12 July 2013

How is Liberation Possible?

Snake in Water
How is liberation possible? This is a frequently asked question and one that has evidently puzzled Buddhists down the ages since there are many different answers to it. How can we who are deluded, greedy and hateful free ourselves from delusion, craving and aversion? Some - for example Shinran - have concluded that there is nothing we can do, we just have to rely on the Buddha to save us, which Amitābha (the Buddha of a parallel universe) promises to do in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras.

Early Buddhism had its own answers to this question, but not all of them seem to have been passed on, or preserved in the Mahāyāna. In the Pāli texts there are two kinds of paṭicca-samuppāda: one which is described in the Pāli commentarial tradition as lokiya (this is the familiar 12 nidāna sequence) and one which is described as lokuttara (which I sometimes call the upanisā sequence). The result of the nidāna sequence is cycling through saṃsāra - i.e. through life after life. The result of the upanisā sequence however is liberation from saṃsāra.

I have already blogged about one of the upanisā sequence texts from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (see Progress is Natural), and published a much broader survey (The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.) In this post I want to look more at the relationships between the members of the sequence. In AN 10.2 this relationship is described as dhammatā 'natural'. No act of will (cetanā karaṇa) is required. So for example someone who is virtuous does not need to for an intention to have a clear conscience, it is a natural consequence of virtue because there is nothing to regret, no need for remorse. Each step occurs as a natural consequence, and one thing leads to another with liberation as the natural consequence of practice.

This conceptual way of getting across the process of how getting free of saṃsāra happens is all well and good. However some people are better able to understand things through the use of images and symbols, and indeed there is a layer of meaning that seems only to be brought out in this mode of communication. Several images for this process are preserved in the Pāli texts. The one most likely to be familiar occurs right at the end of the Upanisā Sutta and involver water falling on mountains, gradually accumulating into larger streams and rovers as it flows down to the sea. Sangharakshita has used this image in A Survey of Buddhism (p.137) for instance. [1] So hopefully it will already be familiar. Another, rather less felicitous simile occurs at AN 6.50 (PTS A iii.359) involving a tree. I have discovered a third simile, that I do not believe has been remarked upon before, in the Himavanta Sutta SN 46.1, PTS S v.63:
Once at Sāvtthī. Monks the nāgas depend on the king of snowy mountains to increase their substance, and account for their power. Increased and empowered they descend into small pools, then into large pools; then they descend into small rivers, and then into large rivers; and finally they descend into the great gathered waters of the ocean. Thus their body becomes great and full. Just like that, monks, the monk depending on virtue, supported by virtue, seriously takes up the practice of, and produces, the seven factors of awakening and attains the greatness and fullness of them.
The simile is somewhat similar to the one in the Upanisā Sutta, but here the mythic nāgas are the ones making the progress. In Pāli nāga frequently means elephant, but can also mean any large or particularly impressive animal. And it is in this sense that it is usually applied to the Buddha. However the nāgas were also local animistic deities, often associated with water, but sometimes also with trees. In many ways they personify the water and the life giving properties of it, as well as the fertility it engenders. Nāgas often take the form of serpents - the symbolic connection with serpentine rivers sees obvious. Since snakes often live in burrows under the earth, the nāga also has chthonic resonances - they are creatures of the underworld. [2]

In this simile the nāgas seem to represent the water itself - the nāgas enter (otarati -literally 'go down to, descend') each body of water in turn, and come to the collected waters of the ocean (mahāsamuddasāgara) where they achieve greatness (mahantatta) and fullness (vepullatta). The water depends on the king of snowy mountains (himavantaṃ pabbatarāja) because spring thaws fill the lakes and rivers.

The message here, as in some of the upanisā sequences in the Aṅguttara Nikāya is that virtue is the basis (nissāya) for the way of life leading to liberation. With virtue as a basis then the other steps follow naturally. I think it's important to be clear that this is not a general statement. I see the context for this simile, and the other upanisā suttas, as being a reassurance to those who are practising Buddhism assiduously. Virtue on its own is in fact not enough, but I need to make another point before I can properly address this.

Here the simile likens the water/nāgas flowing down from the snowy mountains to the ocean to the monk who practices bojjhaṅgas 'the limbs (aṅga) of awakening (bodhi)'. These are mindfulness (sati), investigation of mental states (dhammavicaya), energy (viriya), rapture (pīti), serenity (passadhi), concentration (samādhi) and equanimity (upekkhā). Pursuing and attaining these states (dhammas) leads to liberation.

Note that at SN 45.151 the path is described in terms of the aṭṭhāṅgamagga 'eightfold path'. The conclusion is that the progressive nature of the path is not limited to one doctrinal formulation but is a general feature of Buddhist methods. That said, however, it is clear that the bojjhaṅgas and the upanisās share several terms, specifically:
bojjhaṅga... pīti - passadhi - samādhi ...
upanisā...... pīti - passadhi - sukha - samādhi ...
These terms are clearly related to meditation. In fact I suggest that they imply an active engagement with meditation. The Buddhist tradition is clear that generally speaking virtue is necessary but not sufficient for liberation. It is only implied in the upanisā sequence, but the implication is clear: virtue feeds into success in practising meditation which in turn finds its fruition in liberating wisdom.

It is intriguing that this teaching appears to have been lost at some point. As far as I know the teaching is not found in any Mahāyāna text, and though there is an upanisā sequence in the Visuddhimagga it plays no prominent role there, being mentioned only once and then only in passing. As a result other doctrines had to be developed which showed how liberation is possible: ideas like Buddha seeds, Buddha nature, and interpenetration all seem to address this issue. As Carolyn Rhys Davids remarked in 1922,
"How might it not have altered the whole face of Buddhism to the West if that [upanisā] sequence has been made the illustration of the causal law!" [3]
And not just the West! How different the face of Buddhism might have been if this doctrine had gained or perhaps retained prominence. If it had been clear from the beginning that progress to liberation is a natural outcome of virtue and practice, then how many of the doctrinal innovations that now seem distinctive would have been composed? I think it is one of Sangharakshita's great contributions that he recognised this long lost doctrine and made it a central plank of his teaching, correcting perhaps 15 or 20 centuries of neglect.



  1. Sangharakshita. (1993) A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Windhorse. Sangharakshita cites Carolyn Rhys Davids translation from Book of Kindred Sayings, vol.II, p.25-6.
  2. Sutherland, Gail Hinich. (1991) The Disguises of the Demon: the Development of the Yakṣa in Hinduism and Buddhism. State University of New York Press. (esp p.38-43)
  3. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. and Woodward, F. L. (1922) The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Saṃyutta-nikāya) or Grouped Suttas. (7 vol.) Oxford : Pali Text Society [1990]. Part II, ‘The Nidāna Book’ p.viii.
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