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.