30 November 2007

The Cult of the Book and Western ideas of Canonicity

American Scholar Gregory Schopen makes the interesting observation that the study of Buddhism contains a curious anomaly. Buddhologists have always had two sources of information about the history of Buddhism: texts and material remains. However despite the existence of epigraphical and archaeological evidence, Buddhologists have set this aside and focuses on texts, taking texts as the sine qua non of the history of Buddhism, and of what Buddhism is. Western Buddhists have conspired with scholars because of a traditional tendency to fundamentalism with regard to texts, we have picked up our Asian teachers' faith that a sutra was always the literal word of the Buddha: thus have I heard.

Anyone educated in the sciences, as I was, will be familiar the refrain that one can only draw conclusions from what one observes. At school one almost always knew what was supposed to happen in a science experiment - but my teachers always insisted that I write up what actually happened and account for any discrepancy between that and what was expected. As the humanities have invaded the sciences - creating the "social sciences" - they could be expected to take on this dictum. However Schopen makes it clear that Buddhologists have not done this. In the rare cases where non-textual information is considered, it is always secondary to texts, and where it conflicts with texts it is set aside as an aberration.

Schopen takes a rather provocative stance in response to this situation - motivated perhaps in part by a desire to stimulate discussion, or perhaps it is frustration? For instance Schopen claims in his book Bones, Stone, and Monks that there is no evidence for a canon of writings before the 5th century. No canon is mentioned in any reliably dated source before this time Although the canon refers to it's own creation at an early date, it has become apparent over the years that the Pali Canon reflects a highly sectarian set of views, and is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of a form of Buddhism which is current in the 5th century in Sri Lanka. Another claim which Schopen makes is that the canonical texts reflect an idealised history, a way of life which no one has ever followed. Where there is material evidence on the lifestyle of monks and nuns it always contradicts the texts. For instance it is axiomatic that the Sangha did not own property, and yet inscriptions on stupas up and down India show that the donors that paid for the monuments were frequently the same monks and nuns who owned no property. Indeed coins are a common find in monastic ruins, and the means for minting coins have been found in at least one! The idea that monks did not own property is contradicted by the evidence of archaeology.

It has been interesting over the years being a member of the FWBO and seeing the vehement criticism of Sangharakshita for having the temerity of teaching things which were not strictly canonical and still calling it Buddhism. For instance Sangharakshita has made creative use of the metaphor of evolution to illustrate his thinking on the spiritual life. This kind of heterodoxy is condemned in some circles as "not Buddhism". Why? Because it is not in a traditional text - although it could be argued that Sangharakshita is simply restating an idea which is explicit in the Pali Canon, in the Upanisa Sutta for instance, but that would be to play the fundamentalists game. Oddly, for an Indian religion, written texts have become the arbiters of orthodoxy - a situation which I would argue runs counter to the long history of religion in that country.

So why is it that Buddhologists and Buddhists have privileged texts? Schopen claims to detect the spirit of Protestantism behind it. During the formation of the Protestant movement one of the defining disputes was over the status of practices. Amongst other things Catholics were accused of idolatry because of the worship given Mary and the Saints. The Protestant response was to turn to biblical fundamentalism in order, not only to distinguish themselves from Catholics, but to justify their heterodoxy by claiming to be more orthodox that the orthodox. Recall the violent repression of heterodoxy which characterised the Catholic Church over the centuries: heretics were not only persecuted they were tortured and horribly executed. If the justification for dissent came from the Bible itself, well perhaps it might prevent a red-hot poker in an uncomfortable place!

The same scenario probably would not have happened in India. The hegemonic religious caste of India has never been hostile to heterodoxy in the same violent way. When the Brahmins felt threatened by a competing faith they adopted what I call the Microsoft Approach: buy-out, rebrand, and market as an innovation. And so Shiva, the ancient cult, was soon adopted as Brahminical and Shaiva priests made honorary Brahmins. If you look at the avatars of Vishnu you will find a number of local cults - gods in the form for instance of a tortoise, a fish, a boar, a dwarf - incorporated. Indeed the 9th incarnation of Vishnu is the Buddha himself, relegated to telling us to be kind to animals. "All is one; God is good".

And so we have the interesting situation at present. Scholars of history have accepted the inevitable and more or less abandoned the project of creating a history out of the sacred texts. Anthropologists have decided they are more interested in what people do, than what they believe; beliefs are interesting in so far as they result in behaviour - a sentiment I believe the Buddha might have endorsed. Of course linguists are OK because they are interested in the language rather than the message. But Buddhists maintain a kind of fundamentalism about Buddhist texts. No point of view is valid unless punctuated by a quote from the Pali Canon (I know I am guilty of this!) Taking the Pali Canon as an example we know that it has been translated at least once (into Pali), that is has been edited rather clumsily at times, and that the current collection is attested only in the 5th century. The canon shows that it's preservers had preoccupations which were not always shared by the contemporaries, and that by the time writing came into being there were multiple competing interpretations of some of the most fundamental doctrines - such as the status of dharmas. It seems clear that the composition of news texts was a constant activity for Buddhists by the time that they began to employ writing in perhaps the 1st century BCE. The newly composed texts often gave considerable space to denouncing their heterodox co-religionists in the most base terms (I believe for instance that hinayana has caste-ist overtones and can be equated with insults such as "nigger" in contemporary vocabulary). And these are the texts to which we Buddhists yoke ourselves, mostly quite uncritically.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Buddhist scriptures, and value them both as spiritual inspiration and as literature. But I believe that what we Buddhists actually do is far more important than what we believe. The scriptures may well contain echoes of the words of the Buddha, but there is no substitute for practice, and the instruction of a more experienced spiritual friend. If, in the end, what works is in contradiction to the texts, then we must follow our insights, as the composers of the later Buddhist texts did. Buddhism is founded on principles, not on texts. Buddhist fundamentalism can never be justified in terms of Buddhist principles.

Further Reading

Harrison, Paul. 1995. Searching for the origins of the Mahayana : what are we looking for? Eastern Buddhist. 28(1), p.48-69.

Schopen, G. 1991. Archaeology and Protestant presumptions in the study of Indian Buddhism. History of Religions. 31(1), p.1-23.

Schopen, G. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks : Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press.

Schopen, G. 1999. The bones of a Buddha and the business of a monk : conservative monastic values in an early Mahayana polemical tract. Journal of Indian Philosophy. vol. 27, p.279-324.

Wedemeyer, Christain, K. 2001. Tropes, typologies and turnarounds : a brief genealogy of the historiography of tantric Buddhism. History of Religions. 40(3), p.223-259

22 November 2007

The Green Rite

Some time ago I was in the British Museum where they have a number of stone carvings from the stupa at Amaravati. The carvings are old and worn but you can still see the exquisite skill with which they were created and get a sense of the wonder that the stupa must have been. What an extraordinary focus for feelings of devotion that stupa must have been. The friend I was with, and I, could occasionally make out details from stories which the carving depicted. At one point as I walked along I saw a very worn carving but which stood out very clearly as being a story from the Pali Canon about the Buddha. It showed the Buddha, barely visible through the wear, standing in front of an elephant that was clearly kneeling before him in supplication.

In the story the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, who wishes to succeed the Buddha as leader of the monks, arranges for a large bull elephant in rut to be let loose in the market place as the Buddha is walking through it. The elephant is enraged and charges about causing havoc and everyone runs for their lives. However the Buddha stands his ground. The elephant sees the Buddha, a slight figure, standing there and charges towards him. The Buddha simply stands his ground and as the elephants gets closer he lifts his hand and holds it palm outwards. Radiating loving kindness towards the elephants he is totally unafraid of death, or being hurt. As the elephant approaches it is overcome by the outpouring of love and fearlessness in his direction , he slows, and then comes to a standstill. And then he bends down and places his head on the ground at the feet of the Buddha.

This is the archetype of the Green Rite, the Rite of Fearlessness. The Green rite is associated with the Buddha Amoghasiddhi whose names means infallible success. His mudra is the mudra of fearlessness. Notice that the hand is not extended like a policeman stopping traffic. The hand is held palm outwards at the heart - it is not a command, or a demand. It is an offering.

The Green Rite is not one of the original Tantric Rites. For instance the Mahāvairocana Abhisambodhi Uttara Tantra has pacifying (white), enriching (yellow), subduing (red), and fierce (black) rites. The Four Rites correspond to an old Vedic classification the varṇas. They correspond to the four basic castes as outlined in the Puriṣa Sūkta of the Rig Veda for instance: Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaisya, and Śudra. However when Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi joined Amitābha and Akṣobhya on the mandala two more rites were added - for instance the Tara Tantra has six.

In the Rogue Elephant story the Buddha pacifies the Elephant by radiating maitri or love - which could be seen as an example of the Red Rite. This demonstrates the way the Dharma transcends any particular teaching. However underlying the Love of the Buddha is his transcendental Insight - his knowledge and vision of how things are. It is from this direct knowledge that his fearlessness arises, and that makes all his actions successful. The Buddha knows that he has nothing to lose, that even death itself does not terrify him the way it does the rest of us. He sees everything as it is and therefore does not cling to any experience, nor push any away. Any action undertaken from this point of view is bound to succeed, because success is judged in terms of results, and acting from insight guarantees a positive result.

For ordinary mortals the Buddha left guidelines for acting until direct insight guides our actions. These are the various ethical or moral teachings. These vary from the "ordinary common sense" approach which is typified in the early verses of the Metta Sutta, to the the long lists of precepts in the Bhikṣu Pratimokṣa, and find a sublime expression in the Ten Skilful actions (dasa-kusala-karma) which form the Ten Precepts of the Shingon School and the Western Buddhist Order. Once again there are cross-overs with the other rites, but the special quality of the Green Rite is that it is active. Whereas in the White Rite for instance we may say that it focuses on purity and refraining from evil actions; in the Green Rite we must actively express love and kindness. If Gratitude and Generosity are the key aspects of the Yellow Rite, then we may say that acts of kindness and selfless love are the marks of the Green Rite.

Meeting fear is a key part of the spiritual life. As we practice we are very likely to find fear arising. The Green Rite tells us the way to deal with fear. It is to dwell in love, to radiate love, and to act out of love. Acting from love guarantees success, because in Buddhist terms success is acting with love.

01 November 2007

The Essence of all Mantras

I declare that A
is the essence of all mantras,
and from it arise mantras without number;
and it produces in entirety the Awareness
which stills all conceptual proliferations.

The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra
translated by Stephen Hodge (XVIII.3, p.326-7)

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Richard Salomon recently. He heads up the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project which is based around Kharoṣṭhī script manuscripts from Gāndhāra and in the Gāndhāri language. These texts which are held in the British Library are very old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century common era. Gāndhāra is a very interesting area, having been the entry point to India for immigrants, traders, and invaders for many centuries. So it was a very rich and diverse culture. Kharoṣṭhī was the first script used to write India languages, and that it was derived from the version of the Aramaic script used by various Persian conquerors. In Kharoṣṭhī there is one sign for an initial vowel - the short a. To indicate other vowels one uses diacritic marks, in the same was that medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks on consonant signs. Kharoṣṭhī was later displaced by Brahmī from which all modern Indian scripts (as well as most South-east Asian scripts, and the various forms of Tibetan writing)

Regular readers will be aware that I've been interested in the Arapacana alphabet for a while. One of the features of the Arapacana is that is has only one initial vowel sign. Professor Salomon has shown that this is almost certainly because it was the alphabet of the Gāndhāri language which was written in Kharoṣṭhī. It seems that this is a related to the absence of initial vowels in the Aramaic script - they are not used in Semitic languages. When designing a script to write Buddhist texts one needs to be able to write initial vowels, for instance: evam mayā śutam (Thus have I heard which begins all Buddhist sūtras). Brahmī scripts use a different sign for each vowel (although long vowels are indicated with diacritics marks in most cases).

Kharoṣṭhī vowels
a i u e o ṛ aṃ
Kharoṣṭhī created a single vowel sign on the model of the consonant signs - it is simply 'a' if unadorned, but can become any vowel with diacritic marks.

The quote at the beginning of this post may not be familiar, but the sentiment might be. The letter a has this special place in Buddhist thought and practice. One explanation is that the letter a, when added to the beginning of most Sanskrit nouns, it turns them into their opposite: vidya is knowledge, while avidya, is ignorance. This allows us to use the letter a to stand for the Truth which cannot be fully comprehended by language: it is possible to negate any definite statement about the transcendental (including this one!).

However I don't think this alone accounts for the notion that the letter a is the source of all mantras, if only because the a- prefix for verbs usually indicates the imperfect past tense rather than any sense of negation. Another idea relates to the way that Indic alphabets attach an inherent short letter a to each consonant. So the Sanskrit consonants are written as syllables or phonemes - called akṣara - (e.g. ka kha ga gha ṅa); not simply letters (e.g. k kh g gh ṅ). As in Kharoṣṭhī, medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks. This is quite a good way of looking at it, but there is still a slight flaw which involves the vowels.

Sanskrit vowels in Siddhaṃ script
a ā i ī u ū e ai
o au aṃ aḥ ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ
अ आ इ ई ए ऐ
ओ औ अं अः ऋ ॠ ऌ ॡ
The vowels, except for ā, aṃ and aḥ , can't really be considered to derive from the letter a. All vowels are similar in that they are voiced similarly - differences in sound are due to shifts in the tongue and lips changing the resonant frequency of the vocal track, but it doesn't seem to be enough to consider, say, the letter ī to derive from the letter a. Graphically the vowels are mostly not related to the shape of the letter a either. This is all true of the Brahmī derived scripts. It is not quite true for Kharoṣṭhī however because of the single initial vowel.

My suggestion is that the special function of the letter a in Buddhism is a relic of the Gāndhāra area. It is only in Kharoṣṭhī that all signs for letters derive from, or contain, the short a.

One piece of supporting evidence comes from the Sūtra of Perfect Wisdom in 25,000 Lines. This sutra was probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century, and is preserved in a variety of Sanskrit originals, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translations. In the sūtra the alphabet is used as a mnemonic for a series of reflections on the nature of phenomena. Each letter is indicated by a keyword starting with that letter; and each word is the basis for a line of verse. Being a Sanskrit text one might expect the Sanskrit alphabet to be used, but it is not. The alphabet is a partially Sanskritised version of the Arapacana alphabet. Even in the fully Sanskritised version of this practice - present for example in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra - the vowels are sometimes left off so we have the Sanskrit consonants, but the letter a as the only vowel. The tradition is preserved and the trail seems to lead back to Gāndhāra, at least on Indian soil.

I say "on Indian soil" because the use of alphabetical verses, that is to say verses in which the first letter of the first word of each line are in alphabetical order (a kind of acrostic) is unknown in pre-Buddhist India. Verses were organised by length, and by numerical schemes, but not alphabetically. Verses were arranged alphabetically in Semitic cultures, so there are Old Testament psalms and Manichean hymns with verses in alphabetical order. Which brings us around in a circle to the Semitic origins of Kharoṣṭhī.

The letter a, then , is the source of all the other letters in the alphabet; and the alphabet is the source of all the mantras - hence the composer(s) of the Mahāvairocana abhisaṃbodhi Tantra could say that "from [a] arise mantras without number".

If you'd like to learn to write the letter a in the Siddhaṃ script then visit my other website: visiblemantra.org

image: Siddha letter a from AKARA : The Quest for Perfect Form
(although it looks identical to one in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy in the Eastempty img for amazon associates, p43.)
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