Skip to content
November 28, 2013 / sujato

Loving-kindness meditation: a field study

A couple of years ago Beatrice Alba and I discussed the fact that there were many academic studies of mindfulness meditation, but few of metta. Although simply complaining about the situation is usually a pleasant enough experience, for some reason we decided to actually do something about it. Go figure!

So for two metta retreats we handed out forms and got people to fill them in, according to a scheme that Beatrice worked out. She wrote an analysis of the findings, and it’s now been published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism. Congrats to Beatrice for putting in the work and helping put our knowledge of metta meditation on a more scientific footing.

Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, so those of you without institutional affiliation will have to pay the ludicrous sum of $37 to download the pdf file. Or, if you don’t feel like enriching the pockets of a multinational corporation that clears some $150 million in profit every year from the ideas and work of others, you could contact me.

The gist of the study: metta meditation is good. You knew that! But now it’s peer-reviewed, so it must be true.

November 28, 2013 / sujato

The date of the Buddha’s birth

The last couple of days I’ve received a whole bunch of emails announcing a breakthrough in dating the Buddha. An international team of archeologists has dug beneath the previously excavated remains at the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, where they found the remnants of a wooden structure, which was dated to the 6th century BCE. Breathless reports in the New York Times and elsewhere said that this is the first time we can fix a concrete date to the Buddha’s life.

Okay, so great, new findings are always welcome But what did they find, exactly? I haven’t had the chance to read the peer-reviewed article yet. But the topic was posted on the academic discussion forum H-Buddhism, where Jonathon Silk had the following to say:

what has been found is wood beneath the Asokan layer. There is *no* indication that the wood is connected with the Buddha in any way shape or form. … And in fact, except for a single–I would say incautious–sentence, the article basically says this… the traditional spot rebuilt by Asoka had earlier a wooden structure upon it. What that structure may have been, and whether it could conceivably have had any connection with the Buddha–no evidence at all!

Sorry about that. Truth can be dull, can’t it? The fuss did raise the following interesting response from Achim Bayer. It discusses the prestige in which archeology seems to be regarded, which avid readers will recognize is an issue I have whinged about before. Good to see this is being addressed directly.

Another of the issues involved is that archeology, dealing with material things, seems to be considered “science”, while the study of history as a whole is just “humanities” (at least in the anglophone world) and thus less reliable.

These were my experiences when dealing with the “Lama Wearing Trousers” last year.

I have now organized a panel by the title “Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at the IABS 2014 in Vienna – to which everyone interested in such methodological questions is warmly invited.

November 22, 2013 / sujato

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

Once upon a time in a South American country (apologies for lack of details! I plead memory.) there were a lot of children getting sick with an illness that was preventable through immunisation (see above, re: details). The government, working with health organisations, came to the people with an immunisation program. But the people had homes to clean, meals to cook, jobs to do, and lives to live, so they were not interested. The government tried and tried, but only a few came for the program.

Then they sat back and thought, “How do we win the hearts of the people?” So they went to the Church. This being a Catholic country, there was a somewhat effective organisational structure. They met with the Bishops and other leaders and demonstrated the scientific value of the program. They asked the priests to say to their congregations, “Immunisation is as important as baptism”. And they did.

And the people started taking their children to be immunised. And the lives of millions of young children were saved.

This was one of the stories we heard on the second day of the Religions for Peace conference. It’s a beautiful tale, and it illustrates a crucial point: that religions, in much of the world, can have a powerful effect for good on the lives of the people. They retain a sense of moral authority that, for much of the world’s population, has never rested in government or in science. In the experience of all too many people, governments are reliably corrupt and brutal; and all they have seen of science is the poison in the river and the darkening of the skies. But the church has always been there; it has witnessed their birth, their growth, their marriage, and the death of their relatives. Churches are intertwined in the fabric of people’s lives like no other institution.

The question for much of the second day was, how do we shift from values to action? This played out in multiple spheres, and we could get an amazing sense for how suffering is truly universal. Delegates from Nigeria, Columbia, Myanmar, and many other countries spoke. Each time, while the details varied, we heard the same questions, the same underlying humanity. What people want is, for the most part, quite simple. Food, water, health care, a place to live, safety, education. We heard again and again of how these things were entirely doable. No-one is pushing any utopian visions. Just the basics. Yet the basics seem ever further out of reach.

In the previous post I quoted from the conference handbook some of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, including a reduction in global poverty. These blog posts are written quickly, and I didn’t check my facts: I should have. In one of the discussions on the second day, a delegate from South Africa talked about these, and said that the reports they had been hearing from governments all too often had no resemblance to what was happening on the ground. Her experience was not of decreasing, but of increasing poverty, and especially of increasing inequality.

So for every story of inspiration, we heard another of despair. The First Peoples from South America spoke of the interconnectedness of all creatures; from Kentucky we heard of vivid orange water flowing down from destroyed mountains into people’s taps; from Myanmar we heard of a Muslim leader and a Buddhist monk going to a torched village and rebuilding the school and health centre together; and from Senegal we saw laughing children living in chronically flooded villages, being taken with their priest to dry land, where they were taught how to plant trees.

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was—predictably!—powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-to-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet, as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

The lunch break on this day was intended as a space for the religions to gather and discuss among themselves. So we had a Buddhism section. Of course, since this is Buddhism, there was supposed to be a moderator, but they were nowhere to be seen. So after some casual chat, a few of us got up and had a short session. We heard about interfaith work in Hong Kong, which has been effective in the past several decades in maintaining harmony. I spoke of our concerns regarding increasing violence in our region between Buddhists and Muslims. A representative from the European Buddhist Union said that, while interfaith was essential, we needed to heal the rifts between the various Buddhist traditions.

Our final session discussed actions that we could take as religions to respond to our various challenges, including climate change. Some good ideas were floated; but I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed. For all the experience, enthusiasm and noble intentions, it seemed like so very little we could do. Skip a meal? I’ve been doing that for 20 years (as do thousands of other Buddhist monastics): I can’t see that it’s made a scrap of difference to the environment. The changes that are needed are so huge, and the responses so tiny.

And I had a growing sense that they seem to miss the point. For me, the potency of religion lies not in its social effectiveness, but in its depth. It points to the causes; but all we spoke of were symptoms. Underlying all this is greed, hatred, and delusion. The reason people are so obsessed with getting and having, with identifying as “consumers”, is because they are lacking something. What are they lacking? That is masked, hidden beneath delusion. And this delusion is actively fostered by the consumption industries. All advertisements say one thing: you are inadequate. To begin any kind of meaningful response, we need to start with the causes. We need to fill that space.

This is where religions should be the experts. But the sad truth is that we are not. Religions for the most part deal with semblances no less unreal than those of advertising. The semblance of holiness; the semblance of the sacred; the semblance of profundity. This semblance is the essence of all ritual, and of all religious doctrine. It is not an expression of meaning, but a substitute for it. It is the ashes of depth.

To re-awaken meaning we need to step out of the way. To have the guts to ask the hard questions, and let silence be an answer.

November 21, 2013 / sujato

Religion for Peace Global Assembly, first day: some reflections

The 9th World Assembly of the global interfaith network Religions for Peace got properly underway on 20/11/2013. I say properly, because there were some pre-Assembly events that I didn’t attend. I’m here as a representative of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO), of which I am a member on behalf of the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils. The theme of this year’s conference is “Welcoming the Other”.

I’ve been very kindly and warmly received in Vienna, firstly by some members of the local Buddhist community, who took me on my first ever tour of catacombs; an experience that was enlivened by the breezy humour of the tour guide, who took obvious delight in discussing of the plagues and wars that have populated the catacombs; and, even better, the growing pollution of rotting corpses that required the catacombs be emptied. Down there, among the piles of bones, the mummified corpses of long-dead bishops, and the distorted gargoyles of horror, I could not help but feel that I had discovered the unconscious of Freud’s Vienna.

My accommodations have been no less intriguing, with an equally easygoing acceptance of light and dark. I’m at the famous Capuchin Monastery, right in the heart of Vienna. There’s a lovely small community of Franciscan friars here, about 12 or so. Mostly they don’t speak much English, but there’s a couple of Indian monks who are quite fluent. But language doesn’t matter so much when the people are so warm and friendly. There’s plenty of smiles and laughter over breakfast, and a manifest feeling of contentment. The monks live very simply, especially considering the heritage of the monastery: some bread and cheese for breakfast; clean, basic accommodation; and a regular program of service for prayer. They very kindly invited me to take part in their services, but I declined, as I will mostly be away at the conference.

Perhaps it’s easier to be light of heart when you have under your feet the desiccated corpses of kings. This monastery is most famous as the resting place of the Hapsburgs, the rulers of the mighty Austrian Empire for 500 years. Now they have gone the way of all kings, succumbed to the one monarch none could overcome: Lord Death. They’ve been entombed in increasingly elaborate sacrophogi of tin; gorgeous figures, grinning skulls, angels and swords adorn them. Once rulers of the wide earth, now they are the objects of school excursions, with earnest teachers and bored, uncomprehending children more interested in making click-clack noise in the echoing corridors with their stone floors.

If any of the monks were dubious about the sudden arrival of this strange and very large Australian Buddhist monk, here to attend an event sponsored by the Saudis, they didn’t show it. But they were, so I was told, pleased to see that in the daily paper there was a message from Pope Frances, giving his blessing for our conference. So that’s all right, then.

As for the conference itself, it is held in the Vienna Hilton, and many of the attendees stayed there. The main organisers of the event are Religions for Peace, but the co-sponsors are the Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This centre was established here in Vienna as a world interfaith hub. Obviously, this raises some interesting questions. Saudi Arabia was one of 15 nations identified by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as being a “Country of Particular Concern”. The report found that:

During the reporting period, systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. More than 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non-Muslim places of worship; uses in its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice. There have been numerous arrests and detentions of Shi’a Muslim dissidents, partly as a result of increasing protests and demonstrations related to 2011 uprisings in the region, and Ismaili Shi’a Muslims continue to suffer repression on account of their religious identity. Members of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) continue to commit abuses, although their public presence has diminished slightly and the number of reported incidents of abuse has decreased in some parts of the country. In addition, the government continues to be involved in supporting activities globally that promote an extremist ideology, and in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.

The report acknowledges the interfaith work done internationally by the King, while noting that since it began in 2006 it has not been reflected in any meaningful improvements in his own country.

So, we all know this: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive counties when it comes to religion and related matters. So what are they doing taking centre stage in the world interfaith space? Is this nothing more than a hypocritical attempt to whitewash their international reputation while avoiding the real problems? Or is it a genuine attempt to move towards openness, setting an example internationally for much-needed reforms at home? I don’t know, and it would seem that Religions for Peace is committed, for the time being anyway, to furthering a partnership. They’re smart people, with no illusions, and so I don’t dismiss it out of hand. At the same time, the Saudis have buckets and buckets of money, and that is the most basic corrupting influence on all genuine spiritual movements.

In fact the Saudi presence at the Religions for Peace conference is muted. This stands in contrast with the pre-conference event organised by Kaiciid, which some reports say was dominated by ostentatious displays of wealth, and platitudes by Saudi princes on how they will have to take the lead on interfaith.

There was none of this at the actual RfP conference. There has been a nicely representative mix of speakers, plenty of women taking part; perhaps a slight under representation of East Asian religions, which was acknowledged.

In the opening session, the delegates were asked to accept the new nominated committees. And a remarkable thing happened. The floor was invited to make suggestions, and one suggestion was: that the committee include a young person. And, astonishingly, the panel said, “Fine, let the Youth Group nominate their own representative.” Then there was another committee to elect, and the panel said, “Well, we’ll probably want a young person for that as well.” Then someone said, “But shouldn’t we have two young people on each committee, male and female”; and this was accepted just as readily. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an accepting and meaningful display of genuine democracy in action. That, more than anything, gave me hope.

The speeches themselves were for the most part unremarkable, and I felt that far too much time was taken with matters of too little substance. A great speech should be either informative or inspirational, and these were for the most part neither.

Pale Blue dotHaving said which, the presentations touched on some important matters. For me perhaps the most memorable was a speech by a Japanese delegate, who reflected along the lines of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot. He noted that Voyager 1, which took the famous photo of earth, has now left our solar system. All around, for as far as we can see, space is cold, dark, and lifeless; the only place we can live is here. And we have disrespected and exploited our tiny precious planet, using up everything we can get our hands on: all for what, exactly?

One of the major themes, which was the focus of the excellent speech by RfP’s Secretary-General, Dr. William F. Vendley. He spoke about the challenges and development of interfaith in the decades since RfP’s inception; but the defining focus of his speech was the idea of a “rising tide” of hostility. He argued that since the previous conference in 2006 we have seen ever greater intolerance and religious divisiveness. He offered some troubling statistics: 3/4 of the world now live in countries with high levels of restriction on religion, with the percentage of countries with such high levels of intolerance rising for 29% in 2007 to 40% in 2011.

Worrying as this is, I was not convinced. In the same period we have seen great and meaningful progress, for example in the acceptance of same sex marriage, or the role of women in religious life. It seems to me that these trends are not separate. Our times are not characterised by a greater repression in religious matters, but a greater polarisation. The good get better, while the worse get worse; and the gulf between the two, which once we could hide beneath the formalities of ritual and custom, has become so vast as to paralyse, quite literally: think of the US government shut-down, the horrific morasses in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, climate change reform, or, within my own tradition, the continuing failure by some monks to accept bhikkhunis. In all these cases, and many more, we see an ideological gulf that has religion as a driving force.

And the source of the polarisation, underlying all these, is change. Accelerating, chaotic, destablizing change. Change that uproots everything, trashes all that is of value, and casually devastates family, faith, and culture in its blithe indifference. Modernity is experienced by all too many people as a waking nightmare: children continue to die in their millions due to entirely preventable causes. Those with the money and technology to make a difference waste it on guns and geegaws, obsessed with accumulating more and more. Why do we continue to be surprised that people cling so desperately, so irrationally, to an imagined past?

There was an unexpected contribution from one of the Islamic leaders. There had been some confusion earlier on the subject of circumsicision, whether it referred to male or female. Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who in good cheer and self-deprecating style, informed us that as the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently “Grand Mufti at large”, he had the authority to issue fatwas for all of us. And so he did, two of them. One, that female gential mutilation was wrong, that it contadicted Islamic principles, and that it should be banned everywhere; and two, that all Muslims should work for interfaith harmony. Those are my kind of fatwas!

The final session of the day was a commission on “Human Development that Respects the Earth”. This was far more satisfying than the plenary sessions; we had spilt into four different sessions, so there was much greater participation, and many interesting voices. An emerging theme was the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, for which the deadline is approaching in 2015. These have been partially successful, with a global reduction of extreme poverty by half (yay!), improved access to drinking water for 2 billion people, gains in the fight against malaria and TB, and more. Areas noted as needing improvement are the environment, HIV, maternal and child survival, and education.

But for me the most urgent presentation came from Dr. Nigel Crawhall, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, who spoke on global warming; in fact he had just come from the discussions at Warsaw. (I chatted with him after the presentation; it tuns out he’s a Buddhist from South Africa, who’s connected with the community of my friend and sometime bloggist Thanissara.) It was fascinating to hear of the energy that is in this space at the moment; the desperation of the activists, the despair showing even in leaders like Christiana Figueres; and the glazed denial of the technocrats. Every time I get in a conversation with knowledgeable people on this topic, I hear numbers that are just unbelievable. But you hear them so many times, from such reliable sources, that they start to become normal. Like, for example, the UN report that predicted numbers of displaced people by 2020 at 250 million. Or the prediction that the oceans will be fished out by 2030.

The coming century will, I believe, see the end of our civilisation in any recognizable form. I simply can’t see any other outcome, given the dogged commitment to inaction on the part of everyone who matters. At last, Christiana Figueres has started to go beyond the polite fiction that having a little tax or sponsor some solar cells will save us. It won’t. The only thing that really counts is that we leave the coal in the ground. If we don’t do that, we’re finished. And, as crucial as all the other issues that we discussed are, none of it really matters if our environment collapses. None of us will have education, or health care, or reliable food and water, or jobs.

It is no longer a question of whether climate change is real. Nor is it a question that it it will go over the long-cherished limit of 2°C. Nor is it a question that this will be catastrophic. The only questions are how bad will it be, and what can we do to minimise it. The latest IPCC report suggests that we may well see a 4.5°C rise this century; I think this is too conservative; analysts not committed to the IPCC’s consensus approach frequently speak of 6°C this century, and this is by no means the maximum. And of course, that’s just this century: it keeps going up for a long time.

What can we do? I don’t know. For a long time I have wanted to write more on this subject, but it is so big and so overwhelming that I have not known how to start. But here’s one idea: go to a monastery and stay in a cave. It may turn out to be a useful survival skill.

Nigel said that the message they had received from the UN was that politics had failed. Decades of negotiations have led nowhere. Figures at the highest levels are now looking to religion for a solution. Despite all of the problems that religions have faced, and continue to struggle with, it is still the case that religions speak to the people in a way that no other can. And we have the potential, at least, to speak with a moral authority, to draw a line in the sand. One speaker spoke of the “madness, the madness!” of our world, in that we have allowed economics to triumph over life. For all the distortions of their tiny parochial moralities, their embarassing obsessions with controlling sex and women, at the heart of all religions there is the respect for life. And in that, perhaps, we may find hope.

November 8, 2013 / sujato

The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to attend the American Academy of Religions annual conference. As has become the norm, there was hardly anything in the two days, with hundreds of presentations, that discussed Early Buddhism, or indeed anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. There were a couple of papers, but these dealt with extremely minor issues in an almost apologetic way, as if the very idea that we could talk about the Buddha was embarassing; and it was notable that they were given by European scholars.

We’ve just been sent the latest round of topics, and this time, I can’t find a single mention of anything at all to do with Early Buddhism. Perhaps it might be squeezed in under one of the other headings, although I kind of doubt it. Here’s the list of sessions organized by the AAR Buddhism Section itself:

A23-105 Buddhism Section and Japanese Religions Group
Theme: Committed Scholars: Buddhist Studies and Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

A23-205 Buddhism Section and Confucian Traditions Group
Theme: Collaborative Arenas: The Seventeenth-Century Intersection of Buddhist-Confucian Philosophizing, Politicizing, and Publishing

A24-105 Buddhism Section
Theme: Millennialism, Eschatology, and the Latter Day of the Dharma

A24-311 Buddhism Section and Religion in Southeast Asia Group
Theme: Material Culture, Politics, and Religion in Burmese and Tibetan Buddhisms

A25-103 Buddhism Section
Theme: Buddhist Masculinities: Rhetorics and Representations

A25-211 Buddhism Section Quadsponsorship
Theme: Self-Immolations in the Tibetan Buddhist World

A26-106 Buddhism Section
Theme: Vision, Text, and Image in Buddhism

There’s a long list of other miscellaneous sessions that are of potential interest to people doing Buddhist studies. These include the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies on Deep Listening and Spiritual Care; Seen and Unseen: Revelation through Science Fiction (which I would totally attend!); Urban Buddhism in Modernizing Asia, 1850–1950; and so on.

There is nothing at all that mentions anything in the first 500 years of Buddhism.

How on earth has this happened? How has an entire academic discipline so completely lost the plot? How is it possible that we can even begin to speak about “Buddhism” while studiously avoiding paying any attention whatsoever to the Buddha?

It seems to me there are a number of influences we can identify.

  • The pragmatic tendency of American philosophy, as opposed to the classical, pure-knowledge approach of Europe;
  • The prevalent influence of Sino-Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism in America, as opposed to the colonial experience of England, which exposed it to the Indic cultures (but Germany is also a major player in early Buddhist studies);
  • Trends in academic approaches, specifically postmodernism, with its distrust of overarching narratives (except, of course, the overarching narrative of postmodernism!), and focus on the local, diverse, and specific;
  • The jobification of education, which prioritizes fields with immediate financial opportunities, and marginalizes disciplines such as early Buddhism, which require long disciplined study in obscure languages with little prospect of employment;

There are, of course, more specific things, such as the influence of particular academics.

One thing that I have suspected, but am not sure about is funding. I know that most universities struggle to get funding, and that the more obscure humanities are the worst hit. In Australia, universities sometimes make up their funding by support from Buddhist institutions. In some cases this is unproblematic: the funding is supplied without any attempt to influence the academic priorities. In other cases, especially when Dhammakaya is concerned, there has been serious concerns regarding academic objectivity, which has resulted in their funding being rejected by at least one major Australian university. I wonder whether American universities receive funding from Chinese/Japanese/Tibetan sources, and whether this influences the direction of their studies?

Within the academic communities, of course, the putative reason for the neglect of Early Buddhism is because of none of the above, but because the attempts to study early Buddhism have failed, and the entire field is discredited. This is exemplified by a remark in a recent essay by Steven Collins:

It is my view that, given the complete impossibility of knowing what ‘early’ Buddhism was, the practice of offering speculative pictures of it inevitably casts all subsequent Theravada history in a pejorative light, which is a bad thing.

I find this quote to be very revealing. Knowing anything about early Buddhism is “completely impossible”. This is despite the existence of, perhaps, 10 million words of text, as well as the substantial archeological finds of Ashoka and the like. Most of this text has never been translated or studied in modern academia. Frankly I think it just seems too hard, so rather than getting on with the job, it’s easier just to issue some ex-cathedra proclamation that it’s all useless.

All the attempts to make a description based on this vast volume of textual and ther evidence are dismissed by Collins as “speculative”. This is a standard form of denialist rhetoric. There is no attempt to meaningfully distinguish between valid and invalid forms of inference, no discussion of what can be known with greater or lesser degrees of certainty; the entire field is just dismissed outright.

And most astonishingly of all, Collins claims that the attempt to understand Early Buddhism is immoral, because it makes later forms of Buddhism look bad. Indeed it does: the Buddha was the greatest spiritual leader of humanity, and Buddhist cultures have struggled to live up to his ideals. This is common sense, and is accepted as axiomatic by all Buddhist traditions.

The very notion of a Buddhist culture is defined by this dynamic, by the idealization of a certain way of seeing the “Buddha”, in a more or less historical sense, as an exemplar for how to live life here and now. The tension between the ideal and the reality is the crucial source of energy that has fuelled the creation of “Buddhist” cultures. And we can’t understand this without a sense of the historical situation of Early Buddhism.

It’s not impossible to understand Early Buddhism; in fact, it’s not that hard. What’s impossible is understanding any later form of Buddhism while ignoring its origins.

One of the things that really strikes me about the list of topics at the AAR is how old-fashioned it is. It seems to be stuck in some 1980s postmodernist timewarp. Surely we have moved on? The defining feature of culture in the past couple of decades has been the spectacular revolution in digital technologies. This is probably the most radical and important shift in human culture since the invention of writing; possibly, in fact, since the invention of language itself. Yet there is nothing in the AAR conference that explicitly adresses digital culture and the many, many issues relevant to Buddhism that it raises. Among many other questions, our evolving capacities to deal with natural language processing (NLP) gives us the potential for unprecedented forms of analysis and insight into early Buddhist texts. Yet as far as I know there is nothing being done in this field in Buddhist academia.

Rather than expanding our potential for knowledge, too many academics have become stuck like a broken record telling us that we can’t know anything. This nihilistic, destructive dogma has way outlived any purpose it may once have had.

October 23, 2013 / sujato

I’m back; with some sad news for sutta-lovers

I’ve been away on retreat for the past couple of weeks. I’m just catching up on things and will find some time for blogging in the next little while, I hope.

Meanwhile, I just noticed what is a sad day for the web: John Bullitt has announced he will retire from Access to Insight. He has built this site, mostly on his own so I understand, for 20 years, and it has always been the default home for Sutta translations on the web. Now he’s retiring and the site will not be developed further. It will remain solely as a static record, but no additions will be made.

I still remember the first day I saw the internet. It was at my sister’s office, here.

She showed me this thing called the “internet”. I asked if we could find any Buddhist suttas, and we immediately came across Access to Insight, and found some suttas there. I was blown away to think that the Buddha’s words could be found anywhere, by anyone!

I don’t know how many people have visited the site, or had the same experience. But it must be millions by now. It shows what an amazing thing can be done by the vision and energy of someone who truly loves the Dhamma. Congratulations to John for his remarkable achievement.

September 28, 2013 / sujato

Sydney Metta Retreat, 8–15 November, 2013

Dear friends,

I’m teaching a metta retreat in Sydney in November. I’ve posted this before, but here’s a reminder. I’d love to see you there! Here’s the details:

Mettā is the unconditional loving-kindness that reaches out to encompass all beings. In mettā meditation, we learn to be free from the shackles of selfishness that constrict our emotional capacity. The practical, step-by-step approach expored in this retreat, goes beyond mere words into a direct experience of boundless, universal love.


Vijayaloka Retreat Centre, Minto Heights.

The Retreat Centre is conveniently located about one hour from the heart of Sydney. It is easily accessible by public transport and provides simple, shared accommodation for approximately 40 people in a beautiful bush setting on the George’s River. Camping facilities available.

For venue details see:


$295 per sperson.

The teaching is provided without charge and is by donation. The cost covers accommodation, all meals and other logistics. Healthy, home-made vegetarian meals will be provided.

To make a booking or for more information email Deepika at or call 040 327 3152.

Download the Metta Retreat Flyer pdf, November 8–15 2013

September 25, 2013 / sujato

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selected translations are available on SuttaCentral

So, the time has come. Or at least, a time.

We have just uploaded a wide range of English sutta translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi to SuttaCentral. Not all of them, yet, but all that we are legally permitted to use. They include a substantial selection from each of the three Nikayas that he has translated: the Middle length Discourses, the Connected Discourses, and the Numerical Discourses.

You can read about crossing the flood, or the kinds of persons who have expectations, or how the Buddha got scared in his meditation!

The whole range of translations can be accessed through the relevant nikaya pages here, here, and here, with BB’s translations the first listed in the right hand column.

We give great thanks to Bhikkhu Bodhi, for having created these extraordinary translations, which are the gold standard for accuracy and readability. He has been quietly championing SuttaCentral for some time, and has a great wish to see the Suttas become more widely available. We also thank Wisdom Publications, for working on these texts with Ven Bodhi for so many years, and for kindly releasing these selections under a Creative Commons licence.

If you like the translations, buy the books! (And it wouldn’t hurt to let Wisdom know that you found these teachings via SuttaCentral…)

September 25, 2013 / sujato

Interpretation of the third Precept pericope—evidence from the Agamas, by Ravichander R

I’ve had some conversations off-list with our commenter Ravichander. He had some interesting thoughts regarding the third precept, so I encouraged him to put them in a form I could publish here. So here they are. Congratulations, Ravichander, it’s not easy doing this reasearch!


Preliminary evidence from the Agama version suggests that the explanation of sexual misconduct referred to rape or at least included it in its purview. Further comparisons from the Chinese/Sanskrit fragments would add more clarity to this matter.

Interpretation of the third Precept pericope

While browsing through the translations from the Tibetan version of the Upayika at, I came across the passage that explains the precept on sexual misconduct. It was much the same as the Pali version except for one significant detail1. This led to a hunt for the Sanskrit/Agama version of the passage resulting in this study.

I give the Pali text and its translation first:

Kāmesumicchācārī kho pana hoti. Yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sassāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.2

Translation 1: He is given over to misconduct in sexual desires: he has intercourse with such (women) as are protected by the mother, father, (mother and father), brother, sister, relatives, as have a husband, as entail a penalty, and also with those that are garlanded in token of betrothal.3

Translation 2: Misbehaves in sexuality, misbehaving with those protected by father, mother, mother and father, brother, sister, relations, with those with a husband, becoming liable to punishment, or even those garlanded and made to promise.4

(Italics mine)

The Pali doesn’t actually say ‘has intercourse with’ or ‘misbehaving with’. Literally it says ‘gets into action’ with them (cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti). Of course, from the context it has been inferred that it refers to sex and hence sex with any of the types of women listed in the passage is considered a violation of the third precept.

The list itself seems to be illustrative of various kinds of single (unmarried/widowed/celibate) and non-single (married/betrothed) women.

(Some editions of the sutta apparently don’t include ‘gottarakkhita’ meaning protected by the clan/gotra and ‘dhammarakkhita’ meaning protected by dhamma usually interpreted to mean nuns. They are not included in the translations presented above)

Parallel versions I have been able to find so far:

Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana sutra

( kiṁ nu) tvayānanda śrutaṁ yās tā vṛjīnāṁ vṛjiprajāpatyo) vṛjikumārikāś) ca pitṛrakṣitā mātṛrakṣitā bhrātṛrakṣitā bhaginīrakṣitāḥ śvaśurarakṣitāḥ śvaśrurakṣitā jñātirakṣitā gotrarakṣitāḥ saparidaṇḍāḥ sasvāmikāḥ kan)yāḥ paraparigṛ(hītā antaśo) mālāguṇaparikṣiptā api tadrūpāsu) na sa (hasā cāritram āpadyante | )5

Dharmaskandha, Sarvastivada Abhidharma

DhskM 21r8. -mithyācārād vairamaṇir upāsakasya śikṣāpadam iti kāmamithyācāraḥ katamaḥ / evaṃ hy uktaṃ bhagavatā kāmamithyācārī khalv ihaiko bhavati sa yās tā bhavanti parastriyaḥ parabhāryās tadyathā mātṛrakṣitā vā pitṛrākṣitā vā //

DhskM 21r9. śvaśrūrakṣitā vā śvaśurarakṣitā vā jñātirakṣitā vā jātirakṣitā vā gotrarakṣitā vā sadaṇḍāḥ / sāvaraṇāḥ sadaṇḍāvaraṇā antato mālāguṇaparikṣiptā / api tadrūpāsu sahasā balenānupraskandya kāmeṣu cāritram āpadyaty ayam ucyate ///

Upayika version

Some who have committed sexual misconduct—these are those who have not abstained from sexual misconduct, that is, seducing a woman guarded by her mother or guarded by her father or guarded by her brother or guarded by her sister or guarded by her father-in-law or guarded by her mother-in-law or guarded by her relatives or guarded by her family or guarded by her clan or a woman who has been garlanded in token of betrothal and isunder threat of punishment and veiled, because she has been already obtained by somebody else and is thus somebody else’s woman, or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her.

German Translation of a Chinese version from Mulasarvastivada Vinaya

Ananda, hast du wohl gehört und weißt du, ob die frauen und jungfrauen jenes Landes behütet werden von den Müttern, behütet werden von den Vätern oder von den Brüdern, den Schwestern, den schwiegereltern oder der verwandtschaft behütet werden; ob diese (verwandten) sie, wenn sie übertretungen begangen haben, ermahnen und strafen; ob (die Frauen und Jungfrauen,) wenn sie Frauen order Nebenfrauen eines anderen (d.h. Mannes) geworden sind und sogar durch blumenüberreichung deren Ehefrauen zu werden gestattet haben, nicht mit diesen übereilt unsittliche Dinge treiben?6

(Italics mine)

Apart from the inclusion/variations in the list of women, the material difference seems to be the addition of the Sanskrit/Pali word – sahasā.

This term has two meanings: (i) Forcibly and (ii) Hastily

That the Chinese version also contained the word ‘sahasā’ can be inferred from the German word ‘übereilt’ in the translation. It means hasty/rash.

Choice of translation

The Tibetan translators of the Upayika apparently preferred the first meaning (forcibly) while the Chinese the second (hastily). We have two sources to show that the first meaning is to be preferred.

Vasala sutta in the Suttanipata(uraga vagga) uses the term ‘sahasā’ contrasting it with ‘sampiyena’ clearly referring to forced vs consensual sex. The commentary also confirms this.

‘‘Yo ñātīnaṃ sakhīnaṃ vā, dāresu paṭidissati;

Sāhasā [sahasā (sī. syā.)] sampiyena vā, taṃ jaññā vasalo iti.

Commentary: sāhasāti balakkārena

The Dharmaskandha version quoted above glosses the word with ‘balenānupraskandya’ ie having entered by force.

Construing the sentence with sahasā

The English translation of the Upayika adds ‘or’ to the last phrase. But the Sanskrit sources do not seem to contain it and neither does the Pali.

The last type of woman listed is ‘even those garlanded and made to promise’ ie betrothed. The addition of ‘api’(even) shows that the list has come to an end.

Then comes the phrase ‘tathārūpāsu’ which can be translated as with such women as these; The commentary confirms this by saying ‘evarūpāsu itthīsu’. This would imply that the list is only illustrative(showing the range of single/non-single women) and not exhaustive.

Now, including the word ‘sahasā’ following the Northern sources we have ‘sahasā cārittam āpajjitā hoti’. This translates to ‘gets into forcible action with’.

Therefore, the passage ends with ‘(he) gets into forcible action with women such as these’. In the absence of words like or/and (vā/ca), I feel the whole pericope refers exclusively to rape. I can’t see how else to construe the passage.

This point can be clarified only by collecting and comparing all parallel versions of this passage.( I hope Sāmaṇerī Dhammadinnā can re-confirm if the Tibetan Upayika indeed contains ‘or’ in the final phrase).

For discussion (not a conclusion!)

The question remains whether the word ‘sahasā’ was dropped from the Pali version or added to the Sanskrit version. Even if it was added by the Sarvastivadins, it would imply that they added it as a clarificatory gloss. This further implies that they considered the pericope as referring to rape even without the word.

However, it might just be possible that the word was dropped inadvertently or advertently from the Pali.

Inadvertantly because the sentence makes easier sense with the word – ‘acts forcibly’ instead of just ‘acts’.

Advertantly perhaps to widen the meaning to include consensual sex with the non-single women listed.

Only when more translations of the Agama versions are made available, can we draw any definite conclusions.

Irrespective of the meaning of the pericope, it is generally agreed that every precept has a primary meaning and then a wider one – as evidenced by many canonical passages. Thus the first precept primarily refers to killing but the wider meaning includes cruelty of any kind. The fourth precept primarily refers to false testimony but in a wider sense to any kind of harmful lies/slander. Similarly the third precept might primarily refer to rape but certainly includes adultery in its wider sense as evidenced, for example, by the Veludvara sutta in the Samyutta nikaya.

1 Includes the phrase “or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her”. (

2 Saleyyaka Sutta MN41 (



5; Text probably based on the work of Ernst Waldschmidt

6 Researches in Indian and Buddhist Philosophy: Essays in honour of Professor Alex Wayman; Pg 13.(translation by Ernst Waldschmidt)

September 23, 2013 / sujato

A Sanskrit problem

Update: Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion. This translations is now live on SuttaCentral! We have released a large number of texts, and a few translations. Some of these have never before been released in digital forms. You can see the list of texts here. Original texts are the highlighted links in the left-most column; translations are on the right. Enjoy.

I’ve been dabbling in a little Sanskrit translation, and there are some points where you just go, “What the!?” I thought I’d try crowdsourcing, and see whether any of you can help with an occasional knotty turn of phrase. Here goes.

There is a Sanskrit version of the “Nagara Sutta”, which tells how the Buddha rediscovered the Dhamma, like coming across an ancient city. It is part of the Nidana samyukta, and is one of those dependent origination texts that does not complete the full 12 links, but goes as far as the mutual dependence of viññāṇa and nāmarūpa. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ven Bodhi’s book on the Mahanidana Sutta is the best!)

Here, the Sanskrit has a peculiar phrase:

tasya mama vijñānātpratyudāvartate mānasaṃ nātaḥ pareṇa vyativartate

The Pali parallel is this:

Tassa mayhaṃ, bhikkhave, etadahosi– paccudāvattati kho idaṃ viññāṇaṃ nāmarūpamhā na paraṃ gacchati.

Which we would translate:

Monks, it occurred to me: this consciousness turns back from name and form, it does not go beyond.

There are a number of peculiar features of the Sanskrit. First, the opening phrase appears truncated, and probably should be read, “tasya mamaitad abhavat“.

vijñānātpratyudāvartate is straightforward, and directly parallels the Pali.

But where the Pali has nāmarūpa, the Sanskrit has mānasa. Mānasa just means “mind”, but it is a rare term, normally reserved for poetry (cf. Metta Sutta: mānasambhāvaye aparimāṇaṁ) It’s appearance here in dependent origination is just weird.

Then there’s the word nātaḥ, for which the only meaning I can find is “dancer”(!) The whole phrase looks to me as if it’s just dropped in there.

Finally we have pareṇa vyativartate, which looks to me like a misreading for: pare na vyativartate.

I have tentatively translated the phrase as:

“Then it occurred to me: ‘Consciousness turns back at the mind (mānasa), it does not go beyond.’

But I have to admit this is more a reconstruction based on what I think it probably means, rather than a direct translation.

Anyone care to offer some help?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 613 other followers