The body as metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should be realized with mindfulness? Previous births.

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

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

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized.

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

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

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

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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.

The first Jataka?

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

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

What are the Jatakas?

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

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

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

The Story

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

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

Why is it special?

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

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

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.

Announcing Open Sanskrit

Here’s my first ever attempt at working with a font. I’ve called it Open Sanskrit and you can get it here.

Download Open Sanskrit

It’s a version of the free Open Sans font, expanded for use with Pali and Sanskrit. I’ve added a number of glyphs, namely ṛḷṭḍḥṣṇṅṁ (and their uppercase variants). The common Pali/Sanskrit glyphs āīūñś are already in Open Sans.

Why have I ventured into modifying fonts? Simply because I couldn’t find any good sans serif font to use in publications that would serve as a partner for my preferred text font, Gentium.

There are only a few free sans fonts that support the diacriticals necessary for Pali and Sanskrit. Most of these I ruled out for aesthetic reasons—they don’t play well with Gentium, and/or they are knock-offs of over-used designs. I wanted a workhorse companion sans that can be used for ‘everything else’, from bits of information to graphic design.

Open Sans is designed by Steve Matteson, type director of Ascender Corp, and so is fully professional in its features. It’s a humanist font, meaning that it uses a less geometric, subtly ‘hand-drawn’ feel, but is still very clean and neutral. It shares a similar design ethos to Gentium, being warm and readable, respectful of traditional design canons but not a copy of anything else.

It’s been released under an Apache 2.0 licence, which means that modifications may be freely made, as long as it is not marketed under the same name. This is why, even though I’ve only cut and pasted a few dots, I had to give the font a new name. And, you know, ‘Open Sanskrit’—cute, no?

Open Sans has almost unrivalled versatility for a free font. It includes 897 glyphs, and comes in 5 weights, each with its own italic, as well as three condensed forms—that’s thirteen variants. I have added the new glyphs to all of these.

I have omitted the ‘m underdot’ ṃ, known colloquially as ‘the Mark of the Beast’. As is well know, this glyph is an abomination, used only by those who are plotting to destroy Buddhism and delete all cute kitten videos from YouTube.

Why? Well, if you look at the glyphs used for Pali/Sanskrit, several of them have a dot underneath, and that dot always means the same thing—retroflex. That means they are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled so that the back touches the roof of the mouth. Try it (and post the results on YouTube, please. We all need some light relief now that the kitten videos are under attack.) There is also the ‘n overdot’ ṅ, which means ‘nasal’. So when it comes to the other nasal, which sounds identical to ṅ and only formally differs, you’d think it would be logical to preserve the pattern by using ‘m overdot’ ṁ, right? Unfortunately, many Pali/Sanskrit sites and publications don’t think so. They use ṃ, the only justification for which is that they want to create confusion and darkness in the heart. The Mark of the Beast will not disappear until it has accomplished its dark task and the True Dhamma (and kitten videos) are no more.

I have also omitted the rare Sanskrit glyphs ṝ and ḹ, as my Sanskrit needs are limited and I have never used them. It would be good to add these, and possibly other glyphs used in less common Indic dialects. I might get around to this someday, but meanwhile if anyone wants to do it, please feel free. I’ve released the font under the same Apache 2.0 licence as the original, so anyone can make changes. If you just want to make a new variant, that’s fine, but if you’d like to just add some glyphs and keep it as Open Sanskrit, let me know and I’ll consider whether to update Open Sanskrit.

I made the changes using the excellent open source Font Forge. This was my first venture into font making, so I may well have messed something up. No guarantees! Nevertheless, I have been using Open Sanskrit as system font, default web font, and for most applications for several weeks and have had no problems.

There is one minor issue that I haven’t got to the bottom of. Look closely at certain combinations, such as ṇḍ, and in small sizes the underdots look like they’re at different heights. That’s not the case—increase the size or print it out and you’ll see they’re even. Perhaps this is an issue with the hinting.

Anyway, please download and enjoy!

Where is this quote from?

Since you’ve all been so helpful finding Pali chanting, i wondered whether anyone might be able to help me with something else. I’m looking for the source for this quote.

Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path.

It is attributed to TW Rhys Davids, the pioneering English indologist, in K Sri Dhammananda’s Buddhism in the Eyes of the Intellectuals. And it certainly sounds like him. But nowhere can I find where it comes from; the usual suspects (Google, Wikipedia) have been no help. I presume it will be in one of his books or essays on Buddhism, and we don’t have these here at Santi. So any ideas?

Gender studies – Cambridge journal online

In the past I’ve whinged about how academic work is not made freely available. Well, there are notable exceptions, and one of them is this months’s Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, published through Cambridge. A range of articles and essays on gender studies are available in pdf for free, including “Holy superheroine: a comic book interpretation of the Hindu Devī Māhātmya scripture” and a review of Beata Grant’s Eminent Nuns, Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China.

You can register for an account here: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/login?sessionId=1D4BD0E46269AEB759259670CE924DA1.journals

Pali Chanting Online?

I’m trying to find some good Pali chanting online, and it’s not an easy task.

The best, always and forever, is Dhammaruwan (http://www.sobhana.net/audio/chants/dhammaruwan/index.htm). He recited endless hours of Pali suttas, perfectly, without hesitation or mistakes, from the age of about three to seven. here’s a challenge: listen without having spine-chills!

Beautiful as this is, the quality of the recordings doesn’t let you hear the precise sounds very clearly. I’m interested specifically in materials that will be useful for the Pali class we’re starting soon, so I have a number of requirements:

1. Single voice (for clarity)
2. Pronouce Pali properly (so Sinhalese for example; no Thai, Burmese…)
3. Reasonable quality recordings
4. Central canonical Pali texts (iti pi so, etc.)
5. Simple chanting style
6. Pleasant to listen to

From our wonderful commenters, we now have the following resources. For my purposes the best sources are these:

http://www.audtip.org/
http://www.basicbuddhism.org/index.cfm?GPID=19

Here are some other sources.

http://forestmeditation.com/audio/audio.html
http://www.last.fm/music/Visharada+Srima+Ratnayaka/Pali+Devotional+Hymns
http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/52/talk/10698/
http://www.pirith.org/
http://www.mahamevnawa.lk/sermons/ (Sinhala)
http://dhammacitta.org/perpustakaan/kategori/mp3/chanting-pali/
http://www.buddhanet.net/audio-chant.htm

What’s in a name?

It’s so great to be a Buddhist student these days. We have accurate texts, well organized, and comprehensively linked to excellent translations in modern languages. The canons of Pali, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Chinese material have all been translated into English. The traditional commentaries are also available in translation, and in addition, there is an excellent layer of modern commentary, which gives the historical and doctrinal context of any passage you care to look up. This material is all found in easily accessible forms, widely available in print, online, and various ebook and mobile apps.

As a result, one find that Buddhist generally have a good awareness of their own scriptures. They understand the historical context that they arose in, are widely read in the Suttas, and familiar with the forms that the ideas of the Suttas developed in over time. This puts their practice into context, and helps to distinguish between those aspects of Buddhism that are truly useful and those that are unnecessary.

And then I woke up. IT WAS ALL A DREAM!

The reality is a little different. Actually, the world I was describing is not so far away from what is available for Bible studies. But for Buddhists, well…

The Pali texts are available in several crappy websites, and a couple of fairly good ones. The tipitakastudies.net site is well designed, but only has canonical materials. The VRI Tipitaka site has a wide range of materials, but has a weird indexing system so you can’t link to any individual texts. Neither of these sites is connected to any translation. The translated material is available on Access to Insight and various other places. It is of vastly variable quality. Several sites offer translations that appear to be of dubious legality as regards copyringht. Understandable, as the owners of the good copyright translations – mainly Wisdom and Pali Text Society – have not made their material available on the web. The PTS, god bless ’em, continue to operate as if the internet was nothing more than a place to advertise their books.

But the Pali situation is positively excellent compared to the other languages. There is an excellent edition, CBETA, of the Chinese canon, but no translations of any major early collections of Vinaya or Suttas into English – although the Madhyama Agama is underway. The Tibetan situation is worse. Sanskrit texts are mostly available at GRETIL, but there are few translations.

With some friends we set up suttacentral.net a few years ago, which links text and translation of Pali and other languages for the four Agamas/Nikayas. This is something, but far from perfect.

So what is the problem? There are many, but let me point out a few subtle details that betray the real issue.

Take the http://studies.worldtipitaka.org/ site. It’s an excellent text, although it uses the less authentic Burmese spellings. But it’s well presented and uses innovative features, like a print on demand capability. The back end is extremely well constructed: each word is marked up and there is a very thourough indexing and organizational system.

Yet look at the title: World Tipitaka. It is no such thing. True, the editors referred to various printed editions from Theravadin countries in forming the text. But the readings are Burmese. And it takes no account of the world outside Pali. Also note that it is available in Roman script only. This limits its use as compared to the VRI site, which enables several scripts. To implement such a capability is no difficult matter. The reason for the Roman-only text is ideology. The creators think that Pali pronunciation in Thailand (their home country) is corrupt, and making people read Pali in Roman script will make them get the text right. The reality, of course, is that Pali can be read right or wrong in any script, and the the real effect will be to isolate the text even further from the uneducated. It is an artifact of Buddhist modernism, where the essentialist (notice how I avoid using the word ‘fundamentalist’?) search for true, original Buddhism, creates an artificial construct divorced from the realia of people’s lives. This ideological agenda is giving people the Tipitaka that the creators want, rather than that which the people want. And the background of this whole thing is steeped in Thai royalist politics.

None of this is to deprecate the excellent scholarly work that the group has done, or to diminish the usefulness of the site. I use it all the time, and we link to it from suttacentral.net. It is simply to understand that this text does not come in a vacuum. It arises from a particular set of ideologically-determined circumstance, and the manner in which the Tipitaka takes shape is determined by those circumstances.

The VRI Tipitaka gives another example. This one comes from the Goenka movement, and so there is a bulit-in need to authorize the late commentarial theories on which the Goenka technique, like all modern Burmese meditation techniques, is based. It does this in a none to subtle way. We all know that the Pali literature is divided into the canon, which is the Tipitaka of Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma, and the later commentarial material.

But this is not the world according to VRI. Their material is structrured like this:

Tipitaka (roman [or other script])
Tipitaka (mula) – Atthakatha [commentary]- Tika [subcommentary] – Anya [other]

So everything, including the medieval grammars and so on, is a subset of the Tipitaka. Tipitaka no longer means ‘canon’, but ‘all Pali texts’.

This tendency continues in the lower levels of organization, too. Under ‘tika’ for example, we have ‘Vinayapitaka’, ‘Suttapitaka’, ‘Abhidhammapitaka’. That is, the subcommentarial literature is now ‘pitaka’. Perhaps one could say that what is meant is ‘subcommentary to the pitaka’. Fair enough, except that we have already established that everything is categorized under Tipitaka. While one could argue the merits of one system of categorizing over another, the overall tendency of the categories as established by the VRI is to treat all the literature as subsets of the canon, rather than being a separate strata of literature.

What does this do? It means that we treat the entire corpus of Pali literature as being essentially canonical. This is no accident, as it is the way that Buddhist texts are normally used in Burmese, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhism.

Once more, I need to emphasize that my intent here isn’t to criticize the good work of the VRI team, who have made many previously obscure Pali texts widely available. I use their site often, it has been a reliable and useful resource.

But we can see that there is a definite ideological purpose behind their work, and that purpose affects the form of the product. In some ways that is good – they have made their text freely available, in accordance with the Goenka tradition of dana. In other ways, it influences the manner in which texts are read, biasing them towards one particular (anti-historical) perspective.

These examples are meant to illustrate a wider point, which is that large scale projects to publish the Buddhist texts are often, even inevitably, driven by concerns other than disinterested scholarship. This is true in the present, and without doubt it was true in the past as well.

The groups that have, up to the present, brought forth the major works of Buddhist literature have done a very incomplete job, and part of the reason for that is their ideological needs. They are not interested in making connections between Buddhist texts in different languages, but in isolating and canonizing their chosen texts. They have a very limited concern with making the texts available to a wide range of people who will actually learn from them. For example, Access to Insight, which is essentially a project of one Buddhist enthusiast, probably serves far more people who are interested in reading and practicing the Suttas as compared with all the high level prestige projects sponsored by kings and conducted by national universities.

How are we to proceed? IOne thing is promising: the disruptive power of open source. Something like Wikipitaka – yes, it’s a thing – is a start, but as you can see it is far from complete. Get the texts out of the hands of institutions and ideologues, and out of copyright shackles – who can copyright the Buddha’s words, anyway? Get them available in open, flexible forms, and let the magic of open source develop multiple platforms and applications.

Buddhist text resources

Here’s a list of links submitted by commenter Buddhafolk, with a lot of resources for those interested to study Buddhist scriptures in more detail. I’ve added a couple of extras. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

Access to Insight has a vast range of Suttas and other texts well translated in English. A no-nonsense portal into the world of Buddhist scripture.

840000.co is an ambitious new project to translate all the Buddha’s words into English. Finally the effort is being made! Check it out, and see if you want to sponsor a page. No texts are available yet, but they promise they will appear this year.

Suttacentral is a comprehensive database of the texts in the four Pali Nikayas, together with their corresponding texts in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and other languages. It includes detailed references for the text correspondences, as well as links to the original texts and, where available, modern translations.

The Buddhist Literary Heritage Project

The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism has many links a valuable resource for translators and students of Buddhism

Wikipedia has a list of the contents but has no links per line, there are resources tho’

Columbia University

Relevant Resources of Chinese Classical Studies at Princeton

Sacred Texts Archives -Buddhism

Siddham

Fodian Net

International Dunhuang Project

Buddhanet.net has a large pdf collection of all the traditions sutras and many short courses for self-study.

Translations of Gampo Abbey

Free Dharma Texts from Budaedu in Taiwan (you pay the postage they list that’s all) – note all schools listed and most Chinese temples have them all in their librarys and to give away.

Early Buddhists Manuscript Project

An absolutely huge collection of various masters works translated into english – explore others on the sidebar besides Han Shan’s poetry.

Mahayana Sutras in English

Numata Center

Alphonses Taisho Tripitaka index in english and chinese

Tibetan and Himalayan library