30 August 2013

Heart Sutra Mantra

My calligraphy of Heart Sutra
Siddhaṃ script
The Heart Sutra is a synthetic text composed in China from three main elements:
  1. Extracts from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T 8.223; ca. 5th century).
  2. Elements drawn from the devotional cult of Avalokiteśvara (觀自在 Guānzìzài). 
  3. The cult of dhāraṇī chanting, and a mantra probably drawn from existing Chinese texts. 
The first element is quite well covered in the literature, especially as Jan Nattier (1992) focusses on this part of the text in her reconstruction of its provenance. My next essay will address a lesser known aspect of this issue which is buried in Nattier's footnotes. The second element deserves a little more attention, but is covered briefly in Nattier (174-5). This essay will largely focus on the third element. 
    In her long essay on the origins of the Heart Sutra, Jan Nattier notes (footnote 52 & 53) that two other scholars have found mantras similar to the Heart Sutra mantra in other places in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. One of these references is particularly significant as it seems to pre-date the composition of the Heart Sutra itself. This essay will present the Chinese source texts for these mantras. Before dealing with these mantras, we need to pay some attention to the dhāraṇī cult itself, and try to establish some terminological boundaries. 

    The cult of dhāraṇī chanting is sometimes placed in the context of Tantric Buddhism, but I think this is a mistake. It is true that mantras are a feature of Tantric Buddhism. However, as Ryūichi Abé. has shown, Tantric Buddhism requires certain elements to be present in order to be Tantric. In The Weaving of Mantra he emphasises the abhiṣeka or initiation in particular because the abhiṣeka is the ür-ritual which underpins all of Tantric Buddhist practice. In Japan, prior to the arrival of Kūkai and Saichō with genuine Tantric Buddhism, some Tantric elements were present: images, dhāraṇī and mantra, and even texts such as the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. However, in the absence of the Tantric paradigm and organising principles, these elements did not add up to Tantric Buddhism.

    Abé is trying to revise the history of Japanese Buddhism, but he has enunciated an important hermeneutic for discussing the presence or absence of a mode of Buddhist thought. For example: if a person bows before a Buddha statue, burns incense, and chants oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, but has no knowledge of why Buddhists do such things, does this make them a Buddhist? These are simply decontextualised actions with no intentional underpinning. They are Buddhist in externals only. A similar argument is simmering away with respect to the Jon Kabat Zinn inspired mindfulness treatments. Does the teaching of mindfulness amount to teaching Buddhism, or does it lack key elements, such as "going for refuge", that render the teaching non-Buddhist? Some Buddhists who teach mindfulness argue that they are teaching Buddhism when they teaching mindfulness. Others argue that the lack of context for the practice, particularly the absence of Buddhist metaphysics, means this is a beneficial secular practice that does not conduce to liberation.

    In any case, the point is that although dhāraṇīs were incorporated into Tantric Buddhism, there is nothing in the dhāraṇī sūtras or the chapters inserted into larger texts such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka or Survabhāṣotama, to indicate a Tantric context. The first hints of Tantra associated with a mantra seem to be found in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra according to Alexander Studholm's study of that text, which includes an account of something like an initiation, though it still lacks the central features of the abhiṣeka ritual. The point of chanting dhāraṇīs seems largely to have been protection from malign forces or entities. And thus they have much more in common with the Theravāda practice of parittā chanting than with Tantric practice (at least with respect to the Tantric Buddhism practised by Kūkai). It's not until they are incorporated into rituals centred on the abhiṣeka, that they become Tantric. This criteria is common to other elements that were incorporated, not least the elements from Vedic ritual. No one, to my knowledge, argues that Vedic fire rituals were "proto-Tantric". 

    Nattier points to the opinion of Fukui Fumimasa (1981. Source text is in Japanese) that the name of the Heart Sutra in Chinese is 心經 Xīnjīng, literally "heart sūtra", but that 心 xīn (heart) here connotes dhāraṇī rather than 'pith' and that the text might well be a chanting text, i.e. a dhāraṇī text. We know from Xuánzàng's record of his journey to India that he used the text as a protective measure against unseen malevolent spirits. The title of the short text in Sanskrit, Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, does not include the word sūtra, and it seems likely that the original, short text was not considered as a sūtra. That transition probably happened in India when the traditional elements of a sūtra, such as the beginning evaṃ maya śrutaṃ... and the appreciation at the end were added. Another reading of 心 is "gist" with the idea that rather than Heart Sutra, the meaning is Gist Text, with the text representing the gist of Prajñāpāramitā.

    The dhāraṇīs of the pre-tantric Mahāyāna texts are often radically different in form from the mantras of later Tantric Buddhism. Of course there is a huge amount of variation and cast-iron definitions are difficult to construct.

    Defining Mantra and Dhāraṇī

    Tantric mantras have a number of structural features in common: a beginning (usually oṃ); a name or function; and a final seed-syllable. 

    Typically Tantric mantras begin with oṃ (not auṃ) which served to mark what follows as a mantra. However in the earliest fully-fledged Tantra, the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, the mantras all begin namas samanta-buddhānāṃ or namas samanta-vajrānāṃ. The ending -ānām indicated the genitive plural case (of the Buddhas). However, in Prakrits (including Pāli) the dative case (to or for the Buddhas) endings began to be replaced by the genitive case endings. Here ending is the usual genitive, but the sense is dative and the words mean "homage to all Buddhas/vajras".

    What follows oṃ can be the name of a deity (oṃ amideva hrīḥ, oṃ vajrapāṇi hūṃ, oṃ vagiśvara muṃ) or relate to a function in the ritual, especially purification with the śūnyatā mantra or the Vajrasattva mantra. Names of deities are sometimes in the dative case, or in a kind of faux dative created by the addition of -ye to the end of the word: oṃ muni muni mahāmuni śākyamuniye svāhā. The correct dative of śākyamuni is śākyamunaye (final i is replaced by aye)

    Tantric mantras typically end with a seed-syllable (bījākṣara) related to the deity or with svāhā. Sometimes the seed-syllable is specific to the deity, or to the "family" they belong to. Mantras of the vajra family typically end in hūṃ, while the padma family often end in hrīḥ. At other times it seems unconnected to other considerations. For example  oṃ maṇīpadme hūṃ is a padma family mantra. Some mantras incorporate dhāraṇī style features into them which would include the Heart Sūtra mantra and the Tārā mantra (oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā). The variety of mantras is partly due to their being a number of systems existing in parallel. 

    Dhāraṇī by contrast seldom begin with oṃ and almost never end in a seed-syllable. They almost always end with svāhā. The word svāhā is the Vedic equivalent to the Hebrew amen. It is used in the Yajurveda to solemnise offerings: one makes an offering of rice mixed with ghee to the fire while chanting, for example "agnaye svāhā" or 'For Agni, amen' (Taittirīra Saṃhitā The content of the dhāraṇī is a string of words or sounds which seldom reference names of deities, and frequently include nonsense words such as hilli, huru often with repetition and ringing the changes of the first syllable: hilli hilli milli milli. There is a tendency to use words ending in -e. Various theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but my opinion is that the -e ending is a Prakrit masculine nominative singular. This probably also applies to the well known oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra. A feature of dhāraṇī, then, is the use of Prakrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. 

    Typical dhāraṇīs from the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra:
    anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samitā viśānte mukte muktatame same aviṣame samasame jaye kṣaye akṣaye akṣiṇe śānte samite dhāraṇi ālokabhāṣe pratyavekṣaṇi nidhiru abhyantaraniviṣṭe abhyantarapāriśuddhimutkule araḍe paraḍe sukāṅkṣi asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣite saṁghanirghoṣaṇi nirghoṇi bhayābhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣayate rute rutakauśalye akṣaye akṣayavanatāye vakkule valoḍra amanyanatāye svāhā.
    iti me iti me iti me iti me iti me; nime nime nime nime nime; ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe| stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe svāhā.
    There is a world of difference between these two dhāraṇī and most Tantric mantras.

    The Heart Sutra Mantra

    The Heart Sutra mantra is clearly referred to as a mantra by the text. But it has more features in common with dhāraṇī in form and content. It's lacks the opening oṃ for example, though some traditions have simply added one. The repetition and play of sounds in gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate is typical of dhāraṇī. Why then does the text refer to this as a mantra? I will look more closely at this issue in the next essay.

    Meanwhile let us compare the Heart Sutra mantra with the three mantra/dhāraṇī listed in Nattier's footnotes as being similar. Of these T 12.387  大方等無想經  Dàfāngděng wúxiǎng jīng (Mahāmegha Sūtra), identified by Fukui (1981), is important because it was translated in the early fifth century, two centuries before the proposed date for the composition of the Heart Sutra.

    Mantras and dhāraṇīs are typically not translated by the Chinese, but the sounds are represented using characters for their pronunciation.  Unfortunately it can be very difficult to reconstruct the Sanskrit from a Chinese transliteration. For example the character 卑 bēi has been used to transliterate the Sanskrit syllables pra, pre, pe, pi, vi, and vai. Note that I'm using Pinyin Romanisation in these posts, which often does not reflect pronunciation at the time the texts were composed. The language of the day is referred to as Middle-Chinese (MC). Where relevant and possible I will indicate the MC pronunciation 

    The dhāraṇī in question is:
    竭帝 波利竭帝 僧竭帝 波羅僧竭帝波羅卑羅延坻 
    三波羅卑羅延坻 婆羅 婆羅 波沙羅 波娑羅 摩文闍 摩文闍 
    遮羅帝 遮羅坻 波遮羅坻 波遮羅坻 三波羅遮羅坻
    比提 嘻利 嘻梨 薩隷醯 薩隷醯 富嚧 富嚧 莎呵
    jiédì bōlìjiédì sēngjiédì bōluósēngjiédì bōluóbēiluóyánchí
    sānbōluóbēiluóyánchí póluó póluó bōshāluó bōsuōluó mówéndū mówéndū
    zhēluódì zhēluóchí bōzhēluóchí bōzhēluóchí sānbōluózhēluóchí
    bǐtí xīlì xīlí sàlìxī sàlìxī fùlú fùlú shā hē
    Fortunately for us some markers are clear at the beginning.  The Mantra in the Heart Sutra in Chinese is:
    揭帝 揭帝 般羅揭帝 般羅僧揭帝 菩提 僧 莎訶
    jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí sēng shāhē
    One does not need to understand the characters to see that many of them graphically match up between the two mantras above, especially at the beginning. The opening characters of both are very similar. Both 竭帝 jiédì and  帝  jiēdì are transliterations of Sanskrit gate (the difference in pronunciation is a matter of tone). MC pronunciation in both cases was gal (with a hard g sound).

    The first words in the Mahāmegha Sutra mantra are: jiédì bōlìjiédì sēngjiédì bōluósēngjiédì which most likely represent Sanskrit: gate parigate saṃgate paragate. The Mahāmegha mantra ends 莎呵 shāhē; the Heart Sutra has 莎訶 shāhē; both represent svāhā. Note the graphic similarity of 呵 and 訶 which have the same pronunciation, he, in MC.

    A little note here that the mantra in Xuánzàng's version of the Heart Sutra (T 8.251) has an extra out-of-place character, 僧 sēng, between bodhi (菩提 pútíand svāhā (莎訶 shāhē). Even though this is probably the oldest version of the text, it is not without problems! 

    A similar dhāraṇi is also found in T. 21.1353 東方最勝燈王陀羅尼經 Dōngfāng zuìshèng dēngwáng tuóluóní jīng (First-radiance Knowledge King Sūtra = Sanskrit Agrapradīpadhārāṇīvidyarāja-sūtra). As in T 12.387 the dhāraṇī shares opening elements with the Heart Sutra mantra using the same transliterating characters.
    阿  竭帝 波羅竭帝 波羅僧竭帝     
    a    jiédì    bōluójiédì  bōluósēngjiédì   
    a gate paragate parasaṃgate
    Here the character 阿 is often used for the Sanskrit short 'a' vowel and thus may reference the idea of the perfection of wisdom  in one letter, or more precisely the fact that all dharmas are empty of self existence (sarvadharmāḥ svabhāvaśūnyatāḥ) because they are unarisen (anutpanna). See also The Essence of All Mantras; and Sound, Word, Reality.

    The gate gate mantra itself, with the same transliteration, is found in T 18.901 陀羅尼集經 Tuóluóní jí jīng (Dhāraṇī Collection Sūtra). This was translated ca. 653 CE which is around the same time that Nattier proposes for the composition of the Heart Sutra. Note also that it is a collection of dhāraṇī (陀羅尼 Tuóluóní) rather than mantra. The presence of a dhāraṇī in a collection is not conclusive evidence that it existed detached from the Heart Sutra before its composition, but it at least shows that dhāraṇīs can be detachable. It's quite possible that similar examples may turn up with further examination. 

    It seems that, not only is the core of the Heart Sutra an extract, but the "mantra" might also be an extract from a dhāraṇī. It might be thought that the fact that the Heart Sutra is a mash-up of bits from other texts invalidates the text. However the composition method closely resembles many Pāli texts which are clearly constructed from pre-existing elements that can be found scattered around the Canon. Far from being unusual, the Heart Sutra is following standard Buddhist procedure. Even the subsequent addition of a proper sūtra introduction is in keeping with general Buddhist practice. 

    In my discussion of cladistic methods applied to studying manuscripts, I argued that it would help to iron out biases. Another bias that Buddhist Studies faces is the prejudice in favour of texts with Indian "originals". In my essay Which Mahāyāna Texts? I outlined an observation made in another publication by Jan Nattier about which Mahāyāna texts are prominent in the West. The existence of a Sanskrit manuscript is one of the influential factors likely to bring a Mahāyāna text to prominence. The fact is that the Heart Sutra is broadly accepted as a genuine masterpiece of Buddhist thought. Commentaries from across the spectrum of Buddhist schools adopt the Heart Sutra as an epitome of their thought. Is a text any less authentic because it was not composed in India? It is true that Buddhists believed that the text was of Indian origin and that was an element in popularising it. Now that we know differently will Buddhists have to abandon this text? I think there is no question of abandoning the text, but the necessary adjustments might be quite difficult. One sign of this is the rejection of the Chinese origin thesis by Red Pine in the introduction to his translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra. Though his reasoning is spurious, it is none-the-less interesting to see how difficult Buddhists find it to absorb information like this.

    One of the reasons for writing about Nattier's work is that it has yet to penetrate to the heart of popular imagination and the discussion about textual origins is in its infancy. Such writing raises questions for Buddhists. If we take scholarship seriously, then we are forced to examine our own beliefs and sometimes to admit that our beliefs are based on false assumptions such as authenticity being related to India. 


    A further note 26 sept 2013.
    The Tibetan canonical versions of the Heart Sutra both include tadyathā in the mantra itself. I've looked at this generally in Tadyathā in the Heart Sūtra - the inclusion of tadyathā 'like this' in the mantra is like actors speaking stage directions out loud. One of the versions also interpolates oṃ into the mantra as do some of the Nepalese manuscripts. 


    I've already written about the mantra of this text a couple of times:

    All Chinese texts from CBETA.

    • Abé, Ryūichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.
    • Fukui Fumimasa (1981) Hannya shingyô no rekishiteki kenkyû. [= Historical studies of the Buddhist scripture Prajñaparamita-hrdaya or Heart Sutra.] Tōkyō: Shunjūsha. 
    • Studholme, Alexander (2002). The origins of oṃ manipadme hūṃ : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany: State university of New York Press.

    23 August 2013

    John Lydon was my Elvis

    "Americans are really suspicious of anything cerebral, and Zappa didn't disguise his intelligence well enough. In addition to being a man of wide-ranging talent, one amazing thing that always struck me about Frank was his melodic dimension... Frank Zappa was my Elvis."

    - Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
    "Ever get the feeling
    you've been cheated?"
    Zappa was an inspiration to me as well. I once an article called Frank Zappa: the Idol of my Youth. But I think if one person sums up the attitude of my generation, if anyone is 'my Elvis' it was John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten as he was also known. Lydon combined intelligence with anger and outspoken disregard for authority. A lot of people my age believed him when he chanted "no future...". He was acting out something most of us felt at some level. I'm three days shy of being 10 years younger than Lydon, so he seemed more like an older brother than the older generation.

    Neither Zappa nor Lydon had much time for hippies. Lydon was once asked why he hated hippies, and replied "they're complaisant". This off-the-cuff sneer has always struck me as apposite. Why is this relevant to a Buddhist blogger? Because most of the Buddhist organisations in the West are now run by Baby Boomers and they took the hippies seriously, or they were actually hippies (some still are). Statistics for the Triratna Buddhist Order, and anecdote from beyond, suggest that Baby Boomers are also still the primary pool from which we draw members. Baby Boomers are officially those born from 1946-1964. The average Western Buddhist was born in these years, participated to some extent in the counter culture, experimented with hallucinogens, and now has a steady, but boring job and a family of 2.4 kids now grown up. They vote Labour or Green and still cling to the idea of a revolution in some form or other. They still believe it's possible to "change the world".

    This essay is partly inspired by something written some time ago on Progressive Buddhist, and also a post on Smiling Buddha Cabaret. Western Buddhism quite clearly reflects the values of the people involved in it. Lots of bloggers think that the emphasis is slanted towards the socialist, inclusive, tolerant, feel-good, "nice", all-is-one end of the political spectrum. As I replied to the anonymous author at Progressive Buddhist, the Buddha that one meets in the Pāli Canon:
    "...was all personal responsibility, self-reliance, hard work, discipline, and no excuses... traditional conservative values."
    I could add that, despite the famous Buddhist tolerance for other religions, the Pāli Canon Buddha went about destroying the religious faith of every non-believer he met, like Richard Dawkins on amphetamine. He wasn't beyond calling people corrupt and spiritually destitute fools (e.g DN 13) and likening the Brahmins to dogs (AN 3.56). Insults, invective and ironic humour make for laugh out loud reading at times (DN 27.23 - well you have to know Pāli to see the pun, but it is funny). And just look at the monastic establishments of Asia. They are arch conservatives, resistant to all forms of change, clinging to decades old traditions they claim date from millennia ago. The views of the Buddhist establishment in Asia seem almost the polar opposite of liberal Western democracies. Views on women, for example, seem archaic and bizarrely hostile.

    So how come Western Buddhism is do different to traditional Buddhism? Partly I suppose it appealed to disillusioned Baby Boomers who had already lost trust in authority, and rightly so, but were floundering for lack of clear goals and values. They tended to lean to the political left, even to the extent of foolishly thinking that 1960's Russia or China offered a via alternative to the status quo. They wanted, desperately, to believe in a communist utopia and some still do. The values of friendliness and compassion gelled with the all-embracing, giddy free-love of the hippies, and the we're all-in-this-together communists. But none of it had substance. Unfortunately it sometimes survives in what Sangharakshita has called pseudo-egalitarianism: the idea that we are literally all equal, all the same; indeed that "all-is-one". This leads to rampant relativism and further erosion of values.

    One of the great ironies of the hippy age was that they preached brotherhood while selfishly indulging in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Meanwhile the regressive Baby Boomers were organising themselves to take over governing the world - and I mean this literally. Governments that were nominally conservative but were in fact infected with enthusiasm for a new kind of liberalism, ruled the UK and the USA almost throughout the hippie heyday, partly as a result of political apathy on the left. The one US exception was JFK and he was assassinated. In the UK Callaghan's Labour (and the Labour-Liberal coalition) presided over the Winter of Discontent in 1977. Drunk on the power of their collectivity unions began to be greedy and to extort concessions from the bosses. It could only ever end badly, as the wealthy are happy to tolerate many things, but not attacks on their wealth and privilege. Addled by drugs the hippies were a force for confusion and inertia. Tune in, turn on, and drop out.

    By the late 1970s the Right in the USA had begun to make common cause with the previously apolitical Christian fundamentalists. Allowing the Neoliberals to dominate government was to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of politics. You can't opt out. By not participating you simply open the field to more motivated people - and the right-wing are nothing if not motivated. What was worse however was that Neoliberal ideology went mainstream. In New Zealand we elected a Labour government in 1984 and by the mid 1990's they had done to our economy exactly what Thatcher did in Britain. They turned it into a model Neoliberal economy with no trade barriers, no strong unions, minimal protection for workers, free movement of capital, and huge debts. If anything NZ was more extreme than either the UK or USA. When New Labour came to power in Britain they continued to implement Neoliberal economic policies, freeing the finance sector to build up a huge debt bubble. Yes, it fuelled an unprecedented boom that seemed like an economic miracle, but the price was the collapse of the economies of Europe and the longest recession in history for the UK. In this they aped policies implemented by Alan Greenspan in the USA. The influence of the Chicago School of Economics and former executives of Goldman Sachs was worldwide.

    Neoliberals tuned in, turned on and took over. And this led to the debacle of the every-man-for-himself 1980's. I was a teenager and really thought it likely that Ronald Raygun would start a nuclear war with Russia. My generation, teens in the 1980s and 1990s, became selfish in a totally different way. We were still disillusioned with authority and perhaps with even more reason to be, but we were also disillusioned with hippies and communists. In short, we had nowhere to run. The Sex Pistols broke up before I really switched-on to their music, but the punks symbolised an attitude of "Fuck You" that played out for a little while before Neoliberals took control of record companies and made the music bland again. Lydon and the Pistols gave shape to the impotent rage we felt as yuppies replaced hippies. My generation did not take drugs for fun and indulge in fantasies of universal brotherhood, we took drugs to escape the fear of a world gone mad with power and felt isolated from everyone. The subculture that defined Generation X was the Goth. We saw a world in which multinational corporations became increasingly powerful and rich, and in which financial speculation reaped huge profits when it worked, and impoverished ordinary people when it did not. We saw, if we were watching, the impoverishment of Africa and South East Asia by the IMF and the World Bank's imposition of Neoliberal policies there. We saw Japan come from nowhere to world domination of the car market, to long term crushing recession and the end of jobs for life, just in our teen years. And presuming we did not simply join in, we tended to spiral into depression (sometimes both) and to fracture into innumerable sub-cultures with no sense of counter-culture. 

    Lydon was angry, but funny; raving but witty; frightening, but on our side (though perhaps he would sneer at such a sentiment). He was not a likeable character, but as we grew up public figures seemed more and more manufactured and dishonest. And at least Lydon said what he thought and was against the phonies. "Anger is an energy" as he was later to sing. And he had a lot to be angry about in the late 70s and early 80s in London. After the winter of discontent, it was the Thatcher years. In the US it was Ronald Raygun and George Bush Snr. In retrospect President Raygun forced the Soviets to bankrupt themselves through the arms race and that caused the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, I suspect he will be treated kindly by history for that, despite being one of the principle players in the Neoliberal take over.

    In power, the Left no longer pursue genuinely socialist policies of caring for the society. These are replaced by popularism where the squeaky wheels get the attention. Supposedly leftist governments like Blair's took outrageous (and illegal) actions like going to war with Iraq. There has been a steady erosion of civil liberties associated with the "War on Terror" to the point where that war is itself terrifying. This week a journalist was detained and questioned under anti-terror laws and Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail for exposing criminality in the US military. Frightening. The implications are quite sinister. Two good fictionalised accounts of where this might lead can be found in Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and Ken McLeods's Intrusion. The first is American and the second British. Intrusion is probably the more frightening vision since it is not very far in the future and reads like a plausible extrapolation of the current trends. Disengagement has allowed Neoliberals to take over the world's governments. Life is not going to improve under these conditions. To be disengaged from politics is abandon self-responsibility.

    One of the great ironies of British politics is the Conservative Party. This party of so-called "conservatives" swept to power on a reformist agenda portraying themselves as economic progressives in response to the tired and wasteful economic policies of Labour. In fact their ideology is not conservative at all, it is Neoliberal. They embrace laissez faire economics and have launched major reform programs which are designed to reshape British Society along laissez faire lines. They have opened the door to the eventual destruction of the welfare state for example, and made every effort to punish the poor and weak for being economically unproductive. The Conservatives are now a radical liberal party.

    I suspect that the bloggers currently taking aim at Buddhism-lite, at middle-class white Buddhism, at feel-good Buddhism, at 'good Buddhists' are my age or younger. Our parents were the post war Baby Boomers, and we were called Generation X by the media who like a good sound bite. Disaffected from birth, disinclined to political engagement, cynical, but with a fine appreciation of irony and satire. "No future, no future for me" sang John Lydon back in the day, although it must be said that his future turned out rather well and he played a great set at that bastion of mainstream rock, The Glastonbury Festival this year (2013). That said, the future that awaited people our age was to see growing inequality and division. Not an apocalypse, but the gradual transformation of most of the population into wage and debt slaves trapped in small and relatively meaningless lives accompanied by jaw dropping entertainments 24/7. 

    So does Buddhism have to be saccharine, woolly, soft and cuddly, all-embracing, lovey-dovey? Hell no. It does not. I'm quite pleased to see words like hardcore being associated with Buddhism, though not particularly impressed by the content of so-called hardcore Buddhism to date. On the whole Western Buddhism strikes me as rather complaisant, even when it is posturing as hardcore. And Buddhists I know are generally more complaisant now than they were when I became a Buddhist 20 years ago.

    Perhaps a strand of Western conservative Buddhism will also emerge? One that doesn't simply reproduce the conservatism of Asia but gives expression to something new. A conservatism that does not have the rigidity of Confucianism and the inertia of Taoism at it's heart, but is rooted in the values of the Renaissance and the European Enlightenment? 

    We live in a time of confused values, of unclear personal and social boundaries, and of divided communities and loyalties; where virtue is disregarded, and vice rules. Where there is no community, and individuals are simply ground down. Where traditional political movements have abandoned their principles to pursue popularity and self-interest.

    Conservative elements in a society force progressive elements to justify change and help to stop change for change's sake. They support individual striving (something Buddhists ought to appreciate). Liberals takes this to the extreme and  Progressive elements prevent society from falling into formalism or being unable to adapt to change that is unavoidable. They ensure that no one is left behind as progress occurs.We need some of each.

    Clearly my response to the existential situation is not quite the anarchy endorsed by the young Lydon. While he seems to see himself as a rebel still, he's something of an establishment figure now, albeit as irascible as ever. I recently watched a video of 60 year old Roger Daltrey singing "Hope I die before I get old". No doubt he would now argue that you're only as old as you feel. I think the whole anarchy thing was a youthful pose in any case. Disengagement from politics has served us badly. Extremely badly. We've seen what a small group of motivated and engaged people can achieve in the Neoliberal revolution. And most of us felt unable to stop it because we bought into the idea that we are powerless and alone. Of course they had enormous resources behind them. But they are the 1%, and we are the 99%.

    In the UK the membership of the Conservative Party is down to just 100,000 people. That means that if 100,001 more people joined with a common purpose they could take over the party. I suspect that the Triratna Buddhist Order could probably muster enough supporters to do such a thing. If we were united. Imagine that? 

    16 August 2013

    A Moral Universe?

    National Geographic
    (the gun is a toy).
    Recently I was describing to a friend a rather distressing, life disrupting experience I had. Part of his response was to say that he still believed in "a moral universe". I find the idea of a moral universe puzzling.

    We would not speak of moral weather or of a moral ocean. Weather is easily explained in physical terms: a combination of the elements and molecules on the surface of the earth and it's atmosphere combined with heating from above and below, and rotation of the earth. There is no doubt that the resulting system is complex and difficult to predict on a small scale and/or at a long time interval. Nowadays we understand pretty well what factors are involved, and we no longer invoke unseen metaphysical entities or forces to explain it. Of course human behaviour does change weather and climate, but this is understood as being a disruption of physical elements rather than the weather as a locus of agency responding.

    How then would the universe be moral? This question set off a series of reflections which I will try to trace here.

    A Moral Universe?

    Religious Buddhists have this idea that karma rewards and punishes everyone according to their deeds - not in a personal vindictive way, but in a purely impartial and impersonal way. Each act has built in consequences that manifest. The Pāli texts warn that trying to work out the precise mechanism will drive us mad. However, various pre-scientific metaphysical mechanisms are proposed by later Buddhists to try to explain it. As far as I know they all involve belief in an afterlife, and some kind of metaphysical continuity between lives. The afterlife in particular is a requirement of any idea of a fair universe because life is patently unfair. So often the wicked prosper and the good suffer. Since this lifetime is very obviously unfair it requires that rewards and punishments be meted out in an afterlife. This basic idea was present in Egyptian religion and was taken up by Zoroastrians in Iran ca 1000 BCE. From there various small and marginal tribes transmitted this Zoroastrian idea to the Central Ganges Valley where it transformed the Vedic and Non-Vedic cultures (See Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism). The idea of impartial and impersonal post-mortem judgement also seems to come from Zoroastrianism.

    Since it is not personified the agency of judgement becomes diffuse and vague - it is "the universe" that is somehow moral. The "universe" keeps track of good and bad deeds and ensures that everyone gets their just deserts, even if not in this life. The problem with this is obvious. If that next life person is not me, then someone else is going to experience the consequences of my actions after I'm dead. There is only a slight moral imperative here. If the person in the afterlife is me then a metaphysical soul has been introduced that is explicitly against the metaphysics of Buddhism and thus a contradiction. The vague idea that the next life person arises in dependence on causes is metaphysically more sound, but it makes the connection between the actor and the consequences of their action rather abstract. So metaphysics are often set aside to emphasise that it is "I" who will suffer in the afterlife, particularly in less sophisticated milieus. 

    The ocean is particularly resonant as a metaphor for me because I used to ride waves several times a week before moving to the UK. Surfing involves sitting out just beyond where the majority of waves are breaking, riding the swell and watching the horizon for the occasional one-off wave which is larger than the rest. Once a suitable wave is spotted one turns to face the beach and attempts to get up enough speed so that as the wave rolls along it lifts you and you end up surfing it it. Too slow and the swell just leaves you behind. Too fast and you risk it breaking on top of you. When you catch a wave the feeling is glorious, like flying. But if you miscalculate, the wave does not make any allowance. It just rolls in according to the laws of physics, oblivious to humans, fish, rocks or beaches.

    Waves are the result of friction of the wind moving across the surface of the wind imparting energy to the water. The longer the pathway the bigger the wave can get. The waves I used to mainly surf had a potential path of about 2400 kms, but could get up to about 4 or 5 metres on a big day (and 2 metres was about my limit). There are much longer runs. The gigantic waves of up to 25 metres that break on the North Shore of Maui, travel almost 6000 kms across the Pacific from the Aleutian islands of Alaska. But never does a wave hesitate to break. Never does it arrive at a moment which favours any particular person based on their behaviour. Nothing we do or say can alter the brute facts of waves arriving at beaches, being forced up by the rising seabed or reef, and collapsing to create chaotic turbulent flows thus dissipating some of the energy, before exhausting itself on the shore. Why would we believe that it could? And is this not a microcosm of an impersonal universe?

    The sea is not moral. So how is the universe moral? More fundamentally, how can the universe as a whole be moral when parts of it display no sign of being moral?

    One possibility is that somewhere between something we perceive as local to us, and something so large it can only be an abstraction there is a transition. Most of us don't see weather in terms of agency any more, even when, as here in England, people take the weather quite personally. However, some people do see the earth as a whole as having agency. Specifically some people have understood that there is agency involved in James Lovelock's idea, the Gaia Theory, that the biosphere of our planet is self-regulating system that maintains optimal conditions for life. Despite Lovelock's objections some have personified Gaia and attributed both agency and sentience to the system that he saw and described in physical terms. So perhaps there is a scale effect?

    Morality is a peculiarly human quality. As yet there is no purely physical description of morality. Morality requires that we invoke aspects of human psychology and culture that are still to some extent vague and partially understood. Ideas about what morality is and what it does are still contested across various disciplines.

    I can certainly believe that people are moral, and that this affects the way they live and are treated by other people. To be moral is generally speaking to be trustworthy within a particular moral framework. To be moral is to voluntarily follow stated behavioural norms that make one reliable and predictable. To my mind it is this predictability which is advantageous in groups of humans. as well as in groups of other social animals. The stability of groups relies on members pulling together most of the time. And for much of our history this equated with survival as individuals and groups. Predictability is much less stressful. When all around is unpredictable, we benefit from reduced stress when we know we can rely on group members to behave within certain limits under given conditions. And if people don't follow the rules we can be very harsh in inflicting pain upon them.

    When we say "the universe is moral" we are projecting the same kind of reliability onto the universe. Certainly the universe behaves in an ordered way to some extent. On the human scale, the behaviour of matter and energy is almost entirely predictable (it's only at the extremes of measurement both large and small that order is less obvious). But is this morality? I would argue that it is not because there is another dimension to morality, which is goodness. The moral person tries to be good, as defined by a system of morality. The norms they follow are not entirely arbitrary, but are some cultural formulation of how a good group member behaves. We know a person is good not just from their following the rules of goodness society has laid down, but also by their response to breaking the rules. A good person expresses remorse for bad behaviour.

    But the universe, like the sea, simply follows arbitrary rules that are indifferent to human group survival. Sometimes that behaviour is beneficial to us, sometimes it is not. And yet it is utterly remorseless. Like waves crashing on a rock, or rain pouring down to flood and sweep all before it as a torrent, the universe follows it's own inhuman logic. It's a frightening thought and I understand why people shy away from it, but I see no sound evidence that the universe is moral. And I think this is why we humans are constantly inventing anthropomorphic intermediaries for aspects of the world over which there is no control and no expectation of trustworthiness: weather gods, especially storm and rain gods; fertility and harvest gods; water gods; etc. We've long understood that the universe is indifferent to our struggles and have sought ways to bring it to our will. Without, it must be said, very much success to date.

    The Problem of Evil

    However, for the sake of argument let us stipulate a moral universe because this begs the same question that is required by the belief in a moral god. Sometimes called the problem of evil or theodicy (from the Greek and meaning 'God's justice'). In Buddhist jargon we would ask: Why do we suffer? I've asked this question before. In this context we might ask: why does the universe even allow for evil if it is moral? If the universe lacks agency then in what sense is it moral? If it has agency and does not act against evil, then is it immoral? I think here my friend might have meant that the universe is moral in the sense that good and evil are rewarded and punished respectively (and eventually). And that this system of reward and punishment is universal, impersonal, and impartial.

    The problem is less extreme than the problem facing those who belief in an omnipotent Creator God. They face a God who could have designed the universe without evil at all but did not, and who could now eliminate evil but chooses not to. Evil must be part of God's plan, and therefore God must be capable of evil. Indeed some would argue that creating a universe which contains evil is itself an evil act - it certainly leads to a great deal of suffering. 

    Suffering in Buddhism is a result of not being awakened. All the Buddhist theology I have come across portrays bodhi as the natural state of the human being, and suffering as unnatural. Not explicitly in these terms, of course, but this is the gist. So there is a further question: why are we not awakened? The answer is that we are unmindful and indulge in the pleasures of the senses; that we indulge in desire and aversion. But if this is not in our interests then why do we do it? Why are we so ill-adapted to life that most of us go through life causing ourselves and others to suffer through our appalling ignorance?

    Buddhists avoid this question by citing the timelessness of saṃsāra, which has no beginning and no end. One of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas describes a cyclic world with near perfect beings gradually descending into vulgarity and error over time until they become like us. Then after a while the world is destroyed and remade as perfect to begin the cycle again. However this is not a Buddhist cosmology, so much as a satire of a Vedic cosmology. It was intended to undermine the idea of a cyclic universe, though it did not entirely succeed. 

    Some people suggest we are actually eternally pure and perfect already but covered with "adventitious defilements". But how, if we were once perfect and behaved in ways which were perfect, could we possibly fall into the kinds of errors that cause suffering? Such a narrative appears to buy into the very narrative that is mocked in the Dīgha Nikāya. It is incoherent. 

    The alternative is hardly less satisfying since it says that we start off flawed and are tasked with dragging ourselves with great difficulty towards perfection over uncountable lifetimes. If the universe is moral, then according to this it is only marginally so. The question of why we are flawed at all remains unanswered and is probably unanswerable. All we can do is take stock of where we are, and continue the hard slog towards perfection with little hope of reward in this lifetime. 

    Sangharakshita has offered a kind of evolutionary account of this process. The lower, or biological, evolution has brought us so far, to the point of self-consciousness and now it's up to us to pursue the higher or 'spiritual' evolution. Leaving aside the problematic element of teleology in Sangharakshita's theory of evolution why would we evolve a consciousness of self that lead us into such gross errors? Most evolutionary narratives are about the accumulation of traits which make us better suited to our environment, better suited to survive and pass on our genes. How do we evolve a consciousness that is so fundamentally flawed that we all act in ways that cause harm to ourselves and each other? This is not a question addressed by Sangharakshita. And I suspect he might say that his evolutionary account was a metaphor that ought not to be taken literally.

    Evolutionary Religion

    In my previous discussion of why we suffer I argued that we did evolve to suit our environment, but that once we began to employ culture, we changed our environment much more quickly than evolution could keep up. The idea is that about 10,000 years ago our lifestyles began to change as we domesticated animals and plants: for example, we lived in much larger groups and began to produce regular food surpluses. And these along with other changes lead to a skewing of our relationship to the drives which motivate us: we have many more opportunities to indulge in the pleasures of the senses. Where once those pleasurable sensations were essential to our survival, they now allow us to pursue pleasure as an end in itself. I suspect that the idea of eating purely for pleasure would not have occurred to any human before about 10,000 years ago. The better off we are, the more we tend to pursue pleasure for it's own sake. Our flaws are thus the downside of civilisation. As we raised ourselves up we simultaneously fell. This is theme in myth around the world: knowledge comes at a price. The results are not so gross as to make civilisation undesirable for the mass of people. On the whole we live longer, our children survive more often, education is widely available, we enjoy leisure to pursue pleasurable activities like the arts and sports. More enlightened societies protect the weak and vulnerable, embrace difference and are tolerant of minorities, ensure basic human rights, follow explicit laws, etc. Civilisation is definitely a step forward, though individual civilisations have a definite lifespan and all tend to follow the same story arc. And that story ends with decadence, hedonism and a general confusion of morality, followed by collapse and/or overthrow by external forces. Some argue that Europe and America show all the signs of end-stage civilisations.
    "Our global civilization now exhibits many of the symptoms of earlier civilizations in their death throes. While we are far better equipped than our ancestors to prevent the collapse of our civilization, this will require a major reconfiguration of our political and economic institutions." - Renegade Economist
    There's no doubt that our standards of living are, generally speaking, higher as a result of civilisation. But it comes at a cost and many of us are all too aware of the cost and find it too much, or almost too much. We feel uncomfortable in luxury and complaisance. We want to ask "is this all there is?" And we intuit that the answer is "no", without fully understanding the nuances or consequences of that answer.

    And here's the catch. Religious dogmas such as 'the universe is moral' or 'god is good' are designed to reassure us that everything is and will be OK. If we are only a little dissatisfied with civilised life but feel trapped within it, then such dogmas will allow us to keep going. We will commit some of our time to religious activities, take on the internal (mental) and external (physical) trappings of religion, and it will help us with the conflict we experience. In particularly corrupt societies religious groups will hive off into enclaves and emphasise their religious affiliations with external signs. The Amish of the USA have limited their connections to the wider world for almost 300 years and by all accounts are much happier than the average American.

    If we are thoroughly dissatisfied with civilised life we have a much greater problem, because it leads us to question the platitudes of organised religions as well. A really deep look at society reveals that it not only requires "a major reconfiguration of our political and economic institutions" but that our minds need reconfiguring at a fundamental level to take account of the slowness of evolution and the speed of cultural change. Holding out like the Amish is apparently not enough, because even they will eventually be overrun by modernity.

    The role played by religion in appeasing the worries of the dissatisfied waxes and wanes. Societies go through periods of more or less homogeneous belief and periods of heterogeneity. We think the time of the Buddha was a time of diverse religious opinions and probably a time of moral relativity. An influx of Iranian tribes and Brahmins into the Central Ganges Valley where they met earlier Indo-Iranian immigrants along with peoples of Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic stock, created a melting pot. The resulting confusion is to some extent documented in early Buddhist texts. The result was a series of cultural syntheses that resulted in new orthodoxies: Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. Some of these broke away from their tribal origins and became so-called 'universal religions'. All were aimed at easing the tensions caused by civilisation. Later in another period of turmoil in India after the Huns destroyed the Gupta Empire, we saw the creation of a great over-arching religious synthesis in the form of the Tantra.

    Especially in India the relationship with pleasure became suspect and distrusted. Perhaps more than in any other cultural milieu the religieux of India pursued asceticism to see if it would free them from desire - and we know that on the whole it did not. Mainstream Indian culture eventual embraced aestheticism in the form of the Kāmasūtra and theories of raga. And while Buddhist monks themselves often settle into lives of comfort, the Buddha's central message was not lost. We need to free ourselves of intoxication with the pleasures of the senses, not through pain, but through developing indifference to both pleasure and pain, and thus arriving at equanimity. But it also incorporated mystical experiences such as oceanic boundary loss - the feeling of being at one with everything, and in love with everything. Though these two seem contradictory, the latter experience tends to make people dissatisfied with ordinary pleasures and ordinary life.

    Buddhism and Belief

    My point here is to argue that the central goals of Buddhism, though historically linked to the idea of karma and rebirth, of an afterlife and a moral universe, do not absolutely require them. One can readjust ones relationship towards pleasure towards a more healthy lifestyle without adopting a system of metaphysics which has almost no bearing on it. Recently more and more people are stepping forward to say that they are liberated in various ways. Liberation after a long hiatus once again seems like a real possibility for Buddhists.

    I know the argument against this proposition about abandoning traditional Buddhist metaphysics by rote because any time I mention it some bore pops up to say "if you don't believe in karma and rebirth, you aren't a Buddhist". But this is just as much a partial reading of Buddhism as what I am proposing. Indeed all forms of Buddhism are partial, emphasising some things and denying or suppressing others. I'm not proposing anything which is extra to the Buddhist tradition except the notion of evolution.

    My response to the charge that what I propose is not Buddhism is that I do not define a Buddhist be what they believe, but by what they do and with whom they do it. I've engaged in a wide range of Buddhist practices. The Triratna Order is an eclectic synthetic school of Buddhism (i.e. a Buddhism that draws on multiple existing schools of thought, but moulds them into a new whole). And despite my hardcore scepticism I know that these practices, whatever the metaphysics, do help with the Buddhist project. Devotion to the Buddha or a Bodhisattva does help. Puja and chanting do help. Study helps. Being a member of a Sangha helps (even when it involves all of human frailty) Meditation is only the most obvious practice, but it helps too.

    A Buddhist in my view is someone who does these kinds of practices, with the goal of liberation in mind, with other Buddhists. What they believe about what they are doing is entirely secondary in my view.

    Metaphysics and doctrines are far less important than most people make out. If the universe is moral or not such an important question. My friend and I can disagree about this without ending our friendship. Even the definition of liberation is not particularly important. It is certainly something to constantly question and perhaps even contest, but that questioning should not get in the way of practising. But questions of doctrine are never settled. A glance at Buddhist history ought to make this clear as it is usually presented in terms of doctrinal developments based on disagreements about things people believe. Histories of practice are relatively rare and have started appearing only recently.

    Buddhism, in my definition, is practice, not belief. In my experience it is through practice that understanding emerges. My most valuable insights have come in periods of retreat and intensive practice, and through intensive study and reflection. Puja is for me an easy route to bliss and a sense of interconnectedness. While awake I am most likely to lose my sense of self while engaged in an activity like writing or singing.

    One of the things that becomes clear in this world of extended communication networks is that no two Buddhists have the same beliefs in any case. The present is a time of extreme relativity of belief. It is a time of great doctrinal confusion, partly because there is really too much Buddhist doctrine to ever make sense of it all, partly because previous attempts at synthesis have introduced new problems, and partly because the boundaries of Buddhism have never been more porous and open to heterodox ideas. No doubt in a century or two a new synthesis will emerge that will inspire the great majority of Western Buddhists, and perhaps Eastern and Indian Buddhists as well. Until then we will stumble along in confusion doing our practice and almost but not quite understanding other practical approaches.


    09 August 2013

    The Doors to the Deathless

    Siddhaṃ calligraphy of the 
    Lalitavistara Sūtra version of the verse
    [Updated 30 Aug 2013 with suggestions and corrections from Bhikhhu Ānandajoti (AJ)]

    One of the well known archetypal events in the life story of the Buddha is his meeting with Vedic god Brahmā after his Awakening. The episode occurs in Pāli in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta which is considered by many scholars to contain an archaic version of the life-story which is missing many later elements (see The Buddha's Biography). Here Brahmā is called Brahmā Sahampati 'Lord of All'(?), though elsewhere the epithet Sahampati is dropped.

    In the episode, the Buddha, thinking about how he might convey what he has discovered, appears to be reluctant to try to teach it. Brahmā appears to him to ask him to teach, because, though many will not understand, there are some people who will. It is quite an evocative image: the creator god of the Brahmanical religion (of the day) begging the Buddha to teach what we now think of as Buddhism. 

    This episode has been studied in detail by a number of scholars, most recently by my colleague Dhīvan Thomas Jones in his article 'Why Did Brahmā Ask the Buddha to Teach?' (2009). It was looking at his article that drew my attention to one particularly interesting verse that recurs in several places. All three versions are in triṣṭubh (P. tuṭṭhubha) metre, which has 11 syllables in 3 measures of 4:3:4.* Those who aren't interested in detailed analysis of grammar and metre can skip to the conclusions which discuss the verse in terms of cladistic thinking.

    Aryapariyesanā Sutta. MN 26, PTS i.170 (Ap)
    apārutā tesaṃ amatassa dvārā
    ye sotavanto pamuñcantu saddhaṃ
    vihiṃsasaññī pagunaṃ na bhāsiṃ
    dhammaṃ paṇītaṃ manujesu brahme' ti
    The doors of the deathless are opened for them,
    Let those who listen renounce the funeral rites.
    Familiar with their vicious minds, I did not speak,
    The lofty Dhamma amongst human beings, O Brahma.


    ^ - ^ - | - - ^^| - ^ - -
    - - ^ - | - ^ - | - ^ - -
    ^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
    - - ^ - | - ^ | - ^ - -

    ^ = light syllable
    - or ^^ = heavy syllable
    Context tells us that lines cd represent the hesitation to teach and lines ab represent the resolution to teach or as the metaphor has it, to open the doors to the deathless. This verse has counterparts in the Lalitavistara Sūtra and the Mahāvastu, both composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and thus giving us an interesting contrast.

    Lalitavistara Sūtra (Lv 25.34)
    apāvṛtās teṣām amṛtasya dvārā
    brahman ti satataṃ ye śrotavantaḥ |
    praviśanti śraddhā naviheṭhasaṃjñāḥ
    śṛṇvanti dharmaṁ magadheṣu sattvāḥ ||
    The doors the deathless are opened,
    Always for those who listen, O Brahma.
    Those with faith and peaceful thoughts enter,
    The beings of Magadha listen to the doctrine.


    ^ - ^ - | - - ^^| - ^ - -
    - - ^ ^ | ^ - - | - ^ - -
    - ^ - ^ | - - ^^| - ^ - -
    - - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
    Lv has the same triṣṭubh metre as Ap, with minor variations. 

    Mahāvastu (Mv iii.319)
    apāvṛtaṃ me amṛtasya dvāraṃ
    brahmeti bhagavantaṃ ye śrotukāmā
    śraddhāṃ pramuṃcantu viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ |
    viheṭhasaṃjño praguṇo abhūṣi
    dharmo aśuddho magadheṣu pūrvaṃ ||
    The doors to the deathless are opened,
    O Brahmā, let those who wish to hear the Blessed One
    Give up the funeral rites and harmful thoughts.  
    Well acquainted with vicious thoughts, unadorned.
    Formerly there was an impure Dharma amongst the


    ^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
    - - ^ ^^| - - - | - ^ - -
    - - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -

    ^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - ^
    - - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
    Once again the metre is triṣṭubh, though here extended to five lines. Re the middle measure of line 2 AJ says "is highly unusual, and probably impossible, as three heavies do not appear in the break".

    Ap and Lv are more or less identical in line a, taking into account spelling differences between Pāli and Sanskrit. Mv mirrors these two but has the first person instrumental pronoun me instead of the genitive/dative third person plural pronoun tesaṃ/tesāṃ. In Ap and Lv the doors were open "for them" and in Mv "by me". The metric pattern of all three is triṣṭubh, but, whereas in Lv and Ap resolve on heavy syllable as two light (a mṛ and a ma), Mv must take a mṛ as two light syllables. Thus the Mv version fits the metre more naturally that Ap or Lv. In fact if we changed tesaṃ to me in Ap then the metre of the verse would be more symmetrical - lines a and c, and b and d having identical patterns.

    In all cases the conjunct consonant dv fails to 'make position' or cause the preceding syllable to be heavy. I'm less sure about Sanskrit metre even than Pāli, but I suspect this is an artefact of the underlying Prakrit in the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. 

    In line two Ap and Lv refer to 'those who have ears' (sotavanto/śrotavantaḥ), i.e. those willing to listen, however they diverge quite a bit otherwise. In Lv the statement (marked by 'ti' at the end) is concluded and the Buddha tells Brahma that the way is always (satataṃ) open. This addition creates downstream effects which will be discussed below. Mv changes śrotavantaḥ to śrotukāmā 'those who desire to hear'. Since the Mv poet here has exchanged satataṃ 'always' for bhagavantaṃ, the two light syllables in bhaga resolve as one heavy syllable.

    A significant difference creeps into Lv at this point. Where Ap and Mv have pamuñcantu and pramuṃcantu 'they should give up' (in the imperative mood), Lv changes the verb to praviśanti 'they enter' (present indicative) and the meaning of the sentence is changed considerably. What is more, the verb in the plural is in a line with two words in the nominative plural, forcing us to read them as adjectives or predicates of an implied subject 'they': i.e. "those who have faith and not vicious thoughts". Presumably the composer of Lv thought of the faithful entering the doors to the deathless.

    In Ap and Mv what should be given up is saddhā/śraddhāOften we would translate saddhā as 'faith', but here K.R. Norman (2001) has suggested that saddhā refers to the Brahminical funeral rites. These rites, which include being cremated according to specific instructions, are intended to assure the rebirth of the Brahmin in heaven.** Certainly it would be strange if the Buddha were suggesting giving up faith! Ñānamoḷi and Bodhi here have "let those with ears show their faith". They must be reading pamuñcati as "to let loose, give out, emit". The Sanskrit root is √muc - 'to free', and the prefix pra- indicates the forward direct: hence 'let loose'. This is a valid translation also.

    The context supports the reading as "renounce the funeral rites" because the deathless or undying (amata/amṛta = Latin im-morta-) is a Vedic idiom. At least in some cases it is precisely the amṛta , i.e. an end to repeated death in saṃsāra that is sought by Brahmins in their funeral rites. This is reinforced because the Buddha is speaking to Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins (seen in crude terms anyway). But the ambiguity remains.

    Sanskrit viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ is synonymous with Pāli vihiṃsasaññī (though there is a closer Pāli equivalent in viheṭhasaññā) and in the phrase vihiṃsasaññī paguṇaṃ is often rendered as "perceiving trouble". However 'trouble' hardly seems a sufficient translation of vihiṃsa, which means: 'hurting, injuring, cruelty, injury'; whereas viheṭha (from the verb viheṭheti) is 'to be hostile, to oppress, to bring into difficulties, to vex, to annoy, plague, hurt'. In Pāli a saññin is 'one who perceives, a perceiver', however in Lv the compounds ends with -saṃjñāḥ and Mv -saṃjñāṃ neither of which adds the possessive -in ending though it is available in Sanskrit. I would read the Pāli vihiṃsasaññī as 'one whose thoughts are vicious', and the Sanskrit as simply 'thoughts of cruelty'. 

    Here Ap and Mv has a word missing from Lv: paguṇa (Skt. praguṇa) 'well acquainted'. In the narrative context we know that the Buddha has been considering whether or not he could teach what he has discovered and some dramatic tension is built up by his first opinion that people won't get it. He is well acquainted with their vicious minds (vihiṃsasaññī paguṇa) thus he concludes it is hopeless to teach them. The lack of this word praguṇa drastically changes the sense of the passage - leaving the poet of Lv with this word viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ to be fitted in somehow.

    Where in Ap it seems natural to take vihiṃsasaññī in line c, by including satataṃ in line b, Lv pushes the replacement verb praviśanti into line c. While "entering faith" makes good sense, it requires a further change because the next word is P vihiṃsa-saññī or S. viheṭha-saṃjñā 'vicious thoughts' and if one is 'entering' instead of 'renouncing' then it requires the vicious thoughts to be negated. Hence Lv has na viheṭhasaṃjñā 'not vicious thoughts', or 'peaceful thoughts'. Furthermore Lv has saddhā and viheṭhasaṃjñā in the nominative case when they are in the accusative in both Mv and Ap.

    So in Ap saddhā is the patient of the verb pamuñcantu but vihiṃsasaññin forms part of a sub-clause in a different sentence. In Lv na viheṭhasaṃjñāḥ and saddhāḥ are predicates of an implied subject of the substituted verb praviśanti. (Note we should almost certainly read praviśantī to correct the metre. AJ) And in Mv viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ and śraddhaṃ are both patients of pramuṃcantu. Ap seems more natural than either Lv or Mv in this case.

    It's possible here that the author of Lv heard pamuñcantu saddhā and thought it could only be understood as 'abandon faith'. And thus emended the verb to praviśanti, and then realised that a further change was required. Holding the changes within a metrically constrained context meant that the changes became even more significant.

    Finally where Ap has vihiṃsasaññī pagunaṃ na bhāsiṃ 'familiar with their vicious minds I did not speak'; Mv has 'viheṭhasaṃjño praguṇo abhūṣi' 'familiar with their vicious minds, unadorned'. The difference is between na bhāsim 'I did not speak' (aorist first person singular from √bhāṣ 'to speak') and abhūṣi 'unadorned' (from √bhūṣ 'to adorn'). The word unadorned does not fit here, and the case or conjugation is unclear (if a verb the a- prefix would indicate past-tense rather than negation). Metrically, the final syllable is anceps, i.e. can be heavy or light, and here ṣi is light. This is allowed, however all the other lines end with heavy syllables. The two words bhāsiṃ and bhūṣi are very similar and would have been written in very similar ways in early manuscripts. The Classical Sanskrit past imperfect of √bhāṣ would be abhāṣani or aorist abhāṣi. Given that Mv is written in a Hybridised Sanskrit it's likely here that abhūṣi is a scribal error for Prakrit na bhāsiṃ. Note that Lv makes no mention of the preliminary decision not to teach in this verse.

    There are further changes that could be commented on. We could remark on the change from "Magadhans" to "manuja" (men) in Pāli, if that was the direction of change. We might also reflect on the way that the Dharma is worked into the last lines as something the Buddha almost did not speak (P), something the Magadhans listened to (Lv) or something that pre-existed in impure form (Mv). But in terms of the kinds of processes which are at work in the production of variant texts, we have plenty to think about already and I want to offer some concluding thoughts. 

    Thinking Cladistically

    This verse seems to have existed independently of all the extant written texts. The fact that the metre is triṣṭubh in all three cases above suggests that the verse was originally in this metre, and the similarity of the first line suggests that it must have been in the original, though perhaps with the pronoun me instead of tesaṃ. Probably the third line of Ap (fourth in Mv) was in the original as well.

    However, as Dhīvan makes clear in his article what we have here are three versions of a verse that pre-dates all three texts. Lv and Mv are not thought to have evolved from the Pāli. The stemma, or original text, is no longer extant and what we have are three refractions of the original through three different prisms. Where "prism" is a metaphor for culture, language, and the predilections of the author/editor. The study of the differences is interesting, even if it does not contain profound insights into the Dharma. It illustrates an aspect of the nature of the Buddhist literature. 

    If we focus on one of the bodies of Buddhist literature (say the Pāli, though I believe the Pāli Canon consolidates multiple lines of textual development) then we can start to see it as 'original' or 'authentic' at the expense of the others. But this is a distortion. While it is true that some texts are more elaborate than others (certainly the hagiography of the Buddha in the Lv and Mv are very much elaborated compared with similar material found in Pāli) we cannot say that one is closer to the original text that others. Mv and Lv are, generally speaking, no less authentic representations of Buddhist thought than Ap is, despite some indications that they might have mangled this particular verse more than Ap. 

    The antidote for this hierarchical thinking is to see things in a cladistic way. This way of thinking derives from evolutionary biology. Traditionally, in the wake of (culturally) Christian scientists, we see nature in terms of hierarchies of increasing complexity and perfection. Some of us may see humans, for example, as the top of the evolutionary ladder (as it is sometimes called). Hence also the cult-like interest in apex predators, especially those of a solitary nature such as great white sharks or tigers. However, some evolutionary biologists point our that every living thing we encounter today has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years and thus all organisms are equally evolved. Some of the simplest and seemingly 'primitive' organisms are far better fitted to their ecological niche than we are. When humans as a species are long gone, bacteria that have hardly changed for 3.5 billion years will continue to thrive. The life we encounter can certainly be divided up into categories or 'clades' for the purposes of study, but as we abandon anthropocentrism we can also abandon the false hierarchy we have imposed on species. Indeed Lynn Margulis argued that 'primitive' bacteria are all able to exchange genetic material and thus ought to be considered one species that is massively diversified. Also they always cooperate in colonies of mixed varieties and in many ways are hardly less complex than we are. Genetically speaking the bacteria that hitchhike on our bodies, often playing vital roles in maintaining our bodies, have several orders of magnitude more genes than our own cells. 

    We may also say that all forms of Buddhism currently extant are equally developed though some forms have features that others lack. Buddhism thus exists in a variety of clades, but all forms of Buddhism presently being practised are equidistant from the origins of the religion. With texts we know that they were composed at particular times and thus can be formed into rough chronological order, though this is complicated because the act of composition and the act of writing down often occurred several centuries apart. Additionally writing down was not always the end of the changes that occurred in texts. Chronology, even when we can establish it with any certainty, does not necessarily correlate with authenticity or originality.

    In the case of the texts studied in this essay, Ap, Lv and Mv were all written down at around the same time. Thus while we can consider them as occupying different clades, the written texts we are looking at all date from roughly the first century BCE. There is also a minority opinion that the Pāli texts date from a much later period. We have Chinese translations of counterparts of these particular texts dating from the second century CE, so it's possible that the written texts were not created until shortly before the transmission to China (possibly for this express purpose?)

    Compared with a large body of literature the idea that such picayune details as I have examined here, in a single verse, are important can seem unconvincing. We may want to take in the majestic sweep of the canonical narratives of Buddhism and forget about the minutia. However unless we understand that our the texts, and the very ideas that are contained in them, are subject to various kinds of change over time, and some quite mundane changes at that, then we might make the mistake of seeing this literature in idealistic terms. Typically religious people come to see their texts as eternal or infallible. But texts are never eternal or infallible. They are cultural productions with all the limitations of their human authors and transmitters (including editors and commentators). 

    As religieux we might not want to admit to the humanity of our texts. Too many Buddhists want to see the texts as "the Word of the Buddha" in the same way that fundamentalist Christians see the Bible as 'the Word of God'. But these texts are not the word of the Buddha. They are the words of Buddhists. Good words in many cases, beautiful and inspiring. Though in other cases confused, obscure and dull. Perhaps these words were inspired by stories of meetings with the Buddha that were preserved for centuries by devotees. Even so they are third hand at best.

    This is not to say that we should not be inspired by the idea that the doors to the deathless are open. I recall the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and a moment awe when I first heard these words spoken aloud (and interestingly from an historical perspective I heard them from someone called Aśvajit). As far as I can see, if we live as though there were 'doors to the deathless' and that they are open to anyone who will harken to the ideals of Buddhism, then we might live well. The way to the deathless is through practising the Buddhist virtues of generosity, kindness, awareness, etc. And if the deathless is just a fairy story, then at least we can be sure that practising these virtues makes the world a better place. We need not become fundamentalists or indulge in the triumphalism that so often disfigures Buddhist discourse in order to practice these virtues, but we will need inspiration and perseverance. And it is often from telling, and listening to, stories that humans derive inspiration and find the courage to persevere.



    * My thanks to Bhikkhu Anandajyoti for his work on Pāḷi metres and for some pointers on the meter of this verse in correspondence. 

    ** In fact I over simplify her for brevity's sake. The goals of the rites change over time and summarising them would take too long, and not be of much relevance to the main point.

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