause pain to be known; and they cause neither-pleasure-nor-pain to be known.

Perception (saññā) is called ‘perception’ because of recognition (sañjānāti) of blue/green, yellow, red, and white and so on.

Knowns, perceptions, and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What is made known, is recognised; what is recognised, is discriminated.

One of the first things we notice is that the text contains a lot of words deriving from the root √jñā'to know, to understand', including nouns paññā, viññāṇa, and saññā;" >; adjectives dupañña and paññavant; and verbs pajānāti, vijānāti, parijānāti, & sañjānāti; in addition to words from the root √vid 'to know', vedanā & vedeti. And what the text is doing is defining these terms in relation to each other. Understanding Pāli terms pertaining to mental processes can be difficult since the definitions appear to change over time and according to context. So this text is one version of how the terms can be distinguished. As such its quite handy.

In this text, following Indian grammatical practices, nouns and adjectives are defined in terms of verbs.

paññā pajānāti
viññāṇa vijānāti
saññā sañjānāti
vedanā vedeti

So the noun paññā 'understanding' is defined in terms of the verb pajānāti 'to understand'. The paragraphs form two groups: the first defines paññā and viññāṇa and describes the relationship between them; the second defines vedanā and saññā and their relationship to each other and to viññāṇa. Viññāṇa is a conceptual link between the two groups, which as I will try to show represent two different routes to viññāṇa.

In the first group we find the adjective dupañña 'badly understanding, foolish' (here the spelling is pañña not paññā) which is defined as nappajānāti 'not understanding'. This is contrasted with another adjective paññavant 'possessing understanding, intelligent' which is defined as pajānāti 'understanding'. The subject which we either understand or don't, which makes us dupaññā or paññavant is the Four Truths of the Nobles: the fact that 'this' (i.e. our immediate experience) is disappointing; and that disappointment has a beginning and and end, and a way to bring about the end. If we understand this we are intelligent, and if not we are foolish.

Also in the first group viññāṇa is defined as 'knowing' pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain (sukha, dukkha, adukkhasukha). Here the literal meaning of vijānāti is intended: vi- 'division' and jānāti 'knowing' - i.e. understanding the difference between. My reading is that 'consciousness' would be the wrong translation here, and that discrimination (or something along these lines) would be more appropriate.

Now the relationship between paññā and viññāṇa is that they are inseparably connected, that one involves the other. However there is a difference in how we approach each. Paññā is to be cultivated (bhāvetabba), while viññāṇa is to be fully understood (pariññāṇa). The word for cultivated is related to the word bhāvanā in mettābhāvanā 'the development of loving kindness'.

Now to the second group. Here vedanā, usually translated as 'sensations' or 'feelings' (with much discussion of which of these two alternatives is a best fit), is defined in terms of vedeti. The relationship to the verb vedeti shows that neither 'sensations' nor 'feelings' really convey what vedanā is. Vedeti is from the root √vid 'to know' and comes from a PIE root *√weid which means to see; and draws on the metaphor that to see is to know. English cognates include: via German wise, wit; via Greek idea, eidetic; and via Latin video, vision. Vedeti in particular is the causative form which means 'to make known, to bring about understanding'. Vedanā is based on the past-participle vedana 'made known, brought to understanding'. Hence I have translated vedanā as 'a known'. And what is being made known to us is the pleasure and pain of experience. I'm not sure that this is all that we know, but pleasure and pain are what are salient to the Buddha's program.

The next term to be defined is saññā. The definition is here is not entirely helpful but we can infer more about it from what follows. Saññā is primarily defines in terms of sañjānāti recognition and the examples used of what is recognised are the names of colours. The implication here is that saññā is recognition expressed in terms of naming the objects of perception, i.e. apperception.

Finally we see that the relationship between vedanā, saññā and viññāṇa is described as sequential: what is made known, is recognised and named; and what is recognised is discriminated. This further implies that saññā is applied to vedanā; so naming the colours must be seen as a very limited example of the kind of operation involved.

We can diagram the statements above like this:

Anticipating some future posts on papañca I have added it branching off from saññā. What this model suggests is that discrimination has two input streams. One of them is experiential in the sense of being based on processing sense experience (vedanā → saññā → viññāṇa). Vedanā is the point at which we become aware of contact (phassa) which itself rests on the coming together of sense object, sense faculty, and sense-discrimination (also confusingly referred to as viññāṇa). And note that vedeti is the process which causes pleasure or pain to be known, sañjānāti recognises and names the experience, and vijānātidistinguishes between them. In this sense paññā); and it comes from cultivating understanding of the truths of the nobles (ariyasacca). What is implied in the latter is reflection on the truth of the truths. In both cases the senses and their data are secondary. The result of discriminating on the basis of greater and greater understanding is complete understanding (pariññā) which we can take as a synonym for bodhi. My reading leads me away from reading paññā as 'wisdom' in this case - though it may well be appropriate in other cases. I think rather that it refers to intellect, and that someone who possesses paññā is 'intelligent'. [1] Unlike latter Buddhist schools of thought it is viññāṇa which must be perfected in this model, not paññā (Skt. prajñā).

At least one of my regular readers is interested in the khandhas, and I this sutta may shed some light on them. As far as I know the khandhas themselves are not presented as a sequence in the suttas (this seems to be Sue Hamilton's conclusion too). But here we have three of the five khandhas presented as a logical sequence. Since saññā is defined in terms of colours, we could invoke the idea seen in many other suttas that the object of the eye (cakkhu) is form (rūpa). We could then state that here rūpa is implied as the generic object of the senses which combines with a generic sense faculty to produce contact (phassa). This is indeed how most people interpret rūpa in this context. One problem however is that contact rests on a tripod of object, faculty and sense-consciousness (cakkhuviññāṇa, sotaviññāṇa... manoviññāṇa). We would have to suppose that viññāṇa was being used in two different denotations here, which is fine, although somewhat confusing. Another problem is saṅkhārā which is left out, and this is a term that is difficult to understand (I wrote about in Saṅkhāra qua Construct, but that meaning does not seem to apply here). What saṅkhārā means in the khandhas, and why it takes the place it does in the order (if it is an order) are unsolved problems. Perhaps saṅkhārā or in verbal form saṅkharoti (from Skt. saṃskaroti < saṃ-s-√kṛ 'to compose, arrange') may well have its literal meaning here of 'put together, arranged'. [2]

In any case we could see here a kind of prototype from which a model of khandhas might have emerged with some tinkering. Perhaps these slightly incompatible models emerged amongst discreet groups of practitioners and were only brought together in the Canon. My theory, for what it is worth, is that the Canon as we know it was not compiled until the time of Asoka and probably under his direct influence. There is, in the Canon, clear evidence of multiple oral traditions preserving stories with slight variations (which I've noted in the past). Asoka's empire represents the first point in history when widely spread groups might have had a chance to come together, especially as the preceding centuries were full of war and social unrest.

Even if my translation choices and interpretations do not convince (or appeal to) the reader, I think they will agree that this sutta offers some useful insights into technical terms for kinds of knowing.


  1. Intelligence comes from the Latin intelligentem, which is a present-participle of intelligere 'to understand, comprehend'. The etymology is inter- 'between' + legere 'to chose, pick out, read'. The earliest sense of the word was the "faculty of understanding". So the word 'intelligent' is probably more closely related in sense to vijānāti 'discriminating, distinguishing'.
  2. The gerund of the word is used at S ii.269 where akaddamaṃ saṅkharitvā means 'having made clean' (i.e. mud free). In fact 3 of the four occurrences of the word relate to preparing food before one eats it.

13 January 2012

Arising in Dependence on Conditions

FOR SOME YEARS NOW I have been interested in the the question: what is it that arises in dependence on conditions? I treat the question as a kind of koan, digging deeper though textual scholarship, and using it as a focus for reflection on my own experience from moment to moment, hoping to see through it. My studies have led to the conclusion that the important thing is that experiences arise in dependence on conditions. This may not exhaust the possibilities, but it's the most useful thing to focus on.

Recently I came across a short text, the Selā Sutta (SN 5.9; S i.134), which gives an interesting answer to my koan. This analysis seems to anticipate later developments in Buddhist theory - particularly the elaborations of the Abhidhamma.

Yathā aññataraṃ bījaṃ, khette vuttaṃ virūhati;
Pathavīrasañ cāgamma, sinehañca tadūbhayaṃ.

Evaṃ khandhā ca dhātuyo, cha ca āyatanā ime;
Hetuṃ paṭicca sambhūtā, hetubhaṅgā nirujjhareti.

Just as a kind of seed, sown in the ground will sprout,
Resulting from both nutrients in the earth, and moisture

Thus the masses, elements and six sense spheres
Are produced from a condition, and cease when the condition disappears.
So here the answer to my question is that what arises (sabhūtā) in dependence (paṭicca) on conditions (hetu) is threefold: the 'masses' (khandha), the elements (dhātu) and the sense spheres (āyatana). I will deal with them in the order: khandha, āyatana, dhātu for reasons which will become obvious.

I have dealt with the khandhas before now (see: The Apparatus of Experience), so I'll be brief here. I follow Sue Hamilton in seeing the khandhas as analysing experience into the most important factors. The five khandhas are: 1. the living body (kāya) which is the locus of experience, sometimes more specifically referred to as 'body endowed with cognition' (saviññāṇa kāya e.g. M iii.18; S ii.252); 2. feelings (vedanā); 3. apperception (saññā); 4. volitions (saṅkhārā); and 5. consciousness (viññāṇa). Hamilton emphasises the collective nature of the khandhas - they do not represent a lasting self either singly or all together. As far as I am aware the khandhas always occur in this order, but are not treated a sequence in the Pāli texts.

The six āyatanas are the six sensory 'spheres' - āyatana is from ā√yam 'to reach out, to extend'. We often read about the 12 āyatanas which are the 6 internal (ajjhatika) and 6 external (bāhira) spheres. The internal āyatanas are the sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; while the the external āyatanas are the respective objects: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mental activity (also confusingly called dhammas). It is this set of 12 that is referred to as "everything (sabbaṃ)" in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23 PTS: S iv 15). Here we have a resonance with Vedic texts which refer to the cosmos as idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this' meaning all of the created world. The Buddhist Sabba Sutta seems to be explicitly contradicting the ontological and cosmological implications of the Vedic texts such as Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.4.1) or Ṛgveda (8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times
One sun penetrates everything
Dawns as one, shines on all this
From this one, unfolds the whole
I read this aspect of Buddhist doctrine as saying something very important about epistemology. In saying that "everything" is the senses and their objects what the Buddha is doing is articulating limits on what we can know about. Although it feels real to us, our experience is a construction which relies equally on the thing being observed and the observer. And note carefully that this is a statement about the nature of experience, not a statement about the nature of reality. Reality remains at arms (or more accurately eye's) length from us, because our cognitions are constructed (saṅkhata) from sense impressions and mental activity.

The next set categories for analysing experience take the 12 āyatanas and add the 6 corresponding kinds of consciousness to make a set of 18. This brings together two basic ideas about the processes of consciousness. The first is that when cognition (viññāṇa) arises it is always associated with the sensory modality.
Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.

Whatever kind of condition gives rise to cognition, it is known as that kind of cognition. (M i.259)
With the eye (cakkhu) and form (rūpa) as condition, eye consciousness (cukkhuviññāṇa) arises, and so on so up to mind cognition (manoviññāṇa) which gives us six kinds of conscious. The second important idea is that the process of having an experience is always constructed from at least three elements:
Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, , yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M i.111)

With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels one comes to know. What one knows one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...
Each of these groups of factors (dhammas) - khandhas, āyatanas and dhātus - is a way of analysing experience. One of the key practices in relation to experience is examining it for any permanent, satisfying or substantial content of which one could truly say "this is mine" or "I am this", or "this is me" (etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā). Variations on this practice remain central to many forms of Buddhism from Theravāda to Madhyamaka.

As I suggested above these categories were foundational for the Abhidhamma which endlessly analysed them and their relationships. I have complained that the Abhidharmikas lost sight of the experiential nature of all this and at least some of them started to speculate about the reality or otherwise of the dhammas. (The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster) Such speculation was a dead end. I also think Buddhists are wasting their time trying to apply this analysis outside the sphere of experience. The sphere of experience is "everything" in the sense both of what we have to work with, and what we can know about the world. These categories acknowledge the pragmatic and epistemological limitations on human experience, though liberation from dukkha is still an option from within this framework. It's not illogical to argue that this idea has broader implications. For instance the Buddha sometimes used examples from nature to illustrate the principle of dependent arising, which suggests that we see analogues of dependent arising in nature. However I believe the Buddha, especially in texts such as the Sabba Sutta, warned us to stay focussed on experience as the most fruitful course.


09 December 2011

Saṅkhāra qua Construct

This word saṅkhāra is one of the most puzzling terms in our Buddhist lexicon. It is used a number of different ways, meaning quite different things in different contexts. There is no reason why a word should not have different senses - a phenomenon known technically as polysemy 'many meanings'. Indeed polysemy is the rule with words in most languages. Take a word like gravity. It has a sense in Physics as one of the fundamental forces. As an adjective in ordinary speech it might signify that someone, or something is important or wise. Incidentally the Sanskrit word guru is cognate and means 'weighty'. Context usually resolves any contradictions so if I say that "Newton spoke with gravity about gravity", you'll probably be able to see the two distinct ways I'm using the word gravity. However within a technical jargon it is much less useful to have important words being polysemic, in fact it's downright confusing. And yet so many of our important Buddhists jargon terms are polysemic: dharma is particularly troublesome, and whole books have been written on this one word.

I want to highlight a particular use of this word saṅkhāra in a Pāli text, but let's see if I can encapsulate the main senses of the word to begin with. The Pāli saṅkhāra is equivalent to the Sanskrit saṃskāra - the skā conjunct being reduced to khā in Pāli. The root of the word is √kṛ 'do, make' and here the prefix saṃ is equivalent to the Latin com- and means 'with, together; or complete'. The basic sense here is 'to construct or make up', and a close English cousin is confect, where -fect is from the Latin facere 'to make, do'. The word has a technical meaning in Vedic, but we'll leave that aside for our present purposes.

Saṅkhāra occurs in Pāli as the second of 12 nidānas, and the 4th of 5 khandhas. In the first instance it seems to mean volitional activity (and is defined in terms of cetanā). In the second it suggests a wider definition of all mental activity or indeed everything constructed from conditions - e.g. in the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. It is used in the sense of 'function' in reference to the body, speech and mind. So we might say that it has the active sense of "putting together" and the passive sense of "having been put together". [1]

In the text I am exploring today - The Pālileyya Sutta (SN 22.81; S iii.94f) it seems to have the sense of 'construct'. I'm particularly interested in this sense because it appears to confirm an intuition I've had about this term for some time (which should alert readers to the problem of confirmation bias!). In the Pālileyya Sutta we find this equation - I have simplified the text a little:
rūpaṃ attato samanupassati... yā samanupassanā saṅkhāro so.
he perceives form as his self, that perception is a construct.
Why is the perception (samanupassanā) a construct? Because in order to have a perception sense object and sense faculty must come together in the presence of sense cognition - perceptions are constructed (saṅkhāta) from these specific building blocks. The text asks the same question and answers (again simplifying a little:)
avijjāsamphassajena vedayitena phuṭṭhassa [tassa] uppannā taṇhā, tatojo so saṅkhāro
thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance.
Bear with me here as this sentence is not easy to translate. Firstly uppannā taṇhā is easy 'desire has arisen'. Here tassa 'for him' is standing for assutavato putthujjanassa 'for the unlearned ordinary person' and phuṭṭhassa tassa 'for the one who has been affected (phuṭṭha)'. Then vedayitena 'by the experience [which is] 'avijjāsamphassaja'. This last compound needs unravelling: it is made up of three parts: avijjā 'ignorance' + samphassa 'contact, reaction' + ja 'born'. So the whole thing is probably: 'born of contact with ignorance' or perhaps 'born of a reaction from ignorance'. I suggest the latter makes more sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi has come up with a particularly torturous translation here: "When [he] is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises." It's not clear what "ignorance-contact" is. [2] Thanissaro does better on Access to Insight with "To [him] touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises." But what is "contact with ignorance"? In the Buddhist model of mental functioning it can only be contact while being ignorant surely? Hence my translation: "thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance." Thirst for existence perhaps?

The sutta notes that this construct is impermanent (anicca), constructed (saṅkhāta) and arisen in dependence on conditions (paṭiccasamuppanna). Similar constructs include
rūpavantaṃ attānaṃ samanupassati - perceiving myself as endowed with form
attani rūpaṃ samanupassati - regarding form as within myself
rūpasmiṃ attānaṃ samanupassati- seeing myself amongst forms
All of these are conditioned and impermanent constructs. The whole formula is repeated with other four khandhas vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. Note the statement that saṅkhārā are a saṅkhāra does not seem to bother the author of the text, probably because he is consciously using the word in two different senses. In the plural it is defined in some places as the cetanā or 'intention' associated with the six senses (e.g. S iii.60).

So we may say that these perceptions of a being a self are only what we project onto experience., they are a construct, and not a property of experience. By the way, I see no connection here with Upaniṣadic thought on the nature of the ātman. There's no reason to think that this formulation of the teaching was in reaction to Brahmanical metaphysics.


  1. Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary insists that the interpretation of saṅkhāra as 'subconscious tendencies' (which is common in the Triratna Movement) is incorrect and "entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pali Buddhism" (p.193).
  2. Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. P.922.

02 September 2011


A diagram of the traditional 12 nidānas and
explanations from Pāli and Chinese Āgama texts.
Click for a larger image.
TODAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the rather mysterious term 'nāmarūpa' in a Buddhist context. The word has a history pre-dating its use in Buddhist texts, but I don't have space for a fully fledged archaeology. Most of us will only be familiar with the received tradition which defines what this word means, but there are problems with this tradition, and when we begin to explore it things are less than clear.

The word is most often translated as 'name and form', though one also sees such variants as 'sentient-body'. It is the fourth of the 12 nidānas. However nāmarūpa is a difficult term to pin down precisely. For instance it does occur in the truncated nidāna sequence in the Mahānidāna Sutta, but unlike the other terms it is not defined in that text.

Elsewhere in the canon the nāma in nāmarūpa is defined in terms of: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, phassa, and mansikāra. However saṅkhārā precedes nāmarūpa in the nidāna sequence, and both phassa and vedanā follow it. So this does not make sense. Another fairly well know definition , found in the Chinese Āgama texts according to Roderick Bucknell (1999) and in the Pāli (S ii.3) equates nāmarūpa with the five khandhā: rūpa is the four elements (catumahābhūta: paṭhavī, āpo, tejo, vāyo; earth, water, fire, wind) while nāma is the remaining khandhas, i.e. vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāna. This is no better. Again, vedanā comes later; and both saṅkhārā and viññāṇa come before. I'm left wondering why the tradition would explain things this way. I find that the simplified popular presentations of this material make a certain kind of sense, but in reading the Pāli Canon and examining the texts that sense drops away, and I'm left feeling puzzled. There is no coherence.

I'm aware of a few modern attempts to rationalise this term and will gloss some of them.

Eric Frauwallner (1973) observed that a sequence beginning with taṇha was quite common and concluded that the nidāna sequence was originally two shorter sequences. This has become a popular notion. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to solve the problem of cross-over in the definitions. The shorter versions of the sequence may equally be an abbreviation as an elaboration. Even so this only places the confusing aspects of the sequence together into the second group. Frauwallner's hypothesis doesn't help us solve the problems of interpreting nāmarūpa.

Dhīvan Thomas Jones, in his 2009 M.Phil thesis, has taken a slightly different approach. He notes that the Suttanipāta contains another (better) candidate for a primitive nidāna sequence in the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Sn 168-170) with synonymous but different terms to the standard model. This sequence begins with nāmarūpa, and leaves out viññāṇa which helps, but includes sāta-asāta (pleasant and unpleasant) as an equivalent of vedanā which still leaves us with a contradiction if this is part of the definition of nāmarūpa.

One of the most interesting developments of recent times is the attempt by Joanna Jurewicz to show that the terms in the nidānas were deliberately chosen as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. Richard Gombrich (2009, esp. ch.9) has taken this idea and wedded it to Frauwallner's 'two sequence' explanation to suggest that the original list was the short sequence from taṇha onwards, and that this was extended using terms from the Vedic lexicon to form a deliberate parody of Vedic cosmogony. Dhīvan Thomas Jones has shown that this not unproblematic, mainly because there is no evidence to show that Frauwallner's sequence is primitive. The same kind of process might have occurred with the Kalahavivāda Sutta (or something like it) as the nucleus of a teaching on becoming, that was given an ironic twist so that it could also serve as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. This is reasonably plausible, though of course there is no sign of cognizance of such a strategy in the Buddhist tradition itself, so if this is what happened it was almost immediately forgotten by the tradition which adopted it. Such forgetfulness is not easily explained with reference to teachings of such central importance, especially in the face of open and explicit criticism of Brahmins elsewhere. However, the context shows that the commentarial tradition (including those suttas which comment on the sequence) is not internally consistent, so something has gone wrong somewhere.

Bucknell (1999) summarises Reat who sees nāmarūpa as referring to objects of consciousness: nāma refers to conceptual (adhivacana) and rūpa to sensory (paṭigha). As Bucknell points out this view is criticised by both Peter Harvey and Sue Hamilton. However Reat's suggestion would fit nicely with Dhīvan's model of the development from a nucleus - the primitive nāmarūpa qua objects of consciousness giving rise to 'contact' (phassa) makes some sense. Hamilton's view is that nāma "should be taken to refer to abstract identity and [rūpa] to physically (though not necessarily visibly) recognisable identity." (p.151) For Hamilton nāmarūpa is closely tied to viññāṇa as is shown by the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) that links the two of them in a mutually conditioning relationship. Reat and Hamilton's positions are subtly different, but not incompatible I think.

What is clear is that once we move away from simplified popular presentations of Buddhist doctrine, there is no single and coherent understanding of what this term means or represents. And this is a continuing quandary because it suggests that we have lost touch with the spirit of the texts. If we no longer understand key terms (and I would suggest that saṃkhārā is another candidate for this category) then there is a discontinuity. Being stuck with the term we have come up with different and mutually incompatible explanations, but this only adds to the sense of confusion (rather like commentaries on the Heart Sūtra which are all from incompatible sectarian points of view).

I have no better explanation to offer. No theory, and no sense that any one of the existing theories has recover the lost meaning of the term.

Another issue with nāmarūpa and its place in the 12 nidāna chain is that it suggests that viññāna is a precondition for form, which the received tradition usually treats as the physical body. Although Buddhists complain when they perceive consciousness being treated as an epiphenomenon of the brain, they apparently have no problem believing that the body is an epiphenomenon of the mind. Not even the Three Lifetimes Interpretation can save us from this conclusion. The Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna are mutually conditioning, but this doesn't really help us. However elsewhere we find viññāna arising in dependence on the āyatanas (the six sense faculties and the six sense objects). This suggests we can have sense faculties, which includes the eyes, before we have a body. It seems to me that the received tradition has lost the thread somewhere along the line. Buddhists usually gloss over these kinds of inconsistencies and do their best to make sense of them. And unfortunately there is no scholarly consensus on what nāmarūpa might have originally meant in a Buddhist context. Perhaps it's time to rethink this strategy of papering over the cracks?


[I'll be away from 2-9 Sept]

  • Bucknell, Roderick S. (1999) Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 22 (2), 312-342,
  • Frauwallner, E. (1973). History of Indian Philosophy. (Vol. 1). (V. Bedekar, trans.) Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Curzon.
  • Hamilton Early Buddhism a New Approach.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. Paṭiccasamuppāda in Context: The Buddha in Debate with Brahmanical Thinking. M.Phil Dissertation. Cambridge University [unpublished]
  • Jurewicz, J. Playing with Fire: the pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic Thought. Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26, p.77-103

08 August 2008

The Apparatus of Experience

Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism a New Approach is not an easy read, but it is very rewarding. I found in it a doctrinal confirmation and clarification of my intuitions about the Dharma. I had been asking myself - what is it that arises in dependence on causes? (Jayarava Rave 8 April 2008) My answer had shifted from "things" to "experiences". This is reflected also in my translation of the Buddha's last words: "all experiences are disappointing..."

Central to Hamilton's book, and building on her earlier published work is a re-examination of the canonical references to the khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). These are typically described as encompassing the whole human being - there is nothing outside of the khandhas. Hamilton demonstrates that actually the khandhas are not meant to literally encompass the whole being, but do make up the minimum required apparatus for experience: hence "apparatus of experience". I like this little phrase and its implications very much.

A quick digression here to a suggestion by Prof. Gombrich about the translation of khandha - again from the Numata Lectures and appearing in his forthcoming "What the Buddha Thought". Khandha is most often translated by words such as aggregate, group or category, or (by Conze) as 'heap'. Gombrich points to the Pāli term aggikhandha meaning "a blazing mass". Khandha often occurs in the compound upādānakhandha where it is frequently translated as "aggregates of clinging". Gombrich links it to the extended fire metaphor used by the Buddha and suggests "blazing mass of fuel" (upādāna meaning literally fuel.) The khandhas, then, are a mass of fuel which, as the Fire Sermon ( Ādittapariyāya Sutta literally: The way of putting things as being on fire) tells us are on fire with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

The khandhas then are part of the mechanism keeping us in saṃsara, they are the "mass of fuel" that burns, and Nibbāna is the extinguishing of that fire - though the fuel itself can remain at this point as the term upādi-sesa-nibbāna "extinguishing with a remainder" suggests. It is rather a squeeze to fit every facit of the human being into just these five categories, and Hamilton manages to make a lot more sense of them as a kind of minimal requirement for experience - she takes the idea of nothing existing outside the khandhas as a metaphorical reference to the fact of experience: that everything we can know comes to us through the senses.

To have experience at all we must have a living body (rūpa). This is the vehicle for consciousness and the locus of experience. Without a living sensing body we would not receive sensory data - recall that the sense organ must be involved for contact to take place.

Having met with sensory data (vedanā) we process it: we become aware of and identify the sensation (saññā), we categorise it and name it (viññāṇā), and we respond affectively to it (saṅhkāra). This is a very cut down psychology, a minimalist account of consciousness, but it contains all that is necessary for continued experience, that is to say for continuation in samsara. And this is the process, this continuation in samsara which the Buddha constantly tells people is the focus of his teachings. Asked about all manner of metaphysical and philosophical teachings, the Buddha replies that he only teaches about the process of experience and how to end it.

Hamilton is saying, in effect, that later Buddhist tradition have taken this teaching a little to literally when they say things like: "These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence". [Nyanatiloka : 98] Everything is not literally summed up, it is just that this is the necessary apparatus (to use Hamilton's terms) for all experience. All of experience - of whatever kind - is sensed, processed and acted upon through the khandhas. It is in this sense that the set is a complete description of the human being, not literally. It makes the assumption that we are what we experience, and as I have discovered, any attempt to get behind experience to confirm it involves some other sensory experience. One image that occurs to me for this is that we cannot get behind the mirror to see if anything is there because we always see a new mirror.

All this is not to say that some kind of objective world does not exist. I think the level of consensus that is possible on what is being experienced suggests very strongly that there is some kind of objective world. However I would argue that since we must always rely on our senses in any attempt to establish the status of the objective world, that such attempts are meaningless - they cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other. I've come to believe that it was this that the Buddha was trying to get people to understand. Take for example the short Sabbaṃ Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In this text the Buddha says that "the all" (sabbaṃ) is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and the felt, the mind and dhammas. (SN 35.23 = Bodhi : 1140). There is nothing outside of this "all". This is an explicit confirmation of what I've been saying. To take this to be an ontological statement - that outside of this "all" there is nothing - is to miss the point. It does not make sense as ontology, but as an epistemology it is very useful. All that we can know are 'objects' of the senses (including the mental sense), that is to say all we can know is what we experience - and the khandhas are the apparatus of experience.

I think this has profound implications for how we practice and teach the Dharma. For one thing I think we should abandon talking about dependent arising in terms of "things arising in dependence on causes" - there are no things only experiences. It would be more accurate to say that "experiences of things arise in dependence on causes". This then allows us to focus on the experience of dependent arising, rather than trying to locate some object which is arising. So many of our metaphors for dependent arising involve "things". But because of the way we function - through and only through experience - there are in effect no things arising.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary : manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. (4th ed). Kandy, Sri Lanka : Buddhist Publication Society (2004 reprint).

image: JAKIMOWICZ Fabien - belfry clock mechanism