30 October 2009

The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra

100 syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in SiddhamIn this post I'll offer a brief commentary on the Vajrasattva mantra, drawing on an article which appeared in our WBO Order Journal in 1990. In his article Dharmacārin and Sanskritist Sthiramati (aka Dr Andrew Skilton - translator of the Bodhicaryāvatāra) addressed the issue of how to spell and interpret this mantra. Although his study was not exhaustive he was able to consult more than a dozen sources in English, Sanskrit and Tibetan and to produce an edited version of the mantra which now graces the FWBO Puja Book. [1] However Sthiramati's notes are not widely available (I know of only two extant copies of the issue) and so I have extracted them here along with my own glosses. Sthiramati's differs in some respects from traditional Tibetan interpretations but does so in ways that help to make sense of the Sanskrit - for instance in several cases he suggests breaking a sandhi [2] one syllable along in order to create a straightforward Sanskrit sentence that was otherwise obscured. There are a huge variety of transliterations, translations, and interpretations of this mantra. There's no one right way to understand a mantra, and I do not mean to down play the importance of traditional interpretations, but I do understand the mantra on my terms.

The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in Sanskrit
vajrasattva samayamanupālaya
dṛḍho me bhava
sutoṣyo me bhava
supoṣyo me bhava
anurakto me bhava
sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha
sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca
vajrībhava mahāsamayasattva
The first thing to notice is that the mantra is in Sanskrit, and unlike most mantras contains mostly well formed grammatical sentences. This is very unusual in mantras! Each phrase has a verb in the second-person singular imperative mood (2.p.s imp). The imperative is used to express moderate to strong desires, injunctions and orders indicated in English by the exclamation mark - ! - 'let him!', 'you must!', 'you might!' I interpret the overall mood of the mantra as being fervent devotion.

The name Vajrasattva was likely modelled on the word bodhisattva. The vajra or thunderbolt was the weapon of the Vedic god Indra who, like the Greek Zeus, hurled them at his enemies. The word is not unknown in early Buddhist texts (in Pāli it is vajira) but in Tantra it is very prominent. By this time it also means 'diamond', and metaphorically it means 'reality'. Sattva is an abstract noun from sat 'true' or 'real' - literally 'truth' or 'reality'. In usage sattva is close in meaning to our word 'being' as in: 'a state of being', or 'a being'. Vajrasattva - the thunderbolt-being - is an embodiment of the true nature of experience.

In Buddhist mantras oṃ is there chiefly to signal that this is a mantra, or that the mantra starts here. Lama Govinda's eloquent speculations aside, the Buddhist oṃ does not seem to have the kind of esoteric significance it does in the Hindu traditions. [3] Note it is oṃ not auṃ, and in the original sources for Buddhist mantras we never find auṃ ॐ.

Taking the mantra one line at a time we find an ambiguity in the first line because of a sandhi phenomena. The line is conventionally written vajrasattvasamayamanupālaya leaving us to figure out the word breaks from our knowledge of Sanskrit grammar. 'Vajrasattva' is most likely to be a vocative singular, 'O Vajrasattva', so the mantra is addressed to Vajrasattva.

The phrase samayamanupālaya could be either samaya manupālaya or samayam anupālaya. Both are commonly seen and the former is a traditional Tibetan approach. Taking it to be samaya manupālaya creates some difficulties however. Manupālaya is interpreted as meaning 'a defender (pāla) of men (manu)' however pālaya is not proper word - at best it could be meant as a (commonly encountered in mantra) faux dative (pāla+ya), but even this is not much help. Manu might be man (singular) but when used this way seems to usually refer to the original progenitor - an equivalent to Adam. Manu more usually relates to the mind (cf. mati, manas). Whereas samayam anupālaya is a natural Sanskrit sentence with samayam (in the accusative case) being the object of the verb anupālaya (the subject being Vajrasattva). Anu+√pāl means 'preserve' and anupālaya is the 2.p.s imp. Samaya means 'coming together' or 'meeting', and is used in the sense of 'coming to an agreement'. In Tantric Buddhism it specifically refers to agreements the practitioner takes on when initiated. These agreements are sometimes referred to as a 'vow' or 'pledge', but a vow is something one takes on oneself whereas Vajrasattva is also bound by the agreement, so vow is not such a good translation. To preserve an agreement is to honour it, so vajrasattva samayam anupālaya means 'O Vajrasattva honour the agreement' .

Vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha is again two words: vajrasattvatvena upatiṣṭḥa (a followed by u coalesces to o). Vajrasattvatvena is the instrumental singular of the abstract noun formed from the name Vajrasattva. Vajrasattva-tva could be rendered as 'vajrasattva-ness', the quality of being a vajra-being. The instrumental case indicates how the action of a verb is carried out. The Verb here is upatiṣṭha from upa+√sthā 'to stand near, to be present, to approach, to support, to worship; to reveal one's self or appear'. Though it is acceptable Sanskrit, getting a passable English sentence from this is difficult: literally Vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha is something like 'remain/approach/manifest by means of your vajra-being-ness'. Sthiramati suggests "As Vajrasattva reveal thyself!"

Fortunately things get simpler for a bit as we meet a series of phrases with the verb bhava which is the 2nd person singular imperative of √bhū 'to be'. They also contain the particle me which in this case is the abbreviated form of the 1st person pronoun in the dative 'for me'. The form then is 'be X for me'. First we have be dṛḍhaḥ 'firm, steady, strong'. The sandhi rule is that an ending with aḥ changes to o when followed by bha: so dṛḍhaḥ > dṛḍho. Dṛḍho me bhava means "be steadfast for me".

Sutoṣyaḥ is a compound of the prefix su- meaning 'well, good, complete' and toṣya is a secondary nominal derivative (taddhita) from √tuṣ meaning 'satisfaction, contentment, pleasure, joy'. Sutoṣya me bhava is therefore 'be my complete contentment'.

Supoṣyaḥ is again su- but combined with poṣya, also a taddhita from √puṣ 'to thrive, to prosper, nourish, foster'. Sutoṣyo me bhava is then 'be my complete nourishment'. Sthiramati suggests "Deeply nourish me".

Anuraktaḥ is anu + rakta. Rakta is a past-participle from √rañj and the dictionary gives "fond of, attached, pleased" (note it is not from √rakṣ 'to protect'). In his seminar on the mantra Sangharakshita suggests 'passionate' and this seems to fit better with √rañj which literally means 'to glow red, or to redden' (from which we also get the Sanskrit word rāga). We can translate anurakto me bhava as 'be passionate for me', or as Sthiramati suggests 'love me passionately'.

Now comes sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha. Prayaccha is a verb from the base √yam 'to reach' and means 'to grant'. (√yam forms a stem yaccha; and pra + yaccha > prayaccha - which is also the 2nd person singular imperative.). Sarva is a pronoun meaning 'all, every, universal' and siddhi is a complex term which can mean 'magical powers, perfection, success, attainment'. So sarvasiddhiṃ me prayaccha must mean 'grant me all success' or ' give me success in all things'. (Note that sarvasiddhiṃ is an accusative singular so it can't mean 'all the siddhis' in the plural).

The next line is somewhat longer and more complex: sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru. Sarvakarmasu is a locative plural. Sarva we saw previously and karma means action - so this word means 'in all actions'. Ca is the connector 'and' meaning we take it with the previous line. [so far we have 'and in all actions'] Me here is a genitive 'my'. Cittaṃ 'mind' is in the accusative case so is the object of the verb kuru which is the 2nd person singular imperative of √kṛ 'to do, to make'. Śreyah is from śrī which has a hug range of connotations: 'light, lustre, radiance; prosperity, welfare, good fortune, success, auspiciousness; high rank, royalty'. I think 'lucid' would do nicely here. Śreyaḥ is the comparative so it means 'more lucid'. Putting all this together find that sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru hūṃ means 'and in all actions make my mind more lucid'.

Sthiramati notes that most Tibetan traditions seem to take this as sarva karma suca me 'purify all my karma'. Their interpretation is important since it explains the connection with the idea of the mantra's purifying effects. However they appear to be relating suca with the Sanskrit verb śocati (from √śuc) 'shine, clean' and this cannot be correct.

In Sthiramati’s version (and most others) hūṃ is tagged on to this line, however I'm inclined to separate it out and leave it as a standalone statement (note that the three syllables oṃ āḥ hūṃ are used in the mantra, though not in that order). In any case hūṃ is untranslatable. Kūkai sees it as representing all teaching, all practices and all attainments, so perhaps we could see this as Vajrasattva’s contribution to the conversation?

ha ha ha ha hoḥ won't detain us long since it is untranslatable and generally understood to be laughter. Sometimes said to be one syllable for each of the Five Jinas. Is this Vajrasattva's laughter; or is it our response to his hūṃ?

Then we come to: bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca. Sometimes considered as two separate lines we put them together because there is one verb muñca (again in the 2.p.s imp). Bhagavan is a vocative singular, the phrase is addressed to the Blessed One. Sarvatathāgata on its own would also be a voc. sing, but this presents some difficulties since sarva is 'all' but Tathāgata is singular. Sthiramati suggests that these are resolved by taking sarvatathāgatavajra as a single compound meaning "O vajra of all the Tathāgatas" - being a member of a compound allows us to take tathāgata as plural. [4] Mā is the negative particle 'don't', and the verb is muñca from √muc 'to abandon'. So bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muñca means 'O Blessed One, vajra of all the Tathāgatas, don't abandon me!'

In the final phrase Vajrībhava mahāsamayasattva, vajrībhava is an example of a factitive or 'cvi' verbal compound. The noun vajra is compounded with the verb bhū, the final a changes to ī and the sense of the word is causative, implying transformation: 'become a vajra'. Again the conjugation is 2.p.s.imp - so its saying 'you should become a vajra'. In his seminar Sangharakshita coins the word 'vajric' which Sthiramati does not like, but I see what Sangharakshita might have meant - someone who becomes the vajra in the sense of embodying it, might be described as vajric. Mahāsamayasattva is once again a vocative, and a compound of three words. I think here that Mahā 'great' qualifies samayasattva a technical term in Tantric Buddhism - 'agreement-being' - meaning the image of the deity generated in meditation which becomes the meeting place (samaya) for the practitioner and the Buddha. In a sense this is our contact with 'reality' or 'śūnyatā' and we want it to go from being imagined to being genuine, so that we are transformed into a Buddha ourselves. Vajrībhava Mahāsamayasattva then means 'O great agreement-being become real!'

The Hundredth syllable is āḥ. In Classical Sanskrit āḥ is an exclamation of either joy or indignation – similar to the way we might use the same sound in English. Hūṃ and phaṭ are traditionally added under specific circumstances - hūṃ when the mantra is recited for the benefit of someone dead, and the phaṭ when the mantra is recited to subdue demons. In the WBO/FWBO they are routinely included.

So my full translation goes:
O Vajrasattva honour the agreement!
Reveal yourself as the vajra-being!
Be steadfast for me!
Be my complete contentment!
Be my complete nourishment!
Be passionate for me!
Grant me all success and attainment!
And in all actions make my mind more lucid!
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
O Blessed One, vajra of all those in that state, don't abandon me!
O great agreement-being become real!
For written versions of the Vajrasattva mantra in various scripts see: visiblemantra.org. I could say quite a lot more about the variations that Sthiramati encountered, so please feel free to raise issues in the comments.

I'll be work-shopping this material and leading chanting at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 12th Dec 2009. Book online at the CBC Website.

  1. Note that Sthiramati found a great deal of variation even within Tibetan and Sanskrit sources for the spelling of the mantra.
  2. Sandhi literally means 'junction', but here it is a technical term for how spelling of words changes because of their proximity to each other. English instances of this are the change from 'a bear', to 'an apple' (a > an before a vowel sound); and the creations of plurals with -s compare the final sound and spelling in the words: weeks, bears, fishes (In Sanskrit all of these changes are notated and 'bears' would be spelt bearz, and fishes as fishez).
  3. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism is a popular book but in his explanations of mantra generally and of oṃ in particular Lama Govinda cites only Hindu texts (see for instance pg. 21ff) - which I have always found puzzling. He is viewed with some suspicion by some: see for instance Donald Lopez's many comments in Prisoners of Shangri-La.
  4. See my discussion of the term tathāgata and the way -gata functions in compounds of this sort in Philological Odds and Ends I.

  • Govinda. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. Rider, 1959.
  • Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La : Tibetan Buddhism and the West. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Puja: The FWBO Book of Buddhist Devotional Texts. (7th ed.) Windhorse Publications, 2008.
  • Sangharakshita. Vajrasattva Mantra. Free Buddhist Audio. (Note that Sangharakshita is commenting on the Tibetan version of the mantra as he received it from his Tibetan guru, and differ on a number of points).
  • Sthiramati (aka Andrew skilton). 'The Vajrasattva Mantra : notes on a corrected Sanskrit text'. Order Journal. vol.3 Nov. 1990.
  • Vajrasattva Mantra. Visible Mantra. 2009.
  • Vajrasattva Mantra of 100 Syllables. Wildmind Online Meditation.

Note 14/12/2009
I recently discovered a version of the hundred syllable Vajrasattva mantra in the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṅgraha Tantra (chp 1). The order of the phrases is slightly different, and the application of sandhi varies from Sthiramati's version slightly, but it forms a confirmation of his reconstruction of the text. The Romanised version of the mantra is:
oṃ vajra sattvasamayamanupālaya
dṛḍho me bhava sutoṣyo me bhavānurakto me
bhava supoṣyo me bhava sarvasiddhiṇca me prayaccha
sarvakarmasu ca me cittaśreyaḥ kuru hūṃ
ha ha ha ha hoḥ bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muṃca
vajrībhava mahāsamayasatva āḥ
The STTS is a relatively early text (ca. late 7th - early 8th century) and is considered by the Tibetans to be a Yoga Tantra. The version I found it in is a facsimile edition of a Nepalese manuscript produced by Lokesh Chandra and David Snellgrove. This makes the case for an 'original' Sanskrit version of the mantra much stronger.

Online at the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon.

Updated 26 Jan 2014 on the basis of comments below.

23 October 2009

Dharma as mental event

Dharma in various scriptsThe earliest strands of Buddhism seem to avoid any ontological speculation, and dharma - in the sense of the object of manas - has no particular status viz a viz reality. Indeed I'm not convinced that they even thought in terms of 'reality'. However over the years dharma did take on an ontological cast. So much so that Nāgārjuna spends much of his important work the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā (MMK) demolishing the idea. In this essay I attempt to show the progress of this change. Dharma as mental object is the most important and characteristically Buddhist use of the word dharma, but it perhaps the most difficult to translate. Some of the definitions of the philosophical term 'qualia' might fit, and 'noeta' has been suggested though choosing Latin terms is not always helpful to an English speaker. To render it 'things' is misleading in my view, and 'mental objects' is inelegant. In fact many authors leave dharma untranslated in this case.

Why should the word find an application in this sense? To answer this we need to take a step back and reconsider the Buddhist view of consciousness (Sanskrit vijñāna; Pāli viññāṇa). Consciousness is always 'consciousness of ', the Buddha did not allow for a free floating entity called consciousness that was waiting to be aware of something (see JR: What is Consciousness?) - consciousness is dependently arisen, and this is the most important application of the principle of conditionality. In particular consciousness arises in dependence on contact between a sense organ and a sense object. Particularly with reference to the mental sense (manas) the object is called 'a dharma' - and this specifically includes the information garnered from the other five senses. So a sight object gives rise to sight consciousness, but this sight consciousness in turns becomes the object of the mind sense, it is itself a dharma. As we've seen over the past two weeks the primary meaning of dharma is foundation. Here the dharma acts as a 'foundation' to vijñāna since vijñāna arises in dependence (in part at least) on sense objects. We can see, then, that dharma in this sense is related to words for cause (hetu, paccaya) and condition (nidāna, upanisa, bandhu).

Now the main interest in the early suttas is on vijñāṇa not on dharmas; that is, on the subjective pole of experience rather than the objective. So for instance the processes which enable us to have experiences - the five skandha (P. khandha) - are mentioned frequently and treated quite exhaustively. The nature of dharmas is only given cursory attention if any. The reasons for focusing on the mind are pragmatic because it is the insights into the functioning of mind that are liberate us.

However, the lack of definite statements about dharmas in the suttas left a lacuna that became very attractive to a certain type of mind - and unfortunately they were frequently the same people who preserved the texts and were the chief textual authorities and exegetes.

The first step was the abhidharma. Abhidharma is an interesting word. PED gives 'special dhamma' as it's chief sense, but under abhi- they say the primary meaning is "that of taking possession and mastering" which suggests that its meaning would be impossible to guess from the etymology (which is not uncommon). What the abhidhamma is, is an analysis of the Buddhadharma and in particular of the dharmas themselves in the sense I am exploring now. The abhidharmikas were concerned with identifying the types and categories of dharmas both mental and physical, and the interactions between them in creating consciousness. I must confess at this point that I have never really studied abhidharma, and don't have much interest in it. Presumably the original intent grew out of injunctions in meditation texts such as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta to observe the arising and passing and away of dharmas. However the subtle shift of the attention from the moon to the finger meant that the dharmas themselves, rather than their contingency per se moved into focus, and this seems to me to be a fundamental error.

Another issue which has plagued Buddhism presumably from the moment the Buddha died is whether it is possible for any of us to have the experience he had. While he was alive to say yes he seems to have inspired huge confidence. I presume that the shift to the view (exemplified in Peter Masefield's flawed work Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism [1]) which says that without the physical presence of a Buddha awakening is not possible was a gradual giving way to pessimism, rather than a sudden collapse of confidence. However one of the motivations, as I understand it, behind the abhidharmika's efforts was to understand awakening - to intellectually keep the possibility of liberation alive.

In the abhidharma the idea of what a dharma is begins to take on form. Scholars are quick to point out that they do not see a definite ontology here. [2] It is not that the abhidharmika's set out to establish the nature of a dhamma, but in creating their lists of dharmas they provided an opening for those with a more ontological bent. What they do is create finite lists which they present as exhaustive - there are these kinds of dharmas and no more. That the different abhidharmikas came up with overlapping but often quite different list tells us much in retrospect. The definiteness of these lists was problematic. By the time of the commentarial tradition in 5th century Sri Lanka a dharma has become a thing - which may well be why this is the favoured translation of dhamma in contemporary times.

The various early schools of Buddhism (the tradition records eighteen names) each had their own collections of suttas, their own vinaya, and their own abhidharma. Since the sutta collections vary mostly in how they are arranged it is presumed that these stem from a common stock [3]. Each surviving vinaya shows a little more variation - especially in the number of pratimokṣa rules and in how elaborated is their account of the Buddha's life. Each abhidharma however has a significantly different take on the subject - though of course all shared a method and aimed at the same goal.

The Sarvāstivādin abhidharmikas seem to have gone further down the ontological road than any other Buddhist groups. Their very name means 'everything exists' (sarva asti). They held dharmas to be substantially existing elements of reality. Just how far they gave strayed from the Buddha's teaching is brought into focus when one considers that Nāgārjuna is thought by some scholars to have written his stark and decisive polemic, Mālamadhyamika Kārikā (MMK), in response to the Sarvāstivādins. [4] Amongst other aims Nāgārjuna comprehensively dismantles the twin notions of existence and non-existence. Neither apply. If Nāgārjuna appears nihilistic it is perhaps because he was writing against a pernicious form of eternalism. In any case we can read MMK as an attempt to wrestle Buddhism back on track - away from any interest in the nature of reality, and back to an interest in the nature of experience. It is terms of experience, not in terms of mysticism or paradox, that we need to understand that 'things' neither exist nor non-exist, because those 'things' are our mental processes which have no ontological status, no substantial being. Indeed in what sense can any process be said to 'exist'?

  1. In my unpublished essay 'Did the Dhamma Die with the Buddha' I critique Masefield's method which seems to have ignored or obscured any evidence which contradicted his thesis. By demonstrating that counter examples are readily available in his source - the Pali texts - for all of his major claims, I show that his over all thesis that no-one could attain enlightenment after the Buddha died is wrong.
  2. To some extent I am relying on Noa Ronkin's Early Buddhist Metaphysics as a survey of attitudes of other scholars to this issue, particularly chapter 2 (p.34ff).
  3. However the variation in the organisation of the collections argues for a late date for the collections themselves, ie there was no 'canon' until quite some time after the Buddha - which seems to contradict traditional narratives of the canon being settled at a council held immediately after the Buddha's death.
  4. I think some scholars argue that what the Sarvāstivādins meant by 'svabhāva' was not inherent existence, but something more like individual characteristic. Buddhist texts are seldom fair to the ideas of their opponents, nor to the people who hold different ideas (who are regularly portrayed as fools). So if Nāgārjuna was misrepresenting the Sarvāstivādins this was consistent with the tradition, though it seems to me that in writing polemics one is usually motivated by an actual perceived error. In any case the points he makes about existence/non-existence seem to me to be important and useful.


  • Cox, Collett. 2004. 'From Category to Ontology: the Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 543-597.
  • Gethin, Rupert. 2004. 'He Who sees Dhamma sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Early Buddhism.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 513-542.
  • Ronkin, Noa. 2005. Early Buddhist Metaphysics : The Making of a Philosophical Tradition. London: Routledge Curzon.

16 October 2009

Dharma - Buddhist Terminology

Dharma in various scriptsIn this essay I want to try to get across the breadth of the word dharma (Pāli dhamma) as used in early Buddhism. Last week I took a diachronic (across time) approach, this week will be synchronic (looking at one point in time - more or less). Various different schemes have been proposed which divide the semantic field of dharma into various sectors some find more than a dozen 'meanings' of dharma. Almost every introductory Buddhism book will have something to say about this. However since my starting point was the 2004 issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy dedicated to 'dharma' I'll use the scheme from there. In the JIP Rupert Gethin describes six categories in which the word dharma is used in early Buddhism.
  1. Teaching
  2. Good conduct
  3. Truth
  4. Nature or Quality
  5. Natural Law
  6. Mental or Physical State
I adopt his categories but I am not entirely convinced by Gethin's approach to the content discussed under each heading and will say more in context. Though I've adopted his headings most of these glosses are my own.


As I mentioned last week (Dharma - Early History), it has been argued that the Buddha might have been reluctant to adopt the term 'dhamma' to describe his teaching. However, this does not seem to have lasted long. In fact along with sāsana, dharma is probably the most common noun for it - for teaching the usual verb is deseti (which more literally means 'to point out'). Dharma as teaching refers both the content of the teaching and to the form of it (i.e. the texts).

Gethin here cites (p.516) the nine aṅgas or limbs of the teaching, that is the nine kinds of text which are spelt out in the texts themselves: suttaṃ, geyyaṃ, veyyākaraṇaṃ, gāthaṃ, udānaṃ, itivuttakaṃ, jātakaṃ, abhutadhammaṃ, vedallaṃ which he translates as "discourses, chants, analyses, verses, utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and dialogues". (at e.g. M i.133ff).

Good Conduct.

Here the word is used as an adjective. In my research on confession I showed that confessing a wrong-doing restores a person to the ethical path so that they behave yathādhamma or dharmically. (see Attwood Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha). Gethin cites examples of dharma in the instrumental case (indicating how an action is carried out) which seem to mean something like conforming to the norm. For instance kings must rule dhammena or by the dharma, which we take to mean ethically. [1]

Another use of dharma in this sense comes in the word dharacārin (this is the neuter form of the word: m. dharmacārī/ f. dharmacāriṇī). Carin means 'one who fares', or 'one who behaves', and dharma is used here in an adjectival sense 'dharmically'. I avoid common renderings such as 'righteously' because of the heavy Christian overtones (it always makes me thing of righteous indignation, which is not dharmic). The implication is that a dharmacārin conforms to the ethical precepts and to right view. (Of course in the sense of a member of the Western Buddhist Order we must qualify this: we undertake to conform ethically - including the precept to abstain from micchādassanā or confused views - and we do our best to repair breaches, but we don't claim to be perfect!)


This for me is the most problematic category. Gethin seeks to show that this is different from the category of 'natural law', but in fact his examples make better sense if we do not translate dharma as 'truth'. Gethin suggests that there is some truth about "the world or reality" which is taught by the Buddha, but I've become wary of this kind of approach which I associate with Western philosophy. What the Buddha taught about, from my point of view, is the processes of experience, not about some external reality. You could argue that by reality we mean the processes of experience, but this invites confusion because by 'reality' we almost always mean the substantial or ideal world beyond and underlying experience. The truth about experience, if there is such a thing, is simply that it is governed by pratītya-samutpāda. This is not a (metaphysical) Truth as I understand it. In fact far from being a dogma, it is the insight that we Buddhists seek, rather than the knowledge we already possess. That we believe it to be true, does not make it Truth.

Nature or Quality

When the Buddha is about to die he says: vayadhammā saṅkhārā, appamādena sampādetha. I have commented on these words at length in my essay the The Last Words of the Buddha. Vayadhammā is a compound vaya + dhammā (plural). 'Vaya' (Sanskrit: vyaya) means both 'decay' and 'death', so I have translated it as 'perish' since this has almost exactly the same connotations (and similar etymology, both being from a verb i 'to go'). Dhamma here denotes 'nature' and I translate it by adding the suffix -able to give 'perishable' - by which we understand that something perishable has perishability as a characteristic, or is of a nature to perish. The translation is then: all experiences are perishable. Dharma is routinely used in this kind of way to indicate the nature or quality of something. This probably relates to the more basic meaning of foundation. Gethin quotes the phrase
yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhammaṃ ti [2]
Very literally we might translate this as: "All those somethings which have the nature to arise, have the nature to cease". Or better: everything that can arise, will cease.

The characteristic of something is the foundation (dharma) on which our knowledge of it rests.

Natural Law

By natural law we mean the natural law: pratītyasamutpāda (Pāli paṭiccasamuppāda). The idea that the universe was a harmonious interconnected whole goes back to the earliest Indian religious texts. It is apparent in the Ṛg Veda. For Buddhists it was 'only natural' to take up this idea and give a Buddhist account of it. [3] The simplest expression of paṭiccasamuppāda is:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
While that exists, this exists. When that does not exist, neither does this.
Confusingly the pronoun in every case is idaṃ [4] meaning 'this' (something present to the speaker) - the Pāli is not making a this/that distinction though it is always present in English translations. It is more like the sort of syntax you see in computer programming languages: "while this, this; when not this, not this."

However the strongest association is with the twelve-fold chain of nidānas (source, cause, origin). In this formulation each preceding link is the cause of the succeeding one. Later Buddhists interpreted the links as spreading over three life-times, though this is not present in the earliest texts, nor are the twelve links clearly a circle - they more naturally are a chain except that the last two links are birth and old-age/death which, according to virtually all Indian religions, follow each other repeatedly. Other version of the chain exist with different numbers of links - significantly the chain in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) has ten links. [5]

Sangharakshita, drawing on work by C.A.F Rhys Davids and Dr B. Barua has given prominence to another kind of conditionality - which he calls spiral as opposed to the other kind which is cyclic - the locus classicus is the Upanisa Sutta (SN 12.23; PTS: S ii 29) (see especially Sangharakshita 1993 and 1967). It has been argued that upanisa, which is used in this sutta as a synonym of nidāna, is the same word as the Sanskrit upaniṣad with virtually the same meaning: secret connection (See for instance: Jones 2009). In this version of conditionality one link in the chain leads to another in a progressive and cumulative manner so that one reaches the state of knowledge and vision of reality (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) and continues on to the destruction of the āsavas (aka awakening). Bikkhu Bodhi (1995), writing in response to Sangharakshita, follows the Nettipakarana, a Pāli exegetical treatise, in calling this type of conditionality 'transcendental dependent arising' (lokuttara-paṭiccasamuppāda).

Another relevant term here is dhamma-niyāmatā which we can translate as "the lawfulness of reality" (cf Jones 2007). Jones says that this is, in effect, a way of referring to paṭiccasamuppāda and that it is synonymous with "cosmic order in all its forms". An aspect of this is the Buddha's life story. It is said that every Buddha's life story follows exactly the same pattern and that this is dhammatā - the rule, or natural order.

Mental or Physical State

While many uses of dhamma are important, in some ways this is the most significant use of dhamma. Here dhamma is the 'foundation' for consciousness - recall that for Buddhists consciousness is always consciousness of something. Dhammas are the objects of the mind (mano; Sanskrit. manas), which includes the information from the five physical senses as well as purely mental phenomena as memory, abstractions, and imagination. This use will be the subject of my next post. I will try to show how the way Buddhists understood dhamma in this sense subtly changed over the years creating splits and resulting in some brilliant polemics which have themselves become canonical.


From the relatively humble Vedic origins which I outlined last week (Dharma - early history) the term dharma became one of the most important in the Indian religious lexicon. My initial impression was that the Buddhist usage was so varied as to defy understanding - however my conclusion having written this essay is that almost all uses of dharma are comprehensible in terms of the basic meaning of 'foundation' in some applied or abstract manner. Perhaps it is appropriate therefore to found Buddhism on dharma? [Note since writing this I have re-read the latter part of Gethin's paper and he comes to more or less the same conclusion - I have therefore not entirely done justice to his views]

Though my approach this week has been synchronic we need to be aware that even within Buddhism the definitions and usage of words changed over time as well - I follow one thread of this change in next week's post. Despite being able to see the origins of usage, the many different ways dharma is used has resulted in considerable ambiguity and at times confusion. I believe, for instance, that the first section of the Diamond Sūtra (up to the first ending) is best understood if one holds the many definitions of dharma in mind almost simultaneously - because the text relentlessly plays on the ambiguity in a way which might otherwise be see as paradoxical. To my mind this section seems very close in spirit to the Pāli texts and the product of a mind which, like many ancient Indians and modern Westerners, enjoys punning very much.

  1. The phrase here (p.516) is dhammena rajjaṃ kāreti - though PED suggests kāreti is 'build, construct' (kāreti is a causative of karoti 'to do, make'. Presumably the text is talking about building his kingdom?
  2. Gethin doesn't cite the origin of the passage and I cannot locate it. Gethin translates (p.518): "the nature of everything whose nature it is to arise, is to cease".
  3. I would make a distinction here: early Buddhism sees things as connected through conditionality. The idea of interconnectedness - that all things condition all other things - is in my view missing from early Buddhism and is supplied in the Mahāyāna from Vedic precedents. One of the most important metaphors for interconnectedness is Indra's net (indrajāla) and I suggest that it is no coincidence that the net belongs to the chief god of the Vedas.
  4. imasmiṃ is the locative of idaṃ used in a temporal sense: to give the sense of "while this".
  5. The different numbers of links has given rise to the theory that there were originally two different nidāna chains - one beginning with taṇha, to which was added one beginning with avijjā. Joanna Jurewicz has theorised that especially the early part of the chain was intended as a parody of Vedic cosmogny - Jurewicz's papers are difficult to get hold of, and even more difficult to read (a knowledge of Sanskrit is an advantage) but the details are summarised and discussed in Richard Gombrich What the Buddha Thought (esp Chapter 9). Note that, in his MA dissertation, Jones (Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext) has cast some doubt on Jurewicz's thesis - hopefully he will publish before long.

  • Attwood, Jayarava Michael. 2008. 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15. http://www.buddhistethics.org/15/attwood-article.html
  • Bodhi. 1995. 'Transcendental Dependent Arising : A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.' Access to Insight, June 7, 2009, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html.
  • Gethin, Rupert. 2004. 'He Who sees Dhamma sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Early Buddhism. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 513-542.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2009. Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext : the Buddha in Debate with Brahminical Thinking. MA Dissertation, Cambridge University, unpublished.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2007. The 'Five Niyamas', Sangharakshita, and the Problem of Karma. http://www.dhivan.net-a.googlepages.com/niyamasessay.pdf [See also another shorter version of this essay and some commentary on Dhīvan's website]
  • Sangharakshita. 1967. The Three Jewels : an introduction to Buddhism. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. (esp. chapter 13 : The stages of the Path)
  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : its doctrines and methods through the ages. [7th ed]. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. [1st published 1957]. (esp Chapter 1.14 Samsāra and Nirvaṇa)

image: dharma in various scripts: Devanāgarī, dbu can, Ranjana, Sinhala.

09 October 2009

Dharma - early history

Dharma in various scriptsThis is the first of a series of three essays in which I will attempt to summarise recent research on the word dharma (Pāli dhamma). Perhaps more than any other term it is synonymous with religion in India. And yet, or perhaps because of this, the term itself is so polysemic as to defy translation in less than 6 or 7 distinct and unrelated English words. In 2004 the Journal of Indian Philosophy commissioned a series of articles by the leading scholars in their fields looking at the philology and philosophies (not to say religions and ideologies) associated with this mysterious word. This first essay will focus on the philology and use of the term in Vedic, a second will look at the breadth of it's use in Buddhism, and a third will examine the subtle shift over time in the way that dharma as mental event was conceived by Buddhists. Be warned that several hundred pages of journal articles could not exhaust this subject, and three books solely on dharma in Buddhist usage have already been written. At best I can gloss the observations of scholars and refer anyone interested to the relevant publications.

The roots of the word are the least ambiguous or disputed aspect of it so we can begin quite simply. Dharma is derived from the verbal root √dhṛ ' to hold, to bear, to carry'. The basic verb form is dharati - the root takes the guṇa and the stem becomes dhar-. The derivative dhárman [1] is a neuter verbal noun, with the addition of the suffix -man, and means 'support, foundation'. It is this form - dhárman - which corresponds to Classical Sanskrit 'dharma' which we are interested in (note that Pāli collapses the conjunct rma into the double consonant mma to give us 'dhamma'). Dharma only occurs 67 times in the Ṛg Veda (RV) and only used 65 times in the rest of the vast Vedic corpus including the Upaniṣads. This suggests it is a minor term, of dwindling importance - a fact that must be explained given the centrality of the term in Indian religion today!

Dharma has no cognate words in other Indo-European (IE) languages which means that it does not predate the migration of IE languages into India, but is an Indian coinage. This helps us to understand how it was used in RV because it's use is closely related to its it's original meaning of 'foundation'. In particular it is associated with the holding apart of the earth and sky in cosmogonic myths. It is also associated with orderliness - more often expressed in Vedic by the term ṛta - and with the god Varuṇa who oversaw ṛta and was a keeper of the law (cosmic and social though the distinction was not always clear). Varuṇa is sometimes called Dharmapati or Law Lord. In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa [2] the king is equated with Varuṇa. In some of the early (pre-Buddhist) Upaniṣads dharma is what gives the ruler his power - it is the "kṣatrasya kṣatram" or 'ruling power of ruling power'.

Olivelle has counted the number of times the word occurs in the Vedic canon and finds that after 60+ occurrences in the Ṛgveda it is used less in the rest of the canon put together - making it very much a minority term. However the word 'mantra' seldom occurs in the Ṛgveda (only 13 times!) and as Ellison Banks Findly has pointed out "...inattention to a term in the Ṛgveda does not always mean inattention to the corresponding subject". Indeed we find all of the many concepts which 'dharma' later covers - such as order, nature, quality (especially good quality), and law - are all central themes in the Ṛgveda. What we need to explain is how the word dharma came to stand for these other concepts.

Olivelle argues that the adoption of the word dharma is as part of an appropriation of royal symbolism by groups of śramaṇas, who he sees as offshoots of the Brahmins. As I noted in Rethinking Indian History this latter paradigm has recently been challenged and it may suit Olivelle's thesis even better to think of the śramaṇa groups as emerging from a distinct culture and the Brahmins encroaching on their territory as they moved East into Magadha from their heartland north of present-day Delhi. Perhaps they adopted the symbols and language of royalty in order to enhance their prestige in the face of the Brahmin threat to their hegemony? In any case the leaders of śramaṇa groups refer to themselves as 'jina' (conqueror) and 'cakravartin' (wheel-roller - a reference to the wheel of the royal chariot rolling over conquered territory - not to say conquered enemies) [3]. Their teachings are known as śāsana (Pāli sāsana) - the counterpart of a royal edict (from √śās 'to chastise, to command') . Dharma, with it associations of law and lawfulness also partake, according to Olivelle, in this appropriation. While this explains how 'dharma' might have come into use amongst the religious, it doesn't explain the process of accumulation of senses of the word. Since orderliness, adherence to laws and therefore lawfulness, is associated with the king, perhaps this gives us some suggestion about that sense.

According to Tilmann Vetter the earliest Buddhist usage of dharma associated it with other teachers only, and the Buddha encourages his followers not to accept any dharma. [4] However it appears that if he was not disposed to use the term, he did not hold out very long as dharma soon became central to the Buddha's message. In Buddhist usage dharman (neuter) becomes dharmaḥ (masculine; Pāli dhammo). Technically the masculine form is an action noun meaning 'bearer', but already the scope of what it refers to is considerably broadened. This will be the subject of my next post.

  1. Vedic was a language with (raised) pitch accents instead of stress accents as we use in English. These are marked with an acute in Roman script. Compare dhárman (neuter verbal noun meaning 'foundation') and dharmán (masculine action noun meaning 'bearer'). Classical Sanskrit uses stress rather than pitch accents.
  2. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is an multi-volume exegetical text which comments on many aspects of the sacrificial ritual. It is related to the Yajurveda, being composed after it but before the time of the Buddha. The last book of the ŚB circulates separately as the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad.
  3. A vivid depiction of this kind of warfare can be found in the Mesopotamian galleries of the British Museum which shows 8-7th century BCE Persian kings fighting from two-wheeled chariots. I may be mistaken but it seems to me that there are 4, 6 and 8 spoked wheels on various vehicles: those with 4 appear to be agricultural; 6 for general war chariots; and 8 for the king.
  4. This argument is based on texts from the Sutta Nipāta which are generally considered to be the earliest layer of the Pāli canon. Vetter argues for even more specificity identifying texts which he considers to in fact be "pre-Buddhist".


  • Brereton, Joel. 2004. 'Dhárman in the Ṛgveda.' Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 449–489.
  • Findly, Ellison Banks. 1989. 'Mántra Kaviśatrá: Speech as Performative in the Ṛgveda.' in Alper, Harvey P. Mantra. State University of New York Press. (esp p.15-16)
  • Olivelle, Patrick. 2005. Power of Words: The Ascetic Appropriation and the Semantic Evolution of Dharma.' in Language, Texts and Society : Explorations in Ancient Indian Culture and Religion. Firenze University Press.
  • Olivelle, Patrick. 2004. 'The Semantic History of Dharma The Middle and Late Vedic Periods." Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 491–511
  • Vetter, Tilmann. 1990. Some Remarks on Older Parts of the Suttanipāta. Earliest Buddhism and Mādhyamika. Panels of the VII World Sanskrit Conference. D. S. Ruegg & L. Schmithausen (eds.). Leiden: E. J. Brill, pp. 36-56.

image: dharma in various scripts: Devanāgarī, dbu can, Ranjana, Sinhala.

02 October 2009

Ethics and Intention

Over the years I have cited one Pāli phrase perhaps more than any other and it dawned on me that I should give it a fuller treatment. As far as I know it occurs only once in the Pāli suttas [1], but the idea that it expresses is really vital to understanding the Buddha's use of the word kamma (karma).

It goes like this:
cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi
I say, monks, that intention is action [2]
I first heard this in 2006 at Professor Richard Gombrich's Numata lectures (now published as What the Buddha Thought) and no doubt my thinking about it owes a great deal, if not everything, to him. He translates the phrase as "by kamma I mean intention".

There are two key terms to consider: kamma and cetanā.

Karma (Pāli: kamma [3]) is a word which has strong religious associations pre-dating Buddhism by a thousand years at least. The word derives from a very common verbal root √kṛ 'to do, to make' and literally means 'action'. Specifically karma was, in the earliest Indian religious texts, the ritual action of the Vedic priest. This idea existed in a world view which saw knowledge as related to similarity; which is in contrast to our world view which sees knowledge as emerging out of difference. (Indeed the word 'science' comes from a root which means to separate things from one another.) Central to the Vedic religion were correspondences between things, but particularly between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the individual person. The ritual manipulation of a thing, or later a symbol, on this level affected its counterpart in the world of the gods. By changing something on earth a change was effected in the god realm, and this meant better fortunes on earth - primarily they were concerned to control and regulate the forces of nature especially the sun and monsoon rains. Rituals served to keep the balance of the natural order of the cosmos (called ṛta, brahman, or later dharma). These ritual actions or karma were a very important feature of life in the Vedic culture.

The Jains also had a use for the word karma. To them karma was not only ritual actions, but all actions what-so-ever. In Jainism the soul (jīva) is weighed down by the 'dust' created by actions. The response is to minimise not only harmful actions (they seem to have been the first to adopt the policy of ahiṃsa or non-harm) but all actions. The epitome of Jain practice is inactivity for long periods of time, while the acme is allowing oneself to starve to death.

It seems as though the Buddha's use of the word karma was a modification of this Jain idea with a hint of the Vedic use - though a reaction away from both. The modification is that only a certain class of actions, willed actions, had moral consequences. The Buddha may well have been drawing on the Vedic idea that certain actions had greater significance than others. By removing the blanket association he allowed some freedom to act. Still we don't have complete moral freedom - our actions do have consequences but before we can address this question we need to know about cetanā.

Cetanā derives from the root √cit which also gives us the words citta 'mind' and cetas 'thought'. [4] Citta is sometimes translated as 'mind' sometimes as 'heart' - from the point of view of English then the reference is somewhat confused. Some Buddhists invoke a combination of feelings and thoughts to convey the meaning. The root √cit is defined in the dictionary as "knowing; thought , intellect , spirit , soul", but also "to perceive , fix the mind upon , attend to , be attentive , observe , take notice of"; and "to aim at , intend , design; to be anxious about , care for; to resolve". So √cit concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion'). Cetas is the faculty which carries out these functions. In English we tend to separate out thinking and feeling, intellect and affect, partly because of a duality between mind and body which been influential in our intellectual history. Thought is the stuff of the mind, whereas feelings are the province of the body. Ancient Indians did not make such a distinction. The mind-body duality is now discredited in intellectual circles largely due to advances in philosophy, and discoveries in neuroscience. There is no activity of mind which is not embodied in some fashion, and no activity of the body which does not involve the mind. Cetanā is a more abstract way of referring to the function of cetas - i.e. thinking and emoting.

So coming back to the little phrase above we can see that the Buddha is equating karma (morally significant action) with cetanā (thoughts and emotions). Although cetanā is usually translated as 'intention' I think it is important to keep in mind that this is intended to include our deepest strongest urges and motivations which may well be subconscious, as well as our immediate conscious goals; our fears and hatreds, our desires and wishes. It doesn't pay to be reductionist about this. Our motivations for any action are complex and often largely unconscious. The point is not to set up one to one relationships between motives and consequences, but to look for patterns in how the exercising of our will (whether consciously or unconsciously) affects our experience of life. If we do undertake this kind of reflection then patterns will begin to emerge and there is no need to spell out in advance what they will be - we need to see it for ourselves in any case.

The Buddha is saying, in effect, that what makes an action morally significant is thoughts and emotions which drive it. This was a new and radical idea at the time. It is still a radical idea. It may be the most significant idea in all human history. It cuts through theistic arguments which rely on 'divinely revealed' (or transcendental) notions of ideal behaviour; and through moral relativism which denies any fixed standard of behaviour. The standard is universal and human. It applies in all cultures and all cases, and it is open to everyone regardless of status, or any other human divide. 2500 years on it still sounds fresh and exciting to me!


  1. It is relatively easy to search the Pāli canon these days thanks to the Pali Canon Online Database.
  2. AN vi.63
  3. In verbs of this class (V) the verb root forms a stem using the strong form of the vowel so kṛ > kar- and the 3rd person singular is karoti in both Pāli and Sanskrit. Karma is grammatically a neuter action noun: karman 'action'. There is a possible connection with our word 'create' via Latin creare "to make, produce". It is typical, though not universal, for Pāli to collapse a conjunct consonant such as rma down to a doubled consonant such as mma even though the r comes from the verbal root - and thus some important information is lost. (Interestingly √kṛ can function as verb classes I, II, V VIII > e.g. karanti, karṣi, kṛṇoti and karoti which gives rise to an enormous number of forms.)
  4. The etymology of citta/cetas is complex in that they are clearly linked concepts but traditional grammars say there are two roots: √cit 'to perceive, know'; and √cint 'to think'. However they are obviously originally one and the same. PED notes that cit is likely to be the older of the two forms since it is sometimes explained in terms of cint, but never the other way around. (sv Cinteti p.269a). Whitney (The Roots, Verb-forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language p.47) concurs suggesting that cint derives from cit.

image: Descartes brain diagram: from www.cerebromente.org.br
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