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.

Pyrrho and the Buddha: Reasons to be Sceptical

Greek Buddha cover

Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, 2015.

my review copied over from Western Buddhist Review

Classical sources tell us that a young man named Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great and his army to north-west India in 324 bce. During their Indian sojourn, Pyrrho and his teacher, Anaxarchus, met Indian gymnosophists, ‘naked wise men’, and it is said that Pyrrho’s philosophy developed as a result of such meetings. When he returned to India, Pyrrho is said to have taught a philosophical ethics, in the sense of how to live the best and happiest kind of life, in terms of the ideals of apatheia, ‘being without passion’, and ataraxia, ‘undisturbedness, calm’. The way to these ideals is said to consist in a form of scepticism about the knowledge gained through sense perception and thought; rather than believe we might be able to attain certainty we should refrain from doxai, ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’, but maintain equanimity and hence undisturbedness.

The questions naturally arise of what Pyrrho might have learned from Indian thinkers, and whether his philosophy was perhaps inspired by Buddhists that he met in ancient Gandhāra. Unfortunately, answers to such questions are difficult. Pyrrho himself did not write down his philosophy, and what we know about it consists in fragmentary quotations from the writings of his pupil, Timon, plus various anecdotes and lesser fragments. Moreover, there is uncertainty about how to interpret these quotes and fragments. And there is no direct evidence at all for what, if anything, Pyrrho learned in India. Nevertheless, modern scholars like Thomas McEvilley and Adrian Kuzminski have found close parallels between Pyrrhonian scepticism and Buddhist Madhyamaka thought, with precedents in earlier Buddhist scriptures.[1] Take for example the following verses from the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-nipāta, regarded as one of the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching:

They do not formulate, they do not prefer:

they have not accepted any doctrines.

A brahman is not reckoned by virtue or vows.

Such a one, gone to the far shore, does not come back.[2]

In such teachings, as in later Madhyamaka, and as in Pyrrho, we see that the path of not holding to views and opinions is said to lead beyond suffering. Pyrrho, it would seem, may have brought the Buddha’s middle way philosophy back to Greece.

This is the exciting field of investigation into which Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha enters. Beckwith takes up the themes just outlined and runs with them – sometimes a very long way. The results are in my view mixed, some excellent and profound, some silly and self-contradictory. Beckwith comes across as one of those lone scholars, riding off into new territory alone and coming back with new insights, but out of kilter with everyone else.

I’ll start with the excellent bits in this book. Beckwith takes up the theme of interpreting the rather difficult Greek quotations of Timon’s account of Pyrrho’s philosophy. His book includes, as an Appendix, an article previously published in Elenchos (2011) on ‘The Classical Testimonies of Pyrrhos’ Thought’. His insights about how to understand some difficult words have evidently already become influential.[3] In Chapter One of the new book, Beckwith draws out the connection between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism. According to Timon, Pyrrho taught that:

As for pragmata ‘matters, questions, topics’, they are all adiaphora ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ and astathmēta ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measurable’ and anepikrita ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’. Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our ‘views, theories, beliefs’ (doxai) tell us the truth or the lie [about pragmata]. Rather, we should be adoxatous, ‘without views’, aklineis ‘uninclined [towards this side or that]’, and akradantous ‘unwavering [in our refusal to choose]’, saying about every single one that it no more is that it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[4]

Beckwith notes that the usual English translation of pragmata, ‘things’, misleadingly leads us to think that Pyrrho’s point refers to physical objects, whereas in fact pragmata are ‘(ethical) matters’. Pyrrho’s thought concerns the nature and characteristics of pragmata like anger or joy, not the nature and characteristics of air or rock. Beckwith goes on to compare the concept of pragmata with the Buddhist concept of dharmas, often translated ‘mental objects’, which are said to have ‘three characteristics’ (trilakṣana). He draws out how Pyrrho’s three characteristics of pragmata map onto the Buddhist three characteristics of dharmas:

(i) adiaphora means ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ in the sense of ‘without a logical self-identity’ – this is comparable to the anātman or ‘without fixed self’ characteristic of dharmas.

(ii) astathmēta means ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measureable’ in the sense of ‘unbalanced, uneasy’ – this is comparable to the duḥkha or ‘uneasy, painful, unsatisfactory’ characteristic of dharmas.

(iii) anepikrita means ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’ in the sense that pragmata are not permanently decided or fixed – this is comparable to the anitya or ‘impermanent’ characteristic of dharmas.

This work of careful comparison is immensely stimulating and, as far as I know, original. Beckwith goes on to outline the apparent similarity of Pyrrho’s philosophical path and the goal of apatheia or ‘passionlessness’ to the Buddhist middle way and the goal of nirvāṇa, although a great deal more on this topic could have been said.

But just as he opens up this quite fascinating field of comparative thought through the careful study of words and ideas, Beckwith manages to veer off into scholarly fantasy of the most disreputable kind. To take a small example: in order to make his point about the similarity of the astathmēta ‘unstable, uneasy’ characteristic of pragmata to the duḥkha characteristic of dharmas, Beckwith takes to task the way Buddhist scholars have translated duḥkha: ‘the term is perhaps the most misunderstood – and definitely the most mistranslated – in Buddhism’ (p.29). Never mind what anyone else says, Beckwith proposes that duḥkha is a Prakritisation of Sanskrit duḥstha, literally ‘standing badly’, hence ‘unsteady’ and ‘uneasy’, so that, as he tells us, Pyrrho’s astathmēta is ‘in origin a simple calque [loan translation]’ (p.30). However, according to Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli, there is indeed a Pāli word duṭṭha (the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit duḥ-stha) that means ‘uneasy, unhappy’,[5] but nobody seems ever to have confused this word with dukkha, with its (untranslatable) range of meaning, from ‘pain’ through ‘suffering’ to ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Beckwith’s proposal is just wish-fulfilment. This does not exclude the possibility, of course, that Pyrrho might have been translating a difficult Buddhist concept into a Greek equivalent as best he could.

I’ve outlined Beckwith’s main proposal about to some hitherto-unrecognised similarities between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism, suggesting that Pyrrho learned about Buddhism in India. Beckwith’s book, however, concerns not only this proposal but a re-thinking of the whole nature of early Buddhism that his proposal suggests. This re-thinking depends upon his employment of a particular method of investigation:

My approach in the book is to base all of my main arguments on hard data – inscriptions, datable manuscripts, other dated texts, and archaeological reports. I do not allow traditional belief to determine anything in the book, so I have necessarily left the topic out, other than to mention it briefly in a few places’ (p.xiii).

What this method means in practice is that Beckwith ignores Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism. For Buddhists, knowledge of early Buddhism comes from the records of the teaching of the Buddha preserved in Pāli and other languages, that were preserved orally at first and then in written form. The degree to which these records are accurate is uncertain, but Buddhist textual scholarship continues to sift and argue about what might count as earlier and later doctrines. Beckwith’s method is to totally ignore Buddhist texts and base his investigation on ‘hard data’. The result is silly and self-contradictory.

According to Beckwith, the earliest reliable evidence (‘hard data’) for early Buddhism is the records of visiting Greeks, especially Megasthenes, who visited the court of Candragupta Maurya in 305 bce, and whose observations have survived as quotations in Strabo’s work on geography. Megasthenes described Brāhmaṇas (‘Brachmanes’) and Śramanas (‘Sarmanes’) and some of their habits and beliefs. Unfortunately Megasthenes does not specifically mention Buddhists, and one can imagine that as a visiting Greek he may not have easily been able to differentiate Buddhist monks from other participants in the Indian religious scene. Beckwith, however, in a marvellous feat of self-justification, proposes that Pyrrho’s philosophy (as interpreted by Beckwith) is in fact an even older piece of evidence for early Buddhism (p.62), and he goes on to solve various difficulties in interpreting Megasthenes using his own version of Pyrrho and hence early Buddhism. A taste of the silliness involved: the Buddha was not Indian, but Scythian, which explains why he was called ‘Śākyamuni’, the sage of the Śakas (i.e. Scythian). The Buddha’s Scythian (i.e. Iranian) origin involved his exposure to Zoroastrian ideas about escatology and monotheism, hence the Buddha’s introduction of his modification and rejection of these ideas into India. Early Buddhism hence has nothing to do with Brahmanism or the Upaniṣads, which are Indian. Later Buddhist tradition (which Beckwith calls ‘Normative Buddhism’ though he does not explain why) made up all the stories about the Buddha’s life in India and all the encounters with Brahmanas and other Indian thinkers.

In fact there is some interesting scholarship on the topic of the Buddha’s possible Scythian origins: Jayarava has written about how the Buddha’s tribe may have been called ‘Śākya’ just because they were ‘of the Śakas’, i.e. Scythians, who had migrated into northern India in the preceding centuries, possibly bringing with them some Zoroastrian ideas that may still be visible in the background of the Buddha’s teaching.[6] But Beckwith does not engage with this kind of scholarship. There is a sort of wilful perversity in the way he pushes on with his ideas, despite what anyone else might think. There is self-contradiction at the heart of it all too. In Chapter Four we discover that Beckwith himself is a sceptic of the Pyrrhonian sort. He values the Pyrrhonian rejection of perfectionist and absolutist thinking, in favour of the putting aside of fixed views and the embracing of a sceptical method that leads towards a calmer appreciation of what really is. Robert Ellis over at the Middle Way Society has reviewed Beckwith’s book very positively from this philosophical angle, and his perspective helped keep me reading when the book’s silliness was getting too much.[7] Nevertheless, Beckwith’s own method, far from being Pyrrhonian, is an example of dogmatic scepticism at its worst, that is, the kind of scepticism which looks at the evidence and concludes that we can know nothing. In this way, Beckwith’s method of dogmatically ignoring Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism is self-contradictory.

Buddhist texts are indeed the product of various times and concerns, and hence it is not easy to determine what in them might really go back to the time of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is dogmatic to conclude that we should therefore ignore the whole of Buddhism in trying to understand early Buddhism. By contrast, a truly Pyrrhonian approach to the scholarly study of early Buddhism might consist in continually examining our views and beliefs as we study our texts, without supposing that we will ever really know for certain what the Buddha taught. This continual examination should involved us in questioning the dogmatism involved in our methods.

Beckwith’s dogmatic method in fact misses out on some nice evidence for what looks like Pyrrhonian scepticism in the Pāli canon. In one discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya,[8] the layman Anāthapiṇḍika talks to some ‘wanderers of other sects’ who want to know about the Buddha’s views and theories. Anāthapiṇḍika does not presume to tell them what the Buddha thinks, but gets the wanderers to tell him what they think. They hold different kinds of views: that the world is eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, that the body and soul are the same, or different, that the tathāgata, the ‘realized person’, exists after death, or doesn’t, or both, or neither – the standard formula for a range of metaphysical views. Anāthapiṇḍika then tells them what he believes: that all these views have arisen through careless attention or another’s utterance, that these views are conditioned (saṅkhatā), a product of volition (formed in the mind) (cetayitā), dependently arisen (paṭiccasamuppannā), hence impermanent, hence unsatisfactory, and therefore those views are unsatisfactory (dukkha here has the connotation of ‘wrong’). Having clearly seen this, one will understand the non-self characteristic and the escape from dukkha.

In the following discourse,[9] these wanderers say that the Buddha is a nihilist (venayika) and one who refrains from making declarations (appaññattika). The Greeks no doubt criticized Pyrrho on similar grounds, understanding his scepticism to result in vagueness and ethical passivity. The question arises, for both Pyrrho and for the Buddha, of what is a criterion for practical judgement if all views and opinions should be put aside. Pyrrho scholar Richard Bett discusses some disputed lines attributed to Pyrrho which put forward what may record his view on this matter:[10]

For I will say, as it appears to me to be,

A word of truth, having a correct standard:

That the nature of the divine and the good is at any time

That from which life becomes most even-tempered for a man.

These lines suggest that for Pyrrho the standard for judging the good is not a matter of view or belief, it is not a based on a theory, but rather it is based on a continual empirical judgement of what helps make human life more ‘even-tempered’. Unfortunately, we do not have any further information about Pyrrho’s thought here. However, the discourse from the Pāli canon just discussed includes the Buddha’s standard or criterion for judgements about the good. In response to the wanderers’ complaint that the Buddha was a nihilist and one who refrains from making declarations, the householder Vijjamāhita tells them:

The Blessed One has validly declared, “This is wholesome (kusala)” and, “This is unwholesome (akusala)”. Thus, when he declares what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, the Blessed One makes definite declarations. He is not a nihilist who refrains from making declarations.

For the Buddha, the distinction of wholesome (kusala, what is good) and unwholesome is the basis for practical judgements about how to live, and the enquiry into what is wholesome continues into the investigation of mental states in meditation and eventually into insight investigations into the nature of things. In this way, we can see further parallels between Pyrrho’s philosophy in the surviving fragments and the Buddha’s teaching as recorded in the Pāli canon. These kinds of parallels add to those noticed between Madhyamaka, Proto-Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonian scepticism, and to those explored by Christopher Beckwith in his new book.

[1] Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Allworth Press: New York, 2002, p.450ff; and Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books: Lanham, 2008. Beckwith does not really discuss either of these works.

[2] Verse 803, my translation of: na kappayanti na purekkharonti / dhammā pi tesaṃ na paṭicchitāse / na brāhmaṇo sīlavatena neyyo / pāraṃgato na pacceti tādī. Louis Gomez has already discussed the apparent similarity of these early teachings to later Madhyamaka, in ‘Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli canon’, Philosophy East and West, 1976 (26:2), pp.137–65, which Beckwith discusses.

[3] See the references to Beckwith’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

[4] Beckwith’s translation of Eusebius, p.23.

[5] Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.2, PTS: Bristol, 2010, p.414.

[6] Jayarava Attwood, ‘Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2012 (3), pp.47–69.

[7] http://www.middlewaysociety.org/tag/christopher-beckwith/.

[8] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:93 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1464–7.

[9] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:94 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1467–70.

[10] Discussed in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path


Not only did the Buddha attain awakening, but he subsequently taught a way for others to attain awakening. The ‘eightfold path’ is a summary of what it means to practise Buddhism – eight factors, which, developed together, lead to awakening. But, when one thinks about it, the idea of a ‘path’ being ‘eightfold’ is a little strange. How can a ‘path’, a way that leads somewhere, be ‘eightfold’? It is an example, I think, of a mixed metaphor: the Buddhist ‘way’ is at the same time a path to be travelled and set of qualities to be developed, so that the path consists in developing these qualities, and developing these qualities is the path. The ‘eightfold path’ is therefore, as a concept, somewhat awkward and complex, but the Pali discourses record that the Buddha gave some memorable images for the eightfold path, and images are a very effective way to communicate complex things – as the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta said (in a different context), ‘some intelligent people understand better through similes (upamā) what the teachings mean’.[1]

Let us first revise the eight factors that make up the eightfold path:

  1. Right view or vision: the right way of seeing, or understanding, even belief, that supports the work of spiritual transformation.
  2. Right resolve or emotion: that which moves one from within to engage with the spiritual life, the resolve, the devotion needed to change.
  3. Right speech: speech that is truthful, kindly, harmonious and meaningful, the practice of which changes the climate of one’s communication and thought.
  4. Right action: abstaining from harming living beings, from taking the not given, and from sexual misconduct – guides to bodily conduct.
  5. Right livelihood: how we make our living, how we spend our working lives, is crucial for our spiritual well being – butchery and weapons-dealing will not help.
  6. Right effort: working on the mind – developing and maintaining wholesome states, preventing and eradicating unwholesome states.
  7. Right mindfulness: practising mindful awareness, especially of bodily experience in the present moment, a rich embodied awareness of what we experience.
  8. Right concentration: working in meditation to bring the mind into an integrated, concentrated state capable of transformative insight into how things really are.

These eight factors together represent a complete path, of body, speech and mind, and they cover three areas of training: ethics (3–5), meditation (6–8) and wisdom (1–2). And now for those images of how these factors work together.

The eightfold path as a natural unfolding

The first image for the eightfold path is that of a flower naturally unfolding.[2] Each of the factors of the eightfold path represents a necessary part or ‘petal’ of a flower, representing spiritual development. A flower in bloom could be said to represent the full unfolding of our Buddha-nature – that intrinsic potential of our minds and hearts for awakening. This image is not in fact one given by the Buddha specifically for the eightfold path, although he did compare the stages of spiritual development to the stages of unfolding of a lotus flower.[3] He also compared spiritual development to the full maturation of a tree.[4] Development is thus a kind of blossoming of an inner nature. It occurs naturally when the right conditions are present. This blossoming is not the result of an effort of will. From this point of view, one practices each of the factors of the eightfold path, as is required, depending on which need cultivating, and which are already matured. One’s effort is directed to creating the conditions for the overall development of the mind and heart.

The eightfold path as a middle way

An image, or simile, that does come from the Buddha is the eightfold path as a middle way between the life of indulgence and the life of self-mortification. After the Buddha had gained awakening, he made his way to Sarnath, to teach his former companions in the ascetic life what he had learned. Having found them, and persuaded them to listen, he gave his first discourse, which starts like this:

‘Monks, there are these two extremes which are not to be followed by one who has gone forth. What two? That which is devotion to indulgence in sense-pleasures, which is inferior, vulgar, ordinary, ignoble, not beneficial; and that which is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not beneficial. Monks, not falling into either of these extremes, the Realized One has attained complete understanding of the middle way, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana.

‘And what, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana? It is exactly this noble eightfold path, namely: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stilling, realization, awakening, nirvana.’[5]

The Buddha goes on to present the four noble truths, but these are another topic. As for the eightfold path as the middle way, this helps understand what the path is not. On the one side is a life of self-indulgence. It is very normal for us to believe at some level that a truly satisfying life will come from getting certain sense-pleasures. However, the Buddha consistently taught that sense-pleasures are impermanent and unreliable and therefore cannot be the basis of our well-being. But neither on the other hand does the Buddha teach that the life of self-mortification will lead to true satisfaction. We can see, even these days, how people punish their bodies and control their appetites in the hope of gaining happiness, through body-building, dieting, extreme sports. The Buddha also taught that this is not the way.

If the Buddha taught the noble eightfold path as a middle way, it means that the path is not about the pursuit of sense-pleasures, but neither is it about the rejection of the body. We might think of the spiritual life as involving getting away from matter and the body, but the Buddha’s teaching is not like this. The eightfold path involves awareness of the body and right action of the body, as well as development of the mind. The middle way means development of the body and of the mind, together, in harmony.[6] The eightfold path is balanced and complete.

The path leading to the city of awakening

The middle way is however not really an image, and while there is said to be an eightfold ‘path’, we haven’t yet encountered much ‘walking’. But with the image of the path leading to the city of awakening, we meet an image of the eightfold path as a path, that requires walking:

‘Monks, it is as if a man walking about in a wooded wilderness should see an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times: that man would follow it, and following it would see an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it.

‘Then, monks, that man would tell his king or the prime minister about it, saying, “Your majesty should know that, while walking about in a wooded wilderness, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times; I followed it, and following it, I saw an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it. Sir, please restore it!” Then, monks, the king or prime minister would restore that city, and after some time it might become prosperous and powerful, rich and populous, as successful as it had been before.

‘In the same way, monks, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. And what, monks, is this old path, this unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times? It is just this noble eightfold path, namely, right view, and so on, to right concentration. This, monks, is the old path, the unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. I followed it, and following it, understood [the way to end all suffering].’[7]

This is from a discourse in which the Buddha explains a train of thought he had had before he was awakened. He eventually rediscovered the ancient path to awakening – it’s not something he invented. This image of a path that the Buddha rediscovered is one that needs thinking about. We imagine perhaps a grassy track through the jungle, perhaps paved with stones. But how can the eightfold path be a path like that? It is not something that is there, given, that we can find and walk along. Rather, it is something that we give rise to by bringing it to mind and practising it. It is a ‘path’ or way of life that is there because we are ‘walking’ or practising it: a path made by walking.

This path-made-by-walking is said to go to a city – but what can this represent? These days the word ‘city’ suggests conurbation, hectic activity, crowds, an artificial lifestyle. In the Buddha’s time, however, there weren’t large cities. Hence we should think more of a market town, a place in touch with the surrounding countryside, which is nevertheless an image of civilisation – nature humanised, or even tamed. A city is a civilised place to live, where human values prevail. Likewise, the eightfold path leads to a state of civilised harmony in our bodies and minds. If the eightfold path ‘goes’ anywhere, it ‘goes’ to the experience of harmonious civilisation, like the prosperous, populous city of the Buddha’s simile.

The path as a holistic spiritual workout

Our final image for the eightfold path is perhaps the craziest. To understand it we need to know about nāgas, creatures from Indian mythology. The nāgas are aquatic serpent-dragons, giant snakes living in water. The nāgas are powerful, non-human, impressive creatures. (The Buddha is said to be a nāga).

‘Monks, in the Himalayas, the kings among mountains, the nāgas work out their bodies and build up their strength. Having worked out and built themselves up, they plunge into ponds. Having plunged into ponds, they plunge into lakes. Having plunged into lakes, they plunge into streams. Having plunged into streams, they plunge into rivers. Having plunged into rivers, they plunge into the great ocean, the sea. There they come into the full vastness of their bodily forms. Likewise, monks, a monk, relying on virtue, established in virtue, cultivating and multiplying the noble eightfold path, fulfils the full vastness of good qualities.’[8]

Practising the factors of the eightfold path is like a holistic spiritual workout. We can plunge into the flowing waters of our lives, down and through the many currents, on a playful journey to where all journeys end, the ocean. Each of the factors is like a different spiritual exercise. We may need to build up our right speech, or our right effort, so as to prepare ourselves for the next plunge. Riding the current of life, continuing to build spiritual strength, we may experience more expansive love, deeper wisdom, in the midst of the flowing waters. And so its goes on.

These images for the eightfold path evoke the cooperation of eight factors in one overall experience of unfolding of our potential for growth and development. What is it we develop? We could think that we are developing our ‘selves’, but an important aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that, ultimately, there is no permanent or fixed self. It might be best to think that what we develop are good qualities, a whole range of excellent human qualities that together make up the awakened personality.

Based on a talk given to the Frome Triratna Sangha in March 2015

[1] From the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse, S 12:67 pts ii.112–5.

[2] See also Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation, Windhorse, 1990, p.159.

[3] In the episode of Brahmā’s request, in M 18 pts i.169 (and elsewhere): “Just as in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water thrive submerged without breaking the surface; some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown underwater rest at water-level; and some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water stand right out of the water, unspoiled by it – likewise the Blessed One, surveying the world with Buddha-vision, saw beings with little dust and a lot of dust, who were intelligent and dull-witted, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who lived seeing dangers and faults in the other world.”

[4] For instance, in the Secret Causes discourse, A 10:3 pts v.4–5.

[5] From the first discourse, or Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, S 56:11 pts v.420.

[6] In the Greater Discourse to Saccaka, M 36 pts i.237–51, the Buddha explores the true meaning of the development of body and development of mind, against the background of the Jain layman Saccaka’s misunderstandings.

[7] From The City, S 12:65 pts ii.104–7.

[8] From The Nāgas discourse, S 45:151 pts v.47.

Brain Lateralisation and Mindfulness

brain lateralisation

Late last summer, on solitary retreat, I started reading Ian McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary,[1] which sounds like it might be an ironic postmodern novel, but isn’t. It’s a survey of the past, present and (uncertain) future of western civilisation, in terms of the nature and effects of brain lateralisation. If this still sounds like an ironic postmodern novel, you’ll need to know that McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who knows the scientific literature on how the two halves of the brain work differently, and that he started out as an Oxford prof. in English lit. It’s an overwhelmingly ambitious book. Firstly McGilchrist tries to pin down why the human brain has two halves and how they work differently. Secondly he surveys the entire history of western civilisation, from the ancient Greeks onwards, explaining how distinctive attitudes and beliefs of each epoch can be characterised by the relative dominance of one or other half of the brain (the right half is the ‘Master’ and the left is its ‘emissary’). Such an ambitious book has understandably been criticised for imprecision,[2] but for those of us who enjoy intellectual stimulation, and have a concern with the fate of humanity and the planet, it’s a great read.[3] Too much for a solitary retreat, I discovered. I put it aside in favour of something more suitable for meditation (Anālayo’s Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna)[4] but picked it up afterwards when I stepped back into the whirling world.

I’ve wanted to write something about The Master and His Emissary since then, neither a ‘review’ (too critical) nor an effusion (too uncritical), but I lacked a prompt. But one arrived last Tuesday when I read a 2011 article by John Teasdale and Michael Chaskalson, two mindfulness teachers and Buddhists, on how the practice of mindfulness transforms suffering.[5] I’ve never before seen an explanation of how the simple practice of mindful awareness can radically change human experience, but this article manages to explain it, by distinguishing two ways in which the human mind cognises, one in terms of ‘propositional meaning’ (factual, conceptual, literal) and one in terms of ‘implicative meaning’ (holistic, metaphorical, poetic). Mindfulness practice encourages the implicative form of cognition, which leads to a reduction of rumination, proliferation, identification with the contents of thought (symptomatic of the ‘propositional’ mode of experience), hence – the transformation of avoidable human dukkha or suffering in the form of mental reactions to painful experience. It occurs to me that McGilchrist’s work on brain lateralisation offers a way to conceive of how Teasdale and Chaskalson’s two modes of cognition are physically realized. Mindfulness amounts to a training in favouring the mode of cognition of the right brain (the ‘Master’) over the left brain (his ‘emissary’).

The fact that the human (in fact, animal) brain is divided into two halves has been known for a long time. It’s not clear why the brain has two halves. It is well known however that the brain is connected contra-laterally with the body: right side of the body hooked up to the left side of the brain, and vice versa. There is a bundle of nerves joining the two halves, to keep up some neural dialogue, but surgeons occasionally cut this corpus callosum to treat severe epilepsy. Amazingly, those whose brains have been so divided seem mostly normal. Hence the idea that the two halves of the brain have distinct and separate functions. In the 1970s the left brain/right brain distinction entered popular culture as a metaphor to contrast rational vs. intuitive personalities, but this was not based on sound research. McGilchrist’s book opens with a massive summary of good contemporary research on how the two hemispheres of the brain function differently. He has given an animated TED talk about this, in which he distinguishes between two kinds of attention.

Whereas the left side of the brain specialises in focussed attention to detail, the right side of the brain maintains a broad general attention. In this way an animal can look for food (narrow focus) while aware of danger (broad vigilance). Hence McGilchrist sees an asymmetry of function in the brain: the two halves do similar and complementary things but in different ways. McGilchrist then builds up a picture of the difference between the ‘worlds’ constructed or revealed by the two halves of the human brain functioning differently. I can’t do justice to his extended discussion, but will draw out one crucial difference. The right brain’s world is one in which things are ‘present in experience, in their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and impermanence, and their interconnectedness, as part of a whole which is forever in flux’ (p.93). In this world we feel connected to what we experience, part of the whole. The left brain’s world is one in which we ‘step outside the flow of experience and “experience” our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a way which is less true but apparently clearer and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another’ (p.93). This world is divided up, categorised and lifeless, but we have power over it.

Our normal experience is of course a seamless combination of these two worlds, based on the separate functions of the two halves of the brain. Each is necessary to make sense of experience and for us to survive. Nevertheless, McGilchrist argues that the two halves of the brain are in competition for dominance, and that the best (for us, for the world) order of things is that the right brain is master; and the left brain is its emissary, its fact-finding, detail-seeking, category-classifying, abstracting representative.

A certain scepticism seems appropriate at this point. How can we possibly know if McGilchrist’s account of these two ‘worlds’ of experience, and his clear preference for right brain dominance, is anything more more than a story, the two halves of the brain being a metaphor for two attitudes or styles of existence? There is some fascinating independent evidence for McGilchrist’s story in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s account of her stroke.[6] Bolte-Taylor is a brain scientist who suffered a left-brain haemorrhage, and not only eventually recovered, but has been able to recount the experience of gradually losing the ‘world’ of the left brain to leave only a right brain experience. She describes the loss of the ability to speak, to distinguish numbers, to read, to organise experience into categories and concepts, and at the same time the appearance of a world in which her ordinary sense of being a separate self melted into an extraordinary and beautiful connectedness, which she describes as ‘nirvana’. And yet, as she explains, despite the profound love, beauty and insight of her exclusively right-brain experience, it is only half of the human experience. Through years of recovery she has had to re-learn the left-brain skills and aptitudes that would enable her to live without a great deal of help. Having regained the functionality of both halves of her brain, she now lives with conscious awareness of the differing worlds created by each half, which she describes in exactly the same terms as McGilchrist.

In their article on how mindfulness transforms suffering, Teasdale and Chaskalson say nothing about brains. After all, we need know nothing about what the grey stuff in our heads is doing to cultivate mindfulness. Teasdale and Chaskalson instead offer a model of how the mind works, a model of cognition which is independent of how it might be physically realized or manifested in our brains. To explain the effectiveness of mindful awareness in reducing symptoms of stress or depression, they characterise mindfulness in terms of the working memory in which we make sense of what is immediately happening.[7] Reading a sentence, for instance, one has to hold in the awareness of working memory the words which make up the sentence, in order to make sense of the sentence as a whole. Likewise one has to be aware of the sentences one has read to have a sense of what the paragraph and the article is ‘about’. This ‘making sense’ of what is happening is cognition. But cognition is not just one process. According to Teasdale and Chaskalson, following previous research in cognitive science, there are different cognitive processes, indeed, there are systems of interacting cognitive processes. The authors choose two for their model of mindfulness. There is an ‘implicative’ cognitive process, which finds implicit and holistic meanings in what is happening. The implicative process finds the meaning of the sentence in a directly intuited web of meanings. The ‘propositional’ process, however, is more specific, concerned with factual and literal understanding. The meaning of the sentence is grasped as the sum of the meanings of its words, as some sort of proposition (about states of affairs, perhaps with an associated truth-value).

Imagine you have had an argument, an interchange in which you had a marked and, to you importantly, different point of view to someone else. After the argument, when things quiet down, you attempt to make sense of what happened. The ‘propositional’ process formulates clear verbalized statements: she said this and I think that about it. The ‘implicative’ process tries to understand context and significance: what’s she like and how bruised I feel. The implicative process, therefore, is associated with more ‘felt’ or experienced qualities, whereas the propositional process becomes associated with more ruminative trains of thought. The cultivation of mindfulness, when this means the cultivation of mindful awareness of the implicative kind of meaning of experience, favours the awareness of how experience feels whereas an awareness of the propositional kind of meaning might only favour an awareness of what one is thinking about. Teasdale and Chaskalson propose that the powerfully transformative effect of mindfulness comes from the way in which awareness of implicative meaning is associated with the possibility of ‘holding’ holistic, intuited meaning in such a way that there can be a letting go or release or refreshing of the stories that the propositional cognitive process is telling. ‘We might say that mindfulness allows the poetry of moment by moment experience to rewrite itself’ (p.111).

My point is this. What Teasdale and Chaskalson propose as the different characteristics of the propositional and implicative cognitive processes – the factual, conceptual, literal versus the holistic, metaphorical, poetic – coincides with McGilchrist’s characterisation of the different ‘worlds’ of experience of the left and right halves of the brain. Bolte-Taylor describes the left brain’s aptitude for doing, for analysing information, and for telling stories about what is happening.[8] McGilchrist describes how the left brain re-presents experience in terms of what it already knows, and by contrast, how in right brain experience things present themselves as connected parts of a whole. Might it be, then, that the left and right hemispheres of the cerebral cortex physically realize the functions of propositional and implicative cognition? If this were the case, then cultivating mindfulness – holistic embodied presence to felt qualities of experience – amounts to developing a characteristic function of the right hemisphere. The transformative power of mindfulness should then relate to the prioritisation of the role of the right hemisphere in relation to experience. According to McGilchrist, just this prioritisation of the right hemisphere is necessary for human flourishing, and indeed for the future of human civilisation. McGilchrist himself sees the re-balancing in terms of the possibility of our re-discovery of right hemisphere experience through the body, spirituality and art – three ‘vehicles of love’ (p.445). The cultivation of mindfulness, the Buddha’s ‘direct way’ to the realization of nirvana, might therefore be the secret of all three.

[1] Ian McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press 2009. Subtitled The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which would have been a boring title. The paperback is 534 pages long, but printed in very small type. Not for the long-sighted!

[2] Owen Flanagan, an impressive analytic philosopher, concluded: ‘The fact is, hemispheric differences are not well understood. Neither are patterns over 2500 years of western history. Trying to explain the ill-understood latter with a caricature of the former does little to illuminate either’ (Wikipedia).

[3] My own interest was stimulated by a review by my friend Robert Ellis, a philosopher who regards McGilchrist’s work as significant as much for its non-reductive philosophic method as for its ambitious content.

[4] Anālayo, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2014. An excellent companion volume to his Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Reviewed by Ālokadhāra in Western Buddhist Review.

[5] John D. Teasdale and Michael Chaskalson (Kulananda), ‘How Does Mindfulness Transform Suffering? II: The Transformation of Dukkha’, in Contemporary Buddhism 12:1, 2011, pp.103–24. This article is the second of two linked articles in the same issue of Contemporary Buddhism, which itself is devoted to the theme of mindfulness and has been reprinted as a book: Mark Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, eds., Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications, Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

[6] Jill Bolte-Taylor tells her story in a TED talk, and in her book My Stroke of Insight, London: Penguin 2006. McGilchrist does not refer to Bolte-Taylor in his book or in the (massive) full bibliography online.

[7] This description of mindfulness in terms of ‘working memory’ not incidentally connects to the meaning of sati, the Pali word usually translated ‘mindfulness’, which actually means ‘memory’ or ‘recollection’. The Sanskrit equivalent of sati is smṛti, from the verbal root smṛ, ‘remember’.

[8] My Stroke of Insight, pp.142–3.

Roads, Boats and Buses: recent writing by Triratna Order members

Copied over from the Western Buddhist Review

Maitreyabandhu, The Crumb Road, Bloodaxe: Tarset, 2013, £9.95 pback
Rijumati Wallis, Pilgrimage to Anywhere, O-Books: Winchester, 2011, £11.99 pback
Simon Okotie, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, Salt: Cromer, 2012, £8.99 pback

There is a rich variety of talent in the Triratna Buddhist Order, nicely illustrated by these three very different kinds of books by Order members, all published over the last few years – one a volume of poems, one a travel memoir, the last an off-beat novel – with an admittedly tenuous transport-related link between them.

The Crumb Road

Maitreyabandhu is one of the few poets in the Order to have really succeeded on the contemporary poetry scene. His first collection, The Crumb Road, has had some glowing reviews and recommendations, and contains several prize winners. Maitreyabandhu, who lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre, trained first as an artist and has turned to poetry more recently. Something of his artistic background appears in some poems on Cézanne’s genius and peculiarity. Otherwise these poems are not painting-like but are beautiful, convincing glimpses of moments in the narrative of life.

Many poems explore childhood memories, including a long sequence called ‘Stephen’ about a first love affair. These poems have the flavour of coming to terms and of gratitude, and this is true even of the long sequence, in which love is like a pretty green weed in a disturbing, harsh landscape. Other poems move between recognisable experiences and fables, and although Buddhism never directly shows its face, qualities of presence and kindness run through the whole volume, as well as an attractive absence of the poet’s vanity or ego. Maitreyabandhu’s language stays mainly plain, his metaphors restrained, although some poems manage delicately effective rhymes. In this sense I like Maitreyabandhu’s explorations of the heritage of poetic form, while at the same time his poems themselves feel tremendously authentic in their themes.

In an essay in Poetry Review (101:3, autumn 2011), Maitreyabandhu defends a Romantic ideal of poetry as the expression of Imagination, that transcendent synthesising power. He begins this essay by describing how a poem of his called ‘Rangiatea’ manifested, with his tutor’s encouragement, through the madness and euphoria of creative imagination, and this long poem was my personal favourite of the collection. Beginning from an oblique reference to a Maori story of an island where ‘you could stay / and find the peace you wanted’, the poem shifts to telling an apparently unrelated story, though everything eventually converges at a higher, implied level. Maitreyabandhu has a gift for character and narrative as well as a pitch-perfect imagination, and I wonder if he might write a novel soon.

Contemporary poetry can often be difficult to access, perhaps partly because the gold has not yet been separated from the brass or soon-to-be-forgotten dross. The volume of poems by Maitreyabandhu, however, offers a lovely way in to the busy restaurant of contemporary verse.

Pilgrimage to Anywhere

Rijumati’s book Pilgrimage to Anywhere is a compelling travel memoir. A 42-year-old man, a longstanding member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, a capable and responsible director of a large Buddhist right-livelihood business, decides to throw everything in and embark on a round-the-world trip with no itinerary or goal, and the self-imposed rule of avoiding long-haul flights. He departs from Le Havre on a container ship bound for Colombo, and from this point as a reader I was hooked. Rijumati is a confident traveller, but also sensitive and intrigued by the people he meets, so his journey is an active and engaged encounter with the world. One the other hand, Rijumati is a spiritual pilgrim, travelling to find something, though he is not sure what, possibly only the experience of having to let go into the flow of what happens, and his open-hearted idealism takes him deeper into the travelling experience than a tourist would go. He ends up, for instance, making his way through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Siberia, bumping through post-Soviet landscapes, just because… there is no reason, really, though he has his soul seared in the process.

His subsequent travels in Japan, the USA and Mexico are happier – he has come through – and Rijumati shows himself an intelligent traveller, enraptured by geology, sociology and history as he heads south. In Mexico he encounters ancient cultures he did not know about, and his Euro-centric assumptions are put into larger context. Rijumati’s journey ends with a fairy-tale romance in Cuba, representing an almost archetypal home-coming after the solitary journey; significantly enough he gives up his no-long-haul-flights rule for the sake of love.

There is something very inspiring, I find, about stories of renunciation and idealism, and Rijumati’s travel memoir draws the reader into a vividly remembered, well-paced narrative. The book could have done with some more editing, to take out the typos and remove the superfluous Prologue and Epilogue, but otherwise this is a great read, and a valuable contribution to the genre of Order Members’ spiritual memoirs (which includes, as well of course as Sangharakshita’s memoirs, Nagabodhi’s Jai Bhim, and Taranatha’s Steps to Happiness, both published by Windhorse).

Harald Absalon

Finally there is a first novel by Manjusiha, writing as Simon Okotie, curiously entitled, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Manjusiha, also living in London, dedicates the novel to Maitreyabandhu, suggesting the circulation of encouragement in the arts of the imagination within the Triratna movement. But there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the sincere lyric confessional mode of Maitreyabandhu’s poems and the post-narrative absurdity of Okotie’s writing. Nevertheless, Harold Absalon is in its own way even more of an imaginative achievement, and stands in a venerable lineage of fiction that simultaneously creates and then mocks its own illusions (I thought of The Master and Marguerita).

The plot, if that is the right word for it, is so thin that it hardly bears mentioning. A detective of some sort, clearly inept, is on the trail, as it is called, or as he calls it, of the wife of the Mayor’s transport advisor, Harold Absalon, who has disappeared. Or so he says. After the slightest of orientations in the narrative world to which the reader must assent, the narrative digresses along the byways of the detective’s thought processes, which could be characterised as intelligent, analytic, obsessive and quite obviously proliferative in the sense that one cannot help but think there is something going on beneath these thoughts, bearing some important yet unstated relationship to them, which if one were able to learn what that something was, would explain and in another sense destroy those interminable wanderings. It feels a bit like a comic version of W.G. Sebald’s intensely internalised narrations. And of course the narrative suspense, such as it is, of the novel is made precisely out of the gradual, though partial revelation of that hidden something.

On p.56 the detective gets on a Routemaster bus, and the remaining three-quarters of the novel take place thereupon. It is hard not to begin to remember, in vivid sensual detail, the feel of the top deck of a crowded old London bus, with its smells, its noise, its lurching progress, and its ambience of a damp box full of quiet longings and ill-hidden thoughts. This ambience comes to life in this novel, as the reader encounters the stream of consciousness of one peculiar character among recognisable types. The detective’s thoughts are mostly quite harmless, almost boyish, or at least boyish when they turn to sex, but attuned to the need for precision in language and concept, without which the world would be a worse place, and the reader is left to savour the peculiar new light that gets shed on words like ‘corner’ or ‘fear’, or on certain turns of phrase like ‘cliff-hanger’. And the detective, for all his proliferation, is a precise observer of mores, such as the etiquette around allowing one’s neighbour on the seat of a bus arise and leave.

It is probably evident that I enjoyed this novel. I enjoyed its language, its invitation to the reader to enter its world on its own terms, its pace and play; I enjoyed the gradual revealing of what might be going on, and the character of the protagonist, so absolutely at sea in his urban landscape, so determined to work it all out, on his own terms, with tremendous idealism and commitment. The novel does have a conclusion, which in its own way is both mysterious and satisfying, but I am not going to reveal anything about it. You’ll have to get on the bus.

Not Easily Repaid


I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while as I have been pre-occupied with my dad’s illness and death on May 9th. But here I am getting back into the swing of blogging by sharing a translation I have made of an early Buddhist discourse from the Pali canon, concerning what we owe to our parents and how we might or might not be able to repay them for what they have given us. This discourse is not unique in the Pali canon, and it helps us put into perspective the Buddha’s well-known rejection of family life, in favour of a life of renunciation. Such renunciation does not imply that we forget everything that has been given us by our families. In fact, our Buddhist practice might be very well expressed by the way we try to repay our parents, by loving actions, speech and thoughts. So this translation is an offering for my father, Richard Jones (who really liked his chickens).

Not Easily Repaid

Monks,[1] I tell you, there are two people who are not easily repaid. Which two? Your mother and your father. You might carry them about on your shoulders, you might look after them when they are one hundred years old, at the end of life,[2] by rubbing their limbs, massaging them, bathing and washing them, and though they might become incontinent, urinating and defecating right where they are, nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. You might establish your mother and father in sovereign dominion over the realm of this great earth, abounding in the seven precious things, but nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. For what reason? Because, monks, mothers and fathers do a great deal for their children, bringing them up, feeding them and introducing them to this world.

But, monks, you could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack trust, in the blessing of confidence (saddhā). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack virtue, in the blessing of virtuous conduct (sīla). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they are selfish, in the blessing of generosity (cāga). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they have poor understanding, in the blessing of wisdom (paññā). To that extent, monks, you have done enough for your mother and father, you have repaid them, you have very much done enough for them.[3]


[1]This discourse does not have a title, so I have invented something suitable. It is from the Aṅguttara-nikāya 2:33, PTS i.61–2. Alternative translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

[2]The text has vassasatāyuko vassasatajīvī, ‘having a life span of one hundred years, living a hundred years’, agreeing with the subject, but it hardly makes sense to think the child at such an age might be looking after their parents, so my translation here is more of an interpretation.

[3]The final phrase, translating atikatañca, is not given in the Burmese ed., though it appears in the PTS and Sri Lankan eds., and ends the discourse nicely.