26 February 2010

Philology of Dependent Arising

‘Dependent Arising’, ‘Dependent Origination’, ‘Interdependent Arising’, ‘Conditioned Co-production’ – these are all synonyms (almost always capitalised) for the sine qua non of Buddhist doctrines and technical jargon. In Sanskrit the word is pratītyasamutpāda, and in Pāli paṭiccasamuppāda. We also have the related past-participle pratītyasamutpanna (paṭiccasamuppannna) ‘dependently arisen’. The word is a usually treated as a compound which is clearly reflected in the English translations. In this short essay I want to unpick and unpack these words; in technical jargon we’ll do a morphological and semantic analysis. I’ll work in Sanskrit and add Pāli equivalents in parentheses since the morphology is more obvious in Sanskrit, though my main interest is how the word is used in Pāli.


Pratītya (paṭicca) is a gerund or absolutive, a verbal form indicating an action occurring before the action of the main verb. [1] The form of the gerund for verbs with prefixes is different from verbs without prefixes, and probably originated in Indo-European as an instrumental singular of a verbal noun in -i, which form instrumentals by substituting -i with -. [2] The verb in this case is pratyeti (pacceti) which we can analyse as prati + √i. The root √i 'to go' is related to the Latin eo, [3] and the cognate is only rarely found in English words like ‘iterate’ (meaning ‘to go again’). The form pratītya is regular and arises out of some sandhi changes along the way. √i is a second class verb in Sanskrit (first class in Pāli) that undergoes guṇa (strengthening) and forms a stem by adding the vowel ‘a’. The guṇa grade of i is e. Sandhi rules say that e + a > e, [4] and we’re left with a stem e- The 3rd person plural is eti. When we add the prefix prati- there is another sandhi change i + e > ye: so the final stem is pratye-; 3rd person singular pratyeti. When this devolves to Pāli we get some phonetic changes in the conjunct consonants: pra > pa; tye > cce: this gives us pacceti.

The root √i ‘to go’ is the same in Pāli and Sanskrit. The suffix prati- (paṭi-) gives a sense of towards, near; or opposition. Prati-√i, then, should mean something like ‘go towards, go near, go back’. The affect of combining a prefix and a root is not always predictable from the parts but this is what we get more or less: patyeti means ‘to come on to or back to, to fall back on’, as well as ‘to go towards, go to meet’.

To form the gerund in the case of a verb with a prefix, in both Pāli and Sanskrit, one adds a suffix -ya to the weakest grade of the root (simply ‘i’ in the case of √i), or in this case because the stem vowel is short: -tya. [5] So we get prati + i + tya. Sandhi applies here so i + i > ī giving pratītya. In Pāli pra > pa, tya > cca, and we find that > ṭi (with retroflexion of the consonant, and shortening of the vowel). [6] The meaning of the gerund should be something like ‘having come to, having fallen back on’ but in application it means more like ‘grounded on, on account of’.

One very common form of use for paṭicca in Pāli Buddhist texts is in the twelve-fold formula of paṭiccasamuppāda which is sometimes written like this:
avijjāpaccaya paṭicca saṅkhārā...
grounded on unknowing as a condition, there are the processes...


(samuppāda) is a verbal noun from a root with two prefixes: saṃ + ud + pāda. The root is √pad which primarily means ‘to go, to walk’ (but also ‘to fall’). The prefix ud- ‘up, upwards’ becomes ut- with the unvoiced ‘p’ of √pad to give the present stem utpada- ‘to arise, originate, come forth, be produced’. From this we get the past-participle, utpanna (uppanna) ‘arisen, originated’. The causative form of the verb has the stem utpādaya (with the addition of ‘-ya-’ and the lengthening of the root vowel) meaning ‘to produce, beget, generate’. There’s not a great deal of difference between here the indicative and the causative - the difference between ‘to arise’, and ‘to produce’. From utpādaya- we get the verbal noun utpāda (uppāda) ‘coming forth, birth, production, arising’. And in Pāli the tpā conjunct devolves to ppā. Perhaps, given that utpāda seems to derive from the causative, we should favour translations which retain that flavour – ‘arising’ is something that just happens, whereas if something is ‘produced’ we get the sense of a definite process causing the arising.

The suffix sam- gives the sense of ‘completed’ or ‘together’ (it is cognate with the English suffix ‘com-’). The word samutpāda (samuppāda) means ‘appearing with, arising together’. It is only infrequently used as a stand-alone word in Pāli. [7]


The two parts (pratītya and samutpāda) are usually understood as forming a compound, and should therefore be written as one word pratītyasamutpāda, though we often find it written with a hyphen for readability: pratītya-samutpāda. The last thing is to discuss what type of compound they form, and the relationship between the two parts. In fact it is unusual to find a compound with gerund as the first member. This type of compound where one part retains the syntactical form it would have in a non-compounded sentence is called a ‘syntactical compound’. [8] Philologists suggest that this type of compound was originally a gerund and verb form which has become lexicalised. [9] We do find this kind of construction with the verb utpadyate (uppajjati) in the Pāli phrase: paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati - (‘arising in dependence on a condition’). [10]

In the case of pratītya-samutpāda the compound is formed from the gerund and the verb as a past-participle or verbal noun. Because the words retain their syntactical relationship, i.e. ‘having depended [on a condition] it is produced’, we do not need to analyse them in terms of the nominal compound paradigms. If we did do such an analysis we could take the gerund in its archaic the sense as an instrumental, and treat the compound as an instrumental tatpuruṣa meaning ‘produced through depending on’.


We’ve now looked at each of the separate elements – (prati+√i+tya) + (saṃ+ud+√pad) - and how they go together (morphology); and we’ve looked at how the individual parts contribute to the meaning (semantics). However it is not enough to know the etymology in order to understand a word. We have to look at how it is used in context. Even then we must accept that we have only an imperfect understanding since in the case of Buddhist texts we are far removed in time and culture from the authors or composers. Not being a native speaker of a language means we never really have the same facility as someone who is. When we hear a foreigner speaking our mother tongue we almost always hear words being used incorrectly, idioms being misunderstood, sentences oddly constructed. We need to keep this in mind when reading a Sanskrit or Pāli text, even when we think we understand the words. Back in 1966 the Dutch philologist Jan Gonda wrote a 165 page essay on the uses of the single word ‘loka’ in Vedic literature in which he suggests that the most common translation – ‘world’ – is actually the least likely to apply in any given situation.

By far the most common use of our term is with reference to the twelvefold nidāna chain. The links in the chain are called ‘dependently arisen elements’; in Pāli ‘paṭicca-samuppanne dhamme’. [11] And the whole system of one thing arising with the previous one as a condition (paccaya) is known as ‘dependent arising’ – paṭiccasamuppāda.

We can see how the English Translations get at the meaning, but only as long as we already know what is being said. The phrase ‘dependent arising’ is probably now the most popular translation of pratītya-samutpāda but it does not communicate very much to the uninitiated. Even if we choose a more descriptive translation such as Conze’s ‘conditioned co-production’ this isn’t much help. In any case the form of the syntactical compound tells us that pratītya-samutpāda is a short-hand way of referring to a longer description: ‘the process by which something is produced because the necessary conditions for its production are in place’. Even then it leaves many questions: what type of ‘something’ we are referring to? Does the formula constitute a general theory of causation, or only apply to the production of mental states? To this extent Buddhism is esoteric and much of our jargon is opaque to outsiders.


  • Coulson, Michael. 2003. Sanskrit. 2nd Ed. Teach Yourself Books.
  • Gonda, J. 1966. Loka : World and heaven in the Veda. Amsterdam, Noord-Hollandsche U.M.
  • Hamp. Eric P.1986. ‘On the Morphology of Indic Gerunds.’ Indo-Iranian Journal 29 (2), p.103-107
  • Macdonell. A.A. 1926. A Sanskrit Grammar for Students. 3rd Ed. D.K. Printworld (2008)
  • Norman, K.R. (trans.) 2001. The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta). 2nd. Ed. Pali Text Society
  • Norman, K. R. 1991. ‘Syntatical Compounds in Middle Indo-Aryan’ in Middle Indo-Aryan and Jaina Studies, Leiden, p.3-9. Also in Collected Papers, 1990-2001, Vol.4, p.218-25.
  • Whitney, William Dwight. 1885. The Roots, Verb Forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language. Motilal Banarsidass. (2006 printing)
  • Plus a range of Pāli, Sanskrit, and English dictionaries and other reference works both printed and online


[1] The gerund is used extensively in Buddhist texts. We might read for instance that someone approaches the Buddha, and having approached the Buddha, they salute him; and having saluted him, they sit off to one side; and having sat off to one side they respectfully asked a question. The Gerundsindicated here in italics – in English they are usually rendered as a perfect participle (having approached), or as a present participle (approaching).

[2] Authorities are divided on the origins of the gerund in –tvā, though seem to agree on it being an instrumental singular of a verbal noun. See Coulson Sanskrit, p.67, Macdonell 163 (p.137-8) derive it from a verbal noun in -tu; and for a dissenting view Hamp On the Morphology of Indic Gerunds who argues that –tvā must derive from a verbal noun in –tva, especially as nouns in –tu usually require guṇa and we don’t see this in gerunds.

[3] Fans of Monty Python's Life of Brian will recall that Brian misuses the verb eo in his slogan 'romanes eunt domus' and is forced to conjugate the verb while having his ear twisted by the centurion. He is looking for the third person plural imperative ite - 'romani ite domum'.

[4] If we have for instance ete aśvāḥ (these horses) we would write it ete śvāḥ or we can use an apostrophe to indicate the missing letter ete 'śvāḥ; in Devanāgarī we might use the avagrāha एतेऽश्वाः

[5] The addition of -t- for roots with short vowels is regular: cf Macdonell A Sanskrit Grammar for Students. 182.a (pg.160).

[6] Sanskrit prati- can become either pati- or paṭi- and it's not clear in each case why. Maybe due to the influence of different dialects?

[7] E.g. Vin i.96, S v.374, A iii.405, A v.201.

[8] K.R. Norman has adopted this term coined by G.V. Davane in 1956. They are also called ‘unregelmässige’ (irregular) by J. Wackkernagel, and ‘anomalous’ by Whitney – see Norman 'Syntactical Compounds', (in collected papers) p.218.

[9] See note 72 in Norman The Group of Discourses, p.175; and Norman 'Syntactical Compounds'. I'm grateful to Dhīvan Thomas Jones for pointing out Norman's note in the Sutta Nipāta.

[10] M i.259. This appears to be the only occurrence of this phrase in the Pali Canon. The shorter phrase, paṭicca uppajjati, occurs a number of times throughout the nikāyas. I cannot find the obvious precursor: paṭicca samuppajjati.The Verb samuppajja- appears to occur only once in the Nikāyas at SN 36:12 (PTS S iv.219) in verses which accompany prose using uppajja-.

[11] See especially The Discourse on Conditions Paccayasuttaṃ (SN 12:20 PTS S ii.25-27)

My thanks to Dr Vincenzo Vergiani for pointing out several errors in a draft of this essay, all remaining errors are mine.

image: MarenYumi. Flickr, Creative Commons licence.

19 February 2010

Philogical odds and ends II

philologyMany words have interesting stories associated with them. This is a second set of terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own.

In this entry: cakravartin, cintāmaṇi, yoniso manasikara, pāramitā, etymology.

Sometimes translated as "Universal Monarch". Cakra is used for anything which goes around: a chariot wheel, or a potters wheel, but also more abstract concepts like the wheel of time, the way the universe cycles through periods. Varta is from √vṛt 'to turn', but the present form vartate can simply mean 'to be'. Related words in English are 'versus', and 'weird' (from wyrd 'that which comes'). The -in suffix is a possessive so vartin means 'one who turns'. A cakravartin, then, is 'one who turns the wheel' The image here is of the wheel of the monarch's war chariot - typically with two eight spoked wheels - rolling over the territory of his enemies (or indeed over his enemies). This is one of many royal terms that were taken over by śramaṇa groups presumably in order to enhance their prestige - just as military or business leaders nowadays have a "mission" statement, when originally it was the Jesuits who coined this term (from the Latin mittere "to send"). Another related example is the term jina (conquerer). Jina was an epithet for the leaders of the Jains. The term Jain is in fact an Anglicisation of jaina from the collective form of jina. Jina was also taken up by Buddhists. The very term dharma also has royal overtones. These associations were pointed out by Patrick Olivelle in several articles. (See Dharma - Early History)

This word is usually translated as 'wish fulfilling gem' but literally means gem (maṇi) of thought (cintā). Maṇi is usually translated as 'gem' but can apply to all kinds of precious objects; it also has anatomical uses (the head of the penis; the clitoris). Cintā is from the verbal root √cint 'to think' (and probably related to √cit 'to perceive'; whence citta 'the mind'). I'm still unsure of what the significance or connections are, though its use is not restricted to Buddhist texts. The word cintāmaṇi is also found in Indian alchemical texts, for instance, where it may represent something like the philosopher's stone. There is a related term found in some tantric sādhanas which is cintācakra which likewise is translated as the 'wish fulfilling wheel, but literally means 'wheel of thought'.

Yoniso Manasikara
This phrase is typically translated as "wise attention" but a glance at it suggests that this is more of an interpretation than a translation. Manas is of course 'mind'. Kara deriving from the verb √kṛ 'to make, to do'. Manasikara is a rare 'syntactical compound' where the the first element is in an inflected form. Manasi is a locative - the location of the verb action. So manasikara means 'doing in the mind', i.e. thinking or imagining. Yoniso comes from yoni - meaning 'womb' or 'vagina', but figuratively 'origin'. The -so suffix is another relatively rare form, the 'distributive' adverbial ending making yoniso mean 'according to the origin'.

Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought) suggests that the original intent here is something like directing the mind towards origins, i.e. paying attention to the conditions for the arising of something, especially consciousness. We could translate it as 'thinking about origins'. Of course it is wise to do this kind of reflecting since it can result in understanding (jñāṇa) the nature (dharma) of experience as becoming (yathābhūta).

Thanks to Dayamati (Prof Richard Hayes) for pointing out the Manasikara is a syntactical compound - see comments.

For another take on this word see: (yoniso) manasi karotha. on the Theravadin blog.

Pāramitā is a key Buddhist term. We probably know well enough what it means. However the derivation is complicated (though similar for Pāli and Sanskrit). The the verbal root is √pṛ which has two basic senses: 1. to bring over, to bring out (and therefore to deliver, rescue etc); and 2. to surpass, excel, the utmost. From this root we get the adjective para (also spelt pāra) meaning 'beyond, remote, other etc'. The superlative form of this is parama 'furthest, remotest etc'. The feminine abstract noun from parama is pāramī 'perfect, complete' - it's not clear in my sources why para- becomes pāra- at this point, though my sources seem certain about the route of derivation, and pārama is not in the dictionary. Then pāramita is the abstract noun derived from pāramī (with the suffix -ta), and the feminine gender form is pāramitā and means 'a state of perfection' or 'completeness' - hence we say that prajñāpāramitā means 'perfection of wisdom' meaning a state in which wisdom is perfect or complete. In Pāli pāramī and pāramitā are synonyms. A folk etymology exists which derives pāramitā from pāraṃ 'beyond' + itā 'gone' giving 'gone beyond' (in the feminine gender also) with -ṃ + i- > mi. Conze uses this etymology in his book Buddhist Wisdom Books (p.78) perhaps because it is the standard Tibetan etymology.

Yes, even the word etymology has an etymology. It comes from Greek etymon 'true sense' and logos 'something said, topic of discourse, reasoning' so means the 'true sense of what is being said'. Of course the meaning of words, what they refer to, can change drastically over time: 'terrific' was not a good thing originally because it's original sense was 'terrifying'. And the idea of there being an absolutely 'true' meaning of a word is inconsistent with how words are actually used (in every language). But often the etymology combined with contextual information can help us to unravel what an unfamiliar word means.

When ancient Indians were presented with unfamiliar words - as is quite likely to happen when studying the Vedas for instance - they did not have dictionaries to consult and so if their knowledge of words and grammar failed them, they resorted to comparing the unfamiliar word with roots that sounded alike - being aware that the phenomenon of 'clustering' makes words with the same initial phoneme likely to be related in meaning. This procedure was formalised in India ca. 4th century BCE by Yaska in his work Nirukta. Plato was also aware of this phenomena (see his Cratylus dialogue) and in contemporary times the study of phonosemantics investigates it. A further interesting little fact is that the Japanese word for mantra - shingon 真言- means true (shin) words (gon).

See also

12 February 2010

Buddhism and God(s)

It is axiomatic for Buddhists that (so-called) Buddhism is an atheistic religion, though many academics will point out that the actions and attitudes of some Buddhists are practically indistinguishable from theism. Buddhism is an English term coined in the 19th century for people who follow the Buddha. The original followers called themselves savaka (the hearers) sakkaputta (Children of the Śakyan - the Buddha being a Śakyan by birth). The modern Indian term would be Bauddha, a collective noun along the lines of Śaiva (a follower of Śiva) and Jaina (a follower of the Jina).

The Buddhist relationship with gods is in fact quite complex. Throughout the Pāli canon gods of various sorts appear and at times are major players. Where would Buddhists be for instance is the Vedic creator god Brahmā (in the form of Brahmāsahampati) had not begged the Buddha to pass on what he learned under the Bodhi Tree? Indra is another Vedic god who plays important roles in many suttas and jātaka stories - though usually under his alias Sakka (Sanskrit Śakra).[1]

Early Buddhism was also cognisant of local deities. Hardly a page of the canon goes by without mention of yakkhas (Sankrit yakṣa) or nāgas for instance. Yakṣas are local chthonic deities who were worshipped in the villages by the ordinary people - such people were sometimes referred to by the Buddha as superstitious (maṅgalika). Then there are the Four Great Kings (Cattāro Mahārājāno) who also appear regularly. Some of them share names with the legendary figures, there is a king Dhṛtarāṣṭra in the Mahābhārata for instance.

All of these gods are shown as paying obeisance to the Buddha, and even his disciples. One of my favourite episodes from the Pāli canon is when Sāriputta goes home to see his orthodox Brahmin mother Sārī (Sāriputta means son of Sārī). She is scathing of him, his lifestyle and his friends and heaps abuse on them. (Nyanaponiika and Hecker, p.34) Later when he is very ill he visits her again and during the night he is visited by the Four Kings, Sakka and Mahābrahmā in turn, all of them wishing to wait on Sāriputta. Sāri is stunned to think that her son is being waited on by the gods she worships. Now she is receptive, Sāriputta gives her a Dhamma lesson and she attains to stream-entry (a state almost always reached by through hearing a dhamma lesson in the Canon [2]).

Sakka goes on to play a prominent role in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (the 8000 Line Perfection of Wisdom Discourse) where he is also portrayed as a disciple of the Buddha. The Four Kings similarly retain their role and even become important figures in their own right - especially Vaiśravaṇa, king of the north. The Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇabhāṣottama Sūtra) features a number of other deities who offer dhāraṇī for the protection of the Buddha's followers. Sarasvati an important Vedic goddess appears, as does Lakṣmi who may be related to the goddess of luck Sirī that appears in some Jātaka stories, and who is not mentioned in the Vedas. [3]

The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra introduces a new theme - the conversion of deities. Previously the gods just naturally seemed to pay obeisance to the Buddha, but in this text (from ca. 4th century CE) the god Śiva is converted to Buddhism by Avalokiteśvara. As far as I know there is no definite mention of Śiva in the Pāli texts. Studholme's tentative dating is supported by the appearance of Śiva on the scene since it coincides with the earlier dates suggested for the dominance of the Indian pantheon by Śiva. It is perhaps no coincidence that around this time Avalokiteśvara begins to assimilate Śiva's iconography and his name changes to be more like Śiva as well: from Avalokitasvara to Avalokiteśvara: ie from Avalokita + svara (Regarder of cries); to Avalokita + īśvara (Lord who looks down). Īśvara is an important epithet of Śiva. I have noted before how the former name (Kwan Yin in Chinese) tends to be retained in China because it was quite firmly established in Kumarajīva's translation of the White Lotus Sūtra (Sadharmapuṇḍarikasūtra) in the 4th cent.

However this conversion seems not to have stuck because in the late 7th century the Tantric text Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṅgraha features a violent confrontation between Vajrapāṇi and Śiva - who here is called Maheśvara (mahā + īśvara; Great Lord). Śiva in this case refuses to submit, and in the end Vajrapāṇi slays him with a mantra, then revives him only to place his foot on Śiva's throat until he converts to Buddhism. Tantric art often shows Vajrapāṇi trampling on Śiva. Tantric Buddhism absorbed many Vedic and Hindu deities into it's pantheon and in particular they reinvigorated the worship of Agni through the various fire rituals (Homa).

So it seems clear that at all stages of it's development Buddhism acknowledged the existence of gods, or at least appears to have acknowledged the belief in gods. Ancient Indian Buddhists did not try to disprove the existence of gods as do today's atheists. However at every turn they are shown as inferior to the Buddha, and to Buddhists. Buddhists also mock the gods as inferior - the Kevaddha Sutta - DN 11 where Brahma is pretending to be an omnipotent god but cannot answer the Buddha's question and begs the Buddha not to show him up in front of the other gods.

If we followed the pattern we would simply acknowledge that Jehovah/Allah is a god, but point out the inconsistencies in the stories about him, and show why he is inferior to the Buddha - which should not be hard: the creator of samsara is clearly a terrible bungler. Design? Perhaps. Intelligent design? Pull the other one! The politics of the time might make this a little more dangerous for us than it was in the past with so many people willing to kill people for the crime of mockery. But mockery is developed to a high art in the UK and no one - not the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury nor even your best friend, and especially not one's self - is exempt. No one here can afford to take themselves too seriously! Indeed strident atheists are seen as just as reprehensible as strident religious fundamentalists.

  1. The Dictionary of Pāli Names is a very useful source for references to gods. See for instance: Sakka.
  2. Note that Peter Masefield, in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, argues that this attainment could only take place in the presence of a Buddha. This is yet another example that the assertion is erroneous. See also my review. It is something to reflect on however, that stream-entry is almost always reached through listening to and reflecting on the dhamma, not through meditation.
  3. On Sirī see Rhys Davids, T.W. 1903. Buddhist India. p.216ff.

  • Nyanaponika and Hecker, Hellmuth. 1997. Great Disciples of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications.
  • Studholme, Alexander. 2002. The Origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ: A Study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. State University of New York Press.

Update 31 Jan 2014
A new study of religion in the USA by Pew Research reports (p.2):
  • 65% of American Buddhists believe in a god of some kind, another 10% are agnostic. 
  • 20% believe in a personal god.
This suggests that we need to revisit the idea that Buddhists do not believe in god. Clearly many Buddhists do believe in god. The problem for Modernist Buddhism is how to square that with our Scientific Rationalism. That Buddhism is a-theist is not a trivial proposition for most Modernist Buddhists in the developed world. 

05 February 2010

Martyrs Maketh the Religion

I was not long a Buddhist when I first heard these words:

'Though only my skin, sinews and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment." [1]
Stirring stuff; or perhaps it sounds like dangerous extremism? Many Buddhists admire this sentiment. But why? In May 2009 the New Scientist published an article titled: Suffering for your beliefs makes other believe too. [2] The article, by Bob Holmes, summarises the findings of a paper published by Joseph Henrich in which he looked at the impact of the sacrifices that religious leaders make, and how these sacrifices - including martyrdom - inspire their followers and create new converts. The more extreme the sacrifice the better, with actual martyrdom being a very powerful motivator. As Holmes says, with apparent irony: '...devotees who take vows of poverty or chastity are clearly putting their money where their mouth is', and in Henrich's words: 'Individuals sticking to such vows (or appearing to) increase their potency as transmitters of the faith.' (p.257) If on the other hand, Holmes says, they are unwilling to make sacrifices, then they make very little impact: 'observers - even young children - quickly pick up on this and withhold their own commitment'. And why is this important? Because the groups that coalesce around such leaders often offer advantages in terms of 'cooperation, solidarity and group success'.

I want to look at this in the light of stories about the Buddha's asceticism, the disappearance of Buddhism from India, and the possible fate of Buddhism in the decadent west.

It is axiomatic in all forms of Buddhism that self-torture is pointless and that causing harm to a living being (including one's self) is in contradiction of the fundamental values of Buddhism. [3] In my article on suicide in Early Buddhist texts (Western Buddhist Review, no.4) I noted the doctrinal problems caused by the suicide of Channa - he is not reborn after having cut his own throat. To not be reborn means he is an arahant; but an arahant could never harm himself. The commentaries invent the idea that Channa became an arahant in the moments between severing his carotid artery and his death, but it isn't very convincing.

One of the most important aspects of the biography/hagiography of the Buddha is that he abandoned his severe austerities and announced that they were not conducive to his goal of eliminating suffering. Even in contemporary India there are people who specialise in austerities: they inflict pain, often quite severe pain, on themselves in various ways. They do this publicly in order to attract the patronage of pious people, and they do find patronage and even followers. But the Buddha rejected all this. He tried it, he took it to the extreme short of actual death, and he found that it did not liberate him. Having given up self-torture he lived a simple, basic and chaste life. He did not seek out pain for the sake of purification, but did teach that physical pain had to be endured mindfully if it could not be avoided. So why, we might wonder, is this phase of his life when he conducted austerities celebrated? Why is it depicted in art? Why is it still marvelled at by Buddhists? My accompanying image this week is a Gandhāran style emaciated Buddha. Images such as this are still produced today and still purchased by pious Buddhists. But given that it represents the Buddha-to-be in error, what is the attraction? Perhaps Joseph Henrich has a point and our faith is enhanced by the knowledge of his suffering - even though it was all for nought?

As Buddhism progressed from being a tiny minority religion, mainly confined to a group of itinerant wanderers in Magadha, to being a large organised affair with universities boasting thousands of students and monasteries accumulating untold wealth, I wonder if Buddhism ceased to inspire the kind of faith that it had done. It is interesting and salutary to consider that Jainism was around before Buddhism, and it survived all the upheavals of Indian history, and is still a presence India to this day. What did they do differently? Perhaps it was that they maintained a public display of self sacrifice in the form of groups of naked ascetics who even today still indulge in austerities, who still seek out the supposed purification that pain brings. Self-torture was, after all, most likely originally a Jain practice which other groups adopted around the time of the Buddha or perhaps a little before.

What about contemporary Buddhism? We would need to look elsewhere to explain, for example, the popularity of Pureland style Buddhism such as Nichiren or Soka Gakkai which do not pursue strategies of austerity, the opposite if anything. However, if Henrich is correct, one can see why austere (and sometimes painful) Zen might have prospered. Similarly, from the point of view being explored here, we can see the appeal of Tibetan refugees who have given up everything, often endured great hardship and narrowly avoided death, while many that remained in Tibet were actually martyred. The Dalai Lama remains cheerful in the face of the worst provocation imaginable - it is not his celibacy which stands out, but his stoically persistent goodwill in the face of the destruction of his country, his religion and his people. Many Theravādin monks also gain credibility through their austerity - and especially in the 'forest' traditions for devotion to meditation.

Perhaps there is a danger in the affluent West that Buddhism becomes a comfortable middle-class preserve. I sometimes detect a hint of 'affluenza' in myself and my peers - the technophilic types who in addition to a computer have a iPod, cellphone, digital camera, nice clothes, newish car, comfortable house, pension plan etc. What Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe". Many of us read the lives of historical characters like Milarepa and find them inspiring to a point - not enough to make us give up everything and dedicate ourselves to meditation. Renunciation beyond a certain point is seen by most Western Buddhists as impractical - we often err far towards comfort when assessing the middle way! Even monks live in relative comfort. The old term for a renunciant was paribbajjaka, which means (more or less) 'vagrant'; but to be homeless in the modern West is not an honourable thing. We look on the homeless as victims; often as hapless drug addicts. Not the kind of company the average Buddhist seeks out or wants to emulate.

Perhaps we need to think about what might be inspiring to others about our own lives as currently lived? What have we sacrificed for our practice? I draw a lot of inspiration from my brothers and sisters in the Indian Sangha. They often work full-time for poor wages, live in sub-standard conditions, but still find time to be strongly engaged in Dhamma work: leading classes, giving talks, or contributing in some other way. Indian Dharmacārins are often willing to put their own needs to one side for the benefit of the many (bahujan hitay). They in turn are inspired by Dr Ambedkar who constantly strived for the benefit of his people, and in the end gave up everything to lead them out of the oppression they experienced as outcasts from Hindu society.

Clearly there is more than one way to inspire conversion and commitment. By embodying the positive values we espouse we can also be inspiring. But there must be a few of us at least who are willing to give up everything in order to practice and teach the Dharma - to give up family, career, status, possessions etc, to go the whole hog and totally commit themselves to the three jewels without holding anything back. We have to see what that's like, to have exemplars to inspire. Dr Henrich sees the religious leader as inspiring beliefs which are often counterintuitive. Seen from the point of view of ordinary social discourse the Buddhist ideal is clearly counterintuitive, but it is far from irrational. One can generally see that the more deeply a person practices Buddhism, the happier they are.


  1. This is probably from Appativana Sutta (AN 2.5 PTS: A i 50) - thanks to Dharmacārin Viśvapāṇi for help locating the source. I'm not sure who is responsible for this translation, though it is quoted in Piyadassi's The Buddha : His Life and Teachings.
  2. This is the title of the print article. The link is to the online version which for some reason has a different title: 'Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs'.
  3. An exception to this rule is the bizarre practice of burning oneself, often at ordination, which is popular in East Asian Buddhism. I can only say that this seems to go against the stream of Buddhism generally, and the early Buddhist teachings specifically. It is interesting to note however that non-harming as an ethical principle emerged out of the same community which saw self-torture as the epitome of spiritual practice, and death by starvation as it's apotheosis: the Jains.

  • Holmes, Bon. 'Suffering for your beliefs makes others believe too.' New Scientist. Vol. 202, no.2710. 30 May 2009. Partial article online under the title Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs.
  • Henrich, Joseph (2009). 'The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.' Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005 [pdf]
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