Did the Buddha Speak Pāli?

Richard Gombrich, Buddhism and Pali, Mud Pie Books, 2018

It’s an interesting question. The Pāli canon preserves the one complete surviving collection of the discourses of the Buddha in an ancient Indian language; the Buddha most have spoken some such ancient Indian language; so did the Buddha speak Pāli? The scholarly consensus for the last few decades has been ‘no’: whatever language the Buddha originally spoke, Pāli is a later literary construction. What’s at stake is not just our sense of proximity to the person of the Buddha, though that is something with strong emotional resonance for many of us – it’s also a matter of judging how close the Pāli discourses might be in sound and concept to their supposed origins in the teaching of the Buddha. Richard Gombrich’s new book, Buddhism and Pali, proposes a bold new hypothesis, that the Buddha did speak Pāli – in fact, Pāli is a kind of argot or specialist language devised by him to pass on his distinctive teachings. 

For many years Professor Richard Gombrich has not only been a creative force in Buddhist Studies scholarship, but also a source of support and encouragement to other scholars. One of his achievements has been to devise and teach a Pali course through which probably hundreds of people have by now got started in studying this ancient Indian language, the canonical language of the Theravāda school of Buddhism.[i] Richard was a patient teacher when I started out learning Pali, in 2006, auditing his course at SOAS, and I am grateful for that good start. So what is Pāli? In his new-ish (2018) book, Buddhism and Pali, from the Oxford publisher Mud Pie Books, not only does Richard answer the question of what Pāli is exactly, but he goes on to make the argument that Pāli is a kind of lingua franca or common language that the Buddha himself developed as a means to teach in a consistent way among the different dialects and languages of ancient north India. Gombrich calls Pāli an ‘argot’: a specialist set of idioms and terminology for communicating the Buddha’s teaching. From the point of view of modern historical scholarship, this is a bold hypothesis. It implies the idea that the Buddha spoke Pāli. Is this true? While Gombrich does not himself try to prove his hypothesis, it turns out that there is some new scholarly work that lends support to his bold claim. I’ll turn to that after a short review.

In Chapter 1 of Buddhism and Pali, Gombrich gives the reader some history. The word pāli originally just means ‘a text’, as in a text or passage in the tipiṭika, the collection of the Buddha’s teachings, as distinguished from a text or passage of commentary.[ii] Hence it was used in the phrase pāli-bhāsa, ‘the language (bhāsa) of the texts’, and this was abbreviated to pāli, which hence became the name of the language. Theravādin Buddhists themselves believed that this language was the one spoken by the Buddha, though they called it magadhī, the language spoken in the ancient country of Magadha, in north-east India. In fact Buddhaghosa, the great Theravādin commentator, argued that magadhī was the mūla-bhāsa or ‘root language’: if children were not taught a different language, they would spontaneously speak magadhī. But, as Gombrich observes, this pious view is actually at odds with the Buddha’s own view, that language is conventional. From the point of view of modern linguistics, Pāli is a Middle-Indo-Aryan language (a ‘prakrit’), based on one or more spoken languages or dialects of the time of the Buddha, which appears to have undergone complex processes of formalisation while it was being transmitted orally and then in writing. Indeed, the Pāli of the Pāli canon appears to have been ‘Sanskritized’ – worked over to make it more like classical Sanskrit. Gombrich himself has in the past described Pāli as an artificial language.[iii]

In Chapter 2, Gombrich gives a lovely, readable summary of the inner workings of Pāli language and literature, based on his own familiarity with teaching it to newcomers. In Chapter 3, he emphasises the role of memorisation in how the discourses were composed and passed on, something which has completely shaped the present form of Pāli language and literature. He uses the Pāli words of the dhamma-vandanā to go into some more depth:

svākhāto bhagavatā dhammo

sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opanayiko

paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī ti

His analysis of this formulation is rich, and is designed to show the value of being able to read the Buddha’s teaching in its original language. He also comments on the incredibly repetitious nature of Pāli canonical discourses, following the explanation by Sujato and Brahmali that the repetitions probably go back to the Buddha’s own teaching style, and are not just the result of transmission processes.[iv]

It is in Chapter 4 that Gombrich puts forward his bold hypothesis. He begins by endorsing Sheldon Pollock’s view that the Buddha deliberately chose to teach in local, spoken languages that were not Sanskrit – not associated with the values of Brahmanism. He goes on to argue that the Buddha developed a teaching language that was intelligible across northern India, where a range of different dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan languages were spoken. This language was what became known as Pāli, which is why it contains features from different dialects, variations of grammar and vocabulary, built on the basis of the language of Kosala, where the Buddha did most of his teaching. Later Buddhists preserved this argot, this teaching language of the Buddha and his disciples – but not because there is anything special about Pāli. Rather, part of the ideology of the Buddha’s language is that it is merely the conventional vehicle for his teaching, part of which is that there is no unchanging essence of things. Nothing in the Buddha’s teaching, certainly not his choice of language, should be taken too literally. 

Gombrich’s hypothesis is intriguing, but is there any evidence for it? The prevailing scholarly opinion has been that Pāli is one of the several languages by which the Buddha’s teaching was transmitted by oral recitation, and the Buddha’s own language is unknown, or perhaps varied depending on who he was talking to. In an article of 2019, and citing Gombrich, Stephan Karpik has argued for the very opposite, that the oral transmission of the Buddha’s teachings was in one language, which we know as Pāli, which was the language in which the Buddha taught.[v] Karpik is careful not to overstate his case. It is not that there is any direct evidence for his hypothesis, but he makes a series of strong arguments against the prevailing scholarly consensus of multiple dialects for the early oral transmission. These arguments include the implausibility of ‘translating’ the teachings into these different dialects, given that they may have been mutually intelligible to anyone who moved around in ancient north India, like the various dialects of English in the period before mass media.

Both Karpik and Gombrich have to come up with a way of interpreting an important passage in the Cūlavagga of the Pāli vinaya in which the Buddha rebukes two monks who wish to put his teaching chandaso (which may mean, into Vedic metre or formal verse). Instead, the Buddha says the monks should each learn his teaching sakāya niruttiyā – a phrase often previously understood as ‘in one’s own (sakāya) dialect (niruttiyā)’. Karpik disproves this reading and argues that sakāya niruttiyā probably means a ‘way of speaking’, which he takes to mean the opposite of the elevated register of metrical composition. Whatever the phrase means, there is little support for the idea that the Buddha said that his teaching should be put into various local dialects. Karpik instead advances various arguments in support of the admittedly hypothetical idea that the early Buddhist teachings were preserved in the one language developed by the Buddha for the purpose, what we now call Pāli.

The positive case for Gombrich’s hypothesis seems to be shaping up. But an article by Bryan Levman, published in 2019 following that of Karpik, adds a strong note of caution.[vi] Levman is sympathetic to Gombrich and Karpik and their hypothesis, but he presents a wealth of linguistic evidence to show that the Pāli language as we know it, even in its very earliest forms, is underlain by an earlier language, now only recoverable in part by inference, and it is this earlier language, which is not Pāli, which is the hypothetical teaching language of the Buddha. Levman calls this earlier language a koine, which is another word for the kind of inter-dialectical lingua franca that Gombrich calls an ‘argot’. This koine would have been invaluable for teaching in a large area with many different dialects and variations of vocabulary. But it would have been different from the language we know as Pāli. For example, the Pāli word brāhmaṇa would appear to be a Sanskritized version of the word in the earlier language, given that the Buddha is recorded in Dhammapada v.388 as explaining that a (Pāli) brāhmaṇa is one who is bāhitapāpa, ‘having removed his evil’. But this word-play on bāhita only works if the word brāhmaṇa was originally something more like *bāhmana. Karpik (p.57) argues instead that brāhmaṇa was a loan-word from Sanskrit into Pāli, but this makes nonsense of the Buddha’s word-play. Levman (p.71) argues that the original word was *bāhaṇa. The issue illustrates the difficulty in reconstructing the linguistic processes through which Pāli developed, and the kind of changes to sound and meaning that they imply.

So did the Buddha speak Pāli? Probably not exactly. But there is reason to suppose that he did develop an argot, a koine, a form of language that would have been intelligible across the many dialects of ancient north India, in order to develop his teaching in a way that could be remembered and passed on. And one form in which that language has been preserved is what is became known as Pāli. And since the discourses preserved in Pāli give us the one complete surviving account of the early teachings, even if we no longer have access to the language the Buddha spoke, Pāli is our main witness for that language, representing the best effort of the early Buddhists to preserve the actual words of the Buddha as they remembered them.

[i] The course started life as a 10-day intensive, but has now gone online: https://ocbs.org/courses/.

[ii] Margaret Cone, A Dictionary of Pāli: part III p–bh, Pali Text Society, 2020, pp.450–2. 

[iii] Richard Gombrich, ‘Introduction: What is Pāli?’ in Wilhelm Geiger, Pāli Grammar, trans. Batakrishna Ghosh, rev. K.R. Norman, Pali Text Society, 1994.

[iv] The work, which Gombrich strongly endorses, is: Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, Supplement to Vol. 5 of The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2013.

[v] Stephan Karpik, ‘The Buddha Taught in Pāli: A Working Hypothesis’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2019, vol. 16, pp.10–86. This article is long but thorough and readable, and well worth studying.

[vi] Bryan Levman, ‘The Language the Buddha Spoke’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2019, vol. 17, pp.63–105. This article is more technical but also highly worthwhile.

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.


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.


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.


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. 

‘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.

Philosopher Strikes Gold

Golden Age of Buddhist PhilosophyAnother review copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

by Jan Westerhoff

Oxford University Press, 2018, 326pp £30 hb

In a customary gesture in books like this one,[1] Jan Westerhoff asks in his introduction what the purpose might be in his writing another history of Buddhist philosophy, given that those already available were written by such eminent scholars. In this case, the eminent scholars are Volker Zotz (writing in German), Emmanuel Guillon (in French) and Edward Conze (in English); hence the nearest rival to Westerhoff’s new book is Three Phases of Buddhist Thought in India by Conze, published in 1962. In the Preface to Conze’s work, that particular eminent scholar laments the ‘hideous and brutish noises emanating from machines’ (p.7), that deepen the spiritual darkness of our times; he wonders about the point of a history of Buddhist philosophy in the ‘age of the moron’ (p.9); and moans that ‘no Oxford or Cambridge professor would demean himself by paying the slightest attention to his colleagues of ancient India’ (p.9).

How very miserably last-century that seems now. Times must have changed, since Jan Westerhoff is the Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oxford. This is not to say that lots of people are now paying attention to Buddhist philosophy; but Westerhoff’s academic post is a an important sign of the increasing interest in, and integration of, Buddhist (and Indian) philosophy into a more multi-cultural approach to philosophy in contemporary academia and beyond.[2] And his new book, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, is a significant contribution to that interest and integration. In short, his book is simply the best high-level introduction to Buddhist philosophy now available, by a yojana.[3]

Jan Westerhoff likes to dress in a three-piece suit, sporting a handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and a middle parting in his hair. This academic style rather separates him from older Buddhist studies professors, who tend to be the product of the 1960s counter-culture, or the more recent Buddhist studies types, who are still a bit fringe. So what led him to Buddhist philosophy? His background is in mathematical philosophy, but he did a second doctorate on Nāgārjuna,[4] and it is evidently the philosophical rigour of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy and Madhyamaka that has attracted him.[5] All this might have led to a forbiddingly intellectual history of Buddhist philosophy, but The Golden Age turns out to be very readable (if not exactly beginners-level) in the sense of focussing on essentials, without attempting to go into too many details.

Westerhoff’s Introduction sets out his method, which is to treat Buddhist philosophy as a ‘game’. This sounds odd, since Buddhism as such is not a ‘game’ but the teaching of the way to awakening; but it begins to make sense as one considers that intellectual activity is not in itself the way to awakening, which is beyond words, but is rather connected with the clarification and correction of assumptions and views which are relevant to the life of training towards awakening. The various arguments between philosophers does in fact resemble a game – a serious, hard-fought kind of game, though not much like football. And, in fact, the actual history of Buddhist philosophy in India has very distinct ‘sides’ (Abhidharmikas, Mādhyamikas, Yogācārins), individual philosophers tending to identify with one of the schools. Westerhoff goes on to describe the factors involved in this game. As well as (a) arguments and (b) sacred texts there is (c) meditative practice. That is, Buddhist philosophy is not just an intellectual activity, but it also involves the conceptual exploration of what Westerhoff nicely calls the ‘meditative phenomenology’ (p.8) of Buddhist practice, whereby certain frameworks of thought give rise to particular meditative experiences. This in turn leads to the re-interpretation of sacred texts and the valuing of certain arguments. So this game is not much like chess either.

Now Westerhoff can discuss the material that the philosophical game works with. It consists of (a) teachings of the Buddha (both the original teachings and the later Mahāyāna ones), (b) debates in the intellectual culture of India, (c) commentaries on the teachings and debates, and (d) doxographies, or accounts of the various views held by various schools. From this it becomes evident that Buddhist philosophy presented itself in a very different way to western philosophy; not much in terms of independent works by individual philosophers, but taking the appearance of interpretations of Buddhist teachings within a debate framework. The dependence of Buddhist philosophy on the acceptance of Buddhist teachings leads to a situation in which philosophical activity appears to take for granted beliefs (for instance, in yogic powers, or in Padmasambhava’s mythic attributes) that are far from ‘rational’ in the western sense. At this point Westerhoff invokes a methodological principle that is both refreshing and radical. Rather than either dropping the naturalistic assumptions of western thought, or dropping the specific Buddhist commitments of the thinkers he is writing about, he proposes a charitable acceptance of those Buddhist commitments and a ‘bracketing’ of our naturalistic assumptions ‘in order to see how far we can go in our analysis without appealing to them’ (p.32). The result of this kind of immersive philosophical method turns out to be one of visiting a strange, unfamiliar intellectual landscape in such a way that one gradually starts to feel at home.

In Chapter 1, Westerhoff explores Abhidharma as philosophy. It soon becomes evident that his approach is quite discursive and narrative, outlining the historical development of the philosophical schools, describing their texts and interests, characterising their particular approach and how a modern reader might appreciate it. The philosophical content of the chapter on Abhidharma consists in sketching its ontology of dharmas in relation to Buddhist teachings, and in contrasting differences between Abhidharma schools. Westerhoff pays special attention to the dominant Sarvāstivādins, presenting their arguments for the peculiar view that past and future dharmas really exist. His principle of charity becomes very evident here, since Sarvāstivādin views are far from attractive, least of all to a Madhyamaka. His section on the Pudgalavādins is likewise sympathetic, stressing the continuity of the view of the real existence of the person with later views of Buddha-nature, while leaving it open whether these views are compatible with Buddhist teachings.

As might be expected from an expert on Nāgārjuna, Chapter 2 on Madhyamaka is crystal clear, though its emphases are surprising. Westerhoff invites readers to bracket their naturalistic assumptions about the life-span of Nāgārjuna, to get at the significance of believing he lived for 600 years and had magic powers: this belief may have been a way to make sense of claims made about different people called Nāgārjuna. Moreover, the story that Nāgārjuna was entrusted with the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras by the nāgas starts to make sense once we appreciate how Nāgārjuna, in his main work (the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), presented arguments to support what Westerhoff calls the ‘doctrine of illusionism’ of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Rather than trying to determine a version of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy that would be acceptable to humanistic assumptions, Westerhoff rather emphasises the difficulties of understanding Nāgārjuna, and the large questions that remain for understanding his apparent toleration of contradiction. Westerhoff’s Nāgārjuna is an interpreter of prajñāpāramitā through the hermeneutic of the two truths. He goes on to describe the ideas of commentators on Madhyamaka, such as Buddhapālita, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti; it came as something of a shock to me to discover how little space the brilliant Candrakīrti gets in a history of Buddhist philosophy, so rich is the tradition. In this chapter, Westerhoff also continues a theme from Chapter 1, of setting Buddhist philosophy into a broader setting of Indian philosophical debate, in this case how the Mādhyamikas were concerned to argue against the realist philosophy of Nyāya. This approach emphases Westerhoff’s unwillingness to try to naturalise Buddhist philosophy into western philosophical narratives, but rather to expand the reader’s horizons.

Chapter 3 concerns Yogācāra, which Westerhoff prefers to try to harmonise with Madhyamaka rather than portraying the schools as rivals. Westerhoff discusses key Yogācāra concepts (the three natures, the ālaya-vijñāna or foundational consciousness, mind-only, and so on) at length, and there is another surprising emphasis here. He notes how contemporary western accounts of Yogācāra tend to argue against an idealist interpretation of mind-only, by emphasising epistemology rather than ontology: that ‘mind-only’ refers to the thesis that we can only know the world in terms of our representations of it, representations that (the Yogācārins argue) depend on the mind; this is not the same as claiming that the world does not exist. His point is that idealism is totally out of fashion in western philosophy, but that is not a good argument for interpreting Yogācāra as non-idealist. Westerhoff’s own contribution is to argue that, according to the Yogācārins, ‘the true nature of reality can only be known through meditation’ (p.178), so that the Yogācāra arguments for representation-only are more like denials of the discursive assumptions of ordinary people.

In Chapter 4 Westerhoff moves on to the later logico-epistemological thought of Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti. These thinkers had in fact already appeared in section 2 of Chapter 3, which seemed rather out of place in what was not the best-organised chapter of the book.[6] But in the present chapter, their thought is presented with a clarity that soon reveals their work to be the nearest that Buddhist philosophy gets to some of the enduring concerns of western philosophical thought about knowledge and language. Diṅnāga argues that knowledge through perception consists not in the recognition of some real thing ‘out there’ in the world, but in the conceptual construction of representations from the information that appears to the senses. This is a kind of phenomenalism, and Westerhoff’s contrast of Diṅnāga’s and Dharmakīrti’s philosophical view with the view of the Mīmāṃsā school, that language involves a correspondence of words to things, is a helpful way into the issues, as they were seen by Indian philosophers of the time.

In some Concluding Remarks, Westerhoff returns to a theme implicit through his whole presentation: that of the relationship of philosophical thinking to the meditative methods of Buddhist practice. He invokes the name of Pierre Hadot, whose work on philosophy as a way of life, in the context of ancient Greece and Rome, emphasises how philosophical discourse was in service to the practice of spiritual exercises and debate, for the sake of achieving the goal or aim of life as conceived in a particular school.[7] From this point of view, it is important not to approach Buddhist philosophy with the assumption from contemporary western philosophy that it is an ‘exercise of reason, for its own sake’ (p.283). The meditative dimension of Buddhist philosophy makes such an approach unlikely to do justice to what is essential. Rather, Westerhoff recommends ‘doing philosophy with ancient texts’ (p.284), which means bracketing naturalistic assumptions, putting oneself into the midst of the particular problems that Buddhist philosophers were concerned with, and appreciating the methods – meditative as well as argumentative – that they employed to solve them. Sādhu, Jan Westerhoff!


[1] The book reviewed here is part of an ongoing OUP series: ‘The Oxford History of Philosophy is an open-ended series of books which will weave together to form a new history of philosophy’ (OUP website) .

[2] On which, see especially Jay Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, OUP, 2015; and Peter Adamson’s and Jonardon Ganeri’s now-concluded 62-part podcast ‘Philosophy in India’.

[3] 1 yojana = about 7km.

[4] Which eventually became Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[5] Recent works include The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010, and Crushing the Categories: Vaidalyaprakaraṇa by Nāgārjuna, Wisdom Publications, 2018.

[6] Not only is Chapter 3 somewhat disorganised, but the book as whole contains many typos and errors; the final copy seems not to have been proofed. This is odd, considering the beautiful production of the text, complete with marginal text box summaries, à la King James Bible.

[7] See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell: Oxford, 1995; and especially What is Ancient Philosophy? Harvard University Press, 2004. See also my blog post.

Welcome to Gandhāra

Buddhist Literature of Ancient GandharaThis is a book review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review, where it appears with an addition by Kulamitra:

Richard Salomon

The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra: An Introduction with Selected Translations

Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018, pb $29.95

In 1994, a clay pot containing ancient birch-bark scrolls appeared on the antiquities market in Pakistan, and was acquired by the British Library. Richard Salomon was one of the first scholars to inspect these fragile scrolls, and to discover that they were written in the Gāndhārī language, in kharoṣṭhī script, and were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever found. Since 1994, more collections of Gāndhārī manuscripts have been acquired, and an international team of scholars, with Salomon among them, has dedicated itself to studying them. Having in 1999 written the first guide to the new discoveries[1] – with photos and illustrations that make it still a valuable work – Richard Salomon has now written a non-specialist guide to the highlights of what has been discovered about the Buddhist literature of ancient Gandhāra, including an anthology of translations of the wide range of sūtras and stories that have been worked on so far. This is completely compelling reading for anyone with an interest in early Buddhist literature or Buddhist history. Not only does Salomon write with a wonderful clarity and precision, that allows us to enter into a very specialist world of scholarly study, but the newly discovered Gāndhārī literature opens up whole new perspectives that were simply unavailable before.

Although I had read Salomon’s earlier introduction, as well as some of the specialist volumes published by the University of Washington,[2] and even attended a fascinating seminar on a particular Gāndhārī scroll with Dr Mark Allon at SOAS in London, I found the experience of reading this comprehensive new introduction quite exhilarating. The first three chapters present an overview of the history of Buddhism in the Gandhāra region and some context for understanding the significance of the Gāndhārī literature that has begun to come into view. Ancient Gandhāra comes into the historical record with coins and inscriptions from the period when it was under the rule of Greek and Indo-Greek kings; the paracanonical text The Questions of King Milinda contains fictional philosophical dialogues of the Bhikkhu Nāgasena with the Indo-Greek King Menander.[3] The heyday of Gandhāran Buddhism, however, was the first centuries of the common era. The Kushans, originally from Central Asia, ruled their empire from there; many Buddhists will be familiar with the Hellenic-influenced style of Gandhāran Buddhist sculptures from the Kushan period. Scholars already knew about Buddhist literature from the area, since the discovery of a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada in the late 19th c.[4] So although the revelation in 1994 and since of many more scrolls and fragments was not a complete surprise, the implications are nevertheless profound.

This was proof that there had existed Buddhist canons in local languages, such as Gāndhārī, comprising similar, but by no means identical, texts to those preserved in Pāli and Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and Tibetan. The implications for the study of early Buddhism are profound. There are still those who believe that the Pāli canon is in some sense the authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, even that the Buddha spoke Pāli. This view is now comprehensively refuted, at least as far as sensible scholarship goes. The Pāli canon is the one surviving version of the canon in its original Indian language; but evidently there were others. Since, on the basis of comparative study, there are many small differences between versions, the conclusion must be that the Pāli canon is not ‘the’ authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, but simply the version of it preserved in Pāli by the Theravāda tradition.

Salomon goes even further than this. In his conclusion, he makes a comparison between the emerging picture of relationships between the various Buddhist literatures and texts with the discovery made by scholars of human paleontology, that there is not in fact some linear chain of hominid predecessors to modern Homo sapiens, but rather a “tangled bush” of ancestry. Likewise, the early Buddhist texts we now have can rarely be traced through a process of transmission to a single ancestor – representing, perhaps, a record of the original teaching of the Buddha – but rather what we have is a “tangled bush” of transmission lineages and textual traditions, among which none can claim to be the authentic one. In this way, Salomon follows contemporary scholarship in suggesting we speak of “Buddhisms” rather than a single tradition whose various branches can be traced back to its founder. That said, these various Buddhisms are not in fact all that different from each other, and in practice the variations among different texts and traditions generally speaking add to the richness of the tradition considered as a whole, although the fantasy of discovering ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’ now looks impossible rather than simply very difficult to achieve.

Another exciting discovery that the study of Gāndhārī texts has made is evidence in support for what has come to be called “the Gāndhārī hypothesis”. This is the hypothesis that the originals for many of the early Buddhist texts translated into Chinese in the first centures of the common era were not in the Pāli or Sanskrit languages, but rather in Gāndhārī. The evidence is linguistic but in some cases compelling. This turns out not to be entirely a surprise, however, since the Gandhāra region is on the Silk Route, the route by which Indian Buddhist spread to China. This in turn brings to mind to existence of whole canons of Buddhist literature in languages now lost to us, and the plurality and diversity of Indian Buddhism in its early days.

However, after the exhilarating opening chapters, so rich in scope and implications, when one comes to the anthology of translations of the newly-discovered Gāndhārī literature, one might feel some disappointment and even frustration. The old scrolls, written on crumbling old birch-bark, yield mere parts of texts, all incomplete, some mere fragments, and much of it hard to decipher. Additionally, although Gāndhārī is a middle-Indo-Aryan dialect (a Prakrit), a cousin of Pāli, a niece of Sanskrit, the scholars working on the Gāndhārī manuscripts have hardly anything else to go on as they try to read the texts they have. There are idioms, spellings and grammatical features that are otherwise unknown. Hence the the twelve chapters containing illustrative translations of the best-preserved or most interesting texts are frustratingly partial. So much of what we would need in order to compare these texts with Pāli or other versions is missing. The translations that Salomon presents are like a random selection, picked out of the lottery of time and chance, many of which have to be padded out with translations from parallels preserved in other languages so that they can even be made to make sense.

Further reading, however, transmutes this sense of frustration into a quiet sense of the revolutionary importance of these old texts for our understanding of early Buddhism. The range of texts that Salomon translates is significant in this regard. There are early poetic texts, such as stanzas from the Dhammapada, and texts with parallels among the mainstream Buddhist sūtras. But there are also stories of the Buddha’s disciples and their karmic backgrounds that seem peculiar to the Gāndhārī tradition, suggesting how Buddhism varied across regions even in its homeland of the Indian subcontinent. There are also fragments of ancient commentary and Abhidharma, which shed fascinating light on the varying traditions of how Buddhists thought about their own texts and traditions. And then, as a kind of fabulous encore, there are extracts from an early Perfection of Wisdom sūtra, giving us a valuable window into the early history of Mahāyāna.

A highlight of the volume for me was chapter 3, entitled ‘The Rhinoceros Sūtra’. I had already studied Salomon’s specialist volume on this early Buddhist poetry, each stanza of which concludes with the line, “one should roam alone like the rhinoceros”.[5] The Gāndhārī version of the Rhinoceros verses present many of the same stanzas as the Pāli version, but in a different order. Their existence in Gāndhārī, as well as in Pāli and Sanskrit (in the Mahāvastu) suggests just how popular the verses were among the early Buddhists, perhaps being included in a curriculum for new monastics, hence much-copied and among the best preserved of early texts. Salomon includes a lot of prefatory material to his translation which is easily the best introduction to the Rhinoceros Sūtra available, exploring the concept of solitude in early Buddhism, and the peculiar attribution of these verses to the paccekabuddhas – the ‘solitary Buddhas’ who lived before ‘our’ Buddha arrived. For me at least the book is worth its cover price for this introduction alone.

I was not completely satisfied with Salomon’s scholarship, however. In his chapter on some verses from a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada, he includes a translation of a stanza with a parallel preserved in Pāli:

“[A monk] who removes anger as soon as it arises, as one removes [snake venom with herbs as it spreads through the body, leaves behind] this world and the next [as] a snake leaves behind its old worn-out skin.”[6]

The phrase “this world and the next” in fact recurs in a series of stanzas here which, following their name in Pāli, we can call the uraga (‘serpent’) verses. In a note he comments:

“The exact sense of the phrase translated as “this world and the next” (orapara = Skt orapāram) is a problem that has been extensively but inconclusively discussed by traditional and modern scholars.”

I myself have contributed to this discussion but, far from leaving the translation inconclusive, I have come up with a suggestion for an understanding and translation that, although not proven, goes a long way to making sense of not only the phrase orapāra but also some other long-standing issues of understanding and translation of the uraga stanzas.[7] Actually, orapāra does not exactly mean “this world and the next”. Rather, it means “this shore and the far shore”, and the idea that this is a reference to “this world and the next” is an interpretation among several possible interpretations, in a metaphorical context typical of a poetic text. Indeed, the most obvious interpretation of “this shore and the far shore”, or so I argue, is as a reference to a discourse which by some happy coincidences is not only preserved in Gāndhārī, but is translated in Salomon’s new volume, in ch.2, as ‘The Parable of the Log’.[8] In this discourse, the Buddha, while looking at a log floating down the river Ganges, entreats his monks not to get stuck on the near shore or the far shore, the near shore representing the six senses and the far shore the sense-objects, but instead to keep going to reach the ocean, which represents nirvāna.[9] This is not the place to go further into how to fully understand either ‘the Parable of the Log’ or the uraga verses and their parallels in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, but I was pleased to find that Bhikkhu Bodhi has taken up some of my suggestions in his recent translation of the Suttanipāta.[10] I do not of course suppose that Richard Salomon should necessarily agree with my arguments or conclusions, but my point is more that he seems not to know about them. This in turn suggests that his translations more generally may not always reflect all the scholarship available on the various texts he translates.

I should hope that most readers of this review will, quite rightly, take my very particular criticisms to be those of a disgruntled specialist. They should likewise conclude that, if such a tiny criticism is all that this reviewer can come up with, Salomon’s translations sound good enough. Indeed, generally speaking his translations combine accuracy with a wonderful readibility. Richard Salomon is that rare creature, a scholar who writes beautifully.

This new volume represents more than an account of first impressions of the literature of Gandhāra. It is more like a deeply considered summary of what has been discovered in the first twenty years of its study. But there is more yet to be studied, and there is the likelihood of yet more ancient birch-bark manuscripts turning up, hopefully not just on the antiquities market in Pakistan, but in their archaeological context. So there is every chance that this book will be followed by more. Let us hope Richard Salomon writes them. These are rich times indeed for the study of early Buddhism.


[1] Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra: The British Library Kharoṣṭhī fragments, The British Library, London, 1999.

[2] Six volumes so far; see https://asian.washington.edu/early-buddhist-manuscripts-project for details.

[3] The Milindapañhā now exists only in Pāli, but is thought to have been translated from a north Indian original.

[4] Edited by John Brough as The Gāndhārī Dhammapada, SOAS, London, 1962; his discussion of the text and of the Dhammapada generally are legendary for their thoroughness and caustic wit, but he does not deign to translate. Valerie Roebuck’s translation of The Dhammapada (Penguin, London, 2010) contains some selected translations of those stanzas in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada that are not in the Pāli version.

[5] This is my translation from the Pāli; Salomon translates the parallel Gāndhārī phrase as “wander alone like the rhinoceros”. Some of Salomon’s thinking ended up in an article I wrote on translating this line, which Bhikkhu Bodhi translates “one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn” (Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.182f.). See Dhivan Thomas Jones (2014), ‘Like the Rhinoceros, or Like Its Horn? The Problem of Khaggavisāṇa Revisited’, Buddhist Studies Review, 31.2, pp.165–78.

[6] Salomon p.196. While this stanza is included in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, its Pāli parallel is found in the Pāli Suttanipāta v.1, with another in the Sanskrit Udānavarga (another traditional name for the kind of anthology we know as the Dhammapada). The square brackets here enclose words supplied from the Pāli version, missing in the fragmented Gāndhārī text, a typical example of how much has been lost from the birch-bark scrolls.

[7] Dhivan Thomas Jones (2016), ‘“That bhikkhu lets go both the near and far shores”: meaning and metaphor in the refrain from the uraga verses’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 11, pp.71–107.

[8] This discourse is preserved in Pāli in Saṃyutta Nikāya 35:241, trans. Bodhi, Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2000, p.1241f.

[9] A quite delightful discovery in Salomon’s translation is that the Gāndhārī version includes a supplement concerning a frog-bodhisattva (pp.155–6).

[10] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.1364 n.288 and p.1367 n.308.

Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

More Than Happiness

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

I met the author of More Than Happiness, Antonia Macaro, at a mindfulness retreat in 2016 led by Ven Anālayo,[i] and then again in November 2017 at a Bodhi College weekend on ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’. An encouragingly large number of us listened to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock talk on philosophy and Buddhism, before ourselves engaging in informed, lively discussion on the theme of the relationship between philosophy and Buddhism as ‘ways of life’. The kind of ‘philosophy’ we are talking about here is not the kind of analytic enterprise taught in modern universities, which is concerned mainly with abstract philosophical problems and arguments. Rather, it is philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as the actual thinking and living and striving towards the best kind of life for human beings. This sense of ‘philosophy’ was brought to widespread attention by the scholar Pierre Hadot in his pioneering book Philosophy as a Way of Life.[ii] Macaro’s book is a very down to earth and practical introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism as two specific philosophical traditions of thought and practice, bringing into view their common features and concerns, and highlighting the value of a philosophical life.

We could regard More Than Happiness as a contribution to what appears to be an emergent cultural engagement with what we might call ‘secular wisdom’. Western culture has become so post-Christian that there is a big hole where religion used to be; and meanwhile human beings have as great a need as ever, in the midst of scientific and secular culture, for ideas that might guide their lives. The steady growth of Buddhism in the west is one response, but another is a smaller-scale but significant resurgence of Stoicism. This philosophical tradition goes back to 4th c. BCE Greece. A philosopher named Zeno founded the Stoic school, named after the stoa poikile or ‘painted porch’, where they first met in the middle of Athens. The Stoicism that is resurgent today, however, is based on that of the Romans, especially of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, whose works have survived in a more complete form. When, in modern English, we say someone is ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, we mean that they endure pain and hardship without complaining. Such an attitude is not untrue to the what Stoics actually valued (while the word ‘epicurean’ is merely a caricature of the Epicurean school of philosophy), but there is also a complex ethical and metaphysical world-view behind Stoicism, of which a level-headed resilience is a useful outcome.

As a summary and comparison of two practical traditions of thought, Macaro’s book is excellent. It is very clearly written, without technical detail but never vague or unclear. Chapter 1 is a scene-setting, in which she gives an overview of Buddhism and Stoicism and explains her approach. I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but judging from her presentation of Buddhism, which I know more about, she has an exact and accurate sense of what recent scholarship reveals about the earliest phase of the traditions. She addresses the knotty problem of the degree to which traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism are religions. In their historical forms, both involve what we would call religious claims; but, for the sake of this book, she extracts useful teachings from each that are compatible with a secular or naturalistic worldview. She presents with an admirable economy the way both traditions have developed philosophical methods and frameworks for their account of the human condition and how to flourish in it.

In Chapter 2, she sets out the starting problem for any philosophy of life: the existential problem we face, called dukkha by the Buddhists, simply mortality for the Stoics. Buddhists and Stoics agreed that false conceptions about the sources of happiness and a misleading tendency to seek satisfaction in the wrong places leads to suffering, and that an attitude of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual life. In Chapter 3 she explores the shared idea of philosophy as healing, and spiritual practice as therapy. While the Buddhists proposed a deep transformative insight of our wrong views and emotions to be the basis of health, the Stoics proposed an examination of our faulty beliefs, which are the basis of emotions and decisions. In Chapters 4 and 5, she presents the goals of each tradition: the ideal of nirvāna for the Buddhists, and the particular kind of eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ cultivated by the Stoics, specifically, ataraxia or ‘tranquillity’, a state of emotional calm brought about by completely reclaiming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and beliefs.

In Chapter 6, Macaro turns to the theme which lends her book its title: how the goals of these traditions is ‘more than happiness’. Both traditions stress discipline and tranquility, but also ethics, meaning that the ideal for each is a way of living in relation to what is good. Chapter 7 turns to what each tradition proposes as the kind of appropriate view for the living out of their respective ideals. Macaro does not entirely accept the value of renunciation, as taught by both traditions, emphasising rather the ‘seeing clearly’ that allows us to see things in a correct perspective. In Chapter 8, she discusses the human ideals presented by each tradition: that of the ‘sage’ for the Stoics, and the ‘Buddha’ for the Buddhists. She notes the perfectionism of both traditions, and the difficulty of their ideals, but also how adherents can move incrementally towards emulating these impossibly far-off figures of the Buddha and the sage. Then in Chapter 9, Macaro turns to the kind of practices and spiritual exercises through which Buddhists and Stoics develop and grow. Both traditions involve training, through such disciplines as mindfulness. Chapter 10 summarises ‘10 meditations inspired by Buddhist and Stoic insights’ that we could take into our lives. Here we see what is really meant by ‘philosophies of life’: pithy themes for reflection, such as the advice to ‘consider the bigger picture’. Such themes are easily memorised, but are also tied into well-argued systems of thought, so that we can use them in day to day life, and also develop our understanding of what they entail through study and reflection.

I’ve summarised all this to give a sense of what the book covers. For someone new to the idea of philosophy as a way of life, More Than Happinessis a clear, accessible and accurate guide to both Stoicism and Buddhism. It doesn’t aim to raise too many questions, but rather to gather from both traditions what seems most useful for the contempory spiritual seeker. I would like now, however, to step back from the what the book says, to what it assumes and doesn’t say. In this way I hope to place the book in a bigger context.

The Buddhism that Macaro has chosen to discuss is, as she describes in Chapter 1, what is now called ‘early Buddhism’, which is the kind of Buddhism that is evident in the discourses of the Pāli canon. However, this kind of Buddhism is also something of an abstraction,  because it is a reconstruction by modern scholars and teachers of a way of thought preserved in early Buddhist literature. Since it exists as a reconstruction in the minds of modern western readers, it is a form of Buddhism that is especially attractive to those wishing to develop a secular form of Buddhist spirituality. But one might wish to contrast this construct called ‘early Buddhism’ with some actual Buddhist traditions, such as modern Theravāda, which revolves around the living tradition of monastic practice; or Tibetan Buddhism, with its extraordinary devotionalism and its philosophical debating culture; or with a modern Buddhist movement like Triratna, with its distinctive emphases on friendship and the arts. This contrast reveals how the ‘early Buddhism’ that Macaro assumes to be Buddhism in her book is a somewhat thinned-out and de-materialised version of the various existing traditions of Buddhism.

This, however, may be a little unfair. Perhaps the version of Buddhism that Macaro evokes is nowadays quite alive in the contemporary flourishing of insight meditation retreat centres, such as Gaia House, which are not tied to particular lineages of Buddhist practice, being more eclectic as well as oriented quite specifically to modern secular culture. But, even granting that ‘early Buddhism’ is alive and well in the form of insight meditation teachings, Macaro’s version of it stops short of exploring the crucial role of community or sangha for spiritual life. The versions both of early Buddhism and of Stoicism described in her book assume a reader interested in a sort of personal and private spiritual life, consonant with the privatization of religion in contemporary secular culture. It might be, however, that this misses out on how participation in spiritual community is the condition for personal transformation. When Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to the Sangha, they acknowledge the role of the spiritual community in their Dharma lives. From what one can gather, the tradition of Stoicism was more of a personal and private philosophical orientation, but then again (especially in its Roman phase) the Stoic outlook was often most popular among those involved in public life, immersed in the social and political, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

By drawing attention to the assumptions the author makes in her presentation of Buddhism and Stoicism, I do not particularly mean to criticise her aim or method, which is perhaps to address the contemporary reader in the comfort (or discomfort) of their secular homes. But I would like to prompt anyone who reads Antonia Macaro’s book on towards a deeper considerations of how either Buddhism or Stoicism might be successful philosophical ways of life – actually effective in ending dukkha or healing the soul. In this respect there is another factor, both for Stoicism and Buddhism, that Macaro does not discuss, which is that of commitment. It would not be unfair to say that More Than Happiness presents Buddhism and Stoicism as potentially useful traditions of thought and practice, from which a contemporary person might try to benefit.

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy For Life, an exploration of Greek and Roman philosophies as practical guides to life, distinguishes between two models of contemporary philosophical engagement. In the ‘liberal’ model, authors and teachers present ancient philosophies in their strengths and differences, to be considered and reflected upon.[iii] In this respect, Macaro’s approach represents a liberal model of philosophy as a way of life. But there is also the ‘committed’ model. In this model of philosophy, one may be attracted to some school, and then make a commitment to practice that philosophy (perhaps within its community of practitioners), and it is the existential choice and commitment that is the condition for the transformation and healing that the philosophical life promises.[iv] The role of commitment is central too to Buddhism. Having heard the Dharma one may commit oneself to practice it, and this emotional commitment becomes (along with participation in spiritual community) a condition for success. One commits to practice the precepts, and perhaps to a daily meditation practice. Commitment is important in Stoicism too. I will end by mentioning two recent books, part of the resurgent ‘neo-Stoic’ movement: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.[v] These books represent less the ‘liberal’ model of philosophy, and more the ‘commited’ model: they are each by authors who have made the existential choice to live by Stoicism. In this respect, they communicate the philosophy of Stoicism in a living way.

[i] Anālayo is a Buddhist monk and scholar many of whose books are published by Windhorse Publications. Ālokadhāra reviewed Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna (2013) for Western Buddhist Review, and Sarah Clelland reviewed Emptiness and Compassion (2015).

[ii] I reviewed Hadot’s subsequent book Ancient Philosophy, and a related exploration of Hellenistic philosophical schools by John E. Cooper, on this blog.

[iii] Jules Evans, Philosophy For Life And Other Dangerous Situations, Rider, London, 2012, p.191.

[iv] Hadot explores the various existential choices involved in the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy: see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch.7.

[v] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 2009; Massimo Pigliucci,How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Rider, London, 2017. Pigliucci also blogs on ‘How to be a Stoic’.

The Veil of Love: Schopenhauer and the Upaniṣads

Schopenhauer's Compass

A month ago I gave a talk to a group of philosophers who had gathered for an Open University research day. My paper was an attempt to analyze, using some conceptual tools from contemporary analytic philosophy, the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering. In this course of giving this talk I said that we should distinguish the Buddhist concept of taṇhā, translated ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, from more metaphysical concepts such as Plato’s eros or ‘passionate love’, Freud’s libido or ‘sexual desire’ and Schopenhauer’s Wille or ‘will’. I wanted to argue that the Buddhist concept was quite a practical one – pointing to the fact that certain kinds of desire, the ones that involve an ego or self who tries to appropriate the object of desire, always run the risk of frustration, and such frustrated appropriative desires are certainly a kind suffering. I wanted to use Epicurus’ very practical distinction of kinds of desire to show what the Buddha might have meant, in line with my recent interest in Epicurean philosophy as a way of life. But one of my philosophical colleagues thought I had mis-represented Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of suffering and will was in fact, he thought, not much different from the Buddhist account I had given. So had I got done Schopenhauer a dis-service? Had I unfairly mis-represented him as explaining his pessimistic view of life as suffering through a quite speculative metaphysics of will? How did his thought relate to Buddhism?

Rather than re-reading The World as Will and Representation,[i] which is very long, and re-visiting where I stood in relation to what Schopenhauer writes there in his main work, I looked at a new book by Schopenhauer scholar Urs App called Schopenhauer’s Compass,[ii] which explores how Schopenhauer’s engagement with Indian thought informed the development of his metaphysics of will; of how the universe as it appears to us is the diversified manifestation of an underlying reality, which somehow wants to become diversity and multiplicity. The book turns out to be so good that I wanted to write about it.

It’s a book of what one might call ‘philosophical scholarship’ – not in itself a philosophical engagement with Schopenhauer, but rather a carefully researched account of where his philosophical views came from. The book’s thesis is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will come from his reading of the Oupnek’hat, a late 18th-century translation into Latin of a 16th-century translation into Persian of the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. It is well-known that Schopenhauer was a devotee of this version of the Upaniṣads, but it seems that nobody up until now had studied its very particular foibles, nor the very many markings and annotations he made on his copy of the Oupnek’hat. App’s study of all this is a revelation.

Up until 1814, Schopenhauer had not yet formulated the fundamental idea of his philosophy. He had found many clues in the mystical theology of Jacob Böhme, and in the philosophy of Schelling. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, on The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in 1813. Then, on 26 March 1814, Schopenhauer borrowed the two volumes of the Oupnek’hat from a library in Weimar (he later bought his own copy and wrote all over it – always a good sign). From the present point of view, the Oupnek’hat is a very bad translation of the Upaniṣads, not just because it came via Persian into Latin, but also because it introduces ideas which don’t belong to the original. But it’s also an example of a ‘creative mis-translation’, whose very mistakes became the seeds of Schopenhauer’s own forming vision.

The central message of the Upaniṣads themselves is that there is an essence of consciousness, called the Self (ātman), which in its essence is identical with the essence of reality, which is called Brahman. Hence, ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi). The Upaniṣads were set down in Sanskrit and are regarded among Hindus as preserving the final teaching of the Vedas (hence they were called Vedānta, ‘end of the Vedas). Meanwhile, Prince Dara was the eldest son of the 16th c. Moghul emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal). Prince Dara was a Sufi, of a universalist and mystical bent, and gathered Sanskrit scholars to help him translate the Upaniṣads into Persian (the language of the rulers), which he published as Sirr-i Akbar (The Secret of God). Prince Dara, however, added some commentary, which interpreted the essence of the Vedas in terms of Sufi mysticism. Two novel interpretations stand out in Dara’s commentary.

First, he translated the concept of maya or ‘illusion’ as ishq or ‘love’. The term maya, as it is used in Advaita Vedānta to interpret the Upaniṣads, names the result of the superimposition of desire out of ignorance onto the unity of brahman, to create the familiar appearance of multiplicity. The term ishq, in Sufism, points to the mysterious way the unity of God becomes, through emanation, the multiplicity of creation. The concept of ishq was itself the result of the Sufi theologian Ibn-Arabi’s incorporation of Neoplatonic ideas about the emanation of the world from the One, which had by the 16th c. become part of Sufi thought in India. Second, Prince Dara understood the return to brahman, the lifting of the veil of maya, which is everywhere the aim of the Upaniṣadic sages, in terms of fanā, the self-annihilation of the ego in Sufi mysticism, and of the realisation of tauḥīd or divine One-ness. Hence the Persian version was already quite a work of cultural translation.

Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron was one of the first European ‘orientalists’; his translation of Prince Dara’s Persian translation of the Upaniṣads into Latin as Oupnek’hat was his main contribution. But not only did he not distinguish in his text between the translations of the Upaniṣads themselves and translations of Prince Dara’s commentary upon them, but he also added a huge amount of his own commentary and interpretation. So this was what Schopenhauer encountered in 1814: what sounds like a mash-up of Upaniṣadic thought and Sufi mysticism in a translation steeped in Neoplatonism. Late in life the philosopher was to write:

“How entirely does the Oupnekhat breathe throughout the holy spirit of the Vedas! How is everyone who by a diligent study of its Persian Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by that spirit to the very depth of his soul!”[iii]

And in his philosophical notebooks from 1816, just before composing The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote:

“I confess that I do not believe that my teaching could ever have come into being before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant cast their rays simultaneously into one man’s mind.”[iv]

From Kant’s philosophy, Schopenhauer derived the basic critical framework for his ‘transcendental idealism’ and for the distinction of a world of objects and appearances (or ‘representations’, Vorstellungen) from a world of things-in-themselves, as they exist independently of subjects. From Plato, Schopenhauer took the concept of the Ideas or Forms, those archetypes of experience such as goodness, truth and beauty, which are like doorways from the world of multiplicity into the reality behind it. And in the Oupnek’hat, Schopenhauer discovered an account (which he believed to be extremely ancient and an authentic expression of Vedic thought) of the way this world of appearance has manifested – as that love (ishq) or will which is the world of illusion (maya) we take to be real. And (according to Schopenhauer) it is through the self-negating of the will (through participation in art, through the ethics of compassion, and through mystical vision), a seeing-through of the ego, that there is some access to truth, and there is salvation for humanity.

Such is the background to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will as sketched out by App in Schopenhauer’s Compass. One pole of the compass points south, to appearance, to illusion and to will; the other pole points north, to reality, wisdom and the quieting of the will. What Schopenhauer meant by ‘will’ is not really there in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads, nor in Sufism, nor in Neoplatonism, but is rather part of Schopenhauer’s own visionary metaphysics. But Schopenhauer’s vision depended, in its actual genesis at least, upon this particular encounter with a bad Latin version of a Persian Sufi interpretation of the Upaniṣads. Thus from great mistakes does the creative mind leap. It is tempting to think of Schopenhauer’s devotion to the Oupnek’hat as another symptom of the veil of love.

Urs App tells this whole story with economy, precision and enough sympathy and depth to draw the reader in. The book is also an excellent introduction to Schopenauer’s philosophy, for a certain sort of person, who likes to mix their philosophy with a little Indian wisdom and a lot of mysticism. Going back now to my philosophy talk in Milton Keynes back in July, another comment made in response to what I said about the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering, was that my attempt to analyze the Buddha’s teaching in a very practical and empirical way had its limits. Given that the life of desire goes so deep in human experience, the kind of transformation of desire that the Buddha recommends does seem to need some kind of metaphysics, some account of what is going on in the experience of desire, and how it is connected with life, sex and the universe. I am not sure I believe that Schopenauer’s metaphysics of will is exactly what the Buddha had in mind when he said that desire was the cause of suffering; but I am beginning to think that there is more room for visionary metaphysics in my account of Buddhism than I had previously supposed.

[i] The new translation of The World as Will and Representation, by Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman, edited Christopher Janaway, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010, is standard. But there is a nice abridged version, The World as Will and Idea, translated by Jill Berman, published in the Everyman library by Dent, 1995.

[ii] Urs App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, University Media, Wil (Switzerland), 2014.

[iii] From Schopenhauer’s collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, §184, in App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

[iv] Also from Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

The Chapter of the Eights


My review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, Shambhala, Boulder, 2016, paperback £15, 180 pages.

Gil Fronsdal’s new book is a translation of and commentary on ‘The Chapter of the Eights’ (Aṭṭhakavagga), the fourth chapter of the Sutta-nipāta, itself a miscellaneous collection of Pāli Buddhist verses (including such classics as the Karaṇīya-metta sutta and the Ratana sutta). I was excited when I heard about this new translation, because The Chapter of the Eights is a fascinating work, presenting the Dharma in a form that seems to take the reader back to an unfamiliar world of ancient Indian asceticism. In this world of heated argument about beliefs and practices between professional renunciates and spiritual wanderers, the Buddha’s teaching is presented as something beyond belief, beyond views and opinions, as a lived insight that combines a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation with an attitude of careful investigation and letting go. The non-dogmatic and practical approach of The Chapter of the Eights reads like the living words of the Buddha in his teaching heyday, in contrast to the lists and repetitions of the prose nikāyas, which can often appear formulaic. This has led to speculation about the Eights poems – that perhaps they are older than the prose discourses; that perhaps they represent an early and unsystematised version of the Buddha’s teachings; that perhaps they represent ‘the Buddha before Buddhism’, as the title of Fronsdal’s book proposes.

There is good news and bad news about Fronsdal’s new translation. The good news is that he has written some useful introductions to and commentaries on the sixteen poems that make up The Book of Eights, making these old Buddhist verses more easily accessible than they have been before in English. The bad news is, unfortunately, quite bad. It is that the translations themselves generally lack precision, and are occasionally wrong. Fronsdal does not seem to know Pāli particularly well. In my view, the book can hardly be recommended as a translation, though if it encouraged readers to investigate further it could be said to have some value. In what follows I will firstly discuss the importance of The Book of Eights, and how Fronsdal presents it, before indicating some of the problems with his translation.

Fronsdal’s preface begins: ‘This book is a translation of a collection of ancient Buddhist poems often considered to be among the Buddha’s first teachings.’ It might seem that Fronsdal is here starting to elaborate the claim made by the book’s title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’. The claim is that the Aṭṭhakavagga contains some of the oldest records of the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps dating from a period early in his teaching career, before the more systematic teachings with which we are familiar. However, despite this opening sentence, Fronsdal does not particularly push this claim; and indeed in his Afterword he presents an accurate summary of the uncertainties around making any definite claim for the date or original purpose of the chapter. In this regard, I had the sense that the title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, was possibly chosen by the publisher to act as a magnet for those drawn to the idea of ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’. Alas, the whole idea of getting back to ‘the Buddha’s own words’ looks, from the scholarly point of view, increasingly like an impossible dream. Fronsdal doesn’t actually dispute this. But before I present his view of The Chapter of the Eights, I will summarise what might positively be said about the text’s historical importance.

The Sutta-nipāta as a collection was probably assembled rather later than the discourses in the four main nikāyas or collections. It is arranged in five chapters, the fourth being The Book of Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) and the fifth The Way to the Beyond (Pārāyanavagga). The reason for supposing that these two chapters contain relatively old materials is twofold. Firstly, they are both commented upon in another canonical work called the Niddesa (‘Explanation’). This early commentarial text also comments upon the Rhinoceros Discourse (Khaggavisāṇa sutta), in the first chapter of the Sutta-nipāta. The Niddesa cannot be precisely dated but the fact that it exists shows that the texts it comments upon were valued in a special way from an early point in Buddhist history. Secondly, The Chapter of the Eights is itself mentioned in the prose nikāyas. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, 22:3, the householder Hāliddakāni asks the Venerable Mahākaccāna to explain to him the meaning of a stanza from the Māgandiya in The Chapter of the Eights (Sn 844). Moreover, in the Udāna 5:6, the Venerable Soṇa is said to recite at the Buddha’s request the whole of the The Chapter of the Eights, and the Buddha compliments Soṇa on his recitation. These two stories seem to imply that The Chapter of the Eights were in existence prior to the composition of the prose nikāyas, in the time of the Buddha himself. (The Way to the Beyond and some other stanzas similarly appear to have been in existence during the Buddha’s lifetime). We should also say, in support of the idea that The Chapter of the Eights is old, that its language is archaic (which is presumably why the early Buddhists composed a commentary on it).

However, it must be emphasised that The Chapter of the Eights is relatively old, compared to other early Buddhist texts. This does not allow us to date it. Because the early Buddhist scriptures were composed and transmitted orally for hundreds of years, there is a kind of ‘event horizon’ which we cannot get behind. This horizon is about two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. The fact the early Buddhist scriptures describe The Chapter of the Eights as already in existence at the time of the Buddha in fact shows that the Buddhists of two hundred years after the Buddha’s death believed that The Chapter of the Eights was an old record of the Buddha’s teaching. But we cannot be any more certain than that about the matter. This has not stopped scholars speculating about it. The late Tilmann Vetter thought that the Eights were originally composed among non-Buddhist ascetics and then later included in the Buddhist canon.[i] Other scholars have speculated that the Eights describe an early form of Buddhism, that existed prior to organised monasticism and Buddhist doctrine.[ii] However, K.R. Norman, whose translation of the Sutta-nipāta is the most scholarly though it is very literal,[iii] has discussed the Aṭṭhakavagga in relation to early Buddhism, and concluded very convincingly that it is a mistake to suppose that the contents of The Chapter of Eights can somehow be taken to represent ‘Buddhism’ of any period. The Eights should be taken as more of a snap shot of one approach to the Dharma.[iv] While we can identify the particular characteristics of this approach, it is not possible to know what other discourses and teaching were in general circulation when the The Chapter of the Eights was composed. It is likely that The Way to the Beyond was in circulation at that time, which presents the Dharma in rather different terms, so it is likely that The Chapter of the Eights was always one approach among several, in which case it does not necessarily represent ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’.

Despite his book being titled ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, Fronsdal’s introduction and commentaries concentrates on the original content of The Book of Eights rather than on speculative questions about where the Chapter stands in relation to the Buddhism of the prose nikāyas. He identifies four distinct themes of the Chapter: (i) letting go of views; (ii) sensual craving; (iii) the description of the sage; and (iv) training. However, it must be said that the most strikingly original theme in the Chapter is the first theme, letting go of views. This theme is visible in the four discourses (2–5), each of which contains eight (aṭṭhaka) stanzas, that probably give the Chapter of the Eights its name (Aṭṭhakavagga). One can get a flavour of the argument from v.787:

One who is attached argues over doctrines –
How and with what does one argue with someone unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.[v]

Other discourses in the Chapter make the same point: that a religious practitioner seeking peace should let go of views, should not get involved in religious arguments, should practise a sceptical abstention from debate, and by contrast learn to seek peace through a different method, by understanding the relationship of views and emotional attachments, so as to abandon the former by letting go of the latter through insight.

As Fronsdal explains in his introduction, this message is not unique to The Chapter of the Eights, but is the subject of the Honeyball Discourse (Madhipiṇḍika sutta) in the Majjhima-nikāya, which explains how disagreement and debate is a result of conceptual proliferation (papañca), which itself arises from feeling, perception and thinking. Many other discourses, it might be said, present the same message from different angles, most obviously The Discourse on Brahma’s Net (Brahmajāla sutta) in the Dīgha-nikāya, which explains the arising of sixty-two kinds of wrong view on the basis of feeling and contact. The other themes of The Chapter of the Eights which Fronsdal identifies can likewise be found discussed in other discourses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the Eights is vividly focussed on the fruitlessness of religious debate. In the eighth poem, the Discourse to Pasūra (Pasūra sutta), the speaker of the discourse (presumed to be the Buddha) addresses Pasūra:

Wishing for an opponent, you roar
Like a hero nourished on royal food.
Run off, O Hero, to where the fight is;
As before, there is no fight here.[vi]

Pasūra seems to be an avid debater, and implied by the poem is a context of lively debate between ascetics (samaṇas), on topics of religious and spiritual importance. The Buddha simply refuses to participate:

Pasūra, what opponent would you get
From those who live without opponents
Who don’t counter views with views,
Who don’t grasp anything here as ultimate?[vii]

From these extracts, I hope to have given a taste both of the main theme of The Chapter of the Eights, and the accessible style of Fronsdal’s translation. Likewise, Fronsdal’s introductory comments to each of the sixteen poems open up the unfamiliar concerns and presuppositions of the ancient verses for contemporary readers. In this sense, Fronsdal’s book is not aimed at scholars, and indeed does no more than hint at the scholarly discussions on various topics. For instance, the eleventh poem, The Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes (Kalahavivāda sutta), is of great interest (at least to some of us), since it presents many of the nidānas or causal links familiar from the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent arising – but without any apparent awareness of that highly structured formula. It would seem that this poem represents an early presentation of themes that only later became the twelve links of dependent arising.[viii] Fronsdal’s introduction to the eleventh poem instead speculates on the relation of the discourse to the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, which is not an impossible hypothesis though it would need more discussion to look like more than guesswork.

Turning now to the translation issues I highlighted earlier, one could perhaps simply enjoy Fronsdal’s accessible new translation, as a way to explore a particularly interesting example of early Buddhist literature. However, any reader wishing to explore the meaning of the stanzas in detail should be aware of the many mistakes in Fronsdal’s rendering. Let me start with two general issues. First, Fronsdal translates nibbāna as ‘release’,[ix] nibbāti as ‘frees’[x] and nibbuti as ‘release’.[xi] These three words are etymologically and conceptually related; nibbāti means ‘goes out’ (of a flame) and is used metaphorically in early Indian religious thought in relation to the ending of the process of being reborn in saṃsāra. Likewise, nibbāna means ‘going out’, ‘quenching’ and is a metaphor for the summum bonum of the spiritual life and the end of rebirth; likewise nibbuti is regarded as cognate with nibbāna while also connoting ‘happiness’, ‘being at ease’.[xii] So why does Fronsdal write blandly “release is a translation of nibbuti”?[xiii] It just isn’t. ‘Release’ would be a translation of vimutti, which is a different concept. I would guess that Fronsdal wanted to maintain a this-worldly and psychological kind of tone in his translation.

The other general issues is Fronsdal’s translation of bhavābhava as ‘becoming and not-becoming’.[xiv] He does not in fact explain what he thinks he means by ‘becoming and not-becoming’, but it occurs in such contexts as:

This wise one doesn’t associate with
Becoming or not-becoming.[xv]

The Pāli here is bhavābhāya na sameti dhīro: ‘the wise person does not go to bhavābhava’. The word bhava means ‘existence’ or ‘becoming’, or ‘state of existence’, such as one of the six ‘realms’ of the wheel of life – existence as a god, animal, human, and so on. As K.R. Norman points out, the Pāli commentary explains bhavābhava as bhava-bhava ‘one or other state of existence’, saying, ‘in bhavābhava means in states of existence in the sensory realm and so on, or in bhavābhava means in one or other state of existence, in ever-renewed states of existence’.[xvi] That is to say, bhavābhava means ‘existence after existence’ or ‘various states of existence’. It does not mean ‘becoming or not-becoming’. Indeed, as the example above shows, the translation ‘becoming or not-becoming’ does not even make sense, whereas it makes perfectly good sense (in the ancient Indian context of belief in rebirth) to say, ‘the wise person does not go to various states of existence’, meaning that the wise person does not undergo rebirth into a god realm or back into the human realm and so on. Again, one might guess that Fronsdal wanted to avoid references to the rebirth cosmology of early Buddhism.

As well as these two general issues with Fronsdal’s translations, there are many specific points. In the context of this review, let me just take one, to make my point. Fronsdal translates the first two lines of v.898 as follows:

Those who say virtue is ultimate
Dedicate themselves to purity and religious observance.

The context is the statement of an opponent’s point of view – the view that it is the strict observance of a moral code that makes for spiritual purity. The Pāli here is sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ / vataṃ samādayā upaṭṭhitāse – ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate say that purity is through restraint. / Undertaking a vow they are dedicated.’ But Fronsdal writes in a note: ‘The meaning of this sentence is obscure. To translate this line most scholars look to the canonical commentary on this verse found in the Niddesa and borrow the idea that purity comes from self-restraint. I have tried to understand the sentence on its own terms, without the commentary. No English translation that I know of, including mine, translates saññā (‘concept’, ‘perception’) in the opening phrase sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ.’[xvii]

This note shows, however, that Fronsdal does not understand the Pāli and misrepresents previous translators. The word saññamena has nothing to do with saññā but is the instrumental singular of saññama, from the verb saṃ-yam, ‘restrain’.[xviii] Hence, ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate (sīluttamā) say (āhu) that purity (suddhiṃ) is through restraint (saññamena)’. This is not at all obscure, and shows that in this case previous translators did not borrow the the idea of ‘restraint’ from the commentary.[xix] I have found another fifteen specific examples of mistakes in Fronsdal’s translation, simply based on not understanding the Pāli.[xx] What to say? In his Acknowledgements on p.ix he thanks various people such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu for checking his translation. Not very thoroughly, one might think. Fortunately, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta-nipāta and its commentary will be published very soon.

[i] Tilmann Vetter, ‘Mysticism in the Aṭṭhakavagga’, in The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, Brill: Leiden, 1988.

[ii] For instance, Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: a survey with bibliographical notes, KUFS Publication: Tokyo, 1980.

[iii] K.R. Norman, The Group of Discourses (2nd ed.), Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2001.

[iv] K.R. Norman, ‘The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism’, Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, ed. Olle Qvarnström, Asian Humanities Press: Fremont, 2003.

[v] Fronsdal p.51, the last stanza from ‘The Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt’ (Duṭṭhaṭṭhakasutta).

[vi] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 831.

[vii] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 832.

[viii] See, for instance, Hajime Nakamura, ‘The Theory of “Dependent Origination” in its Incipient Stage’, in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula ed. S Balasooriya et al., Gordon Fraser: London, 1980, pp.165–72.

[ix] In v.940, 942, although in v.822 he has ‘nirvana’, without explanation.

[x] In v.915.

[xi] In vv.917, 933.

[xii] All this can be easily checked in either PED or in Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli vol.II.

[xiii] Ch.14 n.3 p.171.

[xiv] In vv.776, 786, 801, 877, 901.

[xv] Final two lines of v.877.

[xvi] Norman 2001, p.328, n.776, quoting the commentary Paramatthajotikā II p.517: bhavābhavesū ti kāmabhavādisu, atha vā bhavābhavesu ti bhava-bhavesu, punappunabhavesū ti.

[xvii] This is n.4 on p.170.

[xviii] This is perfectly obvious from the Mahāniddesa p.309 and from Pj II p.558, both of which gloss saññamena as saṃyamamattena, ‘through mere restraint’.

[xix] Hence Norman p.118 translates: ‘Those who consider virtuous conduct to be the highest thing say that purity is by means of self-restraint’.

[xx] Contact me for a full list of mistakes and issues.

A 21st Century Pudgalavādin? Evan Thompson and the Enactive Self


A Review of Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, 2015.

Evan Thompson is a philosopher working at the University of British Columbia. I am not sure if he calls himself a Buddhist, but he is a meditator and long-time participant in the Mind and Life series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and western scientists and philosophers. He is involved with science too, especially through his work with Francisco Varela.[i] He has brought together this set of interests – philosophy of mind, neuroscience and Buddhist meditation – in his recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, which ranges over a number of philosophical topics in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, presenting the basic arguments without underplaying the difficulties. He explores the nature of consciousness, the significance of dreaming, the nature of lucid dreaming (he is a keen lucid dreamer), the explanation of out-of-body and near-death experiences, and finally the reality of the self. Each chapter (there are ten) is self-contained, like a series of connected essays, which works well for such a wide-ranging book.

I don’t want to try to review or even summarise most of this book, but I would like to express my whole-hearted approval for his nicely balanced approach. I can give two examples. In his discussion of lucid dreaming in ch.6, he not only draws on his own experience to bring the topic alive, but he draws expertly on some neuroscientific research to highlight the extraordinary nature of how our minds construct their reality. But in doing this he avoids two extremes. Firstly, he denies that lucid dreams are hallucinations, or hallucinatory perceptions. Hallucinations, by definition, are false perceptions, but in a lucid dream the dreamer is aware that she is dreaming. Rather, he says, they are spontaneous mental simulations of sensory perceptions, ways in which the dreamer imagines a world. They are marvellous reminders of human imagination. This kind of conceptual clarity is refreshing. Second, he denies that lucid dreams are spiritually superior to non-lucid ones. (This is relief to me, as I never lucidly dream and don’t feel very inclined to try). He refers to the Tibetan tradition of sleep yoga, in which the yogi cultivates lucid dreaming as a way to become aware of the true nature of perception as fabricated. Thompson’s view is that, while lucid dreaming is fascinating, so is non-lucid dreaming, and we can become aware of the fabricated nature of perception without lucid dreams.

Similarly, in his discussion of near-death experiences in ch.9, he presents the evidence for the persistence of consciousness after the ceasing of neural activity with great enthusiasm, endeavouring to find some objective evidence for the possibility of the kind of post-mortem experiences of lights, journeys, divine beings, etc., described in the Bardo Thodöl. But after all this he subjects the best-documented cases of near-death experiences to scrutiny as to the evidence they provide for the claims made about them. And he concludes that, without exception, there is not the slightest piece of convincing evidence that the subjectively reported experience occur in the absence of objectively observed neural activity. And, further, he rightly concludes that this does not imply that consciousness depends on the brain, only that there is as yet no evidence that it doesn’t.

But here I want to present the argument of ch.10, the longest of the book, which explores the question of whether the self is an illusion. This chapter begins from the well-known Buddhist denial that there is a permanent self existing independently of the changing constituents of experience. This denial itself is, of course, difficult to put precisely into words, and even more difficult to fully understand, because of what appears to be the deep-rooted human tendency to appropriate experience in terms of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. He then makes the point that Buddhists do not thereby deny that there is a self, which would be the wrong view known as ‘annihilationism’. But some contemporary philosophers of neuroscience have come to the conclusion that the self is an illusion, that there is no self.[ii] Thompson calls this view ‘neuro-nihilism’, and describes it as a contemporary version of annihilationism, amounting really to no more than the view that there is an absence of a real existing self in the brain, so that its appearance is an illusion. He then sets out to show how the self is real but dependently-arisen, which is the Mādhyamika view within Buddhism, and to show this in a way that is consistent with contemporary science.

He does this through his own theory of the self as ‘enactive’: the self enacts its own existence as a process. The smallest units of life, cells, do this by specifying boundaries between themselves and what is not the cell, in this way implicitly defining itself as a ‘self’ in the activity of maintaining itself. Leaping to the human organism, we explicitly define ourselves through thought and action in the very enacting of thoughts and deeds along with the natural self-designating of this activity as our selves. Hence we are the subjects of experience and the agents of deeds. This can be directly experienced in sensorimotor activity, such as reading these words, when efferent nerve signals leading to action stimulate re-afferent nerve signals sensing that action, making sensory experience a self-specifying process, one’s self directly experiencing itself as, for instance, reading. Thompson presents more layers of such directly-experienced self-making processes, within the body and in a social world.

His argument now turns to an analysis of the self from the Yogācāra tradition of Buddhism. This tradition of thought relies on the distinction of three layers of mental activity, alongside the five sense spheres. There is a mental awareness (mano-vijñāna) which is aware of sense experience as well as its own states. There is a preattentive kind of awareness (manas or the kliṣṭa-manas or defiled mind). And there is a repository of tendencies called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). When we experience something like aversion in relation to a sense experience, we are aware of a mental state afflicted with aversion by means of the preattentive mind, which however mistakenly identifies the store consciousness (where the tendency to aversion was ‘stored’ as a ‘seed’) as a self, a substantial ego, experiencing the store consciousness as an ‘I’ that owns its tendencies as ‘mine’ and experiences its states as ‘me’. But really this substantial self is superimposed on the stream of experiences, including the manifesting contents of the store consciousness, such that ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are all mental constructed.

This view, says Thompson, though sophisticated, is rather like annihilationism and neuro-nihilism in that it concludes that the self is a cognitive error or illusion foisted upon an impersonal stream of experience. Thompson argues that this conclusion is unwarranted and unnecessary by running through an argument put forward by Candrakīrti, a 6th c. Indian Mādhyamika.[iii] According to Candrakīrti, we should rather say that the self appears in experience, for instance as averse or as the person who has the thought ‘I hate this’. While we do not attend wisely to the nature of this self as an appearance, we mistake the appearance for the manifestation of a self who exists in the way he or she appears, such that we impute existence to ourselves as someone enduring through time, and prone to such thoughts as ‘I hate this’. However, this is to mistakenly suppose the self exists as it appears, whereas in fact its appearance is dependently arisen, as a concept naturally belonging to experience. It is like an image in a mirror. According to this way of thinking, the self is not an illusion or a cognitive error, but rather it is the mistaken imputing of existence to what appears, for instance, as the thought ‘I hate this’, and the awareness of being that kind of person.

The upshot of Candrakīrti’s argument is that there is no Self, no permanent substantial underlying substance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, but there is a self or person who exists conventionally as the dependently-arisen ‘I’ or subject of experience and agent of action, and who experiences the mere appearance of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Thompson puts together Candrakīrti’s extremely elegant argument with his own view of an enactive self to produce what I propose to call a 21st c. form of pudgalavāda – the view that the self or person is conventionally real. The Pudgalavādins of Buddhist India were able to explain the persistence of personality without appealing to ideas like the store-consciousness. Instead, they argued that it is the person, who is neither the same as or different to the constituents of experience, who is the locus of identity. Likewise, Thompson believes that the self is the subject of experience and agent of action who enacts his or her identity in the dependently-arisen processes of living, the self appearing as independent of those processes as a mental construction based on the enactions themselves. Since the bases of the enactive self are the biological and neural processes underlying conscious experience, Thompson does seem implicitly to argue that the self, as it appears based on the activity of the brain, has a real basis.

I find this an appealing argument, and a satisfying basis for a 21st c. interpretation of Buddhist teachings. The appearance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are the natural arisings of a complex self-specifying enactive organism, and the unconscious tendencies of an unawakened person are preserved through time in the neural system, rather than in such supposed entities as the store-consciousness with its ‘seeds’. Maybe we should call it Pudgalavāda 2.0. I’m certainly feeling clearer for this particular update.

[i] As a young man he co-wrote The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch (MIT Press 1991).

[ii] He mentions Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, Basic Books, New York, 2009, p.6: ‘There is no such thing as a self’. One could also mention Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, Constable, London, 2012, which definitely argues for annihilationism as Thompson defines it.

[iii] A very good article laying out Candrakīrti’s argument in full is by James Duerlinger, ‘Candrakīrti’s Denial of the Self’, Philosophy East and West, 34:3 (1984) pp.261–72.