28 February 2014

Diamond Sutra: Connections to the Past

One of the unresolved discussions in Buddhist Studies is the relative date of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā (Vaj). Conze placed it in the same period as the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya ca 350-500 CE calling this a "period of contraction" after the gradually expanding versions in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines. We now know that the Hṛdaya was composed quite a bit later, ca. 7th century according to Nattier. Japanese scholars have also argued for a much early date for Vaj, placing it a little before 8000 line Perfection of Wisdom text (these scholars were writing in Japanese and although their arguments are mentioned by many English language writers, I'm not aware that they have been reproduced in any detail in English). Thus it's quite likely that Conze's "period of contraction" is a mirage.

One of the interesting features of Vaj is the references to ideas and texts from early Buddhism. For example section 6 there is a reference to Alagaddūpama Sutta or a text very like it, i.e. to the simile of the raft and to dharmas and non-dharmas. The problem of what was meant by dhamma/adhamma in the Pali text was explored in The Simile of the Raft, with inconclusive results. There is no consensus on what is being referred to by dhamma/adhamma in this passage. As I pointed out, the Buddhadharma never ceases to be a refuge even for the liberated, so the suggestion that we abandon it post-liberation is not sensible. The reference is found in Vaj 6:
"If the aspirant has a perception of a fundamental object (dharma) they might grope towards really existing substance (ātma). They might grope for being (satva), for a soul (jīva) or a homunculus (pudgala)." Similarly if they have a perception of a non-object (adharma). This is a reference to the kolopamaṁ dharmaparyāyaṁ "the way of explaining the Dharma that is like a raft".
References to early texts dwindle as time goes on and thus might provide some clues to the relative age of Vaj. However some of the ideas were kept alive by being repeated in later texts so this may not be a direct reference. For example in the Schøyen Vaj manuscript (VajS), at the end of section 4 there is this sentence:
api tu khalu punaḥ subhūte evaṃ bodhisatvena dānamayaṃ puṇyakṛyāvastuṃ dānaṃ dātavyam.
Even so however, Subhūti, in this way, an aspirant should give a donation whose basis in good action (puṇyakriyāvastu) consists of generosity (dānamaya).
This sentence is not found in the other versions of the text, which are generally considered later. Here we also seem to have a backward glance. There are two interesting terms here.
  • puṇyakriyāvastu: from puṇya-kriyā ‘a good action’; puṇyakriyā-vastu ‘whose reality is a good action’, the ‘reality of a good action’. BHSD: “object or item of meritorious action” (though what does this mean?). 
  • dāna-maya 'consisting of generosity' 
Compare this with the Puññakiriyavatthu Sutta:
Tīṇimāni, bhikkhave, puññakiriyavatthūni. Katamāni tīṇi? Dānamayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu sīlamayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu, bhāvanāmayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu.(AN iv.241 ; Cf. DN iii.218; M ii.204). 
"Bhikkhus, there are these three bases of meritorious activity. What three? The basis of meritorious action consisting in giving… virtuous behaviour… meditative development." (Bodhi's translation; p.1170)
There appears to be no Chinese equivalent of this text (none is listed by the Sutta Correspondance project). Here Bodhi interprets vatthu (Skt vastu) as "basis". This seems more likely.

The point of this passage seems to be that those who practice actions based on dānamaya and sīlamaya but not bhāvanāmaya can expect a rebirth in one of the deva realms, but it is implied that they do not attain liberation. At DN iii.94 the Buddha remarks that, “‘They don’t meditate now’ is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’”. (Na dānime jhāyantīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘ajjhāyakā ajjhāyakā’ tveva tatiyaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ). The author is forming a pun by reading ajhāyakā (= ime na jhāyanti 'they don't meditate') ‘non-meditators’ for ajjhāyakā ‘Brahmin students’. 

MN 99, closely related to the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) in form and content, suggests that this was originally a critique of Brahmins. 
Yeme, bho gotama, brāhmaṇā pañca dhamme paññapenti puññassa kiriyāya kusalassa ārādhanāya, cāgamettha brāhmaṇā dhammaṃ mahapphalataraṃ paññapenti puññassa kiriyāya kusalassa ārādhanāyā’ti (Mn ii.204). 
“Gotama, of these five things declared by Brahmins for the making of merit (puññassa kiriyāya), for accomplishing what is good, they declare the greatest fruit derives from generosity (cāga).”
The critique is that no Brahmin can say from personal experience that the five things lead to merit. This may indicate that puṇya was being used in an anachronistic way to indicate good ritual actions -- i.e. making the appropriate sacrifices, at the appropriate time, as prescribed by Brahmanical ritual manuals -- rather than morally good actions. Thus dānamaya may originally have been a Brahmin concept that was criticised, then adopted and naturalised to Buddhism.

Now, we might make a case here for this being a reference to an early text. However this subject is expounded on at some length in the sixth chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa). Here the three types of good action practised by everyone (sarvasattvā) are contrasted with a single type of good action characteristic of the aspirant: anumodanāpariṇāmanā-sahagataṃ puṇyakriyāvastu "good actions associated with bringing sympathetic joy to fruition". The term puṇyakriyāvastu is used about 40 times in this section. According to Conze the Vaj is a derivative of Aṣṭa and thus might be drawing on it for this teaching. But if the Japanese scholars are correct and Vaj in fact predates Aṣṭa, this inclusion might tell a different story. Indeed the treatment in Aṣṭa looks to be much more fully developed and to be incorporated fully into a Mahāyāna framework by the comparison with the puṇyakriyāvastu of the bodhisattva. By comparison in Vaj the reference refers to dānamaya as the best puṇyakriyāvastu for a bodhisattva which seems to present the idea in terms more similar to the Pāli texts than the Aṣṭa. 

Taken in isolation this use of puṇyakriyāvastu seems to place VajS closer to the Pāli texts than to Aṣṭa. Which is not to say that we must now interpret one text as deriving from another. We need to keep in mind that the idea of puṇyakriyāvastu only occurs in this manuscript and not in the others. The presence of an extra line in this ms. which is not found in the later mss. just goes to show that there is no simple progression here, and Paul Harrison's comment about the lines not converging is right. 

The situation is likely to be this: in a pre-sectarian Buddhist environment there was a loose tradition of preserving texts orally. It's quite possible that groups anthologised a few texts. Out of this relatively amorphous body of literature crystallised a number of written texts and collections. A project of standardisation occurred at some point, probably associated with King Asoka, which in all likelihood weeded out a great deal of material. Information was able to be transmitted at many different levels: individual phrases and passages; ideas; partial and whole texts. So even relative chronologies of texts might not be trustworthy - again, the Buddhist tradition is a braid not a tree.

However we can see the idea developing here. It starts out as a criticism of Brahmins who don't meditate. However as the Brahmanical practice of accumulating merit (for a good rebirth) is more fully assimilated and naturalised (so that it comes from ethical and not ritual action) then it finds a place in lists of Buddhist teachings. In VajS a fairly straightforward reference to this mature version of the teaching is made. In Aṣṭa another step has occurred taking the teaching into a Mahāyāna milieu. Though of course we are talking here about an edition of Aṣṭa which does not list variants and not of the whole of the extant Aṣṭa tradition. To really understand the situation we'd need to use a critical edition or revisit the extant manuscripts. On the face of it this passage argues for a older rather than younger Vaj, though as Nattier points out it seems to have been written in quite a different milieu to Aṣṭa and its descendants. 


21 February 2014

Commodification and the Buddhadharma

image: moneysister
In the world of modern Buddhism there seems to be a growing concern about commodification of the Buddhadharma. I'm seeing more and more complaints about it from Buddhists. Commodification is a process in which something which is not usually considered to be bought and sold is transformed into a product with a monetary value. I have for instance argued that the re-packaging of our thoughts and emotions by websites like Facebook to help them sell advertising constitutes a commodification of the self. I argued that this was a bad thing. "Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype." However when one looks more closely at the concerns one often sees that they are based in a Romantic picture of Buddhism and they generally ignore our history. Buddhist ignorance of Buddhist history is something to be really concerned about. We tend to believe the lovely stories about our chosen religion that are completely unrealistic. We don't see the problems that we face in the light of how earlier Buddhists faced them, we don't even see that they faced them. This makes us and our age seem much more different from the past than is the case. 

The Romance of Buddhism.

In an interview in Tricycle Online Mu Soeng, said "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation." Really? Because in twenty years of practising Buddhism I've rarely met anyone who confessed to begin practising for the sake of liberation. We usually have no idea what liberation is at the beginning. Of course some people are attracted by notions of transcendence, especially if they've taken hallucinogens, but most people I meet are simply looking for ways to suffer less or to live better (i.e. to make the most of saṁsāra). Liberation is a concept internal to Indian religions, it's not a concept we can understand prior to beginning to practice. Even the idea that, having become Buddhists, each one of us is striving for liberation is a Romantic conceit. Most of us are far too settled and comfortable to be taken seriously as genuinely seeking liberation. We seem loath to admit to this, but it is natural and entirely consistent with our history. It takes a particular personality and temperament to really take on the challenges involved and most of us are not up to it. 

The idea that every Buddhist might be actively striving for liberation is one that has no history. The number of people genuinely striving for liberation has always been dwarfed by people of less inspiration and less commitment, who are none-the-less sincere in their support for the Three Jewels and their attempts to live good lives. Most of us are just hanging around with Buddhists and though quite pious in our own way, cannot realistically expect to be liberated.

I begin to wonder if this idea that we can all be liberated is in fact part of the commodification of Buddhism in the West: the selling of Buddhism as a cornucopia and universal panacea. Sure, in theory we can all be liberated, but in practice most of us won't be. We make our contribution in other ways - be it making donations, helping to organise a teaching centre, or even just being a positive presence in the community (or writing essays). Being a member of a vibrant and supportive community of people with a common goal and sense of purpose can make us a great deal happier. It will bring out the best in us and help actualise our potential, whatever our potential is. For Buddhism to thrive it is quite important to have such a community around the more serious practitioners in order to support and sustain them.

But most of us are people are towards the middle of the bell curve. This "we're all Buddha's" stuff is like saying "We're all capable of getting a PhD and should all be enrolled in a program and pursuing research". No one would take this idea seriously. Some people do very well to get a bachelors degree, while others do fine with a basic education.

So Buddhists say things like "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation" and it keeps the punters on the hook (and this may not be conscious because we unconsciously pick up on what the people around us are saying and repeat it to reinforce our group membership). Buddhists worry about not practising enough or in the right way and they become consumers of what Buddhist "teachers" are selling: they buy books, attend expensive seminars and retreats, and mālās, and little vajras to wear around their necks, and get a tattoo of a mantra and so on. As long as they are not at ease with who they are, they keep spending money on more teachings, more initiations, and more paraphernalia. Burn more incense, light more candles. There's a kind of anxious piety about many Buddhists, linked to an exaggerated concern for authenticity. The anxiety that the "true teaching" will be lost in the crowd of "false teachings" is visible in every layer of Buddhist literature, but quite pronounced in the voices of Buddhist converts from societies which have been largely Christian for centuries. Heresy is a particular anxiety for Christians as they only have one shot at heaven and they've left their mark on our psyches. Maybe we're getting spillover from that.

The Mindfulness Heresy

One of the problem areas that has emerged recently are the so-called Mindfulness Based Therapies (MBT) spawned by John Kabat-Zinn's application of Buddhist awareness techniques to managing pain. One sees and hears a great deal of bitterness, resentment and/or contempt towards practitioners of MBT from supposedly tolerant and pacific Buddhists. But let's be clear, the reason we've heard of JKZ is because his approach to pain management was incredibly successful in helping people with with chronic pain. And as someone who suffers from chronic pain I have nothing but respect and admiration for JKZ.

There seem to be two main complaints about MBT. That it is incomplete; and that it commodifies the Buddha's teaching.

Some Buddhists imagine that MBT is being touted as an alternative to Buddhism (it isn't) and that MBT is positioning itself as a competitor to Buddhism (it isn't). When martial artists claim to use Buddhist principles and practices in order to better defeat opponents in combat, we Buddhists have not complained that they are trying to undermine Buddhism or steal our ideas. If anything most Buddhists seem attracted to the idea of a martial wing to our culture as the fascination with samurai persists. As Buddhists we apparently see ourselves as in possession of a (the) panacea that we must retain control over. And the popularity of MBT compared to tradition Buddhist teachings has threatened our control over the ideas and practices of Buddhism. MBT has escaped from the hegemony of Buddhist orthodoxy. This is something to laugh about. It's hilarious.

The apparent commodification of Buddhism by practitioners of MBT seems to be a more problematic issue. MBT is generally speaking quite expensive. In the UK it is much more expensive than a beginners meditation class. But not more expensive than other types of pain management or psychological therapy. The idea behind this complaint seems to be that Buddhists have always taught for free. But this is simply not true. At the very least, as is shown at some length in Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, Buddhist teaching was part of a social contract in which laypeople agreed to provide for all of the material needs of the entire monastic and forest-dwelling community in return for pastoral care and instructions. I will say more about the funding of Buddhism below, but we need to be clear that sustaining a group of people who do no productive work requires resources to be diverted from the productive part of society. Buddhist teachers have always been supported. And historically this has lead to massive accumulations of wealth (and therefore power) in monastic communities.

So it seems to me that Buddhists complaining about the success of MBT is bizarre and laughable. But complain they do. Indeed the backlash against MBT may be growing if rumblings in the blogosphere are anything to go by. 

Naïveté and Romanticism

This is not to say that consumerism is a good thing. Consumerism is not a good thing. But neither is it an entirely new thing. One of the problems Mu Soeng sees is the rise of the teacher who wants to be a teacher for the kudos. Becoming a Buddhist teacher is a source of social standing and charisma (in the sense of the ability to influence one's social group and perhaps beyond). It's a way for some people to climb the social ladder. But again this has always been true. There are Pali texts reflecting just this problem - bhikkhus who went forth because they got a better living as a monk than their previous life. In Japan in the late 8th century people were pretending to be Buddhist monks in order to avoid forced labour. People become Buddhists for all kinds of reasons; they become "teachers" for all kinds of reasons; they become followers for all kinds of reasons. Some followers are only satisfied by a charismatic and ambitious teacher, which is why such people are able to succeed.

The general assumption seems to be that the teacher-pupil relationship is an asymmetrical power relationship - that it is characterised mainly by the exertion of power by the teacher. Typically, for some reason, as followers we expect to give up responsibility for decision making to our guru, even when the main teaching is take responsibility for yourself. Most people seem to be hopelessly naive and puerile when it comes to the religious life. Many are looking for a parent substitute and easily slip into a subordinate, childlike state in the presence of their teacher. Traditional Buddhist teachers do seem to encourage this unfortunately, though I think many Asians have been tripped up by how puerile we Westerners really are.

At present the fashion is to blame the teacher when something goes wrong. I'm not quite sure where the ideology of asymmetric power relationships comes from, but it is stated as an absolute fact time and again in the various sex scandals. It seems to me to be incredibly unhelpful in sorting out the problems that ensue from abdication of responsibility to a parent substitute because it completely ignores that side of the problem. One positive thing one can say about theism, is that at least the parent substitute is an imaginary figure in the sky, rather than a human being. Imaginary friends seldom let us down in the way that humans are wont to do. It really is unfortunate when people prey on naivete. But how else are the naive going to grow up except through betrayal? Naivete is positively dangerous in adults. We see the disastrous results all around us.

It is only when we realise that our parents are not omniscient and omnipotent, that they make mistakes, that they are not always kind and good to us, that we begin to grow up. If we reject that transition and go looking for a guru to play God, then we should not be surprised by the behaviour of the gods. In fact if we read mythology we discover that Gods are often immoral in the extreme. Greek myth for example is often bowdlerised for consumption by children, but the adult versions show how capricious, unsentimental and amoral (not to say immoral) the gods can be. One subjugates oneself at one's own risk.

Historically Romanticism was a reaction to the perceived mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment thinkers. In Nietzsche's terms the dominant paradigm had become decidedly Apollonian. Romantics embraced Dionysus partly as a way of disrupting that. Certainly Romanticism is valuable in the way that it revalorises nature and the environment. In the present day, however, I see Romanticism as encouraging escapism and naivete. It's all too easy for us to escape into the world of imagination these days and to fail to engage with the practical problems facing us: from the baleful influence of Neolibertarianism (with it's roots in a dehumanising Utilitarianism and Game Theory) to the increasingly urgent problem of climate change. These problems of the material world are too remote for those who see themselves as spiritual beings, floating above the turbulence and uninvolved. Rather like our idealised Buddha figures who float above the world on pretty flowers, depicted as eternal youths and damsels.

Disengagement is the besetting problem of the last few generations. Present day Britain is once again dominated by Victorian thinking because successive generations of have either bought into the Neolibertarian lie, or simply dropped out of political life (the term for such a person in Greek was "idiot" from idios 'one's own'). The Romantic sees themselves as standing alone against an uncomprehending world. My own teacher has described the True Individual as characterised by "frequent aloneness". Romantics see the True Individuals as possessed of a refined soul in contrast to the gross materiality of the world. By contrast I argue that more than ever we need to see ourselves as inseparably interconnected with others and functioning better in groups than alone; and as rooted in the material world and willing to get our hands dirty to solve problems in the material world. What's worse is that Neolibertarians exploit the tendency to disconnect, encouraging and facilitating escapism while continuing to accumulate wealth and power. 

The Funding of Buddhism

If the legends can be believed the first Buddhists were rather extreme ascetics by out standards. There were more extreme lifestyles available at the time, but these people lived on one meal a day which they begged at the doors of whatever settlement they were near, made their clothing from discarded rags, and wandered from place to place. But if they did live this way it doesn't seem to have lasted long. Wealthy patrons already feature in the earliest literature and many of them are very wealthy. Maybe having your generosity immortalised in a sutta was a bit like today's naming rights? Anāthapiṇḍika's Ārāma (garden) as the Pāḷi equivalent of the "O2" arena? Soon the incrowd and socialites of ancient India were donating many expensive gifts and large sums of money to Buddhist beggars. They went from being possessionless beggars in rags, to being substantial property and land owners in silk robes in a relatively short space of time. And they have remained in this position ever since. People donated over and above what was needed in to gain merit for a better rebirth. Why Buddhist monasteries accumulate wealth is open for discussion.

When Kūkai visited Changan, the imperial capital of China in 804-6 CE, there were some 90 Buddhist temples, alongside substantial buildings belonging to other religions. Some of these temples recorded huge donations (e.g. a billion copper coins) and were possessors of incalculable wealth. What's more they were involved in usury and owned productive land. And as ever they were not subject to the usual taxes. The imbalance was so great in China that, much like Britain in the 16th century, the Imperium, on the verge of bankruptcy, turned on the Buddhists and took all that wealth by force, sacking the monasteries. Having a large Buddhist establishment in your economic sphere is a vast drain on resources and history shows that supporting such a large unproductive sector frequently leads governments into economic difficulties. This may be why Zen monks ended up having to work for a living in Japan, where they had plenty of experience of wealthy and powerful monks interfering in government. In Tibet the monks solved this potential problem by becoming the de facto government and convincing peasants that a revered religious leader reincarnated time and time again to be their king. This produced an isolationist, stagnant, despotic feudalism that was largely disinterested in solving problems in the material world, while at the same time selling the story that they were engaged in saving all beings from suffering using supernatural means. The irony with Tibet is that had the Chinese not invaded we might still never have heard of Tibetan Buddhism. 

One of the features of the work of Professor Gregory Schopen has been to show how ancient monasteries, to the extent that they have been excavated, were always involved in direct economic activity. From donating cash to monumental building programs to minting their own coins, all the evidence points to Buddhist monasteries as domains of power and wealth. The massive "university" at Nalanda was not built for free. We tend to forget that every building must be paid for. Land and bricks have to be bought, builders have to be paid and so on. All the evidence is that Buddhists were active in this sphere, though not productive. They simply accumulated wealth and property. And they still do. And what they offer in return is a little teaching, rituals to ward of misfortune, and the promise of a better rebirth for the donors. Buddhist monasteries have always been centres of wealth and power. Celibacy stops that wealth leaking away to children. 

It's clear that a great deal of effort these days is going into producing Buddhist consumer goods: "Dharma" books, DVDs, paraphernalia, cushions, statues, apps; and Buddhist services: retreats, seminars, workshops, pilgrimages and initiations. This seems, historically speaking, to be business as usual. Running Buddhism and expanding it is not cheap and Buddhists have more or less always had to generate a huge amount of cash to fund it. Perhaps our culture of consumerism is more intense than before. Perhaps the average person is considerably more affluent than before. But the basic pattern of attracting donors to fund the maintenance and spread of Buddhism, involving the material support of a large unproductive clergy, as well as the accumulation of wealth and power by ruling elites, is nothing new. Commodification is the historical norm from the earliest textual and archaeological records. The Romantic idea of Buddhists living "pure" spiritual lives unconcerned with the material world is a story that has never been true in Buddhism history. Unproductive priests require the material support of their followers.


I was listening to the radio recently and someone said that one can tell the health of a religion by whether it is looking for converts or heretics. The implication was that looking for converts is a sign of health and looking for heretics a sign of ill-health. Clearly different parts of the Buddhist world are at different places on this spectrum. It's partly this that makes the reaction to MBT as a heresy alarming. But also it's another reminder that Buddhists don't really understand their own history and they don't understand economics. And isn't this because these are "material world" subjects that are considered to be below the spiritual aspirant who has renounced the world?

Isn't this another manifestation of the ontological dualism outlined in my essay, Metaphors and Materialism, this split in our minds between matter and spirit. Don't we, as Buddhists, long to belong to the world of spirit, free of the corruptions of matter? Aren't we simply disgusted by bodies, money, and sex? Don't we imagine ideal worlds in which we have bodies of light, all our wants fulfilled with no effort; where everyone loves each other but no one has sex? And isn't that really the problem we have with the supposedly new, but in fact ancient phenomenon of commodification and the practical application of our techniques? It spoils the illusion that we are part of something so spiritual that you can't buy it over the counter.

The production of food involves costs - it require input from the three factors of production: labour, capital and land. We would probably add a fourth factor these days: knowledge. These costs must be met or food production becomes unsustainable. So labour generates wages, capital generates profit, and land generates rent. What knowledge generates in compensation I don't know (my Marxist economics is a bit out of date!). If someone gives up their spare time to teach then maybe they can do so at little cost, except for the lost opportunities to do something else with that time (and the preparation time). But if someone gives up their working time to teach then we must provide them, one way or another with the means to survive or even to thrive. Since in the West we have no culture of supporting people in the traditional Buddhist manner, teachers must charge a fee or go get a job. And if they have a job they'll do a lot less teaching. We either have to create a culture in which ordinary Buddhists give up a substantial portion of their own income to support teachers (the tithe of old) or reconcile themselves to paying fees. History suggests that this has always been the case.

In any case, if we're going to have a discussion about commodification let's do it with some awareness of our own history and the politics of our day!


Some views of Mindfulness etc. in no particular order
  • Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New) The Naked Monk. (13 July 2013)
  • TIME's Beautiful, White, Blonde 'Mindfulness Revolution', Huffington Post (29 Jan 2014) though generally the Huff is a HUGE FAN.
  • Corporatist Spirituality. Richard K. Payne. (18 Feb 2014) See comments from me and RKP.
  • Protesters crash Google talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0 conference. Tricyle. (17 Feb 2014) Though note that the protest itself was not about Mindfulness, but "about Google and other Tech giants" forcing up rents in some areas of San Francisco. [Read the comments also]
  • Mineful Response and the Rise of Corporatist Spirituality. Speculative Non-Buddhism. (17 Feb 2014). SNB specialises in angry and reductio ad absurdum arguments.
  • The mindfulness business: Western capitalism is looking for inspiration in eastern mysticism. The Economist. 16 Nov 2013.
  • Beyond McMindfulness. Huff Post. 7 Jan 2013.
  • Enlightenment Engineer: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead. Wired.  (18 Jun 2013)
  • Mindfulness is Political: Viśvapāṇi and other posts on his blog. (ca. 20 Feb 2014). A bit of balance. 
  • diy dhamma drama or here we goes agin. 108zenbooks.

14 February 2014

Niyama in the Sāṅkhyakārikā and Buddhaghosa's Commentaries.

Rice Plant
via Wikimedia
This essay will briefly outline some ideas from the Sāṅkhyakārikā, the oldest extant Sāṅkhya text, and compare this with ideas expressed by Buddhaghosa in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī,  and his Atthasālinī a commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an Abhidhamma text. My translations of both of these texts can be found in Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma. We've seen that the word niyama means 'restriction' in śāstric Sanskrit (see Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya) and here I will reinforce this by showing how the Sāṅkhyakārikā uses the word, with a few notes on how this was taken up in the Yogasūtras attributed to Patañjali. In addition I will note certain similarities between the Sāṅkhya notion of causality and the way that Buddhaghosa uses the word niyama to highlight restrictions on the processes of causality.

The Sāṅkhyakārikā  (SK) is a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. In Indian literature sūtra style generally means it is aphoristic, terse, and generally requiring a good deal of unpacking. It is partly this general meaning of the word that makes scholars consider the Buddhist use of sūtra to translation Pāli sutta to be a hyper-Sanskritisation for sukta. In any case the SK outlines the darśana or philosophy of the Sāṅkhya school of Indian thought. It is non-Vedic (indeed it is critical of the Vedas) and concerned with soteriology. The basic Sāṅkhya view was adapted by Yoga schools (they added Īśvara or god to this originally nāstika darśana for example).

The characteristic idea of Sāṅkhya is a doctrine known as satkārya which states that the product of causation already exists in the cause. The Sāṅkhya world is analysed into a hierarchy of 24 elements or tattvas which are produced when unmanifest nature is disrupted by puruṣa (literally 'man' but here meaning something like 'soul'). What results is the manifest world (vyaktam). The 24 elements result from the interactions of three qualities: sattva 'purity', rajas 'passion', and tamas 'darkness'. Kārikā 12 of the SK gives us an outline of the three guṇas that uses the word niyama.

Here the three guṇas or qualities are each said to have a particular essence (ātmaka) and a purpose (artha).
prītyapṛitiviṣādātmakāḥ prakāśapravṛttiniyamārthāḥ |
anyo’anyābhibhavāśrayajananamithunavṛttiyaśca gunāḥ ||12||
The guṇas have the essence of pleasure, pain, and apathy; and the purpose of illumination, activity, and restriction;
And their functions with respect to each other are suppressing, supporting, producing, and forming pairs.
In particular the guṇa tamas or darkness has the purpose of niyama or restriction. Kārikā 13 adds that tamas is heavy (guru) and enveloping or enclosing (varaṇaka). The weight and restriction of tamas is implicitly contrasted in kārikā 12 with the pravṛtti 'activity, energy, restlessness' of rajas. In the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, which draw on Sāṅkhya thought, niyama takes on an applied meaning of a vow to be observed. Here I want to focus on how Īśvarakṛṣṇa uses niyama alongside adjectives like "heavy" and "enveloping". Incidentally one of the more popular commentaries on SK, by Gaudapada, comments here that "Tamas is adapted to restrain, i.e. is competent at fixation." (niyamārthaṃ tamaḥ sthitau samartham ity artha). Here sthiti 'fixing, stopping, halting' (from √sthā 'to stand, to remain') is offered as a word with a similar sense (not quite a synonym): that which restricts the movement of X, causes X to stand still or be fixed. And this is the role of tamas which helps us to zero in on how the word niyama is used in śāstric Sanskrit.

This way of thinking may well have influenced Buddhaghosa when he composed the fivefold niyama not just in the sense of the word itself. Buddhaghosa seems to have some of the same concerns over the limitations of causality that we see in SK 9.
asad akaraṇād upādānagrahaṇāt sarvasambhavābhāvāt;
śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt kāraṇabhāvāc ca sat kāryam. ||9||
Because the non-existent cannot be made, because of the grasping of the material basis, and because not all possibilities exist;
Because the making is possible [only] of what is capable [to be made]; and because of existence in a cause, the product exists. 
This is the fundamental statement of the Sāṅkhya idea of causality, satkāryavāda, i.e. that the effects already exist in the cause. No causation ex nihilo is possible, a substrate (upādāna) is necessary, things cannot arise haphazardly, things can only be produced by what is capable of producing them. Whether these reasons necessitate satkāryavāda is moot, but these are the supporting arguments given in SK. 

How does this relate to Buddhaghosa? SK says sarvasambhavābhāvāt "because not all possibilities exist" which means that things cannot arise haphazardly; also śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt "because the making is possible [only] of what [the cause] is capable of" which means that a cause is only capable of producing that which it is capable of producing. The same restrictions apply in Buddhaghosa's schema of conditionality, which insists on a non-random and more-or-less inevitable relationship between cause and effect. For Buddhaghosa this restriction in a non-random process has the flavour of inevitability.

In his use of the word niyama, Buddhaghosa was most at pains to emphasise the inevitability of karmic retribution. The inevitable production of vedanā by karma is mirrored in the natural processes of plants coming to fruition and the arrival of the monsoon rains in season. For Buddhaghosa, the production of cognitions from sense contact was a perfectly analogous process. In his commentarial texts which employ the fivefold niyama, Buddhaghosa spends most time illuminating the process of karma and insisting on the inevitability of it. This is the focus of his use of the concept of niyama, it is what the commentaries insist on. The restriction on karma is that the fruits of actions must inevitably ripen. Later commentators using the fivefold niyama schema focus more on the production of cognitions. 

We can see then that restriction and inevitability are two sides of the same coin. If a process can only unfold in a restricted way, then there is a certain inevitability to it. If one plants a rice seed then the restriction on cause and effect says that one a rice plant can grow from it. In other words it is inevitable that a rice plant comes from a rice seed. Buddhaghosa calls this bījaniyama - the restriction on seeds, or the inevitability of seeds. Of course elsewhere in the Buddhist world they began to treat actions as more literally creating seeds that are held in a receptacle (ālaya) in some part of the mind (vijñāna), but that is another story. 

Buddhaghosa adds that the miracles accompanying the main events of the life of a Buddha are said to be of the same type of inevitability as these natural processes (dhammatā). They are things that inevitably happen when a Buddha is conceived, born, becomes awakened and dies. This he calls dhammaniyama

So when Buddhaghosa reads: imasmin sati idaṃ hoti he does not see this an optional or contingent on any other fact. For Buddhaghosa there is a restriction on the way causation happens: when the condition is present (imasmin sati) then it is inevitable (niyama) that the conditioned must exist (idam hoti). This is particularly so in the case of the restriction on karma (kammaniyama). Having acted the results of the act follow one unerringly. To illustrate this point in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī Buddhaghosa uses the 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.
Furthermore in the Atthasālinī niyama passage he expands on this using the commentarial back story to this same verse. In this text about one half is given over to the discussion of restrictions on karma, about one quarter to the restrictions on the processes of the mind, and one quarter to the rest. In both cases dhammaniyama solely refers to the miraculous events during the life of a Buddha.

At the very least, Īśvarakṛṣṇa, the author of the Sāṅkhyakārikā, and Buddhaghosa, author of the pañcavidha niyama, shared an interest in the limitations or restrictions which were observed in relation to causation. Neither man accepted that causation is random or completely unpredictable. On the contrary both see the universe as having an order to it that places limitations on how change occurs. Buddhaghosa's notion of utuniyama and bījaniyama would have been obvious to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. We too can see that if we plant rice we must get a rice plant and not an oak tree; and that the monsoon does not come at random, but at roughly the same time each year. The use of such analogies is widespread in Indian literature.

So if the universe has an order, and that order imposes restrictions on the functioning of causation, then is it not acceptable to speak of "orders of conditionality"? I still think this is not the case. Primarily because Buddhaghosa is at pains to describe a single type of restriction than manifests in five different ways. This is why Buddhaghosa, unlike modern exegetes, uses the singular "fivefold niyama" and not the plural "five niyamas". This is in contrast to the Yogasūtras of Patañjali (though the attribution is disputed and the date uncertain) which speak of pañca niyamāḥ 'five niyamas'. (Sūtra 32). In the YS niyama is often translated as 'observance', but it means 'a restriction on behaviour'. The five restrictions are: cleanliness (śauca), contentment (santoṣa), austerity (tapas), study (svādhyāya), and devotion (praṇidhāna).

So, there are not five restrictions on causality, but only one. This one restriction can be observed in five different areas of experience (if we count the supernatural aspects of dhamma-niyama as experiential, which is moot). Because of this there is in fact no implied hierarchy in Buddhaghosa's fivefold schema and the number five is arbitrary. The schema is neither systematic nor comprehensive. Though Buddhaghosa himself placed differing emphasis on each of the five aspects, we can see that this emphasis was purely rhetorical. Buddhaghosa was addressing a particular set of problems when he employed this schema, not speculating about causation more generally. Later Pāli commentaries placed a different emphasis.

Of the five aspects of restricted causation the seed (bīja) and seasonal (utu) restrictions are obvious to anyone (the same restrictions occur to Īśvarakṛṣṇa). The action (karma) and mental (citta) restrictions are obvious enough to a person who is well versed in the metaphysics of karma and rebirth, and in the Buddhist account of cognition. Or perhaps one might argue that they become obvious to anyone willing to examine their experience using Buddhist practices. The dharmic restriction is just something we have to take Buddhaghosa's word for. It is a supernatural belief, and thus not amenable to empirical study. Though it might make an interesting foil to these people who pop up from time to time claiming to be "the second Buddha."* If the "10,000 world system" did not shake when you were born, then you are not a Buddha, because this is what inevitably happens. And maybe that was Buddhaghosa's point too?


* As a little aside, Liverpuddlian musical comedian Mitch Benn is currently touring a show called Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle. An edited version is on BBC iPlayer [UK only] until 21 Feb. He counted up all the "5th Beatle" candidates and got to 36. Then added himself. I wonder how many "second Buddhas" there might have been so far? 

07 February 2014

Good and Evil

Anubis weighs the soul of the deceased (left) against a feather representing the law (right).
A few weeks ago one of the blogs I read posed the question: If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good? The author went on to discuss some research that he thought addressed this question, though here I am more interested in the question itself. As Buddhists we might say that the question does not concern us because we don't believe in gods anyway. But for the purposes of this essay I'm going to treat karma as a god, a supernatural entity that does not have any human or anthropomorphic form, but which carries out precisely the same function as any god concerned with human morality.

Where Do Moral Gods Come From?

Briefly my theory of morality begins with hunter-gatherers living in Africa ca. 100,000 years ago. They lived in small, close knit bands that most likely rarely got above 150 members, or when they did, split into two or more new groups. The number 150, along with other numbers that emerge from studying natural group sizes for different types of human association, arose from Robin Dunbar's work on how neocortex size is correlated to group size in various animals (See Bibliography). 150 is the average number of close relationships that an average anatomically modern human being can keep track of. Groups both smaller and larger can and do form with varying degrees of intimacy. For example much larger groupings are possible when members are only called on simply to recognise the others. I suggest that below the "Dunbar Number" a group is easily able to keep track of each member and their behaviour. In particular small groups, living closely together have accurate knowledge of who is obeying groups norms and who is not. Above the Dunbar Number and group members begin to lose track of who is doing what, even though they probably still know who everyone is and a great deal about them.

Thomas Metzinger has argued, on the basis of his own out of body experiences, that it is entirely natural for humans to have a dualistic point of view on body and mind. Indeed he says that having had an out-of-body experience it's almost impossible not to become an "ontological dualist": that is to believe that consciousness is entirely separable from the body. Though to be clear Metzinger himself does not believe that consciousness leaves the body during the experience, but suggests that signals which convey information that contribute to the sense of self lose integration. The result being that we experience our visual point of view shifting away from our felt sense of embodiment. Experiments have shown that it is relatively simple to shift the point of view away from the body by confusing the senses in, for example, virtual reality environments. Out-of-body and similar 'mystical' experiences are fairly common and, in a pre-scientific world must have contributed to a worldview in which matter and spirit are seen as two different substances or realms (See also Metaphors and Materialism). Thus for most people, even many who don't believe in God, the idea of spirits and a spiritual realm seem quite natural.

Most hunter-gatherer societies seem to practice some form of animism. That is to say they see the world around them as a alive with non-corporeal life and/or they attribute sentience and intelligence to non-human living beings of both the animal and plant kingdom. One of the reasons for this may be the so-called Hyperactive Agency Detector that we all possess (see Barrett 2004). This function allows us to interpret agency, but it is tuned in such a way as to allow us to see agency where there is none. In the weather for example, or in the sun and moon. We also have a propensity to see patterns - this is a strong point for all mammals but is well developed in humans and some others. The most common patterns we see are faces, a phenomenon known as Pareidolia. Perception and interpretation of facial expressions is one of the most important skills we develop. The lack of this ability, as with some people who have Autism, can make social interaction very difficult. For a view on how Pareidolia might have affected the development of religion, see Guthrie (1995). Michael Witzel's (2012) work on comparative mythology shows that myths involving gods in human form, and a general view of the universe as alive and populated with sentience, or even the universe itself as sentient, were in place when the ancestors of all modern humans moved out of East Africa 65,000 years ago. So within the "group" we have to allow for a number of relationships with ancestors, gods, and other disembodied beings. I'm not sure what to call these relationships: super-social?

At some, as yet unknown, size threshold groups of humans begin to experience anxiety about the group norms. If there are too many breaches of the group norms, or too many people are not following them, then either the norms need to shift or the people need to be brought into line. Group norms have a strong survival value for hunter gather groups. They help the group to sustain its identity, ensure ease of communication, and effective collective actions. So when group norms are undermined there is reason to be anxious. However since group membership extends to the supernatural realm it might well seem obvious for group members to call on the non-corporeal members of their group, who are not bound to the world of matter or it's constraints, to keep and eye out for infractions and even to take corrective action. 

In Witzel's theory even our oldest Pan-Gaean myths show influence from the shaman. The job of the shaman is to act as interpreter or translator between the two realms of matter and spirit. The shaman can cross the boundaries of the two realms and return with knowledge and messages. Similarly some spirits can have an effect in the world of matter. However neither is at home in the world of the other and the shaman is at peril in his or her journeys. The spirit cannot stay in the realm of matter, but can only visit for short periods. Similarly they can only weakly interact with matter (and not at all if a scientist happens to be observing). 

It may come about that over time one particular spirit comes to be acknowledged as superior in their ability to observe and keep group members within acceptable norms. Perhaps they are then formally invested with this role and become an overseer god. With the rise of monotheism all the various functions of gods, including this one, were aggregated into a single cosmic father-figure who is at once creator, law maker, overseer and judge. 

One of the main problems with this worldview is one that we still have today. People who are wicked (i.e. do not obey group norms) often seem to avoid any negative consequence. And similarly people who are good (i.e. obey group norms) often meet with considerable suffering and misfortune. This is patently unfair. And one solution to it is the story of judgement in the afterlife.

It's not known exactly when we started believing in an afterlife, but archaeologists begin to find grave goods intended for use in the afterlife around 45,000-40,000 years ago. This around the same time that cave art begins and modern humans began to move into Europe and the Chinese interior. Witzel proposes that the myths that characterise what he calls Laurasia began to be composed  at this time also. Sadly Michael Witzel's book on myth does not really deal with the afterlife. But we can take Egyptian Anubis, who has the head of a jackal, as a representative of the afterlife judge. Anubis, like most judges, is impartial. He weighs the soul of the dead against the law and if it is lighter they go on to join Osiris in heaven, and if heavier they are devoured by a monster from a dark netherworld. Thus even if the wicked are seen to get away with murder in this life, the group can be confident that their norms will be upheld in the final analysis. All debts are paid. The universe has a moral order. This view of morality as accounting is one that George Lakoff has used to help describe the values of the political spectrum (See also: Moral Metaphors), but it adds to the overall picture of why an afterlife judgement might seem necessary. 

The afterlife gods, such as Anubis, care about good and evil because we care about them. The gods of any particular society care about group norms in precisely the same way that that society cares about them. And they are a final arbiter of good and evil - impartial and impersonal. Underlying this quest for fairness seems to be the idea of the ordered universe - cosmos rather than chaos. Although humans often crave novelty, novelty is only good when seen against a backdrop of stability and sameness. The values of groups are conservative. The ideal for us would be an generally ordered universe into which a small amount of novelty regularly found it's way.

The question of whether the universe is ordered or not ordered continues to unsettle us today. It is a question at the heart of all the physical sciences. Unfortunately just when we think we've got everything sorted out and have decided that the universe is ordered in a particular way some novel information pops up to disrupt that sense of order. As yet we are still undecided on just what the nature of the universe is. We see regularities at many different levels that can be used to predict behaviour, but generally speaking these only work on one level. On the human level Newtonian mechanics adequately describes how bodies move. But the description breaks down at different levels: very much larger (since it doesn't take into account dark energy) or on very small scales (since it can't be reconciled with how very small bodies behave). But for our ancient ancestors there seems to have been no doubt that the universe was ordered and that "moral accounting" works and is effective.

There are some behaviours that are more or less universally frowned on amongst humans. Killing a member of one's own group is one example. But on the whole good and evil are locally defined. Killing members of other groups is almost always fine, though how we define our group has gradually been extended. As a society we include a very wide range of people under the umbrella of our laws, though most of the actual individuals are still pretty parochial. One of the major social issues for the UK is immigration from non-English speaking, and particularly non-Christian countries. Many ordinary English people struggle to see immigrants as part of their group. The term "integration" comes up again and again in public discourse. Some political parties make considerable political capital from exploiting this issue.

For most of the time our concerns are with the minutiae and trivia of daily life. Extreme breaches of the rules are shocking. More so in worldviews which announce that their rules are absolute and universal. A complete repudiation of the rules is sometimes referred to as "pure evil", though clearly in this view there can be no such thing as pure or impure evil.

Buddhist Morality in a Nutshell

For Buddhists the norms of good and evil are well defined in terms of both motivation and consequence. Where the motivation is attraction and grasping, or aversion and pushing away, the consequence will be evil. Where a consequence is unexpectedly evil we either look for an unconscious motivation, or an evil action in a past life (and here again we strike the problem of eternalism). The ideal Buddhist doesn't react with attraction or repulsion towards sensations. Thus they do not create any new karma, though sometimes even the awakened must still suffer the consequences of actions already performed, as we see in the case of Aṅgulimāla.

Karma as a moral god has undergone some changes over time. I'm attempting to get this aspect of my theory published at present and waiting to hear back from the journal editors. Karma starts off as an impartial force that ties consequences to be experienced with actions performed. Initially the consequences of actions could absolutely not be avoided, though they might be mitigated. Gradually Buddhists "discovered" that certain practices could help them sidestep karma, for example: confession (vidūṣanā); opposition (pratipakṣa); restoration (patyāpatti); and seeking refuge (āśraya) (Caturdharmaka Sūtra via the Śikṣāsamuccaya p.160). This ability to avoid the consequences of actions fundamentally changes the metaphysics of karma.


So this is an outline of the mechanics of how morality might work. In line with Owen Flanagan's use of the term, I'm starting to think of this approach as "Naturalism". This is a general theory that tries to account not only for Buddhist morality, but for all morality. It's a theory that could be tested in a variety of ways and makes certain predictions about the nature of morality and religion in human beings. And this brings us back to the initial question:

If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good?

What I hope this exposition shows is that the question is not a valid one. Our gods care about so-called right and wrong, about anything at all, only to the extent that we do. And this is also true for Buddhists. The non-anthropomorphic supernatural moral force (i.e. moral god) of Buddhism, karma, is primarily designed to ensure that Buddhists conform to Buddhist norms. Buddhist morality is incompletely yoked to the pursuit of altered states of consciousness that are transformative for the reason that a guilty conscience is a source of distraction. Concern with conformity to morality and etiquette--the latter dominates the life of most monastics for example--is at least equally important in most Buddhist traditions.


Barrett, J.L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God?Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). 'Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.' Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J 
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1998) 'The Social Brain Hypothesis.' Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (5): 178–190. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5%3C178::AID-EVAN5%3E3.0.CO;2-8/pdf
Guthrie,Stewart. (1995) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press
Lakoff, George. (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html
Metzinger, Thomas. (2010). The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the SelfBasic Books.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 

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