25 December 2009

Meditation & Scholarship

Saint Jerome in his studyOver the last couple of years I've sometimes come in for some shtick from colleagues and acquaintances who think that because my writing focuses on doctrine more than meditation I've got nothing useful to say about the Dharma. I've tried pointing out that the subject I write about is what seems best suited to the medium and my own temperament, and that my words are not entirely unrelated to my experience as a practising Buddhist. But the suggestion that my contribution is of less value hangs in the air. For my part I find that my critics who focus on meditation at the expense of study are often self-absorbed, intellectually vague, and inarticulate. So you might imagine that I was quite interested to see that this kind of, shall we say, 'incompatibility' between Buddhists with different proclivities has a long enough history to be recorded in a Pāli sutta. [1] The sutta is one delivered by Mahācunda to a gathering of bhikkhus and the Buddha does not feature in it at all.

The Mahācunda Sutta (AN 6.46) describes two kinds of monks: those 'keen on dhamma' (dhammayogā bhikkhū) and those keen on meditation (jhāyī bhikkhū). Dhammayoga is glossed in the commentary as dhammakathikānaṃ 'a dhamma-preacher' (AA 3.376), but Bhikkhu Bodhi thinks it means someone (like me) who is more focused on study, i.e. a scholar.

In the sutta it says the scholar bhikkhus disparage the meditating bhikkhus:
ime pana jhāyinomhā, jhāyinomhāti - jhāyanti pajjhāyanti nijjhāyanti avajjhāyanti. Kimime jhāyanti, kintime jhāyanti, kathaṃ ime jhāyantī’ti?

"We are meditating, we are meditating" [they say]. They meditate here, they meditate there, they meditate up, they meditate down. Do they meditate? How do they mediate? Why do they meditate?
Similarly the meditating bhikkhus disparage the scholar bhikkhus:
ime pana dhammayogamhā, dhammayogamhāti uddhatā unnaḷā capalā mukharā vikiṇṇavācā muṭṭhassatī asampajānā asamāhitā vibbhantacittā pākatindriyā. Kimime dhammayogā, kintime dhammayogā, kathaṃ ime dhammayogā’ti?

"we are dhamma scholars, we are dhamma scholars" [they say]. They are inflated, showing off, arrogant; they talk too much and loosely, they're unmindful, unfocussed, scattered and their thoughts stray with senses uncontrolled. Do they study? How do they study? Why do they study?
One can almost hear the mocking tone of these taunts. However the text says that there is no profit for anyone in this kind of talk. Thus all bhikkhus should train themselves this way:
dhammayogā samānā jhāyīnaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti... jhāyī samānā dhammayogānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti

We will say that scholars are of equal value to meditators. We will say that meditators are of equal value to scholars.
The meditator is of value because:
...ye amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
...they dwell having touched the deathless state with the body.
The scholar is of value because:
gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passantī
they see, they penetrate with wisdom into the depths of texts.
The text is noted by Reginald Ray in his book Buddhist Saints in India. He takes the term dhammayogā bhikkhu or dhammayogin [2] to be synonymous with what he calls the settled monastic whose role in Buddhist society was remembering the Buddha's words, preserving them in texts, and studying the meaning of them. In addition they were responsible for basic literacy - monks like this probably were the ones who spread writing across India, Central Asia, Tibet and South-East Asia. Their counterparts, the meditators or jhāyins, are called forest renunciants by Ray. They devoted themselves to meditation practice in out of the way places, aiming for realisation of the truth. This, by the way, marks the sutta was probably a late addition to the canon because this kind of division must have taken some time to emerge. Ray also notes that such divisions are evident in later strata of Buddhist texts and even in contemporary Buddhist discourse. I might also note in passing that Jan Nattier's book A Few Good Men makes it seem likely that early in the Mahāyāna 'bodhisatta bhikkhu' was also synonymous with the jhāyī bhikkhu. [3]

The Mahācunda Sutta is a plea for tolerance of different temperaments leading people towards the Dhamma in different ways. We can all make a contribution to the wider Sangha according to our abilities. This is not to say that scholars need not meditate, or that meditators should not study. We must not only play to our strengths. It is of course entirely necessary to test our theories in practice - to give expression to our faith. On the other hand concepts are required to communicate insights and it benefits everybody if the concepts are clear and put across in ways that can be understood. As well as some frustrating experiences, I have also found that it is possible to get some depth of conversation with meditators and to use their experience as confirmation of the way I think, and on the other hand to help meditators to clarify the way they communicate the experience of meditation, and even to refine their approach especially to vipassana meditation. We can learn from each other.

In both study and meditation we confront our views. This is one thing about study and scholarship which often seems to be misunderstood. The scholar is not seeking certainty, not trying to fix things in words. Indeed the scholar is often intensely aware of the limitations of words, and especially in professional scholarship one's thoughts are subject to constant criticism by one's peers. The scholar is trying to expand knowledge, to make clear what is opaque, to observe new things. If there were nothing new to see and hear, then scholarship would have died centuries ago, but there are always fresh insights that need to be communicated, always unnoticed subtleties to explore. My own exploration of the texts, especially the Pāli texts, has lead me to a much stronger faith in the Buddhadharma. As critical as I can be, as unwilling to accept received traditions and dogmas, I find something beautiful and timeless in the Dharma that I have great confidence in.

  1. Mahācunda Sutta. Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.46 (PTS: A iii.355). My translations. Also translated by Bhikkhus Nyanaponika and Bodhi. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. p.163-4; and by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Ray discusses the term dhammayogin on p.201-2. Ray seems too quick to accept La Vallee Poussin's characterisation of dhammayogins which smacks of polemic. There is no a priori reason to think that a scholar is only interested in the 'intellectual' or that they are interested in metaphysics at all - though I will admit that it seems to have been the pattern through history. I wonder whether things could have got that far before the composition of the Mahācunda Sutta?
  3. Nattier, Jan. 2003. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisativa Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press. See especially chapter 5.
image: St Jerome in his study

18 December 2009

Ethics: it's not rocket science.

texting while drivingRecently a friend of mine tweeted this:
Question. Are the moral consequences of texting while driving the same if (a) you accidentally kill someone or (b) you do not kill anyone?
After initially engaging with the idea I realised that there was an underlying problem. Whenever I get into discussions on ethics I end up making the point that Buddhist ethics don't really work in the abstract or hypothetically.

In this example my friend was assuming that he could know and understand the intent of the person, as though the behaviour can be isolated from the life of the person and that intentions are a fixed entity rather than a process. Acts are not isolated - we 'will' and act in a massively cross-linked matrix. The idea that a single intention gives rise to a single act is simply erroneous. Behaviour is more complex than this, and if we don't take this into account then we can draw erroneous conclusions. Indeed driving and texting are both complex acts in themselves that extend over time with intention varying from moment to moment. There is no single intention, though like a story with many episodes there may be a kind of story-arc, an over-arching goal such as sending a text, but this can never be disentangled from the matrix of conscious and unconscious willing going on all of our waking hours.

We also need to be very cautious about thinking that we understand the intentions of other people. Social psychologists have determined that humans are actually quite bad at guessing motivations: we can empathise, that is experience the emotions of another, but when we assign reasons for behaviour we tend to grossly under-estimate the importance of environmental interactions (including the social). This is called the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. We assume that the individual is an entirely free agent, as we imagine ourselves to be, and in order to understand how another person could act in a particular way we try to imagine what kind of internal state (ignoring the external) might motivate us to act that way. An example very commonly encountered in online communication is where there is a perceived slight, and our first assumption is not that we have misunderstood, or that the person has communicated poorly, or that they are having a difficult time; our first assumption is that they acted maliciously because we can only imagine slighting someone if we were doing it maliciously. Online communication is often characterised by what is known as flaming - hot headed remarks and insults.

So it is important not to over simplify human behaviour because this does not give meaningful insights into the way people act. But even more importantly we need to think about what question is Buddhist ethics is trying to answer. Typically we try to answer the question 'why is this happening to me?' The point of Buddhist ethics is to answer the question: 'given the circumstances, what should I do?'

Very often we approach ethics from the point of view of the Abrahamic (ie Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) morality which is concerned to determine guilt, apportion blame, and direct punishment. We need to know who is responsible for what so that we can inflict some harm on them to atone for their sin. The harm we inflict cancels out the sin; and not only deters the sinner from doing it again, but will deter others from doing the same thing since they see the painful consequences. This we call "justice". It's important to spell it out like this, because even though we have left behind "an eye for an eye" our thinking about ethics is often underpinned by this kind of model. It highlights amongst other things why societies rooted in Abrahamic values have never made any progress on anti-social or illegal behaviour. In fact it is irrational to confess to a crime in our society, because to acknowledge guilt is to invite harm upon oneself. Unless one is convinced that suffering will atone for the sin, and we do not now believe this either individually or collectively (if we ever did); then it is not rational to invite society to harm oneself by acknowledging guilt. Note that guilt and blame can be distinguished - sometimes the guilty are not blamed, and therefore not punished, due to extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility for instance.

Another aspect of Judeo-Christian morality is that it is rule based. As moral agents, in this view, we can only be moral if we can understand the rules and obey them - this is the fundamental teaching of Christianity especially. Over and above the basic rules which God has etched in stone, we know that society imposes a large number of subtle, often unspoken rules on us, and in order to avoid guilt, blame and punishment we have to conform to them - though there is always leeway. Additionally if one is suffering one wants to know "what did I do to deserve this" (i.e. what rule did I break?) because from the Judeo-Christian point of view there is no punishment without guilt and blame. We want to know how to avoid punishment - we do so by avoiding guilt and/or avoiding blame. But we also consider ordinary suffering to be a (divine) punishment, and therefore look for the rule that we have broken to deserve it.

Many people when they hear about the Buddhist doctrine of karma/vipāka assume that it reflects a cosmic retribution for evil acts. This is not helped by Tibetan versions of the doctrine which insist, contra the explicit early Buddhist position, that everything that happens to you is a result of something you have intentionally done - i.e. you do deserve to suffer! (NB: I do not believe this) The original intent of the doctrine was to focus our minds on the way the actions have consequences, particularly for how able we are to still our minds to meditate and seek wisdom. It is about deciding how to act. It is not about explaining how we got into this mess, but how we go about getting out of it. If we impose rules then we start to focus on avoiding guilt and blame all over again.

For these reasons it is important to bring ethics down to the experiential, to the personal. Buddhist ethics is not about laying down rules and judging other people. It is far more valuable to reflect on our own actions in practice and see what consequences came from what kinds of actions, to see for ourselves in actual experience, what is helpful and what is not. In this situation what should I do? What helps us to live harmoniously what helps us to achieve the calm state that we need in order to meditate and seek wisdom successfully? We do not need to concoct tricky intellectual exercises because these only lead to more theories and theorising. We need to observe ourselves in action. We need to be able to make broad brush stroke equations like: when I'm angry it's very difficult to communicate or get my point across to others. When I'm generous I receive more appreciation and kindness in return. When I serve others in some way I feel more content with my life. When I avoid gross stimulation it's easier to calm my mind for meditation. It's not rocket science.

image: Pasen Law Group blog.

11 December 2009

Aspects of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra II

nectar gathering bumblebeeHaving dealt with some of the issues of the linguistics of the mantra [1], I want now to look at the mantra as a text. While in the Tibetanised version the main theme is taken to be purification of karma, in the corrected Sanskrit one of the other themes emerges into the foreground: samaya. Samaya is our relationship (or agreement or meeting place) with Vajrasattva, the embodiment or personification of the Dharmakāya.[2] I want to explore the nature of this relationship in various terms which will demonstrate some continuities.

Firstly let me say a quick word about the purification of karma. I showed in my published paper on confession [3] that from the point of view of early Buddhism willed actions (karma) inevitably produce results (vipaka). The fruits of actions cannot be eliminated or 'purified'. However they can be mitigated and I cited several texts which explore how this happens. In a footnote to that article I also noted that in later versions of the Samaññaphala Sutta this doctrine began to change. Whereas in the Pāli the story of King Ajātasattu confessing to the Buddha that he has killed his father is only the frame for a larger doctrinal exposition, in the surviving Sanskrit fragment and three Chinese translations Ajātasattu's confession is the main focus. In the Pāli version there is no way to prevent the devastating effects of his actions (patricide is one of the five unforgivable acts), and the commentary on the story tells us that at death he goes straight to the Hell of Copper Kettles. The later versions all make his meeting with the Buddha transformative and state that, to varying degrees, Ajātasattu is released from the effects of his 'unforgivable' actions. Indeed it seems that this became an important theme in Mahāyāna Buddhism and is epitomised by the Tantric Vajrasattva as purifying through the recitation of his mantra.

The theme of samaya is distinctively Tantric, though it has resonances with earlier traditions. Samaya, as I have explained, means 'agreement, meeting, meeting place' and could also be translated as relationship. The idea is brought out quite poetically in Kūkai's expositions on kaji (Sanskrit adhiṣṭhāna) which I wrote about some time ago as grace. The idea is that it is not just the practitioner reaching out towards a remote and disinterested goal, but that the Dharmakāya is doing it's bit to reveal itself. Lest we become too theistic about it I want to unpack this idea.

In the Heart Sūtra is says that all dharmas are marked by emptiness (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣanā). This is entirely in keeping with the earliest (pre-abhidharma) notions on the nature of dharmas. Dharmas are the units of experience, both the information from the senses, and the mental aspects consciousness such as memory, associative and inductive thinking. Experiences, the focus of discussions of dependent arising, have no ontological status - they are not solid existence 'things', nor are they non-existent. As Nāgārjuna observed the terms existent and non-existent do not apply to dharmas (and therefore to experience). All that we know and are conscious of results from contact between objects and sense organs giving rise to dharmas - in this sense the word means 'foundation'.

However we do not treat experience this way: we take it far more seriously than this, as existent and important. We spin stories about it which we believe and invest with value, a process known as prapañca. Hence we make our fundamental errors which lead to suffering.

Now the samaya with the Dharmakāya says something like: if you seek, you will find. In other words the true nature of experience is always able to be discerned, it can't be permanently hidden from us. If we go about it the right way, we will see through (vipaśyanā) our delusions. This is an important aspect of Buddhist faith. The guarantees that Awakening is possible come in many forms amongst which Tathāgata-garbha, so-called Buddha nature, stands out as a good example. Buddha nature, like this samaya, is designed to set your mind at ease about the possibility of your liberation. Likewise the samaya uses the model of an agreement between two parties to assure us that we can realise the Dharmakāya.

I see the mantra as a dialogue, or even perhaps as a dramatisation of this relationship. On the one hand the chanter is reminding Vajrasattva, as an embodiment of the nature of experience, of his side of the relationship: we need the possibility of gaining insight into the true nature of experience to remain open to us, so that we can be liberated.

On the other hand the seed-syllables are Vajrasattva's response to us. Vajrasattva reminds us that it is we who project onto experience. That he, i.e. the nature of experience, is always available to us, and that in fact nothing can ever change that. Śūnyatā, pratītyasamutpāda, Buddha Nature, etc: these are all ways of pointing to the nature of experience - saying the same thing in different ways. Vajrasattva replies in non-linear, non-rational fashion because typically it is very difficult to think straight about this subject. Typically we are completely caught up in, or intoxicated with (pramāda), our stories and we cannot really think outside that narrow context. In Tanric terms oṃ āḥ and hūṃ represent not just our mundane body, speech and mind, but also the Three Mysteries (trighuya) the 'body', 'speech', and 'mind' of the Dharmakāya which are communicated through his use of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala. These three also become the technology by which we align our body, speech and mind with the Dharmakāya and become enlightened. The nectar of the deathless (both words translate as amṛta) is always available for beings in saṃsāra!

  1. I've dealt with the mantra from a linguistic point of view in two previous posts:
  2. Samaya is a complex term. It also covers our relationship with our guru, and with all sentient beings. Samaya can additionally mean 'vow', that is the vows that taken in conjunction with abhiṣeka. There are many different explanations.
  3. Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15, 2008.

04 December 2009

Aspects of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra I

Siddhaṃ writing on palm leaf from 11th century Nepal. A section of the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpārimtā Sūtra
In my annotated translation of the Hundred Syllable mantra I tried to convey what the Sanskrit text of the mantra was and how it might be translated [1] - I did this in such a way as to open up the meaning and allow anyone to produce their own wording. There is a lot more to say about this mantra. Here I want to look at why the mantra might have been misread to produce a garbled version.

Tantric Buddhism is generally agreed to have begun in the 7th century in India. It continued to develop until Buddhism died out in India, and long afterwards in the surrounding nations of Bhutan, Ladhakh, Nepal and especially in Tibet. Having been conveyed to China and the far east, this stream of transmission (and back transmission) was cut off with the demise of the Silk Rd, and the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the late 9th century. Some scholars see the much earlier dhāraṇī tradition as being "proto-tantric", but this is like saying that flour is proto-cake.

Tantras were on the whole composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, with the exception of the Kālacakra Tantra which was composed in Classical Sanskrit. BHS is an inflected vernacular language which has been modified to be more like Sanskrit. This was a general trend and even Pāli has been Sanskritised to some extent. My view is that mantras are also in BHS rather than Classical Sanskrit - the -e ending on so many words being not, as many scholars assume, a feminine vocative, but a masculine nominative singular. [See words in mantras that end in -e].

Writing during this time was somewhat different to present day. The script in widespread use in Northern India at the time is known by several different names but is now generally called Siddhaṃ (perfected) or Siddhamātṛka (matrix of perfection). A version of this script, adapted for writing with a Chinese calligraphy brush, is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka for writing mantras - even when they are also transliterated into Hanzi. The Tibetan script dbu-can (pronounced Uchen) was designed on an early model of the Siddhaṃ script. In the latter part of the Tantric period the script which is now often no referred to simply as Sanskrit, but which is more correctly called Devanāgarī (City of Gods) began to supplant Siddhaṃ.

A feature of texts of this period is that syllables were not grouped into words, but written individually with little or no punctuation. In order to read a text like this one had to have a very good knowledge of Sanskrit word endings. Here is the Vajrasattva mantra written as it might have been in the 10th century in Devanāgarī:

Some of the mistakes that crept into the Vajrasattva mantra over time, or perhaps even all at one time, seem to me to be the result of misreading rather than mishearing. Note that Tibetan writing is open to the same kinds of difficulties in reading. Take this segment for instance:
व ज्र स त्त्व स म य म नु पा ल य = va jra sa ttva sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya
As I noted in my translation there are several ways to clump the syllables into words. The first four naturally form the name of vajrasattva. But this leaves sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya. If we are versed in Tantra but not so much in Sanskrit we might be attracted to the word samaya. Because this is a mantra we may not be expecting formal grammar, so we might take that as a unit. This leaves us with manupālaya. This is not well formed Sanskrit, but it has familiar parts (exlpained in my translation). I can't say how often as a neophyte Sanskritist I have fallen into a similar trap. The problem is that when a word ends in -m and the next word begins with a- the two are combined into a single syllable ma for the purposes of writing. So sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya is actually samayam anupālaya 'uphold the agreement'. In spoken Sanskrit this error would be less likely to occur.

A more crucial error in reading occurred further along.
स र्व क र्म सु च मे चि त्तं श्रे य कु रु = sa rva ka rma su ca me ci ttaṃ śre ya ku ru
This phrase is at the heart of the use to which the mantra is put - the purification of karma. Let me review what I think may have been the procedure for understanding this based on my own experience of reading an unfamiliar Sanskrit text. Keep in mine that we know this is a mantra and mantras seldom follow grammatical rules so we're not expecting to see grammar. Several familiar words stand out: sarva (all), karma (action), cittaṃ (mind) kuru (make). This leaves some bits and pieces. Some thought shows that śreya is related to the word śrī, and that me is 'me' or 'mine'. We're left trying to explain su ca. Suca (often spelt sucha to avoid the confusion on how to pronounce c in English) isn't a word, but it is similar to words related to √śuc 'to gleam' figuratively 'to clean or purify'. The basic form is śocati, past-particple śukta, infinitve śuktum, 2nd person singular imperative śoca. Close enough for a mantra. So sarva karma suca me by this process means 'purify all my karma'. And cittaṃ śreya kuru means 'make the mind more śrī'.

In fact su goes with sarva-karma to give the locative plural sarvaskarmasu and the ca is the copulative particle 'and'. Sarvakarmasu ca means 'and in all my actions', and the rest me cittaṃ sreya kuru means 'make my mind more śrī'. Śrī has a very broad range of meaning and I chose 'lucid' because that conveys the sense of light which underlies śrī as well as being an auspicious state of mind.

Well formed Classical Sanskrit sentences do not just form at random. The chances of taking any series of syllables, gathering them into clumps, and finding sentences is vanishing small. Garble is far more likely, and more commonly encountered in mantras. This means that the best explanation is that the formal Sanskrit we find in the mantra when we fiddle with word breaks is very likely the original text. Given that the mantra was composed in Classical Sanskrit it suggests that it may well be from the same milieu that created the Kālacakra Tantra.

A corollary of this is that the mantra only gained its association with the purification of karma after it had been garbled and that this was not the original use of the mantra. [2] Not only that, but the way the message is garbled suggests to me that the mantra was passed on without an explanation at some point, and then later on an exegesis was composed based on the mis-read rather than a mis-heard Sanskrit text. Indeed I wonder whether the text was passed on in written form because an oral tradition would have preserved the Sanskrit rhythms of speech that would have made this kind of mistake quite unlikely. I would imagine that this did not happen on Indian soil.

This finding of the original text, and my conjecture about it, creates a significant tension with the received tradition which revolves around purification of karma. In my next post on this subject I will explore some implications of this tension, and look at the theme that emerges into the foreground when the spurious reference to purity is removed: samaya.

  1. In my translation I relied heavily on notes by Dharmacārī Sthīramati aka Dr Andrew Skilton published privately as: Sthiramati (aka Andrew skilton). 'The Vajrasattva Mantra : notes on a corrected Sanskrit text'. Order Journal. vol.3 Nov. 1990.
  2. In this article Sthiramati makes it clear that a great deal of work remains to be done on the history of this mantra. Several fragments appear in other contexts for instance. I don't have the resources to carry out this research but perhaps someone else will one day (it might make a good dissertation).

27 November 2009

New Articles on Dhāraṇī

Kharoṣṭhi Alpabet

Gāndhārī Alphabet in
the Kharoṣṭhī script
It was with some anticipation that I began to read Ronald Davidson's new review article in the Journal of Indian Philosophy on the meaning of dhāraṇī in Mahāyāna Buddhism - a subject in desperate need of an overhaul. However Davidson seems to have misunderstood crucial aspects of the system of practice in which early dhāraṇī was located. My comments will mainly concern his understanding of the Arapacana alphabet, especially as it occurs in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, [1] however I flag up wider concerns as well.

Davidson proposes the idea that the main point of the words associated with the Arapacana is to draw attention to how the letters can support (carry √dhṛ) meaning - thus linking dhāraṇī with the type of esoteric speculation in the early Upaniṣads and Tantric Buddhism. He explicitly denies the other and more natural possibility that the letters are mnemonics for words and concepts. His contention seems to be that the relationship must be this way around because in some texts different words are associated with the letters. The existence of variations on the theme in different texts surely suggests a technique widely used in different contexts, rather than incoherence or simple polysemy.

There are two main objections to Davidson's thesis. He argues that the words indicated by the syllables are intended to help the student remember the alphabet. Even if we put aside the fact that the Gāndhārī alphabet continues to be used even when the rest of the work is composed in Sanskrit, and can therefore be of little practical use for learning there are deeper problems with the idea that the Arapacana developed in this way. Davidson uses same example already put forward by B.N. Mukherjee, though he seems unaware of this: a is for apple, b is for bear etc. But stop and think about this. A in the Arapacana, even in the very early versions, is for anutpannatva. This is an abstract noun from anutpanna (not-arising) meaning 'not-arising-ness'. In fact this is one of the most complex abstract ideas of Indian philosophy which cannot be easily understood outside the context of many years of instruction in Buddhist thinking. The other 4o odd letters stand for equally complex abstract concepts. Can Davidson really believe that such an abstruse abstract notion would be of use to a learner trying to memorise the alphabet? Surely this would be an impediment rather than a helpful mnemonic device! When we teach the alphabet we use concrete examples. I note that the children's Devanāgarī chart I picked up last time I was in India uses concrete examples as well: e.g. a is for anāra (pomegranate) and bha is for bhālū (bear).

It makes much more sense to think of the letters as a mnemonic for the concepts, not the other way around. Davidson suggests that literacy in the India world at this time was low, but even if literacy was low in the rest of the world generally, Buddhist monks in Gandhāra probably all learned basic reading and writing, since the reading of texts had by then become a fundamental monastic skill. Indeed Buddhist monks were the primary vector for literacy in most of Central, Southern and South-East Asia as the persistence of Brahmī derived scripts testifies!

More broadly the very presence of such lists and this level of abstraction speak of a written rather than oral culture. I've written about the probable Persian influence the alphabetical list, and that was a literate culture without any doubt, and their writing formed a model for the Kharoṣṭhī script [see: Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism]. However here I'm particularly thinking of the characteristics of oral cultures enumerated by Walter Ong - "an oral culture has no vehicle so neutral as a list... [oral cultures are] situational rather than abstract, unavoidably using concepts but again within situational frames of reference that are 'minimally abstract'." [2]

The other objection is broader. If we look at the words indicated by the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and most other versions of the Arapacana [3] then we see that they are all related to śūnyatā - the notion that experiences are neither existent nor non-existent, that they have no independent existence (svabhāva). This is the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom approach to practice. Indeed taking the Arapacana in context with other statements in the sūtra [4] we can see that they form the basis of a insight meditation practice - by reflecting on various aspects of śūnyatā one comes to see the true nature of experience, and is liberated. The texts emphasise the sameness (samatā) of each of the syllables, not because of the inherent polysemy of letters making them interchangeable which they plainly are not, but because the concepts which they stand for show the practitioner the truth about experience being śūnyatā - śūnyatā is the common characteristic (i.e. the basis for the sameness) of all experience. Davidson seems to have lost sight of Nāgārjuna's polemics against ontology, not to mention the Buddha's.

What I think Davidson is doing is reading the texts with a particular result in mind, specifically that the word dhāraṇī can best be understood as meaning code/coding. I wholeheartedly agree that other contemporary writers have erred in emphasising the mnemonic function of dhāraṇī generally or in maintaining the fiction that dhāraṇī are somehow 'summaries' of the text they appear in. The mnemonic function is restricted solely to the Arapacana context, though it clearly is a mnemonic in this context contra what Davidson says. I do not believe that I have seen any dhāraṇī that comprehensibly summarises a text - though of course this has not stopped people producing ad hoc/post hoc exegesis on the basis that dhāraṇī are somehow summaries. Witness the many and varied readings of the Heart Sūtra mantra for instance - most of which are mutually contradictory!

A far better attempt, though more limited in scope, was published by Paul Copp in 2008. [5] Copp explores the way the word is used in Chinese translations of the Bodhisattvabhūmi and the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Dazhidu Lun (大智度論). Copp shows that the basic meaning of the word dhāraṇī in these contexts can best be understood as 'grasp' - used in the sense of grasping the meaning, holding in memory, keeping in mind, etc. I concur. Just as the various meanings dharma (which I explored in Dharma - Buddhist Terminology) can be understood in terms of 'foundation' used literally, abstractly and metaphorically. It remains for Copp to show how his ideas fit into a much broader context, but his views seem more promising. I certainly prefer Copp's method of working from the texts to see what the word must mean in context, than Davidson's reading the meaning into the text.

From the point of view of a practitioner Davidson's error is perhaps an understandable one. For him the ideas do not seem to be tied into the practical use that is made of them: Buddhism is an intellectual system to be studied and understood in contemporary Western terms. No doubt he understands that Buddhists practice Buddhism, but the deeper implications of this pragmatism are not apparent. The impracticability of teaching an alphabet with recondite abstractions is only the most obvious sign of this.

One useful thing in Davidson's article is his survey of the history of the Western commentary on dhāraṇī - this threw up a few references I had not come across before. But that history is a bit depressing - it is a history of misunderstandings and the clash of Western preconceptions with Buddhist preoccupations. We're still trying to disentangle ourselves from that train wreck and in my opinion Davidson is pulling in the wrong direction.

  1. The Large PoW Sutra was translated by Conze but for variety of reasons the translation is less than satisfactory: for instance Conze was not working from an edited text and freely used passages from other versions in 18,000 and 100,000 lines where his manuscript (which itself has many faults) let him down. He also rearranged the text to suit subject headings from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Dutt's edition of the Sanskrit is flawed in the Arapacana sections with some doubling of syllables (which may be why Conze did not use it). Dutt was editing the text in the years before Salomon demonstrated that it was a real Alphabet. KIMURA is bringing out an edited Sanskrit text (see below) but the crucial part with the Arapacana is in the volume which has not yet been published. However some other related passages are available and I am working on translated them with my rather haphazard Sanskrit. - return to article
  2. [my italics] Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy, cited in Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness, p.33. - return to article
  3. The Arapacana in the Gandhavyūha Sūtra is the major exception. In this version the keywords do not relate to the alphabet at all indicating that the point of the exercise has been missed in this case. In this case the exception proves the rule. - return to article
  4. See for instance passages at p.162, 488-9, and especially p.587 in Conze's translation. I wonder if these scatter references were once more closely associated? - return to article
  5. Davidson may have been writing before Copp published, but does not seem to be aware of the article. - return to article

  • Conze, Edward (trans.) The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press, 1975.
  • Copp, Paul. Notes on the term Dhāraṇī in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Thought. Bulletin of SOAS. 71 (3) 2008: 493-508.
  • Davidson, Ronald. 'Studies in Dhāraṇī Literature I: Revisiting the Meaning of the Term Dhāraṇī'. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 37 (2) April 2009: 97-147.
  • Dutt, N. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: edited with critical notes and introduction. London, Luzac & Co, 1934.
  • KIMURA Takayasu : Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 1986. Vols II-V (vol I forthcoming) Online: http://www.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ebene_1/fiindolo/gret_utf.htm#PvsPrp
  • Lopez, Donald J. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton University Press.
  • Mukherjee, B. N. 1999. Arapacana: a mystic Buddhist script in Bhattacharya, N. N. (ed) Tantric Buddhism. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p.303-317.
See also my Arapacana bibliography.

20 November 2009

What was the Buddha's name?

In the Pāli texts his followers called him Bhagavan. Other people tended to call him Gotama or 'sāmaṇa' depending on whether they were being polite or impolite. Later is was established that his name was Siddhartha Gautama. In this essay I want to take a brief look at the evidence we have for what the Buddha's name was, or as we shall see, what it probably wasn't.

The name Siddhartha occurs in the Pāli texts, in the form Siddhattha, only in the Jātakas and later commentarial works. It is not used in the Nikāyas or Vinaya as the name of the Buddha, though it is used for other people. The Jātakas are legendary material which we can't take seriously as historical accounts. Siddhartha is used in the Sanskrit Mahāvastu - technically a vinaya text of the Mahāsaṅghika sect but actually an extended and much elaborated biography, really a hagiography of the Buddha. The fact is that the more strictly biographical accounts of the Buddha, such as the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, make no mention of his given name at all! The best we can say is that apart from the name Siddhartha there is no other name mentioned as a contender.

Gautama (P. Gotama) is something of a puzzle because it is a distinctively Brahmin name. There are several well known Brahmin philosophers called Gautama, and even a Brahminical Gautama Sūtra. Gautama is a traditional Brahmin gotra (P. gotta) name. The gotra is like a clan name, and indicates people descended from a particular ancestor. While the Vedic Brahmins did not worship their ancestors, whom they referred to as the pitaraḥ 'the fathers', they did revere them and in earlier versions of rebirth theories the good Brahmin would leave this world and go to the world of his fathers (women were not included in this scheme) for a time before coming back to this world. A hint into the original use of this term is that it also means a cow (go) shed (tra, 'protection') - the image is of the herd of cows enclosed and protected, similar to the relationship of the individual to the clan group. Only a few dozen traditional gotra names are recorded (there are lists in the pre-Buddhist Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad for instance). Monier-Williams' Dictionary suggests there are 49, and gives Gautama as one of his examples in his Sanskrit dictionary.

It is mentioned many times through the Buddhist canon that the Buddha was a kṣatriya - that is of the class (varṇa) [1] which is associated with rulers and secular leadership - sometimes kṣatriya and rāja 'king, ruler' are treated as synonyms. The other three classes were priests (brāhmaṇa) merchants (vaiṣya) and peasants (śudra). Although the Buddha's father was referred to as a 'rāja' at that time the Śākya nation was more like an oligarchy or republic. Rāja cannot really mean king or royalty in this context, and probably just means 'leader' and even then one leader amongst many. In the commentarial traditions we find that the Śākyas did not follow Vedic, but Dravidian marriage customs, suggesting that perhaps they were not Āryans [2] at all (though this is a late tradition it must have had the ring of truth to survive since it contradicts his being a kṣatriya, which is a more convenient appellation in caste conscious India). There are pockets of Dravidian speaking peoples in North India still and it is usually assumed that they were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Ganges plain and were displaced by the encroaching Vedic/Sanskrit speaking peoples. There is some doubt about this theory now, and of course it tends to ignore the other major language group in India - Muṇḍa - traces of which can be found in the Ṛgveda (see my discussion of the Dhp 1 and 2 for an example of a Muṇḍa loan word in Sanskrit and Pāli). In any case politically and it seems socially the Śākyas were distinct from the Brahmins - making the fact of the Buddha's Brahmin surname even more odd.

There is evidence that Brahmins were not above adopting clans into the Āryan class/caste system - sometimes making their priests honorary Brahmins. It has been suggested that perhaps the Śākyans employed a Brahmin purohita (a priest) and adopted his gotra name. If this is true it shows how very powerful the influence of the Brahmins was on the culture of Greater Magadha even at this early stage when it was dominated by the various śramaṇa groups. The Vedic languages were a powerful means of cultural imperialism.

To summarise then: while there is no other contender the name Siddhartha is not associated with the Buddha in the earliest texts, though Gautama is. Gautama however is a distinctive traditional Brahmin name which does not fit the general picture of the Buddha's non-Brahmin, probably non-Āryan background.

Such uncertainty does not sit well with religious sentiments, and so the legends which filled the gaps in our knowledge gained the status of facts: the Buddha's name simply is Siddhartha Gautama and we 'know' many details of his parentage and life. Of course it is possible that the legend is based on a fact not recorded in the suttas, however unlikely this seems. Perhaps the Buddha deliberately obscured aspects of his pre-enlightenment existence. I've noticed that occasionally when people wish to belittle me they will insist on using my birth name instead of my Buddhist name - particularly when denying the validity of my ordination. Perhaps the Buddha wished to create a bit of distance between that old identity and 'the Tathāgata'. Other details of his life are equally vague, and even more elaborately filled in by Buddhists. Indeed the further we get from the actual life the more elaborate the stories become until they leave behind any sense of historicity.

Does it matter? I think not. The Buddha is a symbol of our potential - every human being if they pursue the dhamma can become 'like that' (tathāgata), i.e. we can all have that experience which the Buddha had. The fact is that people have been having that experience ever since the Buddha's first disciples and right down to the present. Buddhists do not rely on the divinity of the Buddha. We have the dhamma - the ways and means of following the Buddha. We have the Saṅgha - each other, but more especially those with experience, with the experience, to support and guide us. The main reason for pointing out the problems with the hagiographic narratives is to prevent us from deifying that version of the Buddha who is more a product of human imagination than of history. Such a figure must remain a symbol and not become an idol if we are to retain the spirit of the Buddha's teaching.

30.7.10 Update:
See also Some Additional Notes which looks again at the issue of the name Gautama.
18.5.2011 Update:
The word śākyamuni is used in the Lalitavisatara and the Mahāvastu, two of the earliest Mahāyāna texts. It also occurs in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā [Sūtra] where several times we find the phrase:
śākyamunirnāma tathāgato 'rhan samyaksaṃbuddho vidyācaraṇasaṃpannaḥ sugato lokavid anuttaraḥ puruṣadamyasārathiḥ śāstā devānāṃ ca manuṣyānāṃ ca buddho bhagavāniti 

The tathāgata named Śākyamuni: the worthy, the fully and perfectly awoken, endowed with knowledge and conduct, in a good state, excelled in understanding the world, a trainer of people, a charioteer for gods and humans, awakened, fortunate.
More or less this same phrase is found in the Ajitasenavyākaraṇa which Williams discusses as a Mahāyāna sūtra that originally belonged to a pre-mahāyāna tradition (Mahāyāna Buddhism, p.26). The phrase śākyamuniṃ tathāgataṃ appears to occur only once in both the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras.

However the name Śākyamuni appears not to occur at all in the Śālistambasūtram, nor in the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (though 'śakya' does).

This is a brief and far from comprehensive survey of the Mahāyāna sūtras generally acknowledged to be early, and which can be found online and searched electronically. While not universal, nor always prominent, the name does seem to be established by the time these texts were composed - by perhaps the first century before the common era or a little before, but probably post Aśoka (to take him as a reference point).

  1. Class' better captures the higher level fourfold division of Indian society. 'Caste' is a translation of jāti 'birth' which is also used this way in Pāli - see e.g. the Pūraḷāsa Sutta in the Suttanipāta. Jāti often referred to one's specific occupation.
  2. 'Āryan' as a cultural description is falling out of favour because it is seen as politically incorrect. The people in question probably spoke a range of dialects all related very closely to Vedic or Sanskrit and to Iranian languages of the same period - I've seen it said for instance that Pāli is not descended directly from the Vedic of the Vedas, but from a near relative. Anyway I'm now uncertain how to refer to the people (if they were a people) or this family of languages. Vedic is not quite right, and Sanskrit has only limited applicability.

13 November 2009

Tadyathā in the Heart Sūtra

I've been asked several times recently about the meaning and function of this word tadyathā - especially in the Heart Sūtra. I thought some brief comments on my Visiblemantra blog would suffice, but I found that the explanation got a bit too involved and so I moved it here. My main source is Edward Conze's Sanskrit version of the Heart Sūtra in his 1975 book Buddhist Wisdom Books, though I have consulted other Sanskrit versions especially those edited by Vaidya. There is considerable variation in the Sanskrit manuscript versions of the text. I'll use the abbreviation PP for prajñāpāramitā.

The word tadyathā is often found at the beginning of mantras and is often included in the actual chanting. There is clearly some confusion amongst Buddhists on the role of the word tadyathā as evidenced in online debates. Tadyathā is an adverbial compound consisting of tad 'that' and yathā 'as like, according to, in that way'. So tadyathā means 'like this' or 'this way'. When the mantra in the Heart Sūtra is being introduced the text says:
prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ tadyathā: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.
In the 'wisdom gone beyond' the mantra is spoken this way: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā. [1]
If we follow Conze's punctuation in Buddhist Wisdom Books (p.101) the passage is pretty confusing, because the breaks seem to come at the wrong place - and interestingly his English is in fact punctuated quite differently from his Sanskrit (cf for instance the colon after "tasmaj jñātavyam" but not after "Therefore one should know"). In Vaidya's Sanskrit editions the punctuation is minimal. A daṇḍa (i.e. the punctuation mark | )before tasmaj jñātavyam which begins the series of epithets of the mantra, and another between mantraḥ and tadyathā in both. I'm not convinced by this, and as I will show below it is more natural to take prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ tadyathā as a single (well formed) sentence. So let us examine the grammar of this phrase:

The verb is ukta from √vac 'to speak'. [2] Grammatically it is a passive past-participle so means 'spoken' or 'said', and functions something like an adjective describing something. It is in the nominative singular form, uktaḥ, and sandhi dictates that the -aḥ ending changes to -o when followed by ma: hence we spell it uktoMantraḥ is also in the nominative case so we can deduce that ukto goes with mantraḥ, and the phrase ukto mantraḥ means 'the mantra is spoken'. Note that word order is not important in Sanskrit so it could equally be mantra uktaḥ. (in this case -aḥ followed by u > a)

Now, despite the fact that both Conze and Vaidya take tadyathā as a standalone word (separating it out with punctuation), it seems to me that tadyathā can quite naturally be seen to be an adverb modifying the verb ukto: 'spoken this way'. Separating tadyathā out seems to make for both poor Sanskrit and poor English: '...ukto mantraḥ. Tadyathā' = '...the mantra is spoken. Like this.' Sometimes a preconceived idea can blind us to the obvious, and perhaps this is what has happened in this case. So the phrase ukto mantraḥ tadyathā means 'the mantra is spoken this way'.

Prajñāpāramitāyām is actually a locative singular so I don't follow Conze's translation of it as an instrumental 'by the PP'. In Perfect Wisdom (1973: p.140) Conze aims for a more literal reading and has "In the Prajñāpāramitā has this spell been uttered". [3] Later in Perfect Wisdom (p.143), however, he repeats the version from Buddhist Wisdom Books 'by the PP'. The locative is used to indicate where the action of a verb takes place - in space or time. I think there are three ways to interpret this:
  1. In (the state of) perfect wisdom
  2. In the system of practice known as perfect wisdom
  3. In this perfection of wisdom text
Option one suggests that the mantra is spoken like this in the state of perfect wisdom, or by someone in that state. It may also refer to the point of view of perfect wisdom. Option two acknowledges that perfection of wisdom is also the name of a system of practice - we might say something like: 'in the perfection of wisdom school...' Option three allows for the possibility that the mantra is the one found in this text. Conze insists the mantra is not found in the any of the Large PP texts (Buddhist Wisdom Books: p.106). However compare Jan Nattier's note (The Heart Sūtra: p.177) of McRae and Fukui's discovery that "some or all of the mantra found in the Heart Sūtra also occurs in at least three other texts contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon". [4] I think Conze is opting for option one by translating Prajñāpāramitāyām as "by the perfection of wisdom" - ie he is taking Prajñāpāramitā to be the personification of perfect wisdom.

Whichever translation we choose it seems to me that tadyathā was not intended to be included in the mantra, though of course in many traditions it is included. This essay was sparked by someone asking about the mantra of the Medicine Buddha, as given to him by the Dalai Lama, which also has tadyathā included in the recitation. In the locus classicus for that mantra: Sūtra of the Medicine Buddha [pdf file] (Taisho XIV, 450) tadyathā is preceded namo followed by a number of epithets for the Buddha all in the dative form, then followed by the mantra: "homage to [the Medicine Buddha] like this: oṃ bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye mahābhaiṣajya-samudgate svāhā". The grammar is quite different and suggests that this mantra is being presented as a way of paying homage to the Medicine Buddha. Here again however tadyathā forms a natural part of the introduction, but not the mantra.

Compare Frits Staal's comments on the incorporation of 'stage directions' during the recitation of Vedic mantras in Discovering the Vedas (p.115):
Stage directions should not slip into the recitation. Once I recorded a mantra recited by a priest when he gave a stick (daṇḍa) to a boy. The recitation included the final words of a rule: iti daṇḍaṃ dadhyāt, 'thus he should give the stick'.
The inclusion of tadyathā is a similar case which probably occurred amongst people who recited texts in Sanskrit without knowing the language. Interestingly from what I can tell the practice occurs in both Tibetan and in the Far Eastern lineages. The inclusion of the tadyathā, though technically an error, is actively being passed on by living, authoritative teachers such as the Dalai Lama. Sometimes convention trumps philology. Sanskrit is a difficult language to learn and we Buddhists seldom know it these days, so convention becomes our only guide. I always prefer good philology if it is available, but sometimes it is too late to correct a centuries old custom.

  1. I leave the manta untranslated. I think there are some problems with Conze's translation of gate as 'gone'. He gives it a (grammatically) perfect sense which is not quite right for a participle. I deal with this a bit more on the visiblemantra.org Heart Sutra Mantra page.
  2. Via some tortuous internal sandhi: vac + -ta > vakta [with samprasāraṇa va > u] > ukta.
  3. Several prominent scholars of the early to mid 20th century including Conze and Snellgrove insisted on translating mantra as 'spell'. I think this is unhelpful and Snellgrove's justification of it in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism seems disingenuous. It is one of those words with no exact equivalent in English, and though there is some cross-over under some circumstances, 'spell' gives entirely the wrong impression in most cases.
  4. The references are given in footnote no.52: McRae "Ch'an Commentaries" identifies T no.901, 18.785a-897b, esp p.807b20-21. See also T 18.8071b19-c9; and T 18.804c-807b.

Sanskrit texts for both versions of the Heart Sūtra can be found online at the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon Website. These are copied from the texts edited by Vaidya, P.L.
  • Conze, Edward. 1975. Buddhist Wisdom Books : Containing the Diamon Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra. 2nd Ed. London : George Allen & Unwin. First Ed. 1957.
  • Conze, Edward. 1973. Perfect Wisdom : The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. Buddhist Publishing Group.
  • McRae, John R. 1988. "Ch'an Commentaries on the Heart Sûtra: Preliminary Inferences on the Permutation of Chinese Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 2: 87-115.
  • Nattier, Jan. 1992. The Heart Sūtra : a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.
  • Staal, Frits. 2008. Discovering the Vedas : Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights. Penguin.
  • Vaidya, P.L. 1961. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 17 Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṁgrahaḥ (part 1). Darbhanga, The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. [contains both versions of the Heart Sūtra]
See also my Calligraphy of the Heart Sūtra.

Note 23.2.2013 I'll leave this essay to stand, but now I would translate this passage as:
prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ tadyathā:
The mantra uttered with respect to Perfect Wisdom is like this:
Taking the locative to indicate the object towards which the mantra is spoken, and taking the sentence to have an implied copula 'is'. It's slightly odd in the sense that a mantra is not usually 'said' (ukta), we expect it to be 'muttered' (japita) or 'recited' (paṭhita) etc.

06 November 2009

Synonyms for Nibbāna

Bodhi temple at night

very difficult to see
looked for
without attributes
free from the mental proliferation
a place of safety
abscence of passions
the light
a hermitage
In a short text from the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha gives a series of metaphors and similes for Nibbāna.[1] Using the form: "Bhikkhus I will teach you X and the path leading to X: listen to that... And what is that? ..." e.g.
Anāsavañca vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi anāsavagāmiñca maggaṃ. Taṃ suṇātha. Katamañca, bhikkhave, anāsavaṃ pe
The form is very abbreviated because it is referring back to previous suttas which are very repetitious. In Pāli an 'etc.' or elipsis '...' is signified by 'pe' which is itself a contraction of peyyālaṃ 'repetition, sucession'. [2] The paths leading to nibbāna are just what you would expect: the eightfold path, the foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts etc. These are enumerated at (tedious) length in the previous texts in the chapter. However the list of synonyms is quite interesting so I thought I'd extract the them and comment a little where appropriate. If nothing else it's a good vocab exercise!

anāsavaṃ - the basic term is āsava which literally means 'influx'. Gombrich thinks this originated in a Jain context where it meant the inflow of 'dust' that results from actions and sticks to the jīva (or soul) weighing it down in saṃsara. By cleaning the jīva through pain, and creating no more dust through inaction, the Jains sought to lighten their jīva so it could float to the top of the universe and be liberated from saṃsara. For Buddhists āsava means something more like 'taints'. There are three or four: sense desire (kāma), desire for existence (bhava), ignorance (avijja), and (sometimes) views (diṭṭhi). The taints are what hold us in bondage, and nibbāna is often talked about in terms of destruction of the taints (āsavakkhaya). Anāsavaṃ, with the negative prefix an-, is taintless.

saccaṃ - from √sat (the Sanskrit equivalent is satya) which can mean 'true' or 'real' much like the cross over in English. Here it most likely refers to truth.

pāraṃ - from √pṛ 'beyond, over'. Figuratively 'the other shore'. The image is perhaps of making it safely across a river. Another possibility is that it retains something of an archaic form of rebirth theory. Even in Buddhism you occasionally get references to this world and the next.

nipuṇaṃ - the root is also √pṛ but in the sense of 'busy, active' (cf. Sanskrit pṛṇoti). The meaning is 'clever, skilful, accomplished; fine, subtle'.

sududdasaṃ - invisible. Ironically the word itself is almost invisible as it's very difficult to find in the dictionary! In The Pali-English Dictionary (PED) sv. dasa 2 (Sanskrit dṛśa) 'seeing, to be seen' we find a note that duddasa (not listed elsewhere) means 'difficult to see': presumably from du (S. duḥ) + dasa with a doubling of the initial da. Su then is being used in the sense of 'thoroughly' or 'very'. So sududdasa then means 'very difficult to see'.

ajajjaraṃ - from jarā 'to age'. The repetition of the ja comes from the intensive form meaning 'withered, feebled with age', while the 'a' is a negation. So the word means unenfeebled. Incidentally jarā is cognate with the Greek 'geras' and therefore related to English 'geriatric' a 20th century coinage from geras + iasthai 'heal, treat'.

dhuvaṃ - (S. dhruva) 'stable, constant, fixed, certain'. The general Indian view is that the mundane world is always changing - going through cycles of change. The Buddha extended this to the world of the gods which Brahmins considered unchanging (anitya). Nibbāna is by definition unchanging, but is also impersonal. Dhruva is related to English 'true'.

apalokitaṃ - PED gives 'asked permission', 'consulted' which hardly seems like a epithet for Nibbāna. But wait, because this is the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit avalokita which should be familiar as the first part of the name Avalokiteśvara, and means 'beholding, looking at'. The noun form of the verb lokate is loka - the perceptible world. Lokita is a past-participle 'looked, perceived' and with ava can mean 'looked down' as in Avalokiteśvara - The Lord who Looked Down [upon the suffering beings with compassion]. How does it relate to nibbāṇa? Avalokita can also mean 'to look ahead/before/after' so I think what intended here is that nibbāna is what we look forward to - the looked for, ie what we seek. Bhikkhu Bodhi has 'undisintegrating' but I don't understand why.
NOTE (10/11/09). It's been pointed out to me in a comment by Theravadin that apalokitaṃ is a+palokitam. Palokitam being a past-participle of palujjhati (itself the passive of palujati) 'to break, to fall down'. Hence Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation as 'undisintegrating' makes more sense.
anidassanaṃ - PED lists this under nidassana and suggests that it means 'without attributes'. Nidassana (ni- + dassana) literally 'seeing into' or 'looking back' means 'evidence, example' and 'attribute, characteristic'. To some extent it overlaps with avalokita in the sense of 'looking down'. Anidassana then may remind us of the the signless liberation of the mind (animitta-ceto-vimutti), animitta being another synonym for nibbāna. Nibbāna here is that which has no characteristic, there is no evidence of it because it is not a thing or place. Also it cannot be refuted.

nippapañcaṃ - PED analyses this as nis- + (p)papañnca. I have dealt with this difficult word papañca in an earlier Rave: Proliferation. The way I think of papañca is as all the stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we have, which come largely from various groups we belong to. Unfortunately we tend to believe our own stories. Nis- in this case means 'free from'. So nibbāna is free from the mental proliferation associated with sensory experiences - we may still have experiences but we see them for what they are - impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial.

santaṃ - means peaceful, calmed down. It is a past-participle of sammati from S. √śam 'to calm, quiet'. When all our proliferations are pacified, we stop craving and hating, and then we experience the most profound state of peace imaginable. Nibbāna is peace.

amataṃ - one word which may be more familiar in its Sanskrit form: amṛta. The root is √mṛ 'to die' - mṛta (P. mata) meaning 'dead, deceased'. So amṛta literally means undead, but the English has all the wrong connotations! Immortal is actually cognate (via Latin mors from the same Proto-Indo-European root) but this translation has such strong Christian overtones that it's useless in this context. Undying is probably the best choice, though deathless also has resonance. In Indian mythology, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, amṛta is an ambrosial drink which bestows immortality - it is one of the valuable things churned from the ocean of milk by the devas and asuras. Mahāyāna Buddhists seem to have adopted the Śaiva version of the story in which Śiva swallows the poisoned amṛta (thereby saving all beings in the universe), and have given Śiva's characteristic blue colour to Avalokiteśvara and/or Vajrapāṇi. There is in fact a dhāraṇī associated with Avalokiteśvara called Nilakantha (blue throat) a name which rightly belongs to Śiva.

paṇītaṃ - the literal meaning here is 'brought out' from neti (√nī) 'to lead, guide, direct'. It is being used here in an applied sense as 'exalted, excellent, sublime'. PED says it is synonymous with uttama 'the highest', and antonymous with hīna 'inferior, vile, contemptible'.

sivaṃ - this one is a surprise, because in Sanskrit it is śiva. It means happy, fortunate, auspicious, and is of course the name of a Hindu God: Śiva. In Sanskrit the sense extends to 'friendly, kind, benign'. Richard Gombrich has argued (in How Buddhism Began) that Angulimala was a Śaiva (a worshipper of Śiva), though I don't think we can be certain of this. PED lists this word as a reference to Śaivas in the post-canonical Questions of King Milinda.

khemaṃ is quite similar to santa. It means peaceful, safe, calm; or even a place of safety and calm.

acchariyaṃ - the etymology of this word is uncertain with different scholars having different ideas but tending to agree that it is not from the main dialect underlying Pāli (this is now considered to be Magadhi). It means wonderful, surprising, strange, marvellous! It's often linked with the next term abbhutaṃ. .

abbhutaṃ - similar to acchariyaṃ. The etymology is that it comes from a+√bhū 'unreal' which I quite like. The meaning seems to be more 'terrifying, astonishing, puzzling, supernormal'. So Nibbāna is surprising, wonderful and strange - it is 'unreal' as we might say in the vernacular. This reminds me of the verses from 'The Confounder of Hell' Sadhana which begin: Eh ma oh! Dharma wondrous strange...

anītikaṃ - is slightly tricky because when a is added to a word starting with a vowel it become an (cf a bear, an apple). So the base here is īti meaning 'ill, calamity, plague, distress'. The suffix ka is a possessive and we could render ītika as afflicted with illness, sick etc. So anītka is literally 'not afflicted by illness'. It's quite typical of Pāli to define something in terms of what it is not. More straightforwardly we would call not being afflicted by illness 'health' or 'well-being'.

anītikadhammaṃ is the same word as above in combination with dhamma which in this case means the state of health, i.e. healthiness.

nibbānaṃ - means 'to blow' (vana) 'out' (nir-). What is blown out is not existence, nor the person (or personality), but the fires of craving, aversion, and confusion about the nature of experience.

abyāpajjhaṃ - (from a+vi+ā+pada). Ba and va are frequently transposed - which may be related to the similarity in their written forms (c.f. Devanāgarī ba ब; va व) though could be due to pronunciation. Āpada means to meet with or undergo, and the vi- prefix gives this a negative cast - a bad or divisive meeting. In use byāpajjha means 'trouble, malevolent'. So abyāpajjha means 'trouble-free' or 'benevolent'.

virāgo - rāgo comes from a root √rañj which means 'to redden, to glow red' and is used in an applied sense to refer to those emotions which make us go red in the face, primarily anger and passion, and in the grip of which we lose our reason. Adding vi- makes the word mean the abscence of passions. We tend to think of passion as a good thing - taking it to mean enthusiasm; but the earlier meaning of passion was simply 'suffering'. The crucifixion of Christ is, for example, called 'The Passion'. Also the word fiend 'enemy' is ultimately from the same root.

suddhi - is a verbal noun from √śudh and mean 'purity'. Purity most often refers to moral purity - that is not behaving in a way that causes harm. Here perhaps I think it refers to the state of being undefiled by craving, aversion and confusion about the nature of experience - as per above the very possibility of these inept responses to experience is eliminated.

mutti - is again a verbal noun from √muc 'to abandon, to cut off' and means 'release, freedom'. The sanskrit is mukti. Related terms are the past-participle mutta/mukta 'released'; and mokkha/mokṣa 'releasing, freeing'. The idea is the freedom obtained when one has cut off the defilements of craving, aversion and confusion about the nature of experience.

anālayo is an interesting word. Although PED suggests that it means 'aversion, doing away with' the etymology suggests a more positive sense. The base is ālaya - a word which might be more familiar from Yogacāra Buddhism where as ālaya-vijñāna it came to signify that aspect of consciousness involved in the ripening of karma. In Pāli it means a perch or resting place, and by analogy 'clinging or attachment'. An is the negative prefix and so means 'not clinging' or 'detached'. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests 'unadhesive' about which I am more than doubtful on aesthetic grounds. Having been liberated one is not attached to any experience.

dīpaṃ - comes from the root √dī 'to shine' which also gives us words like deva, divya which are cognate with English deity, divine. A dīpa is a lamp, and nibbāna is the light which dispels darkness the darkness of confusion.

There is another word dīpa (Sanskrit dvīpa) which derives from dvī + āpa 'two waters' i.e. an island - the image is probably derived from an island dividing the stream of a river. Jambudvīpa - the Rose-apple Island - is an early name for India.

leṇaṃ (from √lī 'to hide'). A mountain cave used as a hermitage or shelter. Caves make good places to meditate because they are cool in the hot season, and dry in the rainy season. The image here is a refuge from the elements where one is insulated from adverse conditions. (Often occurs together with the following two terms)

tāṇaṃ (from √trā) 'shelter, protection'. The root also occurs in the word parittā - the verses and suttas chanted for protection from earliest times. Folk etymologies of the word mantra take it to be something protecting (tra) the mind (manas). PED suggests the original meaning was 'bringing or seeing through'.

saraṇaṃ - (from √śri) this word should be familiar to all Buddhists and primarily means 'protection, guarding' and 'a shelter, a house'. Cognate words might be 'preserve' (Latin. præ- 'before' + servare 'to keep safe') and 'observe' (Latin: ob 'over' + servare 'to watch, keep safe').

So all of these words are epithets for nibbāna, they are all facets of that jewel which we call liberation. The Buddha teaches the... taintless, true, beyond, subtle, very difficult to see, unenfeebled, certain, looked for, without attributes, free from the mental proliferation, peaceful, deathless, sublime, auspicious, a place of safety, marvellous, astonishing, healthy, healthiness, extinguished, trouble-free, abscence of passions, purity, freedom, detached, the light, a hermitage, shelter, refuge; and the way to this.

And these do not exhaust the possibilities of ways of speaking about the ineffable. [3]

  1. SN43.14-43, PTS S iv.369-373. Translated in Bodhi Connected Discourses p.1378
  2. PED notes that this is a Maghadism (that is an incorporation into Pāli from the older Maghdan dialect) for pariyāya lit 'going around' which amongst other uses can also indicate a way of putting something or a figurative use of language.
  3. Ineffable: from Latin in- "not" + effabilis "speakable," from effari "utter," from ex- "out" + fari "speak".
English etymologies from Online Etymology Dictionary.

Image: the Mahābodhi Temple, Bodhgaya at Night. My photo.
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