29 March 2007

The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor

BrahmaAt the end of 2006 I attended a series of lectures by Richard Gombrich and I promised to try to use my blog to pass on some of what he said. In this entry I want to look at a metaphor used by the Buddha, but which had already become obscure by the time the Pali Canon was written down. The metaphor is "dwelling (or staying) with Brahma" - brahmaa vihaara in Pali. Obviously this is an important metaphor for Buddhists and well known to practitioners in the FWBO through the Mettabhavana meditation practice, which is said to be one of the four "Brahma Viharas" - along with the karuna, mudita and upekkha-viharas. So where did this metaphor come from?

Even a passing familiarity with the Upanishads will show you that 'dwelling with Brahma' is a paraphrase of the goal of spiritual practice in those texts. There is it usually presented as union with Brahma, but this is not significantly different from the Buddhist usage. So what is going on here? Is the Buddha suggesting that we literally seek union with Brahma? We need not take the phrase literally, and in fact there is much to suggest that the Buddha did not mean it so.

Gombrich has analysed the occurrences of this way of speaking, and has come to see the Tevijja Sutta in the Digha Nikaya as the first usage. In most texts the metaphor is used awkwardly, or interpreted literally, but in the Tevijja Sutta, although the actual words Brahma vihara are not used, the idea is present and fits the context. In the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha is using the idea of the way to Brahma (where one would subsequently dwell) as a metaphor for the goal of the spiritual life, and the audience are Brahmins who would have been well versed in this kind of talk. The Tevijja Sutta is part parody because it criticises those Brahmins who purport to teach the way to Brahma when most of them have never even laid eyes on Brahma. The Buddha tells them that he has seen Brahma face to face - this is the subject of another parody in the Digha Nikaya - and that he can teach them the way to Brahma which is to practice a meditation on loving kindness. This is clearly an early example of the Buddha's "skill in means", a quality that came to the fore in the White Lotus Sutra.

Now by the time the Canon was written down the sense of this metaphor had been lost. Gombrich argues, and I think we must agree, that the Buddha was cognizant of the early Upanishads. We know this because he names, quotes from, and satirises them! But the scribes of three or four centuries later who wrote the Canon down in Sri Lanka were not familiar with the Upanishads, and so they struggled to know what to make of the Buddha teaching the "way to Brahma". One of the consequences of taking the Buddha literally was that a new set of "realms" had to be added to Buddhist cosmology - the Brahmalokas. Also to "dwell with Brahma" meant being reborn in a loka or realm, which meant that one was not freed from rebirth, and therefore not Awakened! So the scribes had to do quite a lot of work to fit all this in.

Independently I have found a striking confirmation of this conjecture in the Karaniya Metta Sutta. This is one of the most familiar suttas in the Pali Canon. It asks the question: what should one do who seeks the path of peace? And then it gives a well structured account of practice: one should be ethical it says, morally and ethically good. And then one should practice a meditation, which we would now recognise as a species of Mettabhavana, in which one cultivates boundless loving kindness to all creatures - just as, the sutta says, a mother loves and protects her only child, so should we regard all that lives, leaving none out. To do this, to keep this reflection in mind at all times, is, the text says, to dwell with Brahma. But then comes a little coda, the tenth verse, which goes back to the beginning and in a completely different style admonishers us to be ethical and avoid falling into wrong views, and if we practice well we will "never again lie in a womb".

I'd like to suggest that the last verse was added later. It is clearly different in tone than the preceding nine verses, and it does not fit the structure. I suggest that the line (below with my rough translation) at the end of the ninth verse is the original ending of the sutta:
etaṃ satiṃ adhiṭṭeyya brahmaṃ etaṃ vihāraṃ idha-m-ahu
This mindfulness should be undertaken, this is dwelling with Brahma here and now they say.
The tenth verse was probably added by an assiduous monk who, in ignorance of the metaphor, thought that "dwelling with Brahma" could not be the end of the sutta since at best it meant taking rebirth in a Brahmaloka, and at worst was non-Buddhist! Perhaps he thought that a verse had been lost which revealed the true intent of the sutta and so added one that fit his worldview. This fits with Gombrich's hypothesis, and helps to make sense of an awkwardness in the text. I've run this past a number of fans of the sutta and they agree that it is at least plausible. Of course we can never prove such a thing, and the ten verse Karaniya Metta Sutta is still the canonical version. But it does show that we need to be alert when dealing with texts, even canonical texts. It is all to easy for metaphors to become lost over time, or in different cultures.

- image : Chola bronze of Brahma
29-03-08 fixed typos, added diacritics.

26-8-12 The website Chant Pāli has some references which confirm my supposition about the 10th verse. The metre of the verse is inconsistent with the other nine, either a different metre or a "very irregular".
Warder (1970), p. 228, n. 1, suggests that this last verse is "a later addition." Warder, A.K. (1970, 2004). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN: 81-208-1741-9.
 Ānandajoti (2007), n. 11, writes: "Metre: it may be we should take the first half of the pādayuga as a Siloka line showing the savipula. If it is Old Gīti it is very irregular."
The inconsistent metre further reinforces the perception that the verse was written by another person than the original composer. My conjecture that the editor was concerned about ending on the note about dwelling with Brahma seems more likely in this light. It might be simple prejudice but it seems to me that a lesser intellect and lesser poet, a blockhead fundamentalist, has tampered with the poem.
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