30 July 2010

Some Additional Notes

Here are two follow up notes to previous essays, one on the -e ending in mantras, another on the name Gotama; and lastly a brief note on dating the Canon.

1. The -e Ending in Mantras.

In March 2009 I wrote Words in Mantras That End in -e. In that essay I revisited some of the ideas about what the -e ending might signify, especially with respect to the Heart Sūtra mantra. Kern, Conze and other Sanskritists have seen it as a feminine vocative singular, though of course there are other grammatical possibilities. [1] I speculated that the -e ending was simply a masculine nominative singular, and that the mantras were composed in a region of India which employed that ending as opposed to Classical Sanskrit -as/-aḥ or Pāli -o. Recently I stumbled on an article by Signe Cohen which adds something to the picture. I know Cohen from her excellent linguistic analysis of the Upaniṣads: Text and Authority in the Older Upaniṣads. This book is particularly important for the understanding it brings of the internal struggles apparent especially in the Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad which has Yajurveda sages in direct competition and victorious over Ṛgveda sages. However in 2002 Cohen published a short article on the -e ending:
On the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit/Middle Indic Ending "-e" as a 'Magadhism', Acta Orientalia Vol. 63 (2002), p.67-9.
This article points out that although the -e form for the masculine nominative singular does indeed occur in the North East of India, it is in fact far more widespread. This has partly been obscured as editors of Sanskrit texts have 'corrected' the text for critical editions. Patrick Olivelle complains of the same problem with the Upaniṣads in his article:
'Unfaithful transmitters: philological criticism and critical editions of the Upaniṣads,' in Language Texts and Society, Firenze University Press, 2005. (p. 285f) [originally published in Journal of Indian Philosophy 26, 1998: 173f.]
Western Editors, believing Indian pandits to be incompetent, silently emended unusual spellings. However as Olivelle points out, those pandits were far from incompetent, likely to be well versed in Pāṇini, and to know a 'wrong' form when they saw one. Indian scholars tended to preserve dialectical and archaic variants, being inherently more conservative in relation to texts they saw as sacred. To the European scholar of a certain era nothing but their own objectivity was sacred. While we may not accept the pandits explanations of such variant forms (which are frequently ascribed to the peculiarities of Vedic or given mystical significance) they were at least not so over-confident as to 'correct' them. As such, modern critical and printed editions of the Upaniṣads often obscure the history of the text by removing evidence, and reproducing previously corrected texts without question.

Cohen notes that in fact the -e form is found all over North India, and especially in Sanskrit loan words in Tocharian. She concludes:
"The common assumption that the -e ending is an Eastern Dialect form must be seriously questioned. Rather than being a specifically Eastern Dialectical feature found sporadically in other parts of India due to eastern influence, it appears that the -e ending was widespread, especially in Buddhist Sanskrit, that it must be considered a standard form, next to the -o ending." [p. 68; my italics]
My conjecture is that Buddhist mantras were composed in Prakrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit rather than Classical Sanskrit, and that words ending in -e in mantras are simply nominative singular forms, the gender of the words in the mantra having no relationship to the gender of the deity - and in the case of the Heart Sūtra there is no deity anyway.


2. The Name Gautama

In my essay What Was the Buddha's Name? I drew attention to the quirk of history which left the Buddha, a kṣatriya by tradition but possibly a non-āryan, with an ostentatiously Brahmin gotra-, or clan-name: Gautama (meaning 'descended from Gotama, the one with the most cows go'). However more than half a century ago D.D. Kosambi offered a different take on this subject in a review published in 1953:
D.D. Kosambi. 'Brahmin Clans'. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1953), pp. 202-208.
He points to two brief Pāli passages which suggest that Gautama (Pāli: Gotama) is not the Buddha's gotra name. The first is from the Therīgāthā verses of the Buddha's maternal aunt and foster mother. She says (Th 2 162)
Bahūnaṃ vata atthāya, māyā janayi gotamaṃ;

Truly for the many, Māyā gave birth to Gotama
Kosambi's point here is that the names Māyā and Gotama are on the same level - i.e. they are both first names. This is to read the text quite literally, and I'm a bit doubtful about doing that. Compare for instance the case of the Brahmin boy Uppatissa, son of Rūpasārī, better known as Sāriputta 'son of (Rūpa)sārī'.[2] However Kosambi points out that neither does the Buddha's wife become known as Gotamī in any tradition. The fact that Mahāpajāpati, his mother's sister, is called Gotamī also suggests that it is not the Buddha's clan-name since the names pass pass down patrilineally (though I think Kosambi here is thinking in terms of Brahminical social rules which required Brahmins to marry outside their gotra). Kosambi also notes that bhikkhus are sakiyaputta not gotamaputta. He does not attempt to explain why the future Buddha might be named after Vedic sages however, which still strikes me as odd.

Kosambi's other text is the Pabbajjā Sutta [Sn 3.1] in which King Bimbisāra asks the Buddha where he is from. The Buddha replies that he comes from the country of Kosala, and:
Ādiccā nāma gottena, sākiyā nāma jātiyā;
Tamhā kulā pabbajitomhi, na kāme abhipatthayaṃ.

Called Ādiccā by clan, called Sākiya by caste [jāti]
I went forth from that family, not longing for pleasures.
The phrase only occurs once in the canon, but elsewhere the Buddha says that the Sākiya consider rājā okkāka their ancestor [Ambaṭṭha Sutta, DN 3, PTS D i.92-3] and Pāli okkāka is Sanskrit ikṣvāku a king of the ādityā [P. ādiccā] gotra. The suggestion then is that the Buddha's name was in Sanskrit Gautama Ādityā; and Pāli Gotama Ādiccā. The Buddha is also sometimes called Āṅgirasa which according to the Dictionary of Pāli Names was a tribe which included the Gautama gotra. My reading of some of the DOPN references suggests that āṅgirasa was being used as an adjective (e.g. 'shiny like the sun') rather than a name. Against the passage above Kosambi also cites the Mahāpadāna Sutta [Dn 14, PTS ii.3]
Ahaṃ, bhikkhave, etarahi arahaṃ sammāsambuddho gotamo gottena ahosiṃ.

I bhikkhus, now worthy, fully awakened, was of the Gotama gotra. [3]
This phrase occurs 3 times in the suttas, all in the Mahapadāna. Kosambi refers to this as "the first interpretation of Gotama as the Buddha's gotra name... obviously a late formation under Brahmin influence". Indeed it is so obvious that Kosambi provides no evidence for his conjecture, nor does he consider the possibility that both statements about gotra are "late formations". Contrarily we find the name Gotama being used in the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta which are generally considered to be the oldest layers of the Pāli Canon.

It is still a puzzle as to why the Buddha even has a gotra name, let alone a Brahmin one (which both Gautama and Ādityā are). He was not a Brahmin. I don't think Kosambi solved the mystery, but he provided an interesting additional view point. One last observation of my own is that though the Buddha meets Brahmins from many other gotra lineages, he never seems to meet a Gautama Brahmin. This is despite the fact that the two ancestors Gotama and Bharadvāja are mentioned together in Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad 2.2.4, and Gautama the Buddha meets more than a dozen Brahmins from the Bhāradvāja lineage, who mostly seem to live in Kosala (see e.g. DN 3, 13, 27, 32, but throughout the nikāyas).

18 Aug 2011
I've been looking at Brahmins in the Canon and thinking about the Buddha's Brahmin surname. No other males with the gotra name "Gautama" are found in the Pāli Canon, though there are several women. I think the facts we have might be explained if the Buddha's mother and her sister were of the Gautama clan, and married Sudhodana who was a Śākya. Gautama in other words is actually Gautamaputra, Son of Gautamī; on the same model as Śāriputra is the Son of (his mother) Śārī.

6 Sept. Extra note

Snodgrass, vol.2 p. 471
In the Garbhadhātu Maṇḍala of the Shingon school, associated with the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT), there is a figure called Gautama (or Gotama; Japanese: Kudonsen 瞿曇仙). This is the Vedic Gautama and he attends on the god Agni. Adrian Snodgrass suggests that he is the subject of many hymns in the Ṛgveda, though this is not correct as far as I know. He is, however, credited as the author of some of them. Snodgrass translates from Dainichikyōsho (Śubhakarasiṃha's commentary on the MAT):
"The hermit-ascetic Gotama [sic], flying in the sky at well, let fall two drops of sweat upon the earth, and the earth gave birth to sugar cane. Warmed by the sun, the sugar cane gave birth to two children, who became Śākya kings"*
These two are the progenitors of the clan which 'Siddhartha' was born into. Gautama has a consort called Gautamī. I have not yet found the connection between the 'sugar cane' clan (Kansho) and the Śākya clan, though it may rest on a Chinese (mis)translation. In any case it that MAT includes the Vedic Gautama alongside the many other Vedic gods and important figures. Note that this story glosses over the fact that Gautama is a brahmaṇa, while the Buddha is usually referred to as a kṣatriya.

* see Snodgrass, Adrian. The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism, vol. 2, p. 470.


3. Dating the Canon.

The Assalāyana (MN 93) is a lengthy discussion between the eponymous Brahmin and the Buddha about the claim by Brahmins to be the best class (brāhmaṇo'va seṭṭho vaṇṇo). [4] Amongst the various arguments the Buddha puts forward is the relativist argument that some countries only have two classes, viz. ayyo and dāsa, i.e. noble and slave. [MN 93.5] These two countries (janapada) referred to are Yona and Kamboja. Various maps put Kamboja in different places, but it was supposedly north and west of Gandhāra. Shrimali centres it on the Kabul River (which flows through the Hindu Kush mountains from what is now Afghanistan to join the Indus) [5] Yona is thought to refer to Bactrian Greeks even further west. As the DOPN says:
The name is probably the Pāli equivalent for Ionians, the Baktrian Greeks. The Yonas are mentioned with the Kambojas in Rock Edicts v. and xii of Asoka, as a subject people, forming a frontier district of his empire.
These Greeks are thought to have been descendants of garrisons left by Alexander of Macedon. And this gives us our date. [6] At the time of the Buddha the Persian Achaemanids ruled as far east as the Indus River - i.e. including Gandhāra. We can confidently date Alexander's Indian campaign as part of his assault on and destruction of the Achaemanid Empire, to 327-326 BCE. If yona means 'Greek', then MN 93.6 cannot have been written before this date. Dates of the Buddha are less certain but the most recent research points to his death being circa 400 BCE, some 70 odd years before Alexander. Greek cultural influence remained for some time with post-Mauryan Dynasty Gandhāra being ruled by what is termed an 'Indo-Greek' dynasty from ca. 180 BCE - 10 CE. Greek aesthetic ideals heavily influenced Gandhāra art for some centuries, so that the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha, produced in that region during the Kushan period (ca. 75-241 CE) showing obvious Hellenistic features.

Note 7 May 2017 - to the best of my knowledge the Greeks never used Ionian as a general label. It was always a specific reference to Greeks who lived in Ionia - modern day Turkey. Moreover, the Greeks in question were Macedonians from Macedonia and that is probably how they referred to themselves. However, the Persians may have used Ionian as a general term for Greeks. If the Pāḷi Canon is using a Persian term for Greeks then this suggests that it was incorporated before Alexander. In which case the date goes back to being very vague indeed. 


  1. for instance -e can signify a masculine or neuter locative singular of a noun or past-participle in -a, such as gata (past-participle of gacchati).
  2. I don't want to multiply examples needlessly but Moggallana's given name was Kotila (after his village, just as Upatissa was called after his village). Kassapa (tortoise) is a very common name in Pāli perhaps because it was a gotra name as well. It seems that calling people by clan or family names, or epithets was a common practice.
  3. Note that Walsh translates this as a present (I am) when the verb is clearly past-tense; the Buddha left his clan, class, and caste behind when he went forth.
  4. D ii.148. Note that he continues "the other class is defective" (sometimes in this pericope the plural is used 'the other classes'). The Pāli being: hīno añño vaṇṇo. Here the term hīna is clearly being used pejoratively in a caste context. See also my Hīnayāna Reprise.
  5. Shrimali, Krishna Mohan. The Age of Iron and the Religious Revolution : c.700-c.350 BC. (A People's History of India: 3A). New Dehli, Tulika Books. 2007. Map p.85.
  6. I haven't found any reference to this fact, but I presume someone else has already noticed this.

23 July 2010

The Buddha's Refuge

DharmacakraA lot of the Buddha's biography seems to be in the form of psycho-drama. His internal processes get acted out, and the 'players' are a variety of archetypal characters including Māra ['the killer'] and Brahma-sahampati [God] and the Earth Goddess [Pṛthvī]. Often the Buddha is shown as considering a dead end before coming up with a brilliant but previously unforeseen solution. In a brief episode found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Gārava Sutta, [1] the Buddha is faced with a dilemma in the aftermath of his breakthrough to awakening:

dukkhaṃ kho agāravo viharati appatisso, kaṃ nu khvāhaṃ samaṇaṃ vā brāhmaṇaṃ vā sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti?

Miserable indeed the disrespectful and rebellious dwell. Which ascetic or priest should I reverence, respect, and dwell in subordination to?
The Buddha then considers whether there is anyone more developed than himself to which he could subordinate himself to. But he sees no-one more accomplished than himself in virtue, meditation, wisdom (i.e. the three-fold path); nor in liberation or the knowledge and vision of liberation. In short he sees no one in any realm to whom he could be a subordinate - not even amongst the gods. Then he decides:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti.

I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very thing to which I have fully-awakened.
At this point Brahma-sahampati turns up to praise the Buddha for his decision. He reveals that this is what all the Buddhas of the past have done, and all the Buddhas of the future will do.

This is a pretty literal account and partial translation of the text. I wanted to convey the raw experience of reading the text in Pāli. But in taking this approach I must then retrace my steps and say more about the context. Indian society, like most societies, was and is hierarchical. We are probably familiar with the ideas of class (varṇa) and caste (jāti). Each person was embedded in a web of social links and obligations. The Chinese called awareness of, and obedience to, this aspect of life: filial piety (; xiào). One had obligations to one's parents for instance, to one's spouse and children, and to the king. Another hierarchy existed in religious circles which may have been modelled on social norms. A student lived, as they say, at the feet of their teacher. In taking a teacher one became their disciple, their servant, and one obeyed without question every instruction. Compare this passage from the Visuddhimagga:
Ācariyassa niyyātentenāpi ‘‘imāhaṃ, bhante, attabhāvaṃ tumhākaṃ pariccajāmī’’ti vattabbaṃ.

Dedicating himself to a teacher he should say: "I give up this personality [attabhāva] to you, Sir." (Vism iii.126)
Regarding the word attabhāva PED says it can mean "one's own nature; person, personality, individuality... life, rebirth". So the interpretation could be "I give up my life to you". The point is that without a total commitment from the student, the teacher will not teach them. In the Gārava Sutta three words are used to express this teacher/pupil relationship: gārava, paṭissa, and upanissāya. These more or less correspond to the body, speech and mind aspects of the person.

The word gārava (Sanskrit gaurava) is related to 'guru'. The verbal root is not very clear in either Pāli or Sanskrit, but the Indo-European root appears to be *gu̯er-. The basic meaning is 'heavy', and cognate words in English are: from Latin 'gravis', gravity, grave; from Greek 'barus' baritone, barium. So the 'guru' is someone who is weighty, who has gravitas. The form of Sanskrit gaurava is a taddhita compound which lengthens the root vowel to au, and has the sense of 'related to or connected with what is weighty', which is to say that the student experiences the gravitas of the teacher, how they live their lives, and responds appropriately (gau devolves to in Pāli). The attitude of the disciple is 'gārava' respectful. [2]

The word paṭissa (also patissa) evokes another aspect of India spiritual life. The root here is √śru 'to listen, to hear'. It is one of the oldest spiritual traditions that the way to learn from a teacher is to pay attention to what they say. Older still is the belief that the sages who composed the Vedic hymns first 'heard' them in ecstatic trances brought on by the drug soma. [3] Truth/reality (both sat) and speech (vac) have always been very closely linked in India, even after the introduction of writing. Unlike contemporary Western society where, except in specialised situations, the word of any person counts for less than a published source, Indian spiritual tradition required personal communication, often under conditions of strict secrecy. The prefix paṭi- (Sk prati-) suggests 'towards'. So paṭissa means 'listening to', 'paying attention'. PED highlights the nature of the guru/disciple relationship when it defines this word as: "deference, obedience."

In the first passage of Pāli I quoted, the Buddha associated the lack of these qualities - appatisso and agārava - with dukkha 'misery, disappointment'. I think he must mean having no one to respect, no one to pay heed to, in other words having no teacher, is a miserable state to be because one cannot make further progress without a guide. So then he ponders under whom he might subordinate himself. Which brings us to the third word: upanissāya. This is a gerund from upanissayati 'to depend or rely on' (from the root śri 'resort'), and means 'in dependence on, protected by; near to'. In the ancient Indian religions, the religious student dwelt with their teacher, in their house, and learned everything at their feet. Of course once teachers started to become itinerant this lifestyle was modified, but the description stuck. It was rather like the old apprentice system in England. One of my Great-great-grandfathers was apprenticed for seven years. For the first 4 years he got no pay, but only board and lodgings (ie. food and a bed). Years 5 and 6 saw him receive a small allowance, and then in his 7th year he started to be paid for his work. He learnt his trade from his master, living and working under his roof and under his authority. In Sanskrit this relationship of subordination to the authority and will of the master is sometimes referred to as upaniṣad 'sitting down near' or 'sitting at the feet of the guru', though the word also came to mean 'a secret or esoteric teaching', or 'the mystery upon which something rests'; and it is the collective title of late Vedic esoteric books 'The Upaniṣads'. The Buddha is clearly concerned to find a teacher. He means to subordinate himself to a teacher, to sit at someone else's feet, as is the custom of his time and place.

So the proper attitude of the disciple, in this traditional view, is total commitment of body, speech and mind; characterised by respect for the teacher's gravitas, paying attention and obedience to the teacher's words, and subordination to the will of the teacher.

The Buddha is portrayed as being quite humble even in the face of his amazing breakthrough. However this humility is replaced by some other emotion (we're not quite sure what) when he realises that he is in no way inferior to any being in the universe (human or divine), and that it would not be right for him to subordinate himself to anyone under those conditions. This speaks to the ancient Indian feeling for order. The universe is an ordered and lawful (dhammatā, niyamatā, or even dhamma-niyamatā) place. The Buddha could not take a teacher of lesser virtue, or lesser wisdom. This would be unnatural. Lacking a being to pay his respects to, he realises that he can direct those emotions towards the dhamma itself. I think dhamma here is slightly ambiguous. I suspect it is deliberately so - the Buddha will respect the thing (dhamma) which he awakened to - whatever that might be! It could mean any or all of: 'thing, teaching, truth, nature, order'. There is an emphasis in the Pāli: tam'eva dhamma 'that very thing' or 'only that thing'. That thing, that very thing, is what we call "The Dhamma", i.e. the Dhamma as a refuge, or as one of the three precious gifts (aka the three jewels) which though singular has many aspects and facets.

  1. Gārava Sutta. SN 6.2 PTS S i.139. My translations. Also translated in Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.233-4; online translation by Thanissaro @ Access to Insight.
  2. Various theories have been put forward regarding the identity of the original soma - since the contemporary soma is not a drug. Since the sages had visions it has often been assumed to be an hallucinogen. However a good case has been made for it be ephedra - If you watch Michael Wood's excellent documentary on Indian history you can see him procuring and taking ephedra in episode one. For more scholarly (less empirical) approaches see The Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies: especially Vol. 9 (2003), Issue 1 (May).
  3. Those with some Sanskrit may enjoy this little exercise from Deshpande's Saṃkṛtasubohini textbook (chp 14, exercise १.५).
    गुरुः कथं गुरुर्भवति? यतो गुरोः ज्ञानं गुरु भवति । ततस्स गुरुर्भवतीति गुरवो वदन्ति । केषाञ्चित् तु लघु भवति । ततस्ते गुरवो एव न वर्तन्त इति सर्वे कुशलाश्सिष्या मन्यन्ते ॥

16 July 2010

The Fifth Precept

veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

I undertake the training principle of abstaining from intoxicating drinks and negligent states of intoxication.


Of all the precepts this one is probably the one most commonly fudged. I know a lot of Buddhists who like a drink, and a few who take recreational drugs. I'll try to avoid being moralistic, but I want to explore the fifth precept and its implications.

Let's start with the translation. Although the first three words (which I have joined with hyphens) are often seen written as separate, the first two don't have inflections, and therefore the three must a single compound: surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭḥānā which will require some unpacking. The word surāmeraya is itself a compound: surā and meraya are synonyms for intoxicating drinks. Surā possibly comes from the root √su meaning to 'press out' (from which we get the Vedic soma, the drug used by the early Vedic poets). While some information has been lost on what exactly these words refer to, the dictionaries link surā to distillation. I'm not sure what the level of technology was in the the Buddha's day - perhaps they were making distilled liquors then? The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary (MW) suggests that it originally referred to a kind of beer (remembering that the earliest Vedic texts predate the Iron Age by some centuries). Meraya seems to have more or less the same reference, and is found in combination with surā more often than not (even in Vedic texts). Majja (Sanskrit madya) is a third almost synonymous word, though in this case more clearly related to mada from √mad 'intoxication'. I suspect that at the time the distinctions might have been more meaningful, although it is a feature of Pāli literature to use synonyms for emphasis. The intention seems to be to cover all kinds of intoxicating drinks, and probably all forms of intoxication.

The same root √mad occurs in the next word - pamāda - which is often translated as 'negligence'. [1] Keep in mind that in Buddhist texts the opposite appamāda 'vigilance' is almost always associated with objects of the senses - and is akin to 'guarding the gates of the senses'. The word ṭhāna means 'a state', so pamādaṭṭhāna is a state of negligence, especially with respect to the senses.

So the compound surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhānā unpacks as: 'intoxicating drinks and negligent states of intoxication'.

The rest of the formula - veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi - is relatively straight forward. The verb is samādiyati 'to take upon oneself, to undertake' in the first person singular: 'I undertake'. Veramaṇī is 'abstaining'. Sikkhapāda is a compound with sikkhā meaning 'training, discipline, precept', while pada here is 'an item': so sikkhāpada is a training rule or training principle, i.e. a precept. Note that the precepts are not really 'given' or 'taken' from another person. The form is 'I undertake', it is an individual act of will, a personal undertaking, though making a public declaration of one's intention to undertake this training usually indicates a deeper commitment to the training.

It is worth making the point that in the Buddha's day the attitude to alcohol was very different to our Anglo-Saxon attitude. This is brought out in in stark terms in the Dhammika Sutta:
The householder who finds pleasure in this Dhamma,
Should not practice drinking alcohol;
Should not cause any other good person to drink,
Knowing it leads to madness.

Intoxicated, they foolishly do evil,
And cause other negligent people to do likewise.
This occasion for disgrace should be avoided,
This crazy, idiotic pleasure of fools. [2]
Although some 'sophisticated' urban Indians have started drinking like Westerners, amongst the poorer and rural Indians that I know, drinking is still seen as a great evil. Of course drinking patterns in Europe and its colonies have typically been different. This does not mean that drink is not a great social evil in West. As the UK Office of National Statistics says:
The number of alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom has consistently increased since the early 1990s, rising from the lowest figure of 4,023 (6.7 per 100,000) in 1992 to the highest of 9,031 (13.6 per 100,000) in 2008. [3]
That's about 25 people per day dying alcohol related deaths in 2008, and doubling in the last 18 years. [4] Those people have families and loved ones who are affected by their deaths; by their drinking habits; by their behaviour. In the UK alcohol deaths far outstrip all other drugs combined except tobacco which kills more than 80,000 people a year on its own (and for what one wonders?). Alcohol is responsible for thee times as many deaths as road accidents, although clearly alcohol is also a major factor in causing road accidents. There is no doubt that alcohol is a major problem in the UK. Imagine if, instead of reporting the names of the soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan each day, a list of people who died alcohol related deaths in the UK (or wherever you live) were read on the news each day? In the USA the situation is very similar:

via +Vox 
One of the arguments about unethical products is that by not participating in the process of production, distribution and consumption we make that product marginally less profitable. By not eating meat, for instance, we reduce the demand for meat generally and this has an effect on the industry, making it marginally less profitable. Collectively we can have a great effect. It's worth considering that while you personally might not have a problem with alcohol, that on balance society does. By consuming it you help to keep the product economically viable and contribute indirectly to all the problems that alcohol creates. Is your personal pleasure at drinking enough to justify participating in the production of a substance that kills so many people?

Of course the Buddhist drinker will usually argue that they do not drink very much, do not drink to excess, do not drink so that their "mindfulness is impaired" (as I have often heard). And perhaps this is true. Perhaps the are right to argue that it is the 'spirit' of the precept rather than the letter that should apply. However it's hard to tell how much alcohol it takes to affect your mind, partly because alcohol itself makes this kind of judgement more difficult - alcohol impairs judgement. I note for instance that over the years the acceptable level of alcohol when driving has consistently gone down, and that some authorities say that the limit should be zero. The argument on how much is too much is clearly not settled, but the cut-off has trended downward as investigations have intensified into the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Another 'let off clause' is that medical journalists have reported that drinking alcohol can actually be good for your health. Fully unpacking the problems with this would take an essay in its own right. The story on the health benefits from alcohol, and the type of alcohol involved, has changed regularly and considerably over the years. Some of the studies employed doubtful methods. Not every study has been able to confirm the health benefits found in the others, so there is no consensus. The issue is not clear, but journalists are not really interested in scientific process, and medical journalism is still about selling newspapers. If one is using popular press stories to justify stretching a precept that is shaky ground to take a stand on.

We often look for ways to rationalise our lax ethics. We cite the Aristotelian motto "moderation in all things" as a formulation of the middle way that allows for some moderate vices.[5] One needs to be clear about how the Buddha saw his middle way playing out in lifestyle terms. To the Buddha the idea lifestyle was to reject family, work, holidays, status, and possessions generally; to live simply, live on handouts, eat only once per day and then only enough to sustain your body; and importantly in this context he was insistent that the middle way did not include any intoxication at all. So if we want to cite the middle way as a guide for our lifestyle, then we need to be prepared to really take it on.

I take the spirit of the precept to extend beyond alcohol to include all sources of intoxication and intoxicated states (pamādaṭṭḥānā). It could conceivably also cover such things as television, films, and the internet as well (gulp!). Anything we turn to repeatedly in order to alter our perceptions to make our present experience more pleasurable has the potential to become intoxicating and addictive. And this is the heart of the problem with intoxicants - in taking them we are pursuing pleasure, or perhaps avoiding misery, in the mistaken view that by increasing the amount of pleasure we experience the happier we will be. This is the fundamental error of the unenlightened; this is how people get hooked. Not only does pursuing pleasure not lead to happiness, it actually has the opposite effect though we find it hard to see the cause and effect because we have a wrong view about it.

This is not to damn pleasure, only the unhealthy pursuit of it. Pleasure, in and of itself, is not the problem. Intoxication is. Hence the fifth precept is not simply tacked onto the end of a list of four important ethical training principles. It is not there to make Buddhists behave themselves; not a penitential after-thought; nor there simply to make up the numbers. It's not about being a 'good Buddhist'. The avoidance of intoxication is at the heart of the Buddha's transformative program; and if we take the Buddha seriously, we must also take the fifth precept seriously.


  1. I've written before about my research into the words pamāda and appamāda and how in practice they relate to intoxication with the objects of the senses in my essay: The Buddha's Last Words, which is also summarised as a blog post: The Last Words of the Buddha.
  2. Dhammika Sutta, Sutta-nipāta. Sn 398-9. My translation. Pāli text from tipitaka.org.
  3. www.statistics.gov.uk
  4. By contrast the UK recently made the drug Mephedrone illegal on the basis of reports of a possible 25 deaths since its introduction, though as I understand it none of these cases have been proven, and in at least two cases Mephedrone has subsequently been proved not to have been involved.
  5. My, admittedly shallow, reading of Aristotle is that he thought it ethical to satisfy natural desires, such as thirst and hunger, but going beyond that was profligacy and therefore blameworthy. The question then is whether the desire for intoxication is 'natural'. The Buddha's position on this, as I understand it, is that it is not natural.
25 Sept 2010. This post generated a lot of comments which explore the issue further. I did not at the time draw attention to the 17th of Dr Ambedkars 22 conversion vows:
"I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs etc."
Note the unequivocal phrasing here!

6 Feb 2017

See also: Alcohol in Pre-Modern South Asia. James McHugh

09 July 2010

Confessions I

I've been reading an interesting paper by Eviatar Shulman on an interpretation of paṭicca-samuppāda. [1] We come to similar conclusions, but interestingly I disagree to some extent with how he gets to his conclusion. I'd like to write more about his thesis later, but today I am in a confessional mood. What I want to confess is that I simply do not understand paṭicca-samuppāda. The primary way that paṭicca-samuppāda is explained is through reference to the 12 nidānas. It's here that I want to focus, and I could begin by saying that other numbers of nidānas do not always number 12 - so is 12 the definitive number or just the most popular?

Some of the terminology is confusing: e.g. saṅkhārā, nāmarūpa, bhava. The confusion is only added to in the process of translation. Some of the explanations are confusing as well, but my focus here is on the canonical presentation. I should say upfront that although the idea that the 12 nidānas occur over three lifetimes is traditional, that idea is not explicit in any sutta. So I don't think this was the idea the Buddha had in mind, and I don't think we can use it to explain the scheme, though I will make some nods in that direction.

I think it's fair to say that saṅkhārā is the most confusing term in Buddhism. It literally means 'making together, or completing'. (Note the relationship to the name Sanskrit (saṃskṛta) which is often said to mean 'perfected' or 'polished'.) The most literal English translation would be confection: con = sam; khāra is from √kṛ 'to make or do', which is not cognate but coincides very closely to the Latin facere [2] and therefore to words such as affect, confect, defect, effect, faculty (etc there are many more examples). Saṅkhāra has several distinct senses but in this context is variously rendered "volitional tendencies, volitional formations (or just formations), mental dispositions, determinations". The idea that saṅkhāra is about volition or will I take to be related to the texts that explain it as cetanā, e.g. at S iii.60 saṅkhāra is explained as six kinds of cetanā: rūpasañcetanā, sadda-, gandha-, rasa-, phoṭṭabba- and dhammasañcetanā. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders them as 'volition regarding forms, -sounds, -odours, -tastes, -tactile objects, and -mental phenomena'. I'm still none the wiser - what is "volition regarding forms"? As I have often said: cetanā is how the Buddha defines kamma, but in this context it doesn't help.

Things get more complex when the texts say that saṅkhārā conditions viññāṇa - (typically translated as consciousness). The relationship is sometimes described as causal so formations (or whatever) cause consciousness, but the Pāli terminology suggests a conditional, rather than a causal relationship. [3] So volition precedes consciousness and is a (the?) condition for it to exist, and similarly when there is no volition there is no consciousness. The question then is how do volitions precede consciousness, in order to be a condition for it to arise? Are volitions not a product of consciousness rather than the other way around?

The situation gets substantially worse with nāmarūpa. Although the tradition is fairly unanimous that it means "mind and body" scholars are by no means agreed what the word means in a Buddhist context (or why it means that). Like saṅkhāra it is an old Vedic term and Joanna Jurewicz (a Sanskritist specialising in the Vedas) has used the Vedic origins of the names for the nidānas as a cipher to show that the Buddha intended them as a parody of the Vedas. However my friend Dhīvan examined this claim from the Buddhist point of view in his M.Phil thesis, and didn't find a great deal of evidence to support Jurewicz's conjecture. Let us leave aside the confusion amongst scholars and focus on the idea that nāma-rūpa means 'body and mind'. There are two conclusions from this. Firstly that body comes into being some time after consciousness has been operating - so volition precedes consciousness and body, and consciousness precedes body - this is somewhat counter-intuitive (backwards even). It gets worse if we follow some traditions and take form to be objects of consciousness - now consciousness is a condition for existence more generally (a variation on the strong Anthropic Principle?). Secondly we now effectively have the sequence: mind conditions mind, which conditions mind. Which is meaningless.

Having given rise to the body in this unusual fashion the sequence settles down and becomes conceptually easier - the senses are the condition for contact (phassa the meeting of sense organ and sense object) which is the condition for sensations (vedanā), which are the conditions desire (taṇha - literally 'thirst') which is the condition for grasping (upādāna). Grasping gives rise to being or becoming (bhava - although as previously stated we already 'are' by this time). I've discussed in the past that upādāna could mean 'fuel' and I would argue that desire fuelling the fire of becoming, makes marginally more sense than grasping as a condition for becoming. But what is bhava, what is becoming or being? Bhava means 'being' in quite a similar range of senses to the English word. It's an action noun from √bhū which is cognate with 'be'.

Perhaps at this point the early Buddhists realised that this is a bit circular - we've already come into being (in body and mind - mind three times even!), and now the nidānas are telling us about how being is conditioned. This short circuits the nidāna chain. But it leaves two links unaccounted for: birth (jati), old age and death (jarāmaraṇa). Sometimes all the various kinds of suffering are added onto jarāmaraṇa - especially the wonderfully miserable compound sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā. The move from becoming to birth is fine, except that we already have both mind and body, etc. The death, which does follow naturally from birth, but then where do we go? In Indian thinking we go to birth. The traditional circle suggests that death is a condition for ignorance. But again this makes no sense, and in any case we do not find the Pāli phrase anywhere in the canon: jarāmaraṇapaccaya avijjā. Old age and death are not in fact a condition for anything!

One major problem with the idea that the nidānas occur over three lifetimes is that if each link can only cease by the ceasing of the previous one, then we need to tackle ignorance (avijjā) in a past life in order to be liberated in this or a future life. This necessity for retro-active action is probably the greatest flaw in that in approach and seems to be an insurmountable problem.

Far from being a straight forward chain or circle the nidāna sequence is like a game of snakes and ladders (one proceeds up, down, sideways, and often retraces one's steps). I've realised that in fact it does not make sense to me on it's own terms. I've always found the received explanations quite pleasing and even useful - and I've been hearing about it for more than 15 years. But when I look closely it's not quite that the emperor has no clothes, it's more like he got dressed in the wrong order and used a mix of styles. It's disconcerting to get this far and realise that I can't make head nor tale of the Buddha's most important teaching on its own terms!

One of the ways scholars have understood the nidāna chain is to chop it up: it is "clearly" made of at least two, if not three shorter sequences mashed together. I was not initially very happy with this approach, but it's grown on me. I can more or less make sense of the chain from the six senses up to becoming. I think we can hive off birth and death as explanatory of what is meant by becoming - becoming is the cycle of birth and death (and therefore only makes sense in the context of rebirth). In which case, contra the three lifetimes model, the last two links go nowhere, they just cycle from birth to death. The most worrisome part are the links from ignorance to name and form. My inclination is just to say they don't make sense, but I think it's important to say that they don't make sense to me. However we hardly need them because the process we are interested in does not require them. I think ignorance as a problem comes in later after we have contact, but as a cause it probably conditions all the other links directly.

Eviatar Shulman points out that at some points there really are ontological implications to the nidānas (if for instance viññāṇa gives rise to nāmarūpa (and rūpa is either 'the body' or 'forms'); or taṇha/upādāna give rise to bhava 'being': this is ontology), but I notice that the terms which appear to have ontological implications are also the ones involving most confusion and ambiguity. I'd like to focus on this in a future post.

So I can make sense of the teaching, but I have to do what other Buddhists have done and chop it about, make stuff up, and bluff to a certain extent. Which is hardly intellectually satisfying. It's all rather embarrassing.

  1. Shulman, Eviatar. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2) 2008: 297-317. http://www.springerlink.com/content/7656238535363p05/
  2. A direct Sanskrit cognate to facere would be √dhā present dadhati, though the sense has drifted away from 'do' towards 'put'.
  3. Contrarily as Krishna Del Toso makes clear in his blog post on cause/condition in early Buddhism the distinction between the two types of relationship (hetu vs paccaya) only solidified in later texts. In favour of my statement the imasmiṃ idaṃ hoti formula, which almost always appears in conjunction with the 12 nidana paṭicca-samuppāda formula and appears to be a comment on how the links are connected, implies a conditional rather than causal relationship; as does the word paṭicca itself.

02 July 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order & Community

Triratna Buddhist Order KesaSeveral times recently I've come across people who seem a bit confused about the nomenclature and structure of the order and community I practice with. So I thought a brief overview might be useful.

At the heart of our spiritual movement is the Order. We recently changed our name to the Triratna Buddhist Order. I've written about the name change and what the new name means to me in a previous post. I've also written, in response to some polemic, to clarify our use of the terms order, ordination, and ordained.

There are almost 1700 order members around the world now, about half live in the UK, and a quarter in India. The remaining quarter are spread over the world with concentrations in the Antipodes, the Americas, and Europe; and a handful in Asia. Membership of the order is obtained via ordination, and this is contingent on being aligned with the values of the order, and what we call "effective going for refuge". Effective going for refuge means that our practice as Buddhists is seen to be effective by our peers in the order: we do our formal practices regularly, have a degree of self-awareness (i.e. know what we are working with/on), and are perceptibly changing for the better. Ordination is therefore entirely individual and everyone takes their own path and time to join the order. (4 or 5 years from asking for ordination is about average; I took 10 years; others have been in the process for 20+ years). The ordination has two aspects: 'private' and 'public'. In the private ceremony one makes a personal commitment in the presence of a preceptor, who bestows a new name to symbolise the spiritual rebirth of the order member. The 'public' ceremony is making one's commitment to the order and being accepted into the order - one's name is announced, and one receives a kesa, the symbolic robe (the accompanying image is a close up of my kesa), and one is then 'an order member' (or Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī). The 'public' ceremony may or may not be open to members of the public (mine wasn't), the important thing is the presence of other order members. It's common to have two different people perform the two ceremonies - but it is the public preceptor who makes the decision to ordain someone.

Surrounding the order is the Triratna Buddhist Community. I've started referring to this as our auxiliary to try to make the relationship clear. The make-up of the Triratna Buddhist Community is quite varied. It ranges from people with a definite desire to join the order and working towards ordination, through people who just enjoy the way we do things, to those who occasionally come along to a class. Casual associations are fine and there is no requirement other than willingness to join in. However note that the Triratna Community also includes all members of the Triratna Order. Those who wish to express their commitment can become a mitra (Sanskrit: friend) which they do in a simple ceremony involving making offerings to the shrine at a public event. Having made a provisional expression of commitment, order members take these people more seriously and offer a course of study for them as well as more individual attention if they wish. Asking for ordination is also seen as a willingness to become more committed, and opens up opportunities for study in more depth and retreats focused on helping one to prepare for ordination.

Structurally the order is unified. There are no formal distinctions of status, or ecclesiastical titles. Men and women are ordained equally. However some people clearly have more capacity to take on responsibilities, and generally they are the ones that carry responsibilities on behalf of the order. Though we don't have a formal hierarchy, we acknowledge that some people are more spiritually adept and more spiritually attained. Ideally the order operates by consensus although as we continue to grow larger this is proving challenging, since we often don't know each other or have easy ways to make contact or stay in touch. The order is certainly not a democracy, and most of us believe that democracy (otherwise known as divide and rule) may be fine in running governments, but it has no place in the spiritual community.

I say structurally unified. Doctrinally and practically we are far less unified. We hold the 10 precepts and our four ordination vows in common, but beyond that there is much diversity. Sangharakshita's System of Meditation has come to be seen as an important unifying framework and more efforts are being made to relate doctrinal teachings to the System. Though Sangharakshita's teachings form the basis for our understanding of the Dharma, many of our number do not stop there, but actively study either directly or indirectly with other teachers (Reggie Ray and Shenpen Hookham in particular; Lama Lhundrup, Joko Beck, Pema Chodron, and Joanna Macy are also popular). Recently Sangharakshita has been emphasising that we do not follow a random or infinitely varied path. He has been very deliberate about what is included in his core teachings and what is not, and has been trying to clarify this in communications to the order. One other unifying framework is the course of study for mitras and people who've asked for ordination. This has yet to settle down into a definitive form, and there are variations across regions, but the latest iteration is looking promising.

When it comes to the politics of the order we are far from unified. Discussions on how we organise ourselves, make decisions, and communicate as a organisation rumble on behind the scenes, occasionally erupting into more vigorous debates, and even arguments. Our institutions are still young and evolving (though some argue that they are already sclerotic and out-of-date).

One of the principal responsibilities that an order member can carry out is that of ordaining new order members, and participating in the preparation of people for ordination. At first Sangharakshita carried out all the ordinations, but around 1990 he began to share that responsibility with his senior disciples. We often speak of ordination in terms of the preceptor baring witness to a person's "effect going for refuge". The decision to ordain someone is a personal one, reached in consultation with other preceptors. However since a preceptor must have the confidence of the order there is a process of consultation before appointing a preceptor. Likewise the college of Public Preceptors is one of our principle institutions. There are now 30 or 40 public preceptors spread around the globe, and more than a 100 private preceptors).

The functional unit of the order is the chapter. A chapter is a group of order members who meet together regularly. Chapters decide for themselves what form the meetings will take, though it has been suggested that they should provide a 'spiritual workshop' for the members. Each chapter has a convenor whose job description it is at present a bit fluid. There are also regional, national, and international convenors. At varying intervals there are local, regional and national order weekends. Once every two years we have an international order convention. Usually this is in the UK, but in 2009 it was in India.

Each centre of the Triratna Buddhist Community is legally and functionally autonomous. Centres are run by a council which is typically, though not exclusively, made up of local order members. The council has a Chair (man or woman) whose role is something like spiritual director, though in practice people do this job in very different ways. Often a centre will have an administrative manager as well to help organise the program, look after the buildings and staff and/or volunteers. Centres run classes in meditation and Buddhism, as well is allied subjects such as yoga and taichi, and more recently non-violent communication and mindfulness based stress reduction. They may also organise retreats and festivals marking the Buddhist calendar. Arts events are popular, and the inclusion of the arts is one of the distinctive emphases of our movement. After a very rapid period of expansion the number of new centres has slowed in the last ten years, perhaps as energy has gone into wrestling with internal issues (such as what to call ourselves!). Centres which own or rent property typically charge for classes to meet expenses - and it is definitely this way around, we do not run classes to raise money! People who can't pay are welcome to attend for free. In an interesting development some centres offer events and classes on a donation or 'dana' basis. In some places the whole place runs sucessfully on a dana economy.

Although there is no global body of centre chairs, the European chairs meet twice a year and are beginning to be seen as an important administrative institution. The idea is that the Public Preceptor will have responsibility for the order (and especially for ordinations) and the Chairs will have responsibility for the community and centres.

Many centres have a president who is a senior order member from outside the region who visits on a regular basis to help provide a connection with the wider movement, and get involved in any difficulties (the traditional roles of an elder). The presidential system was initiated after the Croydon debacle, to help ensure that that sort of thing never happens again.

The notion of what constitutes a 'centre' is broadening as time goes on. One of the most significant developments has been Buddhafield which was originally entirely itinerant. The Buddhafield team hold events on a 'festival' model - accommodation in tents, lots of outdoor activities, a strong pagan element, and a much looser arrangement than our urban centres. Buddhafield now have their own land, and have spawned several spin-offs. Each year they hold a festival which attracts thousands, as well as a month-long meditation intensive, and other shorter retreats. They also have a presence at summer music festivals in the UK and New Zealand.

Beyond the order we have always been participants in pan-Buddhist organisations such as the European Buddhist Union, the Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Network of Buddhist Organisations, though usually via a selected representative. Our Indian wing has close connections to Buddhist organisations in Taiwan (who have funded many developments in India). We have previously been wary of allowing the wide world of Buddhism to swamp our fledging movement, but with increasing confidence our connections are growing. There has been a fair amount of polemic going in both directions at times, though I believe this is less of an issue now.

It's often been said that the Triratna Community is a network of friendships. At it's heart it is about people responding to the Buddha's teaching, and to each other in the process. As we grow in size the organisation becomes more complex, and as we out-strip the possibility of everyone being in personal communication with everyone else through sheer numbers and geographical spread new institutions will no doubt have to emerge to facilitate communication. We are probably a bit behind in developing effective institutions for the size we are, but they are evolving. Operating a consensus on this scale is already unwieldy!

For more in-depth information on the Triratna Buddhist Order & Community try these sources.
At present, and for the last several years, our main website has been caught in a time warp (it's a long story) and at present I can not give it a blanket recommendation, though parts of it are excellent. It may be some time before it reflects the new name, and catches up with several years of development. I think we should have a wiki like the Rigpa Wiki, but my suggestion has yet to be taken up.
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