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.


Next year’s retreat at Dhanakośa

I just want to spread the word about a retreat I’m leading 31 March – 7 April next year at Dhanakośa retreat centre in Scotland. The theme will be ‘dependent arising’, and I’ll be leading study and discussion on this rather important principle of the Buddha’s teaching. There will also be quite a bit of meditation, so it will be a practice retreat rather than a study class. More details at http://dhanakosa.com/retreat/2017/dependent-arising-study-and-practice – get in touch for more details!

The Brexit: a pseudo-Socratic dialogue

The Brexita pseudo-Socratic dialogue about democracy and reason

CharactersGrexit: an Athenian, friend of Socrates; Brexit: friend of Grexit, a foreigner; and Socrates, returning from the gymnasium.


Grexit: Hello, Socrates! I might have guessed we’d meet you here in the Agora. Anyway, I was hoping to bump into you. Let me introduce my friend Brexit. He and I were just discussing a referendum result in his city. His people have voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the Spartan League. Brexit wants this as well, but the city and its leaders are in complete disharmony about it all. We were wondering what the right thing for Brexit and his fellow citizens to do in the circumstances, and we thought you might be able to help us think it through.

Socrates: Well, Brexit, I don’t know why you are asking me, as I know nothing about politics. But, I have to say, I was surprised to hear that your city voted to leave the League. Surely it was a source of unity among previously warring city-states and a means of encouraging trade and prosperity for you all?

Brexit: Socrates, don’t say you are a supporter of our staying in the League!

Socrates: Nothing of the sort, Brexit; I was simply reporting what I have heard from others. Here in Athens, the Spartan League is held up as something of a model.

Brexit: You Athenians have no idea. Anyway, the votes have been counted and the people have decided to leave. Doesn’t that mean that our leaders should now change the law?

Socrates: That assumes that your government has an obligation to do what its people say.

Brexit: Of course! You’re not an opponent of democracy are you, Socrates?

Socrates: As far as I know, democracy is the least bad form of government, so, no, I am not its opponent. But can I ask you a question? Why is your city now leaving the League? What reason would you give for this decision?

Brexit: That’s a straightforward question, Socrates. 52% of us voted to leave the League; that’s the reason we’re leaving.

Grexit: Is that true, Brexit? You told me that 52% of the 72% of those registered to vote wanted to leave, which is 37% of the citizens, many of whom did not make their opinion known.

Socrates: If only 37% voted to leave the League, Brexit, then it would appear that not even a majority of you want this result. So I don’t think that this explains why you think the city’s leaders must now change the law.

Brexit: No, no, Socrates; that is not how our democracy works. If people don’t vote, that is their own choice. The government meanwhile has to abide by the result, which in this case was clear. It is the will of the people to leave the League.

Socrates: I’m surprised to hear you say that, Brexit. If there is any such thing as a ‘will of the people’, it is a confused faculty indeed, since it is 37% in favour of leaving the League, 35% against doing so, and 28% unsure. It is like three horses tied together, one pulling in one direction, one in another, and one not sure where to pull. If my physics is correct, Brexit, such an assembly of strength would not move.

Brexit: Surely the strongest beast would pull the other two in its preferred direction?

Socrates: The strength of the 73% who wish to stay or are unsure should be combined against the 37% who wish to leave. Since 73% is the larger amount, the horse that wants to leave will not be able to shift the horses of staying. The ‘will of the people’ is not going anywhere, my friend.

Brexit: You can’t fool me so easily, Socrates! Obviously your horses are just an analogy, and arguments from analogy, as every student of philosophy knows, can be misleading.

Socrates: I’m sure you’re right, Brexit. So let me try again. The three of us stood here talking – are we one will, or three?

Brexit: Why, three, of course.

Socrates: And the people of your city – are they totally different from us, being one will instead of many?

Brexit: No, no, Socrates. They do not literally have ‘one will’ – it is a figure of speech.

Socrates: So really they have many wills? They are like us three, each citizen having his or her own will?

Brexit: That’s right, Socrates. Each of us came to our own decision, to leave the League, to stay, or not to vote at all.

Socrates: If you each came to your own decision, please answer me this: did those of you who voted to leave the League all have the same reason for your decision, or did you have different reasons?

Brexit: That’s a difficult question to answer, Socrates. I can only guess at my fellow-citizens’ thinking.

Grexit: I have heard it said that many people who voted to leave did so because they think that too many foreigners have come to live and work among them. You yourself told me, Brexit, that this was also among your reasons for voting to leave.

Brexit: It is true that many of us hold this view, yes.

Socrates: Are you sure, Brexit, that leaving the League will reduce the number of foreigners coming to live in your city? Surely it is simply a reality of life in the civilized world that people move around in search of peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. If your city leaves the League, would you be able to stop this ceaseless movement?

Brexit: We have to do something, Socrates. Too many foreigners wish to live with us. Leaving the League will give us control over our borders, and that is sure to help.

Socrates: I asked you the reason for your city’s decision to leave the League, and you have told me that there is no single reason, but that one reason that many of you would give, when asked, is that leaving the League might help you reduce the numbers of foreigners coming to live with you. Is that correct?

Brexit: That’s correct, Socrates.

Socrates: And this reason follows from the connection between leaving the League and being able to control your borders, is that correct?

Brexit: Quite so.

Socrates: Now, Brexit, do all the citizens of your city share this thinking, that the way to reduce the number of foreigners coming to your city is to leave the League, because doing so would enable you to control your borders?

Brexit: Unfortunately, not at all Socrates. Many of my fellow citizens hold completely different views.

Socrates: So I asked for the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, and you have given me one reason that some of you hold, but it seems that not only are you not sure who holds this view and who does not, but you are certain that only a minority of citizens hold it. Surely in these circumstances it is no surprise that there is widespread disagreement about what your city should do. Brexit, is it possible for anyone to be sure that they are making the right decision if they cannot give a reason for it?

Brexit: I am beginning to see why you are so irritating Socrates! But never mind all your talk of reasons. That is quite beside the point. The result of the referendum of my city is clearly that a majority of us want to leave the League, and that should be enough for our law-makers to start work on making the changes required.

Socrates: Brexit, you asked me if I was an opponent of democracy, but now I see that it is you who wish to bring democracy into disrepute.

Brexit: What on earth do you mean, Socrates? My intention is the very opposite.

Socrates: When I asked you to give me the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, we came to the conclusion that there was no one reason, but that the democratic decision of the citizens was enough. Now, doesn’t that imply that the rule of the people amounts to doing whatever the people want, irrespective of whether their wishes are reasonable or not? Suppose that your people were asked whether they wanted to keep taxation or abolish it, what would they vote?

Brexit: That is hardly the same sort of question, Socrates. But, obviously, they would vote to abolish taxation, because they hate to have what is theirs taken away from them.

Socrates: Whereas they ought to vote to keep taxation, not because they like it or want it, but because there is a very good reason for paying taxes, which is that they support a government that arranges security, justice, education and the distribution of resources. Likewise, when it comes to politics, we all ought to vote, not for what we individually want or like, but for what makes most sense for the prosperity of the whole community. Democracy is only a good form of government when it is beneficial for the community as a whole. Otherwise, it is no better than the rule of a tyrant, who only wishes to benefit himself.

Brexit: But, Socrates, it is just because we want the prosperity of the whole community that I and most of my fellow citizens wish to leave the League!

Socrates: Just now you told me that it does not matter if you can give no reason for your city to leave the League, because a majority vote is enough, but now you tell me that your decision is reasonable after all. Are you now saying, Brexit, that whatever is best for the prosperity of the whole community is what you should want and vote for?

Brexit: Yes, of course, that goes without saying.

Socrates: And what is best for the whole community is not what is of benefit only to individuals, because they want it or like it, like paying no taxes?

Brexit: Where is this all going, Socrates?

Socrates: Well, it seems we agree that a political decision should not be the product of personal desires, and we also agree that there would be a reason for your city to leave the League, if it was the case that doing so would increase the happiness and prosperity of the whole community. But, Brexit, from what you have said, everyone in your city has voted according to their own personal opinions, which differ, so that you can only guess at the reasons many of your fellow citizens have voted the way they have. It seems to me that your city does not have a single reason for leaving the League, and the individual citizens have their own views about what will be for the greater prosperity of the whole.

Grexit: If I may interrupt here, my friends, surely one could argue that, irrespective of these fine points of reasoning, the government of Brexit’s city were elected on the promise of a referendum which, they said, would determine the city’s future membership of the Spartan League. So now they have an obligation to follow through on the result of that referendum, just as if one of us were to make a promise and were then held to it by our friends. The keeping of promises is necessary for there to be trust among human beings, and it is a foundation of life in civilised society.

Socrates: Do you agree, Brexit? Had the result of the referendum been the opposite one, would you hold, as Grexit has explained, that your government has an obligation to fulfil its promise, even though that would be the very opposite of what you yourself believed?

Brexit: I feel that whatever I say now, Socrates, I am done for.

Socrates: Please, Brexit, I am simply asking you questions. If you were to hold that your government had an obligation to fulfil its promise, and at the same time you held that if it were to do so, it would be acting to bring about the impoverishment and unhappiness of your community, wouldn’t you find yourself in a difficult situation? And by your own account you have admitted that many of your fellowe citizens, holding a view different to your own about what is in your community’s best interest, will now find themselves in just such a state. It seems to me, Brexit, that we are never obliged to do what we believe to be wrong, even though we made a promise to do so, and I am sure you would agree.

Brexit: But if you are right, how on earth can we ever come to a decision about whether or not to leave the League?

Grexit: My friend, your government could call a general election, with the instruction to the citizens of your city to elect representatives according to their stated view on membership of the League. In this way, the new government would have no doubt about whether or not it should change the law, and it would not need to ask its people by means of a referendum.

Brexit: But the people have already decided what they believe!

Socrates: I am wondering, my friends, whether referendums and elections can ever replace reason and debate for communities wishing to live together in peace. But that is a topic for another time. Brexit, I wish your city well in its deliberations; and, Grexit, do be careful to think for yourself…

Ripples in reality

crochet ripples

There was a nearly mystical sense of revelation last Thursday, when it was announced that gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, had finally been observed. What seemed almost unbelievable, merely fictional, was now the objective reality of our universe. How to celebrate? I wrote a poem:

Gravity Waves

The world had never yielded to him
its inner life; he worked,
he walked about the city, he ate,
looking after himself but waiting.
Sometimes he forgot he was waiting
or what he was waiting for,
and the world became a stranger
rushing past on the street.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her
at the supermarket, and then at the gym.
They talked. And they talked,
and ate, and fell in love.
His heart’s machinery bloomed into vision,
and he could see the world’s secret workings.
On the day they said gravity waves
were now proved, he bought flowers
for his wife, and they celebrated the love
that ripples through the universe –
shaking the loom of our woven moments,
that might seem unreal, but exists.

Congratulations to all those physicists at LIGO and Virgo, and in praise of neo-Platonism.

Love and Separation: Sonnet 64


It’s all very well to write about experiences of beauty, of encountering the beautiful, and about how poets have managed to capture and even communicate their experience of beauty in the form of words. And it’s all very interesting to connect beauty and poetry with Buddhist practice, even with the teaching of the Buddha. But our actual human lives are by no means necessarily always characterised by vivid experiences of beauty, and our Buddhist practice may not be so sweet either. In this post I want to explore how poetry can nevertheless help us understand and engage in practising the Dharma, right at the cutting edge of life’s difficulties.

In the Pāli canon we find a teaching of the Buddha called ‘Five topics for frequent recollection’.[i] They are five simple reflections, and, as the Buddha says, they are for men, women, householders and renunciates. They are for everyone. They go like this:

  1. I am of a nature to age; I am not free from old age.
  2. I am of a nature to get ill; I am not free from disease.
  3. I am of a nature to die; I am not free from death.
  4. I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge. Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.

These are extraordinary sober reflections. Indeed, they do not end there. The Buddha also recommends that we consider these five topics in relation to everyone else as well as ourselves. But why should any of us reflect in this way? What is the point? The Buddha goes on to explain that, while we are young we are often intoxicated with youth, to the extent of acting in brash and heedless ways; but reflecting on age undoes this. Similarly we are often intoxicated with health and life, taking them for granted, and acting heedlessly. The fifth and last reflection is a vivid reminder that, as we act, so we become. This may seem obvious but is sometimes difficult to remember.

But the fourth recollection – that I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me – is not so simple either to state or even to understand. The Buddha explains that, because of desire for those who are precious to us, we act badly, and this reflection corrects this. But I personally find this hard to understand. In fact, I find this recollection the most difficult. It slips out of my grasp, my heart rejects it. But then I came across the following sonnet by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The sonnet is addressed to that same mysterious young man as most of the sonnets are; possibly a patron, not necessarily a lover, certainly a friend. Or perhaps it is unhelpful to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as if they represent the feelings of a particular man toward some other particular man. Perhaps they work rather on their own literary level, creating in the reader an empathic feeling of love from their form and grammar, then exploring various details of passion and loss. The reader, reading Sonnet 64, imagines his or her own most precious love, as subject to time as anything else in this sublunary world.

But somehow the very beauty of the poem, the enduring grandeur of its rhymes, the power of its diction, allows a difficult thought about inevitable loss the space to move and gain momentum: I will be parted from all that is precious and pleasing to me. The poem gives courage. Rather than allowing the small-minded conclusion that, if all love is passing, there is no point – a conclusion that another part of us will always reject – the sonnet allows the larger, almost heroic conclusion that, indeed, love is nothing that we can hold on to, but a great heart can know this and yet still love. The poem allows this conclusion, but the love that results will perhaps not be so intoxicated by exultation. It will be more capable of a true appreciation.

Also based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[i] From Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the entire discourse is available at https://suttacentral.net/en/an5.57.

Dharma, Beauty, Poetry: ‘The Bright Field’

Cézanne landscape

The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is often described in the Pāli texts as ‘lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely at the end’.[1] Many of us have experiences of intense beauty, when the world in some way reveals itself as lovely: a landscape, an act of kindness, the slant of light through the blinds. These experiences, I believe, are immensely important for our spiritual lives, for they give us a sense of how things are not what they seem. Our preoccupations, and the way our lives are buffeted by the ‘worldly winds’ of gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, pleasure and pain,[2] can make the world seem jaded, though perhaps occasionally pretty. But when beauty breaks through we might experience the world anew, afresh, in all its innermost glory, as the theatre of divinity and liberation.

It seems that the Buddha was familiar with the potential of such experiences of beauty to liberate. The third of the eight so-called ‘liberations’ (vimokkha) makes this explicit. It is described simply enough: subhan’t’eva adhimutto hoti, ‘One becomes focused only on the beautiful’.[3] The word for ‘beautiful’ here (subha) also means splendid, pleasant, auspicious and good.[4] Just like the English word ‘beautiful’, the subha (or in Sanskrit, śubha) is an aesthetic experience that reaches deep into our moral lives. The ‘liberation’ alluded to here is not the final release of nirvāna, but a temporary state of liberation from the defilements that is a tremendous encouragement on the way.

The commentary relates the third liberation to meditation practice, specifically to concentration on an attractive meditation device (kasina), and also to the practice of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, of benevolence (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā).[5] While it might be perfectly true that Buddhist meditators have vivid experiences of the beautiful in meditation, I don’t think that we need to limit the scope of the beautiful to formal Buddhist practice. What if the beautiful breaks through as we are riding along a sunlit cycle path? Our minds and hearts may be, for some moments, liberated by such a powerful aesthetic experience.

So, what is this beauty? Somehow it is an experience that is attractive and pleasing, but at the same time, and most importantly, an experience that takes us beyond what we know. There is a transcendent dimension to the experience of beauty, a dimension that is deeply mysterious really, though probably not unfamiliar to most of us. Perhaps it is most familiar for us when listening to music, that art form that seems at once most abstract and most directly in touch with the heart.

Poets also sometimes try to translate such experiences of beauty into poems, hence attempting to evoke through imagination, in words, something of what they have seen and known. Readers might not only be reminded of their own experience of beauty, but be inspired not to forget that such experience is possible. My favourite poem of this sort is by R.S. Thomas:[6]

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Thomas (1913–2000) was a priest in the Church of Wales as well as lyric poet. His poetry is infused with Christian imagery as well as the sense of his native Wales. It is easy to imagine him travelling in the Welsh hills, perhaps visiting one of his parishioners, a sheep-farmer, and him seeing the sun break through to briefly illuminate a small field. Such are our experiences of beauty: attractive, ordinary, transient. But Thomas returns, in this poem, to that passing aesthetic experience, and goes deeper into its significance.

That experience was ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’. These are images from the Gospel of Matthew (13:44–6). Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with treasure hidden in it, like a man who finds a pearl – someone seeking the Kingdom will sell everything they have to buy that field, to buy that pearl. But Thomas radically shifts the message. Now he realises that he must give up everything he has for the sake of aesthetic experience. He must centre his life on beauty, rather than seeing the bright field and then going on his way. Why must he do this? Because ‘Life is not hurrying / on to a receding future, nor hankering after / an imagined past.’ The poet realises that the normal human way, of living in a thin and jaded present, thinking of the future to which we hurry, or the past which now seems more attractive than it ever did at the time, is a mistake. The bright field holds the key; the aesthetic experience is the gateway to the living present moment, in which we go beyond our thoughts, preconceptions, proliferations, into a realm of meaning and significance we could characterise as divine.

Vivid presence in the moment – this is the gift of beauty, beyond the narratives of the ego, rather like mindfulness practice, but depending here on beauty rather than awareness. And this vivid presence in the moment ‘is the turning / aside like Moses to the miracle / of the lit bush’. This is a reference to the story in Exodus 3 of Moses hearing the voice of God in the burning bush, the miracle that led Moses to become a prophet. In this way, Thomas compares the lit field to a divine encounter and the beginning of prophecy. And this miracle of the lit field is a brightness that has the radiance of youth. It is the essence of those youthful experiences of beauty, of love, of vision, which we perhaps look back upon as adults as an enjoyable phase, but one that inevitably gave way to adult concerns with things like career and family. But, says R.S Thomas, the beauty of the lit field is not transitory as youth was, but rather is the eternity that is possible in this life.

The Buddha often described nirvāna as the ‘deathless’ (amata), the ‘undying’. This does not signify eternity in the sense of a state of infinitely prolonged life, but rather a state that is beyond time. And this is perhaps what R.S. Thomas too was hinting at – the way that the aesthetic experience of beauty contains within it, as it were, in its nature as being an encounter with the divine, a hint or taste of what is beyond time, beyond this arena of consecutive minor events.

I’ve used ‘The Bright Field’ as an example of a poem that brings to life the experience of beauty, like lighting a candle, reminding us perhaps of the great flashes of light we have ourselves experienced or could. This experience of beauty is connected at its root with the deep meaning of the Dharma. May we all remember to value our experiences of beauty.

Based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[1] In one of the formulas that we find in the Pāli texts, it is said that a good report has been heard about the Buddha: so dhammaṃ deseti ādikalyāṇaṃ majjhekalyāṇaṃ pariyosānakalyāṇaṃ, ‘He teaches the Dharma that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end’. ‘The end’ (pariyosāna) means ‘conclusion’, as in, the conclusion of one’s Dharma practice, which is the realisation of nirvāṇa.

[2] These are the lokadhammā, ‘qualities of the world’, described at Aṅguttara Nikāya 8:6 etc.

[3] The formula is found in the Mahānidāna sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, and elsewhere.

[4] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. śubha.

[5] For instance, in the commentary on the Mahānidāna sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Great Discourse on Causation.

[6] This poem is from the 1975 collection Laboratories of the Spirit, and also in Collected Poems 1945–90.

The meaning of the Pāli word ‘sutta’

well said

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Pāli word sutta: it is equivalent to the Sanskrit word sūtra and it means ‘discourse’. It is used in the sense of a discourse of the Buddha, one of the many discourses which generally begin evaṃ me sutaṃ, ‘thus have I heard’, and which are traditionally regarded as having been remembered by Ānanda, the Buddha’s friend and attendant.[1] At the same time, from the point of view of the word itself, we often read that the word sutta does not literally mean ‘discourse’, but that it means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and that the meaning ‘discourse’ is an applied meaning. However, in this essay I will show how some recent as well as traditional scholarship does not support the idea that sutta means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, but that the word was always understood to mean ‘discourse’.

Let us begin with the Pali-English Dictionary (PED). There are in fact two entries for sutta, in that sutta1 means ‘asleep’, being the past participle of supati ‘sleeps’. We can leave this meaning of sutta aside. The other meaning is as follows:

sutta2 (nt.) [Vedic sūtra, fr. sīv to sew] 1. a thread, string… 2. the (discursive, narrational) part of the Buddhist Scriptures containing the suttas or dialogues, later called Sutta-piṭaka… 3. one of the divisions of the Scriptures (see navanga)… 4. a rule, a clause (of the Pātimokkha)… 5. a chapter, division, dialogue (of a Buddh. text), text, discourse… 6. an ancient verse, quotation… 7. book of rules, lore, text book…[2]

PED thus relates sutta to Sanskrit sūtra and both words to sīv ‘to sew’, and gives its primary meaning as ‘thread’ as well as other meanings including ‘discourse’. Following PED, Buddhist commentators have tried to explain why a word meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’ should also be used as the word for Buddhist discourse. Sangharakshita, for instance, explains that:

meaning literally a thread, the word [sūtra, also sutta] suggests a series of topics strung on a common thread of argument or exhortation. By implication, therefore, a sūtra is of considerable length, systematic in form and substantial in content.[3]

However, there is a puzzle associated with this kind of explanation.

There certainly is a Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and there certainly is a Pāli word sutta with the same meaning.[4] There also certainly is a genre of Sanskrit literature called sūtra. This genre, perhaps the best-known example of which is the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, consists of a number of brief aphoristic sayings in verse (each called sūtra). The genre long pre-dates Buddhism, being first used around 800 BCE in the Śrauta-sūtras, concerned with Vedic ritual, and the genre remained important in philosophy and literature for many centuries. The aphorisms of the genre can certainly be said to have been strung together or to have a common thread, and perhaps were so-called for this reason. However, neither the Pāli suttas nor the Sanskrit Buddhist sūtras are like this at all. The Buddhist discourses are not in the least aphoristic and neither do they consist in sayings of the Buddha strung together. It is therefore a puzzle to read even in an up-to-date Dictionary of Buddhism under the entry sūtra:

In Sanskrit, lit. “aphorism”, but in a Buddhist context translated as “discourse”, “sermon”, or “scripture”; a sermon said to be delivered by the Buddha or delivered with his sanction. A term probably used originally to refer to sayings of the Buddha that were preserved orally by his followers (and hence called “aphorisms”), the sūtra developed into its own genre of Buddhist literature, with a fairly standard set of literary conventions…[5]

Reading this entry, one might reasonably ask why a word meaning “aphorism” would have been used to describe the oral record of the Buddha’s teaching, and why this word later came to refer to a genre of Buddhist literature which was not in the least aphoristic.

Scholars have proposed a pleasing and elegant answer to this puzzle. It is that we have been misled by the Sanskrit word sūtra into supposing that the Pāli word sutta means ‘thread’ and therefore ‘aphorism’. The Indian Buddhists who used the Sanskrit word sūtra were incorrect to use it as an equivalent to the older Middle-Indo-Aryan word sutta, and this earlier word should actually be derived from sūkta, meaning ‘well-spoken’, hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha. As Prof. K.R. Norman puts it:

Many Buddhist Sanskrit texts are entitled sūtra. To anyone who comes to Buddhist studies from classical Sanskrit studies, this name comes as a surprise, because, in Sanskrit, sūtra literature is a specific genre of literature, composed in prose, usually of a very abbreviated and concise nature, while Buddhist sūtras have an entirely different character. This difference is due to the fact that the word sūtra in Buddhist Sanskrit is a Sanskritisation of the Middle Indo-Aryan word sutta, which is probably to be derived from Sanskrit sūkta, a compound of su and ukta, literally “well-Spoken”. It would be a synonym for subhāṣita, which is the word used of the Buddhavacana [sayings of the Buddha] by the emperor Aśoka… when he said: “All that was spoken by the Lord Buddha was well-spoken”.[6]

According to this explanation, the word sutta means ‘well-spoken’ and hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha, from the verb vac ‘to speak’ (the past participle of which is ukta) with the prefix su meaning ‘well’, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. If this is true, the early Buddhists who used the word sutta to mean ‘discourse’ did so with good reason, and did not do so thinking that sutta meant ‘string’ or ‘thread’. This meaning of sutta is to be understood as distinct from the meaning of sutta as ‘thread’, just as sutta also means ‘asleep’. Hence, sutta1 ‘asleep’ (past participle of sup), sutta2 ‘thread’ (from sīv), sutta3 ‘discourse’ (from su+ukta).

Inevitably, however, other scholars have found fault with the details of this explanation. Prof. Oscar von Hinüber thinks that this proposed etymology of sutta from sūkta is unnecessary. He writes:

In der Theravāda-Überlieferung findet die Annahme, daß sutta eigentlich sūkta- entspräche, nirgends eine Stütze, wie die lange Erörterung zu sutta-, As 19, 15–26, mit aller Deutlichkeit zeigt.[7]

In the oral tradition of the Theravāda, the assumption that sutta really corresponds to sūkta nowhere finds a support, as the long discussion on sutta in As 19, 15–26, quite distinctly shows.

Von Hinüber’s point is that, while it is theoretically possible that sutta is derived from sūkta, and that this would elegantly explain its usage, there is no traditional support for such a derivation. He cites the Atthasālinī, the Theravādin commentary on the Dhammasaṅganī, the first book of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka.[8] This commentary gives the following explanation of the word sutta:

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca ‘suttan’ti akkhātaṃ.

tañhi attatthaparatthādibhede atthe sūceti. suvuttā cettha atthā veneyyajjhāsayānulomena vuttattā. savati cetaṃ atthe, sassamiva phalaṃ, pasavatīti vuttaṃ hoti. sūdati cetaṃ, dhenu viya khīraṃ, paggharatīti vuttaṃ hoti. Suṭṭhu ca ne tāyati rakkhatīti vuttaṃ hoti. suttasabhāgañcetaṃ. yathā hi tacchakānaṃ suttaṃ pamāṇaṃ hoti evametampi viññūnaṃ. yathā ca suttena saṅgahitāni pupphāni na vikiriyanti na viddhaṃsiyanti evametena saṅgahitā atthā. tenetametassa vacanatthakosallatthaṃ vuttaṃ –

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca suttanti akkhātan’ti.[9]

From showing (sūcana) the good, from having been well spoken (suvutta), from begetting (savana) and from giving out (sūdana);

Through being an excellent shelter (suttāṇa), and from being like thread (sutta), sutta is called ‘sutta’.

For it shows the good (attha) consisting of the good for one’s self, the good for others, and so on. And meaning (attha) has been well spoken in this respect through being spoken in conformity with the dispositions of those ready for the teaching. And it begets the good (attha), like crops do fruit, so it is said that it brings forth. And it gives it [the good] out, like a cow does milk, so it is said that it flows out. And it excellently shelters and protects it [the good]. And it is similar to thread, for as the carpenter’s thread is a measure, so it is too for the wise, and as flowers tied together with thread are not scattered and damaged, so by it good things are tied together. Therefore this has been said about it for the sake of knowledge about the meaning of the word: [repeat of stanzas].’[10]

This traditional discussion of the meaning of sutta is revealing, in that although Von Hinüber is correct in saying that it does not definitively support the derivation of sutta from sūkta, neither does it support the derivation of sutta from the word sutta meaning ‘thread’. Let us look more closely at this traditional explanation.

The Atthasālinī explains the meaning of sutta (as in sutta-piṭaka, the ‘discourse collection) in six distinct ways:

  1. It means sūcana (‘showing’, ‘indicating’), as it shows the good. The word sūcana comes from sūcī (‘needle’) via the denominative root sūc. Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary (MW p.1241) links sūcī with sīv (‘to sew’), the root of sūtra, but the PED doubts this connection (p.721).
  1. It means suvutta (‘well spoken’, ‘well said’) from su (‘well’, ‘excellent’) and vac (‘to speak’). This explanation amounts to the derivation proposed by Norman, that sutta = Sanskrit sūkta. However, the commentary is not claiming that sutta is the same word as suvutta or that it derives from su+vac, only that sutta can be explained as suvutta (‘what has been well spoken’).
  1. It means savana (‘begetting’), which can be derived from the Sanskrit root su4 (= 2) (‘to generate’) (MW p.1219). This explanation gains strength from the fact that the past participle of su is suta, literally meaning ‘issue’, hence ‘son’ (PED p.717). There is hence an edifying background word-play between sutta and savana via suta.[11]
  1. It means sūdana (‘gives out’), which is cognate with the Sanskrit root sūd, which, according to MW p.1242 can have the meaning ‘eject’ (nikṣepana).
  1. It means su+(t)tāṇa (‘excellent shelter’), from the prefix su together with the word tāṇa (‘shelter’), cognative with Sanskrit trāṇa from the root trai (‘shelter’, MW p.457). This explanation is an example of explanation through edifying word-play, since the commentator would not have supposed that the word sutta was etymologically connected with suttāṇa, only that the resemblance of sounds between the words could be exploited to explain the meaning of sutta. 
  1. The final explanation is in the form of a comparison. Sutta is said to be suttasabhāga (‘like or similar to sutta’) where sutta in this case means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, which is derived from the Sanskrit root sīv (‘to sew’).

From these six explanations of the meaning of the word sutta, we can see how the commentators primarily took the word to mean ‘discourse’, and then they explained this meaning in various ways, relating sutta to other words that were either homonyms (sutta meaning ‘thread’), or were edifyingly similar in sound (suttāṇa, sūdana, sūcana), or were both similar in sound and related in meaning (suvutta), or were related in meaning (savana). The impression one gets is that the commentator does not have a single view about the derivation of sutta.

However, from a historical perspective the commentator’s explanation of the meaning of sutta is from a later period, and does not tell us much about how the early Buddhists who first used the word sutta understood it. We can also only wonder whether the commentator was familiar with the Buddhist Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘discourse’ as the equivalent of the Pāli sutta. If he was, which seems likely, then two interesting conclusions seem to follow. Firstly, the Pāli commentator does not seem to relate the words sutta or sūtra to the genre of Indian literature called sūtra or ‘aphorism’. Rather, the words sutta or sūtra are explained as comparable to a string or thread only as an edifying metaphor. Secondly, the Pāli commentarial explanation of sutta seems to allow that this word may be the equivalent either of Sanskrit sūkta or of sūtra.

In conclusion, then, the Pāli word sutta, when used to refer to Buddhist literature, need not be taken literally to mean ‘thread’. It is equally possible to derive sutta from su+ukta as from the root sīv (‘to sew’), and the former derivation would support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’, in the sense of ‘what has been well spoken (by the Buddha)’. While the Pāli commentary does not give any direct support to this derivation, it does support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’ and does not appear to support any connection of sutta to the Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘aphorism’, derived from the meaning of sūtra as ‘thread’. In short, despite our not knowing for certain the derivation of sutta, it is consistently used to mean ‘discourse’ in a way that supports its derivation from sūkta, ‘well-spoken’.

[1] The situation is in fact more complicated, in that the early Buddhist scriptures record a nine-fold analysis of Buddhist literature, the first sort being sutta, meaning ‘discourse’, the second being gāthā, ‘verse’, the third geyya, ‘mixed prose and verse’, and so on. However, this nine-fold analysis appears to have been superseded by the more now-familiar three-fold division of the scriptures into three piṭakas or collections, including the sutta-piṭaka or ‘discourse collection’.

[2] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali–English Dictionary, PTS: London, 1925, p.178.

[3] Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy, Tharpa: London, 1985, p.14. Cf. A Survey of Buddhism, 6th ed., Tharpa: London, 1987, p.17.

[4] This and the following information from Brian Levman, Linguistic Ambiguities, the Transmissional Process, and the Earliest Recoverable Language of Buddhism, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014, pp.228–30.

[5] Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2014, p.875.

[6] K.R. Norman, A Philological Approach to Buddhism, PTS: Lancaster, 2006, p.135. His explanation was first suggested by Walleser in 1914. Norman’s suggestion has been taken up by Richard Gombrich, ‘How Mahāyāna Began’, in Journal of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, 1988, 29–46, p.32; also by Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.13, n.1.

[7] Oscar von Hinüber, ‘Die neun Aṅgas: ein früher Versuch zur Einteilung buddhistischer Texte’, WZKS 38, 1994, 121–35, p.132. Von Hinüber’s view is followed by Johannes Bronkhorst in Buddhist Teaching in India, Wisdom: Boston, 2009, p.xi n.4.

[8] As is an abbreviation for Atthasālinī.

[9] Atthasālinī ed. Edward Müller, PTS: London, 1897, p.19.

[10] My translation; there is also a PTS trans. by Pe Maung Tin and Mrs Rhys Davids, The Expositor, vol.1, London: PTS, 1920, p.24. The explanation of sutta is also found in a slightly different form in the commentary to the Sutta-nipāta, the Paramatthajotika II, vol.1, ed. Helmer Smith, PTS: London, 1916, p.1.

[11] Thanks to Bryan Levman for his advice on savana. This word may be related to several different Sanskrit roots: ‘impel’, su ‘press out’ as well as su ‘generate’. It is possible that the Pāli commentators had several meanings in mind.