Sati really does mean ‘memory’

November 8, 2018

“Mindfulness” as we now understand it is the result a history of semantic change. This began in ancient times with the Pali word sati, which in origin means ‘memory’, and has somehow given rise to the modern term ‘mindfulness’, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Moreover, modern scholars have perhaps been far too hasty to dismiss ‘memory’ as its central meaning in the EBT. I hope to show here that sati barely strayed in the early times far afield from this central meaning.

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Consciousness in the EBT

September 6, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

Thus, Ānanda, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an inferior [… repeated also for middling and superior] realm. (AN 3.76)

Consciousness (viññāṇa) as represented in the early Buddhist texts (EBT) has received relatively little attention in modern Buddhist literature, in view of its centrality in human cognition. It is highlighted in the EBT as the third of the twelve links of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), to which I will make frequent reference in this essay:

(1) ignorance → (2) formations → (3) consciousness →
(4) name-and-form → (5) sixfold-sphere →
(6) contact → (7) feeling → (8) craving →
(9) attachment → (10) becoming → (11) birth →
(12) old age, death, this mass of suffering.

In this role consciousness and name-and-form are said to whirl continually around each other to produce our whole conceptual world. In fact, in the seminal Mahānidāna Sutta , which omits the two links prior to consciousness consciousness, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning:1

(3) consciousness ↔ (4) name-and-form.

Therefore, consciousness actually depends on two conditioning factors, formations and name-and-form. Through form, according to the same sutta, it is also subject to the impingement of new sense data.

Consciousness also appears as the last of the five aggregates (khaṅdha) – which are form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness – that represent aspects of phenomenal experience, to which we will also make frequent reference in this essay. We will also see that consciousness tends to arise in the presence of craving. Consciousness is also mentioned as a dependent component of (6) contact.

This essay attempts a coherent overview of consciousness based on earliest texts, but also from the perspective of a (retired) cognitive scientist. I will begin with an illustrative example, then point out the various properties attributed to consciousness in the EBT, and finally outline how consciousness gets us into trouble and what we do about it.

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The Buddha as Biologist

June 26, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

babySwimmingThe Buddha taught suffering and the ending of suffering. His teachings were stringently parsimonious and practical. It made sense that he would teach us about craving the origin of suffering, because understanding those factors and internalizing their under­standing through practice makes a difference in how we deal with these factors in everyday experience: we see the dangers in crav­ing, we become dispassionate about craving, experience revulsion with regard to craving, abandon craving, and suffering ends. These are factors of phenomenal experience that we can learn to respond to directly as they arise, in more skillful ways. Such phe­nomena are the stuff of dhammānupassanā, examining phenom­ena as they arise in our experiential world through the lens of the Dhamma.

So, why would the Buddha teach biology? It appears that he had important things to say about the nature of conception in the womb, and about the composition of the psychophysical organ­ism, and that he gave these things prominent roles at key junc­tures in his teachings. Or did he? Biology lies within the pro­cesses of the natural world that are largely beyond immediate ex­perience but that generally continue to play out, at least within this life, regardless of our practice or how we might respond to them. Such things, if they are valuable at all, belong to theory and not praxis.

I don’t think the Buddha was a biologist, and hope to show this in this brief essay.

MORE … (BuddhaBiologist.pdf)

 

Dhammānupassanā

May 31, 2018

Seeing through the eyes of the Buddha

Samādhi (concentration) is the dominant factor of the higher training toward awakening in the early Buddhist texts (EBT), and yet it is lamentably misunderstood. It folds all of the energies of the previous seven path factors into a unified whole:

There are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. The unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and accessories. (SN 45.28)

It then provides the incubator for that liberating knowledge that may burst forth into awakening.

Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A monk with concentrat­ion under­stands in accordance with reality. (SN 22.5)

Yet many have doubts that samādhi can possibly fulfill these functions. The problem seems to be that the tight integration of (1) Dhamma, of the contemplative disciplines of (2) mindfulness and (3) samādhi, and of (4) liberating knowledge, as put forward in the EBT, seems to have come apart, for many maintain that the Dhamma cannot reach the stillness of samādhi and that samādhi does not have the cognitive strength to produce liberating knowledge with any kind of meaningful content.

Dhammānupassanā (watching or observing of phenomena) is at the center of this issue. It is the practice of examining phenomenal experience in accordance with the categories of Dhamma – in this sense, seeing through the eyes of the Buddha – articulated most prominently as the fourth establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). But, as we will see, it functions almost entirely in samādhi, and leads to an array of liberating insights. It is here where the full integration of Dhamma, mindfulness, samādhi and liberating knowledge is realized.

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What is the Eye?

April 16, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

The eye seems like a commonplace enough and useful thing. Who would imagine that it would be so implicated in the human pathology, nor that understanding the eye would play such an important role in its resolution?

The Buddha attributes many, at first sight, puzzling properties to the eye in the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT), and equivalently to the other sense faculties – ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind. We learn that the eye is something that can be guarded or restrained, by not grasping signs and features of the forms it contacts, for Māra is constantly trying to gain access through the eye. More­over, “it is better for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin … than for one to grasp the features in a form cognizable through the eye” (SN 35.235). We learn that the eye is that by which one is “a perceiver of the world, a conceiver of the world” (SN 35.116). On the other hand, we learn that the eye is imperma­nent, and that its rise and fall can be discerned, and moreover reveals itself as impermanent with the devel­opment of concentration. Since the eye is im­permanent, it is suffering and cannot be a self.

We learn that “that sphere should be understood where the eye ceases and the perception of forms fades away” (SN 35.117). It is possible not to conceive the eye, in the eye, from the eye, or “this eye is mine,” and, as a result, it is possible to end conceptualizing and clinging. As we gain such direct knowledge of the eye, we are able to de­velop dispassion for the eye, revulsion for eye and thereby abandon the eye. Surprisingly, we also learn that the eye itself is old kamma, fashioned by volition and something to be experi­enced.

So, what is this eye the EBT speak of? And analogously, what are the ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind?

Read More . . . (pdf)

Am I my five khaṅdhas?

February 21, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

pdficonOne day, the awakened nun Vajirā Bhikkhunī, having returned from Savatthi with her daily alms, having eaten and having set­tled down in the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding, was confronted by the infamous Māra, who tried to disrupt her samādhi by raising a thorny philosophical question: What is a liv­ing being (satta)? Her famous answer surprised and frustrated the Evil One:

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word “chariot” is used,
So, when aggregates are present,
There’s the convention “a living being.” (SN 5.10)

chariotSeveral centuries later, as recorded in the Questions of Milinda, the wise Buddhist monk Nāgasena won his first debate with the Bactrian Greek king Milinda by drawing on Vajirā’s analysis, pointing out that just as the king’s chariot is nei­ther axle, nor wheels, nor chassis, nor reins, nor yoke, nor something apart from them, Nāgasena is neither nails, nor teeth, nor skin or nor other parts of the body, nor any of the aggregates, nor something apart from them. No chariot can be found, no Nāgasena can be found, yet by convention we say “chariot” and “Nāgasena.”

The five aggregates – in Pali khaṅdha or in Sanskrit skaṅdha – are form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), fabrications (saṅkhārā) and consciousness (viññāṇa), products of cognitive analysis, as we will see. In later Buddhist thought Vajirā’s and Nāgasena’s analysis of the unsubstantiality of concepts like “char­iot” and “living being” was taken, not as laying bare the unsub­stantiality of concepts, but as an attempt to define these very con­cepts. Even in modern discourse, the five khaṅdhas are more of­ten than not defined as the five constituents of the person or psychophysical organism and sometimes translated “the five per­sonality factors,” rather than “the five aggregates.”

And so I wish to consider herewith: Are you or I five aggregates? And if so, are we really the five aggregates, or only as a matter of linguistic convention?

What are the five khaṅdhas, exactly?

The five khaṅdhas, as a matter of doctrine, appear to have a precedent in no pre-Buddhist tradition.[1] However, tradition tells us that the Buddha referred to this concept in his very first dis­course, “The Turning of the Wheel,” in explaining the first noble truth as follows:

“Birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five aggregates of attachment.” (SN 56.11)

Its occurrence here must have been puzzling for anyone not al­ready familiar with the concept. I suspect that either the expres­sion actually was already in common discourse, or a later redac­tor projected what had later become a fundamental concept in the Buddha’s teachings back into this early discourse. What we can infer from this first mention is that the five aggregates seem to encompass a wide swath of human experience and that they be­come a problem when attachment to them arises.

Given the foregoing analogy of a being and a chariot, we might expect each of the khaṅdhas to be a thing, a concrete part like an axle, a wheel, a chassis or a yoke, that can be assembled together to produce “me.” Again, the khaṅdhas in English and Pali are:

aggregate, khaṅdha
form, rūpa
feeling, vedanā
perception, saññā
fabrications, saṅkhārā
consciousness, viññāṇa

The names indicate cognitive capabilities. This might suggest that maybe the khaṅdhas are an array of mental faculties, functional units charged with interpreting the world. However, keep in mind that a khaṅdha itself is an aggregate, that is, a heap, a collection, an assembly, a pile or a bundle. The word khaṅdha unambigu­ously expresses plurality. Perception, for instance, cannot be a single something that perceives, but must rather be the heap, or stream, of perceptions produced by such an alleged perceiver, each of which arises, undergoes change and ceases. This makes sense in terms of the way we are instructed to contemplate the khaṅdhas:

Whatever kinds of form[…] there is, whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far and near, a bhikkhu inspects it, investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insub­stantial. (SN 22.95)

This passage is a pericope, a fixed formula repeated with slight variations. The suttas are full of pericopes. In this passage the same formula is then repeated four times, but each time replacing “form” with one of the other khaṅdhas. I will use the notation “form[…]” to indicate substitution of each of the five khaṅdhas in turn, starting with “form” in a pericope.

Consciousness, in particular, has been vulnerable in other con­texts to interpretation as a fixed functional thing, rather than as a stream of comings and goings. One day the Buddha summoned the monk Sāti, who was reported to have a pernicious view, and he states his view:

“As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.”
“What is that consciousness, Sāti?”
“Venerable sir, it is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”
“Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be de­pendently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? (MN 38)

Consciousness manifests contingently, not as a fixed thing. If we take up the khaṅdhas as topics of practice, it is important to be clear what we are supposed to look for; few teachers seem to do this. If we eat bread, we eat a morsel at a time, not all bread and not the bakery. It is in the morsel that we experience taste and texture. Likewise we experience perception and the rest one morsel at a time as phenomena that arise contingently. Let me try out, just for the time being, new names that avoid the ambiguity between mental faculties and their products inherent in the con­ventional name.

form, appearances
feeling, valuations
perception, features
fabrications, structures
consciousness, configurations

The khaṅdhas represent different facets of the world of increas­ing depth or complexity. Think of these as building layers of physical reality, unfolding progressively: colors and shapes, af­fective tones, things and qualities, structural relations among things and complex configurations of things and relations, as they arise in our experience interdependently. Let’s discuss each of these khaṅdhas briefly in turn:

form. The Pali word rūpa means “form,” “shape” or “experi­ence,” and therefore has to do with the physical world as it arises in experience.[2] “Body” or “matter” therefore would be a poor translation, though it is a common assumption by students of the Dhamma that form refers in this context to the physical body as part of the “personality.” However, this would give us no way to refer to the sensual facets of insentient objects in experience, such as our chariot, objects that are not our body or someone else’s body.[3] Moreover, as will soon be apparent, a body is consti­tuted of all the khaṅdhas.

feeling. This is defined as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and can be thought of as interest. This is the single affective instance among the khaṅdhas. Although the other khaṅdhas most typi­cally are aspects of physicality, the valuation that tags appear­ances, characteristics, structures and configurations plays a criti­cal role in determining where in the experiential situation con­sciousness and the other factors arise.

perception. This manifests as specific colors, recognizable shapes and other features of physical objects, at the level of words or concepts. An appearance can manifest as a face, for in­stance, or as a tree or as a dog, or as my dog, or as a chariot. Ex­perientially it is here that the designation “chariot” or “living be­ing” arises. Here we begin to see its insubstantiality. For instance, “chariot” might arise quite readily from a perception of a sound or motion.

fabrications. Structures are composites, things made out of pieces. From the parts, the whole emerges, for instance, from eyes and mouth, a face emerges, from conditions and goal a plan emerges. From sound and motion a chariot emerges. From attach­ment identification arises. Fabrications represent choices of inter­pretation or execution, and so are volitional or karmic in nature. This lends particular importance to fabrications, since this is where we learn to make better choices. Other khaṅdhas are actu­ally kinds of structures at different levels of complexity.

consciousness. An arising of consciousness can be far reaching in its discernment, insight, imagination and abstraction, generally pointing to something complex far beyond itself – notice that we are always conscious of something –, painting a picture of a real­ity often bordering on fantasy. The Buddha compares conscious­ness to a magic show.[4] It can see entire objects when only a tail or a tail fin is visible to perception, or tell us that objects ob­served at different times from different angles are the same ob­ject. It arises as an objective world “out there,” consisting of things and people, and convinces us that it is all real. It can even take shapes and colors flashing on a video screen and transplant us into a world of the remote past, as in a western movie, or into the future,as in a science fiction move, and make that world seem real. None of the other khaṅdhas exists without consciousness[5] – we wouldn’t know about them if they did.

Our experience is composed from the khaṅdhas, which present an unfolding of the experienced world, accumulating different facets of reality, level by level, element by element. The Buddha de­scribes the process with a metaphor:

“Suppose, bhikkhus, an artist or a painter, using dye or lac or turmeric or indigo or crimson, would create the figure of a man or a woman complete in all its features on a well-polished plank or wall or canvas. So too, when the uninstructed worldling produces anything, it is only form that he produces, only feeling that he produces, only per­ception that he produces, only fabrications that he pro­duces, only consciousness that he produces.” (SN 22.100)

The objects that arise layer by layer are insubstantial and com­posed of insubstantial elements, and therefore the objects are in­substantial. The Buddha makes the following analogies:

form, foam
feeling, a bubble
perception, a mirage
fabrications, a plantain tree (with no discernible core)
consciousness, a magic show

brushstrokesFor each, he says, “it would appear to [the observer] to be void, hol­low, insubstantial.”[6] This is why a chariot or a living being, or person, are insubstantial, they are fabri­cated in our experiential world from insubstantial elements.

We live in two worlds, an internal (ajjhatta) subjective world of direct experience, and an external (bahiddhā) objective world world which we imagine to exist with or without us. Khaṅdhas pertain to the internal world and only to the internal world. When Ven. Varijā says, “When the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a living being’,” she can only be referring to the composition of the being within internal experi­ence. When she breaks down the chariot into its component parts, she is speaking externally.[7]

It is critical that we recognize this distinction, for the Buddha pri­oritized the subjective world: It is the world in which suffering arises, it is the world in which we seek liberation; it is the world in which we immerse ourselves when we sit on the cushion, it is the world in which we awaken. Since this world is entirely of ex­perience, the question, “What exists?” does not apply, only the question “What arises under what circumstances?” Investigation of the external world is ontological, investigation of the internal is epistemological. The Buddha gives us alternative ways to view the world of experience, each highlighting different aspects. The main alternative is the sixfold (sense) sphere,[8] about which he spoke,

In the six the world has arisen,
In the six it holds concourse.
In the six it has woes. (SN 1.70)

How do we practice the five khaṅdhas?

A doctrine is only as good as the practices it supports. The doc­trine of the khaṅdhas concerns our world of experience and the factors that arise in experience, which is to say phenomena (dhammas).[9] It presents these as material for investigation and in­sight, on and off the cushion, specifically suited for the fourth foundation of mindfulness, dhammānupassanā, or contemplation of phenomena.

The qualities of our experiential world that come forward with the khaṅdhas are its constructedness and its insubstantiality, for it is a fragile reality fabricated in small cognitive increments, cogni­tive morsels. The Buddha applies a common formula to approach investigation of the khaṅdhas, that is, in terms of gratification, danger, and escape.

The gratification (assāda) of the khaṅdhas is the pleasure and joy dependent on khaṅdhas.

The danger (ādīnava) is that the khaṅdhas are imperma­nent, suffering and subject to change.

The escape (nissaraṇa) is the removal of desire and lust for the khaṅdhas.[10]

The first expresses where we begin in our practice, the second ex­amines how the first creates problems for us in terms of the salvific goals of practice, and the third is where we want to be in our practice. The Buddha stated with regard to this formula,

“So long as I did not directly know the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of the five aggregates of attachment, I did not claim to have awakened.” (SN 22.27)

Let me take these up in order.

Gratification. Our job here is to examine how pleasure and joy tend to come up around the khaṅdhas and moreover how these lead to attachment (upādāna), which in turn involves identifica­tion, appropriation and even the arising of pernicious views with regard to the khaṅdhas. Because the khaṅdhas really represented an unfolding of the experienced world, an accrual of different facets of reality, we might notice in our practice at which point in an unfolding experiences we crave or attach. For instance, I may be attached to, and even identify with, my chariot. What aspects am I attached to, or do I identify with? If it is the shine of the chrome trimmings, my attachment centers on form; if the quality of the wooden parts, the length of the yoke or the diameter of the wheels then on perception; if the many uses I find in my chariot and the prestige I gain by appearing on the byways and cross­roads in it, then on consciousness. We may discover that all of these play a role.

One of the functions of bringing such contemplations onto the cushion is that, as the mind stills, the experienced world folds up again, in particular retreating from consciousness, fabrications, perception, and so on, and, with that, the craving, attachment, identification and appropriation that accompany them. We begin to notice as the mind stills, the world undergoes a noticeable shift. This highlights the unsubstantiality of the khaṅdhas.

An oft-repeated formula shows how identification or appropria­tion occur within attachment.

“The uninstructed worldling sees form[…] as self, self as possessing form[…], self as in form[…], self as in form […].” (SN 22.1, etc.)

Khaṅdhas evoke attachments. The intersection of attachment and the khaṅdhas is called the aggregates of attachment or aggregates subject to attachment (upādānak-khaṅdha), a very important con­cept in the Buddha’s teaching. The nun Dhammadinna equated identity (sakkāya), one’s sense of self, exactly with the five aggre­gates of attachment (MN 44). Basically, you are what you attach to. But moreover, it is from attachment that specific views about identity – such as, “this I am, this is mine, this is my self” – arise (SN 24.2).

Danger. Contemplating the five aggregates of attachment, we ask, What is the problem here? Well, to begin with, the five ag­gregates of attachment are misery (SN 22.31), “form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, fabrications are burning, consciousness is burning” (SN 22.61). What we attach to we want to be permanent, so when we discover it is impermanent we have a problem.

“The uninstructed worldling regards form[…] thus: ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ That form[…] of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form […], there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displea­sure and despair.” (SN 22.8)

Impermanence is why craving leads to suffering. I often advice students that if they acquire a new chariot, the best thing they can do for themselves is to take out a hammer and put a few dents in it. Get it over with. Otherwise they will make themselves miser­able in anticipation before the first dent even occurs. Moreover, an uninstructed worldling who identifies with or appropriates forms, feeling, perceptions, fabrications or instances of con­sciousness is tethered to samsara, like a dog leashed to a pole. (SN 22.98)

Escape. The escape is renunciation, loosening the grip of attach­ment to me and mine. Just as kids lose their lust and desire for a sandcastle – also insubstantial and yet initially a locus of great significance and attachment – then destroy and scatter it, so we must destroy our lust and desire for the khaṅdhas and destroy and scatter what we have built (SN 23.2). This metaphor is directly en­acted by Tibetan monks who painstakingly construct a mandala of colored sand over many days, then sweep it away upon com­pletion. The scattering begins with the contemplation of the dan­ger of the aggregates:

mandala“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees as impermanent form[…] which is actu­ally impermanent: that is his right view. See­ing rightly, he experi­ences revulsion. With the destruction of de­light comes the de­struction of lust; with the destruction of lust comes the destruction of delight. With the destruction of delight and lust the mind is liberated and is said to be well liberated.” (SN 22. 51)

Most of the practices of the Khaṅdhasamyutta involve prying up the identification with the khaṅdhas. These are recurring refrains:

“This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”

“He does not consider form[…] as self, or self as possess­ing form […], or form[…] as in self, or self as in form[…].”

Sometimes it drills down into more detailed analyses:

“Bhikkhus, form[…] is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form […] were self, this form[…] would not lead to affiction, and it would be possible to have it of form[…]: ‘Let my form […] be this; let my form[…] not be thus.’” (SN 22.59)

Understanding gratification, danger and escape, we hope for lib­eration:

“If, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu’s mind has become dispassionate towards form[…], it is liberated from the taints by non-at­tachment. By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He under­stands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’” (SN 22.45)

The practices around the khaṅdhas and the upādānak-khaṅdhas are clearly very important. We should note that there is no men­tion in the suttas of a practice of investigating the person by de­composing the person into five parts.[11] That is not the role of the khaṅdhas in the Buddha’s teaching. Quite the opposite: the prac­tice is to deny the relationship of the khaṅdhas to the self.

Am I my five khaṅdhas?

The quick answer is: Yes, But! … Let’s consider how a person, me, arises in your experiential world. First certain colors and shapes arise, largely maroon in color. A sense of foreboding en­sues. The features arise “monk,” “shaveling,” then the discern­ment “worthy of offerings” The features arise “wire-rimmed glasses,” “wry grin” and finally “Bhikkhu Cintita,” then the dis­cernment “maybe not so worthy of offerings.” At some point in this process you are convinced that I really exist out there in the external world, independent of your experience of me. In this way you fabricate me and furthermore take this insubstantial fab­rication as real. I am in your experiential world fabricated en­tirely of five khaṅdhas. However, I am no different in this sense from the book you left lying on your table, nor your chariot, for they are fabricated as well of five khandas. So there is no reason, so far, to call the khandas “personality factors”; they are “every­thing factors.”

nickleNonetheless, lest the reader be disappointed with this conclusion, there is another and very interesting way I might be my five khaṅdhas: I have a flip side, which your book and your car do not. You will discern that I am much like you, and that just as you live in an internal world of experience, I must similarly live in a internal world of experi­ence, compose of five khaṅdhas, in which ob­jects of my experience will arise, including you. Although once again they are not “personality fac­tors” per se, we can at least say that person­hood, as conventionally understood, relies on having a flip side born of khaṅdhas.

Rohitassa in a previous life had been a deva who could travel at astonishing speed. He had tried, by running for a hundred years, to reach the end of the world where he expected to encounter lib­eration, but without success. In this life he asked of the Buddha whether this quest was even possible. The Buddha replied,

“I say, friend, that by traveling one cannot know, see or reach that end of the world where one is not born, does not grow old and die, does not pass away and get reborn. Yet I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end of suffering. It is in this fathom-long living body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.” (AN 4.45)

The Buddha’s enigmatic statement is resolved when we realize he has shifted his perspective from the conventional person to the flip-side of the person, where we have woes, where we practice and where we attain liberation.

The khaṅdhas answer the question, How do we experience? This is an epistemological question. The khaṅdhas provide insight into the constructed nature of the experiential world. We learn that if we imagine a personal identity this causes us problems, so our practice is to remind ourselves that the khaṅdhas are not our selves. Vajirā’s response to Māra was intended to emphasize the insubstantiality of that personal identity.

Early in Buddhist history the khaṅdhas were taken to answer an­other question, What is the person? The Buddha never attempted to answer this question.[12] Those who have, unfortunately, have generally been encouraged to offer an ontological answer in which the khaṅdhas are our selves. This resulted in a history of thorny metaphysical speculation,[13] eventuating in the idea of the “person” (S: pudgala, P: puggala) as a fully reified entity in the Pudgalavāda tradition.

As an afterthought, our understanding of the khaṅdhas allows us to gain insight into another puzzling issue. In the twelve links of dependent coarising, two of the early links are consciousness and name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) in a very tight relationship.[14] Now, the factors that constitute name-and-form (form, feeling, percep­tion, volition, contact, attention) plus consciousness come very close to the five khaṅdhas. Let us therefore take them as roughly equivalently as modeling our experiential world. Now, the puz­zling issue involves this passage:

“If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, Lord.”
“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

This passage has been use to justify a biological interpretation of a large segment of the twelve links for centuries, whereby name-and-form is equated with the person, or psychophysical organism, that acquires or sustains consciousness, much like the five khaṅdhas have generally been assumed to define the person dur­ing the same period.[15] However, there are several reasons why the biological interpretation cannot be right: First, the biological in­terpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, and provides no material for practice or insight. Second, the biologi­cal interpretation displaces a much more viable interpretation that lays bare the role of cognition in creating the subject-object dual­ity upon which craving depends, and that does provide material for practice and insight.[16] Finally, the role in biological concep­tion of consciousness makes consciousness into something sub­stantial that can move through space and enter the mother’s womb in order to run and wander through the round of rebirths, which seems suspiciously similar to Sāti’s pernicious view discussed earlier.[17]
The puzzle arises from confusing external and internal worlds. The person is clearly referred to twice in an objective sense, first as the occupant of the womb and then as the boy or girl. How­ever, the consciousness and the name-and-form, like the khaṅd­has, must refer to the flip side of the person, to the person’s inter­nal world, much as in the instructions to Rohitassa discussed above. This passage thereby serves to correlate processes in the internal world with external events as a means of demonstrating a causal relation between consciousness and name-and-form.

References

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 1995 [1984], The Great Discourse on Causa­tion: the Mahānidāna Sutta and its commentaries, BPS.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2016, :Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the sut­tas,” online at

Gethin, Rupert, 1986, “The Five khaṅdhas: their treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 14, 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue, 1996, Identity and Experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism, Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue, 2000, Early Buddhism: the I of the beholder, Routledge.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 1974, The Magic of the Mind: an Exposition of the Kālakārāma Sutta, Buddhist Publication Soci­ety, also 2007, Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya: Sri Lanka, also on-line.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 2015, The Law of Dependent Arising: the Secret of Bondage and Release (draft), Vol. 1-4, Pathgulala Dharmagrantha Dharmasravana Mādhya Bhāraya (PDDMB), Sri Lanka.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu, 2010, “The Five Aggregates: a study guide,” online at accesstoinsight.org.

 

Copyright 2018, Bhikkhu Cintita (John Dinsmore)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

1. Hamilton (2000, 70).

2. Gethin (1986, 36).

3. Gethin (1985, 40).

4. Ñāṇānanda (1974), based on the Kālakārāma Sutta (SN 22.95), explores this metaphor.

5. See SN 22.53.

6. SN 22.95.

7. Hamilton (1996, 194) states, “There is no suggestion in the Sutta Pitaka that the Buddha had any concern for ontological matters. … We don’t find information concerning what we are comprised of, but only how we work.” Gethin (1986, 49) points out furthermore that this particular way of constituting the person as five khaṅdhas would have no particular psycho­logical or logical merit.

8. The main source for the six-fold sphere is The Saḷāyatana Sutta (MN 137), also the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta (SN 35).

9. A phenomenon in western philosophy is an object as experienced by the senses, as opposed to a noumenon, which is an object as it exists indepen­dent of the senses.

10. This formula is repeated throughout the Khaṅdhasaṃyutta (SN 22), for in­stance in SN 22.26, and in MN 108.

11. There is, by way of analogy, a practice of contemplating the body as being composed of thirty-two parts found in many suttas, such as the Sati­paṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10).

12. Thanissaro (2010).

13. ibid.

14. For instance, see Ñāṇānanda (2015, vol. 2, 31-35).

15. On the biological interpretation see Bodhi (1995, 18).

16. Ñāṇānanda (2015), Cintita (2016).

17. The word commonly translated as “descends” in this passage can also mean “arises.”

 

Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (2/4)

February 12, 2018

Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Theravāda has been remarkably orthodox historically, although it did undergo some further development from the early Buddhist texts (hereafter EBT). This earliest layer of scriptures, as close as we know to what the Buddha himself taught, was supplementing very early on by the canonical Abhidhamma and, beginning around 500 CE, by voluminous Pali commentaries (atthakathā) on the EBT and on the Abhidhamma. Gombrich[12] notes that Theravāda has developed very little since the commentary days in the first millennium. It has been extremely conservative in its outlook, not participating in the fast pace of Indian Buddhism during that same period, nor the further developments in Mahāyāna lands. The conservationism Theravāda is probably a result of its geographical isolation in Sri Lanka during its early history and subsequently southwest Asia. Gombrich points out that the Tamil culture and language of Sri Lanka are also very conservative compared to the Tamil of southern India. Theravāda has also failed to produce the long line of brilliant and original thinkers that Mahāyāna has.

450px-cundi_bodhisattva_-_smallCharacteristic of Mahāyāna is a dramatic shift in the center of its scriptural basis from the EBT to the sometimes wildly original Mahāyāna sūtras and śāstras (treatises), which were unknown until the first millennium CE. Among the important themes expounded within the new Mahāyāna texts are the bodhisattva ideal, buddha nature, elaborations of cosmology including the attribution of superhuman status to the Buddha, emptiness, subject/object non-dualism and appeal to superhuman beings. Two main philosophical schools are generally held to have developed in Indian Mahāyāna: the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. the first centered around emptiness and began with Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and followed by the scholarly work of Nagārjuna and others. The second centered around subject/object non-duality, began with the Samdhinirmocana Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra, followed by the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu and others in the Yogācāra or Mind-Only School. But the scope of doctrine found within Mahāyāna is much greater than this.

This very gradual (centuries-long), but in retrospect dramatic shift represented by Mahāyāna has been evaluated from two conflicting perspectives, one by Theravāda and one by Mahāyāna, which Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Theravāda purism and Mahāyāna elitism.[13] The tendency for Theravadins, and undoubtedly many in the early sects of yesteryear, has been to look at Mahāyāna sutras with some alarm as inauthentic aberrations from the Buddha’s teaching, instances illustrative of an unraveling of the Sāsana. The tendency for Mahāyānists, on the other hand, has been to regard their sutras with some enthusiasm as higher teachings, a further unfolding of the Sāsana.[14]

A familiar example of the Mahāyāna attitude is the famous Heart Sutra, part of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, which has the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a mythical figure in Mahāyāna lore, lecturing on the Dharma condescendingly to the great Śāriputra (P: Sāriputta), an historical disciple and arahant at the time of the Buddha, known in the EBT for his great wisdom.

“Oh, Śāriputra, form does not differ From emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The same is true for feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness.”

In the Tibetan rendition of this sutra, we learn that the Buddha has been quietly listening during this discourse and at the end approves of Avalokiteśvara’s words.

Mahāyāna sutras typically have the basic form of the EBT discourses, reporting on the composition of an audience and the delivery of a sermon by the Buddha. A myth that often accompanies them – prominent in the Lotus Sutra, for instance – is that these texts indeed originate with the Buddha, but that they were preserved secretly for hundreds of years until the world was ready for them.[15] So profound are they, that before these works manifested, the world had first to master an inferior doctrine (the Hīnayāna). These texts were quickly embraced by the Mahāyānists as they became available, but neglected by more orthodox Buddhists, as they are by the Theravādins to this day.

Virtually all scholars agree that Mahāyāna sutras are, in fact, of much later provenance, and of uncertain authorship; they certainly did not originate with, nor anywhere near the time of, the Buddha.[16] Although this seems to support the common Theravāda purist view regarding these texts, the value of many of these texts must be acknowledged, for many are quite brilliant and important for the doctrinal development of Buddhism. Moreover, from the Mahāyāna perspective we could just as well concede that the Buddha was only the first in a series of great Buddhist thinkers, that he turned the wheel of Dharma once but that a second and a third teacher turned it again and again.

Indeed, the first millennium CE, the period during which these texts arose, northern India seems to have experienced a vibrant intellectual and spiritual life, encouraged by the great Buddhist universities suc as Nālanda. It is significant that among the Buddhist sects, the Theravādins played little role in this intellectual fervor,[17] nor does it seem in its history to have produced minds of the stature of Nāgārjuna, nor Vasubandhu, nor of later thinkers beyond India like Tsongkhapa and Dōgen. It was instead creating line-by-line commentaries on the EBT and Abhidhamma during this period.

Later in this essay I will describe what I see as a process of doctinal decline and recovery that has characterized the Sāsana historically. For now I point out that Mahāyāna seems to have arisen at a period of doctrinal decline in many sects particularly in northern India. In fact, it is probably partly in response to that decline that Mahāyāna arose, as we will see. Framed in these terms it will be evident that much of the enthusiasm for Mahāyāna ideas came not from some inadequacy of the Buddha’s early teachings, but from doctrinal corruption in certain of the early sects in the first few centuries of the Sāsana by the time the Mahāyāna movement was under way. Particularly important to the Mahāyāna response were the teachings of the Sarvāstivāda sect dominant and intellectually active in northern India for many centuries, which had developed a highly speculative and substantialist Abhidharma, and the offshoot Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect.[18]

Unfortunately, seeing early Buddhism through the filter of later corruptions, then underscoring this by the myth of higher teachings, resulted in a failure in the Mahāyāna to study and recognize the brilliance and sophistication of the earliest teachings.[19] Hence the dismissive attitude toward poor Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra. It is by deprecating what they understood as early Buddhism as “Hīnayāna” that Mahāyāna cut itself off from its own past. This was a grave error, for much of the coherent and remarkably profound system of thought that constitutes the earliest Buddhist texts would significantly have to be re-invented.

Meanwhile, Theravāda has been the bearer of a this same priceless and luminous EBT jewel and the sole custodian of the Buddha’s full turning of the wheel. Verily, this early corpus has, almost in its entirety, long existed as a part of the Chinese canon, but it has lied there buried, disregarded and almost completely hidden under heaps of later texts. Not only has the Theravāda tradition kept these texts alive over all of these years, it has preserved these texts in the Pali language, close to the language the Buddha must have spoken, giving Theravāda valuable access to the subtleties of the original language of these texts. These ground the tradition in an authentic foundation.

This brings us to the topic of authenticity. Every tradition is obliged to justify its teachings, to ground its teachings in something in which adherents have unshakable trust, to establish norms for correct understanding. Generally a claim to represent the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) is the primary criterion of authenticity. Theravada is grounded in the EBT, which is closely linked by tradition to the Buddha and modern scholarship substantially confirms its right to do this this.[20] The Theravāda commentary tradition purports to rest on the same foundation, which is to say, even where it might provide faulty interpretations, those interpretations can be challenged by matching them against the EBT. The canonical Theravada Abhidhamma represents a curious case. Scholars place it in the centuries after the Buddha, though it turns out to be quite consistent with the EBT. Nonetheless the canonical Abhidhamma is justified by means of a miraculous origin story in the commentary tradition, which involves the Buddha ascending to Tāvatiṃsa Heaven in order to preach to a group of deities, thereby establishing it as buddhavacana.

Authenticity is much more difficult to establish in Mahāyāna because Mahāyāna traditionally ignores or deprecates the EBT. At different times and places the clergy have been compelled to establish their own authority by advancing certain standards.[21] There are a number of ways Mahāyāna sutras and sastras are claimed to be authentic. The most common is to declare them to be words of the Buddha after all, purporting them to be authentic discourses of the Buddha as in the EBT, ones that even begin with Aananda’s words, “Thus have I heard.” Other sources indicate inspiration by contemporary buddhas dwelling in other-worldly realms or as revelations by deities, sometimes with books appearing in the hands of forest-dwelling ascetics, or found in caves.[22] Zen, for its part, describes itself as a teaching transmitted independently of words and letters from teacher to student going back all the way to the Buddha, the transmission of the lamp. Many Mahāyāna texts, such as the influential Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith were probably not even composed in India, even while they are purported to have been.[23]

Presumably as a result of these discretionary standards, Mahāyāna scriptures are, as one prominent scholar has described it, “a shifting mass of teachings with little or no central core, many of which are incompatible with each other and within which we can sometimes detect mutual criticsm.”[24] Mahāyāna is perhaps best regarded as an umbrella for many schools of many shapes and sizes an it is hard to make generalizations about Mahāyāna as a whole. Yet as mentioned, Mahāyāna has produced many brilliant and innovative thinkers and viable schools within its mix, often able to overcome deficits in its pre-Mahāyāna history. How this was possible will be explored in the remainder of this essay.

In sum, Mahāyāna has been cut off from its past and Theravāda from its future. Mahāyāna has been cut off from the EBT in which it is historically rooted. Not understanding its own roots, Mahāyāna has diversified into a wide variety of schools that stretch the bounds of what constitutes Buddhism, each school having to invent its own history in order to justify its own authority. Properly, we cannot say that Mahāyāna teaches the various doctrines listed here, only that they are found within Mahāyāna. As a result Mahāyāna has no widely accepted standards for assessing its historical and existing variations. Theravāda, on the other hand, has been cut off from the later innovations of Mahāyāna. Theravada contains within itself, in principle, all it needs to know, but has little flair for reformation.

The need for reformation remains to be argued. I will now turn to the tendency of Buddhism toward both decline and recovery. Specifically, I will argue that Theravāda froze in early on a number of faulty interpretations of the EBT, while within Mahāyāna correct interpretations have either been preserved or rediscovered.

Next episode, Part 3: Tendencies toward decline

Footnotes

12. Gombrich (2006, 21-22).

13. Bodhi (2013).

14.Anālayo (2014) traces this view to Tarkajvāla (6th century) and points out that it was promoted by the Japanese delegation to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions.

15. Kalupahana (2015, 4).

16. Williams (2008, 39): “However, source-critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account.”

17. Mahāyāna does seem to have made at least an appearance in Sri Lanka during the first millennium. See Williams (2008, 10).

18.Kalupahana (2015, 20-21). Interestingly the Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect, which also became prominent, split from the Sarvāstivādins in an attempt to distance itself from the Abhidharma, but failed to excise many concepts that in fact deviate from the Nikayas.

19. Kalupahana (2015, 5).

20. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) argue for the authenticity (as well aknowledge the limits) of the EBT according to a wide variety of criteria.

21. Sharf (2001, 14).

22. Williams (2008, 39-40).

23. Muller (1998).

24. Williams (2008, 3).

References

Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Muller, Charles, 1998, East Asian Apocryphal Scriptures: Their Origin and Role in the Development of Sinitic Buddhism, Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 6.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.
Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.

 

Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (1/4)

February 3, 2018

The gap in the Buddha-Sāsana (S: Śāsana)[i] between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions began in India as doctrinal differences, but came to be India itself, for when the Sāsana died out in India, these two great traditions became substantially isolated from one another, Theravāda to the south and Mahāyāna to the north, remembering each other unkindly and mostly in lore. In this way, what began as doctrinal distinctions became a geographical and cultural divide. We now live in a globalized world in which these two great schools cannot fail to intersect; they are found in close proximity, living side by side in almost any major western city and in many Asian cities. Moreover, curiosity, along with the probing of modern scholarship, has broadened the dialog between the two sides. Yet Theravāda and Mahāyāna remain generally aloof from each other.

Chinese_JunkI have come to the view that there is much more that holds Buddhism together than that splits it apart, that the Sāsana is robust, tolerant of diversity, yet remarkably able to retain its core teachings, which it has – for the most part – on both sides of this divide. Nonetheless, because of the subtle sophistication of the Buddha’s teachings, the Sāsana has historically gone through cycles of decline and recovery. Moreover, geographical isolation has not only cut off Theravāda from Mahāyāna, it also disrupted the ability of each to recover from its respective faults. Mahāyāna became early on a tradition cut off from its past, and Theravāda a tradition cut off from its future.

I will begin by dispelling two historical myths that sustain the idea that the separation of these two traditions is irreconcilable, that Theravāda and Mahāyāna can do little to help each other. One has to do with monastic discipline and the other with doctrine. I then illustrate these processes of decline and then recovery and argue that healing the gap between these traditions will create a healthier Sāsana on both counts. Theravāda and Mahāyāna need each other.

Myth 1: schism as the origin of Mahāyāna

Sects or schools distinguish themselves spatially, doctrinally, and also formally at the saṅgha level. A common misconception is that the difference between Theravāda and Mahāyāna began at the saṅgha level with a schism. The saṅgha has been traditionally the heart of the Buddhist community since it is charged with preserving, propagating and living according to the teachings. Schism in the monastic community (P:saṅghabedha) was a serious concern of the Buddha, for a dispute in the saṅgha would effectively split the saṅgha in twain and carry the whole community with it. Luckily, formal schisms have been relatively rare in Buddhist history. However, it is a common belief that the Theravāda and Mahāyāna saṅghas can nevermore be in communion. This erroneous belief has had unfortunate consequences.

A little history: Even aside from formal schism, diversity in the Buddhist community began developing in the early centuries of the Sāsana because of geographical dispersal of the saṅgha, for distinctions in monastic behavior and doctrinal views began to develop among communities at significant distances from one another in South Asia, such that separate sects became recognizable, each of which preserved, orally in the early centuries, its own version of the early scriptures, generally in a distinct language, but at the same time the various sects were still largely in communion. At one time eighteen separate sects, almost entirely formed in this way, could be counted in the Buddhist area. The Theravāda sect was probably the most outlying, since it was transmitted to the island of Sri Lanka, apparently during the reign of Aśoka.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been a historical full-fledged formal schism in the early saṅgha, about one century after the Buddha’s parinirvana, a schism recorded in the later literature of many of these later sects. One side in this schism became known as the Mahāsāṃghika sect, and the other side, the Sthavira sect, both born of allegedly irreconcilable differences. It was Mahāsāṃghika that would later be identified with Mahāyāna. The Sthavira, for its part, would give rise to Theravāda, Sarvāstivādin, Dharmagelupka, and most other sects. Theravāda is the only one of these many sects that remains today, stranded on an island as Buddhism died out many centuries later in continental India, though it had in the meantime also spread to Southwest Asia.

Among the ancient sectarian reports of schism, there is very little agreement about its genesis.[ii] In some accounts it had to do with monastic discipline in others with doctrine. The Theravāda tradition reports that it had to do with the laxity of Mahāsāṃghika discipline; the Mahāsāṃghika tradition itself held that the schism has to do with the attempt by the the Sthaviriyans to impose stricter discipline. In neither case is a significant difference in the terms of the dispute reflected in its respective monastic code.

On the other hand, the Sarvāstivādin sources – also, like Theravāda, on the Sthaviriya side – attribute the dispute to five doctrinal issues all having to do with the status of the arahant. It was a later Chinese source,[iii] based on the Sarvāstivādin account, that seems to have first seen in the Mahāsāṃghika the precursor to the Mahāyāna, even claiming that the Mahāsāṃghika had tried to incorporate some of the Mahāyāna (as we now know, yet to be composed) sutras prior to the schism.[iv] In fact, some Mahasanghikas – not all – did espouse views that would, centuries later, come to characterize Mahāyāna, having to do with the supramundane nature of the Buddha and of bodhisattvas,[v] which may have led to this effort by some later Mahāyānists to identify themselves with Mahāsāṃghika.

The theory that the Mahāyāna and Theravāda monastic orders were rent asunder by this ancient schism is widely believed in both schools and has served to deepen the gap that persists to this day. But the schismatic account is false. This account of the origin of Mahāyāna cannot be correct, for reports of the famous Chinese pilgrims Faxian (early fifth century) and Xuanzang (seventh century) provide us with a clear picture of the process of Mahāyāna propagation. Both tell as that any given monastery in India commonly had monastics of Mahāyāna persuasion living quite happily together with non-Mahāyanists.[vi]

Instead, whereas the sects were largely geographically determined, Mahāyanist ideas seem to spread quietly over the entire Buddhist region from sect to sect, much like a dance craze might spread with little regard to national borders. As Gombrich concludes, “Mahāyāna … is not a sect but a current of opinion which cut across sects as properly defined.”vii The Mahāyāna craze even reached far-flung Theravāda Sri Lanka, at times with some success, but was finally suppressed by King Parakkama Bāhu I in the twelfth century as part of a purification program.[viii]

Whereas, before the Mahāyāna movement, doctrine in the various sects was centered on the discourses of the Buddha, the Mahāyāna movement centered a later doctrinal development that added a new scriptural corpus quietly and unevenly throughout the Sāsana, apparently with little drama, opposition or discord. In summary, there was no historical schism that rent Theravāda and its sister sects on the one side, and Mahāyāna on the other asunder. Technically, both saṅghas should still be properly in communion. In fact, I am aware of one ordination of Mahayana monks and nuns by a monastic quorum including Theravada monks, at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California on August 9, 2013.

The story does not end here, for it remains to be shown a significant way in which the myth of schism has harmed the Theravāda saṅgha in particular. Buddhism took root in Central Asia and by the first century CE ventured along the Silk Road into China. This complex migration entailed the mingling of monks ordained in various sects but primarily from the southwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, which were nearer the trade routes. Likewise, early scriptures were transmitted from various sects and in various languages, along with newer Mahāyāna sutras and scholarly writings. Most early missionaries to China seem to have been associated with Mahāyāna, but there was a dearth of Indian masters of significant influence.[ix]

The journey over the Silk Road was made by rough monks traveling with rough caravans led by rough traders through a very rough environment. But eventually an order of Chinese monks was established, around which Mahāyāna began to consolidate itself in China. Ultimately they would settle on the Vinaya from the Dharmaguptaka sect – a Sthirāvada sect historically close to Theravāda – of West India as the standard for monastic procedures throughout East Asia.

Because few women or nuns made the perilous journey over the Silk Road, the first Chinese nuns seem to have been ordained only in the fourth century, and even then they were ordained by monks, contrary to the convention prescribed in the Vinaya of ordination of nuns by nuns. Nonetheless, the nuns’ saṅgha was fully established with the ordination of three hundred Chinese nuns by foreign nuns in 433 CE. This was possible after a boat captain named Nan-t’i had brought the requisite number of fully ordained nuns from southern regions to Nan-ching to perform the ordination.x Significantly for our discussion, these nuns were brought from Sri Lanka, and so would certainly have belonged to the Theravāda tradition, in fact, probably to the nuns order established in Sri Lanka by Saṅghamitta Theri, the daughter of Emperor Aśoka of India.

Clearly alleged sectarian or schismatic divisions were not an issue in fifth century China; Vinaya was Vinaya, ordination was ordination, and potential doctrinal differences that might exist between the Sri Lankan and Chinese saṅghas were besides the point. The saṅghas were regarded as in communion, the Chinese women were ordained by the Theravāda nuns and the ordination was approved by Chinese monks, certainly largely of Mahāyāna doctrinal persuasion.

Subsequent Theravāda history has revealed one way in which Theravāda needs Mahāyāna: Theravāda at some point since this historic ordination in ancient China misplaced its own order of fully ordained nuns, in all of the Theravāda countries, in Sri Lanka and in most of the nations of Southeast Asia. It is believed this happened in the tenth or eleventh centuries due to war.[xi] The loss of the nuns’ sangha has created a situation that is a mirror image of that in China prior to 433 CE, that is, the absence of existing nuns to ordain new nuns. In the meantime, the order of nuns in China – originally transmitted, as we have seen, from Theravāda nuns from Sri Lanka – has flourished uninterrupted to the present day in Mahāyāna lands. If we, like the ancient Chinese, regard sectarian divisions as beside the point, as I have argued here, then a resolution to the Theravāda deficit is simple: Let Chinese Mahāyāna nuns ordain Theravāda nuns and bring back the order the Theravāda saṅgha had itself established to China. If, on the other hand, we adhere to the tradition that an ancient schism separates the two saṅgha irreparably, then Theravāda is cut off from its own future, and from the nun’s saṅgha it once spawned. This situation has resulted in controversy, but its outcome is secure.

In recent decades the Theravāda nuns’ order is, in fact, being restored in exactly this way: with the help of their Chinese, generally Taiwanese, Mahāyāna sisters who have kindly provided the necessary quorum of nuns to ordain new Theravāda nuns. And yet, the status of these ordinations is under challenge for various reasons including this myth of ancient schism. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that the numbers of Theravāda nuns is increasing, particularly with fully viable Theravāda nuns’ orders in Sri Lanka and recently also in California, large enough to provide a quorum for ordaining new Theravāda nuns. In this way Mahāyāna has helped the Theravāda tradition to restore the original intention of the Buddha, effectively recovering the future from which it was long cut off.

Next Week: Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Endnotes

i. This term for Buddhism as it plays out historically and socially is here given in two languages. The scriptural language of Theravāda is Pali, that of Indian Mahāyāna is Sanskrit. The two languages are closely related and often words are identical in both. Where I provide both terms I will use P for Pali and S for Sanskrit.
ii. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
iii. ibid.
iv. As we will see shortly, none of these Mahāyāna scriptures could have existed at this early time.
v. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
vi. Anālayo (2014).
vii. Gombrich (1988, 112).
viii. Skilton (1994, 150).
ix. Sharf (2001, 4-5). Sharf (2001, 7) also points out that it is uncertain whether this meant Mahāyāna was really popular in India and Central Asia at this early time or whether Mahāyāna monks felt themselves to be outcasts in their own lands.
x. Heirman (2001).
xi. Skilton (1994, 152).

References

Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.

Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.

 

Buddhist-Rohingya Relief

December 14, 2017

I am soliticing donations on behalf of people recently displaced by violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and particularly the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and to other lands. Donations will be transferred to the International Rescue Committee, an agency that is active in the region, as they are throughout the world, and that has been given an A+ rating from Charity Watch.

rohingya5I am a Buddhist monk, American-born but Burmese-ordained, who has come to love the Burmese people and and their country, and who has based my life upon the wisdom of the Buddha. Unfortunately this people, this nation and this faith have been tarnished by this violence. I understand that the root causes of the tension in Rakhine State are deep and long – and have only marginally to do with religion! – but am sorry to see divisive narratives mixed with rumors, and the engagement of a brutal military force, without civilian oversight, prevail over voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. There are many similar crisis situations in the world, but it is because what is close to my heart has been tainted in this way that I choose to support this particular cause at this time.

buddhaThe Buddha warned us of the danger of views, and never condoned violence under any circumstances … ever. Yet, we tend to find refuge in narratives – about nation, religion, race and the hidden motives of others – that we use to justify our own reactiveness. The international press is full of such narratives and they are rampant among the Burmese, often drowning out the many many voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. We sometimes even believe these views to be true and, when they disavow the humanity of others, they give permission for unspeakable acts. I am not aware that any religion has ever succeed in eradicated the human propensity for such views among all of its claimed adherents, not Buddhism, not Islam and none of the others, much less so in lands undergoing rapid change. Forgiveness is in order.

Nonetheless, for the purest Buddhist the bottom line is human suffering and the allaying of human suffering. When families are losing their homes, villages are burned, people who just want to live decent lives and raise healthy children are assaulted or killed, deprived of livelihoods, forced to flee with no means of sustenance, no matter who these people are, all narratives become academic. Our urgent responsibility is to exercise compassion, to aid those in greatest need.

I would ask my readers to join me in helping to provide relief for the precious, suffering Rohingya refugees.

ircYou can donate to Buddhist-Rohingya Relief HERE. You can also go directly to International Rescue Committee HERE to donate directly, or to view their site. Direct donations seem to avoid some fees, but is harder for the other donors and me to track, though informing me of the donation might help.

Also, another way you can support this cause is to communicate this further by Facebook, Twitter, etc. Although I use email and this blog, I don’t use these other new-fangled forms of social media.

 

Those Self-Absorbed Buddhists

December 6, 2017

pdficonA few months ago I gave a talk to some seminary students who wanted to learn about Buddhism. After the talk, after the Q&A that followed, and as we were adjourning, one of the students approached and confided in me that he had in his younger days as a spiritual explorer visited a number of the Buddhist sitting and discussion groups that are common in the West, but that he was disappointed with what he found there. He said,

“People seemed so self-absorbed.”

Well, this was awkward. Although I had never belonged to another faith before taking refuge some twenty years ago, I have come to recognize that most people of faith, across many religious traditions, have a characteristic sense of humility that differs markedly from that found in secular contexts. Moreover, Buddhism is the only tradition that carries the virtue of humility as far as teaching anatta (non-self) and then systematically de-constructing the sense of being a self. In Buddhism, humility is the most reliable indicator of spiritual progress and renouncing personal neediness the most effective means of making it. So, how could it be that this result was not apparent in this seminarian’s experience?

Within a brief moment, I had to admit that he was right! I recognized his observation from my own early frequent and more recent occasional experience in such sitting and discussion groups, and I told him so. Although I pointed out that this does not generalize to all Buddhist communities, and certainly not to ethnically Asian communities, as a Buddhist teacher I could see that this young man was providing a valuable perspective on what was a serious deficit in the Western Sasana. I think my off-the-cuff explanation – for I had to say something positive after having conceded his point – involved the novelty of Western sitting and discussion groups in contrast with established churches attended by generations of family members.

I am myself a monk in a primarily Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas. The evening before I wrote the first draft of this post, as we had finished our routine evening recitation, two unexpected guests arrived: a Sri Lankan monk – the abbot of a local temple and known to us – and a Sri Lankan lay companion. All of our local monks stood up out of respect as the visiting senior monk entered and our own abbot gave up his own seat at the front and center, for our abbot was the junior of the two. All of our monks prostrated three times to our monastic guest, while his lay companion prostrated once to each of our monks in turn. This has been the way of Buddhist communities for 2500 years, each person aware of his seniority based entirely on ordination date, and no one wishes it otherwise, for this is the way established by the Buddha himself. In this simple rite, personal pride finds no place and humility finds its natural expression. Our Sri Lankan visitor at the front of the seniority is himself a gentle and kind individual who accepted the honor shown him without the slightest hint of pride, for he had lived as a monk for many decades. This would have been day and night from the seminarian’s experience.

So, how could I account for the future minister’s experience with Western sitting groups? I daresay I once brought my quota of self-centeredness into such sitting and discussion groups, so I had a degree of experience to draw on as I began to ponder this important question. I have been pondering since then on how I could best have answered my interlocutor on this fateful day:

I could have mentioned the across-the-board hyper-individualism[i] and hyper-consumerism[ii] that plague American culture that has contributed to a kind of spiritual marketplace which people enter quite easily with self-centered attitudes. Individualism is a part of the human pathology that Buddhism attempts to cure. Although this condition represents an serious assault on religious engagement and on spiritual development in modern culture (and increasingly in Asia), these influences apply across American culture and across other religious traditions alongside Buddhism. So individualism and consummerism cannot be the whole story.

I could have pointed out that the demographics of Buddhist sitting and discussion groups is quite distinct. These are for the most part highly educated and financially well-off people,[iii] and maybe this in itself brings a degree of hubris. They are also, for the most part, people who have become disenchanted with the religion of their upbringing and therefore experience a kind of wariness about religious engagement in general. From personal experience I know that many of these people also take the unconventional step of coming to Buddhism as an act of desperation, in great personal pain, often in the midst of a personal crisis, sometimes as a last resort, as a cry for help. Under these circumstances enhanced personal concern, at least during a period of healing, is quite understandable.

I should also have explained that Western Buddhist sitting and discussion groups are a new, untried kind of institution, as far as I know with little precedent in any ancient Buddhist tradition, but largely based on the model of secular meet-ups, in which like-minded people get together, with little ceremony, either to discuss stamp collecting, to practice salsa dancing, to meet other middle-aged singles or to talk shop with regard to some vocation or another, like knocking out Java code. Absent from this kind of structure is the Sangha, virtually always the core around which Buddhist communities have traditionally coalesced. On the other hand, there are larger Western Buddhist “centers” that provide more elements of the traditional Buddhist community context, such as many Zen centers and Shambhala centers, and these do seem to attract or produce more modest members.

I could have made the point that much of what is understood as Buddhist teachings among those with little adept knowledge has, in fact, more to do with the paradigm of European Romanticism and pop psychology[iv] than with Buddhism, and that these often seem to encourage a degree of self-absorption rather than to dispel it. European romanticism asks of me to be true to my inner self, to break through social convention in order to express my creative and spiritual core. Not only is this paradigm far too metaphysical to accord with the Buddha’s way of thinking, but it seems to highlight rather than to de-construct the self.

Finally, it would have been important to mention the role of meditation generally as the centerpiece of a sitting and discussion group, sometimes to the complete exclusion of traditional practices such as generosity, ethics, living harmoniously in community, refuge and developing purity of intention.[v] Buddhist meditation is an advanced practice, necessary for awakening or for complete de-construction of the self (which is the same thing), but it only succeeds with the development of a large range of prerequisite practices, including most of these more mundane practice just mentioned.[vi] As a consequence, there is a danger in practicing Buddhist meditation in the absence of these prerequisites: Since meditation is a practice that aims at individual attainment, it easily leads to conceit, in particular to the urge to compare self to others, which is particularly encouraged in open discussion contexts. As a result, a meet-up for Buddhist meditators might not be much more effective as a vehicle for developing humility than a meet-up for body-builders or for video game enthusiasts.

So, what do we do to correct the errors of the modern Sasana? We suffer some serious handicaps in western society that we need to put aside, including the above-mentioned individualism and also the Protestant attitude of the “spiritual but not religious.” This has led to a disregard for the importance of community in Buddhism, for the critical role of the Sangha in community and for the opportunities community affords in developing a range of practices that contribute to our spiritual development and provide the prerequisites for successful meditation.[vii] We have abundant precedents for overcoming the deficits in the western Sasana, in the teachings of the Buddha and in traditional Buddhist communities that have been living more-or-less according to those teachings for one hundred generations.

 

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i. See Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life for more on individualism and spirituality in American life.
ii. See Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion for more on this.
iii. See James William Coleman, The New Buddhism : The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition for interesting demographic data of this type.
iv. See Thanissaro, “Romancing the Buddha,” available on-line, and David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism for more on modern influences on, and presentations of, Buddhism.
v. Berkeley scholar Robert Sharf writes particularly clearly about the danger of reducing Buddhism to a single practice and his concern for what gets lost. See, for instance, “Losing Our Religion,” in Tricycle Summer 2007.
vi. Right Concentration depends critically on the proper practice of each of the preceding factors of the noble eightfold path (S 45.28), that is, on right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. Buddha’s gradual instruction (for instance, Udana 5.3) tells us that undertaking the noble eightfold path presupposes significant development of generosity, virtue, purity of mind and refuge.
vii. I did not start writing this essay with the intention of plugging my introductory book Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path: foundations of Buddhism based on earliest sources, but it was conceived around the idea of providing a more organic overview of the Buddha’s teaching, in which ideally all prerequisites to the various aspects of practice are clearly articulated, than is generally presented in introductory texts.