15 December 2017

Bodhisatvas in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā

This is another in a series of reflections on the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as I read through it in Sanskrit with a friend. Despite the central importance of this text in Mahāyana, it is curiously neglected. Only one complete English has been published, though several partial translations exist. No modern commentary has been produced, though there are a handful of book chapters and articles (and one book which is a collection of such). The Chinese translations seem to have had more attention. It would be a great shame to lose sight of this most important Mahāyāna text. 

I noted in an earlier post that the nidāna of Aṣṭa tells us that there are ((13 - 1/2) * 100) or 1250 arhats present for the action. Although Lokakṣema's translation (ca. 179 CE) includes some bodhisatvas, none of the other versions of the text mention bodhisatvas being present. And yet, most translators seem to think that the Buddha asks Subhuti to "explain to the bodhisatvas". 

One of the translation problems is that the action begins with the Buddha saying to Subhūti:
tatra khalu bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtiṃ sthaviram āmantrayate sma - pratibhātu te subhūte bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ prajñāpāramitām ārabhya yathā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur iti || 
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Subhūti, from perfect understanding of practitioner-aspirants, explain the way that practitioner-aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
The Gāndhārī text is fragmentary, but for comparison reads
[tatra ho bhag̱ava aïśpa suhuti amaṃtreti paḍi]‐ [1-03] + + + + + + + + + mahasetvasa prañaparimidu aradhya yasa bosisatve mahasa[tv]e [1-04] + + + +1 [mi]dae ṇiyayae  
Conze translates this as:
The Lord said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings go forth into perfect wisdom! 
What he has done, and my friend concurs with this, is that he has read the genitive plurals (bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ) as dative plurals: i.e., as "to" or "for" instead of "of". There was a tendency for the dative plural and genitive plural to merge in Pāḷi - the genitive form being used with a dative meaning. But this is not true in Classical Sanskrit. In fact, in Sanskrit, for nouns in -a, it is the dative and the ablative that begin to merge. The language of Aṣṭa is more or less Classical Sanskrit. Just to complicate matters, the Gāndhārī appears to have a genitive singular (mahasetvasa).

Reading -ānām as Dative

For the sake of argument, let us accept the dative reading for the moment. The Buddha asks Subhūti to explain to the bodhisatvas how the bodhisatvas have gone forth. Apart from the fact that no bodhisatvas are present, why would the bodhisatvas need to have being a bodhisatva explained to them? One implication might be that our definition of bodhisatva is in error. In this view, the arhats present are the bodhisatvas.

Recall that our text was composed in the very earliest times of Mahāyana. (See my overview of recent research on this topic: Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong. 03 July 2015). I cited David Drewes summary:
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010: 59)
So perhaps we need to be wary of the later definitions of bodhisatva. The Pāḷi word bodhisatta was already in use for an aspiring Buddha. Indeed, in Pāḷi, there is only one bodhisatta who is the Buddha before his bodhi. I'm unsure who first proposed this, but there is a theory that satta was wrongly Sanskritised as satva (and later by English editors as sattva). In other words, there is an argument that the Pāḷi was not satta, "being", but satta, "committed, intent on", and ought to have been Sanskritised as sakta. Caveats aside, the idea is that bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta "committed to awakening", and it's possible that mahāsakta might have signified "one whose commitment is great".

The linguistic argument on its own is not very persuasive, but consider also that Jan Nattier, in her book A Few Good Men (1993), argued that 'bodhisatva' referred not to mythical/magical beings, but to people who had committed themselves to attaining liberation. In other words, people who sought to emulate the original bodhisatta. They were what we might call full-time practitioners, in contrast to monks who were concerned with more mundane matters like running monasteries and doing magic for lay-people.

This distinction has sometimes been formalised as a split between forest dwelling anchorites and town dwelling cenobites (country monks and town monks). For example, Reggie Ray wrote about this in his book Buddhist Saints in India. However, the Ugraparipṛcchā (Nattier 1993) shows the bodhisatva monks living in monasteries alongside other monks. David Drewes has been critical of this thesis: 
"The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010: 61). 
We could, therefore, translate bodhisatva mahāsatva as "practitioner aspirant". However, we must stress that the wrong Sanskritisation can only have reflected the understanding of the day; i.e., those who began to use Sanskrit understood satta to mean "being". So the confusion is not simply a mistaken word choice, but evidence that the word had changed its meaning. And note that the Gāndhārī text, by far the oldest Prajñāpāramitā document, unambiguously has satva

In this sense, an arhat who had been a aspirant to liberation might just qualify as being a bodhisatva. Or perhaps it trades on the distinction which occurred quite early on between an arhat and a buddha. However, working out the metaphysics of all this is tricky. An arhat has escaped rebirth so cannot be reborn, but a bodhisatva must be reborn in order to fulfil his role. Early Buddhists accepted that winning the goal meant leaving the game, while Mahāyānists could not bear the thought of continuing without their key players, so forced them to rejoin saṃsāra as iterative messiahs.

Reading -ānām as Genitive

As I say, there seems no obvious reason to read these words as being in the dative case. Nor does it make sense to explain things to people who are not present. So the argument for reading this as genitive, "the perfect understanding of the bodhisatvas" makes more sense (to me anyway). Additionally, there is no problem posting that bodhisatvas have Prajñāpāramitā which might be explained by Subhūti (to the arhats), whereas explaining it to them sounds wrong.

So, on balance, I still lean towards saying that Conze got it wrong. However, the second clause of the sentence is still awkward:
yathā bodhisatvā mahāsatvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur
For a start the connecting adverbial pronoun is yathā, which usually means something like "in that /which way", "just as", or "according to". It is a adverb of mode, i.e., describing how or the way something is done. Compare other modal adverbial pronouns: tathā, "in that way"; sarvathā, "in every way"; aññathā, "in another or different way". And so on.

The verb is a third person plural past perfect from nir√i, "go forth, depart". So it means "they went forth, they departed". Since we have an agent (bodhisatvāḥ) in the nominative plural this is fine: bodhisattvāḥ niryāyur means "the bodhisatvas have gone forth". The perfect tense is for actions that are completed in the past and in English usually involves "has" or "had" plus a past participle, i.e., "he has gone".*
* There are three kinds of past tense in Sanskrit: aorist past, "I departed"; past imperfect, "I was departing"; and past perfect, "I had departed". Plus the passive past participle, "departing was done by me". 
But what is prajñāpāramitā doing in this phrase? Well, it's a trick question. It cannot easily be explained as it stands. But, in a later paragraph, the whole sentence is repeated with the word prajñāpāramitāṃ in the accusative case and this does make sense, sort of. The accusative is used to indicate the object of the sentence (the thing to which the action of the verb is being done) or, with verbs of motion, it can be the destination. So the whole sentence says:
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Explain, Subhūti, from the perfect understanding of the practitioner aspirants, the way that practitioner aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
So, that's what it says, but what does this mean?


The Bhagavan is asking Subhūti, the chief representative of the Prajñāpāramitā practice community, to explain to the arhats, the fact that bodhisatvas have perfect understanding and that they have gone forth to that perfect understanding. In Buddhism we are quite familiar with the language of going forth. Typically, Buddhist monks go forth from home (āgarika) into homelessness (anāgarika). Or we might say that we go forth from false refuges so that we can go for refuge to the triratnāḥ or three precious gifts (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha).

The text is hinting, I suppose, that perfect understanding is a standalone refuge. That if one has perfect understanding, then one doesn't really need the other refuges. If this is what the text is saying, then it may have been be controversial. It still is.

Why the arhats need this instruction is far from clear. Aṣṭa does not have the disdain for arhats that developed later in some quarters of the Mahāyāna literature. Apart from having had a guide, there is nothing to distinguish an arhat from a buddha.

Before we can even take this in, we find that the first thing Subhūti does is to deny the very terms on which the Buddha has asked him to speak (i.e., he is correcting the Buddha). We're more or less used to seeing Śāriputra as a Mahāyāna patsy, but less used to thinking of the Buddha in this role. Subhūti denies that he can see, apprehend, or perceive any such phenomena as a bodhisatva or prajñāpāramitā. In which case, he asks, "what perfect understanding would I teach to which bodhisatvas?" (katamaṃ bodhisatvaṃ katamasyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām avavadiṣyāmi anuśāsiṣyāmi?).

It turns out that precisely this is the teaching of perfect understanding; i.e., this denial that names apply to experience; or, conversely, the idea that just because you have a name for a phenomena does not make it real. This takes some reflection. But it helps to get a little of the context provided in the subsequent paragraphs.

Subhūti then proceeds to outline an idea that has been central to my own understanding of the Dharma for ten years: that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to experience. The language mirrors the Sanskrit version of the Pāḷi Kaccāgotta Sutta (SN 12:15) - see my translation of the Kātyāyana Sūtra. And, as it happens, I have already had a preliminary go at writing about this aspect of the sūtra: Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (26 June 2015).

But we can briefly say that the teaching given to Kātyānayana (or Kaccāna) is the teaching of perfect understanding. I believe I am the first person to make the connection quite so plainly. Though many people, not least David Kalupahana, have noticed that Nāgārjuna makes passing reference to the Kātyāyana Sūtra, I have not yet seen any reference to this much earlier (and defining) reuse of Kātyāyana. 

It's common to think of Mahāyāna as a radical departure from mainstream Buddhism. But this seems to be inaccurate. Instead, we can think of the Prajñāpāramitā working out the implications of a much older way of thinking about Buddhism as evidenced by the Kātyāyana Sūtra. In other words, they were a conservative group of meditators, focussed on experience, doing practices associated with states of emptiness (cf MN 121) or cessation (cf DN 9).  They were also resisting the metaphysical speculations emerging into mainstream Buddhist discourse by this time. It is sometimes said that Prajñāpāramitā is a rejection of Abhidharma, but Lewis Lancaster's PhD dissertation from 1968 shows that Aṣṭa contains some Abhidharma elements and gradually assimilates more as time goes on.

The importance of rejecting astitā and nāstitā is that it ought to prevent us from reading the text as  metaphysics. I say "ought", because, clearly, it never stopped some people, notably Edward Conze. If we cannot speak of existence or non-existence, then we are not talking about reality, or truth either (the words are, if anything, more synonymous in Sanskrit). Instead, we are talking about phenomenology and epistemology. And, by calling into question the applicability of names for phenomena, Aṣṭa is inviting us to question the very basis of our knowledge about the world.

The way I understand this is that, if you attain cessation, it is experience that ceases, and while it is ceased, one dwells in emptiness.  And when one allows experience to start up again, it's like watching a boring film and not being caught up in it, but noticing how bad the acting, dialogue, and plot are.

A lot of fluff has built up around this basic idea, but this is the essence of Buddhist liberation. From the point of view of emptiness, there is nothing to hang a name on. Imagine that we have two states: one in which there is no arising and ceasing, and one in which there is. If we treat it as "reality" (which it is not) then the fact that is it unchanging from an experiential point of view is very misleading. It points in the direction of absolute being or absolute reality. But this would be a mistaken interpretation. Emptiness is not absolute. Nothing that we can experience is, or can be, absolute.

If this experience were common to meditators, and the techniques for attaining such states seem to have been quite widespread, then the contrast may well account for the dualism of Sāṃkhya-darśana and also the absolute being of the Upaniṣads. Indeed, mystical speculations about this experience may well explain a good deal about India religion more generally.



Drewe, David. (2010). 'Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.' Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

Karashima, Seishi. (2015). 'Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.' ARIRIAB XVIII: 113–162. https://www.academia.edu/12854001/Who_Composed_the_Mahāyāna_Scriptures_The_Mahāsāṃghikas_and_Vaitulya_Scriptures

Nattier, Jan. (1993).A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Ray, R. A. (1994). Buddhist Saints in India : A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press.

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