25 June 2010

Philological odds and ends IV

Many words have interesting stories associated with them. This is a fourth set of Pāli and Sanskrit terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own. In these posts I explore the history of words, looking into the Indo-European roots and how these play out in Pāli and Sanskrit and cognates in English. I try to keep in mind a remark by K.R Norman - "a philologist is interested not just in what words mean, but why they mean that."

In this post: vrata, mitra, kavi

This word is typically translated as 'vow'. The root is √vṛ of which there are two homonyms meaning either 'to cover' or 'to choose'. The former gives us the word varṇa meaning 'colour' or 'class' (apparently a distinction originally based on outward appearance, ie skin colour). The latter is relevant here. The present form is vṛṇīte or vṛṇāti, and the primary meaning seems to be that one is making a choice, i.e. it refers to the choice that an individual makes. Vrata is a verbal noun meaning 'will, command, law' but because it retains the sense of something an individual does, it comes to mean, in religious contexts, a vow that one takes on. Note it is not something imposed, but chosen.

Part of what makes vrata interesting is that it has an English cognate in the word 'verb'. Verb comes, via Old French, from the Latin 'verbum' which was originally 'a word, verb'. The Online Etymology Dictionary links it to an Indo-European root *were 'to say, to speak' which is directly related also to the Sanskrit vrata. In Greek this root became rhetra 'a covenant or agreement', and gives us the English word 'rhetoric' which is a form of speech designed to persuade. In Gothic *were gave waurd from which, clearly, we get our word for 'word'. Also from the Latin is 'verbose' meaning 'wordy'.

A related Sanskrit word is saṃvara 'restraint, forebearance' (from sam + √vṛ) which in Buddhist contexts can mean something like a vow - a voluntary religious observance which usually consists in not doing something. It is possible that the name śambara is a phonetic variation on saṃvara (perhaps via a Prakrit ṣambara?). Śambara was a demon, who later became a Tantric Dharma-protector; but as a noun the word is also found in the sense of 'a vow'.

Mitra (Pāli mitta) means “friend, companion, asscociate”. PED derives from √med ‘to be fat, to love’. MW derives from √mith ‘alternate’ or √mid which is simply an alternate for √med. Probably both are wrong in this case. Mitra was a Vedic god (paired with Varuṇa) who oversaw the harmonious order of the universe (ṛta), he was concerned with order, and particular moral order and the word mitra was originally associated with a contract, or a formal bond. He appears in Persian myth as Mithra, suggesting an ancient IE lineage. The IE root is *√mei ‘to tie or bind’ (which should be *√mi or *√mī in Sanskrit but is not attested). With an agentive suffix -tṛ; or with an instrumental suffix –tra (similar to mantra, Cf E. ‘meter’ ) mitra means ‘one who makes bonds’ or ‘that which binds’ (i.e. a contract). This seems closer to the ancient function of the god Mitra, to which the sense of ‘friend’ came to be attributed later. The sense of ‘friend’ is restricted to Sanskrit and the word has few English cognates: some words related to threads, and mitre from a band which ties around the head (i.e. a turban).

From mitra we get the word maitrī (P. mettā) which is the feminine form of maitra (a taddhita in -a with vṛddhi of the root vowel) 'of or belonging to Mitra', and in our context 'what comes from a friend' i.e friendship, love, kindness etc. PED suggests that mettā is an abstract noun from mitra, but the Sanskrit morphology argues against this - the form is not mitvā, but maitra/maitrī - though it has an abstract sense.

Kavi means 'wise' or 'a poet', and is related to kāvya 'poetry'. This word is linked by Monier-Williams to the root √ 'to cry, make a noise' which presumably follows traditional sources. The forms of kavi and kāvya are consistent with √: the former being a primary derivative action noun in -i, the latter a taddhitha in -a (with vṛddhi of the root vowel). PED, unusually, gives no etymological information. Whitney tells us that the root √means 'design' and casts doubt on kavi deriving from it. There seems to be some confusion in the 19th century Sanskrit reference books, and there are still no signs of replacements!

If we take a step back we find an Indo-European root *√keu. The Online Indo-European Lexicon (OIEL) defines the semantic field as combining 'to see, to think' (I've noted that these two fields overlap in past posts). The OIEL lists kavi as a derivative of *√keu. Some English cognates are (via Germanic) hear, hearken; shine, sheen; (via Greek) acoustic; (via Latin) caution. The Iranian parallel term is kauui (it's worth keeping in mind when making comparisons that Sanskrit 'v' is actually pronounced more like 'w'). Kauui designates a kind of priest in the Avesta, especially priests of myth. These priests, like their brāhmaṇa counterparts in India later became rulers. In Greece the koies or koes were priests of the mysteries of Samothrace. Recall that a wise person in India is one who has 'heard much', the mantras of the Ṛgveda were 'heard' rather than composed by the ṛṣi 'seers'. So it makes sense that the poet is one who has heard, and poetry is what they heard. That fits the requirements of the situation.

It seems as though the IE root *√keu did not come through completely into Sanskrit and most of the forms were lost. So the derivation became unclear. However, because it remained more intact in the European branches of Indo-European we can make more sense of the word kavi in relation to other IE words, than by solely relating it to other Sanskrit words! And this is one of the astonishing and wonderful results of comparative linguistics.

See also

(PS Apologies to "gruff" who read and commented on a draft essay that inadvertently went live yesterday. I will save the comment for when the essay is ready.)

18 June 2010

The Pscyhological Wasteland

waste land
A couple of years ago senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Subhuti, studied the Cetokhila Sutta [1] and was talking about it with other senior order members. Although I did not have the chance to study the text at the time I was intrigued by what I heard, and I have now done my own translation. This translation is also a condensation because there is a huge amount of redundancy and repetition in the Pāli - what I have done is communicate the same message, in the same order, but in succinct English.

There are other translations of this text and in this case I needed to rely on that by Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand parts of it. [2] There are other internet translations, though I think they struggle to communicate the message of the text because they are caught up in the Pāli syntax. 

The Cetokhila Sutta

Thus have I heard. One time the blessed one was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park outside Sāvatthī. There the blessed at one addressed the monks.

There are five psychological wastelands unrenounced, five emotional bindings not cut that make it impossible to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

The five psychological wastelands are: doubting [kaṅkhati] and hesitating [vicikicchati] with respect to, and lack of faith and assurance in the teacher, the doctrine, the spiritual community, and the training; and taking offence, being angry, resentful and sulky towards one's companions in the spiritual life. In the psychological wastelands one's mind is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

The five emotional bindings are uncut passion, desire, love, longing, fever, and thirst for: sensuous pleasure, the body, and form; eating as much as one likes and being given to the pleasures of sleeping, lying about, and laziness; and living the spiritual life aspiring to heaven thinking: 'by this morality, this austerity, this spiritual practice I will become a god or go to heaven.' With these emotional bindings left uncut one's heart is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

For those who renounce the five psychological wastelands, and cut the five emotional bindings it is possible for them to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

This samādhi of intention [chanda] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of vitality [vīriya] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of mind [citta] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of investigation [vīmaṃsā] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. Enthusiasm [ussoḷhi] is the fifth basis for success.

With these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough [abhinibbida], capable of fully understanding [sambodha], capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union [anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigama].

Just as a bird with eight or ten or twelve eggs perfectly sitting on them, incubating them, and brooding them need not wish: "may my chicks, with beak and claw, safely break through their eggshell", because the chicks are well-equipped with beak and claw to pierce their eggshell and break through. So with these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough, capable of fully understanding, capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union.

This is what the blessed one said. The monks were pleased and rejoiced in his words.

This is almost like two suttas mashed together, which appears to go off on a tangent by introducing the samādhi accompanied by effort, though perhaps it made sense to the compilers of the Canon. In my comments, therefore, I want to focus on the part about the psychological wasteland and the emotional binds. Firstly some of the main terms.

Cetokhila: a khila is a patch of barren or fallow land. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi opt to render it 'wilderness'. I thought wasteland was a better fit because the metaphor is not of being lost in a wilderness, but of a place where growth is not possible. Ceto, and cetaso, are more or less the same as citta. Citta can be 'mind' generally; 'mind' as specifically the consciousness that arises in dependence on contact between sense organ and sense object; and it is also a synonym of 'heart' (hadaya) as the seat of the emotions. We usually get landed with either 'heart' or 'mind' because the two are distinct in English. My thought is that psychological covers both emotions and thoughts.

Cetsaso-vinibandha: the word vinibandha means 'bondage'. The plural 'bondages' sounded a little too 'Buddhist Hybrid English' to me, and not natural. Bindings seemed to fit. Here I have chosen 'emotional' to render cetaso because the items included under this heading are more clearly emotional. Although 'heart' is a well worn poetic cliché for emotion, I wanted to be specific and heart is used quite vaguely.

The basic message of the text is that if we don't have faith and confidence in the three jewels, if we are doubtful and unsure, then this is like a wasteland, a patch of barren land. A wasteland is not productive, not somewhere we expect crops to germinate, flourish and ripen; we cannot grow spiritually under these conditions. So this is an agricultural metaphor for a Buddhist life.

Note that the tone of the text changes with respect to our companions in the spiritual life. With the Three Jewels we can be confident that they will never let us down. With respect to other people, other Buddhists, the text does not suggest that we have faith them. It assumes that they will let us down, that they will fall short, and it requires of us that we not harbour ill-will and resentment towards them when they do let us down. We are not to take offence. This is much harder than it sounds because when people do let us down we usually assume the worst, we assume that they hurt us on purpose. We do not see them as conditioned beings responding habitually or unconsciously. So we blame them for their behaviour. In the Christian morality that underlies Western societies blame implies guilt, and guilt demands punishment. In Christianity vengeance is the Lord's province, but in anger Christians often pre-empt Him by harming the person who has offended them and calling this "justice". Similarly Buddhists profess to believe in karma, but are reluctant to allow karma time and space to work, but want to hurt the person who has hurt them. So we unreliable humans are constantly lashing out at each other. It is not a failing of religion, as militant atheists suggest, but a failing of people. Atheists are not less likely to lash out, but only to rationalise their lashing out in different ways.

The emotional bonds that prevent us from making progress draw on a different metaphor. Here passion, desire, etc are chords that tie us in emotional knots. The wasteland is more about aversion, and the bonds are about attraction. The main thing we desire is pleasure. As I have argued before: people mistake pleasure for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of pleasure, which is disastrous for us, for the societies we live in, for humans generally, and for the planet. Despite the abject failure of the pursuit of pleasure to produce positive results we find it difficult to imagine any other way. This was true in the Buddha's day also. One of the most refined and pernicious aspects of this pursuit of pleasure is the idealised heaven. The text pays particular attention to using practice as a means to rebirth in heaven. Many culture's have heavens (even Buddhists) and you can tell a lot about that culture from the heaven they imagine: whether it is perfectly flat surfaces and jewelled trees, numbers of virgins, or a father's uninterrupted attention and love, heaven tends to contain the things that will give a man the most pleasure they can imagine. I say "man" advisedly here, because I think it's clear that 'official' heavens of the big religions were imagined by men. Unlike the Islamic heaven, in both Buddhist and Christian heavens there is no sex, and no sexuality. [3] Make of that what you will.

Perhaps it is the contrast between aversion and attraction that lead to the inclusion of stock phrases on the samādhi's accompanied by effort - which appear to refer to meditation accompanied by the four right efforts. Unravelling this paragraph on its own is next to impossible. Neither the Pāli commentary summary (MA 2.67), nor the longer explanation in the Visuddhimagga it refers you to, are very helpful as they are almost equally cryptic. I only understood it when I chanced on a reference in the notes to Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. [4] This pointed to the Chandasamādhi Sutta (SN 51.13 ) which untangles the long compounds in a way that makes sense. It is interesting that the Chandasamādhi appears to be a commentary on other texts which refer to the four bases for success (iddhipāda). The cryptic phrasing of this part of the text suggests to me a sophisticated intellectual milieu, and a written rather than oral medium. To find a commentary already in the Canon is intriguing.

The last image more or less speaks for itself. If you have faith in the three jewels, are tolerant of you companions, and cut the bindings of pleasure-seeking, and apply yourself to right effort, then you don't need to worry about breaking through. What we do as Buddhists is set up conditions for practice, and get on with practice. Wishing for Enlightenment is only useful to the extent that it gives us what Sangharakshita calls 'continuity of purpose'. We need to keep on committing ourselves, to keep on making the right kind of effort, but if we do that, then we can be confident of making progress. In fact doubt in, and of, this process prevents us from growing.

  1. MN 16, PTS M i.101. A pdf of my translation accompanied by extensive notes is available on my website: The Psychological Wasteland: a Translation of the Cetokhila Sutta.
  2. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. p.194ff.
  3. This is arguable. The Book of Enoch (which may originally have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but survives only in Ethiopian) was originally part of the Canon of both Jews and early Christians, but was excised in the 4th century. In Enoch the sin of the fallen angels was not pride, but lust - they had sex with and fathered children with human women. See for instance: Link, Luther. The Devil : the Archfiend in Art from the 6th to the 16th century. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1995. (see especially pg. 27f)
  4. Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.1939, n.246.

image: lots of copies of this around the net. I copied it from www.motherearthnews.com.

11 June 2010

How the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta Came About

An Exert From the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta Commentary (Suttanipāta-Aṭṭhakathā) by Buddhaghosa. [1]

A pdf version of this text is available here.

How did it come about? The brief version is that some beggar-monks [2] in sight of the Himalayas were troubled by spirits and sought out the Blessed One in Sāvatthī. The Blessed One spoke of this thread for the purpose of protection and as a meditation practice.

The long version of the story goes like this: one-time the Blessed One was staying in Sāvatthī with the rainy season approaching. At that time a great number of beggar-monks from different nations desiring to begin their rainy season retreat came into the Buddha's presence to get a meditation subject. To the passionate types he gave the eleven-fold reflection on unloveliness; to the hot heads he gave the four-fold meditation on loving-kindness; for the deluded types he prescribed mindfulness of death; to people up 'in their heads' he gave the mindfulness of breathing practice; recollection of the Buddha was recommended for faith types; and analysis of the four elements for the intelligent types; and thus he taught the 84,000 meditation subjects to those that suited them.

And then five hundred beggar-monks [3] having received their meditation practice in the presence of the Blessed One set off seeking suitable accommodation [sappāya-senāsanaṃ] and villages for alms gathering. In the hinterlands they saw a mountain in the Himalayas with flat rocks like blue rock-crystal, adorned by a forest grove with cool dense dark shadows, with sand strewn about like pearls on a silver platter, and surrounded by a cool pleasant pure river. [4] They stayed the night there and in the morning after attending to their bodies, they entered a nearby village for alms. The village was a dense settling of a thousand people full of faith and confidence. In those border regions the sight of religious wanderers was rare and the delighted villagers having fed the beggar-monks implored them "Good sirs, why not dwell here for the three months of the rainy season?" They built five hundred meditation huts, and provided a platform and seat, bowls of water for drinking and water for washing, and all means of support.

On the second day the beggar-monks entered another village for alms. There also the people, having waited on the monks, implored them to stay for the rainy season. Not seeing any obstacles the beggar-monks assented. They entered the forest grove sat at the foot of trees resolutely all night and day, beating the block to mark the watches of the night, [5] dwelling full of wise attention. The brightness [teja] of the virtuous beggar-monks interfered with the brightness of the spirits of the trees, [6] who one by one took their children down from their magic palaces [vimānā] and wandered here and there. They looked on from a distance, and just as when a king or his prime-minister might commandeer a house and the people might ask "when will they leave?" the tree-spirits asked "when are these good men going to leave?". They thought "it looks like they will stay the whole three months of the rainy season. We won't be able to survive down here with our children having had to descend from our magic palaces. We must try to frighten them away." That night while the monks were engaged in their practices the tree spirits appeared before them in the terrifying forms of yakkhas, making frightful noises. Seeing those forms and hearing those sounds the hearts of the beggar-monks pounded, and they turned pale. They could not find any calm in their minds, and upset again and again by fear they were shocked and bewildered. The tree spirits also made a pungent stink that caused the beggar monks splitting headaches, but they did not tell each other about these incidents.

Then one day the senior monk asked the monks to assemble for a meeting. He said "friends when we entered this forest grove a few days ago we had good complexion, we were accomplished, and had clear senses. However now we are haggard and pale. Is this not a good place to stay?" One monk spoke up about his terrifying experiences. Then everyone confirmed that is was the same for them. The elder said "friends, the Blessed One has decreed two possible starting times for the retreat. Since this accommodation is unsuitable we will go and ask the Blessed One for better accommodation and start our retreat again." The monks all said "sādhu" [7] to that, and without further discussion, leaving all their bedding but taking bowl and robe, they embarked on the journey back to Sāvatthī. By and by they came to the city and met the Blessed One. Seeing them he asked why they had broken the rule about not travelling during the rains retreat, and they related to him all that had happened. [8] The Blessed One then cast his mind over the whole of India [9], even considering the places and seats of animals [10] but did not see suitable accommodation. He said to the beggar monks: "there is no other place you might go to in order to attain the destruction of theinfluxes [āsava]. [11] Go monks, and stay depending on those lodgings. However if you wish to be unafraid of the spirits then learn this protective spell and let this be both your protection and your meditation subject. And he taught them the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta. [12]

Then having completed the teaching the Buddha said to the monks: "go, monks, and dwell in that very forest grove. On the eight days in the month for listening to the Dhamma [13] you should repeatedly recite [14] this sutta having beaten the wooden block [of the watches]. [15] Give dhamma discourses [on the sutta], talk it over and rejoice in it. Devote yourselves to cultivation and pursuit of this meditation. Those spirits will not cause you to see frightful hallucinations, and they will only wish you well and be friendly. The bhikkhus assented, saying "sadhu", then rose from their seats and respectfully [16] went there. And [this time] the spirits were pleased and joyful to see them, and said "good sirs, we wish you health and happiness". They personally swept out the cabins, prepared hot water, gave the monks foot and back rubs, and settled down to watch over them. Having cultivated loving kindness and made a good foundation the monks began seeking insight. At the end of the three months all of them had attained the highest fruit and become Arahants, and they celebrated the full and pure end of rains ceremony [pavāranā].


[1] PTS SnA i.193ff.

[2] bhikkhu means 'beggar'. Monk literally means 'alone' from Greek monos. Neither beggar nor monk quite capture the sense, but together they get closer.

[3] pañcamattāni bhikkhusatāni – literally 'five measures of a hundred beggar-monks'.

[4] The description of the place shows a distinct influence of Sanskrit compositions with the use of very long compound adjectives: "… nīla-kācamaṇi-sannibha-silā-talaṃ sītala-ghana-cchāya-nīla-vana-saṇḍa-maṇḍitaṃ muttā-tala-rajata-paṭṭa-sadisa-vālukā-kiṇṇa-bhūmi-bhāgaṃ suci-sāta-sītala-jalāsaya-parivāritaṃ pabbatam-addasaṃsu."

[5] I'm guessing here from yāmagaṇḍikaṃ koṭṭetvā: yāma could also be 'restraint'; gaṇḍikaṃ is a block of wood, and koṭṭetvā is a gerund from koṭṭeti 'to beat'. PED sv. yāma has a doubtful reading 'to beat the block of restraint'; or allow relating it to Yāma, king of the underworld. However, organised monks on retreat would have marked the periods of the day and night, and banging on a wooden block is an excellent way of doing this, and is in fact used today, i.e. I read PED yāma2 'a watch of the night'.

[6] 'tree spirits' translates rukkhadevatā – these seem to be nature spirits, rather than celestial devas.

[7] Sādhu means 'good, virtuous; approval, ascent.

[8] In the suttas the events would have been repeated verbatim, but by contrast here we just get "they told the Blessed one all about it" te bhagavato sabbaṃ ārocesuṃ.

[9] sakala-jambudīpa literally 'all of the rose-apple island.'

[10] catuppādapīṭhakaṭṭhānamattampi – I'm not entirely certain of this reading.

[11] The āsavas 'influxes, cankers, taints' are kāmāsava 'sense desire', bhavāsava 'existence', diṭṭhāsava 'views', avijjāsava 'ignorance'. A list of three āsava leaves out diṭṭhāsava.

[12] See my translation: Mettā Sutta Translation.

[13] Sayadaw says these are the waxing and waning days of the 5th, 8th, 14th and 15th days in the month. The monks were mostly practicing alone in cabins during this time, but came together for these periods of teaching. See Sayadaw, Mahasi. Brahmavihara Dhamma. [ca. 1983, trans. Min Swe (Min Kyaw Thu)] http://www.buddhanet.net/brahmaviharas/index.htm

[14] ussāretha literally 'pile up', i.e. chant repeatedly

[15] see also note 5. This is a very awkward sentence to translate: "Imañca suttaṃ māsassa aṭṭhasu dhammassavanadivasesu gaṇḍiṃ ākoṭetvā ussāretha, dhammakathaṃ karotha, sākacchatha, anumodatha, idameva kammaṭṭhānaṃ āsevatha, bhāvetha, bahulīkarotha."

[16] padakkhinaṃ katvā is literally 'making the right hand', i.e. keeping the ritually pure right hand towards the object of veneration rather than the impure left hand. The left hand is impure because it is used to clean the anus after defecating. See also: Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition.

image: Himalaya's Bhutan. From www.bhutanmajestictravel.com.

04 June 2010

Texts, Values and Truth

Following on from my suggestion of a hierarchy of values I have some further thoughts on our attitude to factual truth as a value in relation to Buddhist and religious beliefs.

Buddhism is clearly a massively multifaceted phenomena in the present and one can see, despite claims to timelessness, that it has developed chronologically. To some extent we can trace the development back in time - rather like physicists use the evidence of the present to make conjectures about the early universe. Just as for the universe, the actual origins of Buddhism are obscure and will remain so because we do not have enough evidence and never will have. However we can point to certain features - common to all forms of Buddhism, and emphasised in early texts, which appear to be archaic. One of the main features is the emphasis on practice. Yes, we have considerable amounts of biography, history, sociology and philosophy but the overwhelming concern of Buddhist literature and material culture suggests that what Buddhists did (and of course still do) is carry out certain practices, particularly forms of "meditation". [1]

I suggest that Buddhist texts are primarily concerned with practice: with the mechanics of practice; with the context for practice; with the fruits of practice. They also contain a technical vocabulary or jargon for understanding and communicating about the process and fruits of practice. Buddhist texts reflect the concerns of Buddhists i.e. a pragmatic program of transformation. The nature of that transformation is the subject of a lot of speculative writing, and one can see changes over time in how it is written about, and we can further speculate about the kinds of socio-political environments the authors lived in and what their religious concerns and ideals were like. But it always comes back to practice.

We are probably familiar with claims from religious believers that their special book contains the absolute truth, a truth which comprehends all other truths and supersedes them. We Buddhists are not immune from this. The claim to truth is very easy to disprove in most cases, which makes religious people look stupid. I once had two Christians come to my door and tell me that all of Newton's laws were found in the Bible. Having recently completed my degree in chemistry (with a sprinkling of physics) I knew Newton's Laws reasonably well, so I asked them in and requested they show me what they meant. They pointed to Genesis 1.14-17 which concerns Jehovah's creation of the sun, moon and stars. [2] I asked: "how do you get from that to the inverse square law?" [3] And surprise surprise they didn't in fact know any of Newtons laws. They looked stupid, realised it, and beat a quick retreat. But that was too easy. Newton's laws are irrelevant to their beliefs, and they were foolish to try to explain their faith in those terms. If your faith is not based in science, and you don't understand science, you'd be better off not explaining faith to a scientist in scientific terms.

In this case how should we regard Buddhist texts? It has to be admitted that on the whole the Buddhist texts are badly written, they aren't great works of literature and most people get along fine with summaries and commentaries. Buddhist texts are given to waffle, to tedious repetition, to digression, and to impenetrable idiom. One has to wrestle with hyperbole, superlative, hagiography, idealism, excessive piety, and quite a lot of vicious polemic. In many ways the Buddhist texts appear naive to the modern reader. However no one ever built a statue to a critic, [4] and all that said there are nuggets and gems within the ore, many of which I have blogged about, that make it all worth while.

I suggest that rather than seeing Buddhist texts as documents of truth, that we should see them as a recipe book or instruction manual. Indeed cooking is one of the metaphors for spiritual practice one finds in the texts. In the texts one finds described a comprehensive pragmatic program which comments not just on how to meditate and what to expect when you do, but how to live a life conducive to meditation, and importantly the value of doing so - both direct and indirect value. It is not simply a philosophy in the contemporary sense, though it is close in spirit to the original sense of philosophy. Nor should we be fooled by the religion that has built up around Buddhism. I don't see the Buddha as a religious man, if anything he was the Richard Dawkins of his day, going around telling religious people not to be so foolish. [5]

If Buddhism is a pragmatic program, and Buddhist texts are the ancient recipes for this program, then the question "is it true?" becomes irrelevant. With recipes we don't ask if they are true, we ask "does it work?" or even "does it help? Recall that the Buddha's own definition of the Dhamma was anything that helped. [see: What is Buddhism?] And really the only way to find out if a recipe works is to bake the cake and eat it. Much of academic Buddhology and comparative religion is about criticising recipes without doing any baking. Effectively they take recipes as a genre of literature and develop critical theories about this genre. In case this seems an unlikely conclusion I would point out that there are academic articles about recipes, and interestingly one study that I found came to this conclusion:
"The most significant finding of this research is that the evolution of the New Zealand pavlovas occurred largely within domestic kitchens and was the outcome of ongoing and widespread interest in novelty and experimentation." [6]
I suspect that if one studied Buddhist 'recipes' one would come to a parallel conclusion - that the recipe books show a gradual evolution over the centuries, with changes driven by practitioners interested in novelty and experimentation (although I would add here that they would also be responding to large scale socio-political events such as the rise and fall of dynasties). The average Buddhist need not pay much attention to literary criticism of recipes qua literature because they are actively putting them into action on a daily basis - proving them in the old sense of that word. One learns more about meditation in a single session of sitting, than in reading the whole canon. Indeed discussions about recipes are only interesting to a certain type of person, even amongst cooks and bakers. The critical approach to the literature does occasionally throw up important or useful results, some of which I have attempted to highlight in this blog. However, I can't help thinking that philosophy is really only a minor consolation, and that perhaps more philosophers ought to take up baking.

  1. I put meditation in scare quotes because the English word does not precisely match the traditional terms for our practices e.g. bhāvana, yoga, samādhi, dhyana.
  2. I further note that in Gen 1.14 the "lights of the firmament", as well as being for dividing night and day, seasons and years, were for "signs" - i.e. astrology. Though this passage is often cited as part of an argument that the ancient Hebrews had rejected astrology (associated with the Babylonians) since they give the prosaic name 'lights' to the heavenly bodies, indicating that they did not see the lights as gods or other sorts of celestial 'beings'. Note that the Pāli/Sanskrit word deva literally means 'shining'.
  3. Newton's law of gravity says that the attractive force between two masses (gravity) is in proportion to product of the masses divided by the square of the distance between them. It is beautifully simple, and accurate enough to land a man on the moon. A summary of Newton's laws of motion can be found here.
  4. This quote is apparently from the composer Sibelius.
  5. The Pāli texts record a lot of polemic against religious people, particularly Brahmins and Jains. The Brahmins and Jains for their part were critical of Buddhism as well.
  6. Leach, Helen. 'What Do Cookery Books Reveal about the Evolution of New Zealand Pavlovas?' http://www.hss.adelaide.edu.au/centrefooddrink/papers/leach.pdf
image: cover of the most popular New Zealand recipe book. See: History of the Edmonds Cookery Book. The Edmonds recipe for Pavlova is not included on their website, but it can be found on recipezaar.
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