22 May 2009

In the seen...

eye by Guhyaraja There is a very famous story regarding the ascetic Bāhiya Dārucīriya (Bāhiya of the bark garment) who travels far to find the Buddha. He repeatedly asks the Buddha for a teaching and eventually the Buddha turns and utters the now famous words: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard" - etc for all the senses. However it is quite difficult to know exactly what the Buddha meant, and although we get a general picture the details are sometimes left obscure. Indeed scholars allow that the passages which follow are not really understood any more.

I recently stumbled upon precisely the same teaching being given to another person in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Māluṅkyaputta is an elderly bhikkhu and asks the Buddha for a nice brief teaching that he can reflect on. The Buddha repeats the same words as he says to Bāhiya. Fortunately for us Māluṅkyaputta is not sure he understands either, and he asks the Buddha for clarification. He does this by spelling out his understanding and asking if that is what the Buddha meant. And since it he gets it right we can learn from this sutta.

Here is an edited version of what he said:
Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā, piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasi karoto;
Sārattacitto vedeti, tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati.

Tassa vaḍḍhanti vedanā, anekā rūpasambhavā;
Abhijjhā ca vihesā ca cittamassūpahaññati;
Evaṃ ācinato dukkhaṃ, ārā nibbānamuccati.

..sutvā ... ghatvā... bhotvā... phussa... dhammaṃ ñatvā
Having seen a form with mindfulness 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.

Similarly for sounds, smells, tastes, contact, and the knowledge of mental objects.
So let's pause here to consider what's been said so far. This is our existential situation. We see forms, hear sounds, etc and we are entranced by them. Consider that we do not have one sensory experience at the time, but live in a flood of sense impressions all giving rise to sensations and thoughts. So the problem is multiplied many times. And, because we are caught up in the delightful sensations that our senses deliver up to us, we are covetous. As I say - we seek happiness by pursuing pleasure. We worry when we don't get pleasure - either new pleasures or the same old pleasures. We are appalled when we get unpleasant sensations because we think this means we are unhappy. And all this impairs our mental functioning. We get caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and defending ourselves from worry and vexation. We accumulate material goods, we indulge in hedonism, we fight and quarrel over things. And none of this actually makes us happy! In fact the more we go on like this the less happiness we are likely to have. The more we have the less content we will be. The more pleasure we find, the less we will enjoy it. Pleasant sensations are like addictive drugs - after a while we need more to get the same effect.

So in this state nibbāna - the blowing out of the fires that torment us - is remote. It is remote because our craving is fuel for the fire. We keep the fire burning by pursuing pleasure and reacting against pain.

The sutta continues:

Na so rajjati rūpesu, rūpaṃ disvā paṭissato;
Virattacitto vedeti, tañca nājjhosa tiṭṭhati.
Yathāssa passato rūpaṃ, sevato cāpi vedanaṃ;
Khīyati nopacīyati, evaṃ so caratī sato;
Evaṃ apacinato dukkhaṃ, santike nibbānamuccati.
Having mindfully seen a form, he does not delight in forms,
He experiences dispassion and remains unattached
He sees a form and has the associated sensation,
It falls away, does not accumulate - thus he exercises mindfulness.
Thus suffering is not heaped up, and nibbāna is said to be near.
So what is the alternative to heaping fuel on the fire? Should we just give up everything and join a monastery? Well it's not quite as simple as that. Renunciation in a worldly sense can sometimes be counter productive if we remain mentally attached to the thing. Renouncing pleasure qua pleasure is not really possible. Those who try to do so end up cultivating pain, and that is quite as unhealthy as pursuing pleasure. The problem is our relationship to sensations. The key is mindfulness - which enables one to stay calm in the face of pleasure or pain, and to just experience what is happening in each moment as it happens.

This requires training. At first we don't even see that we have this kind of relationship to sensations. We have to become aware of what we are aware of, and not trundle along letting our unconscious reactions to things dictate our behaviour. This is what it means to become truly human - to rise above instinctual or habitual reactions and be conscious. By cultivating mindfulness of things, and our body and other people we generally refine our awareness. And most people find that this makes them slow down and appreciate things a little more, and it allows a measure of contentment to develop. This is preliminary to the greater work which is to begin to see more clearly that pleasure is not equal to happiness, and vice versa, and equally that pain - as in the physical sensation of pain - doesn't necessarily equate to unhappiness.

We may also pay attention to the grosser forms of impermanence and cause and effect - this helps us to tune into the spirit of the teachings. At some point our focus needs to shift to the impermanence of experience itself: to the way that experiences occur when the conditions are there (that is to say sense organ, sense object and sense consciousness) and that nothing substantial is found in the experience itself. Pleasurable experiences in particular do not last, they create no lasting happiness, and if we are very subtly attuned we begin to sense that our addiction means that as soon as we feel pleasure we begin to fear it's end - we cling to it.

So in order to be closer to extinguishing the flames that torment us we need to stop feeding the fire. When we have a sense experience we try to stay aware of it's temporary and contingent nature - we have that experience, but do not try to hold onto it, and stay open to possibility. We become 'fed up' with chasing pleasure and we turn away from the chase. This detachment brings it's own rewards - we are calmer, we are content. Life becomes simpler. Equanimity means we have more energy since we no longer waste it, and it is smoother. We are no longer rocked by the winds of change and fortune - because we stop looking for happiness in pleasant experiences.

  • The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72). Pāli text from tipitka.org. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi The Collected Discourses p. 1175-8. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  • On Nibbāna and the fire metaphor see also my essay: Everything is on fire!
  • Another take on the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta can be found in this interesting essay: theravadin.wordpress.com.

image: eye by Guhyaraja.

15 May 2009

The Simile of the Chariot

One time in Sāvatthi the bhikkhunī Vajirā went on her alms round, and then having eaten her meal she went to meditate in the Blind Man's Grove. Māra appeared to her and tried to frighten her and disrupt her meditation. He planted questions in her mind: who created this being? Where is the creator? Where does this being arise, where cease? Vajirā however knew these thoughts to be the product of Māra. She replied:

Kiṃ nu sattoti paccesi, māra diṭṭhigataṃ nu te;
Suddhasaṅkhārapuñjoyaṃ, nayidha sattupalabbhati.

Yathā hi aṅgasambhārā, hoti saddo ratho iti;
Evaṃ khandhesu santesu, hoti sattoti sammuti.

Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti

What makes you resort to belief in 'a being' Māra?
A heap of mere fabrication, a being is not found here.

Just as the combination of parts is called 'a chariot';
Thus while there are the apparatus of experience, conventionally there is 'a being'

For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.  
Māra was disappointed at not frightening Vajirā, and he disappeared. This is the famous simile of the chariot from the Vajirā Sutta, in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (5:10; PTS S i.136). It is used to illustrate the idea that we are only an assemblage of parts, that nothing really exists in the absolute sense - as the sutta says when the parts come together we conventionally say 'a being'. This collection of parts is also called a mere heap of fabrication (suddha-saṅkhāra-puñjoyaṃ). But what are these parts? They are the khandhas. Traditionally these are defined as that which conventionally makes up a being. The definition is circular: a being is made up of the things that make up a being. There's not much information in that interpretation. However Sue Hamilton has given us a better way of thinking about the khandhas: they are the apparatus of experience. That is, instead of thinking of the khandhas as what makes up a being, we can think of the khandhas as the minimal requirements for having an experience. Briefly we have the locus of experience (form/rūpa), then "having met with sensory data (vedanā) [via the physical sense organs] 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)." [The Apparatus of Experience]

To my mind the focus on experience explains why no being is found. What might be found is the experience of a being, but there is no being apart from experience. However note the third verse spoken by Vajirā. It says that it is only suffering that arises, persists and ceases. Only suffering. Without this part of the verse the received explanation works alright. But the third verse tells us something extra. Here is a confirmation that what arises in dependence on causes are experiences. In my essay on the first verse of the Dhammapada I said: "... if we fail to see and understand the nature of experience (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana), then suffering follows, just as the wheel follows the ox which draws the cart". Dukkha in this view is all unenlightened experience. This sounds a bit miserable, but as I recently pointed out [proliferation] it's not that pleasure is bad, but that we mistake the pursuit of pleasant sensations as leading to happiness, which they do not.

This kind of sutta where Māra visits someone and tries to put doubts in their mind is quite common. Māra here seems to be a psychological metaphor, i.e. Māra represents our own doubts coming to the surface. The tactic of getting into dialogue with that doubting voice is something that is used by some psychologists. It also resembles the approach of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy - identifying thoughts and deciding whether to take them seriously or ignore them.

So where the apparatus of experience come together we conventionally say there is a being. But this is to mistake the experience of being, for something more substantial. We need to focus on experience and on the processes by which we have experiences, because it is experience - especially suffering - that arises in dependence on conditions. It is our failure to recognise experiences in general and suffering in particular as dependent, that causes us to suffer.

While the idea of a 'being' as made up of parts and therefore insubstantial and impermanent is far from wrong, I think the use to which the verse is put shows the weakness of taking verses out of context. Because the real import, the central point of the simile, occurs in the third verse - only suffering arises - and this is routinely left out of presentations of the Dharma. Here the context reveals once again that whatever the truth of ontology and the reality of beings, the Buddha was focussed on the problem of suffering.

The chariot simile is from the Vajirā Sutta (S 5:10; S i.136) Pāli text from CSCD Pāli Tipiṭaka; pg 230 in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation which is also available on Access to Insight; translated by Bikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

image: from Achaemenid Persia by Mark Drury. The picture is of a chariot from Afghanistan but would have been very similar to Indian war chariots.

08 May 2009

We are all going to die.

cemetery on Newmarket RdYears ago I shared a room with a man who was concerned that he didn't take the subject of his own death seriously enough. As a reminder he painted, in large black letters above his bed:

I am going to die

That man is still alive but in the intervening years a number of friends and acquaintances have died. My mother is alive and well, but my father died 19 years ago, and all of my grandparents are dead. As I write I'm absorbing the news that a colleague has died. I didn't know him very well, but I did live in his community when I first arrived in the UK seven years ago. He died of a stroke and it seems he had no time to set his affairs in order or to compose himself.

Once my preceptor gave a talk in which he said: "death is absolutely inconvenient." This has echoed down the years for me as I grieved for loved ones and friends. Death just comes and we are never ready for it. When death comes we will have plans for the future, we will leave unfinished projects, unresolved conflicts, and unrequited loves. All of those things that we have been putting off will never be done. It is a harsh and stark fact of life.

I often walk through the Mill Rd cemetery. This is a large old burial ground in which the grounds' keepers are gradually losing the battle against nature. Many of the stones are unreadable and all but a very few of the graves are untended and rely on public employees and occasional volunteers to keep the brambles and other weeds from overwhelming them. I noticed that some of the graves are not that old. Some of the people buried there probably have living grand children. It struck me that within two or three generations most people are forgotten. Even well loved people who raised a family and worked hard are just a name engraved on a crumbling piece of stone in a cemetery somewhere. If that.

None of this can be news to anyone. We all know that we are going to die. And yet we continue to live our lives, to choose our values and priorities as though death is far off. I was struck that Jade Goody - a UK star of so-called reality TV - was only 27 when she died of cancer. And yet she had achieved notoriety and celebrity if not universal public acclaim. She leaves two kids and a husband, but in all likelihood all of this will be forgotten in a generation or two. Most of us won't rate an obituary in the media, and won't have gotten around to starting that memoir that we sometimes toyed with writing. It's not that we have uninteresting lives, simply that we fall under the radar. We are unexceptional.

Have your ever played that game where someone asks you what you would do if you had only 24 hours left to live? It can be revealing, but, even if we do get notice of immanent death, we are often too sick to do anything but lie in a hospital bed in those last 24 hours. The world keeps turning, the seasons wax and wane, days and nights alternate, the tides slosh in and out, and the wind blows the fallen blossoms in autumn. All that just goes on without you. Nature doesn't shed a tear when you die - you are compost at best.

We have limited time and energy and yet we spend so much of it on things that simply don't matter in the long run. Accumulating possessions that will end up in charity shops when we're gone. Working long hours making money for share holders who don't even know our names, and who are themselves are unexceptional on the whole and achieve nothing of significance with the money we make for them. So much of our economic activity we now know unequivocally to be actively harmful to the environment. We follow the news religiously because we want to be informed - but we never learn anything of value.

It's like there is a conspiracy to keep us docile and productive, to stop us thinking about our lives. Sometimes when you do something weird like becoming a Buddhist, people almost seemed threatened that you would do anything which upsets the status quo - like not eating meat. We are conditioned with values some of which have no real value.

But given the fact of our own death, and subsequent anonymity, isn't it important to consider what we are doing with our lives? So what would it be like to just stop for a minute and consider what's really important? In some stories about the early life of the Buddha he was stopped in his tracks by the realisation that everyone he loved was just going to die no matter what he did. His response was not to go into denial or self-pity, he did not bury himself in work or in booze. His response was to face the problem directly and undertake a thorough exploration of what is truly valuable. He found a way to live in accordance with these values. Buddhists are sometimes criticised because the Buddha left his wife and child behind to do something selfish. But this could not be further from the truth. The Buddha made a very great sacrifice for his family. In those stories (which may well be apocryphal) he gave up everything for his family, and having solved the problem of suffering came back to teach them the way beyond death as well. There can be no higher fulfilment of family duty or filial piety. And yet after self-doubt and low self-esteem, family and career responsibilities are perhaps the biggest barrier to spiritual commitment that there are. Even though we accept the Buddha's teaching we cannot shake off the values absorbed from our society.

You will sometimes get blithe spirits who say something like: "never mind, I do it in my next life." I find this unlikely. If karma works at all, then it is our choices which drive it. By leaving something undone in this life you most likely create the conditions for not having the opportunity to do it in a next life. We are working against a current which will drag us down unless we make a positive effort. To put something worthy off thinking that the opportunity will present itself again is to abdicate responsibility, and this sets up conditions for the future.

We would do well to consider death, especially our own deaths. No-one ever said on their deathbed - "I wish I'd spent more time at the office!". I think death provides some perspective on how we organise our lives, and on what we seek to achieve in this life. This life is a precious opportunity. I'll finish with some words from Evans-Wenz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
O procrastinating one, who thinketh not of the coming of death,
Devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life,
Improvident art thou in dissipating thy great opportunity;
Mistaken, indeed, will thy purpose be now if thou returnest empty-handed from this life:
Since the Holy Dharma is known to be thy true need,
Wilt thou not devote thyself to the Holy Dharma even now?

Note: since writing this a few weeks ago the H5N1 flu strain has been in the news, but I don't think it changes our existential situation.

image: cemetery by Jayarava

01 May 2009

Everything is on fire!

agni2The discourse that I am going to explore today is, according to Therevāda tradition, the third spoken by the Buddha after his awakening. In it he establishes one of the fundamental metaphors of the whole Buddhist canon. The short title of the Sutta is the Āditta Sutta, but it is also known as the Āditta-pariyāya Sutta: The Discourse on the Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire, or we might say The Fire Metaphor. (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19). It is usually known in English as the Fire Sermon - a full translation is included at the end of this post. "The Fire Sermon" always makes me think of fire and brimstone, and as we will see the two are not so far apart!

The Buddha addresses the bhikkhus and says: "everything is ablaze" (sabbaṃ ādittaṃ). Although it is said to be early, this sutta is one of a series of texts (no.28 in fact) that explore sabbaṃ - 'everything, the whole, all'. There is a parallel here with a Vedic idiom. Sabbaṃ in Sanskrit is sarvam, often used in the phrase idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this'. Compare this verse from the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (RV 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 is all penetrating.
Dawns as one, shine on all this.
From this one, unfolds the whole.
It may be that the Buddha was consciously using a Vedic idiom in the Fire Sermon - purposefully parodying this kind of religious view, especially as it coincides with a fire metaphor. However fire is probably a universal metaphor and it's appearance in any one text may not be significant. The 'sarvam' idiom is also common in the Upaniṣads.

Returning to the Pāli we find that sabbaṃ can be used in several different ways, each of are subtlety different aspects of totality: “whole, entire, all, every". Sabbaṃ is most typically 'the whole'. When used to mean 'all' it has colonised the semantic field of the Sanskrit word viśva - a similar process seems to happen in many Indo-European Languages. This sequence of suttas dealing with sabbaṃ uses all of the definitions of sabbaṃ. However here sabbaṃ as defined by the Buddha includes only the senses, and their objects - ear, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, mental activity (dharmas). Collectively these are known as the twelve 'āyatana' - the meeting places or bases; or if we include the respective sense consciousnesses the eighteen dhātu.

This might seem a narrow definition of 'everything', but it takes into account the perceptual situation. The Buddha doesn't deny the objective world (and therefore non-dualist interpretations of Buddhism seem to me to miss the mark) but he says that all we can know about that world comes through the senses and is processed by the mind. As such he is not a pure idealist, since he doesn't deny the objective per se. 'Everything' in this sense is everything that we can know, and is also what constitutes our 'world' (loka), that is our personal subjective world.

Everything - the senses and their objects, and the mind which perceives them; and what arises in the mind as a result of perception - are ablaze. They are the fuel of the fire. And with what are they ablaze? (kiñca sabbaṃ āditto). They are ablaze firstly with the fires (aggi) of greed (rāga), hatred (dosa), and ignorance (moha). This triad, known as kilesa (Sanskrit kleśa) are universally acknowledged in Buddhism as the roots of the problems of human beings. However the Buddha continues on to say that everything is ablaze with the fires of birth, old age and death (jātiyā jarāya maraṇena), and with all forms of unhappiness: grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsā). So the fire is the causes and effects of spiritual ignorance, the rounds of rebirth (and redeath) and the unsatisfactoriness of being ignorant of the nature of experience.

It is typical of the sutta form for the Buddha to first set out a problem and then show how it can be resolved. In this case it is through seeing this (evaṃ passaṃ). Seeing it one becomes weary of it (nibbindati). Nibbindati is often translated as revulsion (by Bhikkhu Bodhi for instance). This captures the intensity of the emotion, but gives it a far too negative a cast for my taste. The word can mean "is weary of, satiated, turns away" - in my own idiom I might say "fed-up". Seeing the fire and fuel burning away, one becomes thoroughly fed-up with being burned, and turns away from it. Turning away one detaches from it (virajjhati). Virāga (detachment) is the opposite of being caught up in the passions (rāga) - passions very much in the old fashion sense of something overtaking you, and taking you over against your will. Being free of passions one is liberated (vimuccati), and one knows that one is liberated.

Now the word is not used in this text, but it's clear that the metaphor finds it's apotheosis in the term nibbāṇa. The origin of this term is clearer in Sanskrit: nirvāna. Vāna is from the root √vā 'to blow', and nir- (actually nis- but sandhi changes it to nir- when followed by v) meaning "out, forth, away": nirvāṇa, then, means "to blow out". What is blown out is the fire described here - it is clearly not the blowing out of 'being' or of the person or personality or the ego. Nirvāṇa then is not at all nihilistic - unless the absence of greed, hatred and delusion is nihilistic! The ideas being expressed here owe a great deal to the work of Richard Gombrich - who has especially pointed out the ubiquity of the fire metaphor and some of the ways it is employed. I have already written about the fire metaphor and the nidāna chain before: Playing with Fire [16.05.08].

Clearly in terms of method this sutta is short on detail. Although one could say that the Buddhist program is just this: becoming fed-up with suffering and turning away from the causes of it; in practice we have to have a little more help than this. There are lots of methods that we can employ to help us along the way. What this sutta does do quite nicely is give us an overview of the problem and the solution, of what I have been calling the Buddhist program. Perhaps for this reason it is celebrated amongst Buddhists.

The Āditta Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS S iv.19) is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2000, p.1143. Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation is available on Access to Insight. I used the Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org for my translations.

Ṛgveda quote from the online version of Thomson, Karen and Slocum, 2008. The Rigveda: Metrically Restored Text. Translation is mine.

Information on the sarvam idiom from essays by Jan Gonda
  • Gonda, J. 1955. ‘Reflections on Sarva- in Vedic Texts’. Indian Linguistics 16(Nov) : 53-71
  • Gonda, J. 1982. ‘All, Universe, and Totality in the Śatapatha-Brāhmana’. Journal of the Oriental Institute 32(1-2): 1-17

The Fire Sutta

Once the Blessed one was dwelling at Gaya, on Gaya’s Head, with one thousand monks. There the Blessed One addressed the monks:
Monks, everything is ablaze! And what is everything? The eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, those sensations that arise from eye-contact whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. All these are ablaze. Ablaze with what? They are ablaze with the fires of craving, hatred, and ignorance; with the fires of birth, old-age and death; with the fires of grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble.

Similarly the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind; and sounds, smells, tastes, contact and thoughts, etc are ablaze.

When they see things in this way, the noble disciples are fed up with the senses, and their objects, and sense consciousness, and contact, and what arises from contact - whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. And being fed-up with it all they lose interest. Losing interest they are free from those influences, and they know themselves to be free. They understand: “birth is cut off, the spiritual life has been lived, what should be done has been done, this state of being is no more”.
This is what the Blessed One said.

Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Blessed One said. Moreover, during the exposition their minds were freed from the fires [1] by removing the fuel [2].

  1. Here I am translating āsava as ‘fires’ to link it to the fires of greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha) mentioned earlier in the text. The āsavas are sensuality (kāma), becoming (bhava), ignorance (avijjā) and, sometimes, views (diṭṭha). The fires mentioned above are a different list known as the kilesā or defilements. Although the āsavas and the kilesas only partially overlap, they are clearly getting at the same kind of thing i.e. that our responses to the senses and their objects is what binds us to saṃsara.
  2. Anupādāya is more literally “not taken hold of” or “not appropriated”. With reference to the fire metaphor however upādā suggests the fuel which supports the fire. And anupādā would then be “not taking up any more fuel”. Pali-English Dictionary s.v. upādā, upādāna and upādāya.

image: by jayarava

24 April 2009

From the Beginning Nothing Arises.

Syllable āṃḥSome time back I wrote a blog post on a quote from the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT): The Essence of all Mantras. Recently I was reflecting on the idea that the syllable 'a' is the essence of all mantras in light of my studies of Sanskrit.

In the MAT the phrase is, in Stephen Hodge's translation:
"I declare that A is the essence of all mantras, and from it arise mantras without number; and it produces in entirety the Awareness which stills all conceptual proliferations".[1]
Previous explanations of this phrase are based on two ideas: first that unmodified consonants in the Sanskrit alphabet assume the vowel 'a'; or second, that 'a' added to any adjective or noun causes it to mean the opposite. These don't seem explain the claim that 'a' is the essence of all mantras. The syllable 'a' is not involved either phonetically or graphically in the other vowels sounds, and added to a verb usually indicates the past imperfect tense. I have put forward the theory that this idea makes more sense in an environment in which the Gāndhārī [2] language and Kharoṣṭhī script were used: where the character for 'a' is modified by diacritic marks to indicate other vowels.

Here I want to explore a link to the Perfection of Wisdom tradition by examining one of the phrases which make up the alphabetic acrostic of the Arapacana poem as found in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra - the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the 25kPP). The first five lines go like this:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
repho mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ rajo 'pagatatvāt
pakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ paramārtha nirdeśāt
cakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ cyavanopapattyanupalabdhitvāt
nakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ nāmāpagatatvāt
Clearly there is a pattern here. Akāro, repho, pakāro etc are the names of the syllables in Sanskrit (r being irregular). Sarvadharmāṇām is a compound of sarva + dharma in the genitive plural case - roughly 'of all dharmas'. Conze's translation into English remains the only accessible one and he translated the first phrase as: "The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning".

Conze has not just translated the words, he has interpreted them - there is nothing to correspond to "the insight that" in the Sanskrit. The grammatical relationship suggests that the letters are indeed the 'mukhaḥ' of all dharmas, but here we need to tread carefully. Firstly my regular readers will know that dharma is a very ambiguous term that can be translated rather differently under different circumstances. I have pointed out that in many cases that dharmas (plural) should be taken to be what arises in dependence on causes (the primary focus of the Buddha's insights and teaching), and further that it is better to think of dharmas in this sense as the units of conscious experience - they are the building bricks of our subjective 'world'. I think that this definition might apply here also, but before I go into this we need to explore this word 'mukha'.

Mukha is almost a slippery as dharma. Since we know that the language of the Wisdom alphabet was originally a Prakrit rather than Classical Sanskrit we need to consult more widely than Sanskrit dictionaries in defining this word. I have consulted Monier-Williams' Sanskrit Dictionary, Edgerton's Buddhist-Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary and the Pāli-English Dictionary (PED). Definitions largely overlap except for one specific case. The PED provides the most useful summary of the meanings:
  1. mouth
  2. face, or of the face
  3. opening, metaphorically a means of income
  4. cause, ways, means, reason
  5. front, top, head (and hence:)
  6. pinnacle, best part, foremost, top most.
Conze has chosen to render mukha as 'door' and the reason for this may be that in the 25kPP mukha occurs with another term which suggests that they might be synonyms: "akṣaramukham akṣarapraveśaḥ" (25kPP 21.2.08). Akṣara is 'syllable' in both cases. Praveśa can mean "entering, entrance, penetration or intrusion into". It is quite common in Pāli texts to use two synonyms like this for emphasis - although often commentators feel compelled to make hair splitting differences between the two. However 'Door' is not the most obvious translation of mukha even under these circumstances. Salomon translates it 'head' in one of his papers on the Arapacana Alphabet for instance, although I do not think this is right either.

Let's step back for a minute and explore the context which in this case is meditation. The words of the acrostic are an aide de memoire for meditation. This is brought our quite clearly in a later passage (420 pages later in Conze's translation!). Here the text makes it clear that the reader should be meditating "on the 42 letters" [3]. If one reads through all of the lines it becomes clear that this is a meditation on emptiness: or to be quite specific it is a meditation designed to reveal that dharmas are empty of svabhāva or independent existence. This is not different from my own approach to dhammas relying on Pāli texts. Because dharmas are the subjective aspects of experience and nothing substantial arises in the process of having an experience, nothing is defiled, nothing is beyond this, nothing ceases, there is nothing to pin a label on (these are rough translations of the first five lines of the Arapacana). That is to say the subject for contemplation is not the nature of Reality, but the nature of experience.

So the letter 'a' reminds us of the word anutpanna (non-arisen) which expands to the line akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt, and the overall idea is to contemplate the notion that within experience nothing substantial or independent arises. Conze's suggestion, then, that the syllable 'a' is a door, even a door to insight, is not completely implausible. However praveśa suggests not simply an entrance, but a penetration into something - ie an insight - into the meaning of the words. The syllable 'a' certainly provides a reminder, and perhaps we could see it as providing a way into insight. Perhaps then mukha is being used in the sense of 'means' or 'opportunity'? Another possibility comes from the BHS dictionary where Edgerton suggests that another way of reading the word is 'introduction' or 'ingress'. It could be that the meditation practice is seen as having two phases - introduction to the concept, and penetration to the consequences of it.

Conze says that "all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning", but I don't think this is quite what was intended. Let's take apart this complex compound ādyanutpannatvāt and see what it says: ādi + an + ud + panna + tva + āt. The prefix ādi means 'beginning or commencement'. An + utpanna is just the opposite of utpanna, and utpanna is ud + panna (d changes to t before p) which is 'rising up' or 'arising'. So anutpana is 'not rising up'. Now -tva is a suffix used to form abstract nouns: if god is the noun, then divinity is the abstract noun. You could also translate -tva as -ness. If a stone is hard then it exhibits hardness. And -āt is an ablative suffix - it can express the English 'from' or 'because of'. So putting things back together: anutpannatva means 'having the quality of not arising'. Adding ādi gives us Conze's "from the very beginning".

I would translate the whole phrase:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
the syllable a is an opening because of the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.
This is not so different to Conze. There is an ambiguity: sarvadharmāṇāṃ is a genitive plural "of all dharmas" and it could mean the 'opening of all dharmas...' or 'the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.' Conze chose the former, but it occurs to me that the latter needs to be considered as a possibility, and works better in my opinion - I'm a beginner and Conze was a very experienced linguist and translator, but, even so.

It is interesting to note that the text has effectively become esoteric - i.e. it cannot be understood as it stands. One needs a little Sanskrit, and to have studied the text with a view to the Arapacana meditation. It does yield up it's secrets to study, but not to the casual reader. I have examined all of the published occurrences of the Arapacana. I don't have access to the many unpublished manuscripts. The manuscript from Bajaur which will no doubt provide more insights when published as it is the oldest known Arapacana. In my opinion the incorporation of a working Arapacana meditation in the 25kpp links it to the Gandhāra area - recall that no other alphabetical lists are known in ancient Indian texts.

My view is that this tradition represents a continuous line of development from early Buddhism which preserves the essential elements of the original. The crucial notions are that dharmas are units of experience, and that the important thing is to the workings of experience from the subjective pole (as opposed to trying to describe 'reality'). But the particular tradition withers and, I think, dies. Traces of the Arapacana tradition survive for hundreds of years, but are increasingly abstract. Between the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (ca mid 7th century) and the next major Tantric text, the Sarvatathāgata-Tatvasaṃgraha Tantra (ca late 7th - early 8th century), the whole alphabet gets paired down to just the syllable 'a'. In the 25kPP the meditation is on all of the syllables of the Gāndhārī alphabet - it is a complex task to remember the 42 (or 43 or 44) lines. And the 25kPP itself says that all of these reflections point to the same truth. So the whole thing got pared down to: akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt. As I have remarked elsewhere the line later became embedded in bījas and was turned into a mantra: oṃ akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt āḥ hūṃ phaṭ svāhā. This form crops up in contexts which appear completely dissociated from its origins in Gandhāra.

[1] Note that the purpose is to still proliferations. I don't have space to link this with last week's essay on proliferation, but the connection is an interesting one.
[2]My spelling of Gandhāra and Gāndhārī have been somewhat erratic in the past - I think I have it right in this essay and will endeavour to correct it in past essays as time permits.
[2] The text does indeed say 42, although most versions of the Arapacana have 43 or 44, and the one in this text has 44. It's not clear why this discrepancy exists.

Note: A complete and reliable edited Sanskrit text of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra is not yet available, and access to manuscripts is out of the question for someone like me. Dutt's edition is complete but unreliable - for instance the Arapacana has two duplications of syllables. Another edition is in the process of being edited by Takayasu Kimura, but the volume which contains the Arapacana is not yet published, although the other related passages are available in Kimura (I haven't had a chance to compare them yet).

image: Seed-syllable āṃḥ - combines the syllables a, ā, aṃ, aḥ which represent the four stages of the path in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, and therefore symbolises their culmination and apotheosis as embodied by Mahāvairocana.

17 April 2009

Proliferation - the stories we tell ourselves about experience

The Madhupiṇḍika or Honeyball Sutta* is one of the most important texts in the Pāli Canon. In it the Buddha's maternal uncle Daṇḍāpāni asks what the Buddha teaches. The name Daṇḍapāni may well be a joke since it means rod in hand, or even the punishing hand, and the Buddha replies that he teaches in a way that on does not quarrel with anyone in the world. But more specifically and more importantly he teaches a way to be free of craving, to be detached from sensual pleasures. Some of the bhikkhus find the sermon a bit terse and so they ask Mahā Kaccāna, who is known as the foremost expounder in full of brief sayings of the Buddha, to give a further explanation. He says:
‘‘Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti , yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti tatonidānaṃ purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppannesu cakkhuviññeyyesu rūpesu. MN i.111.
It translates roughly as
"dependent (paṭicca) on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises: these three together constitute contact (phassa), which causes sensations (vedanā). Sensations are perceived (sañjānāti), and perceptions are reflected on (vitakka**), and reflections proliferate (papañceti). Because the eye is always recognising forms, a man is beset by ideas about, and definitions of, what is proliferated".
The formula is repeated for the other senses and the mind. Now the precise meaning of papañca is still disputed by scholars, but it is generally taken to mean something like "mental proliferation". I think of it as something like associations. By linking present experience with associations we create the stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we are having. So we have a sensation, and the register it and reflect on it, and we then associate that with past experiences, and expectations, and habitual responses, and the result is that we incorporate the sensation into our personal narrative - what we might call our 'world' (loka). Not that much, if any, of this happens consciously.

The Buddha had earlier explained that
‘‘Yatonidānaṃ, bhikkhu, purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti. Ettha ce natthi abhinanditabbaṃ abhivaditabbaṃ ajjhositabbaṃ. Esevanto rāgānusayānaṃ, esevanto paṭighānusayānaṃ, esevanto diṭṭhānusayānaṃ , esevanto vicikicchānusayānaṃ, esevanto mānānusayānaṃ, esevanto bhavarāgānusayānaṃ, esevanto avijjānusayānaṃ, esevanto daṇḍādāna-satthādāna-kalaha-viggaha-vivāda-tuvaṃtuvaṃ-pesuñña-musāvādānaṃ. Etthete pāpakā akusalā dhammā aparisesā nirujjhantī’ti. MN i.110
"As to the ideas about, and definitions of, what is proliferated which assail a man: if there are no objects of pleasure, nothing to welcome, or to cling to then the bias towards pleasure is left behind, the bias towards reactivity is left behind, the biases towards views, uncertainty, comparisons and conceit, the desire for continued becoming, ignorance are left behind; giving out punishments, fighting, quarrels, disputes, contention, blame, slander and lying are left behind. These evil unskilful states are completely destroyed."
So here the Buddha is rather tersely explaining that being caught up in our own stories about the 'world' (really our own 'world') we are led to actions which are harmful to us and others. In order to give up these states we have to stop seeking out pleasure, stop being fixated with it, and stop clinging to it. This is a subtle point which might be mistaken for a kind of dour puritanism.

The problem is not pleasure per se. Pleasure is not bad. It is our attitude towards pleasurable experiences which causes us difficulties. Sensations are largely involuntary - if not in a deep sleep then we constantly experience sensations over which we have little control, except perhaps which sensations we focus on. We are surrounded by objects of the senses, and we are constantly in contact with them. We swim in sensory experience just like a fish in water.

The problem is the stories we tell ourselves, mostly unconsciously, about the nature of these sensations. These stories come from our surrounding culture, our social group and from our families. We are this kind of person, but not that kind. We like this kind of thing and not that kind. Some of us are so convinced about their story that we will kill on the basis of these beliefs, but all of us will quarrel and fight, and on occasion will be unskilful in order to defend our 'world'. Unfortunately we are so strongly inculcated with these views that we don't even see them as views, let alone question them. Where people do question them, they often seem to lack the vision to find a better answer.

In fact most of us don't get along very well without pleasure. Some of us go a bit mad when we deny ourselves pleasure. The middle way is not to deny or indulge in pleasurable sensations, but to see sensations, and experiences for what they are. Experiences - ie the coming together of sense, object and consciousness - are impermanent. Even if the stimulus behind a sensation remains constant, our relationship to it changes. A good example is tinnitus - the constant ringing in the ears that many of us have due to listening to loud music. It is constant, but sometimes we notice it and sometimes not; sometimes it is annoying or even exasperating, sometimes it is neutral. Experience shifts and swirls and each moment of awareness is different from the next.

As I explained last week [How is Suffering created?] - we associate happiness with pleasure. This is one of the most dangerous stories that we tell ourselves, one of the most destructive associations we make. Because it makes pleasure important to us. We'll fight to get it, fight with those we perceive as denying it to us, and fight to hold on to what we have. We don't even imagine that pleasure being a vedanā (ie a mental event) is impermanent. We welcome pleasure and we cling to it, or try to. What Kaccāna does is to put this in the context of the mechanics of experience. Pleasure is not something we have control over, not something we can hold on to.

Likewise we are reactive towards painful experiences. I think we need to be clear that if you're literally on fire then it is vital to put out the flames. But painful sensations are as involuntary as pleasurable. Having been burned we should be ready to experience the pain of the burn. This is a huge ask at times. Sometimes the pain of the moment is too much to bear, as I wrote about in my essay [When awareness is too much to bear]. But the problem is that when we try to suppress awareness of some sensations we are less alive to our experience. Denial creates unconsciousness which becomes a vicious circle - and how vicious this can become is obvious to anyone tuning into the news media.

So we have these biases: thirst for pleasure, reactivity towards pain, and this is both a result of, and a condition for, the continuation of the stories we tell ourselves about what we are experiencing. But since the stories aren't consistent with the nature of experience, then we find ourselves constantly being disappointed or confused. Part of the Buddhist method is to slow down and just pay attention to that raw experience. If necessary label it: pleasant, painful, neutral. And watch our reaction to it - drawn towards, react away? It's usually one or the other. The aim of this stage of practice is to attain equanimity towards experiences, in order to prepare us for the next step, which is to start getting into the workings of the process.

* Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya no.18 (PTS MN i.111.). In the translation by Bikkhus Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi it is on pg 201. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight with a lengthy and useful introduction.

** Vitakka and reflect have very similar etymologies. See my essay Communicating the Dharma.

image: honey bee from autan on Flickr.

10 April 2009

How is suffering created?

Jain AsceticsOne time the Buddha was wandering for alms in Rājagaha when he was approached by a naked ascetic called Kassapa*. "Kassapa", the Buddha said, "this is not the right time for asking questions". But Kassapa persisted, and eventually the Buddha relented and said, "alright, what is your question?" Kassapa asked whether suffering is self-made (sayaṃkataṃ), or whether is other-made (asayaṃkataṃ), or perhaps both, or neither. In each case the Buddha answered: "not thus" (mā heva) or more colloquially "it's not like that". At this point Kassapa wondered aloud whether the Buddha knew the answer. But to this question he answered, "I do know". Kasssapa asked the Buddha to teach him.

The Buddha tells Kassapa that if you believe that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences the result (so karoti so paṭisaṃvedayati), then you must believe in a lasting entity, and this amounts to eternalism (sassataṃ etaṃ pareti). If you believe that the one who acts is other (añña) than the one who experiences the results (añño karoti añño paṭisaṃvedayati), then this amounts to nihilism (ucchedaṃ etaṃ pareti). Suffering in fact arises in dependence on causes. The Buddha teaches Kassapa about the 12 nidanas - ignorance gives rise to volitional tendencies, which gives rise to consciousness, etc. This, he declares is the origin of this mass of suffering (dukkhakkhandhassa).

Kassapa finds this illuminating and asks to join the bhikkhu Sangha. The story has other interesting features, but let's go back and work through the exchange I've just outlined. Sayaṃkataṃ can mean "created by oneself" (which is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it) or it can mean "made by itself". PED also suggests "spontaneous" as a possibility. To me it seems more likely that Kassapa is asking whether suffering causes itself, rather than do we cause our own suffering. This fits the context as we will see.

Now the Buddha responds to Kassapa's question about how suffering occurs by first critiquing two wrong views about the relationship between acting (karoti) and experience (paṭisamvedeti). By the way: acting (karoti) produces an action (kamma) both of which come from the root √kṛ - 'to do, to make'. And action according to the Buddha is intention, ie it is the motivations, the subjectivity, behind actions that he is interested in. To emphasis a point I have been making repeatedly lately, the link here is between intention and experience. Paṭisaṃvediyeti comes ultimate from the verbal root √vid 'to know or feel'. Vediyati is a form of the the causative, and therefore means something like 'informs', but it's clear that it refers to experiencing sensations. Vediyati is related to the important word for sensations vedanā (literally: announcing or making known). The suffixes here (paṭi + saṃ) don't seem to change the meaning very much. Paṭi perhaps makes it reflexive, and saṃ can mean together or complete. In any case paṭisamvediyati refers to the experience of sensations or vedanā. So the context here is the subjective pole of both actions and consequences, not the objective side of the equation - bodily actions and things in the world.

Kassapa sees two basic possibilities - suffering is either self-made, or not-self-made. It seems that the Buddha interprets the former as saying that one who acts and and the one who subsequently experiences are identical; while the latter is saying that actor and experiencer are not linked. Indian logic also allows for both and neither to be the case. But neither the two basic cases, nor both, nor neither apply. Now because Kassapa is a naked ascetic and for some complicated reasons about the way he asks his questions, we can assume that he is a Jain.

Like most Indians of the time the Jains believed in a kind of rebirth. All forms of rebirth theory present one major difficulty. What links one life to another? If there is something which continues from life to life, then that is eternalism; and if there isn't then rebirth isn't really rebirth, and we only have this one life, which is nihilism. If one is concerned with exhausting karma in order to be liberated, a more specific question arises because if one dies what then is the link between actions and consequences? The Jains believed that humans possess a jiva, or life energy, which continues from life to life. The image for the way the jiva operates is that actions (kamma) produce dust, which sticks to the jiva weighing it down. Liberation can be achieved by removing the dust (through the experience of suffering) and by not creating any new dust - that is by not acting. The Jains believed that all actions - whether intentional or not - created dust. In addition they believed that all things possess some kind of consciousness, so eating even vegetables was causing harm. It was the Jains who first adopted the practice of ahiṃsa - non-harm. Many of the austerities carried out by Jains consisted primarily in non-action - long periods of immobility, extreme fasting, and holding the breath for example. Going naked meant not having to harm plants or animals for the sake of clothing. The idea was that through painful austerities one "burned up" one's karma, removing the dust from the jiva and allowing it to float up and be liberated.

Several suttas in the canon portray the Jain Sangha falling into dispute and confusion after the death of their leader Mahāvīra. This may be polemical, but it might provide the context for a Jain asking advice of the Buddha, and for being in such a hurry to know. Note that Kassapa is not asking "why do I suffer?" in any abstract way. He is asking really concerned with the question - "how do I understand suffering in order to be liberated from it?" In other words his outlook is not much different from a Buddhist, he just lacks the insight of dependent arising - which the Buddha tells him about.

So the question about the link between actions and consequences, and the origins of suffering have the same answer. Experiences, of which suffering is the paradigm for the unliberated, arise in dependence on causes. The key aspect of this is that when we experience pleasurable sensations (vedanā) we desire more (taṇha). This craving provides fuel (upādāna) for continued becoming (bhava). This results in the cycle of birth (jāti) old age and death (jarā-maraṇa) - that is to say that it causes us to suffer since all unenlightened experiences are (unsatisfactory) dukkha. Only if we understand this process, can we then begin to interrupt it because although vedanā is involuntary, taṇha is not.

We often choose the wrong course of action because we think that pleasure is happiness. We want happiness, but we pursue pleasure. In fact it is a double bind, because not only do we pursue pleasure, but the way offered by the Buddha appears as if it may not be entirely pleasurable: we have to give things up, we have to be disciplined etc. And because we also avoid discomfort we won't commit ourselves to practice while we see happiness in terms of pleasure. It's not until we really begin to see where happiness lies that we are able to overcome this reticence: to give up what must be given up, and to take up what must be taken up. Often we must do a lot of study and engage in discussions and debates to get to this point. We have to take apart our views about happiness in order to make room for practice. And a third fetter may have been put in place by this point. We may have burdened ourselves with many commitments by the time we come to our senses. We for instance have families and careers that we have a responsibility to. So then finding a compromise between our practice and our responsibilities can be quite difficult. But still it is important to understand what we are doing and why. We have this experience because it has arisen in dependence on causes. We have a choice about what conditions we set up in the future - so we can always practice to some extent.

*This story is from the Acelakassapa Sutta, Saṃyutta Nikāya 12:17 (PTS SN ii.18 ff). It can be found on page p.545 in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation (single volume edition). The Sutta is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight. (Note that Thanissaro translates dukkha as 'stress' which can be a bit confusing).
image: modern day naked Jain asetics by Freddy Nagarvala.

03 April 2009

Who's in charge?

Recently in the news I noticed a headline which suggested that cheap booze is killing people in the UK. The claim was being made by an official of the medical profession. Put this alongside the focus, last year, on the "epidemic" of obesity which claims that obesity is the number one health issue in the UK today, and the problem is cheap poor quality food. What do these two stories have in common? I think it it this: that eating and drinking are not involuntary but voluntary. But the news is telling us that we are not responsible for what we put in our mouths, that the fact that fatty foods and booze are cheap is what is causing the problem.

I consider that the main job of the media is entertainment. This is the only explanation for the choice of news stories, or at least the choice of which stories to give prominence. The front page and the lead story are always the one that will get the biggest emotional response from the audience. Since anger and fear are more easily provoked, and often more intensely felt, than other emotions, these are the ones they go for. There is even micro-targeting for what will outrage the target market so that papers will highlight different stories that will outrage their demographic.

So I never assume that anything is being reported for the information content, but only for its ability to rouse emotions. Which is why I seldom comment on the media, current events, or politics. But I see a trend here which is worth looking at. I think it does reflect an attitude in the UK, if not elsewhere, that are counter productive.

If I am fat then chances are I eat too much. I allow for some people having genetic disorders, and genuine medical problems, but the fact is that most people who are over-weight eat the wrong kind of food, and too much of it. Combined with lack of sufficient exercise, that is the obesity problem. It is true that fatty foods, and processed foods are often cheap, but this is not to say that good food is unaffordable. Most people have the choice, but they simply do not exercise it. Why? Well I think part of it is that we are being trained to think that we are not responsible for our actions. If the media constantly presents obesity as a problem of cheap fatty food, instead of greedy, undiscerning eaters then we start to think: "I'm not responsible". Similarly if I drink heavily it is not because there is cheap booze. It is because I choose to drink heavily. There may well be reasons behind that, but it is my choice. The attitude of not being responsible is fostered in the UK by ever increasing amounts of legislation and regulation which are aimed to prevent problems caused by not taking responsibility. The main area is what's called Health and Safety. Because of the large number of accidents in the workplace a series of measures have been implemented to stop people doing things which might result in accidents. And because you can't legislate against stupidity or unmindfulness, the rules try to make the world safe for stupid or unmindful people. In fact if you operate a workplace in the UK you have to assume that your employees and customers are very stupid and not at all mindful. This lowest common denominator has become the norm. The result is wasteful and infantilising. It seems to have encouraged the notion that safety is someone else's responsibility rather than that my safety is my responsibility. Now it may be argued that unscrupulous people put others at risk and that employees especially need to be protected, and I will grant that this is the case. But the next time you see someone operating a pneumatic drill or jack hammer, take a look at their ears. I suppose about 50% of the people I see are not wearing hearing protection - even though the H&S regs have made this freely and easily available to all. If there is some doubt over workplace safety there can be none over food and drink. As kids we eat what we are given, but as adults we choose.

The Buddhist program calls for us to be aware of our intentions, how they manifest in actions, and what the consequences of those actions are. This is not an easy path by any means. So often we can only see what's going on in retrospect when everything has turned to custard and we review what happened. Even then the urge is to blame other people, or other factors. As Buddhists when something goes wrong the first thing we should do is examine our own mind. What were our motivations? So often these are complex and largely unconscious. The practice of ethics (of behaving in accordance with ethical guidelines and confessing breaches of them) brings us hard up against our motivations. Sangharakshita has said there is no justification for sustaining a negative mental state. We may not be able to prevent one arising, because they arise in dependence on past conditions and causes, but we can surely recognise a negative mental state in the present and do something about it! So often we justify our irritation - and this justification is reinforced by those around us. But irritation is just aversion and nothing good can come from it. It is hatred. We need to face up to this, and pay attention to what happens when we go around letting irritation persist in our minds. I don't need to spell it out, because it's up to everyone to discover for themselves what it's like. But I can say that I don't enjoy it.

And ethics are not simply an exercise in good behaviour and finding approval. We may well find approval, but being scrupulously ethical may also meet with disapproval from an uncomprehending society. The point is to become more aware of how our minds actually work. To find the connections between our intentions and the consequences, and to see how our experience arises in dependence on causes. It is this that we urgently need to understand because the lack of clarity is causing us (and everyone else) to suffer. We particularly need to see how we response to pleasant sensations and to painful sensations. This leads is naturally into meditation techniques which help to strip away the distractions and the confusion and allow us to focus on understanding the nature of experience. But without a measure of calm and positivity we won't get far in meditation. The gross disturbances caused by breaking precepts means that our minds are unstable in meditation. We need to be ethical in order to experience what the texts sometimes call 'non-remorse' (avippaṭisāro). Discipline is for the purpose of non-remorse, and from non-remorse naturally arises happiness (pāmojja) and from this rapture (pīti), etc on up to knowledge and vision, and up to liberation. That is to say that ethics naturally leads us onto what Sangharakshita has called The Spiral Path, the progressive series of stages that lead to liberation the way that trickles of water may become rivulets, that join with others to become a stream, with many streams making a river, and eventually a mighty river that flows down to the sea. Just as a mighty river relies on its watershed of many tiny streams, so the process of liberation begins with ethical observances which, reflected on, give insights into how experience works.

We cannot afford to buy into the "it's not my problem" mentality. Everything we do is up to us, and it is we who have to live with the consequences.

image: Mail Online

27 March 2009

Buddhism and Religion

I've lived in Britain* for about seven years now, and one thing that has stood out for me about living here is the different preoccupations of the British. They are preoccupied with status in a way that, as a Kiwi**, I find baffling. One manifestation is 'class', which is a subject all of it's own! Stemming from this is the scrutiny of schools and education - where you went, where you send your kids, who teaches what - it's always in the news! One of the things that really stand out as different here is religion. The history of religion in Britain is complex and rich. We are left however with a rare thing in the Western world which is that the head of state, is also the head of an established (that is to say an official state) church. I've been a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (left) all my life, but I hadn't even noticed that she's the head of a church as well until I moved here. Christianity is everywhere: the towns are full of churches - some of them centuries old; state media must broadcast religious content, and state schools must offer religious education. Yes, the remit has been broadened out in recent times to include "other" religions, but the proportion still reflects that mad Victorian Melvil Dewey's classification system: Christianity 200-289; Other religions 290-299; (Buddhism is 294.3 in case you're wondering).

Another thing I've noticed is that when the media talk about Religion, they generally mean first Christianity, and second other Abrahamic religions. A kind of third category of Atheistic Materialist Humanism exists, since the atheists are defined by their sometimes fervent lack of belief in God. Buddhism is understood to be a religion, along with "other" religions like Hinduism, but doesn't get much air time. A couple of exceptions are Vishvapani's occasional 2.5 minute appearances on Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot, and Melvin Bragg's In our Time which looked at Buddhism's popularity for 45 minutes in 2002 - enough to keep up our Dewey proportions.

If you ask Google to define religion (which you do by typing "define: religion") you get much the same thing. The majority of entries emphasise divinity, the supernatural, and/or use terms drawn exclusively drawn from Christianity. In other words the internet generally reflects the idea that Christianity is the model of what a religion is (what George Lakoff calls a prototype for the category). 'Other' religions are recognised as religions by Westerners in so far as they resemble Christianity. But does Buddhism fit into this scheme? We have to answer yes, and no.

Pragmatically yes, Buddhism does resemble Christianity (in some ways). Like Christians we gather together for acts of worship. During that worship many Buddhists pray for salvation. The Buddha is not a creator God, and Buddhism recognises no creator God, but he is capable of offering us salvation. For some Buddhists there is no way forward except through the intervention of a Buddha, for others a Buddha is insufficient and salvation requires the intervention of a human teacher. Like Christians some Buddhists believe that without someone to lead the way (a Christ-like figure) no salvation is possible. I may be accused of being controversial for using 'salvation' - a term drawn from Christianity - where I might have used, for example, 'liberation' or 'Enlightenment'. But since the liberation cannot, seemingly, be attained on one's own, then we are being saved by the (supernatural) 'other'. Part of the ambiguity revolves around the multifaceted nature of Buddhist belief which is so broad that the varieties are bewildering. You personally might not believe any of the above. But this does not make it untrue. Furthermore the Buddhist scriptures are full of references to the supernatural: to ESP like powers, to levitation and magic of various kinds (even if only to ban their use by monks). 'Hindu' gods such as Brahma, Indra, and Agni simply abound; and animistic spirits like yakkhas, nāgas, appear on almost every page of the Canon. So in these senses at least Buddhism really does resemble other religions.

However in the rational West Buddhism is not a religion. Westerners, often refugees from organised (especially, state) religion are attracted to the Buddhadharma, but loath to take up the seemingly less rational aspects of it. So a kind of sanitised version of Buddhism emerges where references to the supernatural are seen as "mythic" or "archetypal" and thereby explained away. They may still inspire us, mostly they don't, but we don't have to take them literally. Often the non-literal attitude to the supernatural creates a seeing separation between 'us' and what have been called 'ethnic Buddhists'. However this is complicated when leaders, such as the founder of my order, regularly have (or at least had) what are described as mystical experiences involving personal meetings with various supernatural spirits. (See The Rainbow Road for an account of some of Sangharakshita's experiences). Mystical experiences aside (preferably), we focus on the rational, on the common sensical, teachings. The teachings in other words that appeal to the belief system that we have absorbed from birth from the surrounding culture. One of the main influences on surrounding culture is Protestant Christianity with a dollop of the European Enlightenment. This emphasises personal religion, plainness, chaste morality, distrust of papal (i.e. human) authority in favour of the biblical (i.e. textual) authority, hard work, and rationality. Indeed here are many of the things against which the spirit rebels, and over which the British are conflicted. Buddhism in the west, and in particular the FWBO, has been accused of being Protestant Buddhism. There is truth in this, but it deserves its own post. I suspect that Buddhism in predominantly Catholic countries will look quite different, just as French philosophy is very different from British philosophy.

The upshot is a Buddhism which tends to suppress the supernatural in favour of the rational, the personal in favour of the cosmic, the visionary in favour of the moral, and magic in favour of hard work. It doesn't look much like religion despite having Protestantism as an influence. And Buddhists of this ilk have carried on the venerable Buddhist tradition of writing polemics against the others - with Sangharakshita, despite his mystical experiences, being a great exponent of it. These kind of Buddhists tend not to see Buddhism as a religion. I am in this camp, despite being aware of the kinds of conditions that give rise to this belief - which is to say I admit that I'm not very original in thinking this.

Last week I argued that Buddhism, at least by Bryan Magee's definition, is not a philosophy and that the Buddha was not a philosopher. Prompting at least one Professor of Philosophy to admit that he's not a philosopher by that definition either! My own view, although I acknowledge that this is far from universal, is that Buddhism is not a religion either. What's left?

I think the fact that this is a question at all reveals much about the way the discourse is framed. Buddhism must fit into preconceived categories. The fact that it doesn't creates a cognitive dissonance, a discomfort that cries out for resolution - just like a dominant seventh chord cries out for the tonic to create the classic "amen" of the perfect cadence. Many a contemporary composer deliberately chooses harmonies that eliminate the possibility of the perfect cadence, leaving the listener adrift and uncertain. A metaphor for our times I am sure. So I'm going to leave it up in the air. The Buddha himself repeatedly said that he was only interested in suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to bring that end about.

* The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name for the region. Great Britain includes the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. Britain, technically, is only England and Wales. People in England, apparently, think of themselves as "British". England and Scotland have had a single monarch since 1603 - which the Scots appear to be very bitter about. The Prince of Wales is usually eldest son of the monarch of the UK (not sure what happens when there is no male heir).

** A "Kiwi" is someone from New Zealand. The Kiwi being a large fat, flightless, almost blind, nocturnal bird that eats worms and grubs, and is on the brink of extinction. It just happened to grace the lid of the (New Zealand made) boot polish of choice in WWI which created the association with the hapless bastards from down-under who went to fight for the King in Europe in 1914-18, only to be slaughtered on the beaches of Turkey in a futile exercise dreamt up by incompetent generals - thereby helping to forge a national identity distinct from Olde Mother England. We will remember them.
There is a good discussion of Buddhism as a religion in Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist, by Professor Richard Hayes (a man of many aliases and a fellow member of the WBO known in these circles as Dayāmati - Compassionate Mind). Pgs 142-150. I can also recommend his blog: New City of Friends.

20 March 2009

Buddhism and Western Philosophy : the Fundamental Mismatch

Following on from last week I want to continue the theme of ontology. This week I want to look at the differing attitudes to ontological speculation in early Buddhism and Western Philosophy generally. It seems to me that there is an almost irreconcilable difference between the two approaches. I've been sparked off by reading Confessions Of A Philosopher by Bryan Magee (left) . Here's what he says philosophy is about:
"The ur-question of philosophy throughout most of its history has been ‘what, ultimately, is there?’ This was the dominant question for the pre-Socratics, and it has underlain, then it has not dominated, most of the best philosophy since. In pursuit of an answer, philosophers have asked a multitude of subsidiary questions, such as ‘what is the nature of physical objects? What is space? What is causal connection? What is time?’ And by a natural progression from this they have become deeply exercised about the possibility of human knowledge: ‘How can we find out these things? Can we know any of them for certain? If so, which? And how can we be sure we know when we do know?’" (Magee p.86)
Magee puts this definition forward in his explanation that the so-called Oxford School, aka Linguistic Philosophy, really isn't philosophy at all. I want to use this paragraph as a jumping off point for comparison of early Buddhism (the narrow definition is necessary) and Western Philosophy, and to show that Buddhism, at least early Buddhism, is also not really philosophy at all.

In the west the primary question then is "what is there?" The assumption is that there is something "there", i.e. it assumes that we are a subject having an experience of an object. Early Buddhism too acknowledges this view point and sees humans as experiencing subjects being aware of objects. In particular we find the oft repeated formula that vedanā arises in dependence on contact between a sense object, a sense organ, and sense consciousness; and from vedanā all of the other functions of consciousness (or at least the functions relvant to the Buddhist project). Contemporary Buddhist discourse often tries to play down or eliminate this duality, but it is inherent in the early Buddhist texts. We have experiences of something.

However there is a fundamental difference in attitude towards the objective pole of experience. For philosophers the nature of 'what is there' is at the forefront. They enquire into the nature of the objects and the relationships between them. Even those that accept that to a large extent what we are talking about is a mental representation of some perceived reality, are still interested in what can be known and/or said about that external reality. Magee himself is not content to accept that nothing can be known for certain about Reality, but strives to find the limits of such knowledge. This is the broad subject area of metaphysics - the study of what is beyond physics. He describes more than once his disappointment that he was unable to persuade Karl Popper into the field of metaphysics.

Early Buddhism whilst acknowledging objects, has nothing much more to say about them - I know of nothing but leave open the possibility that I have not yet found it, or over looked something. The vast corpus of texts focus almost entirely on the experience, that is the subjective pole of contact. It is our response to sensations (vedanā - literally 'the known') that occupies the attention of the Buddha and early Buddhists, the cascade of mental functions and phenomena that follow from vedanā. I've harped on the Buddhists use of the word 'loka' lately so it should be familiar to my readers. It does not mean the objective world in most cases, but the subjective. When the Buddha is called "lokavidū" (in the Buddha Vandana for example) - the knower of the world - this does not mean that he knows about worldly things, but that he has fully understood his own world, his self-constructed world. He understands how experiences arise and pass away.

This is where we must specify early Buddhism - by which I mean the earliest strands of Buddhism largely represented by the Pāli texts, but with fragmentary parallels in Gāndhārī and Sanskrit, as well as translations into Chinese, and to some extent Tibetan and some Central Asian languages. Later on, although not that late, at least one strand of Buddhism began to think in terms of actually existent objective entities. This strand was called Sarvāstivāda after the Sanskrit phrase "sarvaṃ asti - everything exists". Perhaps because India had philosophers as well, the Buddhists got sucked into creating and systematising theories about reality (or worse, Reality), but this drew them well away from what seem to be the concerns of the early texts.

Where there is a quest for knowledge in philosophy it is knowledge of reality, knowledge of the the objective world. Questions of Truth and Authority revolve around this notion of a reality (or Reality) external to us in which we participate. There is a great deal of mileage in this. After all we to a large extent share experiences, and we can communicate about them. Technology relies on observations of objects and their relationship: from the earliest tools, to working metals and clays, to the hi-tech of atom smashers and the internet, these are all successes of the view that objects are real and knowable. Technology is not simply a matter of mental phenomena. If we dismiss the objective world out of hand, then we run the risk of appearing (and actually being) silly.

However once again the Buddha seems to have been preoccupied with other matters - generally speaking in the nature of experience, and more specifically in the nature of suffering or unpleasant experience. And not just in the content of experience, but in the mechanics of it. In the process by which we have experiences. This becomes apparent when we take an overview of the teachings on the khandhas, which Sue Hamilton has described as the "apparatus of experience". It's not that objects are denied. The observation that we can only know what we can experience, is shared by Western thinkers. It's that the Buddha's project was to end suffering, and not to make samara more pleasent or livable. Technology was beside the point to the Buddha, even if he had not adopted the lifestyle of a traditional wanderer. The focus, as I explained in Life, the Universe and Everything [16 Jan 2009], is suffering, it's causes, it's ceasing, and the ways one can make it cease. No technology is required to do this, because it is all about understanding how the experience of suffering arises from vedanā.

I would suggest then that Buddhism is not, or at least not in its earliest known texts, a philosophy, and the Buddha was not a philosopher, at least not in the terms given by Bryan Magee. The Buddha appears not to have been interested in the central questions of philosophy, and they have no bearing on the method of Buddhism - the object is immaterial compared to our experience of it, and how we understand that experience.

If Buddhism is not a philosophy, this begs the question, is it a religion? A subject for another rave...


13 March 2009

The World and What Exists

Some time back I wrote a post about the early Buddhist attitude to ontology - the issue of what exists, and what the nature of that existence is. I argued that ontology plays no part in the Buddha's presentation of his teaching. However in a note to the Flower Sutta (SN 22:94; PTS S iii.138-140) Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the foremost authorities on Theravāda Buddhism, states "The Buddha's utterances at 22:94, for example, show that he did not hesitate to make pronouncements with a clear ontological import when they were called for" (Bodhi 2000 : 734, n.29). I want to look at key passages in this sutta, and examine the claim that they have an "ontological import".

The Flower Sutta begins like this:
Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, lokena vivadāmi, lokova mayā vivadati. Na, bhikkhave, dhammavādī kenaci lokasmiṃ vivadati. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, natthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘natthī’ti vadāmi. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, atthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘atthī’ti vadāmi’’.
At Sāvatthi: Bhikkhus I don't dispute with the world, the world disputes with me. A Dhammavādin doesn't quarrel with anyone in the world. That which the wise in the world agree "it does not exist (na atthi), I too say "it doesn't exist". That which the wise in the world agree "it exists" (atthi), I too say "it exists".
Dhammavādī is an adjective which describes someone who professes, or speaks, Dhamma. Vāda is an argument, view, or ideology; and the -in suffix (vādin) is a possessive - someone who has that view. In my translation I've adopted Dhammavādin (the uninflected form) because it is on the model of Theravādin, or Yogacārin and should be familiar enough. I quite like the term Dhammavādin.*

The sutta continues by asking what it is that the wise agree doesn't exist in the world? The answer is forms, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness that are permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change do not exist in the world. These are of course the five khandhas, aka the apparatus of experience. What the wise agree as existing in the world are khandhas that are impermanent, suffering and subject to change.

Taken at face value this passage we might read this as an ontological statement. However I think we need to be quite careful. The problem is with the word loka. Literally it means 'world', and Bhikkhu Bodhi is clearly taking it to mean that the khandhas exist in some impermanent sense in the world (loke/lokasmiṃ). However in his long essay on the word on 'loka' Jan Gonda (1966) shows that the original meaning of the word was something like 'the visible world' or 'the world of experience'. The original image is one of a clearing in a forest - loka is what can be seen clearly, what appears to the mind. On the physical level this means the sensual world. However it also has the connotation that we have in English with regard to the world - one can live in 'one's own world' for instance. In this case the meaning is more personal, it is a psychological term. Gonda is concerned with Vedic literature which predates the Buddha, but he establishes the metaphorical/psychological use of the word. Sue Hamilton (2000) has shown that this is also how the Buddha uses the world loka. Hamilton links loka and khandha together as part of an elaborate extended metaphor developed by the Buddha for describing the subjective pole of experience.

So I would paraphrase the above as: in the world of experience, there is nothing in that experience which is lasting, satisfying, or independent of experience. Read in this way there is nothing here of ontological import. Bhikkhu Bodhi is mislead by reading loka literally rather than metaphorically. I think the Buddha was an empirical realist - he has no explicit quarrel with the idea that there are objects of the senses, but he has nothing definite or positive to say about such objects or their natures.

To play the devils advocate for a moment, if we were to accept Bhikkhu Bodhi's assertion that the Flower Sutta has something ontological to say, then what would it be saying? Presuming also that Bhikkhu Bodhi, going along with orthodox Theravada doctrine, accepts that the khandhas are a complete definition of reality, then what is being said in this sutta is that nothing definite can be said about the reality that Bhikkhu Bodhi is thinking of. In this view nothing at all is stable. There is nothing in this view on which to pin an ontology. Nothing exists in fact. So accepting the proposition we are lead to a paradox - one that is often overlooked. The way out of this is provided by Hamilton. What the Buddha is describing is not reality but experience. If reality really were so fluid we could not experience it. By necessity we must water down the statement that 'everything changes' to 'everything changes, but some things change slowly enough for us to experience them as persisting'. In fact everything that we experience as a something, must change slowly else we wouldn't experience it as a something. If something is there one second and gone the next, we usually assume that it was a trick of the mind (recalling that the Buddha had only his bare senses and no camera or other recording equipment!). So things must actually exist for a time in order for us to experience them.

However Hamilton's is a more elegant view. It is our experience of things which is changing from moment to moment, which is never satisfying. The fact that our experience changes from moment to moment says nothing about the nature of reality. It is a comment on the nature of consciousness and awareness. This is a statement that can be taken at face value, without having to back off to allow for practicalities. In fact it has important practical implications for Buddhists in the sense that it directs our attention not to the world as such, but to the world of experience.

The sutta later describes each of the khandhas as "loke lokadhammo", which Bikkhu Bodhi translates as "a world-phenomena in the world". It is this that the Buddha has awoken to (abhisambujjhati) and realised (abhisameti). If we read loka as something more like 'world of experience' then the Buddha is saying that he has understood the elements of experience in the world of experience. I think we can see this as further vindication of Hamilton's approach to the subject. Her view is that the khandhas are not the sum total of existence, but the elements of, or by which we have, experiences. What the Buddha was interested in was understanding the very process whereby we have experiences, and why we misinterpret them to our detriment. The nature of the world as an externally existing 'something' (kiñci) is not relevant to this question, because the Buddha, like many Western thinkers, took the view that we could not directly touch that something. We have only the information of our senses and what our mind makes of them. It is by understanding the mechanics of the process - by watching it in action - and disentangling ourselves from the stories we tell about experience, that we can free ourselves from the erroneous conclusions that cause us suffering.

* Members of the Western Buddhist Order are known as Dharmacārī or Dharmacāriṇī which are, respectively, the masculine and feminine nominative singular of the adjective dharmacārin. Dharma is familiar, and cāra means "going, motion, progression, course; proceeding; practising". The -in suffix, as above, is a possessive. So dharmacārin describes someone who is practising the Dharma. Dharmacārin is the stem or uninflected form and therefore gender neutral. I have argued, so far unsuccessfully, that the WBO should adopt this usage rather than the gender specific terms.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha : a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Gonda, J. 1966. Loka : World and heaven in the Veda. Amsterdam, Noord-Hollandsche U.M.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
See also: To be or not to be : the problem with ontology. Jayarava's Raves 31-10-2008

image: World map from ancientworldmaps.blogspot.com