25 December 2009

Meditation & Scholarship

Saint Jerome in his studyOver the last couple of years I've sometimes come in for some shtick from colleagues and acquaintances who think that because my writing focuses on doctrine more than meditation I've got nothing useful to say about the Dharma. I've tried pointing out that the subject I write about is what seems best suited to the medium and my own temperament, and that my words are not entirely unrelated to my experience as a practising Buddhist. But the suggestion that my contribution is of less value hangs in the air. For my part I find that my critics who focus on meditation at the expense of study are often self-absorbed, intellectually vague, and inarticulate. So you might imagine that I was quite interested to see that this kind of, shall we say, 'incompatibility' between Buddhists with different proclivities has a long enough history to be recorded in a Pāli sutta. [1] The sutta is one delivered by Mahācunda to a gathering of bhikkhus and the Buddha does not feature in it at all.

The Mahācunda Sutta (AN 6.46) describes two kinds of monks: those 'keen on dhamma' (dhammayogā bhikkhū) and those keen on meditation (jhāyī bhikkhū). Dhammayoga is glossed in the commentary as dhammakathikānaṃ 'a dhamma-preacher' (AA 3.376), but Bhikkhu Bodhi thinks it means someone (like me) who is more focused on study, i.e. a scholar.

In the sutta it says the scholar bhikkhus disparage the meditating bhikkhus:
ime pana jhāyinomhā, jhāyinomhāti - jhāyanti pajjhāyanti nijjhāyanti avajjhāyanti. Kimime jhāyanti, kintime jhāyanti, kathaṃ ime jhāyantī’ti?

"We are meditating, we are meditating" [they say]. They meditate here, they meditate there, they meditate up, they meditate down. Do they meditate? How do they mediate? Why do they meditate?
Similarly the meditating bhikkhus disparage the scholar bhikkhus:
ime pana dhammayogamhā, dhammayogamhāti uddhatā unnaḷā capalā mukharā vikiṇṇavācā muṭṭhassatī asampajānā asamāhitā vibbhantacittā pākatindriyā. Kimime dhammayogā, kintime dhammayogā, kathaṃ ime dhammayogā’ti?

"we are dhamma scholars, we are dhamma scholars" [they say]. They are inflated, showing off, arrogant; they talk too much and loosely, they're unmindful, unfocussed, scattered and their thoughts stray with senses uncontrolled. Do they study? How do they study? Why do they study?
One can almost hear the mocking tone of these taunts. However the text says that there is no profit for anyone in this kind of talk. Thus all bhikkhus should train themselves this way:
dhammayogā samānā jhāyīnaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti... jhāyī samānā dhammayogānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti

We will say that scholars are of equal value to meditators. We will say that meditators are of equal value to scholars.
The meditator is of value because:
...ye amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
...they dwell having touched the deathless state with the body.
The scholar is of value because:
gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passantī
they see, they penetrate with wisdom into the depths of texts.
The text is noted by Reginald Ray in his book Buddhist Saints in India. He takes the term dhammayogā bhikkhu or dhammayogin [2] to be synonymous with what he calls the settled monastic whose role in Buddhist society was remembering the Buddha's words, preserving them in texts, and studying the meaning of them. In addition they were responsible for basic literacy - monks like this probably were the ones who spread writing across India, Central Asia, Tibet and South-East Asia. Their counterparts, the meditators or jhāyins, are called forest renunciants by Ray. They devoted themselves to meditation practice in out of the way places, aiming for realisation of the truth. This, by the way, marks the sutta was probably a late addition to the canon because this kind of division must have taken some time to emerge. Ray also notes that such divisions are evident in later strata of Buddhist texts and even in contemporary Buddhist discourse. I might also note in passing that Jan Nattier's book A Few Good Men makes it seem likely that early in the Mahāyāna 'bodhisatta bhikkhu' was also synonymous with the jhāyī bhikkhu. [3]

The Mahācunda Sutta is a plea for tolerance of different temperaments leading people towards the Dhamma in different ways. We can all make a contribution to the wider Sangha according to our abilities. This is not to say that scholars need not meditate, or that meditators should not study. We must not only play to our strengths. It is of course entirely necessary to test our theories in practice - to give expression to our faith. On the other hand concepts are required to communicate insights and it benefits everybody if the concepts are clear and put across in ways that can be understood. As well as some frustrating experiences, I have also found that it is possible to get some depth of conversation with meditators and to use their experience as confirmation of the way I think, and on the other hand to help meditators to clarify the way they communicate the experience of meditation, and even to refine their approach especially to vipassana meditation. We can learn from each other.

In both study and meditation we confront our views. This is one thing about study and scholarship which often seems to be misunderstood. The scholar is not seeking certainty, not trying to fix things in words. Indeed the scholar is often intensely aware of the limitations of words, and especially in professional scholarship one's thoughts are subject to constant criticism by one's peers. The scholar is trying to expand knowledge, to make clear what is opaque, to observe new things. If there were nothing new to see and hear, then scholarship would have died centuries ago, but there are always fresh insights that need to be communicated, always unnoticed subtleties to explore. My own exploration of the texts, especially the Pāli texts, has lead me to a much stronger faith in the Buddhadharma. As critical as I can be, as unwilling to accept received traditions and dogmas, I find something beautiful and timeless in the Dharma that I have great confidence in.

  1. Mahācunda Sutta. Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.46 (PTS: A iii.355). My translations. Also translated by Bhikkhus Nyanaponika and Bodhi. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. p.163-4; and by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Ray discusses the term dhammayogin on p.201-2. Ray seems too quick to accept La Vallee Poussin's characterisation of dhammayogins which smacks of polemic. There is no a priori reason to think that a scholar is only interested in the 'intellectual' or that they are interested in metaphysics at all - though I will admit that it seems to have been the pattern through history. I wonder whether things could have got that far before the composition of the Mahācunda Sutta?
  3. Nattier, Jan. 2003. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisativa Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press. See especially chapter 5.
image: St Jerome in his study

18 December 2009

Ethics: it's not rocket science.

texting while drivingRecently a friend of mine tweeted this:
Question. Are the moral consequences of texting while driving the same if (a) you accidentally kill someone or (b) you do not kill anyone?
After initially engaging with the idea I realised that there was an underlying problem. Whenever I get into discussions on ethics I end up making the point that Buddhist ethics don't really work in the abstract or hypothetically.

In this example my friend was assuming that he could know and understand the intent of the person, as though the behaviour can be isolated from the life of the person and that intentions are a fixed entity rather than a process. Acts are not isolated - we 'will' and act in a massively cross-linked matrix. The idea that a single intention gives rise to a single act is simply erroneous. Behaviour is more complex than this, and if we don't take this into account then we can draw erroneous conclusions. Indeed driving and texting are both complex acts in themselves that extend over time with intention varying from moment to moment. There is no single intention, though like a story with many episodes there may be a kind of story-arc, an over-arching goal such as sending a text, but this can never be disentangled from the matrix of conscious and unconscious willing going on all of our waking hours.

We also need to be very cautious about thinking that we understand the intentions of other people. Social psychologists have determined that humans are actually quite bad at guessing motivations: we can empathise, that is experience the emotions of another, but when we assign reasons for behaviour we tend to grossly under-estimate the importance of environmental interactions (including the social). This is called the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. We assume that the individual is an entirely free agent, as we imagine ourselves to be, and in order to understand how another person could act in a particular way we try to imagine what kind of internal state (ignoring the external) might motivate us to act that way. An example very commonly encountered in online communication is where there is a perceived slight, and our first assumption is not that we have misunderstood, or that the person has communicated poorly, or that they are having a difficult time; our first assumption is that they acted maliciously because we can only imagine slighting someone if we were doing it maliciously. Online communication is often characterised by what is known as flaming - hot headed remarks and insults.

So it is important not to over simplify human behaviour because this does not give meaningful insights into the way people act. But even more importantly we need to think about what question is Buddhist ethics is trying to answer. Typically we try to answer the question 'why is this happening to me?' The point of Buddhist ethics is to answer the question: 'given the circumstances, what should I do?'

Very often we approach ethics from the point of view of the Abrahamic (ie Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) morality which is concerned to determine guilt, apportion blame, and direct punishment. We need to know who is responsible for what so that we can inflict some harm on them to atone for their sin. The harm we inflict cancels out the sin; and not only deters the sinner from doing it again, but will deter others from doing the same thing since they see the painful consequences. This we call "justice". It's important to spell it out like this, because even though we have left behind "an eye for an eye" our thinking about ethics is often underpinned by this kind of model. It highlights amongst other things why societies rooted in Abrahamic values have never made any progress on anti-social or illegal behaviour. In fact it is irrational to confess to a crime in our society, because to acknowledge guilt is to invite harm upon oneself. Unless one is convinced that suffering will atone for the sin, and we do not now believe this either individually or collectively (if we ever did); then it is not rational to invite society to harm oneself by acknowledging guilt. Note that guilt and blame can be distinguished - sometimes the guilty are not blamed, and therefore not punished, due to extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility for instance.

Another aspect of Judeo-Christian morality is that it is rule based. As moral agents, in this view, we can only be moral if we can understand the rules and obey them - this is the fundamental teaching of Christianity especially. Over and above the basic rules which God has etched in stone, we know that society imposes a large number of subtle, often unspoken rules on us, and in order to avoid guilt, blame and punishment we have to conform to them - though there is always leeway. Additionally if one is suffering one wants to know "what did I do to deserve this" (i.e. what rule did I break?) because from the Judeo-Christian point of view there is no punishment without guilt and blame. We want to know how to avoid punishment - we do so by avoiding guilt and/or avoiding blame. But we also consider ordinary suffering to be a (divine) punishment, and therefore look for the rule that we have broken to deserve it.

Many people when they hear about the Buddhist doctrine of karma/vipāka assume that it reflects a cosmic retribution for evil acts. This is not helped by Tibetan versions of the doctrine which insist, contra the explicit early Buddhist position, that everything that happens to you is a result of something you have intentionally done - i.e. you do deserve to suffer! (NB: I do not believe this) The original intent of the doctrine was to focus our minds on the way the actions have consequences, particularly for how able we are to still our minds to meditate and seek wisdom. It is about deciding how to act. It is not about explaining how we got into this mess, but how we go about getting out of it. If we impose rules then we start to focus on avoiding guilt and blame all over again.

For these reasons it is important to bring ethics down to the experiential, to the personal. Buddhist ethics is not about laying down rules and judging other people. It is far more valuable to reflect on our own actions in practice and see what consequences came from what kinds of actions, to see for ourselves in actual experience, what is helpful and what is not. In this situation what should I do? What helps us to live harmoniously what helps us to achieve the calm state that we need in order to meditate and seek wisdom successfully? We do not need to concoct tricky intellectual exercises because these only lead to more theories and theorising. We need to observe ourselves in action. We need to be able to make broad brush stroke equations like: when I'm angry it's very difficult to communicate or get my point across to others. When I'm generous I receive more appreciation and kindness in return. When I serve others in some way I feel more content with my life. When I avoid gross stimulation it's easier to calm my mind for meditation. It's not rocket science.

image: Pasen Law Group blog.

11 December 2009

Aspects of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra II

nectar gathering bumblebeeHaving dealt with some of the issues of the linguistics of the mantra [1], I want now to look at the mantra as a text. While in the Tibetanised version the main theme is taken to be purification of karma, in the corrected Sanskrit one of the other themes emerges into the foreground: samaya. Samaya is our relationship (or agreement or meeting place) with Vajrasattva, the embodiment or personification of the Dharmakāya.[2] I want to explore the nature of this relationship in various terms which will demonstrate some continuities.

Firstly let me say a quick word about the purification of karma. I showed in my published paper on confession [3] that from the point of view of early Buddhism willed actions (karma) inevitably produce results (vipaka). The fruits of actions cannot be eliminated or 'purified'. However they can be mitigated and I cited several texts which explore how this happens. In a footnote to that article I also noted that in later versions of the Samaññaphala Sutta this doctrine began to change. Whereas in the Pāli the story of King Ajātasattu confessing to the Buddha that he has killed his father is only the frame for a larger doctrinal exposition, in the surviving Sanskrit fragment and three Chinese translations Ajātasattu's confession is the main focus. In the Pāli version there is no way to prevent the devastating effects of his actions (patricide is one of the five unforgivable acts), and the commentary on the story tells us that at death he goes straight to the Hell of Copper Kettles. The later versions all make his meeting with the Buddha transformative and state that, to varying degrees, Ajātasattu is released from the effects of his 'unforgivable' actions. Indeed it seems that this became an important theme in Mahāyāna Buddhism and is epitomised by the Tantric Vajrasattva as purifying through the recitation of his mantra.

The theme of samaya is distinctively Tantric, though it has resonances with earlier traditions. Samaya, as I have explained, means 'agreement, meeting, meeting place' and could also be translated as relationship. The idea is brought out quite poetically in Kūkai's expositions on kaji (Sanskrit adhiṣṭhāna) which I wrote about some time ago as grace. The idea is that it is not just the practitioner reaching out towards a remote and disinterested goal, but that the Dharmakāya is doing it's bit to reveal itself. Lest we become too theistic about it I want to unpack this idea.

In the Heart Sūtra is says that all dharmas are marked by emptiness (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣanā). This is entirely in keeping with the earliest (pre-abhidharma) notions on the nature of dharmas. Dharmas are the units of experience, both the information from the senses, and the mental aspects consciousness such as memory, associative and inductive thinking. Experiences, the focus of discussions of dependent arising, have no ontological status - they are not solid existence 'things', nor are they non-existent. As Nāgārjuna observed the terms existent and non-existent do not apply to dharmas (and therefore to experience). All that we know and are conscious of results from contact between objects and sense organs giving rise to dharmas - in this sense the word means 'foundation'.

However we do not treat experience this way: we take it far more seriously than this, as existent and important. We spin stories about it which we believe and invest with value, a process known as prapañca. Hence we make our fundamental errors which lead to suffering.

Now the samaya with the Dharmakāya says something like: if you seek, you will find. In other words the true nature of experience is always able to be discerned, it can't be permanently hidden from us. If we go about it the right way, we will see through (vipaśyanā) our delusions. This is an important aspect of Buddhist faith. The guarantees that Awakening is possible come in many forms amongst which Tathāgata-garbha, so-called Buddha nature, stands out as a good example. Buddha nature, like this samaya, is designed to set your mind at ease about the possibility of your liberation. Likewise the samaya uses the model of an agreement between two parties to assure us that we can realise the Dharmakāya.

I see the mantra as a dialogue, or even perhaps as a dramatisation of this relationship. On the one hand the chanter is reminding Vajrasattva, as an embodiment of the nature of experience, of his side of the relationship: we need the possibility of gaining insight into the true nature of experience to remain open to us, so that we can be liberated.

On the other hand the seed-syllables are Vajrasattva's response to us. Vajrasattva reminds us that it is we who project onto experience. That he, i.e. the nature of experience, is always available to us, and that in fact nothing can ever change that. Śūnyatā, pratītyasamutpāda, Buddha Nature, etc: these are all ways of pointing to the nature of experience - saying the same thing in different ways. Vajrasattva replies in non-linear, non-rational fashion because typically it is very difficult to think straight about this subject. Typically we are completely caught up in, or intoxicated with (pramāda), our stories and we cannot really think outside that narrow context. In Tanric terms oṃ āḥ and hūṃ represent not just our mundane body, speech and mind, but also the Three Mysteries (trighuya) the 'body', 'speech', and 'mind' of the Dharmakāya which are communicated through his use of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala. These three also become the technology by which we align our body, speech and mind with the Dharmakāya and become enlightened. The nectar of the deathless (both words translate as amṛta) is always available for beings in saṃsāra!

  1. I've dealt with the mantra from a linguistic point of view in two previous posts:
  2. Samaya is a complex term. It also covers our relationship with our guru, and with all sentient beings. Samaya can additionally mean 'vow', that is the vows that taken in conjunction with abhiṣeka. There are many different explanations.
  3. Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15, 2008.

04 December 2009

Aspects of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra I

Siddhaṃ writing on palm leaf from 11th century Nepal. A section of the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpārimtā Sūtra
In my annotated translation of the Hundred Syllable mantra I tried to convey what the Sanskrit text of the mantra was and how it might be translated [1] - I did this in such a way as to open up the meaning and allow anyone to produce their own wording. There is a lot more to say about this mantra. Here I want to look at why the mantra might have been misread to produce a garbled version.

Tantric Buddhism is generally agreed to have begun in the 7th century in India. It continued to develop until Buddhism died out in India, and long afterwards in the surrounding nations of Bhutan, Ladhakh, Nepal and especially in Tibet. Having been conveyed to China and the far east, this stream of transmission (and back transmission) was cut off with the demise of the Silk Rd, and the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the late 9th century. Some scholars see the much earlier dhāraṇī tradition as being "proto-tantric", but this is like saying that flour is proto-cake.

Tantras were on the whole composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, with the exception of the Kālacakra Tantra which was composed in Classical Sanskrit. BHS is an inflected vernacular language which has been modified to be more like Sanskrit. This was a general trend and even Pāli has been Sanskritised to some extent. My view is that mantras are also in BHS rather than Classical Sanskrit - the -e ending on so many words being not, as many scholars assume, a feminine vocative, but a masculine nominative singular. [See words in mantras that end in -e].

Writing during this time was somewhat different to present day. The script in widespread use in Northern India at the time is known by several different names but is now generally called Siddhaṃ (perfected) or Siddhamātṛka (matrix of perfection). A version of this script, adapted for writing with a Chinese calligraphy brush, is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka for writing mantras - even when they are also transliterated into Hanzi. The Tibetan script dbu-can (pronounced Uchen) was designed on an early model of the Siddhaṃ script. In the latter part of the Tantric period the script which is now often no referred to simply as Sanskrit, but which is more correctly called Devanāgarī (City of Gods) began to supplant Siddhaṃ.

A feature of texts of this period is that syllables were not grouped into words, but written individually with little or no punctuation. In order to read a text like this one had to have a very good knowledge of Sanskrit word endings. Here is the Vajrasattva mantra written as it might have been in the 10th century in Devanāgarī:

Some of the mistakes that crept into the Vajrasattva mantra over time, or perhaps even all at one time, seem to me to be the result of misreading rather than mishearing. Note that Tibetan writing is open to the same kinds of difficulties in reading. Take this segment for instance:
व ज्र स त्त्व स म य म नु पा ल य = va jra sa ttva sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya
As I noted in my translation there are several ways to clump the syllables into words. The first four naturally form the name of vajrasattva. But this leaves sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya. If we are versed in Tantra but not so much in Sanskrit we might be attracted to the word samaya. Because this is a mantra we may not be expecting formal grammar, so we might take that as a unit. This leaves us with manupālaya. This is not well formed Sanskrit, but it has familiar parts (exlpained in my translation). I can't say how often as a neophyte Sanskritist I have fallen into a similar trap. The problem is that when a word ends in -m and the next word begins with a- the two are combined into a single syllable ma for the purposes of writing. So sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya is actually samayam anupālaya 'uphold the agreement'. In spoken Sanskrit this error would be less likely to occur.

A more crucial error in reading occurred further along.
स र्व क र्म सु च मे चि त्तं श्रे य कु रु = sa rva ka rma su ca me ci ttaṃ śre ya ku ru
This phrase is at the heart of the use to which the mantra is put - the purification of karma. Let me review what I think may have been the procedure for understanding this based on my own experience of reading an unfamiliar Sanskrit text. Keep in mine that we know this is a mantra and mantras seldom follow grammatical rules so we're not expecting to see grammar. Several familiar words stand out: sarva (all), karma (action), cittaṃ (mind) kuru (make). This leaves some bits and pieces. Some thought shows that śreya is related to the word śrī, and that me is 'me' or 'mine'. We're left trying to explain su ca. Suca (often spelt sucha to avoid the confusion on how to pronounce c in English) isn't a word, but it is similar to words related to √śuc 'to gleam' figuratively 'to clean or purify'. The basic form is śocati, past-particple śukta, infinitve śuktum, 2nd person singular imperative śoca. Close enough for a mantra. So sarva karma suca me by this process means 'purify all my karma'. And cittaṃ śreya kuru means 'make the mind more śrī'.

In fact su goes with sarva-karma to give the locative plural sarvaskarmasu and the ca is the copulative particle 'and'. Sarvakarmasu ca means 'and in all my actions', and the rest me cittaṃ sreya kuru means 'make my mind more śrī'. Śrī has a very broad range of meaning and I chose 'lucid' because that conveys the sense of light which underlies śrī as well as being an auspicious state of mind.

Well formed Classical Sanskrit sentences do not just form at random. The chances of taking any series of syllables, gathering them into clumps, and finding sentences is vanishing small. Garble is far more likely, and more commonly encountered in mantras. This means that the best explanation is that the formal Sanskrit we find in the mantra when we fiddle with word breaks is very likely the original text. Given that the mantra was composed in Classical Sanskrit it suggests that it may well be from the same milieu that created the Kālacakra Tantra.

A corollary of this is that the mantra only gained its association with the purification of karma after it had been garbled and that this was not the original use of the mantra. [2] Not only that, but the way the message is garbled suggests to me that the mantra was passed on without an explanation at some point, and then later on an exegesis was composed based on the mis-read rather than a mis-heard Sanskrit text. Indeed I wonder whether the text was passed on in written form because an oral tradition would have preserved the Sanskrit rhythms of speech that would have made this kind of mistake quite unlikely. I would imagine that this did not happen on Indian soil.

This finding of the original text, and my conjecture about it, creates a significant tension with the received tradition which revolves around purification of karma. In my next post on this subject I will explore some implications of this tension, and look at the theme that emerges into the foreground when the spurious reference to purity is removed: samaya.

  1. In my translation I relied heavily on notes by Dharmacārī Sthīramati aka Dr Andrew Skilton published privately as: Sthiramati (aka Andrew skilton). 'The Vajrasattva Mantra : notes on a corrected Sanskrit text'. Order Journal. vol.3 Nov. 1990.
  2. In this article Sthiramati makes it clear that a great deal of work remains to be done on the history of this mantra. Several fragments appear in other contexts for instance. I don't have the resources to carry out this research but perhaps someone else will one day (it might make a good dissertation).
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