25 July 2008

Dating the Buddha

Almost two years ago now I attended a series of lectures by Prof. Richard Gombrich which I find still resonating around in my psyche. One of the things Prof. Gombrich talked about was his disappointment that his article in which he had discovered the 'true' dates of the Buddha had not attracted any attention from the scholarly community. That oversight has now been corrected in a recent article by Charles Prebish in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which he co-founded with Damien Keown.

Prebish reviews the many contributions, including his own, over the years and spells out the conclusions to date which are not unanimous. In fact there are four chronologies:

The long chronology
This puts the death of the Buddha at 544/43 BCE and is accepted only by the Theravada tradition and not by scholars. The main reason for doubting it is that it gives dates for Aśoka that conflict with the evidence from his rock edicts - he was evidently crowned in 268 BCE give or take a year, and therefore a gap of 60 years remains unaccounted for.

The corrected long chronology
Prebish glosses over this date which appears to simply subtract the 60 years and give dates of 484/483 BCE. It seems as though this date became widely accepted

The short chronology
This date relies on texts which state that the coronation of Aśoka was exactly 100 years after the parinibbana, meaning that the Buddha died in 368 BCE. However the problem here is that all ancient texts are not in agreement over the elapsed time. One says 116 years, another 160 years. It is however supported by archaeological evidence and gained some heavy weight supporters.

The Dotted Chronology
The idea here is that when Upāli finished collected the Vinaya immediately after the Buddha's death he placed a dot on the manuscript. Each subsequent year a further dot was added to keep track of the years. The obvious flaw in this theory is that the vinaya was initially memorised and not written down until some centuries later. For at least 300 years there was no manuscript to place dots on.
Gombrich's answer to the problem of dating the Buddha came from a reassessment of the dates conveyed in records of Upāli successors as vinayadharas. The age at which each pupil was ordained, memorised the vinaya and died is recorded in a number of texts. Traditionally ages of monks are counted from their ordination, but Gombrich argues that in this case the ages where counted from birth. For one thing if the traditional chronology is used most of the monks would have lived into their 90's and one to 105. By counting the years from birth Gombrich is able to construct a plausible time frame for the lineage that does not contradict other known dates such as the coronation of Aśoka. This process yields a date of 404 BCE for the parinibbana with a margin of error of plus seven years or minus 5 years. Prebish seems happy to accept 404 BCE as the date.

Though Prebish accepts Gombrich's date for the parinibbana he believes that Gombirch was in error in his dating of the councils which rests on much shakier ground. In fact it involves making an assumption about the traditional date of 100 years between the first and second Buddhist councils that is not supported but only makes sense in the light of traditional historical narratives. After having dealt with the precise lifespans of the vinayadharas Gombrich makes the assumption that the 100 years is a round figure and suggests that it was in fact more like 60 years since that produces a better fit.

Prebish argues for letting the new chronology stand without altering the span between the councils. One of the consequences of this new chronology is that it places Aśoka front and centre in the first major split amongst the Sangha. The historical king is likely to have presided over the unofficial "non-canonical" council (recorded in some texts as occuring between the 2nd and 3rd councils) which resulted in the first Sanghabheda or schism. 18 years later Aśoka may well have convened the 3rd council at Pāṭaliputra (the Aśokan capital city) in order to try to "reaffirm Buddhist orthodoxy" in his new role as Dharmarājā.

An earlier article by Prebish and Jan Nattier makes it seem likely that it was the Sthaviravādins who split first, and the Mahāsaṃghikas who represented the conservative mainstream. The issue seems to have been the number of rules which the Sthaviravādins were seeking to increase. Evidence for this is the number of rules in the various surviving Pratimokṣa Sūtras with the Mahāsaṃghikas having the least.

This is a brief gloss of Prebish's article which is available on the internet (link below) and is recommended if you have an interest in Buddhist history. The original Gombrich article is less easy to get hold of - try an interlibrary loan if you don't have access to a major University library.

  • Gombrich, Richard. 1992. "Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed." In Die Daiterung des Historischen Buddha Volume 2, edited by Heinz Bechert, Vanden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 237-259.
  • Nattier, J and Prebish, C. "Mahāsāṃghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism." History of Religions, 16, 3 (February, 1977), 237-272.
  • Prebish, Charles. 2008. "Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol.15,

18 July 2008

Which Mahāyāna texts?

It is frequently observed that the proportion of Mahāyāna texts which have been translated into English even once is only small compared to the number in the Chinese Canon. Certain texts have received much greater attention than others, even amongst those available in translation, and are now taken as being normative - that is that our Western understanding of what the Mahāyāna as a whole was saying is based on a subset of those texts available to us in English.

In the introduction to her translation of the Ugraparipṛcchā Jan Nattier makes some observations about this which I would like to highlight. Her comments are in the context of noting that at one time the Ugraparipṛcchā was an important text. It has multiple translations into Chinese, and is cited extensively in anthologies such as Śantideva's Śikṣāsamuccaya. Some explanation of why such a central text has received so little attention in the West seemed to be required.

Nattier notes that texts are more likely to have been translated into English if they have two features: firstly if there is a extant Sanskrit text; and secondly if they have been influential in Japanese Buddhism. Here's a list which will be familiar to students of Mahāyāna.
  • Saddharmapuṇḍarika
  • Suvarṇabaṣottama
  • Sukhāvatīvyūha (both long and short)
  • Avataṃsaka
  • Vimalakīrti
  • Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras - especially Hṛdaya, Vajracchedika, Aṣṭāsahaśrika, and Pañcavimsatisahaśrika
  • Laṅkāvatāra
Only a handful of Mahāyāna texts survive in Sanskrit including all (I think) of the above. Part of the reason for the interest in Sanskrit texts is the focus of Western scholars on "original Buddhism". Westerners, partly influenced by higher criticism of the Bible, are aware of layers in the Buddhist canon, and are motivated to find the "original" text. The idea is that anything from a later period is not authentic, but this is making many assumptions which are not sustainable, nor would they necessarily be accepted by Buddhists. We know that the Heart Sūtra, for instance, was most likely composed in China, but this does not make it any less profound, nor undermine its widespread influence across many Buddhist sects. Buddhists can be fundamentalist about texts, but on the whole it is contrary to the spirit of the religion to be so. The Dharma is anything which helps us realise the truth.

However we need to balance this against Nattier's own comments just a few pages later with reference to Chinese translations from Sanskrit:
In short, when reading any given line of a Chinese Buddhist sūtra - excepting perhaps those produced by someone like Hsuan-tsang, who is justifiably famous for his accuracy - we have a roughly equal chance of encountering an accurate reflection of the underlying Indian original or a catastrophic misunderstanding. (Nattier : 71)
We are a little better off with Tibetan texts because they started later and had better reference works but -
even here, however, we frequently encounter visual, grammatical, or (less commonly) aural misunderstandings (Nattier : 71 n.36)
The solution is to compare extant versions of a text, and a key task for the scholar is to construct an edited (i.e. corrected) text which is pressumed to accurately represent the "original". Unfortunately the extant Sanskrit manuscripts which are seldom much older than a few centuries, are prone to the same problems. Viz Conze's comments on the Nepalese manuscripts of the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra which he describes as "execrable". Leaving aside scribal and translator errors we also know that Buddhist texts frequently changed over time, chapters and sometimes whole independent sūtras, were added or subtracted, chapters were rearranged, and interpolations of all kinds were made by well meaning editors. The fact is that whatever the language of the text it will be far removed in time from its author. So it is that we welcome the work of Jan Nattier and others like her who are translating a wider range of text and drawing attention to the issues of the history of our texts, and the problems of translating them.

The second factor in whether or not a text is popular in the West is whether it is influential in Japanese Buddhism. This is a result of collaborations between the West and Japan which commenced in 1868 (with the Meiji Restoration). Influential Western Scholars such as Max Muller, and Hendrik Kern began to take Japanese students: the former was responsible for many first translations of Mahāyāna Sūtras, while the latter produced the only translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika from Sanskrit.

However there is a third factor because it is obvious that amongst these few texts, some have greater prestige than others. Nattier cites the Laṅkāvatāra for instance, translated and promoted by no less an authority than D. T. Suzuki as one text which has not had the kind of influence that might have been expected - we still only have Suzuki's rather flawed translation in English for instance. Compare this with the influence of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika which has many English translations, as does the Vimalakīrti, and the Heart Sūtra. Nattier suggests that these texts, and perhaps the Sukhāvatīvyūha texts, have a greater prominence because they:
"portray the Buddhist messages in terms congruent with certain core western values such as egalitarianism (e.g. the universal potential for Buddhahood according to the Lotus), lay-centred religion (e.g., the ability of the lay Buddhist hero of the Vimalakīrti to confound highly educated clerics in debate), the simplicity and individuality of religious practice (e.g., the centrality of personal faith in Amitābha in the Sukhāvatīvyūha), and even anti-intellectualism (e.g., the apparent rejection of the usefulness of rational thought in the Heart Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and other Perfection of Wisdom texts). (Nattier : 6)
To which list we might add the factor of an "other power" centred soteriology perhaps! In the case of what is in the West an influential sūtra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarika, it is in fact far from being representative or typical of the Mahāyāna - in fact the opposite it true. And yet it has had a huge role in defining the Mahāyāna as it is understood in the West.

Nattier sees her study and translation as an antidote to the prevailing parochialism of the West, and as an attempt to restore a once important sūtra back to its rightful place in the Buddhist canon. Reading it we have to acknowledge that our ideas about the development of the Mahāyāna have been based on too narrow a field of sources and the Ugra challenges our preconceptions.


  • Nattier, Jan. 2003. A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
A selection of Mahāyāna sūtras translated in to English, including some lesser known texts is available at www4.bayarea.net/~mtlee/. Image from that page.

11 July 2008

Dhāraṇī - origins, meaning, and usage.

The word dhāraṇī is a characteristically Buddhist term at times synonymous with mantra, and at others seeming to have it's own special significance. In this short essay I want to examine the word, and the main ways it is used.

The word dhāraṇī, according to Edgerton's dictionary of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, does not occur outside of texts written in BHS. This point is sometimes summarised as "does not occur outside of Buddhist texts", but Edgerton's point is more specific and that specificity has some possible consequences. We need to be aware here of the shifting and uncertain nature of BHS. BHS is in fact a Prakrit language that was in the process of being Sanskritised. By which we mean a vernacular North Indian dialect was being regularised in it's grammar to conform to the ideals of linguistic form represented by Classical Sanskrit*. As such BHS shows considerable variation in grammar and spelling especially in the area of inflections - the suffixes added to words to indicate the grammatical relationship between them.

Buddhist texts cover a spectrum:

  • Texts written in relatively pure Prakrits (the Gāndhārī texts for instance),
  • Texts written in Pāli, a somewhat artificial "church language" constructed from several Prakrits.
  • Texts in which the Prakrit has begun to be Sanskritised
  • Texts in which the process of Sanskritisation is well advanced
  • Texts in more or less pure Classical Sanskrit (e.g. Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita)
In fact there is a word in Sanskrit - dhāraṇa. It means, according to Monier-Williams:
"holding, bearing, keeping (in remembrance), retention, preserving, protecting, , maintaining, possessing, having".
This is so close to the uses of our word that I am somewhat surprised that the literature supplies no argument for distinguishing the two terms. Remember in BHS spelling is variable. In Tibetan the word is frequently translated, again according to Edgerton, as "gzuṅs, literally, "hold, support". This suggests that the Tibetans understood dhāraṇī to by synonymous with dhāraṇa. My linguistic knowledge is not sufficient to press the point, but it seems so obvious that I wonder why no one more qualified has not dealt with this issue.

Jan Nattier suggests that the earliest use of the term dhāraṇī occurs in relation to the Arapacana Alphabet (Nattier : 292) - now known to be the alphabet of the Gāndhārī Prakrit. This alphabet, uniquely in India, was used as a mnemonic device, a kind of acrostic where each letter stood for a keyword, which then became the subject of a phrase. By the time of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (ca. 2nd century) this technique was being used as a memory aid for a meditation on aspects of śunyata. From this usage we find the word dhāraṇī associated with mnemonic devices - many writers insist the dhāraṇī is always a mnemonic device. However a glance over some of the many dhāraṇī's preserved in, or as, texts will quickly make this identity much less certain. Most dhāraṇī apparently have no mnemonic features, i.e. they do not appear to stand for other things. They do employ many of the prosodic features of poetry in order perhaps to help them be memorable, but they do not seem to, as some authors would have us believe, "summarise the text to which they are attached". More often a dhāraṇī bears no apparent relationship to a text, even when it is strongly associated with a text - as in the very prominent case of the Heart Sūtra where interpretations of what the mantra means are as numerous as are commentaries on the text. That there is no consistent exegetical tradition associated with any of these dhāraṇī only serves to confirm this impression.

Like mantras dhāraṇī come in a variety of forms. In early Buddhist texts markers at the beginning such as 'oṃ' or 'namaḥ samanta buddhāṇāṃ' are missing. dhāraṇī can be strings of words, frequently all with the same grammatical ending (usually the feminine vocative). An example from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra is:
Anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samita viśānte muke muktame same avishame samasame jaye [kṣāye] akṣāye akṣaīne śānte samite dhāraṇī ālokabhāshe pratyavekṣāṇi nidhiru abhyan taranivishṇe abhyantarapāriśuddhi utkule mutkule araṭe paraṭe sukāṅkṣaī asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣaite saṃghanirghoshaṇi [nirghoshanī] bhayā-bhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣāyate rule rutakauśalye akṣāye akṣāyavanatāye [vakkule] valoda amanyanatāye [svāhā]. (Bunnō : 329) **
Such strings make frequently use of poetic devices such as alliteration, repetition, and often make use of phonetic variations on a theme. These are clearly visible in the first line of the dhāraṇī above. Alternatively they may be strings of syllables which do not make words. Again from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka:
iti me iti me iti me iti me iti me ni me ni me ni me ni me ni me ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe [svāhā]. (Bunnō : 331)
Here the effect is of repeated sounds, which to my ear suggests some kind of sound symbolism. On a Buddhist online forum one member suggested that they represent coded coordinates for some object like a stupa, but as far as I know this is pure speculation. Though the argument is similar to ones made by Subhash Kak about codes in the Ṛgveda.

Another kind of dhāraṇī reads like a poem or prayer to a particular deity. These are more like the Vedic mantra in literary character - here we could translate dhāraṇī as "hymn" just as many Vedic scholars do for mantra. These dhāraṇī are part of an extant Buddhist tradition which is rooted in Pure Land ideas: chanting the dhāraṇī invokes the saving power (or vow) of the Buddha or Bodhisattva, delivering the chanter either from some immediate misfortune, or ultimately from the suffering of saṃsara altogether.

One oddity of the way the word dhāraṇī is used is that it can be both the means to the goal, and the goal itself. One chants a dhāraṇī in order to be protected or gain insights; however some texts talk about the acquisition of dhāraṇī as one of the results of the Bodhisattva's practice. The Lotus Sūtra deities offer dhāraṇī to be memorised and chanted for protection, while the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā has the Bodhisattva attaining dhāraṇī : in this case dhāraṇī almost seems to be synonymous with samādhi, and note that this is sometimes how the word dhāraṇa is used in the Upaniṣads (see for example Deussen : 389f)

It is frequently assumed that dhāraṇī, and the Pāli paritta texts, are simply precursors to mantra. However I'm not convinced that there is a continuity here. Some of the popular dhāraṇī texts did end up being considered to be "kriya tantras" by later Tibetan exegetes, but there is nothing in the content of these dhāraṇī, nor in the context in which they occur, to suggest that they function like mantras in the Tantric sense. This identification has lead some scholars, for instance Robert Thurman, to argue for very early dates for Tantric texts, when other evidence makes it seem very unlikely.

A more thorough exploration by a qualified scholar is eagerly awaited, although I am not presently aware that any scholar of Buddhism is taking an interest. I speculate that a closer analysis of the evidence will reveal a more subtle interplay of religious ideas and impulses at work, and make it clear that dhāraṇī and paritta are not in origin at least, simply mantra by another name. The word dhāraṇī came into play in a time and place of innovation: in the 1st-2nd centuries in Gāndhāra, under foreign rulers (the Kuṣans), during which period also the first images of the Buddha were made, and the Mahāyana began to be mainstream. However it was quickly taken up by the Buddhist world - new ideas appear to have spread quickly at this time, perhaps due to extensive trading networks. The term then appears to have undergone a process of evolution over several centuries until the advent of Buddhist mantra proper, probably in the 7th century, when it was subsumed under that rubric. Traditional explanations of what makes dhāraṇī distinctive lack this historical perspective, while contemporary accounts have jumped too quickly to the conclusion that similarity equals sameness.

  • * Where I do not qualify it the word Sanskrit will mean specifically Classical Sanskrit from now on.
  • ** Square brackets in this and the next quote indicate that the author has reconstructed the Sanskrit original from a Chinese text, and it is speculative. Note there is a Sanskrit text but it is very late and not necessarily more accurate.

  • Bunnō, K. et al. 1986. The threefold Lotus Sutra : Innumerable meanings ; The lotus flower of the wonderful law ; meditation on the bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tokyo : Kosei Publishing.
  • Deussen, Paul. 1906. The philosophy of the Upanishads. (trans. by Geden, A. S.) New York, Dover Publications, 1966.
  • Nattier, Jan. 2003 A few good men : the Bodhisattva path according to 'The inquiry of Ugra' (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

image: dhāraṇī in the Siddhaṃ script, calligraphy by Jayarava.

04 July 2008

Non-lexical utterances, stobhas, and mantra

In researching the background to Buddhist mantra I inevitably began to read about Vedic mantra. There is a lot more research on Vedic mantra and on the whole it is more interesting than research on Buddhist mantra, so far. Reading up on the Vedic tradition has given me an appreciation of the Vedic literature which is of surpassing beauty and profundity at times. I think we Buddhists tend to write off the other Indian scriptures but that is our loss. The Vedic tradition stands in relation to Indian culture rather like the Ancient Greeks do to Europe.

If you do read up on Vedic mantras you will find that mantra originally meant one of the hymns to the gods as exemplified and recorded in the Ṛgveda. The date of this text is disputed rather vigorously and sometimes hotly, but it seems likely that it was compiled around 1500-1200 BCE, probably out of an already existing oral literature. As the verses (or ṛk) began to be used ritually two things happened. Firstly an exegetic literature began to be composed to explain how, where, and when to use the verses in the rituals; and secondly the verses themselves were reframed. For my purpose today I want to draw attention to the Sāmaveda which reframes the Ṛgvedic verses by setting them to music. Verses sung or chanted to these rhythms and tunes as called sāman.

One of the key features of sāmans is the insertion of syllables to alter the metre of the original. These syllables are called stobha. Stobha can be one or two syllables. One list of stobha is:
ā (e)re hā-u is phat as hā hṃ iṭ pnya auhovā hahas ho-i kāhvau um bhā hai hum kit up dada hā-i hup mṛ vava (e)bṛ ham hvau nam vo-I (e)rā has ihi om (Staal Vedic Mantras p.61)
Recently I was revisiting some websites about the sounds that people make during conversations - which the researchers call "non-lexical utterances" or "conversational grunts". The interest in these sounds came out of research into human-computer interfaces. Here is a list of non-lexical utterances on one site:
ai hh-aaaah iiyeah okay nuuuuu ukay uam uumm yeahh am hhh m-hm okay-hh nyaa-haao um uh uun yeahuuh neeu ao hhh-uuuh mm ooa nyeah um-hm-uh-hm uh-hn uuuh yegh nuu aoo hhn mm-hm ookay o-w umm uh-hn-uh-hn uuuuuuu yeh-yeah ohh aum hmm mm-mm oooh oa ummum uh-huh wow yei yeah eah hmmmmm mmm ooooh oh unkay uh-mm yah-yeah yo ehh hn myeah oop-ep-oop oh-eh unununu uh-uh ye yyeah achh h-nmm hn-hn nn-hn u-kay oh-kay uu uh-uhmmm yeah ah haah huh nn-nnn u-uh oh-okay uuh uhh yeah-okay ahh hh i nu u-uun oh-yeah uum uhhh yeah-yeah (Reponsive Systems Project)
The list could be supplemented from popular music (think James Brown for instance!), or for that matter from serious vocal music, which also use non-lexical syllables to pad sentences or verses to fit a metre. These non-lexical sounds function as feedback to the speaker, and are uttered in concert with the speaker in order to let them know that they are being heard and understood. A lot (but not all) of the information conveyed by these non-lexical sounds is contained in the prosodic aspects of speech - tone of voice, inflection - along with non-verbal signals such as facial expression, hand gestures, and body posture. These can indicate the attitude of the listener to what is being said, and how they feel about it.

While we cannot confirm this, it seems reasonable to surmise that stobhas were drawn from non-lexical sounds amongst Vedic speakers at the time. This further suggests that stobhas not only help a verse to conform to a metre or rhythm, but may also have served another pragmatic function when chanted in sāmans. They may have been imitating prosodic elements of speakers of the time, incorporating information about responses to the sāman within it. It may be possible for a suitably qualified person to test this idea.

It is the conclusion of some researchers into mantra, Fritz Staal being the leading light, that because mantra contain non-lexical sounds, that they are "meaningless". We would have to agree that sounds like oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ do not have dictionary definitions, they do not refer to any "thing". However it's clear that Staal et al have been too narrowly focussed on semantics. Languistics may be focussed on words, but human communication involves very much more, and a great deal of communication may take place without any words at all. We can even make words mean the opposite of their dictionary meanin: I can say "I like your new haircut", while implying the exact opposite in an unequivocal way through the use of facial expression and vocal inflection for instance. (This is known technically as conversational implicature)

After the Ṛgvedic period mantras began to make more use of non-lexical sounds. Staal sees this as a persistence of primitive pre-linguistic sounds into the present: they are like bird song, animal noises, or the burbling of infants, and quite meaningless. They are the caveman grunts of popular imagination, retained by Indian religious leaders for ritual purposes. If we for a moment accept Staal's hypothesis his analysis of those kinds of sounds is grossly oversimplified since all three of these phenomena are far from meaningless if one knows how to listen. Worse still Staal appears to be making some unfortunate, rather "orientalist", implications about the subjects of his studies. This inelegant hypothesis is untestable, and does not open the way to further research. It certainly does not chime with the experience of mantra. Kūkai goes to the other extreme and counts every mantric syllable as being infinitely meaningful, and being the starting point for elucidating all knowledge and experience. In this he is adopting a world view which has its basis in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. A full explanation of Kūkai idea deserves it's own essay, and goes beyond what I am suggesting here. Not that I disagree, but I am looking for intermediate steps that make sense in a contemporary context.

Stobhas used in sāmans may well have been the model for the use of non-lexical syllables in mantra although this would be difficult to prove. They do bear a resemblance to non-lexical sounds used meaningfully in conversation by contemporary English speakers (and others). But even if they did not what it suggests to me is that we can look for meaning in ways that might not be obvious, and still not have to stray into metaphysics and mysticism. It may be that no explanation in these terms can fully comprehend mantra. That is not a problem. But in attempting such an explanation I think we can shed a lot more light on this subject, and make it more accessible in the process. The "mantras are meaningless" mantra is a dead end as far as research goes, and as far as elucidating the persistence of mantra over several millennia in Indian religious contexts.

image: The Reading Genie - "Say ah!"
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