28 February 2014

Diamond Sutra: Connections to the Past

One of the unresolved discussions in Buddhist Studies is the relative date of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā (Vaj). Conze placed it in the same period as the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya ca 350-500 CE calling this a "period of contraction" after the gradually expanding versions in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines. We now know that the Hṛdaya was composed quite a bit later, ca. 7th century according to Nattier. Japanese scholars have also argued for a much early date for Vaj, placing it a little before 8000 line Perfection of Wisdom text (these scholars were writing in Japanese and although their arguments are mentioned by many English language writers, I'm not aware that they have been reproduced in any detail in English). Thus it's quite likely that Conze's "period of contraction" is a mirage.

One of the interesting features of Vaj is the references to ideas and texts from early Buddhism. For example section 6 there is a reference to Alagaddūpama Sutta or a text very like it, i.e. to the simile of the raft and to dharmas and non-dharmas. The problem of what was meant by dhamma/adhamma in the Pali text was explored in The Simile of the Raft, with inconclusive results. There is no consensus on what is being referred to by dhamma/adhamma in this passage. As I pointed out, the Buddhadharma never ceases to be a refuge even for the liberated, so the suggestion that we abandon it post-liberation is not sensible. The reference is found in Vaj 6:
"If the aspirant has a perception of a fundamental object (dharma) they might grope towards really existing substance (ātma). They might grope for being (satva), for a soul (jīva) or a homunculus (pudgala)." Similarly if they have a perception of a non-object (adharma). This is a reference to the kolopamaṁ dharmaparyāyaṁ "the way of explaining the Dharma that is like a raft".
References to early texts dwindle as time goes on and thus might provide some clues to the relative age of Vaj. However some of the ideas were kept alive by being repeated in later texts so this may not be a direct reference. For example in the Schøyen Vaj manuscript (VajS), at the end of section 4 there is this sentence:
api tu khalu punaḥ subhūte evaṃ bodhisatvena dānamayaṃ puṇyakṛyāvastuṃ dānaṃ dātavyam.
Even so however, Subhūti, in this way, an aspirant should give a donation whose basis in good action (puṇyakriyāvastu) consists of generosity (dānamaya).
This sentence is not found in the other versions of the text, which are generally considered later. Here we also seem to have a backward glance. There are two interesting terms here.
  • puṇyakriyāvastu: from puṇya-kriyā ‘a good action’; puṇyakriyā-vastu ‘whose reality is a good action’, the ‘reality of a good action’. BHSD: “object or item of meritorious action” (though what does this mean?). 
  • dāna-maya 'consisting of generosity' 
Compare this with the Puññakiriyavatthu Sutta:
Tīṇimāni, bhikkhave, puññakiriyavatthūni. Katamāni tīṇi? Dānamayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu sīlamayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu, bhāvanāmayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu.(AN iv.241 ; Cf. DN iii.218; M ii.204). 
"Bhikkhus, there are these three bases of meritorious activity. What three? The basis of meritorious action consisting in giving… virtuous behaviour… meditative development." (Bodhi's translation; p.1170)
There appears to be no Chinese equivalent of this text (none is listed by the Sutta Correspondance project). Here Bodhi interprets vatthu (Skt vastu) as "basis". This seems more likely.

The point of this passage seems to be that those who practice actions based on dānamaya and sīlamaya but not bhāvanāmaya can expect a rebirth in one of the deva realms, but it is implied that they do not attain liberation. At DN iii.94 the Buddha remarks that, “‘They don’t meditate now’ is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’”. (Na dānime jhāyantīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘ajjhāyakā ajjhāyakā’ tveva tatiyaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ). The author is forming a pun by reading ajhāyakā (= ime na jhāyanti 'they don't meditate') ‘non-meditators’ for ajjhāyakā ‘Brahmin students’. 

MN 99, closely related to the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) in form and content, suggests that this was originally a critique of Brahmins. 
Yeme, bho gotama, brāhmaṇā pañca dhamme paññapenti puññassa kiriyāya kusalassa ārādhanāya, cāgamettha brāhmaṇā dhammaṃ mahapphalataraṃ paññapenti puññassa kiriyāya kusalassa ārādhanāyā’ti (Mn ii.204). 
“Gotama, of these five things declared by Brahmins for the making of merit (puññassa kiriyāya), for accomplishing what is good, they declare the greatest fruit derives from generosity (cāga).”
The critique is that no Brahmin can say from personal experience that the five things lead to merit. This may indicate that puṇya was being used in an anachronistic way to indicate good ritual actions -- i.e. making the appropriate sacrifices, at the appropriate time, as prescribed by Brahmanical ritual manuals -- rather than morally good actions. Thus dānamaya may originally have been a Brahmin concept that was criticised, then adopted and naturalised to Buddhism.

Now, we might make a case here for this being a reference to an early text. However this subject is expounded on at some length in the sixth chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa). Here the three types of good action practised by everyone (sarvasattvā) are contrasted with a single type of good action characteristic of the aspirant: anumodanāpariṇāmanā-sahagataṃ puṇyakriyāvastu "good actions associated with bringing sympathetic joy to fruition". The term puṇyakriyāvastu is used about 40 times in this section. According to Conze the Vaj is a derivative of Aṣṭa and thus might be drawing on it for this teaching. But if the Japanese scholars are correct and Vaj in fact predates Aṣṭa, this inclusion might tell a different story. Indeed the treatment in Aṣṭa looks to be much more fully developed and to be incorporated fully into a Mahāyāna framework by the comparison with the puṇyakriyāvastu of the bodhisattva. By comparison in Vaj the reference refers to dānamaya as the best puṇyakriyāvastu for a bodhisattva which seems to present the idea in terms more similar to the Pāli texts than the Aṣṭa. 

Taken in isolation this use of puṇyakriyāvastu seems to place VajS closer to the Pāli texts than to Aṣṭa. Which is not to say that we must now interpret one text as deriving from another. We need to keep in mind that the idea of puṇyakriyāvastu only occurs in this manuscript and not in the others. The presence of an extra line in this ms. which is not found in the later mss. just goes to show that there is no simple progression here, and Paul Harrison's comment about the lines not converging is right. 

The situation is likely to be this: in a pre-sectarian Buddhist environment there was a loose tradition of preserving texts orally. It's quite possible that groups anthologised a few texts. Out of this relatively amorphous body of literature crystallised a number of written texts and collections. A project of standardisation occurred at some point, probably associated with King Asoka, which in all likelihood weeded out a great deal of material. Information was able to be transmitted at many different levels: individual phrases and passages; ideas; partial and whole texts. So even relative chronologies of texts might not be trustworthy - again, the Buddhist tradition is a braid not a tree.

However we can see the idea developing here. It starts out as a criticism of Brahmins who don't meditate. However as the Brahmanical practice of accumulating merit (for a good rebirth) is more fully assimilated and naturalised (so that it comes from ethical and not ritual action) then it finds a place in lists of Buddhist teachings. In VajS a fairly straightforward reference to this mature version of the teaching is made. In Aṣṭa another step has occurred taking the teaching into a Mahāyāna milieu. Though of course we are talking here about an edition of Aṣṭa which does not list variants and not of the whole of the extant Aṣṭa tradition. To really understand the situation we'd need to use a critical edition or revisit the extant manuscripts. On the face of it this passage argues for a older rather than younger Vaj, though as Nattier points out it seems to have been written in quite a different milieu to Aṣṭa and its descendants. 


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