25 September 2009

The Hero's Journey

OrpheusIn this essay I want to highlight the importance of myth. Carl Jung realised that many myths around the world have similar content and characters, and he made that the basis of a theory of a universal 'collective unconscious'. Whether or not we accept Jung's idea the one thing that he has done is highlight the universality of myth. Myths are stories which at their best reflect our unconscious motivations and attitudes - what Jung called the archetypes. Rather than simply being allegorical or stories with a moral, myths seem to reveal the (often amoral) inner workings of our psyche, though through symbolism not through logic - we understand them because we resonate with the symbols qua symbols. Joseph Campbell identified one myth - the hero's journey - which is so ubiquitous, and underlies so many other myths, that he called it 'the mono-myth.' In classical mythology it is the story of Orpheus, in fairy stories Jack and Bean Stalk amongst many others, and in Buddhism the biography of the Buddha also follows the same trajectory. In psychological terms it is the journey of individuation, but as Buddhists we look beyond this to a higher goal - liberation. I want to give an outline of that myth here and show how it relates to the spiritual life, indeed I will try to show that all spiritual practices are modelled on the hero's journey myth.

The Hero's Journey
  • The call to adventure
  • Crossing the threshold
  • Trials
  • Blessing
  • Return Journey
  • Benevolence
In The Hero with a thousand faces Campbell describes the journey in stages. I'll use his outline modified to fit a short essay. The journey begins with an invitation. Campbell calls this the 'call to adventure', and Robert Bly has called it the 'call in the night'. It can come in many forms but often the 'call' is felt as profound dissatisfaction, the yearning for something 'more'. Recall the story of the four sights: where the Bodhisatta sees old age, sickness and death and longs for some way to overcome them; and then sees a wandering holy man. It is at that moment that he feels the call - he joins the wanderers in the search for the deathless. The invitation is to adventure and usually results in a journey - the hero's journey. Very often the journey is to the underworld.

Having set out adventuring the hero must cross a threshold into the underworld. For the Buddha it was leaving home to taking up an itinerant, vagrant lifestyle. In some stories the threshold is literally a door. Some heros board a ship (or a rocket!). But there is a definite transition from the mundane world into another world which is most often talked about in myths as the underworld - though in Jack's case the threshold was a beanstalk and the other world was in the sky.

Having crossed the threshold the hero undergoes a trial or trials. For the Buddha there was his long period of austerities. For Jonah it is the belly of the whale. For Milarepa it is the building and taking down of towers for Marpa. The trial period can be seen as a period of purification and preparation. The hero must prove themselves worthy, and, having been purified and found worthy, the hero then receives some kind of blessing. The hero meets a powerful person, or at least a being in human form, who gives a gift. The nature of the gift may not be immediately apparent, and sometimes it does not reveal itself until the journey is completed. In many European myths the gift is the Holy Grail. In many world myths the gift is some form of immortality! What the Buddha finds is liberation from suffering. Milarepa receives Marpa's initiation. Jack finds the golden harp. Note that in early Buddhist myth the Buddha self-initiates.

On receiving the gift the hero must now make the return journey. This aspect of the overall myth often stands alone as a theme in stories. The return of the prodigal son, for instance, or the return of the Buddha to his home town Kapilavastu represent this phase of the journey. One of the most powerful evocations of the return journey myth is Homer's Odyssey. Sometimes the return journey is also full of trials and the hero may have many obstacles to over come. Finally having returned the hero understands the gift and uses it to enrich everyone around them. The hero in these myths is never selfish.

I've mentioned several episodes from the Buddha's biography to show that it fits this general pattern - a more detailed examination finds other resonances with the hero's journey. What I want to do now is to show how spiritual practice generally fits this pattern. I'll briefly describe meditation, puja, and Sādhana. The call is the same in each case - usually it is some insight into dissatisfaction with life: we wonder "is this it?", or perhaps a loved-one dies.

In meditation the threshold is when we sit down, close our eyes and find ourselves immersed in our own mind. Beginners can sometimes be surprised at how much is going on in their minds that they were not conscious of before! In meditation the hindrances to concentration correspond to the trials. The achievement of concentration is the beginning of the blessing, which may indeed culminate in Awakening. At the end of the period of meditation we open our eyes and go about our business. There may still be trials because the sensitivity we develop may leave us feeling vulnerable, or even irritable. But if we have achieved even a measure of calm then we are, even if only for a short time, a better person - more ethical, more kind. If we achieve some insight then we may be permanently changed for the better.

The Seven Fold Puja more explicitly draws on the metaphor of the journey. I treat puja as an acting out of the spiritual journey - a rehearsing of what we intend our lives to be like. In Worship and Salutation we experience the call of the Buddha and begin to respond to it. In Going for Refuge we form our intention to undertake the journey, and cross the threshold by committing ourselves. Confession of Faults and Rejoicing in merit are at once the preparation for, and the early stages of the journey - we unburden ourselves and find new reserves, but we also put into practice our commitment to be ethical. With Entreaty and Supplication we request a blessing, and with the reciting of the Heart Sutra we receive it. Finally with Transference of Merit and Self-Surrender we make the return journey and share the blessing we have received.

In Sādhana meditation we find an even more explicit version of the hero's journey. There is no space for more than a cursory look at it. Sādhanas are all based on the abhiṣeka ritual in some form, which in turn draws on royal coronation rituals. In this style of meditation we first imagine ourselves in a clear blue sky - the threshold to another world. In many Tibetan Sādhanas there are stages of renunciation, Going for Refuge, and purification which precede entering the blue sky, or even the whole seven-fold puja in compressed form. Then in stages the Buddha manifests in this other-world, and after a series of preliminaries bestows a symbolic blessing on us. This blessing is the abhiṣeka or initiation which communicates the Enlightenment of the Buddha through the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala (or image). It is called abhiṣeka because it usually involves the sprinkling (seka) of water - a direct borrowing from the coronation. Having received the blessing, the whole pageant eventually dissolves back into the blue sky, and then we return to this world. If the initiation has been successful then our body, speech and mind have been aligned with the body, speech and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha via the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala and we have become a Buddha!

In effect then, spiritual practice is the hero's journey, when we sit to meditate, or do puja, or go on retreat, and even the whole process of taking on the higher evolution, the outline follows the path of the hero on their journey to and from the underworld. It is sometimes said that Buddhist is an Asian religion and that we westerners can't really understand it. The Dalai Lama, in his enthusiasm to not be seen as a proselytiser, has suggested that we pursue the religion we were born into. I disagree wholeheartedly with this view. Buddhism speaks to us because the myths that underlie it are universal stories reflecting universal concerns, and deep structures in the human psyche. Buddhist practices draw on myths which are as familiar in the West as in Asia (whether near or far, north or south).

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a thousand faces. Fontana, 1988 (first published 1949).

image: Orpheus playing his lyre.

18 September 2009

Ordination : a contested term.

Anagarika Dharmapala - Buddhist reformer
Anagārika Dharmapala
Recently I was involved in an online discussion on the subject of ordination. It revolved around the use of the word ordination by the Western Buddhist Order. The main contention was that the word 'ordained' should be restricted to bhikkhus (for the sake of brevity I'll use the masculine and Pāli [1]) . So what I propose to do is work through the various relevant terms and then see what conclusions can be drawn.

'Bhikkhu' is used like a title these days but was originally an adjective descriptive of a lifestyle. Literally it means 'beggar' or someone who lives off alms - a very low status, not to say ritually polluted, occupation in both ancient and modern India. [2] In the Buddha's day this meant going from door to door with a bowl collecting leftovers, but in modern times there are a variety of approaches -for example Tibetan monks often buy food and cook for themselves; while in some Theravāda monasteries lay people bring food to the bhikkhus and feed them in situ. Some bhikkhus maintain the practice of going out for alms, but this is highly formalised and there is no risk involved.

The Buddha originally made someone a bhikkhu simply by saying to them: 'ehi' - come! (second person imperative of √i 'to go' with ā- prefix signifying motion towards). However this was soon formalised into a two stage process. First a person became a sāmaṇera - this word derives from samaṇa (√śram) meaning a wanderer and implying a religious ascetic. The ceremony, also sometimes called an ordination, in Pāli is sāmaṇera-pabbajjā. Pabbajjā (from pa + √vraj 'to proceed') means 'going forth' and refers to the act of leaving home to become a paribbājjaka 'someone who wanders around'. A 'vagrant' in today's language. PED refers to the pabbajjā ceremony as an 'ordination'. Going forth was a distinct and important phase of religious life as can be seen in the Buddha's biography where the episode is highly elaborated. It was becoming a vagrant that was the really radical step - because in doing so one gave up the comforts of home, and the protection and support of one's family. For later Buddhists it meant taking on the sāmaṇera precepts [3], dressing in white robes, shaving one's head, and living a cenobitical lifestyle. In English this is sometimes referred to as being a 'novice' monk.

The second phase, which often follows immediately afterwards these days, is the upasampadā, usually referred to in English as the 'higher ordination' and a bhikkhu will often refer to themselves as 'fully ordained'. This word means 'taking upon oneself' and in this context it means taking upon oneself the patimokkha precepts or restraints. The original metaphor underlying this word 'patimokkha', according to Prof. Gombrich, is a medical one indicating a purgative that could return a person to health [4], meaning in this case ethical 'health' or purity. Because the Vinaya did not reach its final form for some time after the Buddha, it exists in several distinct recensions with greatly varying number of rules. Theravādins observe 227 for instance, while those who follow a Sarvastivādin Vinaya (some Tibetan monks) observe 250 rules. Most of the rules are relatively minor and infringing them is taken quite lightly. Many are of no ethical significance at all and are specific to cultural mores in the Ganges valley more than 2000 years ago, often being developed after complaints about the bhikkhus from the laity. However conservatism and formalism has resulted in the retention of rules even when they are apparently meaningless. It is akin to the rules of conduct in parts of the old testament in that respect. Many of the rules were instituted simply to distinguish bhikkhus from samaṇas of other sects, or brāhmaṇas or lay people etc., that is they are more about identity. The qualifiers 'higher' and 'fully' point to the overlooked fact that the sāmaṇera-pabbajjā is also seen as an ordination.

The traditionalists argue that on receiving the upasampadā, a sāmaṇera has been accepted into the bhikkhu-saṅgha. Translating into English we might say something like: at his ordination the novice has been ordained into the order of monks. It has been argued that 'ordination', 'ordain, and 'order' are the specific province of the bhikkhu and should not be used any other way in a Buddhist context. The main point seemed to be that it was important to distinguish bhikkhus from other lifestyles, although it was not clear why we should do so, though it's an ancient concern as it occurs in the Pāli canon. Apart from the traditional reference to the sāmaṇera ordination, my argument against this is threefold: firstly that the word admits many other uses; secondly, that it is conventionally used differently by Buddhists anyway; and thirdly, that in seeking to appropriate the term Buddhists are propagating an elitism which is out of touch with reality. So let's begin by looking at what the English terms mean. [5]

'Order' in the sense of "a group of person living under a religious rule" dates from the 13th century. This and the other words we are considering derive from the Latin ordo meaning 'row, rank, series, arrangement', originally 'a row of threads in a loom'. Hence we can 'put things in order'. Clearly order in our sense referred to Christian monastics who typically adopted an ordered and regular lifestyle, spelled out in their rule, which not only laid down moral rules but also dictated what prayer and services were said and when. This began to happen as early as the 4th century CE. We can see that different orders of monastics took on very different rules, but that the term 'order' still applied because they all had in common conformance to a rule.

The verb 'ordain' meaning "to appoint or admit to the ministry of the Church" also dates from the 13th century. Many dictionaries (including Collins) describe 'ordain' in this context as the "conferring of Holy orders". This refers to the fact that the Roman Catholic church considered ordination a sacrament. Protestant churches, on the whole, do not consider ordination a sacrament though they still use 'ordain' to refer to conferring the office of minister or priest. Positions within an order, such as bishop or cardinal, were not sacramental, but only offices and titles. One is not ordained a bishop, one is promoted. Also novice Christian monks are not ordained at all in contrast to the sāmaṇera.

Ordination is simply the ceremony by which one is accepted into an order, most typically a religious order. The rule and denomination of the order were not relevant to the use of the term 'ordain'. A Pentecostal minister or a Catholic priest are both ordained. The key part of ordination is being accepted into an order and following a religious rule. Bhikkhus do conform to this usage, and although it's not clear who first used 'ordination' to translate upasampadā it does work. However bhikkhu ordination is a special case of ordination rather than an epitome, or acme. So let's turn to the use in a more specifically Buddhist context.

Ordination also serves for Buddhists following other lifestyles who commit themselves to a 'rule'. Particularly in the English speaking Buddhist world the use of the term ordination is commonplace. For example,  an American acquaintance,  Al, describes himself as "an ordained Zen Priest" (his lineage is in fact Korean). Priest, by the way, comes from a Latin word presbyter meaning 'elder'. The Japanese move away from upasampadā ordinations probably stems from the Tendai School whose founder Saichō formally abandoned the Vinaya in favour of a Bodhisattva Ordination in 822 CE. (Note that even in settings where the Vinaya ordination is the standard, this taking of the bodhisattva precepts is still referred to as an ordination.) Saichō met a great deal of opposition from the Buddhist establishment of the day, but he had the Emperor on his side precisely because the Buddhist establishment were wealthy and interfered in politics. In the WBO also we refer to having been ordained into an order. At our ordination ceremony we undertake to follow our set of ten precepts (traditionally known as dasakusaladhammā or dasakusalakammapathā), and an additional four 'acceptance vows' [6] which constitute the 'rule' by which we all vow to live. So the WBO order/ordination certainly fit the English usage, as well as the Japanese Buddhist precedent.

Note here there is a distinction between joining an order and becoming a Buddhist generally. Even though all Buddhists undertake to keep precepts, ordination, as defined in the WBO, requires that the practice of the precepts, including repairing breaches, be thorough-going and effective. One has to be not only willing, but demonstrably able, to take on the precepts for life.

So given that the English usage is pretty straight-forward and there are numerous Buddhist precedents in the present and dating back almost 1200 years: why the continued insistence that only bhikkhus can claim to be ordained? My answer to this is privilege.

Bhikkhus are outwardly marked in many ways: shaved head, robes, and dietary habits for instance. These external signs of ordination amount to lifestyle choices. One can be outwardly a bhikkhu and inwardly a lay person (see e.g. Dhammapada, Chp 19). Sangharakshita abandoned the monk/lay divide because on the one hand he met so many Theravādin bhikkhus who did not practice Buddhism, and on the other hand he met many Tibetan lay lamas who very much did. Sangharakshita was also influenced by the example of Anagārika Dharmapala (pictured above) who he refers to as a man of "towering moral and spiritual grandeur". [7] Dharmapala was also critical of established traditions and adopted the invented title Anagārika to indicate a committed Buddhist who was neither monk nor lay. It became clear that being a monk was important when it came to the practice of the Dharma, what was important was commitment and application.

Lay people give the clergy donations in order to create merit and the higher the social status of the recipient the greater the merit. So laypeople have played along with the superstition and we are being asked to perpetuate it in the west. The generosity of laypeople has in some places led to the accumulation of wealth and often political influence, not to say political control. The irony here is heavy. The initial idea of becoming a sāmaṇera was to leave behind concerns with property and power: nowadays monasteries are often centres of both. I've seen more than one news story of monks fighting pitched battles for the control of a monastery.

One of the traditional roles of monks was to teach. However monks have in many cases become intermediaries between the people and liberation rather than facilitators. Monks are seen as necessary for the 'administering' of the refuges and precepts for instance; or they perform religious activities such as pujas on behalf of spectators (I've been invited to watch a senior lama perform a puja for instance); or as officiants at what are essentially secular ceremonial occasions, such as weddings. Monks are in fact operating as priests in the pejorative sense of that word.

Monks, especially as preservers of texts, became arbiters of orthodoxy, i.e. correct opinions. And the correct opinion is that monks deserve a special status because of their role in society. From the point of view of Western social mores, this appears to be corrupt. We preserve texts through mass printing and often look to secular scholars for translations and exegesis precisely because they apply the methods of higher criticism. Often times the tradition demonstrably does not understand its own texts. In Pāli for example, Buddhaghosa was at times confused by the text and fudged the commentary; where there is a difficult reading in a Pāli text it is often simply left out of the Chinese translation.

Traditional Buddhism often preserves the social mores and superstitions of one or other ancient Asian culture. One of which is the high social status of bhikkhus. As English speaking Westerners we are in a position to decide how relevant that culture is, but the arbiters of this are often the same men who benefit from the privileged status, the bhikkhus. I'm not keen to abandon my cultural heritage, especially the values and achievements of The Enlightenment. Traditional Buddhism with its feudal hierarchies and institutionalised privilege seems to point back to pre-Enlightenment values. One glaring area of disparity is that traditional Buddhism is distinctly anti-women.

I'm critical of the system: there are many reasons to support monks, but none to worship them or automatically treat them as superior human beings. On the other hand I've met or know of bhikkhus I respect and see no reason to take the other extreme and automatically treat bhikkhus with disrespect. As I wrote in How to Spot an Arahant, it takes time to evaluate the spiritual maturity of anyone even if they have all the trappings. In the mean time we have precepts to live up to.

To sum up (this overly long post) I've looked at how the word ordination is used in context and shown that bhikkhus have no special claim on that term. I've shown that within Buddhism there are precedents for using the term in other ways dating back to Saichō in 822 CE. These seem reasonably clear. But still the very idea that someone who was not a bhikkhu might call themselves 'ordained' seemed to cause some people considerable distress. I speculate that the reason for this is that the system of renunciate bhikkhus having left behind the world, has been replaced by an elite who preserve privilege that sometimes translates into power. They have historically controlled orthodoxy in ways that benefit them as a group. The term for this is "provider capture".

Experience suggests I am either preaching to the converted or the intractable on this issue. My colleagues on the one hand, and other Buddhists on the other. The history of Buddhism is one of change, development, reform and even syncretism. Indeed our credo, if we have one, is "everything changes". This slogan was first enunciated by one of the greatest anti-establishment thinkers of all time, who systematically demolished every system he came across. There is an obvious tension between the inevitability of change, the uncertainty this leaves us with, the imperative to adapt to Western culture; and the powerful desire for unchanging traditions and institutions and the certainty (and I argue privilege and power) they represent. So we are faced with social and religious conservatism from a group which loudly proclaims that everything changes. Perhaps our credo must be modified to exclude certain institutions? Or perhaps it is time to acknowledge the anachronism and move on. I'm voting with my feet.


  1. Pāli: masc. bhikkhu, fem. bhikkunī; Sanskrit: bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī. A feature of traditional Buddhism is a decidedly anti-woman streak, though there is now a revival of bhikṣuṇī ordinations. For my views of women's ordinations see Women and Buddhist Ordination.
  2. Anyone who doubts this might like to read the account of what Sāriputta's mother thought of his going forth in Nyanaponika and Hecker. Great Disciples of the Buddha, p.34; or consider the story of the Buddha leaving home in the version found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 21), Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates:
    "So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness".
  3. The 10 precepts are abstaining from: harming living beings; taking the not given; sexual intercourse; lying; liquor and intoxicants; eating after noon; dancing, singing, and musical performances; using garlands, unguents, or ornaments; sitting and sleeping on a high or broad bed; handling gold and silver.
  4. Gombrich, Richard. “Pātimokkha: Purgative,” in Studies in Buddhism and culture in honour of Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda on his sixty-fifth birthday, edited by The Editorial Committee of the Felicitation Volume for Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin, 31-38, 1991. I made use of this research in my paper on the phrase yathādhamma patikaroti: "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15. I'm grateful to Prof Gombrich for sending me a copy of his (hard to find) paper.
  5. I will use Princeton University's WordNet for convenience, and the online etymological dictionary.
  6. The four acceptance vows are: "With loyalty to my teachers I accept this ordination/ In harmony with friends and brethren I accept this ordination/ For the benefit of all beings I accept this ordination/ For the sake of enlightenment I accept this ordination".
  7. Sangharakshita. A Flame in the Darkness : the Life and Sayings of Anagārika Dharmapala. Tiratna Grantha Mala, 1980. This book is largely based on editorials written by Sangharakshita for the Mahābodhi Society Journal in the 1950's. Dharmapala's movement was subsequently labelled "Protestant Buddhism" by Gananath Obeyesekere. Ironically Dharmapala took the upasampadā shortly before his death in 1933.

Extra Notes

June 2015
I've noticed that some monks refer to themselves as "Bhante" (the third person vocative of the honorific pronoun). Bhante is what lay people call monks. It's kind of ridiculous for a monk to refer to themselves this way. Certainly it's bad Pāḷi grammar to use it as a title. 

11 September 2009

How to spot an Arahant

A group of Indian AsceticsOne time when the Buddha was living in Sāvatthī, not as he frequently did in the Jeta Grove, but in the garden of Migāra's mother, King Pasenadi played a little trick on him. [1] As they were sitting together a band of wanders walked past - there were seven Jains, and seven Ājivakas, and Seven naked ascetics, and various other types of wanderers. The King asked the Buddha if he thought any of these worthy men was an arahant - if they were awakened or enlightened. Being used to idealised representations of arahants with halos and beatific smiles we might be forgiven for thinking that it must be easy to see who is an arahant and who is not. But the Buddha is quite wary of giving his opinion, and says:
Saṃvāsena kho, mahārāja, sīlaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittarena, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Saṃvohārena kho, mahārāja, soceyyaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Āpadāsu kho, mahārāja, thāmo veditabbo. So ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Sākacchāya kho, mahārāja, paññā veditabbā. Sā ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññenāti .

Intimacy is needed to know virtue, O Mahārāja. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance. Association is required to know purity... In adversity is commitment witnessed... In discussion is wisdom assessed. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance.
At this point in the sutta the King confesses that in fact these men are his spies - sent out undercover to provide information on nearby Kingdoms. Once they have cleaned themselves up he is going to debrief them and see what his enemies are up to. Apart from the insight into ancient statecraft the text provides us with some useful criteria for assessing spiritual maturity in ourself and other people. These might be useful in thinking about selecting a teacher or preceptor for instance, or trying to decide whether to ask someone's advice or not. At the very least they are reminders that it is difficult to know someone's spiritual maturity without knowing them quite well.

The first thing to notice that each test is to be applied only over the long term - over a long stretch of time (dīghena addhunā) as the text says. These things can't be rushed. We have to know someone a long time before we really know them. First impressions can be deceptive. Sometimes we need to see a person under different circumstances in order to get a fuller picture of them. The text suggests several criteria: virtue, purity, (what I've called) commitment, and wisdom.

'Virtue' here translates sīla. Other words for this might be ethics, or morality. I think we can take virtue to mean behaviour of body and speech generally, as the next term, purity, seems to focus on the mental side of things. So here we're looking at ethics as behaviour. And the text says that we need intimacy (saṃvāsa) in order to be clear about this. We need especially to see how a person behaves in private, in moments when they do not feel themselves to be under scrutiny. One of my teachers used to like playing volleyball with men who'd asked him to ordain them. He found that on the volleyball court they lost their self-consciousness and he saw a side of them that he might not see if they were being more guarded. Often we are concerned to be seen to be ethical, and so we are very guarded when we think we are being watched, and we enjoy letting out hair down when the authority figure (whoever they might be) is not watching. But this is not the right spirit at all. We are responsible primarily to ourselves for our own behaviour. So we know someone's true virtue, their real practice of ethics, only when we see them in private.

Then, secondly, we can only know the purity (soceyya) of a person by close association (saṃvohāra). These two words saṃvohāra and saṃvāsa are more or less synonymous. I take purity here to mean the mental aspects of virtue. Someone might behave virtuously, but be in mental turmoil over it. Sometimes we can keep up appearances for a long time, but eventually our state of mind - the extent of our craving and aversion - become apparent. Soceyya is an abstract noun which comes from a root √śuc which means 'to shine, flame, gleam, glow, burn'. The other common term for purity is suddha from √śudh 'to be cleared, or cleansed, or purified, to become pure'. The concern for purity and for a return to purity is a major pre-occupation in Indian religions generally. [2] The Buddha retained the words, but gave them an ethical significance they didn't otherwise have. Purity in Buddhism is purity of intention - pure intentions are free from craving, aversion and confusion; impure are the opposite. This is the distinctive characteristic of Buddhist morality. So purity could be seen as the extent to which our motivations match our values. This makes it difficult to assess in others, let alone ourselves. As the text says: we have to pay attention (manasikarotā), which might also be translated as 'take to heart'.

Thirdly and quite importantly it's not until we see a person in adversity (āpadāsu) that we see how 'committed' (thāmo) they really are. The word thāmo comes from the root √sthā which means 'to stand or remain'. Thāmo is the ability to stand - steadfastness, the ability to resist the worldly winds, that is the extent to which our commitment finds expression in reality. It is one thing to say that the Buddha is our refuge, but on what do we stand when the chips are down? Where do we turn for a refuge? So it is necessary to see a person coping with adversity to really know whether or not they have the three jewels as their refuge, or whether they resort to other refuges. We all know about things like comfort eating, or 'needing' a cup of tea or a beer, or finding solace in sex. These are false refuges. They temporarily provide us with pleasure and reinforce the happiness = pleasure delusion. The true refuge is not to be found in objects of the senses, or in the sensual realm. Not in ideas or ideologies either. It is found in awareness. A little note here that I was mainly concerned to avoid repetition in translating veditabbo here as 'witness' in this case, but in fact both derive from the same Proto-Indo-European root √*wid (Sanskrit: √vid; English: wit) meaning 'to see' and therefore abstractly 'to know'.

Lastly the text tells us that a person's wisdom (paññā) is discovered only through discussion (sākacchāya). It's often said, too often perhaps, that enlightenment is ineffable. It is ineffable but only, in my opinion, in the way that all experience is ineffable. No experience can be conveyed in words, there is no substitute for experience. And yet we can describe what it is like to have had an experience and what we feel about it now. Ideas and emotions can be communicated. Attitudes can be conveyed. Note that this criteria doesn't stand alone from the others, it's not that talking things over in isolation is enough, but clearly a person's wisdom should be discernible in how they talk and what they talk about. If, to cite a common example, a person pretending to wisdom preaches compassion but is sarcastic and sardonic, then there is a mismatch.

Above all what we are looking for in ourselves and other people is authenticity and congruity. We want our actions to flow from our values, for words and actions to add up. We want words and tone of voice and body language to be congruent. Even if we're not conscious of it, we are all able to detect such things. When this knowledge comes unconsciously we may express it vaguely - e.g. we might say that we have a good/bad 'feeling' about someone. In order to clarify our 'feeling' and/or to know how deep it goes we need to be in intimate association with the person, we need to hear a consistent message in their words, and see that words and actions match. We can always get a reality check on our own progress by comparing our behaviour with the ideal. Sometimes it is sobering when we realise how far we have to go; sometimes encouraging when we realise how far we have come. In applying these kinds of criteria we can be less naive about our relationships with other spiritual practitioners, especially if they are more experienced than us. We need not, and should not, jump to conclusions (positive or negative), or rely purely on reputation for instance.

  1. Sattajaṭila sutta, Udāna 6.2 (PTS Ud 64-66). Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org. My translation. The sutta is also found with a different verse attached in the Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.11 (PTS S i.77 ff) translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha p.173-4.
  2. Purity is an important theme in my article "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics vol 15 2008.

image: ascetics from Indian Routes.

04 September 2009

None dearer than myself

Indian King and Queen from
Understanding Patio Umbrellas.
One time the Buddha was staying outside the walled city of Sāvatthī (modern day Śravasti) in the park that the merchant Anāthapiṇḍika had purchased from Prince Jeta at great price. Sāvatthī was the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala [1] and was ruled by King Pasenadi. Pasenadi was a follower of the Buddha, and so was his wife Mallikā. Mallikā was wise and her husband often asked her opinion about things.

The Ūdana relates a time when the King and Queen were discussing spiritual matters and both realised that they held none more dear than themselves - despite being in love with each other. This troubled the King and made him seek out the Buddha. Hearing about the royal discussion he spoke an inspired utterance (ūdana):

Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmoti.
Going around all the directions in imagination
[Something] more dear than one's self, is nowhere found
The self of other individuals is similarly dear
Therefore don't harm another self that is loved.[2]
Hopefully this will already have struck readers as curious. Yes, the word being translated as self is atta, or ātman in Sanskrit. And yes, it is being affirmed as existent and the thing that we all hold most dear. What a surprise this text is! What to make of it? I think we must proceed cautiously and think pragmatically.

Firstly the use of atta here is most likely simply the reflexive pronoun - "me" - but even so it suggests a kind of egotism that we associate with ātman as self in any case. Many scholars have attested to the fact that nowhere does the Buddha explicitly deny the self - he never says outright "there is no self". It would be easy to get bogged down here if we allow ourselves to drift into metaphysics. However the Buddha's point was not about whether the self exists or not, but to encourage people to examine their own experience and the apparatus of experience. He is telling people who believe in an ātman (that links not only successive lives, but moments of consciousness) to look for that persistent factor (if they must) in their experience - in mind and the senses. Although the language, context, metaphors etc all vary the Buddha's advice boils down to the same thing for everyone: examine your experience, pay attention especially to how experience arises and passes away.

The text acknowledges that we all tend to think of ourselves as the most important person. We look after ourselves first, we tend to try to meet our own needs first, and we protect ourselves above others. (I speculated as to why this is in Why do we suffer?) This is not an absolute it is a generalisation and as a contrast we might think of the selflessness of a mother protecting her child as is referred to by the Karaniya Mettā Sutta (some well known characters in the Pāli scriptures, notably Bahiya, are gored to death by cows with calves). One of my preceptors says: "we all go around thinking that other people are thinking about us, but they aren't: they are thinking about themselves".

Surely this is not a positive thing? In fact surely this self-centredness and self-preoccupation is the big problem that we all have. I think this highlights an aspect of the Buddha's teaching. He himself does not seem to have been bound by jargon and formalised ways of talking about the Dharma. The Buddha himself seems to have felt free to present the Dharma in whatever way suits his audience. He is able to talk to Brahmins as a Brahmin, to Kings as Kings, to merchants as a merchant and to a farmer as a farmer. The Buddha so embodied and epitomised the Dharma that he could present his teaching in many different ways, as long as the person ended up paying attention to the conditioned nature of experience.

In a passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha questions Sariputta about his attainments. He does so employing a number of different metaphors and formal ways of talking about liberation. At first Sariputta is confused, but he continues to confidently answer the Buddha's questions.
Friends, the first question that the Blessed One asked me had not been previously considered by me: thus I hesitated over it. But when the Blessed One approved of my answer, it occurred to me: 'if the Blessed One were to question me about this matter with various terms and with various methods for a whole day, for a whole day I would be about to answer him with various terms and various methods.[3]
Maybe we could say that the one who is liberated from suffering is also liberated from jargon - which makes it seem all the more attractive in my view!

So my self is most dear to me, and your self is most dear to you. With a little effort I can imagine that since you experience selfhood in the way that I do, then you experience suffering in the way that I do [4]. You experience pain, and disappointment, and grief, in the way that I do. You also experience happiness and joy, and will ultimately experience liberation in the same way as me. Although we see ourselves, experience ourselves, as separate and unique, we are in fact very much alike. All humans seem to share certain basic emotions, and to have this instinct for self preservation. And it is by seeing that we share this characteristic that the golden rule emerges quite naturally - do unto others and you would be done by. One can nitpick and find exceptions, but lets keep an overview - the golden rule is a generalisation that describes the spirit of morality, not the letter. So despite the fact that we Buddhists are fixated on self and views on self, it's important to see this text as being about empathy, not about self.

In the translation above I have rendered 'cetasā' as 'imagination'. This seemed to fit the context - what is one doing when "goes around all the directions with the mind" except using the imagination? However it also helps to make an important point about Buddhist ethics. The key skill is not self restraint, or strong will power, but the ability to imagine the other. To put oneself in their shoes. As Sangharakshita says: "the Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but the vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings." [5]

This text is a good example of the pragmatism of the Buddha. He's not interested in metaphysical questions such as whether there is a self or not - this is not a question that can be finally decided. One can believe in a self, or not believe, but it's just an opinion, just a view. If you do believe in a self then the Buddha's challenge to you is to find it in experience, and by doing so to draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. If you do not believe in a self, then his starting point will be different, but he will still draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. What this says to me is that there's no point in quoting dogma at people who have different beliefs, because dogma doesn't make any difference.[6] What makes a difference is practice and experience, not doctrine. Too many Buddhists focus on orthodoxy - having the right opinion - and seem to forget that according to orthodoxy Reality is ineffable. They refuse, however to follow Wittgenstein in staying silent about that of which nothing can be said. However it is true that confusion divides the will and can make wholehearted practice difficult if not impossible.

The main point though is the nature of empathy - which is imaginative identification - and it's role in ethics. Morality does not exist in the abstract. Buddhist ethics is about how we relate to other people. This imaginative identification, which underlies ethics, can become the whole path via practices such as mettābhāvanā, which culminate in Brahmavihāra - an earlier (and often forgotten) metaphor for nibbāna.

  1. Śravasti and Kosala were north and west of Magadha - in what is now northern Uttapradesh.
  2. Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1 (PTS: Ud 47); and SN 3.8 (PTS: i.75) - the two texts are identical. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro at Access to Insight; and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p.170-171.
  3. The Kaḷāra Sutta. SN 12.32 (S ii.54). Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p. 570.
  4. cf Dhammapada 129-130 which represents a kind of negatively phrased counterpart of this verse.
  5. Sangharakshita. The Ten Pillars of Buddhism. Windhorse, 1984. p.57 (my italics)
  6. I noticed that two weeks ago when I attempted a novel interpretation of selfhood (Why do we have a sense of self?), and at other times when I have expressed a new idea to Buddhists, the reply is almost always to recite Buddhist dogma at me. Not only is it boring, but it so clearly does not come from personal experience that it almost makes a mockery of the Buddha's teaching methods. We know that some Buddhist metaphysical arguments have raged for more than 1000 years with no conclusion in sight, and this should alert us to the intractability of metaphysics and dogmas.

26.9.15 Compare
tad etat preyaḥ putrāt preyo vittāt preyo 'nyasmāt sarvasmād antarataraṃ yad ayam ātmā | sa yo 'nyam ātmanaḥ priyaṃ bruvāṇaṃ brūyāt priyaṃ rotsyatītīśvaro ha tathaiva syāt | ātmānam eva priyam upāsīta | sa ya ātmānam eva priyam upāste na hāsya priyaṃ pramāyukaṃ bhavati || BU 1.4.8 ||
This innermost thing, this self (ātman)--is dearer (preyo) than a son, it is dearer than wealth, it is dearer than anything else. If a man claims that something other than his self is dear to him, and someone where to tell him that he will lose that he holds dear, that is liable to happen. So a man should only regard only his self as dear to him. When a man regards only his self as dear to him, what he holds dear will never perish. 
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