06 June 2014

Spiritual I: The Life's Breath

I've been arguing against using the word spiritual in relation to Buddhism for a while now. My contention is that the word has all the wrong connotations for Buddhism, we don't believe that humans have spirits, do we? One of the frequent counter-arguments is that spiritual simply doesn't mean what I say it does. In what I consider one of the most important essays I've written (Metaphors and Materialism) I identify the word spiritual with a tradition of ontological dualism and now I would link it another in the form of Vitalism. So is this fair?

Ancient Indian Buddhists had a practice of adding prestigious adjectives to names. It's still goes on today. VIPs, especially religious VIPs affix śrī to their names, sometimes more than once, e.g. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sri Sri Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji.

In early Buddhist texts one common prestige word, curiously, was brahman: brahmavihāra, brahmacarin, etc. It's curious because it's a word which can only have come from the Vedic context and derives it's meaning from Brahmanism. It refers to the cosmic essence with which the theologically minded Brahmin hopes to merge at death (a new idea introduced by the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad). Alongside brahman was ārya 'noble'. Before long Buddhist started to prefer ārya. Avalokiteśavara becomes Āryāvalokiteśvara; Tāra becomes Āryatāra. The Prajñāpāmitāhṛdaya becomes then Āryaprajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. And so on. And we know that mature tantra substituted vajra: vajraguru, Vajrasattva, vajra-everything. Nowadays the adjective is spiritual: spiritual tradition, spiritual community, spiritual practices, spiritual teachers, spiritual experiences, and spiritual awakenings.

The key adjective in all cases is used to mark out a conceptual space. It is not merely linguistic, does not merely rely on denotation, but also defines social and political roles and relationships. A spiritual teacher is a very particular type of teacher for example, with a very particular relationship to a student and a particular kind of role in an organisation.

In this and two subsequent essays I will try to excavate around this word spiritual to see how it became the religious prestige word of the moment. My argument is that just as the Dalai Lama has adopted the ecclesiastical title of a Pope, i.e. His Holiness, the word spiritual is one we Buddhists have adopted from Christianity and because of this it comes with all the connotations and entailments of the Christian world view. However the word spiritual had already begun to be used independently of the church when Buddhism started to become popular, particularly in spiritualist circles: the space defined by spiritual was already contested allowing us to stake a claim in it.

Part I, this essay, will begin with the etymology of the word, showing how the word draws on various words for 'breath' as a metonym for 'life' and is intimately tied up with Judeo-Christian ideas on the animation of inanimate matter (which I've already shown to be an anachronistic view). I'll show that 'life's breath' is very common way of understanding life in the pre-modern world, but is ultimately based on misunderstandings about how the world works and in particular how the human body works.

Part II will look at the word in terms of frames as described by George Lakoff and try to analyse the web of images and ideas invoked by the word. Part II will critique the applicability of these frames to the Buddhist project.

Having looked at how the word is used Part III will shift the focus onto who uses the word. Influenced by Michel Foucault Part III will look at the power relations implicit in the domain marked out by spiritual, or what we might call the politics of spirituality.


Our usage of the word "spiritual" is tied up with translations of the Christian Bible, especially Genesis and the story of the creation of Man:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7, King James Bible (Bible Hub)
Here, breathed and breath of life are distant translations of Hebrew words: way·yip·paḥ and niš·maṯ ḥay·yîm respectively. (Note that "God" here as elsewhere is ’ĕlōhîm which is the plural of El 'God'). (Bible Hub) In Biblical Greek "breath of life" was translated pnoín zoís from pneuma 'breath' and zōēs 'life'. Biblical Latin at first translated the pneuma part with words derived from anima, which also derived from a root meaning 'to blow, to breath' and is also equivalent to Greek psykhē (meaning something like animating essence) which itself comes from a from PIE root *bhes- 'to blow, to breathe'In Augustan times translators settled on the Latin spiraculum vitae from spīritus 'to breathe' and vita 'life' (from vivare 'to live' and cognate with Sanskrit jīva). After being animated Adam is described as animam viventem 'a living soul'.

The word spīritus has a range of meanings:
'a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,' hence 'inspiration; breath of life,' hence 'life'; also 'disposition, character; high spirit, vigor, courage; pride, arrogance.'
Of course we also find spīritus sanctus 'the Holy Spirit' playing an important role in Christianity. Spīritus derives from a Latin verb spirare 'breathe'. It can be further related back to a Proto-Indo-European verbal root: *(s)peis- "to blow, to fizz". If we start from the root and work forwards we find it at the base of a relatively restricted range of English words. The Indo-European Lexicon lists 'fart, fizz, fizzle' all via Germanic and 'spirit' via Latin.

Words derived from the Latin spīritus begin to appear in English in about the 13-14th century and may either have come more or less directly from ecclesiastical Latin or via Norman French. This period coincides with mature Middle-English as the language of most of England, representing the final merging of Norman French vocabulary into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) to produce a single language. It left English with a rich vocabulary for many domains, for example (see also table below):
breath (Old English bræð), quick
inspire, expire etc. (French)
spirit; anima (Latin)
pneumatic, pneumonia; psyche (Greek)
The noun spirit first meant 'animating or vital principle in man and animals' and derives from a French usage meaning 'soul'. Compare the modern French esprit. Online Etymology Dictionary. Thus we see that from the beginning spirit in English is a metonym for spiraculum vitae 'the breath of life', that which makes us animam viventem 'a living soul'. Our word spiritual is an adjective deriving from spīritus and primarily meaning 'of or concerning the spirit'. Spiritual is also used in the sense of 'pertaining to the church'.

There are several subsidiary senses of 'spirit' that help to shed light on what the word meant in Medieval times. From about 1400 spirit began to mean ghost - the disembodied spirit of a dead person; often in the sense of a spirit that has not (yet) ended up in either heaven or hell. The word ghost comes from PIE *gheis- "to be excited, amazed, frightened" (c.f. German geist). From about 1500 the word was used to suggest "a nature, character". This line of connotation developed so that spirit as 'essential character' appears by the 1680's and becomes common in the 1800s. Thus I can write in the spirit of Enlightenment scholarship or comment on the zeitgeist (the spirit of the times). The sense of 'divine, related to god' is attested in the 14th century. When we say someone is "spirited" we mean they are lively, energetic, courageous. This sense is attested from 1590, though Milton uses it to mean "possessed by a spirit." OEtD

This takes us close to the crux. For pre-modern people the difference between living and dead matter was breath. I think we've come such a long way that it's difficult to get our heads around this nowadays. What God did in creating Adam was gather up some dead matter, some dust, and "breathe life into it"; he animated it - indeed he inspired Adam. The metaphor is BREATH IS LIFE. Breathing is the activity par excellence of living beings. This metaphor is quite widespread in the ancient world.

The Life's Breath

In pre-scientific times to live was to breath; and die was to stop breathing. However, the ancients came to a very different understanding than we have today. We now know that when the diaphragm muscles contract it draws air into the lungs where oxygen molecules cross the membranes to enter the bloodstream and be captured by haemoglobin molecules for transportation around the body. At the same time carbon-dioxide crosses the membrane in the other direction so that our our breath contains less oxygen and more carbon-dioxide than our in breath. In the mitochondria of our cells oxygen takes part in creating an energy transfer molecule, adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) and is converted to CO2 in the process.

In ancient India by contrast the arrow of causation between the bodily movements of breathing and the air entering the body was reversed. For them the movements of the air element (vāyudhātu) caused all bodily movements, particularly the movements associated with breathing and not the other way around. Vāyu takes in the movements created by the wind (leaves rustling in trees), the movement of the bodies limbs, and the movements associated with breathing. Vāyu in the body is called āna 'breath' and comes in various forms indicated by the prefixes: apa, ud, pra, vi, and sam. We have:
  • apāna 'down-breath' (aka fart; Monier-Williams resorts to Latin at this point: ventris crepitus); 
  • udāna 'up-breath' the breath involved in speech; 
  • prāṇa 'fore-breath', but used in the sense 'breath of life'; 
  • vyāna 'diffused-breath' (spread throughout the body); 
  • samāna 'complete-breath' (?) circulates around the naval and essential for digestion (though digestion itself is a kind of fire, the food must move through the body); 
The Buddhist practice of āna-apāna-sati (Skt ānāpānasmṛti) involves watching the in and out breaths (though note the connotation of apāna in Sanskrit!).

In China we find a similar idea in 氣 (Japanese pronunciation ki) The Chinese etymology is blowing 气 qì (may have been a man blowing) on rice 米 . (Another more in-depth interpretation via Language and Meaning). The character has a wide range of meanings: "air, gas, the atmosphere, weather; breath, spirit, morale; bearing, manner; smells, odours; to be angry, anger;  provoke, annoy." In our context means 'vital energy'. It is this energy which gives the martial artists their control and power and which the acupuncturist believes they are manipulating. 

It's possible that the Sanskrit reflexive pronoun ātman 'myself; the body; soul') may derive from either √an 'breath' or √at 'move' though this is unclear. The Proto-Indo European Lexicon puts ātman alongside a very small group of Germanic words (e.g. Old Saxon āðom 'breath, vapour') that may derive from a form such as ēt-mén-. Monier-Williams links ātman to Greek ἀυτμή (= autmē) 'breath'. However these etymological connections look tenuous and ēt-mén- is too complex to be a root. So what is the primitive? (PIE) ēt- > (Skt) at > (Grk) aut > (Old Saxon) āð 'breath'? It's not entirely clear what lexicographers had in mind here. We might see ātman as √at-man 'animate' where the -man suffix forms neuter action nouns, e.g. karman (< √kṛ), dharman (< √dhṛ), though why has the root vowel been lengthened in ātman?  This would link ātman to the PIE root *at- 'to go' which gives Latin annum (dental plus nasal gives rise to a double nasal) and Germanic aþnam 'years'. I don't see how we can derive ātman from √an and there are no suggestive PIE forms either. Clearly there is considerable overlap in the semantic field, especially when we consider that movement is product of vāyu, but the etymology here is ambiguous at best.
Note 11 June 2014. Just discovered that in Ṛgveda the word tman signifies both breath of life and self. This suggests that ātman is not āt-man but ā-tman. And this also makes it unlikely to derive from either √an or √at. Also the use of ātman is not common in early Vedic and predated by the possibly cognate tanū in ṚV. Tanū is thought to derive from √tan 'stretch, extent'.
Thus spirit, and many related words and concepts are references ultimately to the spiraculum vitae or the élan vital of ancient Vitalist views on the nature of living things.


Despite being demonstrably mistaken with respect to human anatomy some people still take ancient views of what animates the body as accurate and relevant. There is nothing wrong with doing yogadaiji or any of the other ancient techniques which purport to manage or manipulate the breath qua life-force. Most are beneficial in some way and thus may be recommended. However, while breathing and respiration is certainly essential to sustaining life, the view that breath, as an entity, animates the body is demonstrably false.

The view that breath causes the bodily movements and not the other way around is also demonstrably false. Ancient Vitalist views of bodily processes are false. If we are genuinely concerned with reality and want our views to align with reality, then we must reject these ancient Vitalist views, at least in the terms they present themselves.

The history of our word spiritual is inextricably tied up with ancient Vitalist views. In the next essay I will look more closely at what it means in the present day using a method drawn from Lakoff's analysis of language. I will try to show that modern usage is still tied up with Vitalism and will argue that this ought to make us think twice about identifying Buddhism as a "spiritual tradition".


The linguistic domain of the "breath of life"

PIE Greek Latin Sanskrit Old English Modern
aevus (aeon)
āyuaye, age, world
anemosanimaāna, prāṇa, udāna etceðiananimal
(blow, breathe)
psykhēpsyche, psychosis,
(one’s life)
(animal life)

*gwhre-?(scent, smell)bræðbreath
(diaphragm,mind, soul)
√hiṃs (harm)geistghost, aghast
pneumafnora (sneeze)snore, apnea
spīritus, spirarefart, spirit

English Words related to spirit:
aspire, conspire, dispirit, expire, inspire, perspire, respire, spiracle, sprightly, sprite, transpire.
Breath and Spirit in Arabic
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