31 October 2008

To be or not to be : the problem with ontology.

To be or not to be : the problem with ontologyWhen Hamlet was pondering the question of "to be or not to be" he was contemplating ending his sea of troubles by taking his own life. This nicely delineates the Western attitude to 'being': despite the fact that 'to be' is a verb something either is or is not. One of the fundamental religious questions of our time is: "does God exist?" This question is regularly covered by the UK media, and has recently been the subject of heated and vituperous public debate. The study of what exists is known as ontology. Etymologists tell us that onto is from a present participle, ōn, of the Greek verb eimi 'be'. In the West the question of the nature of being is one that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

The question of ontology is at the forefront of the western mind, however for Buddhists it seems to me that ontology - questions of being - present a translation problem on the one hand, and a methodological problem on the other.

The translation problem emerges when we begin to examine ancient Indian equivalents of the verb "to be". These have roots in as-, bhū, or hū - although actually is really a dialectical variant on bhū. When you want to assert something definite and concrete - "there is a something" in Pāli you tend to use the root as. The form atthi is common - for instance atthi ajāti - "there is the unborn". Bhū is also frequently translated as "he is, there exists" and yet PED also says about bhū that it means "to become". The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary gives a much wider sense for bhū: "to become, be, arise, come into being, exist, be found, live, stay, abide, happen, occur" and so on. In Sanskrit bhāvanā can also mean "the saturation of any powder with a fluid, steeping, infusion". Bhū is the root of words meaning "beings" (as in human beings; bhūt in Hindi are ghosts!) and is also used in the part-participle to indicate the content of insight: yathābhūta-ñāṇādassana which I have suggested might be translated as the knowledge from seeing the process of becoming.

Clearly the ancient India notion of 'being' is far more fluid than our contemporary Western notion (the slight influence of Quantum theory notwithstanding). We see being as a state which is stable and fixed, while the ancient Indian saw being as a process, a cyclic process even. The same root gives us bhāva which in Buddhism carries the connotation of returning again and again to this world over many life times. So where we read verbs from "to be" in a Buddhist text we are apt to misunderstand what is intended. So this is the first caveat: that existence in a Buddhist context is always a coming into being, not an either or. However note that the Sanskrit word satya (Pāli sacca) can mean both real, existing; and true.

The other problem emerges when we take a look at the Buddha's method. The idea of dependent origination is famously summed up by Assaji as:

Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo
A standard translation being:
Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse
We tend to translate "dhammā" as "things" which takes us into the realm of ontology. Now clearly Buddhists down the ages have been at pains to explain that "things" are impermanent and disappointing and lack any immanent noumenal essence (the latter being more relevant to Brahmins - see Anatta in Context). We use examples of "things" being impermanent - cups which break, rivers that flow, and people who die for instance. It is true that "things" are on the whole impermanent. But careful observation tells us that actually many things are quite stable, and some objects may well not change noticeably in our lifetimes - geological time-frames in particular stretch to hundreds of millions of years, with changes noticeable only on the scale of millions of years - something which would not have been knowable in the time of the Buddha. To the ancients geological features would have appeared unchanging and timeless. However what can and does change all the time is our relationship to, and experience of, objects of the mind and the senses. It is this subjective aspect of experience which constantly changes even when the object does not!

In any case as a technical term dhammā does not indicate "things" as such, that is dhammas are not external independently existing objects, but the objects of manas, the mental sense. Dhammas are mental phenomena. As such their ontological status becomes difficult to define - is a thought or a sensation existent or non-existent? Or perhaps neither existent nor non-existent, or perhaps both? Or none of the above? The Buddha's stellar successor Nāgārjuna made it clear that the terms existent and non-existent do not apply to dhammas. This is sometimes seen as paradoxical, but the difficulty can usually be found in a wrong understanding of what a dhamma is. The statement has profound implications, but is not at all mystical, in fact is it quite pragmatic.

Sangharakshita has pointed out the methodological advantages of basing the teaching of Dependent Arising on an experience - especially the experience of suffering (Sangharakshita p.142 ff). It is because we are intimately acquainted with experience, we all suffer to some extent, and experience is less likely to throw up a lot of arguments about definitions. I take this a little bit further and suggest that the Buddha fully intended that his principle be applied to experience rather than the objective pole of experience. Early Buddhism tacitly acknowledges a distinction between the mind and it's objects, but this is not the same as a separation. In fact the one cannot be experienced without the other. So I am arguing for a distinction with a methodological benefit, not for a physical and metaphysical absolute.

Now if we take dhammas as having a firm ontological status, one way or the other, or even if we get caught up in trying to define that status, a number of problems emerge. If dhammas are considered real in any concrete sense then that suggests that we are experiencing a sort of stable external reality when we have an experience. We become concerned with questions about the nature of that external reality: like establishing once and for all "does god exist?"; or the allied question "how did the universe begin?" These have no bearing on what we should do now about suffering. Look at the resources in terms of time and energy that goes into these enterprises - how many books and lecture tours recently have been devoted to this stupid argument that no one can win. You can't prove that God doesn't exists even when God is plainly irrelevant. You can't prove that God does exist - at best you have an experience that you might label an experience of divinity. And yet quite intelligent people try to convince each other they are right - right and wrong become absolutes when you believe in really existent "things" behind experience. Belief in reality leads to fixed ideas about anything - canons of literature or law for instance. It also leads to follies such as the millions spent on trying to work out how the universe started. There may be some minor spin-off technologies that filter down to the us regular folk, but how does it help us to deal with our own suffering to know if the Higg's Boson is "real" or just a convenient mathematical fiction?

If dhammas are considered as absolutely un-real then all experience is just an illusion. Nothing really matters, nothing really happens. It opens the way to nihilism and to amoralism. If everything is illusion then there is no reason to favour moral action over immoral. This view is less common in the West. Our nihilism seems to emerge as a reaction against the failure of our belief in reality, that is through disillusionment rather than a positive belief in unreality or illusion. We want to believe in reality, but experience the disappointment this belief brings.

The many philosophies that are critiqued by the Buddha in the old texts (which we assume to have existed amongst his contemporaries) were not the result of things being real or unreal, existent or non-existent - they were the result of someone believing they were real or unreal. Eternalism and nihilism are views about experience. We frame the debate in terms of the nature of reality because that is our Western bias - we believe in reality, and we haven't fully taken on board the Buddhist teaching. But whatever reality might be like, our working ground is experience. If we want to go beyond experience then we need to examine experience itself, need to focus our attention on the process of experiencing - this is what the texts and the more genuine traditions indicate again and again. Then through knowing directly for ourselves the nature of experience we can give up on views about the world, because our theories cease to be relevant to the task at hand.

The "to be or not to be" habit is a difficult one for us to break. We think that things exist or not, and this spins us off into other either/or oppositions. We think there is right and wrong for instance that is distinct from our experience of positive and negative results. We find it hard not to think in these terms, and in terms of definite "things". Because we hardly even see that we layer our experience with these concepts, it is difficult to see that we are doing it. It's really only through disciplined meditation and reflection that we can break the habit. Once we let go of the "to be or not to be" habit a whole range of new possibilities open up to us.

  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : it's Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications.

image: Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Alternate Film Guide

24 October 2008

Anatta in Context

In comments to some other posts I discussed the context of the idea of anatta (Sanskrit anātman) and I thought it might be useful to give it more prominence. Anatta is usually translated as no-self, or as non-self. Misleadingly it is often rendered as egolessness - I'll get to why this is a problem shortly.

Anatta is the third of the tilakkhaṇā or three marks. In the Dhammapada 279 it says that sabbe dhammā anatta - All dhammas are non-self. The order of presentation of the lakkhanas is significant. In fact it is helpful to work through them backwards. We might ask for instance why are all dhammas anatta? They are anatta because of the second lakkhana - dukkha. Dhp 278 says in fact that sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha - all compounds are suffering.

Backtracking a little we need to look at what atta or ātman is. Ātman, using Sanskrit because it fits the context, is a concept introduced by the philosophers associated with the Upaniṣads. It was introduced not that long before the Buddha and was a distinct move away from the Vedic religion which had revolved around sacrifices to gods, and bonds between this world and the cosmos known as bandhu. It was also associated with a new idea about reincarnation - Joanna Jurevich has shown that reincarnation in a nascent form is, contrary to popular opinion, present in the Ṛgveda. However the Upaniṣads made reincarnation dependent on the actions of the person, on their carrying out of their religious duties and ceremonies. Ātman here was the immanent aspect of godhood - brahman. Not to be confused with the masculine personification of godhead Brahmā. Brahman was an abstract absolute transcendental principle. However the Upaniṣads equate ātman and brahman. The latter idea became highly influential in the popular form of Hinduism known as Avaita-Vedanta. The immmanent and transcendent aspects of godhead were not two. Brahman was said to have only three attributes (trilakṣaṇa) : satcitānanda - being, consciousness, and bliss. Ātman seems to have been the most influential religious idea in India at the time the Buddha was born. One's attitude to ātman - to the nature of selfhood as immanent godhood - was what defined many religious discussions, just as the existence and influence of the Christian God define religious discourse in the present.

Returning to the Buddhist anatta idea we can see that where there is an experience of dukkha - suffering, misery, diappointment, grief, etc, then that is not blissful. What is not blissful is not, ipso facto, ātman. Now the Buddha says that all compounded experiences are disappointing. The Buddha seems to have considered all experiences associated with the senses or the mind, which he considered as being synonymous with all unenlightened experience, as being disappointing (dukkha). Hence his constant refrain that the senses and the cognitive apparatus are anatta - not the ātman.

Note also that the Buddha taught that cittā - consciousness - arises in dependence on contact between a sense organ and a sense object. Because of this we must consider all sense experience as compounded or complex. More crucially cittā ceases when the contact ceases. Now if consciousness (cit) is a dependent product of contact, then brahman in it's cit aspect is conditioned! This is a major blow against the Upaniṣadic philosophy that doesn't get much attention these days because Buddhists are largely ignorant of that philosophy and fail to see the relevance of it.

We need to briefly mention that the reason that the Buddha said sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha, was because he had already observed in Dhp 277 that sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. Compounds are compounded of dhammas - and these are the objects of mano, the mind, and therefore saṅkhārā is more or less synonymous with cittā when used in this sense. Because we fail to properly see dhammas as ephemeral and fleeting (see also Language and Discrimination) we find all of our experiences disappointing. (The argument for unpleasent dhammas is more complex, but it also amounts to disappointment).

So in forward order: experiences are fleeting; because we don't get this at a fundamental level we find experiences disappointing; and because experience is not blissful it cannot be ātman. So nothing related to the body, senses, or mind - the apparatus of experience - can be the ātman. This is the proper context for the idea, and is the only context where it really makes sense.

Now for a variety of reasons, most of which relate to later Buddhist failure to take interest in the context the Buddha was operating it, the doctrine became decontextualized. Buddhists began to make new explanations for what the Buddha meant by anatta. One of the most prominent became that the Buddha taught that we have no self. There is apparently, and here I rely on Sue Hamilton, no explicit denial of self per se in the Pali Canon. What the Buddha denies is that any aspect of our experience is ātman in the sense of immanent godhood. The Buddha is trying to reframe the religious discourse away from ātman and towards a consideration of the existential experiential situation - he repeatedly refused to answer metaphysical questions and responded that he taught "suffering, the cause, the end and the way to end suffering".

A popular version of this corruption is that the Buddha taught something called "egolessness". Now this is problematic in several ways. The term ego is introduced by Freud's English translators - he called the psychic function in question "ich". Using Latin led to a reification of the term in popular usage - it moves from being an abstract function, to being a concrete part of the person. One can now speak of "having an ego", for instance, as though ego is a "thing". One can have too much ego, or perhaps too little. This is a dismal error that flies in the face of Buddhist approaches too being as process as well as what is intended in psychological jargon.

Buddhists take this one step further by making the ego wholeheartedly bad, and proposing that all people should be egoless. A person with no ego would be incapable of communication or learning, or any kind of interaction. Egolessness would be disastrous for the individual. I've expounded this at length in the past. Ātman as the immanent godhood is nothing at all to do with the ordinary sense of self. The Buddha even at one point suggests that a sense of self is essential for the development of empathy! I've suggested that the English word "selfless" is much more in keeping with the Buddhist concept - it means not, someone with no self, but someone who is altruistic! A final irony is that Buddhists who promote egolessness are often the same ones who are proponents of the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha (literally "the matrix of one who is like that") - or Buddha nature. Now some of the tathāgatagarbha literature equates the tathāgatagarbha with ātman (see for instance Williams, p.98-9). So while treating anatta as egolessness, they promote the idea of an intrinsic immanent Buddhahood which is like the ātman. So we're basically back to Vedantic eternalism at this point, the very kind of idea which anatta was designed to critique.

The idea of anatta is often elevated to being "the doctrine of anatta". I don't think it was ever intended as a stand alone doctrine. It seems more likely that it required not only a Buddhist context, but the Vedantic context against which it was being offered as a polemic, in order to make sense. So on the whole it does not make sense in the present. Anatta was part, and only a part, of a Buddhist demolition Vedantic arguments which are not relevant in the modern west, though it may still be relevant in India. What we need at present is a Buddhist critique of the Christian idea of creation, and the scientific idea of evolution. Both tend to draw attention away from the existential situation and from the problems associated with the apparatus of experience - and therefore neither are likely to be helpful in the Buddhist Enlightenment project. Perhaps a subject for a future rave...


  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Williams, P. 1989. Mahāyāna Buddhism : the doctrinal foundations. 1st ed. London : Routledge.

17 October 2008

From the beloved...

Green Eros

Green Eros by
Dhīvan Thomas Jones
published by Apus Press.

'Well, you live in hope,' she said, and a whole world suddenly broke open in front of me, like a cloud splitting and, inside an aerial city full of streets and towers - the city of those who long for love' - Dhīvan Thomas Jones, Green Eros

The Piyajātika Sutta (MN 87, PTS ii.106) is a text which appears to buck trends. The Buddha is portrayed in a way which seems to suggest that he could be quite hard headed.
In the Sutta a man is distressed because his only son has died. He cannot work or eat. He finds himself going to the cremation ground and crying out "my only son, where are you?" He goes to see the Buddha who notices that the man is out of sorts, and asks why? This is a theme that is repeated in a number of places in the canon. In this case the Buddha's response to the man is:

evametaṃ evameva... piyajātikā hi... sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā piyappabhvaika

That's it, that's just it! From the beloved comes grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble, [they] arise from the beloved.
The man is dismayed to hear this and counters that as far as he is concerned that the beloved is a cause of delight and pleasure (ānandasomanassa). He leaves the Buddha dissatisfied and finds some gamblers who confirm his views that the beloved is a source of happiness. Gamblers in these kind of stories represent the worst elements of society, they are casually and carelessly immoral.

The story eventually reaches ears of King Pasenadi of Kosala who's wife, Queen Mallika, is a Buddhist. He is disturbed by the story and his wife's acceptance of it. He accuses her of just agreeing uncritically with whatever the Buddha says. So Mallika sends a Brahmin to question the Buddha directly, and the Buddha confirms that it is his position that the beloved is a source of grief etc. Mallika explains the meaning of the teaching to the king by pointing out that he is very fond of Princess Vajirī and asks if she became ill and died, would he not be distressed. 'Of course!' he answers. Similarly with other people he loves - a son and general, another Queen, the land of Kosala itself - and it dawns on him that the Buddha is right and indeed the beloved is the source of misery.

Readers may be more familiar with the story of Kisāgotamī who has also lost her baby. In the oft told story the Buddha uses a kind and gentle strategy to bring Kisāgotamī to the realisation that her baby is not sick, but dead, that there is no medicine in the world that can cure death, and that death comes to everyone. Few people know however that this version of the story is not canonical, but commentarial - it's fullest telling occurs in the Dhammapada Atthakatha - ie it dates from many hundreds of years after the Buddha. Even so the contrast with the Buddha's response in the Piyajatika is strikingly. Here is uncompromisingly direct and unsentimental, and appears to fail to communicate successfully with the distressed man who has lost his son. This makes me think that he is a straw man - someone thrown into the story in order that the King, the real object of the story, may be seen to learn something about the beloved, that is I don't believe the Buddha was literally so unsympathetic to human grief.

The other constrast I want to draw is with the Mettā Sutta. In my translation it says:
Just as a mother would give her life to protect her only child
Likewise include all beings everywhere in your heart and mind
With loving kindness for all the world
In all directions of space, unobstructed, peaceable and without enmity
The heart embraces all.
Surely there is a contradiction here? On the one hand the love of a man for his only son is a source of misery, and the Buddha tells him that his very love is the problem; while on the other hand the Buddha recommends that we love all beings just as a mother would love her only son. Note here that the Mettā Sutta recommends universal love. Mettā is like the love for a child, but it is different because it is not exclusive. While pursuing this ideal of universal loving kindness something emerges which is not like the one-to-one love between mother and child. Mother-child love for all it's beauty and necessity, and romantic love, lead to attachment. The beloved or even love itself are treated like possessions - love can be lost for instance, or taken away. And when the object of love leaves or dies it is as though we have lost some-thing. It is the loss of something, or someone that we are attached to which is so painful. Attachment means that we persuade ourselves that we will have the beloved always, that they will be 'ours'. But of course the beloved is never ours in this sense. Our attachment is based on a misunderstanding of the way the world works. Mettā on the other hand, because of it's universality, seems not to lead to attachment. Because mettā doesn't make distinctions it is closer to the truth of becoming and ceasing. Because we, ideally, love all beings equally, no one being is special. All are important, are unique, but we don't value one person over another. We value love itself.

In romantic love, and even in the love of a child, we often look for a sense of completion - something about the other, the lover or the child - both of whom can be referred to as piya - seems to fill in the gaps in us. If we do find a lover, or have a child, then we can cease to see that we are incomplete while they are there. If they leave or die then we are suddenly thrown back on ourselves, onto our incomplete self. We feel as though part of us is missing, we grieve and mourn (sokaparideva). Sangharakshita has emphasised the need to become fully human - to, as it were, fill in our own gaps - before we can really make progress in spiritual terms. I've previously written about my own thoughts on necessity for a whole and healthy ego and also the problem of self preoccupation so I won't expand on these now.

As I say the Buddha appears to have been entirely unsentimental on this subject. The beloved will not last, will not complete us, will not make us whole, will not in the long run make us happy. There is only one way to achieve something like this and that is through spiritual evolution. If our love can encompass all beings the way we want to love, or be loved by, the beloved - if all beings become our passion, our thoughts are filled with them, we wish only their well being and good fortune - only then do we begin to experience wholeness and contentment.

It seemed appropriate to use this post to highlight my friend Dhīvan's recently published novel Green Eros. In this book he explores love from a masculine point of view, powerfully and faithfully evoking the male experience of love and relationship. Dhīvan draws on both his doctorate in the philosophy of love, and his deep knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and practice, to spice the story with wise reflections on love.

I'll finish today with a couple of verses from Sangharakshita's long poem The Veil of Stars:

All the tears of desire reflect only the agony of its own frustration,
But in a single tear-drop of compassion are mirrored all the sorrows and miseries of the world.

Desire seeks to possess and dominate the lives of others,
Love simply to sacrifice its own.

10 October 2008

Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism

One interesting features of ancient Indian literature is the way they explain the meanings of words. There are two main methods: by giving series of synonyms, and by giving a series of words which appear to only be linked by using many of the same sounds. The latter method has been likened to the contemporary science of etymology, though usually it is seen as a rather debased or inferior version of etymology. In this essay I plan to give an example of an ancient etymology from the writing of Buddhaghosa, show that it has parallels in the Cratylus dialogue of Plato, and make some comments on these two with respect to sound symbolism especially the work of Margaret Magnus.

First a brief word about ancient epistemology. Foucault, in The Order of Things, points out that in Pre-renaissance Europe knowledge was based on resemblance, and that after the Renaissance knowledge came to be based on difference. In other words we now make sense of the world by looking for points of difference between 'things'. Information is meaningful to the extent that it represents something unique. We don't even think about this most of the time. However in the days of the Buddha and Plato people made sense of the world by looking for how 'things' were similar, looking for qualities in common. So for us a red pen, and a red vegetable are not related; but to the ancients the redness of the two meant that they could be seen to be related. This way of thinking is so foreign to us that we would say that the relationship is a false one. However it does mean that they tended to see the relationships between things, and to perceive everything as being interconnected; while we tend to atomise the world, and fail to understand inter-relatedness. The current crisis in the environment is an obvious consequence of this of this failure. The very way we polarise into right and wrong is influenced by this tendency to understand things in isolation.

In the Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa offers a variety of same sounding words in order to explain various words. This basic procedure is called nirukti (Pāli nirutti) etymology after the text Nirukta by Yāska, a grammarian from about the 6th or 5th century BCE. In chapter VII Buddhaghosa explains the name/title Bhagavā in a whole series of nirukti etymologies, but in particular with this little verse from the Niddesa (a commentary which is included in the canon):
bhagī bhajī bhāgī vibhattavā iti
Akāsi bhaggan ti garu bhāgyavā
Bahūhi ñayehi subhāvitattano
Bhagavantago so bhagavā ti vuccati

The reverend one (garu) has blessings (bhagī), is a frequenter (bhajī), a partaker
(bhāgī) a possessor of what has been analysed (vibhattavā)
He has caused abolishing (bhagga), he is fortunate (bhāgyavā)
He has fully developed himself (subhāvitattano) in many ways
He has gone to the end of becoming (Bhagavantago) thus he is called "Blessed"
He also suggests that bhagavā can be understood as:
bhāgyavā bhaggavā yutto bhagehu can vibhattavā
bhattavā vanta-gamano bhavesu: bhagavā tato

He is fortunate (bhāgyavā), posssessed of abolishment (bhaggavā), associated with
blessings (yutto bhagehu), and a possessor of what has been analysed
He has frequented (bhattavā), and he has rejected going in the kinds of becoming
(VAnata-GAmano BHAvesu), thus he is Blessed (BHAGAVA)

(Visuddhimagga VII, 56, 57, p.225-226)
One of the things which makes the scientific etymologist doubtful about this approach is the obvious fluidity. In the space of two pages Buddhaghosa has offered two quite different versions of what bhagavā means. Our ideal is to have one explanation for each word. To some extent this is a hang over from what Umberto Eco calls "the search for the perfect language". For centuries westerners believed that in the perfect language (initially conceived of as the language which God spoke to Adam) each word would have a single referent, and each thing would have only one name. What we try to do with language is pin down meaning. Many people are disturbed by the fluid multiplicitous nature of the relationship between words and the world, but actually this is what language is like.

If one is familiar with Sanskrit or Pāli one might recognise that some of these words stem from the same notional verbal root, or are different only in their grammatical relationships. bhāgyavā and bhagavā for instance are both concieved of as stemming from a root bhaga (Sanskrit bhaj). However bhagga is from a different root, bhañj. So a theory of verbal roots cannot account for the relationship. In fact there is no obvious relationship between all of these words except for the the initial sound combination: /bha/. (In phonetics sound units or phonemes are placed between forward slashes, which helps in cases such as the letter c which can ambiguously sound like /k/ or /s/.)

Under the current paradigms of linguistics there is no possible relationship between sounds and meaning - these are denied by definition. So for linguists in general the fact that all these words share an initial sound is irrelevant to what the words mean. This has not always been the case in Western thinking. Plato put forward a partial account of the meaning of words based on the sounds of their letters in his Cratylus dialogue. He says for instance:
"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion".
There are clears parallels with Yāska's Nirukti method. Here Plato is suggesting that the letter rho (i.e. /r/) lends a quality of energy to words. Most contemporary linguists subscribe to a version of the idea of Ferdinand de Saussure (whose own theories on language were in fact influenced by his study of Sanskrit) which says that the relationship between a word and its referent is arbitrary. So any theory which posits a non-arbitrary link is de facto wrong. Behind the scenes however is a growing list of academic papers which demonstrate that the paradigm itself is unable to account for some obvious non-arbitrary links.

Margaret Magnus has definitively shown, in her doctoral thesis, the initial phoneme of a word has a symbolic function in the word. If one examines all words (with no suffixes) that begin with the same phoneme they fall into a smallish number of areas of meaning. Different phonemes create different clusters of meaning, and these do not overlap very much between phonemes. Her more popular account of what she calls "phonosemantics" is quite fun so rather than quote her research I'll give an example from her book Gods of the Word (full details below) which was written for a general audience. In what follows Magnus is describing, poetically and associatively, the impact of having the phoneme /r/ in a word, especially in the initial position:
"/r/ is active directed force. It is red, rowdy, and roguish. Run! Run! Run! But it is also rational. It does not feel. It reasons and acts. And reacts. If it is headed in the same direction as its neighbours, it can be supportive as rock. But if not, it leads to wrack and ruin. And /r/ is linear. It thinks in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'..."
In order to understand what Magnus is getting at one would need to comb through the dictionary and see that many of the /r/ words fit this picture that she is painting. If you have a spare hour this is a fun thing to do. The relationship is not one to one, it is fuzzy, it is symbolic. One cannot predict what sound that any given language will use for a particular referent. The pattern only emerges when comparing large numbers of words - Magnus was involved in creating an electronic dictionary when the patterns began to appear to her.

My feeling is that this contemporary research sheds light on the method of Buddhaghosa in defining words. It makes more sense when you know that initial phonemes do indeed effect what a word means.

I have long wondered whether this knowledge had any impact on the development of Buddhist mantra. While I have amassed a huge amount of information and many thousands of words of notes, I am still not in a position to assess it. I think it is suggestive that the Buddhist exegesis of mantra often focuses on individual syllables.

At the date of publication I am still largely responsible for the text of the Wikipedia article on sound symbolism or phonosemantics. This could change at any time of course. [Definitely changed 22.4.13] Another summary of sound symbolism can be found on visiblemantra.org.

image: lipreading poster from lipread.com.au

03 October 2008

Knowledge and Vision

Anyone familiar with the teaching of Sangharakshita will most likely be familiar with his "spiral conditionality". This is the sequence of links or states which he juxtaposes with the twelve nidanas: the former is linear and leads to enlightenment; while the latter, according to the commentarial tradition, results in cycling around from birth to birth. The locus classicus for this teaching is the Upanisa Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya.(1) Since Sangharakshita identified and expounded this idea of a second order of conditionality a number of us, myself included, have identified other examples of it in the Nikāyas.(2) It is clear that this teaching once formed an important part of the Buddha's message, but that it was forgotten sometime after the Pāli Canon was written down and is lost in the Theravāda tradition. It was rediscovered in fact by C.A.F. Rhys Davids when she translated the SN, and it was her reference to it in the introduction of that translation which was published over the years 1917-1930, which alerted Sangharakshita to it.

Spiral conditionality in the Upanisa Sutta begins with faith (saddha) which is the support for joy (pāmojja - also known as weak rapture) and so on up to knowledge of the destruction of the asavas (āsavakkhayañāṇa). In this essay I want to focus on the 8th stage or link in this sequence: yathābhūtañāṇādassana. This words is translated by both Sangharakshita and Bhikkhu Bodhi as "knowledge and vision of things as they really are".

yathābhūtañāṇādassana is a compound word with 4 parts. It is yathā + bhūta + ñāṇā + dassana. My method here is one that I have employed on a number of occasions in this blog, which is to look at each word in turn, and then reassemble the compound hoping to see more clearly what it means by understand the parts and how they fit together. Starting at the end and working backwards we come to:

Dassana means "seeing, looking; noticing, sight of, appearance, look".(PED) The ancient Indians shared our metaphor that seeing is knowing. See what I mean? Something seen is known, something unseen is unknown. Under ñāṇa the PED says of the relationship between sight and knowledge that "[it] implies that all things visible are knowable as well as that all our knowledge is based on empirical grounds. It is a basic metaphor for us - sight is our primary sense, our strongest experience of the world is through sight. The visionary has in-sights into Truth, they lead us into new areas of knowledge. The Buddha frequently uses this kind of visual metaphor to describe the experience of bodhi which itself continues the metaphor because to wake up is to open one's eyes, it suggests day-time, light.

Ñāṇa (Sanskrit jñāna) means "knowledge, intelligence, insight, conviction, recognition. (PED) Note the presence of visual metaphors in this definition. Ñāṇa is related via the Latin (co)gnito to English words "cognise", "gnostic", and "know". The dictionary tells us that it is synonymous with paññā (Sanskrit prajñā) for which PED gives "intelligence, comprising all the higher faculties of cognition... reason, wisdom, insight, knowledge, recognition. Paññā and ñāṇa are routinely translated as knowledge and wisdom respectively in order to distinguish them. Pañña seems to imply the kind of knowledge which results from insight (vipassanā) ie that kind of knowledge of which bodhi consists; whereas ñāṇa is the understanding that arises from sense data and thinking. However we need to be careful to insist on this distinction because ñāṇa is being used here in the sense of vipassanā.

So ñāṇadassana would appear to be an elaborate, or poetic, way of referring to vipassana. "Knowledge and vision" is a good translation but it's worth considering synonyms in order to give a sense of it: for instance "recognition and noticing". I quite like this because knowledge and vision suggests a state, almost a fixed state - a vision is so often conceived of as a one off event; whereas recognition and noticing implies more of a process. If we read the compound differently we might consider the "knowledge from seeing" - c.f. K.R. Norman's interpretation of the compound aryasacca as "the truth of the noble ones" which I explore in my essay The Four Noble Truths.

Now bhūta is a very interesting word. It comes from a root bhū which means "to become". Bhūta itself is a past participle so it means: "grown, become, born, produced; nature as the result of becoming". (PED) We tend to associate bhū with our verb "to be", e.g. in the verb bhavati "he is, there exists". (Warder p.11) However in Buddhist circles "being" is more like "becoming". Being is not a state, but a process. This fundamental difference is often overlooked precisely because we use words derived from "be" and "exist" in translating Buddhist texts. In the past tense then, bhū, refers to the results of a process of becoming. In Buddhist this is everything which can be sensed and cognised in the ordinary way - although note, and I'll come back to this, the idea of distinct "things" is one that the Buddha seems to have been undermining in his teaching.

Yathā is a word which means "as, like, in relation to, after". In compounds it can mean "according to" for example yathākāmaṃ - "according to desire". It is used to create adjectives and adverbs. So when Ajātasattu is confessing to the Buddha that he has killed the good king Bimbisara, he prefixes the verb with yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathā-akusalaṃ - i.e. the thing was done "foolishly, confusedly, and unskillfully".

Yathābhūta then must literally mean something like "according to what has become", or "like the become", or perhaps even "the nature of having been produced". Interpreting we may say that it refers to the functioning of the process of becoming. Recall that when Assaji meets Sariputta he described the Buddha's teaching this way:
Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo

Of those experiences [i.e. dhammas] that arise from a cause
The Tathāgata has told their cause,
And their cessation":
Thus the Great Samaṇa argues.
On several occasions (most notably in What is it that Arises in Dependence on Causes, 11.4.08) I have argued that what arises in dependence on causes is dhammas, which are mental phenomena, i.e. experiences. Not things note, but experiences. It seems to me that this is also what yathābhūta is referring to. The products of becoming are dhammas. If we take this position we avoid a lot of difficult entanglements with what "things" are and their ontological status. It would be best to leave the word "things" out of our definition.

So putting it all together we can now try to define yathābhūtañāṇādassana. It is the "recognition and noticing according to what has become", or perhaps alternatively "the knowledge from seeing the process of becoming". I believe that latter flows better and is more in keeping with Buddhist goals. We do not need to invoke the problematic "things" in translating the term, and we can thereby avoid a potentially disastrous misinterpretation. The Buddha, I insist, was asking us to look at our minds and how they work, and seems to me to have avoided ontological questions and ontology generally.

Bodhi is waking up to the process of becoming, the knowledge that what presents itself to our mind is conditioned and 'become'. If it was a merely a matter of noticing cause and effect in the world then Isaac Newton would have been a Buddha - perhaps no-one in Western history has been so intimately acquainted with cause and effect as he. But Newton was not a Buddha. The insight of the Buddha is more fundamental somehow.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Buddha chose this multivalent word "dhamma" to stand for what presents itself to the mind as the word becomes overused and confusing. The idea that dhammas refer to "things in the world", or that impermanence is to be understood through observing the world as though it consists of impermanent "things" is a wrong view. When we say "things are impermanent" we have already gone too far down that road. We need to go back and examine what we mean by "things". When we say "things" we inevitably have in our minds something fixed - it is built into our grammar. It is unavoidable. (see Language and Discrimination) If we drop the language of "things" altogether we are on safer ground.

What we Buddhists are trying to see and know is the mental process of becoming - how our consciousness accepts, processes, and acts on information from our senses - ie how we come to know, the epistemological process. We build up a story about what we perceive and we fall into believing that our story is true and act on that basis. One only has to look at a random pattern of dots, or clouds in the sky, or shadows on a wall, to begin to see figures and faces - very often faces I find. That is the mind at work, making stories and trying to make out patterns. In the lower evolution, the biological species end of the process, this has value in that it helps to keep us alive and thriving. In the higher evolution, the spiritual individual end of the process, we have to begin to see through the stories.

It is pleasant experiences that we crave and grasp after, not things. It is the feeling of pleasure, or the feeling of aversion, that motivates us - and that feeling is a mix of the raw sense data, our interpretations of it based on experience, learning, and habit, and our responses to it. It is the way experiences come into being and pass away that we must know and see in order to be free.


(1) Upanisa is a Pāli word generally translated as "support", but my friend Dhīvan has pointed out to me that it is the same word as upaniṣa in Sanskrit and is therefore closely related to the word upaniṣad - the collective title for the late Vedic philosophical works which are also known as Vedanta, the end of the Vedas.

(2) My list of other references can be found in my essay: A Footnote To Sangharakshita's 'A Survey of Buddhism'.

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