Here’s a message from our friend Ayya Adhimutta.
~i want to write to you of a very grand and inspiring initiative that a group (hopefully soon to become very international and multifaceted group, a vast web/network coming together of buddhist women) of us are undertaking.
~ we are hoping to create a multimedia database, gathering chanting, images, art work, interviews, videos, stories, writing and much more from women all round the world. we hope that each different tradition and lineage and country will be well represented ~ and that this will be an inspiring and very magnificent treasure trove for female practitioners everywhere. And that instead of such images and stories being difficult to come by and to find, that they will be readily, and that the inspiration from them will be deeply transformative for many.
~ we’re expecting that this project will be ongoing and will take a few years before we have the solid core of resources together (and i’m guessing that it will be ongoing for many years after that. . . . especially as, once we have the internet and basic collection side of things going well, it would be wonderful to share much of this information with our dhamma sisters who speak different languages and who do not have easy access to web-resources. so, this project, really has vast potential, and i feel will be deeply transformative for many many women (and also our wonderful dhamma brothers ~)
~ there is a spectrum of activities that need your help and assistance, and its diversity means there will be something of interest for almost anyone. We need people to help collect and record chanting, conduct interviews, collect images, do research and so on,
in the Dhamma,
For more information please see: http://sakyadhita.org/home/resources/media/AwakeningWomen_Appeal_03022013.pdf
If you would like to be involved in some way with our project, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a commentary by the Bangkok Post on the relevance of the Papal election in the context of Thai Buddhism. It’s fascinating how such a straightforward call for reform and analysis of the problems is in a mainstream newspaper. We have heard such calls from time to time; perhaps this time something will come of it.
The New SuttaCentral
In recent weeks I’ve been working hard on the revamped SuttaCentral. Not quite ready for prime time yet, but it won’t be long. SuttaCentral has for several years been the only place on the web you can get reliable and comprehensive data on Sutta correspondences: how to find out whether there are any other versions of a Sutta, and where and what they are. It’s rapidly becoming much more than that, and in future posts I’ll talk about some of the great innovations we’ve put together.
One of the biggest changes is the inclusion of texts on our site itself. In the past we merely linked to texts hosted elsewhere. That means we have full control over the presentation and markup, and can integrate the texts in ways never before possible.
Suddenly, all sorts of new things are coming together. One exciting development is the appearance of brand new translations by Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā (ex Giuliana Martini) of the important Tibetan work, the Abhidharmakośopāyikānāmaṭīkā, which she refers to more succinctly as the Upāyikā. This is one of the few Tibetan texts that contains substantial translations of Suttas from the early Āgamas. Previously the only substantial work on this text has been in Japanese. Now Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā has undertaken a series of translations with detailed notes and commentary, and has graciously allowed SuttaCentral to host the text. In keeping with our focus on making accessible the actual texts, we will just present the translated Āgama Sutta portions, and will link to the full essays.
The Upāyikā contains the full text of the many (hundreds?) of passages referred to in Vasubandhu’s famous Abhidharmakośa. It has long been known among scholars of early Buddhism, but we have been ignorant of the detailed contents. Now, thanks to the patient, detailed, careful work of Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, we can all read these precious teachings.
Cut by numbers
But when I was reading her essay, I have a little hiccup moment. Nothing to do with the translation or the essay: I stumbled over the reference system for the texts.
Each translation is given a number, such as Up 9001. When I saw this, I did a double take. What, there’s over 9000 quotations in this book? I knew it was extensive, but that’s a bit much! I was confused, and didn’t know how to interpret the numbers. I looked through the essay and notes, but couldn’t find any explanation. So I emailed Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā, and got the answer. It was explained deep within a nearly page-long footnote:
“… the quotation number as established in Honjō 1984 and successive supplementations in his publications (for example, “Up 9001″, which stands for quotation number 1 in chapter IX of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and Upāyikā)…”
Problem solved, no big deal. But somehow this little detail sparked a connection with many other details that I have encountered in my recent work on SuttaCentral. It made it clear for me all the countless ways we, as Buddhist scholars, obscure the work we should be illuminating.
At the time of reading the translations, I was inspired, excited. This is an amazing thing! That such teachings could have survived over thousands of years; transmitted in India in countless generations, then brought to remote, forbidding Tibet and rendered in the local tongue by Śamathadeva, an expert scholar, to be preserved, copied and passed down to us. And now, translated into English so we can all see, once more, the heart of the Dhamma beating in the Suttas.
And then a little reference number changed my emotions from excitement to confusion, from inspiration to doubt, without me even noticing. Suddenly, instead of focussing on the teaching, I was focussing on understanding the reference number. Sure, only a little thing. I got over it. The point is, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
What went wrong? Basically, the reference system ignores conventions. Chapter 9, section 1 should be referenced as “9.1”, not “9001”. This referencing method is simple, informative (because it clearly differentiates between chapter and section), and is used in millions of documents. It is so basic that it’s the default method for numbering “chapter/section” in every software for structured documents, like word processors or LaTeX.
So what’s the difference? Who cares? Once you know the method, you can find what you want, so big deal.
The big deal is that we shouldn’t have to relearn the method. There is already a method, time-honoured and worn smooth by custom and usage. It works fine. And when we use it, it vanishes. If I had seen “Up 9.1” I would not have even noticed it. It is there when I need it, and simply disappears when I don’t.
Think about the road signs, the warning notices, the nutrition information on food. All this structured data is presented in consistent, clear formats so that you can immediately recognise it and use it when you need it without having to think about it. If you have to think, “Is that a speed limit or a no-parking sign?”, it’s failed already.
So why use this unconventional method? Because it was established by the pioneer scholar in this text, Honjō Yoshifumi. This is standard in scholarly circles: keep consistency with previous work. Which is of course a good thing on the whole, but it does result in the perpetuation of outdated data (like the absurd practice of referring to Pali texts by reference to the volume and page of the century-old, often poorly edited editions of the Pali Text Society). Why did Honjō use this method? I have no idea. Maybe they do things differently in Japan.
Do we really need to keep this consistency? It will only ever be noticed by that subset of sentient beings who are a) human, b) scholars of early Buddhism, and c) fluent in Japanese and English. Not, I suspect, a double-digit audience. On the other hand, there are many people who would be interested to read these in Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā’s excellent, lucid translation. How many? Thousands, at least, probably much more. So why not think about those thousands instead of the tiny handful of professionals?
This is why the Buddha said he did not transgress the conventions of the world: by using conventions properly, they fade into the background so we can focus on what matters.
I know, I know! Why get worked up about something so small? Because, as I suggested earlier, this is just one of a million similar details. The more I work on this material, the more I realise just how abrasive the Buddhist scholarly method is. It’s death by a thousand papercuts. Arcane terminology; massive footnotes; obscure references; dead languages; paywalled journals; pedantic explanations of the obvious and unstated assumption of the unobvious; and the pervasive sense of a dialogue between scholars, not a dialogue with people actually interested in Dhamma.
All this, and much more, is just grit in the gears. Every Pali term is a cypher creating confusion in every single person who reads it (apart from Pali scholars). Every reference number is a meaningless string of symbols unless you are familiar with the field. As long as you place this stuff in the foreground, you are having a conversation between experts. Which, of course, needs to happen. It’s just that it shouldn’t be the only conversation. An outsider who listens to this conversation feels confused and excluded, and, unless they are unusually persistent, they will just give up.
Smooth like butter
We should get the stuff out of the way. Someone who wants to read the Buddha’s words should not have to learn referencing systems, Pali, and abbreviations. They should just get to what they want seamlessly and intuitively.
I was invited for a meal with a very kind and warm Vietnamese family the other day. The kids were playing with iPads. One was very young, I don’t know, maybe 4. I watched how they interacted with the screen, with each other. How intuitive it is! They just pick it up, doing complex tasks without even trying. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring that kind of experience to something profoundly meaningful, like, say, the words of the greatest spiritual teacher ever?
These things don’t happen by accident. They come because the engineers at Google, Apple, Facebook, the gaming companies, or wherever, do their work, and then get out of the way. They know it’s not about the code, it’s about the experience. So they sweat every tiny detail until the code disappears.
People use these things because they have a positive emotional response: they like it. And when you get that kind of engagement, you don’t have to make someone do it. If anything, you have to make them stop.
We should give at least as much time and care and attention to presenting the Buddha’s words as a coder gives to a game. A reader should just read. That’s hard enough, and it’s simply unreasonable to expect more.
A survey of Americans showed that 19% read the Bible daily. Daily. And this was seen by Christians as a worrisome sign of declining religiosity. They asked, “Why don’t all of us read the Bible every day?”
How many Buddhists read the Suttas every day? 1%? Frankly, I doubt if 1% of Buddhists have read any Suttas ever. Why is that? Because the Bible is inherently better, more compelling as scripture? I don’t think so. I think it’s because we haven’t tried. Because we get lazy and complacent and used to speaking to our little circle. Because we don’t have the vision to imagine things could be different.
There’s no great secret here, nothing mysterious. Just paying the same kind of careful attention to every detail in presenting the texts as the scholars have in preparing them.
A little faith
Dhamma is inherently compelling. We just need to get out of the way. The Buddha didn’t say, “MN39.4, note 17”. He said, “I teach for one who feels!” As his students, we should be letting people hear his words, not ours. SuttaCentral, even the new edition, is very far from realising this ideal. But one step at a time.
So, let’s get to work. You tell me: what can we do to make the experience of reading the Suttas better? What’s your papercut? What’s that moment when you tried, but stumbled over something you didn’t immediately understand, and then you gave up?
Looking back over this essay, I can see how I am not yet practising what I preach. My sentences are full of Pali or Sanskrit names and terms, and assumed ideas. I’m leaving them there as evidence for the prosecution. I’m guilty as charged. But, your honour, I really want to change! I promise I’ll be better next time. But I’m a hopeless addict. I just can’t let go of my Pali, not by myself anyway. I need your support.
Happy year of the snake for all of you!
Just to let you know I’m still around. I’ve been visiting other realms; you know, outside of blogspace. Actually I’ve been spending a lot of time on suttacentral.net and the Authenticity Project. I’ll get to your comments soon and hopefully to some more articles before long.
Currently I’m in Sydney, where I’ve been teaching quite regularly. In addition to the regular groups in North Sydney, Baulkham Hills, and Parramatta, I’ve started teaching meditation with our long term supporter Gia Hieu for the Vietnamese community in Panania. The Vietnamese community has for a long time been major supporters of Santi and other monasteries in Sydney, yet there is not much in the way of meditation teachings for them, especially in English for the young ones. So hopefully I can give something back. The session was in Gia Hieu’s house, but from next time we are moving to a community center in the same area. If you live nearby I hope to see you there next month!
Last night I taught at the Sydney Gay Meditation Group. They’re a great group, who really practice kindness and care in how they present the whole evening. I suggested that they could get a career consulting for Buddhist event organization!
This morning, I’m off down to Santi for a visit, the first time since I left last year. Looking forward to seeing the community and catching up with everyone.
And of course on Sunday the Early Buddhism course kicks off. The session in Sydney has had an overwhelming response; we had to cut off registrations at 50, but I suspect a few might try to sneak in through the side door. Which is doubly impressive when you consider the Buddhist Library doesn’t even have a side door. I’m getting nervous: I’d better do the reading otherwise I could be in trouble…
A few years ago Galia Shy (Mahacitta) designed a method for easily inserting Pali/Sanskrit special characters in Ubuntu. Since then Ubuntu has changed a few things, and the old instructions do not work. I have revised the instructions to work with a fresh install of Ubuntu 12.10. (It may work with 12.04, but I haven’t tested it).
You can download the file and instructions from here.
Let me know if this works for you. Needless to say, no guarantees!
As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.
I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.
Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.
The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.
Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.
It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.
This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.
Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.
This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!
The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.
The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.
All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.
In the past few weeks, I’ve started a project with Bhante Brahmali, which we call “The Authenticity Project”. We have heard skeptical voices that doubt the authenticity of the early Buddhist texts, while among traditional Buddhists the question is rarely even raised. Yet we have not found any source that collects and analyzes the many and varied reasons for regarding them as authentic. So we decided to do it ourselves. The project is developing, and will possibly end up on Wikipedia, and perhaps as a journal article in some form. I’ll share it with you when it is in better shape; at the moment it’s very rough.
The problem is exemplified by the Wikipedia page on the Pali canon. I noticed that the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the texts were all experts in the field, while the ones who doubted were scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan tantra. Yet if you are not familiar with the field, it just seems as if scholars do not agree. So I changed the page to acknowledge the backgrounds of the relevant scholars.
I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. Clearly authenticity matters, as people in all different traditions and religions get very excited by it. But it is not so obvious why this is so: for many people, if it works, it’s good enough. The Buddha in the Sandaka Sutta even warned against over reliance on the authenticity of the texts, saying that, since the teachings may be ‘well heard or badly heard’, one’s spiritual life should not depend on this.
It’s also interesting to hear what different people regard as persuasive. When speaking to various people, almost always they will come up with some different perspective on why the texts should be seen as authentic, or not. We’re interested to gather as many such perspectives as possible, and present them with appropriate analysis and documentation. So, what do you think?
Dear friends, I’d like to let you know about a course I will be teaching in Sydney in the coming months. It is a series of six day-long workshops on Early Buddhism. I believe it is the first such course offered in Australia. The course will combine teachings, meditations, and discussions. It will give students the chance to gain a broad understanding of Dhamma as taught by the Buddha, as uncovered by historical inquiry.
The course will require registration, and there is a $60 fee to cover the costs of the Buddhist Library. Teachings, of course, are freely offered.
The course will begin on February 17.
Any questions about the course, please leave in the comments.
In addition to this course, I will be resuming a number of sessions in Sydney, starting next week, including Friday night at Well-Aware-Ness, Baulkham Hills on Saturdays, and Parramatta (new venue) on Saturday afternoon. For up-to-date details and dates, check the calendar under the link at the top of this blog. Note that I will be in Sydney only for ten days/month, so these will not be weekly sessions as before!
Some interesting news in international religions today. Perhaps the most astonishing event over Christmas was that the Pope chose his Christmas message, the one directed inwards for the officials of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administrative offices at the Vatican, to attack same sex marriage.
Yes, this is the same man who, the week before, gave a special blessing to Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of the House in Uganda’s Parliament, who in an interview with Reuters said that she would ensure that the gaol-the-gays bill (formerly known as the “kill-the-gays bill”) would be passed, as a “Christmas gift” for the Ugandan people.
The Pope’s message repeated the dualistic determinism theory of human nature: we are created man & woman and there can therefore be no other form of marriage. He denies that marriage is about a social construct, but is inherent in human nature. Apparently without irony, the celibate Pope said that as the commitment to traditional family declines, “essential elements of the experience of being human are lost”.
Meanwhile, in unrelated news, people around the world continue to turn away from religion. In striking confirmation of Marx, there is a strong positive correlation between religious belief and poverty, lack of education, and violence. A recent WIN-Gallup meta-study confirms these long term trends.
The study does not cover all countries, and, presumably through accident rather than design, it omits Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia: all of the Theravada countries. Most of what it says about religion, therefore, cannot be extrapolated to Theravada. It is still the case that the phrasing of the questions leave Buddhists out in the cold: are you religious or atheist? All Buddhists are atheists in the sense of not believing in a Creator God. Until those doing the surveys get a better methodology we may never really know how Buddhism fits with these worldwide trends.
The only interesting snippet regarding Buddhism in the survey was that Buddhists rank by far the highest in the answer to the question, “Do you regard yourself as a religious person” 97% of Buddhists agreed with this, as opposed to around 80% for most Christian denominations, 74% for Muslims, and 38% for Jews. Given the problems with the survey as far as Buddhists are concerned, I wouldn’t want to read too much into this, however.