30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

Indian HistoryIn discussing the time of the Buddha it is axiomatic, especially in Buddhist accounts, that Brahminism was the main religion of the Āryan peoples who dominated the Ganges valley at that time. Buddhism is sometimes seen as a reaction against Brahmin orthodoxy, or even as a reform movement within it. While the latter view is clearly ridiculous, the former is backed up by many satirical and polemical texts which have Brahmins, and and their religion, in their sights. I have written about some of these before. The Brahmins are credited with the ideas of karma and rebirth, and with the idea of ātman as an immutable essence of the person. Also at this time, often viewed as an offshoot of Brahmanism were the Śramaṇa movements which denied the Vedic authorities and held a wild variety of views about the world and pursued a variety of religious practices, the most characteristic being severe austerity. Recently scholars have proposed a different model of India in the 5th century BCE in which the Brahmins were not dominant in the Magadha region and, in fact, did not become so until around the beginning of the common era.

Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst, building on a lifetime of Indological research, proposes that although speaking Indo-Āryan languages the Magadhans - centred around the area of modern day Bihar - were culturally distinct from the Brahmins of the western Kuru-pañcala region - the area around modern day Delhi. Bronkhorst suggests that, in fact, Brahmins saw the eastern Ganges valley region as wild and highly undesirable. Brahmins were moving Eastwards, none the less, and creating the conditions to extend their hegemony.

The idea of two cultures eventually merging is supported by archaeological evidence in the form of styles of pottery. One of the features which differentiated the Magadhans was the making of round funeral mounds (precursors of the stūpa). The Brahmins, who preferred square mounds, left negative comments about them in their texts. The two cultures preferred, at least for some time, different styles of government. A feature of Māgadha, for instance, was the small oligarchical state. It was in this kind of state, where a small number of senior men governed, that the Gotama the Buddha was said to have been born. Other Māgadhan states were more like city states ruled over by a king. Geoffrey Samuel, who has independently proposed a two culture model, suggests that the two regions developed contrasting images of kingship: the warrior king (cakravartin) and the wisdom king (dharmarājā) were associated with the western and eastern ends of the Ganges Valley.

Meanwhile, in Māgadha the śramaṇa tradition was developing a series of new religious ideas which were to revolutionise the Brahmin world view. It was in Māgadha that the three notions which came to define Indian religion were developed: karma, rebirth, and ātman (the immutable Self). Contrary to the received tradition, Bronkhorst argues that the early Upaniṣads show the Brahmins in the process of assimilating these ideas. They show at times, for instance in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BU), a form of rebirth (actually redeath, punarmṛtyu) not linked to karma; and then in the same text, in a section believed to be later in time, a version of rebirth linked to actions in life. In the first chapter of BU ātman often means simply "body".

The Jains believed that all actions - both voluntary and involuntary - accumulated 'dust' on the jīva or soul. This weighs the soul down to earth. Austerity can burn up old karma, allowing the soul to be lightened and eventually liberated. They therefore pursued self-mortification to extremes. It was this kind of practice which the Buddha is said to have engaged in during his time as an ascetic. The Ājivakas, although believing in the notion of karma, did not believe that it could be mitigated, and so were more or less fatalistic - one could be liberated but it would take 8,400,000 aeons whatever you did. However, both believed that, actions having consequences, the best thing to do was not to act, and this taken to the extreme resulted in lying down and dying from starvation or thirst. A less extreme version of this was to refrain from moving for long periods of time, and to reduce food to an absolute minimum - the basis of their austerity practices. It was the Ājivakas who first developed the idea of a 'self' which did not participate in the actions of the person, and was not sullied by the consequences of such actions - although it was still bound to continual rebirth.

Karma, Rebirth, and an independent eternal self were to become the pre-occupations of the Brahmins as we see in the Bhagavadgītā, a text which seems to define modern Hinduism if any text can. Brahmins gave rebirth their own spin. Karma changed from being the special ritual actions associated with the sacrifice, to being actions performed in accordance with one's caste duty (dharma). The self is shown by Kṛṣṇa to be untouched by actions and thus it is Arjuna's caste duty to slaughter his relatives in battle, and he is not to worry since the ātman (either his or his relatives') cannot be killed or stained by the apparently 'sinful' action of murder. What emerges in the earliest Upaniṣads is a kind of hybrid of the old Vedic sacrificial religions - with the gods Indra, Soma, Agni at the centre - and the new ideas which featured Brahman as a kind of universal principle, and as time went on as Brahmā a creator god.

Signe Cohen has shown that the Upaniṣads, as well as recording the ideas of the new hybrid Brahminism, highlight internal issues of authority. The Bṛhadāranyaka, for instance, asserts the value of the Yajurveda over the much older Ṛgveda. This can be seen in the pre-eminent position of Yajñavalkya (the legendary composer of the Yajurveda) and the relatively lowly Ṛgvedic priests whom he defeats in debates, and one of whom is shown being taught by a Kṣatriya which is a reversal of the Brahminical social order. So there were tensions within parts of the Brahmin community, with innovators vying for influence. Significantly, the Bṛhadāranyaka is associated with the eastern extreme of the Brahminical heartland - where it would have had a greater exposure to the new ideas. Although it is common to speak of "Upaniṣadic" ideas, practices, or texts, in fact, the Upaniṣads are very heterogeneous - both compared to each other and even, at times (in the BU, for instance), when comparing sections within a text.

Buddhism developed on the margins of Māgadha where it overlapped with the Brahminical territory. The Buddha rejected the mainstream Māgadhan religious views of the Jains and Ājivakas; rejected the new hybrid Brahmanism being developed by eastern Brahmins, often associated with the Yajurveda traditions; and rejected the traditional Vedic sacrificial religion. However, he appears to have been quite knowledgeable about each of them - at least enough to compose satires and polemics.

In my own research I have been exploring parallels in idiom between the Pali texts and the early Upaniṣads, especially the BU. The fact that the Pāli texts are aware of the themes and idioms of the BU may previously have suggested that the Buddha might have known about this text - taking into account that it was an oral tradition with several versions. However, we now have to be more cautious. The early Upaniṣads are dated earlier than the Buddha on the basis that the earliest Buddhist texts seem to be aware of Upaniṣadic themes. But now we may say that the Buddhists were as likely to be responding to these ideas in Jain or Ājivaka circles. Both BU and the Pāli texts might have been drawing on a common pool of Māgadhan ideas and language. And actually this makes better sense, because the Brahmins were jealous of their teachings and tended to keep them secret! Not being a Brahmin (by most accounts anyway, and despite having a good Brahmin surname - Gautama!) the Buddha wasn't in a position to know the contents of the secret teachings (which is one way of translating the word 'upaniṣad'). If the secret teachings were in fact a Brahminical adaptation of Māgadhan teachings, which the we can be fairly sure the Buddha was exposed to, then this would better explain their presence in the Pāli texts. We also know that some Pāli texts, particularly the Dhammapada, seem to have drawn on a common pool of wisdom verses which were not specifically Buddhist or Brahminical.

This is a very different picture of history. Admittedly it is somewhat speculative and will need to be tested with further research - the book is only a year old and likely only to be available in university libraries, although it draws on Bronkhorst's many previous publications. However, I think it is plausible, and that is already corroborated by Samuel and to some extent by Cohen. It is certainly a more nuanced view of India circa 500 BCE. Some work remains to be done to reassess earlier research to see if what we already know makes more sense in this framework than it did previously. My initial feeling is that it does make more sense.

One thing that it highlights is the folly of trying to understand the socio-historical aspects of Buddhism without reference to the context which the Buddha operated in. Certain ideas and practices make better sense in a broader perspective than Buddhists are usually operating in. Sadly, Bronkhorst's book is a very expensive item at more than £130, and not likely to be available outside major university libraries. But you should be able to get your local public library to get it on "Inter-Library Loan". Cohen is similarly very expensive, but happily Samuel's is more reasonably priced and a good read.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.
  • Cohen, Signe. 2008. Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. Leiden : Brill
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra : Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wynn has just published a thoughtful review of Greater Magadha on H-net reviews.

23 January 2009

Is Karma responsible for Everything?

cart wheel photoRecently a friend asked my opinion about a verse from Vāseṭṭha Sutta in the Sutta Nipāta. It was being cited as a proof text for the idea that karma (ours and other peoples) is the sole source of all our experience. The question of what karma is responsible for is one that seems to come up again and again. Partly because there are so many versions of what karma really is or means. The Sutta Nipāta is generally considered to have been composed quite early - the last two chapters are often said to be the oldest layer of the Pāli Canon. Saddhatissa's translation of the verse was quoted so let's start there, and then I'll work through the verse one phrase at a time:
The world exists because of causal actions,
all things are produced by causal actions
and all beings are governed and bound by causal actions.
they are fixed like the rolling wheel of a cart,
fixed by the pin of its axle shaft. (p.75)
The Pali is
1a | Kammunā vattati loko,
1b | kammunā vattati pajā;
2a | Kammanibandhanā sattā,
2b | rathassāṇīva yāyato. (Sn 654)
Now the Sutta Nipāta is notoriously difficult to translate due to the archaic language. A more literal translation would be:
"The world exists through actions, offspring exist through actions;
Beings are bound to actions, driven like a horse-chariot axle pin."
or perhaps -
"The world is moved by actions, people are moved by actions;
Beings are fettered by actions, driven like a horse-chariot axle pin."
"The world" (loka) is a metaphor for one's inner world of experience - it should be read this way in almost every case. It's an old Vedic metaphor which we share when we say things like - "he lives in a world of his own". I note that the text is a discussion with two Brahmins so it shouldn't be a big surprise to find Vedic overtones in the language. A 'loka' was originally an open space, like a clearing in the forest, in which one could see clearly. So phrase 1a (ie 1st line, 1st phrase) means that the world of experience is driven by kamma - crucially we keep experiencing vedanā because vedanā is the result of previous kamma. The Pāli texts are clear that vedanā is the result (vipaka) of kamma - i.e. only the broad outlines of one's experience, the pleasure and pain, are the result of kamma, not the specific details of what causes the experience. As we know unenlightened experience is dukkha, and can argue in this case that world (loka) and suffering (dukkha) are equivalents. In effect 1a is a less sophisticated way of saying greed, hatred and delusion keep saṃsara going.

The verb vattati (repeated in phrase 1b) can mean "to move, or go; to be, exist; to fare, to do" - i.e. it has the same broad reference of other Pāli verbs for "to be" like bhavati. Note the dynamic aspect that our English "to be" often lacks. Given the image at the end we might also have translated it: "is powered by": as in "experience is powered by kamma". This would also make sense. The Pali English Dictionary (PED) says that in this context it means "keeps up, goes on". Which is more or less the same thing. The idea is that kamma is what "drives" the process. In 2b the verb is yāyati which does mean "to drive". Recall also that the Buddha redefined kamma: cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - I say, monks, that intention (cetanā) is kamma (AN vi.63). In this light I'm not convinced that "causal action" is any more helpful as a translation than simply "action" - it might have been better to leave kamma untranslated.

The purpose of phrase 1b is to link rebirth to kamma. This may seem a strange point to make, but in a Vedic context it was important because early Brahminical versions of rebirth did not link it to kamma (see the first chapter of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad for instance where is it known as 'redeath' and not linked to kamma, or to ātman!). Calling people "pajā", although a common usage, may well be a reference to Pajāpati (Sanskrit Prajāpati) the Vedic god of creation and father of all beings, i.e. it once again suggests a Vedic flavour in this passage.

In phrase 2a beings (sattā) are bound (bandhanā) by their kamma. That is, having acted you must live with the consequences. This is a distinction from other kamma theories which state that you can burn-up old kamma by experiencing suffering now. That idea is associated in the Pali Canon with the Jains who did severe austerities and self-torture, sometimes as a prelude to starving themselves to death in pursuit of liberation. For the Buddha there are ways (basically general spiritual practices) to lessen the impact of kamma-vipaka, but not to avoid it altogether. (I write about this in my article for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics). Bandhu was the Vedic word for the very important relationships between mirco- and macro-cosm, between earth and heaven. Understanding and manipulating bandhu was the central function of the Brahmin priests. So again this is drawing on Vedic idiom.

Phrase 2b finishes with a image that sums up the verse. The phrase is parsed as ratha assa āṇī va yāyato. It is driven (yāyato) only or like (iva or eva elided to va following a long vowel) a horse-chariot (rathassa) wheel pin (āṇī *). Saddhatissa sees this image as reinforcing the idea that we are bound (bandhanā) to the results of our actions and tries to bring this out in his translation. The past-participle yāyato means "driven" - it's an intensive for of yāti "to go, go on, proceed, to go away". PED gives as an example "yāyena yāyati to drive in a carriage". The image seems to relate 'the bond' to the driving in of a wheel pin - presumably these were wedge shaped and were hammered into place to hold the wheel on chariot. So there is a further sense that kamma is what keeps the wheels on the carriage, that it keeps the whole business of suffering going. The use of yāyato reinforces this as it suggests motive power - kamma being what keeps the wheel of saṃsāra turning. The horse chariot was powerfully associated with the Brahmins in the Vedic period, although I'm not sure if that would hold in the Buddha's time and place. The horse chariot was a war chariot, a symbol of royal power and of conquest; whereas the ox-cart was a more agricultural vehicle. So perhaps here also the Buddha is using Vedic imagery to suit his audience?

I think Saddhatissa has erred by introducing the word "all" into the translation - it makes the text sound too absolute. There is nothing here that could be translated as "all things". Clearly also there is nothing here to suggest that "all events" are, or that "everything" is, the result of kamma.

The idea that everything that happens is a result of kamma is a common enough wrong view to have a name: Pubbekata-hetu-ditthi (literally "the with-past-actions-as-cause view"). For a canonical discussion of this you could try the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 101). Bhikkhu Thanissaro's version on Access to Insight comes with a useful introduction. A problem for contemporary Buddhists is that this version of karma - i.e. that everything that happens is the result of previous actions - is taught by Tibetan Buddhist teachers. I don't see any way of reconciling these views - they are mutually exclusive. But then my own take on kamma/karma and belief in general is pragmatic: if what you belief about karma makes you a better person (less greedy, angry, ignorant; more generous, loving, wise etc.) and helps you to see that experiences are impermanent, unsatisfying, and insubstantial; then I don't think it's so important what you believe. I've talked about this aspect of belief in a couple of earlier essays: Karma and Rebirth; Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell. For another interesting view on Karma look at Nagapriya's article for Tricycle Magazine: Donating the Future.

One final note on the possible presence of Vedic metaphors and terms. Firstly I may be overstating this connection. But even if I am not, then secondly we need only assume that the Buddha was using language which he knew would be familiar to his audience. Importantly we don't need to assume that the Buddha bought into the Vedic world view. It does suggest that the Buddha might have been familiar with some of the ideas of Brahmins, and there is plenty of other evidence to back this up. He may well have acquired this familiarity in religious debates which were a feature of life in the Buddha's time, rather through having studied the Vedas. Indeed the latter is unlikely if only because the Buddha was not a Brahmin, and therefore excluded from learning Sanskrit and studying the texts.

* The word āṇi has an interesting history. It is attested in the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (e.g. RV 5.43.8) but appears not to be an Indo-Aryan word, i.e. not from a language related to Vedic or Sanskrit or any of their variants and offshoots. Previously it was thought to be a loan word from the linguistically unrelated Dravidian family, now most commonly associated with South India and represented in the present by Telegu, Malayalam, and Tamil. However Michael Witzel (1998 p.18), has shown that this is unlikely, and in fact scholars of Dravidian languages saw it as a loan-word from Indo-Aryan! Witzel suggests that it is one of about 200-250 loan words from an archaic form of a Munda language. This suggests that Munda was the language originally spoken in the Kurukṣetra which came to be the heartland of the Vedic speaking peoples. Munda is a member of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages which includes Thai, Malay, Cambodian and Vietnamese. The Munda speaking people are often called "tribals" and live on the margins of Indian society, some maintaining a nomadic lifestyle. If any group could be considered aboriginal in India it is them. Their religions are animistic, and I want at some point to see if they share any of the animistic beliefs found in early Buddhism.

  • Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. Richmond, Surrey: Curson Press, 1994.
  • Devadaha Sutta. MN 101. Access to Insight. Includes a useful introduction to the text by Bhikkhu Thanissaro.
  • Nagapriya. 2009. 'Donating the Future.' Tricycle Magazine Website.
  • Witzel, Michael. 1998. 'The Languages of Harappa : Early linguistic data and the Indus civilization.' in J. Kenoyer (ed.) Proceedings of the conference on the Indus civilization, Madison 1998. provisional. pdf

16 January 2009

Life, the Universe, and Everything!

the worldIn the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams writes about a race of pan-dimensional beings who decide that they are going to solve the ultimate question, the question of life, the universe, and everything, once and for all! To do this they design a gigantic computer which they call Deep Thought. Having agreed that an answer is possible, Deep Thought says he'll have to think about it, and seven million years later announces that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is... "forty-two". In the ensuing mayhem he suggests that perhaps if they knew more precisely what the question was, then the answer would make sense. Buddhists are in a similar position. We think we know that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is - dependent arising - paticcasumuppada! - but have we have really understood the question.

We Buddhists typically see dependent arising as a kind of general theory of causation, i.e. we see it as a way to understand 'the world', aka Reality. The most general form of this would be something like: "some variety of shit happens (to you) because of (your) karma". Certainly we are reborn because of "our karma". Karma - that is actions carried out in the past, possibly a past life - is our explanation for "the problem of evil", or why bad things happen to good people. All this can be quite confusing because it sounds like we are saying that if something bad happens to you, then you deserve it. Most of us hasten to add that this is not what we mean - because most of us are white middle-class liberals and God forbid that anything that happens to anyone should be their own fault. No, we blame society! I mock, but in fact it is difficult to state the theory of karma to a non-believer without immediately having to engage in some spectacular back-peddling. At worst we might fall back on saying that there aren't really any beings to suffer anyway (let me know if you think this as I'd like to try poking you in the eye to see what happens - it's my version of Johnson refuting Berkeley). In fact the doctrine of karma is not a very good solution to the problem of evil because with it we invoke a supernatural agency (even if we don't think of it those terms, that is in fact what it is). Why the Buddha appears to have accepted a theory of karma is another story.

Most people if asked the old chestnut - if a tree falls in a forest, and no one observes it, does it still make a sound? - would unhesitatingly answer "of course it does!" This is what we call "common sense". Western philosophy is all about humans' relationship with 'the world' (more or less). We believe in an world external to us that we participate in, and that doesn't disappear when we stop looking. And on the whole this view is justified because the world patently doesn't disappear when we stop looking, or at least it must instantaneously wink in and out of existence when we blink, but stay present to others who are not blinking, which seems a bit ridiculous - it would be the most astounding feat of engineering and I can think of no possible explanation for such a thing. We also share many perceptions about that world, which seems to deny that it is entirely personal and private.

At this point some innocents are wont to invoke Quantum Mechanics - but having studied this subject at university I'm convinced that no lay person really understands the implications of it, because very few of us are capable of imagining the sub-atomic world, and quantum effects are not visible on a macro scale (ie anything bigger than a single atom). For instance you don't change this essay by reading it. Although on that basis you could say that Wikipedia is subject to quantum fluctuations as readers often do change the text. In any case the Buddha didn't have any notion of science let alone quantum mechanics. So let's leave science to one side - it is on the whole part of the problem for us (which deserves a post on it's own).

Now if you comb through the Pali Canon I'm willing to bet you a small sum of money that you will not find the Buddha saying: "OK monks, listen up, I'm going to teach you about the world out there, and how it all comes into being", except in a couple of ironic texts where he makes fun of people that think like this. The Brahmin Jāṇussoṇi asks the Buddha (SN 12:47) does everything exist (sabbamatthi) or does everything not exist (sabbaṃ n'atthi)? Neither explanation fits the case, and the Buddha draws Jāṇussoṇi's attention to the process of experience. Similarly the bhikkhus were often asked what the Buddha taught:
‘‘Idha no, bhante, aññatitthiyā paribbājakā amhe evaṃ pucchanti – ‘kimatthiyaṃ, āvuso, samaṇe gotame brahmacariyaṃ vussatī’ti? Evaṃ puṭṭhā mayaṃ, bhante, tesaṃ aññatitthiyānaṃ paribbājakānaṃ evaṃ byākaroma – ‘dukkhassa kho, āvuso, pariññatthaṃ bhagavati brahmacariyaṃ vussatī’ti. SN 45.5
We get asked by wanderers from other traditions, bhante, "what is the point of practising the spiritual life under the ascetic Gotama". We reply "the point of practising under the fortunate one is the complete understanding of suffering [dukkha]".
The Buddha reassures the monks in this story that this is exactly what he would say. What the Buddha teaches is not philosophy, not religion, not a system of any kind. What he teaches is more pragmatic. The point of practising Buddhism is the understanding of suffering - how it arises and how to make it cease. Anything that helps us to understand suffering is included. Views about 'the world' are not. I have discussed the term dukkha in my post on Dhammapada verses 1 - 2. It has a broad reference including anything unpleasant, and perhaps all of conditioned experience.

We westerners on the other hand, despite 100 years of psychology, are still focussed on our relationship with 'the external world' and try to apply dependent arising to that world - the common sense world that we instinctively know is there. In the process we make the kind of causality the Buddha is interested in (the cause of suffering) a special case. I don't deny causality, just as I don't deny the likelihood that some kind of world exists independently of my perceiving it. There is quite apparently cause and effect in the world. To paraphrase Sue Hamilton reality and causality are not in question, but neither are they the question either. The question is one of experience, and especially why do we experience suffering? And the answer lies in understanding the process of having an experience, especially the apparatus of experience (aka the khandhas).

A general theory of causality is superfluous to Buddhism, although not superfluous per se. All we need to know according to the Buddha, is what causes us to experience suffering, and that knowledge will come when we understand the mechanics of experience. This is why, incidentally that we don't have to worry about the difficulties of confirming or denying reality and causality - for the Buddha these were givens and all the interesting stuff happens in our (subjective) experience. We only have our senses and our minds as sources of knowledge and no direct access to an external world. Some people have seen in this a relationship to the Empiricist trend in philosophy, but the empiricists were interested in gaining knowledge of the world, and did not think that the mind could be a source of such knowledge. So the two projects are quite different.

Any other kind of explanation is avisayasmin - one of my favourite words at present. It is made up of a- + visaya + -asmin and is a bit tricky to render into English. Visaya is an area or place. The negative prefix is usually a negation, but a "non-place" seems like a contradiction in terms, so avisaya is 'not a place'. The suffix -asmin is the locative case ending so it means "in a non-place", or perhaps "in the wrong place" which is my current preferred translation. It relates to one's sphere of interest and occurs in the Sabba Sutta which I am researching at present. The Buddha says that looking for answers to dukkha outside of one's experience, outside of the six senses and their objects, is looking in the wrong place.

We're now in a position to consider the question to which the answer might be 'dependent arising'. The question is about suffering, about dukkha. What is the end of suffering like? It is like extinguishing a flame - if you deprive a fire of fuel, it is extinguished. How does suffering arise? It arises in dependence on conditions - sense organ and sense object come together with sense consciousness and create a cascade of knowledge (vid/jñā) in us, but unfortunately we misunderstand this knowledge hence we suffer. Sense experiences, then, are the fuel (upadana) for suffering. It will no doubt be argued that this is not the only question with this answer - we like to see "things" arising in dependence on conditions as well. But in the context of Buddhism this is the question that counts.

A certain amount of savvy about the world is, however, quite useful. I couldn't for instance communicate these thoughts without it. Buddhists tend to make this subject very confusing - they say things like "it doesn't really exist" which is confusing (and wrong I think). If you want to understand our relationship with the world then we might be better off turning to thinkers like John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The first three have the distinct advantage for my readers in that they wrote in English and not Sanskrit. They, unlike the Buddha, were interested in our relationship with the world. Of course there have been many great thinkers since then. George Lakoff stands out for me.

The history of western philosophy is a history of trying to understand the world and our relationship to it. Early Buddhism did not share this enthusiasm. However Indian philosophy more generally was concerned with similar issues and over time this concern with 'the world' crept into Buddhism too. So in a way it's no wonder that we see dependent arising as a general theory of causation - for most strains of Buddhism it's part of the curriculum these days. Sadly I think this has fed our interest in the world as an external reality - we even talk about bodhi as "insight into Reality" - and this draws our attention to the wrong thing (ayoniso manasikāra). The wrong thing, that is, if our intention is to end suffering.

SN = Saṃyutta Nikāya

For good introductions to Western Philosophy including the British Empiricists and their successors you could try:
For George Lakoff start with: 1981. Metaphors We Live by. Chicago University Press.

image: wallpaper from www.pulsarmedia.eu

09 January 2009

A Pronouncement on Pronunciation.

vocal tractSomeone recently asked me whether or not it was important to pronounce mantras correctly. I was surprised to find that I hadn't written much on the subject - only some notes on pronunciation on my other website visiblemantra.org. In another essay on that website I distinguish three contexts for mantra use, and I'll use that framework here as well. There are mantras as used in Tantric rituals, mantras used in devotional settings, and informal mantras that people chant outside or any ritual or formal practice situation.

Let's start with a little background. Mantras as you may know were central to the ancient Vedic religion. The term mantra is first used for verses made up and declared on the spot in competitions associated with the sacrifices. Over time they were formalised and then collated into the collection known as the Ṛgveda. Although this collection itself was fixed around 1500 BCE the Vedic religion kept developing and mantras underwent changes, especially in the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda, thought to have been composed during the period around 1200-800 BCE. In the Sāmaveda the mantras were set to tunes, and frequented had syllables called stobha added to fit different meters. In the Yajurveda the mantras were incorporated into instructions for performing the rituals - it was here that oṃ was used for the first time.

Brahmins were centred in the area of the Kurukṣetra (the realm of the Kuru's, near modern day Delhi) and did not begin to move east until quite late. In fact they saw the eastern Ganges valley (Johannes Bronkhorst calls this area Greater Magadha) as barbarous. This is probably because up to about the common era the dominant socio-political and religious forms were not Brahminical. In Greater Magadha the religious sphere was dominated by the Śramaṇa groups (the word means 'toilers' ) like the Jains and Ājivakas who had ideas and practices which were very different from the sacrificial religion of the Vedas. However both influenced each other, and it is possible to see that earliest Upaniṣads as showing the assimilation of ideas such as rebirth, karma, and ātman from the Śramaṇas.

The Buddha was born in Greater Magadha, and therefore would have been unlikely to have been influenced by Brahmins in his early life. However gradual migration of Brahmins eastward had continued, and they are frequently encountered in the Pāli Canon. Although the Magadhans did speak an Indo-Aryan language, their culture was different. Indeed Brahmins are often the subject of curiosity and fun in the texts, as though they were a novelty. One of the things that Brahmins did was chant mantras at special occasions, for which they expected to be paid. This custom struck the Buddha as unhelpful and he actually banned his monks from doing it - we presume that at least some of his monks were esrtwhile Brahmins. He also forbade two ex-Brahmin bhikkhus from putting the Buddha's words into 'chandos', literally: (poetic) 'meter'. The meaning of this passage is disputed amongst scholars, however from the context I take it to mean that the two monks wanted to turn the Buddha's words into regular verse like the Vedas. And he made it a vinaya offence to do such a thing.

So this is our starting point for Buddhist mantras. Many people point out that the early Buddhists did in fact record some texts, called parittas, intended to be chanted for protection from malign influences both mundane (snakes for instance) and supramundane (yakkhas). These are usually said to be a form of mantra, but I do not agree. My reading is that these were spells from an indigenous Magadhan magic tradition - given the subject matters I would say that we could see them as belonging to the various folk traditions which focused on yakkhas and other nature spirits. The use of parittas continues to the present day in Theravadin countries. A small number of the paritta texts have continued to be important in other traditions, although often in modified form, with the most notable additions being tantric style mantras! Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that because the texts that are chanted are themselves profound, such as the Karaniya Mettā Sutta, that parittas had some spiritual significance, but as parittas they are solely for worldly protection. There is some evidence that the Buddha tried to get his monks not to participate in local spiritual beliefs, but the persistence of these practices suggests that he did not entirely succeed.

The next development for Buddhist mantra was the dhāraṇi. I have written at more length on the origins, meaning and use of dhāraṇi's here before, so I won't say much now. Dhāraṇi's may well be associated with developments in the Gāndhāra area in the Northwest of India (what is now the Taliban controlled area of Pakistan). Originally a dhāraṇi may have been a memory aid such as the Arapacana acrostic. However the word is mostly used for phrases embedded in sūtras or whole sūtras, again, intended to be chanted for protection. Over time the word seemed to change it's meaning and it is not always clear what is it refers to. Later, in tantric contexts, dhāraṇis were used more like mantras as we know them now. In some Mahāyāna sūtras, the Golden Light for instance, dhāraṇi are used in connection with rituals which seem to have a Hindu flavour, suggesting that they represent the first stage of assimilation of outside elements. One of the things about dhāraṇis and dhāraṇi sūtras is that they tend to focus on one dhāraṇi at a time (although in the Lotus Sūtra there are lists of dhāraṇi spoken by several gods and demons one after another). At some point in this period mantras also came to be used as expressing devotion or faith in a Buddha or Bodhisattva - I'll say more about this below.

A seismic shift came after the end of the Gupta Empire. Some time in the 6th century a grand religious synthesis happened that combined elements of Buddhism, the old Vedic religion, the newer Vedantic religion, and aspects of the Śramaṇa and animistic traditions of Magadha. This weaving together of many strands was called appropriately enough "tantra", i.e. woven. Mantras now came into Buddhism in a form that we will recognise qua mantra. In fact mantra took centre stage along side meditation and puja. The mantras were different in form from dhāraṇi or paritta, and seem to owe something to the Yajurvedic tradition. Tantric texts are full of mantras, and for example a mantra accompanies every stage of the tantric ritual - the function being to make the ritual action potent. This idea is already found in the Vedic tradition, so we assume that's where it comes from.

So this is a potted history of the introduction of mantras to Buddhism. As I have said there are three main contexts in which we currently use mantras. In the Tantric tradition a mantra exists in a particular context. It is said that the first communication from the Dharmakāya Buddha consisted of mantra, mudra, and mandala (or images) in the context of a ritual anointing that mirrors a royal coronation. These three modes of communication represent the body, speech, and mind aspects of the Dharmakāya and are called the Three Mysteries. When we perform a tantric sadhana we are in theory recapitulating this original communication. It allows us to align our body, speech and mind with the Three Mysteries and become a Buddha "in this very life" as Kūkai used to say. Clearly here is it vital to reproduce everything exactly as it was done originally and in that case pronouncing the mantra correctly would be essential. To pronounce it incorrectly would be to garble the message, to rob it of any significance what-so-ever. In this I see some influence of the Vedic mantra traditions which had a very strong emphasis on accurate pronunciation. The Vedas were an oral tradition for something like 2000 years as the Brahmins eschewed writing well after the Buddha came along. The Vedas were divine and getting them wrong also was thought to rob them of their power to influence the gods. So in this context of sadhana it was originally important to pronounce the Sanskrit accurately.

However once Buddhism began to be transmitted outside India there were difficulties. Sanskrit has many sounds which are not found in other languages - true particularly of Central Asia, China, Japan and Tibet where the tantra took hold. It was very difficult for them, as it can be for us, to pronounce Sanskrit accurately. English pronunciation of Sanskrit has problems with retroflex letters, e.g. ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ, and with nasalised vowels e.g. aṃ uṃ iṃ etc. And this is leaving aside the issue of regional variations within India! Pronunciation of mantras shifted with time to conform to local norms. So svāhā becomes soha in Tibet, and sowaka in Japan. Most Buddhists are therefore pragmatic about pronunciation. Sometimes you will here a story told of a hermit who was pronouncing his mantra wrong, and a travelling Lama called to see him. The Lama corrects the hermit and goes off on his travels. But as he leaves he hears the hermit calling him, and sees him running across the surface of a lake to ask again about the 'correct' pronunciation. The moral of course being that pronunciation doesn't maketh the saint. Funnily enough Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangrila, has pointed out that this story was in fact told by Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century (read The Three Hermits online). It was a Russian folktale told about three Christian hermits. How did it come to be a Buddhist, and indeed Tibetan, story? My guess is that it was quoted in The Autobiography of a Yogi (p.309) by Paramhansa Yogananda, first published 1946, and from there into Buddhist circles via enthusiastic yogis.

This all raises the issue of transmission. Ideally we pronounce the mantra as it was spoken during the first anointing ritual by the Dharmakāya Buddha. Because pronunciation has shifted over time some of the mantras that come down to us are clearly corrupt - the best example to my mind is the Vajrasattva mantra were the Sanskrit has become quite badly mangled in places. So if we know any Sanskrit we will find it creates a cognitive dissonance to hear mangled Sanskrit in a mantra. There are two schools of thought about this. One is that we should pronounce it exactly as taught to us by our teacher - even if it is plainly wrong. The other is that if it's clear what the original Sanskrit was we should use that instead. How you view this will depend on your tradition, and indeed how traditional your teacher is. But consider that if the word padma is pronounced 'pema', then at some point someone got it wrong and what we are transmitting is simply a human error, not the mantra spoken by the Dharmakāya. If it doesn't matter then there are implications for our entire approach to lineage and transmission: they simply cannot be as important as they are made out to be. If it does matter how are we to reconstruct something which has been changing for 1000 years? Is it even possible?

The second main context for using mantra is devotional, ranging from large public rituals, down to individuals. The idea for this context came to me while reading Alexander Studholme's book The Origins of Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ. I have written two précis of relevant parts of the book on this blog - The Origin of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ and The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ - and so again I won't go into detail. The main thing here is that this practice bears little resemblance to the tantric ritual and is closely associated with practices known as bringing the name (of the Buddha) to mind (nāmānusmṛṭi), and bringing the Buddha to mind (buddhānusmṛṭi). In the former case the root texts are the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras in which it is said that recalling the name of the Buddha Amitābha even once with faith will mean your next rebirth is in the pureland Sukhāvatī from where enlightenment is guaranteed. In the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra it says that the mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is in fact equivalent to chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara and that by chanting the mantra, we are in fact chanting the name, and can expect to be born in a kind of pureland.

This kind of practice is really a form of recollecting the Buddha which has roots going back to the earliest days of Buddhism - it appears in the very oldest parts of the Pāli Canon. Later, although before the canon was written down, the practice is formalised and one recollects the special qualities of the Buddha by reciting and reflecting on the words of the Buddhavandana - iti'pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampano sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti. In this context what is important, what makes the practice efficacious is that we recollect the Buddha and call his name. So I conclude that accurate pronunciation is not essential in this context. However I would add that pronouncing someone's name accurately is a good practice. We all know how it jars when someone gets our own name wrong. So I would think that making an effort to pronounce the mantra correctly would be appropriate for anyone really devoted to a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Although the counter argument that such figures are always forgiving is almost always brought out at this point so as to excuse any fault on the part of the practitioner. I'm not convinced that absolution from faults was what was intended. Surely it is still up to us to make as great an effort as we can? Pronunciation is a realtively simple matter that very few people seem to bother with.

The last of the three contexts is informal mantra chanting. This means chanting a mantra outside of any formal ritual or devotional context. Perhaps we are seeking to ward off danger, or we just want to keep up our connection with the Buddha. More superstitious Buddhists use mantras this way for all kinds of mundane worldly purposes, just as paritta were used at the beginning. In this context pronunciation is as important as the previous context, i.e. it is not so vital as the tantric ritual, but could still be a worthwhile effort. I would add here that learning how to pronounce Sanskrit is not that hard (follow the link to my rough and comprehensive guides!), and focussing on pronunciation is an excellent mindfulness practice! Try really paying attention to what your vocal cords, mouth, tongue and lips are doing when you chant. Sanskrit is a beautiful language when pronounced well. Note also that Pāli has a sonority and rhythm all of its own, quite different to Sanskrit - it is less sibilant and the many double consonants give it a lilt like a Skandanavian language I find.

There is one thing left to say in this now over-long post. In the Western Buddhist Order, as you may know, we practice a visualisation meditation that includes chanting a mantra, usually while visualising the letters of the mantra. However we say that this is not a tantric sadhana, because for good reasons Sangharakshita decided not to take tantric Buddhism on it's own terms. There are of course members of our order who have received tantric initiation and practice tantric Buddhism, but the majority of us do not. So where do our practices come in the scheme above? I think it's clear that we are practising a sophisticated form of the recollection of the Buddha in our sadhanas, and that the context is therefore devotional. However the form of the practice also highlights śunyatā - the lack of independent existence (svabhāva) of any phenomena.

So do we need to pronounce mantras correctly? I think we should make an effort on aesthetic grounds, it is more beautiful; and also on the basis that we all like our names to be pronounced correctly. I find it is a useful mindfulness practice, and most people need to be more mindful! But outside of the tantric tradition it is not vital, and, sadly, even within that tradition it seems to be many centuries since there was any real effort to maintain Sanskrit pronunciation.

image: vocal tract from MIT OpenCourseWare

02 January 2009

The Body in Buddhism

The body in buddhism
While on my ordination retreat we studied the Bodhicāryāvatara by Śantideva. This is a core text for the Western Buddhist Order, and also a favourite of the Dalai Lama. It is a Mahāyāna work from probably the 8th century, written according to legend at the great monastery at Nalanda. The theme is the path or conduct (carya) of the bodhisattva and the text is structured around the six perfections. The text is celebrated for the anuttara pūja incorporated into the first few chapters which contains beautiful and elaborate evocations and offerings, but also for the relentless deconstructive arguments of Śantideva. In many ways it is the epitome of late Indian Mahāyāna.

At the same time as studying the Bodhicāryāvatara we were reciting verses from it in our evening puja, and during those pujas we had readings from the text as translated by Andrew Skilton (aka Dharmacari Sthiramati) and Kate Crosby. The readings were very evocative. However at one point I was struck by a series of images which seemed quite out of place. In the chapter on Meditation we find a number of references to the body, and particularly to the bodies of women (the audience for the text having been monastic men). It goes on at some length, and the translators assure us that the language is quite as coarse as they portray it in the translation. Let me quote you a few passages to give an idea:
50. Taking no pleasure from silky pillows stuffed with cotton because they do not ooze a dreadful stench, those in love are entranced by filth.

52. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh

53. You have plenty of filth of your own. Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her that pouch of filth!

59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?

60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount.

61 Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!

(pages 92-93 of Skilton and Crosby)
Hearing these words I found myself reeling. My first reaction was that this kind of sentiment did not belong in our puja, that this kind of language did not belong in our devotions; that in fact this was not the kind of Buddhism I signed up for. Several years have done nothing to change this opinion. In fact I have become more clear that hatred of this type, hatred towards the body, has nothing to do with the Buddhism I practice.

Sue Hamilton follows the development of Buddhist attitudes to the body in his book Identity and Experience. The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. She shows that the earliest texts were in fact quite neutral towards the body. The attitude was analytical - one examined the experience of being embodied dispassionately to see that this was a conditioned experience like any other. There is none of the harping on impurity that we find later. Hamilton associates the subject of purity with Buddhaghosa, but I don't think the great commentator could have been an influence on Śantideva. It had to have been a more general movement.

I have already written about my concerns over ritual purity manifesting as superstition in Buddhism. Where these ideas operate in Buddhism I think we have to see them as having infiltrated from surrounding Hindu culture. In a paper I've had accepted for publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics I argue that the Buddha rejects notions of ritual purity and substitutes instead the idea of ethical purity. Concern with ritual purity was quite general during the Buddha's time with Brahmins and Jains finding it a concern. Everyone has technical terms indicating a 'return to purity' for instance - pratikramana, paṭikaroti etc. It is therefore possible to see Buddhism as a path of purity (visuddhimagga) but only in the ethical sense. Brahminical purity was intrinsic to people by birth, and to actions and substances by their nature. Ethical purity on the other hand depends largely on intention (cetana) - the motivation behind actions of body, speech, and mind are what make an action pure or impure. However it would be unusual to find this particular distinction - the usual one would be kusala/akusala i.e. competent/incompetent.

So there is no justification for seeing the body or it's substances as intrinsically impure or foul. Śantideva describes the body as for instance a "pouch of filth", or as "born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth". The fact is that the religion in which human bodily fluids (including here even mother's milk! ) are seen as polluting is Hinduism. I think the contrast here between western attitudes and caste Hindu Indian attitudes is made very stark by the reference to milk. In Indian the milk of the cow, even bovine shit and piss, are seen by caste Hindus as intrinsically pure and holy, whereas the milk of a woman is foul. If there was ever a traditional idea that we needed to reject this is it. Shit is a disease vector and we rightly avoid handling it, but mother's milk? We see mother's milk as a highly beneficial substance because it bestows health and vitality on the infant. There is no better nutriment for a human infant than its own mother's milk. Mother's milk is a symbol of virtue and vitality in the West. The full breasts of a lactating woman are ancient symbols for fertility and prosperity in our culture.

So on the retreat I took a little stand and made my point to everyone there. I don't think I argued the case well back then, it was a heartfelt reaction rather than a thought out position. I'm hoping that this more thought out essay will make the point more effectively. It's important in the WBO because we have a large number of people from backgrounds in Indian which are these days called Dalit (perhaps a third of our order). I can understand why they want to distance themselves from the former label applied to them and their peers. Fifty years ago they would have been called untouchable because caste Hindu considered their mere touch to be ritually pollutting. People were untouchable on the whole because of the family/community they were born into. Widows also became untouchable on the death of their husbands as is poignantly portrayed in the film Water by Deepa Mehta.

The practice of untouchability was outlawed when India became independent largely due to the efforts of the great leader Dr B R Ambedkar, although it has not disappeared from India where Dalits are regularly persecuted and sometimes killed. Dr Ambedkar along with hundreds of thousands of his followers became Buddhists, and these people make up the bulk of the Indian wing of the WBO (although I think the WBO is quite a small part of the greater Ambedkarite movement). As such I think we contemporary Buddhists, especially we FWBO Buddhists, have a special duty to identify and root out ancient prejudices, and especially any notions of ritual impurity.

A person and their body is as only pure or impure as their actions, they cannot be born impure, nor be made impure by contact with supposedly impure substances. There is no reason for describing the body as impure: it runs counter not only to the spirit of Buddhism, but to the politics of fighting oppression in India. I hope that this essay generates some interest and discussion amongst my colleagues.


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