29 January 2016

Chronology and Buddhism

gold dinar
Samudra Gupta  335-375 CE
Coin Indian
One of the major problems for historians of Buddhism as an Indian religion is that there are no agreed chronological terms. The disagreement extends to Indian history generally. Those terms that we do use in Buddhist Studies are emic (emerge from the received tradition based on traditional concerns) and sectarian, at least in origin. I've already complained that scholars of Buddhism appear to be in love with their subject and therefore far too reluctant to be critical in the way that interests me (and other people who seek to break away from received traditions). There's no significant scholarly support for attempts by contemporary Buddhists to move beyond the limitations of received tradition.

In the past I have used the terms "early Buddhism" and "pre-sectarian" Buddhism, but both of these are problematic. "Early Buddhism" is, in effect, simply a euphemism for Hīnayāna. When discussing early Buddhism, we almost always exclude the early development of the that other prominent emic category Mahāyāna, even though these clearly overlap with the time period covered by early Buddhism. Some significant new work has been published recently on the early Mahāyāna showing that it overlapped with the mainstream of Buddhism for centuries, before becoming the mainstream. Those who study early Mahāyāna often exclude late "Hīnayāna" developments from their considerations, even though a figure like Nāgārjuna clearly looks back as much as he looks forward. Some of these divisions are being breached, but the growing prominence of Theravāda bhikkhus in the study of early Buddhism has also reinforced some divisions. We conveniently forget, for example, that the Chinese Āgama texts were not translated until the 5th century. They were not foremost in the minds of missionaries from India for the first four or five centuries, but were translated only when some attempt at comprehensiveness was being made. They were translated as an afterthought. Some so-called Mahāyāna movements are just as divergent from say, Prajñāpāramitā, as Theravāda orthodoxy is. Pure Land Buddhism, for example, has almost nothing in common with Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism. So, emic rubrics are often deceptive if used without due consideration of what period of history the label is being applied to. And, at present, we apparently have no way of stepping out of the various traditions and categorising history objectively. All our terminology seems to come from within the traditions.

"Pre-sectarian" is a term that emerges from Buddhist narratives of how Buddhism developed. To the best of my knowledge there is absolutely no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The idea is simply based on accepting the story that the texts themselves tell - that the stories in the Nikāyas were all told by the Buddha (even though some of them clearly were not). The canons of Buddhist texts, which we take to be the earliest written accounts of Buddhism, contradict each other along sectarian lines. This is so evident that an attentive scholar can make a reliable attribution of which sect the various Chinese Āgama translations were associated with. The Pāḷi version is full of internal contradictions and multiple versions of stories suggesting pre-existing sectarian divides. Something similar emerges when scholars study the early history of Christianity, for example, reviewing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels, Frank Thomas Smith, comments:
"What Pagels did not find during the course of her research was a “golden age” of purer and simpler early Christianity. It was not monolithic, but included a variety of voices and an extraordinary range of viewpoints, among saints and heretics alike—the “saints” being the ones who won. From a historical point of view, then, there is no “real Christianity”." 
Every scrap of evidence we have for the earlier phases of Buddhism, shows it to be pluralistic. The idea that it has an underlying unity is something I now question. It not only seems more plausible to me to posit an underlying pluralism, but one can see that the idea of an underlying unity comes from within the tradition itself and is not evaluated critically. Commenting on this issue and citing the Pagels's book as a case in point, Johannes Bronkhorst says:
"This directs our attention to an important feature of religious traditions: they may preserve inconsistencies, but are at the same time likely to explain them away. This observation should be heeded by those who point to traditional interpretations of seeming inconsistencies." 
I have pointed out a number of these inconsistencies in my writing. Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist morality require two different approaches to personal continuity, so that some texts assert personal continuity and some deny it. The doctrine of karma is not fully reconciled with paṭiccasamuppāda because one denies the possibility of action at a temporal distance and one requires it. Another type of inconsistency is the great variety of nidāna sequences supposedly representing paṭiccasamuppāda. Were there 5, 7, 10, 11, or 12 nidānas? Or the later imposition of the Three Lifetimes Interpretation. Even the theories to reconcile these differences only produced more divisions. Buddhists simply deny that these inconsistencies exist or resort to hand-waving explanations that serve only to divert attention. As Noam Chomsky has said,
“The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
We see a steady stream of apologetics from religious Buddhists, particularly from the Theravādins arguing for such propositions as the "authenticity of the texts" or "the truth of rebirth". Authenticity only bears on the authority of the texts, and authority is only interesting when one is using the texts to legitimate an idea or practice. Anthropologists are interested in how religious people use the concept of authority to justify their behaviour, and historians might trace the use of texts as sources of legitimacy; the assertion that the texts are "authentic" (i.e., are what they represent themselves to be) is a religious concern. And one that refuses to die despite the absolute absence of evidence to back up any argument.

The term "pre-sectarian" is based on an assumption rather than evidence. There is no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism apart from the traditional religious hagiographies of the founder of Buddhism. And remember, that founder's name is something we cannot be sure of, and that man is not mentioned in any contemporary literature outside Buddhism. He may not have existed. And the first evidence of Buddhism is centuries after the putative time of the founder.

Similarly, notations based on nation states or ethnicity are exclusive in unhelpful ways since Buddhism often took centuries to develop a distinctive national character, if it ever did. Sometimes the apparent unity in a nation is due to failure to see the differences. In the case of China, influences to and from India flowed until the end of Buddhism in India; Chinese Buddhism was far from static. China is diverse in so many ways, including in the forms of Buddhism that it adopted and produced. In the West we have this unfortunate tendency to talk about China as a relatively uniform place, with, for example, a Chinese language when, in fact, China is at least as linguistically diverse as Europe is. The number of people I meet who are unaware that Japanese and Chinese languages are not even in the same language family is embarrassing. Anyone talking about Buddhism regularly has probably experienced the cognitive dissonance of referring to a Westerner as a "Tibetan Buddhist" - the person is not Tibetan, the Buddhism is. But it's not as though Tibetan Buddhism is uniform enough to be a homogeneous category. It isn't. It's simply that we are unaware of the diversity. Making the Tibetan diaspora seem more unified that it really is helps the campaign against Chinese rule, for example. It's much snappier to refer to the "Tibetan people" and their "leader" the Dalai Lama than to acknowledge the diversity and sharp divisions that existed before the common enemy appeared to unite them.

Another category widely used these days is "Mainstream". It's used to refer to non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, as a substitute for early Buddhism (because that term is widely acknowledged to be problematic). If we look at Indian Buddhism in the two centuries spanning the beginning of the common era what we see is that at all times the Mahāyāna, in a wide variety of forms, is present and grows in importance. The Abhidharma project is also present and perhaps dominant throughout, but divided along multiple sectarian lines, with most sects ignored by modern scholars (partly because we lack sufficient information about them to pay attention to). But is the Abhidharma "early"? Not early, early, for sure. And it continues to be studied by monks right down to the present. Some parts of Greater India harbour progressive and even transgressive innovators while others harbour the deepest conservatism. At the beginning of this period the mainstream is probably Abhidharma oriented, depending on where one looks, but by the end of the period the balance has shifted towards some form of Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna is itself beginning to coalesce as a distinct approach to Buddhism from a series of unrelated cults. So "Mainstream Buddhism" is meaningless unless it is qualified with a time and place and a keen understanding of the history of Buddhism in that time and place. What was mainstream in 1st Century Gandhāra was almost certainly not mainstream at the same time in Magadha or South India. Two centuries either side of that date completely different forms of Buddhism might have been mainstream. So mainstream turns out not to be a viable short-hand either, though it is as widely used nowadays as early Buddhism.

I've been reading some Chinese Buddhist history recently, and in these texts the authors simply adopt the time periods of Chinese history generally without privileging the history of Buddhism the way Buddhist Studies scholars do when discussing Indian Buddhism. I think the lack of suitable time period notation for Buddhism may reflect a lack in the study of Indian history. In order to remedy this I'd like to propose a basic notation for Buddhist history which avoids emic categories. In this I draw on the terminology that has origins in the study of the European history of ideas as it has been adapted to Chinese historiography.

I began discussing Buddhist historiography and dates in an earlier essay: The Very Idea of Buddhist History. Some of my comments here assume that the comments made there, particularly with respect to dates, are familiar.

The origins of Buddhism are on the margins of the second urbanisation and thus the emergence of the second urbanisation is a key milestone in the history of Buddhism. There is considerable evidence for the second urbanisation, which supports the Two Cultures hypothesis promoted by Geoffrey Samuel and Johannes Bronkhorst amongst others (one culture being Brahmaṇa and the other Śrāmaṇa). If there was a single founder figure, he lived in this period, though I suspect that the Śrāmaṇa culture gave rise to new ideas collectively and only in retrospect were they ascribed to a founder figure. There is no archaeological evidence for Buddhism in this period, no external corroborating evidence of any kind. The only evidence for Buddhism at this period is that texts appear to be set during the second urbanisation: walled cities are featured, for example.

As I have said, above, to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The earliest evidence we have is already pluralistic; though the texts do contain founding myths which suggest unity, the actual diversity of the basic teachings on any subject suggests that if there ever was a unified period it was very short-lived indeed. This is not inconsistent with the primitive legends of the founder teaching disciples and sending them off to teach on the basis of their own experience. On this Canonical account, if there is any truth to it, diversification must have begun with a year of the founding of Buddhism, as each of these teachers expressed the experience of awakening in their own terms.

I have argued that we have a predisposition or bias to see the past as simpler than the present, and to see the past converging. This is partly because our view of the past is conditioned by the metaphor of the tree. This view biases us towards seeing convergence in the past. I've argued that the tree is the wrong metaphor for many evolutionary processes, including the development of Buddhism, and that a braided stream would be a far better metaphor: See Evolution: Trees and Braids (27 Dec 2013) and Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution (28 Mar 2014).

The founder myth suffers from confirmation bias. For example, the existence of two contradictory narratives of the Buddha leaving home doesn't undermine our confidence in the myth. The fact that Gotama is an extremely unlikely name for a non-Brahmin, because it is a high-prestige Brahmin gotra name associated with the composition of the Ṛgveda and the lineage of teachers of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, or that the name Siddhattha is never found in the Pāḷi texts, does not undermine our confidence that the Buddha's name was Siddhattha Gotama; or that no one in the Buddha's family is called Gotama except his mother and aunt (in a culture were women did not take their husband's gotra name) despite it being natural for his father to be referred to as Gotama if it were the gotra name of his family (in which case our man would be Gotamaputra or some other diminutive). And so on. Contradictory evidence is simply ignored, and its difficult even to get it published.

Evidence external to the texts emerges only around the time of Asoka, the India emperor who aped his Persian counterparts in creating inscriptions asserting his sāsanā or edicts. The stone and pillar edicts mention Buddhists and Buddhism for the first time. Asoka can be dated fairly accurately by his naming of four Bactro-Greek kings in edicts. He must have lived and ruled in the mid 3rd Century BCE. More or less all dates for events in Indian history before the Common Era are given by some assumed relationship to Asoka. Note that Greg Schopen has insistently pointed out that where we have external evidence it almost inevitably contradicts the texts. Traditionalists, scholar bhikkhus like Sujato, hotly contest Schopen's account of early history and seek to discredit his conclusions and assert the "authenticity" of the texts. Perhaps the arguments on both sides are tendentious, but those with no vested interest can see merits and faults on both sides of this divide. My view is that in studying history the most important principle is not to take any tradition on its own terms. Any historical conclusion based solely on Buddhist texts can only ever be provisional despite what apologists for the tradition would have us believe. The archaeology associated with Asoka provides the first evidence for Buddhism, some 150 years after the new consensus date for the death of the Buddha ca. 400 BCE (a date based solely on readings of texts!)

From the period following Asoka, with the collapse of the Mauryan Empire and the rise of smaller political units and the rise of a Brahmanical social hegemony, the basic forms of Buddhism as we know it begin to emerge. Large-scale, settled monasteries, supported by rulers and wealthy merchants became the central institution of Buddhism. The religion is vigorously evangelical and begins to spread to the edges of the Mauryan Empire and beyond. Buddhist texts are formalised, canonised, and begin to be written down within a a century or two of Asoka. Monastic rules exist in a number of recensions and continue to diverge. The different Abhidharma projects, partially aimed at fixing problems inherited from the formative period. These problems are also now denied by Buddhists, but were once the subject of considerable debate and controversy, as evidence from intra-Buddhist polemics that have survived. From the time of Asoka we begin to see what we might call Classical Buddhism emerging in texts and archaeology.

I therefore would like to call the period before Asoka "Pre-classical" and the period beginning with Asoka "Classical". The Pre-classical period was marked by the oral transmission of texts, with a minimal footprint in terms of social or cultural change (no archaeology). We know nothing for sure about this period in history, but certain features of the texts suggest that they were composed after the second urbanisation had started and before Asoka. This is about as much as we can say.

In Classical Buddhism, ideas are moving beyond the founder myth. At the same time we see the emergence of conservative codifications of dogmas and progressive innovations aimed at getting to grips with the problems inherited from the pre-Classical period. The Classical Period includes the development of sectarian Abhidharmas and the emergence of distinct Mahāyāna sects. It was the period when missionary activity spread Buddhism beyond the limits of Asoka's empire into South India and Sri Lanka in the south, into Burma and South East Asia to the East, in West and North into Persia and Central Asia. However, it was also the period when Brahmanism was beginning to dominate the intellectual and religious landscape across Greater India and leave a massive footprint on Buddhism as well. The roots of Mahāyāna are presumably already present and various forms of Mahāyāna practice emerge alongside the mainstream, in the same monastic centres, initially as a series of disparate and distinct cults that have little in common. Standalone sūtra cults focussed on the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā, for example, are in existence and mature and coalescing into the Mahāyāna. By the end of the Classical Period the era of major sūtra composition is also over.  Key figures of the Classical period include Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, and Buddhaghosa. With these thinkers, Buddhist thought begins to drift away from Canonical texts as primary sources and towards sāstric or commentarial texts. Sūtras continue to be important, of course, but they are now interpreted through the lens of sectarian śāstra. A pattern that continues down to the present. 

A feature of the Classical period is the gradual adoption of Sanskrit as the lingua franca of India, influenced in part by the hegemony Brahmins now asserted over India. Buddhists began to ignore the canonical injunctions against translating their story into Sanskrit (in favour of the vernacular) and joined other groups in adopting the language. Texts in Prakrit are translated into Sanskrit. New texts are composed in Sanskrit, sometimes a mongrel Sanskrit-Prakrit hybrid, but increasingly often in compliant Pāṇinian Sanskrit. The Pāḷi tradition dies out in India, but continues in Sri Lanka, Burma and South East Asia; with Burma and SE Asia apparently receiving their texts directly from South India rather than via Sri Lanka (according to Alex Wynne).

I locate the end of the Classical Period at the collapse of the Gupta Empire under pressure from Huns, in the mid to late 6th Century. This was the first of a series of incursions from the West that would contribute to the elimination of Buddhism from India. With the end of the Classical Period we move into the Medieval Period (essentially this means a "middle" period between the ancient, or Classical period, and modernity). Chinese history is usefully divided in early and late Medieval periods, which may be relevant to India, as well. The collapse of the Gupta Empire seems to have been particularly cataclysmic for India. As narrated by Ronald Davidson, the result was a breakdown in civil order and trade routes with resulting isolation of cities in stretches of lawless wilderness. If we take the elimination of Buddhism in India to be a key milestone in the history of Buddhism, which occurred sometime in the 12th century, this would mark the horizon between early and late Medieval Period. By the late Medieval, Buddhism is wholly non-Indian and the development into different sects based on local culture is no longer anchored by developments in India.

By the early medieval period Mainstream Buddhism is thoroughly Mahāyāna. Whether there are any non-Mahāyāna schools left by this time is moot because the central institutions, such as the large monasteries, are all dominated by Mahāyāna practitioners. However, in the Medieval Period there is a strong challenge to the Mainstream from the emergence of Tantra. Before too long, the Mainstream is Tantric. And this is the essential problem with the term "Mainstream": what it means depends on what time period is under discussion.

Buddhism reached out beyond India in the classical period, becoming established, at least amongst the elites, as far afield as Korea, Japan, and Thailand. Tibet, however, was converted during the early Medieval Period. And this leads to some very significant differences between Buddhism in Tibet and surrounding regions compared to East Asia. Also, the Silk Route broke down around the 8th century with the expansion of Islam into Central Asia. This meant that Buddhism in China and its vassal states ceased to be anchored in India before the eventual demise of Indian Buddhism. Japanese Tantra, for example, did not incorporate significant developments in Tantra that are epitomised by the Hevajra Tantra: the rise to importance of female figures and sexual symbolism. The last phase of Indian Buddhism is dominated by Tantra and developments from the Tantric milieu. Tantra rises to become a major force in Indian religion generally, alongside Mīmāṃsā, Vedanta, Yoga, Vaiṣṇavism, and Śaivism. Buddhist Tantra draws on Śaivism, increasingly, as time goes on. 

So the periods of history as I discern them are:

700 - 250 BCEPre-Classical (second urbanisation up till Asoka; no direct evidence of Buddhism)

250 BCE - 500 CEClassical (First evidence of Buddhism, formalisation of the basic tenets, move to Sanskrit and Śāstra, ends with collapse of Gupta Empire).

500 - 1200Early Medieval (from the end of the Gupta to the elimination of Buddhism from India)

1200 - 1700Late Medieval (Buddhism as purely non-Indian phenomenon, until the substantial presence of European colonialism and imperialism)

1700 - presentModern (the European discovery of Buddhism, influence of West on Buddhism and vice versa, post-colonialism)

All of the dates are approximate and do not represent hard boundaries, but milestones that serve only to divide history into manageable chunks for us to think and write about. Such periodization is always notional and to some extent arbitrary. If we are ever to understand Buddhist history as a whole we need to step outside the emic, sectarian straight-jacket and study Buddhism both synchronically (all the Buddhism being practised and thought about at a particular time) and diachronically (the history of ideas across time). With diachronic studies we definitely need to pay more attention to the long term, tracing how ideas change as we move from period to period. Central ideas like karma change considerably, for example, and yet we still tend to talk about karma as a unitary phenomenon with a single well understood definition. This impression of uniformity is completely false. The doctrine of karma was the locus of considerable competition and innovation for Buddhists. And in synchronic studies we need to break out of sectarian categories to reflect the pluralism of Buddhism more accurately.

Particularly, we need to stop thinking of the Pali texts as "Theravādin" or representative of the Pre-Classical period. Of course, we have more texts in Pāḷi than other Indic languages, but this fact has been transformed into a measure of significance or importance. After the Common Era the Pāḷi texts played almost no role in the history of Buddhism in mainland India. Serious money is now going into the study and translation in English of the Chinese texts, which might help to correct this imbalance, but these texts are being studied by people with a vested interest in the idea of the historical unity of Buddhism. Big money is also involved in producing a proper critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon, but this project is sponsored by a cult, the leader of which is being prosecuted for financial irregularities. One gets the sense that the Gāndharī texts might just be languishing because the preservation and conservation costs means that they are far more expensive to work with. Certainly information about the Gāndhārī texts we have continues to emerge at a trickle - we do not even have published texts for all of them yet, let alone translations and studies. And since they are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence they ought to be a priority. 

My suggestion may mean that we have to avoid getting bogged down in details and try to get an overview of the themes in each time period. It may also require subdividing time periods to avoid information overload. The Classical Period is particularly dense, for example, and may need, for example, an early and late sub-division. But the divisions ought to be based on major historical milestones rather the sectarian or purely emic categories. And, ideally, any synchronic study will take in the breadth of Buddhist ideas and practices current in these times, rather than, as now, focussing on particular sects or individuals. We also need to more closely link the history of Buddhism to the history of India generally, to see Buddhism in its social and political context.

One can sympathise with all those Nāgārjuna scholars who are still trying to puzzle out what the man was getting at (mostly without trying to replicate the kinds of experiences that informed and underpinned his work), but it seems to happen at the expense of the broader history of Buddhism in the second century. And since his principle commentators are in fact Medieval, he tends to be tacitly time-shifted to a later period. Nāgārjuna with respect to his own commentators is somehow more important than Nāgārjuna in relation to his own contemporaries. On the contrary, Vasubandhu is often seen to be arguing with his contemporaries and his work is over-cited as representing their views when that can be misleading. Buddhists are notoriously bad at misrepresenting their enemies, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

There are barriers to this approach. The Classical texts are preserved in Pāli, Chinese, Sanskrit and Gāndharī, as well as a few in Central Asian languages. To do a thorough job one must have access to the texts in their original languages. Though if one was to start early with Classical Sanskrit and Mandarin, adding Pāli, Gāndharī and Middle (Buddhist) Chinese as required, this ought to be manageable. After Sanskrit, Chinese grammar is mercifully simple, even if the writing is not. Scholars of classical Greece often learn Latin and Greek from a relatively early age and may already have a degree of fluency before starting an undergraduate degree. Ideally we'd have scholars who learn Sanskrit and Mandarin in high-school with a view to studying Buddhist history at university. This is unlikely to happen in Western Countries any time soon. 

Perhaps because of the language requirements, and with having to start from scratch at university, so many of us focus on philology and philosophy, or perhaps anthropology; there are too few trained historians working in the field of Buddhist studies. The lack of research based on sound historical principles definitely hampers progress in understanding Buddhism. Perhaps we need to think in terms of interdisciplinary teams of researchers rather than the typical individual jack-of-all-trades who knows Indic languages fairly well, but has little or no training in history or anthropology?

Lastly, a scheme like this means nothing in isolation. Adoption of an historical schema unilaterally, especially by someone who is not part of the mainstream, will change very little. Influential academics need to acknowledge the problem first (by which I mean the problem of trying to discuss Buddhist history in terms of emic terms and categories). There is some progress on this as many scholars are aware of the problematic nature of how we categorise and periodize Buddhism, but solutions to date have been piecemeal, such as using "mainstream" to replace the euphemism "early Buddhism", when we all just mean Hīnayāna but are trying to avoid the unpleasant connotations of that foul word. Even if someone does set out a better alternative, getting a majority Buddhist Studies scholars to adopt this new scheme is likely to be difficult. Even so, the current situation is confused and confusing and the more of us who say so, the more likely the situation is to change. 


22 January 2016

Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation

I'm sure I've told this story before, but in sixth-form biology (some 35 years ago now) we studied a plant and an animal in some depth. For our animal we followed Charles Darwin in studying the earthworm. I gained a new appreciation of these creatures through studying their physiology and behaviour. One of the experiments we did was a bit cruel. We studied the stress response of earthworms. I want to begin this essay on rumination by outlining what happens when you pretend to be a predator to an exposed earthworm.

The Stress Response

Earthworms may be exposed on the surface during daylight for a number of reasons. For example rain-saturated soil forces them up to breathe, or some chemical or mechanical irritant may make then break cover to escape it, despite the risk. Not only does sunlight kill them, through exposure to UV light and dehydration, but being on the surface also leaves them vulnerable to one of their principle predators - birds. Back in 1982 we collected earthworms by introducing a chemical irritant into the soil and grabbing them as they popped up, then we rinsed them and kept them in a dark moist environment. After they had time to acclimatise to their new environment, we stressed them by poking them in a way designed to mimic a bird attempting to eat them. Stressed in this way an earthworm goes into a frenzied writhing motion which is obviously designed to make them hard to grab hold of. Once they stopped we poked them again, producing more writhing. And we repeated this several times. On the third time the writhing was noticeably less vigorous. On the fourth time the poor worm was lethargic but moved around slowly. And after that further poking did not seem to produce any response at all.

So what does this tell us?

The father of modern stress research, Hans Selye (1907 – 1982), did much the same thing with rats and outlined threephases of response to a stressor that seemed to apply to many organisms. He defined these largely in glandular terms, i.e. in the type and amount of hormones produced. Nowadays we might characterise the response in terms of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

1. Alarm reaction. These is an immediate reaction to a stimulus or stressor. In humans the ANS initiates a series of changes: The sympathetic side of the ANS acts rapidly to produce changes: the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol flood the blood with glucose, raise our blood-pressure, increase our heart rate. The bronchioles in the lungs expand. Blood is diverted away from the gut, toward the skeletal muscles. The pupils dilate. In the gastro-intestinal tract, sphincters tighten and peristalsis is slowed or suspended, In other words we prepare for action (another term for this is arousal). These preparations are for in-the-moment reactions such as "freezing" and the "fight or flight" response.Without further stressors this reaction is short-lived and the body soon begins to restore normal operating conditions, reversing the changes that arousal produces through the actions of the parasympathetic side of the ANS. Relaxation takes longer than arousal. Short lived stressors may be positive, such as the anxiety preceding a performance (be it sporting or artistic) that allows us to achieve something out of the ordinary - a gold medal winning time in the Olympics or a recital that gains a standing ovation. Selye called this positive side of stress eustress and the negative kind distress.

2. Resistance.With continued exposure to stressors, the body's ability to respond to stimulus changes. We may begin to experience fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbance, and problems with homoeostatic regulation, such as high or low blood pressure. We may also begin to experience mood disturbances, such as mood swings, low mood, or anxiety. There may also be impairment to the immune system. This corresponds to the third and fourth stimulus in the worm where the response to the stressor was attenuated and the ability to avoid the threat was significantly degraded.

3. Exhaustion. Finally, prolonged exposure to stressors (or an intense short-term stressor) can cause a complete breakdown in our ability to response to stimulus. Like the earthworm, the behaviour that protects us from threats simply ceases. Glands that produce the hormones become depleted and receptors become unresponsive. Such exhaustion may manifest as what we call "major depression" (sometimes lay people call this "clinical depression"). People suffering from depression typically experience overwhelming fatigue, appetite disturbance, a tendency to sleep too much or too little. They begin to avoid social interactions. Stimulation of any kind may be experienced as painful. The classic image of depression is of someone unable to get out of bed, lying in the dark, unresponsive. Another less known aetiology, particularly amongst men, is of a kind of "always on" anger, an emotional response to stimuli that is stuck on one setting. One suspects that this process may also be implicated in a number of other disease syndromes (i.e. illnesses that are a cluster of symptoms with no known cause) such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Modern urban life is increasingly stressful. City living is already stressful for us as social primates, because we are crowded in with a lot of strangers. As well as being surrounded by strangers, increasing numbers of people are socially isolated for one reason or another. We don't get enough of the right kind of contact with human beings. Older people in particular may never experience physical contact with another human being except the functional touch of carers (who are also likely to be strangers). Loneliness is epidemic in modern life. For many people social bonds are weak, a vulnerability and a stressor for a social primate.

In modern cities we are hammered by sights, sounds, and smells. Everywhere we go there is noise pollution, visual pollution, air pollution and so on. Teams of psychologists work to tune advertising to grab our attention and manipulate our emotions, often utilising highly sexualised images. News media focus on stories that will elicit the basic emotions of fear, anger, and disgust, making news a stressor. Too many of these stimuli are noxious and trigger our alarm reaction too often. Everything in modern life is designed to cause arousal and this can leave us in a state of hyper-alertness. Or in Selye's terms, leaving us in the state of resistance or exhaustion. The body's natural relaxation response (mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system) is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of arousing stimuli that we meet in a day).

Almost nothing is designed to help us get back to a resting state. Indeed many of us attempt to do this through drugs and alcohol. This is problematic in many ways, but in the case of alcohol, being a poison, it is also a stressor! Clearly the inability to self-regulate emotions and to relax back to a calm resting state is a serious problem in modern urban life. Another way people try to calm down is through eating.

In the UK 24.3% of men and 26.8% of women were obese in 2014 (Public Health England). By 2050 these figures are predicted to be 60% and 50% respectively.Every day I see children being unconsciously being taught to use food as a means of regulating their levels of arousal, i.e. being given food to quiet them down and get them stay calm while strapped into a pushchair. I suspect that this is partly why we see more and more fat people who find dieting almost impossible. They've learned from infancy that eating is a way to regulate emotions, to calm down. And this is true to some extent, the satiation response that comes after eating does relax the body, causing what is sometimes called the postprandial dip. On the other hand, dieting is a powerful stressor, partly in its own right and partly because it removes one of the most effective means people have of calming down. Exercising is also a stressor, at least until one can build up the intensity enough to reap the reward of endogenous opioids,. It may be some time before an obese person can achieve this and in the meantime it's just painful and stressful. So I imagine that the average obese person is caught in a vicious cycle of eating as a first choice aid to deflating arousal and being stressed by the supposed cures for obesity (dieting and exercise).

For those of us who are hyper-stimulated, sleep may become elusive or ineffective. We may wake without feeling refreshed, use coffee of some other stimulant to try to spark ourselves into action and stumble through our days without ever feeling fully awake. Along with depression, anxiety and obesity, insomnia is a major problem in urban populations. Chronic stress leads to all kinds of illness, often with no obvious cause and no consistent aetiology, which thus leaves the medical profession scratching their heads.

If all this external stress were not bad enough, many of us use our imaginations in such a way that our own thoughts become stressors. And this brings us to the problem of rumination.

bovine stomach

The word rumination comes from rumen,a word of uncertain origin. Some animals, often referred to collectively as ruminants, have a multi-compartment stomach and typically eat grass and leaves. Food from the oesophagus goes into the first chamber, or rumen,where it is fermented by microbes to break down cellulose. No animal can digest cellulose, the major constituent of plants, without help from symbiotic microbes living in their gut. After fermentation the wodge of partially digested food, or cud, can be regurgitated to be further chewed. This act of re-chewing food is called "chewing the cud" a characteristic of ruminant animals. When it is re-swallowed it carries on through the alimentary canal.

For obvious reasons this process has been seen as analogous to cogitating on something repeatedly or continually turning a thought over in the mind. And thus we metaphorically call this process rumination. Rumination refers to a particular type of mental process. For example when we turn over a problem and work through it, this is not really rumination. Nor is it rumination if we plan out an event or period of time. The crucial feature of rumination is repeatedly going over the same thoughts, particularly memories of past events. Like a cow chewing its cud - swallowing and regurgitating.

When we recall a memory, the content of it may be impressions from any of our senses: visual, aural, tastes, smells, and tactiles. But along with these images come the associated emotions. When we recall a pleasant meeting with friends, we experience a measure of the joy and happiness that we experienced during the original event. Equally, if we remember some unpleasant event then we will experience the associated emotions, such as fear, anger, or disgust. In other words thoughts and memories can lead to arousal, can be stressors.

Some people are prone to rumination, prone particularly to bringing to mind the unpleasant events of their lives. Events may haunt them. They may endlessly relive past shame, humiliation, fear, or helplessness. And with the memories come the emotions associated with these events. Such memories and emotions are stressors. While an event such as an assault produces very strong emotions, bringing to mind the assault can be almost as intense if the memory is vivid. And though perhaps less intense than the original experience, when we repeatedly bring these events to mind, time and again, one after another, or when they persistently intrude seemingly of their own volition, the repeated stimulation of our alarm reaction can lead to exhaustion.

A related problem is worry. Worry about what might happen in the future can create chronic anxiety. This can sometimes be a problem if our past experience means that we expect our future experience to be stressful. Especially if we have a good imagination, we can create vivid scenarios in imagination that also give rise to emotions and act as stressors. When we allow them to play out repeatedly, they may tax our ability to respond and eventually lead to exhaustion.

Although depression may have other causes, these two routes to depression—through rumination on the past and worry about the future—seem to me to be especially significant. For example the correlation between depression and low serotonin levels is often assumed to be causal in a particular direction: low serotonin causes depression. In fact it may be the other way around, that depression causes low serotonin. The body chemistry of someone suffering from an overload of stressors, from distress, resistance and exhaustion may deplete serotonin leaving the person with low serotonin levels. Even so, serotonin ought not to be seen in isolation because it is involved in a complex, highly interrelated system of internal regulation. If one part of that system is malfunctioning then chances are the rest of the system is also malfunctioning.The relation between neurotransmitters and depression is in fact poorly understood and messing with neurotransmitters always has unpredictable, unintended consequences.

Medications which raise serotonin availability are often seen as the first line of treatment for depression even though there is now serious doubt about their efficacy. The historical non-reporting of negative trials made anti-depressants seem much more effective than they are because when it came time to do review studies they only considered published rather than unpublished results and these were very heavily biased towards positive results. The movement to pre-register all drugs trials and to publish negative results has altered how we see the efficacy of these medicines. When we add in all the trials in which anti-depressant medications had no discernible effect beyond what might be attributed to the placebo effect, then the picture changed. This seems not to have filtered down to the GP level were anti-depressants are still the first line treatment for depression as well as being liberally prescribed off label.

Buddhists often see Buddhism as a panacea for stress,. One prominent translator of Buddhist texts goes so far as to translate dukkha as "stress" making stress the fundamental problem of human existence. So next I want to look at meditation from the point of view of someone suffering from rumination and/or depression.

Depression and Meditation

As well as the symptoms described above, depression often manifests in a distorted inner-dialogue. The depressed person may experience feelings of worthlessness accompanied by self-talk that reinforces this feeling. It may also distort a person's sense of perspective, so that the present seems unrelated to the past or future. One may find it difficult to recall things ever being different or to imagine them getting better. The combination can be unbearable and result in thoughts of suicide, though the suicidal thoughts themselves may be a symptom of depression.

If a person suffering from depression induced by the chronic stress of rumination and/or worry takes up meditation the results can be disastrous. Attempting meditation while being prone to rumination can bring on or exacerbate any problems they may be experiencing. Without considerable experience of dealing with the hindrances the mind simply goes to its well worn habits of rumination and worry. Only now in a more intensive way than usual because meditation encourages us to focus on the object of awareness. Focus on rumination or thoughts of worthlessness or even suicide may lead to acute distress as a result. Going on retreat with this habit is like being in a pressure cooker and can lead to severe acute distress. It's important to begin breaking the habit of ruminating before setting out to do any meditation practice, be it concentration or just awareness based. One needs practice stabilising the mind and dealing with the hindrances or one simply dwells in negative states. Rumination will subvert this practice unless it is addressed directly. Simply trying not to think about something for someone in the habit of ruminating won't work. They will be drawn inexorably back to the same old subject. There is recent research which supports this conclusion.
"The results suggest that, contrary to expectation, strong concentration on the present, perceived as an important and unique time area, by highly neurotic individuals intensifies the negative relationship between neuroticism and self-esteem, satisfaction with life and life engagement." (ScienceDirect pre-pub)
When we add some of the more nihilistic Buddhist doctrines such as non-self or emptiness then we can create real havoc in a person's psyche. Of course such doctrines are not intended as nihilism, but they are so often interpreted and taught nihilistically that they are worse than useless and can be positively dangerous to someone prone to psychological distress. To some people these doctrines say "you are nothing", which is just what their depression-influenced inner-dialogue is telling them.

In a religious context, especially in a Buddhist context, the conversion to and practice of the religion are supposed to cure one of psychological distress. That's what it says on the tin. If someone does the Buddhist practices, but they still get depressed then that threatens to undermine the faith of the rest of the community. It intimates the fragility of some of the claims made by Buddhists. The religious whose faith is threatened by the mere existence of another person can react unpredictably. They may angrily reject the depressed person in a catastrophic way, pushing them out of home or religious community for example.

Another area of confusion is ethics. Buddhists of my acquaintance are both too slack in their own practise of the precepts and too rigid when viewing the practice of others. The result is a kind of lazy hypocritical judgement and criticism of others. The precepts are phrased as personal undertakings, not externally imposed rules. We undertake to practice them, usually because we see mentors exemplifying the practice and being attractive as a result. If we fail to uphold our precepts then this is not an opportunity to put the boot in, for the Buddhist this ought to be seen as an opportunity for offering a helping hand. Someone committed to ethical behaviour is unlikely to suddenly act unskilfully for no reason. In fact it may be the environment the person is in which is undermining their practice, in which case the community ought to be doing some soul searching rather than sitting in judgement. All too often Buddhists use the precepts as a stick to beat someone with or to place an unbearable burden on them. Most of us are at least as likely to be responding to our social environment as acting on some internal motivation. Unfortunately Freud and other Romantics have rather blinded us to our social nature and the importance of environmental factors in determining behaviour.

If we are suffering from stress to the point where it affects our behaviour, then it is deeply unhelpful for our friends and mentors to sit in judgement and criticise our ethics. Of course there may be a need to set limits and boundaries. Simply tolerating destructive behaviours is counter-productive. But there are ways of achieving this without cutting off from the person. The most important thing a community can do is let the suffering person know that they are loved and appreciated. In my experience Buddhists can be quite good around people who are dying or severally physically ill, but they are crap, really crap, at responding to severe psychological distress. Death is something we want to face with grace. It's the ultimate test of our test of our faith. We can feel good about ourselves if we face death with equanimity. Depression and other forms of psychological problem seem to be something we don't want to face at all. Since happiness is said to be the result of being a Buddhist, then a Buddhist suffering from distress is a kind of anathema. The reaction seems to be to pull away and isolate the person, perhaps with a sense of preventing the spread of the negativity contagion. Fear is a common reaction.

The point is that traditional approaches to meditation assume fairly good mental health from the outset. And it's doubtful at best to assume that everyone who signs up for a meditation course at an urban Buddhist Centre is in good mental health. In fact I would say that many people sign up for meditation precisely because they are not in good mental health and have been told that meditation is the cure for what ails them. And that is confusing for everyone involved.


My view is that this kind of problem is widespread. Modern urban life is organised in such a way that many people suffer from hyper-stimulation and chronic, generalised stress reactions. We are constantly being intensely stimulated and don't know how to effectively calm down. In addition many of us develop the vicious habits of rumination or worry which are themselves stressors. We may not have enough resilience or know ways to calm ourselves down. Without acknowledging this, Buddhism as widely taught is unintentionally creating a significant amount of confusion and misery. It is a significant barrier for many people who might otherwise benefit from our practices. And the idealism of Buddhists, who tend to see meditation as a kind of panacea—saving not only individuals, but the cosmos itself—doesn't help matters. For many people attempting meditation does not bring any of the promised benefits and but contrarily introduces new stressors and/or intensifies old ones. We cannot continue to teach as though we are living in pre-modern Asia. Unfortunately the negative changes are ramping up as time goes on and we need to adapt to rapidly changing times.

Fortunately there are a number of auxiliary practices that are also frequently taught alongside Buddhism. I'm thinking of yoga and taichi for example, both of which indirectly enable a person to manage their mental states better by grounding them in the bodily experience (I've praised cultivation of the body previously). But I'm also thinking of what we call mindfulness (in the John Kabat-Zinn sense). With this kind of practice of paying attention to our bodies and our movements we prepare the ground for going deeper by allowing ourself to experience a stable mind. The physicality of bodily awareness often short-circuits rumination and worry. We enable a person who is prone to rumination to stop the vicious cycle and experience themselves anew. Recent research has shown that paying attention to the body increases resilience, where resilience refers to the body's ability to rapidly return to a resting state after encountering a stressor. See for example:To Better Cope With Stress, Listen to Your Body. (New York Times, 13 Jan 2016)

Another task I find helpful is writing. This forms an integral part of my strategy for avoiding rumination and worry. The linear nature of the process of writing about ideas is perfect for preventing the downward spiral of negativity. Always having something to think through that I can switch to if I notice an unhelpful trend building up in my thoughts has been essential to my well-being for over a decade now. I heartily recommend this practice to anyone who is thoughtful, but struggles with rumination or worry. Creative writing may suit other people better. But writing epitomises an approach to moving away from vicious spirals into more virtuous progression.

Knowing, as I do, the pitfalls of rumination and worry, I'm in favour of these auxiliary practices becoming much more prominent in our teaching. My opinion is also that we ought to teach very little theory to beginners and focus on mindfulness practices, particularly related to the body. All one needs to do, initially, is to start paying attention and to note what happens when we do pay attention. Everything should be based on this. Once someone achieves a measure of success in this, then we can move them onto more intensive practices. New techniques should only be introduced on an individual basis, by an experienced mentor, when the practitioner is ready. Indeed I would advocate that everyone be introduced to these practices by a mentor who can function a bit like a sponsor in AA. Someone who is experienced enough to offer guidance, but also sufficiently available for the guidance to be timely. Someone who can take an active interest in that individual's life. As it is I suspect many Buddhists are way ahead of themselves and floundering because the foundations of their practice are not sound. Any theory that we do teach should tie directly into experiences we've already had rather than hypothetical. Buddhists should not be allowed to teach what they do not know from personal experience. We need fewer teachers and more demonstrators. More people who show us what to do, and fewer who can only tell us. 

Simplicity and experience ought to be at the heart of what and how we demonstrate Buddhism. If we much teach "History of Buddhism" we ought to structure our approach to highlight experience and draw people into paying attention to their experience. We should never teach anything that is not part of a coherent program of taking people towards insights into the nature of experience. We must refocus on what Buddhists do rather than what they believe - it's only by doing what we do, that what we believe what happens becomes relevant. And we should be guided by critical scholarship rather than traditional accounts of history. Of course to some extent this horse has already bolted. There are uncounted books describing Buddhism, its history and practices to anyone with the money and time to read. Books that are often simply parrot the traditional stories and/or are misleading. Chances are that new people are showing up at our centres having crammed their heads with useless information about Buddhism that gets in the way of their understanding the Dharma.

I think this means starting from scratch and redesigning Buddhism. Including, I may say, the approach of the Triratna Buddhism Movement. Unlike most religious groups, for example, we use our centres primarily as classrooms. Events are almost always structured with active teachers and passive students. I personally find almost no opportunities to engage. There is almost no opportunity to simply socialise with experienced Buddhists for example. If I could go back, I would do everything differently. If I could advise my younger self, I would be emphasise physical cultivation, mindfulness, and sustaining social connections. Meditation was not what I needed back then. Had I established better foundations, my life might be very different now. The most effective practices I have are not ones that I learned from my Buddhist teachers, but one's I figured out for myself based on wide reading and reflection on my life. It was difficult and took a long time to get this far. And most of the time enlightenment is not at all relevant to my daily practice. I'm working at a very different level. Everyone ought to be aiming to work effectively at the level that they are at, rather than getting caught up in the interminable babble about enlightenment.

So much for my opinions on Buddhism. But make no mistake. Rumination is a serious problem. Having our own thoughts as a constant stressor can have serious health consequences. It can be debilitating. And I don't think it is widely enough understood by those who merely "teach" Buddhism.


Update 25 Jan 2016

“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.” - The Independent

update 24 Jan 2016

In case anyone is in any doubt, please see the UK National Health Service's definition of depression. It's quite important when considering this discussion to have a clear idea of what I mean by the word. And I mean what the Brits call Clinical Depression or what the DSM-IV calls Major Depression. It is a profound disease that manifests in changes to thoughts, emotions, and bodily systems. It represents a powerful perturbation of our homoeostatic systems. And it can be fatal. 

update 23 Jan 2016.

As it happens the day after I published this essay, the Guardian newspaper published one of their regular scare stories, this time about mindfulness. 
Is mindfulness making us ill? It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects. by Dawn Foster (23 Jan 2016)
My view on the UK press is that they thrive of fear, anger, disgust. It's an extreme form of entertainment which is not peculiar to this country, but does exist here in a particularly refined form. They tailor their stories to produce these emotions in their readers - different types of reader respond to different stimuli. One has to take this into account reading newspapers. They will always pitch the information in a way designed to elicit fear, anger, and/or disgust. All the UK papers are extremely unethical in this sense. They fuck you up.

However my attention was also drawn to this article in The Atlantic which comes closer to some of my concerns. 
The Dark Knight of the Soul. For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why. 25 Jun 2014. 
As far as people having psychotic breaks after starting meditation I think this must be read with caution. As I understand it, someone prone to have a psychotic break was going to have one anyway. I've certainly found myself in some extremely painful and distressed states while trying to meditate, especially on retreat, but I don't think meditation is a practice that by itself will cause a psychotic break in someone that was otherwise unlikely to have one. Again The Atlantic is a newspaper.

Readers who find this material rings bells may also like to look at the story of Sally Clay, particularly her story The Wounded Prophet.

If you have a psychiatric diagnosis then meditation may not be for you. You need to work closely with your support people and a mentor who has some experience in mental health. And most meditation teachers have no clue. So be warned.

If you are prone to rumination and/or worry then you really need to address that before taking up meditation and, again, work closely with an experienced mentor. Something I wish I had done. 

I would also add that despite having some very difficult experiences around meditation and particularly retreats, I still think of meditation as an extremely positive and helpful practice on the whole. I see it as essential for the process of awakening (however we interpret that). Everyone needs to have good foundations before they dive into practices that can disrupt their sense of identity and embodiedness.

Update 30 Sep 2020 
 A friend drew my attention to an article about the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett and her book How Emotions Are Made. According to Barrett, emotions are constructs that are learned rather than "hardwired" or associated with particular brain structures. We don't detect emotions, we guess based on experience and background knowledge. We are good at guessing with intimates and family, poor at guessing with strangers (e.g. in court). 

Very interesting ideas. Summarised here, for example.

15 January 2016

Translating Pāḷi "Asuññataṃ"

(looking east)
My Pāḷi reading group is starting off this year by looking at the Cūḷasuññatasutta (MN 121). There's quite a lot of commentary on this text, a number of translations and commentaries, but even before we began to read the text we discovered a quandary in the word asuññataṃ, which only occurs in this sutta. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001) translate the word as "non-voidness" but I don't think this makes sense.

As analogues of the Sanskrit adjective śūnya (empty) and the abstract noun from it śūnyatā (emptiness), we find the Pāḷi suñña and suññatā. However in addition, and in the title of the text no less, we find another Pāḷi form suññato or suññataṃ, which is not found in Sanskrit dictionaries, though some counterparts are found in Sanskrit Buddhist texts. This form is often glossed over in translations as "emptiness", presumably because it is so similar to the abstract noun that the translators don't notice the difference.

I begin writing this, it is not at all clear to me how asuññataṃ derives and how to translate it. In this essay I will survey the uses of the term suññato and try to establish how it ought to be translated in order to shed light on the word asuññataṃ. My sources are the Pāḷi Nikāyas and Aṭṭhakathās (or commentaries), the counterparts of the Cūḷasuññata preserved in Chinese《小空經》(MĀ 190) and Tibetan མདོ་ཆེན་པོ་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་ཅེས་བྱ་བ། (D.291), plus a few Sanskrit fragments.  

The Cūḷasuññatasutta

The passage that alerted us to this problem comes early on in the text. In Pāli it goes:
Seyyathāpi, ānanda, ayaṃ migāramāt-upāsādo suñño hatthigavassa-vaḷavena, suñño jātarūpa-rajatena, suñño itthipurisa-sannipātena atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ
Before attempting to translate this, let me break procedure by giving the gist of what it says. This is the first part of an analogy designed to illustrate a procedure for gradually emptying the mind of sense impressions and thoughts with the goal of attaining the suññatāsamādhi "integration of emptiness" or suññatāvihāra "abode of emptiness". These seem to be equivalent to saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpatti or "the attainment of the cessation of perceptions and sensations" and thus also with nibbāna. This very important and interesting state I describe as "consciousness without content". One is alive and aware, but there is no content to one's experience. The ancients had no concept of a resting state network in the brain, so they struggled to make sense of this state. I imagine, for example, that something similar gave rise to the Vedic idea that Brahman could described as saccidānanda or being (sat), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). Dwelling in the state of emptiness one experiences only being, consciousness and bliss. Those who write about this state tend to assert that it does get any better than this. 

In this illustration of the process, the Buddha and Ānanda are sitting having a discussion in a palace or perhaps on a terrace (upāsāda), in the eastern part of Sāvathī (which places it near the river that formed the eastern boundary of the old city). This palace formerly belonged to someone who is almost always known as Migāra's Mother (migāramātā). Her name was Visākhā and she was actually Migāra's wife (that story is outlined in the DOPN). In any case it appears that the palace is given over to the bhikkhusaṅgha for their use.

The Buddha points out that the things one would normally find in such a place, i.e. livestock, wealth, and people etc., are absent, but instead only the the bhikkhusaṅgha is present. Buddhaghosa points out in his commentary that this refers to the bhikkhus as a corporate entity, not to the individual bhikkhus. This example of the palace and the bhikkhus is an analogy for the ascetic meditating in the wilderness (arañña). The ascetic notices that their mind is empty of the sights and sounds of the village and its inhabitants, and all that is present is perceptions of the wilderness which have a sort of uniformity. The perturbations of the mind caused by village life are absent, and only the perturbations due to the wilderness are present.

The question is, how do we translate asuññataṃ and ekattaṃ? Some comments on how to translate ekattaṃ can be found in Schmithausen (1981: 233-4, n. 122). I concur with Schmithausen's argument for treating ekattaṃ not as Sanskrit ekatvā "oneness, unity", but as ekātman "having a single nature" or "uniform". Buddhaghosa seems also to agree with Schmithausen at MNA 4.151 in his gloss on bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭiccāti. In fact I take it to be an adverbial neuter. This essay will focus on asuññataṃ beginning by looking at the apparent source, suññato


PED offers the following definition:
Suññata (adj.) [i. e. the abl. suññato used as adj. nom.] void, empty, devoid of lusts, evil dispositions, and karma, but especially of soul, ego.
Here "adj. nom." means "an adjective in the nominative". The -to suffix is one way to indicate the ablative case. PED argues that suññato is an ablative of suñña (empty) that has been treated as a masculine noun and declined accordingly. This would make asuññataṃ an adjective in the accusative, going presumably with bhikkhusaṅghaṃ, and/or ekattaṃ.

Also PED sv. suñña defines the word in its neuter form suññaṃ "abl. ˚to from the point of view of the 'Empty'". Suggesting that suññato can still have an ablative sense mean "from the point of view of someone dwelling in emptiness". As we will see below this is apparent in some contexts as the word usually occurs with a verb of seeing. 

The primary sense of the ablative is from where or when an action proceeds, sabbato āgacchanti "they came from all sides"; pāsādā oloketi "he looks out from the palace". Very often this relationship is conveyed in English with the preposition from. In the precepts we abstain from certain types of action, and the actions are in the ablative case, i.e. pisunāya vācāya veramanī "abstaining from speech which is slanderous". The concept of separation (as in "apart from") is also conveyed by the ablative case. It is also used to indicate cause or reason for an action, e.g. sīlato naṃ pasaṃsanti "they praise him for his virtue". And just to complicate matters the cases are somewhat flexible in Middle-Indic languages, so the ablative sometimes merges with and can be used to convey an instrumental sense (with, by, through).

But why is an ablative treated as a nominative? In order to try to understand how this might have come about let us begin with a survey the use of suññato in the Nikāyas. It doesn't occur that often, so we can be comprehensive.

Occurrences in the Nikāyas

DN iii.219 Aparepi tayo samādhī – suññato samādhi, animitto samādhi, appaṇihito samādhi.
Furthermore there are three samādhis: empty samādhi, signless samādhi and desireless samādhi.
This is from the Sangīti Sutta (DN 33) which is a long list of numerical lists. Walsh (486) translates suññato samādhi as "concentration on emptiness" (i.e. he appears to ignore the case endings). Now the three words here—suññato, animitto, appaṇihito—all appear to be the same form so we can usefully look at the other two to see if they shed light on the derivation. The etymology of nimitta is given by PED as uncertain, though possibly related to √ 'measure'; but PED also tells us that the gender is neuter. Sv. nimitta in BHSD it is also neuter. But if nimitta is neuter then it should not form a nominative singular in -o, but in -aṃ. Is nimitto therefore another ablative in -to, possible from nimita (past participle) from ni√mā? I'm not sure.

If suññato and nimitto are ablatives then suññato samādhi might be "the samādhi [that comes] from [being] empty". Which is admittedly awkward.

By contrast paṇihita is very clearly a past participle from paṇidahati (pa+ni√dhā) "to put forth, put down to, apply, direct, intend; aspire to, long for, pray for." We can understand apaṇihita as a bahuvrīhi, "without longing", as opposed to a karmadhāraya "undesired". Unfortunately this breaks up the pattern. So it looks like each word, though superficially similar, might derive the -to ending via a different route.

A variation on this occurs at SN iv.360 in the Suññatasamādhi Sutta (SN 43:4):
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo? Suññato samādhi, animitto samādhi, appaṇihito samādhi.

And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? The empty samādhi, signless samādhi and desireless samādhi.
Here Bodhi (2000: 1373) translated suññato as "emptiness", i.e. as though he is translating the abstract noun suññatā. However, the feminine noun suññatā cannot take an -o ending, so something is wrong with this.

MN i.302 "Saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpattiyā vuṭṭhitaṃ panāyye, bhikkhuṃ kati phassā phusantī" ti? "Saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpattiyā vuṭṭhitaṃ kho, āvuso visākha, bhikkhuṃ tayo phassā phusanti – suññato phasso, animitto phasso, appaṇihito phasso"ti.
However, lady, rousing from the attainment of cessation of perceptions and sensations what feelings do those bhikkhus come into contact with? Friend Visākha, those bhikkhus come into contact with three sensations on rousing from the attainment of cessation of perception and experience, namely contact from/with that which is empty, contact from/with that which is signless, and contact from/with that which is desireless.
This is from a discussion between Dhammadinā and her former husband, Visākha, in the Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44). This is a very interesting passage about going into and emerging from cessation and the way that experience fades out and in. The question is literally "What contacts do they contact?" Phasso is in the masculine nominative singular. Here suññato as ablative case, perhaps overlapping with the instrumental may make sense and I've hedge my translation to indicate this. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi again translate suññato as the abstract "voidness" (2001: 400). This passage recurs at SN iv.294 where suññato is translated by Bodhi as "emptiness" 

MN i.435. So yadeva tattha hoti rūpagataṃ vedanāgataṃ saññāgataṃ saṅkhāragataṃ viññāṇagataṃ te dhamme aniccato dukkhato rogato gaṇḍato sallato aghato ābādhato parato palokato suññato anattato samanupassati.
One regards as impermanent, disappointing, a disease, a tumour, an arrow, a calamity, an affliction, as other, as disintegrating, as empty (suññato), and as unsubstantial anything that is connected with form (rūpagata), sensations, perceptions, volitions, and cognitions.
The ways that one should regard dhammas are all ablatives in -to. And the context suggests we read them as meaning "as". So that te dhamme suññato samanupassati should mean "he regards those dhammas as empty". Here suññato cannot be construed as the abstract "emptiness". An important point here is that the cognitive action is taking place in a state of jhāna.

Perhaps here we can take te dhamme aniccato samanupassati to mean "he regards these dhammas from the point of view of impermanence"? We might argue, for example, that if anicca was an adjective here, then it would take the plural, annice, to go with the noun dhamme in the plural. Therefore aniccato which is singular is not an adjective and is not describing the dhammas, but is indicating from whence the verb of seeing proceeds. Thus this could be see as an example of suññato having an ablative sense.

This passage is reflected in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. At SN iii.167 the question is asked to what dhammas a virtuous monk should pay attention. The answer is:
Sīlavatā... bhikkhunā pañcupādānakkhandhā aniccato... suññato yoniso manasi kātabbā.

A virtuous monk should pay attention to the five underlying apparatus of experience as impermanent... as empty... etc.
Again Bodhi reads the text as saying that the khandhas should be seen as impermanent... as "empty" (2000: 970). Here the word pañcupādānakkhandhā is a nominative plural and Bodhi is tacitly reading aniccato as a nominative singular and the sentence as a simple apposition. Note that here also the verb is one in which one regards or pays attention to the khandhas. Buddhaghosa glosses sattasuññataṭṭhena suññato (SNA 2.333) i.e. "with the meaning of 'empty of a being'".

There is a Sanskrit fragment that parallels this (Thanks to Dhīvan for pointing this out to me):
(ani)tyataḥ duḥkhataḥ śunyataḥ anāt[m]ato manasikarttavyāḥ. (Anālayo 2013: 11)
[Something]... should be attended to as empty etc.
This passage recurs at AN ii.128 and AN iv.423, where is is again associated with the cultivation of jhāna and AN ii.129 associated with the brahmavihāras. Here the one who does these practices has a pleasant rebirth that is not shared with worldings (Ayaṃ, bhikkhave, upapatti asādhāraṇā puthujjanehi.).

Finally the word occurs in the Suttanipata Sn 1119 (mentioned in the PED definition of suñña):
"Suññato lokaṃ avekkhassu, mogharāja sadā sato;
Attānudiṭṭhiṃ ūhacca, evaṃ maccutaro siyā;
Evaṃ lokaṃ avekkhantaṃ, maccurājā na passatī" ti.
View the world as empty, Mogharāja, always mindful;
Having destroyed self-vew, one may cross over death;
The King of Death does not see the one who views the world this way.
(My translation more or less follows K.R Norman here).
Norman was the leading authority on Middle-Indic languages and particularly in his translation of the Suttanipata paid close attention to the meaning of every word. So the fact that he reads suññato lokaṃ as "the world as empty" is significant. However, he does not discuss this choice in detail in his notes, but instead refers readers to E.J. Thomas (1951: 218) who simply says that suññata is an adjective meaning "void". Note that here lokaṃ is an accusative singular and the verb once again involves seeing. Here, as above, I'm inclined to take the ablative as representing a point of view. To me this suggests seeing the world from the point of view of the suññatavihāra (as in the PED definition cited above).

So the modern translators seem undecided on how to translate suññato. Depending on unknown factors, since it is never discussed, suññato can represent the abstract (though the morphology is all wrong for this) and be translated as "voidness, emptiness"; or it can represent the adjective and be translated as "void, empty", sometimes with the sense of "as empty". In combination with verbs of seeing it can be thought of as "from the empty point of view". In order to understand how ancient Theravāda commentators might have understood the word we can look at the glosses in the Aṭṭhakathās.

Commentarial glosses

DNA 3.1003. Maggasamādhi pana rāgādīhi suññatattā suññato, rāganimittādīnaṃ abhāvā animitto, rāgapaṇidhiādīnaṃ abhāvā appaṇihito ti
However the samādhi of the path is empty (suññato) because of the emptiness (suññatattā) of passion etc, is signless from the nonexistence of signs of passion etc, is desireless from the nonexistence of desire for passion etc.
Here the abstract noun suññatatta (suññatattā is the ablative of cause) is telling. It points quite strongly to Buddhaghosa constructing this sentence with suññato meaning "empty". The samādhi under discussion lacks rāga, dosa, and moha or attraction, aversion, and confusion and lacking these is said to be empty (suññato) giving it the quality of emptiness (suññatatta).

MNA 2.366/ SNA 3.97 suññato phassotiādayo saguṇenāpi ārammaṇenāpi kathetabbā. saguṇena tāva suññatā nāma phalasamāpatti, tāya sahajātaṃ phassaṃ sandhāya suññato phassoti vuttaṃ. animittāpaṇihitesupieseva nayo. Ārammaṇena pana nibbānaṃ rāgādīhi suññattā suññaṃ nāma, rāganimittādīnaṃ abhāvā animittaṃ, rāgadosamohappaṇidhīnaṃ abhāvā appaṇihitaṃ. Suññataṃ nibbānaṃ ārammaṇaṃ katvā uppannaphalasamāpattiyaṃ phasso suññato nāma. animittāpaṇihitesupi eseva nayo.
Taking up the phrase "empty contact" (suññato phasso), it should be explained according its own qualities (saguṇena) and according to its basis (ārammaṇa). According to its own qualities, it is the attainment of the fruit called “emptiness” (suññatā). Coinciding with that [emptiness], contact with reference to it, is called “contact that is empty”. Animitta and apaṇihita are inferred in the same way. 
However, according to its basis, nibbāna is named “empty” (suññaṃ), because of emptiness of attraction (rāga) etc; [named] signless because of the absence of signs of attraction etc, and desireless because of the absence of desire for attraction, aversion, and ignorance. Having made a case that nibbāna is emptiness, the attainment of the arisen fruit is called "contact that is empty". Animitta and apaṇihita are inferred in the same way.
This section of commentary is looking at MN i.302 mentioned above. The subject is what someone who has attained the cessation of perceptions and sensations comes into contact with when they rouse themselves (vuṭṭhitaṃfrom the attainment. For them contact is empty or absent. In Buddhaghosa's view their attainment is nibbāna and they don't experience the world the way ordinary people do any more. Contact for them is empty, signless and desireless. Here Buddhaghosa uses suñña and suññato synonymously and suññatā as a synonym for nibbāna. Again we see words like suññato and suññatā being used to indicate absence. 

A short gloss is found at MNA 3.146: nissattaṭṭhena suññato "with the meaning without a being (nissatta)." Another as ANA 2.334 sattasuññataṭṭhena suññato, "with the meaning of emptiness of a being", confirming that nissatta should be read as "without a being" rather than with PED "powerless". The sense here is that empty means the absence of a being (satta).

Buddhaghosa, then, is more consistent in treating suññato as synonymous with suñño, and both as meaning "empty of [something]" or that the object is absent.

Sanskrit Udānavarga

We've seen one fragment that uses the Sanskrit equivalent of suññato, i.e. śunyataḥ. Skilling (1981: 226) gives a more substantial example. He notices that in the Udānavarga (a Dharmapada text) there is a series of verses that are counterparts to the Pāli Dhammapada vs 277-279, whence the well known triplet sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, and sabbe dhammā anattā. Compare the Udānavarga (Uv 12. 5-8; first lines only) 
anityāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [5]
duḥkhāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [6]
śunyataḥ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [7]
sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [8]|
When he sees with insight all constructs as impermanent...
When he sees with insight all constructs as disappointing...
When he sees with insight all constructs as empty...
When he sees with insight all experiences as insubstantial...
Compare the Dhp 277 where the first line is sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā ti yadā paññāya passati. Here "that which is seen" is given as a nominal sentence followed by the quotative particle. In Pāḷi sabba is a separate word, declined as a pronoun (nominative plural), whereas in Sanskrit sarva is undeclined and compounded with the noun it qualifies, though there is no change in meaning in this difference. In the Uv 12.5 and Uv 12.6, what is seen with insight, e.g. anityāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ, is in the accusative plural, making it the patient of the verb of seeing. Note that word order is not important here, so the fact that the two parts of the apposition, e.g. anityām and sarvasaṃskārāṃ are not the same order as in Pāḷi, i.e. saṅkhārā and aniccā is not significant. As Dhīvan pointed out in an email, in Bernard's edition of the Udānavarga on Sutta Central, Uv 12.6 begins duḥkhaṃ hi sarvasaṃskārāṃ with duḥkha in the singular. Dhīvan suggests that we treat this as nominal, as in the Pāḷi, "When one sees with wisdom all constructions indeed are disappointing...". However saṃskāra is masculine and the -āṃ ending is unequivocally accusative plural. So perhaps "When one sees with insight all the constructions that are indeed disappointing..."? 

Now in Uv 12.7 the Sanskrit word is śunyataḥ (with śūnyataḥ given as an alternate reading) = Pāḷi suññato. One way to explain the short u might be that this is a loan word from Middle Indic which has not been fully assimilated to Sanskrit morphology rules that demand a long ū i.e. śūnyataḥ. Despite grammatical problems with Uv 12.8 (see below) the general outline here seems to be that all constructs are identified with a series of qualities, particularly: impermanence, disappointment, and insubstantiality. So we expect 12.7 to fit this pattern. We expect śunyataḥ to be just like the other adjectives: anitya, duḥkha, anātman. But it isn't. Whichever case we take śunyataḥ to be, (ablative and nominative are possible) it simply does not fit the pattern because it is singular and the noun it is describing is plural (though cf. the Bernard Ed. of Uv 12.6 which is singular). Adjectives take the case, number and gender of the noun they describe; predicates have to at least be in the same case. To qualify sarvasaṃskārāṃ we expect śunyataṃ. It appears that something has gone wrong in adding this line to the text. 

Lastly in 12.8 the grammar is mangled. Perhaps echoing the Middle-Indic syntax, here sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ are in the nominative plural (matching the Pāḷi equivalent sabbe dhammā anattā ti). In Sanskrit grammar this would make them the agents of the verb, which would be nonsense. Pāḷi avoids this by adding the quotative particle. The correct grammar, matching 12.5,6 would be sarvadharmāṃ anātmanaḥ. This error might be scribal - a missing anusvāra and an incorrectly lengthened vowel are certainly common scribal errors, but that they would make the exact mistakes in two consecutive words that would accurately change them to be the same (wrong) case seems unlikely.

Unfortunately this Sanskrit example does nothing to clarify the situation. Nor does Skilling add any comment on this point, indeed he talks as if the text has śūnyatā instead. The grammatical mistake in 12.8 makes us doubt the text. But clearly the person who added the verse at Uv 12.7 understood the sentence to be the same form as 12.5,6 and likely 12.8 as well (error notwithstanding). The only way I can see to make sense of this is to treat śūnyataḥ as indeclinable. It does not change case to match the noun because it cannot. But this is far from satisfactory because it conflicts with what we already know.

Having more or less exhausted the relevant Indic language sources, we can now turn to the versions of the Cūḷasuññata Sutta preserved in Chinese and Tibetan.

The Chinese Text

The Cūlasuññata Sutta has a counterpart in the Chinese Madhyamāgama, i.e. MĀ 190 《小空經》 The Lesser Emptiness Sūtra. The parallel passage in Chinese is:
阿難!如此鹿子母堂,空無象、馬、牛、羊、財物、穀米、奴婢,然有不空,唯比丘眾。(T1 737a9-10)
Ānanda, 阿難 it is like 如此 this palace 堂 of Migara’s 鹿子 mother 母,is empty 空無 of elephants 象、horses 馬、cattle 牛、sheep 羊、money 財物、rice grain 穀米、male and female slaves 奴婢,however 然 it is 有 non-empty 不空,of only 唯 the bhikṣu-saṃgha 比丘眾
The character for both empty and emptiness is 空, however we also see here the use of 空無 which can also just mean "empty, emptiness", but which might also mean "empty and without". Where our Pāli text has asuññataṃ the Chinese has 不空 which we would expect to mean "non-emptiness" and reflect Sanskrit aśūnyatā. But the lack of clear information on inflexions in Chinese leaves considerable room for doubt. Skilling notes that the Chinese and Tibetan versions are closer to each other than either is to the Pāḷi, so next (with a little help from my friends) we can now look at the last source on the list, the Tibetan version of the Cūḷasuññata Sutta.

The Tibetan Text

Amongst the very few Tibetan translations of Nikāya/Āgama texts are the two Śūnyatā texts (Skilling 1994, 1997; also Degé vol. 71: 250a.1-253b.2).  My thanks to Joy Vriens and Maitiu O'Ceileachair for help with understanding the Tibetan. The parallel passage in the Tibetan is (though see Skilling 1994 critical edition for variant readings):
kun dga' bo 'di lta ste | dper na ri-dags 'dzin gyi ma'i khaṅ bzaṅ 'di glaṅ-po-che daṅ | rta daṅ | ba laṅ daṅ | lug daṅ | bya gag daṅ | phag gis stoṅ ziṅ nor daṅ | 'bru daṅ | 'gron bu daṅ | gser gyis stoṅ la | bran daṅ | bran mo daṅ | las byed pa daṅ | zo śas 'tsho ba dag daṅ | skyes pa daṅ | bud-med-daṅ | khye'u daṅ | bu mo dag gis stoṅ yaṅ 'di na 'di lta ste | dge sloṅ gi dge 'dun kho na 'am | de las kha cig la brten nas mi  stoṅ pa yaṅ yod do || (Skilling 1994: 150)
Mṛgāra Mother's Mansion is empty of elephants, horses, cows, sheep, roosters, and pigs. It is empty of wealth, grain, money and gold. It is empty of man-servants and maid-servants, of workers and dependants, of men and women, of boys and girls. But with regard to one thing there is non-emptiness, that is, the community of monks alone. (Skilling 2007: 234)
Compare the translation of the last sentence found in Skilling (1997: 349) "there is still the assembly of monks, or whatever depends upon it, that is not absent".

Skilling explains, "here the Pāḷi has paṭicca ekattam, the Tibetan has kha cig la breten nas, suggesting *pratītya ekatyam, with the Buddhist Sanskrit ekatya [Pāḷi ekacca; "someone, anyone" BHSD] where one would rather expect ekatva—perhaps a wrong Sanskritisation" (1997: 349-350). This leave Skilling at a loss for a translation, but as I have already pointed out above, Schmithausen argues convincingly that Pāḷi ekattaṃ reflects Sanskrit ekātman which would I think would solve Skilling's problem. In a note (1997: 349, n.49) offers a tentative reconstruction of the Sanskrit 
dge sloṅ gi dge 'dum = bhikṣusaṃgha; kho na 'am = eva vā; de las kha cig = tato ekatyaṃ; la brten nas = pratītya; mi stoṅ pa = aśūnya; yaṅ = api (ca, tu); yod do = asti
i.e. asti ca eva [idaṃ] aśunyaṃ tato bhikṣusaṃgha pratītya ekatyaṃ
C.f. Pāḷi atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ
Despite this, the Tibetan translator has evidently read an adjective here which he translates as mi stoṅ pa suggesting that his Sanskrit text had aśūnya at this point. Seemingly the unknown Sanskrit translator understood his text to be using an adjective. Unfortunately no Sanskrit ms. of this text survives to enable cross-checking. Sanskrit aśūnya would be consistent with the Chinese 不空.

The only thing we can take from this is a stronger sense that, contra Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001) the abstract of "non-voidness" sense is not intended here. 


Now I have to attempt to summarise a great deal of information that is often contradictory. Before looking at asuññataṃ we need to state again that suñña means "empty", and in this context something that is referred to as suñña is absent. So when the Buddha says to Ānanda, ayaṃ migāramātupāsādo suñño hatthigavassavaḷavena "this mansion of Migāra's Mother's is empty of elephants etc.", he means that there are no livestock present, no livestock to be seen. Contrarily if something is asuññata then we can take this to mean that something is not-absent or present. 

There seem two most likely ways to arrive at the morphological form asuññataṃ. Firstly we can take suññataṃ it as an accusative singular of the abstract noun suññatā. Various translators do treat suññato as "emptiness". But as some texts point out, the word suññatā in this context really applies only to the attainment of the goal, i.e. to nibbāna. In this view asuññatā would mean something like "presence" (an abstraction from "present"). However the abstract "presence" does not quite fit the context. 

Secondly we can derive suññataṃ from the ablative suññato. It seems that this word was originally combined with verbs meaning to see, i.e. √paś or consider i.e. manasi√kṛ with the sense of "as" - dhammā suññato passati "to see dhammas as empty" or "to see dhammas from the empty point of view" or a point of view that is empty of defilements or perhaps, according to Buddhaghosa, empty of a being. The word suññato was then lexicalised, that is to say it was treated as a word in its own right rather than a declined form, with the meaning "empty; absent" and treated as a nominative singular with an accusative singular in suññataṃ. (Which I admit is more or less what PED says, but now we know why it says that and that it is correct which is a bonus where the PED is concerned). The two derivations produce the same accusative singular, suññataṃ.

The etymological meaning of asuññataṃ would be "non-emptiness" or "not-empty" and as far as I know every translator has opted for something along these lines. However I suggest we can be a bit lazy about this kind of morphology in Pāli. We don't always think about what the word really means. A negated term often has a positive value and need not be slavishly translated as not-X or without-X. In this case asuññataṃ clearly refers to something present (in contrast to absent) or visible or something along these lines. To insist on using a word that preserves the Pāḷi morphology is no more sensible than preserving the Pāḷi syntax (a practice dubbed "Buddhist Hybrid English" by Theologian Paul Griffiths). I think we have to translate the word as "present" or "presence".

Coming back to the passage under consideration, the Buddha points out to Ānanda first what is absent and then what is present. What is present at the mansion are only bhikkhus, and because there are only bhikkhus they have a sort of uniformity (ekattaṃ = ekātman) when considered with respect to what one would expect to find in a mansion, including livestock, people, and wealth. As above I think we have to take ekattaṃ as an adverbial accusative.

However, as my friend Sarah has pointed out, idaṃ is a neuter pronoun. Later when asuññataṃ is replaced in the same sentence structure by the feminine noun in the nominative case darathamattā the associated pronoun changes to ayaṃ which is also feminine nominative. This suggests that the word asuññataṃ is a neuter nominative in this sentence and the only way we can think of this happening is if it is an adjective or adjectival compound that is forced to change gender to fit a noun or pronoun, i.e. a bahuvrīhi compound a-suññatā meaning "without emptiness". So, despite everything, idaṃ asuññataṃ must mean "this presence". 

Thus I would argue that our sentence ought to be translated this way:
Seyyathāpi, ānanda, ayaṃ migāramāt-upāsādo suñño hatthi-gavassa-vaḷavena, suñño jātarūpa-rajatena, suñño itthipurisa-sannipātena atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ; evameva kho, ānanda, bhikkhu amanasikaritvā gāma-saññaṃ, amanasikaritvā manussa-saññaṃ, arañña-saññaṃ paṭicca manasi karoti ekattaṃ. 
Ānanda, just as livestock, wealth, and people are absent from this palace of Migāra's Mother and there is only this presence, uniformly dependent on the community of monks; just so, Ānanda, a monk doesn't pay attention to perception of the village, or people, but uniformly pays attention to the perception of the forest. 
Note that in the last phrase manasi karoti ekattaṃ the ekattaṃ naturally functions as an adverb of the main verb manasikaroti to mean "uniformly paying attention".

A few lines on, the bhikkhu who applies this practice comes to understand
Iti yañhi kho tattha na hoti tena taṃ suññaṃ samanupassati, yaṃ pana tattha avasiṭṭhaṃ hoti taṃ "santamidaṃ atthī"ti 
Thus, that which is not there (tattha na hoti) he perceives that as absent (suñña); however that which remains (avasiṭṭhaṃ) is there (tattha) and he knows "there is this present" (santamidaṃ attthi).
We can see the practice as like progressively applying a set of filters on experience, so that what we are aware of is gradually diminished until we are aware of nothing, or there is just absence. It's not that the world ceases to exist, but that we narrow our world of perception down until nothing is presenting itself to our conscious mind. Nothing disturbs the mind, nothing disturbs the deep equanimity of being in this state. And this, the texts tell us, is what Nibbāna is like.



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Bodhi (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.

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Piya Tan. (2005)Cūḷa Suññata Sutta. The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness. http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/11.3-Cula-Sunnata-S-m121-piya.pdf

Satyadhana. The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/satyadhana-formless_spheres.pdf

Schmithausen, Lambert. (1981) “On Some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of ‘Liberating Insight’ and ‘Enlightenment’ in Early Buddhism”, in Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus,
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Skilling, Peter. (2007) Mṛgara’s Mother’s Mansion, Emptiness and the Sunyata Sutras. Journal of Indian and Tibetan Studies, 11: 225-247. http://www.jits-ryukoku.net/data/11/ick11_skilling.pdf

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