27 November 2009

New Articles on Dhāraṇī

Kharoṣṭhi Alpabet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 2009

What was the Buddha's name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 November 2009

Tadyathā in the Heart Sūtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 November 2009

Synonyms for Nibbāna

Bodhi temple at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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