25 February 2011

Gesundheit! Making Accommodations with Custom.

One of the main critiques of traditional Buddhism put forward by Western Buddhists is against superstition. Western Buddhists promote such ideas as: Buddhism is a rational religion; there is coherence between science and Buddhism; Buddhists are naturally atheist; and Buddhism does not require blind faith. That is we say that Buddhism doesn't have the same problems with science that Christianity does, but still offers a solution to the question of 'what is a good life?', and an alternative approach to death which is not nihilistic.

The rebranding of Buddhism in the English speaking world began in Britain in the 1830s. It was helped along by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Edwin Arnold's best selling humanist retelling of the Buddha's life, The Light of Asia, was published in 1879. [1] It's no coincidence that bodhi (literally 'understanding, awakening') is translated as Enlightenment (upper-case E), since the Victorian translators of Buddhism were the intellectual descendants of the European Enlightenment and wanted to explicitly align the two movements. Of course we also have a fair number of Romantics who were appalled at the idea of explaining everything (or anything), and took flight into the realms of the sentiment and imagination where science could not, and would not, then follow. (It can now, but that is another story!)

One consequence of this has been a certain amount of confusion when confronted by traditional Buddhism which appears to be a lot more superstitious and, frankly, theistic than one has been lead to believe it ought to be. Some of us Westerners have been prompted to wonder out loud, with no apparent irony, how traditional Buddhists could be getting Buddhism so wrong. There has been a tendency to see any cultural form which is less than austerely rational as a 'corruption' of the original supremely rational Buddhism. For some reason Theravāda scholastic orthodoxy became the poster child for this rationality, despite a pre-scientific worldview, and well into the 20th century the entire edifice of Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism was seen as a 'later corruption'. The irony is that while we are contemptuous of Asians who have allowed Buddhism to change to meet their changing needs, we are engaged in exactly the same project.

This attitude is a complex stew including ingredients such as Imperialist and Colonialist superiority delusions (aka orientalism; or racism); generalisations from the Protestant critiques of the Roman Catholic Church (and in particular Protestant historical narratives based on the rise, corruption and fall of the Roman Empire); and the fear that with the death of God (pronounced by Nietzsche in 1882) that everything would be permitted, and morality would collapse. Most of these Victorian themes are still unresolved and active, often unconsciously, in British public discourse about religion. Again, there is also an important and influential Romantic trend in Western Buddhism which positively glories in the irrational and superstition, but I won't deal with that now.

A passage from the Vinaya (Vin ii.139) shows that this confrontation with superstition is not a new concern for Buddhists. However the Vinaya seems to have allowed quite a lot of latitude to bhikkhus when dealing with ordinary people. The passage involves "the group of six bhikkhus", a gang of miscreants whose (mis)behaviour leads to many new rules being laid down. At the time they were apparently learning and teaching metaphysics (lokāyata) and worldly knowledge (tiracchānavijjā). The PED suggests that lokāyata means: "what pertains to the ordinary view (of the world), common or popular philosophy", or as Rhys Davids puts it elsewhere: "name of a branch of Brahman learning, probably nature-lore'; later worked into a quasi system of casuistry, sophistry." [2] The word also occurs in Sanskrit and Monier-Williams defines it as 'materialism'. Tiracchānavijjā is literally 'animal knowledge', a tiracchāna is something which 'goes horizontally' i.e. an animal; but the dictionary suggests that tiracchānavijjā means "a low art, a pseudo-science". I take the general drift of the passage to be saying that the 'group of six' monks had become interested in the popular beliefs and practices of the local people, or perhaps had not abandoned their ancestral religion.

The important event in this text comes when the Buddha sneezes while delivering a discourse, and is then loudly interrupted by a number of monks calling out:
jīvatu, bhante, bhagavā; jīvatu sugato

May the Bhagavan live, Sir; may the Sugata live!
This - jīvatu: the verb √jīv 'to live' in the third person imperative - is the Pāli equivalent of saying bless you or gesundheit (= good health). The Buddha asks the bhikkhus: "When 'life' (jīva) is said to one who has sneezed, is that a this reason he might live or die?" They answer "no". He then forbids the monks from saying jīvatu. However this causes the bhikkhus problems because the householders continue saying jīvatu when the bhikkhus sneeze, and are angry when the bhikkhus do not respond in the traditional way. So the Buddha tells them:
Gihī, bhikkhave, maṅgalikā. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, gihīnaṃ ‘jīvatha bhante’ti vuccamānena ‘ciraṃ jīvā’ti vattu’nti

Monks, householders are superstitious. When a householder says 'live Sir' (jivatha bhante) to you, I allow you to respond with 'long life' (ciraṃ jīvā). [3]
Here the Pāli word maṅgalika means 'superstitious, looking out for lucky signs', from maṅgala 'lucky, auspicious, prosperous' (c.f. the word omen). The text seems to suggest that lokāyata and tiracchānavijja are synonymous with maṅgalika. Also in this vein is a short sutta in the Aṅguttara-nikāya where the Buddha makes a distinction between householders generally, and lay disciples (upasaka/uapsikā), saying that an exemplary lay disciple "is not eager for protective charms & ceremonies". [4] We see here the concern, visible throughout the Vinaya, to keep the behaviour of the bhikkhus distinct from householders (gihī).

This superstitious attitude also seems to be addressed by the Buddha in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta, a very well known text from the Sutta-nipāta collection. Although this sutta is spoken to a deva, it includes supporting one's parents, cherishing one's wife and children, and having a peaceful occupation as examples of mahāmaṅgalaṃ (literally 'big luck') 'the highest blessings' or perhaps 'highest performance, great happiness or blessing' (following Saddhatissa's translation notes). Clearly the concerns of the text are those of householders. In the light of Vinaya reading above, we might see the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta as saying these things are 'good luck' rather than 'highest blessing', i.e as a re-contextualisation of the idea of what constitutes luck.

I think this demonstrates one way that the Buddha, or at least the early Buddhists, handled superstition. Direct opposition was unlikely to be very effective, since it was deeply embedded in the culture. For those of us who commit ourselves to Buddhism, it is vital that we examine our beliefs; the conditioning that we have received from family, peers and society, and begin to unravel it in order to free our minds from those limitations. But there's not much mileage in demanding this from people who do not share our commitment. We could rail against superstition, and where we see it as definitely harmful we probably should speak out against it, but on the whole the main thing for Buddhists is dealing with our own belief structures. Buddhism is something we take on for ourselves - e.g. upasampadā the word often translated as 'higher ordination' really just means 'undertaken, taken on'.

Sometimes it's more important to be polite than to be right.



  1. On this subject see: Almond, Philip C. (1988) The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Dialogues of the Buddha, p.166f. Online: www.sacred-texts.com
  3. Vin ii.139. ('Live long and prosper' would be ciraṃ jivatu vaḍḍhatu ca)
  4. AN 5.175. See also Thanissaro Access to Insight.

Since writing this I discovered the following in The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan:
"Buddhist studies pioneer Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1834-1922) first translated bodhi as "Enlightenment" and explicitly compared the Buddha with the philosophers of the European Enlightenment" (1882. Lectures of the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by some Points in the History of Buddhism. Hibbert Lectures. New York: Putnam. p.30)

18 February 2011

Explanation vs Interpretation

IN THE INTRODUCTION to their book Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture, the authors Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley admit they intend to cause trouble. The audience for the book is probably involved on one side or the other of the sometimes bitter scholarly conflict they are writing about. The combination of jargon and assumed common political and intellectual background make it a bit daunting for the general reader. However in Chapter One Lawson and McCauley make some interesting observations about the social sciences generally and the study of religion in particular that I want to pick up on.

They note a dichotomy between those who seek knowledge through explanation and those who seek it through interpretation, but make the point that the dichotomy is in many ways a false one.

In its extreme form the explanation camp says that all interpretation is irrelevant. The stereotype here is the materialist scientist, the logical empiricist who is only concerned with the observation of facts. Knowledge is the discovery of causal laws, and interpretive efforts simply get in the way. The approach to knowledge puts strict limits on acceptable subject matters and methods. The important thing about science - which distinguishes it from common sense - is that scientific explanations form general systems of abstract principles. These principles can be applied beyond the domain in which they were discovered. It is the inter-connectedness of scientific theories, the way they work together to support each other, that contributes to their success. Common sense knowledge, by contrast, is typically restricted to a particular domain, and it isn't related strongly to other knowledge. Explanations lead to consensus, but only on the subset of all possible knowledge amenable to empirical observations.

We can safely let Richard Dawkins stand as a good example of the scientist explanationist camp. He is known for his impatience with superstition and ignorance of facts, and for his public attacks on religious beliefs. Interestingly Richard Dawkins evinces surprise that people should see him as 'cold' and 'nihilistic' on reading The Selfish Gene, and attempts to alter that impression with his next book, Unweaving the Rainbow. But for all that he shows that he is familiar with poetry and deft at manipulating metaphors in his factual explanations, he also seems to misunderstand something fundamental about human cognition and decision making - the role of emotion in our lives. Dawkins appears to explain his failure to communicate himself as laziness or stupidity on the part of his audience. He is openly contemptuous of people who are not persuaded by his explanations, but makes no attempt to connect with the values of the audience, which means that he presumes that everyone prioritises cold hard facts as he does. Note that his sub-title for Unweaving the Rainbow contrasts science with delusion as though these are the only two possible positions. His contumely is reminiscent of legacy attitudes of the British upper-classes to the common people. Similarly Stephen Hawking in his recent book The Grand Design declares "philosophy is dead", and that scientific determinism is simply how things are - he goes as far as denying the possibility of free will, but allows that despite the lack of true agency that behaviour is so complex that it remains unpredictable. The Grand Design trumpets itself as offering "new answers to life's ultimate questions" - and the selection of the questions is telling. First and foremost Hawking seeks to answer: 'why is there something rather than nothing?'. Socrates question 'how should we live?' is not only not addressed, is it not even asked! Scientific determinism creates a sterile vacuum by placing many aspects of human life - especially all the creative and imaginative arts, and the human emotions and values - outside the sphere of knowledge seeking and making.

On the other hand is the interpretationist who says that all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity. Human beings are subjects not objects. The search for knowledge about human beings - and therefore about religion - is the search for reasons (hermeneutics) and meaning (semiotics). Explanation is not only unnecessary it is at best undesirable, and at worst not possible. Since interpretation allows no common (objective) standard and there is much less interactivity amongst knowledge found in this way, there is a tendency to splinter into factions e.g. Freudian, Foucauldian, Feminist, Marxist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. Each group comes up with a plausible story about what things mean, and criticises the other groups with no possibility of consensus. The interpretationist account of humanity is overly fecund, and reaches an apotheosis in the Post-Modernists who reject all explanation and all objectivity, and disclaim all possibility of wider consensus since there is only personal interpretation. However interpretation allows us to structure and understand those areas of life which science cannot touch - particularly human experience. Although laws may not be possible, there are certainly patterns. Identifying and discussing problems such as universal human rights rely on interpretation rather than explanation.

I'm not familiar with any of the examples of interpretationist type given in the book, but it strikes me that Joseph Campbell fits the profile. He interprets myths and legends, seeking reasons for human behaviour and sources of meaning relating to it. He is not concerned with what causes us to behave, in the way that a scientist is, only in what it means that we do behave the way we do. Campbell on the other hand accepts everything as part of life's rich tapestry without judgement. So when discussing the theme of rebirth (in his interviews with Bill Moyers published as The Power of Myth) he sees the images of the Buddha peacefully meditating beneath the bodhi tree, and Jesus brutally nailed to a cross as being the same story without any qualification (I disagree). Equally he discusses ritual murder in the same context without any sense of moral judgement - every expression of human behaviour is valid to him because it is simply an expression of the myth. The term for this kind of view is monist - expressed sometimes as "all is one". There is no way to prove what Campbell says - it is simply one interpretation of a range of observations. Campbell's position is not easily reducible, but he is broadly speaking a Jungian, I think. If he were a Marxist his reading of the myths would no doubt be different. However Campbell creates extremely plausible narratives in many cases and he seems to shed light on the content and importantly the function of myths. Since the Enlightenment myth has become a byword for something which is not true. Campbell shows how myths have value because they symbolically communicate meanings and purposes, and has to some extent rehabilitated the word myth.

Lawson and McCauley outline some intermediate positions, but these require some familiarity with the literature and are therefore harder to explain. Overall when there are concessions made by 'social scientists', the authors say, they inevitably privilege interpretation and subordinate explanation. Some see the methods of social science as yet inadequate to the task of an empirical approach, leaving interpretation as the only way forward. A second group acknowledge that explanation has a role, but see human actions as guided by reasons and not by causes, so it seems natural to focus on interpretation while not actually discounting explanation (I think the problem here is free will). A third intermediate position sees all knowledge seeking - including the natural sciences - as fundamentally interpretive, and in particular argue for the importance of subjectivity in the construction of scientific knowledge systems. For this last group interpretation sets the agenda for explanation. In studying humans they prioritise the concrete contents of human experience over the abstract theories about them.

In my experience most religious people are interpretationists of either the extreme kind who deny any possible explanation for human, especially religious, experience; or they tolerate a level of explanation but place certain types of experience forever beyond the reach of empiricism and factual knowledge (my Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita is overtly in this camp I would say). Religious people are wary of explanation which they see as 'cold', and as 'killing the magic'. They speak of scientists 'explaining away' their beliefs. The danger religious people see is that science, in explaining human religious behaviour, will destroy the things they value about their religious practices and communities. And on past evidence this is not an unreasonable fear as explanationists are often insensitive to values.

It's clear that the extreme approaches are not always helpful. Although both have had their successes, they have tended to polarise the discussion about religion and stymie communication and understanding. The point that Lawson and McCauley wish to make is that there is a way to combine both interpretation and explanation without privileging or banishing one or the other, and that in effect we all do it anyway. They point out that in fact explanation and interpretation are different cognitive tasks.
"When people seek better interpretations they attempt to employ the categories they have in better ways. By contrast, when people seek better explanations they go beyond the rearrangement of categories; the generate new theories which will, if successful, replace or even eliminate the conceptual scheme with which they presently operate." (p.29)
Interpretation presupposes a body of explanation (of facts and laws), and seeks to (re)organise empirical knowledge. Explanation always contains an element of interpretation, but successful explanations winnow and increase knowledge. The two processes are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, and both are necessary.

In the process of attempting to integrate Buddhism and Western Culture (which includes science and technology as well as distinctive myths and ideas about what gives life meaning) we cannot afford to take an exclusively explanatory or interpretive approach. We are forced, by intellectual honesty, to accept the strong conclusions of science: the classical laws of physics and chemistry for instance are not really in doubt despite being dependent on a frame of reference - we do in fact live in that frame of reference. Some of the critique of each camp is useful - explanation helps to put useful limits on interpretation; while we are reminded that facts are not always hard (think of statistics and how vital they are in biology or quantum mechanics) and laws governing imagination and emotion are vague, though not without importance.

One of the big issues of religion in the modern world is the status of the supernatural. On the trivial level we have ghosts and 'energies' of various kinds, and on a more serious level we have a transcendental Buddha beyond any predication or description, let alone explanation. Nirvāṇa is taboo, and remains not just inaccessible but forbidden to scientists. Though one of the most interesting areas of neuroscience is the effects of meditation on the brain.

To even consider trying to explain the Buddha is seen as a kind of heresy. We Buddhists do maintain conceptions equivalent to both heresy and blasphemy - despite all protestations to the contrary - that emerge when we transgress. It can be heresy to deny some doctrines. To some denying rebirth is a heresy. More or less any doctrinal innovation in Buddhism leaves one open to the charge of heresy. If we go further and declare our belief that consciousness is entirely based in the brain (which I more or less accept) or that the Buddha was just a human being who was kind and not troubled by psychological suffering then we will find the charge of blasphemy being laid surreptitiously at our doorstep. We may find that someone will say that we are not in fact Buddhists if we don't accept a transcendental version of Buddhism; or we may be called a materialist. The label materialist has a powerfully pejorative sense in this context; and often comes with an offhand, sometimes contemptuous, dismissal of the so-called materialist's opinions. The form of the arguments is identical, I would say, to those we see in theistic milieus.

Buddhists like to emphasise true, original (in the temporal sense) and authentic teachings; genuine masters, living Buddhas; unbroken lineages; and fully ordained individuals. We are a bit obsessed with appealing to external authorities to bolster our internal authority. Why do I constantly refer to the Pāli Canon for instance when I have my personal experience? Could it be from lack of experience?

We have some way to go as most of these issues are not even conscious. As someone with a science education and a leaning towards explanation, I regularly find myself in conflict with those who embrace interpretation - often having to point out that my disinclination to supernatural interpretations of experience does not amount to materialism (see Am I a Materialist?). The important thing about Lawson and McCauley's analysis is that it clarifies what issues and values are at stake so that we can bring them to awareness, and have the discussion in the open. Facts are important, and we should not be denying facts in promoting Buddhism. One fact is that human values are not easily objectified, and another is that experience doesn't necessarily conform to mathematical laws.

Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapter One Reprinted as Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (2006). "Interpretation and Explanation: Problems and Promise in the Study of Religion." J. Slone (ed.). Religion and Cognition: A Reader, London: Equinox.

See also:
Oliver Sacks on Why the brain creates myths on bigthink.com: "Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models."

11 February 2011

Happiness and Unhappiness

Timbaruka Sutta
S 12.18, PTS ii.22 [1]
STAYING AT SĀVATTHĪ. Then the wanderer Timbaruka approached the Bhagavan, and having exchanged pleasantries, he sat to one side and asked a question.

Are happiness and unhappiness (sukhadukkha) made by one's-self (sayaṃ-kata)?

No, Timbaruko, that's not it, replied the Bhagavan.

Are happiness and unhappiness made by another (paraṃ-kata)?

No, that's not it.

Are happiness and unhappiness made by one's-self and others?

No, that's not it.

Do happiness and unhappiness appear without any reason?

No, that's not it.

Is there no such thing as happiness and unhappiness?

It's not that there is no happiness and unhappiness. Clearly there is happiness and unhappiness.

Is it that you don't know or see happiness and unhappiness?

It's not that I don't know or see happiness and unhappiness. I do know them, and see them.

Gotama, you've answered 'no' to all my questions. Please explain to me what you mean. Explain happiness and unhappiness to me.

Well Timbaruka, I do not say "happiness and unhappiness are caused by one's-self" because underlying that statement is the eternalist view that the experience (vedanā) and the one experiencing (so vedayati) are the same.

I do not say "happiness and unhappiness are caused by another" because underlying that is the view of one overcome by sensations, [i.e.] that the experience and the one experiencing are different.

Avoiding both of these positions I point to a foundation (dhamma) in the middle. With ignorance (avijjā) as condition there are volitions (saṅkhārā), and with volitions as condition there is consciousness etc... [i.e the nidāna chain] and thus the whole mass of disappointment comes about. With the complete cessation ignorance, volitions cease, with the cessation of volitions, ignorance ceases, etc... thus the whole mass of disappointment ceases.

When this was said the wanderer Timbaruka said Gotama I go for refuge to the Bhagavan Gotama, to the Dhamma and the community of Bhikkhus. Please remember me as a non-monastic disciple from this day forward.


I've translated sukha and dukkha as happiness and unhappiness here which is fairly conventional. On this level they represent the positive and negative aspects of experience, the things we find pleasing and displeasing, the aspects of experience on which we base our notions of happiness and unhappiness. However the words are used in a variety of ways, and there may be other interpretations. I've noted in my comments on Dhammapada v.1-2 that sukha/dukkha can represent nibbāna and saṃsāra for instance.

Timbaruka seeks to understand the problem of suffering in terms of self and/or other. The Buddha lets Timbaruka exhaust all the possible options within that paradigm without committing himself. It seems that some of the wanderers were a bit like the sophists in ancient Athens and some people these days, who go around just arguing with everything. One gets the sense that Timbaruka was ready to argue whatever the Buddha might agree with or disagree with. The fact that the Buddha does not take a stand on any of the views presented is a strategy Timbaruka has apparently not anticipated. The Buddha uses this strategy fairly often. The approach the Buddha takes is distinctly different to this one which proposes a dichotomy and then finds fault with all possible alternatives.

Having rejected the Timbaruka's terms the Buddha gives an explanation of why he is not interested in that particular argument, and then gives his alternative way of looking at things. There are two basic positions: the experience is either the same as the experiencer, or different. From the fact that the Buddha doesn't bother to answer the other variations proposed by Timbaruka, we might conclude that he does not take them seriously. His answer though partial from Timbaruka's point of view, covers the only sensible points.

We see that the rejection is in terms of Buddhist technical terminology, which reminds us that the story is told specifically for a Buddhist audience. Eternalism and nihilism as critical terms are distinctively Buddhist.

The first view - that suffering is caused by self - is that of the eternalist. The problem here is that we identify ourselves with experience, and see our self as continuous and lasting. This is almost the default setting for humanity: in effect we are our thoughts and emotions. By this I mean we don't consciously make this decision, it's just how things seem to us. As Thomas Metzinger says we are all 'naive realists'. However this leaves us with no real choice in how we respond to situations and causes us problems. [2] Elsewhere the Buddha uses the metaphor of intoxication (pamāda) to describe this condition.

The second view - that suffering is caused by other - is the view, not of the nihilist, but of someone overwhelmed by sensations [vedanābhitunna]. In this we aren't identified with the sensations, but feel compelled by them as when we are "overcome with grief", or we "see red". Again we often imagine that we have no choice about responding to powerful desires and aversions. Falling in love is such a powerful sensation, and chaos if not mayhem often ensues. The nihilist would presumably argue that ultimately there is no suffering (something I've heard Buddhists argue, to my consternation!)

To reiterate an important point: these 'views' are not conscious ideologies, not philosophies that we take on willingly. They are the default settings for human beings, a mixture of evolution and early conditioning; nature and nuture. Buddhists, like other religieux, tend to express a tinge of blame when describing the human condition. Although we reject the explicit notion of original sin, we smuggle through an implicit one. We often describe people as basically greedy and hateful for instance. I find this both philosophically problematic, and unhelpful. The Buddha here is arguing for a much less personal view of the problem of suffering. Suffering is not caused by oneself! At least in this text.

The kind of dichotomy that Timbaruka proposes doesn't apply in the Buddha's frame of reference. And note that what is being rejected is not the self/other dichotomy per se, but the idea that suffering comes from either. This is not advaita (non-dualist) philosophy, it is pragmatism aimed at relieving suffering. The kind of view which is engendered by mystical experiences such as oceanic-boundary-loss - i.e. all is one - is being criticised here, and throughout the Pāli canon.

In his explanation the Buddha focusses on how dukkha arises and ceases as an impersonal process. Understanding that experience is impermanent we see that there is nothing to identify with. Identity is just another experience - impermanent, disappointing, and impersonal. Experiences constantly arise and cease, meaning that there is nothing to hang on to, nothing to let go of even. Seeing experience as an impersonal process, in which the first-person perspective is a just another conditioned experience, means we don't blame anyone. If there is a painful state we see it has arisen dependently, and often we do have some influence on the conditions that contribute to suffering. Dependency does not do away with agency, at least not completely.

The more subtle point is that our own relationship to experience is the primary condition to think about. By dis-identifying with experience we make it less likely that we are either caught up in, or overwhelmed by experience, and we have a choice about being happy or unhappy that is not related to (not conditioned by) the particular experience we are having now. I have a growing suspicion that this is what asaṅkhata [unconditioned] means.

In a sense Timbaruka is right. Any view about happiness or unhappiness based on self and/or other leads to contradictions and argumentation. Human intercourse in any age has shown this to be true, and such tensions and disagreements continue to play out in human civilisations, even nominally Buddhist ones (2500 years, and we still can't agree on some things!). The problem is not this or that strategy for achieving happiness, but a fundamental mistake about the nature of happiness. What we naively pursue is not happiness, but following our evolutionary heritage and conditioning we pursue pleasant sensations. So we are not happy, and our conditioning says that someone must be to blame - if not me, then you, or him, or perhaps God or the Universe! In order to change this we need to step outside that frame of reference and see our experience in a completely new light - as impermanent and impersonal. Then a kind of happiness not conditioned by pleasant or unpleasant experiences can and does arise.


  1. main points identical to S 12.17. My translation.
  2. There is a distant echo here of the Brahmanical view that one achieves liberation through a comprehensive identification with the world, probably associated with the mystical experience sometimes described as oceanic boundary loss. The feeling of breaking down the subject/object distinction and identification with everything. Jill Bolte Taylor's description of this experience during a major stroke is instructive because she articulates the relevant aspects of it, even if a stroke is not attractive as a way to have that experience [See her TED presentation; and my response An Experience of Awakening?]. I say the echo is distant because I don't think that Brahmins are the target here. The target is everyday naive realism, the identification with experience as real.

04 February 2011

Action and Intention III

Newton's cradle REGULAR READERS WILL KNOW that I harp on about the Buddha's equation of intention and action - cetanā and kamma. More than one person has noted that this equation only occurs once in the Canon. This uniqueness makes us uneasy about putting so much weight on the phrase - surely if an idea was centrally important then it would be mentioned more frequently? I agree with this, and I have been on the look out for more references which discuss kamma and cetanā. I found an interesting passage in the Cetanā Sutta (SN 12.38, S ii.65-66). The first paragraph of the sutta translates as:
At Sāvatthī. What you think about (ceteti), monks, what you plan for (pakappeti), and what obsesses (anuseti) is the condition (ārammaṇa) of the persistence (ṭhiti) of cognition (viññāṇa). When there is a basis, there will be cognition. With persistence and growth of conscious there will future rebirth in a new existence. With future rebirth there will be future birth, old-age and death, grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble. Thus is the origin of the whole mass of disappointment.
The other paragraphs deal with a partial and complete cessation of disappointment, as simple negatives, so I'll just focus on this paragraph. Here the verb ceteti is the origin of the action noun cetanā. I said in my first post on ethics and intention:
Cetanā derives from the root √cit which also gives us the words citta 'mind' and cetas 'thought'... The root √cit is defined in the dictionary as "knowing; thought , intellect , spirit , soul", but also "to perceive , fix the mind upon , attend to , be attentive , observe , take notice of"; and "to aim at , intend , design; to be anxious about , care for; to resolve". So √cit concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion').
In Sanskrit the two roots √cit 'to perceive' and √cint 'to think' are different enough to be thought of as distinct, though Whitney does acknowledge that √cint appears to derive from √cit. PED draws out the difference by seeing √cint as an active voice (parasmaipāda) form with a nasal infix (like for example √muc 'to free' > muñcati 'he releases'); and √cit as a medial or reflexive form (ātmanepāda). Originally the reflexive form was for verbs affecting oneself, while the active form was for verbs affecting others - like, for instance the difference between 'I go' and 'he goes' (the word is the same but the form is different) - though this semantic distinction is largely lost in both Classical Sanskrit and Pāli even when the form persists.

Pāli citta is further confused with Sanskrit citra 'to shine'. So when the Buddha says Pabhassaramidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ (AN 1.51) what most people miss is the pun. Citta means both 'thought' and 'shine' and the phrase could equally be read - 'this thought is radiant', or 'this shiny-thing is radiant'. The context does incline towards reading 'mind', but the ambiguity and pun are obvious to a Pāli speaker.

cetanā is an abstract noun from active form (cinteti 'to think') and PED defines: 'the state of ceto [mind] in action, thinking as active thought'.

Now in the passage quoted above Bhikkhu Bodhi, very much the Buddhaghosa of our time, draws attention to the relationship of ceteti with cetanā by translating it as 'what one intends'. (Connected Discourses p.576). Bhikkhu Thanissaro (on Access to Insight) follows suit, and and Maurice Walsh opts for 'what one wills'. Why? First there is the title of the sutta - cetanāsuttaṃ - though, as I understand it, most of the titles in SN were added later. Secondly ceteti is paired with two other verbs pakappeti 'to plan' and anuseti 'to obsess over' and in Pāli these kinds of appositions are usually synonyms reinforcing each other. PED specifically mentions this group of three 'to intend, to start to perform, to carry out' (s.v. cinteti meaning b.)

Buddhaghosa's commentary glosses
Ettha ca 'cetetī'ti tebhūmakakusalākusalacetanā gahitā

And here ceteti refers to having grasped the good and evil intentions of the three levels of being (i.e. kāmaloka, rūpaloka, arūpaloka). [1]
I'm slightly wary here. My argument would be supported by simply agreeing with Buddhaghosa and the modern translators who have clearly followed him. But my understanding of the philology and the context makes me want to translate ceteti as 'thinks about', with the understanding that we are drawn to or away from objects as we find them pleasant or unpleasant only as an implication. I don't like 'intends' as a translation here, even though it would suit my rhetorical purposes better. There is a third possibility in PED which is that under some circumstances ceteti can mean 'to desire' though this requires the object of desire to be in the dative case. Our situation the object is abstract 'what' (yaṃ) but not in the dative.

In any case ceteti is one of three activities, three mental activities, which provide a basis (ārammaṇa) of the persistence (ṭhiti) of cognition (viññāṇa) and therefore for rebirth in the future (āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti). This is interesting because we're not talking about a condition for the arising of cognition here, but for its persistence. Once cognition is arisen it is sustained by what we think about, plan for, and obsess over - which is to say that once a cognition arises in our minds (through contact between our sense faculties and sense objects) it is we who sustain them through actively keeping them in mind. Seeing things this way I struggle to see how cognition generally can be said to arise from ignorance (avijjā) in a single step, and it makes those versions of the nidāna chain which leave out this connection (especially the Mahānidāna Sutta) even more attractive.

The connection with kamma is that the persistence of viññāṇa, through ceteti is what makes rebirth possible. For early Buddhism viññāṇa provides the continuity from life to life. Through our ceteti we ensure rebirth; so here ceteti is kamma, is the kind of action that results in rebirth. The confirmation is rather indirect, and not unambiguous, but it is there.


  1. For those interested in such things the analysis of this compound - tebhūmakakusalākusalacetanā - is interesting. Firstly I take kusalākusala as a dvandva compound - kusala-akusala 'good and bad'. Then I take kusalākusala to form a karmadhāraya compound with cetanā (i.e good and bad intentions). Bhūmaka is a tadhitha compound or secondary derivation from bhūma (=bhūmi) + -ka (an adjectival suffix); and tebhūmaka is a dvigu form of karmadhāraya compound - 'having three grounds or levels'. Then finally kusalākusalacetanā forms a tatpuruṣa compound with tebbhūmaka 'the good and evil intentions of the three levels'. One can see that compounds like this are a very succinct way of writing as they convey a lot of grammar implicitly, but you wouldn't expect them in an oral literature because it's more difficult to parse such long compounds orally. It also assumes that we know what 'the three levels' refers to.
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