29 June 2012

Canonical Sources for the Vajrasattva Mantra

I've mentioned that Maitiu O'Ceileachair and I have identified the earliest textual occurrence of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in the Chinese Tripiṭika. Circumstances have meant that Maitiu and I have not been able to write up our notes formally. I know there is considerable interest in this mantra, and the Vajrasattva Mantra continues to be the most popular page on my mantra website. So I thought I would write up some of the basic stuff that we've found, along with transcriptions of the mantra from various Canonical sources. This blog post represents our collaborative effort, but credit for all the observations on the Chinese goes to Maitiu.

The earliest occurrence in the Chinese Canon, which is really the only candidate for the earliest literary use of the mantra, since only the Chinese dated their texts, is in T.866, a collection of mantras related to the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha (STTS). T.866 was translated into Chinese by Vajrabodhi (ca 671-741) in 723 CE. Stephen Hodge (2003) says that Vajrabodhi acquired his STTS manuscript circa 700 CE, so it had to have been composed before that date.

Two Sanskrit manuscripts of STTS are extant, though both are relatively recent copies. One has been published in facsimile edition (Candra & Snellgrove), and another forms the basis of a critical edition by Yamada (which means that he compares his Sanskrit manuscript with other versions).  *see comments. We also looked at two versions in printed editions of the Tibetan Canon (the Peking and Derge editions) and several other Chinese versions from the Taisho Edition of the Tripiṭaka (e.g. T.873, 875, 884, 1224, 1320, 1956), including Amoghavajra's translation into Chinese (T. 873).

The mantra occurs in the context of a brief introductory paragraph and is followed by another brief paragraph.

Sanskrit text

atha sarvamudrāṇāṁ sāmānyaḥ svakāyavākcittavajreṣu vajrīkaraṇavidhivistaro bhavati| yadā mudrādhiṣṭhānaṁ śithilībhavati, svayaṁ vā muktukāmo bhavati, tato'nena hṛdayena dṛḍhīkartavyā|
oṃ vajra-satva-samayam anupālaya
dṛḍho me bhava su-toṣyo me bhavānurakto me bhava
su-poṣyo me bhava sarva-siddhiñ ca me prayaccha
sarva-karmasu ca me citta-śreyaḥ kuru hūṃ
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
Bhagavan sarva-tathāgata-vajra mā me muṃca
vajrī bhava mahā-samaya-sattva āḥ ||
anenānantaryakāriṇo'pi sarvatathāgatamokṣā api saddharmapratikṣepakā api sarvaduṣkṛtakāriṇo'pi sarvatathāgatamudrāsādhakā varjasattvadṛḍhībhāvādihaiva janmanyāsu yathābhirucitāṁ sarvasiddhimuttamasiddhiṁ vajrasiddhiṁ vajrasattvasiddhiṁ vā yāvat tathāgatasiddhiṁ vā prāpsyantī-tyāha bhagavāṁ sarvatathāgatavajrasattvaḥ||

Todaro's translation of the Sanskrit.
(except for the mantra which is my translation)

"Now an explanation of the rite of the strengthened of all mudrās alike in one's own body, speech and mind thunderbolt is given. When the mudrā empowerment becomes weak or when there is a desire for liberation by oneself, then one should be made firm with this mantra:
O Vajrasattva honour the agreement!
Reveal yourself as the vajra-being!
Be steadfast for me!
Be fully nourishing for me!
Be very pleased for me!

Be passionate for me!
Grant me all success and attainment!
And in all actions make my mind more lucid!
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
O Blessed One, vajra of all those in that state, don't abandon me!
O great agreement-being become real!
"The Bhagavat Vajrasattva of all the Tathāgatas said: "Notwithstanding continuous killing, the slander of all the Tathāgatas, the repudiation of the true teaching and even all evil and injury, (by this) the perfection of all the Tathāgata's mudrās from the strengthening of Vajrasattva, in the present life as you desire, and all accomplishments, the supreme accomplishment, the thunderbolt accomplishment or the accomplishment of Vajrasattva, up to the accomplishment of the Tathāgata, will be attained quickly."


The reconstructed version of the mantra created on the basis of Sthiramati's work in Jayarava (2010) reflects the extant Sanskrit and Chinese texts of STTS quite well, with only minor differences. It may be that the Tibetans were working from a different source text.

The mantra explicitly allows that someone who has done evil, more or less any kind of evil, will not be prevented from making progress. The Chinese version includes the five atekicca or unforgivable actions. (Giebel p.99). This represents that last phase of turning a tenet of Early Buddhism on its head, i.e. that the consequences of actions are inescapable. This role of the mantra--usually referred to as 'purifying karma'--remains central in the narratives surrounding its use in Tibetan Buddhism. The mantra seems much less prominent in Sino-Japanese Tantric Buddhism, and Vajrasattva (Japanese: 金剛薩埵 Kongosatta) plays quite a different role than in Tibet.

The text refers to the mantra as hṛdaya, i.e, 'heart mantra' or 'heart essence'.

Both extant Sanskrit versions spell sattva with one t, i.e. satva; which may indicate some Middle-Indic influence, although the language of this passage appears to conform to Classical Sanskrit norms.

The main difference between this mantra text and the one reconstructed from the Tibetan in Jayarava (2010) is that Yamada has su-toṣyo me bhavānurakto me bhavasu-poṣyo me bhava; where as the Tibetan (and the Chinese texts) transpose the last two phrases:  sutoṣyo me bhava, supoṣyo me bhava, anurakto me bhava. Note that bhavānurakto is a coalescence of bhava anurakto forced by Sanskrit sandhi rules (-a a- > -ā-).

Tibetan Versions of the Mantra

The Tibetan texts below are transcribed as they appears in the printed text, including punctuation marks, see also note at the end of this section. The lines of woodblock prints are long, and the mantra goes over a couple of long lines in both cases--difficult to reproduce in this medium so I haven't tried.

Derge Ed.
ཨོཾ་བཛྲ་སཏྭ་ས་མ་ཡ། མ་ནུ་པཱ་ལ་ཡ། བཛྲ་ས་ཏྭ་ཏྭེ་ནོ་པ། ཏི་ཥྛ་དྲྀ་ཌྷོ་མེ་བྷ་བ། སུ་ཏོ་ཥྱོ་མེ་བྷ་བ། ཨ་ནུ་ར་ ཀྟོ་མེ་བྷ་བ། སུ་བོ་ཥྱོ་མེ་བྷ་བ། སརྦྦ་སི་ དྡྷི་མྨེ་པྲ་ཡཱ་ཙྪ། སརྦྦ་ཀརྨྨ་སུ་ཙ་མེ་ཙི་ཏྟཾ་ཤྲེ་ཡཿ་ཀུ་རུ་ཧཱུྂ། ཧ་ཧ་ཧ་ཧ་ཧོཿ། བྷ་ག་བཱན། སརྦྦ་ཏ་ཐཱ་ག་ཏོ། བཛྲ་མཱ་མེ་མུཉྩ་བཛྲི་བྷ་བ་མ་ཧཱ་ས་མ་ཡ་སཏྭ་ཨཿ།

oṃ badzra satva sa ma ya| ma nu pā la ya| badzra satva tve no pa| ti ṣṭha dṛ ḍho me bha ba| su to ṣya bha ba| a nu ra kto me bha ba| su po ṣyo me bha ba| sa rbba siddhi mme pra ya tsatsha| sa rbba ka rmma su tsa me tsi ttaṃ śre yaḥ kuru hūṃ| ha ha ha ha hoḥ| bha ga vān| sa rbba ta thā ga ta| badzra mā me nu ñca ba drī bha ba ma hā sa ma ya satva aḥ

Peking Ed.
།ཨོཾ་བཛྲ་སཏྭ་ས་མ་ཡ། །མ་ནུ་པཱ་ལ་ཡ།བཛྲ་ས་ཏྭ་ཏྭེ་ནོ་བ།ཏི་ཥྛ་ཌི་ཌྷོ་མེ་བྷ་བ་སུ་ཏོ་ཥྱོ་མེ་བྷ་བ།སུ་བོ་ཥྱོ་མེ་བྷ་བ།ཨ་ནུ་རག་ཏོ་མེ་བྷ་བ།སརྦྦ་སིད་དྷི་མྨེ་པྲ་ཡཱ་ཙྪ་་་་་་་་་་སརྦ་ཀརྨ་སུ་ཙ་མེ།ཙི་ཏྟཾ་ཤྲེ་ཡཾ་ཀུ་རུ་ཧཱུྂ།ཧ་ཧ་ཧ་ཧ་ཧོཿ་བྷ་ག་བཱན།སརྦྦ་ཏ་ཐཱ་ག་ཏོ། །བཛྲ་མཱ་མེ་མུཾཙ་་་་་་བཛྲི་བྷ་བ་མ་ཧཱ་ས་མ་ཡ་སཏྭ་ཨཱཿ

| oṃ badzra satva sa ma ya | | ma nu pā la ya | badzra sa tva tve no ba | ti ṣṭha ḍi ḍho me bha ba su to ṣyo me bha ba | su po ṣyo me bha ba | a nu rag to me bha ba | sa rbba sid dhi mme pra ya tsatsha ……….. sarva karma su tsa me | tsi ttaṃ śre yaṃ ku ru hūṃ | ha ha ha ha hōḥ bha ga vān | sa rbba ta thā ga to | | badzra mā me muṃtsa……badzri bha ba ma hā sa ma ya satva āḥ
Peking ed. shows signs of being slavishly copied from a woodblock of a different size. The repeated shad | | (not to be confused with a nyis shad || ), for example in the first line 'ya | | ma' indicates that the original line ends with ya | and the new line starts with | ma. The groups of multiple tsheg indicate space filling. We've included the exact number of tsheg as in the printed text (C.f. Beginning and End Markers in Buddhist Texts).

Tibetan regularly makes several substitutions: va > ba; ja > dza; ca > tsa. In addition rva > rbba; rma > rmma (Derge). Medial nasals are sometimes replaced by anusvāra, e.g. muñca > muṃtsa. Both have satva for sattva, but so do extant Sanskrit texts.

General anomalies in the Tibetan versions of the mantra are discussed in Jayarava (2010). Particularly the break between samayam anupālaya becoming samaya manupālaya from an Indic original that would have written individual syllables with no word breaks: e.g. स म य म नु पा ल य sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya (See also the Chinese Siddhaṃ script preserved in T. 875 below.) This is quite simply an error, and was probably a mistake of reading rather than listening.

Both texts incorrectly add a shad in the middle of vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha. The words are vajrasattvatvena upatiṣṭha with a sandhi  -a u- > -o- (See Jayarava 2010 for more on this).

Chinese Versions of the Mantra

Reconstructing Sanskrit from Chinese is an imprecise art and often relies on knowing what the Sanskrit 'should' say. Chinese transcriptions are not very good at representing visarga and anusvāra can go missing as well (though this might be the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit source material rather than the translators). Some translators indicate vowel length and some don't. Generally Amoghavajra is pretty good and many translators followed his conventions.

The earliest occurrance is T. 866.

T. 866
A Summary of Recitations Taken from the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha(sūtra)
Translation by Vajrabodhi: 11th year of Kaiyuan (開元), Tang dynasty (CE 723) in Zisheng Monastery (資聖寺). (fasc. 2)

[each section of the mantra is transliterated and then followed, in parentheses, by a gloss in Chinese]
[0239a12] 唵 跋折囉 薩埵三摩耶 麼奴波邏耶。(金剛薩埵三摩耶願守護我)跋折囉薩埵 哆吠奴烏(二合)播底瑟吒(以為金剛薩埵)涅哩茶烏(二合)銘婆嚩(為堅牢我)素覩沙揄(二合)銘婆嚩(於我所歡喜)阿努囉(上 )訖覩(二合)婆銘縛 素補使榆(二合)銘婆嚩 薩婆悉地 含銘般囉野綽(授與我一 切悉地)薩婆羯磨素遮銘(及諸事業)質多失唎耶(令我安隱)句嚧吽呵 呵呵呵護(引)薄伽梵(世尊)薩婆怛他揭多(一切如來)跋折囉麼迷悶遮(願金剛莫捨離我)跋折哩婆嚩(令我為金剛三摩耶薩埵)摩訶三摩耶薩埵阿(去 引)
oṃ vajra sattvasamaya manupālaya (vajrasattvasamaya please protect me) vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha (become vajrasattva) dṛḍho me bhava (be strong [for] me) sutoṣyo me bhava (be pleased with me) anurakto me bhava supoṣyo me bhava sarvasiddhi [there is an extra syllable here gam/kam] me prayaccha (bestow on me all siddhis) sarvakarmasu ca me (and all karmas) citta śreyaḥ (make me at peace) kuru hūṃ ha ha ha ha hoḥ bhagavan sarvatathāgata vajra mā me muñca (please Vajra do not abandon me) vajrībhava (make me the vajra samayasattva) mahāsamayasattva āḥ
Vajrabodhi gives glosses for some parts of the mantra that make it clear that he understands sarvasiddhi to mean 'all the siddhis'. I suspect that the punctuation of this line is incorrect and 含 has been moved from directly behind 悉地 and that these characters should be read together as siddhiṃ or siddhaṃ. It is possible that siddhiṃ is a Middle-Indic form of siddhīn. According to Edgerton (BHSD) when the nasal of -īn is retained the vowel is shortened.

Note that the Chinese appears to read vajra sattvasamaya manupālaya rather than vajrasattva samayam anupālaya in line with the Sanskrit mss. If this is correct then the error could have occurred on Indian soil and been transmitted to Tibet and China as it was.

(translated by Amoghavajra 753 CE. 1st chapter only)
唵日羅 薩 怛 三 摩 耶 麼 努 波 (引) 耶
日羅 薩 怛 怛 尾 怒 波 底 瑟 奼
捏 哩 濁 寐 婆 蘇 都 使 庾 寐 婆
阿 努 囉 羯 都 寐 婆
蘇 布 使 庾 寐 婆
薩 悉 朕 寐 缽 囉 也 車
薩 羯 摩 素 者 寐 質 多 室 哩 藥 矩嚕 吽
呵呵呵呵 斛 (引)
婆 伽 梵 薩 怛 他 櫱 多 日囉 摩 弭 悶 遮
日哩 婆 摩 訶 三 摩 耶薩怛 噁(引)

ǎn rì luó sà dá sān mā yē me nǔ bō (yǐn) yē
rì luó sà dá dá wěi nù bō de sè chà
niē li zhuó mèi pó sū dōu shǐ yǔ mèi pó
ā nǔ luo jié dōu mèi pó
sū bù shǐ yǔ mèi pó
sà xī zhèn mèi bō luo yě chē
sà jié mā sù zhě mèi zhì duō shì li yào ju lū hōng
a a a a hú (yǐn)
pó gā fàn sà dá tā niè duō rì luó mā mǐ mēn zhē
rì li pó mā hē sān mā yē sà dá ě (yǐn)

Amongst the Chinese versions are two which preserve a (corrupt) Siddhaṃ version of the mantra. We include one of these for comparison. (The Siddhaṃ is written using the CBETA Font which is not aesthetically pleasing but gives us an idea of what Chinese Siddhaṃ looks like.)

蓮華部心念誦儀軌 [平安時代寫東寺三密藏藏本]
A Ritual Manual of the Mental Recitation of the Lotus Section.
Written during the Heian Period (794-1185 CE). From the Sanmitsu Collection of the Tō-ji.
[0326a26] 金剛三昧。

oṃ va jra sa tva sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya va jra sa tva nve no pa ti ṣṭa dṛ ho me bha va mi su tu ṣuo me bha va a nu ra kto me bh ba sup u ṣo me bha va sa rva si ddhiṃ me pra ya ccha sa rva ka rma su ca me cit ta śre ya ku ru hūṃ ha ha ha ha hoḥ bha ga vaṃ sa rva ta thā ga ta va jra mā ma muṃ ca va jrī bha va ma hā sa ma ya sa tvā āḥ
Be aware that this mantra is corrupted and contains many introduced errors. It is provided for comparison purposes only.


These then are principle canonical sources of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra in the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese versions of the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha. Since the Chinese accurately recorded the date of their translations we can be confident that T. 866 is the earliest translated text in the Chinese Tripiṭika to contain this mantra. The differences between the various versions are relatively minor, though they suggest that even at the earliest times this text existed in several versions containing these minor differences, i.e. not all the differences are due to translations or scribal error.

All of these canonical versions tend confirm the notion that the mantra was originally written in good Sanskrit rather than the somewhat garbled version in the received Tibetan tradition. The garbling of the mantra forms part of the discussion in Jayarava (2010), as does the tension created by received tradition vs. other forms of authority. However T. 866 suggests that at least some of the errors were present in the Indian tradition already. The fact of the difference between the canonical and received versions of the mantra highlights the conflict of sources of authority in the Buddhist tradition. Though Tantric Buddhism places great emphasis on guru to disciple transmission, which tends to outweigh textual authority; the fact that we now have much greater access to the Tripiṭika and the knowledge that the mantra has been partially garbled are difficult to ignore for Western converts unconsciously inculcated with the valorisation of textual authority.

The Vajrasattva mantra was set free from this context in the Tibetan Tantric tradition where it performs an important role in purifying karma that might otherwise impede progress on the Buddhist path.  In its self this is a fascinating aspect of the history of ideas in Buddhism.



大正新脩大藏經 [Taishō Revised Tripiṭaka]

Chandra, Lokesh and Snellgrove, David L. Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-saṅgraha : facsimile reproduction of a tenth century Sanskrit manuscript from Nepal. New Delhi : Sharada Rani, 1981. Online transcription Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon. http://dsbc.uwest.edu/node/7269

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA) http://www.cbeta.org/

'De-bshin-gśegs-pa thams-cad-kyi de-kho-na-ñid bsdusp-pa shes-bya-ba theg-pa chen-poḥi mdo (Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha-nāma-mahāyāna Sūtra).' The Tibetan Tripitaka Peking Edition. (Ed. D. T. Suzuki) Tokyo: Tibetan Tripitaka Research Institute, 1956. Vol.4, p.233. (Ña 37a-b)

‘De-bshin-gśegs-pa thams-cad-kyi de-kho-na-ñid bsdusp-pa shes-bya-ba theg-pa chen-poḥi mdo (Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha-nāma-mahāyāna Sūtra).’ Derge: The Sde-dge Mtshal-par Bka’-’gyur: A Facsimile Edition of the 18th Century Redaction of Si-tu Chos-kyi-’byuṅ-gnas Prepared under the Direction of H.H the 16th Rgyal-dbaṅ Karma-pa. Delhi: Delhi Karmapae Chodhey Gyalwae Sungrab Partun Khang, 1976-1979.

Giebel, R. W. (2001) Two Esoteric Sutras. Numata.

Hodge, Stephen. The Māhvairocana-Ambhisaṃbodhi Tantra: With Buddhaguhya's Commentary. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Jayarava. 'The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra.' Western Buddhist Review, 5, Oct 2010. Online: http://westernbuddhistreview.com/vol5/vajrasattva-mantra.pdf

Tadaro, Dale Allen. An Annotated Translation of the Tattvasamgraha (Part 1) with an Explanation of the Role of the Tattvasamgraha Lineage in the Teachings of Kukai. Doctoral dissertation Columbia University, 1985.

Weinberger, Steven Neal. The significance of yoga tantra and the "Compendium of Principles" ("Tattvasamgraha Tantra") within tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2003.

Yamada, Isshi. Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-saṅgraha nāma mahāyāna-sūtra : a critical edition based on a Sanskrit manuscript and Chinese and Tibetan translations. New Delhi : Sharada Rani, 1981 p 95.

22 June 2012

Why Do Fools Fall in Love?

WHEN I BECAME A BUDDHIST I was initially attracted by the fellowship of the people and the promise of becoming a better person. I also found attractive the idea that Buddhism did not require blind faith, though it's obvious to me now that Buddhism does in fact strongly suggest, if not actually require, blind faith.

Apropos faith I recently participated in quite an interesting discussion on Glenn Wallis's blog Speculative Non-Buddhism. Responding particularly to something written by Stephen Bachelor, but also from general observations of the Secular Buddhist online groups, Glenn outlined five articles of faith he could see in so-called Secular Buddhist discourse. These articles of faith, he suggested, showed that Secular Buddhism is not secular at all, it is another variety of what he styles 'x-Buddhism'.

Secular Buddhists (including Ted Meissner who might well have invented the term; and is now Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association) chimed in that they did not recognise Glenn's portrayal of them, but on the whole they missed the point of his meta-analysis of their discourse. Sadly it did not attract a response from Bachelor himself. Whatever we make of secular Buddhism, Glenn's articles of faith are interesting and I would like to discuss them in light of my own ideas.

Buddhist Articles of Faith
  1. Transcendental Dharma: The dharma—that unity of unique and timeless truths uttered by the enlightened Buddha—addresses and resolves our 'ultimate concern' as human being.
  2. The Buddha: the human source of this timeless dharmic clarification of the great matter of life and death.
  3. Special Teachings: both exigent and unique. "For, all four [Noble Truths] have been articulated throughout history, and continue to be formulated and developed, in ways far more sophisticated, hence appropriate to a modern audience, than Buddhism’s ancient, ascetically-driven versions."
  4. The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism: The Dharma as Theory of Everything, with no need for input from any other domain of knowledge.
  5. Ideological Rectitude: Buddhism is "natural, empirical, pragmatic, and in accord with science". The teachings, as the ancient trope has it, are simply how things are. They are phenomenologically obvious. Thus, they posit not matters to be believed but tasks to be done.
This list is intended as a polemic of Secular Buddhism, but I think it has a broader application as a polemic of Buddhist faith generally. I've critiqued the idea of the Dharma as Theory of Everything at some length (See: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? Short answer: no it isn't). But some new ideas occurred to me as a result of thinking about the problem in the light of my essay on the interactions between reason and emotion, and the idea of embodied cognition (Facts and Feelings) and I began to articulate them in comments on Glenn's blog. I've gathered the threads together in this essay and tried to flesh them out.

I think we translate the word saddhā (Skt. śraddhā) as 'faith' because this is the standard English translation of the Latin 'credo', which probably comes from the same PIE root and is conventionally understood to mean 'I believe'. However, in practice saddhā has little in common with credo. I've explored the notion of saddhā before, but now I want to put forward a new interpretation. Recall that saddhā is typically tathāgate saddhaṃ, which is conventionally translated as 'faith in the tathāgata'. It arises after hearing the Buddha talking about the Dharma. It's widely known that saddhā comes from sad 'heart' (Skt. śrad = hṛd < PIE *kred > Latin cred; the śrad form is more closely related to Iranian forms, and only used in this context), and the verb dhā 'to place'. Saddhā then is 'what we give our heart to'; or as I am now suggesting what we fall in love with. This is very far from being an intellectual position or a mere statement of belief. Saddhā has an erotic charge to it (using eros in the Jungian rather than the Freudian sense). The Pāli texts, I suggest, do actually talk about saddhā as if people fall in love with the Buddha. And why not? He is always portrayed as supernaturally beautiful and extraordinarily charismatic. In Indian religious terms this feeling is also called bhakti 'devotion, love, worship', and one who feels it is a bhaktin. Once a disciple gets some fruit from their practice they experience avecca-pasāda 'definite clarity', i.e. they know from personal experience what the practice does. The first fruit traditionally being described as stream-entry (sotāpanna), after which one can say "I know, I see" (janāmi passāmi) And this knowledge replaces the superficial feelings of saddhā with something more grounded. One can now continue under one's own steam. Although the word is typically used in another way, we could call this śakti 'capability, power, strength', and one possessing it a śaktin.

Probably most Western Buddhists initially fell in love with some aspect of Buddhism. When we fall in love we experience fascination with the beloved, a desire to be in their presence, to exclude others, and anxiety when apart. Another word for this is passion, the flooding of our system with strong emotions that alter the way we think and act (in my terms: that change the salience of information). The metaphor flooding is appropriate because the alteration in our faculties is paralleled by our endocrine system flooding our bloodstream with hormones. Love has been likened to a drug and to madness; and is often described as a sickness. Like drugs, love feels great, but often has unintended consequences. Under some circumstances, e.g. in a religion, we make common cause with people who share our passion and feel a sense of solidarity. Of course falling in love with Buddhism is complex because it involves relationships with teachers (whom we also fall in love with) and with communities of people. Often people seem to come to Buddhism on the back of some trauma or tragedy, and are looking for a solution to some problem. I don't want to reduce the phenomena of becoming a Buddhist, only to focus on an aspect of it for rhetorical purposes.

Most of us remain bhaktins; we fall in love, and we never become independent śaktins. We never stand on our own two feet. We could blame Western culture for this, but I think it is a more general problem for humanity. For example as humans we have become self-domesticated. Domestication induces certain characteristic changes on animals. One of which is a tendency to retain juvenile behaviours, and physical characteristics; the technical term for this is pedomorphosis (see e.g. Gilbert 2010). Compare for instance the domestic dog with the wolf. These two can in fact interbreed producing fertile offspring, which has forced a change in the taxonomy of domestic dogs. They are now considered a subspecies of the wolf, though their physiology and behaviour are very different. Dogs are behaviourally adapted to human society, and will tend to bond with a family, be very much less aggressive (than a wolf), and be more inclined to submissiveness. And we live in a society in which, for example we have to keep a lid on aggression; where some of us find it difficult to grow up and some of us are wilfully immature. I'm beginning to see that, yes, we are social animals, social apes; but also that we are domesticated social apes.

However it comes about, the majority of us, including many of the more prominent Buddhist Teachers, never quite become śaktins; we never experience the fruits that would make us truly independent. We fall in love and do not mature. In talking about Buddhism we often go beyond our personal experience and resort to quoting books and teachers. And I suspect this might also be related to falling in love with an abstraction (or some might say a projection). A real person inevitably disappoints us and even betrays us, so that we lose our naivety. This cannot happen with an abstraction since the relationship is entirely one sided. An abstract ideal always remains aloof. In Buddhism we might say that this abstraction is a true refuge, for example, because it lacks all human weaknesses and so it cannot let us down. While the down side of this obvious it might not be all bad. By projecting the best parts of ourselves onto an idealised anthropomorphic figure we can come into relationship with ourselves at our best, the angels of our better nature. Transference is not always a bad thing as long as there is some way to own the projections at some point. The problem comes when we over identify with the angels and forget about our demons, though Buddhism has a place for them too!

Falling in love also changes the salience of facts; changes the way we view, validate and value information. For religieux the articles of our faith take on so much mass that they almost always tip the balance back towards our belief system. And recall that this process of weighing facts is not intellectual, but primarily emotional: i.e. we experience the value of information as felt emotional responses to it (hence 'gut feeling').

Once Buddhism starts to 'feel right' to us, it changes the salience of other information. In particular we begin to think in terms of the articles of faith outlined by Glenn, and (re)interpret our experience according to the articles of faith in order to find confirmation of the articles. Anything which does not conform or confirm is either reinterpreted (e.g. as symbolic) or rejected. These responses are just abstract versions of the way primate groups deal with strange individuals: adopting or ousting. When someone reblogged my essay Rebirth is Neither Plausible Nor Salient on Reddit a number of the responses were hypercritical of me. They overstated my claims, and characterised me as reprehensible for trying to undermine "those who followed the original teaching of the philosophy" (Reddit). There was no attempt to engage with my ideas, only a clamour of irrational denunciation. In other words they acted just like jealous lovers.

In the Rebirth essay I summed up my understanding of the general dynamic of the belief in an afterlife like this:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body...
  • So the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible.
  • The emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • And since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable!
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other values.
Falling in love with Buddhism, which stipulates an afterlife as another article of faith, also changes the salience of statements about the afterlife; though it is circular because the eschatology of Buddhism is part of what makes it attractive. This makes the third step of the dynamic very much stronger; and powerfully influences us to make the leap described in the fifth step. Add to that the power of peer pressure, and it becomes very difficult for any Buddhist not to believe in rebirth. The feeling of rightness drives the intellectual effort to justify the belief, though such attempts are always flawed in some way. (See my review of Thanissaro's Apologetic for Rebirth).

As I have suggested, falling in love can make us jealous and possessive. This may help to explain why Buddhists are so very jealous of their texts, their lineages and titles, their special words, and their myths and legends, and especially the historical uniqueness of the Buddha and his Dharma. From the very beginning the peaceful and tolerant religion of Buddhism has been openly contemptuous in its treatment of competing religions. A great deal of effort goes into refutation of heterodox views, which suggests a sense of insecurity in the face of competition. It sometimes appears that Buddhists are afraid that the Buddha's sāsana can't stand on it's own merits. At the same time Buddhists have absorbed whatever seems to work from some of those same traditions! For people who repudiated Brahmanical soteriology and made fun of Brahmins, the early Buddhists surely incorporate a disproportionate amount of Brahmanical cosmology. The very word brahman comes to signify anything particularly important to early Buddhists! There's a very powerful contradiction here that I don't think anyone has yet fully understood or explained.

The idea that Buddhists are often playing the jealous lover may help to explain why, in a religion whose central idea seems to be that everything changes, that so many Buddhists are hostile to changes in their belief system. Glenn Wallis quotes Noam Chomsky:
"The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms."
Buddhists often lack any sense of chronology in their teachings, any kind of historical analysis. I've tried to provide some in my posts about how karma and rebirth have changed over time. The teachings are far from timeless. Indeed the very timelessness of them is an article of faith; and it is obvious to anyone who studies even a little of the history of Buddhist ideas that fundamental doctrines do change. This, however, is not enough to outweigh the transcendental Dharma's status as an article of faith. The gravity of the faith gives the article of that faith much greater salience than it would otherwise have. Which means that it feels right to continue believing it even in the fact of counter-factual evidence. You can't prove something wrong to a believer, because if what you say is contradictory then it is not salient! Historical changes or (mere) human expressions are not salient in relation to a transcendent absolute. This is a metaphysical proposition which is not open to debate, or to evidence one way or another--we either believe it or we don't.

And here is what I see as the crux of the matter. Falling in love changes our evaluation of salience in favour of the beloved. Always. Love is blind. Love is a passion that overcomes reason. Unfortunately this means that most Buddhists are living a fundamental contradiction. On one hand they've adopted a powerful salience-altering ideology which creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop (with internal and environmental vectors) that is incredibly difficult to be free of; and one the other hand it is precisely this kind of world altering view we wish to free ourselves from. Buddhism, as many of us receive it, has the strong potential to be inherently self-defeating. In the oft quoted metaphor from the Aladgadūpama Sutta the Dhamma is a raft which we have to abandon when we reach the other side. Unfortunately for many people the Dhamma becomes a millstone instead, and prevents them from setting off, let alone reaching the other side.

One of primary postulates of Buddhism is that the Buddhism itself is a perfect panacea that endows us with infinite compassion and perfect wisdom. But in real life even the great and good amongst the living are not perfect or immune from vice or, notably, from suffering. The ideology fails to deliver. In a few rare cases where people seem temperamentally (or perhaps genetically) suited to a more ethereal worldview; or it happens by accident e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Ramana Maharshi, Jill Bolte Taylor. 2500 year after the first "fully and perfectly enlightened" human being, the human race, including all the Buddhists of various denominations I've ever met, still suffer. The general failure to deliver has historically caused some Buddhists to adopt an apocalyptic worldview: they see this is a 'dark age' (kāliyuga), and there's nothing we can do except tread water until Maitreya comes in five gazillion years. The long time frame has not prevented a number of sincere and plausible lunatics have come forward to claim the title of living Buddha. Self proclaimed arahants seem to possess something rather less than perfect wisdom and infinite compassion. Despite this notable failure, that we attribute to human weakness and not to wrong information, most of us decide that despite everything Buddhism still "feels right" and persist with it. Surprise, surprise. Failure is simply not salient to a believer. Just as the current global economic depression is not salient to economists. This is not to say that Buddhist practice is not beneficial, because most of the time we do benefit from it. Just not in the way we might hope for, not in that forever life changing blinding flash we read (and talk) about. However, we weave any benefits into our story, and bracket out any difficulties, and thus interpret our experience as confirming Buddhist ideas.

When we're in love with an abstract idea we enter into dialogue with other domains of knowledge only to the extent that it reflects well on our beloved: such as the rather facile and pathetic attempts by Buddhists to invoke quantum mechanics (c.f. Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat); or the appeals to Romantic Poetry (when most Romantics were and are quite morally reprehensible from the point of view of Buddhist morality). Glenn calls this the Principle of Sufficiency. Buddhism can become a box that we cannot think outside of, and don't even want to. This places some severe limitations on us that aren't really helpful. Glenn argues that they are positively harmful, which I will concede can be the case, but I don't think it is universally so.

To summarise, Buddhists are often in love with an abstraction called Buddhism, or with the imagined figure of a Buddha. Falling in love changes our values, and changes the way we assess the salience of information. Love is blind. Passion overwhelms reason. Because we are in love with an abstraction we cannot lose our naïveté in the usual way, through betrayal. As domesticated social primates we have a strong tendency towards paedomorphia, and juvenile behaviour anyway. Love is jealous and protective. Falling in love makes the beloved more beautiful. As such when presented with articles of faith, we are happy to go along with them, and unlikely to be critical if they confirm our opinion of the beloved. Ironically Buddhism can easily become a view (diṭṭhi/dṛṣṭi) that, according to our own rhetoric, traps us in saṃsāra. It's therefore vitally important to identify articles of faith and subject them to the most rigorous intellectual and experiential examination, and be receptive to criticism of them. Most articles of faith are unlikely to survive this process, so we need to be prepared to relinquish them.

The situation is similar to Relativity. Values bend the space in which information is situated; and therefore reason travels in curves near values, and can become captured in orbits. People with strong convictions are caught in an emotional gravity well, and reason in circles about their beliefs. Opinions that matter to us seem to have gravitas. Of course we're all operating in this relativistic cosmos, and no one is free of values or convictions. However falling in love magnifies the value of the beloved enormously, and can leave us happy in our little orbit looking inward, oblivious to the stars. Belief needn't be a black-hole, but leaving orbit requires us to look up and wonder; and it requires concerted effort.


Cited in this essay

Bachelor, Stephen. A Secular Buddhist. www.londoninsight.org.

Gilbert, Scott F. (2010) DevBio: a companion to Developmental Biology. (9th ed.). Especially 23.7 'Evolution and Domestication: Selection on Developmental Genes?'. http://9e.devbio.com/article.php?id=223

Thanissaro. 'The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice.' Access to Insight. 2012.

Wallis, Glen. 'On the Faith of Secular Buddhists.' Speculative Non-Buddhism. May 2012. 

Update: 24 June. 
Anyone who is unconvinced by the idea that Buddhists have articles of faith, and that it is blind faith should read the Wikipedia entry on Faith in Buddhism while trying to imagine how it might sound to a non-Buddhism. Jargon abounds, but worse the page is full of magical thinking, supernatural entities and forces, and bizarre metaphysical statements. Underlying it all is the notion that Buddhism represents the ultimate truth about the universe (though several different and mutually exclusive versions of the ultimate truth can be found on the page). The authors of the Wikipedia page are plainly deluded, if not delusional. They are incapable of seeing their views except from within a framework in which Buddhist Dogmas represents the ultimate truth. I cannot imagine a better example of the idea of reason in orbit around a belief.

15 June 2012

How Buddhist Rebirth Changes Over Time

ONE OF THE FACTS about the foundation texts of Buddhism that most people don't seem to have taken in is that rebirth is an idea with a history. The idea did not spring into being fully formed. And what's more we can discern this history in the Pāli texts themselves. It has been traced in detail by Gananath Obeyesekere in his book Imagining Karma. In this post I want to review the development of rebirth from its primitive form to the full blown received version, basing myself on Obeyesekere, along with some observations and diagrams of my own. The received tradition tends to obscure the variations in the texts, but they can be (at least partially) reconstructed. So this is a kind of archaeology in the spirit of Foucault. A caveat here is that we don't know the absolute chronology of these changes, we only know that they were all preserved, somewhat unevenly, with the fixing of the Canon.

The most basic form of rebirth eschatology is binary. It involves 'this world' (ayaṃ loko) and 'the other world' (paro loko) a way of referring to rebirth that one finds scattered throughout the Canon, and which may have been retained as an idiom long after the binary model had been augmented. In this simple model of rebirth one lives on earth; then after death one rises up to the other world (always up), where one lives for a long time; then one falls back to be reborn on earth again. For example in M 49 the movement is described by this sequence of verbs: jāyati jīyati mīyati cavati upapajjati--being born, living, dying, falling, being rebirth. Rebirth is automatic, and human.

Brahmins also began with a binary cyclic eschatology. Indeed it seems as though rebirth eschatologies were indigenous, or at least endemic, in India. The Brahmin ancestors (or fathers) live in the other world. This cycle is what is referred to as saṃsāra - which means 'going through; course; passage' (from saṃ- 'with, together, complete' √sṛ 'flow, run, move'). The cycle is believed to be endless and beginningless. At this early stage rebirth is not problematised; its just a description of the how the world is. However for the Brahmins going to the next world, like all significant life moments, required the performance of certain rituals. There is no sense of morality being a factor here, but the need for the rituals to be performed correctly had a similar effect. The arrival of morality is the next thing to discuss.

What morality does to any afterlife is divide it. If one has lived well the other world is a place of reward, and if one has not lived well the other world is a place of punishment. In Buddhist texts we find the distinction in the pair of terms 'good destination' (sugati) and and 'bad destination' (duggati. Skt durgati). Another pair of terms are 'heaven' sagga (Skt svarga) and 'hell' (niraya). The word svarga 'shining place' has a long history in the Vedic tradition. It was where the gods lived, but also where the ancestors lived, so in simple terms the other world was svarga. It was situated beyond the sky. However initially there is no clear reference to hell in Indian texts, it's not really until Buddhism that hell plays any definite role in Indian cosmology or eschatology. The word niraya means 'going down'. Because the idea of a subterranean hell appears to be absent from earlier Vedic texts, some scholars have speculated that the idea of hell comes Zoroastrianism (via the Iranian Śākya tribe - see Possible History). Like heaven, the early hell is a place where you go to live out the consequences of the actions done in life, but not a place where one does actions with consequences. We see this explicitly in the Devadūta Sutta (M 130) where one is tortured in hell, but does not die, and therefore cannot be reborn elsewhere until the wicked actions have exhausted their force. Actions carried out in hell appear to have no bearing on this fate.

Note that liberation is outside of space and time and described as "dhuva, sassata, nicca, etc." by both Brahmins and Buddhists. Because the Brahmanical diagram would look just the same I say the two are topologically identical.

At the same time a third option appears, which is liberation (mokṣa, vimokṣa) from going around the cycles. The idea is first seen in literature in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU). By re-jigging the dates of the ancient India texts and placing BU after the Buddhist texts, Johannes Bronkhorst manages to argue that this idea must have come from the śramaṇa milieu. However it's doubtful whether his revised chronology will stand up to scrutiny, and I know of no other scholar who has adopted it yet.  Even so, my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe makes it seem possible that the idea of liberation (i.e. a single destination eschatology) might have been introduced into both milieus around the same time (ca. 850 BCE) from Iran; leaving the current consensus on chronology intact. However it arose, the option of liberation from saṃsāra becomes the major preoccupation of Indian religion from about the middle of the first millennium BCE down to the present. And given how it spread in various guises it must be seen as one of the most influential ideas in the whole history of ideas.

It seems as though these early versions of rebirth eschatology are similar to Brahmanical views, but they might have been more widespread. Rebirth eschatologies are not common amongst the Indo-European speaking peoples (with some ancient Greeks as a debatable exception) but they are ubiquitous in India. So, like linguistic features such as retroflex consonants, rebirth might have been a regional feature. In any case what happens next is the incorporation of some explicitly Brahmanical elements into the Buddhist model. These are not taken on their own terms, in fact presented in distorted, rather mocking ways.

For the Brahmins we meet in the Canon going to Brahmā's realm (brahmaloka) is synonymous with mokṣa or liberation from saṃsāra. Richard Gombrich has argued that the Buddha used brahmasahāvyatā as a synonym for nibbāṇa; which in turn explains the brahmavihāra (literally "dwelling with/on/like God") meditations. Buddhists denied Brahmanical soteriology, and did two things: they brought Brahmā's realm back into saṃsāra, but placed it over the god realm (devaloka) creating a new refined level of saṃsāra (also called ārupaloka); and they multiplied the Creator God into a whole class of very refined beings called Brahmās (plural). On one hand the Brahmās are the highest beings in saṃsāra and people in the texts are very impressed when one of them visits the Buddha, and one of them, Brahmasahampati, is responsible for convincing the Buddha to teach; and on the other hand they are depicted as being deluded about their own nature, trapped in saṃsāra and therefore subject to death. The other thing that happens at this stage is the separation of the spirits of the dead from the gods. The word peta (Skt. preta) has two possible etymologies one which derives it from the word for father (pitṛ) and the other which derives it (as an action noun) from a verb meaning 'gone before' or 'departed' (pra-√ī). In any case this common word for the spirits of the dead who are in the other world becomes a pejorative. Perhaps because the Brahmins made sacrifices to the gods and to their fathers, in Buddhism the preta came to stand for a class of ghosts who were constantly hungry, but unable to ever satisfy that hunger.

At the same time, or perhaps a little later, the idea arose that one could be reborn as an animal. This idea is first seen in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad where the fate of those who do not carry out the rituals is to be reborn as an invertebrate. So at first it appears to be a somewhat chauvinistic Brahmanical idea, but it catches on and is incorporated into the Buddhist eschatology.

Click to enlarge
The final stage involves the emergence of the full-blown version of the Buddhist cosmology with the brahmaloka, devaloka and hell realms being divided into many different layers, and the layers of the first two being related to states of meditation. The devas and their counterparts the asuras undergo their separation and the asuras are sometimes (but not always) given their own realm. In some older parts of the Ṛgveda the two terms deva and asura are synonyms. Varuṇa for example is referred to as both deva and asura. However the contest between them required a winner and loser, and the asuras lost. (In Iran they won and the devas are seen as demons.) Some remnants of the early stories are preserved, often with little alteration, in the sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (the 11th chapter, beginning on p.317 in Bodhi's translation). For the purposes of diagramming the brahmaloka and devaloka are often treated as aspects of a single domain, though Brahmā is never referred to a deva. This gives us the traditional six domains of rebirth: human, deva, asura, preta, hell, animal, as seen, for example on the bhavacakra or 'Wheel of Becoming'. It is possible to go to any realm from any other realm, but liberation is only possible from the human realm.

One of the major changes from beginning to end is the likelihood of a human birth. Initially it is 100% certain. Even in a morality influenced eschatology one always returns to this world as a human being eventually. However, by the end of the process the likelihood of being born human is vanishingly small. The chance compares unfavourably with the probability that a blind turtle raising its head from the great ocean just once a century might put its head through the hole in a plough harness (yoke not yolk!) which is floating about at random on the ocean. While this is not impossible, the chances are vanishingly small. If we take this on face value we have almost 0% chance of being born human. Related to this is the possibility of multiple rebirths in hell or heaven, particularly the former. This suggests a growing concern over the waywardness of human beings and a greater desire to curb behaviour with the threat of exile from humanity in the afterlife. In other words it looks like a hint that rebirth theory changed in response to social change. This should not be surprising as a huge number of Vinaya rules, including the pāṭimokkha ceremony itself, are made in response to public pressure.

In this essay I've been looking at the development of the idea of Rebirth in the Pāli texts. Given the way that kamma changed after the Pāli Canon was closed, it is only reasonable to assume that ideas about rebirth also continued to change. I will briefly mention one other major development in rebirth theory which was the invention of the so-called Pure Land: a parallel universe with a living Buddha. The Pure Land was not simply another level in this universe, not another level of heaven, but an entirely separate and complete universe (though usually lacking the durgati). The parallel universe was not invented because the ancients had insights into the nature of the multiverse or M Theory, it was a theological necessity for those who had begun to believe that the presence a living Buddha was necessary for liberation (the same theological anxiety can be see in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra; and in Peter Masefield's Theravāda oriented book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism.). The Pure Land is a place where liberation is guaranteed by the constant living presence of a Buddha (I would argue that at this point the Buddha has become a god, theos; and that the term theology is entirely appropriate). The resident Buddha in fact creates this parallel universe through their practice of the perfections, emphasising the importance of hard work. Fantastically rococo in many other respects, each Pure Land is entirely flat for some reason. I mentioned Pure lands last week, and it is a fascinating area, but for another essay. Those interesting in how Pure Land theory developed should read this article by one of my favourite authors:
Nattier, Jan. (2000) 'The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 23 (1): 71–102. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/9167
Those who oppose the idea that rebirth is implausible often fall back on simplistic arguments like: rebirth has always been accepted by Buddhists, it's been analysed and accepted as true many times. However this argument seldom takes in the subtleties of the history of the idea. Rebirth clearly changes during the period between of the inception of Buddhism and the closing of the canon. Several different versions of rebirth are, as it were, trapped in the amber of the Pāli texts. But rebirth continued to change. The received tradition, as is usual, never acknowledges the variety of the models, nor the subtle contradictions in the collection of texts. Received traditions are all about presenting an internally coherent narrative, and ironing out difficulties. So inconsistent aspects of the textual tradition are reinterpreted or simply bracketed out. This is not a new process. And confirmation bias is not a new problem.

Contrarily those who seek to deny that rebirth was part of the original teaching don't have a leg to stand on. Rebirth is prominent in the older hagiographical accounts like the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, and in the older parts of the Sutta Nipāta. Rebirth is quite obviously an important part of Buddhism in the earliest records we have. The idea that rebirth is somehow in the background, or was added later, is insupportable based on current evidence. That rebirth no longer seems plausible is an entirely different proposition. And one that creates a dilemma that I have no wish to underplay. We have yet to really work out the implications of this news, though it is the news. Understanding that our doctrines have always been quite changeable and responsive to social change, seems to me to be an important factor in loosening our grip on traditional doctrines with a view to letting them go. Everything changes. Resisting changes causes suffering. The only way forward for Buddhism is, well, forward.


08 June 2012

How the Doctrine of Kamma Changes Over Time

Anubis weighing the soul of Ani the Scribe against the Law to decide his fate in the afterlife. Egyptian Book of the Dead.
EVER SINCE I FIRST published my article on the confession of King Ajātasattu in the Samaññaphala Sutta (Journal of Buddhist Ethics), I have wanted to write a follow-up essay which showed how the idea of karma changed after the early Buddhist period. I'm using this post as a sketch to be filled out later. More recently, I outlined a possible pre-history of the idea of karma, linking it to Egyptian ideas about how morality affected the afterlife transmitted to India via Iran, which then interacted with local Indian beliefs. In this essay I will look at some milestones along the route of a major change that happened to Buddhist moral theory as it moved out of its 'early' phase, in particular, the early ideas of the Pure Land (first centuries CE), the Mahāyāna version of the Samaññaphala Sutta (ca. 5th century CE) , and a special mantra which appears for the first time in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha (ca. 7th century).

In the early Buddhist theory the results of actions are inescapable; there is nothing that stands between us and the consequences of our actions, not death, not god or the Buddha, and no form of praxis. The Buddhist commentators came to see this belief as epitomised in Dhammapada Verse 127:
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified, there is nowhere on earth
Where one might escape from an evil action.
Buddhaghosa, cites this verse, for example, in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta while explaining the term dhammatā, 'naturalness'. He uses it to explain the inevitability of karma (kamma-niyāma), which is one of the five niyāmas. In the Ajātasattu article I cite a couple of texts which suggest ways in which one might lessen the impact of the consequences of our previous actions, but there is no way to avoid them entirely. This is a distinctive moral teaching of the Early Buddhists, and yet precisely this aspect of Buddhist morality changes.

In the Samaññaphala Sutta, King Ajātasattu is troubled by his conscience and goes to meet the Buddha. During the meeting, he confesses that he has killed his father (and the Buddha's friend and patron), King Bimbisāra. The Buddha accepts this news, and acknowledges that the King wishes to return to lawfulness. However, when Ajātasattu leaves, the Buddha says to the bhikkhus "the king is wounded (khatāya), and done for (upahatāya)" (D i.86). Had Ajātasattu not killed his father, he would have attained the dhammacakkhu after hearing the Dhamma discourse. What’s more, patricide is one the five actions which result in immediate rebirth in hell after death. The patricide is said to be atekiccha, 'incurable' or 'unpardonable' (see A iii.146). Buddhaghosa's commentary records that on death Ajātasattu goes straight to the Hell of Copper Kettles. Note that his comeuppance comes only after death, and compare my conjecture that the notion of being judged on your actions after death was introduced to India from Iran. In M 130 we find that a trip to hell lasts for as long as it takes for the consequences to play out; i.e., one was not repeatedly reborn in hell, but more on the development of rebirth theory next week.

In my article, I showed that when Ajātasattu is told the Buddha of having killed his own father he cannot be considered to be 'making amends' (as modern translators suggest), nor does the Buddha 'forgive' him, since such a thing is not in his power. Incidentally, I showed that everyone (including both translators and lexicographers) had previously misinterpreted the word paṭikaroti and the phrase yathādhammā paṭikaroti (returning to lawfulness). Ajātasattu confesses and makes a resolution to return to moral behaviour. The Buddha simply acknowledges the confession and resolution, and does not intervene in any way, because in this system of morality he cannot.

In this worldview we are each the heirs of our own actions (c.f. the five facts to reflect on) and literally nothing can change that. Indeed, I would argue that karma can hardly be expected to work as a moral deterrent unless this is true. But it seems that Buddhists found this limitation too onerous, and introduced ways to first limit and then eliminate the damage done to themselves by evil actions.

The Samaññaphala Sutta has survived in several versions preserved in the Chinese Canon, and a fragment in Sanskrit (Sanskrit title: Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra), which have been studied by MacQueen (1988). In the Pāli sutta, the Ajātasattu story is relatively unimportant and merely frames the important middle section of the sutta dealing with heterodox teachings. MacQueen shows that the later versions make the meeting of the Buddha and Ajātasattu the most important feature, and finds the middle section relatively unimportant. One Chinese version (C1 in MacQueen’s notation) says of Ajātasattu “his transgression is diminished; he has removed a weighty offence” (p.48-49). C2 has by contrast “he has completely done away with imperfections and impurities and is free from the Outflows [āsravas]” (p.69) which is to say that just meeting the Buddha completely purifies Ajātasattu, releases him from the consequences of killing his father, and elevates him to awakening. On this change MacQueen comments: “In the 5th century A.D. this religious event [Ajātasattu’s conversion] was of far more interest than the issue of whether or not there were immediate fruits to the life of a monk” and that “the more depraved the person is who is saved, the more the Buddha’s divine power is demonstrated” (p.215).
A major change has taken place in Buddhist doctrine somewhere between the closing of the Pāli Canon and ca. 5th century AD (when the Chinese copies of the Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra were made).

A related development occurred in the Akṣobhyavyūha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras (ca 1st or 2nd centuries BCE) which heralded the possibility of a new eschatology. It seems that the original idea was that with a lot of dedication and practice one might attain the Pure Land of Akṣobhya, and from there liberation was certain. However, Akṣobhya's Pure Land was soon eclipsed by Amitābha's. The Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras set forth a soteriology in which if we simply call the name of Amitābha he will meet us at death and guide us to Sukhāvatī from where we are guaranteed awakening. Indeed, the idea of Akṣobhya's Pure Land was so deeply buried that it was only rediscovered in the 20th century (see Nattier 2000) We have only to reflect on the enormous and wide ranging influence of Pure Land Buddhism throughout Asia, found in every branch of Mahāyana Buddhism, to see what a very appealing idea this possibility of being saved was, especially amongst the ordinary population of Buddhist countries. 'Calling the name' of the Buddha as a practice seemed to come under the wing of the old practice of buddhānusati/buddhānusmṛti (recollecting the superior qualities of the Buddha), the two together constituting key prototypes for the Tantric visualisation of a Buddha accompanied by chanting their mantra. There are some precedents in the Mahāvastu, which probably date from a century or two earlier than the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras, and the 'calling the name' practice is linked to mantra chanting in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra (ca. 4th century).

However, the change expounded in the Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra is still not as revolutionary as what was to come. The Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra allows that in the past someone who met the Buddha might be saved from the evil consequences of their actions, which reinforced the specialness of the Buddha, but was not immediately relevant to present day practitioners who lived in a time which was many centuries removed from the Buddha. However, the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras show that the idea of the Buddha as an eternally living presence was beginning to take hold. Indeed, this is a key metaphysical problem in another popular Mahāyāna text: the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra (or Golden Light Sūtra). Here the puzzle is that though merit making extends life, and the Buddha is said to have infinite merit, yet he appeared to live a normal human lifespan. In response to this question the Bodhisattva Ruciraketu has a vision in which it is revealed to him (by a maṇḍala of Buddhas) that, in fact, the lifespan of Śākyamuni is infinite. And, of course, this is good news to those who believe that one must be in the presence of a living Buddha to attain awakening because now the Buddha is always living, and always accessible.

The metaphysical problems introduced by an eternal Buddha (which is a form of sassatavāda; Skt śāśvatavāda) seem to have been outweighed by the soteriological possibilities.

The process of change that I have been tracking with respect to the doctrine of karma reaches its apotheosis in a Tantric text composed in the late 7th or early 8th century: the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha. This text survives in two Sanskrit manuscripts (though they are copies from a much later date) as well as in Chinese and Tibetan versions). It is in this text, perhaps the first to expound a mature Tantric Buddhism, that we find the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra or hṛdaya as the text calls it. (See, also, my article in the Western Buddhist Review. 5). This hṛdaya mantra stands apart from the surrounding text, by which I mean it seems to be a distinct idea and is not integrated into a sādhana or other practice. However, it is accompanied by a few lines before and after which give it some context. This context is the one which will be familiar, I imagine, to all tantrikas, since it explicitly says that the mantra will purify a person, and make liberation possible for them when their vow keeping has become lax, no matter what evil acts they have committed.

Tantric Buddhism, then, appears to admit no impediment to liberation, no action so heinous that it will make liberation impossible in this life. Whatever evil one has committed, one simply chants the Vajrasattva Mantra and one is released from the consequences of wicked actions. It does not require grace or intercession from a god; one's sins are simply set aside through the chanting of the mantra. I find this extraordinary, but I know from first hand experience that some tantrikas take this quite literally.

This is surely one of the most dramatic and far-reaching changes in the history of Buddhist ideas. Our doctrine is completely turned on its head over the course of several centuries. And these are not the only variations. S 36.21 outlines why we cannot consider karma to be responsible for everything that happens to us. Some scholars have seen the post-Canonical development of the five-fold niyāma as a continuation of this idea, though this, in large part, seems to stem from innovations introduced by Mrs Rhys Davids, and is not really supported by the texts which discuss the niyāmas. However, in present day Tibetan Buddhism the doctrine is that everything that happens to us is because of our karma.

There is no single unified Theory of Karma in Buddhism, either synchronically (in our time) or diachronically (across time). Instead, there are multiple theories, and very many exegetes explaining the "Truth" of karma. Some of these 'truths' are mutually exclusive. Sectarians tend not to be conversant with the details of the different theories, since sectarian teachers present their version of karma as the Truth. Those who are conversant with a range of karma theories find them difficult to reconcile. 'Actions have consequences' is what it boils down to, but it's hard to see this as a great revelation from the Buddha, since everyone knows this platitude already. The how and when of actions having consequences are Buddhism's specific contribution to moral theory, but unfortunately Buddhists themselves disagree on precisely these points.



Chinese Versions of the Śramaṇyaphla Sūtra studied by MacQueen:

C1. 沙門果經 Shāmén guǒ jīng (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T01n0001:長阿含經 (Dīrghāgama). Translated 413CE Buddhayaśas (佛陀耶舍) and Zhú Fúniàn (竺佛念). CBETA T01n0001_p0107a16-114b02: http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T01/0001_017.htm

C2. 寂志果經 Jì zhì guǒ jīng (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra). T01n0022. Not part of a collection. Trans. 381-395 CE by 竺曇無蘭Zhú Tánwúlán. CBETA: http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T01/0022_001.htm

C3. Untitled. but referred to as 無根信 Wúgēn xìn ('Faith Without Roots' = Skt. amūlakā śraddhā) T02n125p762a07 ff. (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T02n0125: 增壹阿含經 (Ekottarikāgama) T 2.124: 762-764. 7th sūtra, 39th fascicle, 43rd section. Trans either 384 CE or 397 CE uncertainty depends on who translated the text. CBETA http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T02/0125_039.htm

C4. Untitled e (T24.1450.205a09) (=partial version of Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T24.1450根本說一切有部毘奈耶破僧事 (Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Saṃghabheda-vastu). Translated 710 CE by 義淨Yìjìng. CBETA http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T24/1450_020.htm

Note that each of the four versions is in a different place in the Canon: Dīrghāgama (= Pāli Dīgha Nikāya); stand-alone; Ekottarikāgama (= Pāli Aṅguttara Nikāya); and Vinaya.

01 June 2012

Irrelevant Details

Please note that a revised and extended version of this essay has been published as:
Attwood, Jayarava. (2013) Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 5, 42-63. Online: http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/54/86


Revised 7.6.2012 with suggestions from Bryan Levman (BL). Many thanks.

I'VE BEEN READING the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta (M 63) which is a well known text, if only because of the allegory of the man shot by an arrow who refuses treatment before finding out all the details of the person who shot him, and what he was shot with, and dies because of the delay.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that translators and commentators have focussed on the main point, and glossed over the details that consumed the proverbial victim. Unfortunately some of the details are no longer understood because scholars, from Buddhaghosa onwards, were not paying attention. This makes for unconvincing translations. Having the kind of mind I do, I've been trying to reconstruct what the terms might have meant in order to accurately translate them. Some aspects are probably lost forever now. And before anyone gives me a hard time about becoming engrossed in the details; yes, I do see the irony; and no, I don't care. Since the Chinese version of the text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) provided an insight or two I have included my notes on it below as well. Thanks to Bryan Levman of the Yahoo Pāli Group for the suggestion of checking the Chinese, and supplying a reference to it. [Note: there are in fact two versions of this text in Chinese T 1.26 and T 1.94. Also it is paraphrased at T 1509.15]


Here's my translation of the Pāli passage (M i.429)
"Suppose a man was struck by an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends, colleagues and relations would engage an arrow-removing physician to treat him. And suppose the man would say: 'as long as I do not know that man who shot the arrow, whether he was warrior, priest, merchant, or peasant; his name & clan; whether he is tall, short, or middling; dark, brown or fair [of complexion]; and whether he came from a village, town or city I will not allow the arrow to be removed. And as long as I do not know whether I was shot with a cāpa bow or a kodaṇḍa bow; whether the bowstring was akka, or bamboo, or sinew, or bow-string hemp; whether the arrow shaft was gathered or planted; whether the arrow was fletched with the feathers of a vulture, heron, falcon, peacock, or sithilahanu; and bound with cow, buffalo, deer or monkey sinew; and whether the tip was a point, knife-edged, barbed, iron, calf-tooth, or leaf shaped, I will not allow the arrow to be removed.' That man would die before all this was known, Māluṅkyaputta."

The first thing that I was struck by is that the man's friends and relations ...bhisakkaṃ sallakattaṃ upaṭṭhapeyyuṃ.  Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (hence forth Ñ&B) render this as "brought a surgeon to treat him" (p.534) which as far as I can see leaves out the word sallakattaṃ altogether; c.f. Gethin (2008) "summon a doctor to see the arrow" which acknowledges the salla part of sallakattaṃ, but there is no verb 'to see' here! A doctor is bhisakka.  The verb is upaṭṭhapeti a causative form of upaṭṭhahti 'to stand near, to attend, nurse'; from upa- 'near' + √sthā 'stand'; and it's in the optative mood so means 'would cause to attend'. So his relations 'would cause a doctor to attend' but again this misses out sallakattaṃ.

What does sallakattaṃ mean? The salla part means 'arrow' (which is what the whole thing is about) and this leaves us with -katta. According to BL "the only phonological explanation for the -tt- is if the geminate replaced an original conjunct consonant. The only one that would be contextually relevant is the noun karta [from √kṛt 'to cut'] which means "hole, cavity." Hence sallakatta must refer to the 'arrow wound'. This reading requires the verb to take two patients, and it's not clear whether this is allowed. DOP lists no examples of this.

BL notes that Buddhadatta concise Pāli-Eglish Dictionary defines sallakata as 'surgeon' (and sallakattiya as 'surgery', on the basis, apparently that salla can mean a surgical instrument. PED derives katta from *kartṛ 'worker' (the word exists in Skt. so I'm not sure why they use the asterisk). However the obvious meaning of sallakartṛ would be 'arrow maker' or 'fletcher', rather than surgeon. Compare MW śalyakartṛ 'arrow maker'; but śalyakarttṛ 'a remover of splinters, i.e. a surgeon'. Apte's English Sanskrit Dictionary suggests śalyataṃtravid and śasravaidyaḥ for surgeon. I think the answer is that Pāli sallakatta is Skt. śalyakarttṛ 'arrow remover' rather than śalyakartṛ 'arrow maker' or śalyakarta 'arrow wound' (all three devolve into Pāli with the same spelling); and that we should avoid translating this as 'surgeon', because here, anyway, it seems to be an adjective rather than a noun. It's not inconceivable that an arrow maker might also have found employment as a remover of arrows, being conversant with arrows. Just as a medieval European barber found other employment for their razor (though again calling this 'surgery' is over the top). 

All this means that we do not have to impose two patients on the verb, and that bhisakkaṃ sallakattaṃ is a straightforward apposition 'an arrow removing doctor'.

Moving on we come to the bow. Most translators cope well with this sentence. There are in fact three words: dhanu, cāpa and kodaṇḍa. The first two are synonyms, though dhanu (Skt. dhanus) is also a word for 'rainbow'; and may be related to words for trees, c.f. dāru 'wood'. PED suggests that the word cāpa, by contrast, comes from a root meaning 'to quiver' from PIE *qēp. However, my new Sanskrit etymological dictionary, Kurzgefaβtes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen (CSED), suggests *kēp or *kamp. The root *kēp does not occur in my standard PIE sources, but *kamp does and it means 'to bend' (AHD/OIEL).

A kodaṇḍa is according to PED a 'cross bow' though it is doubtful whether the technology existed in the Buddha's time; c.f. DOP 'a kind of bow'; MW & Böhtlingk who both define it as 'bow' with no mention of 'crossbow'. CSED makes the obvious point that daṇḍa is a stick, or staff, but adds that ko- here is a pejorative prefix (a form of Skt. ku) so that it must mean something 'bad stick'. Note that the Chinese version of the text does not mention the cross-bow although they clearly had them by the time the translation was made. BL's suggestion is that kodaṇḍa is a loan word from Munda and refers to the bows that the Munda speaking peoples used. Certainly daṇḍa appears to be a loan word (C.f Witzel 1999, p.16) [I have one more ref to check on this JR]

Bow String
Calotropis gigatea
Now we come to the bow string. In translating this passage we need to keep in mind that a bow string must be able to withstand considerable tension, and can't be made of ordinary rope. The choices of material here are in Pāli: akka, saṇṭha (or saṇha), nhāru, maruvā and khīrapaṇṇiṇ. PED is quite good at identifying plant names, though some of them have been revised in the mean time.

Pāli akka is Calotropis gigantea (Skt. arka). Variously called in English “calotrope, crown flower, giant milkweed, swallow-wort, and apple of Sodom.” Chiefly notable in the present for its milky sap, which has medicinal properties, and for its attractive flowers; in the past the leaves were used in Vedic ceremonies, and apparently the plant produced fibers strong enough to be woven into bowstrings. The last item in the list is Pāli khīrapaṇṇin, but this is simply a synonym for akka; literally meaning ‘having leaves with milky sap’. Ñ&B translate it as ‘bark’; MA informs us that bowstrings were made from the bark (vāka) of the akka – though as a flowering shrub it doesn’t have bark per se, so here it must mean the outer layers of the stems. Compare the notion of ascetics wearing the vākacīra or ‘bark garment’, which presumably is from cloth woven of rough fibre produced from this or a similar source. According to the Udāna-Aṭṭakathā, Bāhiya used akka stalks (akkanāḷāni) to make a robe and shawl (nivāsana-pāvuraṇāni) to clothe himself. akkanāḷāni chinditvā vākehi paliveṭhetvā nivāsanapāvuraṇāni katvā acchādesi (UdA 77).

Pāli saṇṭha (Sri Lankan and PTS eds.) PED ‘a reed (used for bow strings)’; or saṇha (CST) PED ‘smooth, soft’. I can’t find any more information on saṇṭha or a Sanskrit equivalent. MA glosses veṇuvilīva: meaning ‘slivers of bamboo’. Bamboo is certainly a source of strong fibres that can be woven. Another possibility is that these are variations of saṇa, sāṇa: PED ‘hemp’; Skt. śaṇa, MW: hemp (Cannabis sativa), or sunn hemp (Crotolaria juncea) aka ‘Bengal flax’.

Pāli nhāru is a variant spelling of nahāru meaning 'sinew'. Sinew is, of course, the connective tissues from animals, particularly tendons. It's possible that 'gut' might be included under this heading, since as we know stringed instruments used to (and sometimes still do) use gut strings and these are able to bare considerable tension.

Sanseveria roxburghiana
Pāli maruvā is a plant of the genus Sanseveria (also spelt Sansevieria) specifically S. roxburghiana. One of the characteristic plants of this genus is the ornamental ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’ (S. trifasciata). Sometimes called ‘bowstring hemp’, though not related to the cannabis plant. Other names for the genus include: dragon’s tongue, jinn’s tongue, snake tongue, etc. Some species are excellent sources of fibre, and used for making rope (and bow strings) in India and Africa. For an illustration of how fibres were obtained from such plants see: primitiveways.com.

The Chinese substituted various kinds of sinew (筋) at this point in their text.

Saccharum sa
The shaft of the arrow is the next thing that concerns us. Here we have two options: gaccha or ropima.

Pāli gaccha ‘a shrub or bush’. MA ‘from a mountain bush or river bush etc.’ (pabbatagaccha-nadīgacchādīsu jātaṃ). PED gaccha ‘shrub, bush’ often in comparison with trees (rukkha) and vines (latā); PED denies the confusion with Skt. kaccha; (PED Sv. kaccha pabbatakaccha & nadīkaccha mountain & river marshes’).

Pāli ropima ‘what has been planted’. MA ‘having sown, raised, desiring sara; having got sara, [the arrow] was made’ (ropimanti ropetvā vaḍḍhitaṃ saravanato saraṃ gahetvā kataṃ.). Pāli sara is Saccharum sara (aka muñja grass) which sends up long (2m) tufted spears that can be made into arrows. Alternatively ‘desiring sara’, saravanato, could be ‘from a grove (vana) of sara’ - though does grass grow in 'groves'? Ñ&B, following MA, understand this and previous term to mean “wild” and “cultivated”.

The Chinese have three options: muñja grass, bamboo and luó é lí wood (羅蛾梨木) though I could not produce a plausible translation for the last.


For an arrow to fly true it needs some stabilising fins or vanes at its base. Traditionally these were made from feathers. In our allegory the feathers might have come from the vulture, heron, falcon, peacock, or sithilahanu. The latter is a mystery.

Ñ&B translate sithilahanu as ‘stork’, but on what authority? The name is a hapax legomenon (a one off) in the Canon. Buddhaghosa's commentary (MA) merely says ‘a bird of that name’ (evaṃ nāmakassa pakkhino)! The sub-commentary (MṬ) ‘Sithilahanu is the name given for an bird with ears(?)’ (sithilahanu nāma dattā kaṇṇo pataṅgo) where kaṇṇa means ‘angle, corner; ear; rudder’; pataṅga is not in PED, but the CST dictionary lists ‘a bird’ (c.f. Skt. pataṃga ‘flying; any flying insect’). PED sv. sithila ‘loose, lax’; and sithilahanu ‘a kind of bird’. Sithilahnu is not in DOPN; nor is the Sanskrit (śithirahanu/śithilahanu) in MW. Searching PED electronically reveals no occurrence of the word ‘stork’. Buddhadatta’s English-Pāli Dictionary sv. stork gives ‘bakavisesa’; while Apte’s English-Sanskrit dictionary gives nothing like sithilahanu for 'stork'. Thomas (1913) and Gethin (2008) leave the word untranslated; c.f. Horner (1954-9) “some other bird” (vol.2, p.99). Note that also in our text we have the name kaṅkha 'heron' (from √kaṅk which may have an onomatopoeic origin).

Grus monacha
The Chinese version of this text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) records the name as 鶬鶴 (cāng hè) which is Grus monacha, the Black or Grey Crane. However the text only includes three names: peacock (是孔雀), black crane (鶬鶴), and eagle (鷲). So cāng hè could just as easily be a substitute for heron as for stork, and indeed G. monacha could be said to more closely resemble a heron.

There is a suggestion that sithilahanu refers to the open billed stork (Anastomus oscitans). This is mentioned in a blog post by Shravasti Dhammika for instance. The Envis Centre on Avian Ecology in collaboration with the Bombay Natural History Society lists "shithil hanu bak" as the Sanskrit name of the A. oscitans. This has obviously been Hindi-fied and ought to be śithilahanubaka. But where has this come from?

If we translate sithalahanu it means something like 'slack jawed' (hanu is cognate with the English chin) which might plausibly be a reference to the open billed stork since it's lower beak does not quite fit the upper leaving a gap. Sanskrit-English and Pāli-Eng. dictionaries only include the more gracile herons and cranes under the name baka; but Eng-Skt. and Eng-Pāli dictionaries include baka as a name for the stork.

Anastomus oscitans
Ali & Ripley in their authoritative guide to India birds (2001), give the Hindi name of A. oscitans as Gūnglā, Ghonghila, or Ghūngil. Hindi etymology is difficult to establish but Skt. ghoṇa 'beak, nose', Skt gila 'swallowing' might allow for a hypothetical Skt. *ghoṇagila(?). Though there is nothing like this in either my Pāli or Sanskrit dictionaries. The Bengali names are given as Thonte Bhānga, Shāmukh Bhānga, Shāmukh Khol. Here I've had more luck (with help from a young naturalist): ṭhōnṭa 'beak'; śāmukh 'mollusc'; bhaṅga 'breaking'; khol 'cover; shell; hollow, crevice, open' (e.g. চোখের খোল (cokhera khola) 'eye socket'; and পেটের বা বুকের খোল (peṭera bā bukera khola) 'chest cavity'.) Which gives us Thonte Bhānga 'broken beak'; Shāmukh Bhānga 'mollusc breaker'; or Shāmukh Khol 'mollusc hollow(?)' as possible names. The Tamil name is Naththai kuththi narai 'Snail Pecking Stork'. The Bihari name is given as Dokar, but I cannot find any more information on this word. So none of the modern Indian names of the bird resemble sithilahanu, either in form or content.

In tracing this further I think I found the source of the equation of sithalahanu and the open-billed stork. In his 1949 book on bird names, celebrated Indian scholar Raghu Vīra lists (entry 2215, p. 426) Anastomus oscitans as घोंघाशा शिथिल-हनु (ghoṃghāśā śithila-hanu) and then slightly below as शिथिल बक (śithila baka). At first sight this would seem to be definitive, but we note that Vīra does not list any Sanskrit sources. In his notes he only refers to a yet-to-be-published book by K. N. Dave seen in manuscript which referred to the stork by this name. This book was subsequently published (apparently posthumously in 1985) and it reveals something interesting about the Sanskrit name of A. oscitans (p.395-6). In trying to identify the open billed stork in Sanskrit literature Dave tentatively identifies a number of other candidate names, but these are by no means certain. Significantly he does not list śithilahanu as a Sanskrit name, suggesting that he did not find it in any Sanskrit text. However he has noticed the Pāli bird name sitihlahanu which translates as 'having a lower mandible loose or relaxed' and says
"I need hardly add that शिथिलहनु [śithilahanu] is a most fitting name and a correct rendering of the English name Open-bill for the bird."  (p.396)
Dave has performed a remarkable slight of hand here. Although there is no traditional equation of the open billed stork with sithilahanu that I can find, or that he cites, he has made the leap and connected them. Then in another great leap he equates the Pāli with the Sanskrit, spelling the Pāli word in the Sanskrit manner, and somehow śithilahanu becomes the perfect name for the bird, even though this Sanskrit name does not exist, and there is no a priori reason to believe that the Pāli name refers to this bird! Indeed his enthusiasm rests partly on the way that his invented Sanskrit spelling fits the English.

In fact there is nothing 'loose or relaxed' about the very robust bill of the stork (have another look at the picture above) it just doesn't fit together. 'Loose' is hardly a "fitting or correct rendering" of 'open' when you stop to think about it. These unjustified leaps are given a seal of approval by the great Raghu Vīra and it becomes a "fact" that the Sanskrit name is śithilahanu, or reading the Devanāgarī Hindi fashion: Shithil Hanu

Unfortunately connection is entirely spurious, and this means that, after a thorough search, I can find no authority for translating sithilahanu as 'stork' or 'open-billed stork'. The word sithilahanu appears to be lost to us unless some new evidence should emerge.


Ruru Jataka bas-relief

Next our man wants to know about the binding used for the feathers, and again we are left with some mysteries. The choices are the sinews of the cow (gava), buffalo (mahiṃsa), something called roruva (or in CST bherava), and something called semhāra.

CST has bherava ‘fearful, terrible’, which MA glosses as kāḷasīha ‘black lion’ (the Asiatic lion can apparently be a mottled black in colour); other editions have roruva ‘deer’ (the two words are in fact related from the root √ru ‘roar’ [as is the -rava part of my Sanskrit Name]. Male deer do roar in the rutting season, to attract mates and warn off rivals.) Roruva is the name of a hell realm (DOPN). Skt. ruru is a kind of antelope, but can refer to savage animals in general.

Under semhāra PED "some sort of animal (monkey?)", noting that it is explained as makkaṭa  (monkey) by Buddhaghosa's commentary. The Sanskrit markaṭa is also ‘the Indian crane, a spider, and a sexual position’). This word is also a hapax legomenon in the Canon and my research has not turned up anything interesting. There is no Sanskrit equivalent that I can find, unless semhāra is related to, or a dialectical form of the Sanskrit siṃha 'lion' (Pāli 'e' is the guṇa and vṛddhi grade of 'i'); though note that Gāndhārī spells it siṃha. Like sithilahanu this word seems to be lost to us.


The arrow heads have produced the least informative translations, but it's possible to reconstruct what the terms might have meant by casting our net a bit wider than PED, and by looking at the shapes that arrow heads traditionally take. In Pāli we have: salla, khurappa, vekaṇḍa, nārāca, vaccha-danta, and karavīra-patta.

Of these terms nārāca ‘iron’ seems to be the odd one out, though the Sanskrit Epics mention arrows of iron which were used to kill elephants (Singh p.105). The other names seem to concern shape of the arrow head:
various arrow heads
  • the salla is a simple point [c.f. no. 6, right].
  • khurappa (PED ‘hoof’) is the Epic Skt. kṣurapra ‘knife edged’ arrow [c.f. 4] (Singh 1989, p.105) and hence Ñ&B have read this too literally, or been mislead by PED. Note that Cone's new DOP gets this right and lists it under khura1 'a razor or sharp blade'.
  • vekaṇṇa (barbed); [9]
  • vaccha-danta calf’s tooth (Skt vatsa-danta) is mentioned in the Epics and said to be in the shape of a calf’s tooth [similar to 7] and extremely sharp (Singh 1989, p.105); 
  • karavīra-patta or oleander leaf, the shape of which is technically described as ‘narrow lanceolate’, i.e. a narrow, elongated oval coming to a sharp point. [11]
Note the similarity of some of the names in the Chinese version below.


Why should we care about such details in a text which is primarily making a metaphysical point about what kinds of questions are answerable and/or important to ask? For most people, and most translators judging by their approach to this text, the answer seems to be that the details are irrelevant, which is to take the message of the text rather literally. After all I am not pierced by an arrow, or trying to emotionally blackmail anyone, I'm trying to translate a text so as people who don't know Pāli can read it. I'm not Māluṅkyaputta. I'm not refusing to practice unless I find the answers, but I am interested, and enjoy the investigative process.

I think what made me spend time looking into these questions is that the poor quality of the other translations jarred, and disrupted my sense that the text was a living document. The lack of concern for preserving knowledge of small details has meant that we have lost any hope of definitively understanding them - I can speculate, but in the long run neither I nor anyone can reconstruct terms that were lost unless some new evidence should emerge - perhaps a Gāndhārī version of the text for instance. 

It might be argued that losing Pāli terms for archery is no great loss, but if we get these details wrong through indifference then what other details are we getting wrong? How many of us, for example, picture Bahiya going around draped with great lumps of tree bark instead of roughly spun jute cloth? Keeping the past alive, or bringing it to life, means making use of such details to give our picture resolution. Why settle for vague blur when we can do considerably better than that?

I think word extinction is a problem. Perhaps not a huge problem, if one tree dies, we still have the forest, but it's a sign of carelessness, or neglect. If we value these texts for what ever reason, then there is an imperative not just to preserve them, but to keep alive what they mean. If we allow a words to cease being meaningful, then the whole is marginally less complete and less beautiful. Most likely we'll never recover what has been lost.


    Chinese Text
    What follows is a very rough rendering of the same passage from the Chinese text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) from CBETA, using online translation (often ludicrous), dictionaries, pattern recognition,  and some guess work on the basis that it can't be that different from the Pāli. Notes on each paragraph are included below it in bullet points. While the grammar is less than crystal clear, one can pick out key words, the nouns and adjectives, which is all we need for a general comparison. The caveat is that I only know a handful of Chinese characters (and that from my interest in Japanese). MO = notes by Maitiu O'Ceileachair.
    I cannot remove the arrow (我不除箭) until I know of the one who shot me (誰以箭中我): what was his surname (姓), his name/mark(?) (字); was he long (長) or short (短); if he was dark (黑) or pale (白); kṣtriya (剎利), Brahmin (婆羅門), layman (居士), or worker (工師姓); from the East (東方), South (南方), West (西方) or north (北方)?
    • The 字 is what is usually known as the style name, that used to be taken by a man at 20. Here it just means name. (MO).
    • 剎利 shālì = kṣatriya
    • 婆羅門 póluómén a phonetic rendering of brāhmaṇa.
    •  居士 Jūshì = lay, scholar, Buddhist.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow (我不除毒箭) until I know: was the bow sala wood (薩羅木), tala wood (多羅木), or chì luó yāng jué lí wood (翅羅鴦掘梨木)?
    • sà luó i.e. Skt. sala.
    • duō luó: Skt. tala i.e. palmyra
    • chì = ke, ki, ḍa; luó = la, ra; yāng = aṇg; jué = ku, gu; lí = ri. Karungali? (Acasia catechu) Keralan name; c.f. kirankuri (Emilia sonchifolia) a herb in Hindi.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: were the sinews (筋) which wrapped the bow (而用纏彼弓) beef sinew (若牛), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was the bow grip (弓弝) white bone (白骨), black lacquer (黑漆), or red paint (赤漆)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was the bowstring (弓弦) beef sinew (牛筋), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: is the arrow [shaft] Shě luó wood (舍羅木), bamboo (竹), or Luó é lí wood (羅蛾梨木)?
    • 舍羅 Shě luó = Skt. śara (Pāli sara) = Saccharum sara used for making arrows. 
    • Luó é lí = The first and last characters are used to transliterate ra and ri, but I haven't found an example of 蛾 used this way. Literally the characters read 'gather moth pear'.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: is the arrow binding (纏箭) beef sinew (牛筋), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: are feathers (毛羽 used to make the vanes (取彼翅用作羽), peacock (孔雀), black crane (鶬鶴), or eagle (鷲)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was it iron (鐵), or calf [tooth] (婆蹉), póluó (婆羅), or nàluó 那羅,  or jiāluó bǐng (伽羅鞞)?
    • 婆蹉 pó cuō is a translation of vātsīputriya; c.f. Pāli vatsa 'calf'. Burnouf & Buffetrille (2010), p.518.
    • 婆羅 = póluó = Skt. pāla, bāla, bala, sāra.
    • 那羅 = nàluó; = Skt. na ra; c.f. 緊那羅 kinnara; cf. Pāli nārāca 'iron'.
    • 伽羅鞞 jiāluó bǐng = Skt karavī[ra]?; cf. Pāli karavīra-patta 'oleander shaped leaf'.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: what was the blacksmith's (鐵師) last name (姓); long or short; dark or pale; in the East, South, West or north?
    • I think 鐵師 means 'blacksmith'. It occurs quite frequently in the canon and from context it usually seems to refer to a craftsman of some sort. (MO)
    Despite considerable obscurity remaining, most of the content of the text can be identified. Even without fully understanding the Chinese we can see that the form is much the same as the Pāli text, but that content is mostly quite different. The Chinese translators have used two different methods to deal with unfamiliar words or entities. Firstly they transliterate using a Chinese character (汉字 hànzì) to represent the sound, e.g. 婆羅門 póluómén for brāhmaṇa; secondly they substitute with something more familiar, as with black crane (鶬鶴) for heron (kaṅka).

    It's useful to know that Chinese translators sometimes transliterated and I'm grateful to my friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair for many long discussions about the ins and outs of this and other translation issues (and thanks for giving me a few pointers post publication, noted above). I'm also grateful to the anonymous person who extracted many examples of the Chinese translation approach from the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (which has an incomprehensibly restrictive access policy).

    A final note is that we can tell from the way of the words are transliterated that the original the Chinese translators were working from was not in Pāli, but in Sanskrit, or a more Sanskrit-like Prakrit. For instance when transliterating sara the 's' is aspirated (sh)--舍羅 shě luó--which is not a feature of Pāli, but compare the Sanskrit equivalent, śara, which is aspirated, and note that the Gāndhārī Dhammapada (G-Dhp 329) has śara for the Pāli saraṃ 'arrow' (Dhp 320). At least some of the texts reaching Chinese were written in Gāndhāri (c.f. Boucher 1998)


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    • Ali, Sálim and Ripley, Dillon S. (2001) Handbook of the birds of India and Pakistan: together with those of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Bombay Natural History Society. 
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