22 July 2011

What is the Dhamma, and what isn't it?

Solitary Retreat Hut at Danakoṣa

Solitary retreat hut
Danakoṣa Retreat Centre

MY TEXT TODAY is quite well known. The version usually cited is in the Vinaya, but I've opted for the Aṅguttara Nikāya version because it will be easier for people to find other translations to compare mind with. [1] If one is stuck with having to read translations, one should never be satisfied with only one, but consult several. The different Pāli versions agree perfectly with regard to the essential teachings. As I often do I'm opting for a slightly different reading to what I have seen others give.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Jñānagarbha for asking the question which sparked this post.

Saṃkhitta Sutta
(A 8.53; iv.279 = Cv 406; Vin ii.258)

One time the Bhagavan was staying at Vesāli in the gabled hall of great forest. The Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. Then standing at one side she addressed him: "it would be excellent, Sir, if you could give me a brief teaching, and I, having heard that teaching will dwell on it alone, secluded, vigilant, active and resolute.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to passion, not to dispassion; conduce to bondage, not to freedom; conduce to accumulation, not to decrease; conduce to much desire, not to few desires; conduce to discontent, not to contentment; conduce to socialising, not to solitude; conduce to idleness, not to vigour; conduce to delighting in the ugly, not to delight in the beautiful -- you should definitely remember "this is not the teaching, this is not the discipline, this is not the edict of the teacher.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to dispassion, not to passion; conduce to freedom, not to bondage; conduce to decrease, not to accumulation; conduce to few desires, not to much desire; conduce to contentment, not to discontent; conduce to solitude not to socialising, ; conduce to vigour, not to idleness; conduce to delighting in the beautiful, not to delight in the ugly -- you should definitely remember "this is the teaching, this is the discipline, this is the edict of the teacher.
In contemporary language Gotamī is going on a solitary retreat and she asks her teacher to give her a subject to reflect on. So my approach is not to take this as a doctrinal teaching, but as a methodological one, that is to treat the content of the discourse primarily as a subject for reflection rather than as a definition of the Dhamma.[2]

The teaching is given in response to a request, to a particular person at a particular time and place. One imagines it tailored to that person and their particular needs. However it has more general implications as well. Meditation subjects in early Buddhism, by which I mean subjects for reflection designed to stimulate insight rather than concentration techniques, could often be quite specific. A more general subject like this sets up a different dynamic though. It seems to me that the idea here is to undermine attempts to intellectualise and rationalise, to prevent the student becoming too literalistic. The effect is to throw Gotamī back into her own experience, and to assessing the consequences of her own actions.

Human activity is driven by various motivating factors - what we call the emotions (from Latin ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'). To break it down to it's most fundamental level we are usually seeking pleasure or avoiding displeasure. There's a rational level to this. We find pleasure in food, because if we didn't -- as in anorexia -- then we'd probably die of malnutrition. Pleasure stimulates the behaviour that keeps us alive. Similarly if my finger is in a flame, it is only rational to remove it, rather than to try to ignore the pain. But a lot of the time we're not simply responding to things in this way. Because of the view that happiness consists of pleasant sensations for instance, we tend to equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. It's not an overwhelming and over-riding urge, more of an underlying tendency, and it affects some more than others, though one can see the effect quite clearly on a societal level.

If we take this teaching seriously what we have to do is ask ourselves before we act: does this emotion conduce to passion, to bondage, etc., or not. If it does, then it's not the Dhamma, it's not helpful. If it is conducive to dispassion, to freedom, et., then that is the Dhamma, it is helpful. If we continue on a course of action motivated by these unskilful emotions then we may be harmed, and we may harm others. And this restrains us from acting harmfully. The teaching draws our attention to feedback loops between emotions, actions, and outcomes. I would think that an intense retreat situation is the only place where you could really take on this kind of practice. One needs to be leading a very slow paced, and very simple and undemanding, and probably solitary life to pursue this kind of practice successfully. It's only with substantial progress that one can bring the practice to bear in more lively situations.

I won't say much more, but I do want to look at some of the terms more closely. Passion (rāga) is the old fashioned sense of the word: as in the passion of martyrs. The PIE root is *√pēi 'to hurt; to scold', and from this same root we get the word fiend.[3] It refers here to emotions that rise up and overwhelm us, against our will. The Pāli (and Sanskrit) word rāga literally means 'red' and seems to refer to the flushed face of the person in the grip of hot emotions like anger and sexual arousal. These strong emotions tend to carry us away, and cause us to act on impulse without considering the consequences. A lot of time in Western society we seem quite pleased to be caught up in emotions like this, even though we are also frequently horrified by the consequences. The Romantic movement idolised emotions and emotionality - which may account for why we think of passion in a positive sense nowadays. Buddhism asks us to adopt a more cool approach to life, so that we don't act without reflection and cause harm.

Bondage (saṃyoga) seems fairly straight forward in this context. The next word (ācaya) is less clear however. The pair here is ācaya and apacāya: and ācaya means 'increase, accumulation', whereas PED has for apacaya 'falling off, decrease; unmaking'. If we turn to the commentary it glosses ācaya as vaṭṭassa vaḍḍhanatta, which I take to mean 'gaining and fostering of alms donations'. So Buddhaghosa, as he often does, sees this from the point of view of a settled monastic. I think more generally it may well mean the accumulation of material possessions. However PED also hints that it might mean the accumulation of kamma leading to rebirth (sv. apacaya). The latter would also fit the context quite well.

The pair mahicchata and appicchata are literally - big-wished and small-wished, where icchata is the past-participle of icchati 'to wish, to desire, to long for'. The meaning is clear enough, though rendering this into good English requires translating the meaning, not the words themselves. The next term, contentment (saṇtuṭṭhi), is also reasonably straight-forward.

Where I imagine we struggle is with the pair: saṅgaṇika and paviveka. The first term saṅganika is from saṃ- + gaṇa + -ika. And gaṇa is used for collections of people: so it can mean 'a meeting or chapter of two or three bhikkhus', or on a larger scale: 'society, a crowd'; and with non-human items 'a suite or collection'. I think these exhortations to solitude are the ones that many people find difficult. People often say that they don't want to cut themselves off from the world, they want to live and practice in the world. Of course such a lifestyle was known in ancient India as well. We tend to call it 'lay Buddhism', though I don't think the monk/lay divide is a useful one any longer (given that many monks don't really practice, and many lay people really do!). But while Buddhism can accommodate this less intense approach to practice, the recommendation is to seek out solitude (paviveka). I think this goes back to what I said earlier about a slow and simple lifestyle. There is nothing evil about living a busy and full life. It's just not conducive to insight. And while I know that saying so will get some people's back's up, I think we need to be honest about the level of intensity and direction of our practice. I have one friend who for the last 12 years has spent 3 or 4 months on solitary retreat each year. If anyone I know is likely to be insightful then I expect it to be him, rather than my other friends who've married, got careers and had kids. Realistically most of us aren't able to sustain intense practice, and we play other roles in our Buddhist communities. I for instance do not expect to become enlightened. But I actively participate in a community in which it seems reasonable that someone will, and there's every indication that people are having insight experiences. It's all about creating the conditions for awakening, and it doesn't have to be me. So the Buddha recommends solitude to better pursue our practice. One reasonable compromise to full-time solitude is to spend regular time alone, preferably on retreat. In the past my teacher has suggested one month in the year on solitary retreat as a guideline. The more progress we make, the better able we are to take the fruits of our practice into relations with other people.

The last two pairs are kosajja (idleness, sloth) & viriyāmbha (making an effort); and dubbharata (delighting in the harmful or ugly) & subharata (delighting in the beautiful or wholesome). I don't think I need say much about these.

I think anyone who has been on a meditation retreat of more than a few days duration will have some inkling of what I'm saying about the conditions which would be conducive to sustaining, and acting on the kind of reflection practice given to Gotamī. On retreat, with the simplicity of it, the intensity of practice, and the space to pause and reflect, one comes alive in a way that is simply not possible in a busy urban life. Those people who think that having more and more stimulation and excitement is living life to the full are fooling themselves. To be fully alive to one's experience requires quiet, space, stillness, and simplicity. This is a life lived to it's full potential.

There is another, perhaps more usual, way to interpret this text. I have read it as primarily a methodological text, one which is advising on a way of living. But we might also read it as doctrinal and definitional. The different readings turn on the ambiguous use of the word dhamma. So here ime dhamme could mean: "these things", "these teachings" or "these mental objects". My interpretation emerges from taking dhamma here to simply mean "thing", or "mental object", or perhaps even "mental state". If however we take it to mean '"teaching" then the emphasis shifts. In this case we might see the pairs of antonyms as definitional. In this reading anything which conduces to liberation is the Teaching. This has interesting implications as well. It points away from dogmatism, sectarianism, and conservatism, towards a more open, ecumenical, and progressive attitude to what it means to be a Buddhist. It moves us away from prescriptive definitions of the type 'you have to believe X, or do practice Y'. I believe that most commentators have seen the text this way, though my opinion is that my methodological interpretation is the more likely. Mahāpajāpati asks for, and is given, a meditation subject; she aims to dwell on it in solitude; and though it is unstated her aim appears to be liberation from dukkha, and her verses in the Therīgāthā (Th2, v.157-162) tell us that she did achieve this aim.


  1. Access to Insight refer to this as the Gotamī Sutta.
  2. Having written this, and in a slightly surreal moment while checking for other translations, I find that I myself have already commented on this text on my blog, but had no memory of doing so (and it wasn't that long ago). It is quite interesting to see that I have taken a very different approach this time. See What is Buddhism? (23 Apr 2010).
  3. PIE /p/ changes to /f/ in Germanic -- c.f. Sanskrit: pitṛ; Greek/Latin: pater; Proto-Germanic: *fader; German vater; Old English: fæder; English: father. 'Fiend' is from the Old English foend, which also devolved to foe. Compassion comes from the Latin which combines this same word in the form pati 'to suffer' with the prefix com- 'together'. Compassion is cognate with the Greek derived word sympathy 'to feel with'; while the closest Sanskrit term is anukampa 'to tremble with'.
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