Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

More Than Happiness

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

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fire Sermon

Fire WorshipAn Introduction to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

We owe the translation of the title of the discourse known as ‘The Fire Sermon’ to the American translator Henry Clark Warren, whose Buddhism in Translations was one of those pioneering Victorian works that brought the spirit of Buddhism into the west. Someone who read Warren’s translation was the poet T.S. Eliot, who studied Sanskrit from 1911–14, at Harvard. And Eliot’s reading of Warren’s translation resulted in his naming the third section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land ‘The Fire Sermon’. I’m sure the Buddha could never have guessed that he would get quoted in modernist literature.

The title ‘The Fire Sermon’ has a great ring to it. More literally, the title (āditta-sutta) is ‘The Discourse about What is on Fire’, or simply, ‘Burning’. And, while the so-called ‘second sermon’ is more like a Socratic dialogue than a sermon, this ‘Discourse on Burning’, is more rightly called the ‘third sermon’ – the third teaching of the Buddha. A problem of course with the English word ‘sermon’ is its connotation of a tedious long talk in a church. But all of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered out-of-doors, and they are all records of the Buddha’s attempt to directly get across his awakening experience, to the extent that it can be put into words. The Pāli canon gives us a vivid sense of how the Buddha’s teaching was always delivered to a specific person or group, always tailored to his audience’s interests and expectations. The Dharma was never primarily a set of lists or doctrines, but rather the familiar ways in which the Dharma came to be expressed were the result of the Buddha’s teaching experience to specific people over a long period.

Once again I invite you to consider the early Buddhist discourses as literature – not as any kind of more-or-less accurate record of what the Buddha said in ancient India, but as the way that the early Buddhists, after the time of the Buddha, tried to re-create in a literary form the style and impact of their teacher. This involved the development of stories, which have the look of historical accounts, but are really later reconstructions of events. One these stories is that of what the Buddha did after his awakening experience, under the Bodhi tree. It is a long and detailed story, and is preserved in the Vinaya (the book of monastic discipline). Two episodes of this story are the Buddha’s ‘first sermon’ to his former five companions, given at the Deer Park at Sarnath, and then the ‘second sermon’, which brings them all to awakening. Let me give a summary version of what happens next.

We hear about a spoiled young man called Yasa, who becomes disgusted with his superficial lifestyle, whom the Buddha converts, in a story that later is switched to the Buddha himself. Then we hear that, once there are sixty arahants, the Buddha sends them out in all directions, exhorting them to ‘wander for the well-being and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being and happiness of gods and human beings’.

The Buddha then wanders eastward, towards Uruvelā (where he had gained awakening). On the way he meets a group of thirty young men with their twenty-nine wives. The girlfriend of the unmarried man has stolen their things and they are looking for her. ‘Which is better for you?’ the Buddha asks them; ‘seeking a woman or seeking for your self?’, and he converts them too. Arriving at Uruvelā, the Buddha meets three fire-worshipping dreadlocked ascetics, each called Kassapa, with their thousand followers. By performing a series of miracles, starting with the taming of a fierce nāga (python) living in one of the fire-huts, the Buddha converts the ascetics. Now follows the Buddha’s third sermon, to the former fire-worshipping ascetics (my translation can be found here).

The later Theravādin commentary adds that the Buddha thought, ‘What might be an appropriate dharma talk for these people, who tend the sacred fire in the mornings?’ And he came to the conclusion, ‘I will teach them about the six senses and their objects, comparing them to what is burning and blazing, and in this way they will be able to obtain arahantship.’ Then he spoke this formulation of the Dharma in order to teach the Dharma to these people.

The commentary can be a bit dry and literal in its interpretations of early Buddhism, but in this case it is very helpful. It points out that this particular discourse was delivered to a particular group of people, fire-worshippers, so that the Buddha tailored what he said to meet their interests and preoccupations. This is an example of what the later tradition called the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ (upaya-kauśalya), his ability to teach people appropriately. The fire-worshipping ascetics believed that tending the sacred fire, performing fire-rituals every morning, pouring ghee into the flames to feed the gods, was the way to salvation. The Buddha gets their attention by saying, everything is burning, everything is on fire. One might imagine that they would have responded by saying, or at least thinking, no it isn’t. But nevertheless he has their attention.

What is supposedly burning and on fire? What follows is another analysis of the whole of experience. In the second sermon the Buddha used the framework of the five constituents of experience (khandhas, ‘aggregates’). In this discourse, he uses a different framework:

  • The five senses-organs plus the mind.
  • The five sense-objects plus the contents of mental experience – ideas.
  • Sense-consciousness.
  • The contact between the senses, including the mind, and the world.
  • Experience arising from contact.

I find this a fascinating analysis. Elsewhere, having used this same framework, he asks, is there anything else in experience apart from this all this? Of course, it is a quite reasonable and sensible belief that there is a world independent of our sense-experience, but all we ever have to go on is the experience of our senses. This is it – what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought – this is the whole world. Anything else is an idea in our minds. And ideas are already included.

So everything, the whole of our experience, the whole world, is burning. Now comes the twist. Burning with what? With the fires of compulsion (rāga, ‘greed’), hostility (dosa, ‘hate’) and confusion (moha, ‘delusion’). This group of three bad guys is very common in early Buddhist discourses. It is a way of characterising our basic psychological afflictions. Compulsion and hostility are emotional – they characterise attraction and aversion reactions to experience – while confusion is intellectual – characterising basic lack of understanding of what is happening. The early Buddhist teachings stress that awakening or nirvāna is the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion. In a way, you can say, that’s all awakening is. But it’s perhaps preferable to say that the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion is a way of describing awakening in negative psychological terms. More positively, we could add that awakening can also be described in terms of contentment, love and wisdom.

Everything is burning. It’s a way of putting the Dharma – a dharma-pariyāya, a formulation of the Dharma. Does this speak to us? I once lived in a community of men (four of us, in a half-renovated house, with two cats and a dog, and a lot of dope-smoking), and one of the men was obsessed with sex. Whatever one might say, he brought it round to sex. Beds, beaches, lawns, woods, floors, bicycles, breakfast, dinner, tea – it all triggered compelling ideas of various sorts in my friend’s mind. Everything was burning for him – burning with a specific kind of compulsion. Then there was the mother of a dear friend. Any topic of conversation one might bring up was an opportunity to be gloomy. I was once visiting with my friend, and we’d been to the park. So I said, ‘the park here in town is big, isn’t it?’; to which the response came, ‘oh, the parking in town is terrible, so terrible’. Everything was burning for her – burning with a particular kind of gloom, of negativity.

Now we can make sense of the links between the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot quotes the Fire Sermon like this:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


The allusion to the Fire Sermon (‘Burning burning burning burning’) is sandwiched between allusions to the Confessions of St. Augustine, who went to Carthage as a teenager and was embroiled in ‘unholy loves’ – Augustine was burning too. Earlier in section III of The Waste Land, we read:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing…

These lines allude to Eliot’s own recuperation from a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Perhaps Eliot evokes another way in which the whole of our experience might be ‘burning’ – or tingling or hurting – with the inability to connect with, or find meaning in, what is happening; a symptom of the dissociated modern sensibility, one that perhaps many of us can relate to, at least occasionally.

But the Buddha’s Fire Sermon is an invitation to overcome burning, obsession, gloominess or dissociation, by identifying it as such. The truth is that sense-experience isn’t just what happens to us – it is how the world appears as a result of our active involvement with it. The world shows up according to what we want, what we care about, what we believe, according to the quality of our attention. It strikes me that these days not many of us might be fire-worshippers, but a lot of us pay attention to the news as it is represented on the internet. In fact, it is rather easy to pay a great deal of attention, not only to the news, but to the opinions people have about the news, and then to think about our own opinions about those other people’s opinions. It’s not so much that the world is burning, but that the world is a drama. The world of our experience is a constant drama, driven by the plot-lines of compulsion, hostility and confusion.

But what happens when we notice this, and begin to pay attention, not to the contents of our experience, but to how it shows up for us? The first thing we might notice is that we ourselves are largely responsible for how the world appears and shows up. If everything reminds you of sex, or everything is terrible, or the world going to the dogs, that tells you something about your own psychological tendencies. After all, it is we ourselves who choose what to pay attention to, and how to respond or react. Of course, we are talking here about deep-rooted habitual tendencies. But they can change, and that is the point of engaging in Buddhist practice. Hence the discourse goes on to identify three stages of positive change – disenchantment, self-possession and liberation. These summarise an insight process.

In another discourse (Itivuttaka 93), the Buddha teaches the overcoming or quenching of the three fires of compulsion, hostility and confusion through three distinct methods. Compulsion is quenched by attending to the unattractive qualities of our experience. Hostility is quenched by developing kindness (mettā). Confusion is quenched by developing wisdom. If we can imagine our experience as being on fire, in terms of a metaphor of burning, then to practice the Dharma is to quench the flames:

Those who practice, day and night,
the teaching of the perfectly awakened one:
they put out the fire of compulsion,
constantly noticing unattractiveness.

Those excellent people put out
the fire of hostility through kindness,
and the fire of confusion through the wisdom
that leads to piercing through.

Those mature beings, having put out the fires,
indefatigable day and night,
are completely quenched, remainderless;
they have entirely overcome suffering.

Based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre, 14 November 2017.

Turning the Wheel of the Dharma


A commentary on the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta

The introduction and the conclusion of this discourse imply that the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma was the very first discourse taught by the Buddha; his opening performance, as it were, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; it represents the Buddha bursting onto the scene, the world’s greatest spiritual teacher making his debut. But, from a scholarly point of view, it is unlikely that this discourse is any kind of record of the Buddha’s first sermon. Firstly, it presents the doctrines of the four noble (or ennobling) truths and the eightfold path in sytematic ways, but we know from other early Buddhist texts (most notably, the Chapter of the Eights and the Chapter of the Way to the Beyond, the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta) that earlier presentations of the Buddha’s teaching were unsystematic and did not involve lists. One might well imagine that the Buddha developed his teaching style, involving lists and systems, over his 45-year teaching career. Secondly, the discourse presents the eightfold path as if everyone is familiar with it already. So it would seem that, in fact, the Buddha’s first sermon is a later literary construct, an idealisation – the first great teaching of the Awakened One. But this is not to demean it. Indeed, the very opposite – it is to say that this discourse presents, in a vivid literary form, the Buddha’s signature teaching; a first sermon in the sense of what the early Buddhists thought the most typical of their teacher.

The discourse is set in a deer park, known as Isipatana (which means ‘Deer Park’, in an older dialect) outside Vārāṇasi, where his five former companions are continuing their life of austerities. The place is now known as ‘Sarnath’ – it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and has an ancient stupa, remains of old monasteries, and guest houses for modern pilgrims. 2,500 years ago, of course, the place would have been just a clearing in the jungle. Another early Buddhist discourse, the Discourse on the Noble Quest, explains how the Buddha managed to get the attention of the five ascetics. It was difficult, because they believed that he had given up the practice of austerities, that he was a back-slider and had reverted to a life of indulgence. But he invited them to examine his words and, having done so, make a decision about whether he was a loser or not. This is another version of the argument the Buddha makes in the Discourse to the Kālāmas – stressing the importance of deciding for oneself about a teaching, not just taking someone’s word for it.

The Buddha first teaches them what he calls the ‘middle way’ between two extremes. We have to remember that the five ascetics were hardened spiritual warriors. They would have had no problem agreeing with the Buddha that the life of indulgence in sense-pleasures was not going to lead to insight and freedom. I guess none of us would be here if we really believed that a thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle was the best kind of life. We would be down the other end of the Gloucester Road in one of those restaurants for which Bristol is noted, planning a winter getaway to a Sri Lankan beach resort. But here we are. But the ascetics would have been surprised to hear the Buddha say that the life of self-mortification was the other extreme. These ascetics were a bit like the body-builders or iron-athletes of today, who seek to control the body with the mind, to be a pure will, a sort of living chisel with which to carve a way to the truth.

By contrast, the Buddha’s middle way is an alternative to both these extremes. Firstly, it is a way ­– it is a means for making a journey, from here (from this situation) to there, to awakening, freedom. Secondly, it is eightfold – in brief, it consists of wisdom (right vision and resolve), ethics (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). In short, it is way of life, a way of living here and now which is beneficial and which conduces to our well-being. By the standards of asceticism in the Buddha’s day, his teaching was a soft option – it involves actually cultivating the profound pleasures of meditation. From our point of view, however, the Buddha’s teaching also involves the systematic development of ethics and meditation – it involves a definite commitment.

The Buddha then goes on to present this middle way from another angle: the four noble truths. The Pāli here is ariya-sacca, and although we have got used to the translation ‘noble truth’, this can give the misleading impression that what is being taught is somehow super-true because is is noble. But really the point is that the truths are facts, or ways things actually are, and they are spiritually ‘ennobling’; this is a better translation really.

The first ennobling fact about things is that there is dukkha. This word has a broader connotation than ‘suffering’. It includes the sense of unsatisfactoriness, frustation and imperfection. The Buddha characterises this dukkha in three groups: there is physical suffering (sickness, birth and getting old), there is experiential suffering (association with the unloved, separation from the loved, not getting what you want), and there is a deeper structural suffering involved in our appropriating and holding on to our experience. This world, our lives, are not perfect, they involve frustation, as well as suffering and pain – this is the fact of dukkha. Later in the discourse, the Buddha goes on to characterise the significance of this fact – the ‘task’ it implies. This dukkha is to be fully known. What this means is that we should turn towards this dukkha, get to know it. This, of course, is completely against the grain of our usual strategy, and is the open secret of mindfulness meditation – we turn towards what is happening in immediate experience, with awareness and positivity.

The second ennobling truth or fact about things is that this dukkha has an origin, a causal condition, and that that cause is taṇhā, a word usually translated ‘craving’ but which could also be rendered ‘desire’, ‘wanting’. But how can this desire or wanting be the cause of dukkha? Surely, our desires represent ways to make ourselves feel better. The answer is that this ‘wanting’ is something much deeper. The word represents not so much our conscious strategies for cheering ourselves up, but the nearly-unconscious tendency to react to pain with avoidance and to pleasure with a kind of compulsion. Hence the Buddha indicates three kinds of wanting. There is wanting sense-pleasures; there is wanting to become someone, to hold on to our identity; and there is wanting to not become, to get out of the whole situation. The problem is that this reactive tendency, of whatever kind, doesn’t really work, or only works up to a point. The ‘task’ that the fact of our reactivity implies is this origin of dukkha is to be given up, let go of. Easier said than done, you might well say.

But the third ennobling truth is that there is cessation, nirodha, the fact that this dukkha has an ending. Thank goodness for that – if there were no ending to dukkha, it would hardly be worth engaging in the task of giving up wanting. But there is nirvana, the complete stopping of dukkha, the stilling and calming of reactivity. The task here is that this cessation is to be personally experienced. This is important. If we do not actually experience some calming and insight then why should we believe the Buddha’s teaching? It is important to notice whether our practice of ethics and meditation actually results in a personal experience of some calming of unsatisfactoriness, some resolution of our problems.

The fourth ennobling truth is that there is a path, magga, to the ceasing of dukkha. The idea of a path is a metaphor for a way to get to where you want to go. The eightfold path, involving wisdom, ethics and meditation, is a way of life, and this way of life is to be developed. An important point here is that this path does not really get anywhere. It’s more that fully developing the eightfold path is the end of dukkha – it is a life of awareness, of care for ourselves and others, of mental and emotional calm and insight.

The discourse ends with one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, having a breakthrough – that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease’. This is a way of saying that Kondañña had the insight that everything in experience is in a process of change. So we can change. We can learn to lean in to the dukkha quality of life, learn to give up reactivity, bit by bit, build on our personal experience of when and how dukkha ceases, and develop an awakened way of life. At this point, at the conclusion of the discourse, a shout goes up through the ranked hierarchy of deities – layer upon layer of sublime beings, up through the imaginary vastness of the Buddhist cosmos, each deity delighted that the Buddha has set rolling the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. Again, like Abba with ‘Waterloo’, the Buddha’s first teaching is a big hit throughout the entire universe. Nothing will be the same again.

The Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 56:11. My summary translation; other translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and by Ṭhanissaro and others

This commentary is based on a talk given at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 31 October 2017.

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.

Love and Separation: Sonnet 64


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

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

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

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

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

Sonnet 64

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

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

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

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

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

Dharma, Beauty, Poetry: ‘The Bright Field’

Cézanne landscape

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

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

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

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

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

The Bright Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meaning of the Pāli word ‘sutta’

well said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca ‘suttan’ti akkhātaṃ.

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

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca suttanti akkhātan’ti.[9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] As is an abbreviation for Atthasālinī.

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

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

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