29 January 2010

The Economics of Abundance

Supply & Demand curvesEconomics is the study of to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. It is also a practical discipline in which the means of production, distribution and consumption are manipulated by agents in the economy to their benefit. Economists and their ideas dominate our society and have done for at least 100 years. The most fundamental assumption of economics - I recall from having studied it many years ago - is that resources are scarce. Economics seeks to show how dynamics like 'supply and demand' affect price and availability of scarce resources, and from them goods and services, and how markets can be manipulated to the benefit of some individuals or groups in the economy.

But is this fundamental assumption accurate? Are resources scarce? A few months ago I wrote that one of the benefits of 10,000 years of civilisation, as well as one of the draw-backs, is a generalised surplus of food. [1] Months before that I commented on attitudes to obesity in the Western World. [2] How can anyone suggest that resources are scarce in a country where obesity is supposed to be the number one health problem? In fact we have a vast surplus of food and most people, including me, I have to admit, eat more than they need to. Indeed we have so much excess food in the UK that some authorities reckon that as much as 1/3 of food produced is wasted. [3] A rather contradictory picture emerges.

Resources are generally only scarce in the developed world because some people have far more than their fair share, and because we waste so very much of what we do have. Again in my blog 'Why Do We Suffer?' I mentioned that we tend to feel no sense of allegiance to strangers, no need to share our prosperity with them, and most of the people around us are strangers. There is not a great deal we can do about this because we have a limited capacity for human relationships - research suggests that we can keep track of about 150 personal relationships (one of the Dunbar Numbers). Some of us live in cities of millions, and the odds of meeting someone we know by chance can be very small indeed. Somehow we manage this. It's no surprise that the new technologies which have been most successful are the ones that help link people to their friends - internet and cell phones; or that drown out the pressing masses such as TV and media.

On the up side several of my friends work for charities and they report that on the whole people are generous with their money if asked for a contribution. I count myself fortunate to have grown up in, and to now live in, countries with welfare systems for the needy. To some extent we all contribute to the welfare of the many through taxes and other compulsory measures, but also through voluntary work.

But economics is set up to promote competition for scarce resources. The idea that unregulated markets will determine a fair price received what should have a death blow in 2009, as the extent of greedy speculation has been exposed, and the consequences are coming home to roost. But the problems were not new and financial markets had been producing scandals for at least a decade before the credit crunch - think of Enron back in 2001 for instance. The credit crunch shouldn't have been a surprise to us and the reasons that it was are relatively simple - greed at many levels, and an unwillingness to hear negative feedback. As far as I can see there is no sign that anything has fundamentally changed, and at least in the UK the main measures to pay for the excesses of the rich seem to be aimed at the the middle and the poor: bankers will still get multi-million pound bonuses, and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has set up an elaborate company structure to avoid paying tax on the millions he earns as an individual these days. It's not just that the rich are getting richer, but more fundamentally the greedy are getting greedier!

What would the world be like if instead of competing for scarce resources we focussed on meeting basic needs first? If there is such a huge food surplus in the west then ought we not do something about redistributing it? Is competition the most important driver of progress? I recently came across an interview with Professor Lynn Margulis on BBC Radio. Margulis collaborated with James Lovelock in providing a scientific foundation for what is called the Gaia Hypothesis. In the BBC interview she debunked the idea that competition is the driving force of evolution. On the contrary Margulis argued that competition has "nothing to do with evolution". Evolution is driven by symbiosis and cooperation in her view, and the idolisation of competition is "rooted in Victorian patriarchal values". That eminent Victorian, Charles Darwin, was fascinated by the idea of competition weeding out the weaker members of the species for instance, and writes about it repeatedly in The Origin of Species, but seldom mentions cooperation. And yet where would the human race be if we did not cooperate? Economics is surely rooted in the same world view: survival of the fittest, and competition for resources weeding out the weakest competitors, with just a whiff of the idea that being a weaker competitor makes one somehow morally unworthy.

Just because an idea is ubiquitous and widely held to be true by pundits, does not always make it true. Does this, then, mean that I advocate communism? No, I don't advocate any kind of political system - attempts to implement communism have all run into the same problems that capitalist governments have struck. The problems are related to the fundamental problems of greed and hatred. It is not so much that the system is at fault, but the values which underpin it. I note that Marx was also a Victorian. The problem is this view that resources are scarce and that competition is the best way to ensure fair distribution of them. Both premises are demonstrably false: I live in a country with massive surpluses of basic commodities; and competition has consistently encouraged the greedy to be more greedy to the detriment of everyone. The same is true, I think, in most of the developed world. Ironically the other great trend of Victorian times was philanthropy and I associate it particularly, because of my former profession, with free public libraries. Now there is a model for building an enlightened society!

  1. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, makes much the same point about the abundance of food post the last ice-age because of improvements in agriculture in one of series of vignettes from the A History of the World in 100 Objects "Bird-shaped Pestle". See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2
  2. see my essay: Who's in Charge?; Dayamati has recently written on obesity in the USA: The Empire Strikes Fat.
  3. On food wastage in the UK see: 'Food wastage on a staggering scale' BBC Website. 2008; 'Campaign launched to reduce UK's £8bn food waste mountain'. The Guardian, 2007.

image: supply and demand curve from www.debunkingeconomics.com.

22 January 2010

Sobornost & and the meaning of Sangha

Triratna Dharmacarins at the 2009 ConventionSome years ago Sangharakshita remarked that he could not find a word in any European language to describe the kind of sangha or spiritual community he envisioned "unless the Russian sobornost comes near it to some extent". [1] The term sobornost (cоборность) was used by the Russian linguist and poet Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov [2] to describe the togetherness brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox church. Its etymological root is the verb sbrat, 'to gather together'. The suffix -ost is similar in meaning to the English suffix -ness. In fact sobornost is used in the Slavonic version of the Nicene Creed for 'catholic' in the sense of 'universal'. However Khomiakov took it to mean much more than this: "[it] denotes a perfect organic fellowship of redeemed people united by faith and love". [3] He contrasted sobornost with the authoritarian unity of the Roman Church which denied the individual, and the fragmented individualism of the Protestant Church.

Sangharakshita also referred to spiritual community in terms of a 'third order of consciousness'. The defining characteristic of the group is the submergence of the individual will in the group. When an individual threatens to disrupt the continuity of the group it will act to neutralise them: usually either by elimination or assimilation - sometimes it will both eat them up, and shit them out. The spiritual practitioner must leave behind the group and become a true individual - they must know their own mind, understand their values and attitudes and be prepared to personally live with the consequences of their actions. On the other hand individualism can be a dead end if it is self-referential. Individualists cannot agree on what is of value and so fail to offer each other support. The third order of consciousness begins to emerge when the individual realises that others share their values and ideals and they begin to live in virtuous harmony on the basis of those shared values. This may include working together to achieve goals, or like Anuruddha and his companions they may just live together in harmony blending like milk and water. [4] Individual will is not lost or submerged, but there is a coincidence of wills because of an engagement with the highest ideals and values of each. Like Khomiakov we seek not an enforced unity, nor complete independence - but a mutually responsive interdependence.

Our abstract values find concrete expression in the various sets of precepts which Buddhists attempt to follow. In the Triratna Buddhist Order we take a set of ten precepts traditionally known as the 'ten helpful actions' (dasakusalakammā), these recur throughout the Pāli Canon. [5] As you may know we use both the Pāli version in which we undertake to avoid unhelpful (akusala) actions, and an English version of Sangharakshita's devising in which we undertake to cultivate the helpful (kusala) counterparts. Of these precepts, both negative and positive, three are directed at the body, four are for speech, and three concern the mind. One way of looking at the precepts is to think of them as ideal behaviour - they represent a set of behaviours that could be expected of a Buddha. And in undertaking to follow the precepts we are seeking to align ourselves with the virtuous behaviour of a Buddha. This has two effects. On one hand it helps to prepare the mind for meditation, and indeed some suttas tell us that freedom from remorse (the benefit and reward of acting virtuously) is the beginning of the path to liberation from greed, hatred and delusion.[6] On the other hand the practice of precepts is not just preparatory but can be seen to be the path itself. If we continually try to behave like the Buddha, we are transformed by this practice. This is the idea behind the pāramitās or perfections. If we could perfect our behaviour - in body, speech, and mind - then we would in effect be a Buddha. So the precepts are not just normative, they are transformative (more than meets the eye).

Coming back to sobornost and the sangha we can say that, in Buddhist terms, sobornost is experienced when a collective of true individuals are aligned with their values by operating through the ethical precepts. Through harmonising in this way the community itself becomes greater than a simple sum of it's members alone. Yes, we must all become individuals, but if we are individualists then we we only sing our own tune and cannot harmonise. Equally we must be free to associate or not else the harmony is forced and therefore brittle and unstable.

An analogy that occurs to me is the laser. Laser, as you may know. is an acronym for 'light amplification by the stimulated emission of light'. Some substrate is stimulated - it might be a rod of ruby, or a container of gas, or a lump of semiconductor; and it might be stimulated by an electrical discharge, or an intense flash of light, or even by physical stress. Then rather than emitting photons across a spectrum of frequencies (roughly a range of colours) and in every direction of space - the substrate emits photons (particles or 'packets' of light) all of the same frequency or colour, all in the same direction. What's more the oscillations of each photon, the electro-magnetic fields, line up and reinforce each other. When they all move together in this way the photons, all the same frequency, all in the same direction, and all in step, then the energy they carry is concentrated into a much smaller area. The intensity of laser light can be so much as to melt steel, but at lower intensities laser 'beams' can be focussed to microscopic spots for use in CD and DVD players. Think also of the resonance effects we see in bridges. Many people walking instep can cause what seem like very strong structures made of steel to resonate and vibrate to the point of causing damage and even destruction. Soldiers always break step when crossing bridges for this reason.

Being together on the basis of our highest ideals and cherished virtues we are lifted above what we might achieve on our own - virtue is also subject to resonance effects! In Sobornost the individual does not assert themselves but does what they can to manifest the ideals of the Sangha. We are all lifted up together. It is the most beautiful and fulfilling form of human relationship.

  1. 'The Bodhisattva Principle' in Sangharakshita The Priceless Jewel. Windhorse Publications, 1993. p.155. Originally an address to the Wrekin Trust's 6th Annual Mystics and Scientists Conference, 'Reality, Consciousness and Order', 1983.
  2. The print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (remember print?) has a useful summary of the life and work of Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-1860).
  3. Britannica vol.6 p.840
  4. This story is in the Upakkilesa Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 128 (PTS M iii.152).
  5. See for instance: DN 5, MN 114, AN 10.178-197. These ten precepts are also found in Mahāyāna texts and are used in the Shingon School.
  6. See especially: Kimatthiyasuttaṃ, Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.1 'The Benefits of Virtue'

image: members of the Triratna Buddhist Order gathered in front of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, 2009.

15 January 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order

On the 6th of January I received an email from the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita, [1] explaining that he was changing the name of the Order from the Western Buddhist Order to the Triratna Buddhist Order.

There were a number of factors behind this momentous decision. It was increasingly anachronistic to call us 'Western' when about a quarter of the order live in India, and we have groups and centres in Eastern Europe and other places which might not think of themselves as 'Western': Turkey for instance! When we started off in 1968 'Western' was quite appropriate, but now we are a global order. In India we had even more problems because the Order there was called Trailokya Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha (the Great Buddhist Order of the Triple-World). Having two different names for the Order was always problematic as we only have one ordination, and was a bit confusing at times - I noticed this at the Order Convention in India for instance. Also the word trailokya was not understood outside Buddhist circles in India - I doubt whether many westerners knew what it meant either. It seemed that we really needed a single name for the whole Order and that it was one that would be widely comprehensible.

The Order itself has been aware of these problems for many years - Viśvapāṇi wrote about it in 1995 for instance: Finding a Name for the FWBO (interestingly he suggested Triratna Buddhist Order way back then!) However because we aim to operate by consensus, and this was a difficult issue to find a consensus on, the discussion bogged down. We did almost change the name of the Order to 'Buddhayāna' about ten years ago until it was pointed out that there was already a Buddhist group with this name. Towards the end of 2009 some members of the Order in India asked Sangharakshita to step in and make a decision for us as the founder of the Order because they felt the situation in India was urgent. And that is what he did. Now that he has made the change, my sense is that most people are happy to put this issue behind us and look to the future.

So now there is just one name for the Order, though it will, of course, be translated into various languages - for instance in Hindi it will be Triratna Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha. Triratna is usually translated as 'three jewels' (more on this shortly). It solves the problem with trailokya in India as it is the same in Hindi, and is also reasonably well know in the Buddhist world. Also because Triratna is Sanskrit, that part will be the same all over the world - it will be the part of the name that is not translated and therefore universal.

I can immediately see the appeal of the name. As an Order we emphasise going for refuge to the three jewels above any particular beliefs or practices. The three jewels are, of course, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These represent the ideal of enlightenment, the foundations on which enlightenment is attained, and the guides and companions on the path. [2] On our kesa, or symbolic robe, [3] we have an emblem of three jewels on a lotus, wreathed in flames which symbolise transformation (see accompanying image).

Triratna (Pāli tiratana) is a type of compound known as dvigu (literally 'two-cow') where the stem form of the number is affixed to the item being counted. This avoids having to work out the appropriate inflection for the number, though the inflection of the compound must reflect the number (Sanskrit retains a dual number as well as singular and plural). So 'tri-' just means three - both the Sanskrit and English words are some of the least changed from their Indo-European roots. [4] Ratna probably stems from a verbal root √rā 'to give'. A ratna was originally a 'precious gift'. In some Pāli texts there are lists of seven ratana: suvaṇṇa, rajata, muttā, maṇi, veḷuriya, vajira, and pavāla - that is: gold, silver, pearls, crystal, lapis lazuli, diamond, and coral. Other precious substances such as ruby, beryl, and cat's eye were also known, and maṇi can be used as a general term for a gem-stone. It's clear from this list that 'jewels' is only a part of what ratna refers to. The three jewels, then, can be thought of as 'the three precious gifts', which appeals to me very much!

We formalise our relationship to these precious gifts by reciting the ancient Pāli formula:

buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
dhammaṃ saraṇaṇ gacchāmi

saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

I go to the Buddha who is a refuge
I go to the Dhamma which is a refuge
I go to the Sangha which is refuge

Note that the verb is √gam (stem gaccha), and the conjugation is 1st person singular present indicative - 'I go' or 'I am going' (not 'I take'). Going for refuge is an individual act of will, it can't be done for you, and the refuges can't be 'given' to you, except perhaps by a Buddha. The standard translation is 'I go to the Buddha for refuge', but because both buddha and saraṇa are in the same case (accusative) it would be usual to read one as an attribute of the other as I have done here. Saṅgha is also in the singular - our refuge is the ārya-saṅgha as a whole, not any individual member of it.

With the name Triratna Buddhist Order we are saying three things. First, that we are an order, i.e. an ordained collective who share spiritual ideals and disciplines. [5] Second, that we are Buddhists - we go for refuge to the three jewels. We broadly share our values and methods with other Buddhists, and see our selves as belonging to that broad and sometimes contradictory range of traditions stemming from the Buddha. Third, that we identify more with the three precious gifts themselves than with any sectarian expression of Buddhism - i.e. with any particular lineage, philosophy, practice, or national and/or cultural expression of Buddhism. The three precious gifts themselves are the most important things to us.

Personally I hope that we do not slip into our old habit of using initials for our name. The name reminds us of who we are and what we are about, and using an acronym hides that. Also because the name is translated the initials are different in different countries. In his 1995 article Viśvapāṇi (somewhat prophetically) suggested we refer to ourselves as 'Triratna Buddhists', and I hope that this might catch on. Another thing about acronyms is that they suggest haste - we are in a hurry to say the name and move on, so we abbreviate it, thereby rendering it meaningless like some mere marketing slogan, rather than an expression of our highest ideals and values. It would be more consistent with our vision to linger over names, and revel in long descriptive names. This is one of the advantages to having awkward sounding Sanskrit names for Order Members - one has to slow down, to linger over them, to explain, to practice patience and contentment. Attention to pronunciation also encourages mindfulness. So let us be the Triratna Buddhist Order, not the TBO, please!

As far as I am aware nothing except the name of the Order has changed. The ordination itself remains the same, and no one need be re-ordained. We call our ordination a (or 'the') Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī Ordination. [6] Dharmacārin is an adjective - 'he who walks the path'. Perhaps we will come to think of ourselves as Triratna Dharmacārins. In Sanskrit I think this would be a single compound triratnadharmacārin 'a walker of the path of the three precious gifts'. Though it is grammatically masculine, gender is not predicated on natural gender in Pāli and Sanskrit - saṅgha, for instance, is also grammatically masculine.

Lastly, but not leastly, I must mention that the Order has an auxiliary movement historically called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, or sometimes simply 'The Friends' or 'The Movement'. Sangharakshita originally expressed a wish that we change the name of The Friends to '...of the Triratna Buddhist Order'. Then as a result of a suggestion from some Centre Chairs he opted for Triratna Buddhist Community. Each centre of The Friends is legally and organisationally autonomous so they needed to decide for themselves how to respond to this. The suggestion has been taken up and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order will officially become the Triratna Buddhist Community on Buddha Day, 28 May 2010. Personally I could see a time when our centre names also reflect the change - the Cambridge Triratna Buddhist Centre for instance.

I written a blog post about the relationship between the Triratna Order and Community, how each functions and some of the main institutions of each: Triratna Buddhist Order and Community.

(This post has been edited several times, most recently on 7 July 2010)

  1. The Anglicised Sanskrit spelling of Sangharakshita's name is firmly established (though he got it in Pāli). A more accurate spelling would be Saṅgharakṣita i.e सङ्घरक्षित, though Saṃgharakṣita would also be acceptable. The name means 'protected by the saṅgha' (rakṣita being a past-participle from √rakṣ 'to protect').
  2. We do not go for refuge to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha and I would argue that to do so is a mistake. It's clear in Pāli texts that the Saṅgha Refuge is the Ariya-saṅgha, i.e. those people who have already attained the fruits of stream entry whether or not they are ordained - the focus is on practice rather than lifestyle!
  3. kesa (Japanese) 'a robe'. Our kesa is modelled on those worn in Zen schools and is a strip of cloth worn over the neck. The word comes (via Chinese chia-sha) from kaṣāya 'red/orange/yellow' which referred to the robes Buddhist bhikṣus wore - the colour came not from expensive saffron, but from dirt, and was to make the white cloth not worth stealing! The Sanskrit word for robe is cīvara. Order members wear a white kesa, unless they have taken the brahmacarya precept when they wear a gold kesa.
  4. There is a tendency for English speakers to pronounce 'tri' as 'chri'. The 't' is a true dental, pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the tip of the teeth; the 'r' is tapped (the motion is very like pronouncing 'l' but the tongue makes contact after the vocalisation has started). Opinions vary on the quality of the vowel. my suggestion is to pronounce it like 'tree' (but again not chree) - but not as long. The next syllable 'ra' is stressed so don't emphasise the 'tri'.
  5. I've written at some length about the word 'order' and why the Triratna Buddhist Order is an order, and the ceremony by which we join it is an ordination. See my essay - Ordination : A Contested Term.
  6. Dharmacārin is the stem form, though in the Order we still regularly use the nominative singular- Dharmacārī and Dharmacāriṇī. The stem is in fact masculine or neuter in gender rather than genderless as I have previously suggested.

Other Resources

namapada : a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist OrderNāmapada. A guide to Sanskrit and Pali names used in the Triratna Buddhist Order. Definitions and etymologies for almost 500 words and affixes. Background on the Sanskrit and Pali languages and relevant points of grammar and morphology.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

main image: the
Triratna emblem from a Triratnadharmacārin's kesa.

08 January 2010

Mystical Grammar - oṃ & auṃ

oṃ in the Siddhaṃ script
oṃ in the
Siddhaṃ script
For the ancient Indians grammar was one of the major paradigms for understanding how the universe functioned. One product of this is in the understanding of the seed syllable (bījākṣara) oṃ in the Vedic and then the Hindu traditions.[1] The earliest references to oṃ are in the Yajur Veda. This Veda was composed sometime after 1000 BC but before the Buddha. In some rituals the hotṛ Brahmin shouts oṃ at the end of the invocation to the god being sacrificed to (anuvākya) as an invitation to partake of the sacrifice.

The analysis of oṃ as being made up of three parts (a + u + ṃ) originates in the Sanskrit grammarian tradition but is given ritual or religious significance in the post-Buddhist early Upaniṣads, especially the Māṇḍūkya and Praśna Upaniṣads. Let's look at how this works.

Vowels may be monophthong or diphthong - made up on a single sound (short or long), or made up of two sounds (short or long). Linguists might describe a diphthong as beginning on one vowel sound and ending on another. The vowels of Sanskrit can divided up like this:

monophthongsa i u ṛ ḷ
अ इ उ ऋ ऌ
ā ī ū ṝ
आ ई ऊ ॠ
diphthongse o
ए ओ
ai au
ऐ औ

Note that the anusvāra (ṃ) and visarga (ḥ) are often counted as vowels, but practically they are modifications of existing vowels: nasalisation and aspiration respectively. They can be applied to any of the vowels. The long vowel ḹ (ॡ) is a theoretical possibility but in practice is never used.

The vowel o is a diphthong which is made up of two sounds: a + u. However note that the vowel au is a long diphthong which is analysed as ā + u. The two vowels o and au sound quite different: o sounds like o in hope; au sounds like ou in sound. Similarly e can be thought of as a + i: and ai as ā + i. Technically (and metrically) e and o are long vowels. In Sanskrit the Proto-Indo-European short vowels e and o converged with a (which helps to explain why a is far more common than other vowels). Since there is no short e or short o in Sanskrit there is no need to write the long vowels as ē and ō, though this would be more consistent.

It is necessary to understand these distinctions in order to understand some sandhi phenomena, because in some cases o actually behaves as a+u. The conjugations of the verbal root √bhū 'to be' offer a good example. This is a class 1 verb and forms a stem in -a with guṇā (strengthening) of the root vowel: so bhū (with guṇā) > bho; and when we add the stem vowel -a we get the stem form bhava; and the 3rd person singular is bhavati. What happens here is that the o in bho is treated as a + u, and the addition of -a invokes sandhi rules governing when two vowels meet - in this case u + a > va: ie bha+u+a > bhava. (This kind of thing is what makes learning Sanskrit difficult).

auṃ written in the Siddhaṃ script

in the
Siddhaṃ script
From a purely technical point of view we can see that the analysis of o as a + u does not justify writing oṃ as auṃ using the long diphthong. Note that the syllable auṃ written in Siddhaṃ (left) looks like the modern Hindu ॐ which is frequently transliterated as auṃ, and suggests that some confusion about this crept into Hindu discourse. Buddhist texts did not adopt the practice of writing oṃ as auṃ as far as I have been able to discover.

Another purely technical point is that the notation oṃ indicates a nasalised o vowel. This should rhyme with the French 'bon', not with the English 'bomb'. In fact this distinction seems to have been lost for some time, and oṃ (ओं) is regularly pronounced as om (ओम् ) even in India (i.e. with the bilabial rather than the pure nasal). Note also that au is the vowel sound in the English word 'sound'. So auṃ should not sound like oṃ and vice verse.

These jejune distinctions were important to the Indian grammarians because it was thought that the Vedas were divinely inspired, eternally unchanging and true, texts. They were transmitted orally, and after some centuries the vernacular Sanskrit language was significantly different from Vedic [2] which lead to scholars making a thorough investigation of the language - both canonical and vernacular at around the time of the Buddha. It was important to get the pronunciation right if the meaning was to be preserved. Changing the pronunciation was unthinkable.

By the time the early Upaniṣads were being composed (beginning ca 800 BCE) there was quite a lot of interest in the relationship between words and reality. The existence of eternal, true words gave this a particular flavour. Also note that the word for 'true' and 'real' was the same: sat. It was the authors of the Upaniṣads, especially the Chāndogya (CU), who began to make the connections between syllables and aspects of the cosmos, though this seems to have been a natural development of the idea of correspondences (bandhu) between the macrocosm and the microcosm which was also a preoccupation in the Vedas. Oṃ in CU text is seen as a single syllable and equated with the udgītha, that is with the chanting of the sāman or hymns of the Sāma Veda. In other texts oṃ is associated with brahman. Then later, in the last century BCE, the technical breakdown of o into a+u was given esoteric significance. A key passage from the Māṇḍūkya reads:
so 'yamātmādhyakṣaramoṅkāraḥ | adhimātra pādā mātrā mātrāś ca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti || ManU 1.8

On the subject of syllables, this syllable 'oṃ' is the ātman; on the subject of metre, the feet are the metre, and the feet are the syllables a, u, and ma. (my translation)
Here oṃ, the ātman, is likened to 'śloka' the poetic metre (mātra [3]) consisting of four lines or 'feet' (pādā) of eight syllables, with each of the lines likened to a constituent phoneme. The Māṇḍūkya then spells out the esoteric correspondences of the constituent phonemes. The fourth foot (pādā) is said to be without a phoneme (amātra) and ineffable (avyavahāraya).

I'm not aware of any canonical Buddhist text which restates the Vedic breakdown of oṃ into a+u+ṃ, though Kūkai does break hūṃ into ha+a+ū+m suggesting that the technique was not unknown to him. [4] For Buddhists the esoteric significance is typically based on the Arapacana acrostic which was originally a mnemonic for remembering aspects of an extended reflection on śūnyatā, for example: akāra (the syllable a) is the first syllable; which reminds us of the key word anutpanna (non-arising); and the full reflection subject is akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt (the syllable 'a' is an opening because of the primal quality of non-arising of all mental phenomena). Various versions of the Arapacana exist, the earliest date from around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

This method of analysing mantras is far more significant in understanding the function of a mantra than the words in the mantra. For instance Kūkai always seems to have broken down words (even sūtra titles) into syllables in order to understand their esoteric significant. In Tibetan Buddhism the fact that the Avalokiteśvara mantra has six syllables which enables it to match up with the six realms of conditioned existence is probably more important than the understanding of the word maṇipadme (which has been central to Western exegesis of the mantra).



  1. This distinction is a bit vague. I call the religion Vedic which is primarily based directly on the three Vedas (Ṛg, Sāma, Yajur) excluding the Atharva (which is a distinct tradition I think) and which is focussed on the sacrifice: it's main gods were Indra, Agni, and Soma - though several dozen deities were propitiated. Hinduism is a complex of various religious ideas and practices where the Vedas have faded into the background and practice is focussed on devotion (bhakti) or with Tantric rites (śakti): prominent Gods are Śiva, Viṣṇu, Brahmā and the mother goddess in many forms especially Lakṣmi and Kāli. This is of course a massive over-simplification. What seems important is to mark that there have been tectonic shifts in India religions over the millennia.
  2. Vedic is the most common name for the language of the Vedas. It has a number of differences from Classical Sanskrit which was codified by Pānini in the 5th or 4th century BCE.
  3. Note the phonetic similarity with the English word - both come from the same Indo-European root meaning 'to measure'.
  4. see Ungi gi in Hakeda Major Works p.246ff

Further Reading

01 January 2010

All Dhammas

My text today is the Mūlaka or Roots Discourse, a short sutta from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. [1] In it the Buddha advises his bhikkhus what to say if asked by other wanderers (paribbājakā): what is the root (mūla) of all things? How do they arise (sambhava)? What is their origin (samudaya)? Where do they meet (samosaraṇo)? What is the foremost (pamukha)? Who should rule them (pateyya)? Who is higher (uttara)? [2] What is their essence (sāra) ? Where do they merge (ogadha)? And where do they conclude (pariyosāna)?

These kind of questions are quite common in the Buddhist texts. Once you see the answers you can see that they are cliché questions which elicit stock answers in formulaic terms. This kind of question actually has quite a long history in Indian religion. During the development of the Ṛgveda (which was composed ca 1500-1200 BCE probably on the basis of an existing oral tradition) the visionary poets (ṛṣi) would ask each other enigmatic questions. A good ṛṣi would be able to come back with an clever answer and might be selected to carry out the all important sacrifice. [3] These kinds of questions were called 'brahman' (grammatically neuter) . The same word came to mean the absolute enigma of existence: the Brahman which manifested as ātman in the microcosm of the human being. The personification of brahman was the creator God Brahmā (masculine). The name of the ritualist inheritors of the Vedic texts came to be 'brāhmaṇa', often Anglicised as Brahmin(s). Brahma also took on the mean of 'sacred' and was used in Buddhist terms like brahmavihāra, brahmacarya, and brahmaloka. The controversial bhikkhu who ordained four women recently is called Brahmavaṃso with no apparent irony - vaṃsa is 'race, clan, family, tradition, lineage' so the name means something like 'the race of the sacred' or having a 'sacred lineage'.

Such questioning became a feature of Indian religious life - holy men would challenge each other to answer enigmatic questions about the mysterious nature of existence, and sometimes wagered that they, and their followers, would all convert to the the religion of the one with the best answer. Obviously in the Mūlaka Sutta the procedure has become completely formulaic, but it echoes the ancient tradition. The questions asked here are quite reminiscent of similar questions in in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, for instance, and it is thought by many scholars that the Buddha knew this strand of Brahminical teaching, if not the actual text that has come down to us.

So, onto the Buddha's answers:
chandamūlakā, āvuso, sabbe dhammā, manasikārasambhavā sabbe dhammā, phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā, vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā, samādhippamukhā sabbe dhammā, satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā, paññuttarā sabbe dhammā, vimuttisārā sabbe dhammā, amatogadhā sabbe dhammā, nibbānapariyosānā sabbe dhammā’ti

Desire is the root of all experiences, they arise from attention, their origin is contact, they meet in sensation; concentration is the foremost of experiences, all experiences are mastered by being mindful, wisdom is higher than all experiences, their essence is liberation, all experiences merge in the deathless, and conclude with nibbāna.
We need to pause here to consider what is meant by dhammā - the plural of dhamma. As I recently discussed there are many possible meanings. [4] However finding the word in the plural and in this context narrows it down considerably. It has to mean 'things' or 'mental objects'. Bhikkhu Bodhi opts for 'things'. This is natural since it follows tradition, but I wonder if it really makes sense? Is every 'thing' rooted in our desire - is a mountain, is that ball point pen? Well, no. So 'things' is more likely to refer to the subjective end of existence - hence I've translated it as 'experiences', though dhammas are the units of experience (I'm still searching for a good term for this - qualia?). Regular readers will be familiar with this quirk of mine, but I think it is worth insisting on because the Buddhadhamma makes more sense generally speaking if we adopt this point of view.

I want to look at this text in terms of the 'truths of the nobles' (ariyasacca) [5]: dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga.

The Buddha repeatedly stated what his teaching was about: it was not about God, or Heaven, or about any kind of absolute; it was not about how the universe began or will end. In fact he dismissed all of these subjects out of hand. The Buddha said that his teaching was about dukkha, it's cause, it's end, and how to end it. By dukkha the Buddha means all unenlightened experiences - ranging from physical pain, to the various disappointments of life, to existential dissatisfaction with the world of the senses. As I said in my commentary on Dhammapada verses 1 & 2: "Dukkha, then, is the opposite of nibbāna". In today's text the Buddha suggests that desire is at the root of all of this. Desire directs our attention which leads to contact with objects of the senses, which in turn give rise to sensations (vedanā). The text leaves unspoken the fact that it is sensations we crave, that we think of as able to last, able to satisfy desire. This is demonstrably not the case, but the idea is rooted very deeply. (I've speculated that in fact it gave an evolutionary advantage earlier in the history of the species - see Why Do We Suffer?). So these are the first two truths of the nobles: dukkha, samudaya - pain/disappointment/disatisfaction, and it's cause.

The Mūlaka Sutta deals with the third and fourth truths in the opposite order, ie with the way to end dukkha first, and then the cessation of it. Sticking to the usual order, how does this text deal with the cessation of dukkha? Firstly it says that wisdom (paññā) is higher (uttara) than other dhammas; that the essence of dhammas is liberation, they merge in the deathless and conclude with nibbāna. Paññā (Sanskrit prajñā) here is a dhamma - an object of the manas or mind. Contra to more mystical approaches to describing the enlightenment experience this is saying that there is an important cognitive aspect. Paññā is knowledge about the nature of dhammas, it is the meta-knowledge of the nature of all dhammas as anicca, dukkha and anatta - impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial. Indeed the statement that the essence (sāra) of dhammas is liberation may well prefigure the Mahāyāna idea that all dharmas are marked by śūnyatā (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā lakṣanā - The Heart Sūtra). The conclusion of dhammas comes with the extinction (nibbāna) of desire. At first sight this could be considered nihilistic - it seems to be saying that all dhammas, all experiences simply cease - and we need to say something about this. However I think what is meant here is that dhammas all have this characteristic of anicca and that if we noticed this in any dhamma, we can see it in all dhammas and this leads us inexorably towards nibbāna - paraphrasing somewhat I might phrase it that the conclusion we come to is the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion. This extinction is the end-point of suffering and disappointment because we know the true nature of experience and cannot be disappointed by it.

The way to liberation is condensed into two statements in this text: concentration (samādhi) is the foremost of experiences, all experiences are mastered by being mindful (sati). We could go further and sum this up as meditation is the way to liberation. I'm aware that some people dispute this, but as a scholar it seems clear enough to me that the Buddha's completely consistent message is that meditation is indispensable. My experience suggests that concentration is invaluable as a prelude to insight reflections - else the requisite focus, clarity, continuity of purpose and positivity are simply not enough to go deeper. Here, all dhammas are mastered by sati 'recollection'. Sati can be taken as mindfulness (awareness) generally or as one of the ten recollection (sati or anusati) meditations. I think what's intended here is the twofold distinction between samatha and vipassana. Samādhi being synonymous with the former, and sati with the latter - I'm thinking especially of the Satipaṭṭhāna style meditations.

No doubt other ways of interpreting this text are possible. I'm always intrigued, however, by the way that one formulation can be used to understand another. I think the possibility is open because all of the various formulations represent various approaches to Buddhist practice which stem from a common principle. The underlying similarity has been much clearer since taking on board Sue Hamilton's observation that the Buddha was always talking about experience. Scholars call a way of interpreting texts a hermeneutic - from the Greek hermeneuein 'to interpret'. The God Hermes was a messenger and god of speech and writing. Our hermeneutic can condition what we understand a text to be saying. The experiential hermeneutic is a key that unlocks many doors.

  1. Mūlaka Sutta AN x.58; PTS A v.106. My translations. Also translated by Bikkhu Bodhi Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (anthology) p.250-1. Pāli text from http://www.tipitaka.org/romn/
  2. uttara is the comparative degree of ud- (English 'up', or 'upwards') i.e. 'higher'; while uttama is the superlative 'highest'. Bodhi translates this as a superlative.
  3. There are some superficial similarities here with the monastic debates held in Geluk monasteries.
  4. See my trilogy on the word dharma/dhamma:
  5. Following K.R. Norman I take ariyasacca to be a tatpuruṣa compound meaning 'truth of the noble(s).'

image: Buddha head in banyan tree roots, Thailand. [original]
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