The new SuttaCentral is live

I have some wonderful news today: our new SuttaCentral is finally live!

You can see it here at: http://suttacentral.net/

We have been working very hard on this for some time now, and are very happy with the results so far. I will be writing on various aspects of this project in the coming weeks, so for now let me just introduce a few of our main features.

  • A complete new design from top to bottom. The whole site, in fact has been rewritten from the ground up.
  • Much faster more powerful navigation.
  • Instant search!
  • Many added new references and improved structure
  • Many texts are now hosted on site, including the main Suttas of the Pali, the Vietnamese translations, and some English and Korean translations.
  • Brand new translations from the Saṁykuta Āgama (both the main and shorter version), and the Upāyika. Together with the older translations of the Ekottara and Dīrgha Āgamas, SuttaCentral now has the most comprehensive collection of Āgama translations available anywhere.
  • We also have newly available online versions of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s classic translations from the Dīgha Nikāya
  • The Pali and Chinese texts have a very cool instant word lookup function. (We only have one Chinese text online for now, more coming soon.)
  • A very powerful, intuitive pretty URL structure: you can go anywhere on the site directly from the address bar if you know the abbreviated uid for the text.
  • A Feedback forum: tell us what we can do to make it better! (BTW, while feedback anywhere is good, generally it will be better to leave specific suggestions for the site on that forum rather than here.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that some time ago I complained about how there was no ready good source of Early Buddhist Texts online. Today, we begin to change that.

There are many areas where we want to expand and improve the site, but I hope that it is already something of help for anyone who wants to learn what the Buddha taught.

I have been absent from this blog for some time, as I have wanted to commit myself fully to getting SuttaCentral ready. Now that it is up, I hope to spend some more time back here.

The exalted extract of the Vinaya

As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.

I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.

Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.

The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.

Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.

It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.

This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.

Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.

This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!

The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.

The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.

All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.

On authenticity

In the past few weeks, I’ve started a project with Bhante Brahmali, which we call “The Authenticity Project”. We have heard skeptical voices that doubt the authenticity of the early Buddhist texts, while among traditional Buddhists the question is rarely even raised. Yet we have not found any source that collects and analyzes the many and varied reasons for regarding them as authentic. So we decided to do it ourselves. The project is developing, and will possibly end up on Wikipedia, and perhaps as a journal article in some form. I’ll share it with you when it is in better shape; at the moment it’s very rough.

The problem is exemplified by the Wikipedia page on the Pali canon. I noticed that the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the texts were all experts in the field, while the ones who doubted were scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan tantra. Yet if you are not familiar with the field, it just seems as if scholars do not agree. So I changed the page to acknowledge the backgrounds of the relevant scholars.

I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. Clearly authenticity matters, as people in all different traditions and religions get very excited by it. But it is not so obvious why this is so: for many people, if it works, it’s good enough. The Buddha in the Sandaka Sutta even warned against over reliance on the authenticity of the texts, saying that, since the teachings may be ‘well heard or badly heard’, one’s spiritual life should not depend on this.

It’s also interesting to hear what different people regard as persuasive. When speaking to various people, almost always they will come up with some different perspective on why the texts should be seen as authentic, or not. We’re interested to gather as many such perspectives as possible, and present them with appropriate analysis and documentation. So, what do you think?

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.

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.

Why Devadatta Was No Saint

A little while ago we had some discussion about Reginald Ray’s controversial and popular idea that Devadatta was really a forest saint, unfairly maligned in later Buddhism. I read his work many years ago, and it has always bugged me, so I decided to do a bit of fact checking. Here is the essay that results. Short version: the theory is wrong.

The whole essay is a little too long for a blog post, so you can download the pdf, or read it over on Santipada. Here’s the abstract:

Devad­atta is depic­ted as the archetypal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Regin­ald Ray has argued for a rad­ical reas­sess­ment of Devad­atta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later mon­astic Buddhism. His work has been influ­en­tial, but it relies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap between the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devad­atta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devad­atta is depic­ted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­ilar to the Sthavira accounts. Such dif­fer­ences as do exist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­trinal. The stor­ies of Devadatta’s deprav­ity became increas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the myth­o­lo­giz­ing pro­cess, and has noth­ing to do with any ant­ag­on­ism against forest ascet­ics. In any case, the early sources are unan­im­ous in con­demning Devad­atta as the instig­ator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.

Secular Buddhism discussion

So it’s over now, thanks so much to Winton and Lizzie for agreeing to take part; thanks to the Buddhist Library and Paget for hosting us; and thanks to all those who helped – and not forgetting you all, who helped stimulate the conversation.

The night was, in my ever so humble, an excellent dialogue, one of the few occasions where we really managed to actually pursue some important matters and have a real exchange of ideas, rather than simply stating our positions.

For myself, I learned that this idea of ‘enlightenment’ as a process, rather than a completed state, is central to the secular Buddhist perspective. I had heard the idea before, but didn’t realize how significant it was.

The second thing I learned was a better grasp of why they call themselves ‘Buddhists’. Often the Secular Buddhist crowd are criticized because they don’t fit some externally defined set of criteria for being Buddhist. But in our secular world, belonging to a religion is basically what you write on the census form. If I say I’m a Buddhist, that’s what I am. So Secular Buddhists feel a sense of identity that makes them want to call themselves Buddhist.

These two points are useful for me to help understand where Secular Buddhists are coming from. In addition, it’s starting to dig down to something more interesting. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened’. It is a past participle, denoting a completed or perfected state. The finality of the Buddha’s Awakening is fundamental to the whole Buddhist literature and is, for example, a major theme of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. To say ‘the Buddha is not Awakened’ is an oxymoron.

Now we could leap up and down and say, ‘But that’s just irrational.’ And maybe it is. But how many people choose their religion for rational reasons? I certainly didn’t. And the vast majority of people believe in a religion because that’s what their parents believe. If the Secular Buddhist position really is irrational, then this is not a criticism, it is an acknowledgement that forces other than reason are at play. And so: what might those forces be?

Turns of events

It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.

Has anything got better?

Short answer: not so you’d notice.

Long answer:

Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.

I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.

Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’

Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.

Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.

Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.

As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.

There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.

In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)

What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.

Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.

(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)

Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.

A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.

WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?

There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.

Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.

One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.

Siddhattha’s practice of samadhi

Siddhattha attained samādhi as a child, and then again under his early teachers. When he was near the night of his Awakening, he recollected the jhana he experienced as a child, and realized that that was the path to Awakening. But why did he reject the experience under his early teachers, even though he reached even higher levels of samādhi, the formless attainments? I can make sense of this only in consideration of the broader context.

When he realized the attainment of jhana as a child his mind was free of theories and control. He was alone under the tree, that is, in the realm of nature. But the event was an ‘accident’. His attainment was part of the intuitive cycle of nature, and as a child he had no way of understanding or reflecting on what had happened.

Under his teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Udaka Rāmaputta, however, he first learnt the theory, that is, the rational explanation of his mystical experiences. This point is emphasized in the original text, but ignored by most discussions of this point. It was that very theory that prevented these meditations from ripening in full Awakening, presumably because they identified a purified state of consciousness with the Eternal Self. Hence he rejected, not the meditative experiences as such, but ‘that Dhamma’, that is, the religious system which framed the meditative experience within a particular dogmatic framework. He started his practice with wrong view, and hence his samādhi was wrong samādhi: it did not lead to insight.

In each case his experience was unbalanced: the jhana as a child came from naïve playfulness with no under­standing of the deeper existential implications; while the experience under his early teachers was dominated by an abstract metaphysic in a patriarchal context.

Now he can return to the same practice on a deeper level of under­standing. He developed the stages of jhana, inspired by his childhood experience in nature, but with equanimity, not allowing the pleasure to overpower his mind. He was mature, balanced, possessed of the objectivity that allowed him to reflect on the conditionality and nature of the samādhi experience. This became ‘right samādhi': it lead to liberating understanding.

Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa

Thanks to Sylvester for raising some more issues regarding the ‘non-manifest consciousness.’ In this follow-up post I will address the verse he quotes and a number of other issues. Here is Sylvester’s comment:

SN 1.27:

“Q1 From where do the streams turn back?
Q2 Where does the round no longer revolve?
Q3 Where do name-and-form Cease utterly without remainder?”

“A: Where water, earth, fire and air,
Do not gain a footing:
It is from here that the streams turn back (Q1),
Here that the round no longer revolves (Q2);
Here name-and-form
Cease utterly without remainder (Q3).”

“Kuto sarā nivattanti,
kattha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

“Yattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Ato sarā nivattanti,
ettha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

In SN 1.27, the triad of questions is answered with just one reply, ie “Yattha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati”, (where water, earth, fire and air do not gain a footing). It should be obvious that the corresponding question “where do water, earth, fire and air not gain a footing” is answered by DN 11’s “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ”. In other words, the answer to the 3 questions in SN 1.27 is also nothing more than “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ”.

Sylvester is quite correct in terms of the syntax of the verses. However comparison with the Chinese versions of this text reveal that the inferred connection with the non-manifest consciousness may be an illusion.

The verse you mention has two Chinese cognates. I post very rough translations of the relevant sections here:

T02n0099_p0160c24-6
Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, reach that state (?)
name and form cease without remainder
streams (text transliterates sara) turn back
birth death moveable, immoveable, pleasure, pain cease without remainder.

T02n0100_p0438a11-14
Eye, ear, nose, and tongue, and also the wished-for body
name and form are completely ended
like a dried up pond
finished with all knots, life and death, happiness and sadness
all this is finished without remainder
with nothing left to return to.

With the notable change of the senses for the elements, and allowing for the vagueness of translating Pali verse into Chinese and then into English (by a confirmed amateur!) these verses appear to be similar to the Pali one. None of the three versions refer in any way to a ‘non-manifest consciousness’, and all of them speak strongly of Nibbana as the ending of everything.

But it is that first change that is the significant one. In both the Chinese translations, the texts clearly refer to the 5 senses (眼耳鼻舌身), not to the four elements. With this stroke, any connection with the viññāṇa anidassana verse is cut. Exactly what the textual situation is here would require further consideration, but it is plausible to suggest that the opening couplet here was a later addition in the Pali version. At the very least the situation is textually too confused to make much of.

This conclusion is strengthened when we make the obvious point that the Pali verse is simply wrong. Samsara does not unravel when the mind goes beyond materiality. This is merely a refined state of consciousness (arūpa), well understood and incorporated in basic Buddhist cosmology. (It is possible that the Chinese verses make the same mistake, as they also start off referring only to the material; but the syntax is so unclear to me that I cannot say for sure.)

The only other time in the Suttas that the ‘non-manifest consciousness’ is mentioned is in MN 49 Brahmanimantanika. There, according to Analayo, the Sri Lankan, Thai, and English editions of the Pali attribute the phrase to Brahma, not the Buddha, while only the Burmese attributes it to the Buddha. (The commentary attributes it to the Buddha and says it refers to Nibbana; Burmese texts are notorious for incorporating ‘corrected’ readings from the commentary.) In the Chinese version it has nothing to do with Nibbana, but is part of Brahma’s claim to omniscience.

In the Kevadda Sutta, both the Pali and Chinese versions attribute the phrase to the Buddha, but the sub-text is of course the Brahmanical context.

It is a similar situation as the one I documented in the context of the ekāyana magga in satipatthana: the texts imply in bold, underline, and ALL CAPS that this phrase is part of the Brahmanical tradition. The Buddha adopts it when quoting from Brahma himself. The Buddhist tradition, having lost contact with the root Brahmanical texts, interpreted the phrase in their own terms, giving rise to a variety of doctrinal problems, all of which go away if we apply some historical perspective.

And by the way, the phrase anidassana, ‘non-manifest’ is usually taken as meaning ‘does not make a showing’, or ‘is not pointed out’. What the precise implications are here is not clear. The word has a variety of meanings in Sanskrit, including: ‘example, simile’; ‘teaching, text, authority’; ‘prognostic sign or omen’. Since the word appears rarely and with uncertain meaning in Pali texts, and with a wide variety of meanings in broader Indic literature, it is premature to conclude that any one meaning applies in this case.

Unlike ‘infinite consciousness’ or ekāyana, non-manifest consciousness does not appear to figure in any extant Brahmanical texts. This is unfortunate, but it does not prove that the word was not part of the Brahmanical tradition, of which we only preserve a part.

The notion of ‘manifest’ and ‘non-manifest’ consciousness does rather remind me of the Hindu idea of Samsara as a vast ocean of consciousness, from which the cycles of the world arise from time to time like a dream, only to lapse once more into the trackless waters. This idea, however, is not directly attested in the time of the Buddha (although certain Upanishadic precedents are found: nāmarūpa is like the rivers with their ‘names’ and ‘shapes’ that all return to the ocean of viññāṇa.) Also, I can’t find these terms used in this way in later Hinduism, either.

Anidassana as such, however, was not understood by the early Buddhist tradition to definitively mean Nibbana or the unconditioned, since the (proto-Abhidhamma) Sangiti Sutta refers to ‘form that is non-reactive and non-manifest’:

Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho— sanidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanaappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ.

The traditions (e.g. Mahaprajnaparamitasastra, p. 295; also the commentary to the Sangiti Sutta) take anidassana here in the literal sense of ‘invisible’, which makes sense in the context of rūpa, not so much for viññāṇa.

The Digha commentary says nothing meaningful on anidassana in the Kevadda Sutta (tadetaṃ nidassanābhāvato anidassanaṃ), while the Majjhima commentary says Nibbana is ‘non-manifest’ as it ‘does not come within the range of eye-consciousness’ (Anidassananti cakkhuviññāṇassa āpāthaṃ anupagamanato anidassanaṃ nāma), thus taking anidassana in the same sense as the Sangiti Sutta.

The upshot of this is that the Pali tradition does not supply us with any meaningful explanation of what anidassana means in this context, yet another hint that we have before us a non-Buddhist term.

Given all these uncertainties, it is not possible to establish one definitive interpretation of the phrase. I have suggested that it is a reference to the formless attainment of infinite consciousness, which is surely the most obvious reading (since it actually says ‘infinite consciousness’!). Bhikkhu Bodhi prefers to read it as a reference to the arahant’s meditative experience of Nibbana; while this is not an unproblematic reading, it is certainly defensible.

The point here is to notice how texts are used in uncritical and dubious ways to find support within Buddhist texts for a doctrine that is denied many hundreds of times in those same texts. The key problem is, of course, eternalism: the ever-present need to conceive of the final spiritual goal in terms of the permanent existence of something or other.

Buddhist traditions have been in a constant dance with this temptation for thousands of years, and many are the pages of debates on the matter. There is something innately appealing about the eternal survival of ‘this’, conceived of as ‘me at my core’. Despite the Buddha’s continual, explicit, and non-negotiable denial of any such survival, the eternalist desire (bhavataṇhā) seeks for any crack or crevice to grab hold of, like a bush finding a hold in the crevices in a cliff-face. Getting clear as to what the texts mean does not, in itself, overcome this craving, but it has to be a start, right?

The more subtle matter is how to present a non-eternalist conception of Nibbana in a psychologically appealing light – which I admit in this essay I have not bothered to do. I’ve never had a problem with it, but then I’m a converted annihilationist, rather than a converted eternalist.

Frankly, I think the final goal of spiritual life should be a bit scary. It’s meant to be a revolution, a fundamental overthrow of all values. If not, what are we left with? The popular idea of heaven as a kind of family reunion – Christmas dinner forever? A universal eternal consciousness that is somehow not conscious of anything? Or, quite simply, peace?

Letting go is scary, we all know that. Why shouldn’t the biggest letting go be the scariest of all?