27 March 2009

Buddhism and Religion

I've lived in Britain* for about seven years now, and one thing that has stood out for me about living here is the different preoccupations of the British. They are preoccupied with status in a way that, as a Kiwi**, I find baffling. One manifestation is 'class', which is a subject all of it's own! Stemming from this is the scrutiny of schools and education - where you went, where you send your kids, who teaches what - it's always in the news! One of the things that really stand out as different here is religion. The history of religion in Britain is complex and rich. We are left however with a rare thing in the Western world which is that the head of state, is also the head of an established (that is to say an official state) church. I've been a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (left) all my life, but I hadn't even noticed that she's the head of a church as well until I moved here. Christianity is everywhere: the towns are full of churches - some of them centuries old; state media must broadcast religious content, and state schools must offer religious education. Yes, the remit has been broadened out in recent times to include "other" religions, but the proportion still reflects that mad Victorian Melvil Dewey's classification system: Christianity 200-289; Other religions 290-299; (Buddhism is 294.3 in case you're wondering).

Another thing I've noticed is that when the media talk about Religion, they generally mean first Christianity, and second other Abrahamic religions. A kind of third category of Atheistic Materialist Humanism exists, since the atheists are defined by their sometimes fervent lack of belief in God. Buddhism is understood to be a religion, along with "other" religions like Hinduism, but doesn't get much air time. A couple of exceptions are Vishvapani's occasional 2.5 minute appearances on Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot, and Melvin Bragg's In our Time which looked at Buddhism's popularity for 45 minutes in 2002 - enough to keep up our Dewey proportions.

If you ask Google to define religion (which you do by typing "define: religion") you get much the same thing. The majority of entries emphasise divinity, the supernatural, and/or use terms drawn exclusively drawn from Christianity. In other words the internet generally reflects the idea that Christianity is the model of what a religion is (what George Lakoff calls a prototype for the category). 'Other' religions are recognised as religions by Westerners in so far as they resemble Christianity. But does Buddhism fit into this scheme? We have to answer yes, and no.

Pragmatically yes, Buddhism does resemble Christianity (in some ways). Like Christians we gather together for acts of worship. During that worship many Buddhists pray for salvation. The Buddha is not a creator God, and Buddhism recognises no creator God, but he is capable of offering us salvation. For some Buddhists there is no way forward except through the intervention of a Buddha, for others a Buddha is insufficient and salvation requires the intervention of a human teacher. Like Christians some Buddhists believe that without someone to lead the way (a Christ-like figure) no salvation is possible. I may be accused of being controversial for using 'salvation' - a term drawn from Christianity - where I might have used, for example, 'liberation' or 'Enlightenment'. But since the liberation cannot, seemingly, be attained on one's own, then we are being saved by the (supernatural) 'other'. Part of the ambiguity revolves around the multifaceted nature of Buddhist belief which is so broad that the varieties are bewildering. You personally might not believe any of the above. But this does not make it untrue. Furthermore the Buddhist scriptures are full of references to the supernatural: to ESP like powers, to levitation and magic of various kinds (even if only to ban their use by monks). 'Hindu' gods such as Brahma, Indra, and Agni simply abound; and animistic spirits like yakkhas, nāgas, appear on almost every page of the Canon. So in these senses at least Buddhism really does resemble other religions.

However in the rational West Buddhism is not a religion. Westerners, often refugees from organised (especially, state) religion are attracted to the Buddhadharma, but loath to take up the seemingly less rational aspects of it. So a kind of sanitised version of Buddhism emerges where references to the supernatural are seen as "mythic" or "archetypal" and thereby explained away. They may still inspire us, mostly they don't, but we don't have to take them literally. Often the non-literal attitude to the supernatural creates a seeing separation between 'us' and what have been called 'ethnic Buddhists'. However this is complicated when leaders, such as the founder of my order, regularly have (or at least had) what are described as mystical experiences involving personal meetings with various supernatural spirits. (See The Rainbow Road for an account of some of Sangharakshita's experiences). Mystical experiences aside (preferably), we focus on the rational, on the common sensical, teachings. The teachings in other words that appeal to the belief system that we have absorbed from birth from the surrounding culture. One of the main influences on surrounding culture is Protestant Christianity with a dollop of the European Enlightenment. This emphasises personal religion, plainness, chaste morality, distrust of papal (i.e. human) authority in favour of the biblical (i.e. textual) authority, hard work, and rationality. Indeed here are many of the things against which the spirit rebels, and over which the British are conflicted. Buddhism in the west, and in particular the FWBO, has been accused of being Protestant Buddhism. There is truth in this, but it deserves its own post. I suspect that Buddhism in predominantly Catholic countries will look quite different, just as French philosophy is very different from British philosophy.

The upshot is a Buddhism which tends to suppress the supernatural in favour of the rational, the personal in favour of the cosmic, the visionary in favour of the moral, and magic in favour of hard work. It doesn't look much like religion despite having Protestantism as an influence. And Buddhists of this ilk have carried on the venerable Buddhist tradition of writing polemics against the others - with Sangharakshita, despite his mystical experiences, being a great exponent of it. These kind of Buddhists tend not to see Buddhism as a religion. I am in this camp, despite being aware of the kinds of conditions that give rise to this belief - which is to say I admit that I'm not very original in thinking this.

Last week I argued that Buddhism, at least by Bryan Magee's definition, is not a philosophy and that the Buddha was not a philosopher. Prompting at least one Professor of Philosophy to admit that he's not a philosopher by that definition either! My own view, although I acknowledge that this is far from universal, is that Buddhism is not a religion either. What's left?

I think the fact that this is a question at all reveals much about the way the discourse is framed. Buddhism must fit into preconceived categories. The fact that it doesn't creates a cognitive dissonance, a discomfort that cries out for resolution - just like a dominant seventh chord cries out for the tonic to create the classic "amen" of the perfect cadence. Many a contemporary composer deliberately chooses harmonies that eliminate the possibility of the perfect cadence, leaving the listener adrift and uncertain. A metaphor for our times I am sure. So I'm going to leave it up in the air. The Buddha himself repeatedly said that he was only interested in suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to bring that end about.

* The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name for the region. Great Britain includes the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. Britain, technically, is only England and Wales. People in England, apparently, think of themselves as "British". England and Scotland have had a single monarch since 1603 - which the Scots appear to be very bitter about. The Prince of Wales is usually eldest son of the monarch of the UK (not sure what happens when there is no male heir).

** A "Kiwi" is someone from New Zealand. The Kiwi being a large fat, flightless, almost blind, nocturnal bird that eats worms and grubs, and is on the brink of extinction. It just happened to grace the lid of the (New Zealand made) boot polish of choice in WWI which created the association with the hapless bastards from down-under who went to fight for the King in Europe in 1914-18, only to be slaughtered on the beaches of Turkey in a futile exercise dreamt up by incompetent generals - thereby helping to forge a national identity distinct from Olde Mother England. We will remember them.
There is a good discussion of Buddhism as a religion in Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist, by Professor Richard Hayes (a man of many aliases and a fellow member of the WBO known in these circles as Dayāmati - Compassionate Mind). Pgs 142-150. I can also recommend his blog: New City of Friends.

20 March 2009

Buddhism and Western Philosophy : the Fundamental Mismatch

Following on from last week I want to continue the theme of ontology. This week I want to look at the differing attitudes to ontological speculation in early Buddhism and Western Philosophy generally. It seems to me that there is an almost irreconcilable difference between the two approaches. I've been sparked off by reading Confessions Of A Philosopher by Bryan Magee (left) . Here's what he says philosophy is about:
"The ur-question of philosophy throughout most of its history has been ‘what, ultimately, is there?’ This was the dominant question for the pre-Socratics, and it has underlain, then it has not dominated, most of the best philosophy since. In pursuit of an answer, philosophers have asked a multitude of subsidiary questions, such as ‘what is the nature of physical objects? What is space? What is causal connection? What is time?’ And by a natural progression from this they have become deeply exercised about the possibility of human knowledge: ‘How can we find out these things? Can we know any of them for certain? If so, which? And how can we be sure we know when we do know?’" (Magee p.86)
Magee puts this definition forward in his explanation that the so-called Oxford School, aka Linguistic Philosophy, really isn't philosophy at all. I want to use this paragraph as a jumping off point for comparison of early Buddhism (the narrow definition is necessary) and Western Philosophy, and to show that Buddhism, at least early Buddhism, is also not really philosophy at all.

In the west the primary question then is "what is there?" The assumption is that there is something "there", i.e. it assumes that we are a subject having an experience of an object. Early Buddhism too acknowledges this view point and sees humans as experiencing subjects being aware of objects. In particular we find the oft repeated formula that vedanā arises in dependence on contact between a sense object, a sense organ, and sense consciousness; and from vedanā all of the other functions of consciousness (or at least the functions relvant to the Buddhist project). Contemporary Buddhist discourse often tries to play down or eliminate this duality, but it is inherent in the early Buddhist texts. We have experiences of something.

However there is a fundamental difference in attitude towards the objective pole of experience. For philosophers the nature of 'what is there' is at the forefront. They enquire into the nature of the objects and the relationships between them. Even those that accept that to a large extent what we are talking about is a mental representation of some perceived reality, are still interested in what can be known and/or said about that external reality. Magee himself is not content to accept that nothing can be known for certain about Reality, but strives to find the limits of such knowledge. This is the broad subject area of metaphysics - the study of what is beyond physics. He describes more than once his disappointment that he was unable to persuade Karl Popper into the field of metaphysics.

Early Buddhism whilst acknowledging objects, has nothing much more to say about them - I know of nothing but leave open the possibility that I have not yet found it, or over looked something. The vast corpus of texts focus almost entirely on the experience, that is the subjective pole of contact. It is our response to sensations (vedanā - literally 'the known') that occupies the attention of the Buddha and early Buddhists, the cascade of mental functions and phenomena that follow from vedanā. I've harped on the Buddhists use of the word 'loka' lately so it should be familiar to my readers. It does not mean the objective world in most cases, but the subjective. When the Buddha is called "lokavidū" (in the Buddha Vandana for example) - the knower of the world - this does not mean that he knows about worldly things, but that he has fully understood his own world, his self-constructed world. He understands how experiences arise and pass away.

This is where we must specify early Buddhism - by which I mean the earliest strands of Buddhism largely represented by the Pāli texts, but with fragmentary parallels in Gāndhārī and Sanskrit, as well as translations into Chinese, and to some extent Tibetan and some Central Asian languages. Later on, although not that late, at least one strand of Buddhism began to think in terms of actually existent objective entities. This strand was called Sarvāstivāda after the Sanskrit phrase "sarvaṃ asti - everything exists". Perhaps because India had philosophers as well, the Buddhists got sucked into creating and systematising theories about reality (or worse, Reality), but this drew them well away from what seem to be the concerns of the early texts.

Where there is a quest for knowledge in philosophy it is knowledge of reality, knowledge of the the objective world. Questions of Truth and Authority revolve around this notion of a reality (or Reality) external to us in which we participate. There is a great deal of mileage in this. After all we to a large extent share experiences, and we can communicate about them. Technology relies on observations of objects and their relationship: from the earliest tools, to working metals and clays, to the hi-tech of atom smashers and the internet, these are all successes of the view that objects are real and knowable. Technology is not simply a matter of mental phenomena. If we dismiss the objective world out of hand, then we run the risk of appearing (and actually being) silly.

However once again the Buddha seems to have been preoccupied with other matters - generally speaking in the nature of experience, and more specifically in the nature of suffering or unpleasant experience. And not just in the content of experience, but in the mechanics of it. In the process by which we have experiences. This becomes apparent when we take an overview of the teachings on the khandhas, which Sue Hamilton has described as the "apparatus of experience". It's not that objects are denied. The observation that we can only know what we can experience, is shared by Western thinkers. It's that the Buddha's project was to end suffering, and not to make samara more pleasent or livable. Technology was beside the point to the Buddha, even if he had not adopted the lifestyle of a traditional wanderer. The focus, as I explained in Life, the Universe and Everything [16 Jan 2009], is suffering, it's causes, it's ceasing, and the ways one can make it cease. No technology is required to do this, because it is all about understanding how the experience of suffering arises from vedanā.

I would suggest then that Buddhism is not, or at least not in its earliest known texts, a philosophy, and the Buddha was not a philosopher, at least not in the terms given by Bryan Magee. The Buddha appears not to have been interested in the central questions of philosophy, and they have no bearing on the method of Buddhism - the object is immaterial compared to our experience of it, and how we understand that experience.

If Buddhism is not a philosophy, this begs the question, is it a religion? A subject for another rave...


13 March 2009

The World and What Exists

Some time back I wrote a post about the early Buddhist attitude to ontology - the issue of what exists, and what the nature of that existence is. I argued that ontology plays no part in the Buddha's presentation of his teaching. However in a note to the Flower Sutta (SN 22:94; PTS S iii.138-140) Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the foremost authorities on Theravāda Buddhism, states "The Buddha's utterances at 22:94, for example, show that he did not hesitate to make pronouncements with a clear ontological import when they were called for" (Bodhi 2000 : 734, n.29). I want to look at key passages in this sutta, and examine the claim that they have an "ontological import".

The Flower Sutta begins like this:
Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, lokena vivadāmi, lokova mayā vivadati. Na, bhikkhave, dhammavādī kenaci lokasmiṃ vivadati. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, natthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘natthī’ti vadāmi. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, atthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘atthī’ti vadāmi’’.
At Sāvatthi: Bhikkhus I don't dispute with the world, the world disputes with me. A Dhammavādin doesn't quarrel with anyone in the world. That which the wise in the world agree "it does not exist (na atthi), I too say "it doesn't exist". That which the wise in the world agree "it exists" (atthi), I too say "it exists".
Dhammavādī is an adjective which describes someone who professes, or speaks, Dhamma. Vāda is an argument, view, or ideology; and the -in suffix (vādin) is a possessive - someone who has that view. In my translation I've adopted Dhammavādin (the uninflected form) because it is on the model of Theravādin, or Yogacārin and should be familiar enough. I quite like the term Dhammavādin.*

The sutta continues by asking what it is that the wise agree doesn't exist in the world? The answer is forms, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness that are permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change do not exist in the world. These are of course the five khandhas, aka the apparatus of experience. What the wise agree as existing in the world are khandhas that are impermanent, suffering and subject to change.

Taken at face value this passage we might read this as an ontological statement. However I think we need to be quite careful. The problem is with the word loka. Literally it means 'world', and Bhikkhu Bodhi is clearly taking it to mean that the khandhas exist in some impermanent sense in the world (loke/lokasmiṃ). However in his long essay on the word on 'loka' Jan Gonda (1966) shows that the original meaning of the word was something like 'the visible world' or 'the world of experience'. The original image is one of a clearing in a forest - loka is what can be seen clearly, what appears to the mind. On the physical level this means the sensual world. However it also has the connotation that we have in English with regard to the world - one can live in 'one's own world' for instance. In this case the meaning is more personal, it is a psychological term. Gonda is concerned with Vedic literature which predates the Buddha, but he establishes the metaphorical/psychological use of the word. Sue Hamilton (2000) has shown that this is also how the Buddha uses the world loka. Hamilton links loka and khandha together as part of an elaborate extended metaphor developed by the Buddha for describing the subjective pole of experience.

So I would paraphrase the above as: in the world of experience, there is nothing in that experience which is lasting, satisfying, or independent of experience. Read in this way there is nothing here of ontological import. Bhikkhu Bodhi is mislead by reading loka literally rather than metaphorically. I think the Buddha was an empirical realist - he has no explicit quarrel with the idea that there are objects of the senses, but he has nothing definite or positive to say about such objects or their natures.

To play the devils advocate for a moment, if we were to accept Bhikkhu Bodhi's assertion that the Flower Sutta has something ontological to say, then what would it be saying? Presuming also that Bhikkhu Bodhi, going along with orthodox Theravada doctrine, accepts that the khandhas are a complete definition of reality, then what is being said in this sutta is that nothing definite can be said about the reality that Bhikkhu Bodhi is thinking of. In this view nothing at all is stable. There is nothing in this view on which to pin an ontology. Nothing exists in fact. So accepting the proposition we are lead to a paradox - one that is often overlooked. The way out of this is provided by Hamilton. What the Buddha is describing is not reality but experience. If reality really were so fluid we could not experience it. By necessity we must water down the statement that 'everything changes' to 'everything changes, but some things change slowly enough for us to experience them as persisting'. In fact everything that we experience as a something, must change slowly else we wouldn't experience it as a something. If something is there one second and gone the next, we usually assume that it was a trick of the mind (recalling that the Buddha had only his bare senses and no camera or other recording equipment!). So things must actually exist for a time in order for us to experience them.

However Hamilton's is a more elegant view. It is our experience of things which is changing from moment to moment, which is never satisfying. The fact that our experience changes from moment to moment says nothing about the nature of reality. It is a comment on the nature of consciousness and awareness. This is a statement that can be taken at face value, without having to back off to allow for practicalities. In fact it has important practical implications for Buddhists in the sense that it directs our attention not to the world as such, but to the world of experience.

The sutta later describes each of the khandhas as "loke lokadhammo", which Bikkhu Bodhi translates as "a world-phenomena in the world". It is this that the Buddha has awoken to (abhisambujjhati) and realised (abhisameti). If we read loka as something more like 'world of experience' then the Buddha is saying that he has understood the elements of experience in the world of experience. I think we can see this as further vindication of Hamilton's approach to the subject. Her view is that the khandhas are not the sum total of existence, but the elements of, or by which we have, experiences. What the Buddha was interested in was understanding the very process whereby we have experiences, and why we misinterpret them to our detriment. The nature of the world as an externally existing 'something' (kiñci) is not relevant to this question, because the Buddha, like many Western thinkers, took the view that we could not directly touch that something. We have only the information of our senses and what our mind makes of them. It is by understanding the mechanics of the process - by watching it in action - and disentangling ourselves from the stories we tell about experience, that we can free ourselves from the erroneous conclusions that cause us suffering.

* Members of the Western Buddhist Order are known as Dharmacārī or Dharmacāriṇī which are, respectively, the masculine and feminine nominative singular of the adjective dharmacārin. Dharma is familiar, and cāra means "going, motion, progression, course; proceeding; practising". The -in suffix, as above, is a possessive. So dharmacārin describes someone who is practising the Dharma. Dharmacārin is the stem or uninflected form and therefore gender neutral. I have argued, so far unsuccessfully, that the WBO should adopt this usage rather than the gender specific terms.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha : a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Gonda, J. 1966. Loka : World and heaven in the Veda. Amsterdam, Noord-Hollandsche U.M.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
See also: To be or not to be : the problem with ontology. Jayarava's Raves 31-10-2008

image: World map from ancientworldmaps.blogspot.com

06 March 2009

Words in mantras that end in -e

Anyone familiar with Buddhist mantras will be familiar with the number of words that end in -e. They constitute something of a mystery as they don't make sense grammatically or semantically, and explanations of them are obviously ad hoc (i.e. made up on the spot). For instance the Heart Sūtra mantra:
gate gate paragate parasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
Compare to this to the dhāraṇī offered by the Medicine King Bodhisattva in the White Lotus Sūtra:
anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samitā viśānte mukte muktatame same aviṣame samasame jaye kṣaye akṣaye akṣiṇe śānte samite dhāraṇi ālokabhāṣe pratyavekṣaṇi nidhiru abhyantaraniviṣṭe abhyantarapāriśuddhimutkule araḍe paraḍe sukāṅkṣi asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣite saṃghanirghoṣaṇi nirghoṇi bhayābhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣayate rute rutakauśalye akṣaye akṣayavanatāye vakkule valoḍra amanyanatāye svāhā ||
(Vaidya 1960 : 233)
Note how many of these words have the -e ending. Kern, the first person to translate the Lotus into English, in 1884, links many of these names to the Great Mother Goddess.
“All of these words are, or ought to be, feminine words in the vocative. I take them to be epithets of the Great Mother, Nature or Earth, differently called Aditi, Prajñā, Māyā, Bhavānī, Durgā. Anyā may be identified with the Vedic anyā, inexhaustible, and synonymous with aditi. More of the other terms may be explained as synonymous with prajñā (eg pratyaveksaṭi), with nature (kṣāye akṣāye), with earth
(dhāraṇī).” (Kern p.371, note 3)
For the uninitiated perhaps a brief explanation about inflected languages is in order. Where in English we use prepositions such as "of, for, to, by, with, on, in, from" etc. to indicate the relationship between words in a sentence, inflected languages add different endings to the words. The easiest way will be to show. Let's take a word that has a stem in -a: buddha. (It's actually a past-participle meaning awoken or understood). So somewhat simplistically we could show the endings and their 'meaning':
  • buddhaḥ - nominative - the Buddha.
  • buddhaṃ - accusative - the Buddha as the patient of a verb: e.g. I saw the Buddha.
  • buddhena - instrumental - by means of, or with the Buddha.
  • buddhāya - dative - to or for the Buddha. e.g. namo Buddhāya - homage to the Buddha.
  • buddhāt - ablative - from the Buddha
  • buddhasya - genitive - of the Buddha; the Buddha's... (possessive)
  • buddhe - locative - in or on the Buddha
  • buddha - vocative - O Buddha. (address or invocation)
There are many paradigms like this in Sanskrit. Each noun has dual forms in addition to singular and plural. Masculine, feminine and neuter nouns vary slightly, and stems can end in any monophthong vowel or certain consonants - meaning that there are very many different forms to remember! The -e ending is typically associated with three grammatical forms. In the case of the word 'gata', which is a part-participle and declined like a noun, the possibilities are:
  • feminine vocative
  • masculine locative (see above) or vocative
Gaté therefore most likely means something like "O she who is gone", i.e. it is in the vocative case. This is what Edward Conze thought. The other possibilities are open, but the subject of the Heart Sūtra is Prajñāpāramitā - who is feminine both in gender and grammatically. But when all the words in a mantra, as above, are in the feminine vocative the string of words is not grammatically sensible - they do not make a sentence. The usual explanation is some variation on the idea that these are strings of invocations to deities or qualities. Kern obviously thought something like this and expected feminine vocatives - but note that he is expecting Hindu goddesses in a Buddhist text. To some extent they do appear, but he may not, in 1884, had a very clear idea of the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism

An unspoken assumption here is that the mantras are written in Classical Sanskrit. This is the language which was formalised and polished (ie 'saṃskṛta' - literally "made complete") in about the 4th century BCE, and became the standard language for literary and religious compositions in India. Given that some of the texts, the Heart Sūtra for one, are written in Classical Sanskrit this seems at first glance a reasonable assumption. However we know that Buddhists before the Gupta Empire (4th - 6th centuries CE) wrote in a Sanskritised version of the Prakrit, or spoken dialect, locally spoken. This literary language which is now known as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit actually shows massive variations over time and place. The name Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS) was coined by Frank Edgerton who wrote a grammar and dictionary for it. Many well known sūtras were written in BHS including the Mahāvastu, Lotus, Golden Light, Gaṇḍhavyūha, laṅkkāvatātra, Sukhāvatīvyūha (larger and smaller), the Large Perfection of Wisdom, and the Diamond. Śantideva's Śikṣāsamuccaya which is made up of quotes from many Mahāyāna sūtras is almost entirely in BHS. In addition, notably, Buddhists reverted to BHS during the Tantric period after the 6th century.

BHS is full of irregularities particularly in the grammatical endings. In Classical Sanskrit for nouns with stems ending in -a the nominative singular is -aḥ (e.g. devaḥ, the god, or the king), whereas is Pāli the ending is -o, (e.g. devo), while in Māgadhī the nom sg. was -e (deve). The variety of BHS nom sg. endings for nouns with -a stems found in extant manuscripts includes: -o, -u, -ū, -a, -ā, -aṃ, and -e. The -e ending is also used for the vocative singular as in Sanskrit. In the case of the Gāndhārī Prakrit, at least in written form, the variety of nom. sg case endings has been described as "bewildering", and it seems as though final vowels may have been de-emphasised to the point of almost disappearing in speech, which caused confusion amongst scribes (Salomon p.130-131)

So if the mantras were written in Prakrit or perhaps BHS then we might suspect that they were simply words in the nominative singular. It might better explain the long lists of words such as the Lotus Sūtra example quoted above, although the Heart Sūtra mantra might still best be seen as an invocation. If one is stringing together words then the most basic form is usually the nominative singular.

But why would Sanskrit texts preserve a form that is aberrant from the point of view of Classical Sanskrit grammar? To answer this I cite the example of a Prakrit feature that is preserved in many Sanskrit texts, over quite a long period of time and including in indirect borrowings.

The Arapacana alphabet is the alphabet of the Gāndhārī prakrit. We know that at least from the first couple of centuries of the common era it was used as a mnemonic device, where each letter stands for a key word that is used in a line of verse of a poem. Most extant examples are either obviously a practical reminder about a meditation practice, or derive from one of these. Having been composed in Gāndhārī, perhaps as a stand alone poem*, it was imported into Sanskrit texts such as the Lalitavistara Sūtra and the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra**. In the case of the Lalitavistara a version exists which was fully Sanskritised, but there is also a version in Chinese translation which retains the Gāndhārī order (see Brough 1977). In the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra all known versions retain the Gāndhārī order. In the Gaṇḍhavyūha Sūtra the Gāndhārī order is retained but the phonetic connection between the alphabet and the keywords is lost. In the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT) the alphabet is Sanskrit, but the vowels except 'a' are left off in imitation of the Gāndhārī alphabet (which only uses one sign for initial vowels, which is then modified by diacritics to make all the other vowels). It's reasonably obvious that the source for the alphabet in the MAT is the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra, which means that it is twice removed from Gāndhārī, a language not spoken in India for several centuries by the time the MAT was composed! Perhaps not surprisingly there was a streak of conservatism by Buddhists when composing texts, especially with regard to mantra.

So there is a possibility here: if the mantras were in fact composed in Māgadhī or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, or some other dialect where a nom sg. in -e was used, then it is likely that the original form of the mantra would have been retained even as the text itself was Sanskritised. It might even have stayed in that form when borrowed by other texts. This means that the form in the mantras could be nominative and strings of words in nom sg., or at least intended to be. Perhaps a closer examination of the words, without the assumption of Classical Sanskrit might lead to a better understanding. For the moment the puzzle remains, and my conjecture though plausible is not a final answer to the problem - if anything I may have muddied the waters!

* we're still waiting for a full translation and analysis of a fragment of manuscript containing the earliest known version of the Arapacana. See the publications page of the Bajaur Collection of Buddhist Kharoṣṭhī Manuscripts for a preliminary report.

** The Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra has versions in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines which are distinguished chiefly by the number of repetitions and the thoroughness of spelling out variations on a theme. The chief feature of the version in 100,000 lines is the lack of the use of "etc" or "and so on". Conze has published an English translation largely based on the 25,000 line version, but which draws freely on the others due to the "execrable state" of the manuscripts.

  • Boucher, Daniel. 1998. Gāndhārī and the early Chinese Buddhist translations reconsidered : the case of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Journal of the American Oriental Society., 118 (4), p.471-506.
  • Brough, John. 1977. The arapacana syllabry in the old Laita-vistara. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 40 (1), p.85-95.
  • Vaidya, P.L. 1960. Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 6). Darbhanga : The Mithila Institute. Online: www.sub.uni-goettingen.de.
  • Conze, Edward. 1975. (trans.) The large sutra on perfect wisdom ; with the divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass : 1990)
  • Edgerton, Franklin. 1953. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. New Delhi : Munshiram Monoharlal, 2004.
  • Kern, H. 1884. The saddharma-pundarīka or the lotus of the true law. (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1980) (1st pub. 1884 Sacred books of the East Vol.21)
  • Nattier, Jan. 2005. A few good men : the Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). (University of Hawaii Press)
  • Salomon, Richard. 1999. Ancient Buddhist scrolls from Gandhāra : the British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments. London : The British Library.
See also my bibliography of publications on the Arapacana.

30 July 2010.
See also Some Additional Notes for a summary of: Cohen, Signe. "On the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit/Middle Indic Ending "-e" as a 'Magadhism'," Acta Orientalia Vol. 63 (2002), p.67-9.

13 Aug 2015

I was discussing the correct way of writing a Fudō mantra and realised something about the mantras in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. MAT is probably the first proper tantric text. The mantra in question is: namaḥ samantavajrāṇāṃ hāṃ. Most of the mantras begin with either this or namaḥ samantabuddhāṇāṃ.
The Sanskrit is slightly peculiar. Namaḥ means 'bow, pay homage, etc' (from namati 'he bows'). Samanta means 'universal, all, entire'. The slightly weird bit is the grammatical inflexion. Usually we bow *to* something as in namo buddhāya. The inflection is the dative singular case, "homage to the buddha". Here the inflection is the genitive plural. samantavajrāṇāṃ means 'of all the vajras'. So it looks like it says "homage of all the vajras". Really we want namaḥ samantavajrebhyaḥ "homage to all the vajras". So this is in fact a very interesting thing. Because in Prakrit (like Pāḷi), unlike Sanskrit, the dative merged with the genitive. So this proves that the mantras in the MAT were composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. And this bolsters the argument here that we should consider the -e ending to be Prakrit, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, rather than Pāṇinian Sanskrit.
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