24 May 2013


After my blog last week, a reader called Piotrek posted a comment that was very thought provoking, and as my answer grew I decided it might be better as a blog post since it touches on a number of issues.

We began discussing an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, Akālika in the Buddhist canon, in which the professor tried to show that akāliko, rather than meaning timeless means something like 'unconnected with death'. I did not find this very plausible and so Piotrek pointed me to another passage where the familiar word becomes an adjective of nijjarā instead of dhamma. In this blog I will present my assessment of Bronkhorst's article and this additional passage. 

There are some points we need to clarify for readers first. The word akālika is most familiar from the standard version a series of epithets of the Dhamma which I will call the Dhammavandana:
svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhīti.
The Dhamma of the Bhagavan is well told, evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person can see it for themselves.
The Buddhist tradition seems to be unconflicted in seeing this term as meaning 'timeless'. However some Bhikkhus have argued over what 'timeless' means. Ñāṇavīra, especially, has argued that it must mean that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a temporal sequence, but a structural one. He uses the image of a house: the foundations must be present to hold the walls up, as the walls hold up the roof. But this sequence is instantaneous (akālika) and gives rise only to mental objects. This is similar to my own view. I also use the house metaphor to show that the presence of the condition is required for the dhamma to arise. Last week I said that the use of the locative absolute syntax (with a present participle) implied this presence. However let us get back to the issue at hand. 

Bronkhorst points out that the two words sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are known to be straight forward.  However he performs a sleight of hand here. By phrasing it this way he infers that akāliko is not so straightforward. He hints that it is somehow problematic, but to my knowledge it wasn't until now. In order for the argument to proceed he must first create the impression that there is a problem in understanding akālika.

He also proposes that sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are synonyms. Firstly it's not clear why he focusses on these two and leaves out the other epithets. If the argument is proximity then we must point out that ehipassiko and opaneyyiko are similarly adjacent. The two words are not unrelated as they both come from roots meaning 'to see'. But the former means that it is 'able to to be seen', and quite frequently is applied to the visible world; while the second means 'come and see'. They are synonyms to the extent that 'visible' and 'inspect' are synonyms in English. And akālika is decidedly not from a root meaning 'to see'. It is true that Buddhist texts will sometimes string synonyms together, but this is stretching it. If we compare the epithets of the Buddha in the Buddhavandana then we see that they are very far from being synonyms.
itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavāti.
Such is the blessed Buddha, worthy, completely awakened, equipped with insight, in a happy state, with knowledge of the experiential world, unsurpassed, a tamer of men to be tamed, a teacher of gods and men, blessed.
It is only when the situation has been set up that Bronkhort can say "...the usual interpretation does not fit well". Buddhaghosa, on the contrary, hardly bothers to comment on the word, but seems in no doubt. At AA ii.256 he says "akālika means giving fruits at once." (akālikoti na kālantare phaladāyako); that is, the fruits (of a condition) arise with no time interval (kāla-antara). Also at SA i.43 and Nidd2 92 we get the short phrase "timeless simply means without time" (akāloyeva akāliko). Note that Bronkhorst carefully avoids any discussion of how the Buddhist tradition has understood this term. He goes so far as to label the Canonical commentary Cūḷaniddesa a 'late text', thus suggesting it has no relevance. Whereas generally speaking the Cūḷaniddesa is very useful for understanding obscure usage, if indeed this is an obscure usage which I dispute.

Having problematised the term to suit his purpose Bronkhorst proceeds to his ingenious reading of the Samiddhi Sutta (SN i.8-12). He tries to show that kāla must be related to the euphemistic idiom which combines kāla with a verbs deriving from √kṛ, i.e. 'to make his time', which means 'to die'. The evidence for this association in a single passage repeated in two suttas. However apart from the weaknesses already identified, lexiographers have not found a single other reference to kāla that implies kāla-kṛ. Kāla only takes on the association with death in this specific idiom when √kṛ is explicit. The word kālika is also attested in non-Buddhist Sanskrit texts in the sense of 'connected with time' (MW). 

If the author of the Dhammavandana had wanted to say "unconnected with death" he had plenty of formal and idiomatic options available to him: 'deathless' (amata) being the most blindingly obvious. What constraint was placed on the author that made him avoid the obvious in this one epithet, but not in the others? Since sensible and unproblematic translations can be made of the texts Bronkhorst submits as evidence, it looks like this was a case of a solution looking for a problem. It is not particularly plausible. And in the end how ironic would it be if one the epithets of the sandiṭṭhiko dhammo was itself asandiṭṭhiko (obscure).

Piotrek's proposition on the other hand is more interesting and more plausible even though it is not, in the final analysis, convincing. Let us work through the problem. The modified version of the Dhammavandana which includes nijjarā goes like this:
sandiṭṭhikā nijjarā akālikā ehipassikā opaneyyikā paccattaṃ veditabbā viññūhīti.
Eradication is evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person sees it for themselves.
In this version nijjarā is not described in precisely the same terms as dhamma, nijjarā does not come from the Bhagavan (bhagavatā) and lacks the quality of being well told (svākkhāto). This may reflect the difference between dhamma as verbal teaching and nijjarā as practice.

A word on what nijjarā (Skt nirjarā) means. According to the Jains, karma produces particles (dravya) which flow in (āsava) and stick to the soul (jīva), weighing it down so it stays in saṃsāra. The word nirjarā refers to the eradication (nirjarā) of these particles through austerity (tapas). Liberation (mokṣa) must be proceeded by the complete eradication (sarvanirjarā) of the particles, freeing the soul from saṃsāra

Note that because nijjarā is feminine in Pāli all the adjectives have become feminine as well (changed to the long -ā ending). Nijjarā is translated by Bodhi as "wearing away". Others translate as 'eradication, destruction, etc.'. Etymologically the word derives from nis + √jṛ 'to waste away'. Here the prefix simply seems to emphasise the nature of the action. Given the Jain reference, I settled on 'eradication'. 

This version is found in three places in the Pāli Nikāyas: AN i.220-1, AN ii.198, and most importantly at SN iv.339. In the latter passage we find a (Buddhist) description of this word. There are three kinds of nijjarā: the abandoning rāga, dosa and moha. The part of the passage that interests us is:
Rāge pahīne nevattabyābādhāya ceteti, na parabyābādhāya ceteti, na ubhayabyābādhāya ceteti.
When abandoning passion he does not intend to harm himself; does not intend to harm others; does not intend to harm both.
Note the typical way that Buddhists change doctrines when they assimilate them. Where the Jain would pursue eradication by self-torture (atta-byābādhāya) – particularly starvation and long periods of immobility – here the Buddhists have made eradication the complete opposite of what the Jains meant (to the extent we know what they meant). Just because this is a Jain term does not mean we should take the context as Jain. The context in the Pāli suttas is Buddhist. Always Buddhist. And this is why the reconstructions of early Jainism which rely so heavily on Buddhist texts are unreliable.

As in the last blog post this is a locative absolute construction: rāge pahīne 'once passion is abandoned'. The implication here is that when passion is abandoned there is the cessation of the intention to self-torture etc. The inclusion of akālika 'timeless' in the list of epithets of nijjarā suggests that there is no time lapse between abandoning passion and the cessation intention to self-torture. Which is just what we expect. There is nothing here to make us doubt that the word akālika might support Bronkhorst's  thesis.

However Piotrek's broader point was this.
"The dhamma which is described as "sandiṭṭhika akālika ehipassika" is, I think, nibbāna itself, which contrary to, for example, Jain belief is attainable in this life not only after death. So I believe that akālika has nothing to do with workings of paṭiccasamuppāda but describes nature of Buddhist goal."
It is true that later on nibbāna is described in terms which suggest timelessness. In the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-nipāta (Cūḷaniddesa 201) we find:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable.
But it would unusual, I think, to take the Dhammavandana as referring to Nibbāna. Again, the Pāli author was free to say what he meant. This passage is in the context of praises of the three precious gifts: buddho, dhammo, sangho. It would be unusual to take dhamma here as synonymous with nibbāna and exclude the sense of paṭicca-samuppāda. After all the Śālistamba Sūtra does say:
yo pratātyasamutpādaṃ paśyati so dharmaṃ paśyati
yo dharmaṃ paśyati so buddhaṃ paśyati 
He who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma
He who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha.
On the other hand the Dhamma as refuge often has a superlative connotation. Sangharakshita has referred to the refuges as representing a transcendental principle. So there is a sense in which the Dhamma as refuge does refer to the Dhamma in the sense of nibbāna. In this sense akālika is often read as meaning 'standing outside time', though the metaphysics of this proposition are complex to say the least. In this sense the principle of paṭicca-samuppāda is thought of as being like the law of gravity: it applies in all times and all places and thus is not time dependent. 

I'd like to thank Piotrek for his stimulating comments and hope my disagreement with him won't discourage him from continuing to contribute. As Mercier and Sperber have argued, reason really only works well when it is responding to a challenge. 


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