Religion & religiosity

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.

Concerning baskets

The hero Kartaga grappled with the Swan-woman. Long they wrestled. Moons waxed and waned and still they wrestled; years came and went, and still the struggle went on. But the piebald horse and the black horse knew that the Swan-woman’s soul was not in her. Under the black earth flow nine seas; where the seas meet and form one, the sea comes to the surface of the earth. At the mouth of the nine seas rises a rock of copper; it rises to the surface of the ground, it rises up between heaven and earth, this rock of copper. At the foot of the copper rock is a black chest, in the black chest is a golden casket, and in the golden casket is the soul of the Swan-woman. Seven little birds are the soul of the Swan-woman; if the birds are killed the Swan-woman will die straightway. So the horses ran to the foot of the copper rock, opened the black chest, and brought back the golden casket. Then the piebald horse turned himself into a bald-headed man, opened the golden casket, and cut off the heads of the seven birds. So the Swan-woman died. (Frazer, The Golden Bough, ch. 66.)

The basket question

There is a question that has been keeping many of you awake at night, tossing & turning, endlessly ruminating over the meaning of the paradox at the heart of the matter. In the interests of a good night’s sleep, I hereby propose to solve the paradox and ease your torment. The question that has been driving you mad is: what does pitaka really mean?

Fear not! A solution is at hand, a solution that may surprise, even delight you.

Pitaka means “basket”, of course; but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the early Buddhist texts, known as the “Three Baskets” were oral scriptures. It would make perfect sense to think of a “basket” of manuscripts; but what are we to make of a “basket” of memorized texts?

The word pitaka is not used of the Buddhist texts in the canon itself. They refer to themselves, rather, as angas, or “limbs”. Pitaka is used, however, to refer to a traditional text, obviously referring to the Vedas, where the Buddha, most famously in the Kalama Sutta, says we should not accept something merely because it is “included in the basket” pitakasampada. There is inherent in the use, therefore, the notion that something in the pitaka is, or may be, authoritative. It is not just ordinary words or sayings, but a collection that has been specifically preserved and passed down as an authority. It is something valuable.

And that is, I think, coming closer to the point of the metaphor: a basket is something for preserving something valuable. A basket defines and separates, it keeps things together, keeps them clean, protects from the rain, from rats, from unwanted prying hands.

This is important, and I think often missed: the metaphor must originally have referred to the container, not to the contents. Of course, by the time of the Buddha the metaphor had already lost its grounding and referred to the contents as a whole. But in its original meaning, it referred to the container. But oral texts have no container—or do they?

Who uses baskets?

Containers are such an ordinary part of our life that we give them little thought. We put something in a plastic bag, stick in in a box, or place it in a cupboard, and rarely do we spare a thought for the inner life of the container. How thankless a task! To be nothing in itself, merely useful because of what is in you. I hope, after reading this, that you treat your containers with a little more compassion.

We find containers everywhere in human culture; the simplest hunter-gatherer societies will weave little bags or baskets. But they have few possessions, and little need for a container, beyond keeping together today’s gleanings from the forest. Containers come into their own in the town.

The shift from the village to the town is one of the most important moves in human society, the beginnings of the urbanization that still continues today. And the defining capability that makes towns possible is the ability to store food. In a village, you are never far from the forest, and a day’s hunting, fishing, or gathering is usually enough to supply food. Farming is done, sure, and gradually comes to supplant the gathered food. But it is not as essential as it is for a town. Once you have more than a few families living in a stable location, it is absolutely essential that you have a reliable source of storable food.

This food is primarily grain. This implies a substantial cluster of technologies and infrastructure: roads and carts for transport, granaries for storage; fields with specialist farmers using ploughs and possibly irrigation; and a stable political authority. It also implies a shift in relation to time: no longer is what is gathered in the morning sufficient for the afternoon (as depicted in the Agganna Sutta), but what is harvested each year must be put aside, deferred, sacrificed if you will, for the future. This implies an ability to plan ahead, to conceive of life as a predictable cycle. It also implies a degree of control, or at least understanding, of nature.

In the baskets, then, is held the very life of the community. If thieves were to take it, fire to burn it, water to rot it, or rats to eat it, starvation and the possible annihilation of the society lie close at hand.

If the basket originates as a metaphor for “safekeeping, preservation”, and if this metaphor is of special relevance for the orgins of towns, can we pinpoint it more precisely? I believe we can: at the founding of the Kuru kingdom, roughly 1100 BCE. (The following picture summarizes Michael Witzel’s ideas on the topic in “The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu” http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/canon.pdf)

The ancient Aryan peoples, after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization, spread through north-western India. At the south-easternmost extension, according to the Rg Veda, were the Kuru peoples at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The centre of gravity of the Vedic peoples continued its south-eastern shift, possibly driven by climate change in the north-west, and so the Kuru region became the centre of the Aryan world. Its remnants are what the archaeologists call the “Black and Red Ware Culture”, and among their technical innovations was the production of iron, unknown in the Rg Veda or the Indus valley.

The Rg Veda as a “collection”

The Vedic literature itself marks the advent of a newly unified and centralized Aryan culture. The literature has a curious structure: the main texts of the Rg Veda, the so called “family books” consist of groups of verses that belong to individual family or clan traditions. They seem very much like the local rites and lore, preserved in jealous isolation, of the sages of the clans. These clan groups were not very large; rather more like villages or clusters of villages than towns. There is agriculture, but more emphasis is on the pastoral and nomadic life, and little respect is there for established buildings and the settled life of towns.

Yet this picture of distinct clan traditions is precisely not how the Rg Veda is handed down, and has not been since the Kuru age. On the contrary, there is a standard, received body of Vedic literature, and all the clans had the works of all the other clans. This is no small thing: the mantras held the secrets to the cosmos, to magic, to success in war, to the favours of the gods. Sharing them would have been comparable to sharing of military intelligence among modern nations. To gather them all in one place would have required persuading the sages of the clans to share their secret lore, and to spend endless hours teaching the memorized verses.

Instead, the individual “Family Books” books are collected within a larger structure, one that is based on a very different way of life. The “Family Books”, 2–8, have been prefaced and addended by new collections of verses. The purpose of these verses is to harmonize and unify the collection. For example, Rg Veda 1.59 speaks of Agni as the lord of all people, the trunk of which all other fires are branches, above the gods, centre of the earth, king of settled lands. And the final verse of the Rg Veda is, even more emphatically, the verse of unification.

HYMN 10.191–4. Agni.

1. THOU, mighty Agni, gatherest up all that is precious for thy friend.
Bring us all treasures as thou art enkindled in libation’s place
2 Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
3 The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
4 One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.

RV_10,191.01a saṃ-sam id yuvase vṛṣann agne viśvāny arya ā |
RV_10,191.01c iḷas pade sam idhyase sa no vasūny ā bhara ||
RV_10,191.02a saṃ gacchadhvaṃ saṃ vadadhvaṃ saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatām |
RV_10,191.02c devā bhāgaṃ yathā pūrve saṃjānānā upāsate ||
RV_10,191.03a samāno mantraḥ samitiḥ samānī samānam manaḥ saha cittam eṣām |
RV_10,191.03c samānam mantram abhi mantraye vaḥ samānena vo haviṣā juhomi ||
RV_10,191.04a samānī va ākūtiḥ samānā hṛdayāni vaḥ |
RV_10,191.04c samānam astu vo mano yathā vaḥ susahāsati ||

This is no longer the voice of a tribal sage, an invoker of the gods for the immediate needs of clan. It is the voice of a nation-builder, whose priority is to persuade a disparate and epically fractious association of peoples to act together as one.

Notice the various elements of the hymn: the invocation of the god Agni, unifier of all the people; recognition of the blessings he has brought (my knowledge of the Vedic is insufficient, but it seems to me that what is implied here, as well as material wealth, is the treasures that have just been recited, i.e. the Vedas themselves); the repeated use of terms beginning with sam-, indicating unity; the association of this unity with happiness; and the injunction to action, the actual performance of the fire oblation that is central to Agni’s rite, and which constitutes such a central part of the verses just recited.

Buddhist adoption of the Vedic “container”

This verse has an uncanny resemblance to the final statement in the Buddhist patimokkha, which is recited each fortnight as a statement of unity in the Sangha. A very similar statement is found in all the patimokkhas. The Pali is, characteristically, the shortest though in this instance possibly not the oldest. Here I offer a translation of the Pali, with the additions in brackets being mostly common to the Sarvastivada and Mahasanghika groups of schools.

This much is passed down in the sutta, included in the sutta of the Blessed One (the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Fully Awakened One), which comes up for recitation each fortnight (and also other major and minor teachings that have come down). Therein each and every one should train (together), in harmony, with mutual rejoicing, without dispute, (with unified recital, one like mixed milk and water, living happily and at ease).

Ettakaṃ tassa bhagavato suttāgataṃ suttapariyāpannaṃ anvaddhamāsaṃ uddesaṃ āgacchati. Tattha sabbeheva samaggehi sammodamānehi avivadamānehi sikkhitabbanti.

Here, for comparison, is one of the Sanskrit texts, that of the Mahasanghika:

etakoyaṃ punastasya bhagavato tathāgatasyārhataḥ samyak saṃbuddhasya dharmavinayo prātimokṣasūtrāgato sūtraparyāpanno yo vā anyopi kaściddharmasya anudharmo tatra samagre hi sarvve hi sahite hi saṃmodamāne hi avivadamāne hi ekoddeśe hi kṣīrodakī kṛtehi śāstuḥ śāsanaṃ dīpayamāne hi / sukhañca phāsuñca viharante hi anadhyāvācāya śikṣākaraṇīyā

All five of the aspects we have noted recur here: the invocation of the Buddha; the acknowledgement of the treasures gathered in the text just recited; the repeated use of sam- to indicate unity; the association of this unity with happiness; and the injunction to action by training in accord with the rules just recited.

The conclusion seems inevitable: the Buddhist Sangha copied the literary form of the Veda, specifically when it came to the concept of the framing narrative, the bookends that preserve the fragile words, in other words, the basket.

This inheritance is even more apparent in the Sanskrit texts than the Pali. I have checked 4 Sanskrit patimokkha texts, those of the Mulasarvastivada, Sarvastivada, Mahasanghika, and Mahasanghika-lokuttaravada. As you can see, these represent two of the main groups of early schools, the Sarvastivadins and Mahasanghikas. Generally speaking, agreement between these texts is a sign of a pre-sectarian heritage. Perhaps the agreement of these texts is a sign that the Pali has, in this instance, undergone loss of text.

All the Sanskrit texts add the word sahita, which I have translated in brackets above as “together”. But this is the normal word used for the Vedic collections, as in the “Rg Veda Samhita”, the “Collection of the Rig Veda” (and other Vedas). The word sahita in fact appears in Pali as a poetic term for sacred scriptures, in Dhammapada 19-20, where the commentary confirms that this is a word for the Tipitaka of the Buddha’s words. I find it to be a remarkable coincidence, if coincidence it be, that this passage, with so many evident connections with the Vedic Unity verse, should include the very word for the Vedic collections themselves!

This passage is a stock one, and appears in many places. In fact, the passage we have just quoted is a secondary one, for the Buddha is referred to in third person: this is not direct Buddhavacana. In other places, however, similar words are attributed to the Buddha, notably in the Kinti Sutta (MN 103). There, the Buddha is concerned to downplay the significance of Vinaya as the source of harmony, and emphasizes rather the harmonious practice and recital of the 37 Bodhipakkhiya dhammas, using the same phrase we have seen above. Many scholars, myself included, have seen in this and similar passages a hint that the earliest canonical collection of Buddhist teachings consisted largely of these 37 Dhammas. It seems that the redactors borrowed the phrase to use in the conclusion for the patimokkha.

The Buddhists were aware, almost painfully so, of the Vedas and of the prestige and influence that this ancient body of knowledge bestowed on the Brahmins. It must have been frustrating, since the Buddhists believed that their teachings were far superior to what they regarded as the endless, vapid rituals and invocations of the Vedas. Yet despite the many limitations of the Vedic literature, they got one thing right: it lasted.

The literary innovations of the Kurus included gathering the family hymns, organizing them in minute detail (for the structure of the Rg Veda is subtle, rigorous, and complex), adding the framing narrative, and organizing for all the “families” to recite the whole scripture. The result of this was that the text was preserved with uncanny precision for thousands of years in the oral tradition. It was nearly a thousand years old when the Buddha was alive.

The problem facing the Buddhist Sangha was not dissimilar from that facing the Kurus. Just as the Aryan people were up to that stage semi nomadic, semi settled people, the Sangha was semi-nomadic, semi-settled; just as the Aryans were united in a general cultural sense, so were the Buddhist Sangha united in a sense of belonging to the same community; and just as the Aryans were divided into independent clans each with its own scriptures, so the Buddhist Sangha was divided into various monasteries, districts, and teacher’s lineages, each with its own characteristic texts.

It is little wonder, then, that given such similar problems, and given the highly successful solution to that problem implemented by the Kurus, the Sangha used the Vedic precedent. Note that in the passage above we are hearing the voice of the Sangha, not of the Buddha, as he is referred to in the third person as Bhagava.

Everything is neatly wrapped

If we consider the Buddhist texts in this light, this principle is absolutely pervasive. Each sutta starts with an introduction (nidana) giving the setting and main characters, and asserting that what is to follow is the words of the Buddha (usually). It then finishes with the monks rejoicing (and in several traditions, determining to practice what was taught). Thus each text is defined by its nidana, as if it were wrapped in a leaf for safety. Without such definition, each “sutta” would blur into the next, and they would become irretrievably mixed.

Of course, this is an ideal situation, for in reality not every sutta, especially the shorter ones, actually has such a nidana. But there is a sense in which they all are ideally supposed to have one; and the inadequacy of the current situation is seen in that the suttas do in fact blur into each other from time time. Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example, in his recent translation discusses the cases where it is difficult to tell whether a text should be considered as one sutta or two.

Not only is each sutta “wrapped” as by a leaf, they are then “wrapped” in groups of ten to form a vagga, or “chapter”. Each “chapter” is then wrapped in a larger section, and so on. The largest scale “wrapping” is the life of the Buddha himself, within which all the events and teachings of early Buddhism take place.

This puts in a new light the Vinaya passages that give instructions on redaction technique. With his usual cynicism, Gregory Schopen, titles his essay on this topic, “If You Can’t Remember, How to Make it Up”. But this is precisely what the texts he quotes are not saying.

The passage refers to the situation where a monk has difficulty remembering the setting or other framing details of a sutta. In such a case he should insert the usual tropes (e.g. by saying the sutta was at Savatthi and so on).

In light of what we have seen above, the purpose of this is precisely to preserve and maintain the actual sutta—the words of the Buddha—by ensuring that they are “wrapped” well. That the incidental details on the wrapping are not authentic is clearly of little importance: what matters is the actual substance of the teaching.

Likewise, if there is difficulty remembering the sutta as a whole, it should be written down. Again, this is a method for preserving the text without change, not a method for inventing a new text, as Schopen implies.

This reasoning applies to the majority of the techniques that are often regarded as “artificial” in the Pali and other Early Buddhist texts—repetitions, stock phrases, unified language, and so on. Each of these was employed for the same purpose: to make it possible to preserve the teachings as-is, without alteration, except in incidental details of structure and organization.

Just as the Vedic redactors formed a resilient, lasting “basket” in which to preserve their sacred texts, the Buddhists created a “basket”of astonishing sophistication and flexibility which has, despite all the ravages of time, succeeded in its purpose: to preserve the word of the Buddha.

And what of the soul?

Which brings us at last to the little fable at the start of this essay. It is one of a large genre of stories, of which Frazer gives many more examples, and which are particularly prevalent in India. The King (or the wizard or the ogre) keeps his soul in a safe place, stored far away. He cannot be killed as long as the soul is safe, locked away in apparently impenetrable “baskets”. In just the same way, the people of the town keep their grain in a safe storage, and they will survive as long as the grain is safe.

Similarly, the Buddhist community keeps its scriptures locked away in safe places, stored in the basket, the cabinet, the shrine. If the texts were to be destroyed, we would lose our very life, our soul; Buddhism would be cast adrift, like a garland that is not tied together with string. The fable warns of false pride and complacency. No matter how well we think our “soul” is guarded, sooner or later it will meet its end. Thus it will be for all the Buddhist scriptures, and for the Buddhist religion as a whole. The early Buddhist community, attuned to the contemplation of impermanence, was keenly aware of this, and used every means at their disposal to postpone that grim day as long as possible.

Should we ban live sheep exports?

In 1986 I was an active member of Animal Liberation. Due to some quirk of regulations, the Government issued us with special passes that allowed us to enter and inspect without notification any place where animals were kept for commercial purposes. At the time, live sheep export was a key animal rights issue in WA. So we made a point to visit the various places involved in this trade: sale-yards, holding facilities, ships, and the abattoir (for those that weren’t exported). We were granted access to all these places except the ship, and we had quite extensive and frank conversations with the workers on site.

What is it like for the sheep?

The entire process is one of great suffering. From their mostly-adequate sheeply existence on a farm, they are herded on the trucks in crowded conditions, driven over noisy and confusing roads to a saleyard, where they are repeatedly moved and shuffled around, prodded by powerful electric prods. Then back on to more trucks, into unfamiliar fields, then on trucks again to the shipyards. More herding and prodding, then weeks on a crowded, unfamiliar ship, with the smells of oil, metal, and sea. Then to port, through the whole procedure a few more times, only to end up in a killing field having their throat cut. It is a barbarous and cruel business.

There are those who will argue that we should not anthropomorphize the sheep. They like being crowded together. We can’t just assume that they would feel as we would feel.

But this is what I saw at the sale-yards on the outskirts of Perth. At the back, out of public eye, behind the sheds, is a pile of dying sheep. Most are not dead yet; they kick, bleat, and quiver from time to time. They are there every day that sales are on. And every day someone from the RSPCA, whose job is to minimize animal suffering, kills them and removes their carcases.

Why are they there? According to the workers we spoke to, these are animals who were too feeble to survive the truck journey. They are old, or weak, or ill. They said that the farmers should really have killed them themselves, but it is cheaper and easier to put them on a truck, so that they are someone else’s problem. And who knows, maybe some will survive and actually fetch a price.

This is, let us remember, just the first stage of the journey. At each stage, there are similar stresses and sufferings for the animals, and at each stage some animals simply cannot stand it and collapse or die. Imagine if, whenever you caught a train, the conditions were so bad that a dozen or more elderly and unwell people died of stress, and this was considered a normal part of train travel. That is comparable to the situation for sheep in the live export trade.

In consequence of this grievous and gratuitous suffering, the live sheep export trade, among the countless atrocities perpetrated on animals by we civilized humans, has consistently been singled out by animal rights activists as particularly heinous.

What has changed?

In the last year or so, as Australian readers will be aware, this has become a hot-button political issue in Australia. A number of high-profile reports on the ABC (the national broadcaster) have depicted the gruesome conditions which the sheep are subjected to in Indonesia and the Middle East. This has sparked an astonishing public response, temporary bans, and new conditions imposed on our trading partners.

To an old animal rights activist like myself, this is all very curious. We have been saying these things for decades, and no-one was interested. Why now? What has changed?

I can only think of one thing that has changed, and that must be at the root of the public’s emotional response: Islamophobia. The ostensible purpose of the trade is, of course, so that the sheep can be slaughtered halal. It is a religious thing, and if one thing has changed in Australian, and more generally Western society, in recent years, it is a growing distrust and dislike of all things Islam. This is why the scenes of mistreatment of sheep in foreign, dusty countries of dark-skinned people cause such outrage, while no-one knows or cares about the dying sheep that are daily tossed on to the pile at the back of a shed in Perth.

This makes the whole issue much more ambiguous. If the trade is such a source of suffering, then is it not justified to leverage the public’s Islamophobia to create a better outcome for the animals? Dubious at best; hypocritical, manipulative, and dangerous at worst.

The best of bad choices

For me the renewed interest in the issue has had one benefit, though. I have thought more carefully about the ethical issues, and I am no longer convinced that we should ban the live sheep export. In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it may well be ethically the best practical outcome for the sheep’s welfare.

I arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion by simply applying the Golden Rule: do unto others. Consider the options, and ask yourself which you would prefer.

On the one hand, you have the option of being sold for the live export trade, with all its inherent suffering.

On the other hand, you could be slaughtered locally. Doing so you miss out on all the weeks of suffering. But, and here is the crux of the matter, your life would be cut short by several weeks. Sure, several weeks of cruel, suffering, undignified, pointless life; but life nonetheless.

And at the core of all our ethical intuitions is one simple fact: beings love life. They will cling to it even in the most adverse of circumstances. We can all imagine cases where we would prefer death to life. But they are extreme circumstances indeed, and I pray that none of you have to make such a choice.

What would you do if faced with such a choice? Several weeks of uncomfortable, cruel travel towards an inevitable death, or an immediate death? I suspect most of us would choose the longer, more painful journey. Perhaps some would choose to end life quickly. But in either case, there is no clear-cut case that one alternative or the other is really better.

If we are so unsure about our ethical choices for ourselves, how much more uncertain we are in evaluating the sheep’s welfare. We can say, with high confidence, that the sheep suffer on their journey. But can we say that they are worse off than if they had been killed here in Australia? I don’t think so. Perhaps, in truth, we prefer the idea of a quicker kill so that we don’t have to witness their suffering.

Neither option is good. Neither would obtain if we lived in a world that truly valued the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. But of the two, it seems to me that the extra weeks of life are likely to be of more value for the sheep than the avoidance of the suffering encountered in these weeks.

What, then, are we to do?

Regardless of what one might think of this, however, the main point is this: there is no clear case that one alternative or the other is significantly better for the sheep.

For this reason, I think that we should not waste our efforts trying to have the trade banned. There are plenty of clear, unambiguous ethical issues where our energies are better directed.

None of this is in any way a justification for the trade. I am not saying it is right or good. On the contrary, I believe, as I have for all my adult years, that all commercial use of animals is wrong. In an ideal world, it would be illegal to use another sentient being as a commercial product, full stop. Animals are, like people, ends in themselves, and should not be reduced to merely a means for profit or pleasure.

But this ideal world is a long way from our world. Ethics must, if they are to be anything, be practical. And the practical options in this case are to ban the export, or regulate it to minimize suffering. The latter seems to be the approach taken by the Australian Government so far, and on balance, I think it’s the right thing to do.

The body as metaphor

While we’re on the topic of misconstrued meditative metaphors, here’s another chestnut that well and truly deserves roasting: the body. The formula for third jhana mentions that one ‘experiences bliss with the body’. Most interpretations of jhanas say that they are purely mental experiences, based on the unification of mind-consciousness, and that it is impossible to experience anything through the five senses while in such a state.

But then, we can’t just have everybody agreeing on everything, can we, because that would be just so so dull. So others take the word body quite literally here, and say that this shows that we can experience the body (and other physical senses) in jhana.

You’re probably guessing that I’m going to side with the non-literalists here, and you’re quite right. I’ve discussed this in more detail elsewhere, but I just noticed this little sutta that brings out the metaphorical nature of the language used in higher Dhammas quite nicely. Here it is, Anguttara 4.189.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized. What four?

There are things to be realized with the body, to be realized with mindfulness, to be realized with the eye and to be realized with wisdom.

What should be realized with the body? The eight liberations.

What should be realized with mindfulness? Previous births.

What should be realized with the eye? The passing away and rebirth of beings.

What should be realized with wisdom? The ending of defilements.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized.

Notice especially here the use of ‘body’ and ‘eye’. Now, it is clearly quite impossible that ‘eye’ means a physical eye here; no-one would argue that one can physically see beings getting reborn. In this context of subtle, abstruse, higher Dhammas, the eye is not a physical eye, but a metaphor for a refined inner vision.

And in just the same way, the body is not a physical body, but a metaphor for the wholeness and directness of experience. As if this were not obvious enough from the context, notice that the things to be realized with the body are the eight liberations, which include the four formless attainments. These are by definition beyond any kind of physical reality. Elsewhere, the Buddha says that even Nibbana is to be realized with the body.

The body is not the body, the eye is not the eye, and thought is not thought. These are all words, inadequate, struggling, messy words, creeping up from the evolutionary slime, groping and grasping towards the light. As long as we keep them weighed down by the mundane, we can never speak of higher things. And since these higher things are things of the mind, if we cannot speak of them, we cannot imagine them. And if we cannot imagine them, we cannot realize them. And that is rather a sad state of affairs.

Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana

I shall give you a simile; for it is by means of a simile that some wise people here understand the meaning of what is said.

—THE BUDDHA

Here’s one of the most often contested issues in Buddhist meditation: can you be thinking while in jhana? We normally think of jhana as a profound state of higher consciousness; yet the standard formula for first jhana says it is a state with ‘vitakka and vicara’. Normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’, and that is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in jhana, too. This has lead many meditators to believe that in the first jhana one can still be thinking. This is a mistake, and here’s why.

Actually, right now I’m interested in a somewhat subtle linguistic approach to this question. But I’ve found that if you use a complex analysis of a problem, some people, understandably enough, don’t have time or interest to follow it through; and often we tend to assume that if a complex argument is just a sign of sophistry and lack of real evidence. So first up I’ll present the more straightforward reasons why vitakka/vicara don’t mean thinking in jhana, based on the texts and on experience. Then I’ll get into the more subtle question of why this mistake gets made.

For most of this article I’ll just mention vitakka, and you can assume that the analysis for vicara follows similar lines.

Meaning & etymology

Already in the Pali Text Society dictionary we find the combination vitakka & vicara rendered as ‘initial & sustained application’. This was taken up by Ven Nyanamoli in his translations, but was later removed by Bhikkhu Bodhi as he strove to complete Nyanamoli’s project of effectively finding one English word to translate each significant Pali word.

Etymologically, vitakka harks back to a Sanskritic term (vi-)tarka. This appears in both Pali and Sanskrit literature in the sense of ‘thought’; but more pregnantly also as ‘reflection, reasoning’; in some cases more pejoritively as ‘doubt, speculation’. The Pali Dictionary suggests it is from an Indo-European root, originally meaning ‘twisting, turning’, and related to the English ‘trick’. However, I can’t find any support for this is Indo-European dictionaries; nor can I find it in the Vedas.

In the Suttas

The primary source work is the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19). This is where the Buddha talks in most detail about vitakka specifically, and describes how he discovered and developed it as part of the ‘right thought’ (sammasankappa) of the eightfold path. Note that the terms sankappa and vitakka are often, as here, synonyms.

The Buddha describes how he noticed that thinking unwholesome thoughts leads to suffering, while thinking wholesome thoughts leads to happiness. And he further realized that he could think wholesome thoughts nonstop all day and night, which would not lead to anything bad; but by so doing he could not make his mind still in samadhi. So by abandoning even wholesome thoughts he was able to enter on the four jhanas.

A similar situation is described in AN 3.101. There, the Buddha speaks of a meditator who abandons successively more refined forms of thought, until all that is left are ‘thoughts on the Dhamma’ (dhammavitakka). Even these most subtle of thoughts prevent one from realizing the true peace of samadhi, so they must be abandoned.

Clearly, then, the right thought of the eightfold path, even thoughts of the Dhamma itself, must be abandoned before one can enter jhana.

In experience

Let’s not even worry about experience of the jhanas; then we’d just end up trying to define what a jhana is. Let me give you a test. Sit quietly, now, for five minutes. Watch your mind, and notice what happens when you think and when you don’t think.


Okay, done now? What happened? Well, let me guess: most of the time you were thinking of this or that, but occasionally there were spaces of silence. And those spaces of silence were more peaceful. Even this much, even just a few minutes of sitting quietly, and you can experience the peace of a quiet mind. And yet in jhana you’re still thinking? Impossible!

Not to mention jhana, anyone who has been on a meditation retreat will have experienced those blessed moments, sometimes several minutes or longer, when the mind is clear, still, and silent. Not all the hindrances are gone, and not all the jhana factors may be present, yet there is a degree of stillness.

How language evolves

If vitakka does not mean thinking, then why did the Buddha use such a misleading word? The answer is simple: it was the best he had. Why this is so, and how such situations can arise, is a fascinating question that takes us into areas of linguistic philosophy, specifically, how we develop words for speaking of refined topics.

My understanding in this area was sparked by Julian Jaynes, who devoted quite some time to this topic in his magnum opus, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t have the book with me, so this comes from my (usually unreliable) recollections.

The basis of his ideas can be expressed in some simple axioms. The first:

  • Axiom 1: All abstract words are derived from more concrete words by way of metaphor.

By metaphor here I don’t mean, of course, the conscious use of metaphor as a poetic device. I mean the embedded use of metaphor that pervades all language; like, say, the use of ‘embedded’ in this very sentence.

The idea is that, whether considering the origins of language in history, or the learning of language by an infant, we must begin with what is concrete. We point to the earth and say, ‘ugh’, then point to the water and say, ‘erg’. I can’t point to ‘solidity’ or ‘liquidity’. We must gradually learn these abstract concepts based on the more concrete ones.

There is a universal pattern we can discern in this process:

  • Axiom 2: Metaphors move from what is better known to what is less known.

We start with knowledge that is shared. But when one person learns something that others have not, they must draw the others on from what is known towards what is unknown. Jaynes called these things the ‘metaphier’—the relatively concrete, well-known thing on which the metaphor is based—and the ‘metaphrand’—the relatively abstract, less-known thing that the metaphor is intended to illustrate.

Which leads us to our third axiom:

  • Axiom 3: A metaphrand brings something over from the metaphier, and leaves something behind.

If the basis on which the metaphor is made (the metaphier) has nothing in common with the object of the metaphor (the metaphrand), then there would be no illumination. On the other hand, if they had nothing different, they would be the same thing.

But what is it that is common, and what is lost? Since we are speaking of the movement of language from the coarse to the subtle, we can say that:

  • Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

This is all very abstract, so how about some ‘concrete’ examples. Let’s look closer at ‘earth’.

In English, we have two different words for ‘earth’ (as in the ground, not the planet) and for ‘solidity’. This is such a natural part of our language that we don’t think that it’s anything special.

In Pali, by contrast, the same word, pathavi, is used for both ‘earth’ and ‘solidity’. (There are other words for these, too, but I will keep it as simple as I can). In, say, a Vinaya text that discusses digging, it is clear that pathavi just means ‘earth’ in the ordinary concrete sense of the dirty stuff in the ground. On the other hand, in a philosophical or meditative text that discusses the contemplation of the ‘earth element’ (pathavidhatu), it is clear that a more abstract notion is meant. Parts of the body such as the skin, bones, and hair, are said to be the ‘earth-element’, so clearly this doesn’t mean ‘dirt’. In fact, pathavi is given an explictly abstract definition in the Suttas as ‘hardness, solidity’.

Both languages have a concrete idea of ‘earth’ and an abstract idea of ‘solidity’. And from the Pali it seems obvious that one rose from the other. However, from the English perspective we can’t see that in this case; the metaphorical roots of ‘solidity’ are lost in the mists of time. We no longer feel it as a metaphor. It is just a word that means what it says. In times long past, however, it must have arisen from its own metaphorical roots, which may or may not be the same ‘earth’; in fact, the etymologists say that ‘solid’ is from an ancient Indo-European root *solo-, originally meaning ‘whole’. Since ‘whole’ is itself an abstract concept it must have come from a still deeper metaphor. Interestingly enough, ‘earth’ is also an Indo-European term, meaning ‘ground’; but neither of these is related to pathavi.

So, while the general process is universal, the historical details are arbitrary. Why a language abstracts a certain word and keeps another close to its roots depends on all kinds of random factors. It is not simply that English is a more evolved language than Pali.

Take, for example, the Sanskrit term trsna. This means ‘thirst’, and the English word is indeed derived from the same Indo-European root (which originally meant ‘dry’) and keeps the same meaning. On the other hand, in Pali trsna is split in two: tasina stayed close to its metaphier, and means primarily ‘thirst’, while tanha has almost totally lost its metaphorical connections and just means ‘craving’.

Notice, also, that these words can themselve be used as the basis for further metaphors. We can speak of a ‘solid’ character, or an ‘earthy’ character; but these are not the same kind of thing. Similarly, we can have a ‘thirst’ for knowledge, or tasina can be used to mean craving, just like tanha.

But in all these cases we still feel the metaphor. The words stay close enough to their concrete roots that we know their meaning is being stretched to new forms.

This topic of how language evolves is a fascinating and profound one, and we could take it in all manner of directions. But for now let’s return to our main topic, the Buddha’s description of jhana.

How did the Buddha speak about jhana?

Following the principles sketched out above, what can we say about how the Buddha spoke of jhana?

One thing that seems clear from the historical record is that the Buddha was the first teacher to describe in straightforward, empirical terms the experiences of higher consciousness. Earlier teachings, such as the Upanishads, seemed so overwhelmed by states of transformed consciousness that they had no choice but recourse to a mystical evocation of a divine encounter.

The Buddha, in what must have been a striking innovation, used only simple, empirical terms to describe jhana and other states of higher consciousness. In common with his typical empiricist approach, this means that he used words that remained as close as possible to their ordinary meanings. He wanted people to understand these states, to refer to their ordinary consciousness, and to see how that can be developed and transformed to become something wonderful.

So there is this twofold tendency. On the one hand, the Buddha emphasized countless times how powerful and radically transformative the jhanas were. They are the ‘higher mind’, the ‘expanded mind’, the ‘unexcelled mind’, the ‘radiant mind’, the ‘liberated mind’, the ‘light’, the ‘bliss of Awakening’, the ‘end of the world’; they are ‘beyond human principles’, and are ‘distinctions of knowledge and vision worthy of the Noble Ones’.

At the same time he emphasized how attainable they were. If one is dedicated to following the full course of training that he outlined in places such as the Samannaphala Sutta, one could realize a gradual evolution of blissful consciousness eventually culminating in the full release of jhana.

Any understanding of jhana must take full account of both these aspects, neither reducing jhana to an mundane state of easily-attained relaxation, nor making them so exalted and abstract that they seem unreachable.

I should notice, incidentally, that the common expression found in Abhidhamma literature of ‘mundane jhana’ is very misleading. This has nothing to do with the experience of jhana itself. It simply means that jhana, when practiced outside the eightfold path, leads to rebirth.

What do the words in the jhana formula mean?

If we look closely at the terms in the jhana formula, then, we find that they are words that have a more coarse physical or psychological meaning in everyday language. They are common words that everyone can understand, and can relate to their own experience. And in every single case, they clearly have a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning in the context of jhana. We have moved from the ordinary mind to the ‘higher mind’, and everything about the experience is transformed.

So, for example, the first word in the formula is viveka. This normally means physical seclusion; going away from others into the forest or a solitary spot. In jhana, however, it refers to a mental seclusion, where the mind turns away from the senses and withdraws into itself. The Pali texts make this distinction clear, as elsewhere they speak of three kinds of seclusion: physical, mental (i.e. the jhanas), and seclusion from all attachments (Awakening).

The next word in the formula is kama. In ordinary language this means the pleasures of life, especially sex, but also food, drink, luxuries, and other pleasures of the senses. In jhana, however, it has a more subtle nuance, referring to the mind that inclines to taking pleasure in any experience through the five senses.

Then there is the word akusala. Normally this means ‘unskilful’, as, for example, someone who is no good at a certain craft. One who is kusala, on the other hand, is clever and adroit. In the jhana formula, however, kusala includes any tendency of the mind that creates suffering.

Similarly there is the word dhamma, which is what akusala qualifies. Dhamma in ordinary language has a variety of meanings, such as ‘law’, ‘custom’, and so on. In jhana, however, it takes on a far more subtle meaning, that is, any object, quality, or tendency of the mind. The akusala-dhammas, or ‘unskilful qualities’, especially refer to the five hindrances which must be abandoned before entering jhana.

And so on. I could go on through the entire jhana formula and show how each word is related to, but abstracted from, its more concrete everyday basis, its ‘metaphier’. But I think that’s enough examples.

So what do vitakka & vicara mean?

Finally we are ready to return to our original question. Now we can look again at the claim that vitakka must mean thinking in jhana, because that’s what it means in everyday discourse. And I trust that this claim now appears a lot less plausible than it might have earlier.

If this is true, then vitakka (& vicara) are the sole exceptions. Every other term in the jhana formula takes everyday words and transforms them, in what the Buddha emphasizes at every turn is a special, exalted, and refined context. Only vitakka is exempt from this, and means exactly the same thing in higher consciousness as it does in lower consciousness.

This argument is not merely implausible, it is totally impossible. Words just don’t do that. And they specially don’t do that in a context like jhana, where the very point of the state of mind is that it is integrated and whole. How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?

Let us consider again our Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

Sit again for a couple of minutes. This time, don’t be quiet: have a think. Look at what thinking is like. Raise a question: what is the nature of thought? Then stop: be silent: look at the space that reverberates after the words have ended.

When you think, the most obvious aspect, the coarsest aspect, is the verbalizations. But they don’t happen alone. There is a kind of lifting of the mind onto an object. This is normally quite subtle, and we don’t notice it because we are interested in the words. It becomes more obvious sometimes when you try to think about something, but your mind is not really interested. It’s as if you keep moving the mind towards that topic, but nothing much happens. You can also feel it when the words stop. The ‘thought’ in some sense is there, apart from the verbalizations. It’s a subverbal thought, a placing or hovering of the mind in a certain way.

This is what vitakka refers to in jhana. This is the subtle aspect of ‘thought’ that is carried over into jhana, when the coarse aspect, the verbalization, is left behind.

And as with vitakka, so with vicara. Vicara is the ‘exploring’ of something, and in ordinary language refers to wandering about a place on foot. Psychologically, it normally means a more sustained reflection or examination of a thought, a keeping in mind of the topic that vitakka has brought to mind. In jhana, it follows the same process. The coarse verbal reflection is long gone, and in its place is the gentle holding or pressing of the mind with its object.

Early definitions

Unfortunately, there are no further definitions of these terms in the very early strata of texts. However, in the next strata, the late sutta/early Abhidhamma phase, we do have definitions. Our first example comes from a sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya; on text-critical grounds, however, it seems this should be viewed as a proto-Abhidhamma work. Sankappa is defined in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (MN 117) as takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro. Vitakka is included in this definition; and notice the last term, cetaso abhiniropanā, which means ‘application of the heart’.

The earliest Abhidhamma text, the Vibhanga, gives a similar definition of vitakka in the context of jhana: takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā sammāsaṅkappo. This text also adds a similar definition of vicara: cāro vicāro anuvicāro upavicāro cittassa anusandhanatā anupekkhanatā. Notice the last terms here: ‘sustained (anu- application (sandh) of the mind, sustained (equanimous) observation (ikkh)’.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that these definitions include both ordinary and abstract terms. This is merely a feature of the Abhidhamma definitions in general. They are concerned to show the range of meanings that terms have in different contexts, so that one can understand what terms have the same or different meanings in various sutta passages. It is a means of referring to and defining terminology, and it is not meant to imply that they have the same meaning in all these cases. On the contrary;, the overall tendency of these definitions is exactly as we have been describing: they move from the relatively coarse to the relatively subtle.

Those who are proponents of the ‘vitakka always means thinking and nothing else’ school of interpretation will, of course, reject these texts as inauthentic. And they are quite right; I would not try to argue that these definitions came directly from the Buddha. But that does not mean that the definitions are wrong. They come from a time shortly after the Buddha, likely within a couple of hundred years, when the monks were still immersed in the early Suttas and, crucially, spoke Pali (or something very like it) as a native tongue. They had access to a far more diverse and richer linguistic context than we do, and their opinions must be taken seriously. While on a doctrinal level it is true we can see certain (minor) shifts from the Suttas to the early Abhidhamma, linguistically they belong to the same period, and we would need strong and clear grounds before rejecting their linguistic explanations.

The waywardness of language

Consider once more the process of the gradual abstraction of words from a more concrete metaphorical basis (metaphier) towards a more abstract metaphorical object (metaphrand); from the relatively coarse thing that provides the illumination to the relatively subtle thing that is illuminated. As we saw above, this process is largely arbitrary. Accidents of history, anthropology, and usage will influence which words get used in which sense, and this process will occur in different ways in different languages; and even within the same language.

One of the consequences of this arbitrariness is that there is a certain unpredictability, even obfuscation, in how abstract words are formed. The speaker intended certain aspects of the underlying metaphier to be carried across to the metaphrand, while the listener understood something else. This happens all the time, and is the main reason why, in any higher discipline, experts spend a lot of time arguing over terminology. We can’t simply agree on the meaning of a word by pointing to what it stands for and saying it.

One of the most intriguing ideas that Jaynes introduced was the notion of ‘paraphiers’ and ‘paraphrands’. These are unintended implications or connotations that are carried over from the original idea to the subsequent one. Central to Jaynes’ thesis, in fact, is the highly challenging notion that our ability to consciously reflect on ourselves as subjects arose in just such a way.

Leaving aside this intriguingly counter-intuitive idea, Jaynes’ essential point is that the paraphiers direct our attention in unexpected ways. And attention creates realities. This is not merely a matter of a kind of poetic allusion or idea. When our minds are drawn towards something—perhaps a new way of seeing or thinking—this creates a new world in our mind, and as we know from our basic Buddhism, such new mental worlds create the world outside.

In the context of jhana, the notion that vitakka always means thinking and nothing else creates realities in meditation. It encourages certain kinds of expectations and responses. By doing so it shapes the nature of the meditative experience. This in turn effects speech about meditation, and a whole range of more concrete realities: books, retreat centers, teaching careers, relationships, organizations.

This is another fascinating aspect of Jaynes’ theory. The process of abstraction creates powerful mental worlds that then become expressed in material forms, thus returning from the abstract to the concrete. The forms that emerge as expressions of the mind then serve to reinforce and validate the particular mental abstractions that gave rise to them in the first place. Jaynes discusses how this happens in religions through the creation of idols, temples, and the like. When enough people share an idea, they band together to create physical representations of their own mental world; and these physical representations in turn confirm and reinforce the idea.

It is in this way, I believe, that the innocent term vitakka has taken on a whole new life. In Pali it had a certain spectrum or flexibility of meaning, such that the Buddha could prod it out of its everyday meaning of ‘thought’ and tease it into a new meaning, ‘application of the mind on to its object in profound meditation’. The English word ‘thought’, however, lacks such flexibility, and remains stubbornly and exclusively verbal. When used as a metaphier for the less-knowable ancient word vitakka, the unexpected and unintended connotations of thought, its paraphiers, are transferred over.

The process of jhana is, at its heart, nothing more than the deepening stillness of the mind that lets go of all pre-occupations and worries. The Buddha used, as he must, everyday words to point to something that moved beyond the everyday. And it is no small irony that one of the crucial terms in this journey from perplexity to stillness, a word whose less edifying connotations include ‘doubt, speculation, the endless twists and turns of the mind’, has itself provoked such doubts and endless discussions.

And now, in religions’ baffling inability to cope with women…

A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:

“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”

The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.

It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:

2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.

The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.

We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.

The first Jataka?

I’ve been taking the opportunity to read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful (as always!) translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. If you haven’t got it, what are you waiting for?

I noticed a little sutta in the threes, and it struck me that this humble little text is probably the best candidate for the title of the first Jataka story in Buddhism. The text is AN 3.15 Pacetana. There are no known parallels for this text, which is, however, not unusual for the Anguttara Nikaya.

What are the Jatakas?

Jatakas tell of events in the past lives of the Buddha, and sometimes of other personalities from the Buddha’s life. They are everywhere in traditional Buddhism; told in sermons, read to children at bedtime, recited in great ceremonies, depicted in artwork. Yet one of the striking things about Buddhist texts is how few there are in the early teachings. While the Pali tradition alone preserves over 500 stories canonically, and many more in later collections, only a dozen or so are found in the early Nikaya/Agamas. There is an excellent essay on the topic by TW Rhys Davids. It’s a little dated, but still well worth a read. However, Rhys Davids does not notice our current sutta.

I’m greatly struck, in fact, by how few stories there are in the Anguttara (and other Nikayas). Buddhism is one of the greatest story-telling traditions in the world, and yet the Buddha himself seems not to have told many stories at all. The vast majority of suttas are straightforward statements or dialogues on ethics, meditation, and the like. They are often illustrated with similes, and somewhat less frequently with short parables. But there is very little in the way of extended narrative; and most of the narrative that there is is by way of background, not spoken by the Buddha himself. Of course there are exceptions, like the Agganna and Cakkavattisihanada Suttas of the Digha; but few and far between. Why this is, I do not know.

The Pacetana Sutta is another exception. It is a simple story, at the end of which the Buddha identifies himself as the main character, thus qualifying it as a Jataka. While there are several other Jatakas in the early Agamas, most of them contain features that strongly suggest they are of a later date than most of the early Suttas. Alone among the Agama-Jatakas, so far as I can tell, the Pacetana contains a range of features suggesting that it is early.

The Story

Here’s a summary, from the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names. You can find the full translation here.

There was once a king called Pacetana who asked his wheelwright to make a pair of wheels for a battle which was to take place six months later. When but six days remained of this period, only one wheel had been made, but the other was finished within the stipulated time. Pacetana thought that both wheels were alike, but the wheelwright proved to him that the one he had made hurriedly was faulty in various ways, owing to the crookedness of its parts. The Buddha identified himself with the wheelwright and declared that one must be free from all crookedness in order not to fall away from the Dhamma and the Vinaya.

Why is it special?

This is one of those cases where there is not one thing that is particularly unusual. Rather, there are many little details that taken together suggest, to me, that the text is somehow distinctive, and may have originally been, or been considered as, the first Jataka story. Here’s a list of points I noticed.

  1. The king is unknown. He is not a stereotyped king, such as the Brahmadatta found in so many later Jatakas.
  2. The Buddha does not identify himself as a Bodhisatta in the past. This is a common feature of all the early Jatakas. There is no suggestion here that the Buddha in the past knew that he was destined for Awakening, or that he was engaged on a spiritual quest spanning many lives, or indeed that what he did in that life had anything to do with Awakening. In other early Jatakas, in fact, he specifically denies that the practices of those days lead to Awakening. (Bearing this in mind, I won’t refer to him as the Bodhisatta in this discussion.)
  3. While in most canonical Jatakas the Buddha identifies himself as a great king or sage of the past, here the Buddha identifies himself with a lowly chariotmaker. In many other suttas of the Anguttara, the chariotmaker is listed as a lowly, menial occupation like a scavenger, flower-collector, or rubbish-sweeper. (Ven Bodhi’s translation obscures this point somewhat; the translation uses the more distinguished “chariot-maker” here, and “cart-maker” in the other contexts; but the Pali in both cases is rathakara.)
  4. There is a distinct absence of miracles and wonderous events. Even when pressed by the king, the chariotmaker is unable to do his job well. He is clearly constrained by the usual demands of his craft, unlike the near-superhuman abilities of Bodhisattas in many other stories.
  5. The chariotmaker would seem to be engaged in wrong livelihood, or at best an ethically dubious trade: making weapons of war. There are, it is true, many Jatakas of the later periods where the Bodhisatta is depicted as breaking various precepts, but this is still noteworthy. It is also perhaps significant that the chariot, specifically the two-wheeled chariot, was the distinctive war vessel of the Aryan people and was, it seems, the decisive technological innovation that spurred their great success in spreading their culture across the world; as unstoppable as the Wheel of Dhamma itself…
  6. The moral of the story is the importance of gradual development. While not at all unusual in the Suttas, this differs from certain later trends, which emphasized an instantaneous realization.
  7. There is considerable confusion about the name, both of the king and of the sutta. Variants include Pacetana, Sacetana, Paccetana, etc.; and the sutta is sometimes called “Cakkavatti”. This is interesting, since the sutta refers to the “rolling of a wheel”, but not to the “Wheel-turning Monarch”, which is what the Cakkavatti usually refers to. The previous sutta, in fact, mentions the Wheel-turning Monarch. There seems to be some confusion; perhaps—and this is very speculative—the Pacetana Sutta was the kernel from which the idea of the Wheel-turning Monarch was derived.
  8. On the same topic, and on more solid ground, it is very striking that this sutta, which deals with “rolling forth a wheel”, is said to have been set at Benares, in the Deer Park. This is, of course, where the Buddha taught his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the “Rolling Forth of the Wheel of the Dhamma”; and the same words are used here. While some later Suttas were taught there, it was not a very common setting. This detail is even more striking when we realize that very few of the suttas in the Anguttara have a proper setting. In almost all cases they simply have an abbreviated setting, or none at all. When the settings are included, it is usually because they have some special relevance for the teaching. So it seems certain that the setting is significant here. Probably it is meant to establish some connection with the First Sermon. And perhaps it is meant to suggest that this is the First Jataka…
  9. Not only is this the first Sutta in the Anguttara spoken by the Buddha to be given a proper setting, it is the first story told by the Buddha in the Anguttara.
  10. Unlike the later Jatakas and most of the more substantial suttas, this does not have an ABA structure. Rather, the story is told, then the moral is drawn out. Once again, in itself this is nothing spectacular, but it does suggest, however mildly, a lack of systematic revision.
  11. The king converses in quite a familiar manner with his chariotmaker. This doesn’t sound like a magnificent monarch of the Moriyan era, nor yet a legendary king of old. It sounds like a little lordling of a smallish garrison city. The preparations for war are, to say the least, perfunctory: one chariot! Of course, in some ways things are no different today: military contracts still don’t come in on time…
  12. When the wheel is rolled forth, the text speaks of giving the wheel “impetus” to roll. This is, in Pali, abhisaṅkhāra. This term is more normally found in the Pali texts in a more refined, abstract usage, where it is equivalent to cetanā, or intention; in fact, it tends to be used in somewhat technical discussions of kamma and the like. Here it appears in its simpler, older, physical meaning. I wonder whether there is any connection with the king’s name: Pacetana, the “One Whose Will is Done”, perhaps?
  13. Similarly, when describing the flaws in the wheel, the text uses terms in a physical sense that are more often found in a psychological sense in Pali: savaṅkā sadosā sakasāvā. Also kusala is found in its older sense of “skilled” rather than the more familiar ethical sense.
  14. In yet another unusual feature, when the Buddha draws out the moral of the story, he says that if “any bhikkhu or bhikkhuni” sees flaws in themselves, they should abandon them. The inclusion of bhikkhunis like this is very unusual in the Pali texts; a quick search only turns up four or five similar cases. Call me biassed, but I have a suspicion that the editors of the Pali canon, whether by accident or design, excluded the bhikkhunis by default. The Satipatthana Sutta, for example, mentions the bhikkhunis in the Sarvastivada version, not in the Pali. If this is correct, it is another sign that this sutta may be early, and has escaped significant editorial alteration.
  15. The text conforms to the “waxing syllables principle”. This means that in various lists of terms, the words with more syallables come later in the list, such as the phrase I quoted earlier: savaṅkā sadosā sakasāvā. This has been shown in detail by Mark Allon to be an outstanding stylistic feature of the early Pali texts, and an indication of their origin in oral culture.
  16. Perhaps the most significant feature of all is the text’s use of numbers. Just like the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the text is carefully built around a subtly interlocking set of numbers. Where the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta features “two extremes”, the eightfold path, and the “four noble truths”, in “three rounds” totalling “twelve aspects”, the Pacetana Sutta has the two wheels, each with three parts, each with three potential flaws. These are to be completed in 6 months, but at 6 days short of 6 months only one is done; and the second, poor quality job, is finished in 6 days. The three parts of the wheel parallel the three trainings, each of which also has three potential flaws. While the text doesn’t draw out the connection, it seems a parallel is implied thus: rim=body; spokes=speech; hub=mind. Now, the use of numbers in this way can be seen from a number of angles. But what is this text telling us at its heart: that careful craftsmanship produces a long-lasting, stable wheel. And the long-lasting and stability of the Wheel of Dhamma was indeed one of the major concerns of early Buddhists. I suspect our Sutta is suggesting to us, and perhaps to the early generations of redactors, that well-constructed, formally symmetrical texts, using such mnemonic devices as interlocking numbers to create memorable structures, are the key to preserving the Dhamma.

A curiously Christian week

While relations between Buddhists and Christians are not always of the best, I had the chance this past week to have two lovely encounters with quite disparate Christian groups.

On Tuesday, Ajahn Brahm lead a group of us monks up to New Norcia to meet the Benedictine monks there. This has become a regular exchange; they come to Bodhinyana once a year or so, too. We had an interesting discussion. Two texts were chosen, on the theme of suffering and faith. It was fascinating to see how these two topics were central to each of us, while approached from quite different angles.

The idea of ‘blind faith’ came up, and someone made the interesting point that faith must always be, to some degree, blind, otherwise it is knowledge. The point—and here we all agreed—was that faith was valuable, not because it was blind, but because it leads to deeper understanding.

The visit was also interesting to me on a personal level, because my father attended the school at New Norcia run by the monks. We went into the school, now long closed of course, and found his name on the enrolment register for 1954!

Later in the week a few monks went to another Christian event, this time a ceremony for the instalment of a new, female, parish priest for the local Anglican church. Lots of clergy were present, and they very kindly invited us to walk and sit with them through the mass. Front row seats! The service was similar in many ways to the Catholic Mass I remember from my childhood; I found myself automatically coming out with the responses.

It was a warm and happy community, and I was reminded of how central the performance of religion is. When I listened to the words, there were many that were beautiful (“Peace be with you!” — “And also with you.”) and many that I found alien or strange. It seemed as if the most obvious and central of human impulses were mixed with the, to me, completely incomprehensible and wilfully obscure. They talked, for example, of a intimate, loving relationship with God; I have no idea what that means. In the Bible readings, a bizarre prophetic hallucination was followed by Paul’s inspiring words on love.

Yet somehow in the living of the ritual, none of that mattered. It was not about dogma, not even about faith (according to the Bishop) but about love. The very incongruity, the acceptance of such different ideas and inspirations within one house, in some way captures the irrational and arbitrary reality of life better than any coherent worked out doctrine.

Obviously this does not mean that reason and doctrine are unimportant; since they too live in that same house. It is just a reminder to me that we cannot reduce religion, in any of its manifestations, to a set of principles and ideas. The measure of the spirit is not in reason, but in life.

Planting a Bodhi tree

Planting Bodhi tree at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery.

The fourfold community gathered around the Bodhi tree

On 25 November, I was honored to take part in a ceremony for planting a Bodhi tree at Dhammasara. Congratulations to the nuns and community of Dhammsara for organizing this, and much thanks to the monks of the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka, who came personally to oversee the planting of the sapling taken from the original at Anuradhapura.

Much joy was felt! The event was full of such spirit; the devotion of the people, and the calm coolness of the moonlit bushscape of Dhammasara. At a time like that, the Dhamma draws near.