28 November 2008

The Unconditioned

I was discussing a previous post on the unborn, unmade, etc. with my friend Dhīvan the other day, and he mentioned that there are a series of suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya which are devoted to explaining the term unconditioned - asaṅkhata. The Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta chapter begins with a representative sutta (SN 43.1) and is short enough to quote in full.
At Sāvatthi: Bhihhkus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path going to the unconditioned. Hear this. And what is the unconditioned? The destruction of craving, aversion, and confusion: this is called unconditioned. And what is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness of the body. That is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

So, bhikkhus, I have taught you about the unconditioned, and the path leading to the unconditioned. I have done that which should be done by an empathetic teacher, out of empathy, desiring the welfare of his disciples. There are the feet of trees; there are the empty shelters: meditate bhikkhus, don't be intoxicated with the senses. Don't be regretful afterwards! This is our advice to you. (1)
Let's start by exploring the word asaṅkhata. It is a compound of a + saṃ + khata. Khata comes from the root kṛ which means "to do, make, perform". It is a past-participle which indicates something already done: "done, made, performed". The saṃ- prefix means "together" or "complete" - so the base meaning is "put together" and the applied meaning is "conditioned". It is contrasted to some extent by the word saṃkhārā which is more typically translated as compounded, or even confected. The a- prefix is a negative "un-, non-" so the word is unconditioned. Nyanatiloka defines saṅkhata as: 'the formed', i.e. anything originated or conditioned, comprises all phenomena of existence. (2)

There is a tendency amongst Western Buddhists to talk about "the unconditioned" as a state or a place - which inadvertently leads to it seeming like a place you can arrive, or a state you can achieve. I prefer to treat it as a function of experience, i.e. I am repeating my mantra that "it is experiences which arise in dependence on causes". One way of looking at it is that they arise in dependence on contact between a sense organ, a sense object, and a sense consciousness.

Here however the Buddha defines the unconditioned in terms of the kilesas: craving, aversion, confusion. Craving is craving for the continuance of experiences; aversion is the desire not to have an experience; and confusion is confusion about the nature of experiences. So what we are calling the unconditioned is an experience in which there is no attachment to, or attempt to hold onto the experience; nor is there any pushing away or denial of the experience; and one is clear that this is simply an experience not something more (i.e. real) or less (i.e. illusion, or unreal).

This reading is supported by what the Buddha says about the path leading to the unconditioned: it is mindfulness towards the body: kāyagatāsati. This word is used in two ways: as a general reference to body based meditation practices, and to the specific practice in which one analyses the body into its parts. However we know that the Buddha taught many ways to meditate, and in particular several other kinds of sati or anusati meditation, (3) we shouldn't read this too literally. If we allow for a general reading of this the Buddha is saying that it is sati that leads to the unconditioned. Sati comes from a root - smṛ - which means "to remember" or call to mind. In Vedic the equivalent word smṛti refers to commentaries on the the sacred texts as distinct from the Vedas themselves which are śruti or heard as divine revelations. So sati really means to bring to mind and reflect on - its not a concentration practice, but a reflection or insight practice. Specifically in this case one reflects on ones the experience of the body, sometimes by considering it as being made up of many different kinds of substances. So there is an additional metaphor here of the body being compounded (i.e. saṅkhata) from various substances. Personally I think this metaphor is secondary to reflecting on the experience, whereas it tends to be foregrounded in the received tradition - to me this reflects a somewhat materialistic attitude towards the notion of dhammas.

So this is all that an empathetic teacher would do for his disciple. I'm translating as empathy the wonderful Pāli word anukampa which is literally to shake or tremble with. There are a number of possible translations, Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as "compassion" although this word is more often used to translate karuṇā. Compassion is "to suffer with"; empathy is "feeling in(side)"; and sympathy is "feeling (together) with". The sense of this word relates to another Pāli idiom which is found in the Mettā Sutta: tasā vā thāvara meaning "fearful or fearless." Actually tasā can mean "trembling" as in trembling with fear, and the Buddha is one who is fearless, ie does not tremble (kampa). So one who trembles is unenlightened, but one who is enlightened, though not fearful themselves, is able to empathise with those who still do.

Note my translation of mā pamādattha - "don't be intoxicated with the senses", which I explain in my earlier post on the Buddha's Last Words. An examination of how appamāda (the opposite of pamāda) is used in the Canon reveals that it is always associated with the objects of the sense, and the root here is mada - intoxication. Translating as "mindfulness", or even "heedfulness" or "vigilance" miss this important connection. A contrast is being drawn here between our usual mode of experience and that in meditation. Usually we are swamped with huge amounts of sensory information (i.e. dhammas), and we are intoxicated and obsessed with it, lost in the play of the senses just as we might be if we suspended disbelief and became engrossed in a movie. In meditation though we attempt to extract ourself from this situation, we stay collected, or recollected, and we watch the play of dhammas without getting caught up. In samatha meditation we are developing the skills of staying focussed and calm; and in vipassanā or insight meditation we bring these skills to bear on our experience, usually through focus on a subject. One can do this with no subject, just watching the play of whatever experience one is having at the time, and this kind of meditation goes by many names: just sitting, Zazen, formless practice, and (if I understand correctly) also Dzogchen and Mahamudra.

I like the pragmatic tone of this text. The roots of trees and shelters (agāra) are the places where monks would have meditated, and having told them how to meditate, the Buddha points to the meditation seats and says "ok, I've told you what to do, now get on with it!". One gets the feeling that the audience were not novices or lay people. These were some serious, and probably quite experienced meditators, perhaps about to embark on a rainy season 3 month retreat. If I had the time I'd look up the commentary which often gives such details, but sadly I must leave it here. Note here too the simplicity: a single practice is taught in this case, probably to a single person or small group. Often in the Canon, under similar circumstances, monks are freed from the defilements in a very short period of time and become arahants. He also reminds them that opportunities are not infinite and if they don't take this one they may live to regret it (vippaṭisāra).

  1. My translation. Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation is on p.1372 of the single volume edition of Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom. Not available on Access to Insight.
  2. Nyanatiloka. 2004. Buddhist Dictionary. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society, 4th ed. (1980) p.194
  3. eg. in AN 6.10 the Mahānāma Sutta there is a six-fold list: buddhānussati, dhammānussati, saṅghānussati, sīlānussati , cāgānussati , devatānussati - recollection respectively of the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha, virtue, generosity, and the gods. Buddhaghosa (Vsm iii.105) adds maraṇasati, kāyagatāsati, ānāpānasati, upasamānussati - recollection of death, the body, the breath, and peace (aka nibbana). The recollection of the gods (devatānussati) focusses on the virtuous lives they must have lead for such a fortunate rebirth.
image: shortie66

21 November 2008

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?Sometimes Buddhism and Buddhists can seem a bit dour - a half smile is permissible, but a belly laugh might be out of place - which can be problematic for me! And yet there are some definite examples of the Buddha displaying his quick wit and sense of humour in the Pāli texts. One of my favourites - partly because I discovered it for myself, and partly because it really is witty - occurs in the Sutta Nipātta.

In the Pūraḷāsa Sutta the Brahmin Sundarika-Bhāradvāja is wandering about with the leftovers from his ritual sacrifice to the gods looking for someone to give them to. He is concerned to give the offering to a Brahmin and thereby make the maximum amount of merit from his generosity. If this sounds a bit venial recall that this is exactly what modern lay Buddhists do except their offerings are to bhikkhus not Brahmins.

Sundarika-Bhāradvāja meets the Buddha, who as an ascetic is a likely recipient of the offering, however he is cautious and enquires what caste the Buddha is, or more specifically: "is he a brahmin?" The Buddha answers that caste is irrelevant to a renunciant, but Sundarika-Bhāradvāja insists that it isn’t, and that Brahmins always enquire about caste. The Buddha is not playing that game however, and he says:
Brāhmaṇo hi ce tvaṃ brūsi, mañca brūsi abrāhmaṇaṃ;
Taṃ taṃ sāvittiṃ pucchāmi, tipadaṃ catuvīsatakkharaṃ.
If you call yourself a Brahmin, and say that I am not a Brahmin;
I ask about that Sāvitrī (mantra, of) three lines and twenty-four syllables?
I use the Anglicized 'Brahmin' for brāhamaṃa because there are also texts called brāhmaṇa and because it is more familiar. The Sāvitrī (Pāli Sāvitti) mantra is also called Gāyatrī because it is in the gāyatrī metre which has three lines and twenty-four syllables. It comes from the Ṛgveda, and in Sanskrit goes:
Tat savitur vareṭyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (2)
Which Saddhatissa translates as:
May we attain that excellent glory of Sāvitrī the god, that he may stimulate our thoughts. (3)
The Sāvitrī mantra is pronounced at dawn and dusk in daily Brahminical rituals - and this is as true today as it was in the Buddha's day when it was a centuries old practice!

Fausböll comments in the introduction to his translation that “The commentator understands by Sâvatti the Buddhistic [going for refuge] formula, which like the Sâvitti, contains twenty-four syllables”. (4) This seems an unlikely interpretation. For a start the refuge formula is definitely prose and not verse, (5) but the Buddha is talking here to someone who has not gone for refuge to the Three Jewels. The Buddhist refuge formula may have had little or no meaning to him. He was a Brahmin, practising Brahminical rituals, and the reference to the Sāvatrī mantra would be completely in context, whereas the going for refuge formula would not. By mentioning the number of lines and syllables the Buddha may well be emphasising that though he is not a hereditary Brahmin he knows a lot about the practices of the Brahmins.

Actually it seems as though the Buddha is gently ribbing the Brahmin by saying that if he thinks that he is superior because he was born a Brahmin then his thoughts need ‘stimulating’ (pracud). "Brahmin” was one of the words that the Buddha tried, but ultimately failed, to adopt and reform. He equated the terms 'Brahmin' and 'Arahant', and told people that one became a Brahmin through striving for Awakening, not through birth.(6)

Now this joke was probably quite quickly lost on later Buddhists as they seem to disconnect from the culture around them, and to be unaware of Brahminical practice - you have to know what the Sāvitrī mantra says for it to be funny. But the Buddha himself is well versed in Brahminical ideas and he uses this knowledge to poke fun at and parody not only Brahmins, but Jains, and other sects. Interesting that these things were preserved even though the sense of them was lost. There will be a chapter on this in Richard Gombrich's forthcoming book What the Buddha Thought (Equinox Publications, due Spring 2009).

So the answer is yes, the Buddha did have a sense of humour! He was a great satirist!

  1. Saddhatissa translates: “if you can say that you are a Brahmin and that I am not / then I must remind you of Sāvitrī’s mantra of three lines and twenty-four letters”. Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipātta. Surrey : Curzon Press, p.51 (Sn 457; 459 in the VRI version). However the verb is pucchāmi "I ask", and akkhara are syllables rather than letters.
  2. Sanskrit text from Padoux, A. 2003. Mantra. in Flood, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, M.A. : Blackwell Publishing. p.481
  3. Saddhatissa ibid. p.55, note 2 (my emphasis)
  4. Fausböll, V. 1881 The Sutta-nipâtta : a collection of discourses, being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Delhi, Motilal Barnadidass, 1968. (Sacred Books of the East Vol. 10). p.xiii, note 2.
  5. Richard Gombrich, personal communication.
  6. see Sutta Nipātta 650, and the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) for instance

image: Maitreya/Laughing Buddha

14 November 2008

Unborn, unbecome, not-made, uncompounded

This well known quote came up in a WBO eforum discussion recently and I have been giving it some thought.
"There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.
Translated from the Pali by John D. Ireland
This is Udana 8.3, p.103 in the Edition cited. An alternative translation is available on Access to Insight. The heart of the Pāli, the 'udāna' itself, goes:
Atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. No cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī’’ti.
In the first sentence the form of the Pāli allows for any article: the, a, an - ie "the unborn", "an unborn" are equally possible, however the verb is atthi which is 3rd person singular - "there is" - so we deduce that the unborn etc are not distinct terms but synonyms, and as we will see they are in fact synonymous in this context. The terms are all based on past-participles - things that have already happened. Jātaṃ would be "has been born", and ajātaṃ is literally "not- has been born" so could be rendered as unborn, not-born, non-born, or perhaps will not be born.

The middle sentence of the texts tells us that there would be no knowing of escape (nissaraṇaṃ) from the born, become, made, compounded. The verb here, abhavissa, from the root bhū - 'to become' or 'to be' - is in the rarely used conditional tense which is used to state "false or impossible hypothesis" - so it means something like "if there were not". The idea that there might not be an unborn etc. is a stating a false hypothesis (so don't panic). The last sentence says that arising from unborn etc, there is an escape - I will unpack this below.

I was thinking about what this text means and the question I began to ask was: what is it that is unborn (ajātaṃ) unbecome (abhūtaṃ), unmade (akataṃ), uncompounded (asaṅkhataṃ)?

The usual answer is something like "nibbana" or "enlightenment" is unborn, unbecome, not-made, and uncompounded. Unborn might typically be thought to mean that a post-parinibbana Buddha does not undergo birth, or that after enlightenment there is no rebirth. My answer to the question would be experiences and/or dhammas - dhammas being the elements of experience. It is dhammas then that are unborn, unbecome, un-made, and uncompounded. This suggests that ajātaṃ means that nothing substantial is 'born' during the process of experience, a common axiom in Perfection of Wisdom texts but one that fits this context quite well. Abhūtaṃ (unbecome) might conventionally be a synonym for ajātaṃ - meaning no becoming, as in no again-becoming or rebirth. It might be thought perhaps to be a reference to the becoming (bhāva) being fuelled (upādāna) by desire (taṇha) in the twelve nidanas. (see my Playing with Fire). I would point again to the process of experience in which no "thing" comes into existence. Jāta and Bhūtaṃ in this context are direct equivalents.

The term kata is a synonym of saṅkhārā, both coming from the Sanskrit root kṛ - "to make, do, produce". The last term confirms that what is being referred to here is dhammas, because experiences that are saṅkhārā - compounded - are compounded from dhammas. And saṃkhata is also synonymous with saṃkhārā. So akata and asaṃkhata can be seen as saying much the same thing, that in experience no "thing" comes into being. No-thing is made, and no-thing is compounded. The purpose here is not paradoxical, although without the appropriate reference points it is difficult to understand, the text is pointing to the consequence of being aware in the way that we are.

So we're out of the area of mysticism and metaphysics and into the existential situation - which is a good thing in my book. We have experiences that consist only of sense data and mental events - 'citta arising in dependence on contact' in the jargon. Because of the perceptual situation we can only process experience via the apparatus of experience - the five blazing masses of fuel (pañca-upādāna-aggi-khandhā) aka the five khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). There is no way around our perceptual apparatus to get behind experience - such attempts merely generate more sense data and mental events. There is never a naked object without any subject. However we believe that our experiences indicate actual things which are independent of our perception of them. So, though we believe we experience "objects" the set-up means that we only have experiences. To experiences no definite ontological status can be assigned - they neither exist, nor non-exist. The ontological status of objects, which are strongly suggested by our common perceptions of them, is indeterminate and not relevant to the Buddhist project.

Now we must ask what hope the Buddha is holding out here? He is offering nissaraṇaṃ paññāyati. Nissaraṇa is complex so let's quote the whole entry in the PTSD: "going out, departing; issue, outcome, result; giving up, leaving behind, being freed, escape, salvation". The translator clearly has some latitude here, but let's keep that in mind while sticking to "escape". It's neuter so nissaraṇaṃ could be the agent or the patient of the verb, I'm reading it as the patient (i.e. as an accusative; the verb happens to this). Pāli and Sanskrit allow for implicit agents - the verb being 3rd person singular implies the agent is "he".

Paññāyati is a verb meaning "to be (well) known, to be perceived, seen, or taken for, to appear" - it's a passive form of pajānāti "to know, find out etc". So I'm reading this as "he comes to know the escape", or perhaps "the result is perceived by him". We need not settle on a single rendering as that would tend to make us exclude other possibilities - keep in mind that this sentence can be read in multiple ways!

I notice that in the last sentence our familiar list of un-s are all given this time in the genitive case. This is typically used to indicate possession. However Pāniṇi apparently says that there are 100 uses of the genitive and I don't know them all. I'm not convinced that Ireland's interpretation (that "since there is an unborn etc") is the right one. What the verse seems to suggest to me (and this is a tentative and naive reading) is that out of the unborn etc, that is to say on the basis of a quality of them, comes the knowledge or perception of escape (from saṃsara).

So what the text would be saying in this case is that by observing one's experience one becomes aware that actually all that happens is that there are experiences; and by seeing, to the fullest extent, that nothing substantial arises during this process one sees that escape from saṃsara is possible. Contrarily if something really did come into being in the way we interpret it, if our experience was real, then we would be stuck. It's only because of experience is ephemeral that we are able to radically change the way we relate to it. The parallel with King Midas comes to mind. He was granted his wish that everything he touched turned to gold. And he could not eat or drink gold; and his family (daughter?) was turned to gold - his fondest wish became a curse. We too are better off not wishing for things to be real, or unreal. Things are just what they are.

Clearly there is some ambiguity in this text, and it could be translated in a number of different ways. Thanissaro's translation is similar enough to mine to make it likely that I have not strayed too far from the plausible.

Of course I'm fond of this line of argument because it makes the whole Buddhist project less mystical and makes it seem a whole lot more possible! But I would say that in my better moments I believe I have seen into this with some depth, enough to give me confidence that it is a fruitful theme to pursue. I also believe that this theme was taken up by, and further expanded in, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and is quite powerfully represented in the alphabetical meditation on aspects of śūnyatā as we find it in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (which I have written about quite a bit both on Jayarava Rave and on my Mantra website).

As an aside there is an interesting parallel here with the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BṛU) 4.4.24-5:
"There is this great unborn (aja) self (ātman), eater of food, giver of wealth. The one who knows this finds wealth

This is the great unborn self, unaging (ajaro), undying (amara), immortal (amṛta), fearless (abhaya), Brahman. Brahman is fearless: the one who knows this becomes fearless Brahman."(Roebuck p.76)
The BṛU is usually considered to be pre-Buddhist because the Buddha specifically parodies it in some suttas (see for instance the Tevijja Sutta, DN 13). The construction between this and the Udāna verses is quite close I think. Certainly the theme of birth (ja or jati), old age (jara) and death (mara) should be familiar to Buddhists as the subjects of the first of the three sights, and from the Nidana chain. It may well be that Udāna 8.3 is another case of the Buddha consciously parodying an Upaniṣadic theme. Next week's post is going to be on the Buddha as satirist. This BṛU verse reads like a description of tathāgatagarbha doesn't it? Which is Jayarava as satirist ;-)

The questions "what is liberation, is it possible, and how is it possible?" are
major concerns for Buddhism. The answer here is that liberation is possible precisely because of the nature of experience, because in the process of experiencing nothing substantial comes into being. It is not that in saṃsara things are born, become, are made and conditioned; and that in nibbāna things are not born, do not become, are not made and conditioned. The condition of ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ always applies! What changes is whether or not we are drunk on (pamada), or obsessed (pariyādāya) or infatuated with (madanīyesu), objects of the senses: if we are, that is saṃsara; if we are not, that is nibbāna (more or less).

There is a possibility of confusion here with other things I've been writing lately. Previously I have written about recognition and noticing according to what has become (yathābhūta) for instance which says that experiences or dhammas can be seen to have 'become'; that is that some 'thing' is actually becoming. (Trying to stick with the past tense of the original texts is a bit awkward I know). The contradiction is more apparent than real: experiences become; but no verifiably real object has become. I believe that if we keep in mind that dhammas are elements of experience, that both statements remain true.

  • Pāli texts in Unicode Roman from www.tipitaka.org/romn/. (Nice one Mr Goenka!)
  • Roebuck, Valerie. (trs., ed). 2003. The Upaniṣads. London : Penguin.
  • Udana 8.3. Access to Insight. Trans. Bhikkhu Thanissaro : John Ireland. Also Ireland, J. 1997. The Udāna : inspired utterances of the Buddha, and the Itivuttaka : the Buddha's sayins. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society.

image: Ikea assembly instructions from Don't Call Me Tina.

07 November 2008


image: Project Gutenberg:
Elements of Structural and Systematic Botany
In discussions on the place of the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine in Buddhism there is often considerable division. Some scholars defend it as a central Buddhist idea, while others deny that it is Buddhist at all. In the Western Buddhist Order there has been, despite frank and outspoken scepticism from Sangharakshita, a growing interest in Tathāgatagarbha amongst serious meditators, and especially so amongst people who favour formless meditation practices. (see eg Kamalasila below). I sometimes like to tease them about Tathāgatagarbha not being Buddhist and this has lead to some interesting discussions. Recently on a WBO forum I suggested that Tathāgatagarbha was "crypto-Vedantic eternalism" and the response I got was a quote from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN), supposedly showing that the idea pre-existed in the Pāli Canon. Leaving aside issues of the authority of texts (see The Cult of the Book and Western Ideas of Canonicity) I decided it might be interesting to look at what it actually says, and at the context of it, to see if it supported the contention.

The passage as quoted to me goes:
This mind [citta], monks, is luminous [pabhassara], but is defiled by taints that come from without.’ (Pabhassara Sutta AN 1.49-52 Translated by Bhikkhu Nanananda). A ‘worldling’ is one who doesn’t see this, an ‘Ariyan disciple’ is one who does.
This "luminous mind" is said by proponents of this theory to represent the idea of Tathāgatagarbha in nascent form. As my interlocutor said: "this is not in any way different from what Dzogchen and Mahamudra are getting at, often using exactly the same term."

The citation is to a group of four verses that span two sections of the first chapter of the AN. I decided to do my own translation of 1.51-2 to see what I could make of them. The Pāli goes:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.
(Pāli text from the www.tipitaka.org)
The grammar here is not too tricky and the vocab is also straightforward. My admittedly rough translation goes:
This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is soiled by incidental defilements. That one who has not heard, the worldling, does not know it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has not heard, the worldling, there is no production of this mind”.

This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is released from incidental defilements. That one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, he knows it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, there is production of this mind”.

[On the translation of yathābhūta please see Knowledge and Vision, 3 Oct 2008]
Verses 1.49 and 50 leave off the second part beginning with "That one who has heard..." So taken as stand-alone verses one can see that something like the intrinsicly pure mind associated with Tathāgatagarbha might be implied here.

My first observation is that the verses are referring to "this mind" - idaṃ cittaṃ - and that since the 30 or so preceding verses have for some time been referring to citta we can take this as a continuation of that discussion. And what do these preceding verses have to say about this mind? They say that the effect of citta depends on what we do with it. For instance untamed (adanta) it leads to great loss. In fact the Buddha says that no other thing, untamed, unguarded (agutta), unprotected (arakkhita), unrestrained (asaṃvuta) brings so much disadvantage (anattho)! So this mind seems not to be something intrinsically pure, as we would expect of an equivalent of the Tathāgatagarbha. The context reveals that this mind is potentially disastrous if not properly disciplined.

My second observation is that this mind is to be produced or developed or cultivated, i.e. bhāvanā - derived from the verbal root bhū meaning "to become", or "to be". Now in WBO circles a bhāvanā approach to meditation where one pursues concentration (e.g. The mindfulness of breathing) is frequently contrasted with the Tathāgatagarbha based approach in which one simply sits and allows the mind to reveal itself (or something like that). So it is important here that the citta in question is combined in a tappurisa compound with bhāvanā - "the production of mind", or as the context makes clear "the development of this mind". I'm assuming that the citta being spoken of here is the same as in the first sentence - i.e. still this mind. Clearly the Pāli text has something different in mind to the contemporary WBO exegetes of Tathāgatagarbha. This mind is something we must develop or produce or cultivate, which does not suggests something intrinsic but extrinsic.

I will mention in passing that both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Thanissaro note that the commentary to this passage take citta to mean bhavaṅga-citta or the kind of consciousness that links one life to the next. Clearly this would be very difficult to reconcile with the text and seems very unlikely indeed - Thanissaro concurs. Indeed Thanissaro suggests that a more reasonable interpretation would be that "the luminous mind is the mind that the meditator is trying to develop", (AN 1.49, note 1, emphasis added) and draws parallels with descriptions of the fourth jhana.

So if the link here is not as clear as all that, then why is it quoted? I'm in no position to comment on the usage of such terms in Dzogchen and Mahamudra, but I think there may be a link through the idiosyncratic but highly influential LaṅkāvatāraSūtra. In this text the Tathāgatagarbha is equated with the alaya-vijñāna from the Yogacāra model of the human psyche. This Tathāgatagarbha is described by the text as prakṛti-prabhāsvara-viṣuddha [Suzuki p.77] which we can translate as "original, clear, and pure" (taking this to be a dvanda compound - i.e. a list linked by "and"). Prabhāsvara is a similar word to the Pāli pabhassara, but seems not to be the exact counterpart - the underlying metaphor in the former is of a sound (svara) or voice which is clear, while the latter is using a light metaphor. Still there is a possible link here with later ideas of the Tathāgatagarbha as a pure and luminous mind. It is interesting to note that the Laṅkā itself is aware of how much like an ātmavāda (or theory of immanent godhood) this sounds, and is quick to defend itself.

The Laṅkā claims that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is taught in order to "eliminate anxiety on the part of the ignorant toward a theory of non-substantiality (nairātmya)" [Suzuki p. 78] - more precisely a theory of "non-immanent godhood". In fact the idea of the Tathāgatagarbha seems to me to be a way of addressing a vital question which we might phrase - "how do we unredeemed sinners get enlightened?" By the time the Tathāgatagarbha theory was invented the idea that one got enlightened on the basis of dependent arising seems to have been lost along with many other early Buddhist ideas. This left the Mahāyāna Buddhists with a very distinct problem and one of the ways they solved it was by adapting the ātman theory of the Vedanta - one can be enlightened because one already has a seed of the Buddha inside one (as it were), or, to put it another way, one is already enlightened but obscured by defilements. This sounds so similar to the Pāli verse above that you can see why the wrong correlation was made. In effect as in the Upaniṣads: you are that - tat tvam asi - except that "that" is not God or Brahman, but a Tathāgata - "one [already] in that state".

So what have we learned? Firstly we must be cautious of translated sentences taken out of context. Secondly there may not be a link between early Buddhist doctrine and later doctrines even when they use similar wording. Thirdly that the Mahāyāna threw the baby out with the bath water as far as early Buddhist doctrines are concerned, and left itself in a philosophical tangle - advocating what amounts to an ātmavāda, and finding itself immediately on the back foot defending the obvious flaws in such an approach. Fourthly and perhaps most importantly we have learned that despite the fact that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is flawed, it was and is enormously popular and influential, and the people who advocate are in many ways admirable people some of whom deeply embody the values of Buddhism despite being doctrinally challenged - which is to say that practice and realisation is far more important than winning arguments and saying the right thing in Buddhism! 


  • Access to Insight:AN 1.31-40; 1.45-46; 1.47; 1.48; 1.49-52.
  • Kamalasila Tathatā & Garbha : Wesak Talk UK National Order Weekend and West London Buddhist Centre, May 2004. (I think Kamalasila errs in this talk when he suggests that the Pāli canon usage of the word suñña equates to anything like the Mahāyāna usage of śūnya)
  • Suzuki, D.T. (trans) 1966. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. London : Routledge.

See Also

In Action and Intention III (2011) I noticed something else about this passage:
Pāli citta is further confused with Sanskrit citra 'to shine'. So when the Buddha says Pabhassaramidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ (AN 1.51) what most people miss is the pun. Citta means both 'thought' and 'shine' and the phrase could equally be read - 'this thought is radiant', or 'this shiny-thing is radiant'. The context does incline towards reading 'mind', but the ambiguity and pun are obvious to a Pāli speaker.

29 Oct 2014
Sujato has done a much better job of essaying this passage on his blog: On the radiant mind.
"[The mind] is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. 
"This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them." 

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