31 July 2009

What is Consciousness?

One time the Buddha was living in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika's Park just outside Sāvatthī. [1] At that time a bhikkhu named Sāti was insisting that consciousness (viññāna; Sanskrit: vijñāna) is what 'wanders through the rounds of rebirth'. The Buddha's response to Sāti tells us much about his understanding of what consciousness is.

Asked what he thinks consciousness is, Sāti says:
Yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī’’ti
It is that, sir, which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad consequences of actions.
It seems that Sāti may have been a Brahmin of the progressive kind as he is describing something like an ātman. He is suggesting that there is some persistent entity which experiences the fruit (vipāka) of action from life to life. That entity he is calling viññāṇa. His view appears to be that the Buddha may be using the a different word, viññāṇa instead of ātman, but that he teaches more or less the same thing as Yājñavalkya in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. The Buddha is not pleased with Sāti and upbraids him for misrepresenting his teaching. Then addressing the other bhikkhus the Buddha says:

‘‘Yaṃ yadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhyaṃ gacchati. Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhyaṃ gacchati;
Bhikkhus from whatever condition consciousness arises, it is called that kind of consciousness. Consciousness arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-consciousness.
And so on for each of the senses in turn: ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mind-consciousness. This is just like, he says, the way that there is a difference between a forest fire, a grass fire, a gas fire, and a house fire (to paraphrase a little). Each is fire and requires fuel to be sustained, but one can distinguish differences depending on what fuel is being consumed. We leave out oxygen because the role of oxygen in burning was not understood in any detail and is left out of traditional fire metaphors.

In the case of mind-consciousness the word for mind is 'manas'. Words for mind and consciousness are used quite loosely and interchangeably in the texts, with variations over time, so it's sometimes difficult to pin down what is meant (c.f. mind, consciousness, gnosis, psyche, nous, cognition, subjectivity etc). Manas here is the function of the mind that processes input from the five physical senses; as well as memories, thoughts, associations, speculations and the like which are generated by the mind itself. These mental objects are collectively known as dhammā (plural). What a dhamma is understood to 'be', its ontological status, is vague and changes over time. We may take them to be units of experience.

Here then is the basic Buddhist definition of consciousness - viññāṇa. Consciousness is functional, and always consciousness of some object (note the early Buddhist model of reality allows for a subject and object at least conventionally), there is no subjective consciousness if there is no object of consciousness. This can be difficult to grasp - that consciousness itself is dependent on conditions. I would argue that in fact this is the main point of the Buddha's teaching on dependent origination - the consciousness itself is conditioned.

But what is viññāṇa? Well, this is very difficult to spell out in terms that would satisfy modern criteria for evidence - the nature of consciousness is one of the perennial philosophical questions. Many books have been written on the subject with each contradicting all of the others. I think it is best to adopt a pragmatic approach and say that the Buddha is not trying to provide an absolute definition of consciousness, not trying to set up a philosophical system, but that he is drawing attention to those aspects of consciousness which are important for understanding his method of practice. That is why he defines consciousness in the way that he does, because anything else is irrelevant to Buddhist practice.

Having explained this the Buddha asks:
bhūtamidanti, bhikkhave, passathāti?
'this has come to be', Bhikkhus, do you see?
He asks them whether they understand that 'this' depends on food 'āhāra', and ceases when the food ceases. Bhūta is the past-participle of √bhū 'to be' and so means 'become' - it refers to something that has come into existence. This in turn is linked to the idea of yathābhūta - often translated as "things as they are", but means something more like simply "as become", and is said by the tradition to be the content of the Buddha's vision. So the Buddha is trying to get to the heart of the matter.

An interesting facet to this phrase was pointed out to me some years ago by Professor Richard Gombrich in his Numata Lectures in 2006. The form of pronoun used here 'idam' is known as deictic, and refers to something present to the speaker. Professor Gombrich thought that the Buddha might have been pointing to something while talking - perhaps a fire. Is this the first recorded use of a visual aide during a presentation? The fire only burns while there is fuel, and when the fuel runs out the fire goes out. Fire in fact is one of the most important metaphors that the Buddha uses. [2] Consciousness is like fire because without fuel (an object) it does not continue. Fire spreads and can be seen almost to seek out new fuel, like consciousness seeks out new objects. Sometimes the Buddha also describes 'desire' (taṇha) as the fuel (upadāna) for becoming (bhava); and with the extinguishing (nibbāṇa) of desire comes liberation (vimokkha).

Now the first part of this text can be read as the Buddha proposing paṭicca-samuppāda as an alternative to rebirth, however later he appears to confirm his belief rebirth when he talks about the 'gandhabba' which descends into the womb at conception. Gandhabba used in this sense is unusual and I don't want to get bogged down trying to figure out precisely what it means. It appears to be an entity which ensures the continuity of kamma and vipaka (action and consequence) beyond death. [3] As soon as one proposes or accepts a theory of rebirth one runs into a deep philosophical problem: what can possibly survive death? How can anything be transferred from a dead person into an embryo separated in time and space? How do the consequences of my actions transcend my own death? Buddhism seems confused on this point, or at best ambiguous and ambivalent. The Pāli texts are clearly contradictory at times: sometimes putting forward a rather deterministic version in which the same person does in fact appear in life after life, as in the Jātaka stories; or in the texts where the Bhikkhus ask after the 'destination' of someone who has died; or when the Buddha recalls his millions upon millions rebirths when he awakens, suggesting that not only consciousness but more specifically memory persists! At other times, as in the first part of this sutta, the idea of anything which persists from moment to moment, let alone life to life, is ruled out - there is only arising in dependence on conditions. It's not clear whether any given text is meant as literal truth, or as pedagogical rhetoric making a broader point, although the idea that even in death one does not escape the consequences of ones actions is ubiquitous. I think this confusion in the early texts is often mirrored by confusion in the present about rebirth. The waters are muddied in our time by the popular Tibetan notion of reincarnating 'tulkus'. [4] The result is not very intellectually satisfying. So what are we to make of it?

The main thing seems to me to be that consciousness itself arises from causes (eye, and eye object for instance) and it is therefore impermanent. There is not a stream of consciousness, but a series of moments arising in dependence on contact between organ and object. The sense of continuity is an illusion. It is this very strong sense of continuity that leads us towards views which support our continued existence in the future, and this is what, I think, attracts us to the myth of rebirth. The Buddha asks us to forego such speculation and focus on what our mind is like in the here and now - to understand how our minds consume and are sustained by sensory input, like a fire consumes and is sustained by wood, or grass or whatever.


  1. Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. MN 38. PTS M i.259. Not translated on Access to Insight. Translated by Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p.394 ff. All translations in this article are my own.
  2. For more on the use of the metaphor of fire see: Jayarava Rave - Everything is on fire! and Playing with Fire.
  3. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (p.1233-4, note 411.) point out that the Pāli commentary on this passage suggests that the gandhabba is "a being due to be reborn because of their kamma". The word in this sense occurs only in this sutta (elsewhere it is a kind of celestial musician, often mentioned along with yakkhas and nāgas). The bhikkhus suggest that we think of gandhabba as a "stream of consciousness" but this seems to me to repeat Sāti's error because it posits a continuity of consciousness of the same kind. My opinion is that the section on the gandhabba is a folk belief of the time, and contradicts the early part of the sutta. Trying to explain the mechanics of rebirth almost inevitably leads to contradiction (like time travel in a science fiction story).
  4. The tulku system in my view is a primarily a political system. It is a unique system of governance in which precocious and promising youngsters are taken and rigorously educated for many years. They are then, if they have lived up to their promise and not all of them do, put in charge - not only spiritually, but politically. The tulku, crucially, inherits not only the charisma (in the Weberian sense) of his predecessor but all of his property and income. In Japan by contrast monks simply started having children and passing monastic property and resources to them. The Tibetans on the whole kept religious leaders celibate and therefore had to find a way of ensuring continuity. This has not entirely eliminated succession conflicts, and disputes over access to resources, but it must have smoothed things over to a great extent.

24 July 2009

Indo-European Writing

brhami scipt from British Museum

Aśoka (6th) Pillar fragment
Brāhmī inscription
formerly at Meerut. Mid-3rd century BCE.
(?u)pagamane sememokhyamate
(bhi)sitename iyaṃdhaṃmali(pi) li*

© British Museum (my photo)
When I recently blogged about Indo-European languages one of my friends asked what is quite an obvious question: what about writing? So I'm going to outline the development of writing as it is relevant to Buddhist India. India is very linguistically diverse - there are three distinct language families, including Indo-European, plus a number of languages not related to any known language - known as 'isolates'.

Most modern scripts can trace their origins to Mesopotamia. A surprising number trace their roots to the writing developed in India - in fact almost every country that saw Buddhist missionary activity, excepting China, has seen some influence from the India scripts on their writing systems. That said writing came relatively late to India, and even then was not used for religious texts for many centuries.

The earliest evidence of writing anywhere in the world is from around 3500 BCE in present day Iraq. The Sumerians left caches of clay tablets at sites along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This earliest writing, similar in some ways to the earliest Chinese writing (ca 1400 BCE), involves pictures which represent concepts. However it was with the invention of cuneiform that something like writing as we know began. The earliest examples of cuneiform combine signs for concepts with signs for sounds (as do Egyptian hieroglyphs). A variety of cuneiform continued to be used in the middle-east until the last century before the common era. However in the same region speakers of Semitic languages began to represent their language using only signs for sounds - i.e. to use a true alphabet - around 2000 BCE.

The Achaemenid empire (ca 550 - 350 BCE) founded in Persia adopted a form of Semitic writing, often called Aramaic after the language it encoded, for administrative purposes. It represented a significant improvement on cuneiform - it could be written (and read) more quickly and easily, and on a much greater variety of materials. Now it so happens that the Achaemenids invaded India and controlled, or at least had a powerful influence, up to the western bank of the Indus River - about half of what is now Pakistan. In fact the Buddha lived during this period and there is some evidence of Persian influence in the Pāli Canon - which I have discussed previously in this blog. The Achaemenids were toppled by Alexander of Macedonia, and in India at least the power vacuum was filled by the Mauryan Dynasty of which Asoka is the stand out figure.

Certainly by the time that King Asoka ruled India (mid 3rd century BCE) there was a well developed form of writing: the Brāhmī Lipi or Writing of God which he used on his rock pillars and edicts. Brāhmī is said to show signs of influence from Aramaic. Another script, Kharoṣṭhī, was less widely used in India proper, but was the main script in Gandhāra and parts of central Asia for some centuries. We can say with some confidence that Kharoṣṭhī was based on Aramaic as it retained many features of the Semitic script. It is possible that Kharoṣṭhī influenced the development of Brāhmī , but it is difficult to say because the earliest known examples of Brāhmī are already a fully fledged script and the direction of development subsequently is determined by the nature of Indian languages.

We can say that all forms of written language in India, as well as Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are descendants of Asoka's Brāhmī. In India there was a very distinct north/south divide which I think was caused by writing materials, but may have been influence by the geographical spread of Indo-European languages (north) and Dravidian languages (south). The North favoured birch bark and wood to write on, while in the South the material of choice was the leaf of the talipot palm. The palm leaf is ribbed which lead to the development of the more rounded shapes of Southern writing (which then influenced Sinhala, Burmese etc). Note that technically Sinhala is a North Indian language, part of the Indo-European family, and not related to Tamil or other Dravidian languages, but it is written in a southern style script and palm leaves were the medium of choice until relatively recently. Similarly Burmese, though written with a Brāhmī derived script is part of the Tibeto-Burman family which has a relationship with the plethora of Chinese languages.

Brāhmī underwent continuous development in the North and diversified into local geographical variants. But because dynasties based in the North-east - particularly the Mauryans and then the Guptas (3rd - 6th centuries) - were dominant they tended to influence the development of writing more. The Brāhmī variant commonly used by the Guptas was by that time a distinct script. The Nalanda University was in the Gupta heartland and the Gupta script was important in the spread Buddhist texts. Later it would give rise to the Siddhamatṛkā or just Siddhaṃ script which was commonly used to write the Tantras. It is still in use today for writing mantras in China and Japan. The Gupta script, or something very like it was used as the basis for Tibetan writing, which also continued to develop independently and diversify. Siddhaṃ evolved into Devanāgarī, which is the most common script for Sanskrit in the present - though it is written using the Tamil script in South India for instance.

There are several ways of represent sounds using signs. The English alphabet attempts to convey individual sounds that combine into syllables or phonemes. This is a very efficient way of representing spoken sounds - with just 26 letters we manage to convey the 25 single consonant sounds, and 23 vowel sounds that are used in 'standard' English (as represented by the Oxford English Dictionary) and an extensive repertoire of combination of them in words and sentences. Another method is to represent speech as a series of syllables. One can either represent all possible syllables by individual signs which is only practicable if there are a small number of syllables - the Japanese Kana alphabets are good examples of this approach. An intermediate option is available where consonants and initial vowels have distinct signs and these are modified to show medial and final vowels. The latter is typical of Indian writing.

There are several distinct features shared by all Indic scripts which I will demonstrate using Devanāgarī. Initial vowels have distinct signs - 14 in Sanskrit - but medial and final vowels, and the absence of a vowel (which happens at the end of words and in conjuncts) are indicated with diacritic marks. Consonants are assumed to be followed by the short 'a' vowel unless otherwise specified. क is ka not k. Examples of vowel diacritics are: kā ke kai ki kī ko kau kṛ = का के कै कि की को कौ कृ. Vowels may also be absent, nasalised or aspirated (the technical terms being virāma, anusvāra, visarga), so g, gaṃ, and gaḥ = ग् गं गः . Indic, like English, allows for a variety of combinations of consonants without intervening vowels. These are either written as a vertical stack as in ṣ + ṭha > ṣṭha = ष् + ठ > ष्ठ; or as a horizontal combination with the initial consonant as a "ligature": t + pa > tpa = त् + प > त्प. As many as four consonants can be combined in this way e.g. strya स्त्र्य. Special variations occur with 'r' viz pra = प् + र > प्र, and rta = र् + त > र्त; ś can also undergo a special change e.g. śva = श् + व > श्व; cf śya = श्य; and some conjuncts have distinct signs jña ज्ञ and kṣa क्ष. Writing Sanskrit this way is considerably more complex than writing English.

Buddhist texts in Indic languages are preserved in a plethora of scripts: Brāhmī in many varieties, the Gupta script again in many varieties, Siddhaṃ with some variation over time (and major variants in China and Japan), Kharoṣṭḥī, Devanāgarī, several Tibetan scripts, Sinhala, Burmese, Thai etc. Each of these scripts records texts in an equally wide variety of Indian languages and dialects; and of course many texts are now known only in translation in Chinese, Tibetan or any of a dozen other languages - making the history of Buddhist texts quite complex. All this is remarkable given centuries of resistance to the use of writing for the purpose of writing sacred texts in the early days of Buddhism.

A scholar of Buddhism must often know several languages and associated scripts in order to read the relevant manuscripts. The standard of handwriting in ancient times was often quite poor, and the attention to copying of texts wavered causing scribal errors, which means that no two manuscripts are ever the same. Deciphering such manuscripts requires imagination and powers of deduction as well language skills. As such we owe a great deal to those people down the ages with the aptitude and motivation to take on the difficult task of learning these, often dead, languages and scripts, in order to study and translate the texts for us. Having dipped into their world I am in awe of them.


* The bottom line of the Brāhmī inscription pictured is a fragment of a longer stock phrase:
saḍuvīsativābhisitena me iyaṃ dhaṃma lipi likhāpita
when I [Asoka] had been consecrated twenty-six years I ordered this inscription of the dhamma to be engraved
- c.f. the 1st pillar in A. L. Basham The Wonder that was India, 1967, 2001, p.395. There is now some doubt as to whether Asoka meant the Buddhadhamma or his own dhamma [see Aśoka, Pāli and some red herrings].

17 July 2009

Do we have a choice?

Recently Matt Quinn commented on my post "Who Craves?" He asked a very good question and in answering it I found myself edging over into rave mode and realised that it would be a good topic for a stand-alone blog post. I had said "An interesting conclusion here is that we aren't personally responsible for the arising of craving (or hatred) in the present. There can be no doubt that we are responsible for our present actions, ..." and Matt's question draws out an interesting point:
"It seems that you are saying we don't choose whether or not we crave, but we do choose how we act. Have I understood you correctly? If so, then I would like to ask whether you consider choices (or actions) to arise dependent upon conditions just as craving does? If this is the case, then why am I responsible for the former and not the latter? If this isn’t the case, then why isn’t it the case?"
The question is basically the question of free will. Are our choices in response to craving and hatred really choices or are they a matter of karma playing itself out?

There are many ways to approach this. So let's start with cause and effect. Craving is an effect of previous choices. Choices cause craving (or not). The fact that we do crave influences our choices - but it does not determine them. When craving is present we are strongly drawn to the object we desire, but we are not inexorably or invariably drawn to it. Experientially you will know this to be true - sometimes you can say no to desire. This choice, according to Buddhism, is always present, and it is what distinguishes the human state from other possible states of being.

My understanding of free will is that it is silly to insist on absolutes - the debate in the West is often in terms of do we have it or not, and this is framed by a dispute within Christianity, as well as a dispute between Christians and Humanists. This is not a debate I'm inclined to join on it's own terms as it is framed in terms of a world view I don't share. I suggest that it is more useful to ask this: "to what extent are we free to choose?" Our choices are conditioned by our previous choices - the technical term for this is saṃskārā. If we make the same kind of choice many times it becomes habitual, and habits are hard to break, saṃskārās are these habits compounded over lifetimes. Even addictions, where there is very little choice, however, are able to be overcome given good conditions. People can and do change. I know I've seen it for myself, and so the question becomes how much can we change, and under what conditions, and in what directions?

Sometimes rather than exercising free will we might talk about setting up positive conditions for change. By this I mean conditions which encourage mindfulness and emotional positivity. The traditional way of talking about the wheel of life is that most of it is just inevitable, almost like an automatic process: so if you are born, then you die, and are reborn; if you have the sensory equipment then you have sensory experiences. And the rest is just details. But there is a possible gap in the process. It is between sensation (vedanā) and craving (taṇha). It is just possible to experience the pleasurable sensation and not experience the desire to possess it. If this were not possible then we could never say no to desire.

In breaking free of craving we do not break the cycle all at once. At first we weaken the reaction. So when there is no mindfulness we experience the pleasurable sensation, and reach for it without thinking. When we have some mindfulness however there is a possibility of not reaching for the object. We may feel the desire to reach out for the pleasure (to try to obtain, maintain, or retain it: the -tain part comes from Latin tenere "to hold"), but we stifle the desire and in doing so we experience a little bit of freedom - a taste of freedom. We can build on this until we have more and more freedom to not try to obtain the object of desire. We find that this makes us more content. Often you get a taste of this on retreat where the conditions are good for mindfulness and desire naturally reduces. Then the task becomes the breaking of desire itself which means we go beyond being mindful of our sensations and reactions, and trying to hold in mind the process itself, and try to see into that process to see through it - this is the literal meaning of vipassanā, to see through.

Early Buddhist texts identify two trends in conditionality. In one we simply act on craving, hatred and confusion and this sustains those very qualities. Acting on craving leads to more craving. In the second we act on some positive impulse - the two main one's in the texts are faith (saddha) and non-remorse (avippaṭisāra) - then this leads to positive consequences that in turn set up the conditions for more positive consequences. At some point we are making so many positive choices that there is no scope for craving. So we have two ways to deal with craving - to reduce and eliminate it through mindfulness; or we can overwhelm it with positivity. Sangharakshita has called the first path cyclic, and reactive; and the second spiral, and creative.

Note that one strain of Buddhism - descending from the Japanese thinker Shinran - came to the conclusion that there is so little choice that individual will is insufficient and that all we can hope for is rescue by a Buddha as set out in the Sukhāvati-vyūha Sūtras where Amitābha makes a series of vows to save all beings. This kind of faith based approach to Buddhism is very popular in East Asia, and indeed it is important in the West in the form of Nichiren and Soka Gakkai - the latter being an offshoot of the former. However, even within that kind of framework it is up to the individual to develop their faith, so even there we are not free of actually having to make choices.

In fact we are always making choices and decisions even if only unconsciously. It can't be avoided. Scientists have begun to show that animals do make limited choices, but we may still generalise and say that the characteristic of animals is that they simply respond to stimulus and act without reflective thought or self-reflection. Human beings are many orders of magnitude ahead of our animal cousins in that we have the ability to reflect on our actions and to examine our motives for acting. We are moral beings, whether we like it or not, and our actions have moral consequences. In order to fully take up our humanity we must engage with this fact and at least begin to take responsibility for our actions. Though addicted to pleasurable sensations (and we may say the avoidance of unpleasant sensations) we have a choice.

Our instincts are honed for a much less sophisticated and technologically simple world and often do not serve us in the present. The natural desires for example for sex, for sweet and fatty foods, and for social status are hyper-stimulated in our societies. So every relationship is sexualised, we are fat, and we constantly struggle for status through grooming and/or combat. Nietzsche famously said that man is a tightrope stretched between the animal and the 'over-man'. We retain some of our animal characteristics, but we are capable of being so much more. As followers of the Buddha we conceptualise this 'more' as 'Buddhahood', as being liberated from greed, hatred and confusion. And the key is that we do have a choice, and each positive choice we make gives us more choice in the future.

image: cartoon from www.marriedtothesea.com.

10 July 2009

Kūkai's journey to China : Kentōshi Ships and Weather

To see my Google Map click here

One of the marvels of modern technology is that we have easy access to all kinds of information. I've been trying to visualise Kūkai's journey to China and to understand the scale of it. Using the internet I was able to locate a journal article which discusses the detail of the journey, then using Google Maps I have been able to visualise it and get a sense of the scale of it. The route outlined here relies on an article by Robert Borgen in Monumenta Nipponica.*

Kentōshi (遣唐使), which means 'Envoy to the Tang' i.e. mission to Chinese court of the Tang (T'ang 唐) dynasty,** was used to describe both the people and the ships they went on. We don't have much definite information about the vessels, but it is assumed that they were built on the model of the Chinese junk which were developed in China during the Han Dynasty (220 BCE - 200 AD) which were being used for ocean voyages by the 3rd century. Such Chinese ships visited Japan for trade. We know that the Japanese and the Koreans definitely used Chinese junks as models for later ships. It's often stated that because the ships had a flat bottom and no keel that they could only use the sails when the wind was directly behind them. However the boats used a very large rudder which projected well below the bottom of the ship, and did much the same job as a keel, i.e. it stopped the wind pushing the boat sideways when sailing to windward. They could probably have managed to sail close hauled at between 45-60° to the wind. Which in fact means that they could sail in much the same way as an early square rigged European ship such as Magellan had sailed around the world in.

The idea that the Japanese were poor sailors seems to be an assumption related to their decision to sail in the typhoon season, but as I pointed out in an earlier post (Why did Kūkai sail in summer?), the Japanese envoys were concerned to get to the Tang court on New Years day in order to offer their tribute at the appropriate time, and this must have over-ridden the concerns of the sailors. In fact the Japanese were highly attuned from ancient times to the annual changes to their climate wrought by the monsoon, and I find it very unlikely indeed that they did not understand the wind patterns. Note also that by Kūkai's time, in the early 9th century, envoys from the nation of Po-hai (north of Korea) to Japan regularly timed their journeys to take advantage of seasonal winds.

It's very often stated that the winds were against the ships sailing across the sea to China, but the prevailing wind during the summer monsoon in that region is from the south-east. This means that the Kentōshi ships, sailing south and west, were most likely cutting across the wind - a favourable geometry for sailing. With a wind from the south-east (135°) they could probably have sailed in any direction from say 0° - 75° and 195° to 360°. In fact a line joining Tanoura to Ming-chou is at about 252-3° which in sailing terms is a 'close reach' and probably well within the capabilities of the ships.

It is quite unlikely that they could have made the journey at all if they had to row ships that probably weighed over 100 tons all the way, and it does not seem so unreasonable to me that they relied on sails most of the time - even sailing north from Fu-chou to Ming-chou. Note that all four ships of the mission survived a typhoon, some of them two typhoons, and a 500 mile ocean crossing so they must have been reasonably well built. European ships of a similar size and square rigged could make about 5-7 knots, and, allowing for variable wind conditions and given that they would have paused during the night when they could, I initially guessed that they might average about 20 or 30 miles per day.

Previous missions would have made a quick jump across the straights of Korea probably via Tsushima Island, a journey of about 150 miles with a longest stretch of open water of about 35 miles. On a good day the Kentōshi ships could have sailed that distance in a single long day. From there the boats would have hugged the coast all the way to China. However in the 7th century Japan's long term enemy Silla had, with the help of Tang China, unified the whole Korean peninsular under their rule, leaving the Japanese with no bases on the mainland and a more powerful antagonist as neighbour.

The four Kentōshi ships left from Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka) and headed for Hakata (Fukuoka) on Kyūshū Island, a distance of 330 miles most of which is in the usually pacific Inland Sea. Note however that in 803 when the mission first sailed the boats were almost wrecked by a (rare) storm in the Inland Sea. From Fukuoka the ships hugged the coast of Kyūshū down to Tanoura (since merged into Ashikita), the last stop before heading west across the East China Sea. We don't know how good the navigation techniques were at this time, though simply sailing west would mean hitting China at some point, but the ships ideally would make land near the modern city of Shanghai or north of there. They left from Tanoura on the 6th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23 (ca 14 August 804).

Of the two ships that completed the journey in 804 Ship Two is said to have taken about two months to get to Ming-chou (near modern Ningpo). Now here is a puzzle: Abe, Hakeda, and others give this time frame, but Abe says that the Vice Ambassador who lead Ship Two died in Ming-chou on the 25th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23. This is a mere 19 days after leaving Tanoura. So, assuming this is not a misprint, either the Vice Ambassador died at sea less than half-way across, or Ship Two made very good time crossing the 540 miles, averaging about 30 miles a day. The latter figure is not unreasonable if they met no more storms, and my other assumptions are correct.

Ship One, the ship that Kūkai was on, took much longer to make the crossing, coming to land on the 10th day of the 8th month (ca 17 September 804) after 34 days at sea. They landed near the city of Fu-chou, in Fukien province (modern day Fuzhou, Fujian). It is sometimes said that this was 1000 miles south of where they intended to be, however the map above makes it clear that the distance from Fu-chou to Ming-chou by sea is about 390 miles, and by land about 360 miles to Hang-chou (using a route something like that suggested by Borgen). In a straight line Ship One covered about 750 miles in the crossing, which means they averaged at least 22 miles per day. In fact we know that they didn't go in a straight line because they were blown off course by the typhoon.

On the return journey (late June early July of 805) which was apparently without major incidents Ship One took nineteen days to make landfall at Tsushima (the island in the Strait of Korea); while Ship Two took twenty eight days to arrive at Hizen on Kyūshū Island. This is about 29 and 19 miles per day respectively - quite comparable to the outward journey suggesting that 20-30 miles per day is a good measure of the average speed of the ships.

typhoon over the East China Sea
Typhoon Tokage near Japan
Image Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory
Typhoons make a rather wavy line as they progress towards Japan from the Pacific Ocean, typically they follow the prevailing winds which spiral out from a massive region of high pressure over the Pacific and into a low over continental Asia. In August the typical typhoon would swing around Kyūshū and head up the Sea of Japan - though a lot of variation has been observed. As the typhoon approached the wind would have swung around initially from the south-west, to the west - the winds swirl in anti-clockwise to the centre, and have become a tight knot by the time they reach Japan. On the western side of the storms the winds are blowing more or less to the south and this explains how Ship One might have been sent far southwards. Ship Two somehow escaped this. The trailing edge of the typhoon seems to have blown Ships Three and Four eastwards back to Japan, though this suggests that there was already a significant distance between them and Ships One and Two by this stage.

Borgen's article is an important source of information about ships 3 and 4 from the Kentōshi flotilla - but that is another story. Hopefully you can see that using Google maps in this way really does makes the scale of the journey clearer, and you find my route plausible where I have supplied details not vouchsafed by history. The historical sources are vague on the construction and design of the ships, but I hope my reinterpretation of the Japanese as intelligent and able boat builders and sailors is both welcome and sound - I hate it when historians assume that people are stupid because they (the historians) don't understand what was going on!

* Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28. In this article I also indirectly cite or use information from: Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. (Columbia University Press, 2000); and Hakeda, Y.S. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
** I tend to use the Pinyin version of Chinese transliteration with Wade-Giles equivalents in parentheses at the first occurrence. If there is only one transliteration it is Wade-Giles and I don't have a Pinyin version. Some names have changed substantially since Kūkai's time.

For other materials related to Kūkai and his voyage see my Kūkai bibliography.

Aug 2010 Update.

Since writing this essay I have studied the Diary of Ennin (Ennin, E.O. Reischauer (Translator] Diary: Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law) paying particular attention to his records of wind and sailing directions. Although he records about a dozen combinations, the ships he sails on never seem to sail into the wind, and only run before it. It now seems more likely to me that the ships couldn't manage anything more than a broad reach - about 45° either side of the wind direction, i.e. that they could not use a head wind. I've noted that the prevailing wind at the time of year is from the South-East (or perhaps the East) and this may tally with their leaving from quite far south on Kyūshū - they expected to make leeway to the North while travelling West. Although my lines on the map are straight it seems likely the storm blew them far to the south, and that they then sailed North/N' West to make landfall. I have no idea if the could accurately determine latitude.

03 July 2009

The Role of Monasteries

Tiger's Nest Monastery BhutanIn March 2008 Melvin Bragg's 'In Our Time' show focussed on the dissolution of the monasteries of Britain in the 16th century by King Henry VIII. Although the monasteries were wealthy and this was something that lead to their downfall, I was struck by how the role of the monasteries was defined: they were there to pray for the nation and the king. There is a parallel here with Japan in the Nara and Heian periods - the two eras which Kūkai's life straddled.

Before the dissolution there was probably no place in the UK more than thirty minutes from a monastery. European monasteries had a routine of daily prayers which were always the same, and chanted or sung at the same time every day. They also celebrated saints days and festivals. In the case of Japanese monasteries the chants were Buddhist sūtras, but otherwise the form and function were very similar.

Monastery and monk are related to the word mono and all convey the idea of 'singular', an individual or one alone. Clearly the term must have applied originally to hermits or anchorites. Anochorite comes from Greek anakhoretes, lit. "one who has retired." However these days we understand a monk to be someone who lives communally. The term for this is 'cenobite' from the Greek koinobion "life in community, monastery." The traditional terms bhikṣu/bhikkhu are often translated as 'monk', and this works because although bhikkhus were likely to have been anchorites in the very early days, they have mostly been cenobites for many centuries. The word 'nun' by the way comes from an entirely different source - it is a name for a female elder and is related to 'nana' (which is what we called my grand-mothers as kids).

I like this image of numerous widespread groups of people whose sole responsibility was praying for the benefit of the nation and the king or queen. Of course this was before the present scientific era, and prayer was a far more prominent approach to dealing with suffering. These days we think that science and technology have suffering beat. There is no doubt that scientific medicine has made a huge difference in our lives - we live longer, survive diseases that might have killed us, and have a more comfortable life generally. However we still grow old, still get sick (in ways that cannot be simply cured by drugs), and we still die. These facts are very much at the heart of the Buddhist definition of suffering, and they haven't changed. Often we feel a greater sense of unease about old-age, sickness and death and I think this is why a rigidly rational approach to life fails to satisfy. Keep in mind here that recent research on the placebo effect has shown that if we believe that prayer helps us recover from illness, then it will help!

I think it's fair to say that the image of the Buddhist monk these days is quite different, and to be fair the monks themselves seem ambivalent about what they are doing. I have heard it said that becoming a monk is a selfish act. I disagree with this, but I can see where the idea might have come from. Monks don't work, and rely on others for their living. This is inimical to the Protestant work ethic, and so is frowned on in the west. Monks appear to reject worldly things, although it is clear that many monks maintain an active engagement with worldly things. Rejecting materialism is not always viewed positively in western culture, but it is hard to see how a monk with a computer, ipod and pension plan can really be said to be a renunciant. The clearest mark of a monk is celibacy something which is clearly fraught with problems. Celibacy as a lifestyle choice is a mystery to most of us. We don't see how it could benefit anyone - though I note that a recent New Scientist article suggests that irrational acts of sacrifice help to reinforce belief in others.*

The idea that a Buddhist monk might have become a monk for the benefit of all beings has not really taken root because it's not obvious how beings benefit from such behaviour. In the current world view it is not clear "what is in it for me" to support monks. Sadly many of us do not take the effects of acts of devotion seriously, despite the evidence.

Japanese monks focussed on a small number of Mahāyāna texts which state that anyone who chants the sūtra will gain protection from misfortune for themselves, the nation and the king - for instance the Golden Light Sutra. They took this on face value and set up a network of regional temples for the purpose of chanting there sutras. Another aspect of supporting monks is the accumulation of merit (puñña/puṇya). By acting meritoriously one tried to attain a more fortunate rebirth from which the pursuit of liberation is easier. The role of lay people in Buddhist society often devolves to simply supporting monks. At worst the role of the monks is simply to teach lay people how to follow the rituals about supporting the monks. An example of this is the Sri Lankan bhikkhus who go to India to meet with the Dalits and rather than teaching them the Four Noble Truths, or how to meditate, focus on the correct procedure for bowing to a bhikkhu.

There are now a number of well established Buddhist monasteries in the West. I've not had any direct experience of them - though friends of mine have.** I think one of the reasons that the FWBO has not yet developed monasteries is that we are not entirely clear what they are for. Long solitary retreats are quite popular, and some longer retreats (particularly the annual three month order retreat at Guhyaloka) are now available. But what role would a monastery play? I know that a number of my colleagues are interested in this question and it will be intriguing to see if we develop a cenobitical lifestyle at part of the FWBO mix.

* Holmes, B. "Suffering for your beliefs makes others believe too," New Scientist volume 202 no 2710, 30 May 2006, p.9. On the New Scientists website as "Religions owe their success to suffering matyrs".
** See for instance Jayasiddhi. June at Gampo Abbey.

image: Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan. unusuallife.com
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