26 June 2015

Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

One of my long time fascinations is with the Pali Kaccānagotta Sutta or Sanskrit Kātyāyana Sūtra. It survives in three versions: Pāḷi, Chinese, and Sanskrit. It is fairly well known that Nāgārjuna quotes a Sanskrit version of this text in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7). It's less well known that a number of Mahāyāna Sūtras appear to quote this sūtra, as well. Long term, I would like to do a complete survey of how this text was used in Buddhism over time, but we can say that it forms an important link between Mahāyāna and Mainstream forms of Buddhism. Some very useful reading on this subject can be found in Salvini (2011). There is also some discussion focussed on MMK in Kalupahana (1986).

In this essay I'll translate and discuss a passage from the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and argue that it recapitulates the argument about dharmas from the Kātyāyana. The implication here is that Kātyāyana provides a conceptual continuity link between trends of Buddhism. It represents a truth about experience that is widely acknowledged by different Buddhist schools of thought.

In my next blog essay I'll be exploring some important ideas about the history of the early Mahāyāna. One thing that has emerged recently is that Mahāyāna texts were almost certainly composed orally and in Prakrit. In the case of the Aṣṭa, we have physical evidence in the form of a birch bark manuscript, written in the Gāndhārī Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script and carbon dated to the first century CE (the mid-point for the probability curve is 79 CE). So the Sanskrit text is a translation. Aṣṭa might have been translated into Sanskrit as late as the 5th century CE. This undermines the claim of the Sanskrit version of Aṣṭa (or any Mahāyāna text) to be "the original". In some ways, the early translations into Chinese might better represent the original text, though this is debatable. 

The passage that I want to explore is Chapter 1, section 19; Vaidya (1960). In Conze's translation (1973) this passage occurs on p.87-88. My translation is:
When that was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Śāriputra, "thus training, Śāriputra, the bodhisattva mahāsattva does not train in any dharma. What is the reason for it? For the dharmas do not exist in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi polloi take them to exist."  
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist, Bhagavan?"  
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though they don't exist. Not being found in that sense they are said to be unfound (avidye). The foolish, ignorant hoi polloi are engrossed in them. All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing. Having imagined them, they are obsessed by the two extremes. They don’t know or see those dharmas. Therefore, all dharmas they imagine are non-existing. Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas], they are engrossed in the two extremes; engrossed, they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them, they become engrossed in name and form. Non-existing all-dharmas are imagined by them. Imagining those non-existing all-dharmas, they do not know and do not see the path as it really is. Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is, they don’t depart from the triple realm and do not awaken to the highest truth. They go by the name “fools”. They do not develop faith in the true dharma. The bodhisattva mahāsattva does not become engrossed in any dharma, Śāriputra."
Typically, Conze manages to make this section paradoxical. He has dharmas both existing and not existing at the same time, which does not make sense on any terms. For Conze, such non-sense is a way of pointing to a transcendent, ineffable truth that words are incapable of communicating. Supposedly, the contradiction temporarily confuses the rational mind (as conceived) and allows the intuitive mind (as conceived) to make an intuitive leap to the transcendent truth. There are many false assumptions here about the nature of reason and imagination. 
† See for example: Reasoning and Beliefs. (10 Jan 2014)
The important point of the Kātyāyana is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) are not terms that can be applied to dharmas qua mental objects. The typical Mahāyāna explanation, following the Two Truths doctrine, is that dharmas both exist and do not exist. Kātyāyana makes sense, the Two Truths explanation does not. I believe that, in this passage from Aṣṭa, the Kātyāyana argument about dharmas is being recapitulated in much the same terms, and with the same warning about what happens if we do get caught up in the dichotomy. In other words, that this is, in fact, a tacit reference to Kātyāyana.

Perhaps it is worth rehearsing why the denial of existence and non-existence is accurate and not at all paradoxical. My starting point, as always, is to take the subject under discussion to be experience. Being naive realists, or what the text calls "foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi" (bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto), we have an experience and we imagine ourselves to be in contact with something real, be it internal or external with respect to our first-person perspective. Ignoring what the experience implies about the world of sense experience, ignoring matters of ontology, the focus of the Kātyāyana is on the experience itself. Is the experience of an object an existing thing or a non-existing thing, irrespective of the nature of the object? Clearly, the answer is that it is neither. An experience cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence. It arises, lingers for a short time, and then passes away. But the experience itself is entirely internal to us. Two people may see the same object and agree on its characteristics. But their experience of it is individual and cannot be agreed on. And thus Conze, in affirming both existence and non-existence, has come to precisely the opposite conclusion because he seeks a transcendent truth behind the words; a noumenon of the text. Conze's Romanticism has a Platonic flavour to it.

The answer that an experience is neither existent nor non-existent is important, because it is the understanding of the nature of experience that has soteriological value. We say that "things" are arising and passing away, but the Buddhist texts seem to refer mainly (if not solely) to the arising and passing away of experiences. In the Kātyāyana, it says that only dukkha arises and only dukkha ceases. The same point is made in the Simile of the Chariot. Dukkha, here, is a synonym for unenlightened experience. This search for understanding is deprecated by Conze, by modern Zen commentators, and many Tibetan lamas, because they, too, believe in a transcendent truth that requires the suspension of reason (as they conceive reason). In the Spiral Path texts the experience of liberation (vimutti) is initiated by becoming fed up  (nibiddā) with the objects of the senses, i.e., with the intoxicating play of experience. Suspension of reason is not a prerequisite for awakening in these texts.

Central to Buddhist soteriology is the fact that our sense of self, our first person perspective, is also an experience, and partakes in the nature of all experiences. Streams of sensory information converge and are woven together to create the persistent illusion of being a self. Though, of course, we know that the illusion of the first-person perspective can be broken by drugs, trauma, brain injury and, of course, by meditation. In this view, insights consist of seeing experience, particularly the first person experience, in such a light that it ceases to intoxicate and fascinate. The word for 'insight', vipassana, literally means to 'see through', not, as our translation suggests, 'to see into'. 

In our naivete about experience, we imagine each experience signifies something real and we respond to it as though it were real. But, in addition to this, we are burdened with ideas about what constitutes happiness as the goal of our lives. The unenlightened, the bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto, believe, deep down inside, that happiness is about having pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant experiences. Maximising the former and minimising the latter seems to be the operational definition of happiness. If we can only arrange things so that we have the optimum amount of both, then we will be happy and free of unhappiness. For most of us this means living in an unsatisfactory compromise and a lot of self-delusion about how happy we really are. Our pleasures do not satisfy. Our pains are all too many and not the least of them is mortality!

The line of thought in the Kātyāyana is often mixed up with attempts to apply dependent arising to all kinds of other processes, particularly karma and rebirth. And I have showed how this leads to inconsistencies and incoherent statements about the nature of the world across a number of essays (see the Afterlife tab for a list). Many Buddhists end up believing that the impermanence of "things" (e.g., tables, chariots, or other physical objects) is the key teaching of Buddhism, when it's just a truism that everyone is already aware of (See Everything changes, but so what?). The Kātyāyana is one of the texts where the intent of the idea, by which I mean the application to experience and only experience, is apparent. And it was this intent that was, I argue, taken up by the Aṣṭa and by Nāgārjuna some centuries later. Although there are many loud voices arguing about what Nāgārjuna meant to say in his very confusing opus, with most of them seeing Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā as having deep ontological implications, I say that, in citing the Kātyāyana in the way that he does, we might understand his ideas better if we take the domain of application to be experience and forget about ontology. Nāgārjuna makes better, if not perfect, sense if we take him to be someone commenting on the phenomenology of experience, rather than speculating about metaphysics. 

In the Aṣṭa version of the idea, the author has chosen to use the words that are tricky to translate while retaining the connotations of the original. So in a key passage (Aṣṭa 1.19.4) the Buddha says to Śāriputra:
na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | 
"For the dharmas do not exist (na saṃvidyante) in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi take them to exist (abhiniviṣṭāḥ)." 
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist (saṃvidyante), Bhagavan?" 
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though (yathā) they don't exist. Not-being found (avidyamāna) in that sense (evaṃ), they are said to be unfound (avidyā)." 
The last statement in the Sanskrit text is:
yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti |
Conze translates "As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist [avidyamāna], they are called [the result of] ignorance [avidyā]", employing his usual hermeneutic of obscurity. He also translates avidyamāna as "do not exist", but avidye as "ignorance", but by his own logic the latter ought to mean 'not existing'.

Saṃvidyante is a passive form from sam√vid. Conze translates as ‘exists’. BHSD defines it as "is found, exists’ (= vidyate ‘is found; often virtually = asti)." PED saṃvijjati2 ‘to be found, to exist’. MW ‘know, recognise; perceive; approve’. It's tricky because there are two homonyms √vid meaning 'to know' (cognate with our word 'wisdom') and √vid meaning 'to find'. The two are indistinguishable except by context. The same goes for vidyamāna, a present participle 'knowing, finding' (here negated by the prefix a-). The other word here is abhiniviṣṭāḥ (abhi+ni√viṣ) which has a range of meanings 'entered or plunged into; intent on, endowed with; determined, persevering). Conze (1973a) suggests "settled down in, is accustomed to suppose."

So Conze is treating almost all the verb forms as meaning "exists". And we ought to point out that if a Sanskrit author wished to assert the existence of something they can do so very directly with the verb asti or some variation on √vṛt. So we need to be alert here to connotations. I think that √vid as found is relevant here. So, to say that if we go looking for a dharma is it not found, is not the same as saying it means it does not exist. We certainly have experiences, and so, to that extent, they do sort of exist. But when we say they "exist", we mean only that we have an experience, not that some kind of really existent entity has arisen and persists. Clearly, the author of the Aṣṭa has something very like the Kātyāyana teaching in mind. And the consequence is similar in the sense that it leads to two extremes of thought: that dharmas either exist or do not exist and all the problems that this causes. And note that the Two Truth argument adopts both extremes rather than avoiding either of them. Compare Aṣta 1.19.7:
kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | 
Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas], they are engrossed (abhiviviśante) in the two extremes (dvāv antāv); being engrossed (abhiniviśya), they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them, they become engrossed in name and form. 
Note the recurrence of abhini√viṣ here, translated as 'engrossed' this time (and as "settled down" by Conze). Taking dharmas to be real, settling into a view, we make mistakes about the nature of experience and, by implication, suppose that sense experience can be ultimately satisfying. And this is categorically a mistake. 

It has been argued that the Aṣṭa contains no direct reference to the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of sarva-asti (always existent), but Aṣṭa 1.19.7 might be just such a reference. Here, the deluded people imagine (kalpayanti) that dharmas exist in the past, future and present. This is precisely what Sarvāstivādins believe. If we recall the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, this 'always on' feature of dharmas was the Vaibāṣika solution to the disconnect between action and result in time that the doctrine of karma requires. It earned the Vaibāṣikas the nickname Sarvāstivāda. However, after examining two of the early translations T224 《道行般若經》by Lokakṣema (179 CE) and T227 《小品般若經》by Kumārajīva (408 CE), both make the point about the two extremes, but neither of them have this passage about past, future and present. So we must conclude that it was interpolated into the Sanskrit text at a later date. So, if criticism of Sarvāstivāda was intended, it was not part of the original intention. Kumārajīva's translation of the dvāv antāv 'two extremes' is prosaically 二邊 'two extremes', whereas Lokakṣema has the more interesting 兩癡耳 literally 'two insane ears'.

Taking the text on face value, the criticism of the two extremes (existence and non-existence) is tilted towards criticising existence, presumably precisely because the existence view was prevalent at the time. If this interpretation is correct, then it may help explain the idiom in the next sentence (1.19.8)
tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ |
All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing.
Kalpita is a past participle from √kḷp. The literal meaning is 'made, fabricated'. I'm presuming here that the fabrication is a mental one. There's not really a word for "imagination" in Sanskrit (one of many differences in how they understand mind). Again, the idea here seems to be that one has an experience and in the way of naive realism mistakes it for something more substantial than it is. And when we treat experiences this way it obscures the Buddhist path or, as Aṣṭa puts it, yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti, 'Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is...'

Interestingly, in 1.19.12 the wrong view is seen as an impediment to the development of faith in the truth of the dharma (satyaṃ dharmaṃ). This suggests that the mistake is foundational and must be sorted out right at the beginning of the religious life. My sense is that most modern Buddhism is already lost in speculation about ontology and supernatural forces. As Justin Whitaker recently pointed out to me, most Buddhists and scholars still invoke some variation of "seeing reality as it is" when describing Buddhist soteriology. But reality implies existence. Whatever we see as it is (yathābhūta) cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence and, therefore, is neither real nor unreal. Reality can have nothing to do with Buddhist soteriology, by definition. To be real, whatever it is would have to be permanently existing and I don't think I need to explain why that is a problem.

I hope I have showed that at the very least the author of Aṣṭa had Kātyāyana in mind as they were writing this section. I think this shows that at least at the beginning of producing the Prajñāpāramitā texts the authors saw the domain of application of the Dharma as experience. They were not caught up in the metaphysical speculations of the Ābhidharmikas. They were, however, caught up in their own metaphysical speculations about the nature of the Buddha, though that is a story for another time. The importance of this discovery is that it helps us to understand the apparently paradoxical texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. In flirting with paradox they were trying to describe an attitude towards experience that had a liberating effect. They did not set out to confuse the reader, but to draw attention to our suppositions about experience and reality. The former we can know and understand; the latter we can only make inferences about, based on the commonality of experience with reference to the same object.

A first step in reforming modern Buddhism would be to establish the domain of application of our theory and practice, and in such a way as our theory and practice were complimentary. Despite all the bitching from Buddhists about the Mindfulness Therapy movement, I think they have a much better handle on this focus and integration of theory and practice. Better to be working with experience in a shallow way than to have a deep engagement with the kind of ontological speculation that typifies contemporary Buddhists discourse, because the latter is not beneficial in any way while the former at least is mildly beneficial and creates a basis for progress.



Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
Conze, Edward (1973a) Materials for a Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Suzuki Research Foundation.
Drewes, David (2009). Early Indian Mah ay ana Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.Religion Compass 4/2 (2010): 55–65, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x. https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship
Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.
Salvini, Mattia. (2011) The Nidānasamyukta and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: understanding the Middle Way through comparison and exegesis. Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies.II: 57-95. https://www.academia.edu/1925584/The_NidÄnasamyukta_and_the_M_lamadhyamakakÄrikÄ_understanding_the_Middle_Way_through_comparison_and_exegesis
Vaidya, P.L. (1960) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 4). http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/bsu049_u.htm

Sanskrit text 

Aṣṭa 1.19. (Vaidya 1960)
evamukte āyuṣmān śāriputro bhagavantam etad avocat – evaṃ śikṣamāṇo bhagavan bodhisattvo mahāsattvaḥ katamasmin dharme śikṣate? evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat evaṃ śikṣamāṇaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvo mahāsattvo na kasmiṃś cid dharme śikṣate | tatkasya hetoḥ? na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante  yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evamavidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | tān bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ  | te tān kalpayitvā dvayor antayoḥ saktāḥ tān dharmān na jānanti na paśyanti | tasmāt te 'saṃvidyamānān sarva-dharmān kalpayanti | kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tairasaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ | te tān asaṃvidyamānān sarvadharmān kalpayanto yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti | yathābhūtaṃ mārgam ajānanto 'paśyanto na niryānti traidhātukāt, na budhyante bhūtakoṭim | tena te bālā iti saṃjñāṃ gacchanti | te satyaṃ dharmaṃ na śraddhadhati | na khalu punaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvā mahāsattvā kaṃcid dharmam abhiniviśante ||

PS. If anyone has a pdf of Conze's Sanskrit edition of Aṣṭa I'd love to get a copy.

19 June 2015

Buddhist Shibboleths

I've already done some work on comparing translation styles between 4th century Chinese translators of the Āgamas and 20th/21st century English translators of the Pali texts (Attwood 2012). Where terms are unique or obscure the strategies available are quite limited. One can try to preserve the Indic word untranslated using your native script to represent the Indic sounds or with an Indic script such as Siddham; or one can substitute a similar word from one's own language, e.g. when the word occurs in a list of similar items (types of bird for example) one can substitute a familiar kind of bird; or, at a pinch one can ignore the difficult term; All of these approaches have their pros and cons, especially when seen in the light of centuries of hindsight. 

But we have some problems with more familiar common words as well. I've been thinking about some of the common epithets of the founder of Buddhist: buddha, tathāgata, sugata, arhat, and bhagavat. These words are devilish to translate into natural sounding English. We end up with a string of phrases in the form "The X One" and/or with meaningless literal translations like "the Thus Gone" or "the Well Gone". None of these work very well as translations. The translations don't convey any more information than the untranslated terms, so add nothing to the comprehension of the text. A phrase like "Thus Gone" still requires translation to be comprehensible. With a translation like "Thus Gone" we might actually be worse off because whereas we might pass over the untranslated tathāgata without much thought, when we see the English words "Thus Gone" we may be tempted to stop and think about them and tie our selves in knots trying to figure what they mean.


The most successful of the standard translations is probably "the Blessed One" for bhagavat. We're still in awkward territory with the phrasing but at least it conveys something of the Indic and evokes an image in the Western mind. To be blessed, in English, is to have the grace of God, often bestowed by a priest, or to have good luck. Neither of which apply here. The word bhaga comes from the root √bhaj 'to divide, to share' and means 'a share'. The suffix vat or vant (Skt or Pali) indicates possession. So bhagavat means 'one who has their share'. In an earlier essay I explored how Buddhaghosa explained what the word means: see Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism (2008).

Apparently, bhagavat is originally a military term meaning one who has a share in the spoils of war; or a feudal term for a lord is entitled to a share of his vassals production (the forerunner of taxation). Hence, perhaps, many older texts translate bhagavat as "Lord" (though this might also be imitation of the King James Bible). In the Buddhist context we sometimes also see it translated as the "Fortunate One", again with the suggestion of good luck - and the Buddha's awakening was nothing to do with luck! But "blessed" is a good one word translation. We have an English name from the Latin benedictus meaning "blessed" which is Benedict.

One of the tricks that English linguists have when they want to mark a word as serious or sacred is to either use a Latin form or to Latinise it. Thus where Freud wrote in the vernacular about the Ich, Es and Über-Ich the English translators adopted the Latin words ego, id, and super-ego. In becoming Latin the word acquires a substance so that we all think of "the ego" as a thing nowadays even though Freud conceived of it as a process. Such a word also acquires the gravitas of medical terminology since doctors still prefer Latin, or Latinate, to Anglo-Saxon or vulgar (i.e. common) terms for body parts and processes.Of course Germans capitalise all nouns, but the capitalisation of Ego, etc. helped to reinforce this perception.

Another trick, widely employed by Buddhist translators is to adopt Sanskrit syntax for English words. Thus we see the creation of a Buddhist Hybrid English that employs Sanskrit word order, but it is done in imitation of the 17th century King James Bible. As in "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so" for mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ or "Enlightenment" (capitalised) for bodhi. Likewise Chinese translators created a Buddhist hybrid Chinese (based on Middle Chinese) which retained Indic word order. 

It is true that vulgar English has moved away from Latin forms, if only because the teaching of Latin, which used to be a universal part of education, has fallen away. Where once every educated person was familiar with the Latin and Greek classics in the original, nowadays such knowledge is rare. And yet here we are trying to introduce Sanskrit and Pali words into the language. One might argue that "Benedictus" conveys both the meaning and spirit of the Bhagavat at least as well as "the Lord" or "the Blessed One". However for some the use of Latin is tied to experience of the Catholic Church rather than Horace or Virgil.

The standard Chinese translation is 世尊 world-honoured, i.e. honoured by the world. I'm much less familiar with the history of these Chinese terms. 

Tathāgata & Sugata

Tathāgata and sugata may really be untranslatable and the common translations are all quite hopeless in that they communicate nothing. Indeed Buddhists may long have misunderstood the meaning of these words. Richard Gombrich has pointed out that -gata at the end of a compound means 'relating to, existing in'. Some examples include:
  • antar-gata - in the middle
  • kaṇṭha-gata - reaching the throat
  • guru-gata - belonging to a particular teacher
  • nīca-gata - at the lowest point
  • bhūmi-gata - fallen to earth, on the ground
  • mukha-gata - in the mouth, in the face
  • hṛdaya-gata - dwelling in the heart
Of course it can also take the more obvious meaning of a past passive participle, i.e. 'gone', but the special meaning has some advantages. Tathā is a modal adjectival pronoun: 'thus, that way, in that manner, like that'. We can see where the more usual translations of tathāgata might have come from: he is 'one who has gone in that way'. However tathā-gata might also mean something like 'one who resides in that state', i.e. one who is awakened. Paul Harrison's Vajracchedikā translation uses Realised One for this term, which I quite like. Some consider that there an ambiguity with tathāgata because it might also result from tathā-āgata where āgata means 'come'. I think this is pretty unlikely, especially given the unambiguous sugata, but some lineages see it as the primary sense of the word and in this sense it is translated as "Thus Come". Chinese texts translate tathāgata as 如來 "as come". Even if this were the meaning, what does a reader make of "The Thus Come One"? 

Similarly su is a prefix meaning 'complete, well, or good' (cognate with Greek eu- which comes into English as euphony, euphemism, euphonium etc.). Sugata then means 'completed, one who is well, in a good state'. The fashion at present is to leave these two epithets untranslated and perhaps to footnote the most common interpretation of the Indic. The standard translations of "the Thus Gone" and "the Well Gone" really don't communicate anything. There is a Latin word which has more or less the same meaning as sugata which is beatus from which we get words like beatify. Beatus carries the connotation of blessed, but also of happiness. When a person is "beatified" (beatus + facere 'to make') by the Catholic Church, the first step on path to sainthood, the implication is that they are even now experiencing eternal bliss. This is also the implication of sugata. I know one woman called Beata, and I suspect it's a relatively common name in some Slavic/Catholic countries.

Sugata is translated into Chinese as 善逝 'well gone'. Where the character 善 is also used for Sanskrit words like kalyāṇa (beautiful), kuśala (expert, wholesome), and śubha (lovely, beautiful). Apparently they could not make up their minds where the Buddha was coming  or going ! In a weird quirk of history 逝 now means 'dead, passed away' in Mandarin. So in modern Chinese 善逝 means 'well dead'.


The other common epithet is arhat (Skt) or arahant (Pali). This is from the verbal root √arh which means 'to be worthy, to have a claim, to be able, to be allowed'. The present participle arhat (Pali arahant) means 'worthy, capable, entitled, deserving'. According to PED it was used in pre-Buddhist times as an honorific for those in high office, similar to 'His Worship', and in a sense very close in meaning to bhagavat (one who is entitled to a share). We might think of it as referring to someone who has claimed to have done what needed to be done in the holy life (brahmacārya) which is how it is often phrased in the texts. The arhat is effectively a 'saint' from Latin sanctus 'holy, consecrated'.

There is a folk etymology for arhat as well. This derives the word from ari-√han 'to strike an/the enemy' or sometimes 'foe-destroyer'. This etymology was given a boost by Richard Gombrich, who has has argued that the present participle is "jarring" in this context and there is perfectly good adjective from the same root, i.e. araha. Since Jains used two Prakrit forms of the word arahanta and arihanta, the folk etymology may well be the correct etymology, Gombrich argues that this stems from the same metaphor as the Jain title "jina" or conqueror, from which jaina means 'connected with the jina' (2009: 57-8).

The Chinese term is 阿羅訶 which is a transliteration pronounced āluóhē or 阿羅漢 āluóhàn. It is perhaps best known in the abbreviated form 羅漢 luóhàn.

Saṁbuddha and Samyaksaṁbuddha

Perhaps the most difficult to translate when used an an epithet is samyaksaṁbuddha. Samyañc means 'accord, concord, agreement' (literally 'bending together'). My understanding of this term is that it refers to the being in sync with the way things are (and its opposite mithyā means to be out of sync).  Saṁ means 'complete, together' and buddha as we know is the past participle of √budh 'to know, to understand, to wake up to'. So saṁbuddha means something like 'fully cognisant'. And samyaksaṁbuddha means 'fully cognisant of the way things are' though it is usually translated as "fully and perfectly awakened", where samyañc is somewhat reduced in significance to just mean 'perfectly', which plays to Romantic tendencies in Buddhism.

As often happens there are many different Chinese translations of this term: 正徧知 or 正遍知 or 正等覺. We also find partial transliterations such as: 三耶三佛 sānyésānfó and 三耶三佛陀 sānyésānfótuó where 佛 is a translation of Buddha and 三耶三 transliterates saṃyak-saṃ-. 

Epithets and Titles

Clearly these epithets fall somewhere between names and titles. An epithet is something which is "put on" from the Greek epi 'in addition' + tithenai "to put". A name we hang on something. Sometimes we resort to epithets because the name of the person concerned is taboo. The Buddha seems to have forbidden his disciples from using his personal name (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta). An epithet might also be used when a person's name is prosaic and followers wish to highlight some aspect of their character or recall some event or achievement. All of these seem to apply to the Buddha. 

It is interesting to compare the ecclesiastical titles adopted by Tibetan priests in exile. Amongst the Tibetans we find a variety of His Holinesses and His Eminences. In fact these come from the Roman Catholic Church. A Pope is addressed as His Holiness or Your Holiness, and a Cardinal as His/Your Eminence. If we were also to ape the Catholics then the most common form of address to the Buddha would be, bhagavan (vocative case) = Your Holiness. But these titles are finely tuned to indicate hierarchies and to indicate power and subordination. They now have a medieval ring to them which no longer trips of the tongue (though arguably the Tibetan priesthood get on very well with them). Roman ecclesiastical titles are surely inappropriate to the Buddha, if not to Tibetan priests, and got quite a strong negative reaction when I tried them out on a few friends. The words under discussion are not really titles anyway. In fact they're adjectives rather than nouns and they all describe someone who has had a particular kind of life changing experience.

Other forms of address are routinely taken over from ecclesiastic or temporal hierarchies. For example "Venerable" seems to substitute for āyuṣmat 'possessing life, vital, long lived, elder'. Buddhist monks are routinely referred to as "The Venerable". In the FPMT I've met the Venerable Robina Courtin and the Venerable George Churinoff for example. The word "venerable" comes from the Latin venerari "to worship, revere" and means 'fit to be worshipped or revered'. No doubt some monks are fit to be worshipped, but it's a rather grand title unrelated to the Indic term for an elder. In early times Europeans were more automatically respectful towards their elders, nowadays hardly anyone commands respect. 

Buddha is of course an Anglicised term and hardly needs much explanation, though too many people mistake him for the Chinese god 布袋 Bùdài the so called "Laughing Buddha". For new-comers the epithets are inevitably odd and difficult to understand. And when they ask questions it quickly becomes apparent that no one really knows what they mean. No one does any more. And yet we have to keep repeating these words because they crop up so often in the texts. 

Whether Latin words would aid or hinder us in communicating our history and ideas is moot. No doubt some people recoil at the very thought of using archaic Latin to communicate modern Buddhism, and for others it invokes the Catholic Church, though personally I find I associate Latin mainly with medicine, the Romans, and early Enlightenment writers such as Newton's Principia Mathematica and Hooke's Micrographia. And yet on the whole Pali and Sanskrit are more archaic and foreign to the ear than Latin or Greek. I find that most of my colleagues want to use English (or their mother tongue) most of the time and only use the minimum of Indian jargon. Most cannot tell the difference between Sanskrit and Pali.

On the other hand, English is a language which is more than happy to borrow words from other languages. For example from Hindi we borrowed: shampoo, pyjamas and bangle; or from Persian: caravan, divan, ghoul, jackal and shawl. However the problem here is that most of these are concrete nouns. They have a specific referent and there is no doubt what they refer to.

I don't really see any resolution to the problem of translating the epithets. They all apply specifically to the Buddha (though some are borrowed from other contexts), but the specific meaning is long lost. So we're left with all these different ways of referring to the Buddha, none of which really convey anything meaningful to anyone any more that forced to retain them because they are traditional. They only value they have nowadays is as shibboleths, i.e. the ability to pronounce these terms is a marker of Buddhist identity. 


Attwood, Jayarava. Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol 5, 2012. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/54.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox. 

12 June 2015

Alternate Karma Theory?

Revised 15 June 2015.

Many modern Buddhists find themselves struggling with the doctrines of Buddhism that rely on metaphysical speculation even though Buddhists regularly warn each other against speculating about metaphysics. The doctrine of rebirth is the one that usually heads the list. Literal rebirth seems very implausible in the light of other fields of knowledge. The doctrine of karma is allied to rebirth in the sense that if one is reborn it is because of karma. One of the main applications of pratītyasamutpāda has been to try to explain karma and historically this effort led to changes in the ways that Buddhists understood pratītyasamutpāda.

In my examination of the history of the idea of karma, in many blog essays and one published article (2014), I have noted that Buddhists themselves were often in dispute over the details of how karma could work. The idea of pratītyasamutpāda underwent significant change to try to accommodate karma. My 2014 article explained how the doctrine of karma itself undergoes a fundamental shift in the Mahāyāna that effectively decouples actions from consequences. The issue of whether there is or is not an interval between death and rebirth depends on how one interprets the karma doctrine to begin with. Despite an almost universal attempt by authors who write about Buddhism to present smoothed over accounts of these doctrines, what we find in the texts is a long history of dispute and alteration in search of coherence.

By now we know that no two Buddhist sects applied pratītyasamutpāda to the karma doctrine in the quite the same way. This knowledge may take some pressure off modern Buddhists who struggle to integrate Iron Age and medieval Buddhist ideas into their worldview. Even most Iron Age and medieval Buddhists could not quite believe it!

Although the archaeology of the karma is not complete, many of the main features have been exposed. Some details remain to be picked out. In this essay I will present a translation of a partial sutta from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. It lacks a nidāna, a framing story, and a proper ending. It's the middle of a text without a beginning or end. None-the-less it is interesting because the view of karma it presents is not in tune with the orthodox Theravāda doctrine, or with the other presentations of karma in the Nikāyas.

There is a counterpart sutra in the Chinese translation of the Madhyāgama (Taishō 26, no. 15; translated in Bingenheimer 2013). It is a more complete text, with a proper sutra opening and all that. I'll begin with my translation from the Pāḷi and then make a few comments. Where the Pali is tricky or unusual, I'll compare with the Chinese to see if it sheds any light.

Karajakāyasuttaṃ (AN 10.219; v.299-301)

“I do not say that intentional actions done (kata) and accumulated (upacita) are eliminated without having first experienced [the fruits], either arising in this life, or in the next, or some other. Nor however do I say that one makes an end to suffering without having first experienced the fruits of intentional actions done and accumulated.”  
[The Chinese text inserts a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha here and it is precisely the one who cultivates this path who is able to radiate mettā etc] 
“Monks, this noble disciple, being without craving or aversion, unconfused, attentive, fully mindful (paṭisata), dwells suffusing one direction with feelings of loving kindness, with feelings of compassion, with feelings of sympathetic joy, and with feelings of equanimity. Similarly with the second, third, and fourth directions. Thus, they dwell suffusing above, below, across, and in all directions, everywhere, the entire world with feelings of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity that are extensive, lofty, immeasurable, without hatred or illwill.” 
“[The noble disciple] knows ‘formerly my mind (citta) was limited and undeveloped, but now my mind is unlimited and well developed. No measurable kamma dwells or lingers there now.’” 
“What do you think, monks, if a youth were to cultivate the liberation of the mind which is love from an early age, would they do an evil action?” 
“Indeed not, Sir.” 
“Not doing an evil action would they be touched by suffering?” 
“Indeed not, Sir. Not doing an evil action, how could they be  touched by suffering?” 
“In that case a man or woman should cultivate liberation of the mind through love. Monks, a man or a woman cannot take this body when they go. This internal mind is mortal, monks.”  
“They understand, ‘All that evil done through this action-born body in some past time is to be experienced here. It will not follow.” 
“Developed in this way, monks, liberation of the mind through love for a knowledgeable monk results in being a non-returner (anāgāmin) here, if they do not attain a higher liberation.”

I've noted the lack of framing story. We do not even get a city where it was preached. By contrast in the Madhyāgama version (MĀ 15) the passage is joined with a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha or ten courses of right action. This might explain why the Karajakāya Sutta is in the chapter of tens (dasa aṅguttara). The previous two suttas (10.217-218) discuss how the practice of the right/wrong actions interact with the theory of kamma to produce different kinds of rebirth.

But if this is true, then we must also conclude it was classified with the tens before losing the parts concerned with the dasakusalakammapatha. In turn this is evidence that the Pāli Canon is not a complete and faithful record of Buddhist teachings as it is sometimes portrayed. Bits of the Aṅguttara Nikāya are missing!

I've compressed the sutta by combining the four brahmavihāras together. The CST edition has mettā and upekkhā spelt out in full, with abbreviated passages for kāruṇa and muditā. The gist of the story is that by dwelling in the fully developed brahmavihāras a practitioner may become a once returner. That one who practises the brahmavihāras will not be touched by disappointment (dukkha). And that karma all ripens in this life, it does not follow on. It is this last part which is the most interesting.

Before we compare this karma theory, a few remarks about the other aspects of the text. It is well known that mettā and the other brahmavihāras have been down played in the modern Theravāda. Richard Gombrich has made the case, based on his reading of the Tevijjā Sutta that brahmavihāra literally 'staying with Brahman' was originally a synonym for nirvāṇa (see Gombrich 2009: 80-84). This text seems to be somewhere in the middle on the issue of the value of practising the brahmavihāras, saying that at the very least one will become a non-returner (anāgāmin) The non-returner is a strange creature. They are not yet liberated from birth and death, but they are not required to be reborn in one of the five realms. After death, they exist in a definite sense, unlike a tathāgata about whom nothing may be said. As we saw earlier in the year, the anāgāmin is at the centre of the dispute over the antarābhava.

The other point is a moral one. If we take this text literally then it is saying that by radiating the brahmavihāras out to the four directions no dukkha will ever arise. In talking about this issue of dukkha in the Karajakāya with my Pāḷi reading group, I mentioned that following Sue Hamilton I take dukkha to refer to all unenlightened experience. I suggested that the focus on unpleasant experience was somewhat misleading, because from this point of view pleasant experience is also dukkha. The problem is in the translation of dukkha as 'suffering'. I have long argued for 'disappointment' as a serviceable translation. Our experience is dukkha because it does not conform to our expectation. Our expectation is that we will not suffer any undeserved pain or misery; and that we will experience all the pleasure and happiness we do deserve (based on what we believe we deserve of course). And that this is what constitutes a good life. So my reading is that the text is not saying that one radiating mettā etc. will never experience pain or suffering, but that they will never suffer disappointment, that whatever happens to them will be in line with their expectations. One cannot realistically be born a human being and expect not to suffer. The Pāli texts record a number of occasions when even the Buddha suffered physical pain (particularly the story of the stone sliver, Sakalika Sutta. SN 1.3).

Elsewhere, some early texts say that only dukkha arises and only dukkha ceases (See The Simile of the Chariot, 2009). Thus there is a conflict between those texts and this. If everything that arises is only dukkha, the idea that a person will not experience dukkha by radiating the brahmavihāras is a contradiction. The two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Now we return to the karma theory presented in the Karajakāya. The opening passage of the Karajakāya is a classic Pāli text account of the inescapability of karma. It insists that all the fruits of all the actions must be experienced, and all of them must be experienced before there is an end to suffering. This sentiment is repeated throughout the Nikāyas and is taken up by Buddhaghosa as Theravāda orthodoxy. Later Buddhists deprecate this original requirement of karma (see Attwood 2014).

Now part of the reason I wanted to translate this text and write about it stems from Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation in his Numerical Discourses (2012). The Pāli passage in question follows on from the revelation that one who suffuses the directions with love etc, will not experience dukkha. Next the Pāli reads:
"Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
"So evaṃ pajānāti – ‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti."
Compared to my translation above, Bodhi renders this:
"​A woman or man should develop this liberation of mind by loving kindness. A woman or man cannot take this body with them when ​they go. Mortals have mind as their core." 
"[The  noble disciple] understands: 'whatever bad deed I did here in the past with this deed-born body is all to be experienced here. It will not follow along." (p.1542; emphasis added)
The first part of this is fine, but when I read "Mortals have mind as their core." (translating cittantaro ayaṃ macco) my eyebrows shot up. What on earth could this mean? 

Cittantaro ayaṃ macco

"Cittantaro ayaṃ macco." is a common sentence structure in Pali and typically taken to read "this X is Y" though the word order is flexible. So it could be as Bodhi reads it "this mortal has an interior [which is] mind" or it might be read along the lines of "this internal mind is mortal". The compound cittantaro is a little unexpected. Antara is cognate with our word "interior", and of course the inside of something might be considered its 'core'. However, do mortals have a "core"? The usual idea in Buddhist metaphysics is to deny that anyone has a core, especially a mental core. Macco means 'one subject to death, a mortal', but note that it is in the singular,  'a mortal' (Cf Skt martya 'having death, dying, subject to death'; there is no connection to the English 'martyr'), rather than Bodhi's plural "mortals" but the statement does seem to be a generalisation. 

The compound cittantaro only occurs in this text. In this case Bodhi appears to be reading the compound as a bahuvrīhi 'has an inside which is citta'. As I have said this raises metaphysical objections. How else might we read the compound? If we look at other similar compounds we find
  • Buddh'antara - the time between the death of one Buddha and the appearance of another
  • eḷakam-antara - on the threshold or across a threshold (eḷaka),
  • daṇḍam-antara - amongst the firewood or across a stick (daṇḍa).
This suggests that Bodhi has misunderstood this compound. Margaret Cone is non-commital in her dictionary. In relation to this passage she ventures "having the interval of a thought-moment;" with a question mark to indicate she is unsure (DOP sv citta). That Cone is unsure is reassuring to me as I struggle to make sense of this passage. If she is unsure then I am not embarrassed about my confusion. Cone has picked up what similar compounds imply, i.e. that antara might mean in the 'space' between two moments in time. So that we would read the sentence as "a mortal has the interval of a thought moment". But again we have to ask, "What does this mean?" It has the advantage of not obviously violating Buddhist doctrine, but can we take it literally? A mortal typically lives many years and a thought moment is as long as the snap of one's fingers. The words make sense, but the sentence does not. 

Turning to Buddhaghosa, on this passage he says:
Cittantaroti cittakāraṇo, atha vā citteneva antariko. Ekasseva hi cuticittassa anantarā dutiye paṭisandhicitte devo nāma hoti, nerayiko nāma hoti, tiracchānagato nāma hoti. Purimanayepi cittena kāraṇabhūtena devo nerayiko vā hotīti attho. 
Bodhi translates most of this passage in note 2189 (p.1859), I finish it in square brackets:
“They have mind as their cause, or their interior is due to mind. For with the mind at rebirth that follows without interval the mind at death, one becomes a deva, a hell-being, or an animal.” [It means they were formerly a deva or hell-being though the cause or condition of mind (citta) also.] 
So Bodhi has translated in line with Buddhaghosa, as he usually does in these cases where the text is obscure. However, I once more have to quibble with how Bodhi is translating here. Cittakāraṇo must mean 'having a cause which is citta', though this is no help because the meaning of the sentence is still not clear. Antara and kāraṇa are by no means synonyms, so Buddhaghosa's logic is opaque. To say that a mortal has citta as their cause is possibly true from a Buddhist point of view, but it doesn't really make sense of the sutta. Again the words make sense, but the sentence does not. Bodhi then reads antariko as 'interior', which is allowed but also doubtful. What does it means to say that our interior is due to mind. As opposed to our exterior?

A lot depends on how we parse atha vā citteneva antariko. We can read citteneva as citte na eva or cittena eva (Bodhi adopts the latter). The former would mean that the whole sentence says something like "there is no interval for a thought event". I like this reading because it is followed by an insistence that the relinking mental event (paṭisandhicitta) follows immediately from the death mental event (cuticitta) with no interval. This is standard Theravāda metaphysics which requires that there never be an interruption of the stream of cittas. This makes sense, but is this really what the sutta is saying? I'm not sure.

My friend and Pāḷi guru, Dhīvan, has pointed out that in my first version of this essay I mistook a gerundive (grd) for a gerund (ger) in the PED entry. Gerundive is anther name for a future passive participle (fpp). The verb marati means 'he dies' and as an fpp takes the sense of 'one who must die', hence 'a mortal'. Dhīvan suggests that macco might represent a future passive participle (Skt martavyaḥ), and work in apposition to gamanīyo which is also a fpp. Then cittantaro and kāyo are in apposition also. Thus we could read the sutta as saying
nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo, cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco 
there is no going taking the body [with you], there is dying with the mind as interval. 
Dhīvan takes cittantaro as related to the measurelessness of the mind in the brahmavihāra state. One whose citta is limited (paritta) will be reborn, but one whose citta is immeasurable (appamāṇa) is not reborn, but becomes an anāgāmin (at least). This is an interesting solution to a difficult problem, but I still not convinced.

So, from the Pāli sources we have several alternative readings, none of them entirely satisfying. The Chinese text of MĀ 15 is somewhat different here (T 1.438.a19-20) :
若彼男女 在家、出家, 修慈心解脫者,不持此身往至彼世,但隨心去此。 
When those male or female 男女 laypeople 在家 or renunciates 出家 repeatedly practice (修...者)  the loving-kindness mind-liberation 慈心解脫, [they] do not carry 持 this body 身 towards 往至 the other world 彼世, [but] go there 去此 according to 但隨 the citta 心.
Cf "Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
The first part of this passage is similar. It applies to men and women for example, itthiyā vā purisena vā = 男女 ; they cultivate mettācetovimutti  = 慈心解脫. When they go to the other world they do not take their body nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya  = 不持此身往至彼世. However, just where we wish the Chinese might shed some light on our text it is very different! Where the Pāḷi is weird, the Chinese is conventional, one goes to the next world according to one's citta (但隨心去此). Is this because the translator has smoothed out the text? Or is it because the Gāndhārī text was already different. And if the Gāndhārī text was different, why was it? Was one or other text corrupted? Or was it edited by sectarian interests? 

Of course Bodhi was obliged to settle on a translation, and he had 1500 pages of text to translate. But to my mind "Mortals have mind as their core" is unfortunate. It's not at all clear that this is what the text says, or even how Buddhaghosa understood the text. It's a very strange thing to find a Pāli text saying. On the other hand I don't see a way to resolve the quandary. 


Another curious feature in this text is the use of the indeclinable particle idha, meaning 'here, in this place', and especially 'in this world or present existence' (PED). To remind us, the one who is radiating the brahmavihāras knows:
‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti.
I read:
All of that evil action done by me by this action-made body at sometime in the past must be experienced here (idha). It does not follow along. 
It's possible that Bodhi's Pali text has idha for idaṃ (4th word), I haven't checked the PTS edition, but otherwise his translation again seems slightly off when he refers to "Whatever bad deed I did here...", because in the CST text "here" is not specified. In any case we have a very intriguing statement about karma in this passage. Apparently the consequences of actions performed in the past do not follow one from life to life. They are to be experienced here (idha vedanīya). In fact this contradicts the opening lines of the Pāli sutta which say that the fruits of actions may arise to be experienced here and now (diṭṭheva dhamme upapajje), in the after-life (apare), or in due course (pariyāye). So again we are left wondering. If this an error or does it represent a minority report on karma? The trouble is that the idea is stated twice:  sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ 'all that is to be experienced here' and then na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissati 'it will not follow along'. It is not accidental.

This last part is phrased curiously. "That", i.e. the evil action done formerly through the action-born-body (pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ), "will not become anuga." Anuga is an adjective from anu√gam a verb meaning 'to follow [along, after]'. So rather than saying the action will not follow (anugamissati) the Pāḷi says that it does not become (bhavissati) something which is anuga 'following or followed by'. The obvious interpretation is that the action determines one's rebirth, but does not follow one beyond death. This is interesting because it may well constitute a version of karma which is easier for some people to swallow. 

Buddhaghosa fudges this by defining the phrase as diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya-koṭṭhāsavan "possessing a share to be experienced here and now".  This brings it into line with Theravāda orthodoxy, but the text very specifically says all (sabba) not just a share (koṭṭhāsa).

Again the Madhyāgama text is different (T 1.438.a21-22):
Bhikṣus 比丘 you should 應作是 think 念, “I 我 was formerly 本 heedless 放逸, I did 作 unskilful deeds 不善業, may 可 all 一切 retribution 報  be 是 suffered 受 now 今 and not in the other world 終不後世."
Rather than insisting that results must be experienced now, MĀ has a more plausible (i.e more orthodox) plea that it all be experienced now rather than later so as not to draw out the process across lifetimes. The wording is very different, so it cannot be a simple misreading. Is AN the sentiment of a heterodox sect whose views were included in the Pāḷi Canon. And MĀ a more orthodox rendering of the story? Is one text garbled, or the other edited for clarity? We just don't know. 


This is certainly an intriguing text. On face value it is a heterodox view on karma and rebirth. But it does not quite make sense on its own terms. Buddhaghosa shoehorns it into his orthodox Theravāda worldview in a way that is not entirely convincing. The Madhyāgama version of the story contradicts the Pāḷi precisely where it departs from orthodoxy. Though as we saw in relation to antarābhava the different Nikāya/Āgama recensions do reflect sectarian concerns.

The Madhyāgama text seems to be based on the same story, but records the details differently. The titles of the text are different and MĀ does not have an equivalent of the key Pāli term karajakāya 'action-born-body'. The MĀ text is titled 思經 The Sutra on Intention (cetanā). Note that the Karajakāya appears to be part of a set of suttas, and the previous two suttas in AN are called the Paṭhama and Dutiya Sañcetanika Sutta, where sañcetika could well be translated as 思. Overall the MĀ text is less problematic than the Pāḷi, but this may be because the Gāndhārī had more time to be edited than the Pāḷi before being committed to writing, or because the Chinese translators further smoothed out difficulties. On the other hand we can deduce that a large part of the Pāḷi text was lost after it was included in the Aṅguttara collection. So who knows what other changes it went through.

This is precisely the kind of wrinkle that scholars have overlooked or smoothed over in their accounts of Buddhist karma to date. It does not fit the view that the Canon is all the work of one mind, or the assertion that variations can be traced to a single source. All too often we see a plurality of Buddhist views, which are frequently incompatible and do not point to a single point of origin. As I have said previously, the early Buddhist texts represent the event horizon of an historical black hole. No information can ever come out of that black hole and it will always remain dark. All we can do is look at what we do see and conjecture about how it might have come about.

A fundamental problem I have identified is the overwhelming bias towards seeing history in terms of singular origin as represented in the tree as a metaphor for evolution. So engrained is this metaphor that it is very difficult to even think of other possibilities in evolution (particularly of recombination and synthesis). So we expect that Pāḷi and Chinese sources point to a common origin. Some aspects of the two texts are similar enough to suggest some common ancestry. Had the Pāḷi not become fragmented after being collected, then perhaps this similarity would be more striking. But there is no way, for example, to construct an ur-text from what we have. There is no obvious single underlying text that would give rise to the variants we have. The history is complex and now hidden from us. 

For me the idea that our history does not converge in the past has only emerged from years of studying early Buddhist texts and paying attention to inconsistencies. And there are far more inconsistencies than any Buddhist teacher and almost all scholars would have us believe. Inconsistency is a feature of the early Buddhist texts. That the Pali Canon preserves views which are not consistent with Theravāda orthodoxy is both interesting and useful. It suggests that the Theravādins preserved these texts, but that other unknown factors were at work in the collection process. Perhaps the Theravāda sect was once more diverse than it presently is with respect to doctrine. Buddhaghosa, as we see in his commentary on this sutta, had an homogenizing effect. At the very least we must think of the Pāḷi texts as a much more heterogeneous body of literature than we have previously.


Thanks to Dhīvan and Sarah from our Pāḷi reading group for input on the tricky passages. It is so great to have people to talk to about these things. 

My essays on karma & rebirth are collected under the afterlife tab at the top of the page.
Pāḷi texts from CST. Chinese texts from CBETA. 
Attwood, Jayarava. (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol. 21. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma/
Bingenheimer, Marcus [Ed.] (2013) The Madhyama Āgama: Middle Length Discourses, Taishō Vol. 2, No.26 (BDK English Tripiṭaka Series). Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America. 
Bodhi. (2012). The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications. 
Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Equinox.

05 June 2015

Nirvāṇa Sūtra, Madhyāgama 55.

This blog post is an old one I've held in reserve for a week when I can't make the Friday morning deadline The Pali counterpart to this text, the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23), is a very important text for the Triratna Buddhist Order. Sangharakshita, following pointers provided by Mrs Rhys Davids, found this sutta and from as early as the 1950s made it a core text for his teaching. The main idea he called the Spiral Path. An account of the doctrine of the Spiral Path was included in the first edition of his A Survey of Buddhism in 1954. Later, other teachers, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ayya Khemma also took an interest in this text, though the true significance of the Spiral Path is seldom seen outside of the Triratna Movement. 

The Chinese counterpart, translated into English by me for the first time (back in 2012), is very similar in many ways to the Upanisā Sutta. It shows an element of standardisation with the other Spiral Path texts which are compiled in the 5th section of the Chinese Madhyāgama (MĀ) translation. The MĀ is different from its Pāḷi counterpart in that it collects many Spiral Path texts that are scattered about the Nikāyas together. I've prepared draft translations of all of these texts (MĀ 42-55), though these have now been superseded by the Numata Foundation translation of the Madhyāgama under the editorship of Bhikkhu Anālayo. However, though the first volume has been published, it is very expensive and thus unlikely to be accessible to ordinary Buddhists. Hence, my translations remain useful for now. At some point, it would be useful to produce a comparative study of the Pāli and Chinese versions of the Spiral Path texts. 

A reminder that I have already completed a comprehensive survey of the Pāḷi Spiral Path texts which was published in the Western Buddhist Review

Nirvāṇa Sūtra

Madhyāgama 55 [1] Corresponding Preconditions Section. Taisho Vol. 1 no.26.

Chinese Translation by Gautama Saṅghadeva between 397-398 CE. [2]
English Translation by Jayarava Aug 2012

English Translation

Thus have I heard, one time the Buddha was staying in Śravāsti ( 舍衛國 shěwèiguó ), at the Jeta Grove 勝林 of Anāthapiṇḍika’s park 孤獨園. Then the Bhagavan addressed the monks: "nirvāṇa (涅槃 nièpán) has a precondition (習xí [3] Skt. upaniṣad) and does not lack a precondition. The precondition for nirvāṇa is liberation (解脫 jiětuō Skt. vimokṣa).

Liberation also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of liberation? Cessation of desire (無欲; Skt. virāga) is the precondition of liberation.

Cessation of desire also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of cessation of desire? Disillusionment (厭 yàn; Skt. nirveda) is the precondition.

Disillusionment also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of disillusionment? To see reality and know things as they are (見如實 知如真. jiànrúshí zhīrúzhēn; Skt yathābhūta-jñānadarśana [4] ) is the precondition.

To see reality and know things as they are has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of seeing reality, and knowing things as they are? Samādhi (定 dìng) is the precondition.

Samādhi also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of samādhi? Bliss (樂 lè; Skt. sukha) is the precondition.

Bliss also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of bliss?
Calming down (止 zhǐ; Skt. praśrabdha) is the precondition.

Calming down also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of calming down? Rapture (喜 xǐ ; Skt. pīti) is the precondition.

Rapture also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of calming down? Joy (歡悅 huānyuè; Skt. prāmodya) is the precondition.

Joy also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of joy?
Non-regret (不悔 bù huǐ; Skt. avipratisāra) is the precondition.

Non-regret also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of non-regret? Morality (護戒 Hù jiè; Skt. śila) is the precondition.

Morality also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of morality? Guarding the sense faculties (護諸根 Hù zhūgēn; Skt. gupta indriya? [5] ) is the precondition.

Guarding the sense faculties also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Right mindfulness (正念 zhèng niàn Skt. samyak-smṛti), attentiveness (正智 zhèngzhì; Skt. saṃprajāna) [i.e., the eightfold path] is the precondition.

Mindfulness and attentiveness also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Wise attention (正思惟 zhèng sīwéi; Skt. yoniśo manasikāra) [6] is the precondition.

Wise attention also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition?
Faith (信 xìn; Skt. śraddhā) is the precondition.

Faith also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition? Suffering (苦 kǔ; Skt. duḥkha) is the precondition.

Suffering also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of duḥkha? Old age and Death (老死 lǎosǐ; Skt. jarāmaraṇa) are the precondition.

Old age and death also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of old age and death?  Birth (生 shēng; Skt. jāti) is the precondition.

Birth also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of birth?
Becoming (有 yǒu; Skt. bhava) is the precondition.

Becoming also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of birth?
Sensation (受 shòu; Skt. vedanā) is the precondition.

Sensation also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of sensation? [7] Desire (愛 ài; Skt. kānti; cf. 貪欲 tānyù; Skt. tṛṣṇā) is the precondition.

Desire also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of desire?
Contact (覺 jué; Skt. sprśati) is the precondition.

Contact also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of Contact?
Contact food [8] (更樂 gènglè; Skt. sparśo āhāra) is the precondition.

Contact food also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of contact food? The six sense faculties (六處 liù chù; Skt. sadāyatana) are the precondition.

The six sense faculties also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of six sense faculties? Name & form (名色 míng sè; Skt nāmarūpa) are the precondition.

Name & form also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of name & form? Awareness (識 shi; Skt. vijñāna) is the precondition.

Awareness also has a precondition and does not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of awareness? Constructs (行 xíng; Skt. saṃskāra) are the precondition.

Constructs also have a precondition and do not lack a precondition. What is the precondition of
constructs? Ignorance (無明 wúmíng; Skt. avidyā) is the precondition.

Ignorance is the cause (緣 yuán; Skt. pratyaya) of constructs; constructs cause awareness; awareness causes name & form; name & form causes the six sense faculties; the six sense faculties cause contact food; contact food causes contact; contact causes desire; desire causes sensation; sensation causes becoming; becoming causes birth; birth causes old age and death; old age and death cause suffering;
With suffering as a precondition there will be faith. With faith as a precondition, there will be wise attention. With wise attention as a precondition, there will be mindfulness & attentiveness. With mindfulness & attentiveness as a precondition there will be guarding the senses; morality; non-regret; joy; rapture; calming down; bliss; integration (samādhi); knowing and seeing things as they are; disgust; cessation of desire; liberation. With liberation as cause there will be nirvāna.

This is what the Buddha said. The bhikkhus heard and they all rejoiced.

[1] T01n0026_p0490c01(00)- T01n0026_p0491a13(00). "*Nirvāṇa Sūtra, the 55th sutra of T.99 中阿含經 *Madhyāgamasūtra" Note from  my friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair , henceforth [MO’C]

[2] This sūtra is the counterpart of the Pāli Upanisā Sutta (S 12.23). "Most of the other Sutras in this section deal with the same topic but they don't all give the the same chain. Sutras 42, 43, 47, and 50 give the chain from observing the precepts to nirvāṇa. Sutras 45 and 46 give a similar chain that starts with hrī and apatrāpya. Sutra 44 gives a chain starting with *saṃyagjñāna, saṃyaksaṃkalpa. Most of them are very short and give little more than lists of the links in the chain. Sutra 55 is probably the most detailed." [MO’C]

[3] 習 xí "usually means ‘to practice or become accustomed to’ and the only place I've seen it used to mean ‘cause or condition’ is in this sutra and the other sutras in this section of T.99." [MO’C] Here is stands for upaniṣad (Pāli upanisā) in the sense of underlying condition, or precondition. Bodhi uses the phrase ‘proximate condition’ in his translation of the Upanisā Sutta.

[4] Cf. 見 ‘see; darśana’; 如實 ‘reality, truth’, yathābhūta;jñāna; 如真 yathābhūta, tathatā; hence "to see reality, and know things as they are".

[5] 諸根 zhūgēn = indriya; 護 = ‘protect, guard’ and used to translate Skt. gupta as well as rakṣita, pāla and pālita. Perhaps Skt. indriyagupta? Cf. 守護根門 Shǒu hùgēn mén ‘guarding the sense gates’.

[6] This combination of characters is also used for samyak-samkalpa right-intention.

[7] Note that sensation and desire are given in reverse order in the Chinese text. This would seem to be a scribal error.

[8] I can’t find 更樂, per se, but Digital Dictionary of Buddhism has  "更樂食 (simplified 更乐食) [gēnglè shí] ‘sensory food’". In Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Translated Chapters)  By Maitreya Bodhisattva.  Buddha Education Foundation, 2012. http://buddhavacana.net/yogacarabhumi-sastra/  "Sensory food 觸食/樂食: the nourishment that one takes through the contacts of the six senses". (p.47) The collective term for the four kinds of food is catvāra āhārāḥ. In the Yogacarabhumi [manobhūmidvitīyā], itself, we find "| te punaścatvāra āhārāḥ | kavaḍaṅkāra āhāraḥ sparśo manaḥsañcetanā vijñānañ ca | http://dsbc.uwest.edu/manobhūmidvitīyā. The idea of contact as food occurs in the Pāli (See Nyanaponika 1981. ‘The Four Nutriments of Life: An Anthology of Buddhist Texts.’ Wheel Publication. No. 105/106 Buddhist Publication Society). But it is used very differently. In Pāli contact is nourishment; here contact-nourishment is a precondition for contact.

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