18 May 2012

The World

IT'S BECOME ONE of the staples of my writing that what the Buddha means by loka 'world' in the Pāli Canon is not simply 'the world' as we usually understand it. The word loka is undoubtedly used a number of different ways, very similar to how we use it in English, but it also has a technical meaning that is bought out in three suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya.

In the Lokantagamana 'Going to the End of the World' Sutta   (S 35.116), the Buddha is cited as saying: "I don’t say, bhikkhus, that the end of the world  might be known, seen or attained  by [physically] going.  However I also say that one can’t make an end of disappointment without having attained the end of the world."

Since this is unclear to the bhikkhus who hear it, they ask Ānanda for an explanation. After the stereotypical reluctance he says that he understands it to mean:
"That by which one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world; in this ideal discipline this is called 'the world'. By what one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world? By the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body; by the mind one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world."
 The Buddha endorses this statement saying that Ānanda is very wise.

As Buddhaghosa says in his commentary loka here refers to saṅkhāraloka ‘the world of constructs’ (SA 2.388) that is to say the world of experience arising out of sense object and sense faculty in the light of sense cognition.

Ānanda's statement is a little cryptic from our point of view. In Pāli he refers to "lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī". Here lokasmiṃ ‘in the world’; saññin ‘having perception, a perceiver, perceiving; mānin ‘having a mind, having a though, thinking’; both in the nominative singular; note that this sense of mānin is not recorded in PED, but the word comes from √man 'to think' which gives us the verb maññati 'thinking', and the noun manas 'mind'. Both lokasaññin and lokamānin seem to be tatpuruṣa compounds: ‘perceiving the world, perception of the world’. The resulting English is awkward, but other translators have not been able to find a more felicitous reading. In any case taken as a whole Ānanda's explanation is understandable. He is emphasising that the Buddha is not talking about the world in the ordinary sense, not being paradoxical. The world of experience is not one that ends by physically travelling (gamanena); and here we add that in Iron Age India it was thought one could get to the end of the physical world by physically travelling.

The Rohitassa Sutta (S 2.26) also mentions going to the end of the world, though here as place without cyclic rebirth:
“However I say, friend, there is no making an end of disappointment, without reaching the end of the world. And, friend, it is right here in this arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world”.
 Again this reinforces the idea that 'the world' is one which we create. It comes into being right here in our body and mind - in our arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition. Mrs Rhys Davids translated byāmamatte kaḷevara as ‘this fathom long carcass’ which is certainly a striking rendition, but byāma refers to 'an arm-span' which is typically somewhat less than a fathom, and carcass though allowed by the dictionary is usually a word for a dead animal body. No doubt Mrs Rhys Davids was trying to make a point here, I'm trying to understand the text, not Mrs Rhys Davids.

The last text which I'd like to draw attention to in this context is the Loka Sutta (S 12.44). This text tells us that ‘the world’ arises as a consequence of the nidāna chain, making it synonymous with dukkha! This relates to a point made by Sue Hamilton about the khandhas. These three terms dukkha, loka, and khandha are part of a set of interlocking metaphors for unawakened experience. It's not that unawakened experience makes us suffer, it is that awakened experience is dukkha. This is partly why I choose to translate dukkha as disappointment. Because clearly some experiences are pleasurable. It's not the everything is painful per se, but that nothing lives up to our expectations. Even the pleasurable is ultimately disappointing because it is ephemeral. Biology has programmed us to create experience worlds, in which we seek our pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. This works well for us in our natural environment, but no one reading this has lived in their natural environment for about 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture and high density living. Our internal worlds are out of sync with the world as it is.

One last little observation about this text is that Buddhaghosa makes a comment: "Thus he should see: 'I do not, friend, declare these four truths in grass and wood, but I declare them only in this body of the four great elements.'" This is presented as a quote from the Buddha, although it does not seem to occur in the canonical texts that have come down to us. Buddhaghosa appears to be saying here that paṭicca-sammupāda applies only to one’s world of experience, rather than to external objects.

One of the difficulties this reading of loka presents is reconciling it with the reading of the Pāli texts which say that the nidānas describe an actual rebirth process and that rebirth is essential to Buddhism. There's such strong textual support for these two approaches, one which understands that the Buddha was only talking about our experiential world, and one which understands that the Buddha was talking about the world in a more Realist sense. Citing suttas is certainly not going to resolve such a dilemma. But it does show that my views are not heterodox with respect to the Canon: my view is firmly based in sutta readings that try to make clear that the context of all the teachings was the world of experience rather than the 'real' world (in which one might be physically reborn). Equally, as Thanissaro has showed there is ample textual support for taking rebirth as physically being reborn with some kind of continuity between lives, despite all of the philosophical problems this continuity causes, and the many different ways that Buddhists have tried and failed to resolve them over twenty five centuries.

Untangling the two contradictory views is impossible because from our point of view they have equal antiquity. There is no empirical way of giving one priority over the other. But only one of these views is compatible with a modern view informed by two or thee centuries of science, philosophy, and especially history since the European Enlightenment. So for me there is no dilemma and no difficulty in deciding which of these views I accept and which I do not. My criteria for making such a decision were in place by the time I left primary school. The other view is interesting from the point of view of the history of ideas and anthropology, but it's not something I could base my life on.

That other people have different criteria is not necessarily problematic; but looking at the world around me I do see a problem if the mainstream of Buddhism is seen as upholding beliefs such as rebirth. The problem being that the people who are willing to have blind faith in religious dogmas in the modern world is shrinking, and the hostility toward organised religion is increasing. Our disappointment with organised Christianity generally turns to anger when we see religious fundamentalists trying to impose their views: especially in the area of evolution in schools, or the imposition of forms of law which undermine such important principles as non-discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, and which impose barbaric punishments. Our liberty, equality and fraternity were hard won, and we would be fools to give them up.


23 June 2015. I sometimes get some funny looks when I talk about this view of the world. It's not familiar despite being fairly obvious in the Pāḷi texts, because it's not central to the teachings of any modern teachers. But I recently found a passage in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā which confirms this view (as well as confirming some of my suspicions about the Aṣṭa itself) (Vaidya 126)
atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etada vocat - yad bhagavān evam āha - prajñāpāramitā tathāgatānām arhatāṃ samyaksaṃbuddhānām asya lokasya saṃdarśayitrīti, kathaṃ bhagavan prajñāpāramitā tathāgatānām arhatāṃ samyaksaṃbuddhānāmasya lokasya saṃdarśayitrī? katamaś ca bhagavan lokas tathāgatair arhadbhiḥ samyaksaṃbuddhair ākhyātaḥ? 
Then indeed Elder Subhūti said to the Bhagavan, "Bhagavan has said that, 'prajñāpāramitā is the teaching of the world of the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas. What, Bhagavan, is prajñāpāramitā, the teaching of the world by the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas? And what, Bhagavan, is the world declared by the the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas.
evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtim etada vocat - pañca subhūte skandhāḥ tathāgatena loka ity ākhyātāḥ / katame pañca? yaduta rūpaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā vijñānam / ime subhūte pañca skandhā stathāgatena loka ity ākhyātāḥ //
That said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Subhūti, "Subhūti, it has been declared that 'the five skandhas are the world according to the tathāgatas'. Which five? Form, sensation, apperception, volition, and cognitions."
subhūtir āha - kathaṃ bhagavaṃs tathāgatānāṃ prajñāpāramitayā pañca skandhā darśitāḥ? kiṃ vā bhagavan prajñāpāramitayā darśitam? 
Subhūti said, "How does the Bhagavan teach the five skandhas with respect to the prajñāpāramitā of the tathāgatas?"
evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtim etad avocat - na lujyante na pralujyante iti subhūte pañca skandhā loka iti tathāgatānāṃ prajñāpāramitayā darśitāḥ / 
When this was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Subhūti, "they are not destroyed, they don't break down. Subhūti, 'the five skandhas are the world' is taught with respect to prajñāpāramitā of the tathāgatas.
*lujyante is a Prakrit form of the passive of Sanskrit √ruj. The l for r swap is also seen in many of Asoka's inscriptions e.g. lāja for rāja. Pāḷi has rujati but lujjati. 
tat kasya hetoḥ na lujyante na pralujyante iti darśitāḥ? śūnyatāsvabhāvā hi subhūte pañca skandhāḥ, asvabhāvatvāt / na ca subhūte śūnyatā lujyate vā pralujyate vā / 
What is the reason for this teaching of 'they are not destroyed, they don't break down.' Because of the state of lacking self-existence (asvabhāva-tva), Subhūti, the five skandhas have a self-existence which is emptiness. And, Subhūti, emptiness is not destroyed or broken down. 
Cf. Conze's translation p.173 which consistently mistakes the grammar of tathāgata so that the tathāgatas are bring instructed, which they are not! 
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