19 December 2008

The Whole of the Spiritual Life

Last week I was exploring the notion of "the spiritual life" - aka brahmacarya. Today I'm going to write about a text that may well be familiar since it is often quoted in the FWBO. This is the famous incident (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2) when Ānanda, in his innocence, proclaims to the Buddha that:
upaḍḍhamidam, bhante, brahmacariyaṃ, yadidaṃ kalyānamittatā kalyānasahāyatā kalyānasampavaṅkata.

Half of this holy life, bhante, is spiritual friendship, spiritual companionship, spiritual intimacy.
To which the Buddha replies: mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ! Sakalamevidaṃ... "don't say that, Ānanda, don't say that! It is the whole of the spiritual life!" I quite like the old translation (by Woodward?) that is handed down orally in the FWBO: "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so!"

So let's just pause here to look at what these qualities are that Ānanda thinks are half, and the Buddha thinks are the whole of the brahmacariya. Firstly kalyāna is a wonderful word in Pāli which as an adjective means "beautiful, charming; auspicious, helpful, morally good" and as a noun "a good or useful thing; goodness, virtue, merit, meritorious action; kindness, good service; beauty, attraction, perfection. From the same Indo-European root comes the Greek kalos whence comes the English word 'kaleidoscope' - coined in the 19th century and meaning literally "observer of beautiful forms".

Kalyāna is prefixed to three terms in the quote above: mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata. Let's look at these one at a time.

Mitta is friend in Pāli, and mittatā is the abstract noun, friendship. But this word has a very interesting history. In Sanskrit the word is mitra, and in Avestan - the proto-Persian language - mithro. Now Mitra was the name of a Vedic god who played a particular role in the universe. Along with Varuṇa he helped to maintain the harmonious cosmic order ṛta. In particular Mitra was associated with contracts. This sense of a the bond of a contract underlies the concept of friendship in the word mitra. The Persian god Mithra had some of the same functions and this has helped to reinforce the idea that Persians and Vedic speaking Indians had a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-Europeans. So a mitra is someone who shares a common bond.

The concept of mettā is an abstraction from mittatā - that is it describes the qualities of the relationship in mittatā or friendship. In Buddhism it comes to mean the universal loving kindness of the awakened person who is described as constantly pervading the universe in all directions with mettā for all beings (see esp. the Tevijja Sutta DN 13). It occurs to me that this too could be a reference to Mitra the god, who did pervade the universe with his power. It fits the context of what Richard Gombrich considers the first discourse on mettā (ie the Tevijja Sutta) - but there-in lies another story which is too long for this post, but which I touch on in The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

Sahāya means companion or friend, and therefore sahāyatā means companionship or friendship. The base here though is saha which means "together", and the connotation is therefore "togetherness". A 'companion' in English is one with whom you share (Latin com, 'with') bread (panis). This world is known as a saha world "because we all suffer together", according to my colleague Sahānanda. In the Upaniṣads the goal of the brahmacarin is (in Sanskrit) 'brahmasahāvyata' or companionship with Brahma - it is this idea that the Buddha is critiquing in the Tevijja Sutta.

Sampavaṅka is perhaps from saṃ + pari + anka. Anka being the hollow above the hip where mothers carry their babies, so the word might literally be "together + encompassed + on the hip" with the sense of sharing the same mother, of being cradle mates. Once again the -tā suffix makes this an abstract known - perhaps 'intimateness'? In any case it is used in the sense of intimacy, or intimate friendship.

We have here, then, three synonymous terms - mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata- which give us a sense of a quality that none alone quite manages to describe: someone we are bound together with in an intimate relationship. And each term is prefixed with kalyāna emphasising that the nature of this relationship is virtuous, beautiful and helpful. Clearly this is a refined ideal and one that we are not going to meet with that often. We have friends, we have intimate friends, but there are not many people in our lives who are going to fulfil all of these criteria. In fact other texts say that the Buddha is the ideal kalyānamitta, the ideal spiritual friend.

Our text then moves on to describe in what way the whole of the spiritual life is bound up in the beautiful friend etc. Firstly the one who has these three qualities will be bound to devote themselves to, and make much of (bahulīkarissati) the Eightfold path of the Noble Ones. Another way of putting it, the text says, is that by relying on the Buddha as a spiritual mentor beings who are subject to birth, old age, death, and to all manner of suffering will be released from these. In this way one we should understand that the spiritual friend, companion, and intimate is the whole of the brahmacarya.

So a kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka is someone, like the Buddha, who is able to help you be free from suffering, someone who can help you to be liberated, to attain nibbāna. It seems to me then that the standard translation as "good friend" is hardly adequate to the job. I have been using the word "spiritual" for kalyāna but it is a bit overused, I used it also for the brahma part of brahmacarya, and generally speaking the word "spiritual" is so over used that it is almost meaningless these days. I wonder whether something like "virtuous mentor" might not give a better sense of what is meant by kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka. The word 'virtue' is etymologically linked to 'vīra', the hero. However our societies don't honour virtuousness, and sometimes see it as a sign of weakness. So even 'virtuous' has lost its punch.

Our contemporary use of the word "mentor" derives from a character in Homer's Odyssey. While Odysseus is on his way home his son Telemachus has a lot to contend with. His house is invaded by men who, thinking his father dead, would marry his mother and take Odysseus's wealth and power for their own. Telemachus is at his wit's end, and actually in danger of being killed by the suitors when the Goddess Athena appears to him in the guise of Mentor, an old family friend. As mentor Athena advises Telemachus so that he not only comes through unscathed, but smooths the way for Odysseus to return. So a mentor is one who embodies virtue or divinity, who gives us guidance and advice, and who has our best interests at heart. In contemporary terms a mentor is someone who shares their life and experience with us, and this chimes with what Sangharakshita has said is the main role of a guru. The Buddha is of course like this - he wants people to be free of suffering. Time and again he reminds people that this is the whole point of his teaching. So he is the mentor par excellence. I think this also fits with the notion of the traditional bond between a master and disciple. On a more cosmic level this relationship corresponds to the later notion of adhiṣṭhāna or in Japanese Kaji, sometimes translated as "grace". I have discussed this in my essay Buddhism as a path of gracefulness, so won't say more here.

To sum up then: the text is saying that a virtuous, even an enlightened, mentor is the whole of the brahmacarya, the spiritual life.
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