The Chapter of the Eights


My review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[vi] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 831.

[vii] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 832.

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

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

[x] In v.915.

[xi] In vv.917, 933.

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

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

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

[xv] Final two lines of v.877.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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.


[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

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.

An Epitome of Rational Dhamma


Y. Karunadasa, Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2013, $30, 205pp hback.

This review is copied over from Western Buddhist Review

The term ‘early Buddhism’ refers to the teaching of the Buddha and to the Buddhism of his followers up until the time of the second council and the first schism, about one hundred years after the death of the Buddha, when various geographically and doctrinally distinct schools of Buddhism came into being. There is a growing body of literature concerning the Buddhism of this earliest period,[i] despite the problem of historical evidence. Our best evidence for early Buddhism is the Pāli canon, which is the product of translation and of centuries of oral transmission. There is always an element of faith involved in discussing the Buddhism of the Buddha, faith that there really was such a person as the Buddha, and that the early discourses contain something of what he taught. In this context, Prof. Karunadasa’s new book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of early Buddhism by drawing out the meaning of the Buddha’s ‘middle way’, mainly in theory, but also in relation to the practice of the ethical life. In doing so, he does more than illuminate early Buddhist teachings: he provides a lucid though dense summary of the Buddha’s psychology of liberation, clearly explained, capable of being practised – his book is an epitome of rational Dhamma.

Prof. Karunadasa, from Sri Lanka, has specialised in Theravādin Abhidhamma studies.[ii] But in this book he turns to the suttas or discourses of the Pāli canon to explore an excellent hypothesis: that the best way to understand early Buddhist doctrine is as a critical response to the opposition of two opposed world-views, spiritual eternalism and materialist annihilationism. In his preliminary observations he makes clear that his method is one of interpretation. He draws on various discourses, subjecting them to close reading, sometimes using Theravādin exegetical terms, for the sake of presenting a coherent rational synthesis of early Buddhist teaching. The result is extremely interesting and inspiring, mainly because the author’s thinking is very clear and does not betray any imposition of a view onto the materials discussed.

He begins by proposing a historical context of the Buddha’s teaching, in which religious and philosophical discourse was polarised between two views. On the one hand the Brahmans and some ascetics (samaṇas) taught that there was a permanent metaphysical self, a spirit distinct from the body, and that spiritual practice consisted of uniting with that self. In reaction to this metaphysical view, which the Buddha called ‘eternalism’ (sassatavāda), other ascetics taught that there was only a physical self, and that this self will be annihilated at death, a view which the Buddha called ‘annihilationism’ (ucchedavāda). These two extremes are two versions of the theory of the self, and they were associated with asceticism in the case of eternalism, and hedonism in the case of annihilationism. The Buddha’s middle way is both a ‘teaching by the middle’ (majjhena dhammaṃ) in respect of views and a ‘middle path’ (majjhimā paṭipadā) in respect of practice. There is plenty of scope for further discussion of the historical hypothesis that Prof. Karunadasa proposes, but nevertheless it works well enough as a framework for the discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way.

Karunadasa next interprets dependent arising (paṭicca-samupāda) in terms of the middle way. The point of view of dependent arising transcends the dualities of monism and pluralism, in that reality is neither grounded in a single principle, nor is it a collection of unrelated entities. The best-known application of dependent arising, the twelvenidānas, he interprets as ‘the causal structure of individual existence’ (p.26). Implicitly eschewing the later interpretation of the nidānas as spread over three lives, Karunadasa boldly proposes that each nidāna implies the presence of the five aggregates (khandhas) which constitute individual existence, namely, physical form, feeling, contact, volitional formations and consciousness. Each of the nidānas, from ignorance (avijjā) to ageing-and-death (jarāmaraṇa) concerns how the individual, made up of the aggregates, enters into saṃsāra. Karunadasa next revisits the well-explored territory of ‘not self’ (anattā) but with great delicacy, stressing how the not self teaching is the middle way between an eternalist conception of a metaphysical self and an annihilationist conception of a physical self, in the sense that the person or individual is the ‘sum total of the five aggregates when they are structurally organised according to the principle of dependent arising’ (p.37). Somewhat anachronistically, however, he criticises earlier scholars of Buddhism (such as Radhakrishnan, Mrs Rhys Davids, Grimm, Bhattacarya, etc.) who claimed that the Buddha taught a ‘higher Self’.

The chapter on ‘the Analysis of the Mind’ seems to me to be the central chapter of the book. The Buddha’s middle way begins to take shape in terms of how individual existence, constituted by the five aggregates, undergoes a cognitive process which it mistakes for a self. The co-arising of sense-experience and sense-consciousness leads to contact, feeling, perception, thinking, conceptual proliferation and the consequent impact of proliferation back upon the individual. In this way we come to experience being a self in saṃsāra. Karunadasa stresses how consciousness is reciprocally dependent on name and form, the physical organism plus mental factors, this reciprocal dependence constituting an ‘irreducible ground of saṃsāric existence’ (p.61), a position transcending either an eternalist tendency to view the mind as the ultimate reality, or a materialist tendency to view physical matter as what is real. In this central chapter we begin to sense the author’s underlying conviction concerning a humanistic and psychological interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. He shows no interest in myth or symbol, even though all of these are evidently as much part of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next few chapters explore the practical implications of this theory. The Buddha characterised the human condition as dukkha, suffering (meaning, being stuck in conditioned existence). Individual existence is a causally conditioned process of grasping the five aggregates; grasping is the superimposition of the ideas ‘this is mine’, ‘I am this’, ‘this is my self’, onto the aggregates. When this process ends, suffering ends. Suffering, therefore, is the same as being motivated by self-centred craving, and the Buddhist ethical life is lived to ameliorate this suffering. Karunadasa explores three principles of the ethical life: kammavāda (that actions have consequences), kiriyavāda (the need to act wholesomely), and viriyavāda (the need to make an effort). The discussion of kamma as intention, and what this entails, is dense and stimulating. Next Karunadasa explores the nature and application of the eightfold path, the Buddha’s ‘middle way’. Finally, he discusses the role and place of happiness in early Buddhism. He successfully presents happiness as both a goal of all our desires and the result of living a wholesome (kusala) life.

In the concluding chapters, Karunadasa returns to his main theme of the ‘teaching by the middle’. Nibbāna is neither the attainment of a metaphysical reality nor the annihilation of a physical self. He begins with the simple definition of nibbāna as the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion, and then expands this definition in terms of various other ways in which nibbāna is described: as knowledge, as world-transcendence, as the unconditioned, as non-proliferation, and so on. He denies that nibbāna has anything to do with a transcendental reality. The chapter on the Buddha’s ‘unanswered questions’ (Is the world finite or infinite? Has it a beginning or not? Is the soul the same or different to the body? Does the Tathāgata exist after death, not, both, or neither?) is more philosophical but nicely demonstrates the methodology of the whole book, as well as showing the importance of right view for the practice of Buddhism. Karunadasa explores the cultural context of the questions and how the Buddha handles them, and concludes that he did not answer them because they are inappropriate and meaningless. Hence the positions put forward by other scholars, such as naïve agnosticism, pragmatism, rational agnosticism and positivism, are all incorrect.

Karunadasa ends with a chapter on the Buddhist attitude to the idea of God: not only does God have not place in Buddhism, but the Buddha offers arguments against belief in his existence. He concludes that Buddhism is anthropology, not theology. An appendix on Buddhism and fundamentalism explores how the belief, which the Buddha warned against, that ‘this alone is true; all other beliefs are false’ is as corrosive a view within Buddhism as without, and how Buddhism is a pluralist tradition, admitting a plurality of doctrines, scriptures, cultures and societies. Moreover, the Buddha did not deny that there can be liberation outside Buddhism, for what the Buddha discovered, is open to anyone to discover; and while what was said by the Buddha was well said, whatever has been well said by anyone (or in other scriptures) is the word of the Buddha too.

In short, this is a high-level abstract synthesis of Buddhist doctrine. Its value lies in its steady focus on the early discourses, its method of interpretation guided not by later Buddhist exegesis but by a historical hypothesis about the metaphysical context of the Buddha’s teaching. Karunadasa tries to cover both the theory and practice of the middle way, but in doing so the book feels like two books, the one on practice sandwiched between chapters on theory. As it is, I suspect that Early Buddhist Teachings will not gain much of a readership beyond the Buddhist intelligentsia, especially because it makes no attempt to relate the early Buddhist teachings to other philosophical or religious traditions. This is a pity, and I predict the book is destined to remain a hidden treasure among books on early Buddhism, partly because of its specialism, and also because it is only available direct from the publishers in Hong Kong.

Available direct from the publishers, for $30 + $10p&p.

Dhivan Thomas Jones is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and the author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching on Conditionality.

[i] For instance Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, and Alexander Wynne, The Origins of Buddhist Meditation, reviewed in WBR volume 5. Bhikkhu Anālayo is a prolific scholar of early Buddhism too; his books on satipaṭṭhāna are published by Windhorse Publications.

[ii] His book on the dhamma-theory published by the Buddhist Publication Society is available online

No Need for the H-Word


Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of MahāyānaBuddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013, 239pp., £9.99 pback. (Available from Wisdom Books at

My review of this collection of essays, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review.

The usual history of Buddhism in India goes that the Mahāyāna arose around the beginning of the common era as a reaction against complacency and scholasticism in the existing schools. It described itself as a ‘great vehicle’, which put forward the Bodhisattva ideal of complete perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all, in contrast to the ‘inferior vehicle’ (hīnayāna) of the śrāvakas, with their arahant ideal of enlightenment merely for oneself. But it turns out that this is mostly untrue. We learn from this volume on the Bodhisattva ideal that this ideal does not belong only to the Mahāyāna but to all Buddhist schools. The idea that the Mahāyāna has the monopoly on it is a misrepresentation of Buddhism.

The general picture that emerges from this book, however, is that Mahāyāna was neither a school nor an ordination lineage, but a movement within Indian Buddhism. There were never Mahāyāna monasteries, and Buddhists of this new movement and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists lived and practised together. The word ‘hināyana’ (the ‘H-word’) is a pejorative term only found in later Mahāyāna texts, and never used by any non-Mahāyāna text to describe ‘mainstream’ Buddhism. The idea presented in Mahāyāna Sūtras that Mahāyāna is a higher teaching of the Buddha, revealed only to certain disciples, and so on, is rhetorical.

The essays collected here, which have all previously appeared elsewhere, is in the first place a more specific corrective to common misperceptions about the Bodhisattva ideal. The first essay, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, sets the tone. It outlines how the Bodhisattva ideal appears in Theravāda Buddhism. The Buddha realized enlightenment, and then taught others how to gain it. At first, no distinction was made between the Buddha’s enlightenment and that of his followers, but gradually a distinction began to be made. After all, the Buddha had gained enlightenment by himself, while others did so by following his teaching. The well-known distinction of three types of bodhi, awakening or enlightenment, arose: there is the bodhi of the arahant or ‘worthy one’ who is a disciple of the Buddha; there is the bodhi of the pacceka-buddha or ‘solitary Buddha’, who gains enlightenment by himself but does not teach; and there is the sammā-sam-bodhi of the Buddha. From earliest days the Buddha was called a bodhisatta prior to his enlightenment;[1] but gradually the story evolved of the enormously long career of this bodhisatta through previous lives, illustrated in the stories of the Jātaka, and beginning from the vow to attain Buddhahood made by the brahman Sumedha in the presence of the Buddha Dipaṅkara incalculable aeons ago, as recorded in the Buddhavaṁsa. The Bodhisattva ideal is thus acknowledged and venerated in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism as the highest Buddhist ideal. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains how Mahāyānists then gave this ideal prescriptive force for the Buddhist practitioner. But this in no way necessitates any disrespect for the arahant ideal, and indeed the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra,[2] contain no criticism of the earlier ideal. It is only in later Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, that we find a denigration of the arahant.

An essay by Bhikkhu Anālayo reconstructs the genesis of the Bodhisattva ideal from the evidence in the Pāli discourses and their parallels preserved in Chinese translation.[3] We learn that everything said about the Bodhisattva in the Mahāyāna is derived from the common traditions of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. Essays by Jeffrey Samuels[4] and Karel Werner continue to explore the Bodhisattva ideal in non-Mahāyāna literature in complementary ways. Samuels describes how great Mahāyānists such Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Candrakīrti each identify the Mahāyāna with the bodhisattva-yāna, and the srāvaka-yāna with the non-Mahāyāna Buddhism of the various schools. As Samuels points out, this ‘sets up an opposition between an ideology and an institutional affiliation’ (p.33), which is quite misleading, for, as we have seen, the bodhisattva-yāna is fully part of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The question inevitably arises of what exactly is Mahāyāna, and why it arose. It has to be said that this is still something of a mystery. The last essay of the collection, by David McMahan, explores the significance of writing for the emergence of the Mahāyāna. His essay reminds us how the distinguishing features of Mahāyāna scriptures are their visionary metaphysics and cosmic extravagance. Non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, by contrast, was based on the careful preservation of earlier teaching, initially through oral recitation, though with some imaginative embellishment. With the popularisation of writing around the turn of the common era, new ways arose for reform movements within Buddhism to express themselves. One way they did this was to fabricate entirely new sūtras, and attribute them to Buddhas. The longest essay in the collection, by Peter Skilling, explores what we know about the earliest of these new scriptures, where and how they arose, and how they presented themselves. The discussion is technical but highly illuminating. We discover that there is no longer any accepted model for the arising of the Mahāyāna. It is not simply a matter of a lay movement, or a monastic movement towards forest renunciation, nor is it a matter of cults of stupa-worship or book-worship. All these ideas for the origin of the Mahāyāna have been put forward, but none seem completely to explain it. Skilling also emphasises how, even in the last twenty years, we have learned a great deal more about early Buddhism. The discovery and editing of ancient texts, including a hitherto-unknown Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, in the Gandhari dialect, is changing the whole way we understand early Indian Buddhism.

An overall theme in this collection is how both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists look to the Buddha and his enlightenment for their inspiration. It is only through the Buddha as exemplar and teacher that we have access either to the arahant ideal or to the Bodhisattva ideal. This does not mean these ideals are in some sense ‘really the same’, but that they must each be understood in terms of complex historical processes of doctrinal development. In this sense, this book contributes to Buddhist unity in the modern world, a unity, which is also an important theme in the teaching of Sangharakshita and in the Triratna Buddhist movement.[5]

I suppose a die-hard Mahāyānist might object that this is a book written and published by Theravādins for Theravādins, like a book by Roman Catholics about Protestantism. However, this would be unfair. Although Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writing style used to be overtly orthodox, he now lives at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, where both Pāli and Mahāyāna Buddhism is studied and practiced,[6] and his teaching is replete with references to non-Theravādin sources.[7] The other contributors to this volume, whether ordained monastics or not, are scrupulously scholarly. Nevertheless, it would not be a criticism to say that the essays in The Bodhisattva Ideal are written on the whole from a Theravādin perspective. Their concern is not primarily to understand the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reform movement, but rather how the Bodhisattva ideal is more universal in Buddhism than is usually understood, and how the concerns of Mahāyāna are continuous and entwined with much in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. It would be fascinating to see a companion volume of essays from an avowedly Mahāyānist point of view.

[1] Bhikku Bodhi, p.29, makes the point, which has been made elsewhere, that the Pāli bodhi-satta may represent what would be in Sanskrit bodhi-śakta, ‘capable of enlightenment’, and that bodhi-sattva, ‘enlightenment-being’, may represent an incorrect Sanskrit back-formation.

[2] As introduced and translated in the excellent book by Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Enquiry of Ugra, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2003.

[3] This essay is extracted from Anālayo, The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, Hamburg University Press, 2010; online at

[4] Not to be confused with Geoffrey Samuels, an anthropologist of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism.

[5] As discussed in Subhuti, ‘A Supra-Personal Force’, 2012, online at

[6] See for details of this fascinating project.

[7] The footnotes in his new translation of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2013, often draw attention to parallel passages in surviving Chinese translations of the Ekottarikāgama.

Approaching the Middle Way

A review of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakārikā, trans. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA, 2013, 351pp., $28.95 pback, also in ebook


This is a very welcome new translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhayamakakārikā. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, two seasoned scholars of Indian philosophy, explain in their preface that they have been working on their translation since 1999, and the book comes across as carefully considered. They provide a short introduction that puts Nāgārjuna’s philosophy into its intellectual context. They usefully include the Sanskrit verses, in clear roman script, with a few carefully chosen text-critical notes. Each verse is translated into intelligible English, with explanation of translation issues where required. They also include a short commentary on each verse, with some exploration of the concerns and presuppositions being made, and highlights from four Indian commentaries on the text (the Akutobhayā and those by Candrakīrti, Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka). It seemed to this reviewer, as someone who has some knowledge of Sanskrit, that the translation is an ideal combination of clarity in English and closeness to the original, with enough of a commentary to allow the reader to have some sense of the concern with which Nāgārjuna’s verses are grappling. The book is altogether to be recommended as a reliable translation of a central text of the Buddhist philosophical tradition.

And perhaps this is all that a review needs to say. But the very success of Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation brings to the fore a rather important question: just what does one make of the philosophical content of Nāgārjuna’s work? Oddly – or perhaps deliberately – this new translation does not try to answer that question. It does not try to interpret Nāgārjuna or make his work intelligible to readers educated in western philosophy. For a reader new to Nāgārjuna, and wishing to make the acquaintance of a philosophical work reputed to be of some importance to the Buddhist tradition, this book may prove not a little frustrating or even opaque.

However, this may be deliberate, in that the translators perhaps decided not to put their own interpretation on the text but to try to let it speak for itself. The trouble is that the text does speak very clearly. Not much is known about Nāgārjuna, except that he probably lived in south India in about the 2nd c. ce. Quite a number of works have been attributed to him, though scholars dispute which are authentic. The one thing for sure is that his name is attached to the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and that its 447 Sanskrit verses (kārikā) are at the root (mūla) of the middle way school of Buddhist philosophy (madhayamaka). This school was highly influential in India, was transmitted to Tibet, and continues to flourish among Tibetan Buddhists. Nāgārjuna’s work is therefore not just of historical value, but continues to be central to the philosophical side of Tibetan Buddhist culture.[1] The Sanskrit verses, however, are not self-explanatory. They pack their philosophical content into a metrical form, and rarely unpack any of the philosophical details. Indian philosophical texts were put into verse so that they could be memorised by students, and the arguments and issues would later have been explained orally. We do not have Nāgārjuna’s own commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, as we do with another of his works, the Vigrahavyāvartanī.[2] Instead we have several commentaries by Indian thinkers of some centuries later, who, although broadly agreeing about the main thrust of Nāgārjuna’s thought, engaged in dispute about how exactly to interpret it.

Apart from deciding how exactly to understand Nāgārjuna within the Buddhist philosophical context, there is the issue of how a westerner might relate to any of his philosophical concerns. Let us take as an example the concept of śūnyatā or emptiness, which, everyone agrees, Nāgārjuna wishes to establish as the ultimate truth. Emptiness is not anything in itself but is a concept that refers to how everything is empty of svabhāva or intrinsic existence. Hence to understand the meaning of śūnyatā, just as a concept, it is necessary to understand the meaning of svabhāva as a concept. But in the western philosophical tradition, there is not really any equivalent concept. And even in the Indian philosophical tradition, it is not entirely clear whether Nāgārjuna is setting up his concept of svabhāva as a kind of straw man, or whether any Abhidharma tradition really did suppose that some things had svabhāva in the way that Nāgārjuna says that they do not.[3]

All in all, most western readers of Nāgārjuna need guidance about how exactly to read and interpret his verses. In this sense, the new translation by Siderits and Katsura is not very helpful. By contrast, the 1995 translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Jay Garfield is better.[4] Garfield has not only studied the verses and the traditional Indian and Tibetan commentaries on them, but also engages with them both in terms of western philosophical parallels and Indian Buddhist soteriological concerns. Reading Garfield, one has a sense of why Nāgārjuna might be worth studying. However, and this is an important qualification, Garfield’s translation is based on the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit verses ­– it is a translation of a translation, and this shows in the relative lack of clarity and precision in language.[5] Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation is simply superior in this regard.

Garfield also offers a running commentary on how previous western translators and interpreters of Nāgārjuna have fared: while Murti read Nāgārjuna as an absolutist, positing a reality behind appearances, Kalupahana read him as a pragmatist, and Wood as a nihilist.[6] Garfield disagrees with these previous translators, and takes them to have unnecessarily read western philosophical positions into a work which ought to be understood in its own context. I think that it is here that we may find an explanation of why Siderits and Katsura have elected to provide a rather bare translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. They perhaps want readers to encounter Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without the imposition of any kind of western thought structure onto a very Indian Buddhist way of looking at things. Jan Westerhoff, in his recent book on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, offers something of a justification of this approach.[7] He notes that western interpretation of Nāgārjuna has gone from one that makes him a kind of Kantian, to one that makes him a kind of Wittgenstein, to one that makes him a kind of William James. However, it is now possible to approach the study of Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without presenting him in terms of supposed western parallels to his thought. In this regard, even Garfield sometimes interprets Nāgārjuna as a kind of sceptic, in the philosophical tradition that culminates in David Hume. Taking Westerhoff seriously, then, we might suppose that Siderits and Katsura intend their readers to engage with Nāgārjuna on his own terms, and they do so as part of a maturing of the western philosophical encounter with Indian Buddhism. Although they do not say as much, this would at least explain why in their commentaries on individual verses they often refrain from putting forward their own interpretation even when it might have been helpful for the reader for them to have done so. If this is correct, then perhaps the hope is that readers of this new translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā will themselves be drawn into the task of a mature encounter with Nāgārjuna. Such a reader might, however, have to prepare themselves with the older interpretations of Nāgārjuna, which, even if flawed, do provide some orientation. And they might have to read around a bit, in works like Westerhoff’s introduction to Nāgārjuna. Whatever they make of it, this excellent new translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Siderits and Katsura is a starting point for philosophical reflection, while the bareness of its commentaries, while not exactly helpful, is perhaps a sign of how seriously the translators take Nāgārjuna as an original philosopher.

This review is reposted from


[1] As evident in a recent translation of some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: The Dalai Lama, The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, trans. Thubten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009.

[2] For which, see for instance another welcome new translation and commentary: Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] This is the place to mention that some western readers of Nāgārjuna have concluded that his philosophy has been over-rated: see, for instance, Richard Hayes, ‘Nāgārjuna’s Appeal’, in The Journal of Indian Philosophy, 22 (1994), 299–378.

[4] Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[5] And this is the place to mention Stephen Batchelor’s translation from the Tibetan, Verses From the Centre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000; it is a kind of poetical re-working of Nāgārjuna, but of no help for engaging with what Nāgārjuna actually wrote.

[6] See T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1955; David Kalupahana, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1991; Thomas E. Wood, Nāgārjunian Disputations, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994.

[7] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp.9–12.

Pāli Safari


This review recently appeared in the Western Buddhist Review, at

Bhikkhu Anālayo, Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Pariyatti Press, Onalaska WA, USA, 2012, 326pp., $19.95 pback

The idea of an ‘excursion’ into the thought-world of the Pāli discourses suggests a guided tour, a day trip, or, figuratively, an author’s venture into unfamiliar territory. However, Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book is more like a safari into the heart of Pāli country, with a capable guide who is not afraid to show you some unexpected features of the less well-known areas. Anālayo explores 24 different words used in the Pāli Buddhist discourses, beginning with Craving (taṇhā), and ending with Liberation (vimutti). The entries vary in length, depending on the relative importance of each topic and the difficulties encountered in exploring it, but they follow a similar pattern. An introduction to the word’s meaning and implication is followed by a survey of its usage in the discourses (and sometimes in the vinaya and in some post-canonical works). This is followed by a discussion of the implications of this term for Buddhist practice, concluding with an evocation of the successful result of such practice. But this summary of the formula for each essay does not do justice to the effect. Anālayo has a wonderfully broad and discerning knowledge of the Pāli discourses, and his essays present a formidably learned but nevertheless tremendously inspiring basic ground of clarity about early Buddhist concepts.

Bhikkhu Anālayo’s scholarship began with his PhD exploring the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (published by Windhorse, Cambridge, 2003, as Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization). More recently he has learned Chinese and has been writing about the relationships between early Buddhist discourses preserved in Pāli and those originally written in other Indian languages, which now survive only in Chinese translation. Anālayo combines scholarship in Buddhist scriptures with actual Buddhist practice based on those same texts, and in Excursions he writes very much as a scholar-practitioner, mainly about Pāli discourses, but with the occasional reference to the Chinese parallels to certain difficult passages. The 24 essays were originally written for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, a Sri Lankan project begun soon after the 1955 Buddha-jayanti, and only completed in 2009, in a total of eight substantial volumes. Many scholars have contributed over the years, with Anālayo evidently joining in at a late stage, since his contributions begin with rāga (among the entries under ‘r’) and run through to Yuganaddha Sutta.

Hence the apparently random selection of topics in this book, which are actually edited versions of the essays appearing in the Encyclopaedia, but here made to work together in an inter-related collection. Being of the nature of reference articles, the essays will be basically familiar to anyone who has studied Pāli Buddhism, or consulted Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary. However, Anālayo’s work takes the genre of a reference article to new levels of thoroughness, and these provide a fascinating survey of usage and nuance. There are essays on each of the five hindrances – Passsion (rāga), Ill-will (vyāpāda), Sloth-and-torpor (thīnamiddha), Restlessness-and-worry (uddhaccakukkucca), Doubt (vicikicchā); essays on four of the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda – Volitional Formations (saṅkhārā), Feeling (vedanā), Craving (taṇhā), Clinging (upadāna); and essays on four of the twelve factors of the path – Happiness (sukha), Concentration (samādhi), Knowledge and Vision according to Reality (yathābhūtañāṇadassana), Liberation (vimutti). There are also fascinating essays on Personality View (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and Contemplation of feelings (vedanānupassanā), as well as on lesser-known concepts in Pāli Buddhism such as Seclusion (viveka), Letting Go (vossagga) and Emptiness (suññatā). Although encylopaedia articles are not usually the place to present new research, Anālayo nevertheless also manages to bring in some illuminating new interpretations of difficult issues, of which I will mention five.

First, in his discussion of Craving (taṇhā), he suggests a very interesting way of understanding the concept of vibhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for annihilation’. This concept is usually given as the third kind of taṇhā, after kāma-taṇhā, ‘craving for sensual pleasure’ and bhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for existence’ (i.e. craving to continue as the same person). Anālayo interprets vibhava-taṇhā as not only the desire to commit suicide but also, and much more importantly, ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’ (p.16). Needless to say, this suggestion is accompanied by a discussion of various discourses and an admission of conjecture. Nevertheless, it is a proposal quite in line with the Buddha’s rejection of the kind of mysticism found in the Upaniṣads. Second, in his discussion of Right View (sammādiṭṭhi), Anālayo very neatly solves the old problem of how to reconcile the admonition found in some of the suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-Nipāta, to let go of all views, with the admonition found more widely in the Nikāyas, to have right view. He writes: ‘right view as the vision gained through deep insight is what ‘sees through’ any view’ (p.102), and hence the person of transcendent right view or perfect vision is also someone who has let go of views. Third, in his discussion of Tranquillity and Insight, samatha & vipassanā, Anālayo explains how, in the Pāli discourses, these two qualities are actually ‘two central qualities that are to be developed in conjunction with any type of meditation practice’ (p.232). There is no question, therefore, at least in the early Buddhist view, of a successful insight practice without tranquillity. Anālayo develops this theme further in his discussion of Concentration (samādhi), in which he concludes that: ‘the so-called “dry insight” approach, which dispenses with the formal development of mental tranquillity up to the level of the first absorption, may not be capable of leading to fully liberation, but might suffice only for stream-entry’ (p.256).  Such a stand makes clear the importance for early Buddhism of jhāna, and draws a clear distinction between early Buddhist doctrine and the dry insight approach of some modern Theravādins. Fifthly, Anālayo’s judicious use of Chinese parallels is apparent in his discussion of Seclusion (viveka). While in the Pāli discourses the Buddha recommends silence and seclusion, in one discourse he censures some monks who had decided to keep silence together for their rains retreat. A consideration of a parallel preserved in Chinese, however, reveals that these monks had decided ‘not to criticize each other even in the case of a breach of conduct’ (p.263), and it was evidently for this reason that the Buddha had censured them. In this way, Anālayo sheds light on Pāli discourses that are unclear, through his knowledge of parallel passages in Chinese translation.

These were simply five points that particularly attracted this reviewer’s attention, and other readers will no doubt find different points of interest. Overall, my response to Anālayo’s Excursions was delight and pleasure in the appearance of a new standard for reference articles on early Buddhist concepts. In this sense, the present book is highly recommended. It is, however, frustrating in that it covers only a few topics. One can only hope that, despite the Encylopaedia of Buddhism now being complete, Bhikkhu Anālayo will continue to write articles like the ones gathered in this book, and that these articles are eventually gathered into a more comprehensive reference work on the important terms and concepts of the Pāli discourses.

Dhīvan is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and author of This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2011.