08 April 2016

Ten Precepts in Another Structure

My ordination in 2005
The Ten Precepts followed by members of the Triratna Buddhist Order are also known as the path of ten wholesome actions (dasa-kusalakamma-patha). In this essay, I look at a singular occurrence of the list that organises them differently.
In Pāḷi, the precepts are phrased so that we undertake refraining from the path of the ten unwholesome actions (dasa-akusalakamma-patha). A few months ago I surveyed all of the occurrences of precepts in the Nikāyas for a project I was working on with Dhīvan. This essay was written back then, but was on ice until we had a chance to present our findings to the College of Public Preceptors. Whilst trawling through the few dozen texts in which this list appears, I stumbled on this interesting sutta that lists the same ten actions, but instead of considering them as related to body, speech and mind, it divides them up differently. I'll begin with my translation of the relevant text:

The Discourse on Success and Failure.
(AN 3.117; i.268)
There are these three failures (vipatti) monks. What three? Failure of virtue, failure of intention, failure of views. And what, monks, is the failure of virtue. Here, monks, someone is a killer, a taker of the not given, an indulger in illicit sex, a liar, a slanderer, an abuser, a prattler. Monks, this is called a failure of virtue.
And what, monks, is a failure of intention. Here, monks, someone is a coveter and ill-willer. This is called a failure of intention.
And what, monks, is a failure of view. Here, monks, someone has wrong views, has views that are contrary, such as "there is no giving, no sacrifice, no oblation, nothing that comes from good or bad actions, no fruit or result of actions; no this world, no other world, no mother, no father; no spontaneously arisen beings; there are no seekers and priests in this world on the right path and proceeding along it, who having personally witnessed this world and the other world, would declare it [to others]." This is called a failure of views.
Because of the failure of virtue, intention or view, beings, at the break up of the body at death are reborn in a state of misery, a bad destination, a place of suffering, in hell. These are the three failures.
There are these three successes (sampadā), monks. What three? Success of virtue, success of intention, success of view. And what, monks, is the success of virtue? Here, monks, someone is one who refrains (paṭivirato) from killing, refrains from taking the not given, refrains from illicit sex; refrains from lies, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and frivolous prattle. This is called a success of virtue.
And what, monks is the success of intention? Here monks, someone is not a coveter or an ill-willer. This is called a success of intention.
And what, monks, is the success of views? Here, monks, someone has right views, views that are not contrary, such as "there is giving, sacrifice, oblation, something that comes from good or bad actions, fruit or result of actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are spontaneously arisen beings; there are seekers and priests in this world on the right path and proceeding along it, who having personally witnessed this world and the other world, would declare it [to others]." This is called the success of views.
Because of the success of virtue, intention or view, beings at the break up of the body at death are reborn in a good state, in the heavenly world. These are the three successes.

It's a short text and in many ways straight-forward enough. However, there are a number of features of this arrangement of the precepts that will be interesting, especially for members of the Triratna Order. Usually we think of the precepts as being grouped into those that apply to body, speech and mind (kāya, vācā, & citta). In this text the precepts are grouped according to whether they relate to virtue (sīla), to thought/intention (citta), or to view (diṭṭhi). 

In the table below we can see the precepts with the usual arrangement of the left, and this new arrangement on the right.

 pāṇātipātā paṭivirato
 adinnādānā paṭivirato
 kāmesumicchācārā paṭivirato
 musāvādā paṭivirato
 pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato
 pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato
 samphappalāpā paṭivirato

This is a one-off arrangement. However, we do often see the first seven precepts as a separate set or combined with the śrāmanera precepts. So there must have been some sects that saw these first seven as a distinct set. This is also reflected in the different wording of the last three precepts in this setting. Whereas we have the familiar language of refraining (paṭivirata) from something, in the cittasampadā and diṭṭhisampadā the language changes.

When we chant the ten precepts we use the tradition form which involves undertaking (samādiyāmi) the training principle (sikkhapādaṃ) of abstaining (veramaṇī) from the various unwholesome actions (akusalakamma) with the action given in the ablative case (indicating "from"). Although paṭivirata and veramaṇī look very different to the untrained eye, they are in fact closely related. Both stem from the verb √ram. The first adds two prefixes, paṭi- and vi- to the past participle (rata) to give us paṭi-vi-rata. The second adds only the prefix vi- to the root which then forms a stem virama, then adds a secondary derivative suffix -anī, which in turn causes the first vowel to be lengthened and strengthened from i to e giving veramaṇī (the n is changed to retroflex by the preceding r). Where the meaning of the bare root is 'enjoy, delight in' the meaning of vi√ram is the opposite, i.e. 'refrain'.

It's also worth noting that the word sampadā comes form the verb sam√pad. This may be familiar from the verb in the Buddha's last words: vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādetha. The verb here is often translated as 'strive' as in "with mindfulness strive on". The form here is a causative, so in fact it means 'bring about success'. I wrote about these words many years ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words.

Speech Precepts

Note that in the speech precepts there are some differences. Here they are written:
  • pisuṇāya vācāya paṭivirato
  • pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato
  • samphappalāpā paṭivirato hoti
We chant these in a different order, but we also chant pisuṇavācā vermaṇī... . It turns out that our version is grammatically incorrect because vācā is a feminine noun. The thing being refrained from is always in the ablative case. With the preceding precepts the kamma is masculine and has an ablative in : hence in musāvādā veramaṇī... vada 'speech' and vadā 'from speech' (which is musā 'false'). So the ablative singular of vācā is vācāya which is what we see here. Also in this text, representing a minority reading, pisuṇa and pharusa are not compounded with vācā and being adjectives take the same gender and case ending. More often one see them compounded as pisuṇavācā and pharusavācā, but the compound still takes the ablative ending, -āya, in both instances.

With samphappalāpā we have a different problem. Here the word palāpa (with initial double pp in compounds) means 'speech, prattle' and sampha means 'frivolous'. So samphappalāpa already means 'frivolous speech' and there is no need to add vācā onto it as we do. Indeed the term samphappalāpāvācā is never found in Pāli, whereas samphappalāpā is common.

Mind Precepts

While the sīla category is more or less the way we are familiar with the precepts, with some minor grammatical corrections, notice that what we think of as the mind precepts are substantially different.
  • anabhijjhālu
  • abyāpannacitto
  • sammādiṭṭhiko
To begin with the mind precepts do not mention 'refraining' or 'abstaining'. In fact this appears to be a pervasive pattern for these precepts throughout the early Buddhist literature, both in Paḷi and Sanskrit. The Pāḷi phrasing of the citta precepts here is simply:
Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco anabhijjhālu hoti abyāpannacitto.
Here (idha), monks (bhikkhave), someone (ekacco) is (hoti) one who is not a coveter (an-abhijjhālu) and one whose mind is not ill-willed (a-byāpanna-citto).
The word abhijjhālu is an adjectival form of the more familiar abhijjhā (which is also a feminine noun with an ablative form abhijjhāya). While our precept has the word byāpada 'ill-willing' as an action noun, here we have byāpanna the past participle 'willed-ill' and it is compounded with citta meaning "mind", "thought", or "intention".

Similarly for the tenth precept covering diṭṭhi or views, rather than refraining from wrong-viewing micchādassanā veramaṇī here we have sammādiṭṭhiko 'one who has right-view'. In fact in Pāḷi the form micchādassana is not found, but is always micchādiṭṭhi (which has an ablative form micchādiṭṭhiyā).


Such variations remind us that familiar lists were not always set in concrete. It is OK to think about things differently and to explore other ways of presenting our ideas. This set of categories might be seen as more practical because it is more closely aligned with the way we understand practice. One adopts ethics in order to set up good conditions for meditation. In meditation one must deal with the hindrances by temporarily eliminating  the grosser forms of craving and aversions, and then attempt to transform wrong-view into right-view.

Note that in this text, the aim is a good destination (sugati) or a bad destination (duggati) rather than anything more grand. This is not unusual. Many Buddhist texts seem aimed at what we sometimes think of as "mundane" goals like a good rebirth. Sometimes people who read the suttas are loath to take such things on face value. They argue that there must be an explanation. They might say that this is a fragment of a larger text which does aim at awakening. Or they might suggest that this was a text for lay people (though it is addressed to monks). Or perhaps they will say that this is "obviously" a late text for a degenerate age. But there is no evidence for these types of conclusions. They all involve projection rather than deduction. No. This is a bona fide Buddhist text that tells us how to get a good rebirth, which was clearly an important aspect of Buddhism from the earliest times because it crops up again and again in the suttas.

The fact that such variations are preserved also highlights what seems to me to be an important point. The Pāḷi Canon is not the literature of a single homogeneous group. Everywhere we look there is variation rather than unity. There is really no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The idea of a pre-sectarian Buddhism is the result of a distorting lens through which we look at history. This lens is a metaphor drawn from the study of biology and takes the shape of a branching tree that converges to a single point as we go back in time. In this view complexity is always greater in the future and less in the past. But this is a distortion. History is always complex. Tree does not take into account very common processes of evolution, for example, the contributions that tributaries make to the mainstream, or re-convergence after branching (hybridisation or syncretisation). I've argued that a braided river system is a far better metaphor for understanding history. In this view the source of Buddhism is a watershed, not a single spring. Buddhism incorporates influences from many traditions, including Brahmanism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and local animistic cults. It's likely that the basic ethics of Buddhism are the ethics of the Śākya tribe, originally from Iran.

Dhīvan and I have successfully lobbied the College of Public Preceptors to have the official versions of the precepts changed to reflect these observations, so watch out for an announcement soon (probably at this year's convention).

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