Some Gentle Buddhist Polemics

Bhikkhu Anālayo (2021), Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions: A Historical Perspective, Boston: Wisdom Publications

Anālayo’s latest book argues against four instances of conceit in Buddhism: (1) the androcentric conceit among Buddhists generally that women practitioners are at a disadvantage; (2) the conceit among Mahāyānists that the Bodhisattva ideal is superior; (3) the conceit among Theravādins that their form of Buddhism is the most authentic; and (4) the conceit among secular Buddhists, and of Stephen Batchelor in particular, that their interpretations of Buddhism are superior to those of Asian Buddhist traditions. Anālayo draws on his unrivalled early Buddhist scholarship to engage in polemics against the conceit of superiority. I’m going to focus mainly on what Anālayo writes about Stephen Batchelor. But what do I mean by saying that Superiority Conceit is a work of polemics?

Although Anālayo is well known as a scholar of early Buddhist texts, he has gone beyond scholarly analysis since his first publications. In the conclusion to Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (2003), for instance, he makes a number of innovative suggestions about how to practice with the four establishments of mindfulness. More recently he has extended his attention even beyond practice-related matters, with a book that addresses Buddhist approaches to climate change, and with an article on the role of mindfulness in tackling racism.

In his latest book, Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions, he has published his first work of polemics. The dictionary definition of polemics is “the practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute”. In this case, Anālayo is engaging in controversial debate because it has been normal for Buddhism to be androcentric, because Mahāyāna Buddhist texts routinely denigrate so-called ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhism, because Theravāda Buddhists take it for granted that their form of Buddhism is the most authentic, and because Stephen Batchelor has for years published books that have criticised traditional forms of Asian Buddhism. Hence, when Anālayo criticises each of these as manifestations of superiority conceit, he is sure to generate controversy and dispute.

Polemical literature is an ancient and venerable genre. A well-known recent example of polemics is Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion (2006). Dawkins does not merely explain why he personally does not believe in God, but argues that belief in God is a delusion, that is, a harmful cognitive mistake. It is this controversial point that makes his book a work of polemics. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist movement, has also written polemical works. His book Forty-Three Years Ago (1993) argues against the technical validity of the Theravādin bhikkhu ordination, in order to recall Theravādin monastics to what Sangharakshita understands as what is really important, which is going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.[1] Given that many Theravādin monastics regard it as extremely important that they are validly ordained, Sangharakshita’s book was sure to generate some heat.[2]

It is stating the obvious to say that polemics generates controversy and debate, and that advocates of the view or position which has been criticised will attempt to defend what they believe in. All polemics involves the sense that something important is at stake, something it is going to be worth getting into dispute about, with all the argument that will ensue. In the case of Anālayo’s new book, what is at stake is Anālayo’s conviction that all forms of superiority conceit are at odds with the point of Buddhism. By contrast, “it is by diminishing ego, letting go of arrogance, and abandoning conceit that one becomes a better Buddhist, no matter what tradition one may follow” (p.140). Further, Anālayo believes that the current environmental crisis faced by humanity is largely down to a more general human sense of superiority to nature. If Buddhists can overcome their superiority conceits in relation to other Buddhists, they can then work together “to apply the medicine of the Dharma” to the stricken world (p.140). 

From all this we can understand that Anālayo is not aiming to attack or deflate or shame anyone, but rather to prompt some re-consideration of essentials. This aim on Anālayo’s part brings to mind another feature of successful polemics: to engage successfully in dispute one needs to present convincing arguments. Any form of invalid argument, especially the use of ad hominem (attacking someone else’s character), will undermine the effectiveness of the polemic. For this reason, Anālayo is scrupulous in avoiding any personal criticism, focussing instead on specific points of doctrine and belief, the historical context for their arising, and hence on the possibility for change.

In Chapter 4, Anālayo enters into dispute with secular Buddhism, which, he writes, “at times comes with the conceit of superiority over other Buddhist traditions” (p.105). He is careful, however, to make clear that he is not disputing “whether a particular idea is appealing in current times”, that is, whether the very idea of a modern, secular version of Buddhism is justifiable or not. Similarly, he does not wish in any way to curtail the person freedom of Stephen Batchelor to hold whatever views he wants or to “consider himself to be a Buddhist” (p.105). This latter point is important because some traditional Buddhists have accused Batchelor of no longer being a Buddhist. Anālayo, however, is careful to focus only on some of Stephen Batchelor’s claims to have discovered what the Buddha really taught. In this way, Anālayo is engaging in a dispute about the validity of Batchelor’s (and secular Buddhism’s) claim to be truer to the spirit of early Buddhism than the Asian Buddhist traditions that have transmitted Buddhism through the centuries. 

Anālayo’s critique of Batchelor is mainly of points made in After Buddhism (2015) and Secular Buddhism (2017). In the ‘preamble’ to his more recent book, The Art of Solitude (2020), Batchelor writes, “I do not consider The Art of Solitude to be a Buddhist book”.[3] He describes (on p.146) how, in the midst of an ayahuasca ritual, he feels that he vomits up Buddhism, and is reborn no longer wanting to be a combatant in the “dharma wars”. Nevertheless, those earlier books have been the inspiration – and were surely designed to be the inspiration – for a movement, called ‘secular Buddhism’, not unconnected with Bodhi College, the Buddhist study programme run by Batchelor and friends. 

To go straight to the keystone of Batchelor’s secular Buddhism, his re-intepretation of the Four Noble Truths as ‘tasks’ rather than truths is based on a mistaken, even tendentious, reading of a scholarly article by K.R. Norman (Superiority Conceit, pp.130–1). Batchelor re-interprets the first truth, of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness as an existential encounter with illness, ageing and death that invites one to fully “embrace life”. As Anālayo comments, in his laconic way, “anyone is of course free to adopt the idea of embracing life as a personal philosophy of life. The issue is only that such a celebrating of the mystery of being alive does not correspond to the implications of the four noble truths in early Buddhist thought and hence cannot be considered an accurate reflection of this core element of the teachings” (pp.128–9). Anālayo’s point is that the Buddha’s teaching of the truth of dukkha is that this world is an imperfect situation, in which illness, ageing and death are unwelcome yet inevitable. It is on the basis of an appreciation of this imperfect situation that the Buddha’s teaching of the way to Awakening should be understood. Anālayo goes on to point out that Batchelor’s interpretation of the first truth appears to be based on his own religious or mystical experience, and that he appears to go on to interpret a range of Buddhist teachings in line with his own ideas and experiences (p.133). Anālayo then discusses Batchelor’s general method for interpreting the meaning of early Buddhism, pointing out that it is based on personal preferences rather than any defensible principle of scholarship.

Suffice to say that I agree with all of Anālayo’s points. In previous reviews of After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, as well as of Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (2010), I have mentioned how various claims about early Buddhism that Batchelor makes can easily shown to be mistaken attempts to interpret early Buddhism in ways that he evidently likes but which are not based on reasonable scholarship. Anālayo makes the further point that Batchelor’s critical intepretations of Buddhism are reminiscent of those of Christian missionaries in the British colonial period, who made some study of Buddhism for the sake converting Buddhists to Christianity. For instance, as is well-known, Batchelor is a critic of the teachings of karma and rebirth, and just like earlier Christian missionaries he argues that rebirth cannot be squared with the teaching of non-self (anātman). You might think that it had never occurred to Asian Buddhists to wonder about this. Certainly it seems not to have occurred to Stephen Batchelor to examine their answers in a way that would do justice to their own perception of themselves as followers of the Buddha. Batchelor more generally argues that Asian Buddhist traditions are largely stagnant, and that Buddhism needs to be upgraded to “Buddhism 2.0”. This revisionist aspect of Batchelor’s secular Buddhism does seem all too like a form of neo-colonialism – the attempt to revise Buddhism from a western perspective by arguing that Asian Buddhists have missed the point and that Batchelor’s modern, agnostic, sceptical approach is closer to the original and authentic meaning of Buddhism.

If this isn’t a form of superiority conceit, of holding secular Buddhism to be superior to Asian Buddhism, it is hard to know what is. However, a question which Anālayo does not raise is to what degree Stephen Batchelor knows what he is doing. It is hard to tell. Last summer, during Buddhafield Festival Online, I participated in a broadcast conversation with Stephen Batchelor. Stephen repeatedly presented his view that the Buddha did not teach metaphysics, or present any account of truth and reality. I read back to him accounts of the Buddha’s teachings about truth and reality from early Buddhist texts, and Stephen dismissed them as late fabrications by monastics. It was a friendly, courteous conversation, but it could not have been clearer that Batchelor has come to a philosophical position of dogmatic scepticism, and that he believes, against much evidence, that this was the position held by the Buddha. It was also clear that Batchelor is not interested in debate or discussion: he is “no longer a combatant in the Dharma wars”. This means he does not even want to engage with evidence or debate.

His argument for scepticism depends on taking the Chapter of the Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) from the Sutta Nipāta as representing the true teaching of the Buddha. The Chapter of the Eights certainly does present the Buddha as teaching not holding to views and not engaging in argument. This scepticism, however, is methodological, not dogmatic. A methodological sceptic engages in doubting the truth claims made by others in order to understand them better and avoid their mistakes. The Buddha’s methodological scepticism involves investigating how views and arguments, when held onto as expressing the truth, in fact obscure the means to attain to the truth, which, according to Buddhism, is through the meditative process of insight. Only by taking the scepticism of the Chapter of the Eights as methodological can one understand how the Buddha went on to teach right view in a positive way, and indeed how the various positive teachings of Buddhism could be compatible with scepticism. Batchelor, however, turns the Chapter of the Eights into evidence for the Buddha’s supposed dogmatic scepticism.

My personal view is that Stephen Batchelor is entirely sincere in what he says and writes, but that he is unconscious of his own tendency to dogmatism, and how this leads to the appearance of a superiority conceit. This is a pity since secular Buddhism is a popular and timely new interpretation of the ancient Buddhist teachings. But it does no justice to traditional Buddhist teachings nor to secular Buddhism to try to make one better than the other.


[1] Now included in Sangharakshita (2019), The Three Jewels I, in Complete Works Vol.2, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, pp.575–614. 

[2] Some of this heat is discussed in a follow-up by by Sangharakshita (1994), Was the Buddha a Bhikkhu?

[3] All three of these books are published by Yale University Press. 

The Case of the Snow-Leopard-Skin Backpacks

a new year review-article

Johan Elverskog, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, hb, 177pp.

Johan Elverskog, a Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Texas, begins his book with the story of how, while travelling in Bhutan after graduating from Berkeley, and while full of enthusiasm for the pro-environmental message of Buddhism, came across a matching pair of backpacks made of snow-leopard skins. Peter Mathiessens’s 1978 travel book, The Snow Leopard, had long highlighted the beauty and rarity of this living symbol of the Himalayan region. The encounter threw up lingering doubts in Elverskog about whether Asian Buddhism was really as ecologically sensitive as books such as Allan Badiner’s Dharma Gaia had made it out to be.[i] These doubts led, over time, to the project of doing some research into the contribution of Buddhism to the environmental history of Asia, and the book reviewed here is the result of this work. Elverskog’s conclusion is that, far from being especially eco-friendly, Buddhism has always – from its origin in northern India to its flourishing in China, Tibet, Korea and Japan – encouraged wealth-creation through the exploitation of natural resources. He helpfully sums up his conclusion in the form of a 140-character tweet: ‘Elverskog overturns eco-Buddhism narrative by showing how Buddhists across Asia transformed the environment by commodification, agro-expansion, and urbanization’ (p.119).

The natural response of the average western Buddhist to Elverskog’s conclusions might be incredulity. How could the Buddhists of Asia possibly be just as bad as capitalist Protestant westerners? Didn’t the Buddha clearly teach non-harming and respect for nature? Don’t Buddhists believe in the interconnectedness of humans and nature? Such questions reveal the eco-Buddhist assumptions of the average western Buddhist, and Elverskog wants to disabuse such Buddhists of those assumptions. Does he succeed? This review will be divided into three parts. In the first part, I will summarise Elverskog’s arguments and disoveries, which do indeed upset our usual preconceptions about Buddhism. But in the second part, I will draw attention to some alarming gaps in Elverskog’s arguments. In the third part, I will salvage what I can from Elverskog’s conclusions, while defending eco-Buddhism.

I

Elverskog briefly alludes to how what can be called ‘eco-Buddhism’ is a modern western construct, and not a historical reality. While this idea might make sense to scholars, it is probably news to the average western Buddhist. To spell out the claim, the scholar of Buddhist modernism might say that the idea that Buddhism is in some sense deeply environmentally friendly and ecologically sensitive, together with the image of Asian Buddhists living in harmony with nature, is a historical fantasy. But this does not mean it is false. Rather, it is a very specific interpretation of Asian Buddhism, by westerners, under the conditions of our own beliefs and needs, an interpretation which is only partially connected to Buddhist tradition. Unfortunately, Elverskog does not review the characteristics of eco-Buddhism (also called Green Buddhism and Buddhist environmentalism) in his book, preferring instead merely to gesture towards some of its stereotypes and exemplars. For instance, he quotes from Gary Snyder, the Buddhist Beat poet, and long-term environmentalist:

            And Japan quibbles for words on

                        What kind of whales they can kill?

            A once-great Buddhist nation

                        dribbles methyl mercury

                        like gonorrhea

                                    in the sea.[ii]

While agreeing that Japan is a peculiarly un-environmentally-conscious nation, Elverskog asks, contra Snyder, whether Japan was in fact ever an environmentally-aware nation, and whether Buddhism ever made any difference, and concludes that that Japan wasn’t and Buddhist didn’t. The idea of eco-Buddhism, according to Elverskog, drawing on existing scholarship, is a mélange of Romanticism, Deep Ecology, and some de-historicised interpretations of particular Buddhist teachings. Elverskog doesn’t mean to undermine or discredit modern western Buddhist, only to refute the false idea that eco-Buddhism is the same as original, traditional Buddhism. I think there is every reason to think this analysis is correct. Buddhism, like all pre-modern religious traditions, developed in Asian cultural contexts with no awareness of an environmental crisis. The idea that Buddhism is capable of addressing climate change and habitat destruction is by necessity a contemporary re-interpretation of an ancient religious tradition.

Elverskog goes on to review the early history of Buddhism, starting with what we know about the Buddha and the early Sangha. Elverskog emphasises how the Buddha did not condemn the amassing of wealth, but rather encouraged his lay followers to make money in order to support the monastic sangha. Although there is certainly a great deal of scriptural evidence in the Pāli canon to support this view, Elverskog draws out its implications more fully than usual. He describes the Dharma as a kind of ‘prosperity theology’, taking certain Protestant Christian beliefs about the holiness of weath and applying the label to early Buddhism. ‘With this term, I refer to the Buddhist conviction that wealth is good. The Buddha instructed his lay followers and the monastics to acquire wealth. Wealth indicates moral standing and good karma, and poverty indicates moral failure and bad karma’ (p.41). In this way, Buddhism resonates with merchants and metropolitan elites even today. Based on a metaphor of money, the Buddhist teaching of karma encouraged social mobility and trade. Images of jewels and wealth illustrate ideals of both worldly prosperity and spiritual realization. 

A discussion of vegetarianism in the Buddhist tradition (ch.3) gives Elverskog the chance to rehearse a distinction between the high monastic ideals of Buddhism, based on the ethical principle of non-harming (ahiṃsa), and the historical facts about what Buddhists (monastic and lay) actually eat, namely, animals. Elverskog relies on similar arguments to show the importance of wealth in Buddhism, drawing on studies of monastic discipline (vinaya) to demonstrate the pervasive role of money in Buddhist culture. He goes on to make the unusual argument that the Buddhist teaching of anātman, or no-self, was instrumental in encouraging a pro-attitude towards wealth creation: ‘the Buddhist idea of anatman or no-self promoted the possibility of everyone acting as free agents in the new market economy’ (p.47) – hence, through the anatman teaching, the Buddha ‘embraced the social transformations of the time’, such as urbanization, trade, and a free-market economy.

Because of the importance of wealth and trade, Buddhism supports an economic order that allows wealth-creation. Elverskog draws the logical conclusion: ‘contrary to popular notions, the Dharma did not enshrine or promote the protection of nature. Instead, it specifically promoted the exploitation of nature for economic and societal ends’ (p.59). With this theoretical conclusion in hand, Elverskog goes on to discuss themes that exemplify it, drawn from from the history of the pan-Asian spread of Buddhism. As the pro-market, pro-wealth Dharma spread to new lands, ‘the protocapitalist drive at the heart of the Buddhist tradition’ (p.75) was constantly engaged in the exploitation of natural resources at the commodity frontier. The extraction of timber, metals, gems and so on created trade networks with Buddhist monasteries at their centres. 

Buddhists, and especially Buddhist monks, expanded agriculture, often using slave labour, and engaged in the systematic development of irrigation. Historians have previously thought that state organisation was necessary for large-scale irrigation systems, but it seems that Buddhist monasteries were just as capable. The dependence of Buddhist monastics on food grown by lay followers partly explains this interaction of monasteries and food production. But Buddhism is also implicated in the growth of cities, and the enormous depletion of resources from the surrounding areas implied by urbanization, quite beyond the direct perception of city-dwellers themselves. Elverskog sees urban Asian Buddhists as no different from modern people who consume resources with little idea of where it comes from or of the effects of procuring it. In this way, Buddhists played a significant part in shaping the landscapes of Asia, turning forests and all kinds of natural resources into wealth, according to the free-market logic of the Dharma.

II

Elverskog’s bold thesis is stimulating, but embodies a failure to make two important distinctions in relation to Buddhism. First, it fails to distinguish between facts about Buddhist history and the values at the heart of Buddhism as an ethics and soteriology. As a historian, Elverskog has drawn out a number of themes from his studies of Asian Buddhism that not only run contrary to the eco-Buddhist narrative about the environmental credentials of Buddhism, but which also put Buddhists in the position of being key players in the environmental destruction of Asia. This is striking, and leads to questions about the Buddhist beliefs and practices that justify the exploitation of natural resources; that is to say, given the facts about Asian history (exploitation, urbanization, agriculture expansion), how are Buddhist values implicated? By not making the fact/value distinction, Elverskog comes up with some unsatisfactory explanations.

Let us consider a large-scale parallel. A scholar of religious studies might observe that some modern Christians, such as Quakers, understand Jesus’ teaching to imply non-violence. The scholar might then look at European Christian history. Look at the Crusades, the scholar might say. They show that European Christians were violent, in the name of Christ. Scholar overturns non-violent Christian narrative by showing how Christians across Europe persecuted Muslims and Jews in the name of Christ and Church. It would be not hard for a Quaker or anyone knowledgeable about Christianity to point out that this tweet simply fails to distinguish between facts about European history and Christian values. Clearly, the Crusaders hadn’t taken Jesus’ teaching about non-violence to heart, and this requires historical explanation, but it doesn’t undermine the importance of non-violence in Christian belief and practice, for those who value it.

Elverskog’s failure to distinguish facts and values leads him to some erroneous interpretations. For instance, he discusses Buddhism and vegetarianism to illustrate the persistent western mistake of thinking Buddhism is eco-friendly. Elverskog reports that, while westerners think that Buddhists are vegetarian, the fact is that the Dalai Lama was disappointed when in 1998 François Miterrand didn’t offer him a meaty meal (p.32). Elverskog traces this appetite for meat back to the Buddha: ‘The Buddha allows monks to eat meat as long as they have not killed the fish or animals themselves. If others kill and prepare an animal for consumption, a monk is allowed to receive it in his begging bowl and to eat it’ (p.33). Elverskog explains this attitude in terms of the Buddha’s emphasis on the ethics of intentionality: ‘if you have not killed the animal, no karma is generated by eating its flesh’ (p.34). But all this is factually incorrect.[iii]According to well-known Buddhist teachings, attributed to the Buddha, a monastic may receive meat in his or her begging bowl only if he or she has not (1) seen (2) heard or (3) suspected that the animal was killed specially for them.[iv] This was later called the ‘threefold purity’ of almsfood. Hence, the Buddha allowed his monks to eat meat, but not (as Elverskog writes) when they themselves had not killed the animal, but in fact only when they were sure that the animal’s death was not for their sake. To eat meat that one knew had been killed for oneself would certainly involve an unwholesome intention, an unskilful karma, that would implicate one in harm to an animal. In short, the Buddha taught that while it was not unacceptable to eat meat, Buddhist practitioners should not cause harm to animals. Non-harming (ahiṃsa) is the most important Buddhist ethical value. But in fact Buddhists down the centuries have found it hard to be vegetarian, presumably because of their desire to eat meat, and not because the Buddha allowed it.[v]

Following the same logic, though Buddhists in Asian have exploited natural resources, this fact does not necessarily imply that Buddhist values do not include care for the environment. Without discussing the fact/value distinction, Elverskog cannot ‘overturn [the] eco-Buddhism narrative’, which is a contemporary narrative about Buddhist values, not a narrative about the facts of Asian history.

The second distinction that Elverskog fails to make is between what anthropologists of Buddhism have described as two religious systems within Buddhism: ‘nibbanic Buddhism’, the form of Buddhism practised by (some) monastics, aiming at nirvāṇa or salvation through the practice of meditation, and ‘kammatic Buddhism’, the Buddhism practised by lay followers (and some monastics), aiming at a good rebirth through the generation of merit and good karma. While the distinction was first formulated by Melford Spiro in relation to Theravāda Buddhism (in Burma),[vi] some version of it can be formulated both for the Buddhism of the Pāli canon, and for the forms of Buddhism practised across Asia. The goal of nirvāṇa or complete Awakening depends on renunciation and meditation, and not many Buddhists take it up. But Asian Buddhists have always formulated some version of a more accessible yet nevertheless valuable proximate goal for ordinary people living household lives, whether that goal is a favourable human rebirth or rebirth in Amitābha’s Pure Land.

With this distinction in mind, two points become clearer. First, Elverskog’s argument that the anātman teaching played a role in promoting a free market economy looks unlikely, or at least looks to be unsupported by any evidence. The anātman teaching is only ever discussed in relation to forms of meditative reflection aiming at insight (vipaśyanā). For Buddhists aiming at a good rebirth, it is necessary to emphasise the existence of a self as agent, who can act and who will reap the harvest of their actions. Elverskog, however, goes on to link his interpretation of the anātman teaching with his interpretation of Buddhism as a form of prosperity theology: ‘As Christian prosperity theology today legitimates the neoliberal order, the Dharma legitimated the marketization of society in ancient India through the concept of anatman’ (p.48). Not only is it unlikely that the Dharma does anything of this sort, but Elverskog makes no effort whatever to define or analyse Prosperity Theology or to say in what way Buddhism resembles it. It seems to me unlikely that Buddhism as a whole can be interpreted as being much like Prosperity Theology, since renunciation is so central to nibbanic Buddhism.

The second point is that modern western Buddhists tend to be interested in ‘nibbanic Buddhism’ rather than ‘kammatic Buddhism’. They tend to be less interested in the teachings about giving to monastics and generating merit for a future good rebirth, and more interested in learning about meditation, going on retreat, and developing liberating insight. Indeed, this is a distinctive feature of modernist Buddhism, distinguishing it from tradition Asian Buddhism, in which lay people typically do not meditate.[vii] Even if, as a matter of historical fact, Asian Buddhists have exploited natural resources and not been environmentally friendly, this would probably not matter to Buddhist modernists, since they look to Buddhist teachings about meditation and nirvānạ for inspiration. In this way, the nibbanic/kammic Buddhism distinction intersects with the fact/value distinction. The ‘eco-Buddhism narrative’ is a narrative about the values of nibbanic Buddhism, not the facts about the environmental activities of kammatic Buddhists. Elverskog fails to overturn eco-Buddhism narrative by not distinguishing facts from values, nor nibbanic from kammic Buddhism.

III

In his Preface and Introduction, Elverskog cites scholars who are critical of eco-Buddhism. These scholars are only named in the notes, and their views are hardly discussed. The reason for this apparent omission may be that their criticisms of eco-Buddhism revolve around Buddhist values, not facts about Buddhist history. The critics of eco-Buddhism argue, for instance, that early Buddhist texts do not show a positive evaluation of nature, but instead teach that conditioned existence in this world, in fact in the entire round of rebirth, is unsatisfactory. Elverskog claims that ‘a more trenchant critique of eco-Buddhism is that it ignores what Buddhists actually did’ (p.3), but this is implausible, since facts about Buddhist history do not necessary tell us much about Buddhist values. A proper review and evaluation of scholarly critiques of eco-Buddhism would be desirable, but Elverskog doesn’t attempt anything like it.

However, Elverskog’s presentation of Asian history does offer much food for thought. His analysis of the Buddhist contribution to agricultural expansion, urbanisation, and market-driven exploitation of natural resources, raises big questions about how Asian Buddhists thought about humanity’s relationship to nature and the environment. His historical perspective certainly explodes any possible fantasy about a Buddhist paradise somewhere in Asia. However, this is hardly news. The deforestation of Thailand, a 90% Buddhist country, in the 1960s and 70s, is obvious to any visitor, and shows how Thai Buddhists were more interested in exploiting their country’s natural resources for money than preserving its forests.[viii] The value of Elverskog’s narrative is perhaps that it shows how the deforestation of Thailand is consistent with Buddhist attitudes across Asia and throughout history. Indeed, Elverskog is thoroughly successful in showing how Buddhists have been just as good as other human beings across the globe at exploiting the natural world for their own ends.

Given this sobering conclusion, it is in fact quite appropriate to puncture any balloon of Buddhist exceptionalism about the environment. Elverskog’s book is a success inasmuch as it shows how the tendency amongst Buddhist modernists to regard Buddhism as special and superior to, for instance, Christianity, in relation to attitudes to the modern world, is not just complacent but irresponsible.[ix]

Elverskog’s conclusion presents what he calls ‘a ray of hope’ (p.119). He argues that the study of Buddhist history shows that Buddhists can change. Modern Buddhist environmentalism, both in Asia and the west, leaves behind the resource exploitation of the past and ‘is having a positive environmental impact in the world today’ (p.119). Given his arguments about the exploitative nature of Buddhism, you would think that Elverskog should try to account for the kind of change he sees as hopeful, but he does not. However, I think it is arguable that Buddhist values such as non-harming (ahimṣa) have always been implicitly pro-environmental, that Buddhist meditation has always sought to overcome the ego’s separation from nature, and that Buddhist aesthetics have always valued experiences of beauty. It has been central to the work of many modern Buddhist teachers across the world to draw out these Buddhist values against the background of our worsening global environmental crisis. By contrast, I am not entirely convinced that Elverskog’s book is actually going to help this effort, although I would be pleased to be wrong about this.

But let me end by solving the case of the snow-leopard-skin backpacks.[x] It would seem that the use of animal skins for clothing and household use has long been popular, even fashionable, among Tibetan peoples, such as those living in Bhutan, where Elverskog had his fateful encounter with those backpacks in the early 1990s. But in 2006, the Dalai Lama, while conducting a Kalachakra ceremony in India, took the opportunity to call on Tibetans to stop using animal skins such as those of tigers and leopards, for the obvious reason that the Tibetans should preserve their natural environment and not harm animals. Videos smuggled out of Tibet showed bonfires of animal skins, as Tibetans took their spiritual leader’s words to heart, and gave up their fashionable furs. Let us hope that those snow-leopard-skin backpacks in Bhutan have likewise gone up in smoke, and their wearers have become as eco-Buddhist as the Dalai Lama has.[xi]


[i] Allan Hunt Badiner (ed.) (1990), Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, Berkeley: Parallax. 

[ii] Gary Snyder (1974), “Mother Earth: Her Whales”, from Turtle Island, New York: New Directions, p.47. Snyder is also the author of The Practice of the Wild (1990), a kind of manifesto for a Buddhist environmentalism.

[iii] I take this opportunity to note that Elverskog’s book contains a number of factual inaccuracies, suggesting a lack of familiarity with the Buddhist tradition: (p.23) the demon holding the Wheel of Life is Yama, not Māra; (p.25) nirvana does not mean ‘extinction’ but the ‘going out’ or ‘quenching’ (as of a flame); (p.27) Elverskog characterises the Mahāyāna monk as trying to ‘transcend conventional reality’, which is a complete misunderstanding of the distinction of ultimate and conventional reality; (p.54) Elverskog claims that ‘the Buddhist canon never extols poverty as a virtue, only wealth’ – he has perhaps not read the Dhammapada very thoroughly, or at least has not distinguished voluntary from involuntary poverty. The book also includes Pāli and Sanskrit words, sometimes with diacritics, sometimes not. There are also a number of maps with tenuous or unstated relationships to the book’s narrative, as well as some mistaken words and references. All this would suggest that the book did not go through a final editing process.

[iv] See the Jīvika Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 55 and elsewhere. Elverskog (p.135 n.3) actually quotes this very teaching, from the Pāli Vinaya, but appears not to have understood it. 

[v] The Dalai Lama now recognises that Buddhists ought to be vegetarian, even though he himself eats some meat for health reasons (https://www.dalailama.com/messages/transcripts-and-interviews/barkha-dutt-interview-part2).

[vi] Melford E. Spiro (1982 [1970]), Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press. Winston King had already made a comparable distinction in relation to Theravāda in Sri Lanka.

[vii] This topic is explored in David McMahan (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, e.g. p.40.

[viii] Described in Kerry Brown (1992), ‘In the Water There Were Fish and the Fields Were Full of Rice: Reawakening the Lost Harmony of Thailand’, Buddhism and Ecology, ed. Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, London: Cassell, pp.87–99. 

[ix] The ‘myth of Buddhist exceptionalism’ is exploded by Evan Thompson (2020), Why I am not a Buddhist, New Haven: Yale University Press, Introduction, and ch.1.

[x] See https://www.dalailama.com/news/2006/animal-skin-clothes-burned-in-tibet-after-dalai-lamas-call for a fuller account.

[xi] See, for instance, His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Franz Alt (2020), Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World, London: Bloomsbury. 

Translation issues (2): taṇhā and ‘craving’

In a previous essay, I explored the issue of how to translate the Pāli word dukkha, so often translated ‘suffering’. But ‘suffering’ is hardly ever the right English word. Sometimes dukkha means ‘painful’ and sometimes it means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first noble truth, that ‘this is dukkha’, is better understood as ‘this is unsatisfactory’. The first noble truth does not claim that life is painful and suffering, but that this existential situation that we find ourselves in is unsatisfactory and imperfect. Sometimes life is unsatisfactory because it is painful, and certainly it is imperfect because there is suffering, but pain and suffering are examples of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not the whole of it.

In this post I turn to the Pāli word taṇhā, which is usually translated as ‘craving’. The second noble truth taught by the Buddha is that dukkha or unsatisfactoriness has an origin (samudaya), and that its origin or causal basis is taṇhā. The second noble truth is thus sometimes rendered, ‘the cause of suffering is craving’. This might be even more misleading than the translation of the first noble truth as ‘life is suffering’. The problem with the English word ‘craving’ is that it invariably suggests a strong desire for things like sex or chocolate or alcohol, as if psychological states such as strong desires for sensual pleasures were the root of all our problems. By contrast, taṇhā in fact means ‘thirst’, and thirst is fundamentally a metaphor for a general existential condition of  humanity, which is an unsatisfied longing.[1] So the second noble truth ought to be translated, ‘this is the origin of unsatisfactoriness – thirst’. 

The Buddha’s second noble truth is that taṇhā is the origin of dukkha:

Monks, this is the origin (samudaya) of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), a noble truth – the taṇhā leading to renewed existence, associated with enjoyment and passion, finding pleasure here and there – namely, taṇhā for sense-pleasures, taṇhā for continued existence, taṇhā not to exist.

So what is taṇhā? The most important thing to know about this word is that it is a metaphor. The word taṇhā literally means ‘thirst’. The equivalent word in Sanskrit is tṛṣṇā. The words taṇhā and tṛṣṇā come from the verbal root tṛṣ meaning ‘to be thirsty’.[2] In fact this Sanskrit verbal root goes back to a word in Proto-Indo-European from which our English word ‘thirst’ also derives.[3] In English we also use the word ‘thirst’ in a metaphorical way, for instance when we talk of a scholar’s ‘thirst for knowledge’ or a general’s ‘thirst for victory’. The problem is that the English word ‘thirst’ is not metaphorical enough. It primarily refers to the desire to drink. By contrast, the Pāli word taṇhā is never used in early Buddhist texts in reference to its literal meaning. Whenever anyone in early Buddhist texts wants to talk about actual thirst, they use the word pipāsā (which means ‘desire to drink’).[4]

The fact that the Pāli word taṇhā  means ‘thirst’, and yet is only used metaphorically and never as a word for actual thirst, suggests that taṇhā is used as a technical term, to name a specific concept in Buddhism. This concept is that of a general existential condition for all living beings – taṇhā is the condition of thirsting for satisfaction that, along with spiritual ignorance (avijjā), is responsible for the evolution of the cosmos and for the constant transmigration of living beings in the cosmos. 

But what is it about the experience of thirst that allows the word taṇhā to do the work of naming this big concept? When we are thirsty, our bodies lack water and we want to drink to satisfy an urgent longing. There is bodily and affective dimension to the experience of thirst, in that there is a certain discomfort felt distinctively as a lack of water and enjoyment in the satiation of it; and there is also a cognitive dimension to thirst, inseparable from the affective dimension, in the form of thoughts and plans connected with getting water and gaining satisfaction. Thirst involves emotions and beliefs that lead to action, and not just psychological states.

Bearing in mind the metaphorical nature of taṇhā, let us turn to the wording of the second noble truth. Thirst (taṇhā) is described as having three characteristics:

  1. it leads to renewed existence (ponobbhavikā): just as physical thirst is the urge to drink, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the urge to find satisfaction, and this metaphorical ‘thirst’ is the driving force of transmigration (saṃsāra), whether within this life or over lifetimes;
  2. it is associated with enjoyment and passion (nandi-rāga-sahagatā): just as actual thirst involves affective states of enjoyment when drinking, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the passionate pursuit and enjoyment of what gives satisfaction;
  3. it finds pleasure here and there (tatra-tatrābhinandinī): just as the thirsty body finds pleasure in the refreshment it can get, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) becomes attuned to the kinds of pleasure possible while looking for the satisfaction of longing.

Characteristic (3) looks very much like an account of psychological hedonism: the claim that living beings do in fact seek pleasure and avoid pain. Characteristic (2) similarly looks like the related claim that it is pleasure and pain that motivates us to act. Characteristic (1) is the wider claim that motivational hedonism drives the round of birth and death. This suggests a cosmological context for the Buddha’s teaching that taṇhā is the cause of unsatisfactoriness. In the Vedic tradition, the related term ‘desire’ (kāma) is a force that creates the many from the one and drives creation. The Nāsādiya Sūkta, a famous hymn from the Ṛg Veda, includes the lines:

Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire (kāma), which existed as the primal semen. 

Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent.[5]

In the Upaniṣads, this same desire (kāma), a cosmic and metaphysical force, becomes the necessary condition for karma and reincarnation: 

A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action. And so people say: ‘A person here consists simply of desire (kāma)’. A man resolves in accordance with his desire, acts in accordance with his resolve, and turns out to be in accordance with his action.[6]

The Buddha appears to accept the ancient Indian metaphysics of desire, but he alters it by renaming this force of desire ‘thirst’, and shifting attention from cosmic and metaphysical desire to the driving force of biological organisms, which get thirsty and need to drink. By doing this, the Buddha shifts attention from a force of creation to an existential condition of life.

There are fascinating parallels with the Indian metaphysics of desire in the western philosophical tradition. In his Symposium, Plato presents eros (passionate love) as a force running through the living world, driving all beings to seek beauty. He teaches the sublimation of eros, from the bodily urge to reproduce, to an appreciation of philosophy, and finally to knowledge of beauty itself. In the medieval period, the concept of conatus was used to explain the innate tendency for things to continue in being. The evidence for conatus in human beings is willing, our active efforts to survive and thrive. Schopenhauer took up this theme, making ‘will’ the metaphysical reality behind appearances. Freud saw the libido as the energy of our drives and instincts, and as the basis of much of psychic life. The Buddha’s concept of taṇhāhas something in common with all of these concepts, although the Buddha taught more practically that taṇhā is a general existential condition, evident in our motivational hedonism.  

Going back to the second noble truth, the Buddha, having characterised taṇhā in a threefold way as the existential condition of life, goes on to say that taṇhā manifests in three ways:

  1. taṇhā for sense-pleasures (kāma-taṇhā): this is a metaphorical ‘thirst’ not just for pleasurable objects of sense, such as food and sex, but more broadly for an enjoyable worldly life, involving for instance family, house and wealth;
  2. taṇhā for continued existence (bhava-taṇhā): this kind of metaphorical ‘thirst’ is for more life in whatever state we find ourselves, based on an eternalist view, and could also be for continuation in a refined or formless realm of existence through meditation;
  3. taṇhā for non-existence (vibhava-taṇhā): a ‘thirst’ to no longer exist, based on an annihilationist view; Anālayo also relates this form of taṇhā to ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’, which might be found for instance through meditation.[7]

With this analysis of three ways in which taṇhā appears, it is possible to understand why taṇhā is the origin of unsatisfactoriness. Firstly, all sense-pleasures (from chocolate to children) are impermanent and unreliable. To live one’s life in search of that which, like oneself, is liable to arise and cease, is an ‘ignoble quest’ (anariya-pariyesanā),[8] for sense-pleasures cannot finally satisfy us. Secondly, any form of continued existence is in fact subject to ageing, illness and death, and so to live one’s life in pursuit of the eternal cannot lead to actual satisfaction. Thirdly, neither suicide nor a mystic merger with reality will keep one from the ongoing process of rebirth. But this is not the end of the story. As Sāgaramati explains, there can be a wholesome taṇhā, a thirst for the end of thirst, a desire for awakening, a wholesome longing for the end of longing, desire and thirst.[9] This is the cessation of dukkha, the subject of the third noble truth, nirvāṇa, which comes about through practising the eightfold path, the subject of the fourth noble truth. 

Metaphorical ‘thirst’, our basic unsatisfied longing, can be fulfilled with the realisation of awakening. This could be seen as a ‘vertical’ ending of thirst. But the human experience of thirst suggests another way of thinking about metaphorical ‘thirst’. Physical thirst is not a social emotion, but an individual and personalised bodily experience. I cannot experience your thirst, and you cannot quench mine by drinking. Likewise, the Buddha describes how metaphorical ‘thirst’ (seeking for the satisfaction of longings) tends to depend on appropriating inner and outer objects (making them my own):

Now, monks, there are these eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside, and eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “I am”, there are the ideas of “I am this”, “I am like that”, “I am otherwise”, “I am lasting”, “I am transient”, there are the ideas of “I might be”, “I might be this”, “I might be like that”, “I might be otherwise”, “might I be?”, “might I be this?”, “might I be like that?”, “might I be otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “I will be”, “I will be this”, “I will be like that”, “I will be otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “this is me”, there are the ideas of “this makes me like this”, “this makes me like that”, “this makes me otherwise”, “this makes me lasting”, “this makes me transient”, there are the ideas of “this might be me”, “this might make me like this”, “this might make me like that”, “this might make me otherwise”, “might this be me?”, “might this make me like this?”, “might this make me like that?”, “might this make me otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “this will be me”, “this will make me like this”, “this will make me like that”, “this will make me otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.[10]

In this discourse, the Buddha evokes some of the very many ways in which unsatisfied longing manifests in an individual’s thoughts and feelings, dependent on identifying with them as ‘myself’ and dependent on appropriating objects of various sorts as ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Such egotistical desire could be for sense-pleasures, continued existence, or non-existence. Deep-rooted egotism wraps us up, ties us down, and drives us on. The discourse just quoted ends like this:

Now this, monks, is that taṇhā, which is ensnaring, a river, entanglement, pervasive, by which this world has become smothered and overgrown, has become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from saṃsāra with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies.

This suggests that metaphorical thirst involves an impossible egotism about satisfaction. Living one’s life expecting a personal satisfaction of desire may leave one tangled and mouldy. A ‘horizontal’ ending of such thirst would be the overcoming of egotism, involving for instance the development of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abodes’ of kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity; qualities which extend one’s sphere of concern beyond oneself. Such meditation may lead to a liberating insight into the lack of a fixed permanent self in experience, and hence a liberation from the ensnaring, entangled river of egotistical desire.

I began this essay with a translation issue: is ‘craving’ the best translation of taṇhā? I argued that taṇhā means ‘thirst’ and is a metaphor. But it turns out that the way the Buddha uses this metaphor to characterise our human predicament goes well beyond a comparison with desiring to drink. Taṇhā has taken on a life of its own as a technical term in Buddhist thought. I would argue that translating taṇhā as ‘craving’ suggests to the unwary that the problem with the human predicament is a psychological state of strong desire. Whereas translating taṇhā as ‘thirst’, and making this literal translation of taṇhā the standard one, might help remind students of Buddhism, old and new, to remember to think metaphorically, and to reflect on the unsatisfied longing that constitutes the existential ground of human life.


[1] This point is argued at length in Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.144–8 ().

[2] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. tṛṣ.

[3] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. taṇhā.

[4] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. pipāsā. This word is from the desiderative form of the verb , ‘to drink’, which derives from another Indo-European root, pō(i), evident in English words coming from Latin, like ‘potable’ (from pōtus) and ‘imbibe’ (from bibere).

[5] Ṛg Veda 10.129.4, trans. Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton (2014), The Rig Veda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India, New York: Oxford University Press, p.1609.

[6] Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1998), The Early Upaniṣads, New York: Oxford University Press, p.121.

[7] Anālayo (2012), Excursions Into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Onalaska WA: Pariyatti Press, p.16.

[8] From ‘Discourse on the Noble Quest’ (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta), Majjhima Nikāya 18.

[9] Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.151–3 (www.westernbuddhistreview.com).

[10] From ‘Discourse on Thirst’ (Taṇhā Sutta), Aṅguttara Nikāya 4: 199. This is my translation, but also see Sujato’s and Ṭhanissaro’s translations at https://suttacentral.net/an4.199

Dependent Arising and Coronavirus

(the field beyond)

It has been hard to avoid war metaphors in relation to COVID-19. We’re at war with the virus; everyone is enlisted in the fight, to help those at the front line. There is no easing of restrictions while we have not yet won the battle. We pay tribute to the fallen; let’s not squander the sacrifice of those who have died; we gird ourselves against defeat. War metaphors are potent and stirring, and easy to reach for in times such as these. But they are completely inappropriate. Coronavirus is not an enemy but a pathogen. This will be no comfort for the ill or bereaved, but our metaphors are the mood music of our thoughts. It would be better to imagine COVID-19 as a natural disaster, like a storm or a flood, and as deadly and dangerous. You don’t fight nature, but learn to live with it.

In April I was supposed to lead a study and practice retreat on the theme of Dependent Arising, at Dhanakosha retreat centre in Scotland. As I walked in the woods instead of leading that retreat, I’ve thought about the dependent arising of coronavirus. The Buddha’s teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda, or ‘dependent arising’, mainly concerns the way experience works: how unsatisfactoriness arises, and how it ceases through the practice of the way to awakening. But dependent arising is, more broadly, a naturalistic principle, explaining the way the world works without recourse to God or fate. How does a viral pandemic fit into a naturalistic Buddhist worldview? Is coronavirus some kind of karmic consequence of human hubris?

Not at all. In the ancient Indian context in which the Buddha’s teaching arose, philosophical discussions about how the world worked revolved around the nature of the relationship between action (karma) and result (phala). Based on observation, inference and speculation, some held to determinism (niyativāda), the view that what happened in the past determines destiny. Others held to indeterminism (yadṛcchāvāda), the view that things happen by chance, without reference to the past. The Buddha explicitly positioned his teaching of dependent arising between these extreme views. It is the teaching that what happens is neither determined by past actions, nor without a cause, but instead that everything happens due to causes and conditions. We could call this view non-deterministic conditionality. 

It is relevant for considering a broadly Buddhist view on the very possibility of a coronavirus. According to the best explanation now around, self-reflexive human consciousness, capable of love and wisdom as well as much worse, has evolved through natural selection over millennia. The web of conditions at work in the world is evidently capable of producing something as miraculous as the human brain. Likewise the coronavirus. I would speculate that it is the very same creative openness in the fine weave of conditionality that makes room for the blind half-alive striving of a virus to survive, as it makes possible the dense folds of the cortex that somehow give rise to mind.

For this kind of reason, the Buddha taught the first noble truth, that there is unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha). The situation is such that conditioned existence is imperfect. There is this precious human existence and there are viral pandemics. But this is not the end of the Buddha’s teaching. The second noble truth is that this unsatisfactoriness has an origin, which is craving (tṛṣṇā). This little word ‘craving’ does a lot of work in Buddhist doctrine. It stands for everything that goes on in experience which takes for granted that there is an ‘I’, a ‘self’, a ‘me’ and a ‘mine’, a really existing subject of experience, who believes in his or her own thoughts about what is going on. The word ‘craving’ also stands for the root afflictions of greed, hostility and confusion, which are evolved emotional and cognitive distortions of our experience. According to this way of thinking, the problem with reality is how to relate to it based on a distorted perspective.

Egocentricity and distortion manifest in thoughts about how lucky one is not to have the virus, or how unlucky one has been to catch it. They also manifest in frustration at no longer being able to do what one wants, and also in the idea of waging a war against germs. The third noble truth is that things that arise on causes and conditions cease when their causes and conditions cease. The fourth truth is the eightfold path. The first part of the path is right view. This might mean paying attention to the way the creativity of life, the very source of this conscious awareness that can appreciate beauty, is at the same time the source of the virus leaping from bats to pangolins to us. There is room for some insight here into the contrary tendencies of our untamed emotionality and raw egotism. Such insight can bring letting go, and letting life be. Then there is room for compassion for all beings, all striving for happiness in the same mixed conditions as us.

Up against a deadly virus, we may fear for our lives. The Buddhist attitude towards the situation is illustrated in a contrast between two poems. First, Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle’. The poet stands firm in the land of the living, evoking a heroic resistance to the dire threat of death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s brave and somehow honorable, but it has made death into an enemy. The other poem is Rumi’s ‘What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?’, in a version by Robert Bly:

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a mineral,
And then I died and was reborn as a plant.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a plant,
And then I died and was reborn as an animal.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as an animal,
And then I died and was reborn as a human being.

What have I ever lost by dying?

Rumi’s attitude is one of an ecstatic self-surrender to a bigger process at work. This is no excuse for passivity. Rather, it is a call to ride the creativity of the situation into whatever comes next.

(Overleigh cemetery)

Rooted in this very earth

An unintended consequence of the viral pandemic is that, rather than walking to my office at the university, I walk for exercise each day in the local woods. And I am not alone: lots of us seem to be taking the unexpected opportunity to find pleasure in springtime woodland. As I’ve been walking in the woods, I’ve been thinking more about Buddhist environmental ethics (see also Mettā for Plants). It’s often thought that Buddhism is eco-friendly because of its ethical principle of non-violence and because of the doctrine of interconnectedness. Well, yes, it would greatly help the environment if people were to stop eating animals. But what about interconnectedness?

Scholars have pointed out that saying that everything is interconnected doesn’t necessarily help formulate an ethics, as it could mean that pollution is connected with smiling and meditation is connected with open-cast mining, somehow or other. It’s all one. But for environmental ethics we need conceptions of value and judgements about what to do.[i] Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is surely some significance in the experience of being inseparable from nature and the earth for changing how we live. But what exactly is the experience? Is it of interconnectedness?

Walking in the woods, I find myself attending more to my footsteps and less to my thoughts. The feel of the earth, especially the mulch of humus, all those layers of old leaves, is more enjoyable than mental preoccupation. I am inside the world of birdsong. The chiffchaffs started two weeks ago, and now the blackcaps are singing too. I pass two men sitting on a bench, and we all turn to listen to a woodpecker hammering. I want to say to them, Dendrocopos major, though I don’t. 

(wood anemone, celandine, sycamore, small-leaved lime)

I walk on, and realise that I am saying the names of flowers to myself. Look – celandine, and campion, and wood anemone. These old names root my tongue in generations of speakers of our shared language, fellow wanderers in spring woods. And I realise that the feeling of connectedness with nature is not something vague and mystical, but quite precise – it consists in my attention, now, to this living being with this specific name – ­­sycamore. I remember reading, in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, how ‘sycamore’ was her favourite word. It’s not my favourite, but I have had a different, more appreciative, relationship with that tree since I read that book. I am more enamoured of hornbeam, its scaley bark plated, like a rhinoceros, like an ent.

(hornbeam)

A true appreciation of nature is mediated by words, or else it remains silent. But that is not to deny the complete indifference of nature itself to our language. Rather, our words, these ancient labels of consensus reality, are the acts of homage that we pay to what we recognise as as other beings. The concept signified by oak is in my mind and in our culture but has an open edge bordering the wordless. It’s when we abide in that boundary, that liminal zone of leaf litter and lichens, that we touch on the vast, pulsing mystery of life. This happens through words and concepts, not without them. And where I find something living that don’t know the name of, some fungus on an old relic of oak, it remains alien, its being beyond me.

(unknown fungus)

Abiding in that borderland, the word ‘interconnected’ shows up a laughable anthropocentrism. I may be dependent on nature for my life, but in no way whatever is life dependent on me. This beech, this bluebell, this bumble bee, does not need me. We humans are the new species here, a mere few hundred thousands years old. None of the other species in this woodland need us. Should Homo sapiens disappear, through virus or war, life would continue without faltering. Preoccupied with my own thinking and wanting, I might think that I am important to the unfolding of things. Seduced by the beauty of woodland, I realise that I am the least of the things passing through.

In this humility, what am I? Not separate and alone, not a mere mind; but a body that is the child of, and dependent on, the earth. But not one with nature either, but something more complex, beyond words. Like a tree, which is rooted in the earth, so that where earth ends and tree begins is anybody’s guess, and no-one knows; yet a tree still stands in its own presence, and endures. Likewise, I am something that thinks, on its own; yet the million-fold roots of a human being interweave with indescribable sensitive complexity into earth, into life, into the cosmos. I look at the swelling trunk of an oak where it plunges and emerges on the edge of its world. I feel into the inconceivability of its connection. An inchoate bliss arises and I relax into the collar of moss.

(oak, campion, moss)

[i] The supposed environmental relevance of interconnectedness is especially clearly critiqued in Lambert Schmithausen (1997), ‘The Early Buddhist Tradition and Ecological Ethics’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 4, pp.1–74, and Charles Ives (2009), ‘In Search of a Green Dharma: Philosophical Issues in Buddhist Environmental Ethics’, in John Powers & Charles Prebish (eds.), Destroying Māra Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in Honour of Damian Keown, Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, pp.165–85.

Mettā for Plants

sweet love gerbera

Some years ago, while learning Pāli, I made a translation of the Mettasutta, or ‘Discourse on Kindness’, one of the best-known early Buddhist discourses.[i] The verses of this discourse describe how a practitioner should develop the quality of mettā, or ‘kindness’.[ii] Having established oneself in an ethical lifestyle, one develops, imaginatively and emotionally, the quality of kindness to all beings, as part of the training of mind and heart that culminates in liberation and awakening. Among the verses that describe the development of mettā are these:[iii]

ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi
tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā
dīghā vā ye mahantā vā
majjhimā rassakā aṇukathūlā

diṭṭhā vā ye vā addiṭṭhā
ye ca dūre vasanti avidūre
bhūtā vā sambhavesī vā
sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā

Which I translated like this:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.

When I translated these verses, it seemed to me obvious and uncontroversial that the class of ‘living beings’ (pāṇābhūta) should include living beings that are both ‘moving’ (tasa) and ‘still’ (thāvara), and that these Pāli words referred to animals and plants. However, last year, in conversation with Buddhist friends, I discovered that in fact almost all other translators of the Mettasutta translate the words tasa and thāvara as ‘weak or strong’, or words to that effect, with the implication that plants are not included.[iv]

This discovery surprised me. Surely, I thought, the class of living beings towards which Buddhists should develop mettā, or kindness, should include plants as well as animals. But in fact, as I found out, the Theravādin Buddhist tradition excludes plants from the category of sentient beings; it takes the Mettasutta to teach that one should develop kindness towards sentient beings, hence not towards plants. In this post I will argue two things: first, that the original intention of the Mettasutta was to recommend the development of mettā towards all living beings, including plants; and second, that the development of mettā towards plants ought to be an important part of the practice of developing mettā. But before that, some background on the traditional interpretation.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent translation of the Sutta-nipāta, the verses of the Mettasutta in question are translated like this:[v]

Whatever living beings there are
whether frail or firm, without omission,
those that are long, or those that are large
middling, short, fine, or gross.

Bhikkhu Bodhi also translates the traditional commentary on the Suttanipāta, giving the contemporary reader easy access to the way the Theravadin tradition understood the discourses. The section discussing ‘frail or firm’ reads like this:[vi]

In this way, with the expression “whatever living beings there are” having shown all beings collectively, classified into pairs and triads, now, with the expression “whether frail [tasa] or firm [thāvara], without omission,” he [i.e., the Buddha] shows all these classified by way of this pair. Here the frail [tasa] are “those that tremble (or thirst)”; this is a designation for those with craving and with fear. The firm [thāvara] are those that stand firm; this is a designation for arahants, who have abandoned craving and fear.

In an interesting long note, Bodhi explains how the commentary invokes a word-play on the two meanings of tasa, ‘trembling’ and ‘thirsty’.[vii] The commentary evidently connects ‘trembling/thirsty’ (which Bhikkhu Bodhi and others render into English as ‘frail’, ‘weak’) with living beings that are unawakened and experience craving and fear. By contrast, the commentary connects living beings who are ‘still’ or ‘firm’ with awakened beings who no longer experience craving and fear. Bhikkhu Bodhi admits that this commentarial interpretation feels forced. Not only that, one might add, but the English rendering ‘frail or firm’ does not even get across the forced commentarial explanation. In English, to speak of ‘frail or firm’ living beings tells the reader nothing at all about their craving or awakening. It tells the reader only about their physical and mental strength. In his long note, Bodhi continues:[viii]

Norman 2004, 81, takes the expression [tasā vā thāvarā vā] in its original sense [of ‘moving or still’]…, but since, on this interpretation, thāvara signifies vegetation or inanimate objects, this would mean that mettā would be developed towards non-sentient objects, which is contrary to the intent of the practice [my italics]. While the commentarial explanation may be forced, I would surmise that even during the Buddha’s time tasathāvara had lost its original sense and had come to serve as a conventional expression applicable solely to the domain of sentient beings.

We see, therefore, that Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the verses,  ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi |tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā, as ‘Whatever living beings there are / whether frail or firm, without omission’, following the commentary, and with the surmise that even in the Buddha’s time, the phrase tasathāvara already meant ‘sentient beings’, excluding plants. Without implying any criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi, since he has translated the Sutta-nipāta as it is understood in the Theravādin tradition, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the original meaning of tasathāvara. This is based on the remarkable in-depth scholarship of Lambert Schmithausen. In his unlikely-sounding book, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earlier Buddhism,[ix] Schmithausen addresses the question of whether tasathāvara includes plants in early Buddhism. This phrase, meaning ‘moving or still’, is a common expression in ancient Hindu and Jain texts from the time of the Buddha for the class of living beings. The Jains, indeed, have not at all changed their conception of what counts as a living being, or jīva. As Paul Dundas puts it, according to Jain belief:[x]

Embodied jīvas are divided into two types, those which are stationary (sthāvara) such as plants, and those which are moving (trasa) such as insects, gods, hellbeings, animals and human beings.

For Jains, the practice of non-harming (ahiṃsa) extends to stationary (sthāvara) beings like plants as well as to moving ones like animals. In Schmithausen’s view, the Buddhists, like the Jains, used the word pāṇa (‘living being’) in a comprehensive sense, to include both tasa and thāvara, animals and plants. Schmithausen reviews early Buddhist literature and concludes that we should infer that the Buddhists used the phrase tasathāvara in just the same way as the Jains; practitioners should not harm or kill living beings, whether moving or still, but should protect them and suffuse them with mettā. The evidence that Schmithausen presents, despite being inferential rather than direct, very much undermines Bhikkhu Bodhi’s surmise that the meaning of tasathāvara had already in the Buddha’s time come to refer only to sentient beings.[xi]

However, Schmithausen also traces the way in which later Buddhists (such as the Pāli commentators) came to exclude plants from the category of sentient beings. He also ventures an opinion on how this change could have come about. Even in the Buddha’s day, plants were regarded by the Buddhists as borderline cases of sentient life; after all, harming plants was a necessity for obtaining food, without which no ascetic could eat and gain liberation. While wanton destruction of plants, based on an attitude of greed or hatred, was wrong, the careful use of plants for food did not incur any bad karma.[xii] This pragmatic attitude, so typical of Buddhists, was quite different to that of the more literalist Jains. In later times, the Buddhist attitude to plants shifted to exclude them altogether from the class of sentient beings, in a doctrinal shift that sorts out the ambiguities of Buddhist pragmatism.

Therefore, we should understand the original meaning of tasathāvara in the Mettasutta as ‘moving and still’, that is, ‘animals and plants’. I now turn to the idea that the intention of the mettā practice is to develop kindness only towards sentient beings (not plants). Bhikkhu Bodhi’s understanding of the mettā practice here no doubt reflects the practice as explained in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.[xiii] Here, one is instructed to develop mettā towards human beings, in stages, beginning with oneself, then a good friend, a neutral person and a difficult person, and culminating in extending mettā to all sentient beings. But this constitutes, for practical purposes, a relatively narrow method of practising mettā. The early discourses, by contrast, teach the practice of mettā in terms of radiating boundless kindness in all directions, to all living beings, not specifically to human or sentient beings.[xiv] Again, this suggests that mettā should be developed towards plants.

Indeed, some contemporary meditation teachers recommend the development of mettā towards plants. Sharon Salzbergdraws on research that shows how elderly people in a care home who had been given a pot plant to care for became healthier and better connected to the world. Ajahn Brahm describes how one of his students began to develop the quality of mettā by bringing to mind the plants she had recently re-potted: she developed an attitude of appreciation, kindness and concern to those plants, and was subsequently able to extend this development of mettā towards humans and all beings. Such meditation teachers still teach the traditional five-stage practice of mettā-bhāvanā, but take a broad and creative approach to contacting the quality of mettā to start with.

Perhaps we should go further than this. In the modern world, many people are disconnected from nature and lack a sense of emotional appreciation of the living environment, upon which we depend for food, air, beauty, and more. As the mostly urban-dwelling humanity of the 21st c. heads towards the growing challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and over-population, the deliberate and systematic development of mettā for plants, trees and forests, in addition to animals, including humans, might be particularly valuable. An appreciation of our place in the wider world of life may awaken the heart to kindness, and then help us to formulate new attitudes and relationships to plants and insects, and to all the hidden interconnections between our lives, that we have for so long been able to take for granted, but which there is still time to learn to love. 

With this in mind, I propose that we should interpret the Mettasutta for our own times. We should translate tasā vā thāvarā vā as ‘whether plant or animal’, but we should understood these two kinds of living beings as representative of the whole world of life, including bacteria, plants, fungi and animals, and whatever other living beings are yet to be identified. And in our practice of mettā we should extend the quality of kindness towards the whole borderline-sentient world of plants, trees, forests, now at risk from human beings. Hence:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.


[i] The Mettasutta can be found in the Suttanipāta, 1: 8; see https://suttacentral.net/snp1.8 for editions and translations. My translation can be found here

[ii] The Pāli word mettā is derived from the word mitta, ‘friend’, which suggests the meaning ‘friendliness’ (the Sanskrit equivalent maitrī is similarly derived from mitra). The word mettā can also be translated as ‘love’, ‘loving-kindess’ and ‘benevolence’. But I like the one-word translation ‘kindness’, as the English word ‘kindness’ means the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate, which is more specific than ‘love’, and suggests emotional open-heartedness. 

[iii] Suttanipāta, vv.146–7, taken here from the PTS edition.

[iv] For instance, H. Saddhatissa (The Sutta-Nipāta, London: Curzon, 1985, p.16) translates, ‘Whatever living beings there be: feeble or strong…’; Laurence Khantipalo Mills: ‘whether they be frail or strong’.The exception is K.R. Norman (The Group of Discourses, PTS, Oxford, 2001, p.19), who translates ‘Whatever living creatures there are, moving or still without exception…’.

[v] Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2017, The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses, Boston: Wisdom, p.179.

[vi] The Suttanipāta, p.577. I have included some of the Pāli in [square brackets]. Text in bold is quotation from the Mettasutta, the ‘lemma’, or text which the commentary comments on.

[vii] Bodhi, n.696, p.1407.

[viii] The reference to Norman is to K.R. Norman, ‘On Translating the Sutta-nipāta’, Buddhist Studies Review, 2004, 21: 1, pp.69–84. Bodhi’s reference should be to p.82 rather than p.81.

[ix] Lambert Schmithausen, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism, Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. This book is an accompaniment to Schmithausen, Buddhism and Nature, Tokyo: The Internation Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. Neither work is easy to get hold of, but I have created links here to downloadable versions.

[x] Paul Dundas, The Jains, Abingdon: Routledge, 1992, p.95

[xi] Here I summarise the detailed discussion in Schmithausen, Sentience, §§19–21, pp.58–65.

[xii] Schmithausen makes this argument in Sentience, §§22–7, pp.66–78.

[xiii] Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, PTS: London, 1920, p.295ff; trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Path of Purification, Kandy: BPS, 5th ed., 1991, p.288f.

[xiv] Discussed in Anālayo, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2015, pp.20–6.

The Healing Power of Stories

The songs on Ghosteen, the beautiful 2019 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteenrepresent oblique responses to the accidental death in 2015 of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur. Cave sings of the power of imagination (‘The bright horses have broken free’) and of consoling visions (‘A spiral of children climbs up to the sun’). Then, on the last song, ‘Hollywood’, he re-tells the old Buddhist story of the grief-stricken Kisagotami:[1]

Kisa had a baby but the baby died
Goes to the villagers says my baby’s sick
Villagers shake their heads and say to her
Better bury your baby in the forest quick

It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind

Kisa went to the mountain and asked the Buddha
My baby’s sick! Buddha said, don’t cry
Go to each house and collect a mustard seed
But only from a house where no one’s died

Kisa went to each house in the village
My baby’s getting sicker, poor Kisa cried
But Kisa never collected one mustard seed
Because in every house someone had died

Kisa sat down in the old village square
She hugged her baby and  cried and cried
She said everybody is always losing somebody
Then walked into the forest and buried her child

He sings in an unsteady falsetto voice, which simultaneously increases the emotional intensity of the words and distances himself from those words. This is as close as he wants to get to singing about the death of a child, and by singing about it in this way, he sings for every grieving parent.

The story of Kisagotami speaks to the human condition. Before the availability of modern medicine, the death of children was more common, but no less tragic or difficult. The story as Nick Cave re-tells it is found in the 5th c. Pāli commentary on the collection of stanzas of early Buddhist nuns, the Therīgāthā:[2]

[Kisagotamī] was reborn in a poor family in Sāvatthi… Her name was Gotamī, but she was called ‘Skinny Gotamī’ because of her thin (kisa) body. Her husband’s family despised her because she was the daughter of a poor family, but after she gave birth to a son, they respected her because they had gained a child. But while he was running about and playing with his toys, that son of hers died, and she went mad with grief.

She thought to herself, ‘Having previously been disrespected, I got some esteem after the time my son was born; now they are trying to throw my son out.’ Because she was mad with grief, she wandered the city carrying the dead body on her hip, at the door of each house demanding, ‘give me medicine for my son!’ People scolded her, saying, ‘Where would we get such medicine?’ She did not understand what they were saying. Then a certain wise person thought, ‘She has become insane because of grief for her son. [The Buddha,] the ten-powered one, will know of a medicine for her,’ and told her, ‘Lady, go to the fully and completely awakened one, and ask about medicine for your son.’

Going to the monastery after the teacher’s Dharma-discourse, she said to him, ‘Blessed One, give me medicine for my son.’ Seeing her condition, he told her, ‘Go to the city, and when you’re there, bring a mustard seed from a house in which no-one has died.’ Saying, ‘Certainly, good sir,’ she went to the city with a contented heart, and at the very first house she said, ‘The teacher has asked me to bring a mustard seed for my son’s medicine; if no-one has died in this house, please give me a mustard seed.’ The reply came, ‘Who can count up those who have died here?’ Going to a second and third house, she was told, ‘What good could a mustard seed do for you?’

By the power of the Buddha, her madness left her and she was re-established in her natural mind. She thought, ‘This will be the invariable rule in the entire city; it was foreseen by the Blessed one out of a sympathetic concern for my well-being.’ Attaining emotional clarity, she took her son outside [the city], left him in the cemetery, then spoke this stanza:[3]

It’s not the nature of the village, nor the town,
Nor is this the nature of one family alone:
It is actually the nature of this whole world,
Together with its gods, namely, impermanence.

Having spoken in this way, she went into the teacher’s presence. Then the teacher said to her, ‘Gotamī, have you got the mustard seed?’ ‘Good sir, the business with the mustard seed is finished. But please help me,’ she said. Then the teacher spoke this stanza to her:[4]

Like the great flood that carries off
the sleeping village, so death steals away
someone intoxicated with children and cows,
whose mind has become transfixed.

At the conclusion of the stanza, just as she stood there, she was established in the fruit of stream-entry and asked the teacher for the going-forth.

Kollwitz-Mother-dead-childIn this story, Kisagotamī is represented as a young mother who becomes insane after the death of her infant son. The commentary supplies a cause, in that Kisagotami had been treated badly by her husband’s family until she gave birth, so this his death would make her fear once more for her status. The Buddha appears as a wise teacher, whose skilful means leads not just to Kisagotami being able to accept her baby’s death, but to her conversion to the Buddha’s teaching. Indeed, the reason the commentary tells the story of Kisagotami is to provide a background for the stanzas attributed to her in a much older text, the Therīgāthā, the stanzas of the women elders.[5] The source of the Kisagotamī story is instead found in a text called the Apadāna, a collection of verses dating from around the 2nd c. bce, about the previous and present lives of the Buddha and his disciples:[6]

And now, in [my] final rebirth,
I’m born in a millionaire’s clan,
poor, without wealth, unprosperous,
[but] married into a rich clan.

Except [my] husband, the others
are pointing at me [saying,] “Poor!”
But after I became with child,
then I was loved by all of them.

When that lucky young boy [of mine,]
tender-bodied, comfortable,
as dear to me as [my] own breath,
then fell into Yama’s power,

grief-struck, voicing [my] misery,
teary-eyed, [my] mouth crying out,
carrying [that young boy’s] dead corpse,
I’m going around lamenting.

Then examined by one [doctor,]
approaching the Best Physician,
I said, “give [me] a medicine
to bring [my] son back to life, Sir.”

The Victor, Skilled in Crafty Speech,
said, “bring [me] a white mustard seed,
[collected] in whichever home
where [people] dying is not known.”

Then having gone to Śrāvasti,
not encountering such a house,
where [could I get] a white mustard seed?
Whereupon I gained mindfulness.

Throwing away [my baby’s] corpse,
I went up to the World’s Leader.
Having seen me from a distance
the Sweet-Voiced One [then] said [to me].

“Better than a hundred years’ life,
not seeing [how things] rise [and] fall,
is living for a single day,
seeing [things] rising [and] falling.

Not the condition of the village, or the town,
and also not the condition of one clan.
This is the condition of the entire world
with its gods: the impermanence of [all] that is.”

Upon hearing those [two] verses,
I purified [my] “Dhamma eye,”
then learned in the great Teaching,
I went forth into homelessness.

The episode of the mustard seed is there in this earlier version, but the story is more about conversion. This suggests that the full version of Kisagotamī’s story, the one that has been re-told by Nick Cave, emerged only in the time of the commentaries. But this shouldn’t surprise us. The Buddha of the earlier Pāli discourses is actually not very sympathetic to bereaved parents. Here is his response to a father, crazed with grief:[7]

‘Householder, you appear not to be in your right mind; you look like someone who has lost his sanity.’

‘Lord, there is every reason for me to have lost my sanity, for my beloved, precious only son has died, and because of his death I have no care for work or food. Going to the cremation ground, I cry out, “Where is my son? O, where is my only son?”’

‘That is how it is, householder, that is how it is. For grief, sorrow, pain, misery and despair are born of love, brought forth by love.’

The Buddha is not much of a psychotherapist here. He points the grieving parent towards insight into the human situation; but such bluntness is not always successful. By contrast, the story of Kisagotamī shows a much more sympathetic attitude. It would seem that the story of Kisagotamī and the mustard seed developed gradually in the centuries after the Buddha’s death, as compassionate Buddhist teachers, coming into contact with grieving parents, wove a new story behind the verses preserved about the elder nun, Kisagotamī. She became the model of an unfortunate wife and miserable mother. The figure of the Buddha became that of a wise psychotherapist.

And so Nick Cave became an heir of this old story, re-telling it because it speaks to his condition. This shows the healing power of stories, and how they continue to live because they continue to speak to us. It’s not even necessary to say that the story of Kisagotamī is a Buddhist story, so much as a story that lives in a Buddhist context. But then again, perhaps it is the Buddha’s emphasis on turning to face the suffering and disappointment of the human condition, with mindfulness and compassion, that has given this story its setting, down through the years.

[1] All lyrics from https://www.nickcave.com/lyrics/.

[2] My translation of the Therīgāthā Atthakathā, pp.169–70 in the PTS edition.

[3] This stanza is from the Apadāna, v.720 (i.e. v.28 of Kisagotamī’s stanzas).

[4] This stanza is from the Dhammapada, v.287.

[5] Some of the biographical stanzas attributed to Kisagotamī appear to be displaced from those of Paṭācārā. The textual problems are discussed by Alice Collett (2016), Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns, Oxford University Press, pp.12–17.

[6] The translation that follows is from http://apadanatranslation.org/text/chapter-4/poem-022.html. Jonathan Walters has translated the entire Apadāna and created a user-friendly website http://apadanatranslation.org to share his many years of work. Sādhu!

[7] This conversation is from the Piyajātika Sutta, ‘Born of Love’, Majjhima Nikāya 87. Other discourses at Udāna 2.7 and 8.8, record similar responses of the Buddha to parental grief.

Translation Issues (1): dukkha and ‘suffering’

The Pāli word dukkha has so often been translated as ‘suffering’ that it might seem to have become the standard translation of the term. We have got used to seeing the teaching of the first Noble Truth, in the Buddha’s Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, rendered something like this:

Monks, there is the noble truth that ‘this is suffering’ (dukkha): birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are suffering.[i]

When dukkha is translated in this way, it is hard for the unwary reader not to see the Buddha’s message as a rather pessimistic portrayal of our human condition, fHarvey Introduction to Buddhismocussed on the vale of tears, but not noticing the beauty of the dawn. But the British Buddhist scholar, Peter Harvey, remarks that dukkha is ‘suffering’ only ‘in a general inexact sense’.[ii] The issue is that our English word ‘suffering’ can be a noun (‘the mute suffering of the innocent’), a present participle (‘suffering blame’) or an adjective (‘those suffering boys’). The word dukkha, however, is an adjective. When the Buddha said that ‘birth is dukkha’ he meant more precisely that birth is painful, in the sense that birth is an occasion when the experience of suffering tends to arise. Harvey goes on to translate dukkha as ‘painful’ rather than ‘suffering’. By translating dukkha in this way, the Buddha’s first Noble Truth looks more like a factual reminder that the human state is unavoidably painful. But does it always work to translate dukkha as ‘painful’?

In fact, the Pāli word dukkha has two distinct applications. Firstly, it is used in relation to vedanā, ‘feelings’ or ‘felt experience’. According to the Buddhist analysis, there are three sorts of feelings, sukha, ‘pleasant’, dukkha, ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, and asukhamadukkham, ‘neither pleasant nor unpleasant’ or ‘neutral’. Of course, some dukkha-vedanā are very unpleasant and certainly count as suffering. But the word dukkha, in relation to vedanā, covers a broad spectrum of more or less unpleasant feelings.

Secondly, dukkha is used in relation to all conditioned things. There is a well-known stanza in the Dhammapada:

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’ti
yadā paññāya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe
esa maggo visuddhiyā.

‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’ –
seeing this with understanding
one turns away from the unsatisfactory.
This is the path to purity.[iii]

To say that ‘all conditioned things’ (sabbe saṅkhārā) are dukkha is to say that they are imperfect. Being conditioned they arise and cease, and cannot totally satisfy.

Margaret Cone’s new Pāli dictionary clearly distinguishes these two senses of dukkha. As an adjective dukkha means (1) ‘painful; unpleasant; bringing pain or distress; uneasy; uncomfortable; not what one wants; wrong’. It also means (2) ‘(used to characterise all experience) unsatisfactory; bringing distress or trouble’.[iv]

But if the word dukkha has two different meanings, can we translate it with one English word at all? Bhikkhu Anālayo thinks not. He argues that the translation of dukkha as ‘suffering’ simply ‘does not do justice to the different dimensions of this Pāli term… in its early Buddhist usage’.[v] Sometimes dukkha means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, in relation to feelings, but this does not necessarily imply ‘suffering’. But when dukkha is used in relation to conditioned things, it embraces pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings, and it therefore hardly makes sense to say that dukkha is ‘suffering’. Rather, dukkha in this sense means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that the human condition is unsatisfactory rather than suffering. Anālayo suggests that we just use the Pāli term dukkha, only translating it when the context makes clear that it means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘unsatisfactory’:

Our ability to understand early Buddhist thought suffers from the inadequate translation of dukkha as “suffering.” Although in general it is preferable to translate Buddhist doctrinal terminology, in this case it might be better just to use the Pāli term. When translation appears to be required, “painful” or “unpleasant” could be employed if the context concerns one of the three feeling tones; “unsatisfactory” would be the appropriate choice if the term dukkha applies to all conditioned phenomena. In this way, the import of the early teachings could be more adequately conveyed and misunderstandings be avoided.[vi]

Anālayo’s judgement that we cannot do justice to the meaning of dukkha with one English word, ‘suffering’, is in fact borne out by a discussion in an early Buddhist text. The sixth of the seven books of the Theravādin Abhidhamma Piṭaka is called the Yamaka, ‘The Book of the Pairs’. The chapter on ‘Pairs on Truths’ (sacca-yamaka) begins by asking:

Is dukkha, the truth of dukkha? Is the truth of dukkha, dukkha?

The first of these questions concerns the relationship of the term dukkha to the term ‘truth of dukkha’ (dukkha-sacca), which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. This distinction is a way of distinguishing dukkha (1) ‘unpleasant’ from dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The answer ‘Yes’ to this question tells us that the scope of the term dukkha (1) is entirely contained within the scope of the term ‘truth of dukkha’, which means dukkha (2). The answer to the second question, however, is not ‘Yes’, but:

Apart from dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling, the remaining truth of dukkha is truth of dukkha but is not dukkha feeling; dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling are both dukkha feeling and truth of dukkha.[vii]

The answer to the second question implies the distinction between dukkha (1) ‘painful’ and dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The ‘truth of dukkha’ implies that the meaning of dukkha in the formulation of the Noble Truths is dukkha (2), and that this dukkha in fact includes pleasant feeling (sukha-vedanā), which is by definition not dukkha (1). However, since pleasant feeling is impermanent and liable to change, it is therefore unsatisfactory.

Caroline Rhys DavidsThe formulation of the distinction between dukkha (1) and dukkha (2) in the Yamaka was not yet very clear to Mrs Rhys Davids when she was editing the text for publication by the Pali Text Society more than a century ago;[viii] in her introduction to vol.1 she writes of her trouble understanding this difficult work, and the lack of anyone to explain it, ‘unless indeed our friends in the Burmese vihāras are able to come forward and help us’.[ix] In the introduction to vol.2, she records her gratitude to several Burmese teachers who responded to her request for help. Among those teachers is Ledi Sayadaw, whose lengthy reply, in what Mrs RD calls ‘nervous, lucid Pāli’,[x] is included as an Appendix in the PTS ed., and is wonderfully entitled, landana-pāḷi-devī-pucchā-visajjanā, ‘Reply to the Questions of London’s Pāli Queen’.[xi]

The Pāli Queen’s translation of extracts from Ledi Sayadaw’s article soon appeared in the Journal of the Pali Text Society.[xii] In clarifying the Yamaka pair discussed above, which distinguishes dukkha from the truth of dukkha, Ledi Sayadaw first explains the meaning of dukkha (1):

Here the word dukkha means pain which is experienced, and has the essential mark of “unpleasant”.[xiii]

He then explains the meaning of dukkha (2):

But in [such doctrines as] the “Truth concerning dukkha”, and [the Three Marks] “impermanence, dukkha, not-self”, we are considering dukkha in the sense of a state of fear and danger, having the essential mark of no peace, no safety, no good fortune. This is obvious, for pleasant feeling, from the point of view of enjoyment of life, is not dukkha; it is just happy experience, with the essential mark of the “agreeable”. But as included under dukkha when used to mean “no peace”, then this pleasurable feeling becomes just [one aspect of] dukkha.[xiv]

He compares the situation to one of a very sick man, who if he were to enjoy rich food would end up in great pain. He would know that such sukha would also be dukkha; and this is the meaning of the first noble truth, that even sukhafeelings are in the end unsafe, unsatisfactory, dukkha. In fact, anyone who holds onto experience, thinking “this is mine!”, is like a fish who has swallowed a bait. As the Buddha says:

Monks, one who rejoices in material form rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkha is not free from dukkha, so I say. Monks, one who rejoices in feeling, perception, formations and consciousness, rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkhais not free from dukkha, so I say.[xv]

In this way, Ledi Sayadaw explains how the truth of dukkha includes bodily and mental unpleasant feeling but is not limited to that narrower meaning of dukkha. This distinction, which is clear though mostly implicit in early Buddhist texts, was made explicit in the Abhidhamma. Anālayo makes the same distinction clear in contemporary English. The word dukkha should be understood in two sense: as meaning ‘painful’ or ‘unpleasant’, in relation to feelings; and as ‘unsatisfactory’, in relation to the Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths. To translate dukkha as ‘suffering’ obscures rather than reveals the Buddha’s teaching. The first Noble Truth should rather be translated something like this:

Monks, there is the Noble Truth that ‘this is unsatisfactory (dukkha)’: birth is painful (dukkha), ageing is painful, sickness is painful, association with the unloved is unsatisfactory, separation from the loved is unsatisfactory, not getting what one wants is unsatisfactory; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are unsatisfactory (dukkha).[xvi]

In this translation, the Noble Truth points to shift in perspective on the human condition, one that recognises that life is characterised, not so much by suffering, as by unavoidable sources of painful feeling and existential unsatisfactoriness. This is not pessimism so much as turning towards the situation with open eyes. This in turn raises the question of why the human condition should be this way and what can be done about it; which of course is a question that the other three Noble Truths, and indeed the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, tries to answer.

[i] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation.

[ii] Peter Harvey (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, p.53.

[iii] Dhammapada v.278.

[iv] Margaret Cone (2010), Dictionary of Pāli, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.410. Cone also translates dukkha as a noun, with the same distinction of two broad meanings.

[v] Anālayo (2019): ‘Craving and dukkha,’ Insight Journal, 45: 35–42, p.35.

[vi] Anālayo (2019), Insight Journal pp.36–7.

[vii] This translated is adapted from the new translation by C.M.M Shaw and L.S. Cousins (2018), The Book of Pairs and Its Commentary. A translation of the Yamaka and Yamakappakaraṇaṭṭhakathā. Vol.1, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.279. Shaw and Cousins consistently translate dukkha as ‘suffering’, which somewhat obscures the point being made in this pair.

[viii] Caroline Rhys Davids, ed., The Yamaka: The Sixth Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, London: Pali Text Society. Vol.1 was published in 1912, Vol.2 in 1913.

[ix] Vol.1 p.xv.

[x] Vo.2 p.vii.

[xi] Vol.2 pp.219–86.

[xii] JOPTS 7 for 1913–14, pp.115–64. She acknowledges the help of Mr S.Z. Aung.

[xiii] ettha hi dukkhasaddo asātalakkhane anubhavanadukkhe vattati (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248). I have had to modify the Pāli Queen’s translations a bit. Her solution to the problem of translating dukkha was to translate it ‘Ill’. This did not catch on, perhaps because this use of ‘ill’ diverged too much from conventional usage.

[xiv] dukkhasaccan ti ca aniccaṃ dukkhaṃ anattā ti ca ettha pana asanti-akhema-asīva-lakkhane sappaṭibhayatā dukkhe vattati. tathā hi sukhā vedanā loke anubhavaṭṭhāne dukkhā nāma na hoti, sātalakkhaṇā sukhā eva hoti. (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248).

[xv] Saṃyutta Nikāya 22: 29, pts iii.31 (my translation).

[xvi] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation. Would it work to leave dukkha untranslated here? Or might doing so diminish the literary effect of the teaching?

‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2015

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, Yale University Press, 2017

Yale University Press were kind enough to send me review copies of Stephen Batchelor’s books when they were published. But reviewing them is difficult, as they are polemical, in favour of a particular new interpretation of Buddhism over undesirable forms of traditional Buddhism. In the end I’ve decided to comment just on the argument for secular Buddhism made in these books, independent of my response to the idea. Stephen Batchelor is something of a hero of mine: a pioneer of existentialist Buddhism,[1] and a prophet of Buddhism without belief in karma and rebirth. I enjoyed interviewing him in 2004, about his book Living With the Devil, which I still believe marks an important new interpretation of the meaning of Māra, the Buddhist version of the devil.[2] But I was not so enthusiastic about the part of his 2010 book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, which attempted to rediscover the teaching of the historical Buddha. His Pāli scholarship seemed at times dubious and his arguments occasionally tendentious.[3]

Closely reading After Buddhism, his 2010 follow-up to Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, I am once again troubled by his at times dubious Pāli scholarship. But then, in Secular Buddhism, his 2015 collection of essays, I read (p.17) how he himself admits his Pāli is not very good. He recalls (pp.17–18) his reading of the early Buddhist discourse, the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, in which the newly-awakened Buddha is reported to have doubted the point of teaching the Dharma, for

people love their place [ālaya]: they delight and revel in their place. It is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place to see this ground [ṭhāna]: “because-of-this” conditionality [idappaccayatā], conditioned arising [paṭicca-samuppāda].[4]

This passage becomes important for Batchelor’s own formulation of the Buddha’s awakening in terms of its being an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight into the nature of reality. But Batchelor then admits (p.19) how a friendly critic had pointed out that ālaya doesn’t mean ‘place’ but ‘attachment’, and how ṭhāna doesn’t mean ‘ground’ but ‘fact’ or ‘state’.[5] Batchelor then muses about whether his translation is an example of incompetent scholarship or a creative mistake.

With this in mind, it hardly seems necessary for me to go through After Buddhism, pointing out all the Pāli mistakes. It suffices to say that Stephen Batchelor admits his Pāli is a bit rough and ready. This is not a great start for someone who wants to ‘recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies’ (p.28). In fact, it leads to my first observation on the project in these two books of developing a ‘secular Buddhism’: that this ought not be described as a recovery of the original meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, but rather as an interpretation of the Dharma for the modern world. Following good practice from Biblical studies, one should distinguish exegesis from interpretation. To say that the Buddha’s awakening should be understood as an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight is an interpretation (of the Dharma for the modern west), whereas to explain what ālaya means, and what it means for people to love their ālaya, is exegesis.[6]

His translations of ālaya and ṭhāna aside, Batchelor comes up with some lovely new interpretations of early Buddhist terms and concepts. For instance, he renders taṇhā as ‘reactivity’ (After Buddhism, p.74). An exegesis of the word taṅhā would have to say that, etymologically, it meant ‘thirst’, the Sanskrit equivalent tṛṣṇā being derived from the verbal root tṛṣ, ‘be thirsty’; though in use it means a self-centred ‘craving’ or ‘desire’. But in practice the word is used in Buddhist psychology to indicate the tendency of the mind to react with self-centred craving, which is at the root of our continued existence in saṃsāra. Hence ‘reactivity’ is a nice interpretation of the word in modern English, that gets into western concepts some of what it means as a Buddhist technical term. Likewise, his rendering of appamāda as ‘care’ (After Buddhism, p.102), instead of the usual ‘heedfulness’, manages to capture a technical term in just the right English word.

Generally, though, I would say that Batchelor is not the best exegete of Pāli texts, partly because his Pāli is not very good, but mostly because his purpose really is to argue for a new interpretation of early Buddhism, and he confuses interpretation with exegesis. This is apparent in what has become the signature teaching of his secular Buddhism, the ‘four tasks’. These are a re-casting of the four noble truths (dukkha, ‘suffering’; samudaya, ‘arising’; nirodha, ‘cessation’; and magga, ‘path’) as four ‘tasks’ (that suffering is to be comprehended; arising is to be let go of; ceasing is to be beheld; and the path is to be cultivated) (After Buddhism p.69; Secular Buddhism, p.94). The tasks come out in fully secular form as: Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act! (After Buddhism, p.70). Batchelor derives support for his interpretation from an article by K.R. Norman;[7] but this article is an example of scholarly exegesis, which clarifies some difficult Pāli syntax by suggesting a particular account of how the discourse evolved. One might add that the ‘four tasks’ are right there in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma’, traditionally regarded as the first sermon.[8] The Buddha presents each of the four in terms of a ‘task’ (kicca), meaning, ‘what is to be done’. Suffering is ‘to be comprehended’ (pariññeyya), its arising is ‘to be let go of’ (pahātabba), its cessation is ‘to be beheld’ (sacchikātabba), and the path to its ceasing is ‘to be cultivated’ (bhāvitabba).[9] So the ‘four tasks’ are, to my mind, simply a way of drawing attention to how the Buddha is said to have presented the truths as tasks.

What I find puzzling about Batchelor’s project here is his rejection (Secular Buddhism, pp.95–6) of the idea that the four truths represent the Buddha’s appropriation of a medical formula. It is in fact quite likely that the four truths represent a version of an ancient Indian medical diagnostic formula, in which dukkha, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, is the disease; the arising of dukkha is the pathogen, namely, taṇhā, ‘reactivity’; the state of health is the cessation of dukkha; and the cure is the eightfold path.[10] Certainly, the Buddha is often compared in early discourses to a skilful physician. Therefore, from the very beginning, the Dharma was presented in non-religious, this-worldly, secular terms, as a practical teaching, namely, as what are called the four noble truths. It only takes some exegesis to make this clear; interpretation is not particularly necessary.

However, Batchelor is determined to develop what (in Secular Buddhism, p.80) he calls ‘Buddhism 2.0’, a form of Buddhism that would present the Dharma not just in an updated traditional form, but in a new way that overcomes the cultural divide separating modern western practitioners from their Asian forebears. Let us grant Batchelor that such an updated Buddhism is desirable; and it is certainly part of the vision of the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, to develop such a Buddhism in this way. But why then does Batchelor so often try to develop Buddhism 2.0 through a comparison with sheer caricatures of traditional Buddhism? In this sense, the argument of After Buddhism is seriously compromised by the fallacy of false dilemma. This means arguing by presenting a choice between ‘my way’ and the Buddhist ‘highway’, presenting the highway as a send-up of dogmatic metaphysical claims, and concluding falsely that ‘my way’ must be right.

For instance, in After Buddhism (p.8), Batchelor characterises the Buddha’s teaching of emptiness (suññatā in Pāli) as ‘a condition in which we [he means advanced practitioners] dwell’; ‘emptiness discloses the dignity of a person who has realized what it means to be fully human’. He then contrasts this understanding of emptiness with that of the later philosophy of Mādhyamika, in which emptiness is ‘an ultimate truth that needs to be understood through logical inference’ and ‘a privileged epistemological object that, through knowing, one gains a cognitive enlightenment’. So, the Buddhist understanding of emptiness is either the Buddha’s original teaching, or the later Mādhyamika version; the latter is evidently merely a conceptual attainment, therefore we should go with the Buddha’s original teaching. But anyone who has studied anything about Mādhyamika knows that Batchelor’s account of emptiness here is a mere caricature. Indeed, Batchelor himself must know that he what he has written is mere caricature, as he has himself translated Nāgārjuna’s foundational work on Mādhyamika, the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā.[11] Anyone who studies this work knows that ‘Misperceiving emptiness / Injures the unintelligent / Like mishandling a snake / Or miscasting a spell.’[12]

Then again, he quotes from the Udāna, a collection of discourses in the Pāli canon, one of which he cites in translation: ‘There is, monks, an Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded’ and so on. He comments: ‘This ex-cathedra declaration of a transcendent reality lying beyond the conditioned world sits uncomfortably with the suspension of judgement and suspicion of ultimacy advocated elsewhere in the same body of texts’ (p.25). But this is a tendentious exegesis of a Pāli text, for the sake of his interpretation of it as dogmatic etc., in comparison with the more sceptical texts he prefers. Later (pp.137–49) he explains how the problem is the translation (by Maurice Walshe), and that the passage can be translated in ways that have less ‘ontological gravity’. But this is a translation issue, not a problem with religious Buddhism or even with a metaphysical claims.

Then again he tries to show up the dogmatic nature of religious Buddhism by claiming that ‘later Buddhists’ proposed a form of atomism (p.189) and that ‘Buddhist proponents of rebirth’ proposed that mind is a substance (dravya) (p.300). Atomism and substantialism are evidently supposed to make these later Buddhists sound like traitors to the sceptical, anti-metaphysical kind of Buddhism that Batchelor, quite reasonably, wants to argue is the Buddha’s original teaching. Again, this is false dilemma: the Buddhist Abhidharmikas may not have been sceptics but they used the concepts of atomism and subtance in highly specialised Buddhist ways, in relation to Indian philosophical concerns of their time. They would not have had much trouble in countering his arguments.

In Secular Buddhism (p.107), Batchelor evokes the famous parable of the raft. The Buddha describes someone who builds a raft to cross a river in their path: would it be wise to continue on their way, having crossed over, by putting the raft on their head?[13] Developing the comparison, Batchelor argues that there is no need to ask of Buddhism 2.0, ‘is it really Buddhism?’: ‘The only relevant question is “Does it float?”’. If we understand Buddhism 2.0 here simply in terms of the body of ideas that Batchelor has developed in his recent books, one would have to say that, although it has some lovely design features, and many of us wish it well on its voyage, it is unfortunately made of poor quality scholarship and is lashed up with false arguments.

This review is also published in Western Buddhist Review.

[1] Especially in Alone With Others (1983), Flight: An Existential Conception of Buddhism (1984), and The Faith to Doubt (1990).

[2] See Dharma Life magazine, 2004 (details); reprinted in Challenging Times, ed. Vishvapani, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2012.

[3] Reviewed in Western Buddhist Review 6.

[4] First discussed in After Buddhism p.55, in ch.3 A Fourfold Task, in which he presents what has become his single most important ‘secular Buddhist’ teaching. The passage is from the Ariyapariyesā Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[5] I would also point out that idappaccayatā doesn’t mean ‘“because-of-this” conditionality’, but ‘the state of having this as condition’, i.e. it just means ‘conditionality’ in the peculiar Buddhist sense.

[6] In Secular Buddhism, p.81, Batchelor explains that his account of ‘Buddhism 2.0’, with its four tasks, is an interpretation; but he also admits he is easily ‘seduced’ by the idea that it is ‘what the Buddha originally taught’.

[7] K.R. Norman (2003), ‘The Four Noble Truths’, Collected Papers II, Oxford: PTS, pp.210–23, online at https://bit.ly/2Lps3bA.

[8] It can be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya at 56: 11.

[9] Batchelor consistently (After Buddhism p.69, Secular Buddhism pp.94–5) gets the Pāli wrong: these four things ‘to be done’ (kicca) are in the grammatical form of gerundives, whereas he cites nominal forms.

[10] See Anālayo (2016), Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, Cambridge: Windhorse, pp.9–11.

[11] Stephen Batchelor (2000), Verses from the Center, New York: Riverhead.

[12] Verses from the Center, p.123. Batchelor’s rendering of the (Tibetan version of the) Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā is poetic rather than philosophical.

[13] The parable is from the Alaggadūpama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 18.

Did the Buddha Exist? Contemporary scholarly debate about the historical Buddha

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I remember the first time I heard someone doubt the existence of God. I was on a school bus, and Robert Neil said he didn’t believe in God. We were ten. I was shocked, as everything I knew about the Christian religion I had been brought up in depended on God’s existence. But even at that age I was vaguely aware that God’s existence was a strange thing. You couldn’t prove he existed but you could believe in Christianity in such a way that God had to exist. It wasn’t quite the same with the existence of Jesus of course. It seemed harder to believe that Jesus didn’t exist, since people had seen him, recorded his words, remembered basic facts about his life, and so on. He was a historical figure. Whether that historical figure was also God was of course a different matter. Buddhists have likewise generally believed that the Buddha existed, since the early Buddhist texts record his words, remember basic facts about his life, and feature people who knew him. Whether the Buddha was fully and completely enlightened is of course a different matter, a matter of faith. In the case both of Jesus and the Buddha it is easily possible to subtract the miracles and exaggerations and still have a historical figure.

Or is it that easy? The scholar David Drewes recently published an article, ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, that begins with the striking claim that

the Buddha is universally agreed to have lived; but… more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about him.[1]

Drewes’ argument is that the idea of the historical Buddha, meaning, a historical figure known through his life and words as recorded by his contemporaries, was a key claim of early Buddhologists, but the evidence for this historical Buddha has never materialised. Drewes blames Eugène Burnouf, the great French scholar whose pioneering work, Introduction à lhistoire du buddhisme indien, was published in 1844. It was Burnouf who first argued for the Buddha’s historical existence; but, despite the many powerful claims made about the Buddha’s historicity by later scholars, no clear evidence has been produced to back them up. The idea of the ‘historical Buddha’ remains merely a bold assertion without proof.

I like Drewes’ article because it makes me think. If, like me, you appreciate the work of Richard Gombrich, who pushes back against scepticism about the Buddha’s existence, and writes instead about him as

one of the greatest thinkers… of whom we have record in human history,[2]

then the idea that there is no proof at all that the Buddha existed makes one sit up straight and try to sort out why one thinks the Buddha did exist. The easiest answer is the argument from likelihood: which is more likely, that the Buddha existed and taught his Dharma as it has come down to us; or that later Buddhists invented a coherent system of thought and successfully attributed it to a fictional teacher?

This year has seen articles by two Buddhist scholars that defend the historicity of the Buddha against Drewes’ denial. Alexander Wynne argues that, given the likelihood of the Buddha’s existence, Drewes needs to provide proof that he is merely a fantasy of the ‘Orientalist imagination’.[3] He goes on to examine the wealth of evidence that the Buddha did exist, from surviving early Buddhist texts to archaeological remains. An interesting piece of evidence he discusses is a rock-cut inscription from Deorkothar, in Madhya Pradesh, discovered only in the 1990s, and now analysed by scholars.[4] This inscription, dated to just after the time of Aśoka, in the 2nd c. bce, presents two lineages of Buddhists. One runs from the Buddha, through disciples called Uttaramitra, Bhaṇḍu and Nandi, down to the donor of the inscribed pillar, whose name is lost. The other runs from the Buddha’s disciple Anuruddha, through Sarvānanda and Disagiri, to the donor, whose name is also lost. This extraordinary discovery gives us an insight into the sense of lineage, of going back to the Buddha, the teacher, that was felt by early Buddhists. For Wynne this is vivid evidence for the Buddha’s historical existence. For Drewes, however,

there is no way to know the extent to which these lineages may have been fabricated…  unsubstantiated lineage claims cannot be treated as historical evidence, as has clearly been shown, e.g. by studies of early Chan lineages.[5]

Bryan Levman has also recently responded to Drewes.[6] Like Wynne, he takes up what early Buddhist texts say about the Buddha and his teaching, as well as the personality of the Buddha as represented in these texts. According to both Wynne and Levman, there is massive amounts of evidence for a historical personality of the Buddha behind the testimony of early Buddhism. Reading both Levman and Wynne, one cannot help thinking that Drewes must have known about all this evidence, at least in principle, and that somehow it does not convince him. Considering this, I’ve come to think that two very different versions of what counts as knowledge, evidence and proof, are involved here.

In Drewes’ article, what he means by knowledge is made clear by his concluding sentence:

If we wish to present early Buddhism in a manner that accords with the standards of scientific, empirical inquiry, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Buddha belongs to [a] group [of mythological personages such as Agamemnon or King Arthur]’ (my italics).[7]

By ‘scientific’ standards, Drewes evidently has in mind a positivistic ideal of historical knowledge: the kind of knowledge that is based on evidence directly available to our senses (hence ‘empirical’). The only kind of evidence that will count are positive facts, verified by reason, and not dependent on assumptions. It is rather obvious that, if one holds these standards for what counts as knowledge, one will certainly have to conclude that we know nothing about the historical Buddha. The evidence is just too weak. We would need the remains of his robe complete with his name-tag, or a cache of letters between him and Sāriputta, but unfortunately there was no writing in those days.

Wynne and Levman, however, cannot produce that kind of evidence. Instead, writes Wynne:

by adducing the relevant facts and making significant arguments, we will build up a general picture which proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Buddha did indeed exist and that we have a good record of his teaching.[8]

Wynne calls his method ‘inductive and empirical’, but actually it is neither. Instead, we should say that it is an abductive method, reasoning from the evidence to the best explanation. It has to be said, however, that abductive reasoning cannot prove that the Buddha existed. It can only argue that the existence of the Buddha is the best explanation for the evidence. Bryan Levman similarly presents the Buddha’s existence as the best explanation for what we know about him through his teaching. He concludes that he does not understand why Drewes does not even attempt to account for these teachings; he goes on:

nor do I understand what he means by “standards of scientific, empirical enquiry” to which he refers.[9]

I will conclude with two thoughts. One is that a bit of epistemology, the study of knowledge, can help us see how these scholars are talking across each others’ assumptions about what would count as knowledge about the Buddha’s historical existence. The second is that we should be careful about using the phrase ‘the historical Buddha’. It might be taken as implying that there is solid, factual, positivist, empirical evidence for the existence of the Buddha. But there isn’t. And if we mean that our best explanation for all the evidence we have is that the Buddha was a historical figure, we should also say, ‘though we can’t know for sure’.

[1] David Drewes (2017), ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 40: 1–25. Available online at https://umanitoba.academia.edu/DavidDrewes. This article is based on a talk given at the JIABS conference in 2014 and had been made available in the form of a conference paper soon after.

[2] Richard Gombrich (2009), What the Buddha Thought, London: Equinoxe, p.1.

[3] Alexander Wynne (2019), ‘Did the Buddha Exist?’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 19: 98–148. Available online at https://independent.academia.edu/AlexanderWynne.

[4] Oskar Von Hinüber and Peter Skilling (2013), ‘Two Buddhist Inscriptions from Deorkothar (Dist. Rewa, Madhya Pradesh)’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 16: 13–26; Richard Salomon and Joseph Marino (2014), ‘Observations on the Deorkothar Inscriptions and Their Significance for the Evaluation of Buddhist Historical Traditions’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 17: 27–39; both available online athttp://iriab.soka.ac.jp/publication/aririab.html.

[5] David Drewes, ibid., p.16, n.8, discussed in Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.114–6.

[6] Bryan Levman (2019), ‘The Historical Buddha: Reply to Drewes’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 14: 25–56. Available online at https://thecjbs.org.

[7] David Drewes, ibid., p.19.

[8] Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.100.

[9] Bryan Levman, ibid., p.49.