Did the Buddha Speak Pāli?

Richard Gombrich, Buddhism and Pali, Mud Pie Books, 2018

It’s an interesting question. The Pāli canon preserves the one complete surviving collection of the discourses of the Buddha in an ancient Indian language; the Buddha most have spoken some such ancient Indian language; so did the Buddha speak Pāli? The scholarly consensus for the last few decades has been ‘no’: whatever language the Buddha originally spoke, Pāli is a later literary construction. What’s at stake is not just our sense of proximity to the person of the Buddha, though that is something with strong emotional resonance for many of us – it’s also a matter of judging how close the Pāli discourses might be in sound and concept to their supposed origins in the teaching of the Buddha. Richard Gombrich’s new book, Buddhism and Pali, proposes a bold new hypothesis, that the Buddha did speak Pāli – in fact, Pāli is a kind of argot or specialist language devised by him to pass on his distinctive teachings. 

For many years Professor Richard Gombrich has not only been a creative force in Buddhist Studies scholarship, but also a source of support and encouragement to other scholars. One of his achievements has been to devise and teach a Pali course through which probably hundreds of people have by now got started in studying this ancient Indian language, the canonical language of the Theravāda school of Buddhism.[i] Richard was a patient teacher when I started out learning Pali, in 2006, auditing his course at SOAS, and I am grateful for that good start. So what is Pāli? In his new-ish (2018) book, Buddhism and Pali, from the Oxford publisher Mud Pie Books, not only does Richard answer the question of what Pāli is exactly, but he goes on to make the argument that Pāli is a kind of lingua franca or common language that the Buddha himself developed as a means to teach in a consistent way among the different dialects and languages of ancient north India. Gombrich calls Pāli an ‘argot’: a specialist set of idioms and terminology for communicating the Buddha’s teaching. From the point of view of modern historical scholarship, this is a bold hypothesis. It implies the idea that the Buddha spoke Pāli. Is this true? While Gombrich does not himself try to prove his hypothesis, it turns out that there is some new scholarly work that lends support to his bold claim. I’ll turn to that after a short review.

In Chapter 1 of Buddhism and Pali, Gombrich gives the reader some history. The word pāli originally just means ‘a text’, as in a text or passage in the tipiṭika, the collection of the Buddha’s teachings, as distinguished from a text or passage of commentary.[ii] Hence it was used in the phrase pāli-bhāsa, ‘the language (bhāsa) of the texts’, and this was abbreviated to pāli, which hence became the name of the language. Theravādin Buddhists themselves believed that this language was the one spoken by the Buddha, though they called it magadhī, the language spoken in the ancient country of Magadha, in north-east India. In fact Buddhaghosa, the great Theravādin commentator, argued that magadhī was the mūla-bhāsa or ‘root language’: if children were not taught a different language, they would spontaneously speak magadhī. But, as Gombrich observes, this pious view is actually at odds with the Buddha’s own view, that language is conventional. From the point of view of modern linguistics, Pāli is a Middle-Indo-Aryan language (a ‘prakrit’), based on one or more spoken languages or dialects of the time of the Buddha, which appears to have undergone complex processes of formalisation while it was being transmitted orally and then in writing. Indeed, the Pāli of the Pāli canon appears to have been ‘Sanskritized’ – worked over to make it more like classical Sanskrit. Gombrich himself has in the past described Pāli as an artificial language.[iii]

In Chapter 2, Gombrich gives a lovely, readable summary of the inner workings of Pāli language and literature, based on his own familiarity with teaching it to newcomers. In Chapter 3, he emphasises the role of memorisation in how the discourses were composed and passed on, something which has completely shaped the present form of Pāli language and literature. He uses the Pāli words of the dhamma-vandanā to go into some more depth:

svākhāto bhagavatā dhammo

sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opanayiko

paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī ti

His analysis of this formulation is rich, and is designed to show the value of being able to read the Buddha’s teaching in its original language. He also comments on the incredibly repetitious nature of Pāli canonical discourses, following the explanation by Sujato and Brahmali that the repetitions probably go back to the Buddha’s own teaching style, and are not just the result of transmission processes.[iv]

It is in Chapter 4 that Gombrich puts forward his bold hypothesis. He begins by endorsing Sheldon Pollock’s view that the Buddha deliberately chose to teach in local, spoken languages that were not Sanskrit – not associated with the values of Brahmanism. He goes on to argue that the Buddha developed a teaching language that was intelligible across northern India, where a range of different dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan languages were spoken. This language was what became known as Pāli, which is why it contains features from different dialects, variations of grammar and vocabulary, built on the basis of the language of Kosala, where the Buddha did most of his teaching. Later Buddhists preserved this argot, this teaching language of the Buddha and his disciples – but not because there is anything special about Pāli. Rather, part of the ideology of the Buddha’s language is that it is merely the conventional vehicle for his teaching, part of which is that there is no unchanging essence of things. Nothing in the Buddha’s teaching, certainly not his choice of language, should be taken too literally. 

Gombrich’s hypothesis is intriguing, but is there any evidence for it? The prevailing scholarly opinion has been that Pāli is one of the several languages by which the Buddha’s teaching was transmitted by oral recitation, and the Buddha’s own language is unknown, or perhaps varied depending on who he was talking to. In an article of 2019, and citing Gombrich, Stephan Karpik has argued for the very opposite, that the oral transmission of the Buddha’s teachings was in one language, which we know as Pāli, which was the language in which the Buddha taught.[v] Karpik is careful not to overstate his case. It is not that there is any direct evidence for his hypothesis, but he makes a series of strong arguments against the prevailing scholarly consensus of multiple dialects for the early oral transmission. These arguments include the implausibility of ‘translating’ the teachings into these different dialects, given that they may have been mutually intelligible to anyone who moved around in ancient north India, like the various dialects of English in the period before mass media.

Both Karpik and Gombrich have to come up with a way of interpreting an important passage in the Cūlavagga of the Pāli vinaya in which the Buddha rebukes two monks who wish to put his teaching chandaso (which may mean, into Vedic metre or formal verse). Instead, the Buddha says the monks should each learn his teaching sakāya niruttiyā – a phrase often previously understood as ‘in one’s own (sakāya) dialect (niruttiyā)’. Karpik disproves this reading and argues that sakāya niruttiyā probably means a ‘way of speaking’, which he takes to mean the opposite of the elevated register of metrical composition. Whatever the phrase means, there is little support for the idea that the Buddha said that his teaching should be put into various local dialects. Karpik instead advances various arguments in support of the admittedly hypothetical idea that the early Buddhist teachings were preserved in the one language developed by the Buddha for the purpose, what we now call Pāli.

The positive case for Gombrich’s hypothesis seems to be shaping up. But an article by Bryan Levman, published in 2019 following that of Karpik, adds a strong note of caution.[vi] Levman is sympathetic to Gombrich and Karpik and their hypothesis, but he presents a wealth of linguistic evidence to show that the Pāli language as we know it, even in its very earliest forms, is underlain by an earlier language, now only recoverable in part by inference, and it is this earlier language, which is not Pāli, which is the hypothetical teaching language of the Buddha. Levman calls this earlier language a koine, which is another word for the kind of inter-dialectical lingua franca that Gombrich calls an ‘argot’. This koine would have been invaluable for teaching in a large area with many different dialects and variations of vocabulary. But it would have been different from the language we know as Pāli. For example, the Pāli word brāhmaṇa would appear to be a Sanskritized version of the word in the earlier language, given that the Buddha is recorded in Dhammapada v.388 as explaining that a (Pāli) brāhmaṇa is one who is bāhitapāpa, ‘having removed his evil’. But this word-play on bāhita only works if the word brāhmaṇa was originally something more like *bāhmana. Karpik (p.57) argues instead that brāhmaṇa was a loan-word from Sanskrit into Pāli, but this makes nonsense of the Buddha’s word-play. Levman (p.71) argues that the original word was *bāhaṇa. The issue illustrates the difficulty in reconstructing the linguistic processes through which Pāli developed, and the kind of changes to sound and meaning that they imply.

So did the Buddha speak Pāli? Probably not exactly. But there is reason to suppose that he did develop an argot, a koine, a form of language that would have been intelligible across the many dialects of ancient north India, in order to develop his teaching in a way that could be remembered and passed on. And one form in which that language has been preserved is what is became known as Pāli. And since the discourses preserved in Pāli give us the one complete surviving account of the early teachings, even if we no longer have access to the language the Buddha spoke, Pāli is our main witness for that language, representing the best effort of the early Buddhists to preserve the actual words of the Buddha as they remembered them.

[i] The course started life as a 10-day intensive, but has now gone online: https://ocbs.org/courses/.

[ii] Margaret Cone, A Dictionary of Pāli: part III p–bh, Pali Text Society, 2020, pp.450–2. 

[iii] Richard Gombrich, ‘Introduction: What is Pāli?’ in Wilhelm Geiger, Pāli Grammar, trans. Batakrishna Ghosh, rev. K.R. Norman, Pali Text Society, 1994.

[iv] The work, which Gombrich strongly endorses, is: Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, Supplement to Vol. 5 of The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2013.

[v] Stephan Karpik, ‘The Buddha Taught in Pāli: A Working Hypothesis’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2019, vol. 16, pp.10–86. This article is long but thorough and readable, and well worth studying.

[vi] Bryan Levman, ‘The Language the Buddha Spoke’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2019, vol. 17, pp.63–105. This article is more technical but also highly worthwhile.

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.

Not Easily Repaid


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

Not Easily Repaid

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

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


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

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

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


Rebirth and Consciousness


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.

A Commentary on the Shorter Māluṅkyāputta Sutta


This discourse from the Majjhima-Nikāya, or Middle-Length Discourses, shows us the Buddha in dialogue with a monk called Māluṅkyāputta, a person for whom metaphysical views are evidently important.[1] What the Buddha says to Māluṅkyaputta tells us exactly why speculative views are not relevant to the spiritual life, and it does so by means of a memorable simile. There are several discourses in the Pāli canon which feature him, and in one he appears as an old man who approaches the Buddha to get a pithy, direct teaching about the nature of reality. The Buddha gives him one, and the old monk soon reaches awakening.[2] So Māluṅkyāputta, we might say, was someone who was prone to take the wrong approach to the meaning of the Dharma, but who certainly got it in the end.

The discourse begins with Māluṅkyāputta on his own, in meditation, thinking about things. He comes to the conclusion that he needs to find out what the Buddha thinks about certain metaphysical issues that the Buddha appears to have left unexplained or undeclared (avkyākatāni), and he decides that if the Buddha does not engage in these issues to his satisfaction, he will leave the monastic order. He visits the Buddha and asks him whether:

  • the universe is eternal;
  • the universe is not eternal;
  • the universe is finite;
  • the universe is infinite;
  • the soul and the body are identical;
  • the soul and the body are different;
  • a sentient being exists after death;[3]
  • a sentient being does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being both exists and does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being neither exists nor does not exist after death.

 This is a standard list found in the Pāli discourses, and it presumably represents the kind of things speculative philosophers of the Buddha’s time thought about. These days our questions might be slightly different. We might wonder, for instance, whether:

  • the universe will keep on expanding for ever
  • the universe will at a certain point contract again
  • there is life elsewhere in the universe
  • there is life only on planet earth
  • the mind is produced by the brain
  • the mind is something apart from the brain
  • there is a God
  • there is no God
  • there anything about us that survives after death
  • nothing about us survives after death

Who could deny that such issues are not fascinating and difficult? Indeed, much academic research – perhaps the entire life-work of certain philosophers or theologians – is concerned with trying to make some progress with these issues. But when Māluṅkyāputta puts his case to the Buddha, the Buddha is very uncompromising. He calls Māluṅkyāputta a foolish man and gets him to admit that in fact he, the Buddha, had never promised to engage with such issues; Māluṅkyāputta might try to get the Buddha to explain these unexplained or undeclared (avyākatāni) issues, but he would die before the Buddha would explain them.

It might appear that the Buddha is himself taking up a philosophical position here, something like a Buddhist version of Kant’s critique of pure reason, which set limits to what we can know by thinking along. But I doubt that this is the case. To understand the Buddha’s strong metaphysical reticence, I suggest that we consider what Māluṅkyāputta was looking for. He was looking for certainty ­– for definite answers. For someone like Māluṅkyāputta, as for many people of a philosophical bent then and now, metaphysical certainty is associated with a kind of existential comfort, of knowing one’s place in the nature of things. Perhaps for other sorts of people, other sorts of fantasies provide comparable existential comfort. And a certain degree of progress in metaphysical certainty, and hence in existential comfort, is possible.

But this is not the point of the Dharma. The Buddha makes this point with one of his brilliant extended similes. This one is generally known as the simile of the poisoned arrow: 

Suppose, Māluṅkyāputta, that someone was shot by an arrow smeared with poison, and their friends and companions, family and relatives, had a surgeon attend, but that person were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, whether ruler, priest, trader or labourer.[4] Or they were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, what their name and what their clan… whether they are tall or short or medium height… whether they are black-skinned, dark-skinned or golden-skinned… in what village or town or city they live… until I know by which bow I was shot, whether a longbow or a crossbow… until I know by which bowstring I was shot, whether it was of plant-fibre, reed or milk-leaf… until I know by which arrow-shaft I was shot, whether it was of natural wood or of cultivated… whether the arrow-shaft was tipped with feathers from a vulture, a heron, a raven, a peacock or a stork… whether the sinews that bound the arrow-shaft were from a cow, a buffalo, a lion or a monkey… until I know by which arrow I was shot, whether its head was sharp-edged, barbed, made of iron, toothed or leaf-shaped.[5] Māluṅkyāputta, all this would remain unknown to that person, and they would die. Likewise, Māluṅkyāputta, anyone who says, I will not live the spiritual life under the Blessed One while he has not explained to me whether the universe is eternal or not [and the other metaphysical questions] – all this would remain unexplained by the Realised One, and that person would die.

 It is important to notice that the various questions are not in principle unanswerable, but that they are not the right questions to be asking. Likewise, what the Buddha does explain and make known, as he goes on to say, is the conditions whereby suffering and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arise, and how these conditions can be brought to an end. Metaphysical questions are in this sense just irrelevant to the spiritual life as taught by the Buddha.

I notice from this discourse that the Buddha does not tell Māluṅkyāputta what to think. Māluṅkyāputta, being someone who likes to think about things, would probably not appreciate being told what to think. Instead, the Buddha gives Māluṅkyāputta direct guidance on how to think. He points Māluṅkyāputta away from the search for certainty to the possibility of living with metaphysical uncertainty. Such a strategy is counter-intuitive for many of us. It means putting aside questions and issues which are self-evidently connected with a knowledge of the true nature of things. The reason for this strategy is that by doing so we come to a better understanding of the situation we are in, the situation which has prompted our questioning and our longing for certainty. We might say that the Buddha recommends to Māluṅkyāputta that he cultivate what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, which is ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[6]

Negative capability is that capacity which makes conscious our longing for certainty and our desire for existential comfort, and turns it around. Instead of putting effort into finding the answers to metaphysical questions, we put our effort into understanding our present experience, with its uncertainties and its sufferings, which have their causes and conditions, and which the Buddha’s teaching is concerned with coming to know. The Buddha summarises all this to Māluṅkyāputta in the conclusion to the discourse:

Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained. And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I not explained? Whether the world is eternal [or not eternal, whether infinite or not infinite, whether the soul and body and different or identical, and whether a sentient being exists, or does not exist, or both, or neither] has not been explained by me. And why have I not explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is not profitable, it is not a starting point for the spiritual life, because it does not conduce to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have not explained it.

And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I explained? That here there is suffering, Māluṅkyāputta – this I have explained. That there is an origin of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is cessation of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is a practice leading to the cessation of this suffering – this I have explained.[7] And why have I explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is profitable, it is a starting point for the spiritual life, because it conduces to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have explained it. Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained.

In this way, the Buddha explains how Māluṅkyāputta should bear in mind the teachings of suffering (dukkha), its origin and its cessation, and the path to its cessation, as a way of thinking about things; a way that is OK with uncertainty, that bears with what is actually happening, that looks into present experience for the secret of what really matters.

 Based on a talk at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 25 April 2013

[1] The discourse is no.63 in the Majjhima-Nikāya; its full name is Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta; a full translation by myself can be found at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/76092054/M%2063%20Short%20Malunkyaputta.pdf, and an alternative translation by Ven. Thanissaro at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html.

[2] This final discourse is found in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya 35:95, and I discuss it in my book This Being, That Becomes, on pp.50–2. The other discourses featuring Māluṅkyāputta are Majjhima-Nikāya 64 and Anguttara-Nikāya 4:254. There are also some verses attributed to him in the Theragāthā.

[3] The phrase ‘a sentient being’ is a translation of tathāgata, literally, ‘one who has become thus’. While this word usually refers to a Buddha, and is used by Gotama to refer to himself, the commentaries always explain tathāgata in the context of the avyākatāni as satta, ‘creature’, ‘sentient being’, or even as atta, ‘self’. See A Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, p.286.

[4] That is, to which among the four varṇas or castes the person belonged.

[5] It is not certain what some of the Pāli words for these items mean, though the gist is clear enough.

[6] From a letter to his brothers of 21 December 1817.

[7] That is, the Buddha has explained the four noble truths.

Dependent-Arising and Interconnectedness


In my book This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality,[1] I make a connection between the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising, paṭicca-samuppāda, and what I claim to be the Buddha’s vision of reality as an interconnected whole. In my book I also invoke the name of Joanna Macy as someone who has written of paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of ‘interdependence’ and ‘mutual co-arising’.[2] Some Buddhist friends, however, have let me know that they do not believe that the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality can be rightly articulated in terms of interconnectedness and mutual arising, and they disapprove of Macy’s approach. In this essay I want to explain why I disagree.

However, I am not claiming that the Buddha taught interconnectedness. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is not recorded as saying anything at all about interconnectedness, nor much about the world of nature, because his emphasis is so overwhelmingly pragmatic and spiritual. Nevertheless, I think Joanna Macy’s discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising as implying ‘mutual arising’ and ‘interdependence’ is very useful for modern westerners. If we have had a scientific education, we might have unconsciously internalised a mechanistic view of how everything works. Talk of ‘causation’ and ‘cause and effect’ are likely to produce in our minds the idea of linear causal mechanisms, like billiard balls causing movement in other billiard balls. This conception of causality is culturally conditioned, being the result of the European scientific revolution. The idea of conditionality working in a much more complex, interconnected way suggests a more holistic and organic conception of causality in terms of complex non-linear causal processes. Such thinking is closer to the Buddha’s pre-scientific mode of thought. It certainly brings us closer to the workings of nature, and perhaps of reality too.

Beyond the idea of interdependence as a way of characterising causality, I believe that that the vision of reality as an interconnected whole is a particularly important implication of the teaching of dependent-arising. I would agree with anyone who says that the Buddha did not teach interconnectedness in that sense, but I do not think interconnectedness is at odds with the Dharma.

It seems to me that the emphasis (in the discourses that have come down to us in the Pāli canon) is on the implications of dependent-arising for existence through time, rather than for connectedness across space. That is to say, dependent-arising is generally expressed in the Pāli canon in terms of temporal relationships, and has the implication that all dependently-arisen things, just because they are dependently-arisen, are impermanent. They arise, they remain for a certain time, and then they pass away. Nothing is permanent, all is change. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all process, without fixed self (anattā).

The temporal implications of dependent-arising became the paradigm for the arising of insight, which is the goal of Buddhist practice. We see this in the story of the conversions of Sāriputta and his friend Mogallāna, who were to become the Buddha’s chief disciples. Sāriputta became a follower of the Buddha having heard a formulation of dependent-arising from a disciple of the Buddha called Assaji. Having been asked by Sāriputta for the essence of the Dharma, Assaji tells him:

‘Those things conditionally arisen – the Realized One has told their cause,
and the ceasing of them too; this is the great renouncer’s teaching.’[3]

Then – and this is the important point here – ‘Hearing this formulation of the Dharma, the spotless, stainless vision of Dharma arose in Sāriputta the wanderer, that whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease.’ We read this quite often in the Pāli canon. Someone hears the Dharma, and then they have a vision of the temporal instability of phenomena, and this is a vision of reality which is the beginning of the path of transformation and awakening.

My suggestion is that modern western Buddhists are, generally speaking, less fixated on the possibility of temporal stability, that is, on the possibility of immortality or the attainment of eternity, and more concerned about our identities in relation to a world of people and things. This means that we might experience our ignorance and our clinging more in terms of representations of spatial relationships then in terms of temporal durations. We might be more anxious what we have than how long we will have it. The teaching of dependent-arising, as well as implying that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease’, will also imply that people and things all depend on other people and things. In such a network of conditions, where can we find a reliable identity, and what might it be it by itself? Hearing the Dharma, one might have a vision of the interconnectness of all phenomena, and it might be this vision of reality which for us is the beginning of the path of transformation.

With this in mind, here are ‘Four Theses on Interconnectedness’. I should say that I am using the term ‘interconnectedness’ here to mean paṭicca-samuppāda, and you could equally use the terms ‘interdependence’, ‘mutual co-arising’ or conditionality.

  1. Reality (or nature) is an interconnected whole.
  2. Reality (or nature) is patterned by many kinds of laws.
  3. Particular things are connected to other particular things.
  4. Interconnected things do not exist independently.

These four theses constitute a metaphysical worldview that is a platform for Buddhist insight practice. They are logically independent but are themselves interconnected as to what they mean. The fourth thesis is a way of putting Nāgārjuna’s conception of śūnyatā, or emptiness, which states that all dharmas are without svabhāva or own-being.[4] Nāgārjuna himself believed that his conception of emptiness was a restatement of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way between existence and non-existence, especially as found in the Kaccāyana Sutta.[5] The third thesis is another way of putting the general formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda, (‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises,’ and so on) and warns us against understanding interconnectedness as some vague all-is-one kind of view. The second thesis, as well as being the basic assumption of the scientific worldview, is a paraphrase of the Buddha’s definition of paṭicca-samuppāda as ‘this stability of reality, this fixed course of things (dharma-niyāmatā)’.[6] The first thesis, that nature (or reality) is an interconnected whole, is not an explicit part of the traditional Buddhist world-view, but would appear to be implied by it.

Things are interconnected, they do not exist in themselves. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all network, without fixed self (anattā).

[1] Published by Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2011, especially in ch.8.

[2] In Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1991, and also in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, Rider: London, 1993, part 2.

[3] Vinaya-piṭaka i.40. A full translation of this incident is in my book on pp.36–8.

[4] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.1.

[5] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.15. The Kaccāyana Sutta is in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:15.

[6] Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:20.