06 July 2007

The Four Noble Truths

"The ancient world, if the choice had been placed before it, would no doubt have preferred bad philology with good doctrine to bad doctrine (sometimes no doctrine at all) and good philology. The modern world plumps for good philology regardless of consequences."

It was with Sangharakshita's words in mind that I approached K. R. Norman's series of lectures published as A Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2] I have to confess that in large part Norman's thesis is either beyond me, or outside my areas of interest. However I was struck by what he had to say on what philology can tells us about the Four Noble Truths. Norman is concerned not merely with what words mean, but why they mean it. With regard to the Four Noble Truths he makes two points. Firstly the Pali compound which we translate as Noble Truth is ariya-sacca. "Noble Truth" he tells us is a "perfectly acceptable" translation. However it is not the only possible translation, and of all the possible translations, it seems to be the least likely one! Norman tells us that the commentarial traditions were sensitive to this, and suggests:
"It can mean "truth of the noble one", "truth of the noble ones", "truth for a noble one", i.e. truth that will make one noble, as well as the translation "noble truth" so familiar to us. This last possibility [the commentators] put at the bottom of the list, if they mention it at all." [3] (my italics)
While acknowledging that multiple meanings were often intended in Indian texts, Norman concludes that first option, "the truth of the noble one (the Buddha)", is most likely to be the correct meaning. This seems to be a case of bad philology and good doctrine, in that the specific reading is incorrect but the general import is correct, but it occurs to me that the bad philology does seem to obscure something in the doctrine.

The Four Noble Truths are often treated as doctrine in a literal sense so that Buddhists will sometimes claim that "everything is suffering", and make it clear that they take this literally.[4] Non-Buddhists sometimes accuse Buddhists of pessimism because of this. I wonder if the designation of the truths as Noble, as opposed to being the truths of the noble one, has been unhelpful. Sangharakshita, for instance, has drawn out the methodological nature of the Four Noble Truths. He says:
"It cannot be too strongly emphasized that while the general formula of conditionality [i.e. praticca-samuppada] which constitutes the framework of the commonly accepted version of the Four Aryan Truths pertains to Doctrine their specific content pertains only to Method." [5]
In the Sammaditthi Sutta Sariputta gives a teaching on perfect view (sammaditthi). He uses the general formula which is familiar to us - phenomena, cause, cessation, path to cessation - but he applies it to a number of different phenomena. The first example is:
"When, friends, a noble disciple understands nutriment, the origin of nutriment, the cessation of nutriment, and the way leading to the cessation of nutriment, in that way he is of right view." [6]
As well as nutriment Sariputta applies the formula to suffering, aging and death, birth, being, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six sense bases, name and form, consciousness, formations, ignorance, and the taints. Notice that within this list are the 12 nidanas - the chain of causation. Recall that the first Dhamma that Sariputta ever heard was:
"Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathagata has told the cause." [7]
On hearing these two lines he became a stream-enterer. Sariputta is pointing out that all experiences arise (and cease) in dependence on causes. Sariputta is saying Right-view is not the perception of suffering per se, but the perception of dependent arising [i.e. praticca-samuppada]. This means, as Sangharakshita says, that the so-called Four Noble Truths are simply an application of the general principle of dependent arising to the phenomenon of suffering. Dependent arising is the most important truth of the Noble One. By using "Noble Truths", with capital letters, as a translation for ariya-sacca, we tend to obscure this. It leads to a overly literal interpretation. Sangharakshita is at pains to emphasize that the Buddha's position is not that every experience is painful, since it is obviously not the case. Suffering is a useful starting point for reflecting on the nature of reality because it is an experience rather than a concept, and it is one that everybody does have experience of.

Which brings me to Norman's second observation which is that translations of the formulaic versions of the Noble Truths are frequently "in complete disregard of the grammar and syntax" of the original. The philologists job, he says, is to analyse the relationship of the words, compare versions found in other languages, and to establish the syntax of each phrase. His considered opinion is that the Truths of the Noble one are:
"The noble truth that 'this is suffering', the noble truth that 'this is the cause of suffering' etc." [8]
Interestingly Norman seems to have reverted to a translation which he suggests is unlikely. Following his argument outlined above we would have expected: "The truth of the noble one that 'this is suffering', the truth of the noble one that 'this is the cause of suffering'" etc. In Norman's translation "this" can be any of Sariputta's list of things that are suffering, and presumably any other experience to which dependent-arising applies, which in Buddhist doctrine is every experience. It frees us from a literal view of the truths, and allows us to focus on the principle of dependent arising.

I think this is a case where some good philology has helped to explicate a doctrine clouded by a certain amount of confusion - not actually bad doctrine perhaps, but doctrine couched in terms that tend to obscure the fundamental insight it is trying to convey. Perhaps Sangharakshita was pessimistic about philologists because he was writing in the late 1950's and there were few Buddhist philologists at the time - Dr Conze is the only exception I can think of. These days more scholars are also practicing Buddhists, although K. R. Norman is not. However he does operate in an environment where the principles of Buddhism are more clear and established in our academies, and the scholar who "plumps for good philology regardless of consequences" is more likely to be rebuffed.

  1. Sangharakshita. 1987. A Survey of Buddhism. [rev ed.] Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. p.35
  2. Norman, K. R. 2006. Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2nd ed.] Pali Text Society.
  3. Norman ibid. p.21. This argument summarizes Norman's 1990 article "Why are the Four Noble Truths Called 'Noble'? in Ananda : Essays in Honour of Ananda W. P. Guruge, Columbo, pp.1-13.
  4. Googling "everything is suffering" reveals the extent of this error, although many of the 92,100 results debunk this interpretation of the first Noble Truth.
  5. Sangharakshita ibid. p.147.
  6. Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 9, in Bhikkhus Ñanamoli and Bodhi. 2001 The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. [2nd ed.] Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.133-4 (=PTS MN i.46 ff). See also Sammaditthi Sutta on Access to Insight.
  7. Quoted in Ñyanaponika and Hecker, H. 1997. Great Disciples of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.7. The original is in the Vinaya, Mahavagga I.23.5
  8. Norman ibid. p.17.
image: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Ed. 1995.
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