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.

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Pyrrho and the Buddha: Reasons to be Sceptical

Greek Buddha cover

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

my review copied over from Western Buddhist Review

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

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

They do not formulate, they do not prefer:

they have not accepted any doctrines.

A brahman is not reckoned by virtue or vows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A word of truth, having a correct standard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path

ammonites

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

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

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

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

The eightfold path as a natural unfolding

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

The eightfold path as a middle way

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

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

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

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

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

The path leading to the city of awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path as a holistic spiritual workout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain Lateralisation and Mindfulness

brain lateralisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] My Stroke of Insight, pp.142–3.

Karma and Buddhist Ethics

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How does the karma relate to Buddhist ethics? Is karma the basis of Buddhist ethics? Or is Buddhist ethics one thing, and the law of karma something else that is somehow related to ethics? In an earlier essay on this blog I distinguished the psychological from the universal meaning of karma, arguing that western Buddhists very often understand karma in terms of how intentional actions leads to psychological consequences that we experience in this life, whereas Buddhists have traditionally understood karma as operating over many lifetimes. The traditional view of karma as a system of natural justice seems to suggest that Buddhist ethics is based on karma. But for many westerners who think of karma as a psychological rather than a universal law, karma does not seem to be the basis for ethics, because we tend to think of ethics in terms of doing what is right or good, whatever the consequences might be for ourselves.

The question can be phrased like this: is an action good because the karmic consquences are positive, or are the karmic consequences good because the action is good? If we think that an action is good because the karmic consequence is good, then karma is the basis of Buddhist ethics. But if we think that the karmic consequence is good because the action is good, then we think that ethics – what counts as right and wrong – has a validity which is independent of the consequences for ourselves of our actions. I want to argue that karma is not the basis of Buddhist ethics, and that our intuitions about what is good and bad are indeed independent of the consequences of actions for ourselves.

This topic is a Buddhist version of the dilemma posed by Plato in his Euthyphro. In this early dialogue, Socrates engages in dialogue with his eponymous Athenian interlocutor about the nature of piety or holiness. But what is holiness? Euthyphro says that it is what the gods love, but Socrates asks him whether the gods love holiness because of its holiness, or whether holiness is such because it is loved by the gods. This is a dilemma because if the gods love holiness because it is holy, then it is holy whether or not there are any gods; but if the holiness is holy because the gods love it, then what counts as holiness depends on the arbitrary preferences of the gods. The dilemma also translates into more familiar theistic terms. If we suppose that God wills the good, is this good good because God wills it, or does God will the good because it is good? Is goodness the arbitrary invention of God, or is goodness part of the nature of reality, independent of God?

We can similarly ask whether an action is good because the karmic consequences are positive, or whether the karmic consequences are good because the action is good. Is Buddhist ethics based on the law of karma, or does the law of karma depend on an independent moral principle? It is hard to know whether the Buddha or the early Buddhist tradition worried about this kind of question. Nevertheless the words of the Buddha implicitly but very clearly tell us that the law of karma depends on a moral principle that is independent of the law of karma: ‘I say, monks, that karma is intention; intending one does an action through body, speech or mind.’[i]

These words are well-known, but they are more surprising than they appear. By saying that ‘action’ is ‘intention’, the Buddha is saying that what matters is not what you do but your mental state when you do it. The scholar Richard Gombrich has pointed out that, in the context of his time, the Buddha was using the language of karma here in an audacious way. Instead of focussing on ritual action, which was the original Brahmanical meaning of ‘karma’, the Buddha shifted attention to the psychological processes involved.[ii] By doing so, it is clear that the karmic consequence of an action depends on the actor’s intention, so that a good consequence depends on a wholesome intention, rather than the good consequence determining what counts as a good action.

Wholesome (kusala, ‘skilful’) or good intentions are those based on generosity, love and wisdom; unwholesome ones are those based on compulsion, hostility and delusion. Being good is based on the cultivation of wholesome mental intentions. It is wholesome intentions that result in good karmic consequences, and unwholesome ones that result in bad consequences. When we understand the relation of Buddhist ethics to karmic consequences like this, it is clear that ethics is not based on karma, but the law of karma is based on ethics.

So what is the role of karma in the Buddha’s teaching on ethics? I would say that the role is one of motivation. Buddhist ethics is a very practical business. We are all familiar with the experience of knowing the right thing to do but not being able to do it, as when we hide in our corner instead of making an effort to help someone; and we are familiar with knowing that an action is unwholesome but finding ourselves unable to stop doing it, as when we turn to pornography or comfort eating to assuage our existential discomfort. This is the human sitation, and in this situation the teachings on karma give clear reasons for acting from wholesome intentions, and not acting unwholesomely. The reason is that there will be an inevitable appropriate consequence for all of our intentional actions. Such consequences may be discernable in this lifetime (psychological karma), or one may believe in karmic consequences as operating over many lifetimes (universal karma). In either case, we are reminded that our destiny is in our own hands, and we alone are responsible for our future well-being.

Two important consequences follow from the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma, but that the teaching of karma is a motivation to practice ethics. Firstly, we can discuss Buddhist ethics without necessarily discussing the law of karma, either in its psychological or its universal sense.[iii] We can discuss, for instance, how Buddhist ethics is connected with empathy, with the intuition that all living beings, like us, seek happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We can furthermore appreciate how the practice of Buddhist ethics is concerned with the well-being of others as well as ourselves, which is a non-karmic perspective on why we should act ethically.

Secondly, the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma helps us to better understand what the Buddha meant when he taught the desirability of the cessation of karma. It is a very common theme in the early Buddhist discourses that the disciple practises in order to put an end to karma.[iv] We can now understand that this does not mean getting beyond Buddhist ethics, somehow going beyond good and bad. Rather, it simply means getting beyond the self-centred nature of karma as a psychological motivation for ethical action. Once one gains sufficient psychological integration to be able to act from wholesome intentions, there is no need to concern oneself with the consequences of one’s actions when making ethical decisions, since those decisions will be based on an appreciation of the roots of wholesome action, not on a concern for one’s own well-being.

In conclusion, it turns out that a belief in the law of karma is not necessary for a correct understanding of Buddhist ethics, whether this belief is in the form of a belief in the psychological or the universal meaning of karma. It is possible that many westerners who take up Buddhism have already developed an acute awareness of ethics, without reference to traditional Buddhist teachings on karma. For such western Buddhists, there may be little reason to take on a form of psychological motivation which is culturally alien. Moreover, reflections on culturally western forms of ethical concern, such as those based on rights and duties, seem to be perfectly compatible with Buddhist ethics, if not part of the traditional articulation of ethics. However, I suspect that when it comes to the actual practice of ethics, a reflection on the law of karma will always have a place as a useful psychological motivation to be good.

[i]Anguttara-nikāya 6.63, the Nibbhedika-sutta: cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā.

[ii] Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, Athlone, London, 1996 p.51.

[iii]See for instance Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2010; Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order in which I practise presents Buddhist ethics in this text without basing it on karma and rebirth.

[iv]See for instance the Nibbedhika-sutta cited above.

No Need for the H-Word

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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 www.wisdom-books.com).

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 http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/publikationen/HamburgUP_HBS01_Analayo.pdf.

[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 www.sangharakshita.org

[6] See www.bodhimonastery.org 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.

Rebirth and Consciousness

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Did the Buddha teach that consciousness continues after the death of the body? The answer to this question is important for the question of how to relate to the teaching of rebirth, since it affects what we suppose the Buddha was teaching when he taught about rebirth. In a previous blog I wrote: ‘From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said.’ I went on to write that the Buddha disagreed with a monk called Sati who said that consciousness (viññāṇa) continued from life to life, just the same;[i] the Buddha told Sati that consciousness is dependently-arisen. Some respondents to this blog post, however, have disagreed with what I had written, saying that it is not correct to take the Buddha’s words to mean that the Buddha believed that consciousness was dependent on the brain. Some people, it would seem, believe that consciousness can somehow exist without a physical basis and hence that it can survive death, and that this is what makes rebirth possible. But did the Buddha teach this?

In conversation with Sati, the Buddha tells the monk: ‘Monks, consciousness is named after whatever condition it arises dependent on. Consciousness that arises dependent on the eye and forms is just called consciousness based on the eye; consciousness that arises dependent on the ear and sounds is just called consciousness based on the ear; consciousness that arises dependent on the nose and smells is just called consciousness based on the nose; consciousness that arises dependent on the tongue and tastes is just called consciousness based on the tongue; consciousness that arises dependent on the body and tangibles is just called consciousness based on the body; consciousness based on the mind and mental objects is just called consciousness based on the mind.’ This does not give us much scope for thinking that the Buddha is saying that consciousness can survive without a body, since consciousness exists dependent on the sense-organs. Admittedly, the Buddha is here characterising consciousness as we presently experience it. But the Buddha did not say we could experience consciousness in any other way.

In the Nagara-sutta,[ii] the Buddha makes his position clearer when he says that ‘When there is name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) then consciousness exists; with name-and-form as condition, there is consciousness.’ Here and elsewhere[iii] the expression ‘name-and-form’ is explained as meaning the body made up of the four elements, and the mental apparatus consisting of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa) and attention (manasikāra). Having said something similar in the Mahānidāna-sutta,[iv] the Buddha makes the point that we can only meaningfully talk about existence when there is consciousness and name-and-form. (The idea that conciousness in this discourse ‘descends’ (okkamati) into a mother’s womb might suggest a somehow pre-existent disembodied consciousness, but such an idea is contradicted by everything else the Buddha says. I suggest translating okkamati as ‘arrives’ in the sense of ‘appears’). As Sariputta says in the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse,[v] consciousness and name-and-form lean on each other like two sheaves of reeds. We see therefore that according to the Buddha’s teaching it is only meaningful to speak of ‘consciousness’ connected with sense-experience and co-arising with the body and mental apparatus.

This way of looking at consciousness is comparable to a modern scientific understanding of consciousness, in which consciousness arises dependent on the physical brain. But just as name-and-form depends on consciousness, so the physical brain is also dependent on consciousness: it appears that the rapid evolution of the human brain was connected with the advantages for survival of consciousness and intelligence. Moreover, in present human experience, it has been shown that conscious activity, like meditation, can cause the modification of neural networks in the brain.

Let us consider the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ in the light of this. Consciousness, this experience of awareness, of being a subjective point of view, arises dependent on physical matter in the form of the brain. There are in fact plenty of scientists and philosophers who are not materialists, because there is in fact no good explanation of how consciousness can be ‘produced’ from matter in the brain.[vi] But it has to be said that, as far as I know, there are no contemporary philosophers who suppose that consciousness can exist without a brain. This brain, however, is also highly dependent on consciousness for its evolution and structure. The materialist view of human consciousness, implying annihilationism, is in this sense not convincing. Moreover, we human beings, who are embodied consciousnesses, having dependently arisen, have minds capable of imagining our past and our future. We can imagine this very consciousness as having existed before and existing afterwards – we can even imagine consciousness as existing in a disembodied state, and as undergoing rebirth. The eternalist view of the substantial spiritual self depends on just this powerful imaginative independence of consciousness. But the Buddha was careful to avoid eternalism, pointing his followers towards the dependent co-arising of consciousness with name-and-form.

It seems, therefore, that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that he did not teach that consciousness could exist independent of its physical basis, which, as we now know, is the brain. He taught that consciousness, like everything else, arises dependent on conditions. Just exactly how we can explain ‘rebirth’ if it does not involve the continuity of consciousness is a problem I’ll leave for others. I’ll conclude with a thought about this teaching of rebirth. Not only was rebirth part of the accepted view of the Buddha’s day, but in those days there was no distinction drawn between what we would call a ‘literal’ teaching about what happens after death and a ‘metaphorical’ teaching. In the absence of any kind of scientific knowledge, knowledge was symbols and stories. The Buddha taught rebirth, but it is reasonable to understand this teaching as a metaphor, a story. For western Buddhists, imbued with the exacting spirit of science, it is less incongruous to hold to rebirth as a form of story-telling, while maintaining a principled agnosticism concerning its literal truth.

[i] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta 38, the Mahātaṇhākkhāya-sutta, the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’.

[ii] Saṃyutta-nikāya 12:38. Nagara-sutta means ‘The City’.

[iii] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta sutta 9, the Sammā-diṭṭhi-sutta, the ‘Discourse on Right View’. This discourse gives definitions of each of the 12 nidānas, as well as some other important Buddhist terms.

[iv] In Dīgha-nikāya sutta 15, Mahānidāna-sutta, the ‘Great Explanation Discourse’.

[v] Saṃyutta-nikāya sutta 12:67, Nalakalapiya-sutta, ‘Sheaves of Reeds Discourse’.

[vi] See my previous blog post reviewing Thomas Nagel for an example.